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“Did, perhaps, God say: you should not eat from any tree of the garden?” (3:3) This is a common translation of the snake’s opening words, seemingly innocuous, to Eve. The word “perhaps,” in particular, creates an unthreatening atmosphere. But what did God actually say? “From all the trees you may eat, but from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, do not eat from it” (2:16-17). The snake appears to be contradicting God’s rule, which was that Eve and Adam were free to eat from all of the trees except one. The snake knows that Eve is aware of the original guidelines. What is the inner meaning, then, of the snake’s language? When we come to a puzzling moment in the Bible, it helps to remember that although the text may not be poetry, its essence is poetic. The 19th century rabbi, Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, also known as the Netziv wrote: "The Torah, with a few exceptions, is not poetry. But its inner character is poetic because of its allusive and metaphoric quality. The implicit meaning is the heart of poetry. Similarly, the so-called hidden implications of the biblical text are its real message." One way of exploring the hidden implications of poetry or the Bible is to micro-investigate the language and grammar. Samson Raphael Hirsch, the early 19th century German biblical exegesis, translated the snake’s words this way: “Even if God said don’t eat from the tree...” This language is even stranger than the first translation above. The words trail off into nothingness. Hirsch argued that understanding the snake’s words is a matter of emphasis. The line should be read: “Even if God said don’t eat from the tree...” When read this way the snake does not really challenge the authority of God. He just suggests that God’s spoken words don’t need such attention. And the words trail off because Eve herself can fill in the gap. The snake is really saying: “Even if God said don’t eat from the tree, God’s words are not as important as `the God inside you.’” The snake is simply being honest; he is pointing to a contradiction: the voice of God said don’t eat from the tree, but God’s voice inside you—your desires—is telling you to eat it. This is neither cunning nor deceptive: the snake is an animal, and his argument faithfully represents the animal world. The voice of God throbs inside animals. As the contemporary rabbi and scholar David Forhman has written, “God speaks to animals through the passions, desires, and instincts they find within themselves.” The snake compels us to ask: what divides humans from animals? The text seems to suggest that if you identify primarily with your passions – you are an animal. If you have the capacity to observe your passions and examine them, you are human. While the snake may be honest, he is also devious. The sneakiness of words lie in the untruth slipped in to the otherwise honest and seemingly innocuous line.... Continue reading
Posted Jun 3, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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Like poetry, the Bible often leaves out important information. Character and plot description are kept to a minimum, and emotions are often hinted at but rarely stated directly. And both sometimes contain what seem like disconnected fragments. The Bible’s narrative, Rashi wrote, is not necessarily chronological or linear. It has been said that when Moses wrote down the text, he was taking notes and did not include all of the information he heard. Perhaps this is why it is the white spaces between the words that throb with meaning and provoke questions. It is these pregnant silences that hold the contradictory truths of the text. These gaps point to hidden stories and interpretations and are called by the contemporary scholar Avivah Zornberg, the Torah's unconscious. What was the snake’s motive for tricking Eve? The text does not tell us directly. But answers are teased out, based on hints in the text. Rashi and others suggest that the snake was jealous of Eve’s erotic life with Adam. Why wasn’t he, the snake, chosen? He may not be human but he was close to human: he could talk, was very clever, and could walk standing up straight like a human. He felt compelled by his jealousy to bring Eve to his level, to the animal level, where the dominant “I” is the driving force. I argue that the snake pulled Eve out of the empowering poet’s trance of clarity, out of the imagination’s vision that truth is beauty. Instead of staying in that trance, she chose knowledge – a word in Hebrew that always means intimate association, intrinsic bonding – of the tree which merges good and evil so thoroughly that after its fruit is ingested the human becomes a tangled knot of both elements. Eve chose to view things subjectively through the dominating “I” where truth and falsehood could no longer be distinguished easily. Isn’t it dictatorial, fundamentalist, practically censorship, to condemn focusing on the “I”? Sharon Olds’s poem “Take the I Out”, written in response to a critic of her work who suggested that she take the “I” out of her poems, rejects the opinion of the critic and celebrates the “I.” In fact, almost all of her work embraces the empowering subjective voice which laments and praises, complains and honors, observes, mourns, commemorates, and rejoices. She is implicitly celebrating Eve’s choice. The speaker in Olds’s poem begins the poem, as if in the middle of a conversation, “But I love the I.” Now that we no longer live in a constant poet’s trance, we struggle to search for truths, and sometimes truths can be found through the “I.” Walt Whitman finds a truth in the individual’s declaration of independence and celebration of the senses in “Song of Myself,” which begins, “I celebrate myself and sing myself.” Although allowing the “I” to dominate limited Eve, paradoxically, Eve’s sovereignty as an empowered and complete being, an independent “I,” is celebrated by the text. Her independence is also celebrated in the Talmud,... Continue reading
Posted Jun 2, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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The speaker in Emily Dickinson’s poem, “A narrow fellow in the grass,” describes her response upon each time she meets a snake: ...never met this fellow, / Attended or alone, / Without a tighter breathing, / And zero at the bone. Are these last lines from Dickinson's poem absorbing the aftershock of Eve’s encounter with the snake? What essential snake quality tightens our breathing, creating a sense of fright to our very bones? Even when the snake is not fatally threatening, its presence can be daunting on a deep psychological level. “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” A snake embodies opposite qualities: a furless simplicity, an “honest” straightforward shape, combined with a tendency to slither unexpectedly without a sound, surprising us with its presence, seemingly deceptive. We perceive the snake as simultaneously candid and sneaky, naked and cunning. “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed. Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast in the field. (2/25-3/1)” These lines are placed next to each other in the text. Usually, the Hebrew word “arom” is translated into English as “cunning” to describe the snake. Although this is a correct translation, one can’t help but notice that the word “arom” is translated into English as “naked” when describing “the man and his wife.” “Arom” means both cunning and naked. It’s a word that contains its opposite. The second line could be translated: “The serpent was more naked than any beast in the field.” The snake convinces Eve with both honesty and cunning to step out of the poet’s trance, out of the truth of the imagination and into a world where the “I” drives the inner life. Deception mixed with truth is the most difficult combination to combat. The rabbis of the Talmud explained that every falsehood contains a small amount of truth. When Eve listened to the snake, she hung on to the truth inside the falsehood. This is called rationalization. As Adrienne Rich has written, “Denial drugs itself on partial truth.” Eve used her senses and reasoning to “be in denial,” to rationalize, in the same way that Othello allowed himself to be convinced by Iago that his wife was having an affair. Iago persuaded Othello through reason and finally, through the senses, that Desdemona was involved with Cassio – Iago presented “evidence” of a found handkerchief to convince Othello of a lie. While Blake believed that “Imagination is evidence of the Divine,” Iago used the “evidence” of reason and the senses to perpetuate a falsehood. William Butler Yeats succinctly summarized Blake’s fear of the danger of reason: “The reason, and by `the reason` he meant deductions from the observations of the senses, binds us to mortality because it binds us to the senses, and divides us from each other by showing us our clashing interests.” Eve made deductions based on observations of the senses, which pulled her into the world of subjectivity and ultimately mortality. Subjectivity leads to the “knowledge... Continue reading
Posted Jun 1, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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If “Imagination is evidence of the Divine” then, as John Keats wrote in a letter, “What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.” When something beautiful captured Eve’s imagination, she knew it was “truth.” This link between the imagination, beauty, and truth is surprising, even counterintuitive. We would normally expect an instinctual response to beauty to involve a sense of feeling good, satisfied, a sense of enjoyment in what is pleasing to us. We don’t think of beauty as “true.” Beauty is subjective, not objective. What was Keats suggesting by this link? The Rambam (Maimonides, or Moshe Ben Maimon, the 12th -century Sephardic rabbi and doctor) explains that before Eve spoke to the snake, she understood the world in terms of truth and falsehood. Good and evil were values that did not occur to her. In Eve’s mind truth (the interconnectedness of the spiritual and physical worlds) was beautiful. ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’, — that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. (John Keats -- from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”) Here Keats taps into what Eve knew in Eden: that beauty and truth are the same thing. The physical world is beautiful because it represents the spiritual world, and Eve could see “heaven in a wildflower.” Emily Dickinson wrote of beauty and truth “the two are one.” The Rambam contends that when Eve’s imagination seized on beauty and saw truth there, she ignored judgments such as good and bad because the “I” did not dominate her inner life—when the “I” dominates, subjectivity takes over, and we see things as either good or bad. What would it be like to see everything as either true or false? When something false presented itself to Eve, a voice could suggest: “you” might like this. But that “you” is relatively easy to ignore. It represents a theoretical desire. Eve might have a detached thought such as: “Something in me thinks I want this.” It was not difficult to dismiss such a thought. But once desire begins to speak in the first person, it’s a different situation. Then it’s unequivocally “me.” The snake was able to draw Eve into a place where the “I” dominated. Where the “I” took control and steered her rather than her steering it. “To be in a passion you good may do” Blake wrote, “But no good if a passion is in you.” If passion is in you, then it controls you. If you are in a passion then you can steer it. In my next post I will explore how the snake pulled Eve into the place of “I,” where desire began to guide her rather than the other way around. But now I want to look at a poem by Robert Creeley which laments the dogged persistence of the dominating “I.” He suggests that the perseverance of the “I” traps one in anxiety. He writes: “What am I to myself / that must be remembered, / insisted upon / so... Continue reading
Posted May 31, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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Yesterday I wrote that the biblical Eve lived in, as Goethe called it, “the poet’s trance.” But then the snake seduced her out of that place of passionate clarity. Rabbi Moses ben Naḥman, otherwise known as the Ramban or Nachmanides, the leading Medieval Spanish scholar who later settled in Israel, commented on the following language from the text: “Let us make humans in Our image and in Our likeness” (1:26). He wrote that the word which means “Our likeness” in Hebrew, “kidmutanu,” finds its root in the word “dimyon.” This word means “imagination.” Human beings are defined by the power of broad imagination--God’s imagination was transferred to humanity, and Eve’s “poet’s trance” included what Keats called “the truth of the imagination.” Blake wrote that “the imagination is the body of God” and "Imagination is evidence of the Divine." When Eve listened to the snake, she limited herself – she moved from continually experiencing the truth of the imagination to a restricted space where the connection between imagination and truth was obscured. Ironically, when she ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil she narrowed her knowledge. The Kabbalah calls the tree, "the Tree of Doubt" – her eating from it brought uncertainty, hesitation, and scepticism into the world. And ultimately, shame. I have been asking myself the question: how did the snake seduce Eve into narrow doubt and bewilderment? If Eve was so lucid, how did the snake manage to confound her? If her sensitivity to truths reverberated through her, and she felt the web of creation shudder every time she touched it, how could he obfuscate her perspicacious vision? If she gazed through a transparent film and witnessed the connections between the divine and the material, couldn’t she see through the snake? Tomorrow, I will look at the text, some commentaries, and a Robert Creeley poem to better understand how this happened. I'll end now with lines from Blake's "Auguries of Innocence," which embody the issues I will address in tomorrow's post: If the sun and moon should doubt, They'd immediately go out. To be in a passion you good may do, But no good if a passion is in you. Continue reading
Posted May 30, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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Last week, C.K. Williams gave the annual Poetry Society lecture in London where he quoted Goethe who said (this is paraphrased – Williams said the words quickly, and I scribbled down what I could): “The poet’s requisite trance is the most fragile element in his armory." I have been thinking about the poet’s trance—that room we enter (or room that enters us) in the middle of, or just before, writing a poem: a necessary space fusing silence and music, detachment and emotion, calm and energy. It’s a room of stirring clarity and peaceful vitality. The Goethe quote is not unlike Wordsworth’s “Poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity.” It’s a state that poets wait for, long for. We fear it will not come. I imagine that Keats wrote, “My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains...” and then he stepped into this eloquent armour. The trance is not just for poets. It’s also useful for those who pray, play tennis, kiss, perform surgery, build a bookcase, and perform other activities that require creativity, focus, imagination, assimilated learning and knowledge, spontaneity, and an affectionate attachment to the subject of the endeavour. I am preparing to teach a class at the London School of Jewish Studies on the biblical Eve. We will look at the text in the Hebrew and English translations, study classic commentaries, and then look at poems that explore Eve. I have been asking myself the question: did Eve go into a “poet’s trance” when the serpent spoke to her or was she in a trance up until the moment the serpent began to speak to her? “And God said, Let’s make man in Our image. . . God created Man, in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1.26-27) The text repeats the idea of creating the human being at least three times, and the idea of creating a person in “God’s image” is also repeated three times. The repetition of both emphasizes the significance of human life. Rashi, the medieval French commentator and grammarian, explains that the enigmatic phrase should be read “with God’s image,” emphasizing that God has no physicality. Rashi offers this metaphor: God used a kind of stamp reflecting the divine unphysical qualities and created the human form with that stamp. The bodies of humans correspond to a counterpart in the spiritual world. Because Eve was created with God’s image, she lived inside a kind of passionate clarity: she was aware of how the physical world paralleled the spiritual one. The following lines by Blake could describe Eve’s awareness of how hidden truths were buried in the veil of the natural world: To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour. (“Auguries of Innocence”: 1-4) She lived in the mode of the poet’s trance – vivid clarity, focused creativity, and a spontaneous sanity saturated existence.... Continue reading
Posted May 29, 2011 at The Best American Poetry