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Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture

by Robert Alter

Pub Date: Oct. 22nd, 2000
ISBN: 0-300-08424-2
Publisher: Yale Univ.

Alter (Hebrew and Comparative Lit/Berkeley) expands his ongoing study of the literature of the Hebrew Bible with an examination of the Old Testament’s influence on three towering literary works.

In the strictest sense of the Word, of course, the truest canon is the Bible. Quite apart from its theology, its poetry and narrative constitute the founding text for much—if not most—of the West’s best literature, and scriptural diction, images, and stories have informed creative writing for literally thousands of years. In order to enlarge our appreciation of the Bible and remind us of its source, Alter reverts here to a consideration of the original (and remarkably expressive) Hebrew. This is especially pertinent in his study of Haim Nahman Bialik’s mythic poem “The Dead of the Desert,” written originally in Hebrew using Biblical diction and vocabulary to produce a powerful story—one more in the mood of a lost chapter of the Gilgamish epic than anything ecclesiastical. In Kafka’s Amerika, Alter finds parallels to Genesis and (especially) Exodus—despite wide and peculiar spins involving hero Karl’s adventures in New York and Oklahoma. (One is tempted to ask if it isn’t possible, somehow, to find echoes of Joseph in every story of a youngster far from home, or whether every author’s concupiscent female eyeballing an inexperienced lad isn’t a descendant of Potiphar’s wife.) Of course, Joyce’s Ulysses is explicitly Homeric—but Alter would discern an equivalent relationship to the Hebrew Bible, asserting that Joyce used both texts as a combined foundation for his mighty novel. Certainly a devoted analysis of Ulysses can uncover myriad sources, but this makes a strong case for the Bible as a significant Joycean wellspring.

A short, cogent exercise in literary criticism that provides some erudite free play with Scripture.