At each end of this book is a biblical encounter with the Other, an apprehension of the numinous. It begins with the visit to Abraham of three mysterious figures, described in Genesis 18, who inform him that Sarah, his aged wife, is to conceive a son, and warn him to flee the imminent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The episode, in which Abraham’s visitors are sometimes referred to as “he,” sometimes as “they,” was interpreted by St. Augustine as a prefiguration of the doctrine of the Trinity, and prompted one of the masterpieces of Russian icon-painting, The Hospitality of Abraham (The Trinity) by Andrei Rublev. Its rewriting began as early as the New Testament story of the Annunciation, in which the three visitors become the archangel Gabriel, Abraham and Sarah become Joseph and Mary, but the news of the miraculous birth and the warning to escape the wrath to come (in this case Herod’s) remain. The Bible is never a closed book, even to itself, and a major strand of Professor Boitani’s argument is that it not only promises, but also possesses, eternal life, being endlessly renewed in subsequent literary avatars.
Like Abraham, Mary recognizes the divine because she is open to that possibility. Towards the end of his book, Boitani evokes another visitation to another Mary, in John 20. Weeping in the garden of Gethsemane, she at first takes the stranger whom she meets for the gardener. Only when she hears the familiar voice naming her does she realize it is Jesus, a Jesus both recognizable and unknown. John’s treatment of the post-Resurrection era is wonderfully nuanced. The beloved disciple at the empty tomb “saw, and believed” that Jesus had risen; Mary sees him, is forbidden to touch him, but acclaims him as Lord; Thomas, after both seeing him and touching him, adores him as God, but is told “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed”—which returns us to the beginning and sets the journey of faith going in perpetual motion. At this point, as Boitani finely says:
We reach the ultimate threshold at which to decide, each of us, whether to recognize, or recognize and believe; where recognition can be a god as long as we give ourselves to him: as long as, like Mary Magdalene, we listen to his voice.
“To recognize is a god” is a quotation from a non-biblical text, the Helen of Euripedes, and it is to the ancient world, or to Shakespeare, that we must go for secular parallels to scenes such as those from John’s Gospel—to the reunions of Penelope and Odysseus, or of Pericles and Marina. Shakespeare’s was a Christian imagination, and in his story of the psychic death and resurrection of Pericles through his meeting with the daughter he believed long dead, he is unprecedentedly daring: for it is women—Marina, or Hermione in The Winter’s Tale—who make the Christlike appearances in his late plays, men being cast as disciples whose faith in the healing power of love is restored. Shakespeare echoes the biblical implication: your eyes will not be opened until you are ready for them to be. To borrow a phrase from King Lear, you must be able to say, “I see it feelingly.”
Like Abraham, Mary recognizes the divine because she is open to that possibility.
Such a vision is unforgettably shown later in Genesis, in the narrative—superbly analyzed by Boitani—of Joseph and his brothers. The brothers at first do not “see” that the Egyptian potentate is their own Joseph, but are brought to that insight only by correctly interpreting the clues he gives them. In this they are like the disciples in the New Testament stories of the appearances of the resurrected Christ (and tradition long regarded Joseph as a prefiguration of Jesus.) A sign is only a sign if you see that it is, and know what it signifies. Human and divine meet in signs which are both material and spiritual (for Christians, the supreme example is the bread and wine in the Eucharist); our “reading” of God is a decoding of signs, but in a profounder sense than any deconstructionist can conceive. The signs act as triggers of buried memories, which now resurface into a context where their true meaning can be grasped.
We think of this as a doctrine of Romanticism, but although Wordsworth gave it abstract formulation it was perfectly understood much earlier, by Dante for instance. In our own time it has been central to the work of Mann and Proust. Benjamin, in Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers, first suspects Joseph’s identity when his memory of the scents of his childhood is activated. That is markedly Proustian—and we might add that A la recherche du temps perdu also moves towards a moment of anagnorisis, the narrator’s realization that the kingdom of his novel is within himself. His whole life, he now sees, has been “a vocation,” a paving of the way for its transfiguration into art. Like Joyce at the end of Portrait of the Artist, Proust presents his narrator’s conscious articulation of the aesthetic principles upon which the novel leading up to them has been written.
That sense of the artist as at once harbinger and creator of miraculous progeny is strong in the high priests of literary modernism. Mann makes the narrator of his Joseph meditate on his own godlike position, an omnipotent author who is both inside and outside the story. Eliot in “Marina,” his reworking of Pericles, creates what Boitani beautifully calls “a lyric not of being and knowing, but of the whisper of being, and the shadow of knowing,” capturing the moments preceding the recognition (to be more amply, but hardly more hauntingly, documented in Four Quartets). Faulkner in Go Down, Moses rewrites Genesis and Exodus, providing multilayered styles and perspectives, complex genealogies, narratives of enslavement and liberation, and a conclusion in which a corpse, that of Samuel Worsham Beauchamp, literally goes down, from Illinois to Mississippi, a southward journey which does not lead to Canaan in an America far from being the Promised Land.
Like his mentor, the late J. A. W. Bennett, Boitani is a medievalist whose erudition transcends the formal categories, as, after all, that of a true medievalist should. His detailed readings of scripture, Shakespearean drama, and modern poetry and fiction are compelling, often brilliant, often also wayward and wire-drawn—but never dull. In examining Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, he is, however, on home ground. This is a story whose literal and symbolic meanings conflict outrageously, and it raises questions about conflicting interpretations of the Bible, which is both the divine word and human words. Dryden’s statement, in his updating of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, that Christ’s parables were “a pleasing way/ Sound sense by plain example to convey” is breathtakingly fatuous, even for him. The parables are so enigmatic that they remain potentially disastrous models for the preacher or storyteller. Chaucer knows this, so his beast-fable is also a work of theological exegesis dancing along the tightrope of uncertainty about “whether man is a rational animal, or an animal is a rational man,” and committed to the belief that “human discourse about animal farms is not false, but true: as true as all fiction, as true as John’s Gospel,” in Boitani’s words.
What is written is littera; letters; literature.
How true is that? Well, that’s just the point. “Takyth the Fruyt,” Chaucer’s narrator urges us, “and lat the chaf be stille,” but he makes it virtually impossible for us to distinguish the two. Nor, perhaps, should we, for, as Shakespeare was to say, “the truest poetry is the most feigning,” and “everything written is written for our instruction,” a Pauline text quoted not only in the Tale but in the “Retraction” to the Canterbury Tales themselves. What is written is littera; letters; literature. The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is in the deepest sense a story about the processes of interpretation. Dryden’s “The truth is a moral, though the tale a lie” betrays, as usual, an utter incomprehension of what Chaucer is doing.
The Bible and its Rewritings is nourishingly rich in texture, and has been marvelously translated from Italian by Anita Weston. Boitani takes his place by the side of Auerbach, Frye, Kermode, and Jospovici among others, who have written distinguished literary criticism of the Scriptures. If names keep occurring to the reader which Boitani has left out, that merely testifies to the fundamental rightness and importance of his thesis. I would want to add Rilke, whose work is saturated with angels and annunciations, and Lawrence, whose exultant closing words in “Song of a man who has come through” are a fitting gloss on Boitani’s exciting book:
What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.
No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 5, on page 74
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