Saturday, January 28, 2006

Narrative and the Secrecy of Hermeneutics Part 4

Summary and Review of Frank Kermode's "The Genesis of Secrecy"

Chapter 4: Necessities of Upspringing

Chapter four takes up the topic of character and characterization in narrative (especially its relationship with plot), and how character plays out in hermeneutics. Kermode springboards off of Henry James because James highlights character over plot as his "necessity of upspringing" or, to put it plainly: for James, stories grew out of characters rather than characters out of stories (plot). Kermode notes that the priority of character is a recent development (broadly speaking) of the last 300 years, for it was before that (he traces back to Aristotle, though he could go further back and further East) when plot had priority. Neither is dispensable, which Kermode explicitly points out, though one generally tends to carry the emphasis (more or less throughout) in an overall work.

Kermode's focus on the Gospels in this chapter narrows upon the Last Supper, the Betrayal, and the Arrest--those portions where characters become more conspicuous (Judas Iscariots' betrayal, Peter's denial, and Pilate's posturing all receive attention for their characterization). Kermode revisits the tension between an historicist approach and a formalist approach, and he draws upon Ricoeur's observations that structural analysis out to lead to interpretation rather than to a structuralist analysis. In other words, there is a danger of simply reproducing method or institutional theoretical assumptions and standards in place of a hermeneutic that seeks a more complete understanding of the text in historical context(s). A brief synopsis of the various ways in which characters have been explicated as functional types reveals how thorough structural analysts are in relates (and reduces) character to narrative structure.

Brief aside: I might add here for anyone interested, there is a biblical studies journal devoted to literary and structural approaches to the Bible: Semeia. The journal lives in the borderlands between Biblical Studies and Rhetorical Studies (primarily from literary disciplines, but not without some harmony with communication disciplines).

Kermode adopts a presupposed order to the Gospel accounts which draw upon some undiscovered original work that preceded them all. The order is: Mark, Matthew, Luke using Mark, and John who used an unidentical but similar original. There is a fascinating, though short, discussion of midrash (a subject which I am still getting my feet wet in) : the proposed hermeneutic method of the Gospel writers. I will include it in full here:

"All we are doing is imagining what it was that the evangelists set out to interpret. I say "interpret" because the redaction of an existing narrative was, in these circumstances, a pre-exegetical interpretive act; instead of interpreting by commentary, one does so by a process of augmenting the narrative. It is quite widely agreed that the evangelists used methods continuous with those by which, before the establishment of the canon, ancient texts were revised and adapted to eliminate or make acceptable what had come to be unintelligible or to give offence. The practice is known as midrash; among other things it entailed narrative alterations or interpolations, sometimes very free. They might be made not only in the process of updating texts, but also in translating them into another language, say Greek or Aramaic. The evangelists were perfectly familiar with this practice....[paragraph break] An Old Testament text used to support the veracity of, and given narrative interpretation in, the New Testament is called a testimonium or testimony. A book of testimonies was a collection of Old Testament texts brought together in a notebook for the use of preachers. Some think such books existed, in codex form for ease of reference, before any of the books of the New Testament was written....It is also reasonable to suppose that narrative interpretation of the texts so collected should have had a part in the shaping of the gospel stories, including the Passion narratives. That is to say, parts of the gospel narratives may have been composed as midrashim on testimonies." (81-82)

I've only read bits and pieces on midrashic method and am not up to speed on the scholarly discussions about the Gospels' relationship to Midrash. Kermode remarks that disputes on the relation between gospel and midrash continue to be pursued. I am aware that midrash is not a unified method, but encompasses a wide range of interpretive freedom and constriction. What is most interesting to me is the historical importance of the fact that these writers are using Jewish interpretive and writing methods as opposed to Hellenistic methods. While there may or may not be expansive differences between the two methodologically, there is a foundational difference in the fact that Jewish methodology was institutionally or traditionally subjected to interpreting the Hebrew Bible, with a focus toward relating their present world within its redemptive, covenantal, and progressive history. Later Gentile converts to Christianity were more likely to approach the Hebrew Bible through the revelation of Christ as opposed to approaching Christ as the revelation of the Hebrew Bible. In other words, I suspect that even Jewish converts to Christianity would have subjected their hermeneutic to the authority of the Hebrew Bible (the book of Hebrews is perhaps the primary place where this is seen) whereas Gentile converts would have subjected their hermeneutic to a post-revelatory understanding. Again, it is difficult and dangerous to assume too much discontinuity here, but it seems rather ignorant to assume that Gentilic understandings of the Hebrew Bible would correspond exactly with Jewish converts (even Gentiles under direct apostolic teaching would be encountering a tradition they were largely if not complete ignorant of). I must admit that my suspicious rest almost entirely on intuitive application of the things I have read and conjectures based on my own assumptions about cultural influence on human understanding.

Kermode uses structural forms to identify Judas within narrative structure. He is approaching the gospels from a more fictive stance: "The necessity, in a circumstantial and history-like story, of having a character to perform the Betrayal is obvious enough" (84). Only a bit later Kermode reduces Judas and the disciple characters entirely to an element of narrative progression: "So Betrayal becomes Judas. In the fully formed narrative the scheme is more complicated, for all the Twelve, and especially Peter, are Betrayers and Deserters (prodotes, a traitor, one who abandons in danger), and this fact has to be got into the narrative" (85). Conservatively taken, Kermode's observations highlight the effect of narrative structuring upon the historical material the Gospels are representing. More radically, Kermode's observations could be taken as the Gospel writer's rhetorical/poetic figurations of more benign historical events. Again, we come up against the question of what hermeneutic stance the gospel writers took: subjected more to historical validity or to rhetorical coherence. And there is the question of whether the two even ought to be understood as mutually exclusive (i.e. fact is "stranger," that is, more intriguing, than fiction; or conversely, fiction that is "true to life"). It may be that where one falls on either side or somewhere inbetween rests, however finally, on the assumptions or presuppositional stance of the analyst--even after rigorous compilation and study of the historical evidence.

Another interesting discussion that Kermode develops is the difference between codex and roll (or scroll). A codex was a page which could hold writing on both sides and bound as a book, and could be opened to any page. A roll or scoll could only have writing on one side and had to be unrolled entirely to read end portions of a work. When the change-over from scroll to codex was accomplished is up for debate, but Kermode seems to prefer an earlier change for his purposes in analyzing Mark: "Just how early they made the change [from roll to codex] is, as I have said, debated; but it is at least possible that Mark first circulated in codex" (88-89). Kermode makes the argument that the change from roll to codex is significant: "The transfer of the Hebrew scriptures to Greek codices enacts an appropriation of those writings for Christian purposes. It made possible the use of the Jewish account for the peculiar purpose of establishing the validity of the Christian version not by, or not only by, reference to the Law and the Prophets, but also by reference to the testimonies, scattered apparently at random in the ancient texts, and having occult senses that now emerged" (89). The attachment of such import to a technological development in literacy is not new (Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan are two who have done much in that arena), though my own present suspicion is that the importance of such changes are more likely to have their effect over a broader period of time rather than in a brief historical moment. Kermode may fall to close toward arguing a king of technological determinism in the change from roll to codex. The differences between Hellenistic culture (specifically Roman in this context) and Near Eastern culture (specifically Jewish in this context) seem more influential than the roll/codex technological development.

The remainder of the chapter discusses the various narrative and character differences between the Gospels and the later historical choices made by interpreters who desired to speculate about the characters of Judas and Pilate and their peculiar relations within the broader story of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Kermode summarizes the important point of his chapter quite explicitly:

"The matter of this chapter is really quite simple. Of an agent there is nothing to be said except that he performs a function: Betrayal, Judgment. When the agent becomes a kind of person, all is changed. It takes very little to make a character: a few indications of idiosyncrasy, of deviation from type, are enough, for our practiced eyes will make up the larger patterns of which such indications can be read as parts." (98)

In my previous studies of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling there is clear indication of this highlighting and focus on character rather than role. Abraham is the Knight of Faith, a character role in Kierkegaard's narratival argument against Hegelian philosophy, but Abraham within the narrative of Genesis, and even with the Akedah, is not taken up as a role in the narrative, but as a character of specific and integral interest. Abraham is not the father of Judaism or Covenant or even God's chosen, but he is the individual relating to the Absolute. Kierkegaard's hermeneutic approach to the Akedah and to Abraham reveal the particular priority of character over plot. To this, perhaps Kermode might say:

"The key to all this development -- from fable to written story, from story to character, from character to more story -- is interpretation....But the new narrative itself generates character, and the characters generate new narrative beyond any immediate need, though the new narrative again takes its form from those more ancient texts in the first part of the book. It is only when the canon is closed that the work of interpretation becomes the work of exegesis, and even that, as we know, can be pretty inventive." (98-99)

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