Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sitting duck

Dear me, I do hate coming across old writing that I once was proud of, and finding that it seems turgid and pedantic and hectoring and trite and really, really, um -- self-absorbed? Inner-directed? Out of touch is the best term -- out of touch with any thing or any idea that might remotely have interested or amused anyone. Maybe the thing was just badly put together, amateurish (the word that strikes more horror into the writer's breast than any other). To remember that I submitted it to people with busy schedules and publishing house reputations to look after makes it even worse. Well, at least it didn't go out into the world to embarrass me (how do editors know?), although if it had gone out, I would have been thrilled, pleased, and unsurprised of course.

This particular essay was about the book of Ezekiel. I used to read the Bible a lot, and I used to teach both children and adults on it, so I got into the habit of summarizing Biblical books in what I hoped were dazzlingly straightforward and refreshing ways. My idea concerning Ezekiel was that the books of the prophets, especially, are kind of like a haphazard collection of newspaper clippings from the ancient world. They repeat themselves endlessly on subject matter that the people on the scene were familiar with. The biggest aggravation and silliness in the Bible -- the repetition, "woe unto them," etc. -- did not annoy or overwhelm them, or gather dust on a shelf, because to them it was not a collection, but simply material that they met in small pieces every day, as we do newspapers, or at least news. We are the ones who read it as a book, as The Book, and say, "Wha --?"

It would be as if, three thousand years from now, our remote posterity came across a sheaf of -- no, a collection of microchips full of the news of our day. Pick an event, a news-generating machine, a decade. The Bay of Pigs. Watergate. The fall of the Berlin Wall. O.J. Simpson, the Bronco chase, the Akita that didn't bark. War. The murder of wives called Peterson. Sarah Palin and moose-hunting. We're accustomed to dealing with this information in small pieces every day, and we're accustomed to references to it piling up and slowly being sifted through, linked, joked about, over-analyzed, and then much of it forgotten. (Remember Abu Ghraib?) Our posterity will not be equipped to do this, no posterity can be. Imagine if a smattering of it only survives, and the poor things find themselves faced with holy scripture about watergates and walls, about bays and capital cities, women, and a surprising amount of animal imagery. They will never fully realize all this had a context and that we all went on living and thinking about other things, too. They are likely to say "Wha --?"

That was my way of coping with the book of Ezekiel. I even came up with a pretty nifty ending. At one point the prophet has a vision of a man "clothed in linen, with a writing case at his waist," going about Jerusalem marking on the forehead all those who are upset at the city's sin. He is followed by six men with clubs, who kill anyone not so marked (Ezekiel 9:3-6). Therefore, I asked, "fancifully" -- can we say, if nothing else, that all those who care about stories are spared God's anger?

That kind of reaction comes from reading too many books and hearing too many sermons too preciously based on a verse or two of the Bible, a pretty one we hope, plucked out of context and smoothed down to illustrate some gentle modern virtue, tolerance or whatnot. But two thousand and more years on, what else can we do? Ezekiel (circa 550 BC) saw impressive visions, saw fused-leg creatures bouncing and flying about in fiery clouds above Babylon, accompanied by gleaming bisected wheels-within-wheels, their rims covered in eyes. He saw the underworld, filled with ghostly pagan armies amid "the trees of Eden" (31:16-18), and he saw the valley of the dry bones. He was also basically a performance artist. Among other activities, he lay on one side for 390 days and on the other for 40 days, to represent years of exile for the Jews, and he made cakes of mixed grains and baked them on dung, to show what it is to eat slops in wartime (chapter 12). God hoped his fellow Jews would wait anxiously upon him, to see what he would do next. They did.

Perhaps such shows were a part of the wider civilization of the time. The philosopher Diogenes (circa 350 BC) made fun of his fellow citizens in Corinth, while they were preparing to defend the city against Philip of Macedon, by "bowling a large jar up and down the Craneum. When someone asked him why he did this, he answered: 'I am rolling my jar so as not to be the only idle one among so many workers' " (quoted in Robert Payne, The Splendor of Greece). In fact in Athens our same Diogenes lived in a jar, and walked about in daytime with a lamp, "looking for an honest man." He sounds a miserable creature, as Ezekiel does not. Although why is it that, at crunchtime, yesteryear's philosophers and prophets seemed to have had a habit of telling people that fighting back against imperial predators was futile and ungodly? May one be annoyed by this, and write more turgid essays?

Better not, or at least not turgid on purpose, anyway. I know that the Bible outranks mere records of performance art, and is more than a collection of newspaper clippings. Exhortations to moral behavior, God's unfailing forgiveness of sins, and above all the vital cosmic need for the Jews to remain faithful and live in Israel forever, are the combined point. Visions, like that of the trees of Eden in the underworld, do seem to hint at a work that human beings could not entirely make up. Yes, I get that, to use the modern vernacular.

And I started out my rotten essay of years ago not necessarily with a mind to master the Book, but merely in noticing that time was marching on and one really ought to read the important things, inimitable things, starting soon. King Lear, Plato's Republic, and the like. The Bible, -- Ezekiel. But do these sublimities really enrich one's life, or give any more pleasure than a jolly good murder mystery? Who will know the difference?

I end on a self-absorbed note, because one of the things that also horrifies me when I look at a disappointing old piece of writing is the personal information I used to put at the top of the first page. Surely I wouldn't have thought of doing that myself. I seem to recall reading in a writer's magazine that editors need to know this about you if they end up accepting your work and then paying you. How droll! -- and we first started hearing the news about identity theft, let's see, when? (More vernacular. It's interesting how Internet writing has affected prose style. My current favorite is mmmkay.) I guess I missed it. With luck, all the manuscripts I ever sent out, blemished in that way, were instantly consigned to the circular file by honest, if pop-eyed and chuckling, people. Otherwise, I would long since have been, well,

like that. Mmmkay?

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