Saturday, November 20, 2010

Difficult Job

How silly is this: The Times Book Review asks a presidential historian (Jon Meacham) to review The Wisdom Books, Robert Alter's exciting new translations of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. The review is called "Obama and the Book of Job," and includes the illustration by June Mo Kang above - O logo meets William Blake! Here's how Meacham starts:

Unfortunately for the powerful, the plight of the biblical Job is a story with perennial resonance. A man seemingly rich in the gifts life has to offer, happy and blessed, finds himself — unjustly, from his perspective — bereft. Protected and apparently invincible one day, he is buffeted as God turns his back on his former beloved, producing rage, confusion and self-pity. In the history of the American presidency, reversal happens time and time again: Lyndon Johnson declining to run four years after his landslide victory in 1964, George H. W. Bush losing re-election after winning the Persian Gulf war of 1991, Bill Clinton in the 1994 midterms, and now Barack Obama.

If you want to say that Obama is suffering innocently, in ways that might make one wonder if there is a God or if he's paying attention, say so! If not, then don't trivialize with "unjustly, from his perspective," let alone framing it as a warning to all who enjoy power, whether justly or not. Our own perspective may be all we have, but Job offers more than Job's perspective on the matter. God isn't just unpredictable in an amoral grandeur, allowing the just to suffer with the unjust (Job's accusation at 7:22). In some way, justice is factored into God's grandeur, though not in ways we can fathom (Job's conclusion in 42). Job insists that justice be part of our thinking about power and prosperity, not that it is - however regrettably - irrelevant to it. But not if the theophany is explained:

This is how Dick Cheney's vision of unfettered executive power might sound if rendered in ancient Hebrew verse: The Unilateralist in the Whirlwind.

Meacham essentially reads Job as consonant with Ecclesiastes. I suppose this is something which a publication of the three translations as a single book might lead one to do. Job is Part I, raising questions but providing no satisfying answers. Proverbs, Part II, well - the less said of it the better (Meacham doesn't mention it.) And then, providing what closure is available, is the cynicism of Part III, Qohelet, and the somewhat ressentiment-driven hope which arises from it:

The Wisdom books force readers to face uncomfortable truths. ... The texts make for illuminating reading in a season of widespread economic pain and political upheaval. They should assuage the gloom of the defeated and temper the joy of the victors. ... ... And yet, and yet. All is not lost, which should give the president some hope amid the shadows, and should keep the Republicans from thinking that their own course will now be unimpeded. “And I saw that wisdom surpasses folly as light surpasses darkness,” says Ecclesiastes. “The wise man has eyes in his head, and the fool goes in darkness.” The world will never bend itself totally to our purposes, but Job’s example offers us some hope: endure in tribulation, and perhaps all may be well.

I doubt it was Alter's intention to allow Ecclesiastes to gloss Job.

1 comment:

fgs said...