Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Suffering too insignificant to see

Sometimes I think I'm kind of an awesome teacher. Sometimes I feel like a dolt for taking years to understand something that's been staring me in the face all along. Today I experienced both of these things, together! What made me feel on top of things was the pleasure my whole discussion section (for "Performing the Problem of Suffering: The Book of Job and the Arts") has taken at a somewhat unusual assignment:

Recitation (5%), performed in Discussion Section weeks 12-13. Memorize a 10-line section from the Book of Job (in any translation, language, adaptation you choose) and recite it, with a brief explanation for your choice of passage and version.

Students selected the most fascinating range of passages, and delivered them with tenderness, vulnerability, confidence, delight... (Nobody just phoned it in.) One student had rendered the start of Job 3 a song, which he sang to guitar in his native Hebrew. Another held up the painting above as she recited the scene where Job is about to lose his health - in Korean. We had two more in Korean, two in Spanish, one in Urdu and one in Hindi (both original translations), and one in Norwegian. The ones in English, native and not, were lovely too. Hearing the melody of our languages was a way of honoring, indeed celebrating how international a group we are, even as students' choices of passages of defiance, despair, hope, threat and comfort allowed them to express something important about themselves. (And the Book of Job, which might seem very old hat by this time in the semester, was new again!)

The feeling of doltishness had to do with the wife of Job, whom I've always thought I was attentive to. Don't I have people read the "Testament of Job," where Job's wife (there given the name Sitidos) seems the true star of the drama, or the dramatic versions of Robert Frost and Archibald MacLeish (Thyatira and Sarah, respectively), where Job's wife practically gets equal airtime as her husband, or Blake's "Illustrations," where Job is never seen without his wife by his side? Yes, well, but. These are all stories by men, telling a story about a man. Who is this woman, Job's wife? What's her story?

What enabled me to see further - finally - was a play by Canadian Native playwright Yvette Nolan, which was one of two I assigned this week. The play tells of God appearing, in the form of a Native healer, to a woman who is unhappily pregnant. It is called Job's Wife, or the deliverance of Grace but the play has no other references, even hidden ones, to the Book of Job. I suggested in lecture that the title functions as a question.

But what is the question? It's about "Suffering too insignificant for the majority to see" (I read from Alice Walker's talk of this name): it's right there when you have eyes to see it. But after today's discussions, I feel like I barely saw anything before. As has happened before, my breakthrough came when I asked students to do something and did it myself. The prompt: "Tell a story about/called Job's Wife." And suddenly I was wondering about her back story. About her friends - surely she has some: what might their exchanges have been like? And if they might not come together to take over the end of the story.

Next time I teach this class - and I'm certain it needs to be taught again - she won't be discovered as an afterthought, a reminder of the marginalized and voiceless. Maybe - as Nolan was perhaps trying to do - we can make the phrase "Job's wife" as significant as "patience of Job" or "friends of Job." 

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