Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture

Robert Alter, Author
Robert Alter, Author Yale University Press $22 (208p) ISBN 978-0-300-08424-5
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In an impressive display of literary acuity, veteran UC-Berkeley critic Alter (The Art of Biblical Narrative, etc.) studies the works of three modernist writers while also reexamining the notion of canon. Much of Alter's attention in recent years has been devoted to biblical study, and here he brings his deep knowledge of the biblical text to bear in looking at three works, two familiar to most readers (Kafka's Amerika and Joyce's Ulysses) and a third a more surprising but also gratifying choice (the lengthy poem ""The Dead of the Desert"" by the great Hebrew-language poet Haim Nahman Bialik, with the entire text in translation reprinted here). Alter argues that for these three writers the Bible did indeed serve as a canon but not in the traditional sense of a ""sealed corpus of texts that is the source of all authority and... truths,"" but rather in a literary fashion as a ""luminous poetic achievement,"" a rich field of language, images and motifs to be exploited. For Joyce, for instance, the Bible is a foundational text along with the Odyssey, yet he treats it not as a sacred text but as a ""textual residue, part of the flotsam and jetsam of modern culture,"" little bits and strands of which appear in various characters' stream-of-consciousness. In arguing that the literary canon is more ""quirky and various"" than most people admit, Alter concludes that the biblical canon as well ""is by no means the simple and assured phenomenon of enshrining doctrine in text,"" admitting such contrary points of view as those of Job and Ecclesiastes. This book will appeal only to the lit-crit crowd and to readers interested in the impact of religion on the arts and culture, but for such readers, it displays a dazzling ability to interpret texts, both ancient and modern. (Oct.)
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