Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hidden in Plain Sight: Biblical (il)literacy and the modern reader


I've kind of had parables on the brain the last few days. Of course, the Gospel readings that the Church's lectionary provides at this green time of the year are full of parables, and Mark Shea's recent feature article on InsideCatholic.com, "The Parable of the Dishonest Steward," is a good exploration of why Christ so often taught in parables and, also, why he had to explain them, even though on the face of it they are quite simple moral tales. As Shea points out, what's obvious to a Christian may not be obvious to others, who have not "eyes to see nor ears to hear"; these only faith can provide.

U. S. postage stamp honoring Katherine Anne Porter
U.S. postage stamp honoring Katherine Anne Porter
However, one of the reasons I've been thinking about parables lately really has nothing to do with the liturgical lectionary or even the Gospels per se. In the literature class I'm currently teaching  (an introductory course that teaches the basics of literary interpretation), we've been studying short stories and how they work, so we've been reading selections that provide good illustrations of the various techniques we're discussing (plot, setting, point of view, character, etc.). Most recently, we've been examining Katherine Anne Porter's frequently-anthologized "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," a real literary gem. I don't know much about Porter, other than the fact that she was a native Texan (at one time writing for a Fort Worth journal) and a convert to Catholicism (although during a long period of her life she was apparently disaffected from religion in general). I haven't read a lot of her work, but "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" makes me want to read more.

The story is a deceptively complex tale, told by a narrative voice which literary types would classify as "third person, limited omniscient," which simply means that the voice telling the story does not belong to any of the characters in the story, but, standing outside the story, nonetheless allows us to know things that an ordinary objective observer could not know -- in this case, the reader hears the rambling thoughts of elderly, dying Granny Weatherall during the last hours of her life. So the reader finds, fairly early on, that it's a bit of a job to figure out what, objectively, is happening in Granny's sick room, as the objective events come to us largely filtered through the old woman's groggy, feeble, and wandering consciousness. That is part of the complexity but, as I said, that complexity is deceptive, and not only because Granny's idea of what is happening to, and around, her is not always accurate. Porter's authorial intention goes beyond the objective level of physical reality and the subjective level of Granny's mental meanderings, to the moral level of Granny's spiritual state, something which even Granny herself seems determined to ignore, and which many readers will miss altogether.

Kruseman's The Wise and Foolish Vrigins
Jan Adam Kruseman,
The Wise and Foolish Virgins

This is really one of the things that interests me about the story, the fact that this third level of significance in the story, the moral level in which the author is explores and comments on Granny's spiritual condition, is the real focus of the story, but will be overlooked by most readers. Porter builds this level by oblique use of Biblical motifs taken from Christ's parables about death and judgment, but the effect these allusions is gradual and cumulative; nonetheless, the insistence of these parabolic images grows in intensity until their presence finally bursts into plain view in the final paragraph or two. In the end, they are hard to overlook, at least for anyone equipped to recognize them at all. And, as it happens, this moral tale of Granny's spiritual unreadiness to meet her death is the real focus of Porter's craft in this story, and it is here that the central theme is to be discovered. It's a great pity that many modern readers these days are utterly incapable of recognizing these Scriptural allusions at all.
Eric Rohmer, Perceval le Gallois
Still from Eric Rohmer's
Perceval le Gallois (1978)
When the story was published in 1930, Porter had a reasonable expectation that many, if not most, of her readers would be familiar with the stories of the Bible, particularly the Gospel accounts in the New Testament. For centuries, literary authors had been able to make allusion to the Bible to illuminate their own works of fiction (I wrote my doctoral dissertation on one such writer, twelfth-century Frenchman Chr├ętien de Troyes, who first popularized stories about the knights errant of King Arthur). But, alas, the great stories of the Bible are no longer part of the warp and woof of Western culture, and otherwise-literate Americans who read this story today may easily miss the main point Porter is trying to make. A casual cruise of the internet on the subject of "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" will discover not only the predictably awful essays and summaries written by and for students, but also offerings by "professionals" which entirely ignore or overlook the ample allusions that point to the real heart of the matter. (I even found this one, an academic essay by a certain Barbara Laman of the University of Miami, which misses the point rather spectacularly, thanks to the peculiar kind of mental astigmatism created by a "feminist" perspective).

This is one of the sad effects of Biblical illiteracy in the general culture that should concern anyone with an ounce of cultural sensibility: many of our great works of literature are now largely incomprehensible even to "sophisticated" and highly-educated readers, simply because they rely on allusions to a cultural thesaurus that has been banished to the cultural outhouse.The Bible has been banned in the public sphere, and its cultural influence is ignored or denied. In the case of the Porter story, failing to recognize Biblical allusions and their significance will force an otherwise-astute reader to arrive at exactly the wrong conclusion regarding the meaning of the story. How many other, even greater, cultural treasures are, in effect, being distorted and defaced by this cultural blind spot? Loss of familiarity with the great stories of the Bible produces a great loss not only for those at least nominally Christian, but for our culture as a whole. This is an argument that has been made with greater force and eloquence by others than I have done here, but it is one that has been borne in upon me with renewed force this week as my students and I have been analyzing this widely-read work by one of America's great short story writers.