Friday, March 05, 2010

Play it again, Psalm

‘The dead praise not the Lord, neither any that go down into silence.’ [Psalm 115:17] On one level that is a truism: of course the dead do not praise the Lord – but what does it mean, ‘neither any that go down into silence’? It could be a mere synonym for ‘death’, but Hebrew parallelism often works in more interesting ways, as [Robert] Alter has shown, the second limb enriching and even questioning the first. The Psalmist is perhaps suggesting that silence, the inability or refusal to speak, is a kind of death, a psychological death. Such a psychological death is given many metaphors in the Psalms: silence, desert, being overwhelmed by the sea. [...] Most terrible of all perhaps is the devastatingly simple remark of the narrator of Psalm 88: ‘I am shut up, and I cannot come forth.’ The most interesting example from our point of view is the prayer or psalm in Jonah 2:
I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice / For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about; all thy billows and thy waves passed over me… .
Four years ago when Gabriel Josipovici published The Singer on the Shore, I said to anybody who'd listen that the opening three essays on the Bible were as much a rousing encouragement to the modern writer seeking a way forward as the later essays on TS Eliot, Kafka and Borges. For this reason I believed the book would gain a grateful readership wherever real writers sought inspiration and guidance. Yet how does one convince those so easily in thrall to well-marketed pap? Well, step forth the internet. I've just discovered that Singing a New Song, the third of those essays, is available online at PN Review (Update: now offline, sorry). It offers an answer to why a great many of the Psalms "seem to ask to be sung":
It is as if simply opening your mouth, giving utterance to your voice, releases something in you; as if finding words to express your total despair and the sense you feel of being shut up, unable to come forth, of having been rejected by the whole world, God included, makes the water return to the desert, makes life return to the one who was dead. The fact that the Psalm in Jonah is embedded in a narrative allows us to verify the truth of this, for no sooner has Jonah finished speaking than ‘the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.’ [10] Of course it is important that Jonah and the ‘I’ of the other psalms on this topic cry out to God; but in a sense they only do so because God is the one who will always be prepared to listen. Simply giving voice, I would suggest, finding words for your anguish, is what in the first instance, makes it possible to overcome that anguish.
You can read the essay on Borges from the same book at ReadySteadyBook.


  1. Stephen, hi there.

    If you go to

    you'll see my review of _The Singer on the Shore_. I just don't understand how he keeps getting passed over in commentary about current writers.




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