3PictureBookScheindlinJobJob is like Lear. The curtain opens on a fairy tale. In it, the play’s chief authority, God (or King Lear in Lear), cuts a dubious deal, relinquishes authority and, in the process, does his most loyal subject a bad turn. When the fairy tale fades, the dialog develops between the newly minted sufferer and his newly dubious friends. This conversation dominates both plays.

And, like Lear, Job is theater. It’s mostly dialog, of course, and the absence of a setting (unless you know where Uz is) puts us all on stage, like any good play. Job refers to “east . . . west . . . north . . . south,” but Raymond Scheindlin prefers translations that have Job refer in chapter 23 to what Scheindlin calls a “smaller compass” – to “forward . . . backward . . . left . . . right” (197). Job’s left is our north; Job’s stage is our world, firmly founded on the primeval waters that separate it from Sheol (201).

In his The Book of Job, Scheindlin also discovers a number of what he calls “buried stage directions”:

But you, all three, return! – Come back! –
Not one wise man do I find among you.
You turn the night to day,
……pretend that light is closer than the face of darkness. (17:10, 12)

Marvin Pope describes the stage directions in his Anchor Job a generation before Scheindlin’s 1998 translation, but Pope doesn’t let them out to play the way Scheindlin does.

Scheindlin’s translation sharpens Job’s dialog for me. Besides uncovering stage directions, Scheindlin suggests how Job’s words feeds off those of his friends. The above lines leave out verse 11, for instance, because Scheindlin flips verses 11 and 12, the latter verse being, as Pope says in Job’s Anchor translation, “quite incompatible with the context.”

I’ve had the feeling, reading the usual English Bible translations, that the swords between Job and his friends clash only when some ancient, unfathomable convention permits, that Job and his friends are delivering set pieces, speeches that require all parties to chiefly parrot the Bible’s party line. Scheindlin doesn’t find this approach in the original. For instance, Job isn’t going along with his friends’ reliance on discernment and on the ancients’ wisdom in chapter 12, as the King James and its progeny suggest. As in most argument, Job simply restates his opponents’ position before challenging it:

“The ear,” they say, “is the best judge of speech,
……the palate knows what food is tasty.”
“Wisdom,” they say, “belongs to elders;
……length of years makes a man perspicacious.”
He has wisdom and power;
……He has counsel and insight. (12:11 – 13)

Prof. Raymond P. Scheindlin, The Jewish Theological Seminary

Prof. Raymond P. Scheindlin, The Jewish Theological Seminary

(Emphasis Scheindlin’s.) By restating his friends’ positions, then, Job isn’t assenting to them. Instead, by setting God’s omnipotence above aphorisms championing human discernment and the ancients’ wisdom, Job anticipates Elihu’s argument, and even God’s, towards the end of the play.

Turning to a bigger swath of text, Scheindlin resolves the problem of chapter 27 by emphasizing Job’s mockery of his friends through his close adherence to their argument structure. Some scholars read this last response to Job’s friends as Zophar’s missing third speech because it seems to take up the friends’ argument. Here Scheindlin, unlike other translators, doesn’t move a line but sharpens the focus as far as the text allows to take “Job’s imprecations as ironic.” Job repeats his friends’ insinuations that laden their talk about the wicked’s fate, but he makes it into a curse against his friends for their own unproven wickedness.

As with many a good translation, the introduction to The Book of Job alone is worth the price of admission. Consider the respect for larger aspects of narrative suggested by the following commentary on chapter 28, known as the Meditation on Wisdom:

Most scholars agree that this poem is not part of the original book, since it interrupts the dialogue and, by anticipating Yahweh’s message, renders His speech anticlimactic. These particular objections, however, are not very weighty, for, as we shall see, the book is full of repetitions and anticipations, being constructed by concatenation rather than by the requirements of drama. And the Meditation is certainly functional in terms of the book’s overall plan, for it provides a needed change in tone from the vehemence of Job’s speech in chapter 27 to a cool solemnity, a contrasting background for Job’s impassioned concluding soliloquies. (37)

Scheindlin’s approach, here and throughout, is much like Robert Alter’s in The Art of Biblical Narrative. Let the scholars argue about how much editing our received text has been subject to. No possibility detracts from the work’s literary force.

Job’s concatenation – what Scheindlin also calls its “rhetorical juxtaposition” – is paired with poetry:

. . . Job attempts to take control of our human agony, to give it full expression and tame it by means of imagery, rhythm, and wordplay. (23)

This poetry points to abundance, to “a writer who is fascinated with this life, troubled as it is, a man who never wearies of the variety and vividness of the multitude of things that life offers for our observation. In this, he is the temperamental opposite of the world-weary Ecclesiastes, who suffers from surfeit as Job suffers from deprivation” (23). The poetry’s riches contrast with Job’s suffering and, to Scheindlin, suggest the one consolation God offers Job in his suffering: language and the unspeakable cosmos that the language signifies.

The poetry is also problematic. Or, one might say, where many translators find problems, Scheindlin finds poetry:

Though the text has certainly suffered some corruption, I doubt that problems of transmission are a sufficient explanation for the book’s special difficulties. More plausible is the belief of some scholars that the Book of Job was couched by the author in difficult language in order to obscure his unorthodox ideas. (30)

But even this explanation, given also by John McGuckin in The Book of Mystical Chapters to account for the recondite language of the Desert Fathers in the Gnostikos stage of instruction, isn’t enough. Perhaps linguistic confusion also reflects the speaker’s confusion:

Obscurity of language can have a mimetic function: Confusion of language can be used to imitate confusion of ideas, to depict a speaker as being momentarily at a loss, or to represent the breakdown of intellectual control in the vehemence of debate. (31)

Scheindlin’s translation finds plenty of this, particularly in chapter 16, in which, Scheindlin notes, Job “lapses into near incoherence” (184). But while Scheindlin’s translation gives credence to the text’s corruption, to the author’s possible self-preserving obscurity of language, and to these “local mimetic explanations,” Scheindlin finds the most inspiration from a fourth explanation:

. . . the author of Job may have decided that a difficult texture was the right one for his emotionally wrenching theme – a tortured language to describe life’s torment. (31)

The two principal roles for Job’s poetic diction and syntax, then, are at cross-purposes. Scheindlin says that Job’s poetry is the only suitable – the only possible – container for Job’s torment. But he says also that Job’s poetry can serve as Job’s comfort. To reconcile this discrepancy, though, may be to fall into Job’s friends’ chief sin – the pat answer. Who would “turn the night to day / pretend that light is closer than the face of darkness” (17:12)?

Befitting Job’s capacity for paradox, Scheindlin finds little need to resolve textual ambiguity. Consider his non-solution for arriving at the antecedent in chapter 21’s “Who can reproach him to his face? He has acted: Who can requite him?”:

Does this verse refer to the all-powerful wicked man of the immediate context, or to God, the all-powerful deity of the larger context? The ambiguity is a bitter one. (194)

Scheindlin honors Job’s ambiguity as the non-expression of the extraordinary tension between Job’s suffering and his identity as God’s child.

So consider three of my favorite examples in Scheindlin’s Job of diction and syntax. Some famous lines from Job’s chapter 7:

Man’s life on earth is a term of indenture;
……his days are like a laborer’s,
a slave, who pants for a little shade,
……a day laborer, who only wants his wages.
I too am granted blank moons:
……troubled nights have been my lot. (7:1 – 3)

Compare “blank moons” with Pope’s “empty months” or, worse, the Revised English Bible’s “months of futility.” “Blank moons”: full or new moons?

Of course, even Job’s friends achieve poetry:

Though his stature rise to the heavens,
……though his head attain the clouds,
he meets the same end as his own stool;
……“Where has he gone?” the onlookers say. (20:6 – 7)

But this only serves to raise Job’s game. Job, answering Zophar in chapter 21:

How often does the lamp of the bad man gutter,
……and due disaster fall on him?
Does God distribute pain-portions in His rage?
Do such men become straw before the wind,
……or storm-snatched chaff? (21:17 – 18)

I can hear Job, lips snarled, sneering out that last line.

I’m reading Scheindlin’s Job with Pope’s generation-older translation as a reference. Who, after all, can read Pope’s Job straight through? It’s a wonderful guide, but nothing makes one wish to hear it performed. I wish, though, that some troupe would take on Scheindlin’s Job.

It wouldn’t be easy. How, for instance, would you end it? Lear ends tragically, but Job doesn’t end comically or tragically. It reverts to the fairy tale, to a dream, to the primeval waters. The waters that keep us from Sheol also keep watch between us and the heaven of heavens. They distort sight like tears, and they make the stars twinkle.

DearMeFrontCover“Enjambed” sounds like “jammed,” as when I jam my toe. And there is the feeling, in enjambment, of a sentence smashed into verse, scrunched against an arbitrary margin, particularly if that margin, as in much free verse, has no rhyme scheme or meter to make itself more visible or justifiable.

But enjambment can bring to sight other sounds concealed in a sentence. It can spot consonance and assonance hunched behind a rhyme’s garish robes. It can hear some rhythms that don’t want to make it to meter.

And enjambment stretches as much as it squeezes.

I’ve had, lately, in the back of my mind, something I wrote a dozen years ago, a paragraph from a short devotional that helped me get through an identity crisis. I wrote it out in longhand again this morning. Then I slowed it down some more by writing it as verse.

You had a mental
image of God
in a storage room, looking
for a vessel.
He found you
in a corner, piled up
with a lot of other
stuff, and you

were covered
with moss and grime.
God said, “How
about this one? He
has always wanted me
to use him.” And he

began to clean
you for his
service. You became

I found parallel participial phrases, one beginning with “looking” and the other with “piled.” Enjambment’s part and parcel is the premium real estate available just before a line break. At some level, a line’s last word gets the last word.

That last word is where enjambment’s pull counters its push. Consider the split I made in the noun phrase “other stuff.” For a hair second, “other” becomes a noun, a more philosophical, metaphysical being. And, further down, “became,” for a moment, becomes its own object. But we read on because our ears can’t believe their eyes. “Other” resolves into an adjective again, “became” into a linking verb again. But “became” — the unlinked “became” — was the point of my book, and of my identity crisis, too.

We read on also because our elementary teachers told us not to pause at enjambments, but to read for syntax only. And I suppose that’s good advice. But just as ears have eyes, so eyes have ears, big as an elephant’s, that never forget those hair seconds.

This morning, I opened the paper and found this:


I checked the time on the phone and found this:


Maybe a long life is not the goal.

The reason some think dreams foretell is perhaps that dreams foreshadow so well. Last night, an activist was hanging around one, but only at the end — just before the alarm rang — did he assert himself, clarifying the plot by offering me partnership. Why wasn’t he fooled by my habitual mix of prattle and quietude?

3PictureBaldwin3Lists of books read are misleading. For instance, I spent the first half of this year reading Karl Popper every night, and I spent the second half of the year reading James Baldwin every night. This slow going through two authors presents a better idea of my reading this year than the more comprehensive list that follows of the books I’ve read. Popper and Baldwin – particularly Baldwin, and along with Shakespeare and Reinhold Niebuhr – really got me thinking over the past twelve months.

Due to my job demands, I read most of the listed books by listening to unabridged recordings of them while walking to and from school or while driving. Some books I both read and listened to using Whispersync, which I described in my post about my reading in 2013. Some books I read pretty quickly this year; others, like Robert Alter’s translation of the Book of Psalms, I read over several months. (I read Alter’s book as a devotional many mornings over nine months.) Except for the Psalms, poetry doesn’t make the list because I didn’t read any other poetry book from cover to cover. But I sure read many poems many times from Robert Lax’s work and from Tom Montag’s In This Place: Selected Poems 1982 – 2013. Overall, though, I read a lot less poetry this year than I have in years past.

My biggest experiment with slow reading methods involved slow reading on a Kindle. I typed 452 margin notes in my Kindle edition of Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies and then used the notes to write about what I read.

So Popper I’ve written about this year, but Baldwin I’ve only written around. I may never really write about Baldwin: he’s getting too close. But I’ll summarize here what I hear in him besides his heartbeat, which is indescribable.

Baldwin has a few themes that he returns to, book after book. One is the idea that identity is a mask, a rather fragile but essential mask that I construct – or that I allow my society to construct for me as I, wittingly or unwittingly, aid in its construction. An identity is usually false and shallow, and “it is questioned only when it is menaced,” as Baldwin says in a book of essays, The Devil Finds Work.

He understands his holy-roller preacher adolescence as a space where a mask was menaced. Although he disowns his Christianity, forty years after leaving the church he doesn’t “pretend to have surmounted the pain and terror of that time of my life.” In his early religious phase he “encountered the abyss of my own soul” in some measure. My own, legalistic religion benefitted me with a similar experience some time ago.

For me – and probably only me – Popper, Niebuhr, and Baldwin address the same issue, Popper and Niebuhr more philosophically and Baldwin more personally. Popper asks, how can we build a society around universal values instead of around tribal prejudices? Baldwin returns in successive books to chew on a similar bone: how can we – particularly we white Americans – free ourselves of our false identities and thereby understand “the life, the aspirations, the universal humanity hidden behind the dark skin”? Because the full acceptance of black Americans, which cannot be done without whites being stripped of their false notions of themselves as well as of blacks, is a big and necessary step to the realization of the American society’s promise.

Popper, like any philosopher, thinks we can, as a culture, slowly reason our way out of our false sense of ourselves (and Popper writes about our false identities) and improve our governments. Baldwin, however, thinks “the writer, not the statesman, is our strongest arm.” His fiction and his essays invariably return to his own general formula, summarized in another book of essays, Nobody Knows My Name:

American writers do not have a fixed society to describe. The only society they know is one in which nothing is fixed and in which the individual must fight for his identity. This is a rich confusion, indeed, and it creates for the American writer unprecedented opportunities.

Niebuhr deals with a problem similar to the ones Popper and Baldwin face, but his suggestions combine the philosophical and the mystical. In The Irony of American History, Niebuhr insists on a personal tension – an escape from the easy path of accepting only a collective identity – by asking his readers to simply accept on faith his basic premise, what he calls “the mystery of the individual’s freedom and uniqueness.” Niebuhr, in his insistence on essential identity as well as his acknowledgement that the identity is ultimately not available by proof, follows the same path as John Locke. On the other hand, Macbeth, I saw this year, is the story of a political regime based on driving its citizens away from their true selves.

For Baldwin, the tearing away of a false identity exposes the abyss of one’s own soul. This experience is the only path to brotherhood and love, and this brotherhood and love constitute the path to equality and a better society.

In other words, Baldwin’s writings move back and forth from the naked soul to social change. That’s how my thinking’s been, too. For both of us, a person’s shaken identity is the best hope for equality, and equality is the only foundation for a just society.

Until today, my favorite expression of how the stripping of one’s infantile identity gives one the capacity to love comes from Thomas Merton’s book of essays, No Man Is an Island:

If we are to love sincerely, and with simplicity, we must first of all overcome the fear of not being loved. And this cannot be done by forcing ourselves to believe in some illusion, saying that we are loved when we are not. We must somehow strip ourselves of our greatest illusions about ourselves, frankly recognize in how many ways we are unlovable, descend into the depths of our being until we come to the basic reality that is in us, and learn to see that we are lovable after all, in spite of everything!

But I read the end of The Devil Finds Work today and found that Baldwin says the same thing better:

To encounter oneself is to encounter the other: and this is love. If I know my soul trembles, I know that yours does, too: and, if I can respect this, both of us can live. Neither of us, truly, can live without the other . . .

Neither Merton nor Baldwin claims that an identity crisis of sorts makes a person into a saint. On the contrary, it allows a person to more easily see how easy it is to slip back – and how little excuse she has for slipping back – into a self-serving identity. Baldwin (later on the same page):

For, I have seen the devil, by day and by night, and have seen him in you and in me: in the eyes of the cop and the sheriff and the deputy, the landlord, the housewife, the football player: in the eyes of some junkies, the eyes of some preachers, the eyes of some governors, presidents, wardens, in the eyes of some orphans, and in the eyes of my father, and in my mirror. It is that moment when no other human being is real for you, nor are you real for yourself.

My post last week about my encounters on the evening we saw The Tempest is such a moment when no other human being is real for me, nor am I real for myself. I’m beginning to see the devil, too.

Happy new year. May the words of your books this coming year be “as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies,” as the Preacher puts it.

I’ve listed the books I’ve read this year in alphabetical order below by the author’s last name. If I’ve written about a title, I’ve linked the title to that writing.

Alter, Robert. The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary

Anderson, Nancy E. and Charles Brock. Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In

Austen, Jane. Emma (second read)

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice (third read)

Baldwin, James. Another Country

Baldwin, James. No Name in the Street

Baldwin, James. Nobody Knows My Name

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son

Baldwin, James. The Devil Finds Work

Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time

Berger, John. The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol (second read)

Brill, Stephanie and Rachel Pepper: The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals

Cahoone, Lawrence. The Modern Intellectual Tradition from Descartes to Derrida (Great Courses)

Callan, Jamie Cat. The Writer’s Toolbox

Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy

Cole, Teju. Every Day Is for the Thief

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations (third read)

Dickens, Charles. Nicholas Nickleby

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground

Doyle, A. Conan. The Sign of Four (third read)

Eliot, T. S. Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry

Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying (second read)

Faulkner, William. Knight’s Gambit: Six Mystery Stories

Faulkner, William. The Unvanquished (second read)

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America

Fischer, David Hackett. Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement

Fitzgerald, F Scott. The Great Gatsby (third read)

Goldsmith, Oliver. She Stoops To Conquer (two reads)

Goldstein, Dana. The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan

Joyce, James. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (second read)

Joyce, James. Ulysses

Kaplan, Fred. John Quincy Adams: American Visionary

Kramer, Lloyd. European Thought and culture in the 19th Century (Great Courses)

Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. Love in the Time of Cholera

Merton, Thomas. Contemplative Prayer (two reads)

Merton, Thomas. Seeds of Contemplation (third read)

Morris, Edmund. Colonel Roosevelt

Newkirk, Thomas. The School Essay Manifesto: Reclaiming the Essay for Students and Teachers

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History (two reads)

Norris, Marc. The Norman Conquest

Popper, Karl. The Open Society and Its Enemies

Russo, Richard. Elsewhere

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth (third through seventh reads)

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest (second and third reads)

Sophocles. Antigone (second read)

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men (third read)

Sterne, Lawrence. Tristram Shandy (second read)

Warnock, Scott. Teaching Writing Online: How and Why

Williams, John. Stoner

The reason that it is important – of the utmost importance – for white people, here, to see the Negroes as people like themselves is that white people will not, otherwise, be able to see themselves as they are.

 – James Baldwin, from Nobody Knows My Name

. . . romance deals in marvelous events and solves its problems through metamorphoses and recognition scenes – through, in other words, transformations of perception.

 – Robert Langbaum, from his introduction to the Signet Classic edition of The Tempest


3PictureBookTempestThe island’s sand is bright white. Its lone palm is curved, like the line to a high kite. The storm clouds clear, and Ariel drifts down, bound to what the Washington Post calls “an amusingly thick rope.” She seems to miss her runway. She passes Prospero, but she delivers her lines, anyway, as, upside down, she reaches for the oncoming palm. She sounds dutiful and put out.

Will tomorrow’s show be the same, or is the actress making the most of tonight’s haywire high wire? Either way, I reflect, it’s Ariel: she wants to please Prospero because she wants her freedom. She’ll disorient every castaway, and also maybe herself, to leave.

We walk later the high, black catwalk from which Ariel was suspended. Beneath the stage, we touch the forbidden fruit on the banquet table that an hour before fell through a trap door.

But real magic pervades the wig room. Bethany and I are startled to see, on a black mannequin, fair Miranda’s hair. Our friend, who is showing us the ropes backstage, designs the wigs and costumes. She is visibly pleased. I’ve done my job well, then, she says.

Beforehand, I walk upstage in a parking garage. I’m a level below the lowest level with elevator service. An anxious Capitals fan behind me in an SUV drove me to this hell. I wanted to insinuate my car into a narrow spot a few levels up, but I didn’t want to hear more honking.

Outside it’s cold, and a man, covered in a surplus blanket or coat, sleeps against the garage. I’ve no sense of direction, and I’ve dropped Bethany, who has, off at the theater before parking. I’m disoriented. He could be dead. Then a guy comes from the night as if he were the night coalescing.

He has a badge on a lanyard, just like the college kids that come to my door summertime in the suburbs. Except he’s around fifty, around my age, or he says he is, but I don’t believe him at first. He says he remembers the riots here after they shot King. He was five years old then. His dark dreadlocks fall behind him down somewhere near the dark street. They pull at the wrinkles on his forehead and make his eyes big and sweet.

All these hockey fans, in their red white and blue, care more about the Caps than about these veterans. That’s how he opens. They think they’re patriots. But these homeless served.

The Caps play a block from The Tempest tonight. I don’t like hockey. No point in saying so. He brings up Ferguson, so I bring up Baldwin and his essay on the 1943 Harlem race riot, how the riot starts when a white cop shoots an unarmed black guy. Not much has changed since 1943, I say.

No, things have changed, he says. We’re one people: black, white.

I’m scared for a moment: Caliban is black.

Caliban is a young, strapping slave with something like a Caribbean accent. I count in the playbill: Caliban makes the tenth entrance. All nine actors before him are white. Caliban, Robert Langbaum writes in my college Signet edition, “constantly shifts before our eyes between human and animal.”

Caliban is black in 2014?

I’m disoriented, so I ask him where the auditorium is, and he leads me there. As we walk, he goes deeper into his spiel. I imagine I’m hearing parts of his playbook he rarely gets to, particularly on cold nights like these. But I want to hear how much we really talk. I have my own spiel, I find, flags I run up and down a lanyard.

Ferdinand, Miranda’s love interest, turns out to be black, too. We’re okay. And some of the sprites are black.

The end. Prospero frees Ariel, and a hand from the catwalk drops her thick rope. It plays on the stage like a snare. It lies on the stage like a corpse.

Ariel walks away. She’s not acting. She walks offstage like she’s heading home, like she needs her rest for tomorrow’s matinee. Like she lives around here and sleeps at night and wants to see her lover, maybe meet him for coffee. But she turns and looks at him one last time when she reaches the stage door.

I walk under the marquee, but he has stopped. He stands on the street in the night, receding. His eyes are fixed and distant. He talks at me still through the impenetrable city.

The sky is dark. The island sand is bright against the receding ship.

How does the sand stay on the hill? Bethany asks.

We shovel it after each show, our friend says.

I can’t breathe
.can’t breathe
.can’t breathe
I can’t breathe

I can’t breathe
.can’t breathe
.can’t breathe
I can’t breathe


° ° °


……………….I can’t breathe I can’t breathe?
…………I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I:
…………can’t breathe, “I can’t breathe” I can’t breathe,
I can’t? breathe, I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I can’t breathe
……………………………I can’t breathe I can’t
B.       R.       E.      A.      T.      H.      E.


° ° °


I can’t

I can’t


I can’t