Bloom’s Bible

Donald Davie

Everybody, pretty well, says that the Authorised Version of the Bible is a national and more than national treasure, never to be surpassed. And yet everyone we listen to, down to those who read the lessons in our parish church, proceeds on the assumption that this allegedly unsurpassable text can be, and needs to be, surpassed. Everyone who undertakes to interpret the Scriptures, however modestly, begins by offering an alternative translation. It’s hard to explain this except as reflecting our light-mindedness about translation in general: our conviction that translation even at its best never attains to the status of imaginative re-creation. Translation, we think, is always a second-order activity; and accordingly it can be, even at its most splendid, tampered with.

It’s worth asking, in an honest examination of our responses, how such tampering affects us. My own report, after such an examination, is that in hearing or reading such alternative versions what I experience is a double-take or double-exposure: I cannot read what I see, or hear what is said, except as a distracting departure from the AV formulations that I am aware of, indefinitely, as what is being departed from. Thus the works of Scripture speak to me, inevitably in such circumstances, with a forked tongue. And yet, if I read Scripture devoutly, a forked tongue is certainly the last thing that I want to hear. Let the Scriptures speak to me ‘incorrectly’ (though by what standards of ‘correctness’ is another and bewildering question), let them at any rate speak with one voice. That ‘one voice’ is hard enough to come by, for instance, in the AV version of the Book of Job: the last thing I need is to have the already barely manageable ambiguities of Holy Writ compounded, as they are by David Rosenberg and Harold Bloom.

To be sure, this response will seem pusillanimous. When believers, Jewish or Christian, read or hear what they take to be Holy Writ, it’s supposed that they respond complacently. But some of them at least respond needfully and in terror. The secularist may despise them for that: but at least their frame mind needs to be acknowledged and sympathetically entered into, as it virtually never is by non-believers. The holiness of Holy Writ cannot of course be proved; and the further scholars probe into the Scriptures, the more that holiness recedes. But the holiness is not a postulate that scholarship and speculation may or may not support: it answers to a need. And so, to those who haven’t felt that need, it appears contemptible. On the other side of the divide, those who feel that need will find the exertions of Rosenberg and Bloom not wrong or irreverent but simply frivolous.

In one way, the students of translation – they are few, and seldom honoured – know the situation very well: a magisterially-gifted translator has given to the original an idiosyncratic ‘spin’ which later translators must try to correct or revise; and the attempt is always foredoomed, because the corrected spin never has equal impetus with the original. Consider Robert Graves’s attempt to revise Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyam. The AV is peculiar, even so: for no magister can be detected, among King James’s translators. Ward Allen’s researches in Alabama, and Gerald Hammond’s in Manchester, have not turned up any such figure. King James’s Bible was the product of a co-operative effort, and yet not of a committee, as we understand committees; nor did it produce prose or verse of the kind that we have all too much reason to expect of committee proceedings.

According to Harold Bloom’s often reiterated protestations, this should not, this could not, have happened; his understanding of literary history pivots on the supposition of a magister, whom subsequent writers mutiny against, even as they acknowledge and emulate his achievements. His, or hers. For Bloom’s rereading of the Pentateuch, the five books of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), posits an original and originating ‘master’ who is in fact female: a lady of the court of King Rehoboam, slack-wristed son and heir of Solomon. And why not? Dealing with an era so distant and ill-documented as ancient Israel, we can find no firm evidence either for or against that supposition. If all the same we find it frivolous, that is because we approach these texts out of need and terror, motives that Bloom finds contemptible.

How can be complain if we reciprocate with a like contempt? Who cares if there is a Lady ‘J’, whose contribution to the Pentateuch we can and may and even must distinguish from that of other cryptic initials – ‘E’ and ‘D’ and ‘P’ and ‘R’ – all postulated (read, ‘dreamedup’) by German scholars of a hundred years ago? Answer: Harold Bloom cares. For corporate or anonymous authorship is what Bloom has set his face against from his initial sailing out between the beacons of Ralph Waldo Emerson on the one headland, William Blake on the other. For Bloom, romantic individualism has always been the only game in town; and he will undertake it even in sixth century BC Israel. This, in its bloody-minded consistency, is affecting and brave. But what has it to say to those who approach these ancient texts for salvation, or for righteousness? There are still those who do.

What we come up against is the crux defined in a title more than fifty years old: The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature. One reads the Bible either as literature or else as, however confusingly, revealed truth. And however highly one may value literature – as, for instance, having a value beyond what romantic individualism has access to – the distinction persists: one reads literature for delight and incidentally instruction; but religious texts one reads for comfort, for solace, for assurance. The text changes colour according as one approaches it with the one set of expectations, or the other. When approaching it as literature involves, as it does with Harold Bloom, exuberant speculation and special pleading, the other way of reading cannot help but seem more attractive and more appropriate.