Absolutely Bleedin’ Obvious

Ian Sansom

  • The Book of Dave by Will Self
    Viking, 496 pp, £17.99, June 2006, ISBN 0 670 91443 6

According to Hannibal Hamlin, in Psalm Culture and Early Modern English Literature (2004), English versions and translations of the Book of Psalms, the original book of Dave – supposedly written by King David, the Neim Z’mirot Yisrael (‘the sweet singer of Israel’) – ‘substantially shaped the culture of 16th and 17th-century England, resulting in creative forms as diverse as singing psalters, metrical psalm paraphrases, sophisticated poetic adaptations, meditations, sermons, commentaries, and significant allusions in poems, plays and literary prose by English men and women of varied social and intellectual backgrounds, accommodating biblical texts to their personal agendas, whether religious, political or aesthetic.’ Reading the English translations of the Psalms – reading Tyndale, Coverdale, Milton, Sidney, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Francis Bacon, Henry Vaughan, Richard Crashaw and the inspired committee-work of the Authorised Version – one immediately notices that the biblical texts are really quite vile, and that the poets’ ‘personal agendas’ seem almost without exception bizarre, baffling or psychotic. In psalm after psalm, translation after translation, fantasies of punishment and self-punishment segue into expressions of great joy, deep despair and exaggerated, frabjous praise. Indeed, of all the books in the Bible there is perhaps none more sick and giddy, none more clearly and floridly mad, none more self-righteous, more thrilling or demented, more full of fear and anxiety. These are works characterised above all by a spirit of hatred which, according to C.S. Lewis in his Reflections on the Psalms (1961), ‘strikes us in the face … like the heat from a furnace mouth’.

Psalm 1 in the Authorised Version warns that ‘the way of the ungodly shall perish,’ and from then on fury and malediction alternate with hallelujahs in a menacing fist-pummelling parallelism of love and hate: ‘Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little’ (Psalm 2); ‘They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one’ (Psalm 14); ‘They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust’ (Psalm 72); ‘Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee? And am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee?’ (Psalm 139). Even Psalm 23, the traditional psalm of balm and comfort, includes the wish that ‘Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies’; no greater consolation for the righteous, it seems, than to see the wicked go hungry. In his translation of Psalm 3, Milton praises God ‘for thou/Hast smote ere now/On the cheek-bone all my foes,/Of men abhor’d/Hast broke the teeth.’ If a psalmist were to turn up for a few stitches at your local minor injuries clinic, chances are they’d have multiple piercings and facial tattoos, and you’d be wanting to ask them how many hours of sleep they’d been getting recently, whether perhaps they’d been having visions or hearing voices, and would they mind hanging on until the social worker arrived for a psychiatric assessment? Walter Brueggemann in The Message of the Psalms (1984) distinguishes three categories of psalm – psalms of ‘orientation’, ‘disorientation’ and ‘reorientation’ – and in Spirituality of the Psalms (2002), he claims that the attacks of 11 September 2001 ‘suggest how urgent the descent into disorientation is for the practice of faith’. The Psalms are works of disorientated genius blundering around in the dark vaults of the human soul; they’re protest songs; they’re a cry for help.

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