Wood on Opacity and Interiority in the Bible

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Georgetown’s Tod Linafelt takes James Wood to task for judging the characters of the Hebrew Bible to be “opaque” and lacking in the sort of richness of interior life that marks the greatness of modern literary fiction. As Wood puts it, the biblical David for example is a strictly “public character”:

In the modern sense, he has no privacy. He hardly ever speaks his inner thoughts to himself; he speaks to God, and his soliloquies are prayers. He is external to us because in some way he does not exist for us, but for the Lord. He is seen by the Lord, is transparent to the Lord, but remains opaque to us. (How Fiction Works, p. 141)

What is strange about this criticism is that in general this is precisely how other persons simply are (“publicly”) given to us: not with spoken soliloquies or any other mode of access to what is being conveyed in their “inner thoughts” and prayers, but rather as often puzzling complexes of words and deeds much of whose mental (and, indeed, decidedly non-mental) lives are left underdetermined by that which is open to view. Publicity simply entails privacy in these ways, and so narrating a character’s thoughts and motivations so as to clear away any of the usual third-personal opacity as to what he is up to and why is not so much a way of making that character “public” as of putting what is usually an essentially private mode of access in place of the truly public one, of violating the structural constraints within which a person ever can exist “for us” and instead revealing how it is that he exists “for himself”. Hence the “publicized privacy” that Wood finds in Macbeth can really be no such thing at all, and the “invisible but all-seeing” audience in Crime and Punishment only knows what it knows because it can do quite a lot more than “see”.

Linafelt sees this, I think, and he also makes the even more crucial point that the mere fact that a character’s private life is not laid out in the open in these sorts of ways is no evidence at all that such a life is supposed to be altogether absent:

Far from presenting characters who exist solely in the public realm and who are solely concerned with God, the Bible exploits to good effect a genuinely private self in its characters, one that is largely unavailable to readers and to other characters. Biblical narrative consistently, though not slavishly, avoids giving access to the inner lives of its characters, to what they might be thinking or feeling in any given situation, even though that inner life is often vitally important to character motivation and to plot development and cannot always be filled in with reference to God.

And again, this time citing Erich Auerbach’s description of biblical narratives as “fraught with background”:

… in The Iliad and The Odyssey both objects and people tend to be fully described and illuminated, with essential attributes and aspects — from physical descriptions to the thoughts and motivations of characters — in the foreground for the reader to apprehend. But with biblical narrative such details are, for the most part, kept in the background and are not directly available to the reader. On the question of the relationship between dialogue and characters’ interiority, for example, Auerbach writes that the speech of biblical personages “does not serve, as does speech in Homer, to manifest, to externalize thoughts — on the contrary, it serves to indicate thoughts that remain unexpressed.” Wood, like many readers, has mistaken lack of access to characters’ inner lives for a denial of the existence of those inner lives.

Having read relevant pieces of Wood’s essay, it’s hard not to feel that this last charge is pretty well motivated. It is true enough that, for example, the biblical David is caught up in a narrative arc that seems dictated by something greater than himself, but surely if we take David to have seen Bathsheba, found her beautiful, inquired about her, called for her, laid with her, and then sent her away, it does not make much sense at all to suppose, as Wood does, that David “does not think”: for he simply must be thinking something if he is to do all of this, and the status of those thoughts is untouched by the fact that we who are reading about him may have some trouble figuring out what they are. Wood proposes that the true genius of the modern novel lies in the way that its capacity to display interiority then invites us to “read between the lines”; but why, one wonders, can we not try to do the same in the case of King David’s actions? Hence Linafelt:

What, then, motivates David’s taking of Bathsheba? Wood assumes that David is “instantly struck with lust” upon seeing her. Perhaps, but in fact the narrator never reveals whether David lusts after Bathsheba or not. And it is possible to imagine his taking of Bathsheba as a calculated political act against a rival faction within the court. Besides, lust and political ambition are far from being mutually exclusive. The point, in any case, is that though we are not told David’s motivations, he clearly has some.

All this is not, of course, to say that the kinds of post-biblical literary advances that Wood cites were anything but that; though it is worth pointing out that Linafelt also argues toward the end of his essay that a quite sophisticated capacity for the use of the free indirect style actually does make itself manifest in the Hebrew scriptures, albeit only on occasion and even then rather briefly. It is, however, entirely possible to highlight the shortcomings of the biblical literary style in comparison to that of the modern novel without making it out as if the Bible’s characters are hollow-headed dolls in the hands of a divine puppeteer. I like Wood’s work quite a lot, and in this particular essay the discussion of Macbeth alone is enough to make it clear why Wood’s reputation as a critic is entirely deserved. But as Linafelt says, the stories of the Bible surely demand a lot more of the close reading and careful literary attention that, even more than his shimmering prose, are usually the things that underlie Wood’s real brilliance.