Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Song of Songs as dance recital

"I rise to open for my love, my hands dripping perfume on the lock-- I open, but he has gone. I run out after him, calling, but he is gone. The men who roam the streets, guarding the walls, beat me and tear away at my robe. O women of the city! Swear to me! If you find my lover, You will say That I am sick with love." 

Translator Marcia Falk prefaces her own reconstruction of this erotic, but often tamed by teachers, book of the Bible. She divides it into 31 Hebrew verses with a summary of the major interpretations. 1a) Jewish: Allegory of love between God and the people of Israel, 1b) Christian: allegory between Christ and the Church (or the individual). 2a) Drama between Solomon and the Shulammite, 2b) Drama with Solomon and "two country lovers." 3) Wedding song cycle. 4) Liturgy, "the residue of an ancient fertility cult." 5) Love poem, "structurally unified." 6) Love poems, as a collection or an anthology.

She appends a scholarly study to the 1990 revision of her edition, favoring the last choice. She discerns six types of lyrics, as monologues and dialogues within. She reminds us how women's words "do not seem filtered through the lens of patriarchal male consciousness." Women being central, their speech sounds truer.

However, she cautions any reading that marginalizes men or posits "female domination." For Falk, the men speak as naturally as the women, because the language shows them speaking to each other with the same sensuous expression. No hierarchies remain; for once in the Bible, a balance of the sexes emerges.

Reciprocity and mutual respect characterize this set of exchanges. The girl with hair like a "flock of goats" and a neck as a "tower of David built for an armoury"-- comparisons that have caused earlier scholars to smirk-- for Falk stem instead from what in Arabic's called "wasf." This is a series of images in formal structure that "describe" the human body. Their challenge to us comes more from their roots in "a foreign but accessible culture" than any inherent strangeness.

Four contexts also arise: the countryside, the wilder landscape, the interiors of dwellings, and city streets. Love dialogues and many monologues happen out in the open but cultivated or habitable stretches of the open. More remote nature suggests awe, even being overwhelmed by love and emotion. Chambers and interiors stimulate dreams and fantasies, and the imagination in this third realm appears most free. Finally, the tense and intense relationships (see the 1925 illustration above by Eric Gill) pull the lovers into the streets. Here, as Gill emphasizes, threat and tension arrive. "The daughters of Zion (or Jerusalem)" as the city women seem to scorn the dark beauty of the Shulammite.

The beloved's beckoned, the beloved's banished. The beloved's searched for, the self searches in a hostile world. And, love's praised. These constitute the five themes Falk finds in over half of the poems. She favors the romance as secret, as necessarily out of the eye of the public, of the night watchman or Jerusalem's daughters. For the lovers may have to hide in the room at dark, or flee to the hinterlands, so as to be together safely.

Motifs of flora and fauna, vines and vineyard, garden as place and as metaphor, "eating and drinking as erotic metaphors," wealth and royal living, and sensuality and the senses comprise six main motifs. Botanical research infuses her verse, and cognates for plants and fruits over thousands of years align not always neatly with what we call them today. It can be awkward to move from romantic effusions that we associate with lovers to those martial metaphors, the imagery of feasting, and explicit imagery from the senses which fill many lines. Falk reminds us that the best way to come prepared for The Song of Solomon is "a readiness to respond to sensuality."

Notes accompany each section. I opened this entry with what's conventionally Song 5: 5-8. The lover opens herself, and the door. Her lover enters but then pulls away, and out from her embrace. Falk thinks this represents a dream state of the female beloved, and the start of her pursuit of her lover into the open, frantic after their rendezvous has been cut short by his sudden, almost prematurely withdrawn, flight from her bed.

Here's a summary of #22 (=Song 7: 1-5).  "Dance for us, Princess, dance, as we watch and chant!" She responds: "what will you see as I move in the dance of love?" A detailed list follows: the thighs like "two spinning jewels," the hips a nectar's bowl brim filled. The belly as daffodils adorning golden wheat, the breasts as two gazelle fawns, the neck an ivory tower, the eyes but "two silent pools." The face as a tower with the hills as its vista, and the head? "Majestic mountain crowned with purple hair, captivating kings within its locks."

What about this dance? Words Undone posted a response, and asked in turn for mine. This critic links to an article full of references to experts, so rather than repeat their ideas, I contribute an overview of one expert not there cited, poet Marcia Falk. I'll append this with another scholar whose book's just out, Michael Coogan. Here's what Falk has to say about that dance recital: it's the Song's "only complete wasf" telling us of a female figure. And what a figure.

Falk's translation omits the geographical referents to Carmel and Damascus, or to Heshbon east of the Dead Sea. Whatever these places are today, they are not how they appeared in biblical times, or to Hebraic eyes. She keeps their visual associations, and not their plots on a map. She adjusts "'appekh" to mean not "nose" but "face," overlooking the hills as does a fine tower. The tricky word "sor-rekh"(I cannot reproduce the diacritical marks for her Hebrew terms) may indicate the vulva, often euphemized as the navel, but Falk opts for "hips," letting the nectar bowl sway us into the necessary suggestion.

While "sulammit" appears at the start, Falk chose not to make this a name, but kept it as "daughter of nobility," or princess, instead of a proper appellation for this enticing dancer. How does she enchant, given the abundantly delineated response of her audience?

Falk pins the "dance" to "m-holat hammah- nayim" which may be "the dance of a particular place." As in "of two camps,"or "before two armies." As so much that appears but once or rarely in scriptural vocabulary, Falk reminds us of this phrase's ambiguity. While not sure of its meaning, perhaps it refers to a dance "before a group of people, and the description that follows leads one to think of belly dancing, probably in the nude." (189)

The article linked in my fellow blogger's commentary refers to St Bernard-- whose eighty-plus florid, fervent-- yet one suspects tied down and trimmed-- mystical and allegorical sermons on this book never got past Chapter Two. One wonders how he explained away the tacit, perhaps confessed, perhaps hidden or sublimated insights that perhaps a few of his monks at Clairvaux may have gleaned in their own restless reveries in the Cistercian dormitories after the "Great Silence" of each night began. I reckon no monk had seen belly dancing, but perhaps among those now cloistered was a repentant pilgrim, a veteran from the Crusades or a penitent back from Jerusalem and her daughters, fair or more likely as dark as the Princess, the Shulammite? Nobody ever stops yearning for love, or so I hope, trying to imagine a medieval, celibate, flagellated body on a cot.

One also wonders if Bernard had stuck to sermons on the Songs, however allegorized, if history might have been different than if he had not denounced Abelard, who had once dared to love fully, and who had then and later dared to challenge the norm. Bernard preached the undertaking of the disastrous Second Crusade, What if he had eased up on the persecution of heretics in the south of France? But, then he'd never be deemed by Pius XII as 'the last of the Church Fathers,' "Doctor Mellifluus." Honeyed doctor, words as sweet as the pomegranates and nectar of his favorite chapters.

Today, theologians still debate the meaning of these few, compacted, yet passionate Hebrew verses. In the recent "Sex and God: What the Bible Really Says" (reviewed by me more fully at PopMatters and this blog), Michael Coogan notes how, while "no feminist tract," here in The Song of Solomon, "as nowhere else in the Bible, we hear a woman's voice." We also don't hear God's name. Instead, we hear two lovers speaking to and yearning for one another.

Professor Coogan thinks that this collection of secular love songs was connected with the scriptural canon since Solomon, he of the hundreds of wives and even more concubines, had his name and prowess attached to it. As with poet Falk, he agrees that the collected verses here represent an anomaly. Coogan observes how he finds little licit in Scripture to recommend to his students at Harvard who seek appropriate inspiration for their wedding day ceremonies. "The Song of Solomon is too erotic-- not to mention that the lovers are not married." Being neither scriptural scholar nor chaste monk, I eschew my own exegesis on the conjunction of these two comments.

(Part of this to be adapted for a review of Falk for Amazon US & 10-28-10. Be sure to get the 1990 edition, as a 2004 reprint excises all hundred pages of commentary on the verses!)


Anonymous said...

Dear Fionnchu, That is a very moving and beautiful description...Thank you so much for posting. I love it !!! Best wishes, Eabha Rose

Evariste Arsonval said...

How i wish that my English would be better. It sounds "passionating".

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Evariste, your French is better than my French, and Words, my poor Irish undoubtably, mo chuid Gaeilge bocht, gan amhras

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

I meant your English is better than my French--or my Irish!

E said...

And as we acknowledged, there is beauty found in translation xx