Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Mark Larrimore's "The Book of Job: A Biography": Book Review

This biblical story's always troubled me, so Mark Larrimore's energetic and pithy survey of its "multiplicity of voices" and the puzzles this oddly edited text generates is a welcome introduction. The complex history of how interpreters (starting with the book's own Elihu and Job's friends who try to counsel him) have reacted to the legend, in Larrimore's understanding, resists "closure" no less than the themes it raises, of "providence and evil, the meaning of innocent suffering, the nature of God and humanity's place in creation." Rabbinical, early Christian, medieval, Reformation, Enlightenment, Romantic, fundamentalist, New Critical, and post-Holocaust readings of the text all gain attention, as well as how the book is "performed" in liturgy.

Chapter 1 looks at ancient interpretations--oral and legendary--and Larrimore wonders if Job himself is Jewish or a Gentile, for instance, another complication for a text with such obscure characters.  Chapter 2 looks at disputations, the medieval debates where philosophers (especially Maimonides but also Aquinas and Calvin) followed the example of Job and his friends as they disputed among themselves. Chapter 3 takes on the medieval burials of the dead and how the book of Job "enacted" itself beyond the text itself in liturgy and in a French mystery play, "La Pacience de Job."

Theodicy may not be as popular as it once was, but for centuries, Job's predicament allowed a confrontation with belief as "the model of an anguished but fervent modern religiosity." As the professor's previous book dealt with the problem of evil, Chapter 4 fits Larrimore's expertise. William Blake's illustrations show another way Job's story has been transformed, and Larrimore notes the uses of Blake's depictions on the covers of studies and novels, for instance, another point that even if an aside shows the perpetuation of Job's anguish. I wish more popular culture contexts such as this were delved into, as these spark much interest.

The post-Shoah struggle with Job's lessons, themselves a tangle of textual cruxes and confusing shifts, show the "exile" of Job for the fifth chapter. Not only Kant or Leibniz, Voltaire or Herder, but Elie Weisel and Richard Rubenstein, and a provocative comparison between G.K. Chesterton and Slavoj Zizek (albeit too brief a one for me for these last two pairings) demonstrate the range of Larrimore's examples. Similarly, his conclusion touches (I wish more here too was provided, as cinematic connections stimulate curiosity) on "The Tree of Life" and "A Serious Man" as two different, and typical, takes on the positive and negative aspects of Job's dealing with his troubles.

"In its jarring polyphony and its silences," Larrimore concludes, the Book of Job "speaks to and for the broken." Larrimore notes (he teaches at The New School) that the book has in the academy become detached from "monotheism which is now in exile in our secular age," a universalized one that we seek when "stepping outside the rest of salvation history" or the rest of Scripture. Again, these observations merited much more depth, but Larrimore finds provocative insights, a value to any inquirer. Therefore, as reacting to this morally troubling and poetically bold biblical book, both atheists and "the remnants of the covenantal monotheisms" might seek solace for their suffering as shared by Job and those in this tragic, bold, strangely conceived and unconventionally arranged story.
(Amazon US 12-14-13)

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