- The Genesis of Fiction: Modern Novelists as Biblical Interpreters
If Susan A. Handelman's brilliant study, Fragments of Redemption:Jewish Thought and Literary Theory in Benjamin, Scholem, and Levinas, can be seen as the trailblazing work that convincingly illuminated and documented the similarities between traditional rabbinical strategies of biblical exegesis and contemporary theoretical approaches to literary analysis, then Terry R. Wright's The Genesis of Fiction can be seen as the next step in this project, which is to examine the link between a specific form of rabbinical interpretive analysis (midrash) and the modernist appropriation of traditional biblical narratives.
As Wright intelligently argues, rabbinical midrash is reverent but audacious, respectful but daring. It is premised on the absolute primacy of the biblical text, which "has 'unlimited authority' as revelation" (15). And yet, given the narrative gaps and unanswered questions within biblical stories, it boldly re-tells the tales in order "to augment the original narrative with additional details which 'answer' the questions it raises" (10). Indeed, as a re-telling, midrash necessitates "imaginative freedom" and creative license in order to tease "out" the Bible's "compressed or implicit meanings" (17), but insofar as it ultimately re-authorizes the biblical text, it is one of the culture's most serious forms of artistic creation.
According to Wright, this tension between the absolute authority of the Bible and the creative license to rewrite it is the occasion for two central paradoxes. Most modernist writers, as Wright consistently notes, certainly do not produce traditional midrash because they "rarely submit themselves to the Bible in the manner of true midrash" (16). And yet, through their irreverent approach, modernist writers "have added further layers of interpretation to the midrashic process simply by asking new questions of the biblical text" (169). So the writers most skeptical of God and the Bible have, paradoxically, produced some of the most illuminating midrash of the twentieth century. This fact, that skeptical and irreverent modernists authored such insightful midrash, underscores the enduring significance and value of biblical stories.
To support his central claims, Wright does solid analyses of the works of six writers. Particularly insightful are chapters on Jenny Diski, Anita Diamant, and Thomas Mann, three writers who "incorporated substantial amounts of rabbinic material into their novels" (169). Diski rewrites the story of Abraham and Isaac, but she reinterprets it through the lens of "our contemporary psychoanalytic understanding of human behaviour" (112), an interpretive approach that finds God and Abraham's wife to be equally subject to petty human jealousy as well as perverse and capricious behavior. Diamant rewrites the rape [End Page 877] of Dinah, but instead of relying on the "male perspective" found in the Bible, she reinterprets the story in relation to a "modern feminist audience" (131). Mann rewrites the travails of Joseph and his brothers, but rather than accepting the surface depictions of God found in the Bible, he uses the work of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Freud to expose the psychological and intellectual forces that lurk beneath the surface of "the biblical text" (164). For Wright, these midrashic approaches to the novels shed new light not only on the original bible stories but also on our contemporary lives.
Wright's midrashic approach to the novels of Diski, Diamant, and Mann conveniently and effectively supports two of his primary objectives. First, it enables him to expose the dangers and limitations of fundamentalism. In a wonderfully insightful passage, Wright notes "how readers, who would normally spot an absurdity of plot or characterization without any difficulty, find themselves cowed into unquestioning blindness" through the fundamentalist approach to the Bible (170). Non-believing modernists certainly do not allow such absurdities of plot or characterization to stand in their midrashic reinterpretations. Moreover, in their irreverent and secular attempt to fill in the illogical gaps in the biblical narratives, they enable believers to see the original stories through new eyes, thereby demonstrating why a non-fundamentalist approach to the Bible is both legitimate and useful. Wright's second objective is to persuade non-believers that the Bible continues to be...