The Power of Point of View

SOCIETY OF BIBLICAL LITERATURE Book Review Session on “Perspective Criticism” (part 1)

landy photo - croppedby FRANCIS LANDY   Perspective Criticism is a wonderfully enjoyable book, which shows us how the manipulation of the point of view of the reader facilitates identification or dissociation from characters, and thus conditions our emotional and evaluative response. Gary intersperses discussions of films, in which point of view is the result of the combination of camera, voice and expression, with the more indirect effects of narrative in the Old and New Testament. Analysis of point of view is certainly not new in biblical studies. Gary cites Meir Sternberg, Adele Berlin, Jan Fokkelman – to which one can add Mieke Bal’s idea of focalization. I published a rather detailed study of point of view in the story of the Akedah in 1986 (pp.130-39 at this site), showing how the narrator relentlessly focuses our attention on Abraham and his reactions. No one, to my knowledge, has, however, provided as systematic and schematic a study as Gary, or one that does not treat it as one element in a general narratology.

There is a particular reason why I am here. A couple of years ago Gary presented his analysis of the story of Gideon and the fleece at this conference, and I criticized it as a misreading of the story. Gary was intrigued and wanted me to develop my critique – so here I am.

Following Boris Uspensky, Gary discusses five planes on which point of view operates, to which he adds one from Meir Sternberg. Of these, the most important are the spatial and the psychological planes. The spatial plane determines the position of the viewer relative to the characters. This is very close to what Bal calls “focalization.” For instance, in the Gospels the insistent focus on Jesus makes sure that we realise that he is the most important character. The psychological plane gives us an inside view of a character’s thoughts and feelings. For example, if we are told that a character saw something, we are invited to share his or her vision. Hinneh, “Behold,” is a familiar technique in the Hebrew Bible for participating in a character’s experience. At times, the withholding of the inside view generates distance from the character. An extremely odd example Gary gives is that of Moses, who receives two frightening signs of the divine presence in Exod.4.1-8. That the narrator does not explicitly tell us Moses’s reactions, according to Gary, is because he wishes the reader to be emotionally detached from him. But then what is the function of the deictic hinneh in v.6, or of the detail that Moses fled from the snake in v.3? If he wasn’t frightened, why did he flee? This is a point I will return to later.

The third plane, borrowed from Sternberg, is the informational plane. Characters and readers/viewers will be more or less well-informed as to their circumstances. Accordingly, there may be irony, as when a reader knows something a character doesn’t, or the reader may share empathetically in the character’s process of realisation. Equally, the informational plane is involved in cases of deception, as with the story of the Gibeonites.

The fourth plane, the temporal one, is less significant, according to Gary, since it only tangentially affects evaluative judgements. The temporal plane comes into play with change of tense (e.g. the historic present) and the speeding up or slowing down of narrative action. For example, in dialogue, story time will approximate narrative time, and thus induce focus; when events are reported, the compression may result in emotional distance.

Uspensky’s fourth and fifth planes, the phraseological and ideological ones, are given very short shrift by Gary. The phraseological one is one produced by idiosyncrasies of speech of characters, such as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady or Yoda in Star Wars; the New Testament example Gary gives is of the use of “Lord” for Jesus in Luke. The ideological plane – which is given even shorter shrift – concerns the insertion of ideological stances into a character’s discourse, which may or may not invite reader identification. The sole example Gary gives is John – which is indeed an intensely ideological work.

On the whole, Gary’s work is powerful and convincing, especially in its conjunction of examples from film – where we can literally see point of view in operation – and biblical texts. The clarity with which he explains and differentiates the different planes or modes on which point of view operates is impressive. At the same time, this strength is also a weakness. In practice, it is difficult to distinguish the different planes. For instance, the manipulation of space clearly has psychological correlates. A close up may enable one to see a character’s emotions. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the subject of an extended analysis at the end of the book, spatial effects and psychological ones go in tandem, as when the two fugitives see the pursuing posse in the distance.

I have more specific criticisms, which perhaps reflect the more general one. In the Hebrew Bible, psychological effects are generally produced not from direct statements (So-and-So thought that…, felt that), but from dialogue. For example, when in Gen.22.2, God says, “Take your son, your only one, the one whom you love…” the words take us into the mind of Abraham listening, and show us what he feels. Similarly, in Exodus 4 when Moses experiences divine signs, Moses’s silence suggests the surrealist, dream like quality of the scene. We follow him performing the actions, somnambulistically, and wonder how he reacts.

I was entirely unconvinced by Gary’s assertion that space is more important than time in establishing point of view. In fact, space and time often work in tandem. For example, a close up in space may be combined with retardation in time. Gary, moreover, too quickly assumes that temporal point of view is established through the equivalence of story time and narratorial time in dialogue. Speech can indeed be a mechanism for wasting time. Slow motion effects are induced not by a direct correspondence, but through imaginative evocation. For example, when Abraham reaches the top of the mountain, the narrative pace slows down and we see Abraham building the altar, arranging the wood, binding Isaac, sending forth his hand, seizing the knife. Presumably this would take longer in practice, and thus be an example of what Gary calls “moderate summary”. However, the detailing of the actions makes one aware of the meticulousness with which Abraham performs them, and thus draws attention to his inner state, and in particular to a sense of time, unbearably slow and unbearably fast at the same time. The story of the Akedah, incidentally, is one in which point of view is particularly dependent on temporal effects, from “after these things” in v.1 to the “third day” in v.4, to the “Now I know” in v.12.

I was mystified by Gary’s dismissiveness of the phraseological and ideological planes. In the Hebrew Bible, point of view is often established through idiosyncrasies of speech. For instance, in I Sam 21, Ahimelech is characterized as a priest in part through his dignified, somewhat formal speech; David is always the master of the turn of phrase, which draws attention to himself. Similarly, the Hebrew Bible is through and through ideological, and characters are, in part, representatives of ideologies. Where Gary goes wrong, I think, is that biblical narrative is generally dialogic, in the Bakhtinian sense. In other words, there is no single ideology (as, for instance, there is with John), and that is what makes it interesting.

We certainly see this in the Gideon story, to which Gary devotes his last chapter. He argues that, after some wavering, the narrator ensures that the reader does not adopt Gideon’s point of view, and thus evaluates him negatively. For instance, in the threshing floor scene at the end of ch.6, the narrator maintains distance on the psychological plane from Gideon by not giving us an inside view, e.g. by saying that “he saw that the fleece was wet.” Similarly, on the spatial plane, that v.40, at the very end of the chapter, makes no mention of Gideon removes him from the reader’s view, and adds information to the reader’s database, namely that the fleece was dry while the ground was wet, missing from Gideon’s.

The passage requires very close reading, but I would argue that except for the middle section, vv.28-32, in which the focus is on the townsfolk and Gideon’s father Joash, (and in v.33 a general report on the mustering of the Midianites), our attention is directed exclusively on Gideon. This can be shown from the very beginning of the story, when the angel of YHWH “appears to” – literally “is seen by” – Gideon; we see him through Gideon’s eyes, a detail Gary overlooks. But I want to make some more general comments before turning specifically to the threshing floor scene (in the interests of time).

1. Gary assumes that ‘point of view’ is evaluative. The reader is asked to side with or against Gideon. But supposing, as David Gunn showed long ago with David, there is no simple or clear evaluation, and the narrator is not concerned to judge him? Most characters in Judges (and the Hebrew Bible generally, and life) are complex, conflicted people, and the narrator is adept at delineating that complexity. He gets inside Gideon, not to judge him, but to show what it feels like to be him – this young son of a junior clan suddenly called to great deeds – but most of all to display what an interesting, enigmatic character he is. Gideon is indeed a fascinating person, caught for ever between his lack of confidence and his intrinsic quality as a gibbor hayil, “a mighty warrior”, as the angel designates him in v.12, a characterization that must come as much as a surprise to us as to Gideon, and that immediately focalizes attention on him (again a detail Gary overlooks, as he does virtually everything in this extraordinary initial dialogue). In the threshing floor scene at the end, we have no idea why Gideon tests God. Perhaps Gideon has no idea either (in fact, he virtually says as much). But the compulsion to do so must make us ask questions.

2. Gary says that an advantage of perspective criticism is that it uses nothing but the data in the passage itself (p.141). This is an impossibility. We cannot forget that the story of Gideon is part of the greater story of Judges, and absolutely conditioned by the meanings accumulated by that story. Moreover, the data itself is imbued through and through with information acquired from other sources. The threshing floor, for instance, is not a neutral space in the Hebrew Bible. It is associated with judgement, sacrality, and transformation. The Gideon story is part of a whole set of “threshing floor” stories in the Hebrew Bible, of which the most proximate is Ruth.

3. This brings us to intertextuality. The Gideon story, like all stories, is highly intertextual, and acquires meaning from its intertexts. The most obvious is Moses’s call in Exodus 3. The Gideon vocation story is a parody of Exodus 3, in which an angel of the Lord appears to the hero in an arborial context and reveals to him his mission, and encounters resistance. To illustrate in detail would be excessive; however, the giveaway is that Gideon explicitly refers to the Exodus: “And is YHWH really among us” – remember, he is speaking to YHWH! – “where are all the wonders of which our fathers told us, saying “Did not YHWH bring us from the land of Egypt?” (v.13). The angel reassures Gideon, using the same words used to Moses: ki ehyeh immak, “for I will be with you” (v.15). Gideon is, as it were, Moses in the New World, and explores the possibility of Moses in the New World.

4. Ideology. Judges is an intensely ideological book, with its cyclical plot of sin-oppression-repentance-deliverance. The ostensible ideology is, however, subverted throughout, since the pattern breaks down. Gideon’s question “Is YHWH really among us?” is the real question of the book, or if you like, the counter-ideology. The character of YHWH in Judges is utterly incomprehensible. The plot is linked to another ideological imperative, the genocide of the Canaanites. But this imperative likewise meets resistance, mostly notably from Gideon’s townsfolk. Gideon is caught in between worlds (as, I would suggest, is the author of Judges).

I have come to an end, at least in terms of time. But a couple of comments on the threshing floor scene: i) the psychological perspective is expressed indirectly through dialogue, which is much more effective and interesting than direct statements, such as “Gideon was afraid” or “Gideon saw.” When Gideon says, “Let not your wrath be kindled against me…” (v.39), we can see his tentativeness. ii) Gary thinks that distance is imposed on the temporal plane by the description of how Gideon squeezed out the water from the fleece, which takes much less narrative time than story time. But this assumes an impossible correlation of narrative time and story time. If they were to correspond the result would be both very protracted and very boring (“First he took one corner and squeezed it; then he took another corner; then another; then he went back and did it again” – or in Genesis 18, “we will now wait for 5 hours for the bread to rise”). No story teller operates like that. Instead they rely on the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps (e.g. Gideon’s wonder at filling a whole bowlful). Finally, the lack of mention of Gideon at the end of the story is the typical biblical technique of “fade out” – we are getting ready for the next scene, in which Gideon is intensely foregrounded.

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1 Response »

  1. gary

    i watched the movie —zero-dark-thirty– which is an account of the pursuit of and extra-judicial murder of osama bin laden by us special forces.

    i found the movie to be a powerful depiction of those events in that the perspective taken was not that of perpertrator or victim, but the perspective of a new recruit analyst who goes to work tracking mr ladens whereabouts and eventually finds enough information to track him down.

    the scenes depiction the covert operation are muted, can we even say tasteful in that it does not overly dramatize those events, or wantonly show gore.

    the perspective of the film is introspective without being guilt ridden–from a national point of view this was a necessary action, and for me helped me see the events after 9/11 and the extrajudicial killing of mr. laden in a historical context that was neither smarmy nor propaganda.

    thanks to your bibilical critical method, i have an articulated and knowledgeable process with which to discern.

    kind regards

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