The Power of Point of View

S.B.L. Book Review Session on “Perspective Criticism” (part 2): Response to Landy’s Critique

landy photo - croppedby GARY YAMASAKI   Francis Landy’s contribution brings to this discussion of point-of-view crafting a wealth of expertise in the study of Hebrew narrative, an expertise resulting in some helpful correctives to my treatment of passages of the Hebrew Scriptures. However, other points on which he considers my findings “extremely odd” or “mystifying” I believe arise from a misreading of Boris Uspensky, the literary scholar who formulated the point-of-view typology which has given us the spatial, temporal, psychological, phraseological and ideological planes.

Consider, for example, the way Francis discusses the psychological plane. On the one hand, he exhibits a solid grasp of Uspensky’s understanding of this plane in a discussion of the beginning of the Judg 6 account of Gideon when he notes the comment that the angel of YHWH “appears to” Gideon has the literal sense of “is seen by” Gideon, and concludes, “we see him through Gideon’s eyes.” This is in perfect accord with Uspensky who understands point of view as being all about reader-positioning dictating through whose perspective the readers experience what is being described.

However, in his treatment of the Gen 22 account of Abraham’s sacrifice of Issac, Francis strays away from this understanding of the concept of point of view when he asserts “In the Hebrew Bible, psychological effects are generally produced. . .from dialogue,” going on to quote God’s instructions to Abraham–”Take your son, your only one, the one whom you love”–claiming these words “take us into the mind of Abraham listening, and show us what he feels.” In similar manner, on Gideon’s address to God setting out his request for miracles related to the fleece, Francis says “the psychological perspective is expressed indirectly through dialogue, which is much more effective and interesting.” Both of these assertions are problematic, for they do not reflect Uspensky’s understanding that the psychological plane relates to whether or not readers are being positioned within a character’s inner life in order to experience the events from that point of view.

For Uspensky, the key distinction is between “outside” and “inside.” On the one hand, readers might be kept on the outside of a character, totally shut out from what the character is experiencing inside. In a case such as this, the readers are being placed at the side of the uninvolved narrator to observe the character from this objective point of view. On the other hand, readers might be given ‘inside views’ into what a character is thinking or feeling, thus being positioned inside the character to experience the events from this subjective point of view.

Now, when readers encounter a piece of dialogue, they are watching a character speaking, and thus, must be positioned on the outside of the character. Therefore, by definition, they are not viewing the scene from the subjective point of view of the character. Of course, the content of the speech may include emotionally charged words such that it might be tempting to claim “Surely, we are able to draw a conclusion as to the character’s emotional state based on these words.” However, this does not take into account the possibility that the character is simply putting forth a certain emotional facade while actually experiencing a completely different emotion. Direct discourse, by its very nature, only allows the readers to surmise what a character is experiencing inside, and thus constitutes a less-than-reliable source for discerning the character’s emotional state. Inside views, on the other hand, are assertions by a totally reliable narrator about the emotional state of the character, and thus stand at the forefront of analyses of point of view on the psychological plane.

A parallel problem arises when Francis discusses the spatial plane of point of view. This plane finds an analogy in the world of film-making, in particular, the distinction between an audience being drawn up close to a character with a ‘close-up shot’ or held far from the character with a ‘distance shot.’ Francis, in speaking of the difficulty in distinguishing between the spatial and psychological planes, makes the point that “A close up may enable one to see a character’s emotions.” Here, Francis appears to have in mind a close-up shot of a character’s face having the capacity to reveal evidence of the character’s inner emotional state. But again, this does not take into account the possibility the character could simply be faking one emotional state to cover for what he or she is really feeling.

The same problem is evident in Francis’ treatment of the temporal plane. In his analysis of the Gen 22 account of Abraham and Isaac, he makes the point that the meticulousness depicted in Abraham’s building the altar, arranging the wood, binding Isaac, sending forth his hand, and seizing the knife “draws attention to his inner state.” His belief that this collection of mere outside views can provide a reliable reflection of Abraham’s inner state again misses Uspensky’s strict “outside/inside” dichotomy.

This temporal-plane assertion by Francis is problematic for another reason as well. Note the focus on “drawing (the readers’) attention” as a dynamic related to the manipulating of point of view. The problem with Francis’ appeal to attention being drawn to Abraham in Gen 22 is that this is not a recognized point-of-view device for leading readers to adopt the point of view of a character. Of course, it may appear logical that when a great deal of attention is being drawn to a specific character, that character is being established as a point-of-view character. But actually, such is not the case.

It is entirely possible for all the attention of a whole narrative to be drawn to a particular character without the readers experiencing even a single event through that character’s point of view. In the case where the readers are always looking at a character, but are never made privy to the character’s thoughts, feelings, reasonings, or motivations, he or she will not be experienced as the point-of-view character of the narrative, but rather, as an enigma. Some initial work on the Levite of Judg 19–the one who causes the brutal death of his concubine–suggests he is one such enigma.

Francis also sees this “drawing attention” dynamic as related to the phraseological plane of point of view; he sees as relevant to this plane the fact that David is the master of the turn of phrase “which draws attention to himself.” However, Uspensky views point of view on the phraseological plane in a totally different way. For Uspensky, a character’s speech characteristics are not relevant to the crafting of point of view when they draw attention to the character, but rather, when the narrator incorporates them into narratorial speech, which contributes toward the readers coming to experience the events through that character’s point of view (pp. 15, 17-18).

Francis gives another example of how he understands the phraseological plane when he says of 1 Sam 21, “Ahimelech is characterized as a priest in part through his dignified, somewhat formal speech.” When Uspensky sets out the functions of speech traits, he does include their capacity to characterize a character, but he then goes on to cite “indicat[ing] concretely whose point of view the author has adopted for his narration” as a separate function (p. 15), thus suggesting their ability to characterize a character is unrelated to the establishing of a point-of-view character.

Francis’ lengthy critique of the book’s point-of-view analysis of the Gideon passage contains two other points I wish to address. The first relates to the temporal plane of point of view. Francis challenges the book’s assertion that making the time lapse of the report of an event significantly shorter than the time lapse of the event itself works against the readers coming to experience the event through the point of view of the character involved. He asserts that “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. . .”

This point is well taken. While, in theory, a temporal synchronization of a reader’s and a character’s experience of an event would appear to contribute toward the reader coming to merge with the character, and a temporal disparity would appear to work against it, slavish observance to this formula simply does not reflect the nature of temporal dynamics of narratives, modern or ancient. More work needs to be done on this issue.

Francis also notes that the book simply assumes point-of-view crafting is used for evaluative purposes by biblical authors. This is a good observation, for I have indeed been proceeding on this assumption, there being no mentions of this dynamic in discussions of antiquity. Indeed, “point of view” did not even exist as a concept in literary discussions of the time, the term being invented only a little more than 100 years ago within the context of the study of the modern novel. Still, every story–including ones produced in antiquity–include point-of-view dynamics, even if their authors were not cognizant of point-of-view theory; point of view is a necessary element of any story, and even authors not aware of this concept will work at point-of-view crafting instinctually. And the question stands: did biblical authors instinctually manipulate storytelling devices–ones we now know involve point-of-view dynamics–for evaluative purposes? The jury is still out on this issue, but I believe this book’s work with passages from both the Old and New Testaments has uncovered at least some instances of evaluative guidance embedded in point-of-view crafting. My hope is that ongoing research will provide further insight on this issue.

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