The Conference on Christianity and Literature Lifetime Achievement Award.
A CCL Tribute to Robert Alter
Emeritus Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Berkeley, Robert Alter is the author of twenty-three books on such subjects as Stendhal, Kafka, Benjamin, Scholem, the picaresque novel, the theory of narrative, and various novelists' takes on urban experience. More important from CCL's point of view are his criticism and translation of, and his commentary on, the Hebrew Bible. Just as Professor Alter received the National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Thought, so he wins CCL's Award for Lifetime Achievement. This "most accomplished Jewish humanist in America," as Leon Wieseltier has called him, ranks among the most accomplished humanists in the world, for Robert Alter has advanced Jewish/Christian conversation about the golden realm of letters. He gives new meaning to how Blake refers to the Bible we all share--that is, as "the Great Code of Art."
As anyone "of a certain age" well knows, courses in the Bible as Literature were drowning in the alphabet soup of JEDP until Professor Alter came along, to shift biblical scholarship from source criticism to reading the whole text as it appears before us on the page. In his own words, his goal is "not to promote the Hebrew Bible, but simply to register a crucial fact about its formal status"; he adds, "If you want to read [the Bible] competently even with an intended focus on it as a set of religious documents, you have to follow closely its literary articulations." Robert Alter understands the Scriptures as dynamic and multi-layered and shows how language that might not be literally true approximates deep truth nonetheless. Just as John Updike's fiction locates the beautiful in the mundane, the redemptive in the descriptive, so Robert Alter's Bible finds saving grace, "a momentary stay against confusion" and hence "clarification of life" (Frost's language), in the conflicts, perplexities, unfathomability, vividness, and revelatory dialogue of ever-changing character both human and divine.
By giving his readers credit for literacy, Professor Alter performs the difficult but fascinating task of translation, rendering into English with no diminution of "concrete directness" the "strongly cadenced" as well as "beautifully compact" Hebrew (Alter's language). Not for Robert Alter the fashionable version of the creation account that tells plants to "Green up!" or of the Lord's Prayer that asks for "three square meals" rather than for "daily bread." Where the Jewish Publication Society translates the psalmist's "soul" thirsting for God, Alter's image, closer to the Hebrew and rooted in the challenges of desert subsistence, is of the poet's "throat" thirsting for God. As Adam Kirsch has recently observed, Professor Alter's "ongoing translation of the Hebrew Bible into a new, more accurate and forceful English version is one of the most ambitious literary projects of this or any age." CCL's Alan Jacobs rejoices that Robert Alter's "climb up the sheer face of the pentateuchal mount resembles some of the great monuments of humanistic scholarship more than the work of the rabbis."
Professor Alter, finally, writes commentary, and so he regards the Book he is commenting on as a master work. He presumes that "the biblical authors knew what they were doing, which in turn allows him to exert his considerable critical skills to imagine what that might have been" (Jacobs). His "commentary is as useful as the translation itself," as when he points out that Qoheleth's words--"For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of the beasts is a single fate" (Alter's translation)--"are a direct repudiation of Genesis" (Kirsch). "Here," as Kirsch aptly remarks, "is the Bible itself making the same disenchanting argument" as Darwin. Thus Robert Alter can save Judaism and Christianity from themselves, for he returns abstraction to text. Kierkegaard said that doctrine merely defends the Church against the Bible's "coming too close" and that theology tries vainly to restrain "this confounded book which would, one, two, three, run us down if it got loose." For his part and in this very spirit of Kierkegaard, Robert Alter shows no such "interest in 'protecting' us from the biblical text" (Jacobs). He reminds us, above all, that no one can be even a good devotional reader of Scripture without being in constant contact with one's inner English major.
Thank you, Professor Alter, for giving us our heritage in the most faithful terms by which its significance may be understood. You have recently remarked that it is "basically an actuarial question" whether you will translate the entire Hebrew Bible. But you have already thus advanced Jewish/Christian dialogue. You are leading us across the bridge from living symbol to life itself, for, to adapt to your case Emily Dickinson's not-so-lapsed Congregationalist grasp of the Bible, "every page" of your Hebrew Scriptures is "a Pulse" that--precisely by "elud[ing] stability"--"stills, incites, infatuates--blesses and blames."
Richard E. Brantley
Alumni Professor of English, Emeritus
University of Florida
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|Author:||Brantley, Richard E.|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Conference news|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
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