Friday, May 04, 2007

"...not to teach but to please, and to delight"

Bonnard, The Bathroom Mirror, 1906

I embrace her and her arms open wide; I am like a man in Punt, like someone overwhelmed with drugs. I kiss her and her lips open; and I am drunk without beer.
(Ancient Egyptian love song, James Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament 3rd edition [New Haven: Princeton University Press, 1967], 467-69).

The Song of Songs is particularly interesting from the standpoint of interpretation because of the many ways people have understood its meaning. Here are some of the standard interpretations, according to James J. Reese in the Oxford Companion to the Bible (ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, Oxford UP 1993)

(1) Since it is the only avowedly secular work in the Bible, many commentators have interpreted the Song in religious ways—perhaps to justify its inclusion in the first place. The Song has allegorical meanings for both synagogue and church which tell of the Lord’s love for Israel, or of Christ’s love for the church. Here is an example of a Medieval Christian interpretation , from Bernard of Clairvaux’s Second Sermon on the Song of Songs which was delivered sometime in the mid-twelfth century. St. Bernard was among the first to promote the cult of the Virgin with a more emotional approach to Christianity in the Middle Ages.

1:2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.

I do not presume to think that I shall be kissed by his mouth. That is the unique felicity and singular prerogative of the humanity He assumed. But, more humbly, I ask to be kissed by the kiss of His mouth, which is shared by many, those who can say, “Indeed from his fullness we have all received”. [John 1:16] Listen carefully here. The mouth which kisses signifies the Word who assumes human nature; the flesh which is assumed is the recipient of the kiss; the kiss, which is both giver and receiver, is the Person which is of both, the Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus [1 Tim. 2:5]. ... O happy kiss, and wonder of amazing self-humbling which is not a mere meeting of lips, but the union of God with man. The touching of lips signifies the bringing together of souls. But this conjoining of natures unites the human with the divine and makes peace between earth and heaven. [ from G.R. Evans, tr., Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), pp. 216ff.

(2) The Song has been interpreted as a drama, with the various sections to be spoken aloud by different characters. The major characters in the Song include a lovely young woman, called the Shulamite; her lover, who may be a shepherd or who may be Solomon himself; her friends, who are called the daughters of Jerusalem; and her brothers. It is conceivable that the Song may have been performed, though there is little evidence of dramatic performance for the text.

(3) Many people see the Song as an anthology of love lyrics. “This approach, based on affinities with ancient Near Eastern love poetry, seeks to do justice to the plastic language and sensuous imagery that reveal vivid imagination and artistic skill. As lyric poetry the Song employs language that functions simultaneously on a literal and a symbolic level. The garden and vineyard are places of nurture, whether for plants or for sexual experiences. The pasture is a place for feeding the shepherd’s flock and for nourishing human intimacy. Eating applies both to physical and sexual satisfaction. Such flexibility of language is the stuff of masterpieces that attract readers of every generation. [It is] a collection of related lyrics loosely united, composed not to teach but to touch, to please, and to delight. The power of its beauty is its celebration of and appeal to love” (Oxford Companion, pp. 709-10).

4) Because the love lyrics in the Song seem to present a jumble of time-schemes with apparently unrelated scenes and events, and perhaps because the Song does not seem to have a clearly differentiated beginning and ending, it is relatively easy to read it, as suggested, as an anthology. However, it may well have been conceived as a unified whole. The translators and commentators Ariel and Chana Bloch write (in The Song of Songs by Ariel Boch and Chana Bloch, Random House, 1995):

The Song of Songs is a work of subtlety and sophistication, remarkable for its artistic control and elegant finish. Because of its consistency of characterization, themes, images, and poetic voice, it asks to be read as a unified sequence. The Song is set in springtime, in the city of Jerusalem with its outlying vineyards and pastures. The two loves are recognizably the same throughout, as are the daughters of Jerusalem, the mother, the brothers, and the watchmen. Eros is celebrated as the most powerful of human pleasures; other conceptions of love—as irrational and destructive, say, or spiritually improving—are not even contemplated.

It is of course conceivable that the Song was composed by a school of poets sharing certain values and recurring motifs, like the poets of courtly love. And one might imagine, too, that its unity and consistency were the work of a redactor who collected love poems of others, stringing them together with refrains and repetitions and multiple cross-references. But it is equally plausible, and rather more attractive, to assume that the Song was the work of a poet—one who, as so often in the Bible, would have found it perfectly natural to incorporate quotations and adaptations of material already in circulation. Indeed, if a redactor was responsible for shaping the poem as we now have it, then he or she was a literary artist of the highest caliber, and fully deserves to be called a poet (p. 19).

The Bloch’s also say:

The lovers’ relations to each other and to the daughters of Jerusalem, the brothers, the mother, and the watchmen add up to a kind of “plot,” like the narrative thread in a Schubert song cycle. There is a perceptible symmetry between the first and last chapters: in both we hear about Solomon (1:5, 8:11-12), the vineyard (1:6, 8:11-12), the brothers (1:6, 8:8), and the lovers’ companions (1:3-4, 1:7, 8:13). The Shulamite’s spirited response to her brothers in 8:10 resolves the tensions implied in 1:6, 8:8-9, and perhaps 2:15. The elements of a plot are available, and we can hardly help wanting to link them, though plot seems the least of our poet’s concerns. The Song of Songs is a sequence of lyric poems, episodic in structure—not a narrative, and not a drama. The so-called gaps and discontinuities in the text are problematic only for those who attempt to read it as one or the other.

The Song doesn’t begin at the beginning, and it doesn’t have a “proper” ending. It starts at a pitch of intensity that implies an already existing erotic relationship... The lack of closure at the end of the poem has the effect of prolonging the moment of young love, keeping it, in Keats’s phrase, “forever warm” (pp. 18-9).

Clearly, then, the Song is a good example of a text that may be interpreted in hundreds and hundreds of different ways... Our purpose is to read it and interpret it as a secular work—this is the Bible as literature—though without by any means denying any of its many religious interpretations. Indeed, any interpretation might help us come to understand and appreciate the text.

What we find, of course, is a heady mix. There is incident, and setting, and characterization, and although they are all delightful, they are also just as uncertain. The text is composed of different voices from the two principle characters speaking both to each other and to others; we are frequently caught being uncertain who says what. Speakers charmingly mix up pronoun references, blending singular with plural, in first, second, and third person.

1:4 Draw me, we will run after thee: / the king hath brought me into his chambers:/ we will be glad and rejoice in thee, / we will remember thy love more than wine: / the upright love thee.

Who is speaking? The man? The Shulamite? The daughters of Jerusalem? To whom are these lines addressed?

Above all, of course, the Song is a love song. It celebrates love as the bond between humans and the natural world. Francis Landy in the essay in The Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (Cambridge: Harvart University Press), 1987 p. 305 says:

The discourse of love, of which the Song is a distillation, is created not only by the lovers, is not only the basis of a community predicated on love, first developing from the family, the mother-child relationship, and then the society of lovers to which the Song appeals, but also draws into its orbit things, plants, animals, geography. It can do nothing else: lovers can communicate only through the world, through metaphor. The lover explores the other person and finds in the body affirmation, response, and also solitude. Something happens that is beyond speech...