Friday, August 26, 2011
Weft and Whale
For those people who, like me, spend their vacations eating pizza and thinking about Bible stories, I have good news: I know why Jonah slept.
I’ve been thinking about this moment for years, ever since I 1) started working in a hospital (whale-like institution), and 2) got about 300 note-cards into a retelling of the Book of Jonah, which I was trying to write in a single, cetological sentence.
I started the project as a sort of antidote against the writerly constipation that I’ve been suffering from ever since graduating from my MFA program: a crippling and uncomfortable perfectionism, in which I get really excited about ideas and even begin executing them, until about twenty pages in, when I for some reason go back and start revising what I’ve already written with the obsessive scrupulosity of a man locking himself into smaller and smaller rooms of his house. Chapter, paragraph, sentence…The last step of this imprisonment (which proceeds with a cunning that I can only call diabolic) is of course the single word, which I repeat like a five-year-old who has just discovered that even the most familiar name dissolves if he says it enough. And no, I haven't really figured out how to deal with this.
In the Jonah project's case, the word I got locked in was “asleep”, from the story’s fifth verse. God sends his storm:
“And the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god; and they cast forth wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it unto them. But Jonah was gone down into the innermost parts of the ship, and he lay, and was fast asleep.”
To me, Jonah’s nap is the key mystery of this extremely mysterious book: a knot that defies psychologizing and allegorizing alike. How could he sleep? Was he faking it? Was he stupid? And what does it mean that he slept? How does it fit in with his subsequent admission, and acceptance of himself as preacher; the famous whale-dive; the frustrating gourd-blight after the prophecy has been delivered (and for those of you who don’t remember this part of the story, as I didn’t, take a look: you’ll be surprised at where it goes).
My previous attempts to understand Jonah’s sleep never really worked…but this past weekend, an explanation came to me that both slides into place and turns, revealing that what I had taken to be the tale's “movement” was really only my eyes sliding over its intricate facade. The explanation is this: Jonah is beloved.
Beloved. A precious word in the Old Testament (though to be fair, I have no idea if it ever appears in it), which is after all a book (or collection of books) about fathers and sons, both God the Father and his human sons, and the individual fathers and sons of the stories themselves. In so many of these, we see a struggle or rather two struggles: the son’s for his father’s blessing, and the father’s for his son’s obedience. There are tricks and schemes on both sides, but never any backtracking. Once the blessing is given, it’s given, and the plot moves on, relegating the non-blessed to the margins of their more favored siblings’ story. Occasionally they resurface Ishmael-like with their own stories. More often they just disappear.
In the midst of this generational scrabble, the beloveds appear with their strange insouciance. Jacob, Joseph, Abel, Jonah: the pretty ones, the charmers, at whose feet the world seems to throw itself. We love these characters – more importantly, God loves these characters. His favor flows to them like water running downhill.
So now imagine you were one of these beloveds, sleeping as the storm buffeted… Would you be afraid? Or would you perhaps, like Jonah, eye the whole thing kind of sleepily, like an only child being yelled at by his grandparents? Oh yes, you’ll punish me. Sure. But then where will your love go? Who will be your hero? Give me my toys.
Beloveds, who have never experienced it, don’t believe in punishment: this is why Jonah sleeps so soundly. He has been chosen. A favorite, meaning someone who will never be hurt. A rich kid, a genius. No problems. And because no problems, no way forward. Watch the movies of Sophia Coppolla if you don’t believe in this last dynamic: the plotless anhedonia of someone born with every advantage. Moods and mood-pieces, into which God’s wrath, terrible at first, breaks like a ray of sunlight, convincing us for a while at least that we might actually die. So, alive at last, Jonah makes his confession from the Whale’s belly. Uncle, uncle, he shouts! I give up, show me the plot and I’ll join it! At which point God says, patiently, I don’t believe you, you haven’t suffered yet. You are faking even your confession…
Coming as it does at the very end of the Old Testament, the Book of Jonah belongs to the gigantic mishmash of folk-tale, commentary, genealogy, and prophecy that make up the bulk of that book after the Pentateuch. Read in the 21st century, by someone raised on Disney movies, it sounds very much like a “lost book”: a free-standing story that both waits for an ending and resists subsequent attempts to rope it to Christ’s happy ending. But I think it resists this. Stubborn and irresolvable, it sticks in the craw of the larger Biblical narrative while simultaneously seeming like a mini-allegory of the whole thing. To me, it is (again, like so many other Bible stories) a story about talent, and waste, and our inability to escape either of them.
Images: Albert Herbert's Jonah and the Whale, Jonah and the Whale Cake from cakecentral.com, Jonah and the Whale balloon sculpture by Pastor Andrew Grosjean