From Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible
(I studied under Leonard Michaels at the University of California (Berkeley). He was the kind of professor that made even a particularly dry graduate class enjoyable. But then, we got to read, To The Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. I am still amazed that I passed that course. I remember the class when he came in and announced that he had cancer, and only had a year or so to live. But from what I read, however, he didn’t die until he was seventy years old.)
Stories were once meant to be told and retold aloud. As in the Bible, they were revelations of events on Heaven and Earth and were the common property of the race. Like fairy tales, they contained only a few immutable details, making them easy to remember from one telling to the next. Rapunzel has golden hair, but we don’t know the color of her eyes or how tall she is; and if you called her Baboonzel and gave her black hair, it would still be a great story. The Frog King is handsome. This says merely that he looks nothing like a frog, and you are free to imagine his appearance however you like.
Today, stories are written to be read, and sometimes in a way that few people understand, leaving out most of the race. Furthermore, not everyone can read, and those who can do so in isolation and silence, which is exquisitely sensuous but also alienating, perhaps a little scary since it smacks of magic.
When a modern story, which is written to be read in silence, is read aloud before an audience, the experience is sometimes boring and embarrassing. Events sound contrived, and the motivations of characters sound arbitrary. This is never a problem with old-time stories. When God calls Jonah and says, Go to Nineveh and cry out against the wickedness of that great city, it doesn’t occur to you that this event is unconvincing. Jonah, amazingly, does not go to Nineveh, and perhaps you wonder why not, but you accept the action even if it remains puzzling.
The story of Jonah is puzzling, but it is also fascinating and has been retold innumerable times by writers and painters. Modern stories are hardly ever retold except in movies. The most extraordinary retelling of Jonah appears in a magnificently written chapter of Moby-Dick, where a minister uses the story as the basis of a sermon. He loads the story with highly particular visual detail to make it real for his congregation, much in the manner of the Protestant clergy in his day. But it also seems that Melville, through the imagined minister, wants to make the story of Jonah uniquely his, to possess it slowly and luxuriously, swallowing it into the belly of this book, as the great fish swallows Jonah. But the great fish swallows Jonah in one bite, and the effect is terrific, whereas the minister chews long, and the effect is that of magnificence born of desperation.
I want to retell the story of Jonah, more or less as it is written, with emphasis on its repetitions, and the way the story tries to say the thing it cannot say.
God calls Jonah and says, Go to Nineveh, and cry out against the wickedness of that great city. But Jonah does not go to Nineveh. He goes down to Joppa. Then he goes to the docks, pays the fare, and boards ship for Tarshish, a city in the west Mediterranean, not in the direction of Nineveh and far away.
The ship is soon caught in a “mighty tempest” and the sailors are terrified. They heave the ship’s cargo into the sea and pray to their gods. Jonah behaves again in a contrary way. He goes down into the hold and falls asleep.
The shipmaster discovers Jonah in the hold and says, “What meanest thou, O sleeper?”
Jonah is thus obliged to wake up and to explain himself. He must say who he is, what brought him to this ship, and what brought the ship into extreme danger. Challenged by the shipmaster, Jonah must suffer consciousness, which is Jonah’s sacred affliction, because he is a prophet and consciousness is his calling. In a sense, a prophet is not allowed to sleep.
The sailors discover, by casting lots, that Jonah is responsible for the “evil tempest.” Jonah says he is indeed responsible. He says he is a Hebrew, he fears the Lord, and has fled his presence. The sailors ask why. Jonah doesn’t answer. He might have said that he could no longer bear the fate of a prophet, which is to be forever sleepless and conscious of God’s will. Presumably, Jonah wants only a normal life. It is also possible that Jonah, being a Jew, was frightened or disgusted by the prospect of going to a city of non-Jews and crying out against them.
For whatever reason, Jonah flees the presence of God, but then Jonah hears the voice of God raging in the tempest. Jonah collapses into sleep, as if to seek oblivion and escape the prophetic burden of consciousness while others, in their ignorance, are terrified by the tempest and throw the cargo overboard to save the ship. What a dreadful loss, Jonah must have thought, and it is his fault. Out of guilt, he will ask the sailors to throw him overboard, too.
Finding Jonah asleep, the shipmaster thinks it’s shocking and unintelligible, but sleep is simply consistent with Jonah, a man in flight from consciousness and God.
“What shall we do unto thee,” ask the sailors, “that the sea may be calm unto us?”
Jonah tells them to cast him into the sea. This strikes the sailors as a hideous idea, not different from murder, and they ask Jonah’s God not to make them murderers. They try to row Jonah ashore. The sea defeats their efforts. In their desperation, they can bring themselves to throw Jonah into the sea.
Jonah “went down into Joppa,” then “down into the ship,” then “down into the sides of the ship.” Now Jonah is thrown down into the chaos of sea and swallowed down by a great fish that has been prepared for this moment by God. Since Jonah would flee God’s voice and go down into the hold and sleep, there is justice in his fate, which he himself requested. If you want to sleep, Jonah, sleep there in the belly of the fish.
In the belly of the fish, Jonah sings the blues, and his theme is again about going down: “I went down to the bottoms of the mountains.” Ultimately, in his flight from God, Jonah goes down into the deepest solitude, into the primeval wilderness, or what lies within himself. Insofar as he would flee the presence of God, who is other than Jonah, or outside himself, Jonah must descend into himself, what lies within. There is no place else to go. This doesn’t seem a too fanciful idea if we remember that everyone, from little babies to adults, tends to go to sleep when under great stress.
The terrified sailors, who have never known the presence of God, cast Jonah into the sea, and “The sea ceased from her raving.”
Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice unto the Lord, and made vows.
Jonah is, thus, not exactly murdered but sacrificed to the wrath of God, and the sailors are converted to the Hebrew faith, which marks their entry into the prophetic world of Jonah. In this world, people, ships, storms, and great fish are the instruments of sacred imagination, and everything is metaphorical. It is the world where this can be that, the world of the one God.
The great fish that swallows Jonah is the metaphorical grave of the man who fled the presence of God. As in a dream, Jonah goes down into the belly of the fish, or into primeval creaturely being, the mysterious, visceral roots of mind, the source of everything that lives and must die. Just as the fish carries Jonah within itself, Jonah carries the fish within himself, for, in his flight from God, he has gone down into the sea and the fishy sources of the self. When the poet says, “I must go down to the sea again,” he stirs a strange and melancholy yearning, reminiscent of homesickness. Not for the old neighborhood and house, but a much older place.
The fish carries Jonah about for three days, then vomits him onto land, and Jonah is restored to consciousness and the responsibilities of a prophet. God again says, Go to Nineveh.
Jonah, awakened and transformed, goes to Nineveh, and he cries out against the great city, prophesying its doom in forty days. God did not tell Jonah to say the city would be destroyed in forty days. But Jonah, having transcended his death in the fish, vomits death onto Nineveh, as if the wicked city, unconverted to the Hebrew faith and oblivious to God, must die just as he, Jonah, in his flight from God, was made to die.
Jonah sounds excessive, as if he were still terrified. Thus, he terrifies the citizens of Nineveh. They repent. Then “God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.”
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly. . . .
He had gone about the great city crying, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” It seems that he now feels bitterly humiliated, but the story says only that he is displeased. In his displeasure, Jonah tells God he didn’t want to go to Nineveh, because he knew God is merciful, gracious, and loving, and would repent of the evil he intended.
Jonah sits in the burning sun, outside the walls of the city, and refuses to leave until it is destroyed. The man who fled God’s presence and wouldn’t go to Nineveh now refuses to leave. Then, in a fit of suicidal petulance, Jonah asks God to take his life, “for it is better for me to die than to live.”
God doesn’t say: “Oh, come off it. I didn’t promise to destroy Nineveh.” He says:
Doest thou well to be angry?
The question is solicitous. But how can Jonah care? He has been allowed neither to flee the presence of God, nor sleep, nor die, though he has asked twice for death.
God then makes a gourd grow to protect Jonah from the sun. Presumably, Jonah is enclosed in the womblike belly of the gourd, as he was enclosed by the hold of the ship and the belly of the fish. The plainness of his response is very moving:
So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.
Then God makes a worm, “and it smote the gourd so that it withered.” Jonah should remember his gratitude for the gourd, and he should see that he is not essentially different, in his dependence upon God, from the gourd, and that his request for death is too despising of life. God reminds Jonah of his “pity” for the gourd, which is a reflection of Jonah’s own pathos. God says you pitied the gourd
for which thou has not labored, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night.
In other words, Jonah felt sorry for himself, and he should feel sorry for Nineveh. But he refuses to remember that he was “glad of the gourd,” and he forgets his grave of three days in the fish.
And he said, I do well to be angry unto death.
Jonah fails to appreciate his own existence, which is at once everything and nothing, and the story ends as it begins, with God’s voice looming against the silence of Jonah, for he has been thrown against the limits of his self, or his interior world, even as he was thrown into the sea and vomited onto the shore. God says:
And should I not spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?
If the ending is humorous, it is a humor of forgiveness, where God forgives his creature, or the superego forgives the ego for being what it is; and again Jonah must recognize the limits of his mortal condition, which includes limited understanding and death, the condition he shares with more than sixscore thousand persons of Nineveh and their cattle.
In his silence, perhaps Jonah feels the necessity of prophets in a world where people “cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand,” and where people are not easily distinguished, in their ignorance, from the unconscious life of cattle. All life transpires in a kind of sleep, or darkness, or mystery. It is somehow critical to the existence of fish and gourds and beasts and people. It has been considered a form of grace, saving us from knowledge of what we are, and possibly how bad we are, or why anything exists or ceases to exist. The story of Jonah ends here, as if we have come up against mystery in the heart of creation.
When the shipmaster says, “What meanest thou, O sleeper?” Jonah answers that he is a Hebrew and has fled the presence of the Lord. But this is no answer. It is only a story, the very one we are reading. To answer, Jonah would have to say what it means to be a prophet, and why this fate seems to him so dreadful that he fled the Lord. But as a prophet, Jonah speaks for the Lord, not for himself. In his few words to the shipmaster, he offers hardly more than images of himself. But all the events in Jonah’s story occur more as a series of images than as actions leading to, or entailing, one another. Things happen as they do in a dream, where images issue endlessly from the darkness within ourselves. When Jonah goes to sleep in the hold of the ship, perhaps he wants to sink into that darkness and let dreams come and deliver him to another story, another life. “Whereof we cannot speak,” says the great philosopher Wittgenstein, “we must be silent.” But it is also true that, whereof we cannot speak, we dream, or tells stories.