Mimetic Theory and the Anxiety of Scriptural Influence in the New Testament and in the Qur’an
The title of my remarks today, “Mimetic Theory and the Anxiety of Scriptural Influence in the New Testament and the Qur’an,” resounds with a double echo that older members of this audience may readily recognize. I refer to the echo of two landmark literary studies published more than forty years ago and just a year apart. The first, published in English in 1972, was René Girard’s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure (Johns Hopkins University Press). The second, published in 1973, was Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, A Theory of Poetry (Oxford University Press, Second Edition: 1997).
My remarks today will in due course illustrate from the Gospels five of Bloom’s six modes of expressed literary anxiety and then conclude with a somewhat broader application of his sixth mode of literary anxiety to the Qur’an. Before turning to those six modes, however, I would like first to juxtapose to Bloomian anxiety a preliminary consideration of envy, which plays a comparable or larger shaping role in Girard’s thought.
For the common word envy, Girard coined an analytically helpful if rather recherché circumlocution: mimetic desire. Mimetic desire is imitative desire, and in Girard’s thought all desire is indeed imitative; all desire, in a word, is envy. The notion that my desires are ever authentically and autonomously my own is for him a “romantic lie,” as he put it in the original French title of his landmark work, Mensonge romantique et vérité Romanesque. Fortunately for us, he further argues, penetrating realistic fictions, novels that achieve vérité romanesque, can teach us to recognize that we only ever desire a thing after and because someone else has first desired or perhaps possessed it.
The word envy entered the English language as the French envie with its etymological taproot in the Late Latin verb invidere, from which we also have in English the adjective invidious. Within Girardian thought, mimetic desire is always invidious desire and is always derivative, never original. English covetousness and French convoitise—both derived by convoluted paths from the Latin cupere, from which we have in English the nouns cupidity and concupiscence as well as the mischievous little god Cupid—is by contrast with envy and envie a simpler, almost natural drive. Though one cannot draw too sharp a line between the two, I covet what you have and may with luck and without violence acquire its virtual equal, but I envy who you are, and in this I must remain ever frustrated. Shakespeare wrote in his great 29th sonnet,
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Favored like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least…
and so forth. I stop at the volta because it is in these opening lines that the poet presents himself yearning not to have something more but to be someone else. And when such a desire is frustrated, as it must be, for it is a desire that in principle cannot be met, what happens? Envy that cannot be channeled and transmogrified into benign emulation can precipitate blind rage.
Girard’s claim that mimetic desire is somehow the root of all evil is confirmed to a point when one reflects that the seven cardinal sins, more commonly known as the seven deadly sins—pride, avarice, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth—all name forms of desire. I draw your attention to the fact that not all forms of evil are on that little list. Mendacity is not, for example; hypocrisy is not; cruelty is not. But envy definitely is. In Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragical Historie of Doctor Faustus, Lucifer entertains Faustus with personifications of each of the seven deadlies. Suggestively, for a Girardian, each personified sin introduces himself—or herself, for Lechery is a woman—by first confessing his or her parentage. None, then, is self-originating, notwithstanding Pride’s boast that “I am Pride. I disdain to have any parents.” In such disdain, there is, of course, an anxious admission; there is the confession of a preoccupation. As for Envy, when his turn comes, he bitterly admits his lowly birth but then erupts into the rage I spoke of just a moment ago:
I am Envy, begotten of a chimney-sweeper and an oyster-wife. I cannot read and therefore wish all books were burnt. I am lean with seeing others eat. O, that there would come a famine through all the world, then all might die, and I live alone! Then thou shouldst see how fat I could be.
Envy, as Marlowe intuitively grasps it, tends clearly toward collective and unstoppable violence. And of note in the speech that Marlowe puts in Envy’s mouth is its connection with books and ideas and with those hated literati who claim to own them or to tell you what they mean and perhaps even, if the literatus is René Girard, to tell even you, O Envy, what you yourself mean and whence you truly come.
As you heard me read Envy’s little speech, you may perhaps have thought of newsreels that we have all seen of Nazi book-burning orgies—those bonfires not just of Jewish books but also of some of the finest achievements of German literature itself. But I urge you: don’t stop there. The Christian Wars of Religion that followed the Protestant Reformation and precipitated the Enlightenment were wars fought in contending envy and jealousy vis-á-vis custody of scriptural truth and the scriptural authority that went with it. Would the Catholics continue to control these, or would the Protestants? As much may be said of the religious dimension within the Arab Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula and the Spanish Catholic reconquest. Would he who won the last battle not fatuously suppose that he had also had the last word? And perhaps as much again may be said today of the pitiless intra-Islamic, Sunni-Shia fight to the death over custody of Qur’an and Shari’a. But to proclaim any battle the last battle or any word the last word is not to state a fact but only to venture a reckless boast. The capacity of scriptural envy and scriptural jealousy to generate such violence is fearsome to recall and more fearsome to behold.
Today, however, our attention will be directed to a quieter, merely exegetical process that lies far behind the burning, bleeding front lines of outright inter-religious warfare and, typically, far prior in time to any such large and overt conflict.
For René Girard, the Gospel story is a master myth in the sense that it mastered, without exception, all prior archaic myths with their antecedent violent rituals and scapegoated victims by revealing what they systematically concealed. For him, Jesus did not die to take away our sins but only to correct our mistake and explain to us the dire inherited consequences of our mimetic desires. The Gospels thus play the same role in Girard’s later-developing anthropology of religion that realistic fiction plays in the earlier literary criticism of Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque: they expose a large, collectively maintained, and malignant deception.
But there is, to my eyes, a crucial difference between the earlier and the later Girard. When considering envy in the novels he examines in his earlier study, Girard also considers envy and ambition in their authors. But when he considers envy in the Gospels, he does not look for anything comparable in their authors, the Evangelists. Now, attention to the authors behind the Gospels and to their inferred or postulated mises en scène in the early church has been a defining move in contemporary historical criticism. Bearing the results of that historical scholarship in mind, does the Gospel story itself function differently for us if and when we go looking for mimetic desire in its authors’ motivation? Perhaps the Gospel, too, is a myth in need of mastery.
The authors of the books of the New Testament were all Jews but one, and that one—namely, Luke—was a God-fearing Gentile thoroughly Jewish by cultural identification. The authority of the Jewish scriptures for such as these was not only beyond question, it was the very authority they repeatedly invoked and absolutely required to validate their claims that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the Word of God come to life among them, the Redeemer of the world. Undermining the Jewish scriptures would thus be undermining themselves, and yet like the strong poets whom Harold Bloom studies in The Anxiety of Influence, they knew that they had something new to say that could not be said without somehow challenging the scriptures that they had inherited and under whose overwhelming influence they lived and wrote. Such then was the character of their anxiety. They could not but feel it, and yet they could never express it directly. They could only betray it in their writings, but that betrayal also, of course, betrayed their envy of Moses, of Isaiah, of Ezra, and even of the Psalmist. Conceivably, as well, the Evangelists were in a state of anxious envy vis-á-vis one another, as disciples contending for custody of their master’s story and of his message.
Envy is, after all, a condition of mental distress for which no better word exists than anxiety. It is not my intent to reduce Girard’s mimetic theory to a footnote to Bloom’s theory of poetry, or vice versa. But I do find Bloom’s taxonomy of six modes of acted-out literary anxiety equally as applicable, by dint of its very abstract and programmatic character, to the Evangelists as to any more modern set of authors. Accordingly, while linking each of these modes of literary anxiety where appropriate to mimetic desire, I will illustrate the first five through Gospel passages in which the writers—without ever admitting to anxiety vis-à-vis the Jewish scriptures that they will eventually help transform and perhaps demote into the Old Testament and indeed while purporting only to further enshrine the divinely inspired authors of those scriptures—may be seen to betray at once their anxiety before them and their mimetic desire to assuage that anxiety by surpassing or transcending them. After proceeding thus through the first five, I will in a somewhat different way, apply Bloom’s sixth mode of literary anxiety to a recurring trope in the Qur’an.
In my five Gospel illustrations, we may easily enough imagine the Gospel writers themselves intimidated and anxious before the towering achievement of their scriptural predecessors. But we must not neglect the answering anxiety of the predecessors themselves and their most devout readers at the threat posed by these aspiring successors. Similarly, the envy the successors feel toward the predecessors, their mimetic desire to match or even surpass them, is countered by the jealousy the predecessors’ apologists must feel vis-á-vis such presumptuous sentiment and such upstart ambitions in the successors. Thus, in examining five distinct modes of New Testament mimesis, I bear always in mind the traditional and ongoing Rabbinic Jewish resistance to the mimetic ambitions of the Jews who wrote the New Testament. Matthew presents Jesus ambitiously as a new Moses, yet a later Rabbinic dictum stoutly insists lo’ yaqum kamoshe ‘od: “There will never be another Moses.”
Over the centuries, Jews who have stood by that dictum have stood, with regard to the Gospel of Matthew’s claim to be the Word of God, as Christians stand with regard to the comparable claim of the Qur’an to be the crowning recapitulation of all prior divine revelation. Or, as we might more dynamically put it, personifying the three scriptures in question, Gospel envies Torah its privileges, but Torah is jealous of those privileges and righteously clings to them, while Qur’an envies (and links) Torah and Gospel, envying their privileges as virtually a single privilege, while the two of them cling righteously and jealously to their respective privileges as they separately understand them. The successors can be ever so clever, and yet the predecessors can always find them too clever by half, as the saying goes, and hand back the ticket.
The first of Bloom’s six modes of literary anxiety is the one he names clinamen, using a Latin term for a shift in direction, a change of course, a veer or a swerve. For Bloom, clinamen is par excellence the tactic of the strong poet who wishes not simply or crudely to repudiate his inspired forebear, who wishes indeed to afford seeming deference to him, but who wishes yet to rival him and to subtly surpass and overtake him. Let me offer two examples of Gospel clinamen, both from the Gospel of Matthew.
And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which?” and Jesus said, “You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness. Honor your father and mother, and, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. (19:16-22; Revised Standard Version here and throughout)
Matthew portrays Jesus first in peremptory compliance with Torah, quoting the Decalogue and then the great love-thy-neighbor commandment of the Book of Leviticus brusquely, as if to brush off his interrogator. But in Torah and Prophets alike, obedience to the Lord’s commandments always confers abundance in all its forms—fertility in the first instance but not fertility alone. Thus, in Second Isaiah, the Lord promises:
“The wealth of Egypt and the merchandise of Ethiopia,
and the Sabeans, men of stature,
shall come over to you and be yours,
they shall follow you;
they shall come over in chains and bow down to you.
They will make supplication to you, saying:
‘God is with you only, and there is no other,
no god besides him.’” (45:14)
Torah never requires that possessions be renounced in service to God, and there is thus no Torah-based reason why the questioning young man should renounce his wealth. Yet the clinamen of Matthew 19, calls in a very ad hominem way for exactly that renunciation: he is to renounce his wealth and give it away to the poor rather than retain and enjoy it in service to the Lord. Torah is still there to be invoked, and yet it is sharply revised.
A second example of clinamen, also from Matthew, once again portrays Jesus as simultaneously deferential and confrontational vis-à-vis Moses. In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s Jesus says:
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. (5:38-42)
In context, the infamous “eye for an eye” passage in Exodus 21, is about protecting pregnant women from violence among the men in their lives:
When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. If any harm follow, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (21:22-25)
If the baby dies, in other words, the man who induced the death shall pay with his life: life for life. If the woman is wounded, the man who hurt her shall be wounded in turn: wound for wound. The point, however, of this lex talionis or “law of suchness” is that if she loses one eye, he may not be punished with the loss of both eyes. If she suffers only a burn, he may not be put vengefully to death. And, note well, this is anything but rampant vendetta, for it is all to be regulated by a judge!
The civilizing, taming intent of the ordinance is clear, and let me insist that Jesus does not by any means repudiate it. All the same, it is as if Jesus and Moses are playing poker, and Jesus has seen Moses’ bet and raised it. His swerve, his clinamen, is an intensification that claims full continuity with what it nonetheless intends to surpass. Matthew, in so presenting Jesus, mimetically desires for Jesus and shows Jesus desiring and claiming for himself the authority of a new Moses.
Bloom’s second mode of acted-out literary anxiety is the one he names tessera. Think of a large mosaic, beautiful but with a missing piece, a missing mosaic tile. The Latin word tessera, borrowed from the Greek, means “tile.” A strong successor may declare or imply of a predecessor’s apparently complete mosaic that, lo, it actually has a crucial piece missing, a piece that he at last can put in place and so bring the work to a previously unattained pitch of perfection. Such a magnificent vision of peace on earth and ultimate religious perfection is that of the second chapter of the Book of Isaiah:
It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains
and shall be raised above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (2:2-4)
What a beautiful vision! What a perfect and indeed what a complete vision! we might think, as Isaiah surely intends us to think. But note that Jacob and his house do not go forth from Zion as missionaries to proactively persuade the nations to walk in Jacob’s ways. No, they merely await “the latter days” when the nations will stream to Zion of their own volition. Matthew’s tessera—the tile that he adds to this ostensibly complete mosaic—is the Great Commission that brings his Gospel to its solemn and triumphant conclusion as Jesus says:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (28:18-20)
Matthew’s Jesus proclaims, in effect, that the latter days are now upon us and that Jacob, accordingly, must now go forth and bring the Lord’s ways to the world. As for Matthew himself, or whoever wrote the first canonical Gospel, he thus slakes his mimetic thirst, as a rival author, to subvert the Book of Isaiah while purporting only to realize its noblest ideals. Isaiah’s vision looked complete, you see, but Matthew’s Jesus has now provided it a tocco finale, a finishing touch, the missing tile in the mosaic. Paralyzing anxiety yields to subtle subversion or, to use the more conventional and theological word, to fulfillment, the master trope of classical Christian exegesis.
Bloom’s third mode of enacted literary anxiety is an open borrowing from St. Paul. Bloom calls it kenosis, Greek for “emptying,” and the usage echoes Paul’s exhortation at Philippians 2:
Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (2:5-11)
In Jewish scripture, the identity of the Creator is defined by his being uncreated and therefore exalted far above any of his human creatures, above even the whole of the world that he has created. God knows very well how to make himself understood, and yet he declares to the prophet Isaiah, as earlier to Moses, that he himself is finally unknowable,
for my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (55:8-9)
Pauline scholars are unanimous that in Philippians 2, Paul quotes a pre-existing Christian paean to Christ Jesus. For the anonymous Christian author of that hushed poem as for Paul, who quotes him, Jesus is the protagonist, the hero. For Isaiah, God was the protagonist, God was the ultimate hero.
How can Jesus rival God? How can he become the voice of God in the world? Not by exalting himself above God, for this would be blasphemy, but only through kenosis—the negative mimesis of humbling himself down to the human level, making himself “like his brethren in every respect,” to quote the Letter to the Hebrews (2:17). Only thus, only by what we might again and quite coherently call ironic mimesis, mimesis that appears initially to be its own antithesis, could Jesus be exalted to equality with God and called by “the name which is above every other name.” That name is, of course, Kyrios, “Lord,” the name that in the Septuagint—which simply was the Bible for Paul and all Grecophone Jews of his day—is normally reserved for God alone. To confess then that “Jesus Christ is Kyrios, to the glory of God the Father” is to confess that Jesus Christ is God, while all the while insisting that this very equality is “to the glory of God the Father” rather than in any way to his blasphemous subversion.
Bloom names his fourth mode of expressed literary anxiety daemonization. The term is misleading at first glance, for the focus is not on the devil as, for example, when Satan takes possession of Judas in the Johannine Last Supper narrative. No, if Bloom’s clinamen is a shift in direction, his daemonization is a shift in mentality, or overall emphasis, a shift experienced as surrender to a higher power or daimon.
What are the Jewish scriptures finally about? Surely one powerful and plausible answer is that they are about covenant—above all, God’s covenant with the Jewish people, initiated with Abraham, elaborated and formalized with Moses, and crowned with love and glory in the triumph of David. The Covenant hovers as a sublime reality—like a daimon, a being above and beyond human control—over every Jewish baby boy on the day when circumcision makes him a Son of the Covenant.
But inherent in and essential to the sublimity of the Covenant is the fact that it does not include everyone but only the genealogically legitimate Sons of Israel. This is why intermarriage is proscribed and why when Ezra leads the exiled Israelites home to Jerusalem from Babylon, he is dismayed to discover that those Israelites still in the land have intermarried with Gentile women. Upon this discovery, Ezra commences a long prayer of mingled confession to and lamentation before God, interrupted when one of the offending Jewish locals breaks in to confess to Ezra:
“We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the lands, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. Therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God….” (Ezra 10:2-3)
And there then follows a mass divorce of the foreign wives and a mass disownment of the mixed-race children in the spirit of Abraham’s expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. The expulsion of the illegitimate children is itself a rite of covenant renewal and ratification that underscores by its very violence the sublimity of the covenant privilege enjoyed by the legitimate children. Family, in other words, is not just important to the identity of Israel: family is sublime. It is a reality whose presence is felt, to repeat, like that of a daimon, a more than or other than human being, brooding over and pervading even the most intimate experience of the individual Israelite.
What can rival a daimon of such sublime and pervasive power? Only another daimon, another brooding background presence, a counter-sublime assumption that at one and the same time radically affirms covenant and radically denies family. Something like this is what Mark achieves when he presents Jesus discoursing in a private home about Satan, as it happens, and addressing the charge that he himself has healed by the power of Satan. No, he insists, he has not healed by the power of Satan. He has subdued Satan, for “no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man; then indeed he may plunder his house” (Mark 3:27). So, Jesus is plundering Satan’s house, but just then he is informed that his mother and his brothers are outside calling for him. Will he interrupt himself and go to them? He will not, for
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking around on those sat about him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (3:33-35)
Who is the strong man who is bound by these bold words? Whose is the house that is plundered? Is it Satan, and Satan’s house? Yes, in a way, but so different is the extended family that Jesus claims for himself and implicitly for God that the Israelite Covenant itself is left bound and plundered as a result, its privilege diminished without ever being denied as it is now extended to “whoever does the will of God.” Mark, mimetically rivaling the Books of Genesis and Exodus and Samuel and Ezra, has answered daimon with daimon, sublime with counter-sublime. Nothing has been destroyed, and yet everything has changed.
In offering these capsule presentations of modes of scriptural mimesis, I realize that I am not offering a fully developed argument but only the sketch of an argument, illustrated each time with just a citation or two. I trust my learned audience to take the sketch for no more than it is worth. Some of you may well be thinking of refutation by counter-example; others may be noticing that Harold Bloom’s modes overlap. The overlap is especially noticeable, I think, between kenosis and Bloom’s fifth mode of enacted literary anxiety, the one he calls by the Greek word askēsis, from which we have the English words ascetic and asceticism. Askesis occurs when a writer deliberately abstains from or renounces resources that would seem properly and indeed fruitfully to be his for the taking.
A poet who chooses to seek the intensity of poetry while foregoing the intensifying effect of rhythm, assonance, rhyme and the other tools of prosody is practicing askesis. Much of the poetry of early English modernism was abstinent or “asketic” in this sense partly because Edwardian poetry—I think here of the effortlessly fluent Algernon Charles Swinburne, dead in 1909—had achieved such perfect prosodic mastery that poetry in that vein could not be prosodically surpassed but only subverted by a calculated abstinence from its prosodic resources that somehow achieved as powerful or more powerful a poetic effect.
Where might we look for such calculated renunciatory askesis in the Gospel? I offer just one possible example. In the Jewish scriptures, Yahweh is presented again and again as a monarch presiding over his heavenly court. King David, Yahweh’s anointed Israelite king, and David’s successors, when they are legitimate and devoted to Yahweh, are promised a royal glory on earth that mirrors Yahweh’s own royal glory, his kabod, in heaven—not least in their military triumph over their foes. Wall paintings and bas-reliefs survive from the Ancient Near East in which a conquering monarch rests his foot upon the neck of a bowed and defeated enemy. Such is the pictorial background that we should see, and such the foot-symbolism that we should remember, when we read in Psalm 110, a classic “Psalm of David”:
The Lord says to my lord:
“Sit at my right hand,
till I make your enemies your footstool.” (110:1)
The Gospel of John ostentatiously embraces foot-imagery but as ostentatiously abstains from its usual symbolic meaning and strength when John has Jesus say to his disciples at the Last Supper, after he has humbled himself by washing their feet:
Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. (13:12-15)
As I admitted a moment ago, the overlap between askesis and kenosis is considerable, but perhaps my phrase ironic mimesis can apply to both. Here, John, like the Psalmist, joins the image of the foot to the themes of lordship and teaching authority, but John’s way of joining image and interpretation delivers a silent rebuke to the Psalmist’s way of doing so, even though the subtle renunciation never becomes—as, indeed, it must never become if it is to succeed—a blatant repudiation. In fact, Matthew in his chapter 22 will have Jesus invoke that very 110th Psalm to claim, through subtle rabbinical exegesis, an authority prior to and greater than King David’s royal authority. So it must ever be: for mimesis to effectively still the anxiety of scriptural influence, it must never acknowledge that anxiety as such but only counteract and assuage it by subverting its source.
Before concluding, let me turn to Harold Bloom’s sixth and last mode of literary anxiety, the forbiddingly arcane apophrades, and examine scriptural anxiety in the Qur’an as an example thereof. In ancient Athens, the apophrades were days when, according to an influential ancient interpretation, Athenians believed that the dead came back to haunt their previous domiciles. Now, of course, as time passes, any one home may pass through the hands of quite a number of prior tenants. And if we imagine a poet’s poem as his home, particularly if it is a long and complex poem, then that home may be haunted by quite a few such prior tenants, inducing quite an array of diverse anxieties in the final tenant, the poet himself. What can he do about that?
A humble, indeed juvenile example that I hit upon in my early, struggling attempts to come to grips with apophrades was the anxiety of the cheesemaker behind the cheese that stands alone in the final quatrain of the nursery song “The Farmer in the Dell”:
The farmer in the dell,
The farmer in the dell,
Heigh-ho, the derry-o,
The farmer in the dell.
The farmer takes a wife,
The farmer takes a wife,
Heigh-ho, the derry-o,
The farmer takes a wife.
The wife takes a child …
…and so forth: “The child takes a nurse, the nurse takes a cow, the cow takes a dog, the dog takes a cat, the cat takes a rat, the rat takes a mouse, the mouse takes the cheese,” and then, climactically, “The cheese stands alone.”
The cheese that stands alone at the end of the nursery song is like a house haunted by the farmer, the wife, the child, the nurse, the cow, the dog, the cat, the rat, and the mouse. And any one of them, of course, poised as they all are to devour the cheese, might taunt the cheesemaker with the fear that his cheese—his house, his home, his poem—is not really his. Taken together they are a threatening gang, and yet as the song ends, the cheese stands intact and serenely alone.
“The Farmer in the Dell” is a light-hearted jingle intended for children. The Qur’an is not light-hearted at all; it is a scripture of utmost seriousness, emphatically intended for adults. And yet the Qur’an does stand alone at the end of a long and potentially daunting oral and scriptural tradition. How can it not be a house haunted by the biblical stories of Adam, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham and Isaac, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and Pharaoh, and finally Mary and Jesus, all of whom it includes? But as any moderately close reader may attest, the Qur’an is a poetic house where anxiety vis-á-vis these haunting predecessors or forerunners is adroitly transcended.
How is this managed? It is managed as Allah reads each of the biblical episodes to which he alludes as if its respective lead character desired mimetically and proleptically to do only as Muhammad would later do in submitting himself humbly to Allah and then prophetically challenging Mecca’s idolaters to repent and make the same submission.
Neither Jewish nor Christian tradition regards Noah or Abraham as a prophet, but Allah does so regard them in the Qur’an, and he makes clear that if his Qur’an differs from the Bible in the way it presents them, the reason is that Jews and Christians have not preserved the Bible as Allah originally imparted it to them. Thus, the Bible that is acknowledged and venerated in the Qur’an is the real, though now lost Bible, and the Qur’an that stands alone, entrusted to Muhammad at the end of salvation history, is Allah’s final, gracious gift to humankind through his last and culminating prophet.
Jews and Christians may readily enough see such readings as expressing Muhammad’s anxiety before his scriptural predecessors and his mimetic desire to surpass them without repudiating them. But just as Rabbinic Jews may find the Gospel interpretations of the Tanakh that so cleverly make their case for Jesus too clever by half, so Jews and Christians alike may dismiss the adroitness of the Qur’an in creatively and repeatedly retrojecting the prophetic image of Muhammad upon iconic figures from the Bible.
Who has the correct interpretation? Perhaps while we wait for Elijah to come and resolve all textual disputes, as in Jewish tradition he is expected to do, we may take interim guidance from the Qur’an itself, Sura 5, Adat 48:
Had God willed, He could have made you a single community—but in order to test you in what He revealed to you. So vie with one another in virtue. To God is your homecoming all of you, and He will then acquaint you with that over which you differed.
And let me end there—a bit abruptly, I confess, but with warm thanks for your attention and with apologies to the late René Girard and, even more, to the still living Harold Bloom, a writer whom I will never be done reading.