Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University
LECTURE TRANSCRIPT: Lecture 21
JOB AND THE QUESTION OF TRAGEDY
I was looking at the Book of Job, and suggesting that because the dramatic form is closer to the Platonic symposium than it is to the typical tragedy or comedy, we often tend to assume that the Book of Job is a problem; and of course a problem is something that ought to have a solution. I think there are many wrong things about looking at Job as a problem, even though that is the point of view of Job himself and of the four people who are talking with him.
I suggested that, in the first place, Job is not being punished for anything, but is being tested for something, that God himself appears to have some kind of stake in the matter, as seems indicated by his colloquy with Satan at the beginning; and while it is no doubt true a priori that God knew the outcome in advance, we shouldn't let ourselves get too tangled up with ordinary conceptions of time. If God foreknows the end of an action, then it is just like a fixed horserace. There is something about it which is not quite genuine, and even Milton in Paradise Lost fell into that difficulty. But certainly the Book of Job does not impress us as a fixed race, as something which has been all worked out in advance.
One of the principles involved has to do with the relation of question and answer. When you answer a question, you accept the assumptions in the question, so that the answer, if it is a satisfactory answer, consolidates the mental level on which the question is asked. If it is the answer, it also annihilates the question. If you ask me where the nearest telephone is, I can accept the assumptions in the question, answer it, if I know where the nearest telephone is, and consequently annihilate or abolish that particular problem which the question symbolizes. But if you ask me, 'Where is God?', I can say only that conceptions of 'where' do not apply to God, and that the only way of answering such a question is to refuse to answer it. I cannot answer the question because I cannot accept the assumptions in the question. It's one of those 'have you quit beating your wife' questions, in which the matter of accepting the assumption in the question is primary.
Now it is for that reason that no serious religion ever attempts to answer questions. Because seriousness, whether it is in religion or in art or in science, is a matter of proceeding steadily to better and more adequate questions. In religion, the questions that you raise are not answered except in the most perfunctory ways because, if you think about it for a moment, you will see that to answer such a question as, 'Why do innocent people suffer?' or, 'Why is there evil in a world created by a good God?' really cheats you out of the right to ask the question, and certainly blocks your further advance. It prevents you from reformulating a question with rather better assumptions in it, and so proceeding in the way the human mind does proceed in dealing with very large and serious issues, by trying to make the assumptions in the questions it asks more and more adequate.
There is a very touching story about Gertrude Stein, that on her death bed, feeling that she was going, she called over her lifelong friend Alice B. Toklas and said, 'Alice, what is the answer?' And Alice said, 'Well, Gertrude, I'm afraid we don't know that'. Gertrude Stein thought this over, and said, 'Well, then, what is the question?' That, I think, is something of what is involved in the argument of Job. If you are looking for an answer to a question or for a solution to a problem, then you start this dreary chess game of whether God is or is not doing the right thing, which of course leads to a superego starting to scream that of course he must be and you're a wicked blasphemer for questioning it; and another part of your mind remains quiet and doesn't comment, but is not convinced.
Another aspect of this problem is that if there is an answer, you will never get out of the world of the question. The answer of God at the end of the Book of Job has, as I said last day, been very much criticized as a kind of bullying and hectoring response. But suppose there had been an explanation which took you back to the beginning to the original scene with Satan in heaven. Then you would have had a God who said, 'Well, you see, Job, it was like this…' And a God full of glib explanations for what happened would be more contemptible than even a bullying or hectoring God would be. If there is one thing the Book of Job cannot end with, it's God producing out of a hat a number of satisfactory explanations for the problems which have been worrying you. Job hasn't got problems, he's got tragedy and misery and boils. Intellectual problems or questions with answers do not get very close to where he is.
If a scientist is conducting a dialogue with nature, and nature doesn't say anything, somebody has to fill in the silence. That somebody is obviously the scientist, who is driven by the silence of nature to keep reformulating what he is investigating and observing. Now this is not quite what happens in the Book of Job, because here there is a dialogue. Job is in the world of time, which you can represent by a horizontal line. When we live in the world of time, we're being dragged along this line backwards, with our faces to the past and our backs to the future. And so, naturally, any question like, 'How did this happen to me?' and, 'Why did it happen to me?' is instinctively, according to all our normal mental processes, thrown backwards into the past. We're really asking questions about the origin or the cause of what happened. Well, the origin or cause of what happened to Job can only have been the origin or cause of everything that has ever happened—in other words, of the Creation itself. And everything follows from that original act of creation.
What God appears to be saying to Job is, 'You weren't around when I made the world, therefore you don't know what's in my mind. Therefore you shouldn't be questioning the judgment of my ways'. What I think he may actually be saying is something like this: 'You were not around at the time of the Creation. You were trying to find your way back there, to understand what has happened to you. Don't try it. There's no answer there. I'm not there, or at least no part of me is there that you can get hold of. And bound up with that, first of all, is the fact that how Job got into this mess is far less important than the question of how he is to get out of it. And secondly, that all you can see of a divine purpose when you're looking along the horizontal line, back to the beginning of time, is that of fatality or causation; and those are pretty chilly attributes of a God who is represented as taking an active interest and concern in Job's situation.
That is why the speech of God ends with the two poems on Behemoth and Leviathan, which look irrelevant to the problems of Job's boils and miseries and dead daughters but are actually less irrelevant than they may seem. We saw in our analysis of the imagery and narrative of the Bible that Leviathan, used as a poetic image in the Bible, expands into the entire world of time and space in which we are living, a world in which Satan has a good deal of control. We are all born inside the belly of Leviathan, which is why there is so much about Jesus as a fisherman in the Gospels. And for God to point out these two monsters to Job at the end can only mean that Job is outside them. And because he is outside them, he has been delivered from their power.
Let's look at the final chapter, the forty-second chapter, just at the end of the speech of God. 'Then Job answered the Lord, and said, I know that thou canst do everything, and that no thought can be withholden from thee. Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? Therefore have uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not. Hear, I beseech thee, and I will speak. I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me. I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes'.
The tone seems to be one of unquestioning submission—'Yes, Lord, you know everything; I know nothing; you've got all the trump cards in your hand, and have from the beginning'— and so on. And yet I think we shouldn't be taken in too much by this Oriental manner of speaking, because Job also manages to say a few other things. He says, 'I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me'. He still retains the right to speak and even to argue with his Creator.
And then he says, 'I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee': which is a tremendous statement to make, because all through the Bible, the doctrine that God cannot be seen is invariable. The closest we get is Isaiah's saying that he saw God high and lifted up in the Temple. There is a very ancient legend that Isaiah was put into a hollow log and sawn in two on the charge of having claimed a direct vision of God. Yet this is what Job is claiming. There is only one reference to the Book of Job that I know of in the New Testament, and that is in the Epistle of James, where James says, 'Ye have heard of the patience of Job and have seen the end of the Lord'. And that picks up the same metaphor—'I have heard but I now see'. Of course, in James, there is still a Christian sting in the tail: what James' readers have seen is the coming of Christ; and that can hardly be within the historical context of the Book of Job itself.
Let's go on to the end of the folktale, in chapter forty-two. 'And it was so, that after the Lord had spoken these words unto Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz, My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right'. Therefore he commands a sacrifice. And in verse ten, 'And the Lord turned the captivity of Job when he prayed for his friends'.
God is traditionally regarded as a trinity of power and love and wisdom. There's a great deal about the power and the wisdom of God in the Book of Job, and it seems curious that there should be so little about love. Various people have adapted the Book of Job, including William Blake in the series of illustrations that he did at the end of his life, and Archibald MacLeish in his play J.B, and it is interesting to notice that Blake and MacLeish make the same alteration in the story of Job: they both make Job's wife faithful to Job throughout, and they both caricature the friends. In Blake, the three friends are simply incarnations of moral virtue, which for Blake means something like a lynching mob. And in J.B., Job's three friends come to see him only because they are spiritual vampires attracted by the smell of misery. In other words, the notion of a Job cut off even from his wife is too tough for reasonably kind and humane people like MacLeish and Blake to take in. Similarly, they can come to terms with the friends only by thinking of them as malignant.
While it is true that for Job not to have even the support of his wife during this trial is tough enough, it is more important that this is the only place where an image of love would naturally emerge. Likewise, he has dismissed his friends as 'miserable comforters', and yet we are told that the Lord turned the captivity of Job when he prayed for his friends. So that perhaps the love which is based on the love of these three blundering and blinkered and yet utterly well-meaning old buffers is perhaps closer to genuine love than any other image that would be available to the poet.
In any case, the redemption of Job is the same thing as the re-establishing of his community. We are apt to forget, perhaps, that this drama is not being carried out in solitude. Job is a patriarch of the whole society in the background. That society disappears from the foreground of the action during most of the book, but it comes back again into existence at the end. 'And the Lord turned the captivity of Job, when he prayed for his friends; also the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. Then there came unto him all his brethren, and all his sisters, and all they that had been of his acquaintance before, and did eat bread with him in his house: and they bemoaned him, and comforted him over all the evil the Lord had brought upon him: every man also gave him a piece of money…So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning: for he had fourteen thousand sheep, and six thousand camels, and a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand she-asses. He also had seven sons and three daughters. And he called the name of the first Jemima; and the second Kezia; and the name of the third, Keren-happuch. And in all the land were no women found so fair as the daughters of Job: and their father gave them inheritance among their brethren'.
Now, in your experience of drama, you notice that it is characteristic of tragedy that it points to the inevitable. Because it points to the inevitable, it points to the credible as well. Even if you don't believe that Hamlet actually saw the ghost of his father, or that Macbeth saw the ghost of Banquo, you can still understand what state of mind Hamlet and Macbeth were in. Tragedy normally does not conceal anything from the audience. That is, we know who murdered Hamlet's father and Banquo, and we know what Iago's honesty amounts to, though the characters on the stage do not. That is why tragedy is always associated with irony, a perspective in which the audience sees more of what is happening than the actors in the play do. And so, when the tragic ending comes, it impresses us as inevitable, and we say to ourselves, yes, that is the kind of thing that can and does happen. That is how we reconcile ourselves to a tragic ending, through the fact that this portrays things as they can and sometimes do happen.
In a comedy, what we often get is some card up the writer's sleeve, some gimmick that he's thought up whereby the action is suddenly twisted from approaching complications and trouble into a happy ending. What happens in the ordinary New Comedy that was the tradition behind Shakespeare is that boy wants girl; girl is a slave or, that is, she's a prostitute; boy's father says, 'Nothing doing'; it then turns out that the girl was kidnapped or stolen by pirates in infancy and is really the daughter of somebody respectable, so that the hero can marry her without loss of face; and boy gets girl.
Well, in this comic action, there is a gimmick produced to which a normal reaction is to say that this kind of thing doesn't happen in ordinary life. But it happens in plays, and is rather nice when it does happen. Accepting it, therefore, is based on your own preference for a happy ending, but not on your sense of probability in the scheme of things. Fate specializes in practical jokes in bad taste: fate very seldom pulls out a card from the pack to help you.
So, reading the Book of Job, we are reading a drama which has always been classified with the world's tragedies, and yet it is technically a comedy by virtue of the fact that everything is restored to Job at the end. We can understand Job's miseries and trials: there is nothing about that which violates our sense of the probability of what happens in life. But can we actually accept his quite sudden restoration of Job to prosperity? That is what is incredible.
Now, in the first place, there is a rule in comedy expressed in the title of one of Shakespeare's plays, All's Well That Ends Well. That's the only title in Shakespeare with a predicate, and it is a statement that is true of the structure of comedy. But it is utter nonsense as a statement about human life. The reason it is true of comedy is that when a comedy ends well, that is traditionally the beginning of the real lives of the young people who get married at the end. But in real life, it is silly to say that all's well that ends well. Even in a society as patriarchal as Job's, a man who had lost three beautiful daughters would not be completely consoled by three brand-new daughters, no matter how beautiful or how impressively named: it's not a matter of consoling a child for a broken toy by giving him a new toy. The loss of the daughters would be a permanent scar on his existence.
So there are several possibilities here. One is the possibility that if we had seen Job in the middle of his restoration to prosperity, we might not have seen fourteen thousand sheep and a thousand she-asses and three beautiful daughters at all. We might have seen nothing but a beggar on a dunghill. And yet that beggar on that dunghill would have seen something that we have not seen, and would know something that we do not know. Of his three brand new daughters, one of them Keren-happuch, has a name that means a box of eyeshadow. She might not be there at all. And so, the credibility of the restoration of Job would have to involve different levels of existence.
The most ordinary image for two levels of existence comes from waking up in the morning, where we get rid of a dream world simply by abolishing that world. Something of that might be happening here: perhaps Job has wakened up from a nightmare world of loss and boils to find that it was only a dream. But if it were only a dream, then the end of Job is so discontinuous from the main action of the poem that there is hardly any point in the main action of the poem at all. So that's facile; it will hardly do.
I think that when you go back to the speech of Job, you get an impression that some kind of confidential look, almost a wink, seems to have passed between Job and God at that point, and that Job knows something in that instant from which we are excluded. What is it that Job knows that we don't know? The answer is that by definition we don't know, and that's not helpful. Nevertheless, it is something that the statement that he is seeing God, the restoration of all his goods, the re-establishment of his family and community, are all images for.
I've spoken of the form of tragedy, and tragedy is a form that people seem to have a constant itch to wish to explain. Early critics read in Aristotle the statement that the tragic hero must have hamartia, and nobody quite knows what that means, but it's the ordinary word in the New Testament for sin. Consequently, Aristotle has often been interpreted as proposing an extremely moralistic theory of tragedy, that the tragic hero must have done something wrong, so that what he does is morally intelligible. But if you think of the tragedies that you know, you'll see that that won't work. The particular thing called tragedy that happens to a tragic hero does not depend on his moral status. He may be as good a man as Shakespeare's Julius Caesar or as good a woman as Bernard Shaw's Joan of Arc or Shakespeare's Desdemona. Or he may be as bad a person as Shakespeare's Richard III or Macbeth. But the particular thing called tragedy that happens takes no account of that.
I think what Aristotle means partly by hamartia is being in a certain place which is especially dangerous or exposed; and very often the qualities that put you in such a place are the qualities of exceptional heroism. Because, after all, an oak tree is much more likely to be struck by lightning than a clump of grass. Cordelia in Shakespeare's King Lear, for example, does nothing wrong to deserve her banishment and her eventual hanging. She is just standing in a particular spot, and the lightning strikes that spot.
Similarly, one of the issues raised by the story of Job is the issue connected with the word 'property', which in Aristotle means that which is proper to a man, that which is really an extension of himself. And so one of the questions raised by Job's disasters is: how much can a man lose of what he has before it begins to affect the identity of what he is? That question is answered in a rather brusque way, perhaps, by God's remark to Satan that he has to spare Job's life. He can take everything he has, but he must leave what he is. In that situation, the identity of Job is being isolated. It's being cut off from his possessions, because it is still a question raised by Satan as to whether Job is not really a creature of his possessions, of his prosperity and his riches, rather than a creature of God. After he has passed the test, his goods are restored to him, because that question no longer means anything.
The argument of Job and his friends builds to a climax in the beginning of chapter 26. It looks as though an editor, or perhaps even the original author, has cut down the proportions of the dialogue here, because his scheme was originally to have the three friends all speak in turn. But in this round of speeches, the second man, Bildad, has a very curtailed speech, and the third man doesn't speak at all. But Job answers, and his answer carries on until the end of chapter 31, after which it is said that the three men ceased to answer Job because he was righteous in his own eyes.
Now, as we have already suggested, it's only from the comforters' point of view that he is righteous in his own eyes. The speech of Job himself is really the climax of the whole book as far as Job is concerned. It is his statement as a bewildered but still articulate victim of disaster, and there are insertions in it that make it longer perhaps than it needed to be, such as the hymn in praise of wisdom in chapter 28, which is probably a later interpolation; but Job's speech, from chapters 26 to 31, seems to me the most tremendously noble and impressive statement that I know of in literature of what can only be called the essential dignity and responsibility of human nature. Job does not claim virtue, he does not claim that he must have been unjustly treated: he has stopped all that kind of noise, and says merely that he wishes he knew what the charge against him is, if there is a charge; and he ends, at the end of chapter 31, in the closing verses that begin around verse 35, 'Oh that one would hear me! Behold, my desire is, that the Almighty would answer me, and that mine adversary had written a book. Surely I would take it upon my shoulder, and bind it as a crown to me. I would declare unto him the number of my steps; as a prince would I go near unto him. If my land cry against me, or that the furrows likewise thereof complain; if I have eaten the fruits thereof without money, or have caused the owners thereof to lose their life: let thistles grow instead of wheat, and cockle instead of barley. The words of Job are ended'.
It is the voice of a responsible ruler, like Oedipus of Thebes: there is a famine in the country, Oedipus is king, therefore he is responsible. So he must consult an oracle to find out why there is a drought. In the case of Oedipus, of course, the outcome is very different. He is told by a prophet that he has murdered his father and slept with his mother, and that the gods were offended. He says, 'But I didn't know anything about this', and the prophet said, 'Well, that's just too bad'. But in the Book of Job, you have the same willingness to assume responsibility, the same essential dignity which is possible only to a conscious nature. Job is doing what he can with the gifts of consciousness and intelligence. In ending on that tone, he makes it clear that God has won the wager, that Job's integrity is still there and still untouched. After that, you don't need Satan anymore.
What follows is the speech of Elihu, which as I say is a later interpolation. Elihu is a young man, and his following the three old men represents a kind of social cycle of moral condemnation which goes on and on. But Job lets Elihu's speech go by without commenting on the fact that he's extremely cocksure. Elihu says things like, 'Suffer me a little, and I will show you what I have yet to say on God's behalf, as though God had hired him as a lawyer. Job makes no comment on the arguments of Elihu: he's heard it all before, it's all true, and it's all nonsense. He's waiting for a different kind of voice altogether. And eventually, out of the whirlwind, the voice comes.