A favourite genre of mine, wierdly, is Modernist literature. Characteristic of writing between the turn of the century until the 1960s, it is characterised by a heavy cynicism about society, morality.and break with tradition. Influenced by artistic movements of impressionism, cubism, surrealism and scientific turns from Newtonian physics to Quantum theory, interspersed with two world wars and other social upheavals, the period turned literature into introspective, doubtful and even absurdist narrations of human existence.
I love Hemmingways experience of life through the senses – almost a verbal impressionism; I love Samuel Beckett’s tirade against reason in Waiting for Godot. I love Joseph Conrad’s journey through Imperial Africa to the heart of darkness. I love J. D Salinger’s depiction of a young man dissolving into madness and Sylia Plath’s depiction of her heroine’s dissolution in the Bell Jar. Perhaps at the core of my love of Modernist literature is a turn to classical Greek and Roman literature to find meaning beneath life in archetypes and dreams, a kind of Jungian journey into the soul.
A novel that moved me greatly was Joseph Hellier’s “Catch 22”. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughter House Five”, It artfully depicted the absurdities of war. Intelligent generals wishing to send young men to their death. Sane young men, not wishing to die but facing the catch. The only way to evade duty was to declare madness, but only the truly mad would go happily go to their death. Thus the sane cannot evade death, though they desire to, and the mad will not evade death, since they will not declare insanity. And so the circle goes – the Catch 22.
When I heard at school that the Book of Job, was not only one of the oldest pieces of literature in the world and also one of the most celebrated greats, I was facinated to read it. Unlike any other book in the bible it reads like a play, with behind the scenes notes, and lengthy dialogues between protagonist and antagonists. Loving Shakespeare and Homer, the Book of Job struck me an epic Jewish classic, fit with mythical beasts and the voice of God from a storm. What delighted me the most was the cutting, at points sarcastic way Job addresses the platitudes of his friends and the way the narrative holds up their views as absurd. It intrigued me. It was almost an anti-text the way much of Modern literature cut against the optimism of society at the turn of the 20th century.
Why did I resonate with this text so much ? Well as an Aussie I love a good deal of cynicsm and sarcasm. It feels realer to me than boundless optimism and it’s candyfloss texture. It increasingly occurred to me that The Book of Job was not unlike “Waiting for Godot” and Job’s complaint not unlike the Catch-22.
So could Job be satire?
I examined the text and found something interesting. Even though elements of the text may have originated early in Israel’s history, many charactertics of the text resembe Menippean Satire, a form of Greek classical poetry and prose between the 2nd and 3rd century BC. The lofty scenes of heaven set against the gritty reality of earth, the behind the scenes view privy to knowledge not shared by the protagonist, the strange denoument and restoration of Job’s fortunes ten fold. Most interesting was the establishement of the satiric norm – the ideal against which antagonists are placed to point out the absurdity of their views. Scholars believed that the Book of Job was thus compiled late in Jewish tradition, in a period when faith in old platitudes of the wisdom literature, placed into the mouths of the unfeeling friends, rang hollow to the suffering remnant.
How fascinating?! If Catch 22 and the like were written to a society experiencing bitter disappointment in the wake of the optimism of the 19th century, then Job was written to a Jewish audience experiencing the humiliation of the Roman occupation and the smashing of naive notions of a mechanistic blessing-cursing relationship to the law. Job faces the very real catch 22 of this law – he is as good an upright as any man can be. But man born is born to mischief as the sparks fly up [Job 5:7]. So are we born to condemnation?! No, he will not accept this resolution. Nor will he accept the resolution of the friends that he need simply repent to regain blessing. He pushes through this transactional approach to God and demands a hearing. When the God he calls upon appears, he is cowed – understandably overwhelmed by the awsome display of splendour from the clouds. However, this awesome divinity approves of Job’s faith – for Job sees through to the heart of the matter. Law can only condemn, but faith in the redemptive nature of the divine is commended. Job cannot save himself through pennitance, but by grasping to God, not cursing nor turning from God, he clings to the knowledge that God alone can provide a solution to the Catch 22.
Unlike Modernist novels, The Book of Job ends “happily ever after”. Another characteristic of Mennipean satire. But here the book affirms biblical themes, those who orient themselves to God in faith are righteous, not those who abide by the law.