Flesh And Word: Notes Towards A Postcritical Reading of the ‘Song Of Songs’

Oliver Davies,
University of Wales

Every text invites reading in its own particular way. An essential part of the skill of reading is the discernment of how this text, of all possible texts, offers itself to be read. This is not just a question of formal genre, but also, more intimately, the relation of the text to its ‘world’. Is it pointing us to some ‘real’ state of affairs which stands, through historical process, in some kind of relation with our own reality and the domain of extra-literary forces? Or do we encounter in the pages of the text a ‘world’ which is an embodiment of the literary imagination? Are these in conflict with each other or do they overlap? Does this textual writing constitute description or insight? Or is it merely artistic play, where the primary reference is to the act of writing itself? How should this text be read; how can it be read? And every question as to the nature of the text before me is attended by the further question of whether I am simply reading something into the text, or whether to read the text in some other way would in fact be an act of omission, a transgression against the text, with its own very particular embodiment of the principles of textuality.

The art, and pleasure, of reading is in no small part our vigilance to these kinds of questions. It is as if the literary text ‘knows’ that we come to it with presuppositions and fixed positions which at each stage need to be unsettled by unforeseen possibilities of alternative modes of reading. Our ability to reconceptualise the text before us, to hold together diverse possibilities of reading, is our response to what we might call the mobility of the text: its capacity to evade the constraints of any one set of hermeneutical norms placed upon it by the reader. The greatness of a text, which is to say its capacity to engage audiences from different times and places in an act of intensive reading, appears to be supported by — perhaps even constituted by — its mobility. Texts which become ‘classics’ are read diversely. Indeed, the consensus that a text has classic status appears to be in inverse proportion to a consensus as to what it means. It is the fertility of the text, its enduring capacity to generate new possibilities of reading across generations and cultures, that guarantee its status as a classic. Classic texts then elude our hermeneutical constraints more consistently and more potently than lesser texts do.

But sacred writings also make a claim to be classics, at least among the communities who testify to their life-transforming power. The recipient of a sacred text within the community that is shaped by that text knows already that it possesses a textual fecundity which transcends any single act of reading. But this is a fecundity which manifests not as diversity of interpretation (at least not in Christian tradition), but in the power of the text to reach out beyond the subjective act of reading to the reader’s own sense of world. These are ‘world-claiming’ texts in Lindbeck’s phrase. Their classic status resides not in the intensity of their textuality in terms of the generation of reading responses but more in the depth of their reading. To read such a tradition or world-forming text once is not enough. We learnt to inhabit them, through liturgy and prayer. We take them into ourselves, repeatedly, in worship and through corporate acts of religious reading. We keep these leather-bound texts in special places and turn to them repeatedly, hoping to find in them truths that ground our life’s meaning. More likely than not, the meanings of a sacred text within its own Christian community will be relatively undisputed; its fecundity proceeds from the enormity of that meaning from the perspective of an individual life.

When we read the ‘Song of Songs’, we are confronted with the problem of a conflict between the two kinds of classical status: the one predicated upon breadth of interpretation and the other upon interpretative depth . Its display of interpretative breadth is so pervasive that we cannot be sure of the genre to which the ‘Song of Songs’ belongs (is it an early wedding-song?), authorship (is it the product of a male or female erotic imagination?), or meaning (is it a timeless celebration of erotic love, or erotic allegory for the relationship between Israel and God, Church and God, individual soul and God?). The division in the interpretative tradition between those who see the frank physicality of the Song of Songs as referring primarily to sexual experience, whether historical or ideal, and those for whom the primary referent is a relationship with the divine, seems irreducible. But the text also enjoys the status of a classic in the religious sense, since it unequivocally belongs with the early Jewish canon. Indeed, for Rabbi Akiva, it was the ‘most sacred’ of texts. A depth reading of this canonical text compels us to ask ‘what it means’, in order that we can begin to apply its immense significance for the conduct of our lives. But here our attempts are subverted by its radical ambiguity. Earlier centuries had more pressing reasons for not reading it as being fundamentally an account of lovemaking, but even in our more liberal times there are difficulties here, since it is clearly not just about physical love, if it is about physical love at all. The intertwining of the lovers’ sense is expressed in highly literary language which strongly resonates with language used elsewhere in the Bible. Perhaps after all it is an allegory about a spiritual relationship with God. And yet we are discomfited with the idea that it may be just that, since there is an uncompromising intensity in the use of motifs of physical love which would seem to go far beyond the requirements of allegory. No, we may feel, surely this text is telling us that sexual and spiritual love are not to be thought of as separate spheres. The love of God is such that intimate erotic relation and spiritual relation with God are ultimately one: not at all in conflict. But is this not just to say, in fact, that allegory wins out? The whole point about the celebration of the physical is that it does not need to be redeemed by an alternative register of meaning. Isn’t married love unique to the extent that society recognises that here, at least, the erotic physical will be granted a place just as itself , in its fecundity, and that the religious frameworks of marriage serve this end? Procreation is the result of intercourse, not symbolism. I do not myself think that we can easily read the ‘Song of Songs’ either as a celebration of mature and committed sexuality as such, or indeed purely as an allegory. I think that we are awkwardly thrust into the interstices between these two irreducibly conflictual readings.

Nor does the relation between the ‘Song’ and the other canonical texts resolve our difficulties. Where is the historical import of the ‘Song’ which would allow us to find a position for it in the narrative of ancient Israel (the ascription to Solomon is anachronistic, given the relatively late date of the Hebrew)? How does it link with the New Testament (it is one of the very few Old Testament books not to find unequivocal resonance, in the Christian writings)? Why, if it is canonical, does it seem to stand so outside the canon: more a free-floating entity suspended on the surface of the canon, finding no specific place or purchase within it? Perhaps it is precisely these kinds of enigmas that explain why there have been so many interpretations of the ‘Song of Songs’ as successive generations have felt the need to make sense of this canonical text which seems, to all intents and purposes, not to share the historical thrust which binds the canonical books together and which seems to deal with sexual experiences, precariously, with an arresting intimacy.

Our first step towards what I am calling here a postcritical reading of the ‘Song of Songs’ comes with the acknowledgement that this text, which is a classic in both a secular (breadth) and religious (depth) sense, is posing a question to us concerning how we are to read it. Finding ourselves confronted with this question is not the mark of our failure to read this text but is actually integral to our reading of it. In other words, we begin to move towards a depth reading of the ‘Song of Songs’, in the biblical canonical sense, when we acknowledge that the text is posing us a question as to how we are to interpret the variety of its interpretations. This brings us into a place of decision. We can either decide to remain with the text, in its difficult questioning, or we can choose to short-circuit the text by opting for any one or any set of possible readings which we have sketched above. The latter option is entirely reasonable. After all, the depth reading of all other canonical texts requires some real sense of their historical or liturgical significance, which then becomes the focus for an enlarged reception of the text. It is natural that we should seek this also in the case of the ‘Song of Songs’. But that, I am suggesting here, would actually constitute a failure to read this particular text in the way in which it seems to invite reading, however difficult this may seem to be. And so let us yield to the flow of this particular text by assuming that the ‘Song of Songs’ actually ‘knows’ that it is both canonical and uniquely, disruptively, polysemic. In other words, let us assume that this text is not an alien element which has somehow found its way into the body of scripture, but is as central to the canon as Exodus or Isaiah. This means that we shall have to begin to see its ambiguity as being in fact consonant with its canonicity: perhaps then the text holds before us the possibility of being read as a historical work of married love, an ideal work of married love, an ideal work of married love, an allegory of the relationship of God with his people, while ‘intentionally’ resisting assimilation into any one of the narrative threads (or even genres) of scripture. It engages us but does so only in order to subvert our best attempts to read it in the terms which we have already acquired from our reading of other scriptural texts. It offers itself to be read in terms of scriptural conventions, but then refuses us, seemingly at the last moment.

How then are we to understand such textual coquettishness? Can we find in this seductive parody the gestures of another meaning? Let me propose another way of looking at this text from within the framework of the biblical canon. Canonicity is central to the way scripture works. It guarantees that all elements within the corpus of scripture are codetermining within its structure. Any one part can be seen in terms of any other part: the elements of scripture form a whole like the members of a single body. The principle of figuration, so central to pre-modern readings, is predicated precisely upon this sense of the canonical whole. The sense also of scripture as a sacred text, definitively set apart from other texts (with borders which parallel the individuating limit zones of the human body), flows from its canonical structure. It is their participation in the canonicity of the whole which allows individual texts to function, in juxtaposition with the other members of the ‘body’ of scripture, as texts thatcommunicate the divine life, the ‘deep’ reading of which requires its own rules, manifest in the worship and devotion of the reading community.

Canonicity is implied everywhere in the collocation of texts that we find in the Bible, but nowhere is it specifically addressed. My thesis at this point, my reading of the text, is that ‘the Song of Songs’ is a textual representation for us of the canonicity of scripture itself. We referred to the way in which the ‘Song of Songs’ seems to ‘float’ on the surface of scripture, not quite belonging to any scriptural genre. It appears to circulate within the body, resisting identification with any one part of it. To this extent we can draw a parallel here with the relation between the human face and the rest of a person’s body. Personhood itself seems to be reflected back to us in the face of another which seems, again, to be in a summative relation to the whole. We search in the face of another for the signs of their embodied intentions towards us, whether hostile or kind. A canon is like a corpus, and the Song of Songs is like a human face which communicates the unity and inner life of the body. It is precisely the refusal of this particular text to find any final accommodation with the multiple narratives that form the content of scripture which allows it to embody the unity of scripture and the nature of the canon as corpus – or body – which is the expression of that unity.

The notion of body in correlation with the corpus of scripture trades upon the way in which bodies serve to individuate and define. But there is a second way in which we can develop the metaphor of text as body. The primary thematic image of the ‘Song of Songs’, however we choose to contextualise it, is that of sexuality, which is to say bodies in intensive interrelation. The notion of body as individualisation can be complemented by a very different understanding of the body as the place of our foundational interrelationality: the nodal point of our capacity to experience others in a way that gives definition to ourselves. It is only through an encounter with other bodies that we enter into an awareness of ourselves as body, constituted by the sense-impressions which are generated by contact with entities other than ourselves. Nowhere is this experience of bodily awareness through the other so intensive as in intimate sexual relations. The account of the ‘king’ and his ‘beloved’ then brings before us in a most powerful way this further understanding of body as body-in-relation within the textual space already marked out by body-as-definition, or body-as-individuation. These two conceptualities of the body, both equally important in the ‘Song of Songs’, are not necessarily contradictory, of course. We could borrow language from early christological debates, for instance, and term the first understanding of body as ‘hypostatic’ and the second as ‘perichoretic’, affirming that the human body is constituted by the interaction of the two. The body is simultaneously ‘my’ body and the most intimate presence-to-me of other bodies, other things. To return to the point made above (which is strongly present in the phenomenological tradition of embodiment, from Spinoza to Husserl and Merleau-Ponty), it is contact with other bodies which grounds the sensations which are constitutive of our embodied self-awareness: of being this body rather than any other.

The reader of the ‘Song of Songs’ may be forgiven for feeling that this text speaks directly to his or her own body. The sensuousness of the alliterative language appeals to the ear, while no other biblical text can approach the ‘Song’ for its range of images of touch, sight, smell and taste. The function of the text at many points seems to be to penetrate our senses, to activate the reader’s sensorium in a controlled way, like a caress or touch. The embodied thematic content of the text, as interrelating bodies, is stylistically replicated in such a way as to enter our act of reading. We read within a sensual space constructed by the text itself. There are few, if any, texts in world literature which so make themselves present, which so insert themselves, intimately in the act of reading itself. The readers of the ‘Song of Songs’ find themselves confronted by an embodied thematic, pervasively reproduced in the stylistic surface of the text, in the service of a work which resists any straightforward assimilation into the narrativity of the canon, and which, as a self-thematising, self-presenting text-body metaphor, seems to display canonically the nature of canonicity itself.

What kind of biblical hermeneutic does this reading of the ‘Song of Songs’ sustain, if we apply it more generally across the texts that constitute the corpus of scripture? After all, there is a tradition, exemplified in Origen’s commentary on the ‘Song’, which has taken this text to be the key to biblical exegesis as such. In the first place it appears to propose what we might call a strong view of the text as distinct from the meanings that we take from it. In other words, there is a contestation here of the way in which we translate textuality into conceptuality, passing from words on the page to specific ideas and concepts which then become the foundation of our depth reading. A strong version of textuality gives a certain priority to the power of the text to engender new meanings, new manifestations of the plain sense (or peshat ). It argues for a greater vigilance on the part of those who read scripture to the capacity of the text to transcend any one reading of it. This is meant not in the sense of depth reading, which is an entering into the given meaning, but in the sense of breadth reading, so that transcendence is the capacity of the text to recreate itself within the context of each new act of reading.

Many will recognise this kind of biblical hermeneutics to be essentially that practiced by the early rabbis, which has been advocated again by modern Jewish thinkers such David Weiss Halivni and Peter Ochs. But is this a recipe for fundamentalism, sectarianism, or even for a certain kind of irresponsible arbitrariness? Specifically, what can or should Christians make of this as an approach to scripture, which in Christian tradition has often been read most decisively in terms of doctrinal positions? The accusation of fundamentalism is most easily dealt with since what we are calling ‘strong textuality’ clearly breaks the link between text as generative source of meaning and any particular way of understanding the text. The textuality of the text attends the emergence of any particular meanings that are grasped within it, and remains as important as the conceptual content in any act of understanding. This is to give an immense priority to the text, which scriptural reasoning (to give ‘strong textuality’ its more familiar name) has in common with fundamentalism, but it is a priority that is given to the text precisely as text , rather than to any particular set of readings. ‘Strong textuality’ therefore undermines fundamentalism, describing it as a form of closure, even denigration, of the text itself, while preserving the centrality of scripture as a mode of divine revelation. But what about the charge of arbitrariness, which may be felt by many, more used to the careful judgements of historical scholarship? Subjectively derived meanings can also appear to be a way of effacing the text rather than elucidating it. It is this charge perhaps which will weigh most heavily, as scriptural reasoning appears to be a contestation of important insights and practices which were not only hard-won in terms of the inner dynamics of the historical community of readers, but which are also a major bulwark against the ahistorical perspectives of biblical fundamentalism. In order to address this issue, I wish to draw a parallel between biblical and poetic texts. I am not suggesting here that (historical) biblical texts stand in the same relation to actual events as (non-historical) poems. But I am suggesting that the canon of scripture taken as a whole, performs its historical witness in ways that participate in forms of textuality other than that of the baldly descriptive. Indeed, since the action of God in the world is not reducible to reification, it is difficult to see how either Old or New Testament witness could ever have been historical in the modern ‘scientific’ sense.

The point at issue, and the reason why I wish to draw the parallel with poetic texts, is that poems lend themselves to be read in ways which can be highly divergent, and certainly subjective, but which are nevertheless not adequately described as ‘arbitrary’. The practice of literary criticism is predicated upon such a state of affairs. Poems are again embodied textual entities: each poem is its own canon. It is born in ambiguity, and sustains multiple interpretations. Each of those interpretations (if it is original) is subjective, since the poem is only actualised, or realised, in its being read by an individual. But that reading is one (if skilful) which practices an enormously sensitive attentiveness to the text. Competent literary critics read the texts before them closely and responsibly but in new and arresting ways. Of course, there are differences between poems and sacred texts, which means to say between the ways in which they ‘offer themselves’ to be read. The originator of the poem (author) is not in any sense the originator of the person reading, while the originator of the sacred text (God, through some paradigm of divine inspiration) is at the same time, it is claimed, the originator of the world. In being read, therefore, sacred texts necessarily claim governance of the act of reading. The ‘world-claiming’ aspect of a sacred text is not only its capacity to shape the reader’s world, but, and perhaps more importantly, is also its provenance from the same source as that which created the world. It is therefore in some originary sense also a cipher, or (in Peter Ochs’ phrase) a graph of the world. Against this background, the performance of canonicity in the ‘Song’ has the consequence that the listening reader discovers the text to be already present, through an extended and self-replicating image of bodily unity (bodies of King and Beloved; bodies of text and reader), within the act of reading itself.

In addition to reflecting briefly upon the relation of scriptural reasoning to the polarity of fundamentalism and arbitrariness, we must also — again all too briefly — consider its relation to the further polarity of being either a non-Christian way of approaching scripture (this from a Christian perspective) or alternatively being sectarian. The former is a complex problem, since Christianity maintains that Jesus is the revealed Word of God, about whom the biblical word speaks. It is generally held that it is not scripture itself that is revealed, but that scripture (in ‘strong’ or ‘high’ views of scripture) somehow participates in this incarnational revelation (through ‘divine inspiration’, however construed). How is this to be reconciled with what I have proposed as a very intensive view of scripture as on-going revelation? The answer is to be found, I believe, in Jesus’ own act of reading, preserved in the Eucharist. We cannot think of Jesus, as Revelation, apart from the scriptures which he inhabited and through which he lived out his divine mission. If Jesus is something other than the text of scripture, then he is another who points us back to scripture in an unbreakable circle of divine disclosure. But the theory of ‘strong textuality’ that I have outlined here also aligns sacred text, as deferred body, with the Incarnation itself. If we adopt the Origenist and Augustinian motif that Jesus is the meaning of scripture, then we can read the ‘Song of Songs’, with its textual representation of deep mutuality of embodiment, as signalling the person of Jesus himself as the unity of desire between humanity and God: the body of Christ as the impulse of love between God and the Creation. Such an erotic Christology is already hinted at in patristic texts.

But why, finally, should such a reading not be sectarian? Is it not the case that any attempt to draw the scriptural paradigms given here back towards Christology will necessarily set up walls between Christian readers and Jewish or Islamic ones? The answer must be: not if pragmatically understood. Any interpretation of scripture, by the account we have given here, is grounded in the prior capacity of the text to engender meanings, not as any text might but as a text does which is formed from the divine breath which also brought forth the world. The recognition that this is the nature of the sacred text, is the embrace of a certain positioning towards the text before us and towards the world as created, in which the same divine creativity is in play. In other words, the recognition that God comes to us in this way, textually, through and in interpretation, of both scripture and world, and that God’s Spirit is already present and active within that act of interpretation, means in a sense that that interpretation can no longer be in our possession. In that most intimate understanding, we who interpret these texts — Jews, Christians and Muslims alike — can come into a deep unity before them, in a shared awareness that our reciprocal acts of interpretation are grounded in a simultaneity of poverty and fullness.

© 2003, Society for Scriptural Reasoning