Friday, July 01, 2011

Enoch Seminar: Response to Najman

MY RESPONSE TO HINDY NAJMAN'S PAPER at the Sixth Enoch Seminar generated enough discussion (and amusement) in the session and afterwards that it seems worth it to post it here. Professor Najman's paper is unpublished, but you can get the gist from my summary at the beginning. (Warning: my response contains a few spoilers for the series Lost.)
Response to Hindy Najman, "Con-figuring 4Ezra"
James R. Davila, University of St Andrews
I am very happy to have this opportunity to respond to Hindy's very rich paper in which she develops some of her earlier reflections on the implications of pseudepigraphy in the sorts of works to which this conference is devoted. John Collins has advanced the figure of Ezra in 4 Ezra as a counterexample to her paradigm of pseudepigraphy as the tying of a discourse to a great founding figure so as to emulate that figure in a way that authorizes the new discourse. Drawing on reflections on the Homeric problem by Nietzsche, Hindy highlights his proposed reconstruction of the development of the concept "Homer" as the retrospective reframing of the Iliad and the Odyssey as the genuine and only works by the author Homer as constructed by the Alexandrian grammarians. The importance for 4 Ezra is that in terms of the perception of time Nietzsche's approach exemplifies "the very fact that there are alternatives, that both the subject matter and the philological approach can instantiate a variety of complex temporal patterns." In the case of 4 Ezra, "it creates its own precursors." It retroactively intensifies the traumatic character of the destruction of the First Temple, especially by viewing it implicitly through the lens of the author's own experience of the destruction of the Second Temple. The Ezra figure of Ezra-Nehemiah is reimagined as a prophet and as an angelically glorified being who ascends to heaven. 4 Ezra also redirects other figures to become his precursors, notably Job, Moses, Daniel, Ezekiel, and in some ways Zion herself. The old figure of Ezra in the earliest texts is thus enveloped retroactively in a web of associations which gives the figure and his context an entirely new meaning.

In the few minutes I have here to respond, I want to develop Hindy's core insight that "philological work may exhibit varying patterns of temporality." In a sense this can be taken as one aspect of Kristeva's intertextuality: any text can be brought into conversation with any other text and in some cases unexpected conversation partners can produce philologically interesting results. Hindy challenges us to explore how employing variations in temporal perception can create useful textual conversations. The cases that occurred to me as I pondered Hindy's paper involved cinematic techniques of manipulating time for dramatic effect, and so I ask you indulgence when I use those techniques as framing categories here. Moreover, all three of these cinematic categories are well exemplified by their use in the six seasons of the television series Lost, so I will draw even further on your indulgence, hopefully not exhausting it entirely, by using this series alongside Hindy's paper to structure my discussion.

The first technique is the venerable one of the "flashback." The first three seasons of Lost include frequent flashbacks of the past history of the individual survivors of the Oceanic Flight 815 crash and these flashbacks place the characters into contexts that gives us insights into their current behavior on the Island, which insights would otherwise be unavailable to us. There is nothing particularly innovative about the use of flashbacks in the series.

Flashbacks correspond to the standard historical-critical method used by philologists. The center is typically a text, such as Ezra-Nehemiah (or perhaps a figure, such as Ezra, in the text), and the frame is the historical background in the form of archaeology and other texts of the same period or earlier which place the center text or figure in a historical context so that their meaning can be better understood. This is the most traditional temporal framework associated with philology, so much so that it tends to be taken for granted as the default framework.

In the fourth and fifth seasons of Lost, the series shifted its backgrounders from flashbacks to "flashforwards." The efforts of the survivors of Flight 815 to escape from the Island were periodically interrupted with scenes from three years in the future, which gradually reveal that a handful of them had escaped, that the consequences for those left behind on the Island had been catastrophic, and that those who had escaped were coming to terms with the fact that they had to go back to repair the damage. Now we learn more about the characters not by seeing their backgrounds, but rather by seeing the future consequences of what they are doing in the present. Lost is not the first film project to employ flashforwards, and they have been used as a literary technique for a long time, but Lost pioneered the use of the cinematic technique over an extended story-arc.

What Hindy is doing in this paper bears a striking resemblance to the flashforward. The center is again, the book of Ezra-Nehemiah or the figure of Ezra in that book, but the frame is now the much later book of 4 Ezra. Her prospective approach produces a retrogressive reading in which the future history of the figure of Ezra as presented in 4 Ezra gives a new, retrospective context and meaning to Ezra and the original Ezra texts, one quite different from its "original" meaning in the historical-critical sense.

These two temporal frameworks by no means exhaust the possible varying patterns of temporality. The final season of Lost uses another such pattern, which has come to be called the "flashsideways" by fans. The "Oceanic six" returned to the Island in season five, where they were caught up in waves of temporal shifts and they resorted to extreme measures to try to cancel out their own past history and replace it with a timeline in which Flight 815 never crashed and, indeed, in which the work of the Dharma Initiative was annihilated thirty years before the crash. Unbeknownst to them, they succeed—or initially appear to, in that the final season alternates between the plight of the crash victims still trapped on the Island and an alternate timeline in which none of the contributing factors to the crash—going back many years—happened, and so the crash itself did not happen. In this new timeline the characters live different lives in which they face challenges that force them to confront personal weaknesses already revealed in the crash timeline, sometimes successfully overcoming them and sometimes not.

Hindy hints at the possibility of the philological flashsideways when she calls on us to "use our historical ability to understand without anachronism, our ability to imagine pasts that differ radically from our present, in order to imagine alternative futures." Here we have yet another potential frame for the philological enterprise. Its most obvious application is in "counterfactual history," in which a historical event or a text is placed in an alternate historical context different from our timeline, which new context gives us insights, for example, into the nature and transmission of the text which we would not otherwise have. This method has not been applied often in our field, but, for example, in 1994 Abraham Terian published an article that reflected wistfully on how much more attention the works of Philo would receive today had they been discovered recently like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library, and last year I published an article that explored what we could learn about the transmission of Jewish pseudepigrapha in Christian circles by following a counterfactual transmission of the Qumran Hodayot by the ancient Syriac-speaking church. In this article I also offered methodological reflections on how counterfactual history might profitably be more widely applied in the fields of ancient history and philology.

A less stark application of the flashsideways by literary critics is the widespread practice of bringing one or more ancient documents into dialogue with other documents from roughly the same time in order to enrich our understanding of these texts, even though we cannot establish that the authors ever met or knew each other's work. A good example involving one of the two documents we are here this week to study is the 1995 book by Edith Humphrey, The Ladies and the Cities: Transformation and Apocalyptic Identity in Joseph and Aseneth, 4 Ezra, The Apocalypse and the Shepherd of Hermas.

I am not aware of the flashsideways being used by any ancient documents in the Western tradition and it may be that the concept of parallel mutually counterfactual timelines was too alien to their worldview. But that said, ancient Hinduism and Buddhism has a much more supple conception of time, and it would surprise me if no texts in those traditions ever explored such notions.

As well as thanking Hindy for a very thought-provoking paper, I will conclude with two brief questions for her. First, are my reflections here anything like what you had in mind when you said that philological work may exhibit varying patterns of temporality and do you find my extended framework potentially useful? And second, do you have in mind other temporal patterns whose instantiation can enrich our philological approach?

Works Cited
James R. Davila, "Counterfactual History and the Dead Sea Scrolls," in Rediscovering the Dead Sea Scrolls: An Assessment of Old and New Approaches and Methods (ed. Maxine L. Grossman; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2010), 128-44.

Edith McEwan Humphrey, The Ladies and the Cities: Transformation and Apocalyptic Identity in Joseph and Aseneth, 4 Ezra, The Apocalypse and the Shepherd of Hermas (JSPSup 17; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995).

Abraham Terian, "Had the Works of Philo Been Newly Discovered," BA 57 (1994): 86-97.
You can read an early draft of my counterfactual history article here and a related piece here.

Also, at the Enoch Seminar a couple of people pointed out that the book of 4 Ezra arguably contains flashessideways when Ezra tells God how he ought to have done things differently, for example, in 7:46[116]:
I answered and said, "This is my first and last word, that it would have been better if the earth had not produced Adam, or else, when it had produced him, had restrained him from sinning. (RSV)
Another post on the Sixth Enoch Seminar, with photos, is here.