Alter on Parallelism

Biblical Studies Nov 04, 2009

Because I’m a truly diligent student, I found myself in desperate need of some extra credit for Biblical History and Poetry class. My professor (who is a precious man of God, and truly an example to me) offered The Art of Biblical Poetry by Robert Alter. In it, Alter make the following argument in the opening chapter:

But the recognition of such repetition in biblical verse has unfortunately led to a view of it as essentially a system for the deployment of synonyms or, as it is sometimes put, “thought-rhythms.” A characteristic expression of this prevalent understanding of parallelism is the following observation by R.H. Robinson in a standard handbook on biblical poetry: “So the poetry goes back to the beginning again, and says the same thing once more, though he may partly or completely change the actual words to avoid monotony.” This view has not gained in conviction by being recast conceptually with the apparatus of more recent intellectual trends, as one can see from a lively and ultimately misconceived description of the mechanism in Structuralist terms by Ruth apRobets in an article entitled “Old Testament Poetry: The Translatable Structure.” She proposes that biblical poetry has proved so remarkable translatable because self-translation is the generative principle within the text itself, the way one verset leads to the next, and thus the clear manifestation of the “deep structure” of the text. What this and all the conceptions of biblical parallelism as synonymity assume is a considerable degree of stasis within the poetic lines: an idea or image or action is evoked in the first verset; then forward movement in the poetic discourse is virtually suspended while the same idea, image, or action is rerun for the patient eye of the beholder, only tricked out in somewhat different stylistic finery. What I should like to propose, and this is the one respect in which my own understanding of the phenomenon is close to James Krugel’s, is that a diametrically opposite description of the system –namely, an argument for dynamic movement from one verset to the next– would be much closer to the truth, much closer to the way the biblical poets expected audiences to attend their words.

Literature, let me suggest, from the simplest folktale to the most sophisticated poetry and fiction and drama, thrives on parallelism, both stylistic and structural, on small scale and large, and could not give its creation satisfying shape without it. But it is equally important to recognize that literary expressions abhors complete parallelism, just as language resists true synonymity, usage always introducing small wedges of difference between closely akin terms. This general principle was nicely formulated early in the century by the Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky in “Art as Technique,” an essay that has proved to be one of the seminal texts of modern literary theory: “The perception of disharmony in a harmonious context is important in parallelism. The purpose of parallelism, like the general purpose of imagery, is to transfer the usual perception of an object into the sphere of a new perception –that is, to make a unique semantic modification. ” What I should like to suggest in the case of the semantic parallelism on which so many lines or biblical verse are constructed is that, with all the evident and at times almost extravagant repetition of elements of meaning from one verset to the next, “semantic modifications” of the sort Shklovsky has in mind are continually occurring. This operation was nicely perceived two centuries ago by J. G. Herder in a response to Bishop Lowth’s path-breaking theory, but scholarship by and large was sadly neglected Herder’s observation that “the two [parallel] members strengthen, heighten, empower each other.”

Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Poetry. PP. 9-11


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