How the Hebrew Bible Poses Fundamental Questions About Language
From Season 3 of The Cosmic Library Podcast
The Cosmic Library explores massive books in order to explore everything else. Here, books that can seem overwhelming—books of dreams, infinity, mysteries—turn out to be intensely accessible, offering so many different ways to read them and think with them. Season one considered Finnegans Wake; in season two, it was 1,001 Nights. Season three, titled Mosaic Mosaic and premiering on April 11, journeys through and beyond the Hebrew Bible.
Subscribe and download the episode, wherever you get your podcasts!
This season, we’re rambling through and beyond a book sacred in multiple traditions, a book that keeps generating debate and commentary and tangents. It’s the Hebrew Bible, home to Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and his Ark, David and Goliath, and prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel. Here, in a season we’re calling Mosaic Mosaic, it especially prompts conversations about the mysteries of thought and language.
The novelist Joshua Cohen explains in this episode that the Hebrew Bible poses fundamental questions about language. As he puts it: “Why are there letters, actually? Why do the letters form words? This is the most basic question of the Bible.” There, language makes things happen on a grand scale. God creates the world by language, by declarations: “Let there be light.” Cohen mentions the idea that “one could create life through the combination of letters.” And in the Bible, after Adam comes to life, he gives names to things and thereby begins exploration of the world by language. Here’s Robert Alter’s translation of that scene in Genesis:
And the LORD God fashioned from the soil each beast of the field and each fowl of the heavens and brought each to the human to see what he would call it, and whatever the human called a living creature, that was its name.
The poet, translator, and MacArthur genius Peter Cole speaks of “the burden of the Bible,” which he calls a “pain in the desk chair”; yet he adds that “everything is somehow in it, but only if you use it as a tool for reflection, or a prism, so that both you and the world end up in its pages somehow, refracted by the text.” The written word can align past and present, or antiquity with you, the contemporary reader, and some sort of harmony might occasionally result. (Elisa Gabbert, speaking of poetry generally, describes in this show the experience of encountering a text that “feels like how you’re feeling.”)
At the end of our last season, on 1,001 Nights, radio host Hearty White recounted this realization: “When you’re talking about Bible stories, you’re not talking about Bible stories at all. It’s an excuse to talk about other things. It’s just a jumping off point.” Along those lines: this season, we’re starting with the Bible and jumping into explorations of language, the mind, emotions, and more.
Peter Cole is a poet and MacArthur genius whose new book, Draw Me After, will be out this fall.
Elisa Gabbert is a poet and poetry columnist with the New York Times. Her latest book, Normal Distance, will be out this fall.
Lisa Feldman Barrett is a psychologist, neuroscientist, and author of books including How Emotions Are Made.
Tom DeRose is a curator at the Freud Museum in London.
Joshua Cohen is a novelist whose books include Book of Numbers.