Struggling with Disaster—and Language—in the Hebrew Bible
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.
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From the book of Genesis on, the Hebrew Bible presents a struggle with language: a struggle to establish meaning, to figure out the right uses of words, to understand one’s place in the world. The famous early scene of struggle in the Hebrew Bible, Jacob’s wrestling match with the divine, goes as follows in the King James translation:
Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.
And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh.
And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.
And he said unto him, What is thy name?
As Peter Cole says, “The release from that one struggle, and the blessing, only comes with a knowledge of names.” Even this physical wrestling match becomes a matter of language, then.
Struggles with outright disaster generate language quests, too. Elisa Gabbert elaborates on disaster poetry in this episode, especially on the subject of W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” She says: “It reminds you how much text there is in a poem. It’s wild.” She describes a proliferating kind of irony that radiates possibilities in so many directions, to which poetry might grant access.
Find more from Elisa Gabbert on Auden’s poem here.
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.