We see and display form, but though name is hidden, it is what we live. And the interaction of this dichotomy demonstrates that dicey region known as subtext.
For you men reading this, when your wife tells you something is, “fine,” understand that you have just been enrolled in Subtext 101, and “fine” means “change immediately or start uncramping your fingers in preparation for signing the divorce papers.”
I’ve been reading Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext, and I’ve seen a parallel between his commentary and Biblical interpretation. I will reproduce a (heavily edited) portion of his manuscript, and then we will examine a few of these links. And, as always, please read the original book to avoid being hemmed in by my inescapable biases.
For years I was puzzled by the phenomena of airport reading. What baffled me was the narrowness of the selection – Tom Clancy and Danielle Steel.
The techno-political thriller and the romance novel are similar in their preoccupation with procedural issues related to material objects. They have no interest in using dramatic means to reveal character and the inner life. Instead, they provide materially determined hypernarratives that aim to reduce the scale of human beings in relation to the things that surround them.
Tom Clancy presents details of military hardware, hierarchies of power and a loose cannon to set the plot into motion, destabilizing things-as-they-are. The writing locates the characters quickly but characterizes the hardware at length, which usually takes on the sex appeal that the characters lack. The only element left in doubt is the outcome of the plot, not the vagaries of human nature. The characteristic resolution is a return to the status quo, with the addition of a new regulatory agency.
In a romance novel the exotic location and the details of material wealth eventually lead the reader to an understanding of who is profitably to be paired off with whom. Here it is clothing, sex appeal, accessories, the sovereignty of riches, location, physical attributes and lifestyle. The characteristic resolution is a marriage and the displacement of a threatening female figure, usually to a cemetery.
In both kinds of novels, things are celebrated and given an aura. They absolutely oppose ongoing mystery and the unknowable. They leave little to the imagination to reconstruct. There is a knowingness about objects thought to be valuable, along with a fascination with technique, the exact way to do something properly – be it making love, mixing a martini or firing off a torpedo.
They are antidotes to the imagination rather than stimulants to it. For this reason they make effective airport reading – they shut down the imagination. They leave the spirit or the soul out of the equation. They perform a useful service to the anxious air traveler by reducing their ability to speculate. People flying would rather not use their speculative imaginations at all.
Materially determined hypernarratives. I’m so wishing I’d written that!
Let me begin by immediately throwing it out there that believers in Christ are the travelers. Whether it is death, the rapture or some other motivator, they are the ones preparing for a journey. As the words of the hymn go, “I’ll fly away, Oh Glory! I’ll fly away.” Or, as the more modern acronymic song states, “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (BIBLE).”
Like any air traveler, we are anxious. We don’t want to speculate. And so the tendency is to reduce the Word of God into a techno-political romance as an antidote to our imagination. We have the struggle between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdoms of the Earth. We have the weapons of this warfare: prayer, fasting, scripture reading, lies, theft and fear to mention just a few. We have the loose cannon:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the beasts that the Lord God had made.
And he sets about destabilizing things-as-they-are.
We also have the exotic location, for what could be more exotic than heaven? We have the wealth:
The foundations of the wall of the city are decorated with every kind of jewel and gem…and the city streets are pure gold.
We also have the marriage:
Let us rejoice and be glad and give God the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.
And we even have the threatening female figure that ends up in a cemetery!
I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast and on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of harlots and the abominations of the Earth” Her plagues will come upon her in a single day, and she will be burned with fire.
Our church or TV channel becomes our regulatory agency, delivering the laws we need to follow in order to defeat this loose cannon, be it avoiding cigarettes or swearing off processed sugar. Unlike other novels, the words themselves become the things of value and the knowingness is then applied to these words. The result is a plethora of commentaries and apologetics that are designed to remove all of the mystery. And as for a fascination with technique! If you start making a pile of the 12 Steps to a Better Prayer Life and Fasting Demystified and Sabbath or Sunday Worship and Obtain Your Healing books available, you’ll soon lose sight of them in the clouds. And thus the Spirit and soul are soon left out of the equation.
I’m not dissing apologetics or prayer books or theologies, but I am condemning the idea of becoming comfortable in your understanding. We are told in the scriptures that eternal life IS the pursuit of understanding God (“And this is eternal life, that you might know him…”), yet we’ll walk around in a temerity of knowledge as if we have already obtained.
Just remember that the Words are form. This is the reason I dismiss context. Context places its hope on form, and subtext is lost. And that’s a shame, because in a relationship it is imperative to know the subtext when you are told things are “fine.” As Paul tells the Thessalonians:
The Day of the Lord will not come until there is a divorce and the lawless one is revealed.
One thought on “Reading Between the Lines”
Dismiss context?! Forswear it, sight!
I would argue that subtext severed from context is almost fully meaningless. They work in tandem, always. “I’m fine” in the context of having just fallen down the stairs has a very different potential subtext than “I’m fine” in the context of having just slammed the cupboard doors for no apparent reason. Unless, of course, you are standing laughing over me in both situations, in which case the context changes again, and the subtext shifts accordingly. I love context because it gives a foundation for all the other -texts. And look how even the words like each other with their samey endings. Con-text, sub-text – clearly these two are made for each other. They hold hands and everything.
This becomes even more important when we deal with texts that were written years ago – our societal context now is different, and if we lack knowledge regarding the context of the time a work was written in, we risk losing valuable information that affects the subtext. For example, in Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, a very pivotal scene is only pivotal to the reader if they understand that in the context of James’ time, a gentleman standing while a lady was seated intimated intimacy (yeah, I did that). So, when Isabel Archer enters the room and sees her husband standing while her “friend” stays seated on the couch, she instantly knows the subtext that these two have a romantic past. As readers, we only get to see and understand that subtext if we also know why a man standing is significant. Otherwise, it seems to us like a fairly innocuous situation that Isabel overreacts to. (Or we sit, flipping desperately through the pages mumbling, “Where did it say that happened?”) In a similar vein, meanings and norms change as society changes – think of Hamlet yelling at his friends that he is going to kill anyone who “lets” him talk to the ghost of his murdered father. “Let” used to mean “stop,” and it is important to know this, otherwise Hamlet seems truly insane rather than just playing it. “I’m doing it and if you try to let me I’ll kill you” is very different from “I’m doing it and if you try to stop me I’ll kill you.”
When we dismiss context, we run the risk of reading everything literally, and that is a truly terrifying thought. Literal readings of a book as complex, mystifying and beautiful as the Bible destroy my brain and make me want to scream. Subtext, working with context (not in place of or replaced by) allows for a deeper and truer understanding.
That said, the rest of this post was groovy. I enjoyed it all the way to my toes.