Translating the Language of Love

Q&A

Published November 14, 2007, issue of November 16, 2007.
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When Verónica Albin read Forward contributor Ilan Stavans’s “Dictionary Days” (Graywolf Press, 2005), she was stricken by the chapter in which he described looking up the word “love” in standard dictionaries in various languages and finding out, to his surprise, that each culture defines the term in divergent ways. Soon after, she convinced Stavans to engage in a yearlong series of interviews about how the concept of love varies from one culture to another, and from one period in history to the next. The result of that encounter is “Love and Language,” which Yale University Press is publishing this season. Often intertwining autobiographical passages, Stavans reflects on romantic, metaphysical, fraternal and patriotic love, as well as on pornography. The following is an excerpt on eroticism in the Bible and Kabbalah.

Verónica Albin: You believe t here’s a particular type of Jewish love that starts in the Bible and mutates as Jews navigate though their diasporas. Let’s talk about erotic love.

Ilan Stavans: It’s important to keep in mind that from Adam and Eve on, though, sexual encounters in the Bible are described tangentially, as means of reproduction. The liaison of the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the four matriarchs, Sarah, Leah, Rachel and Rivkah, are consistently about the duty to be paired and multiply.

The Bible does make exceptions, most importantly the Shir ha-Shirim, which the King James Version calls the Song of Songs, also known as the Canticle of Canticles. It contains some of the most beautiful verses in the Bible, but they are puzzling. Early Jewish and Christian scholars attempted to explain them by agreeing that these verses couldn’t possibly depict worldly love. But are they about eroticism?

To answer, I first need to talk about the process of canonization of the Bible. There were books left out of the Old and New Testaments. Within those included, there is a handful of them that take an alternative narrative pattern. The Book of Job, for instance. The vast majority of biblical tales aren’t about a single character — not even a patriarch like Abraham, Isaac or Jacob — but about their genealogy. The one on Job has an unusually modern approach. It’s Kafkaesque avant la lettre in that it chronicles the inner life of an average dweller victimized by the Almighty. The character of Satan makes a small but fateful appearance, which is an anachronism in a text pushing its monotheistic message. But anachronisms abound in the Bible. The Song of Songs is a suitable example. As you suggested, it has been portrayed as an allegory of the love of the Almighty for the people of Israel. But allegory is no longer an attractive way to solve the enigma. Contemporary critics believe that the references to King Solomon were an afterthought, added in order to explain, even to rationalize, his role. It appears, based on the style and cadence, that the poems were written half a century after Solomon’s reign, quite possibly by numerous hands and editorially with a unifying motif. In short, this appears to be an anthology of erotic poetry manipulated so as to make it into the canon.

VA: Solomon, it is said, had 700 wives and 300 concubines.

IS: His sexual life, then, fits well in the context. That is why in the King James Version, the text is called The Song of Solomon. In any case, metaphor takes us only that far. To modern readers, the literal meaning of the biblical narrative is unavoidable. It’s true that the verses are an example of indirect, poetic language. But they are about earthly encounters, no doubt. The following lines are from cants 1:2-3:

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth:
for thy love is better than wine.
Because of the savour of thy good ointments
thy name is as ointment poured forth,
therefore do the virgins love thee.

Or else, cants 4:6:

Awake, O north wind;
and come, thou south;
blow upon my garden,
that the spices thereof may flow out.
Let my beloved come into his garden,
and eat his pleasant fruit.

The King James’s translators insert titles into the chapters, making arbitrary references to a bride, a bridegroom, and their marriage, separation and reunion. The material isn’t about marriage but about erotic encounters, their ups and downs. The imagery couldn’t be more visual, as in cants 5:4, 5 and 6:

My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door,
and my bowels were moved for him.
I rose up to open to my beloved;
and my hands dropped with myrrh,
and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh,
upon the handles of the lock.

I opened to my beloved;
but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone:
my soul failed when he spake:
I sought him, but I could not find him;
I called him, but he gave me no answer.

Cants 8:6 and 7 offer the leitmotif of love being stronger than death:

Set me as a seal upon thine heart,
as a seal upon thine arm:
for love is strong as death;
jealousy is cruel as the grave:
the coals thereof are coals of fire,
which hath a most vehement flame.

Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can the floods drown it:
if a man would give all the substance of his house for love,
it would utterly be condemned?

In using subterfuges, the poem delves into scenes of passion and torment. Jealousy plays a role in the lovers’ encounter. The act of finding and missing each other — the lovers are at times described as brother and sister — gives the narrative its pathos.

The Song of Songs is typical of the genre called epithalamia, written in ancient times by Pindar, Catullus and Sappho, who was called by Plato “the tenth muse.” In 1595, one sees it again in Edmund Spenser’s “Epithalamion,” written to celebrate his own marriage. An epithalamion is a ritual song, and it has an element of sacred magic about it; it becomes itself a kind of wedding rite. The name is derived from the Greek words epi (on, upon) and thalamos (room, bridal chamber), and the ancient examples of the genre were designed to be sung in the threshold of the bridal chamber. In terms of form, they often use a refrain or repetition. In terms of theme, they are full of classical allusions — especially to Juno, the goddess of childbearing, and Hymen, the god of marriage. Of the many conventions available to these poets, we find the consummation of the marriage as a harvest, the defloration of the bride as strife and the warding off of malevolent forces to be among the most common ones. There’s John Donne’s “Epithalamion Made at Lincoln’s Inn.” Canonical forms are designed to be revamped, to be messed around with. Cervantes revamped the novela caballeresca, and Donne the epithalamia. Lincoln’s Inn was a law school where Donne was enrolled for several years. The students, all male, had raucous celebrations where they played the roles of the bride and groom, so many scholars think that the “Epithalamion Made at Lincoln’s Inn” is a parody of the genre.

VA: Do you recall when you first read the Song of Songs?

IS: I don’t. It was probably in Hebrew, although I remember it best in Spanish.

VA: Didn’t Fray Luis de León translate it?

IS: Yes. In the 16th century, Fray Luis de León, a child of conversos and an Augustine monk, devoted part of his career to a Spanish translation of the Song of Songs. And was imprisoned for it. In March 1572, the Holy Office of the Inquisition had him arrested and sent to the dungeons in Valladolid. There were many reasons why Fray Luis may have been closely watched. The first was his Jewish ancestry. He must have been put under especially heavy surveillance when it became known not only that he had Jewish blood, but also that he preferred the Hebrew Bible over the Vulgate. Imprisonment was swift not because it was the Song of Songs per se that he had translated, but because the Council of Trent forbade the translation of sacred texts, any sacred texts, into vulgar tongues. Like Joseph K., the protagonist of Kafka’s “The Trial,” Fray Luis was kept in a cell for five years without being notified of the charges. He wrote his best poems in it, such as this one about God’s love:

Aquí la envidia y la mentira
me tuvieron encerrado.
Dichoso el humilde estado
del sabio que se retira
de aqueste mundo malvado,
y con pobre mesa y casa
en el campo deleitoso
con sólo Dios se compasa,
y a solas su vida pasa,
ni envidiado ni envidioso.

An English translation by Thomas Walsh:

Lo, where envy and where lies
Held me in the prison cell:
Blessed was the lot that fell
To the humble and the wise
Far from earth’s chagrins to dwell;
Who with thatch and homely fare
Rests him in some sylvan spot,
Lone with God abiding there,
And none else his thought to share,
Envying none, and envied not.

VA: What about eroticism in the Kabbalah?

IS: The mystical tradition in Judaism is replete with erotic imagery. Not accidentally was it proscribed from the mainstream. Kabbalists are often portrayed as obsessive types, focusing on the connection between the human body and the universe. The power and structure of the 10 Sephiroth, with their Neoplatonic function of emanating energy, are supposedly designed to produce orgasmic joy when in perfect equilibrium. And the encounter between the male part of the divine and its female counterpart, known as the Shekhinah, also has a sexual component. In the Zohar, written apocryphally in Spain by Moisés de León (it was actually credited to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zachai), the suggestion is made that these two parts shall remain separate as long as the people of Israel, their child, remains in exile. The Shekhinah accompanies its child until its return to the Promised Land takes place once and for all. In short, the cosmos for Jewish mystics is a playing field of erotic forces.


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