Reflections on Barbara Smith’s Approach to Literature

In a previous post, I provided a summary and reflections on Chapter One of Barbara Smith’s On the Margins of Discourse: The Relation of Literature to Language (1978). Rather than summarizing the entire book here, I want to summarize two points which stood out to me.

First, one of the major concerns in Biblical Studies is thinking about how texts relate to history. Smith, in my opinion, offers a helpful perspective on this idea. In her view, a text’s composition, namely the time when it was actually written down, is a historically determinate event (34). Put another way, since the composition of a fictive utterance is a historical act, some of the meaning is absolutely historically determinate (138-139). A fictive utterance may be defined in contrast to a natural utterance: where a fictive utterance is usually present in imaginative works of literature like poems, tales, and drama (20), a natural utterance is a historical event, occupying a specific point in time and space (15) [1].

Elements which are historically determinate, of course, may be argued. For example, when reading Ps 29, the scribe’s poem was informed by a unique cultural library of linguistic conventions. Unfortunately, such conventions are not always evident to modern readers. As such, scholar must explore the historically determinate aspects and meanings of a Psalms by looking at other ancient Near Eastern literature in order to identify linguistic conventions and patterns. In doing so, scholars can better understand the historically determinate meaning of Ps 29, as well as other texts. Without identifying the linguistic conventions, there are errors of identification: “Errors of identification produce erroneous assumptions and bring into play inappropriate conventions. Conventions are conventions, however, and they may change over time and, under varying conditions, be alters” (141). Put another way, if we don’t understand the linguistic conventions of biblical poetry, we can’t understand the meaning of the poem that is historically determinate.

Simultaneously, though, scholars should be careful not to restrict the historically indeterminate meaning, namely the aspect of meaning which depends on the reader to bring to it life experiences and assumptions which results in the poem being “interesting” (154). This tension between historically indeterminate meaning and historically determinate mean is shown by Smith to be a spectrum. Adopting this perspective for biblical texts would be, I think, productive. Through clearly distinguishing between the types of meaning, scholars may engage with the text at two levels: the historically determinate level which informs intellectual and social knowledge and the historically indeterminate level wherein the human spirit exists and thrives.

Additionally, Smith’s “discourse” is informative regarding biblical genres on two fronts: didactic and proverbial. First, she defines proverbs as “sayings” which seem to have no known original speaker. As such, “it appears uncontaminated by ordinary human error or bias, and thus oracular” (72). Her comments indicate that proverbial sayings are unique on account of their seemingly non-human origins. Though I won’t divulge into discussion of how this perspective may impact biblical interpretation, suffice it to say that it has potential to do so.

Second, Smith discusses “didactic” in terms of poetry: “we may not say only that the line between didactic poetry and pure poetry is hazy, but that all poetry is didactic. We usually refer to a work as “didactic” when such propositions are explicitly formulated within them. But all works of literature may be seen to imply propositions, most of them not stated explicitly and many of them unstable – unspeakable – in terms of the formulated wisdom of the culture” (142). In short, poetry is all didactic. This make me think of the problematic characterization of Ps 78 and Ps 49. Both Psalms begin with remarkably similar language and style; however, they differ in terms of content. Ps 49 does what Smith comments on what is typically called “didactic” poetry: it is explicit concerning wisdom. By contrast, the content of Ps 78 takes a narrative form, the propositions not stated explicitly. On account of the distinction between the content of Ps 78 and Ps 49, there is not much consensus concerning the relationship between the texts. By employing Smith’s approach to didactic poems, though, it may provide a more productive way of thinking about their relationship. Moreover, it may provide a more productive way of thinking about biblical poetry generally.

[1] It is important to note that a natural utterance may also be written, namely an inscription. In an inscription, a natural utterance is performed upon reading it because the inscription, like a personal letter, is a historically unique verbal event, analogous to a speaker in discourse (20).