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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Monday, October 31, 2011

None So Discreet And Wise: A MAJOR Biblical Allusion Hidden in Plain Sight in Persuasion

Somehow, for 193 years, a _major_ Biblical allusion, hidden in plain sight in _Persuasion_ has remained completely undetected. Undetected, that is, until yesterday, when I realized that all of the following nine story elements were present not only vis a vis Anne Elliot in _Persuasion_, but also in the _very_ famous account of one of the _most_ important characters (whom I will temporarily refer to as “X”) in the Hebrew Bible:

ONE: The man in charge of a crisis situation praises X, stating for all to hear that there is “none so discreet and wise” as X in a crunch. And that is indeed borne out by the action of the story, where, time and again, X is called upon, and is trusted, by a variety of other characters, to solve complex problems that seem insoluble.

TWO: There are explicit references to a time period of _seven years_ as being the duration of a critical time---involving what the Elliots all refer to as necessary “retrenching”----after which a long period of happiness is expected to follow. X is crucially involved in the planning such retrenchment.

THREE: X’s life trajectory is perfectly described by Sir Walter Elliot’s sneering words about the Royal Navy: “bringing persons of obscure birth to undue distinction, and raising them to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never _dreamt_ of”. And, by the way, X’s father and grandfather just happen to be every bit as famous as X, because their family saga is the heart and soul of the Hebrew Bible!

FOUR: That word “dreamt” cleverly points to X more than to any other character in the Bible.

FIVE: X was the favorite of one parent, which is in no small part why X is victimized by powerful jealousy by multiple same sex siblings, which endangers X’s long term happiness; however X, by means of talent and integrity, achieves happiness in the end, including a distinct improvement in X’s family’s attitude toward X, due to X’s having achieved distinction and honours.

SIX: X is forced to leave a beloved home, and to endure a period of tribulation in a place of exile that definitely would have (if you think about the landscape of that place of exile) a “white glare”!

SEVEN: X is tempted toward a dangerous romantic relationship by an untrustworthy schemer, but X resists the temptation, even though some others believe X yielded.

EIGHT: X’s story involves shepherds and sheep.

NINE: X’s story is referred to _very_ obliquely by an allusion in _Persuasion_, an allusion never before fully understood.

I would imagine that many of you probably guessed who X was after reading Clues ONE and TWO. Of course, I am referring to Joseph, favorite son of Israel (Jacob) and grandson of Isaac; the dreamer raised by the Pharaoh to the distinction of second in command over the “white glare” of that great desert nation Egypt!

Joseph’s story is told over the course of Genesis Chapters 37-48, beginning here:

For now, I am not going to unpack all of my thoughts on the significance of this elaborate concealed allusion, beyond the general observation that there is much ore to be mined from thinking about Bath as a modern-day Egypt, and about Sir Walter as a modern-day Pharaoh (in his own mind, at least!).
But I urge those of you who haven’t read that part of the Bible to do so----it is not very long at all, and if you are interested in discerning JA’s meaning, you will want to start by reading the Joseph tales through, thinking as you go about Clues ONE through EIGHT. You will, I think, readily discern the particular passages and situations in _Persuasion_ which so strikingly mirror passages in the Joseph stories.

I will also note in passing that I have previously discerned allusions to the Hebrew Biblical Joseph in other of JA’s fictions, but none of them is anywhere close to being as significant as this one, which, it seems to me, “pierces” the heart and soul of _Persuasion_.

But, you might ask, what about Clue _NINE_? This one I only found with the help of Google Desktop, buried in a file I generated a few years ago, in regard to the following passage in _Persuasion_, when we hear Anne’s reactions to her conversations with Harville:

"For, though shy, he did not seem reserved: it had rather the appearance of feelings glad to burst their usual restraints; and having talked of poetry, the richness of the present age, and gone through a brief comparison of opinion as to the first-rate poets, trying to ascertain whether Marmion or The Lady of the Lake were to be preferred, and how ranked the Giaour and The Bride of Abydos, and moreover, how the Giaour was to be pronounced, he shewed himself so intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet, and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other…”

It turns out that Byron’s 1813 poem, The Bride of Abydos, is a portal that _also_ leads us straight to the Biblical Joseph, as the scholar Jonathan Gross explains:

“Jami's [poem, Byron’s primary source]...follows the Joseph story as told in the 13th Sura of the Koran. Punished by her Egyptian husband for seducing Yusef, Potiphar's wife defends herself in the Koran by citing Yusef's extraordinary beauty. She gains social acceptance for her actions by inviting the women of Memphis to a feast of oranges and other delicacies. When they see him, they cut their hands with a knife, distracted by his beauty. They no longer condemn Zuleika, but desire Yusef themselves. For Zuleika, loving Yusef is not sinful but redemptive, for her unrequited love leads her from pagan idolatry to monotheism. Yusef unwittingly saves Zuleika's soul by refusing her advances...[i.e.] Byron humanized the contemptible pagan seductress who appears in the Old Testament and the Aggadah. Byron [had the] intention to portray his own Zuleika as morally pure...By relying on Jami's poem, however, Byron challenged Western readers to keep Genesis and the Koran in their minds at the same time. Byron's interest in narrative complexity had the perhaps inadvertent effect of leading him to espouse cultural pluralism...”

Among other things, I think about the way a significant number of women in Persuasion—not just Anne and Louisa, but also both of Anne’s sisters, seem to find Wentworth attractive . It seems to me that JA is engaged in a very sophisticated game of multiple allusion to a layer cake of prior writings arising out of the Biblical Joseph stories, a layer cake in which Anne Elliot is, at times, a representation of the poem’s heroine Zuleika, but at others is a representation of the poem’s hero Selim, who is himself based on the Biblical and Koranic Joseph/Yusef!

And if anyone thinks that JA would not have realized that Selim was a rewriting of Joseph, and that Clue NINE is just a coincidence, I point you to the following footnote at the end of the 1813 edition of Byron’s poem published by none other than Murray (the very same man who published _Emma_ three years later!):

Note 30, page 35, line 16. “But like the nephew of a Cain.” “It is to be observed, that every allusion to any thing or personage in the Old Testament, such as the Ark, or Cain, is equally the privilege of Mussulman and Jew; indeed the former profess to be much better acquainted with the lives, true and fabulous, of the patriarchs, than is warranted by our own Sacred writ, and not content with Adam, they have a biography of Pre Adamites. Solomon is the monarch of all necromancy, and Moses a prophet inferior only to Christ and Mahomet. Zuleika is the Persian name of Potiphar's wife, and her amour with Joseph constitutes one of the finest poems in their language. It is therefore no violation of costume to put the names of Cain, or Noah, into the mouth of a Moslem.” END QUOTE

So I find it implausible that JA would not have read the published Notes to the poem that she alluded to in such a complex way, or that she’d have missed that explicit reference to the Biblical Joseph!

And finally, the 1813 publication of The Bride of Abydos occurred only a year before certain events involving Lord Byron which I also claim were the basis for another major covert allusion by JA to Byron in _Persuasion_, as I explained five months ago:

And….Jocelyn Harris, among others, has pointed out several other significance allusions to Byron in _Persuasion_. Somehow, all these covert allusions in _Persuasion_ involving Byron all mesh with one another in very interesting ways.

And with that observation, I end this post, and hope to receive some interesting responses!

Cheers, ARNIE


Lit~Lass said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lit~Lass said...

I commented to ask where the statement of seven years being the duration for the Eliot's retrenchment was, and just found it in the beginning of chapter two.

However, in its effect on Anne, I think it more relevant that the first mention of the time since the engagement was broken off is that it was "more than seven years" - rather than the eight years we usually think of.

Well, I'll have to reread the story of Joseph and think about this. Btw, it is also possible that Jane could have read Josephus' account of Joseph (which shows more interest in Potiphar's wife than the Biblical account).

To quote Wikipedia:
"However, the 1544 Greek edition formed the basis of the 1732 English translation by William Whiston which achieved enormous popularity in the English speaking world (and which is currently available online for free download by Project Gutenberg)"

Arnie Perlstein said...

Lit-Lass, I just responded to your wonderful comment with a whole new blog post--I am very eager to hear your reaction!

Cheers, ARNIE