Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Tales in contention: dialogic narration in David

Robert Alter (The David Story) offers an interesting gloss on the contradictory narratives of chapters 16 and 17 of 1 Samuel. In 16, he says, Saul is introduced to David who is young, and musical, and David becomes part of his household, helping keep bad spirits at bay. In 17, David slays Goliath, and Saul asks "Whose son is the lad?"

Here's Alter:
What we need to ask, however, is why the redactor set these two stories in immediate sequence, despite the contradictions that must have been as evident to him as to us. A reasonable conclusion is that for the ancient audience, and for the redactor, these contradictions would have been inconsequential in comparison with the advantage gained in providing a double perspective on David...

In the Bible ... the variants of a single story are sometimes placed in a kind of implicit dialogue* with one another (compare the two accounts of creation at the beginning of Genesis). Here, in the first, vertically oriented story, with its explicit instructions from God to man, David is emphatically elected by God, is assiociated with the spirit and with song, and gains entree in the court of Saul by using song to master the spirit. In the second story, with its horizontal deployment in space, David makes his way into Saul's presence through martial prowess, exhibiting shrewdness, calculation, and rhetorical skill. (fn. 55 p. 110-11)
One might note that neither story is very "historical" in tone - there's the sacred plan of God spelled out in the first, and the folktale nature of David the giant slayer in the second: the stories don't clash merely on the level of "fact" or "events," but also on the level of genre, the kind of story being told. This multiplication of source is of course typical of the book we call the Bible --the "book of books." Also noteworthy is how many paired, doubled tales are told. Think of the deaths of Saul (there are two), the stories of David having Saul in his power (in the cave and in the camp).

As Alter notes, both in the creation stories of Genesis and in the introduction of David, it is the second, horizontal tale that leads to the "history" that follows:
Interestingly it is this folk-tale version of David's debut rather than the theological one that will lead directly into the historical (or at least, historylike) narrative of David's rise and David's reign.
*Alter here seems to be drawing on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin who developed the idea that literary works, indeed language itself, may be inherently "dialogical," a rich and difficult concept that seems closely linked to the unfolding of speech in time. A couple of pointers:

  • His theory of dialogism is focused on the idea that culture, or even existence itself, is inherently responsive, involving individuals acting at a particular point in time and space, in reaction to what has gone and before and in expectation of what is to follow. 
  • The dialogic work carries on a continual dialogue with other works of literature and other authors. It does not merely answer, correct, silence, or extend a previous work, but informs and is continually informed by the previous work. Dialogic literature is in communication with multiple works. This is not merely a matter of influence, for the dialogue extends in both directions, and the previous work of literature is as altered by the dialogue as the present one is. In this sense, Bakhtin's "dialogic" is analogous to T. S. Eliot's ideas in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," where he holds that "the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past." [1]

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