The Human Zoo
Some years ago, I had the pleasure of sponsoring for publication at the University of California Press Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky's book Risk and Culture. As the collaboration of a British anthropologist and a California political scientist, this work made a number of fascinating juxtapositions. One of these began with the dictum of Lucien Lutvy-Bruhl (author of books like How Natives Think and Primitive Mentality) that the essence of modernity is the concept of natural death—that is, a death of which no one is guilty. From that conceptual breakthrough, the French anthropologist argued, the mind can move forward to a worldview in which a great deal "just happens" and finally to the fully scientific, terminally secular worldview in which no one, ultimately, can be either blamed or credited for anything.
Just how powerfully the mind, even at the high tide of modernity, resists accepting such a world, a world of results without intentions, the authors illustrated by contrasting between the speed with which Californians could mobilize against an unlikely peril like nuclear accident and the tardiness of their mobilization against a virtually certain peril like earthquake. What made for the difference? It was that someone at Pacific Gas & Electric could be held guilty of a meltdown at Point Diablo, while no one could be held guilty of even an eight-point earthquake. The human being, even in a time and place like late-twentieth-century California, where all traditions are broken down, remains predisposed to fight first against an identifiable human enemy and, by way of corollary, to personalize any misfortune, however impersonal it might seem. This can't have just happened to me, we feel, whatever our minds tell us; someone must be doing this to me. Or to reverse Rocky Graziano's immortal title, Somebody Up There Hates Me.
Alicia Ostriker's "Psalm and Anti-Psalm," recognizing so much of this, has the same strength that made her book The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions such a gristly read. The book dealt with stories. The essay, since it deals with poems and she is a poet, engages her perhaps even more intensely. In either case, Ostriker grasps exceptionally well the extent to which the Hebrew Scriptures owe their hold on our imagination to the way they exhibit the wild primitive who lives on in every tame modern. In this regard, they are like a visit to a human zoo.
"Happy is he who shall dash your children on the rock," to quote her translation of a verse from Psalm 137, is a politically incorrect sentiment, but the Book of Psalms preserves it, opening a space in which something so culturally forbidden can come to permitted expression. At least it can do so in private reading. The worst (or, if you will, the best) examples of this kind of poetic power are rarely read aloud in either church or synagogue.
As I write, American and British armies are advancing on Baghdad. The adversarial moment is perfect for prayer by way of the Psalms, for it is a rare Psalm in which the Psalmist does not mention a human adversary. Modern believers are accustomed to pray for God's help chiefly in such un-adversarial or barely adversarial matters as marital or economic distress, substance abuse, the special needs of children, and, perhaps most often, physical and mental disease. The Psalmist almost never lays any of these problems before the throne of God. The evils (not problems) he faces wear a leering, snarling human face. He is a victim; and behind his victimhood, there is a human perpetrator. God's rescue, as the Psalmist imagines it, will consist of apprehending and punishing or at least foiling this perpetrator.
In many (not quite all) Psalms, the innocent victimhood of the Psalmist is a literary given, a kind of trope. One must accept it as one accepts the boyish goodness of David in David Copperfield or the Psalm simply stalls out like a car without gasoline. But back when the Psalms were written, was the Psalmist so innocent as all that? A nun who taught me in third grade made us memorize the jingle:
There's a little bit of good in the worst of us,
And a little bit of bad in the best of us,
So it ill behooves any of us
To talk about the rest of us.
No sentiment could be more remote than that one from the spirit of the Psalms. How does the Psalmist lay claim to his perfect innocence? I submit that his is an innocence by association. Would a guilty man dare to call on God for help? Surely not! Accordingly, if the Psalmist does so, then he must be an innocent man—or an innocent woman, though, as Ostriker notes, the Psalms fairly reek of masculinity. Innocence is conferred by the act of beseeching to have one's innocence rescued. Association with God absolves from sin and, by tacit extension, makes any redress that the plaintiff might make with his own drawn sword as innocent as God's own intervention.
This mechanism, too, is both deeply primitive and terrifyingly alive in our own day. Arthur Koestler once wrote, "The altruism of the individual is the egoism of the group." The armed and divinely guaranteed innocence of the individual again and again has become the malevolence of the group. Though modernity empowers, indeed requires, each individual to say of himself, as if to quote God speaking to Moses, "I am who I am," the impulse to believe otherwise is extremely powerful. Who, hoping for a job or an award, has not been told "It isn't what you know, it's who you know." Am I who I am who I know? Am I what I have achieved or simply the creature of the patronage I can command? Watch how people smile when they meet the famous, the powerful, or even the very wealthy. Emerson may never have been more modern, more advanced, than in his "Self-Reliance," but he was announcing an ideal, not describing the real. The reality is something closer to: "Before you pick a fight with me, pal, let me tell you something: God is a personal friend of mine." Ludwig Feuerbach was not wrong to regard this mechanism as self-alienating. His mistake was rather in supposing that if God were left behind, the mechanism would disappear. We may fight it (we should, we do), but we know it too well.
There is more in the Psalms than this, and more still in the Hebrew Scriptures as a whole. There is much indeed to love in the Psalms, but Ostriker has done a service (and an anti-service) by speaking of why she cannot quite justify her own love for them.
Jack Miles is author of, God: A Biography, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1996. His second book, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2002. Miles was named a MacArthur Fellow for 2003-2007 and is currently senior advisor to the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust.
Citation: Jack Miles, " The Human Zoo," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited April 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=142