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Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Communing with the Divine: a Trawloolway man reads the Song of Songs

    A reading of country

As regularly as I can, I venture into lonely forest walks around the coastal settlement of Bridport in NE Tasmania. Whilst I have no illusions about the flora and fauna bearing much relation to that of a time prior to European annexation, I nevertheless take great comfort in walking there, in following the contoured rise and fall of land and sea and communing with my pairebeenener ancestors as I do so.

I use the word 'commune' deliberately. For that is what happens when I walk. Something of myself flows into the ancestral aliveness of land and sea; the ancestral community - she or he or they - are changed by my presence, the specificity of my body in space and time, my odour and breath, my breathing and the soundings I make by sensual contact and by vocalisation.  And something of that aliveness flows into whomever I am, also. The shape and form of sea and land as he leads me toward secret grottos and streams; her breathy, salty atmosphere caressing eye and ear and skin; the sounds made by wind and sea as they flow around ancient trees and rockscapes; the thud and thump of furry kin as they pad their way, unseen, across the forest floor: a sign and a promise of occasionally more fulsome encounter, face to face.  By this communion, this asymmetrical exchange of greater and lesser selves, we are both changed. The ancestral landscape is enlarged to account for and address myself, my presence, my unique haecceitas. And I, myself, become 'all flame', as Abba Lot would have it, an instance in one time and place of the ancestral fire who inhabits and animates all times and places; a moment of rejoicing in which the ancestral song becomes a single singer; an instance, a momentary fluctuation, by which the ancestral ocean becomes a single ebb or flow of tidal movement.  In this communion I find, momentarily at least, some kind of healing, an ointment to sooth and to seal all the scars that I carry, in body and in mind. But the healing is far from complete. It is incremental and partial. It is real, it is effective; but it is unmasterable. It gives itself certainly, but only as a gift; it will not obey any law of necessity, annexation or measured exchange I might try to impose from the colonial imagination.

The ancestor I commune with has a name but cannot be fully and finally named with this name. The name I know, the name that has survived, is Moinee. Moinee is the creator-ancestor most widely invoked and revered by my people. He is the wombat-ancestor who initiated the formation of the land of lutruwita or Tasmania which, of course, is alive with the presence of many other ancestors as well. Amongst the lesser ancestors is Parlevar the kangaroo, the totem of my particular clan, the one on whom the first palawa or human beings were modelled, albeit with significant modifications. Both Moinee and Parlevar still appear to us in their animal forms: they are concretely and unmistakably there whenever we stand face-to-face with our sister wombat or brother kangaroo. And the times when I have done so over the years, the moments in which some kind of inarticulate conversation can be said to have taken place, are truly the most joyful and the most holy of my life. So, I know with whom I commune. And yet I do not know.

For really it is clear that the wombat and the kangaroo, for all their magnificence, are a lot like you or me: unique moments, instances, expressions or substitutes who are what they are because some greater life or power animates them and puts them in play. That life or power can clearly be named or even gendered in particular instances. Likewise, it can be communed with through the mediation of particular forms or material events in country, air or seascape. But can the Thou with whom we commune be named as she or he is, in his or her own being? Can she be named, as it were, comprehensively, without remainder or doubt, in her time beyond a particular time and her place beyond a particular place? Can he be named, as Jean-Luc Marion would have it, in her divinity beyond being? Not really. For every name is, as Jacques Derrida has taught us, a trace or cipher for an identity that is, in the fullness of its self-revelation, neither fully here nor fully now. 'Now we see in part and we know in part', said the Apostle Paul, 'as through a glass darkly'.  The time for knowing God's identity, as we are fully known by God, has not yet arrived.  We do not even know who Christ is, or we ourselves in Christ, not completely. Not comprehensively.  What we do know is that the name we do know evokes in us a desire or a longing to know more fully. Thus, the quintessentially eschatological season of Advent which some of us are trying to honour as we speak.

    A reading of the Song of Songs

The themes I've developed through my reading of ancestral country may also be found in the Hebrew Bible's Song of Songs. After all, the divine is never comprehensively named in the poem, not even as YWH, that most elusive and eschatological of names for God in the Jewish canon. Yet, if the poem is read within its thoroughly canonical religious context and the history of its reception by both Jews and Christians, this poem about the longing of the 'Shulamite' for her lover may also be legitimately read as a celebration of the communion between human beings and the divine as it is mediated by the particularity of landscape or country.

Let's first talk about landscape or country. The poem is full of phrases which describe the lovers' bodies as features of a cultivated landscape or else as the fauna that inhabits that landscape. Here are some examples:

My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of En-gedi. (1.14)

As an apple tree amongst the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow and his fruit was sweet to my taste (2.3) 

Arise my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past and the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance.  Arise my love, my fair one, and come away. O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet and your face is lovely (2.10-14)

How beautiful you are my love, how very beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead . . . Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil . . . Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lillies. (4.1,3b, 5) 

In my view, the landscape imagery of the poem is very often so dense and entangled that it is sometimes difficult for the reader to determine what image is standing in for what reality. Are the lover's breasts, for example, the reality for which twin gazelles are a signifier, or is the reality the gazelles and the lover's breasts their signifier?  Paul Ricouer, for his part, has argued that the intensity of these metaphors has the effect of dissociating the metaphorical network from its support in concrete materiality. This also means that the various characters or voices in the poem come to stand in for one another so echolalicly that it is often difficult to discern who is lover and who is beloved and who, indeed, are the friends who apparently discuss their love.

The poem is, in fact, laden to the brim with such signs of indetermination. Here are just a few:

(1) Pieces of dialogue often appear to include quotations from someone other than
the one who is speaking, with the result that it is difficult to identify the speaker
(1.4b, 1.8, 2.1, 6.10). 

(2) There are several dream-sequences that present a similar problem. Is the shepherd dreaming of being a king? (3.6-11). Is the Shulamite dreaming of being a peasant woman? (5.2-8), or is it the other way around? Or, are all these figures quite distinct from one another in the body?  

(3) There are evocations of memory that intertwine with the present in such a way
that it is difficult to tell which is which. The mother figure returns again and again in 1.6, 3.4, 3.11, 6.9, 8.1, and 8.4, but whose mother is she? Or is she the beloved as a younger woman? 

(4) The seven ‘scenes’ often referred to by commentators are said to begin with lover or beloved searching for each other, and to end with a consummation when they find each other. But these alleged ‘consummations’ are very difficult to find, in fact, because they are sung with a sense of longing rather than recounted with any sense of material gravity or traction. These features suggest that the Song is not a narrative in which characters can be readily identified, but a poem that explores the very formation of identity. The poem often asks the question ‘who?’ but the question is never entirely answered.

From the very beginning, the poem has been read as an allegory of divine human love. While the poem is certainly erotic in character, describing the mutual desire of a woman and her lover in radically fleshly ways, the canonical fathers and mothers clearly did not see the flesh, or erotic love, as somehow unworthy of God or God’s people. That this is so might appear to be something of an oddity when one considers that Judaism and Christianity alone, amongst all the ancient religions, appeared to have no sacred rites of a sexually explicit nature. Julia Kristeva explains this by reference to an analogy with the biblical canon as a whole. The Song of Songs imagines the desire of God as a desire without consummation. There is no love-making at the maternal hearth in this erotic poem. Therefore, the Song, as with the canon as a whole, imagines God as one who loves, and is desired by human beings, but who remains absent, or not entirely present. Desire is not finally consummated, and so remains desire.

Following Origen, who said that it is the ‘movements of love’ in the Song which are more important than the identity of its characters, Ricoeur argues for an interpretation of the Song in which the ‘nuptial’ metaphor for the relations between the lovers is ‘liberated’ from a purely human reference. The Greek paradigm of erotic love tended to see the point of sexual entanglement as a means of ecstatic escape from the body into some kind of self-less and unconscious communion with the divine One. But that is not what is happening in the Song of Songs. There the profound play of desire in the possession and dispossession of selves suggests, instead, a view of love that is transcendent and yet powerfully incarnational at the same time.  What happens here is not a doing away with the properly sexual reference but rather its putting on hold or suspension; this then effects a freeing of the whole metaphorical network of nuptiality for other embodied ‘investments and divestments.’ That possibility is further enhanced by the radical mobility of identification between the partners of the amorous dialogue, a mobility that smacks of the ‘substitution’ of one ancestral instance or character for another, as I propose above in my reading of country.

On this basis, Kristeva argues that the lover in the Song can be legitimately interpreted as the cipher for an absent or incorporeal God who is nevertheless made available to the human beloved in ritual, as well as in the very ordinary landscape of human life. Supreme authority, whether it be royal or divine, can be loved as flesh while remaining essentially inaccessible; the intensity of love comes precisely from that combination of received jouissance and taboo, from a basic separation that nevertheless unites—that is what love issued from the Bible signifies for us, most particularly in its later form, as celebrated in the Song of Songs.

Of course, that reading would only be possible if one were to read the Song in its canonical context as a book of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. But that is what it is! In that context, one can see how it is that the appearance of God in the materiality of the burning bush of Exodus 3 might be amplified in the Song to include lover’s bodies and whole landscapes. Furthermore, Richard Kearney has made the important point that a canonical reading of the Song would also be an eschatological reading. In this view, the love between the Shulamite and her lover looks both back to Eden’s innocence and forward to a time when God and human beings will gaze upon each other ‘face to face’. Citing Rabbi Hayyim de Volozhyn (19th century), Kearney points out that the Song is filled with eschatological imagery. 5.1 speaks of love as entering a garden filled with milk and honey, an image of the Promised Land. Similarly, the kiss of 1.2 might be read as the promise that one day the revelations of God will be given mouth to mouth and face-to-face, rather than through the mediations of angel, fire, or ritual. Such eschatology is subversive, according to Kearney, for it makes the powerful erotic charge of the poem into something more than (but still including) the erotic. If this is the case, then our received understandings of both God and desire are transformed. Law-based understandings of both God and the obedience of God are swept aside in order to say that ‘burning, integrated, faithful, untiring desire—freed from social or inherited perversions—is the most adequate way for saying how humans love God and God loves humans. It suggests how human and divine love may transfigure one another.’

I would add, of course, that all of this erotic and eschatological charge is ignited in landscape, in country and in waterway; and that precisely because human selves come from ancestral country and are instances of the ancestral that are embedded in country, that we are most ourselves as human beings when we commune with the divine by communing with country. Country is like God, in that it cannot be possessed or domesticated, used or even finally and comprehensively named. Country is like the Christ of God, whose life is poured out for us and for our salvation only insofar as we are able to respect and treasure the gift, and take it to our hearts, and love it with all the power that country so generously provides. 


I suppose this means that I belong, also, to the school of Job as Mark has described it in chapter 8 of his book. Mark understands Job as a more fluid and poetic version of the Priestly Triteuch, which wants to locate God not simply in the cry for a merely human form of justice or liberation in the face of Empire, but also in the wise utterances of creation itself (p.127), in which God speaks particular words of wisdom for particular places (p.130). This would certainly sit well with my peculiarly Aboriginal sense of responsibility for country: we cannot care for a particular place unless we first listen to what it is telling us in its own unique voice. The particularity of that voice is for that country, and especially its caretakers, those who are related to that country as kin, as ancestral stewards. To listen, of course, is the very opposite of colonisation and its bully-boy shouting. For the sake of us all, I pray we shall learn, in time, to listen more deeply to what our lands and seas and waterways are telling us.


This talk was given at a symposium in celebration of Mark Brett's book Locations of God: political theology in the Hebrew Bible on December 12, 2019.

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