Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review
In this revision of her Sheffield University doctoral thesis, Black (1) demonstrates the ways in which scholarship on the Song of Songs has been governed by the interpretative frameworks of its readers and (2) explores the grotesque as an alternative heuristic from which to experience the text. Artfully interweaving history of interpretation, critical theory, close reading, and varied literary and visual intertexts, she seeks not to solve the enigmas of the Song but to foreground them as key to its meaning.
Chapter 1 introduces Black's project by contrasting two different approaches to love poetry. One approach embraces strangeness. Exemplified by Den Hart's (in)famous 1978 Wittenburg Door cartoon literalizing the Song's female protagonist in a bizarre image (complete with a tower of a neck and sheep for teeth), this approach finds analogues in the poetry of Jeanette Winterson, Monique Wittig, and André Breton; all describe lovers' bodies in absurd and indeterminate ways. In contrast, most biblical scholars have approached the Song assuming that the poems must flatter the lovers' bodies, especially the female. Black's survey of Songs interpretation underscores just how controlling this hermeneutic of compliment (p. 25) has been, as scholars have tried to soothe their interpretative anxiety with linguistic/etymological redefinitions and cross-cultural parallels to the Arabic waṣfs. Following Hart's lead, Black takes seriously the oddness of the poems and offers the genre of the grotesque as an alternative interpretative framework.
In chapter 2 Black defines and explores the features of the grotesque. In conversation with Renaissance art and literature, Mikhail Bakhtin's analysis of François Rabelais, and Julia Kristeva's understanding of the abject, she highlights two key aspects: the grotesque's fascination with bodily functionsits earthinessand its ability to be both liberating and sinister.
Chapter 3 applies Black's interpretative framework to the text of the Song, covering much ground in a single chapter: (1) a defense of her reading strategy against charges of anachronism; (2) a close reading of four body poems (4:15; 6:47; 7:110; and 5:1016); (3) application of key themes of the grotesque to the book as a whole; and (4) an exploration of the writings of Teresa of Avila. In the course of her discussion, Black demonstrates how, as the body poems progress, characterization of the woman's eyes shifts from beautiful to disturbing. Moreover, she shows how bodily descriptions differ by gender: the male's speech addresses the woman herself, depicting her in organic terms and merging her features with the landscape, food, and liquid, while the woman addresses her friends, describing the man's body as solid, static, hard. Her discussion of Teresa traces the dynamics of desire in the mystic's language and in human experience: a lover is at once intimate and close and also remote and inaccessible. In times of absence, speaking the lover's body makes it present.
In Chapter 4 Black engages debate about the gender ideology of the Song and explains how the grotesque and the erotic conspire to lure the reader. In contrast to many interpreters, she refuses to deem the text as either monolithically patriarchal or gynocentric; while the gender differences in the body descriptions reflect patriarchal assumptions, comparisons with other literature by and about women offer the possibility that the woman's voice is more active than detractors allow. In this and other ways the text of the Song suspends climax and closure, teasing and titillating the reader. Attracted by the erotic, repelled by the grotesque, and unsure of the dividing line between the two, readers become like lovers: desire can be perpetuated because it is never satiated, in that readers are never fully satisfied by full and consistent knowledge of the text (p. 213). The seductive nature of this text, claims Black, helps explain why interpreters go to such lengths to defend its honor and why so many wax autobiographical in their discourse about it.
In her conclusion Black teasingly approaches the autobiographical herself, if in fictional form. The final pages imagine a conversation between a biblical scholar in sunglasses, Teresa of Avila, and a Nova Scotian giant named Anna Swan, an historical personage depicted in the novel The Biggest Modern Woman of the World. Over the course of the conversation, the women share a drink and wind up discussing their bodiesbut not really.
Like the text she interprets, Black's own book leaves the reader wanting more. She engages the reader in a fascinating topic only to retreat, one discussion left hanging as another begins. In chapter 3, for example, her close readings of the poems are insightful, even entertaining, but before they are fully explored the chapter gives way to discussion of theory. In chapter 4 the role of female agency in the book is made plausible but not really argued. The actual body of the Song of Songs, like the bodies of the text's characters, is not on view for long.
But most of what we do see is attractive. Black offers insightful close readings and thoughtful gender analysis. Most powerfully, however, she explains the affective dimensions of the book's distinctive style, how it seduces readers. She herself is not immune to its charms, as seen in the way her focus on the repulsiveness of the images in the early chapters yields to more appreciation of its attraction at the end. As her volume concludes, the images of the Song are described less as grotesque and more as flirtatious.
The broad range of Black's discussion partnersbiblical scholars, artists, theorists, novels, poetry, and a Medieval mysticmay challenge the casual reader; this is not an undergraduate text. But with Black as the facilitator, the resulting dialogue offers intriguing new ways to think aboutand experiencethe Song of Songs. This is an engaging and paradigm-shifting book, one that honors rather than resists the distinctive style of Song of Songs.
 Susan Swan, The Biggest Modern Woman of the World (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2001).