A Labyrinthine Monograph
Journeys of the Songscape: Space and the Song of Songs
Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013
Nightly, on my bed, I sought my soul’s beloved,
I sought him but did not find him.
I will rise now, I will go around the city,
through its streets and its plazas,
I will seek my soul’s beloved. (Song of Songs 3:1-2, trans. Meredith)
The Song of Songs, or Solomon’s Song, is eight chapters long. In the Hebrew Bible, it is one of the five “Megillot” (“scrolls”), which comprise the “Ketuvim” (“writings”), the third section of the canonical “Tanakh”. In the King James Bible, where it can be found between the books of Ecclesiastes and Isaiah, it is shy of 2,700 words (far from the shortest). I mention these things in order to ground the critical questions surrounding the Song of Songs as a text—is it a devotional text? Is it a sexy text? Is it an allegory and, if so, to what extent can an allegorical reading be extended into something solid, more knowable? These critical questions, though well known, have become a byword for the text itself, a circumstance which can be ascribed to the Bible-as-literature approach that began to emerge in biblical and religious studies in the late 20th century.
If, however, any particular biblical text invites a literary reading, it is the Song. From its hortatory opening (“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine” [1:1]) to the comparative figures of speech that dominate chapter 7 (“Thy navel is like a round goblet” and “Thy neck is as a tower of ivory” [7:2, 4]), the Song challenges its own position as devotional literature. For those unfamiliar with the Song, this bawdy body imagery may come as a transformational shock, while those already familiar with the sexuality and desire running through it may long for an approach that is more dynamic and less prescriptive.
In Journeys in the Songscape: Space and the Song of Songs, Christopher Meredith, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Winchester, has returned to the Song of Songs in order to revive the discourse of biblical scholarship. Furthermore, his exploration of the Song in terms of its spatiality, textuality, and sexuality, marks an important shift in contemporary critical literature through its analytic methodology, exemplified by its successful marriage of theory and close reading. Meredith achieves this, in part, because of the way in which he uses the conventions of biblical scholarship both to the advantage of his argument and to the relief of his readers: long discussions of secondary or critical sources are reserved for footnotes, assertions are assiduously documented, close reading is de rigueur. At times almost whimsical, hyper-theoretical, and discomfortingly earnest, Meredith’s arguments thankfully avoid the language of intellectual posturing so typical of texts tending towards this sort of fashionable criticism.
Importantly, Journeys in the Songscape is marked by its knowledgeable, nimble prose in the service of a revolutionary, yet necessary mode of exegesis. For instance, in his overview of spatial theory from Lefebvre and Soja to more contemporary resources in biblical scholarship, Meredith is careful to incorporate those aspects of their theories which enable, unfurl, and enliven his arguments while addressing and disposing of those hindering them. He understands the limitations of his chosen theorists: Lefebvre is mainly concerned with public space and offers little to the “darker nooks, crannies, and back alleys that constitute private life”; Soja’s “Thirdspace” becomes “an all-purpose nostrum, a formula that covers up a lack of phenomenology in a study that claims to privilege personal perspective” so that his “trialectic” falters under the weight of its cumbersome, over-prescribed structure. Derrida’s axiomatic dictum, il n’y a pas de hors-text, wherein the “interplay between textualities and spatialities” helps to circumnavigate the tendency towards the elision of “historicity and spatiality” in biblical spatial studies, affirms the world-as-text and foregrounds the reader-as-cartographer. The metaphor of Benjamin’s “Phantoscope” allows one to renegotiate the “dream rhetoric” of the Song as in terms of the “trope of ideological illusion”. Taken together, this plethora of theorists might, in another work, obscure the argument—or worse, overwhelm the reader. However, as read by Meredith, each theorist retains their acuity or discreteness, contributing to a reading of the Song and a larger theory of spatiality while resisting the universalising force common to theoretical methodologies.
If the strength of Meredith’s analysis lies in the myriad perspectives and valences he discovers in these various spatial approaches, then, despite the vitality and accessibility of Meredith’s monograph, its weakness lies in a presumption of readerly familiarity with the Song of Songs, if not with the extensive scholarship on the subject. With biblical literacy on the wane amongst even undergraduate students—despite Michael Gove’s 2012 initiative to give an edition of the King James Bible to every school in the UK—Meredith’s excellent monograph becomes less accessible by virtue of this presumption.
Perhaps, however, this is because Journeys is not designed to be accessible. As a monograph in the Hebrew Bible Monograph series edited by David J. A. Clines, J. Cheryl Exum, and Keith W. Whitelam, it is aimed at readers who are already literate and who participate in the culture and texts of biblical studies. Those readers would not begrudge the fact that Meredith does not begin his close readings until mid-way through the second chapter, in a section entitled “On the Scrim: Fluid Continuity in the Song.” They would understand the space required to foreground his methodological approaches (which are plural, as there are many). Each section—“Undreaming the Song’s World: On Inhabiting a Phantasm”, “Locked Gardens and the City as Labyrinth”, “Gender, Space and Threshold Magic”, and “The Corpus Without Organs”—takes a different approach to the same text, revisiting, refining and revivifying the connective argument(s). These readers would understand the necessity of developing a critical genealogy of the discipline alongside the readings, which for Meredith begins with J. Cheryl Exum’s Song of Songs: A Commentary (2005) and Fiona Black’s The Artifice of Love: Grotesque Bodies and the Song of Songs (2009). In this vein, Meredith is careful to acknowledge that his reading of the Song is a literal one. For him, Songs is “a largely non-religious poem about the ins and outs of sensual, sexual, human, male-female love” to be treated as “a single literary entity”. It is from such a literary position that he is able to establish his unexpectedly cartographic, phantasmagoric, liminal, and surrealist understandings of the Song.
Ultimately, the theoretical underpinnings of Meredith’s text are what makes Journeys so transformative. His desire to rescue textual criticism from itself is not too grand for, nor at odds with, the way in which he deploys his own critical readings. In the space of his own text, he extends both the Bible and his readings of spatial theory into the dizzying realms of contemporary intertextuality or referentiality. Adorno, Bachelard, Calvino, Certeau, Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, Haraway, Merleau-Ponty, Perec, and Rabinbach are all figures in a vast theoretical landscape who seem to assemble into one great “labyrinthine monograph”—a spatial metaphor that might seem typical of post-ironic criticism, but that is here imbued with an intentional sincerity. Proceeding from a simple, discrete concept—space—what Meredith has to say about the entanglement of spatiality and textuality exceeds the thresholds of biblical scholarship, supplanting an outmoded “poetics” with a new “geometries” of literary theory. Indeed, his aim, “to place the varied and variegated ways of conceiving of space in the Song—phenomenological, literary, theoretic, ideological—as parts in a simultaneous network of potential connections”, transcends its immediate disciplinary concerns. For what is at stake in the paradigm of reader of biblical literature as cartographer is also at stake for the reader of all literatures.
**This review was originally published in the Oxonian Review 23.2 (2013) on 28 October.