Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Fischer, Stefan, Das Hohelied Salomos zwischen Poesie und Erzählung: Erzähltextanalyse eines poetischen Textes (FAT, 72; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2010). Pp. xi + 275. Hardcover. €89.00. ISBN 978-3-16-150387-0.

Stefan Fischer's Das Hohelied Salomos zwischen Poesie und Erzählung: Erzähltextanalyse eines poetischen Textes can be added to the growing number of recent “synchronic” studies on Canticles, concentrating on the canonical Hebrew text in its given form without extended consideration of its historical growth. The German title could be translated as “The Song of Solomon Between Poetry and Narration: A Narratological Analysis of a Poetic Text,” and shows the approach taken in this study: the author utilizes methods of structural linguistics, relying mainly on the narrative theory of Gérard Genette. Yet he also applies certain further theoretical elements, taken from Roman Jakobson among others. At times he even engages the dramatic theory of Manfred Pfister, thus deviating from a strict narrative approach. Some might question Fischer's approach, principally on the basis that the narrative coherence of Canticles is debatable. Yet the author does address this problem specifically, considering whether Canticles is designed as an encompassing composition—and if so, to what degree and exactly what kind of narrative.

After preliminary remarks (Chapter 1), Fischer's brief introduction to his methodological premises (Chapter 2) highlights the difference between Handlung (plot) and Darstellung (discourse) on the basis of de Saussure's distinction between signifier and signified. Additionally he adopts Jakobson's two-axis-system of the vertical axis of selection (de Sassure's paradigmatics) and the horizontal axis of combination (syntagmatics). The first describes the range of grammatically applicable words at one place in any given sentence (i.e., the “poetic” variety in choosing the “right word”), the second stands for the correlation between one word and its neighboring syntactical elements (i.e., the linear, narrative structure of the language). One can imagine that the interdependence of these features is especially significant for the analysis of a text like Canticles.

Fischer then offers a German translation of the book as a textual basis for his subsequent analysis (Chapter 4). Of course, any translation of this highly poetic book must weigh the benefits of a literal (and thus rather wooden) versus a freer (and thus less exact) translation. Fischer's proposal tends more towards the latter, yet offers some very interesting variants.

The main part of the study is divided into three sections: Before moving onto the chapters about discourse (Chapter 5) and plot (Chapter 6), Fischer considers the structure of Canticles (Chapter 4). On the continuum of the various designations of Canticles as casual anthology at the one end to well-designed artwork on the other, he positions himself closer to the second. Based on the arrangement of recurring elements—words and phrases, but also themes, motifs, and even refrains—as well as on the consistency of character portrayal, Fischer argues in favor of the predominating unity of the book in its canonical form. Interactions with various other suggested patterns lead him to identify a threefold structural pattern. Or, to be more precise, there are three intertwined patterns, as he concedes that the text is ambiguous regarding its structural elements. Accordingly, Fischer convincingly supports the notion of a composition complete with linear, concentric, and circular structures. He calls these structural patterns Leseoptionen (literally “optional readings,” or perhaps more appropriately, “reading approaches”). Read linearly, Canticles comprises the superscript (1:1), two Erzählbögen (narrative cycles; 1:2–5:1 and 5:2–8:7), and an epilogue (8:8–14). The concentric reading is arranged around 4:16–5:1, which is identified as the thematic and structural focus. Because this concentric reading contributes little to the narrative structure beyond the mentioned center and the framing function of the epilogue and the first narrative unit (1:2–2:7), it is pursued only marginally in the following chapters. Finally, the circular reading revolves around the fivefold repeated motif of searching and finding, thus connecting the end of the book with the beginning and inviting a further reading. Merging these three optional readings, Fischer offers the following overall structure:

A  B  C  D  E  F  G  C'  E'  F'  E''  F''  E'''  B'  C''  D'  A'

At over 120 pages chapter 5, titled Darstellung (Discourse), is the most extensive section of the survey. Its subsections generally follow the customary analytical steps of Genette's theory. The one major difference is the inclusion of various elements of dramatic theory. First of all, Fischer takes a very detailed look at the time sequence by analyzing and categorizing the usage of the tenses, revealing that the book is pervaded by many instances of (hetero- and homodiegetic) analepsis. This, and the insight that the initial passage is set in the narrative present, leads him to conclude that the first unit and the epilogue represent a framework story, consisting of a dialogue between the woman and the daughters of Jerusalem, which he locates in the harem of Solomon. In contrast, the main body of Canticles (2:8–8:7) is “only” a story related by the woman to the daughters—and at the same time to the reader. The analysis of the time duration confirms these findings and additionally illustrates the immediacy of the presentation. In reviewing the “frequencies” (i.e., if and how often any given scene is repeated) in the temporal structure, Fischer finds that the second narrative cycle (5:2–8:7) provides a kind of mirroring of the first one. However, as the pictured episodes differ slightly, sometimes even drastically (e.g. the seeking-and-finding scenes in 3:1ff. and 5:2ff.), he speaks of a “butterfly effect,” referring to the premise of chaos theory that a small cause can have tremendous effects. In his subchapters on mode, voice, and fokalization (the narrator's point of view) of presentation, Fischer thoroughly analyzes each and every (partial) verse with focus on which character(s) is (are) talking, who is addressed, and how far the presented perspective reaches. As a result, he describes Canticles in the mode of a dramatic presentation complete with dialogues, long monologues, and some passages of cited speech. He assumes that the daughters of Jerusalem are always (mostly silent) participants of the woman's presentation. In addition to the generally recognized voices of the woman, the man, and the daughters, Fischer identifies the voices of a group of soldiers, of the woman's brothers (perhaps to be taken together as a second, male “choir” in addition to the daughters), and a narrator who usually acts homodiegetically, i.e., virtually as a voice or character inside the narrative, but sometimes also addresses the implicit reader (especially in 1:1 and 8:6b, 7). As the latter comments in the position of Nullfokalisation (as an omniscient third person narrator) most of the time, Fischer later designates him as the auktorialer Interpret (authorial interpreter). In contrast, most of the remaining passages are presented as containing a much more limited point of view (internal focalization), even though many verses can be attributed to the female and the male perspectives at the same time (multiple focalization). Especially the insights of these three subchapters are highly elucidating and very helpful for understanding the literary principles of the text as it unfolds. Yet at some points one is not quite sure if the determination of voices and addressees, foremost the identification of the narrator, completely matches the details of the passages. Also, the proportions of direct speech respective to cited speech should be investigated further. It might be that these problems derive from the drawbacks inherent the application of the narratological approach to the dramatic mode of presentation in Canticles.

Another comprehensive investigation is devoted to aspects of “Ort und Raum” (place and space). Fischer reviews all the spatial hints and references ranging from bed or door to the vineyard of En-Gedi. The results highlight two distinctions: the first between city and country, and the second between indoors and outdoors. While the “indoor” places are described by Fischer as largely safe and secure for the lovers, the “outdoor” localities, which seem to be predominant, tend to place the characters and/or their love in danger. Applying the concept of space established by cultural studies, Fischer goes on to describe the various localities in considerable detail, showing that the different types of scenery are denoted differently, especially with respect to their social and gender related significance. Yet, one problem in this section is that the distinctions between concrete settings of the plot, the “virtual” localities that are only referred to in related speech, and finally the spatial metaphors are somewhat blurred. Still, the comments on gender issues are especially worthy of consideration. The last subsection on character portrayal traces some fundamental lines of development

In contrast to the encompassing analysis of the discourse, Fischer takes less space to discuss the plot (Chapter 6), yet most of the relevant points in question have been anticipated in the previous chapter. As a result the findings here are well prepared and evident on that basis. Again very briefly, Fischer ponders the question of the identity of the characters' roles, i.e., mainly which roles or “disguises” they take on, and if the characterizations are consistent. Fischer then proceeds to the “world” of the book, describing the fictional background of the plot and, additionally, how the background is staged for the reader. Fischer offers the figure of Solomon as the main hermeneutical peg for the narrative setting. Thus, the text creates ambivalence between proximity to the reader via its mode of presentation on the one hand, and at the same time a distance is created via the fictive historical setting and the poetic diction. In the next subsection, Fischer suggests a mainly “final” motivation (a motivation of purpose or result, in contrast to the other possibilities like causal or aesthetic motivations), which can, in his opinion, be discerned in the recurrent motif of seeking and finding. Lastly, he reiterates and summarizes the plot sketched earlier with its superscript in 1:1 and the double–layered main body (1:2–8:7). The latter, he reminds the reader, consists of the framework setting in the harem of Solomon's palace and the interior plot, which is related by the woman to the daughters, the women of the harem. This interior plot, again, revolves around the above-mentioned motif and culminates in the wisdom sentence in 8:6b–7: True love to one—the only one—woman alone is by far to be preferred over any kind of hedonistic plurality, an aspect which can prominently be found in 6:8–9. The ending, finally, is threefold, depending on the reading approach used by the reader. The end of the second linear narrative cycle can be found in 8:5a. The sapiental sentence provides another conclusion—for both narrative cycles. And lastly the epilogue (8:8ff.) both closes the book and, according to the circular structure, opens the text for reading according to this approach.

The brief summary (Chapter 7) reviews the fruit of the survey with respect to exegesis, methodology, and hermeneutics. First Fischer sums up the exegetical harvest in highlighting the threefold structure for reading the book, the display of Solomon as an anti-ideal “contrast figure” (which in this author's opinion may be a later Solomon-critical addition), the two narrative levels (framework and interior story), the dramatic mode of presentation, and the dominance of a female point of view. Concerning the methodology, Fischer concedes that a narratological approach does not completely fit the features of the book, as Canticles is not a narrative. But as long as there are syntagmatic elements in any given text, he has shown that the use of the narratological approach makes sense and its application is profitable. Finally and with respect to the fundamental hermeneutics of Canticles, Fischer views the book as a narrative of sapiental teaching in a dramatic mode of presentation, thus providing Canticles with a theological quality of its own, while neither reducing it to its pure literal meaning nor straying to an allegorical interpretation. Correspondingly, he advocates an investigation that proceeds in dialogue with this poetic text by way of a recurring metaphor in the text itself: Just as the lovers approach each other time and again, but take flight in the end, the reader too can only partially and temporarily fathom this elusive text.

Generally speaking, Fischer's survey is highly elucidating and on the whole a very plausible study. He succeeds convincingly in describing the narrative structure and mechanisms of Canticles. Especially the suggestion of the three reading approaches is very persuasive, as it takes up the different and sometimes contradicting textual features and draws a plausible overall picture. At points the study could possibly have been a little more thorough, as for example some passages and analytical details are not altogether consistent with others. And then there are the above-mentioned drawbacks of the narratological approach, which is not entirely appropriate for the text. Nonetheless, Fischer contributes numerous illustrative insights to the study of the literary structure of Canticles.

The study was accepted as Habilitationsschrift by the Faculty of Protestant Theology at the University of Vienna. The book contains a complete and annotated translation of Canticles into German, several tables illustrating the analytical findings, an index of biblical references, and an index of subjects.

Matthias Hopf, Augustana Theologische Hochschule, Neuendettelsau, Germany