February 16, 2013

Evoking Archelaus in Matthew

I think words primarily evoke images; secondarily, emotions. This post begins as reflections to that effect about how literature works and then it turns toward applying such considerations to Matthew's evocation of Archelaus. If you want to jump to that part, I've bolded his name where it picks up, below. 

A thousand words cannot replace most pictures(*), but a single word or two can potentially conjure thousands of images in mind of engaged readers. Engage, if you please, and consider now. War. (pause) Interstate Highway. (pause) Food court. (pause) NFL Football. (pause)  Shopping mall. (pause) Sunday services. (pause)

Do you see? No. Did you see?

It is precisely because words are so limited that the writer's task is always to do more with less. But it's precisely because words are so pregnant that the writer believes she can communicate. In the final analysis, "good writing" may be nothing more than whatever happens to provide a particular author and a particular reader with a communicative link.

Reconsidering those pauses at top, my choice of "NFL Football" likely evokes more for some readers than others. It does well if you happen to have that experience. It fails utterly if you do not. For analysis of literature, however, my success or failure may not matter so much. That is, estimating the likelihood that I have strategized effectively (for any particular readers) may be less important than recognizing the fact that I have, in fact, strategized deliberately. My choice of "NFL Football" reflects that I spent a moment of believing you would recognize that term and recall visual images and remembered knowledge about what "NFL Football" denotes, and connotes. If I had then proceeded to mention "Superbowl parties" it might imply my expectation that you, my reader, have almost certainly been to at least one superbowl party. Unless, that is, I went on to explain and describe in detail what a "Superbowl party" is like.

This is the essence of what I've been getting at in my recent posts about composing through ambiguity.

Exposition implies authorial insecurity. The lack thereof implies assumed reader knowledge. 

Getting back to images, specifically, it's worth considering that most human memory is probably emotional or sensual, auditory or visual. Sometimes I remember striking words seen on a page or words said to me with a bold tone of voice. When you say my Dad's name, I don't think verbally. I conjure images and I remember emotions. It's the same way, collectively, when I say, "Barack Obama" or "Richard Nixon" or "General Custer" or "Archelaus", in that you probably conjure an image more than anything else.

It doesn't matter that you've never seen the man called General Custer. You probably conjure whatever image your mind first constructed the first time you heard the story of Little Big Horn. If there's no such memory, the word probably has no meaning. Or perhaps the word only recalls for you the confusion you felt at some time when you heard the name but received no exposition. In such a case, the image you recall is of your own past experience, and whatever emotions you associate with slight to moderate confusion.

Likewise, since you've not likely seen images of King Herod's ultimate heir, the name "Archelaus" may only evoke for you personal memories; perhaps you may recall visually seeing that text in the Gospel, or recall where you were sitting on the last memorable occasion when you heard the name, or read the scripture. Alternatively, as some do for Custer, you draw the mental blank, and I've evoked only confusion.

However, suppose I go on to exposit the term. "Archelaus was Herod's son who took the crown briefly in 4 BC, was demoted to ethnarch and later exiled by Augustus". Now you're most likely accessing mental files that have to do with "Herod" and "crown" and "Augustus" and perhaps "4 BC". You still have no precise picture in mind for "Archelaus", but the next time you hear "Archelaus" it should evoke some collage of these newly associated images.

Quick sidebar: In Thursday's post I mentioned "Senator Barack Obama" with no hesitance. You understand I am referring to the man as he was during a brief window of time. I should be able to speak the same way of General Washington, candidate Lincoln, David the shepherd boy, or baby Moses. In composing literature, we often seek to evoke awareness of temporal distinction just as efficiently as we do anything else. If the audience is aware of something (or at least, if the writer believes them to be aware of that something) then the writer can (or at least, will) reference that something as efficiently as possible. You already know Washington and Lincoln and Obama became Presidents. You already know David and Moses grew up, and the rest of their stories. Therefore, I have no reason to waste words by reminding you of what you already know! Our purpose in this composition is to connect with each other and consider ideas about these people, whom we both already know.

Another word on this evocation in general: Some writers attempt to capture their mood or surroundings with descriptive details. This style can be popular, but it is not extremely common, most likely because it requires tremendous duration (as I noted about Dickens, Hugo and Rowlings). The more efficient, which is to say, the more evocative writers find ways of conjuring up moods and images that already exist in the reader's mneumonic vocabulary (so to speak). It is this evocation, this efficiency, that makes a writer more effective, IFF he correctly connects with a reader's memory - or with readers' collective memory/ies.

And now, a final word on Archelaus: The more I read up on lit theory and the more I consider such things for myself, the more I am convinced that I'm not imagining things, and that it can be demonstrated how Matthew intended this one verse to evoke readers' collective memory/ies of Archelaus' early rule, at the precise period of time when he was, de facto, "King". The word 'basilewei' was not enough by itself, or else Josephus' two uses would have been confusing. [Citation forthcoming; check Perseus if I don't get around to it soon.] But where Josephus appears to refer to the young ethnarch's 10 seasons of rule in general (an idea apologetical translators may or may not have followed knowingly) the reference in Matthew is buttressed by other aspects that make temporal precision more certain. These I have mentioned here repeatedly, and will no doubt mention again soon.

But today it is the simple task of language at work that impresses me most. By itself, this point is no wise conclusive, but it's just impacting me greatly today. The fact that language must evoke (or else exposit ad nauseam) in order to communicate succinctly - and Matthew's reference to Archelaus is nothing if not succinct - strongly suggests Matthew cannot have meant nothing. But more precisely, the combination of elements - even the "when Joseph heard" expresses freshness - altogether, I'm convinced, show that Matthew himself intended to evoke King Archelaus, and not other memories of him.

Finally, to bring all this together: In terms of evoking visual and emotional memory, the evocation of Archelaus would have been something like 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination or Pearl Harbor; but especially that last one. There was no television in December of 1941, but millions of Americans got the news on that day, and for decades later - even before artificial commemorations of the audiovisual variety began compromising the integrity of remembered details - many of these rememberers could still tell you fifty and seventy years later where they were and how they felt, what they heard, and how it affected everyone.

I believe it is reasonable to reconstruct the natural consequences of that Passover massacre, the way news gradually filtered back throughout Israel/Palestine, the way every soul who'd not lived through the experience had to "hear" (as did Joseph, in Matthew's story) about the new tyrant, the new acting King, the new Archelaus. In fact, I believe we can reasonably show through a reconstructed chronology  that many families left for Jerusalem before news of Herod's death had even got around, and so the first news about Archelaus, for some high proportion of all Judeans and Galileans not at the festival, would have been the massacre. Thus, "afraid" also connects directly with what Matthew's readers most likely recalled, at the evocation of "Archelaus".

All in all, it must have been a powerful bit of rhetoric, at the time.

I hope I can eventually do half as well in demonstrating that it was.

Work continues...


(*) "Words and Images" go together like chocolate and peanut butter, and they have a long history of doing so. Without question, visual storytelling has profound advantages over text, a fact recognized long before film, TeeVee, graphic novels, the Sunday funnies, or Sports Illustrated, there were Egyptian hieroglyphs, cave paintings, Grecian urns, and the Sistine Chapel. In those cases, the words would be spoken, as the artist surely intended. I mean, you can't imagine Michaelangelo did all that work on that ceiling without anticipating - and desiring - all the discussion it would generate? Or the glyphs and urns, constructed somewhat ambiguously by artists who doubtless expected that verbal-aural interpretation would accompany the visual media on occasional viewings. But spoken-visual storytelling eventually inspired textual-pictorial storytelling. Art students can trace the development from stained glass windows with captions engraved underneath, to moralizing or allegorical triptychs in the middle ages, to Linus, Snoopy, Nancy, Sluggo, Dilbert & XKCD. All of this, by the way, is available in far more detail via the brilliant, singular and acclaimed study produced by Scott McCloud, in graphic form, called Understanding Comics.

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