Really, Noah? Prophetic Voices Between World and Text

The Flood Tablet, relating part of the Epic of Gilgamesh. From Nineveh, northern Iraq, Neo-Assyrian, 7th century BC

The Flood Tablet, relating part of the Epic of Gilgamesh. From Nineveh, northern Iraq, Neo-Assyrian, 7th century BC

The theme of the Great Flood is common to all ancient traditions, whether Mesopotamian, Egyptian or Hebraic. It stages a fundamental political gesture: the founding of a new society and economy after the previous have collapsed. For evident reasons, the story has become popular once again. Talk about dwindling fresh water, food and energy supplies, combined with crisis-ridden deregulated financial markets and impending ecological crises (global warming, the rise of sea levels) have rekindled apocalyptic scenes in our cultural imaginary, but have also raised calls for alternative economies and greater redistribution of wealth.1

Unsurprisingly, a number of movies in recent years deal with deadly epidemics, ecological disasters, and even planetary destruction, like the planetary collision in Melancholia. In the context evoked above, these movies seem to respond to a shared need for narratives of survival and hope or perhaps, more pessimistically, for an ethical decency to the very end. The desire for hope explains the fashion for heroes that save and redeem humanity. Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, John Cusack, and Russell Crowe have all played such parts in recent movies. But how are the returns to apocalyptic biblical stories being understood? What kind of living-together do they convey? I want to briefly compare here two recent works, a movie and a book, that give very different meanings to the same story.

The recent American movie Noah presents the pre-flood world in ways that are meant to evoke the present. It is a barren wasteland in which great cities have ravaged the countryside of its natural resources. Desert flowerMilitias continue to plunder whatever they can find, killing anyone who gets in their way (think Big Oil or natural gas fracking). Noah and his family are the only remaining people who have not moved to a city. As vegetarians, they only take from Creation (their word for nature) the basic elements they need for survival. Noah is warned about the impending disaster by a sign: when he criticizes his son for plucking a desert flower for the sole purpose of its beauty, a drop falls from the sky to the parched earth and an identical flower grows back to replace it. That night, he dreams of the flower and of a multitude of submerged corpses.2

The Bible (Gen: 6-7) describes in detail God’s spoken message to Noah, but the movie avoids casting God’s voice: it would inevitably be an underwhelming experience, even if Morgan Freeman did the voice-over. Instead, Noah must interpret or give voice to his dreams. The move from vocal (God said) to visual revelation (He sent me a dream) is not only more convincing in a movie, it also allows for a variant in the biblical story: the possibility of God wanting to exterminate the human race. Indeed, two of Noah’s sons aren’t married and the women of the family aren’t fertile. Because it was Noah who had the dreams, he gets to decide if God wants to end his family line or not, and the human race along with it. When no worthy wives are found among the sinners for his sons, Noah mistakes his moral judgment of the potential wives with divine will. Thus he seals the ark with apparently no fertile women on board. The rest of the movie is a huit clos psychodrama about an obsession for moral purity pushed to the limits of auto-extermination.

NotWantedOnTheVoyageThe Canadian novelist Timothy Findley also wrote a book based on the Flood, Not Wanted on the Voyage. He portrays Yaweh as a close friend of the Noyes family–yes, they have a last name in this novel. God finds refuge for his traveling circus of angels and animals in the Noyes compound after being chased out of the cities, whose inhabitants might even had wanted to cook and eat his body. You get the picture: Yaweh feels threatened in his very existence… Yet Findley’s figuration of God in the novel is only partially sacrilegious. His caricature of the human feelings and emotions projected onto God unveils a particular human trait: we want so much to be loved by others that we look for sign of that love everywhere, even in what we should keep at a distance (the sacred or God). In this book, Noah needs to be loved by his old friend Yaweh… and vice versa. They are willing to do anything for this mutual recognition of love, including turning brothers against each other, treating the women of the family as if they were servants, oh, and killing all other living beings while they’re at it (Yaweh’s already dropped off his circus animals for confinement). As Yaweh’s caravan leaves the compound, Mottyl, Mrs. Noyes’s blind cat, catches a smell wafting from his coach: God is dead, eaten alive by flies. One could hastily conclude that Findley desacralizes the Flood story, but one would be wrong: he only desacralizes its text, that is, our interpretations of this mythological scene from a holy book. And he does so with the very means of those who read the Bible literally: he takes the righteousness of those who would command love from others and stages their moral ploys as deeply tainted by self-deception. But he doesn’t do it hastily and simply for the sake of scandal or revolt.

Findley’s book counterbalances this irreverent pose with the care (not stewardship) of animal life.3 While the recent Noah-movie only shows us the animals that are being saved by Noah (have ALL the others already been sacrificed to human appetite?), Findley moves the tragic, heroic scenes away from the human actors of the story, and stages them with animals and creatures:

The Faeries crowded then, and pressed their lights against the walls of the ark–and even from the distance of the hilltop, the crystal sound of their crying could be heard. And the lights went on beating at the walls so long that some of them went out and the mass, diminished, regrouped and flew over the top of the ark and beat against the roof, in spite of the rain. But with every new manoeuvre, the light was growing dimmer–fading by numbers as well as by strength–and the sound could no longer be heard, but only the pulse of it–seen going out in the darkness–losing its edges–caving in at the centre–webbing, now, as if a spider was spinning against the rain–until the last few strands of brightness fell–and were extinguished–silenced and removed from life and from all the lives for ever. And the bell tolled–but the ark, as ever, was adamant. Its shape had taken on a voice. And the voice said: no.

This scene, witnessed by a multitude of animals who have converged around a sealed ark, ends Book II of the novel. Yes, the animals are just as anthropomorphized as God is, but it’s an easy and effective expedient in the novel to show what is gained by the sacralization of the text: the supposed Voice of Truth drowns out the multiple voices of others.

It makes me wonder about today’s supposedly democratic governments that seem absolutely unconcerned by the lack of civic consensus on their policies which encourage the pillaging of our natural resources and harm or destroy the environments in which we live. It makes me wonder if, one day, another ark will also seal the chosen off from the rest of us and simply say: no.

[c][y] Jason R. D’Aoust. All rights reserved.

  1. See an edited extract of Naomi Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism v The Climate for The Guardian []
  2. There would be a lot to say about the many visual markers of the movie that promote intelligent design, but I won’t go into it here. Those that struck me were the closeness of the stars in the antediluvian world, and the assumption that we can reconcile the earlier phases in the expansion of space within human history and the seven days-qua-eons of creation. []
  3. A majority if not all of Findley’s books present characters who take care of animals, in contrast with others who can’t be bothered. This kind of cross-species  solidarity is a site in his work which still deserves attention (see Dorothy Nielsen’s article). I find it especially interesting since his criticism of reason and language’s mastery over the natural world falls back on music as an in-between or compromise for being at once animal and human. []