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What do Moses, Samuel Jackson, Yul Brynner, and Faulkner Have in Common?

Because I think stuff like this is fun, I've been sitting in on a graduate seminar at Purdue called Moses and Modernism — it's a class that explores all the modern and post-modern appearances of the biblical Moses in literature. It's amazing … Read More

By / April 17, 2007

Because I think stuff like this is fun, I've been sitting in on a graduate seminar at Purdue called Moses and Modernism — it's a class that explores all the modern and post-modern appearances of the biblical Moses in literature. It's amazing how overly-appropriated this Moses trope is. African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston turns Moses into an Egyptian magician (say that 7 times in a row as fast as you can) in her 1939 novel Moses, Man of the Mountain; William Faulkner gets down and dirty with the trope in his 1942 novel Go Down, Moses; in Ishmael Reed's satirical Mumbo Jumbo, well, the Moses myth "Jes Grew." And there's also Freud's "Moses and Monotheism," Buber's Moses, and what about movies like Cecil B. DeMille's Cold-War-hysteria-encoded The Ten Commandments and DreamWorks' multi-culturally diverse Prince of Egypt? Or, what about Martin Luther King, Jr.'s refrain of "I've been to the mountaintop," likening himself to Moses, foretelling his own death?

Moses is all over the place. Moses is da man!

I've also been thinking about polish film director Krzysztof Kieslowski's 1982 10-part film series The Decalogue, which re-imagines what it means to follow the Ten Commandments in a postmodern world. But in this one, Moses is conveniently missing, as if to say, "We don't need a Moses to have, understand, and follow commandments."  

The Law, the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue, Mosaic Law—despite the various terms we use to speak about the Commandments, allegedly handed directly to Moses from God, there is one collective impulse that guides these artistic re-appropriations of the Moses myth, and that colors each philosophical inquiry into the nature of laws, law-giving, and law-making: make it new, as Ezra Pound would say, anti-Semite though he was. The impulse is not simply to create but to re-create, to resituate moments of literary or theological brilliance in contemporary, personal—and hence more individually meaningful—contexts.  From Milton’s Paradise Lost to Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (an imaginative re-telling of the Jane Eyre story), within the history of literature there is a profound artistic awareness of the presence of narrative gaps and of the importance of making stories belong to us—of identifying in some of them a prophetic sensibility, and responding with the “Here I am” (Exodus 3:4) of Moses the lawgiver, the one who communes with God and receives god-like, almost magical, abilities. 

I wonder, then, if we might conceive of each artist who recognizes and responds to this call as a modern-day Moses, revived and reconsidered for our contemporary purposes. Not sure, but while we think about it, it might be worth watching this video: Ten Things I Hate About Commandments.

 

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