The Book of Job enacts the most human and inevitable of tragedies. Job has love, wealth, solidity, community, certainty. And then his world is scoured, and the only purpose given for his harrowing doesn’t seem to even convince the great anonymous poet behind the poem. The poem’s a wrestling with a mystery, the ceaseless process of diminishment and loss.
For your lover to die is not to be guided by fire but immolated by it; to lose what you love, as Job loses his children, is to be entirely plunged into darkness, vulnerable, unprotected by any hedge. And we’re forced to the ultimate question of self-pity: why me? Why did I suffer? Why did I live to lose? Does this have any meaning at all, or is it merely the grinding down of ourselves, the grand arbitrary motions the spheres enact? […]
Remember: life is a breath;
Soon I will vanish from your sight.
The eye that looks will not see me;
You may search, but I will be gone.
Like a cloud fading in the sky,
Man dissolves into death.
He leaves the whole world behind him
And never comes home again.
A characteristically Old Testament vision of human life: a breath caught between two darknesses, a difficulty endurable only through submission to God. Submission to power and law, the acceptance of our lot – an expected stance, and one which Job all at once bracingly, completely belies.
“Therefore,” he says, “I refuse to be quiet…”
This is the opposite of acceptance. Job sees plainly and unflinchingly the unbearably human lot and says, No, I will not have it, I do not understand it, it is not just. Job and his friends need to believe – don’t we all need to believe? – the universe is sane, benign in its orders. Job’s upright friends – righteous men, good spiritual citizens – would have him accept that he must have sinned somehow, must have done something to deserve this. Or at least want him to accept, silently, an incomprehensible will greater than his own.
But Job’s humanity lies in his no-saying. No easy answer, no humble acceptance, NO – I rage against the excoriating process of loss in my life, I will not be silent in the face of it, I refuse to be quiet. I will look at the great black tree of the world through the window of bitterness, the window of misery, I’ll put my face to that dark, and I will say what I see. Silence is submission to the implacable order. For Job, silence equals the death of the self.