Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Song of Songs: Interpretation of Interpretations.

Over the last few weeks I've been mulling on the historical treatment of Eros within the Catholic Church. As I've said before, the Catholic Church was the big player in the development of European culture and thus its understanding of Eros profoundly influenced European culture's understanding of it. Particularly, I've been thinking about the historical treatment of the interpretation of Song of Songs. As this Wiki article mentions, Song of Songs is a "interesting" book of the Bible. A literal reading shows it to be about the Eros-love between a man and woman.
1. How beautiful are thy feet in sandals, O prince's daughter! Thy rounded thighs are like jewels, The work of the hands of a skilful workman.
2 Thy body is like a round goblet, Wherein no mingled wine is wanting: Thy waist is like a heap of wheat Set about with lilies.
3 Thy two breasts are like two fawns That are twins of a roe.
4 Thy neck is like the tower of ivory; Thine eyes as the pools in Heshbon, By the gate of Bath-rabbim; Thy nose is like the tower of Lebanon Which looketh toward Damascus.
5 Thy head upon thee is like Carmel, And the hair of thy head like purple; The king is held captive in the tresses thereof .
6 How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!
7 This thy stature is like to a palm-tree, And thy breasts to its clusters.
8 I said, I will climb up into the palm-tree, I will take hold of the branches thereof: Let thy breasts be as clusters of the vine, And the smell of thy breath like apples,
9 And thy mouth like the best wine, That goeth down smoothly for my beloved, Gliding through the lips of those that are asleep.
Compared to other books, it gives little direct reference to God, His laws or even the implied obligation to procreate. It's basically an erotic poem that celebrates sexual love. Given the literal nature of the subject matter,  there was considerable controversy amongst the early church fathers as to whether it should be included in the Bible or not. Historically, the book has been treated an allegorical representation of God's love for his Church. Looking at the above passage, all I've got to say is, Hmmm.

Anyway, whilst thinking about this subject I got sidetracked into a discussion over the The Orthosphere which bought up the subject of Galileo. An interesting realisation occurred. Galileo was censured for advocating a view which directly contradicted the literal reading of scripture. On the other hand, Song of Songs literal meaning (i.e Erotic) was deliberately downplayed and its allegorical reading emphasised.  Why the interpretive inconsistency? Why is it, that when the subject matter is "positively" erotic the material is meant to be treated as allegorical, but when the subject matter is "negatively" erotic the matter is literal?

As I've said before, I think that the Church has an anti-carnal bias and sometimes I wonder how Eros would have fared if weren't so intimately tied with procreation and romance.

For those who are interested, here is a good and brief paper outlining the historical treatment of Song of Songs.