Criticism: The Jonah Principle

In Fear and Trembling, Soren Kierkegaard says that when a person asserts his particularity over and against the universal, he sins. In the Old Testament, the prophet Jonah does this and so he sins when God calls him to warn the Ninevehns to repent or be destroyed and he flees the call. In fact, Jonah frequently sins in intention yet still effects a change of heart in the people who take his message to heart.

Traditionally, the role of prophet is a position created by the universal in the sense that it is the result of and is closely allied with the universal. Thus the prophet comes as a representative of the universal to urge every man asserting his particularity (“turning after his own way”) to return to the universal. The prophet himself might not be fully in harmony with the universal at the onset of the call, but may grow into it, as did Moses, Elijah, and Christ. Yet the prophet’s role remains to remind his people of the usual results of asserting themselves against the universal: death.

When Jonah receives his call, he does not behave like a traditional prophet. He asserts his particularity and tries to escape the distasteful, dangerous, and to his mind humiliating task of urging a people he detests to repentance when he’d much rather see them destroyed. He runs but is caught and is even shown up by his pagan companions on the storm-wracked ship. Here, for the first time since the story begins, he throws over his particularity and then is himself thrown over the ship’s rail. He appears to surrender himself to the will of God.

In the sea, Jonah is “saved” by being swallowed by a fish, and while in its belly he sings a song expressing sentiments more in line with the traditional prophet’s state of mind. As a result of this experience, Jonah accepts at least on the surface the traditional prophetic role and does indeed tell the Ninevehns that their departure from the universal will result in their destruction. To his dismay, his message is successful: the Ninevehn king declares a general repentance, the population begins to realign with the universal, and Nineveh is saved. But this does not please Jonah. Once again his particularity arouses; he condemns God’s fairmindedness as being unfair. He takes up a position on a nearby hill to observe what happens to the city. There God teaches him another lesson with a gourd plant, but whether this lesson takes or not we never learn, because Jonah’s story ends here.

We would not call Jonah an exemplary prophet. He breaks out of the prophetic tradition often and asserts himself in outbursts of pride. But when he does approach the universal (or divine order, or will of God), miraculous events occur: his life is spared by noteworthy means and the Ninevehns shave their heads and put on sackcloth and ashes and move themselves neatly into the universal. Jonah then promptly departs from it. Nevertheless, the fact remains that when he performs as a prophet and calls the Ninevehns back into the universal the Ninevehns respond sympathetically and change their lives.

The same is true for literary endeavors. All writers have moments ranging from blatant assertion against the universal to more subtle twisting of perception in the name of seeking after the universal when actually they are asserting their particularity against it. Most, if not all, writers and thinkers experience moments where they rebel against the universal (actually impossible, because the universal includes these moments as being part of it) as well as those timeless moments of sublime alignment with it.

My point: Jonah generally behaves in ways unbecoming to his calling as a prophet: he fears for his life, he flees, he mourns his reputation (he worries he’ll be thought a liar when the Ninevehns are spared), he is generally self-absorbed and complains constantly. Yet when he speaks truth the Ninevehns turn from their violence. Jonah’s actions after delivering his truth tell us his words to the Ninevehns were truer than he was (they were taken more truly than they were spoken), yet many lives changed because of the true words of this untrue man. I call this the Jonah Principle of literature–that stories whose motives are less than pure may still bear power to move people more deeply into the universal or into greater harmony with the divine.

3 thoughts on “Criticism: The Jonah Principle”

  1. Great post. And I think that’s an inspiring message to us as writers. We can write the most profound truths even though we be imperfect ourselves. I sometimes wonder if we think we have to write deeply flawed characters because it would be hypocritical to do otherwise. I have also always thought that art ought to be judged for its own merit and not its creators. I have often heard a writer or a philosopher’s words discounted because of personal issues, and thought that irrelevant to the value of the work. Truth is truth wherever it comes from. 

    Posted by Eric Russell

  2. Well said. Philip Roth once said something to the effect, “We put the best of ourselves into our books. What’s left over in real life might not look as good.” 

    Posted by R.W. Rasband

  3. Eric, yes I’ve heard writers’/philosophers’ personal failings used as ad hominem attacks on their work. I’ve also heard people wonder how such-and-such a philosopher could write such great stuff and yet be (fill in the personal failing here). As if all truth must come from a pure source.

    I think there are times when we ought to put a person’s personal life on the table, say, in the case of a pedophile holding an influential position in the Boy Scouts of America for instance, and ask, “What does this mean?” And while it may be an academic exercise, I think it’s at least interesting to wonder what such-and-such a thinker might have done if he or she had not labored under the strain of infidelity. Not to discredit his or her work, but just to visualize the possibilities.

    There at least two positions a reader may take with a text, as illustrated by the Jonah story: the position of the Ninevehns, who know knowing nothing of events leading up to Jonah’s calling them to repentance or what happens afterward, and the position of readers of the whole biblical story, who do get a broader context from which to consider Jonah’s words and what they mean. All stories widen in this fashion, but I believe truth may fountain forth on any level.

    R.W., even in cases where we may not be putting the best of ourselves into our books (as Jonah’s motives in calling the people of Nineveh to repent were not the best), it’s interesting to me that sometimes our words are taken as being better than they are. Interesting stuff, what happens between readers and texts.  

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

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