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ROBERT COOVERS MYTHOPOEIA AND THE PEIRCEAN INTERPRETANT: THE BIBLE REVISITED

The Bible is a sacred book which has had an enormous influence in Western culture. It is, according to Nortrop Frye, the main source for undisplaced myth in our tradition (Frye 1975:140). As an anthology compounded by narratives and poetic writings (such as The Psalms and the Song of Solomon), the Bible is also part of literature and has a great influence on it. Its narratives have been told and retold throughout the ages, emphasizing its strength as a modeling system of Western culture, not only as a religious book, but also as a source of literary thought. Postmodern literature, for instance, has promoted, among many other issues, a return to past narratives (Hutcheon 1988: 4), either mythical or historical, including the biblical narratives. One example of this fact is Robert Coovers two short stories that deal with biblical themes: The brother and Js marriage. The new element present in these narratives is that Coover rearticulates the biblical text, opening new possibilities of interpretation for those Christian myths. Edmund Leach affirms in Genesis as myth that all stories that occur in the Bible are myths for the devout Christian, whether they correspond to historical facts or not. (...) The non-rationality of the myth is its true essence, since religion demands a demonstration of faith which is made by suspending the critical doubt (1987: 57). Coovers short stories have the effect of bringing back the critical doubt, since

they question the established meaning of the biblical text. Coovers new way to articulate his texts in comparison to the biblical narratives leads to quite different interpretations of the myth. From a semiotic point of view, considering Charles Sanders Peirces definition of a sign, which says that

[a] sign or representamen, is something which stands to somebody in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea which I have sometimes called the ground of the representamen (CP 2. 228) , the Bible, then, is a sign whose object is the history of the world and the relationship between God and his supreme creation: the human being. For Christians, the interpretant of this sign is the truth, configured in Gods existence, whose presence the Bible evokes. The ground for Christians to achieve this interpretant is exactly the suspension of the critical doubt which Leach affirms to be necessary to give the myth its essential meaning: there is no questioning of what is written in the Bible. The Christian faith takes for granted that it is truly Gods word. Coover himself recognizes myths as strong systems of signification for people, when he says that the force of myth and mythopoeic thought is with us all the time. The crucial beliefs of people are mythic in nature; whether at the level of Cinderella story or of the Resurrection , the language is mythopoeic rather than rational (Gado 1973: 152). Concluding that the only way to struggle against myth is on myths own ground (Gado 1973: 154), he manages to take out from the myth its power of keeping the knowledge of truth: [w]hy not accept it all as story; not as literal truth but simply as a story that tells us something metaphorically, about ourselves and the world? (Gado 1973: 154). As signs, Coover stories enable the creation of interpretants. In The brother and Js marriage, Coover keeps the same object of the Bible the story about ourselves and the worldbut by changing the referencethe groundthese signs create an interpretant quite different from the one the Bible provides.

The Book of Genesis tells about the creation of the world and is one among thousands versions of cosmogonic myths. The flood is another recurrent mythic structure, symbolizing a ritual of death and rebirth. Flood myths are spread among different cultures. There is, for instance, the Greek version in the story of Deucalion, and a passage in the Gilgamesh epic tells about a flood provoked by the wrath of the gods. Flood narratives are common among the Indians, and Jos de Alencar used one of this versions in his novel O Guarani, in which he tells the story of Tamandar, who survived a flood. Noahs story, narrated in Genesis 6-9, is one of the variants that compound the myth ( Levi-Strauss 1975: 252). In the biblical version the assurance that the earth is corrupted by sin makes God decide to put an end to humankind, but the righteous and good ones. Noah is the only one who fits Gods taste and sails in the ark with his family and the animals, when God sends the rain over the earth until it floods and destroys all flesh. Purified by water, the earth is ready to start again, setting a new cosmogony, under Noahs ancestry. The brother, Coovers version of the biblical flood, retells the story under the perspective of Noahs brother, one of those condemned by God to die. In The brother, the reader is now able to know about the experience lived by those who did not have the opportunity to leave with Noah in the boat. They are clearly left apart from the agreement made between God and Noah, since throughout the story the brother does not mention a relationship between God and Noah. The brother and his wife ignore that the ship they are helping to build means Noahs salvation from the coming flood. Although the brother does not understand Noahs project, he helps him and even neglects his own farm. This is the first hint given by Coover that Noahs brother is not as evil and sinful as God regarded him and perhaps many people, pointing out to a probable great mistake in Gods judgment. This idea that God was wrong in choosing only Noah as a just and good man is reinforced by Noahs depiction throughout the story. In the brothers words, for instance, Noah is shown as a fool, clumsy man: (...) God knows how he ever found out to build a damn boat lost in his fog where he is Lord he was twenty when I was born and the first thing I remember was havin to lead him around

so he didnt get kicked by a damn mule him who couldnt never do nothin in a normal way just a huge oversize fuzzyface boy (...)1 When the rain falls and Noahs brother realizes that there is something wrong, that if he does not do something he, his wife and the baby will die, he remembers the boat and sees a way to escape from the flood. But when he asks Noah to allow him to enter the boat, he just raises his hands in that same sillyas way (97) and goes back to the boat, leaving the brother alone. Unable to understand the situation, the brother swims back home and finds his wife drowned. From the top of a hill, watching the waters coming upper and upper, the brother faces his end, and his last thoughts are to Noah: how did he know? (98) he wonders, emphasizing his ignorance about the pact between God and Noah. Coovers narrative leads the reader to feel sympathy towards Noahs brother and his wife at the same time it presents Noah in such a way that it is difficult to think of him as a good and just man. As Larry McCaferry argues certainly the fact that there is no biblical logic provided t o help justify what is happening emphasizes the human aspects ... and makes Noahs refusal of aid to his brother seem cruel and cold (1982: 64). The story of the flood told by one of those who died shifts entirely the biblical version, which makes the readers take for granted that the whole humankind is sinful, but Noah. Coovers short story questions Gods judgment by pointing out that at least three more people deserved to live: Noahs brother, his wife and the child they expected, an innocent victim of Gods wrath. The story leads the readers to reflect on those who couldnt follow Noah in the ark and perished, and this new angle provided by Coover is the main cause of a change of the interpretant. Likewise, that is the strategy Coover uses in Js marriage: like in The brother, Coover invents many details which werent important to the myth, but which were crucial to his manipulation of it (McCaffery 1982: 62). In this story he describes Joseph and Marys relationship and shows a different image again, in comparison to the one presented in the Bible.

Coover, Robert. Pricksongs and descants. New York: New American Library, 1969. p. 93. Further references are to this edition and page numbers will be included parenthetically in the text.

Mary and Josephs story is included in Jesus Christs story, which is identified with the myth of the Redeemer figure, the Messiah, the hero who sacrifices him/herself in order to save the rest of humankind. Mary is the virgin chosen to be the mother of Gods son, and Joseph, her husband, Jesus earthy father. The Gospels in the New Testament do no furnish details about Mary and Josephs life. The story commonly known is that Mary and Joseph were engaged, then the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she would give birth to a child, the Lords son and she should call him Jesus. At first, Joseph did not trust Mary, but an angel appeared in his dreams and convinced him that the child was i n fact Gods son and that he should help Mary. Of the four Gospels, only the one according to Saint Matthew makes references to Josephs feelings, the others do no tell anything about him and Mary: they start from Jesus birth or relate only the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary. In Saint Matthew it is said that when Joseph knew that Mary was pregnantand not of him, since they had not slept together he wanted to put her away, but the angels appearance changed his mind. Concerning their sexual life, only Saint Matthew, again, tells something about it. In his Gospel he says that Joseph knew her [Mary] not till she brought forth her first born son: and he called his name Jesus ( Matthew 1, 25). What Coovers Js marriage shows is the daily life and feelings of Joseph and Mary, calling attention, once more, to the hidden aspects of their story. The biblical account is very brief, since the main focus in the New Testament is Jesus. Joseph and Mary are mere secondary characters and Josephs participation is very discrete. In Js marriage , Joseph is the main character. The readers have access to his feelings and thoughts. Through Coovers narrative it is known that Joseph was much older than Mary, and far more broadly educated ( 112). The sexual aspect is emphasized from the beginning, since it tells about Josephs desire by Mary. He wants to make love, but she refuses without explanations. Joseph, then, decides to marry her, but [to] his great embarrassment, however, she was shocked by his proposal, apparently so at least, and pleaded for time (112). Unable to understand her behavior, Joseph gets depressed, and Mary takes care of him. He proposes her marriage, what she accepts, but in her terms: they will not have a sexual intercourse until she feels ready to do it.

After the wedding Joseph patiently waits for her to accept him, but she does not change her behavior, so that Joseph thought in despair that he would indeed pass the rest of his years tossing sleeplessly, tortured, alongside her marvelous, but impenetrable body (116). One day, when he tries once more to make love to her, she tells him she is expecting a baby. She explains that her pregnancy was an act of God. He gets ill, wondering what had brought a God to do such a useless and well, yes, in a way, almost vulgar thing (117). It is difficult for Joseph to accept Marys explanation because he is unable to reconcile it with any rational conception of God (McCaferry 1982: 63). This way to reflect on the divine conception reinforces once more Coovers proposal of emphasizing the human aspects of the biblical myths. There are no mentions throughout the story to Joseph and Mary being religious people, to their thinking of and discussing about God, nothing that resembles their behavior in the biblical narrative. In fact, the name Mary is not mentioned and Joseph is referred only by a Kafkaesque J (McCaferry 1982: 62). The only reference to Marys son is that he and Joseph ignore each otherJesus is in fact an absent character in the story . Some months after the boys birth, Joseph and Mary finally have their first sexual intercourse, but to Joseph it happened in an atmosphere so different from that he had dreamt of that he even doubted it had really happened. To Mary it did not seem to make any difference, either. She slept just after, conveying a impression of having done her wifes duties properly. Coover depicts JJoseph, according to McCaffery, as a slightly parodic forerunner of the modern existential man; (...) he strains to find meaning and significance in the seemingly irrational events of his life (1982: 62-63). As a saint, a chosen man, Joseph probably would endure (and the biblical Joseph did) the duties and sacrifices Gods decisions demanded from him. As an ordinary human being, without angels to advise him, Coovers Joseph refuses to be part of the myth and fails to comprehend his role in Marys life, and consequently in Jesus and all the process of Christianity. Just before dying Joseph realizes that [his] life turned out to be nothing more o r less than he had expected after all, (...) in spite of everything there, was nothing tragic about it, no, nothing there to get wrought up about, on the contrary (119). His conclusion shows that Joseph lived and understood his life as a human being and that out of this context he was unable to construct a meaning for it.

It was proposed in the beginning of this paper that the subversion of the biblical myths in Coovers two short stories is achieved through the different interpretants these stories , as signs, lead to. According to Peirces semiotic theory, he distinguishes three kinds of interpretants: the immediate, the

dynamic and the final. He defines them as follows:


The Immediate Interpretant is the immediate pertinent possible effect in its unanalyzed primitive entirety. In the case of a sign interpreted by a mind, that idea (in a very extended sense) which must be apprehended in order that the sign should fulfill its function. (...) The

Dynamical Interpretant is the actual effect produced upon a given interpreter on a given
occasion in a given stage of his consideration of the sign. (...)The Final interpretation is the ultimate effect of the sign, so far as it is intended or destined, from the character of the sign, being more or less of a habitual and formal nature. (Ms. 339d: 546-547) What can be inferred from these concepts of interpretants is that within the immediate interpretant, which stresses the range of interpretative possibilities a sign has in a certain moment of the semiosis (Pinto 1995: 32 ), Coover managed to set another dynamic interpretant for the biblical accounts by sphere to a fictional one. Christianity tends to imprison the interpretant by trying to hold one universal meaning to the biblical text. It works as if the dynamic interpretant of the Bible the truth of God were also the final interpretant, closing further possibilities of interpretation. sign of possibilities, it is a sign whose interpretant is not limited to what it can refer as object, that is, it is an open, undetermined sign (Pinto 1995: 44). Literature, then, does not claim what it proposes to be true or false, it just proposes: its validity is verifiable only within the ontology of the text (Jeha 1991: 70). As texts, the same happens with the biblical narratives, even if the religious ground forces the meaning to this or that direction. The openness of the literary sign is the field explore d by Coover in his short stories and is characteristic of many postmodern narratives which rework texts considered closed in terms of meaning. Revising the canon is a prevailing issue of postmodern literature. Literature, as a rhematic sign, is a transferring the myth from the religious

This flexibility of creating new interpretants is possible because the sign has no transparency of signification: we can never say for sure that a sign has this or that interpretant. It derives from Peirces expression in some respect or capacity. It is enough that a trait works as the ground to understand the sign as sign of (Pinto 1995: 51-52). It is the opacity of the sign that allows Coover to see the biblical stories in a new perspective and shows that, from a semiotic view, no meaning is static.

WORKS CITED Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of criticism: four essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973. Gado, Frank (Ed.). First person: conversations on writers & writings. Schenectady, NY: Union College Press, 1973. Hutcheon, Linda. A poetics of postmodernism: history, theory, fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988. Jeha, Julio Cesar. A construo de mundos na literatura no realista. Belo Horizonte: Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais. (Tese de Doutorado) Translations mine. Leach, Edmund. O gnesis enquanto um mito. In: Malta, Roberto (Org.). Edmund Leach: antropologia. Trad. Alba Zaluar Guimares. So Paulo: tica, 1983. p. 57- 69. (Coleo grandes cientistas sociais, n. 38). Translations mine Levi-Strauss, Claude. Antropologia Estrutural. Rio de Janeiro: Tempo Brasileiro, 1975. McCaferry, Larry. The Metafictional muse: the works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William Gass. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982. Peirce, Charles Sander. Collected papers. Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss, and Arthur R. Burks (Eds.). Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1931-1935, 1938. Pinto, Julio. 1,2,3 da Semi/otica. Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG, 1995. Translations mine.

The Holy Bible. New York: The Douay House, 1944.