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Joanna Russ in the Valley of Dry Bones

Boy, sometimes I'm amazed at the things I don't know. Today I was reading Andrew Sprung's analysis of Obama's Charleston eulogy and found there a quote from Obama's Dreams from My Father in which he lists stories from the Bible: "the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones." That last bit about Ezekiel hit me like a thunderclap.

I've long been mystified by the ending of Joanna Russ' science fiction novel, The Two of Them. In it the protagonist, Irene, has a dream about a valley of dry bones. It is completely and utterly and hopelessly dead: "Innumerable skeletons are spread from wall to wall, and piled up immeasurably into the half-grey, half-lost rocky ceiling so far from any open love or light, are skeletons lying as they fell long ago in aeons-old attitudes of terror or flight, bones intermingled with bones, heaps of bones choking the dry watercourse and stretching back between the valley walls, a dry, silent carpeting as far as the eye can see."

Irene hears "a little, cooing sigh" in her mind's ear: "Shall these bones live?" There is no hope of life for these bones, because they are a form of nothingness, and nothing can come from nothing. Yet something utterly mysterious happens, and the voiceless whisper -- "Shall these bones live!" -- becomes a little breeze. "It is nothing living but only the memory of another voice, the voice of Dunyazad, Shahrazad's sister, that mad, dead, haunted woman who could not tell stories, who could not save herself. It is the voicelessness of Dunyazad that passes like a sigh from wall to wall of the valley of dry bones and shivers faintly over the multitude of the dead. It has no Word. It has nothing to say. It whispers its crazy nonsense thoughtlessly and hopelessly to nothing at all, but where it passes, throughout the length of that still, grey place, there is the barest shiver, the faintest stir, the dimmest, most imperceptible rustling. You can barely see it. You can barely hear it. From autumn leaf to autumn leaf goes the message: something, nothing, everything. Something is coming out of nothing. For the first time, something will be created out of nothing."

I think I've always felt there was something biblical about this passage, especially the idea of creating something out of nothing (ex nihilo). However, until seeing that phrase from the Obama autobiography, I hadn't realized that she was riffing on a specific passage from the Bible, Ezekiel 37:1-14, which opens: 'The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”' The Lord tells Ezekiel to prophesy that the bones can live, and when Ezekiel does so, the bones are miraculously clothed with flesh. The Lord explains: '“Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel."'

What Russ is doing with this story is still a bit of a puzzle to me, because she is not appealing to anything supernatural, as far as I can tell. Yet what happens *is* mysterious. Somehow the unvoiced stories of a forgotten madwoman will bring something out of nothing? Those final pages of The Two of Them have always been inexplicably powerful for me, but even now knowing the source of the imagery I can't say I understand it. It is a call for hope when all is hopeless, and perhaps it's essentially a reminder that we don't understand the forces of history any better than we understand how the world came to be. But it seems to go beyond advising that there's no reason to feel hopeless; it seems to say that the untold stories -- the hidden truth -- still exert themselves on the world. Perhaps, then, it's a reminder that human history is not the stories we tell but actually a force greater than stories.

Comments

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
kate_schaefer
Jun. 28th, 2015 06:58 pm (UTC)
This passage is also the source of the song, "Dry Bones." Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.
randy_byers
Jun. 28th, 2015 07:07 pm (UTC)
I mean, I'm not going to say I'm a big Bible scholar, but I'm really surprised this particular story hasn't come to my attention before.
history_monk
Jun. 28th, 2015 07:10 pm (UTC)
I think Russ is simply saying, in her indirect way, "There is hope. There is always hope."
randy_byers
Jun. 28th, 2015 08:34 pm (UTC)
It's particularly potent coming at the end of a novel about the difficulty of imagining liberation in the face of the human predilection for oppression and injustice.
history_monk
Jun. 28th, 2015 09:35 pm (UTC)
Yup. Russ was an exceptionally fine writer.
ron_drummond
Jul. 6th, 2015 11:29 pm (UTC)
I'm very moved by this, and grateful that you took the time.

Forgive me, but I found I wanted to rewrite your last sentence thus -- but then, rereading it, I realize its first two words may obviate the need. I'll go ahead anyway: "It's a reminder that human history is not only the stories we tell but also -- perhaps predominantly -- a force greater than stories."

John Carroll, in his superb book-length exegesis of the Gospel of Mark (the New Testament's only masterpiece), The Existential Jesus, retranslates the opening of the Gospel of John as "In the beginning was the story", arguing that that word choice gets much closer to the meaning of the Greek word logos than "word" ever can. (Carroll's only comment in the book about his own beliefs is to affirm that he is not a "practicing Christian.")
randy_byers
Jul. 7th, 2015 12:33 am (UTC)
Thanks, Ron. Your edit of the final sentence is indeed more elegant than mine!

I was thinking later that perhaps the stance Russ took toward story in this novel is similar to Lao-tse's, "The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao."

By the way, I just posted a review of Shakespeare: An Ungentle Life. Thanks for giving me the book; it was well worth reading.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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