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Zornberg, A.G. (2008). Jonah: A Fantasy of Flight. Psychoanal. Dial., 18(3):271-299.

(2008). Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 18(3):271-299

Jonah: A Fantasy of Flight Related Papers

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Ph.D.

In this paper, I explore a field of meaning evoked by Jonah's flight from God. Many commentaries and interpretations have emphasized the theological absurdity of such a flight; the prophets themselves have preached the omnipresence of God and the futility of human escapism. Classic midrashic explanations have focused on the theme of prophecy and on Jonah's reluctance to enable the survival of Nineveh, a notorious enemy of the Israelites, or on the “double bind” of a successful prophecy that is then disconfirmed.

Since there is little or no evidence for these theories in the text itself, I have chosen to focus on the nuances and resonances of the text, on the flight from God as a spiritual and psychological concept, both absurd and essential. This is set against its contrary—standing before God. I suggest that Jonah is evading a radical human posture between death and life, from which one may cry out to the Other from the depths of one's creaturely vulnerability. Within such a posture, chessed—a generous compassion for oneself and others—becomes possible. Jonah, however, seems driven by an almost allergic reaction to the idea of chessed, linked as it is to the vulnerable human place between life and death.

My paper then explores how this plays out in Jonah's stupefied sleep, in his death wish, and in his prayer from the belly of the whale. His insistence on “always already knowing” is seen as an important facet of his flight from the enigma of his humanity. In this context, Sophocles’ Oedipus is discussed, for the light it sheds on the problem of knowingness. Jonah's two prayers are

viewed as anti-prayers, or attacks on prayer, implicit and explicit expressions of his flight. I invoke an extraordinary midrashic text that links Jonah to the child resurrected by Elijah; the trauma of an early experience of death and resurrection lends unconscious resonance to his refusal to stand in that place between life and death. Finally, God's dialogue with Jonah in the last chapter stages an intense confrontation with his inner depths of anger, joy, and despair—with what Jonathan Lear (1999) has called the “motivated irrationality” of the human being possessed of an unconscious.

By way of conclusion, I suggest that in attempting to explain the enigma of Jonah's flight we have been brought up against God's final didactic question, which is left unanswered: Can a frantic need for certainty—Jonah's and ours—for a “last word” on the enigmas of human life, make way for a profound and loving acceptance of not-knowing? Perhaps Jonah's demonic outbursts can be heard as an authentic cry from the depths, as a nascent prayer that will connect him with his own need and with that of others.

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