A New Book Starts with the Biblical Passage of the Red Sea

Philosophy Professor Lydia Goehr follows the many thinkers and artists who have made use of a famous anecdote in her new book.

Eve Glasberg
February 15, 2022

Commissioned to depict the biblical passage through the Red Sea, a painter covered a surface with red paint, explaining that the Israelites had already crossed over and that the Egyptians were drowned. Who was the painter, and who the first teller of the tale?

Designed as a philosophical detective story, Red Sea-Red Square-Red Thread by Philosophy Professor Lydia Goehr follows the many thinkers and artists who have used the Red Sea anecdote to make so much more than a merely anecdotal point. The group includes philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, opera composer Giacomo Puccini, and painter and printmaker William Hogarth.

Goehr discusses her new book with Columbia News, along with the importance of Charlie Chaplin in her childhood reading, and why she would invite her former violin teachers to a dinner party.

Q. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

A. I was sitting at the Metropolitan Opera, listening to Puccini’s La Bohème, and was struck by the very first line, when the painter Marcello sings, “This Red Sea.” He then declares that he is about to drown Pharaoh, presumably, with red paint.

 At that point, 13 years ago, I was interested in how paintings are used within operas. (I had recently written about an alleged Dürer painting of David slaying Goliath, alluded to by Wagner in Die Meistersinger.) I wanted to know what Pharaoh’s death had to do with Mimi’s death, which ends Puccini’s opera. I realized that the very same image of the Red Sea crossing had been used by Arthur Danto, my friend and predecessor at Columbia, to open his book on the philosophy of art, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. In his opening, Danto quoted Kierkegaard’s use of the Red Sea image at the beginning of Either/Or

I began to look for more uses of that image, and ended up finding more examples than one can count on many hands. I used the story of the painting, a witty and spiteful anecdote, to track repeated historical moments of deliverance from every sort of servitude. I used the short anecdote to weave a long history about persecution and prejudice set against the repeated call for freedom. Out of the repeated uses, I wrote a philosophy and history of and about repetition and appropriation, based on borrowed words and borrowed images to sustain a patchwork view of creativity.

Red Sea Red Square Red Thread by Columbia University Professor Lydia Goehr

Q. Why do you frame the book as a philosophical detective story?

A. I wrote the book in part to reflect my own searching for the Red Sea painting as described in the anecdote. To search for a painting that exists only as description (as an ekphrasis) means that one may take many detours along winding roads to discover a thought. The philosophical method of detection and detour was much favored by philosophers and writers, from Robert Burton and Michel de Montaigne to Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno.

This method of detection was a way for me to step into bodies of water that were made symbolically to repeat the passage over the Red Sea, to enter worlds of monochromatic painting where nothing was shown but a red, plain, or blank surface, and to seek the many threads that brought Nietzsche to his description of truth as “a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people.”

Q. What is your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

A. My first favorite book, when I was a child, was the autobiography of Charlie Chaplin. Since then, I have had not so much favorites as books that I read with a passion for my intellectual projects. And though those projects have been primarily in philosophy, I have read the same books in many disciplines over and over again.  

Q. What's next on your reading list?

A. The writings of Susanne Langer, a significant contributor to the philosophy of music. Her book so well titled Philosophy in a New Key and her The Practice of Philosophy were both very influential. 

Q. What are you teaching this semester?

A. Philosophy of Literature and a seminar on Aesthetic and Politics. The theme for all my teaching this year has been masks, hence, theories from antiquity to contemporary writings about persona and social roles; make-up and make-believe; disguise, protection, and concealment.

Q. You're hosting a dinner party. Which three academics or scholars, dead or alive, would you invite, and why?

If they had to keep a safe distance, maybe the ghosts of times past. Having returned to my violin after decades without playing, and intending to write my next book on ideas of relearning and practice, I would invite the teachers who taught me the first time around to talk with the teachers who are teaching me today. Becoming a student again is a great privilege, and gives me new insight into my own teaching.

Rereading the answers I have given to all these questions, I see that they share a notion of repetition, of doing the same thing again and again, but with, each time, there being something different to take into account, or, in musical terms, of which to take note. My new project has three chapters drawn from a joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall. The answer—practice, practice, practice. One chapter will be on practicing as an art of learning; the second, on the idea of a rehearsal (rehearing); and the third on the repetitions by which a practice constantly tests a theory.

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