Was Sichst Du? is a game of perception. Erhard Schön’s etching from 1537 depicts Jonah in a state of prayer, emerging from the fish’s mouth. When you approach the work from the left side, however, a squatting man is revealed engaged in the act of elimination. What are we to make of this juxtaposition between the highest of the high—a repentant religious prophet–and the lowest of the low–the grotesque, animal body? Why Jonah?
Jonah is a prophet in digestion. At the story’s climax, he is swallowed by the sea and pushed down to the deep in rhythmic waves. Jonah lands inside the belly—the churning core of Leviathan’s chaos.
The Hebrew is rather blasé about this traumatic event. It’s akin to Exit, swallowed by a fish. Yet the imagery is undeniably visceral, and Rabbis have long enjoyed contemplating Jonah’s reality. Explaining why the fish’s gender changes between the first and second verses of Chapter 2, Rashi imagines that Jonah was first swallowed by a male fish. God, finding the prophet unmoved inside the cavernous belly, facilitates a mouth-to-mouth transfer towards more crowded conditions: a pregnant female.
Jonah is inside the bowels of creation, where matter is broken down before being transformed and reassembled. He compares his state to that of one inside the grave, and the mystics of the Zohar interpret Jonah’s journey as a metaphor for death and entrance to the afterlife. In great detail, they describe how the soul separates from the dead, the corpse rots into the ground, and the spirit is tested and judged.
We may think that, in death, all motion has stopped. But in fact we are in digestion, transforming inside the earth’s belly.
Jonah, meanwhile, is indigested. After three days sitting inside a giant stomach, he closes his guttural appeal with an offering of sacrifices and payment—the physical byproduct of his spiritual meal. But Jonah’s transformation is interrupted. Rather than passing through the system, he is regurgitated onto shore. He arrives in Nineveh and is an instant success.
As the story winds down to anticlimax, Jonah is sitting, suicidal, by the side of a worm, its belly full of beloved gourd. The most basic of crawling things, a worm is, in evolutionary terms, little more than a digestive tract that wriggles through the ground. They reflect our most basic selves back to us, and remind us that our place at the top of the food chain will one day be subverted. The low will bring down the high.
Yet what if we could escape from the binary of status, and hold both ideas in our mind at once. Our communal story is one of adventure on the seas, and also of sitting calmly under a shady tree. Our prayers and souls fly up to heaven, while our bodies and possessions return to the earth. It’s a long journey; we’re only passing through.