Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Dialogus

Here is the end of my September 11 arc. The following is what remained for me the least satisfying portion of the original version of Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain. My inabilty to make this epilogue work was the spur for my deleting all of the fabulations from the original text. I had intended to allow William of Norwich to speak in two voices: one the consecrated boy martyr interred in the cathedral after his crucifixion by the Jews, the other the twelve year old boy who did not seem especially holy in life and who might have been surprised at his postmortem transfiguration. It would be patterned on the medieval dialogus genre, in which a Christian debates a Jew (and in one famous case examined well by Steven Kruger, a converted Jew debates his former self).

The following will make little sense to anyone who doesn't know the story of William of Norwich. You can find out a bit about this first instance of the ritual murder accusation through the Medieval Sourcebook and Jewish Encyclopedia. You can find out much more in an article I wrote a few years ago ("The Flow of Blood in Medieval Norwich," Speculum 78 [2004]: 26-65) and in the last two chapters of Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain.

Here, then, is the original epilogue to the book. To see what I actually published instead, look here.

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Epilogue: Dialogus


Sanctus. That was a cheerful conclusion.

Will. You wanted the usual? Swelling strings, an affirmation of life, words to leave the reader with the conviction that, yes, human lives are the apex of all the world's goodness?

Sanctus. We got that in his last book. My complaint is that this time around we received the postcolonial usual. Author ascends high horse. Author declares in stentorian voice that the past was quite wicked. All the people who thought they were being pious turn out to be bigots. The church has blood on its hands. What I find astounding is that so many writers hostile to the Middle Ages seem drawn to its study.

Will. I like that pronouncement. With a dismissive little wave it lets you stay oh-so-above-it-all. The past is all white linen and candlelight, or it's nothing but dirt and blood -- is that it? I don't know what kind of world you inhabit, Sanctus. Heaven, I guess. But down here in the muck, it's hard to give the Norwich story a happy ending. Especially when you look at it through Jewish eyes.

Sanctus. And maybe that's the problem. Thomas of Monmouth wrote the life of a saint through Christian eyes. What JJC never admits is that this is a document composed in a spirit of reverence. It is not a testament of antisemitism and racial prejudice. Perverse, I think, to read the passion of a martyr so unfaithfully.

Will. The Real can't be as tidy as history and saints' lives pretend. Look at me, with my English blood and Norman pretensions. How screwed up is it that, with an uncle named Godwin, I'd find myself christened William and bang on the door of a cathedral to ask the archdeacon to let me in?

Sanctus. We lived at a time of deep transition, I agree. But not every transition is a trauma. Sometimes the Ethiopian does turn white, only it happens with such boring slowness that no one notices.

Will. And sometimes the Ethiopian is suddenly shouted down as a nigger! Read your Fanon. He's forced to notice a skin color that never mattered before. Sometimes, too, the Ethiopian takes a pale wife. They have children with black and white polka dots on their skin -- I read that in Parzifal. Sometimes a Christian befriends a Jew. I always imagined that in life I had Jewish pals when Iw as alive. Look at the stories about the child martyrs who came after me, boys like Hugh of Lincoln. Jews and Christians lived as neighbors. Their kids played with one another. Why do we have to imagine ghettoes when houses touched? Maybe that's why the Jews of Norwich trusted me to mend their cloaks. I was a friend to their sons. You won't find these boys mentioned in Thomas's story. He always dressed me in white and made me sing pretty hymns. You'd never even guess I spent my life skinning animals and dipping their hides into piss and manure to cure them. No odor of sanctity around me. I stunk like dead skins and shit.

Sanctus. Just because you worked with excrement as part of your trade does not mean that its filth came from your mouth in life. Why can't you believe what Thomas wrote? Why do you need to doubt? I would not be the first twelve-year-old boy with a dedication to purity. I was meant to be worthy of emulation, Christ in miniature, and you make me seem as soiled as a tanner's work. Simply and innocently, couldn't it be that I believed what any citizen of Norwich must have held to be true: to be a Christian is to desire the world to be Christian? That's not violence. That's not hatred. It's generosity, and love.

Will. I don't think you've met many twelve-year-old boys. Thomas said the Jews favored me. I'm guessing that's because -- unlike your friends at the priory -- I didn't disdain them. The more I think about it, the more I know this to be true: I must have had a Jewish friend. His name was Isaac, I'll guess, and he lived near the market. Twelve years old, like me. He'd just had his bar mitzvah. He already knew he was going to marry a girl from London. Thomas called me a puerulus, a little boy, but everyone knows that by twelve you're practically a man. Old enough to hold a weapon. Old enough to kill someone. Don't forget that when I was murdered, I was already living on my own. Thomas makes it seem like I was barely housebroken, not a wicked thought in my head.

Sanctus. Ah, but no matter how old I was, no matter if I was a puerulus or not, I was innocent. Perhaps I did have a Jewish friend as you say, Will. But I may have befriended him to convert him. If he was really my friend, I doubt I'd want to think about him in hell. I may even have brought him to church once, and he beheld the Eucharist and –

Will. Saw a Christ child in the bread? Went home and his dad shoved him into an oven? This is why I hate hagiography. You can see the conclusion coming from a mile away.

Sanctus. Just because something is conventional does not mean that it is devoid of truth, or beauty. And here is my next criticism of JJC: he is so intent on finding the social meanings of texts he forgets that they are also moving and reverent works of art.

Will. I thought that's why he wrote his fabulations. The texts infected him, and he began to speak in their mode.

Sanctus. Maybe the histories. I'm not sure hagiography infects. It awes. Every time I read of the tortures inflicted upon my earthly body I feel a semblance of the pains of Christ. I weep.

Will. I also cry. But it's not because our suffering called a community together. It's not because the death gave the faithful a better understanding of their messiah's ordeal. Eight and a half centuries ago a twelve year old boy died in misery and alone. He was tortured to his death for reasons that can never be comprehended. I don't cry because he was an allegory. I cry for everything he couldn't know.

Sanctus. Will, you would leave me without meaning. I cannot imagine a world so empty.

Will. I can't imagine a world so full.

Sanctus. This book began on an airplane. JJC had been invited by to give a lecture for a conference on monstrosity, Incontrare i Mostri, in Salerno. He had written a moderately interesting piece about disability studies and the promise of monsters. Then September 11 happened. On the long trip to Italy by way of London, exactly one month after the attacks, he rewrote the entire talk. He wanted to know why innocent people die horribly. Suspended between heaven and earth, floating above the Atlantic and the Alps, he couldn't come to a convincing answer.

Will. It seems to me that on that crossing of the seas he was afraid of losing his own son, a puerulus and a Jew. He had learned the world's fragility, and it was love for a child that made him unable to stop thinking about a boy who died in Norwich in 1144. He couldn't save us, dead by unknown hands, but he could memorialize us. He could make us live. He could say something about community, outsiders, hatred, monsters. He could restore a little meaning to a lost world. For his son.

Sanctus. And so William becomes a saint again. Not an especially Christian one, but a saint all the same. A battered body offered for reverence, a small beacon of promise.

Will. Amen.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Neat.

I find myself in trouble - struggling with different versions, different strategies for presenting what I have written. But in the bigger scheme of things - what a nice problem to have.

2) Your Norwich article was reviewed in the Econ. Hist. Review's annual review of periodical lit.

Wonder if you knew that - a rather unexpected location perhaps?
n50

hd said...

I'm still mulling over the dialogus, especially the moment when sanctus/will ponders their relationship to meaning...

i've been wanting to write something smart about jjc's experimentation with imagined conversations and Pope's current faux pas (see below). But, I can't seem to comment on it without implicitly reproducing Sanctus/willy's disagreement-- that either the world is full of meaning or empty of it. (this reflects my limitations or perhaps the stress of back to school!) anyway what i like about the form of JJC's experimental conclusion is that it underscores that there are always other anachronistic folks lurking in the conversation... here, JJC's son.

Anyway, I offer this for others to consider:

"The pope's controversial remarks came when he was quoting a conversation that took place in Ankara in the year 1391 between Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on Christianity and Islam.

'Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached,' the pope quoted Manuel as saying." (http://portal.tds.net/news.php?story=15904)

When CNN picked up the story, the educated Persian disappeared:

"In his speech at the University of Regensburg on Tuesday, Benedict quoted criticism of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad by 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus, who wrote that everything Mohammad brought was evil and inhuman, 'such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.'"
(http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/africa/09/14/pope.muslims.reut/index.html?section=cnn_world)

hd said...

oh wow-- it's on the front cover of today's NYT, too.

Eileen Joy said...

" . . . either the world is fully of meaning or empty of it."

It's both.

J J Cohen said...

Thus our agony as humans.

My sympathy is mostly with Will, but I didn't want to rule Sanctus out either. It's all about those middle spaces, the plane before it lands ...

J J Cohen said...

HD: the disappearance of that educated Persian is fascinating, isn't it? So is the conflation of the pope's own words with the dialogue he was quoting. Ironic, too, that this conflation and the outrage it sparks can so quickly give ways to calls for ... violence.