I have recently been rereading Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages: Translating Cultures, ed. Ananya Jahanara Kabir and Deanne Williams. Michelle Warren has a great essay in the collection on Joseph Bédier, Creole identity, and his edition of the Chanson de Roland. Since Michelle is (barring another Snowpocalypse) coming to DC tomorrow to participate in a seminar and to give our second Gateway Lecture, I assigned her essay to a student doing independent study with me and provided it to my "Myths of Britain" class as optional background reading. I skimmed some other essays in the book today as well, mainly to see if they would hold up as well now as when I read the book for review in Notes and Queries. They do.
But some lines from the introduction ("A Return to Wonder") trip me up. In fact they troubled me in 2006, when I reviewed the book, but I decided not to include a mention of my notice then: I hate those book reviews that list errors the reviewer has found because they frequently seem so petty, a useless indulgence in the tedious academic game of "Gotcha!" I know on the one hand that the line is a simple error, a mistake that should not have survived the copyeditor. I know that my reaction to it is emotional, and making too much of it seems like misreading the intentions of the volume. But still I get stuck on it. Speaking of "The Meeting of the Magi," an illustration from the gorgeous Très riches heures de Jean duc de Berry, Kabir and Williams write of star blazing over what seems to be Paris passed off as Jerusalem:
Just to the left of its spires [i.e., the Montjoie, an architectural marking of a site from which crusaders could see Jerusalem] nestles the Star of David. As the Magi, of Zoroastrian faith and Eastern origins, witness the unfolding of a new religion, this focal conjunction of star and spire subsumes a variety of human times and places within the eternal and the providential (4)They note that this image is at once potentially ecumenical and timeless as well as violent and repeating ("Montjoie!" is the cry of Charlemagne's men against the Saracens; to place Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame in Jerusalem is to "mask" its status as battleground). They conclude:
As the Star of David beckons to the Magi, we are reminded of the centrality of encounters with difference to Christian mythology. Simultaneously, the appropriation of Jerusalem for Paris recalls the more recent invocations, by both George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, of the 'clash of civilizations' and the medieval crusades. Nevertheless, the star itself radiates alternative interpretive strategies. (4-5)Among these strategies: Herod reads the star differently from the Magi; the Magi can be read as the East already within the West via cross-cultural commingling; contact zones open up; the luxury objects and animals have "social lives" that can be traced.
I, of course, love such affirmatively differing reading projects, and said as much in my review of the book:
By focusing upon the crowded, diverse field of signs that composes the illustration, Kabir and Williams demonstrate that despite its pious Christianity the Magi scene cannot be reduced (or translated) into some uncomplex or unambivalent narrative. The sumptuous image radiates wonder, an exhilarating mixture of beauty and dissonance. And it is this noise -- heard when the critic is attentive to alternatives, exclusions -- that the contributors to Postcolonial Approaches seek.But I get stuck every time I read that the "Star of David" is shining above the Magi. Because it isn't. That five pointed golden object is the Star of Bethlehem or Christmas star. The six pointed star of David (magen David in Hebrew) is sometimes adopted and employed by Christians. But the Star of David is a symbol rooted in Jewish tradition from at least the 12th century and has long served as a symbol for Jewish identity, self-chosen (I have a magen David necklace) and imposed (most infamously in the yellow stars inscribed Jude of the Nazi regime). My wondering about the Star of Bethlehem becoming the Star of David makes me read these inspirational lines a little later in Postcolonial Approaches with some concern:
If the experience of viewing this illumination produces wonder and rapture (in its literal sense of being borne away, upwards) then translation itself may be viewed as a kind of transcendence. And transcendence, itself, speaks with two tongues: on the one hand, it moves towards the erasure of difference, and on the other, it moves away from pernicious distinctions and toward incorporation as well as variegation (6)So what about those of us who do not want to be incorporated? What about those who look upon the image and see its movement towards wonder and rapture as a movement towards revelation, religious inspiration, and want to resist that translation, want to live outside its supposedly universal sphere? What about those for whom the Star of Bethlehem does not announce the arrival of a messiah? Those for whom to make a Star of Bethlehem into a Star of David seems like a supercession, a translation to be resisted? So what about the resistant reader, the one who wonders at the transformative wonder that was supposed to be instilled, a wonder that left him feeling untranscendant? What about the Jew, for whom the star in such an image can never be the magen David, only the symbol of a dominating culture and the violence that can hide behind universalism?