Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Eloquent silence

Quote of the day, again from Steven F. Kruger, The Spectral Jew. I'm enjoying my reading of this book so much that I have been slow in moving through its pages. In my own work, I've thought quite a bit about medieval noise. Today I'd like to share an excerpt from Kruger's book on the eloquence of silence.

Kruger is examining the records of medieval debates staged between Christians and Jews, disputations which generically unfold as Christian triumphs over innate Jewish blindness. What do you do when you are a rabbi forced to enter such a performance as the speaker for all Jews, your role as loser given to you in advance? What can you say against an authority that has already judged you as deficient and wrong? Is it any surprise that the textual record will record repeatedly that "The Rabbi publicly confessed that he knew nothing more with which to respond"?
Such repeated descriptions of Jewish nonresponse in the Christian record of the disputation add up to a declaration of Christian triumph, and in such moments of self-silencing, we might read the rabbis as participating in their own erasure, in the moves to contain and reduce the Jewish embodiment put at center stage in the disputation.

But Jewish self-censorship and silence might also be read as resistance -- a refusal, increasing as the debate proceeds, to participate in a process over which the rabbis have no control. That is, silence may be one strategy for staying Jewish -- for the rabbis' maintaining an integrity as Jews -- in a situation where doing so by presenting honestly the varying and sometimes discordant traditions of Jewish interpretation or by strongly proclaiming one's beliefs seems increasingly impossible. (p. 200)

Or as Cicero once said, cum tacent clamant: when they are silent, they scream.


Anonymous said...

This is exactly how I have always read Griselda's silence in Chaucer's "Clerk's Tale"--as a kind of silent accusation which is, at the same time, an absolute void of an interior self that could be capable of accusing. But still, by her silence, she does accuse, and she also judges.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Good point, and well put.

I suppose the primary model for Christian depictions of silent expressiveness would be Jesus, who refused to answer his interrogators. The York Cycle play “Christ before Herod” captures the maddening effect of this refusal of words well (see this for a little bit on it).

A different kind of silence would be that of the previously loquacious Pardoner, in the shock that follows the Host's threat to cut his balls off. That seems to me a wordlessness that really does convey the impossibility of communication.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, despite his rather catchy axiom, Cicero himself was rarely silent.

See also "A Man for all Seasons" for a similar take on "screaming silences."

However, I must ask, as a misanthrope, why should you care why these people are silent? It can obviously be ascribed to the irrational nature of man.

Hey, bro. Been a while since I have checked out your board. Can't believe you are passing yourself off as a misanthrope these days. Don't be fooled. He is definitely the self-important professor-types. ;0)

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, bro. I knew you'd appreciate the Cicero quote, since it was drummed into our heads in Latin class.

Anonymous said...

Which reminds me of my favorite disputation joke.

Several centuries ago, the Pope decreed he would have a religious debate with a leader of the Jewish community. If the Jewish leader won the debate, the Jews would be permitted to stay. If the Pope won, the Jews would have to leave.

The Jewish leader, Rabbi Moishe, could not speak Latin and the Pope could not speak Yiddish. So it was decided that this would be a "silent" debate.

On the day of the great debate, the Pope and Rabbi Moishe sat opposite each other for a full minute before the Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers.

Rabbi Moishe looked back and raised one finger.

Next, the Pope waved his finger around his head.

Rabbi Moishe pointed to the ground where he sat.

The Pope then brought out a communion wafer and chalice of wine.

Rabbi Moishe pulled out an apple.

With that, the Pope stood up and said, "I publicly confess that I have nothing more to say. The Jews can stay."

Later, the Cardinals gathered around the Pope, asking him what had happened.

The Pope said, "First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up one finger to remind me that there was still one God common to both our religions. Then I waved my finger around me to show him that God was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground to show that God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and the wafer to show that God absolves us of our sins. He pulled out an apple to remind me of original sin. He had an answer for everything. What could I do?"

Meanwhile, the Jewish community crowded around Rabbi Moishe, asking what happened.

"Well," said Moishe, "first he said to me, 'You Jews have three days to get out of here.'

So I wagged my finger to say no way we are leaving. Then he tells me the whole city would be cleared of Jews.

So I pointed to this spot to say we're staying right here

"And then?" asked a woman.

"Who knows?" said Rabbi Moishe. "He took out his lunch and I took out mine."