Monday, January 14, 2008

Pitched past pitch of grief

My thanks to JJC for the invitation to post at In the Middle and to the co-bloggers for their consent.

In fall 2007, I was excited to prepare an entire graduate course on Genesis 22:1-19, what the Judaic tradition calls "the binding of Isaac" and what Christianity has termed "the sacrifice of Isaac." My academic work concerns children and violence in medieval texts, specifically the idea of sacrifice, and I had recently been reading the work of Emmanuel Levinas, whose "ethics as first philosophy" had challenged many thinking. I was especially taken with Levinas's critique of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, a text that had long been central to my thinking about God and faith. I'd also just recently been wrestling with (yet again) Derrida's Gift of Death, and like a series of Russian nested dolls (Derrida reading Levinas [via Patozca] reading Kierkegaard), a whole course suggested itself. I'd design ENGL 636, Studies in Contemporary Theory, as an examination of the Akedah, from its articulation in the book of Genesis, through its New Testament, Patristic, and Midrashic interpretations, and then finally to its contemporary transformations in Kierkegaard, Levinas, and Derrida. At the center, we'd look Rene Girard's theory of sacrifice and at some Middle English plays of the Akedah to see what they might tell us.

The reading list was challenging and the secondary material available was enormous, but I was jazzed—what a great luxury, to spend an entire semester on 19 verses from the Bible!—and the course filled up quickly with students from our small MA program and one guy from CWLA, Creative Writing and Literary Arts. He usually sat immediately to my right at our large conference table, his ball cap pulled tight over his forehead. I hadn't ever had him in class before, but at our opening class meeting he introduced himself as Jason Wenger, and he signed up for the class because he heard my classes were good and I was an interesting teacher. He didn't really need the course. He just wanted to take it.


The details were sketchy, at first. Sometime early Sunday morning, December 2, a 28 year old man in Palmer, 45 miles north of Anchorage, had hacked his father to death with a machete and wounded his father's girlfriend. He then stole his father's truck and went on the run. Police were hunting him down.

A little later in the morning came a report of a shooting, this time in town. Someone heard shots early in Spenard, another Anchorage neighborhood, and there was a reported fatality. No other details were given.


"Suffering is, of course, a datum in consciousness, a certain "psychological content," similar to the lived experience of color, sound, contact, or any other sensation. But in this very "content" it is an in-spite-of consciousness, the unassumable." (Levinas, "Useless Suffering," p. 91)


Except for a couple of them, the class members just couldn't quite get their heads around the idea that, according to Levinas, not only is suffering useless except for the one suffering, it must remain useless. To do otherwise—to put someone else's suffering to work, to make it useful to for some purpose, even a benign or positive purpose—is to turn suffering into an instrument and thus to commit a kind of violence. Several around the table insisted that when a loved one suffered, they too suffered. We feel their pain! Even more, we have to do something for them, on their behalf, because of this pain. We can't just sit there, they reasoned. We have to do something!

The logic is difficult and the personal challenges great, I countered, but do you not see a difference here, between the suffering of the other and what that suffering engenders in you yourself? What does that mean? They asked. The practical key, I said, was to be able to separate the two and ask "Whose suffering is it?" and to risk—in one of those formulations that either delight readers of continental philosophy or drive them crazy—and to suffer the suffering of the other. I heard a lot of grumbling after that class about how our readings were deliberately obscure and useless, the suggestions impractical and impossible to live up to.


That Sunday morning, the next thing I heard, as I periodically hit the Anchorage Daily News website, was that someone had been shot in his driveway. The neighbors dismissed it as a car backfiring. The people who later found him in his vehicle thought that he just needed medical attention. It was only after they opened the car door that they found he had been shot and was dead. That was three hours after neighbors heard gunshots. The vehicle was still idling.


the suffering of suffering, the suffering for the useless suffering of the other, the just suffering in me for the unjustifiable suffering in the other, opens suffering to the ethical perspective of the inter-human. In this perspective there is a radical difference between the suffering in the other, where it is unforgivable to me, solicits me and calls me, and the suffering in me, my own experience of suffering, whose constitutional or congenital uselessness can take on a meaning, the only one of which suffering is capable, in becoming a suffering for the suffering of the other that, through the cruelties of our century (despite these cruelties, because of these cruelties) can be affirmed as the very nexus of human subjectivity, to the point of being raised to the level of supreme ethical principle—the only one impossible to question…. ("Useless Suffering," p. 94, emph. Levinas).


Jason articulated well some of the class's frustrations in an October email to me:

I'm getting by when it comes to my CWLA classes/creative work. It's your class that is suffering. When I said that I'm being proud in this situation I think it's because I don't want to be "The Idiot MFA-er that can't cut it on the English side." But maybe I am that guy. There's a reason I chose the writing route. Most of this theory/philosophy crap frustrates the hell out of me….

Everything else is completely foreign and I'm seriously struggling just to get through it. I don't have the philosophical or literary background. Levinas in particular kills me. When I finally do understand what he's saying, I always want to ask: Why make it so difficult? How is the confusing language of philosophy and lit criticism helping the world? It's not. It just continues to separate the brilliant from the meek.

I don't belong to either of these charactegories. I'm surprisingly arrogant for a guy that's not that smart...

That's no typo. Charactegories. What a great word.


The class next looked carefully at the tradition history of Genesis 22:1-19 according Noth and Westermann, as an historical foundation of the course, and we read more recent scholars who question the viability of the documentary hypothesis (JEDP). The evangelicals in the class harrumphed about anatomizing the scriptures like that. Jason emailed me:

I had no idea what the class material would be, and at first I was pleasantly surprised to learn we were discussing a subject with which I am somewhat familiar. That is, the biblical text. But now I'm struggling to even think in the right terms about these texts. I don't know if I can ignore the biases that my faith and childhood allow.

Throughout the course, I tried carefully to tease out the differences between historical questions and theological conclusions, between literary interpretation and spiritual commitments. I struggled to balance respect for students' beliefs and the demands of critical thinking and understand. I have suffered that suffering in my own life and hope not to inflict it upon anyone else. Nonetheless, it is one thing to accept a received theology as truth and it is quite another to read a well-known text with new eyes. Neither is it easy and quite often it is painful.


Another student whom I had known for several years, back into her undergraduate days, a conservative Christian, had challenged me before the class began to beware the power I had over students because I might be guilty of causing them to lose their faith.


I didn't see another report until early Monday morning, December 3, but local news reported that a woman jogging around Anchorage's Winchester Lagoon had been shot in the back by an unknown assailant early Sunday evening. As she talked with a friend on the phone, "she crossed paths with a tall, thin mad who made her nervous." Her friend heard her over the phone tell someone the time. According to the charging documents, the friend said that the women, Elizabeth Rumsey, "All of a sudden screamed several times and the phone went dead." The friend tried to call Rumsey's phone again, and a woman who picked up reported that emergency units were on the way. Rumsey was rushed to the hospital in critical condition, but she has since been released. I initially wrote "has recovered" but I think that would be a lie.


Traditionally, the Akedah has been understood as a challenge to the Ancient Near Eastern practice of child sacrifice. The argument is that the God of Israel condemns child sacrifice in Genesis 22 by His command to Abraham, His intervention in the sacrificial act, and (ultimately) His provision of the substitutionary animal in place of the beloved son. One of our readings questioned that common idea:

… the substitution of the animal for the child was not a later stage in the evolution of the religion. There it seems to be the case at the any period, the lamb and the kid could take the place of the child, but that at no period was the parent obligated to make the substitution. This strikes me as essentially the situation in Genesis 22, where Abraham is allowed to sacrifice the ram instead of Isaac, but never commanded to do so. (Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, 1993, p. 21, emph. Levenson)

Levenson compiled an impressive amount of evidence from the biblical text itself, most obviously from Genesis 22 itself: God commands Abraham to offer his son and intervenes to prevent the sacrifice but never instructs Abraham to kill the substitutionary animal. Abraham makes that decision, according to the text: "And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram … and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered I up as a burnt offering instead of his son" (Gen 22: 13).


Jason took on Levenson, and I responded to his first paper of the semester via email:

Jason, I think I remember you saying you hadn't done a paper like this in awhile, but you don't have too much to worry about. Your style is fluid and appealing. The only change is that you'll need to get used to working in a more objective tone, a scholarly register, rather than just a responsive one. But this is a good start to the term.

As to your general concerns, I think what I'm seeing is your struggle with separating a confessional stance toward the text (what was I taught as a kid) from a more literary-critical stance (what do scholars say and how does that inflect what I'm trying to understand). So, for example, your question about the holiness of God is an important devotional point, but Lev[e]nson's critique takes for granted the idea that 'God' is a developing construct throughout Israelite history, as revealed in the Documentary Hypothesis (JEDP), and his assessment of the akedah is thus shaped by the idea that as the Israelite idea of God changes, so to does the assessment of the akedah.

So, the growing pains you may be experiencing are in line with changing your perspective on the biblical text from one that has viewed the bible through a doctrinal lens to one that tries to peel back the layers of interpretation and historico-cultural development to get at a nugget of 'truth'; that is, how did this text come to mean what it did in the different transformations of Hebrew scripture that scholars have laid bare, like layers of onion.

Jason never rewrote his paper, nor did he turn in the next one. He emailed me about dropping the course.


As we moved from Levenson's challenge to the traditional interpretation of the Akedah, we looked next at New Testament readings of the Akedah particularly in the Pauline corpus. In Galatians 3: 6-9ff., Paul argues that the Gentiles were the true inheritors of Abraham's faith because of Christ's death, yet the epistle of James reads the same text in a different way, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?" (2:21). Was it what Abraham did or what he believed that made the difference?


My question was and is simply this: If Abraham is lauded as the perfect exemplar of faith, what are we to do with Isaac, who, though he is spared, knows that his father is perfectly willing to kill him?


We considered the variety of interpretations of the Akedah and the Abraham story in early Christian and Patristic thought, but what challenged the class most was a reformulation of the idea of prophecy: Is it the miraculous looking forward of inspired prophets who foretell the future? Or was it the work of early believers who looked back into their scriptures to understand the death of their inspired leader, of the one who announced the kingdom of God? What to make of this death? The traditional Christian answer is that God Himself demanded the sacrifice of his only Son. Isaac was thus understood to be a prototype of Christ, and while Abraham's sacrifice was incomplete and imperfect, Christ was the perfect sacrifice, whose atoning work leads to salvation.

I countered that such ideas emerge only teleologically, after the fact, when one is able to look back upon perhaps seemingly unrelated events in light of a single defining moment. Like a person who ignores a beloved partner's inconsistencies until an infidelity is discovered. Only then do those little hints add up to something more powerful, more devastating. Only then do the insignificant details acquire a kind of narrative and prophetic destiny. Didn't Levinas say as much in our reading from "Diachrony and Representation?"


On Monday morning, December 3, I saw a link on the Yahoo webpage that I'd set for local news: "Grad student found shot dead in Spenard." I was concerned but not alarmed until I read on:

A 27-year-old graduate student was found shot dead Sunday morning in his idling car outside his home in Spenard.

Jason Wenger, a man described by his friends and professors as big-hearted and driven, was found Sunday by neighbors who were walking their dog shortly after 10 a.m., according to Anchorage police spokesman Lt. Paul Honeman.

His body was slumped behind the wheel of his green Bronco on the 4300 block of Lois Drive near Spenard Builders Supply.

The people who found him first thought he needed medical attention, Honeman said. They called police when they realized he wasn't breathing.

People in the neighborhood said they heard gunshots about 7:30 a.m.

Jason had gone out early on Sunday morning to warm up his car, probably to go to church, and while he sat inside, Christopher Erin Rogers, Jr., who had macheted his father the morning before in Palmer, shot Jason. The Anchorage Daily News later reported that "He planned to steal the Bronco but the shots were louder than he expected and he worried the neighbors might see him if he took the time to get Wenger's slumped body out of the Bronco and get himself in. He 'did not want to take on the whole neighborhood,' he told police, so he ran away." Jason died in the front seat of his car, getting ready for church.


Karl Steel said...

I have nothing analytical to say about this (yet?), Dan. I just want to say that this is heartrending, and I can't wait to read more. Thanks for posting this.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

A deeply moving piece, Dan. I wouldn't worry if you do not get many comments in response, since it is difficult to know what to say in its face ... other than thank you for your post. It's beautiful, it's painful, and it really achieves something: a memorialization that fits its subject.

Anonymous said...

This is a piece of writing that I will never forget - and will want to come back to and read again.

Unknown said...

Thank-you for this piece. This is where blogging can be cited as primary literature.

Dr. Virago said...

Thank you, Dan, for this beautiful memorial.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Dan, the way you're weaving different sources together to narrate this history of grief is -- as everyone has already said -- deeply moving. Thank you so much for sharing this with us all.