Friday, October 10, 2008

Insomniac dreams; also, piles of foreskins

by J J Cohen

So it was one of those nights -- you know, when your child with his upset tummy or his little cough awakens you three times within an hour, then passes into deep slumber while sleep then evades you for hours more. When I finally did return to the land of Nod, I dreamed that due to a classroom shortage my seminar had been assigned to meet in a freight elevator. We gathered the desks into a circle, and we tried to concentrate on some Latin something or other while the cube surrounding us rose and fell. At odd moments the doors would open and students would enter, bound for more comfortable pedagogical spaces than this. Or was I trapped in some bizarre allegory about teaching, the meaning of which wholly evaded me? I finally used all my powers as department chair to have the classroom changed, to an ominous space called the House of Visions. We were on our way there together, certain only that the House was owned by a cult with supernatural beliefs, when the little coughing tummy ache guy woke me again.

So, this morning with a fuzzy brain I am attending a seminar about these manuscript illustrations. The paper is fascinating, asking how a rabbi forced to produce a glossed bible and illustration scheme for a Christian audience intentionally "Judaized" its content. Midrash, blood, circumscision, covenant, and equivocal readings (one for Jews, one for Christians) is what it is all about.


medievalkarl said...

I would like to hear more about this paper!

Looks Spanish to me, and I'm presuming (late?) 15th century, and I'm guessing that's Abraham rescuing Lot at the end (or are we seeing the revenge for the rape of Dinah?)

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I don't have the paper in front of me, but yes it is 15th C Spanish, the Alba bible: illustrated and glossed, formerly taken as a supreme embodiment of the supposed convivencia. More recent research has shown that the rabbi who produced the text and assisted with the illustrations was compelled to participate in a project about which he had grave concerns -- not least of which was its violation of Jewish law in depicting an anthropomorphic deity (Jesus). He was forced to do so anyway, but Kupfer's paper argues that he had his revenge at every turn, incorporating a Midrash-derived reading of many scenes that argues strongly against Christian typology. The scene of Abraham's self-circumcision she describes as "giving the finger" to the Christian viewer, reveling as it does (she argues) in a symbolic system of blood, circumcision, and covenant derived from a non-Christian source.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

PS Speaking of Jewish readings I realize that the elevator dream also has its Jewish element, namely an incorporation of Sukkot -- the elevator is a kind of extramural booth or tent, and having a class there is therefore a mitzvah. So it's a good dream, really. Mmm hmm.

i said...

The images are priceless -- bloody heads everywhere!

This post reminds me of a wonderful joke told to me and a few other rapt graduate students by the lamented Nick Howe, on his last visit to Yale. (Also known as the mohel wallet joke...) It was a classic.

The Spirit of Creative Writing said...

"Or was I trapped in some bizarre allegory about teaching, the meaning of which wholly evaded me?"

Lit. in an elevator?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thank you for that, Robert ... !!