Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Bodies in Motion 2: Three Tombs

by J J Cohen

[Part II of my Mandeville "Bodies in Motion" piece. For part I, look here. This southern oriented image of the world, drawn by by the Moroccan cartographer al-Idrisi for King Roger of Sicily in 1154 can be found here. It doesn't have all that much to do directly with Mandeville, but its cultural hybridity and reorganization of space speak to the Book's ambitions.]

We immure bodies within or beneath stone because we possess no weightier material: lithic heaviness keeps the corpse in its place, marks the hope that some trace will there endure even as the dead are lost to us. Christ rose because he could not be kept by such stone; death could not still his divine body. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is in Jerusalem, not Satalia – Satalia, that suddenly subterranean metropolis where a mysterious and unnamed “yong man” loved so ardently that he opened the marble tomb withholding the body to which he was devoted. Nine months later a voice commanded “Go to the tumbe of that womman and opene the tumbe and byhold what thow hast gyte on here” (30-31). The young man unseals the stone for a second time, and a flying head swoops out, restless progeny of a corpse not surrendered to mortuary immobility. The airborne head circles his habitation, and “anoon the cité sanke adoun”: the earth swallows Satalia in its entirety. The marble grave here was not empty but too full: with a body not yielded to stillness, with forbidden pleasure, with the monstrous product of a passion that transgressed the limit of death.

Compare a tomb that comes just a bit earlier in the text, that of Saint John the Evangelist at Ephesus (29). We are told two irreconcilable stories about this apostle’s resting place: either John’s body was translated to heaven and the grave filled with manna; or that he entered the tomb while still alive, where he still remains, awaiting the Day of Judgment. “Men may se,” asserts Mandeville, “the erthe of the tumbe many tymes stire and meve, as ther were a quyk thing ther under” (29). What has the unholy passion of the young man at Satalia to say to this tomb of restless occupant? Or to the narrative of the Passion (capital P) in the Book of Mark, where the three women coming to anoint the body of Jesus find that the great rock sealing his tomb has been rolled away [et respicientes vident revolutum lapidem erat quippe magnus valde, Mark 16:4]. A mysterious young man [iuvenem] has already entered the tomb, and he decrees the vacancy of the place: “Be not affrighted; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified: he is risen, he is not here, behold the place where they laid him” (Mark 16:6). The Holy Sepulchre is empty, and the message of the untenanted tomb is that death itself has perished. Necrophiliac Satalia sinks to the underground; Jerusalem, a place to which every approach is (in Mandeville’s account) uphill, remains the earth’s pinnacle. Could the contrast be more stark? Three tombs, three possibilities: revelation, mystification, boundary-crossing exploration. The tomb of Jesus enjoins the pilgrim who has reached the earth’s omphalos to return home, the trajectory of a conventional itinerarium. Who can blame the tourist who wants to chip a piece off the grave to remember its revelations? But the Sultan who regulates the church no longer allows its rocks to be transported.

The tombs at Satalay and Ephesus, tombs that interrupt the journey to the Holy Land, hint at perilous routes and dangerous dalliances. They suggest in advance that Mandeville will not be content to turn back after reaching Jerusalem. Mandeville’s movement beyond the city does not necessarily take away from its centrality: I don’t think that we witness here, as Stephen Greenblatt argued, “the abandonment of the dream of a sacred center.” As Iain Macleod Higgins has shown, the Mandeville-author stresses Jerusalem’s middleness more than any other medieval writer, a literal as well as symbolic placement that permeates the Book. This world orientation and its consequences are not going to be abandoned by leaving Jerusalem behind – and indeed, the Book will return to the city’s status as center much later, when Mandeville details the sphericity of the earth. Yet at that point of return, as Mandeville describes the potential circumnavigability of the globe, Jerusalem seems to be the top of the world rather than its center. The flatness of a mappamundi possesses a middle: Jerusalem, source-city of history, can be emplaced like the umbilicus of the body of Christ. Yet the Book of John Mandeville repeats, obsessively, that the world is not a disc but a globe: the people of the Isles of Prester John walk beneath English feet (“they ar under the erthe to us” 92), but so far away that their patter is impossible to discern. A dedicated and God-protected traveler could, by always moving forward, “come right too the same countrees that he wer come of and come fro, and so go aboute the erthe” (92).

Spheres do not, of course, possess physical middles. The best to which a globe can aspire would be a conceptual middle, but that is not quite the same thing. If Jerusalem is the world’s center, then that fixed point exists only on maps and timelines that cannot capture the fullness of the world, cannot capture the perpetual curve that gives to lands and waters their unattainable horizons.

Lapidary Mandeville
The errant trajectory of the Book of John Mandeville was suggested early on, when the narratives of Hippocrates’ dragon-encased daughter and the monstrous flying head of Satalay erupted into a pilgrimage narrative (an account based upon a source that contains neither story: these are the Mandeville-author’s additions). The Book gains so much velocity in its narration that it escapes the theology-saturated landscapes of the Holy Land to boomerang through heterodox India, Egypt, Africa, China, Sumatra, Hungary, Amazonia, a multiverse of archipelagos that in their proliferation trade sacred histories for secular multiplicities. Mandeville’s travels are in fact the motions of a body transported by reading, encountering its other worlds in books and fashioning new realms from dynamic textual convergence. The Book of John Mandeville is a literary pastiche, an alchemical experiment concocted of perhaps three dozen sources, from encyclopedias and itineraria to religious tracts, traveler’s tales, and histories. “John Mandeville” seems to have been a fiction, no more likely to have existed than Merlin in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. The Book of John Mandeville never intended to give us the best routes or the most dogma-soused accounts of sacred sites. An energetic meditation upon the exotic, upon the genre of travel narrative, upon the nature of the world we inhabit, the Book of John Mandeville (in all of its multifarious manifestations) is constitutionally incapable of offering anything but a cosmos where change and movement are constants, and geographies where bodies are caught in perpetual motion, where even the inanimate stirs with a kind of desire-soaked life.

The Book opens by providing those anchoring bits of biography that have propelled readers to locate a real person as the text’s narrator. Born in Saint Albans, John Mandeville is possessed of a nonchalant Englishness, seen most often as he quietly interprets the world from an anglocentric point of view. A knight who “travelide aboute in the world” (21), Sir John possesses a thorn from the crown placed on Jesus at the Passion; served in the Sultan’s army and was offered a wife; drank from the fountain of youth; hates Jews; is a specialist in exotic alphabets; knows good wine and balm and diamonds from bad. These attributes act as truth-effects, attaching the story to what seems a historical personage with lived experience, attaching the narrative to a bulwark, a seeming veridicality. The text sutures itself at the same time to a specific chronology: Mandeville’s year of departure is in the Defective Version 1332; his year of return 1366; his circuit through the world the accomplishment of 34 years in total.

Mandeville’s attachment to home serves as an effective brake upon his nomadism, the guarantee that despite not having turned back after attaining Palestine, he will nonetheless eventually reappear at his point of departure. And indeed it is upon native soil (“my contré,” 95), that we last glimpse him, worn out perhaps by travel, composing the book we now read. An enduring pull within Mandeville’s identity strives to keep him bound in place, to keep him attached to specific designation. This adhesiveness can go under many names, but I think its best designation is Englishness. Whether the lost ur-text of the Book was composed by an author who would have self-identified as English or French is not only impossible to decide, it is ultimately not all that relevant (the supremely English Remains of the Day was written by Kazuo Ishiguro). No matter who the actual author, no matter what collective identity that author would in life have embraced, the Book of John Mandeville is strewn with allusions to its narrator’s nationality, affixing him in history and to place. Some references are trivial, giving the Mandeville-persona a patina of casual Englishness: thus in detailing the Saracen alphabet, he writes that just as they have “extra” letters in their alphabet, so do “we” English possess thorn and yogh (58). Like most medieval English writers, Mandeville glibly conflates “England” and “Britain,” as if the Welsh and Scots did not share the island (Constantine is called “kyng of Ingelond that was that tyme called the Greet Brytayne” 25). The knight’s birthplace is Saint Albans, not far from London; his name is by the fourteenth century sufficiently anglophone … and given the polyglot nature of his contemporary homeland, his Englishness is in no way attenuated when his words sound like this: “ieo Johan Maundeuille, chiualer … neez et norriz Dengleterre de la ville Seint Alban, qi y passay la meer.”

The English Mandeville is a smaller circle within the wider compass drawn by the pilgrim Mandeville whose initial destination is Jerusalem. Just as within the Christian compass, a Jewish presence inheres within the English circle as well: most famously in Mandeville’s fantasy that that a large population of Jews has been immured behind remote hills, ready to mingle with their brethren when freed in the time of Antichrist. Mandeville asserts that Jews living among contemporary Christians study Hebrew so as to welcome in their ancient tongue these enclosed people when they are freed. They will join with them “for to destruye men of Cristendom” (83). Just the opposite configuration of space is closer to the truth: having expelled its Jewish population in 1290, England inhabits an island rather like the enclosed regions where these distant Jews supposedly dwell. Late medieval Englishness is a national identity precipitated through the exclusion of Jewishness. A tiny minority at best, pre-Expulsion Jews in England had been under frequent threat from both their neighbors and from the nation. Their wholesale removal from the island did nothing to reduce English anti-Semitic fantasies. Just the opposite: once gone, they loomed as more of an imagined danger than ever. The Book of John Mandeville is widely regarded for its extensive tolerance, a generosity extended even to the Muslims who hold the Holy Land. Ian Higgins observes:
No other religious community … is so badly served in The Book as the Jews, who inhabit only the past and the future, and are depicted with a hostility bordering on paranoia. (Writing East 42)

Rather than a puzzling lapse in an otherwise tolerant persona, this paranoia may be no more than yet another signifier of Mandeville’s recalcitrant, immobilizing Englishness – an Englishness that cannot be wholly immured from the Jewishness it has abjected.
In The Jew in the Medieval Book, Anthony Bale maps the narrative turbulence coursing through Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale, intermixing Christian and Jewish identities. This is flux and instability are counteracted by a “lapidary vocabulary” of tombs and gems, metaphorical petrifications that strive to impede the text’s roiling. Like the description of the litel clergeon as a jewel,
the ‘tombe of marbul stones’ into which the boy’s body is placed (VII:680) is an attempt to contain the expansive landscape and soundscape envisioned in the tale, a reassertion of the Christian community’s faith in the fixity of signs … The tomb stands for morbid permanence and closure … The solid stone tomb repudiates the bodily rupture with which the Prioress is fascinated (85).

In a story filled with blood, tears, songs in constant and boundary-smashing movement, the marble tomb strives to demarcate, contain, and immobilize. The monument of stone fails, however, to still what it contains. The closing stanzas of the tale transport the scene to Lincoln and conflate ancient Syrian Jews with more recent English ones. “The little boy,” Bale writes, “wanders out of his distant Asian tomb into the Prioress’s England and the pilgrimage group” (86).

Of the three tombs we’ve seen in Mandeville, one has been emptied of the body that once occupied it, while the other two are too full: a restless apostle in fitful slumber, awaiting a distant future; the monstrous progeny of illicit union. Given his fascination with such bodies that remain filled with uncanny life even in the grave, shouldn’t John Mandeville be able to escape lapidary capture?

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