Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Messianic Time and the Timely, or, Mandeville and the Jews (Again)

by J J Cohen

Tomorrow the GW MEMSI seminar on Messianic Time and the Untimely convenes. I offer the following in reaction to the three rich papers by Kathy Biddick, Julia Lupton, and Gil Harris ... and as a way of continuing some conversations we've had here at ITM as well.

The untimely is the antidote to the contextualizing bent of historicism, the guarantor that while something may be of its time, it can also carry within a polychronicity that wrenches it out of any meaning system built upon mere synchrony. In its temporal explosiveness messianic time is intimately related to the untimely, since it can activate the past within the present to perturb the arrival of any predetermined future (and by that phrase I mean any future that is either an infinite projection of the present into time to come, or any desired culmination of present events according to which the present moment is one step on a progress ladder that must result in and be given meaning by that coming time). Biddick's paper is the strongest argument that messianic time is not as untimely as it makes itself out to be, pointing out that Islam is inexcluded from (evacuated from, but through that same gesture installed within) both medieval typology and Walter Benjamin's thesis. This vanishing act is a concern of Harris as well ... and perhaps has to do with the fact that a point of overlaps between Christianity and Judaism is in the person/event of the Messiah.

I've written a bit on this blog about the 13th C travel narrative known as the Book of John Mandeville and its depiction of Jews: how a component of Mandeville's imagined Englishness might be his antisemitism; how the book itself perhaps contains the mechanism to critique that lapse in tolerance. As part of my Leeds keynote on Christian-Jewish neighboring, I looked closely at a Messianic passage from Mandeville that has earned endless critical scorn. Here is an excerpt from that talk:
John Mandeville, a travel writer so cosmopolitan that he renders comprehensible even the promiscuous nudist communist cannibals of Lamory, nonetheless has nothing good to say about Jews. The Book’s repeated narration of the Passion makes clear that the Jews are guilty of deicide. In relating a story about a tree in Borneo that bears poison, Mandeville states that a Jew once confessed to him that his people had attempted to eradicate all Christendom with that toxin. He describes the ten lost tribes of the Jews, Gog and Magog, enclosed within the Caspian mountains by Alexander the Great. In this remote prison they await a self-prophesied liberation during the reign of the Antichrist. Cut off from the stream of change that is time, the immured peoples speak only Hebrew. Jews living among Christians therefore teach that language to their children so that when their brethren escape captivity they will be able to communicate:

It is said that they will issue forth in the time of the Antichrist and commit a great massacre of the Christians. And therefore all the Jews who live in all lands always learn to speak Hebrew in the hope that when those of the mountains of Caspie issue forth, the other Jews will know how to talk to them [and lead them into Christendom in order to destroy Christians] … and Christians will yet be in as much and more subjection to them as they have been in subjection to the Christians.

A people without a homeland, the Jews plot to divest all Christians of dominion.

Despite supposedly writing from a post-Expulsion England, the Mandeville-author consistently and innovatively demonizes Jews. Stephen Greenblatt describes this “ungenerous” attitude as the “most significant exception to the tolerance that is impressively articulated elsewhere” (Marvelous Possessions). Iain Higgins writes that the Book’s conspiracy theories might seem future-focused, but they are formulated “to incite ill-feeling against Jews in the present … a hostility verging on paranoia” (Writing East). Benjamin Braude describes Mandeville’s narration of the enclosed Jews and their future triumph under Antichrist as “a blood-curdling passage … a warrant for genocide" (“Mandeville’s Jews among Others").

I wonder, though, if there isn’t more to the story than that … and I wonder if we might even find in Mandeville’s tale of the enclosed Jews not only a paranoid fantasy of how different a proximate Other might be, but an example of Christian attentiveness to the discontented desires of those neighboring them. When at the end the of world the ten lost tribes of the Jews escape their distant and rocky enclosure pour crestiente destruire, to destroy Christendom, we can glimpse no friendship in this stark vision, no coinhabitance or commingling … or can we?

Yes. In this apocalyptic imagining of Christian dominion’s termination we can hear not just an anti-Jewish fantasy of an imperiled Christian world, but an actual Jewish fantasy of such an end – a vision of the future that suggests that Jewish voices from the Middle Ages resonated not just with scholarly wisdom and tearful commemoration of tragedy, but with anger at the smallness of the spaces in which they often found themselves consigned. Israel Yuval, in a remarkable work of revisionary scholarship (Two Nations in Your Womb), has mapped the ways in which Jewish residence among Christians shaped Jewish religious practice. Like Daniel Boyarin, Elliott Horowitz, Ivan Marcus, and David Biale, Yuval’s work stresses that despite the inherited assumption that Jews and Christians inhabited different worlds, both faiths were profoundly changed by living together. Both remained not frozen in time but mutable, open, alive.

Urban adjacency might lead to neighborliness, as we saw in Matthew Paris (a Christian crosses a Jewish threshold to play with friends of another faith) -- or it might not, as when that same threshold is declared by a man like John of Lexington to be the demarcation of another world, one where modernity ends and an ever-repeating past begins. Yuval provides the angry response that could come from that other side of the door once Jewish space has been violently trespassed, once the occupants of a Jewish house are allowed to voice something other than “a Christian fantasy,” as in Copin’s self-condemnation through ventriloquism. This voice might appraise the present in ways very different from its Christian framing, and might speak a passionate desire for a future utterly different from Christian “modern times.”

A prayerbook of English provenance composed no later than 1190 contains this fragment of the Alenu le-shabeah:

[Christians] bow to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god who cannot save – man, ash, blood, bile, stinking flesh, maggot, defiled men and women, adulterers and adulteresses, dying in their iniquity and rotting in their wickedness, worn out dust, rot of maggot [and worm] – and pray to a god who cannot save.

Remember the young Jew of Oxford, the mocker of Saint Frideswide, who killed himself while speaking unrecorded blasphemies? Could these lines offer us a glimpse of what he might have said? Anger at one’s neighbor held no Christian monopoly. Sometimes this Jewish ire took the form of an aggressive fantasy of vengeance in which the King Messiah finally arrived. In a role borrowed from Christian crusading polemic, this Messiah would smite the enemies of Israel and drive them from the land. Keeping in mind that the “Jewish Messiah is the Christian Antichrist” (Yuval 289), the story narrated by the Mandeville-author suddenly becomes a little more complicated.

The prophesied liberation of the enclosed Jews and their termination of Christian world dominion contains something of an extant Jewish vision of revenge, a vision apparently taken into Jewish eschatology from Christian materials. Yuval has persuasively argued that the liberating and vengeance-wielding King Messiah was dreamt by medieval Jews as they overheard their Christian neighbors speak in their polemic of Crusader kings and the reclamation of the Holy Land. Christians in turn overheard Jewish neighbors talk of a Messiah who would deliver them from exile, and dreamed an Antecrist. This Messiah/Antichrist is therefore at once Christian and Jewish – or better yet between Christian and Jew.

In his tale of the future liberation of Jews locked in distant exile, the Mandeville-author may be narrating a paranoid and antisemitic story. Yet he is also recounting angry Jewish words – or words that blend Christian and Jew into a hybrid discourse, an interspace where the relations between the one and the other might be intractably complex, but the anger at subjection and violence to which this vision gives voice is impossible not to hear.


This medieval Christian Jewish antichrist Messiah is a figure of anger, vengeance, blood. The explosiveness of Messianic time is everywhere evident in him ... and like all explosions triggered by those too ardent for a reconfigured present, this violence has its innocent victims, its neighbors who were simply carrying on with their lives. In its specific language (of Crusade, of worldly kingdom) this Messianic time is time-bound, just as Benjamin's figure of the automaton Turk might be in part contemporary Orientalism, in part a meditation on (as a commentor suggested) Charlie Chaplin.

But I don't think Messianic desires need end in anger, vengeance, blood. Rather, I'd point out that what we witness taking shape in the space between Christian and Jew in Mandeville is something more than hostility. It is also the unfolding of a hope so simple, so essential, so common that I would call it untimely: the hope that the present become more capacious, that the future not repeat the constrictive orthodoxies of the day. It is towards that as yet unknown future, the future in which the Messiah never arrives, that the complexities of Christian-Jewish-Muslim neighboring propels us, even now.

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