Thursday, February 11, 2010

Reading the Stars

by J J Cohen

I have recently been rereading Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages: Translating Cultures, ed. Ananya Jahanara Kabir and Deanne Williams. Michelle Warren has a great essay in the collection on Joseph Bédier, Creole identity, and his edition of the Chanson de Roland. Since Michelle is (barring another Snowpocalypse) coming to DC tomorrow to participate in a seminar and to give our second Gateway Lecture, I assigned her essay to a student doing independent study with me and provided it to my "Myths of Britain" class as optional background reading. I skimmed some other essays in the book today as well, mainly to see if they would hold up as well now as when I read the book for review in Notes and Queries. They do.

But some lines from the introduction ("A Return to Wonder") trip me up. In fact they troubled me in 2006, when I reviewed the book, but I decided not to include a mention of my notice then: I hate those book reviews that list errors the reviewer has found because they frequently seem so petty, a useless indulgence in the tedious academic game of "Gotcha!" I know on the one hand that the line is a simple error, a mistake that should not have survived the copyeditor. I know that my reaction to it is emotional, and making too much of it seems like misreading the intentions of the volume. But still I get stuck on it. Speaking of "The Meeting of the Magi," an illustration from the gorgeous Très riches heures de Jean duc de Berry, Kabir and Williams write of star blazing over what seems to be Paris passed off as Jerusalem:
Just to the left of its spires [i.e., the Montjoie, an architectural marking of a site from which crusaders could see Jerusalem] nestles the Star of David. As the Magi, of Zoroastrian faith and Eastern origins, witness the unfolding of a new religion, this focal conjunction of star and spire subsumes a variety of human times and places within the eternal and the providential (4)
They note that this image is at once potentially ecumenical and timeless as well as violent and repeating ("Montjoie!" is the cry of Charlemagne's men against the Saracens; to place Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame in Jerusalem is to "mask" its status as battleground). They conclude:
As the Star of David beckons to the Magi, we are reminded of the centrality of encounters with difference to Christian mythology. Simultaneously, the appropriation of Jerusalem for Paris recalls the more recent invocations, by both George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, of the 'clash of civilizations' and the medieval crusades. Nevertheless, the star itself radiates alternative interpretive strategies. (4-5)
Among these strategies: Herod reads the star differently from the Magi; the Magi can be read as the East already within the West via cross-cultural commingling; contact zones open up; the luxury objects and animals have "social lives" that can be traced.

I, of course, love such affirmatively differing reading projects, and said as much in my review of the book:
By focusing upon the crowded, diverse field of signs that composes the illustration, Kabir and Williams demonstrate that despite its pious Christianity the Magi scene cannot be reduced (or translated) into some uncomplex or unambivalent narrative. The sumptuous image radiates wonder, an exhilarating mixture of beauty and dissonance. And it is this noise -- heard when the critic is attentive to alternatives, exclusions -- that the contributors to Postcolonial Approaches seek. 
But I get stuck every time I read that the "Star of David" is shining above the Magi. Because it isn't. That five pointed golden object is the Star of Bethlehem or Christmas star. The six pointed star of David (magen David in Hebrew) is sometimes adopted and employed by Christians. But the Star of David is a symbol rooted in Jewish tradition from at least the 12th century and has long served as a symbol for Jewish identity, self-chosen (I have a magen David necklace) and imposed (most infamously in the yellow stars inscribed Jude of the Nazi regime). My wondering about the Star of Bethlehem becoming the Star of David makes me read these inspirational lines a little later in Postcolonial Approaches with some concern:
If the experience of viewing this illumination produces wonder and rapture (in its literal sense of being borne away, upwards) then translation itself may be viewed as a kind of transcendence. And transcendence, itself, speaks with two tongues: on the one hand, it moves towards the erasure of difference, and on the other, it moves away from pernicious distinctions and toward incorporation as well as variegation (6)
So what about those of us who do not want to be incorporated? What about those who look upon the image and see its movement towards wonder and rapture as a movement towards revelation, religious inspiration, and want to resist that translation, want to live outside its supposedly universal sphere? What about those for whom the Star of Bethlehem does not announce the arrival of a messiah? Those for whom to make a Star of Bethlehem into a Star of David seems like a supercession, a translation to be resisted? So what about the resistant reader, the one who wonders at the transformative wonder that was supposed to be instilled, a wonder that left him feeling untranscendant? What about the Jew, for whom the star in such an image can never be the magen David, only the symbol of a dominating culture and the violence that can hide behind universalism?


Karl Steel said...

Great post! This is the flip side of wonder, isn't it? The not-All, those whom wonder can't include without occluding the not-so-wonderful conditions of incorporation.

I'd suggest, by the way, that the lion on the hill, clearly looking at the star, in the Meeting of the Magi, represents the Lion of Judah, and that we have, then, Jewish adoration/supersession built into the image itself.

York CMS Postmedieval Reading Group said...

It's funny, in my archaeology class today we were talking along similar lines, I suppose, at least in terms of resistant readers, or material things that produce resistances...when looking at the way nunneries were designed (on a straight up Christian parallel to the jewish train of thought here) there seemed to be two options: i) women are cloistered away to ensure their protection, patriarchal badness etc etc, which is kinda boring, or, ii) these spaces exist, and are generated out of some kind of ideological schema, but nevertheless, these communities of women produce interesting subjectivities and writings themselves (see Christine de Pizan, Clemence of Barking, whatever) that interrogate the very terms of the whole business.

I very much like the idea that resistances of the second type are, in a way, just an affect of the system of power itself, a system that produces its own instability. Hence liking Derrida and so forth.

As Deleuze says, "there's no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons".

Ben x

Anonymous said...

I very much like the idea that resistances of the second type are, in a way, just an affect of the system of power itself, a system that produces its own instability.

Ooh, I like that. Taking it further, though, women who choose that path, as long as their works aaren't found heretical and so on, have chosen to accept the strictures (though of course monasticism is first and foremost about that acceptance, so, not surprising maybe). The famous tale of the Merovingian princesses's rebellion at St Radegund's Poitiers indicates that there was a more direct form of resistance to enclosure and silencing available to some. And my pet abbess, daughter of a count, takes about twenty people to court in her time and that's the ones she beat (I think we can prove there are others she didn't). Are Hildegard of Bingen or Christine de Pizan (or, heck, Héloïse) protesting, or collaborating compared to these? Is writing an act of rebellion or a strategy of non-violence?

York CMS Postmedieval Reading Group said...

it's tricky, with Christine de Pizan, but I suppose the thing I like about the book of the city of ladies in particular is the way in which there is a real 'writing back' to Augustine and Bocaccio, and the way in which she is imagining a community of women and a mode of expression that comes from her space, her bedroom, that is expanded and extended into a whole city. It reminds me a lot of A Room of One's Own.

Writing as a non-violent resistance as opposed to rebellion? Very interesting. I absolutely agree that it is in concrete material conditions and political changes that 'resistance' really happens, like a good marxist. Your abbess, for instance, is doing something pretty radical, it seems.

Though writing (and I particularly like images of women's PRIVATE reading practices - there is a line at the end of geffrei gaimar about his patroness constanza reading in bed) certainly produces changes in readers, and changes in the way we interact with reality itself, so someone like Christine de Pizan is hopefully being USED by readers to imagine new forms of collective activity, or new ways of living. Which in turn hopefully allows more people like your abbess to operate on a more material level.

I love roland barthes in Writing: Degree Zero, where he notes that ecriture "elle sa developpe comme un germe...elle manifeste une essence et menace d'un secret, elle est une contre-communication". But there is a great way the much maligned psychoanalyst Masud Khan describes Barthes' thought here - "we analysts have to learn to tolerate the hostile intent in l'ecriture and train ourselves to discpline it so that it speaks what we mean it to speak and does not degenerate into fallacious ritualistic tantalization or rejection of others."

anyway, ramble over


Anonymous said...

Your abbess, for instance, is doing something pretty radical, it seems.

I don't think it seemed that way to her; she was behaving like a count, and often with the cooperation of her brothers who were actually counts. That was what her family did. This was in tenth-century Spain, so there is an extent to which women have a public rôle that the Middle Ages more largely would deny them, but Abbess Emma would have been a special case anywhere, I think. She is, in any case, the subject of my only real publication, so if you like you can judge for yourself.