Sunday, 29 November 2009

gregory the great on exile

Looking at James Alison's work (which I am still trying to find in electronic form) has got me interested in the way exile is constructed as a kind of ideal within the Christian tradition (or, better perhaps, within Christian traditions). I think this is especially interesting, given Jess's focus on the idea of exile in Jewish thought. I've been looking at an article published in the 1960s in Speculum (which is a journal for medievalists). It's by Gerhart B. Ladner and is called "Homo Viator: Mediaeval Ideas on Alienation and Order". Here's a short excerpt where Ladner begins by summarising something that Gregory the Great says in the Moralia (his commentary on the Book of Job):

There the great Pope says that temporal comfort on this earth is to the just man what the bed in an inn is to the viator, to the traveller on his journey: he will rest in it bodily, but mentally he is already somewhere else. And sometimes the just on his travels through life will even seek out discomfort and refuse to dwell in the pleasantness of transitory surroundings, lest by delight found on the journey he be delayed from reaching his fatherland, and by attaching his heart to the road of peregrination he lose his reward when the heavenly patria finally comes into sight. The just, therefore, do not settle for good in this world - they know that they are only pilgrims and guests in it. They desire to rejoice where they belong and cannot be happy in a foreign land. [...]

According to that great anonymous document of the mentality of the early Church which is the Epistle to Diognetus, the terrestrial lot of Christians is eminently that of strangers:

They reside in their own fatherlands, but as if they were non-citizens; they take part in all things as if they were citizens and suffer all things as if they were strangers; every foreign country is a fatherland to them and every fatherland is to them a foreign country ... They dwell on earth, but they are citizens in heaven ...

The mention of the inn in the first quotation made me think of the motels we stayed in in Minnesota and that you've occasionally stayed in during the journey. One may rest in them bodily but, to be a viator, one must mentally be 'already somewhere else'.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

John 9

I'm still trying to find an electronic version of James Alison's essay but, in anticipation, here is the text it discusses - chapter 9 of the Gospel of John:

9:1 And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. 9:2 And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? 9:3 Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. 9:4 I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. 9:5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. 9:6 When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay, 9:7 And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, (which is by interpretation, Sent.) He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing.

9:8 The neighbours therefore, and they which before had seen him that he was blind, said, Is not this he that sat and begged? 9:9 Some said, This is he: others said, He is like him: but he said, I am he. 9:10 Therefore said they unto him, How were thine eyes opened? 9:11 He answered and said, A man that is called Jesus made clay, and anointed mine eyes, and said unto me, Go to the pool of Siloam, and wash: and I went and washed, and I received sight. 9:12 Then said they unto him, Where is he? He said, I know not.

9:13 They brought to the Pharisees him that aforetime was blind. 9:14 And it was the sabbath day when Jesus made the clay, and opened his eyes. 9:15 Then again the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. He said unto them, He put clay upon mine eyes, and I washed, and do see. 9:16 Therefore said some of the Pharisees, This man is not of God, because he keepeth not the sabbath day. Others said, How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles? And there was a division among them. 9:17 They say unto the blind man again, What sayest thou of him, that he hath opened thine eyes? He said, He is a prophet.

9:18 But the Jews did not believe concerning him, that he had been blind, and received his sight, until they called the parents of him that had received his sight. 9:19 And they asked them, saying, Is this your son, who ye say was born blind? how then doth he now see? 9:20 His parents answered them and said, We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind: 9:21 But by what means he now seeth, we know not; or who hath opened his eyes, we know not: he is of age; ask him: he shall speak for himself. 9:22 These words spake his parents, because they feared the Jews: for the Jews had agreed already, that if any man did confess that he was Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue. 9:23 Therefore said his parents, He is of age; ask him.

9:24 Then again called they the man that was blind, and said unto him, Give God the praise: we know that this man is a sinner. 9:25 He answered and said, Whether he be a sinner or no, I know not: one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see. 9:26 Then said they to him again, What did he to thee? how opened he thine eyes? 9:27 He answered them, I have told you already, and ye did not hear: wherefore would ye hear it again? will ye also be his disciples? 9:28 Then they reviled him, and said, Thou art his disciple; but we are Moses' disciples. 9:29 We know that God spake unto Moses: as for this fellow, we know not from whence he is. 9:30 The man answered and said unto them, Why herein is a marvellous thing, that ye know not from whence he is, and yet he hath opened mine eyes. 9:31 Now we know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth his will, him he heareth. 9:32 Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind. 9:33 If this man were not of God, he could do nothing. 9:34 They answered and said unto him, Thou wast altogether born in sins, and dost thou teach us? And they cast him out.

9:35 Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and when he had found him, he said unto him, Dost thou believe on the Son of God? 9:36 He answered and said, Who is he, Lord, that I might believe on him? 9:37 And Jesus said unto him, Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee. 9:38 And he said, Lord, I believe. And he worshipped him. 9:39 And Jesus said, For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind. 9:40 And some of the Pharisees which were with him heard these words, and said unto him, Are we blind also? 9:41 Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth.

It's the language of inclusion and exclusion that Alison's interpretation particularly focuses on.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

James Alison

I don't know if you've ever come across James Alison, Eve? He's a Catholic theologian whose writings, amongst other things, develop a sympathetic theological account of homosexual experience. I'm not just referring to him because you and I share an interest in religion and sexuality, although that's obviously relevant. It's because I've just been exploring his book Fragments Catholic and Gay, the first chapter of which develops a reading of chapter 9 of St John's Gospel in which the ideas of inclusion and exclusion are very important. Alison's discussion of the story of the 'Man Blind from Birth' reminded me of some of what we've said about how productive it is to be 'out of place' and yet how seductive it can be to imagine oneself 'out of place' when, in fact, one is comfortably 'at home'.

I'll try to find a way to get the relevant material to you but, in the meantime, this is a website that provides access to what of Alison's work is available online:

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Friday, 20 November 2009

flyposting #3

A closer look at the tear:

flyposting #2

This is how the list of Ojibwe words looked after a week:

flyposting #1

On a completely different note, this is a list of Ojibwe words that I fly-posted on a disused building near where I live:

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

not so delighted

One last post for today. I've also been thinking about what you said here:
At the end of the service, they have a tradition I like a lot: the preacher and deacons get into a receiving line, and the congregation goes down to the front, greets those already there, and then each person joins the line themselves, so that by the end, every single person has greeted every other. There were a couple of people in the congregation who greeted me only perfunctorily, perhaps not so delighted I was there, and it got me to thinking: if I were a black person, I’m not sure I would want to see my white self in my church. If I were a child of slavery and sharecropping and lynchings and all that, I’m not sure how much loving-kindness and openheartedness I would be ready to muster for every white stranger who walks in the door.
I've thought about this a lot too and, once again, it seems to me connected with Raymond Williams' idea of 'unlearning'. It is possible to listen to the criticism that we are 'determined to lay our hands on life and force it into our own image' but then think that the solution is to rush out and 'learn from the oppressed'. Part of the unlearning is, I think, to understand what it means not always to be welcome - not always to be seen as the 'nice person' that one is in one's own mind.

Now that's got me thinking about Mark Ravenhill's 'epic cycle of short plays', Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat, but I think that's enough for today.


All right, maybe I *will* try to write something more substantive in response to what you said about the discussion at the B.B. King museum. Your comments reminded me strongly of something the great left-wing scholar and critic, Raymond Williams, wrote at the end of his book Culture and Society, which was first published in 1958. This is the passage I am thinking of:
A knot is tied, that has come near to strangling our whole common life, in this century. We live in almost overwhelming danger, at a peak of our apparent control. We react to the danger by attempting to take control, yet still we have to unlearn, as the price of survival, the inherent dominative mode. The struggle for democracy is the pattern of this revaluation, yet much that passes as democratic is allied, in spirit, with the practice of its open enemies. It is as if, in fear or vision, we are now all determined to lay our hands on life and force it into our own image and it is then no good to dispute on the merits of rival images. This is a real barrier in the mind, which at times it seems almost impossible to break down: a refusal to accept the creative capacities of life; a determination to limit and restrict the channels of growth; a habit of thinking, indeed, that the future has now to be determined by some ordinance in our own minds. We project our old images into the future, and take hold of ourselves and others to force energy toward that substantiation. We do this as conservatives, trying to prolong old forms; we do this as socialists, trying to prescribe the new man.
I think this relates quite closely to what you said in your post in the sense that the ideas circulating in liberal circles of influence - let's say 'liberal' rather than 'socialist' here - are not that different from the ideas circulating in conservative circles of influence to the extent that both are articulated with the goal of 'laying hands on life and forcing it into our own image'. Yet we - the privileged of this world - barely notice this fact. And this is why some 'unlearning' is called for. As you imply, the liberal intelligentsia often know remarkably little about the people whose interests are allegedly asserted in the drive to 'prescribe the new man', and the gesture of 'demanding an old man to change his vocabulary' risks being nothing more than an empty gesture. To recognise that important stuff is happening elsewhere requires an act of unlearning on our part. (I might as well come out and say 'our' not 'their'.) We have learned that we are at the centre of things. Somehow we need to learn that we are not.

my own provincialism

I think you've made a very, very important statement here and I want to think about it more - it seems to me totally cental to the idea of an 'archive of exile'. In the spirit of not worrying about being interesting, I'm not going to try to say anything clever in reply to your post but just underline the fact that it really spoke to me.
The discussion at the BB King Museum the other night was full of talk about the complicity of the North in racism, claiming that Northerners, even abolitionists, didn’t actually like black people any more than Southerners did, and in certain ways understand black culture far less than Southerners do. Martin Luther King said he was more scared of the white racists in Chicago than he ever was down South. And of course, there are proportionally so many more black people down here than up North, and I do think there’s a complexity to the whole question of racism that I’m not going to address productively by demanding an old man to change his vocabulary so as not to wound my sensibilities. That man has lived and worked side by side with black people all his life. Let’s be real here: his daily life is in certain ways more integrated than the new music scene in New York City, uptown, downtown, or midtown. That’s part of the reason I’m not in New York right now, I’m trying to get some perspective on my own provincialism.

Where has the autumn gone?!

I cannot BELIEVE how quickly the last couple of months have gone by! I seem to have been swept along in an avalanche of work, minor life-related stuff, and constant low-level illness. (I've drunk enough cough syrup to sink a battleship and enough orange-juice to bring the world's major producers of citrus out of recession.) I've been following your blog with a lot of interest, Eve, and your productivity makes me particularly ashamed at my own failure to post anything interesting for ages. Although, actually, I think the desire to be interesting has got in the way of my posting - I keep thinking that I'll be able to write something better tomorrow when I'm less tired/less distracted/more focused/more on top of everything. Well, that's obviously a fantasy, so I'm going to start posting again regularly whatever the weather - let's say a minimum of three times a week. I'm not sure what I'll write yet. To be honest, I feel a bit boxed in in my thinking and I reckon I'll try to focus on breaking out of the box. So here is a resolution for the onset of winter: 'break out, break out, break out of the box!'