11 February. Literature

This week we traded readings, angles, and arguments about the bridge (standing, broken, going) between religion and literature. We considered terms such as mimesis, reproduction, and mechanicisms; gender, bias, and dyads; evolution, humility, the sublime and ambiguity; solitude and theories and interpretations of antiquity; hell, purgatory, and paradise; children’s literature and the sacred; performance and interpretation of sacred texts; the Renaissance and comparativisms; authority, the archon, phalós and logós; searches and anxieties of origins; infinite horizontal reproduction; roots, ginger, holograms, virtuality, and rhyzomes; and religious and literary canonicity, among others.

By Saturday, please review your notes on the essay/chapter that you had assigned, and write a reflection threading those notes with our class discussion. If you were absent, please imagine that threading.

8 replies on “11 February. Literature”
[I am not able to copy the image on this post, thus I am including the link]

Lampedusa. An island in the Mediterranean Sea, in southern Italy. Its beauty is sublime. So much so that Lampedusa is known as a touristic destination, that those who visit treasure for its “white sandy beaches, its clear turquoise waters, and its excellent scuba diving.” Scuba diving, however, can be a violent pastime; for, when it is done in excess, it disturbs the sacred life of those who inhabits the underwater. Lampedusa, this island near the coast of Italy, is a tropical fantasy. For those who can afford it, it is a suspension of their regular life as they get to care for themselves while enjoying the beauty and the sacredness of nature. For others, African refugees/sojourners in search of a better life, Lampedusa is both danger and hope.

What is text? What is literature? How does literature bridge with religion? We began class this week with a discussion of a text. As an example, I chose one of Jason deCaires Taylor’s underwater sculptures. This one entitled “Raft of Lampedusa.” Concerned with the environment, Taylor creates underwater sculptures that are eco-friendly. To address the violence committed unto maritime lives, these sculptures aid in helping the ever evolving, transforming biodiversity of lives underwater to continue to grow. First installed in the Gulf of Mexico, his artworks were not meant to be political, beyond the need to address climate change. However, nature has its own memory. For those on the margins of History, the underwater sculptures brought forth memories of the Atlantic Slave Trade. [For more on this, see Valerie Loichot’s Water Graves: The Art of the Unritual in the Greater Caribbean.]

The rhizome, a subterranean root, is also a metaphor. Or perhaps, like Deleuze and Guitarri describe it, the rhizome is more than a metaphor. Rhizomes are intensities. When thinking of the similarities between humans and plants, Deleuze and Guittari stress the importance of going beyond the surface to recognize that human rhizomes and plant rhizomes are both affected by the intensity of forces in the environment. (Our environment produces affect. Affect are not just emotions, they are anything that affects us, readily registered at the bodily level).

A book, written like rhizomes, is not just an imitation of the world. It is more than an original and its copies. The book is written with the world, it does not seek to define the world, rather, it reciprocates it.

There is also no such things as total rupture when it comes to rhizomes. Rhizomes do not unfold in a hierarchical way. It grows underground, and spread it multiple directions. Rhizomes always continue by rupture; that is because rhizomes grow in the middle, it has no beginning and end.

On these three points, metaphors, mimesis/imitation, and rupture, I wonder, can “Raft of Lampedusa” as text be considered rhizomatic? According to Deleuze and Guittary, it is not plants alone that are capable of being a rhizome. A creature, in its relationship with the air, with animals, and plants can also be considered as rhizomes. It seems to me that Taylor’s sculptures are written with the world. They are not just a replica/memories of those who died at sea on their forced journey to the Americas or as they leave their homelands and their loved ones behind in search for better lives in Europe. Rather, it is a call to action. This call to action is two-fold. At a surface level, Taylor’s artworks provide a safe habitat for the living creatures of the sea who are threatened by climate change and the violence of the touristic industry. His work is being changed daily, just as the biodiversity of the sea shifts and changes. Yet, Taylor’s sculptures also offer a challenge to those who are privilege enough to scuba-dive. Whereas they are able to visit the underwater on their own terms, the bones of many still remains at the bottom of the ocean. They are those who perished while taking a dangerous journey to unknown parts of the world. Thus, this knowledge challenges scuba-divers to understand that Lampedusa, the Golf of Mexico, and other touristic destinations are not mere tropical fantasies. They are also violent sites of burial. “Raft of Lampedusa” also shows the ways that the Atlantic Slave Trade continues. It is a past that is not past. Total rupture cannot/has not occurred.

In the beginning, Taylor himself, a white artist, did not realize the political impact of his work. He did not recognize that his work goes beyond the challenge of climate change, although this too is an important and critical issue. A democratized reading, one that involves his readers, in connection with other readings, allows the artist, and those who read his work, to come together, delve deep, so that we may have a deeper understanding of the sculptures that Taylor creates.

Our discussion in class on Tuesday has made me think about what it means to talk about the Bible as “literature.” As we hinted at in class, this is more complex than it appears at first glance. To begin with, which Bible are we talking about? Are we talking about literary criticism done in the original Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic? Are we talking about the Vulgate? The King James? The Reina Valera? The Guttenberg Bible? All of these are worthy of study, but they would produce different results. Furthermore, is the whole Bible being studied as literature? Is it being treated as something that tells a cohesive story with a beginning middle and end, or that returns to certain themes? Or are we studying some unit of the Bible as literature. The former implies a theological reading, whereas the latter can be done from a purely literary perspective.
It is also interesting to think about what we’re contrasting literary study of the Bible to. Literary study can be an attempt to preserve the value and study of the Bible in secular contexts. Someone who does not regard the study of the Bible as a unique source of religious truth can still study it as a work of literature that has been enormously influential in the Western world and beyond. As Thomas Greene points out in Light in Troy, there is often a desire to return to the great literature of a past era. Such nostalgia can foster a desire to continue studying the Bible even as cultural understandings of it can change greatly. It can also be contrasted, however, with a study of the Bible that focuses purely on history or on an attempt to reconstruct sources that lie “behind” the biblical text as we have it today. Indeed within the field of biblical studies literary methods were developed largely in response to the feeling that such historical methods, while important, could be reductionist.

Some scattered thoughts on our thoroughly enjoyable discussion of literature and religion:

My chapter, “Imitation and Anachronism” from Thomas Greene’s A Light in Troy, was helpful for my own research in history and historiography. I was especially compelled by Greene’s tracing of history—the incommensurable gulf between past and present—through literature. I think he is absolutely right that who we choose to imitate, who we identify as our heroes, has immense bearing on canonization in both fields. History and literature are mutually constitutive in this way.

This week’s texts also reminded me of the literary, theological quality of history. I’m thinking of my favorite quote from another work by Walter Benjamin: “history is not simply a science but also and not least a form of remembrance. What science has determined; remembrance can modify…in remembrance we have an experience that forbids us to conceive of history as something fundamentally atheological” (Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002, 471). Writers of history and literature bring their experiences and commitments into their work based on who they choose to imitate, whose lives they choose to study and investigate, and what lasting lessons they hope to retrieve from them. I especially love Benjamin’s assertion that we ought not to think of history and literature as empiricist disciplines, but rather ones fundamentally marked by human emotion, struggle, feeling, and error.

I believe taking Benjamin’s words seriously holds immense potential for reframing the concept and practices of canonization. In class, we named and never lost our central concern of the exclusivism and violence of academic canons—questions of inside/outside, center/periphery, academic/vernacular have stuck with me. Literature—indeed all things literary—both helps erect these boundaries while also transgressing them. We ought to constantly consider our own roles in the processes of constructing and maintaining these boundaries; we ought to understand the work we read and write as our own acts of remembrance, never fully transparent, and always up for new interpretation.

First and foremost, apologies to everyone for not being in class and able to contribute my reading of “Plato’s Pharmacy” to y/our discussion of religion and literature. I hope my summation, reading, and reflections here can serve as a belated addendum to Tuesday’s discussion.

Let me frame my post in what I take as the primary linkage between literature and religion: language. And for Derrida, language is always already implicated with writing. Yet, at the same time, for Derrida, writing is neither simply nor only a matter of the technical [techne] activity, but a paradigm for how we conceive the primary properties of language. In his book, /Of Grammatology/, Derrida “deconstructs” the founding figure of structural linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, by attending to his privileging of speech over writing–which we also see in Plato’s /Phaedrus/ and, Derrida observes, runs through the history of “Western metaphysics” (qua “presence”). The “nature” of Derrida’s method is not so much to “do” something to a text, but rather to witness how a given text deconstructs itself. In the case of Saussure, Derrida observes that while he denounces writing for being artificial and derivative (of speech), Saussure’s theorization of language as a structural system of differences without positive terms–i.e., that signs have no intrinsic relationship to nature–already demonstrates that language denaturalizes itself. Therefore, Derrida takes up “writing” as a paleonym–i.e., the re-use of an old word in a new way–in order to foreground how language is always already denaturalized. Further, the paleonym of “writing” also foregrounds how language is always already haunted by absence, in contradistinction to the privileging of speech for its presence.

This brings us back to the core thematics of “Plato’s Pharmacy.” Plato’s /Phaedrus/ is a written dialogue starring a quasi-fictional rendering of his teacher, Socrates, as the primary interlocutor. The dialogue is named after Socrates’ other interlocutor, Phaedrus, who loves speeches but cannot remember them and so resorts to transcriptions of them as the means of repeating their contents. This leads Socrates to tell a myth (after denouncing their usefulness) about the origin of writing: it was invented by the Egyptian god, Theuth, for his King, Thamus–presented as a remedy for forgetfulness. (Note that the myth already tarries with “religion” in the form of gods–which raises a question about the relationship between myth and religion, though I am not going to pursue this further here.) Yet, Thamus responds that this remedy is in fact a poison in that it will make the people not only reliant on writing–thus atrophying memory–but also lead them astray in enabling repetition without knowledge. Clearly, the myth is itself an allegory for the dialogue between Socrates (Thamus) and Phaedrus (Theuth). Yet, there is a double irony here: 1) Plato is staging this “dialogue” in writing; 2) he deploys the same Greek word to describe, “pharmakon,” in Theuth and Thamus’ dispute. Pharmakon can be best translated into English as “drug,” which retains its double-meaning as “medicine” and “poison.” Among other things that Derrida draws attention to, he spends a significant amount of time discussing translation: specifically how the French translator chose between the alternative valences of the term’s meaning to satisfy the dialogue’s (intended?) value structure. While Derrida himself argues for the impossibility of translation, his point here is that the translator’s choices–which include a problematic effacement of pharmakon’s polyvalence–reflect the legacy of Plato’s (or, rather, Platonism’s) metaphysical privileging of speech’s presence against writing’s deceptive absence (i.e., that the author does not have to be present with their writing).

A couple intertwined consequences for our class can be derived from Derrida’s intervention: 1) that the flattening of polyvalent/polysemous terms in translation has implications for the transmission, practice, and theology of religion; 2) that “writing” (in Derrida’s sense) always haunts any simple privileging and/or conception of presence, which also complicates any possible distinction between “good” and “bad” repetition (a distinction that is decisive for Plato/nism and, arguably, religion alike). To spend one more moment on #2, Derrida would argue that any repetition “worthy of the name”–which we could imagine across an endless plethora of religions contexts/practices/texts–is one that foregrounds the “necessary possibility” of its failure. Perhaps this is what “literature” can offer to–or even as a conception of–religion: a practice/experience of reading/writing/repetition (“worthy of the name”) that struggles with the necessary possibility of its failure. And perhaps “faith”–in contradistinction to “belief”–is the modality that enables one to dwell with the “literariness” (qua necessarily possible failure) of any and every (practice of) religion.

I very much regret not having been able to attend our last session on literature. I was meant to cover Erich Auerbach’s ‘Odysseus’ Scar’, the first chapter of ‘Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature’. I was immediately struck by the curious fact that all of my four courses this semester engage with the story of Abraham and Isaac; through the lenses of Erich Auerbach, Søren Kierkegaard, Jacques Derrida, Franz Kafka, Maurice Blanchot and Dolores Williams. Philologist Erich Auerbach juxtaposes the story of Abraham and Isaac with the myth of Odysseus’ scar, in order to offer a comparison between the representation of reality in Homer’s Odyssey and in the bible, which enables him to identify two basic types of epic literature. He describes the Homeric tradition, by way of reading it through the trope of the legend, as fully externalized and streamlined. He describes the (Elohist) biblical tradition, on the other hand, as represented in a more “historic” way in which “certain parts [are] brought into high relief” and “others [are] left obscure”, preserving a sense of “abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed, “background” quality, multiplicity of meanings and the need for interpretation” (p. 23). This “multiplicity of meanings” and the subsequent “need for interpretation” that Auerbach considers the Abrahamic myth to be paradigmatic was very much supported by the heterogeneous engagements with it that I have been confronted with in the last few weeks—from Kirkegaard’s discussion of faith and Derrida’s (related) engagement with otherness, over Blanchot’s focus on the writer (in Kafka) to Dolores Williams’ focus on Hegar and the (Black, female) wilderness experience.

After revisiting my notes from our class discussion, and reconsidering my reading of Auerbach’s chapter entitled “Adam and Eve” from his book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, I am left with a sense of unfinished business. What represents “literature”? How do religion and literature bridge each other—and where does the bridge break down? Those questions from my notes have remained open threads, leading out to a ragged edge. If you are reading, you must bear with me, because I have to bring in Spivak’s notion of “complicity” now—a concept that kept running in the background of our discussion for me, like a nagging hung-up computer script.

The word “literature” is tied up with canon, consensus, value, beauty; “literature” reflects a commonly agreed-upon repository of wisdom, human experience, sublimity. Like “religion,” it is a site of returning, of re-binding, reading again, re-ligare/re-legare. I have to acknowledge that when I think of a piece I am reading as “literature,” it changes my reading experience. Similarly, when I am conscious of some act or thought or text or space as “religious” and religiously significant, it changes my encounter. It shifts my interaction with that subject into a mode of intention and attention that I am even now struggling to put into words. What I can say is that it seems both more formal and fraught, than if these labels of “literature” and “religion” were not attached.

As someone trained in the academic disciplines of religion and literature, I recognize a certain level of complicity in maintaining these categories. Even when I critique these categories, I am necessarily complicit in their function, in their power to awe, in their ongoing aura—as Spivak has highlighted in her work and thinking. I find this fact important to acknowledge even as I scrutinize the bridge and the breakdown between religion and literature around a central text of Western tradition: the Bible. The Bible is both a work of literature and religion—but simultaneously it challenges both categories.

Auerbach’s chapter on Adam and Eve takes on the high/low, sublimitas/humilitas distinction between “literature” and “religion” by looking carefully at a 12th century French play, Mystere d’Adam. Auerbach takes up a long-standing historical critique that religious plays like this one took sublime texts with extraordinary religious significance, and made them ribald, common, entertainment in which regular people could recognize themselves and their domestic situations. They often offered rough caricatures of human life or “low” representations of familiar religious literature. In performing the relationship between Adam and Eve as one that riffed on stereotypes of married life in which the woman dominates a man to detriment, the play expresses a religious story within the entertaining idiom of local culture. Auerbach argues that “it’s misleading to speak of a progressive secularization of the Christian passion play” (160). Inclusion of contemporary life was always a part of the sacred. A mixing of styles, the alternating use of Latin and Old French in plays, for instance, exemplified what was always a part of “gospel-religion”: making the common sacred, and vice versa.

After our discussion last week, I’ve begun to think of this “mixing of styles,” an erosion between the distinctions of sublimitas and humilitas, literature and writing, sacred and secular as an important feature of learning how to read religious texts comparatively. Here, I need to be more aware of my complicity in maintaining distinctions, and recognize the kinds of power structures that feed and influence my own response to holding up normative standards for each.

Sorry for the late post!

The class discussion on Tuesday aided me in the process of thinking about categories employed in academia. Benjamin’s “Work of the Art” is a crucial piece in understanding the forms of reproduction and problematizing the category of “original”. I choose the poem “Sita” written by a Telugu poet Pattabhi. Pattabhi uses the allegory of Ramayana and synthesises the presence of two Sita’s in his poem. I viewed this act as an act of artistic reproduction of the supposed ‘original’ from Ramayana where Sita (in maintream depictions) is depicted without any agency and being acted upon by the various male characters of the epic. In Pattabhi’s poem, Sita (both his wife and the ‘original’ Sita) speaks her mind out on the choices concerning her body and her actions. Pattabhi in his writing ‘reproduces’ the impression of original Sita through his npoem and provides her agency to express herself and her love towards Ravan.

I also wanted to talk about translation as ‘reproduction of literature’ and how they both fare when looked comparatively.

“For there is always going on within us a process of formulation and interpretation whose subject matter is our own self. We are constantly endeavoring to give meaning and order to our lives in the past, the present, and the future, to our surroundings, the world in which we live; with the result that our lives appear in our own conception as total entities— which to be sure are always changing, more or less radically, more or less rapidly, depending on the extent to which we are obliged, inclined, and able to assimilate the onrush of new experience. These are the forms of order and interpretation which the modern writers here under discussion attempt to grasp in the random moment…” (Auerbach 549).

Auerbach wanted to understand the ways in which reality itself was re-constructed in Literature so that he might be able to question the ways that reality is constructed in and through the human experience (at least this is my reading of his project). In the section that I read which focused on Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, he praises Woolf’s focus on the mundane and the quotidian as the novel’s inciting action— the mere measuring of a stocking by a wife and mother — offers ample opportunity to investigate the interiority of compelling characters. Reflecting on the central mission of Auerbach’s text and not necessarily his antiquated formulations, I think it is important to consider the ways in which most tenants of cultural storytelling seem to be in direct response to the tragic arbitrary nature of life itself. Whether in response to joy, grief, rage, or passion, most of our ability to process our experiences are reactionary and reflective. However, the “[constant] endeavoring to give meaning and order to our lives” seems to also be the impetus to the creation of art, literature, and, especially relevant to this course, the study and interpretation of religious texts. While there are structural and cultural differences between what we would consider to be Literature and what we would consider to be religious texts, they are both very similar insomuch as they are tools for helping us process the sometimes painfully unnamable aspects of life. But it is the process of readings, of interpreting, of being open to new or different things a text may open us up to, which determines the impact of such tools. In class we discussed two vital things: firstly that a lack of humility in how we interpret religious and/or literary texts can itself become a form of violence and secondly that the sublimic quality of Literature is dependent upon its ambiguity. To conclude this post, I believe that a comparativist approach to reading religious text depends upon both humility and ambiguity in order to create a space where doubt, where the unknown, and also where the unknowable, can flourish.

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