Flash Review: King Artus

ScreenshotOnce you come out of your food coma, and once you’ve read Michael O’Rourke’s review below, you may have to start compiling next semester’s syllabi. If you’re teaching comp lit, particularly if you’re at a school like mine, where a fair number of students read Hebrew and know Rabbinic exegesis, consider teaching King Artus, a late thirteenth-century, Northern Italian fragment of the Arthurian legend written in Hebrew (for a preview, see here). I did a few weeks ago, and I think I can call it a success. We’ll see once the research papers come in. More details after the fold…

I had thought that Arthurian scholars already knew this work well, but judging by the available body of criticism–perhaps 5 articles, several of them from the past few years–there’s a world of work to be done. The plot itself treats Uther’s trickery of Igraine (here called Izerna), Lancelot’s lust for Guinevere (here called Zinerva), and the quest for the Holy Grail (here transformed into a Jewish tamchuy, or charity dish).

More fascinating than the lengthy opening apology for secular literature (although this is wonderful) is the translator’s many conversions of the story into Biblical and Rabbinic language. Our translator and editor, Curt Leviant, might have followed his own footnote and rendered “This is the history of Sir Lancelot” as “These are the days of the generations of Sir Lancelot”; the text gestures towards the meaning of Lancelot’s name with “is it not written in the book concerning him?”; Lancelot swears by “ha-shem,” the Name, during a lascivious conversation with Guinevere; and knights during a tournament shout “Praised be the living God!.” I’m a little less certain, however, about Leviant’s translation of the odd ending of the work: “[there:] fell many knights, one after another like lambs, and [Lancelot:] cut throats of horses like pumpkins.” Pumpkins? I’m not qualified to judge Leviant’s translation (give it a shot, folks, right here), but pumpkins seems unlikely, since I doubt that pumpkins would have been known to our anonymous author.

The edition comes with a wealth of supplemental material in which Leviant discusses the Judaizing work of the translator, proposes that Malory and this work drew on a common, now lost, source for certain scenes, and, especially, argues against the clever scholars who have traced motifs in the Arthur and Tristan legends to Celtic prehistorical Gods, to subcontinental folk tales, and to classical myth; instead, he says, look closer to home, in the Bible (Uther and Igraine as David and Bathsheba, Tristan and Mark as David and Saul, Tristan and Morholt as David and Goliath, etc.), and in the Midrash, which Christian scholars would have known in the twelfth century through the work of Andrew and Hugh of St Victor and Siegebert of Gemblous (the short essay on likely Christian knowledge of Jewish exegesis in the twelfth century is worth the book itself, and a great place to direct students, since Beryl Smalley’s Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages can be intimidating for undergraduates).

Leviat makes a strong case for Biblical roots of several of these “Celtic” legends, noting that details in the David story specific to the Midrash, to Rashi’s commentary in particular, appear in the stories of Arthur and Tristan. In some cases, I think he strains his case, but I think a bit of scholarly bomb-throwing is always necessary to shift the paradigm. No doubt scholarship in the 40+ years since Leviant’s edition first appeared has refined his point, but I doubt the Celticists–particularly the badly disguised ‘white pride’ Celtic hobbyists–can ignore the evidence that Jewish storytelling and scholarship at least had something to do with the shape of these tales and their supposed preservation of the ‘authentic’ pre-Christian past of Europe.

I’d be happier with the edition, however, if it appeared in a larger volume of Jewish medieval narrative and lyric writing. There are fabliaux, fables, and love stories, all of which could be collected in one volume that might cost as much as this one ($25) and thus be more suitable for classroom use in a good Comp Lit course. In the meantime, though, teach it, and keep teaching it, as this might be the best way to realize my dream of the good Jewish anthology necessary for any medieval comp lit survey.

Erotic Animals II: Adam in Paradise

One of our very first posts, and (unsurprisingly?) an all-time (and I trust disappointing) hit among the pages that draw people (?) into ITM, was Jeffrey’s “Erotic Animals” entry for the Encycopedia of Sex and Gender. Consider this post its descendant (and not, exactly, a descendant of my several posts on necrobestiality).

I stress a pedigree with the staid genre of the Encyclopedia to underscore a claim not to be (self-consciously) outré in my critical interests. I deny this for a lot of obvious reasons. It’s usual to “push the boundaries” by studying “outsiders” (e.g.), but of course this critical practice:

1) cements the various outsiders–Jews, Lepers, Sodomites, Freemasons, Nazis, Furries, Sciopods, &c.–into a structural position as outsider and thus marks the critical interest as a subset of tourism of the bizarre (the analog might be the white American salaryman who cuts loose on a Caribbean vacation, before returning home into a sublated version of his salaried existence);

2) upholds the “cultural center” as a site without systemic antagonism, as a place that cannot be dissolved without an infestation from the outside.

It’s been said many times before, but, well, to quote from a comment I wrote on a student’s paper:

My own tendency in doing queer theory has been to argue for the queerness at the heart of what has otherwise been thought normal, to refuse to exclude the purportedly ‘straight’ from the queer, to disengage queer theory from its exclusive focus on samesex desires/acts, and ALSO to argue, as my friend Eileen Joy does, that all sex is hetero, in the sense that there is never an erotics of the same, of the homo (maybe), because we are never same to ourselves or to the social roles into which we’ve been thrust by our gender &c. This is not to say, however, that there’s nothing politically efficacious in a focus on gays but I think there’s also much work that can done in overturning straight confidence in its own straightness.

With that hypertrophied introduction, or apologia, I want to share with you a nugget from a great article I discovered yesterday, Eric Lawee’s “The Reception of Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah In Spain: The Case of Adam’s Mating with the Animals,” Jewish Quarterly Review 97.1 (2007): 33-66.

Genesis 2:19-23 runs:

19 And the Lord God having formed out of the ground all the beasts of the earth, and all the fowls of the air, brought them to Adam to see what he would call them: for whatsoever Adam called any living creature the same is its name. 20 And Adam called all the beasts by their names, and all the fowls of the air, and all the cattle of the field: but for Adam there was not found a helper like himself.

21 Then the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon Adam: and when he was fast asleep, he took one of his ribs, and filled up flesh for it. 22 And the Lord God built the rib which he took from Adam into a woman: and brought her to Adam. 23 And Adam said: This now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man.

We’ve several problems here, perhaps chiefly the opening clause of 2:23, zot ha-pa’am, “this now”: does this mean that God had provided a previous unsatisfactory Eve? That Adam was disatisfied in some way with what had happened before and thus that there was dissension in Eden from the very beginning?

Following earlier commentators, and to solve these problems, Rashi wrote “this time’—it teaches that Adam mated with (she-ba’ adam) every [species of] domesticated animal (behemah) and wild animal (ḥayah) but his appetite was not assuaged (lo’ nitkarerah da’ato) by them” (qtd Lawee 50). Unsurprisingly (?), this was a controversial interpretation. Lawee tracks several Iberian commentaries on Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah that mysticize, deny, or strenuously ignore Rashi’s reading; 13th- and 14th-century Jewish converts like Nicholas Donin used this interpretation against their former coreligionists. So it is recorded that in the Talmud disputation of 1240 in Paris, one of the Jews “concessit quod adam coiit cum omnibus bestiis et hoc in paradiso” (confessed that Adam had sex with all the beasts in paradise), and no doubt this confession helped justify St. Louis’s Talmud-burning.

The question at this stage is: what can I do with this? Note that the interpretation disgusted both Christian and Jewish exegetes. One semi-sympathetic response suggested that bestiality was an important step in Adam’s emotional and mental paideia. While this is at once sympathetic AND patronizing to Adam, it’s hardly sympathetic to the animals. From Lawee, n.84:

Commenting on Gn 8.19, an anonymous Rabbanite Byzantine writer who may predate Rashi prolonged the period of human-animal sexual interaction until after the flood: “they [the animals] left the ark ‘in their families’—indicating that until then humans mated with beasts.” See Nicholas de Lange, Greek Jewish Texts from the Cairo Genizah (Tübingen, 1996), 86. This same writer also posited an element of coercion in the primordial human-animal relationship (“humans mated with beasts and made the beasts mate with them”), thereby raising moral issues (like lack of consent on the part of the animals) that figure in modern discussions of bestiality’s moral status.

We have disgust, a dissatisfied Adam, and yet another abjection of animals on the path to adulthood. This doesn’t give us much to work with. But it still might be possible to play with this strange sex, to discover in it, prior to the interruption by the arrival of Eve, an almost effaced site of lost possibilities (cf. what I do with Gowther). This obviously connects with Jeffrey’s “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages,” where he suggests that the yena might be understood as “an invitation to explore a spacious corporeality beyond the specious boundaries of the human, to invent through alliances with possible bodies a monstrous kind of becoming that carries history within but which is not reducible to historical allegory” (55). We might even see in Adam’s bestiality a possibility for an anti-narcissistic relation to the other, a desire that does not seek satisfaction in “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

Likely having exhausted your patience, I can only ask what might you do with Genesis 2:19-23? What (else) can we do with it that desubliminates the ‘normal’ or puts it in motion? What else can we do that is not drawn to Adam’s bestiality only because of its sauciness?

UPDATE Thanks very much for the link from Michael Pitkowsky’s blog for directing me to Gil Student’s excellent summary of the various exegetical responses to Rashi’s bestiality comment.


I’m still interested in the dynamic of sameness and difference: while we can understand the eros here as negotiating between exogamy and endogamy (marriage with the radically other or the radically same), there’s a sense in which Adam’s frustration stems from the workings of desire itself. I wonder, then, if the unsatisfying sex with animals is a mask for the fact that Eve, to the extent that she is her own person, is not quite flesh of his flesh, that Adam’s eros always requires him to give himself to an unknown?

By the way, Prince, let him be blessed for his (early) funk forever, is a raging weird homophobe, but a homophobe in a way relevant to this discussion:

When asked about his perspective on social issues—gay marriage, abortion—Prince tapped his Bible and said, “God came to earth and saw people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever, and he just cleared it all out. He was, like, ‘Enough.’ ”

“Cleared it all out”: that would seem to be the only way to get Adam’s eros under control.

Hats off to Philo

cvp-00446-001rThis week’s Nation includes Stefan Collini’s review of John Haffenden’s nearly 1500-page two-volume biography of William Empson. First, I want to thank Collini for reminding me of a book whose call I answered when I was an undergraduate, startlingly relevant now because I have just finished teaching (and grading a set of papers on) Paradise Lost. This book is Milton’s God (1961), in which Empson “took every opportunity to denounce the savagery and sheer horribleness of ostensibly familiar biblical teachings such as [and here Collini quotes] ‘the doctrine that God is a sadist who could be bought off torturing all mankind by having his son tortured to death.'” Strong words, and all the stronger for me as a Freshman, when I had deracinated myself scant years before from Christian Fundamentalism.

Collini quotes–to his credit, disapprovingly–Haffenden’s claim that Empson “‘invented modern literary criticism in English.'” Let’s put aside the questions of the boundaries of modernity (although I’m inclined to think that Haffenden means ‘what literary critics do now,’ in which case what I have to say would be just even without bracketing off modernity), and let’s put aside the distracting specificity of “in English,” and let’s, as medievalists, give Haffenden the trapdoor. For those of you not in on medievalist slang, “trapdooring” is what happens when someone claims some technology, or mode of thought, or system of life (even including subjectivity itself) as an “invention” of Modernity. Along comes a medievalist (beginning I suppose with Haskins’ Renaissance of the Twelfth Century) and points out, no, the “origin” of such things predates Modernity (whatever that is), sometimes by thousands of years, or, better yet, declares that origins (or beginnings or breaks) themselves are far from the most interesting topic of investigation. Hence trapdooring, as the claimant for Modernity’s specialness gets dropped into the fifteenth, or twelfth, or ninth centuries, or gets dropped into an abyss where beginnings no longer matter.

Let it be so for Haffenden and his claim, because if I wanted to discover the origins of “modern literary criticism,” by which I mean painfully close reading, sometimes tortured interpretation, in an effort to make the text speak its truth, I would locate it not in the twentieth century, not even in the twelfth, but in the first (BCE), with the allegoresis of Philo Judeaus. Here he is on a bit of Genesis’s Creation story:

“And all the grass of the field,” he proceeds, “before it sprang up.” That is to say, before the particular things perceptible by the external senses sprang up, there existed the generic something perceptible by the external senses through the fore-knowledge of the Creator, which he again called “the universe.” And very naturally he likened the things perceptible by the external senses to grass. For as grass is the food of irrational animals, so also that which is perceptible by the external senses is assigned to the irrational portion of the soul. For why, when he has previously mentioned “the green herb of the field,” does he add also “and all the grass,” as if grass were not green at all? But the truth is, that by the green herb of the field, he means that which is perceptible by the intellect only, the budding forth of the mind. But grass means that which is perceptible by the external senses, that being likewise the produce of the irrational part of the soul.

In its general forms and desires–painstakingly reading to justify a claim that the text is speaking itself when in fact you’re making the text speak for you–I don’t see a fundamental difference between this mode of criticism and what we “modern” literary critics do nowadays. The truth towards which we orient the text is (perhaps) different: class consciousness, for example, rather than God, but in each case, tellingly, there’s often a more or less acknowledged desire to make the text speak morally. In this, and in other ways, neither exegesis nor literary criticism are ever only about the text. (He ponderously intones truths everyone already knows)

I like finding the origins of still vibrant Western modes of thought or activity in Judaism (see JJC’s comment on the “Jewish sciences” here; and, by the way, what I’m saying isn’t anything new, really. For a different, although allied, investigation, see here). But it’s only in part because of his Jewishness that I claim Philo for the origin. I claim Philo also because of his hybridity: because he lived in Alexandria, a polyethnic metropolis; because he wrote in Greek, the cosmopolitan language (the “English” of his day, like English, a language with multiple centers); and because he drew on Jewish and Greek philosophy to build up the structures of his thought.

I claim Philo because I want that point of origin for “modern” criticism to be something uncontainable within monadic categories of Christian, Jewish, or “Pagan,” Greek or Hebrew. I want the pure beginning always to be irreducibly multiple, irreducibly impure. For exemplifying this, hats off to you, Philo.

(image from here: I’d like to think it’s evocative that it’s a Pseudo-Philo.)