Sunday, January 11, 2004

Another Letter to a Young Theologian [Part 2] (the last one, I promise!!; or A Post That I Suspect Only Two People Will Want to Read

In the Christian tradition, the theologian's desire to 'know' God has often taken on the sexually euphemistic notion of 'knowing'. In his study on depictions of the Crucifixion in medieval Europe, Richard Trexler notes that it was customary for Jesus' crucified body to be regarded as a 'volume to be penetrated' ('Gendering Jesus Crucified' [1993], 108-09). Thus one might find Jesus appearing and quickly embracing Rupert von Deutz in a dream, kissing him, and then opening his mouth, 'so that I could kiss him more deeply'. Battista Varani is even more literal with his desired penetration when he expresses the wish to wriggle into Christ's dying body in search of his Saviour's heart.1

To further consider the character of theology, death as such, of course, is never the end. The character eyes death, but, in order to remain a character, can never make the step beyond. 'Dying is not an event', Martin Heidegger points out. 'It is a phenomenon to be understood existentially' (Being and Time [1962], 284). The 'being-towards-death' that identifies one as an individual, then, is an impossible gift and destination, namely because 'every relation to death is an interpretive apprehension and a representative approach to [one's own] death' (Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death [1995], 45). Unwrapping this 'gift of death', we end up only playing with its bows and strings.2 '[O]ne never dies now', we hear from beyond the grave, 'one always dies later, in the future -- in a future that is never actual, that cannot come except when everything will be over and done' (Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature [1982], 164-65). The grave matters, then, because this 'beyond' is within, we are forever separated from ourselves, from our beginning and ending.3 That which once seemed familiar or present has actually always been foreign and absent, ever-'becoming' itself in relation to an infinitely other. Consequently, 'identity, which we attempt to support and unify under a mask, is in itself only a parody; it is plural; countless spirits dispute its possession, systems intersect and compete' (Michel Foucault, 'Nietzsche, Genealogy, History' [1977], 161). This, however, inevitably leads us to one further question.

Who is the character of theology? Which of the character 'I's steps into character on theology's stage? Its self-imposed split, the 'I Am that I Am', this tear has pained theology beyond measure. 'But what is pain?' Heidegger wonders.

Pain tears or rends. It is the tear or rift [Riss]. But it does not tear apart into dispersive fragments. Pain indeed tears asunder, it separates, yet in such a way that it at the same time draws everything together to itself. Its rending, as a separating that gathers, . . . draws and joins together what is held apart in separation. (Poetry, Language, Thought [1971], 204)

Similarly, theology's character is not, nor has it ever been, transparent. If, as Frank Kermode has suggested, there is 'a need in the moment of existence to belong, to be related to a beginning and to an end', all presence is a presentation whose 'subject' is only ever 'becoming' (Sense of an Ending [1967], 4).4 This is perhaps what I have been trying to say all along, that this redemptive self-presentation is a necessary fiction, one that I cannot help but regard as thoroughly, albeit peculiarly, theological, as it is being constructed in and as an impossible narrative that is never sure how to begin.

1 Also see Jean Wirth, L'image m?di?vale: naissance et d?veloppements, VIe-XVe si?cle (1989), 323; and 'La naissance de J?sus dans le coeur: ?tude iconographique' (1989), 149?58. Citing Wirth once more, Trexler also notes: 'Long before modern psychoanalytic insights, the genital implications of such penetrations were clear among late fifteenth-century German printmakers, who might, for instance, provocatively place the crucified Jesus' pierced, externalised heart over the space where his genitals belonged' ('Gendering Jesus Crucified', 109).

2 Notably, Derrida's title, The Gift of Death [Donner la mort], equivocates between the ordinary meaning ascribed to donner, 'to give', and the idiom, 'to put to death' (as in se donner la mort, 'to commit suicide').

3 Maurice Blanchot, Faux Pas (1943), 35. Most of Blanchot's best writing comes when he attempts to reflect on the implications of his own insights. For instance, apropos to the realisation above he reflects:

But what is 'humanism'? In what terms can we define it without engaging in the logos of a definition? In those terms that will remove it farthest from a language: the cry (that is to say the murmur), cry of need or protest, cry without word, without silence, ignoble cry where, perhaps, the cry writes the graffiti of high walls. It is possible, as one likes to state, that 'man passes away.' He fades. He even has always already passed, faded, to the extent that he has always been suited for his own disappearance. But, in passing, he cries; he cries in the street, in the desert; he cries while dying; he does not cry, he is the murmur of the cry (Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation [1993]).

4 It should not be surprising that Kermode goes on to suggest that 'we may call books fictive models of the temporal world' (54). Cf., '[W]e experience the "fictionalization" of history as an "explanation" for the same reason that we experience great fiction as an illumination of a world that we inhabit along with the author. In both we recognize the forms by which consciousness both constitutes and colonizes the world it seeks to inhabit' (Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism [1978], 99).