Thursday, July 12, 2007

Jacob Taubes's Vézelay

Jacob Taubes’s Political Theology of Paul (trans. Dana Hollander, Stanford University Press, 1993; based on lectures given in 1987) is such a unique artifact of scholarship, sincerity, and autobiographical pathos that it’s hard to feel confident of the right to say anything about it. Aleida Assmann’s preface to the volume reinforces the impression that what happens in the lectures is not merely literature. Because Taubes was dying of cancer at the time, “what . . . had still been for Taubes a largely philosophical problem had become by the end of February 1987 a matter of existential urgency.” Further, Assmann also claims that even outside these lectures the philosophical problem was not merely philosophical: “Taubes did not understand his work on Paul as an academic obligation or exercise” (xiii). Taubes himself sounds a similar note when he compares Benjamin to Adorno. Adorno is a wonderful writer, he says, but when Adorno considers the idea of messianism, “it hardly matters whether it’s real. In Benjamin it does matter” (75).

Taubes’ rhetoric seesaws between scholarly distance—he works as a historian of religion, he keeps saying, not as a theologian—and something like the celebration of immanence and innocence. The vernacular mode of this oral occasion, rendered brilliantly in translation by Dana Hollander, holds the ambiguity in suspension. What exactly is Taubes praising in his description of the signature emblem of the book, the sculptural detail on one of the columns of the medieval church in Vézelay, France?

There’s a marvelous picture that my friend and colleague [Jan] Assmann has sent me (and which can also be found on the cover of Gunther Bornkamm’s Paul book), which I particularly treasure and carry around with me in my bag, because, with the naiveté of the medieval stonemason, it says everything for those who know how to read. It comes from a capital in the cathedral in Vézelay, which is for me the only church of which I can say that the sacred has become stone. (To me, Chartres is already kitsch compared to Vézelay. It’s also one of the things I wish for, to be able to visit Vézelay again.) The picture shows Moses, who pours in grain from above, and the apostle Paul, who collects it below in the sack of the gospel. The text that explicates this scene was written by Suger, the Abbot of St-Denis . . . . The text goes:

By working the mill, thou, Paul, takest the flour out of the bran.
Thou makest known the inmost meaning of the Law of Moses.
From so many grains is made the true bread without bran,
Our and the angels’ perpetual food.

I think that is wonderful. This text, I carry it around with me, and if I forget what I think, I look at it, and then I realize again where I stand.

This is the theme of Moses and Paul. Of course this is a Christian image, a medieval allegory, or more precisely, a Moses-Paul typology as it is felt by Christians. Of course, this is not
my Paul. . . . As such I find the image tremendously dense, and for this reason I carry it around with me. What I have to say about Moses and Paul is naturally something else. (38-39)

The denegation, “Of course, this is not my Paul,” indicates, first of all, "of course," that the image is Catholic in a mainstream way, while Taubes is Jewish and his interpretation is Judeocentric; Taubes understands Paul’s contribution, and early Christianity itself, to be a revolution within Judaism. What he has to say is "naturally" something else. He can carry the picture around and find it “wonderful” without identifying with its perspective--the fundamentally antisemitic perspective in which, in a contemporary cultural guide to France, “l’un [figure] est côté sombre et l’autre dans la lumière . . . . Moïse, précurseur du sombre Testament Ancien, passant le relais à Paul qui récolte la farine fraîche du Testament Nouveau.”

Taubes can carry the picture of the Vézelay capital around in his bag because it is naïve, because the medieval stonemason had no self-consciousness about the circumstance that the story of Moses and Paul, cast in this way, is not only a beautiful story but is related to a persecutory ideology. It’s hard to question Taubes’s perception that the Vézelay figures are special: everything that we can learn as moderns about the history of iconographic rhetoric confirms that these figures are as fresh as could possibly be. Taubes’s reference to them raises the Kantian question of whether unselfconscious beliefs can be beautiful and innocent and racist and persecutory all at the same time, their aesthetic and political resonances co-existing but never touching, as in The Critique of Judgment. When my cat hunts for lizards in the garden, she’s innocent in her secure enjoyment of superiority to lizards, and when you look at the Vézelay figures, you see something as beautiful as her body. If we exchange the metaphor of planes that never meet for one of inside and outside, we might say that this sense of “something” questions whether there is nothing but ideology inside or necessarily attached to ideology, and whether that something can exist independently of the ideology itself. Further, this sense of “something” may be what makes Taubes’ interest in Moses and Paul existential as well as academic. Taubes is no medieval stonemason, but he may want to stay close to naiveté because he wants to carry with him at all times the possibility that within Catholic doctrine, which has propagated most of the antisemitic ideology in the world, there is a sincerity that offers hope for reconciliation and with which he can identify even when he cannot identify with its content. That's an unfreedom that only ancient studies makes enjoyable. This all depends on the naiveté of the stonemason, that is, on traveling back to a point at which ideology isn't even ideology anymore because there is no possibility of self-consciousness about it. If Chartres is “already kitsch,” there's no space between modernity and kitsch, between enlightenment and decadence and therefore the loss of hope.

There would be much more to think about regarding how Taubes’s Paul, “his” Paul, finally does figure into Taubes's implicit historical scheme. On the one hand there’s no one whose ideas are more modern, self-conscious, and political than Taubes’s Paul; so he would seem to represent a modernity of utter clarity that has neverthelesss been obscured (hence Taubes's frequent easy comparisons between Paul's day and his own: e.g., Paul is a "type of zealot diaspora Jew" that one can still find among Americans in Israel [26]), even as Taubes needs that obscurity to have been thoroughly impenetrable to the medieval sculptor. On the other, Paul himself is the sincerest of ideologues, identified with such utterances as “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying” (Romans 9-13, quoted in Taubes 46), and his blatantly ideological Christianity can never exhaust his Judaism. In other words, the fact that everything Paul does is done on behalf of a Jewish community he takes for granted as “an apostle from the Jews to the nations” (48) provides another means by which Paul's political speech must be related to a pre-political matrix--or at least one that was political in an entirely different way than he turned out to be--whose echoes never completely fade away, except, again, to the medieval stonemason. If the images at Vézelay suggest a substance indifferent to the difference between Saint Paul and Taubes’s Paul, Taubes’s Paul himself already embodies its ambiguous origin.

Image: Paul Klee, The Arrow in the Garden

1 comment:

Mennonite_Pacifist said...

Thanks for this. I'm doing a book report on Taubes' book and some of your writings above helped me to understand him a bit better.