Friday, October 24, 2008

Anne Carson and Anne Lamott on Resurrection

Listen to silly Anne Lamott and foolish Anne Carson, wanting hoping desiring so gullibly to keep open the historic and literary possibilities of resurrection, as women see it. The one Anne speaks of Jesus, the other Anne of another Greek-fabled drama, Alcestis in Alcestis by Euripides.

Euripides, of course, is that one of whom the Historian F. A. Wright, in his Feminism in Greek Literature from Homer to Aristotle says: “Euripides and Plato are almost the only [male] authors who show any true appreciation of a woman's real qualities, and to Euripides and Plato, Aristotle, by the whole trend of his [sexist, bigoted] prejudices, was opposed.” But I’m reading the “scholarship” of another “historian” (supposedly) who scoffs, like Aristotle, at true appreciation of a woman’s views. I’m talking about James F. McGrath and his newly published book The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith. McGrath is crying for reviews, but not this one here. In his book, again and again (on more than a dozen pages so far), McGrath feels like he has to pooh pooh the inclusion of women as credible witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus in the gospel of Mark. Not surprising. His historiography is straight phallogocentrism. What I mean by that is this. Hélène Cixous, in her book Stigmata: escaping texts, translates and quotes “Clarice Lispector, who did not think in terms of phallogocentrism.” Cixous points out that Lispector provides a definition of the term: “We have seen this before; it is the ‘phallocratic system’ . . . this is how she [Lispector] conceives of it: a ‘system of inflexible last judgment, which does not permit even a second of incredulity’” (123). Now the English translation of Cixous’s French translation of Lispector’s Brazilian Portuguese has yielded the term. The three together have made “phal-” from Aristotle’s φαλλικὰ (“ph-a-l-l-ika”); “logo,” from Aristotle’s λόγος (or “l-o-g-os”) which he himself makes (by) his λογική (or “l-o-g-ikē” aka LOGIC); and “centric” from Aristotle’s κεντρική (or “k-e-n-tr-ikē”). McGrath, like father Aristotle, does not permit even a second of incredulity. He redefines “faith” and “history” under the guise of “religion.” Enough of that then.

Here’s Anne Lamott in Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith:

I don't have the right personality for Good Friday, for the crucifixion: I'd like to skip ahead to the resurrection. In fact, I'd like to skip ahead to the resurrection vision of one of the kids in our Sunday school, who drew a picture of the Easter Bunny outside the tomb: everlasting life, and a basket full of chocolates. Now you’re talking.

In Jesus’ real life, the resurrection came two days later, but in our real lives, it can be weeks, years, and you never know for sure that it will come. I don’t have the right personality for the human condition, either. But I believe in the resurrection, in Jesus’, and in ours. The trees, so stark and gray last month, suddenly went up as if in flame, but instead in blossoms and leaves--poof! Like someone opening an umbrella. It’s often hard to find similar dramatic evidence of rebirth and hope in our daily lives. (140).

Here’s Anne Carson in Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides:

What does Alkestis' resurrection mean for the sacrificial contract that Admetos had negotiated with Death? This question is never addressed in the play. Mathematically Death is down one soul; common sense (what the Greeks call Necessity) tells us such a situation can’t last. But Herakles seems a character able to override common sense. He releases Alkestis simply by choosing to do so. As if to say, within every death a life stands waiting to be set free, should anyone have the nerve to do it. As if to say, try looking deep into a house, a marriage, or an idea like Necessity and you will see clear through to the other side. Death, like tragedy, is a game with rules. Why not just break the rules?

Rules broken by Euripides in Alkestis include the rule of closure. What are we to make of the ending? Can we be sure the veiled women is alive? that she is Alkestis? that she will live happily ever after with her husband and children? Critics have doubted all these. There is a kind of nuptial drama staged in the final scene--perhaps a parody of the ancient Greek wedding, which centered upon an unveiling of the bride before the eyes of her husband and some exchange of words between them--that stalls oddly at its peak moment. Here the bride is unveiled to her husband at 971/1121 (or so it seems to me; critics doubt this too) but she will not be permitted to speak for three days due to her death-polluted condition. An eerie silence carries her into the big dark house of her unconventional husband.

I find I want to say less rather than more about Alkestis. Not because there is less in this play but because the surface has a speed and shine that evaporate with exegesis, like some of [Alfred] Hitchcock’s plots. Or a trembling of laughter, terrible if it broke out. (248-49)


James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for (sort of) interacting with my book. I am not persuaded that my treatment of the Gospels is "phallogocentric", however. I suspect that, in the patriarchal context of the first century Eastern Mediterranean, it is most likely that these Gospels were written by men. And one possibility I explore is that the male authors used the women as a cover for their own (albeit unsuccessful) attempt to move the body. Whether in the canonical or the extracanonical Gospels, we encounter hints of the powerful role played by Mary Magdalene and perhaps others, but also the desire of the male dominated church to stifle the voices of women.

I would have thought that my focus on religious experience might fit together nicely with your language of Jesus rising not as a mere historical event but in our own experience of rebirth...

J. K. Gayle said...

Whether in the canonical or the extracanonical Gospels, we encounter hints of the powerful role played by Mary Magdalene and perhaps others, but also the desire of the male dominated church to stifle the voices of women.

Well, thank you for the link. And for the interaction.

Aristotle would have scoffed at us, talking in "dialectic" and using "rhetoric" (but then again we're Barbarians, his kind of Barbarians anyway). Yes, you really do make some good points about males using females for their own agendas in the gospels (particularly Mark). And no doubt we have little good idea--because of men who despised Mariam of Magdala--the extensive role she plays. And yet the gospel writers--men--don't seem (very well) to hide Jesus's interactions with women, his learning from them it seems.

It's the rigid, rather conclusive, history writing I'm finding a bit suspect. Reverse dogma smacks of dogmatism. But I have to emphasize again how open you are to dialogue (and have read somewhere that your book cover actually comes from one of your blogger friends), and I think you are endorsing our intellectual curiosity.

Just hope you're not shutting it down credulity in the name of history. What, for instance, do you think of Cheryl Glenn's Rhetoric Retold or the work of Mary Daly?

James F. McGrath said...

I tremble at the thought of opening a conversation on the scholars you mentioned, since I admit I'd very quickly be well out of my depth! But I seem to recall Glenn advocating a middle course that neither simply engaged in historiography as traditionally practiced, nor sacrificed the notion of truth on the altar of postmodernism.

I do think that traditional tools of historical criticism remain useful in evaluating the data we have available. But writing history based on that data is a creative work and not merely a reproduction of the past "as it really was".

I'm very interested in the subject of women in the early church, and yet it seems that even when we have women mentioned, we have for the most part the perspectives and views of male authors. (I often think that the Acts of Paul and Thecla might have been actually authored by a woman).

At any rate, you are indeed correct - the cover photo was taken by a friend whom I've never met, a fellow blogger. It is fascinating the way technology is changing not only the ways in which we publish but also the ways in which we relate to one another. Indeed, if we were not in the internet age, we might well not be having this conversation! :)