The Embodied Habitus

Pain and Memory in the Formation of Early Modern Habitus

by Mitchell Merback

The essay begins:

No amount of contextualizing or revision, it seems, will ever free the European Middle Ages from its reputation as an era overcome by social and religious violence, riven by conflicts and cruelties, accustomed to the sight of death, poor in hygiene and other forms of self-care, and possessed of a devotional culture deliriously intimate with pain. Long central to the idea of the premodern as Other, this dreamlike historical image was once dubbed by Umberto Eco the “shaggy” Middle Ages. Its leitmotifs are the presumed plenitudes of violence and pain as well as contemporary attitudes toward them. Inhabitants of this medium aevum, the “shaggy” narrative tells us, did not labor under the neurotic need to eliminate bodily pain but accepted it as a fact of life and, indeed, celebrated it as useful on the path to salvation. Physicians and confessors alike understood pain in this way—as essentially therapeutic—so medieval culture in general, we hear, was not pain-averse but quite the opposite, “philopassianic,” to use a recent scholarly coinage.

As far as medieval-modern comparisons go, this one concerning attitudes toward pain is probably as good as any other; but to take it any further requires making two fundamental distinctions, both of which will be important to the theme of this paper, which is the interdependence of memory training and pain in the formation of an early modern habitus. The first of these is the distinction between pain thresholds and pain tolerances. Pain thresholds are best regarded as neurobiological facts of the species, part of a “hardwiring” that changes little over time (early in the twentieth century, for instance, Charles Sherrington defined pain experiences in terms of nociception, as the “psychical adjunct of a protective reflex”). Pain tolerances are something far closer to cultural products, variable and largely determined by group values and narratives, cultural practices, and the whole ecology of social life. We can be fairly certain that the majority of medieval people, living under conditions that produced an array of ailments and physical discomforts, developed pain tolerances higher than ours in the modern era. Accounting for this difference requires that we attend to the complex conceptualization of pain as both a primary “sensation”—if not the paradigmatic form of individual sensation—and a “hybrid emotion,” that is, an emotion that merges otherwise distinct affective states and modalities of response. And that, in turn, requires us to think in terms of the symbolic significance of human suffering wherein it holds to a positive purpose or end, as well as the degree to which it then stands open to whatever agencies of consolation, therapy, and cure a culture can make available to its members at a given time. Viewed in this biocultural light, medieval Christians appear to have approached pain as any other stratified cultural group would do: they attended to it, worked to alleviate its excesses, and furnished certain members with codes for conceptualizing and communicating what would otherwise be a wholly subjective, internal experience. Such codes and norms translated into more or less conventionalized “scripts” for pain behavior. Through such cultural conventions medieval culture succeeded, at least notionally, in stabilizing pain’s significance—taming and harnessing its uniquely “world-destroying” powers—thus rendering it productive for individuals and groups.

Trying to understand pain tolerances as a symptom of culture already gets us entangled in a second distinction: that between pain experiences and pain expressions. Here we enter upon a field of investigation in which the historian of art feels right at home, since questions surrounding the representation of pain in the visual arts have always been part and parcel of imitative art’s charge to represent psychic states and moral virtues—or their opposites—through coded bodily movements, gestures, and physiognomic signs. But questions of pathetic naturalism only get us so far in explaining why, for example, the famous clenched brow of the Trojan priest Laocoön in the eponymous figure group in Rome, as a physiognomic token of pain, communicated to its beholders a “pain-experience” so different from the one conveyed by its counterpart in the Master of Flémalle’s image of a Crucified Thief. We could rehearse the clichéd contrast between heroic death in pagan tragedy and sacrificial suffering in Christian theology to see that distinct narratives of human suffering and conflict are what drive the transferences between pain experiences, pain representations, and pain perceptions. Would we find that it is the very possibility of narrative that makes pain culturally intelligible in the first place? What’s clear is that the full implications of a culture’s narrative-ideological meanings for pain expression in the visual arts would be lost if we failed to attend to the situated functions of images, the peculiar agency they are granted to enlist the beholder’s effort in realizing their effects and completing their meanings in historically specific situations of use. Something of the logic of that agency can be recovered and measured by the forms of response demanded and structured by the image. We may begin, then, with one kind of image that, in portraying the very response it demands, tells us something about the peculiar way spectacular pain expressions registered in late medieval culture. Continue reading …

Describing the essay, the author writes: “Between the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, pain and memory became interdependent in three domains of social and religious life: religious devotion, education, and criminal justice. The grounds for this affiliation were prepared by a training of individuals in the control of affect and the acceptance of memory training as a regimen of virtual self-wounding, often facilitated by violent imagery. Across the three domains examined here, Christian subjectivity was quietly reformed and an embodied habitus inculcated to meet the demands of an age no longer anchored in unquestioned truths.”

MITCHELL MERBACK is the Arnell and Everett Land Professor in the History of Art at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is Perfection’s Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Dürer’s “Melencolia I” (Zone Books, 2017). Current projects include a reevaluation of the European tradition of the identification portrait and a study of tragic recognition as theme and metatheme in Christian art before 1500.

Legacies of Pain

A Finger in the Wound: On Pain, Scars, and Suffering

by Nancy Scheper-Hughes

from the section “The Embodiment of Pain”:

Margaret Lock’s and my 1987 essay, “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology,” emerged out of our profound dissatisfaction with the limitations of our discipline and field of inquiry. What good, after all, was a medical anthropology that was simply a convenient application of anthropological ideas and methods to clinical models of illness, pain, suffering, and healing? We wanted our field to be transformative, both theoretically and in terms of praxis. So we began to sketch a framework suggesting what medical anthropology could do beyond an empathic handholding of doctors and patients. We questioned the body as a cultural, historical, medicalized, naturalized, and universal object. We introduced the notion of embodiment, or how people, individually and collectively, live in and experience the body-self. We devised a tripartite framework of the “three bodies”: the individual body/the body self; the social body; and the political body or the body politic. The three bodies represent, then, three different but overlapping levels of analysis and theory: the existential/phenomenological/ontological individual body; the social structural/symbolic (the social body); and the feminist/neo-Marxist, Foucauldian body as a site of power/knowledge (the political body).

The individual body is a given, biopsychological, existential reality. It refers to the processes of becoming and being a person, an embodied self. In this instance, the body is seen as unique, singular, individual, and personally experienced. At the same time, this “individual” body—conceived as the center of the perceiving, experiencing, thinking world—is always mediated through collective cultural meanings. The self-evident yet contradictory proposition is that humans both have and are bodies. Our bodies are simultaneously objects of and subject to our “selves.” We could say that we are at one and the same time insiders and outsiders to ourselves. The message of the American wellness movement at the time we were writing was rather crude: “It’s your body. Take care of it.” The concept of the body as property means that you own it and you have the responsibility to take care of it. But on a deeper level, the body is proof of one’s existence. It is through the body and its sensory and perceptual circuits that we are able to experience and differentiate among other objects and things in the world. The body, wrote Marcel Mauss, is the “first and most natural tool” of humans. But here’s the rub: how can one simultaneously be it and own it?

In his classic work The Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued that although humans are not unique in being embodied, they might be the only species that is en-selved, endowed with self-consciousness, self-awareness, and self-reflection. While primates and other animals grieve the death of their loved ones, only humans are painfully conscious of the limits of their being-in-the-world. Ludwig Binswanger, drawing on Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, writes of “thrownness”: the idea that individual bodies are “thrown” into a particular world, place, history, and existence without their choosing. Our genetic inheritance, generation, environment, and society; our family, race, culture, and history are thrown at us, as the raw materials out of which to create a life.

On the one hand, then, our bodies are the “tools” with which we perceive, think, and act in and on the world; on the other, bodies can seem to betray us, to defeat us. In extreme situations, our bodies can even seem to be obstacles to our freedom. Bodies can frustrate our basic needs and deepest desires. The suffering of transgender people is just one example of a body betrayed. One might, like Albie Sachs, an anti-apartheid hero, lose a limb in a political attack on one’s life. Albie’s suffering during a long recovery eventually shaped him into a more open and compassionate human and an even better ANC (African National Congress) warrior. Albie was proud of his missing limb and refused to wear a prosthesis. He would wave his empty sleeve as if it were his flag of liberty, which I thought it was. Or, like Diane DeVries, one could be born without any limbs at all and refuse the sometimes very painful attempts to navigate on the remaining stumps. The pain was worth her self-perception as a unique beauty, an American Venus de Milo. Continue reading …

Pain is a deeply subjective experience that includes sensory, emotional, social, historical, and cultural components. The presence of suffering in the idiom of pain exposes the gap between individual bodies that refuse to suffer quietly and the violence of indifferent social, economic, and political orders. In this essay Nancy Scheper-Hughes describes the existential suffering of Brazilian sugarcane cutters who transform the unbearable shame of hunger into a more acceptable bodily syndrome of nervous rage. Who, after all, wants to suffer and die like a dog? Her second example of the precariousness of pain is the muted suffering and longing of impoverished kidney sellers in Moldova who suffer a missing kidney that they experience as an angry and ghostly organ that will not allow the sellers to forget what they have done to themselves.

NANCY SCHEPER-HUGHES is Chancellor’s Professor of Anthropology and Professor of the Graduate School at UC Berkeley. She is the author of many books, including Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Ireland (1979, 2001), and Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil (1993). As founding director of Organs Watch, she is a consultant on human trafficking of organs for the EU, Interpol, the UN Office on Human Trafficking, and the Vatican. Her forthcoming books are The Ghosts of Colonia Montes de Oca: A Hidden Subtext of Argentina’s Dirty War and Kidney Hunter: Trafficking with the Organs Traffickers.

Hollywood’s Bible

The Accent of Truth: The Hollywood Research Bible and the Republic of Images

by Aaron Rich

The essay begins:

Pollice Verso by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Despite decades of being considered quite conventional, the French academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme has recently enjoyed a renewal of interest. The 2010 exhibition The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, in its catalog and in an accompanying collection of essays, argued that Gérôme was in fact a pioneer of modern painting. The exhibition and its publications make the case that Gérôme’s work is in fact protocinematic—in its engagement with subjects of large-scale spectacle, its circulation in secondary formats such as prints and photographs, and its use of strategies of duration and anticipation. While several authors discussed a few of his Roman paintings, such as Hail, Caesar! We Who Are About to Die Salute You (1859), The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (1862–83), and Pollice Verso (1872), missing from their discussions was the fact that Hollywood studios actually used copies of these paintings in their background research for productions of films set in ancient Rome. An examination of the materials used as visual guidance for the 1951 production by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) of the Roman melodrama Quo Vadis, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, makes it clear that Gérôme’s paintings of the Circus Maximus, along with many other images of the ancient city by academic artists including Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Thomas Couture, and hundreds of popular illustrations and photographs of ancient sites, were used by Hollywood studios to understand and recreate the look and material culture of antiquity in a way the audience would recognize and enjoy.

Still from Quo Vadis

By the mid-1920s, nearly every Hollywood studio had already established a research library where extensive collections of visual materials, including illustrated books, magazines, and newspapers, as well as photographs, postcards, cartes de visite, stereo-view slides, maps, building blueprints, technical manuals, prints of paintings, and drawings were housed and managed. Their staff compiled these images into what they called “research bibles,” scrapbooks of thematically organized images. To obtain images that might help suggest a design for a prop or set, researchers scoured their own libraries; those of other studios; outside picture collections in the public libraries of Los Angeles, New York, London, and Paris; the Huntington Library; the libraries of the major universities of Los Angeles; the picture and photo collections of many state historical libraries; and the collections of other film services, such as Western Costume Company, the film industry’s largest costume maker. Research bibles helped film workers in managerial and craft departments—including producers, directors, writers, art directors, costume designers, hair and makeup designers, set decorators, and prop builders—visualize all sorts of mundane details, whether they were bowls, tables, and lamps or more exotic items like chariots, military uniforms, and fountains, to create believable cinematic environments. These multivolume collections could be reproduced, allowing every department to use the same visual sources simultaneously. The art department would see images of costumes, and the props department would see images of hair and makeup; all of a film’s creative crew had access to the same visual field. As a typical example, the Quo Vadis research bible contained five volumes, each focusing on a different element of the production: locations, costumes, sets, props, and sculpture from the ancient world.

Hollywood studio films made through the 1960s were part of a much larger “republic of images.” The depictions of the world, its people, and its material culture found in films circulated within a larger system of modern visual media that included illustrated books, the pictorial press, and other image-based materials. Much like the Republic of Letters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, within which ideas and essays circulated among a class of learned people throughout Europe and North America, this twentieth-century visual network allowed for the wide dissemination of knowledge about the ancient and modern world throughout a broad, decentralized area. When producing movies, filmmakers were inspired by images gathered from a diverse set of illustrated sources that were recognizable to viewers precisely because such pictures were already circulating throughout many popular forms of media.

Scholarship regarding the research undertaken for Hollywood films has for the most part focused on issues of historical accuracy. In so doing, historians have often assumed that the films in question were simply renarrating written historical discourse, emphasizing the attention filmmakers showed to how these narratives were previously presented in literature, rather than considering how Hollywood cinema has recirculated a body of visual knowledge of the world of the past. Such scholarship has largely overlooked the fact that film research was largely picture-centered, using methods related to earlier visual practices from the centuries before the advent of cinema, and that Hollywood research departments were less concerned with accuracy than with gathering a large quantity of visual media about a time and place. It did not matter, for example, that statuary in antiquity was frequently polychromatic, richly decorated in bright colors; by the twentieth century, the film audience familiar with printed and projected depictions of ancient Rome would have assumed that the white marble sculpture most often depicted was historically accurate.

Stephen Bann has explained how inauthentic historical narratives and objects were popular with scholars and audiences alike from 1750 through the late nineteenth century. “The critical preoccupation with authenticity and the transgressive wish to simulate authenticity are, in a certain sense, two sides of the same coin,” he explained. But in Hollywood, all materials relating to a film’s subject, time period, characters, and material culture were considered when creating a film; authenticity was merely a marketing flourish. Standard practice in the industry involved visual research that considered a tremendous range of illustrated media from popular and scholarly sources, which together contributed to what Bann has called “historical poetics.” Such a practice combined historical details with entertainment and spectacle, often with a tinge of irony, to interest, amuse, and educate the audience. This heterogeneous mix of source materials also structured history museums, dioramas, panoramas, historical literature, and historical painting in the nineteenth century, and it is the most common way modern people have experienced history for the past three centuries. In this way, the question of whether or not a film presents an authentic historical narrative misses the point; Hollywood filmmakers were much more interested in presenting familiar images that the audience would recognize from many earlier and well-circulated depictions of the past, regardless of their historical validity.

In the case of Quo Vadis, the film narrative contains true historical events, such as Nero’s setting fire to Rome in 64 CE or the spectacle of the crucifixions of early Christians. But the film also refers to thousands of images and elements from visual depictions of the city created, for the most part, not from the first century but from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Anne Friedberg, referring to the late twentieth-century point of view, explains that history is “inexorably bound with images of a constructed past: a confusing blur of ‘simulated’ and ‘real.’” Through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century depictions of ancient Rome that were widely circulated in prints and illustrated journals, the modern understanding of the city changed to fit those images, and in turn, twentieth-century films were designed to echo those earlier images, using them as inspiration for their recreations of the ancient capital.

Likewise, nineteenth-century academic painters looked to earlier depictions of the past, including earlier narrative paintings and antiquarian images, to find visual inspiration for invented details. Gérôme, for example, gathered a tremendous volume of visual materials and pioneered the use of photographs to help him to recreate the material culture of the distant lands that were frequently his subject. He claimed that his Roman painting Pollice Verso was a depiction of gladiators in the Circus Maximus superior to his earlier Hail, Caesar! We Who Are About to Die Salute You because he had done more research on the armor and appearance of gladiators for the later picture. He explained that the accumulation of so many details helped to create an “accent of truth” that the audience would understand. Continue reading …

In this essay Aaron Rich shows describes the process by which Hollywood studio film productions through the 1960s used research to develop depictions of the past that would show audiences representations they would recognize and believe. He situates this research as part of a much larger and more complex republic of images through which pictures of the world, its people, and its material culture circulated within a system of modern media, including illustrated books, the pictorial press, and other image-based materials of which movies were a part. Rich then makes the case that Hollywood cinema should be reconsidered an essential part of the twentieth-century perception of history, regardless of the accuracy of its depictions.

AARON RICH is a PhD candidate in the division of Cinema and Media Studies in the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. His dissertation, “The Hollywood Research Library: Visual Knowledge in the Republic of Images,” focuses on studio research departments that gathered images from popular media to guide craft departments in recreating the world and investigates how these picture collections emerge from a Western tradition of understanding and appreciating the past and present visually.

Ur: Empire, Modernity, and the Visualization of Antiquity Between the Two World Wars

by Billie Melman

The essay begins:

No one could have grasped the relationship between the discovery of civilizations of the remote past, the visualization of their antiquity, and modernity better than Charles Leonard Woolley. One of the most eminent archaeologists of the first half of the twentieth century, Woolley was a doyen of Near-Eastern ancient history, a manipulator of newly developed media, and a celebrity, who noted that “an appeal to the eye is the best way of awakening interest in a new form of knowledge” (that is, archaeology). His observation about the accessibility to mass audiences of a past that had hitherto been largely known only through texts, that had barely existed as a materiality, and that had to be literally dug up to be envisioned, is to be found in his popular manual, Digging Up the Past, which was based on a series of six talks broadcast on the BBC and first published in 1930. By that time Woolley had already written Ur of the Chaldees, which aimed at a popular reading public; had begun publishing the multivolume Excavations at Ur, for professionals; had regularly contributed to the British and North American press; and had toured Britain. As numerous British and American reviewers of the booklet remarked, it proved that archaeology “concerned everyone. Its subject is modern man.”

By 1930 Woolley had acquired a public presence and his imperial persona was that of both a discoverer of the material cultures of ancient Mesopotamia and representative of the British Museum working in a territory that was now, after the First World War, part of a new Middle-Eastern imperial order. His observation highlights a web that connected modern empires, the visions of the past that had evolved in them, the forms and technologies of the visual, and the era historians have come to designate “late modernity.” Of course visual representations and spectacles of antiquity and their consumption evolved before late modernity and the beginning of the twentieth century. As far back as antiquity itself, the Greeks and Romans were displaying ancient Egyptian monuments, which again became popular during the Renaissance, and throughout the eighteenth and long nineteenth centuries Egyptomania has had multiple incarnations. In Britain, North America, and France a craze for the Assyrian Empire followed the discovery of its material civilizations in the 1840s and 1850s. As Gábor Klaniczay and Michael Werner have observed, “multiple antiquities”—that is, numerous and sometimes contradictory images and representations of the ancient past—have evolved in “multiple modernities” in order to mobilize the ancient world for national and imperial ends.

Between the outbreak of the First World War and the end of the Second, antiquity was reconceived and redefined in substantive and temporal terms; it was experienced and represented in new ways by international organizations, colonial administrators, archaeologists, and travelers. New forms, repertoires, and technologies of visualizing the distant past developed in tandem with new meanings of “the ancient” and particularly of “antiquities,” which at the time acquired unified legal definitions that were articulated in an international complex of agreements, institutions, and practices. The access of experts and varied publics to the remote past embodied in such antiquities was regulated by new colonial administrative apparatuses and mechanisms that monitored the study of ancient history; the circulation of knowledge about it; and the exposure, preservation, and display of its physical remains. Moreover, during this period, representation and display of the ancient past, how it was experienced—not least the manner and conditions under which it was actually seen—were dramatically affected by globalized technologies of transport and communication. These ranged from a commercially realigned press to new technologies of transport and documentation that combined speed and surveying capabilities, such as mechanized desert travel and aviation, particularly aerial photography.

This complex of definitions, representations, and displays of the remote past and the technologies implemented to discover it developed in a new world order, an order formulated in the peace treaties and agreements following the First World War whose crux was a new imperial regime based upon the mandates system. This system, based on hierarchical civilizational notions and the idea of rule as guardianship under international oversight, evolved in the territories that passed from the empires that had lost the war to its victors, mainly Britain (and its settler territories) and France. Within the mandate empires it was the Near-Eastern territories of the Ottoman Empire, now Class A mandates, ruled by the two victors under the League of Nations’ oversight, that became the crucible of what League of Nations’ internationalists described as “the new regime of antiquities.”

As historians of visual imperial cultures have noted, the study of empires and colonialism is still largely separate from studies of their visualization and display. To be sure, a number of art and cultural historians have repeatedly noted the imperial aspects of visual cultures, notably of British and French cultures but also of German and Ottoman. But these historians have focused mainly on the long nineteenth century. Moreover, studies of the orientalist recovery of an ancient Near-Eastern past have been somewhat narrowly compartmentalized, usually emphasizing just one aspect, such as literature, painting, cartography, museums, colonial expositions, or the theater. Such studies have been somewhat cut off from research on fields of inquiry that emerged and expanded during the long nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth and produced knowledge about antiquity itself—from Assyriology and Egyptology to physical anthropology, paleontology, and geology, all of which offered historical narratives and analyses that were based on the practice of excavation. But most important, the study of new forms of looking at the remote past, despite its increasing attention to colonialism, has been largely shaped by a certain “methodological nationalism,” placing imperial visual culture within national frameworks. The nation or national state, whether it was the imperial state controlling colonial territories or the fledgling anticolonial national movements that emerged in India, Egypt, Iraq, and elsewhere, served historians of nationalism and archaeology, as well as art, not only as a thematic and geographical unit but also as an analytical tool to explain continuities and change in attitudes to the past.

My focus on the mandates era and the new interwar imperial order proposes an “entangled” visual history. Empires, and particularly modern empires, were characterized by the movement of people, goods, ideas and knowledge—and, we should add, by the circulation of objects, images, and repertoires of recounting and viewing the past. I propose to look at the interwar complex of the modern culture of antiquity from the metropolitan perspective, that of international institutions and organizations regulating excavation and exposure of antiquities to users and consumers throughout the British Empire and, finally, from the ground and even underground level—that is, from beneath the surface of excavation sites, the excavators’ point of view. Continue reading …

In this article historian Billie Melman explores the multiple visual presences of antiquity in the first half of the twentieth century and connects visual histories to the history of empires. She shows how archaeology mediated between the newly discovered material civilizations of the ancient Mesopotamian empires and experiences of modernity in the British Empire. Focusing on the spectacular archaeological discoveries at Ur, Tell Al-Muqayyar, in Southern Iraq, Melman demonstrates how the materiality of antiquity enabled its visualization in a variety of forms, from illustrations through photography and three-dimensional museum reconstructions.  

BILLIE MELMAN is Professor of Modern History at Tel Aviv University. She has written extensively on colonialism and culture, orientalism, and cross-cultural relations in the age of modern empires. She is completing a book on modernity, the rediscovery of antiquity, and imperial crisis during the first half of the twentieth century.

Géricault and French Restoration Historiography

The Medium Is the Messagerie

by Allan Doyle

The essay begins:

A lithographic vignette by Théodore Géricault depicting William the Conqueror lying in state was displayed at the Paris Salon of 1824, the first such exhibition to devote a section to lithography. The impact of this morbid scene was undoubtedly heightened by the recent death of its maker who, like the Norman conqueror of England, had died following a riding accident. The print is an outlier within the oeuvre of the artist, who did not participate in the Romantic vogue for historical motifs. Baron Isidore Taylor commissioned the print for the second volume of his Voyages pittoresques et romantiques dans l’ancienne France: Ancienne Normandie (1825). The artist also contributed to the same volume a second full-page print that depicted an interior view of Saint Nicolas, a deconsecrated Rouen church repurposed as a storage facility for a messagerie or carriage service.

Théodore Géricault, Église de Saint-Nicolas, 1824, Metropolitan Museum, New York

When viewed within the context of French cultural production during the Bourbon Restoration (1815–1830), Géricault’s prints for Taylor’s project reveal themselves to be commentaries on Restoration visual history as much as they are examples of it. Where his Saint Nicolas equates a carriage parked in a deconsecrated church with the manufacture and dissemination of picturesque lithographs of historical motifs, his William the Conqueror figures the national past as an uncannily preserved royal corpse, seemingly frozen in a state of nondecay. On the one hand, the artist provides an allegory of image production in which lithography is presented as an essentially mobile medium capable of transporting the viewer back in time and across geographic space; and, on the other hand, he gives an example of the Romantic and picturesque mode of visual history brought to a state of arrest, suspended between an unrecoverable past and a future placed in perpetual deferral. Continue reading …

In this essay Allan Doyle analyzes the contributions of Théodore Géricault to the second volume of Baron Isidore Taylor, Charles Nodier, and Alphonse de Cailleux’s Voyages pittoresques: Normandie (1820; 1825) within the context of French Restoration historiography. He argues that Géricault’s prints are allegorical commentaries on the production of visual history during this period as much as they are examples of it.

ALLAN DOYLE is an art historian whose research focuses on the representation of history in nineteenth-century French art and visual culture. He is currently finishing a book on the afterlife of Michelangelo Buonarroti in French Romantic painting.

The Papered Century

Visualizing History in Eighteenth-Century France

by Susan L. Siegfried

Charles Thévenin, Prise de la Bastille, 1790. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The essay begins:

Anyone reflecting on the relation of the “image” to “history” in the eighteenth century, as I have been asked to do for this essay, must begin with Francis Haskell’s History and Its Images (1993), the major work on that subject. In a book of impressive scope and erudition, Haskell addressed an important problem: what is the impact of the visual arts on the historical imagination? His study, as he described it, explored “how, when, and why historians have tried to recapture the past, or at least a sense of the past, by adopting the infinitely seductive course of looking at the image that the past has left of itself.” He surveyed historians from Petrarch (1304–74) through Johan Huizinga (1872–1945) and examined how they used images as historical tools or as part of their historical method, addressing questions about the nature of visual evidence and the ground on which it is interpreted that such an investigation inevitably raised. Reading History and Its Images now, I am struck by two things. First is the dishearteningly negative verdict it passes on the consequence of images to historians; for all the authors he discusses, not one comes up to the mark of integrating images into narrative histories or of reckoning works of art as constitutive of history. Second is the surprisingly little impact History and Its Images has had within the field of art history, and in other disciplines for that matter, despite having been widely reviewed. A possible explanation may be that Haskell does not show why images mattered or how people engaged with them when they did. In keeping with his formation as a historian, he kept his sights firmly trained on major narratives written by professional historians such as Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–89). What Haskell’s study leaves out, though it does suggest, is the interest taken in visualizing history and in concretizing textual accounts of it through material remains of the past and images of them.

Narrative was only one form that an interest in history took in the eighteenth century. People’s engagement with artifacts, images of them, and images that envisioned past events and personalities was extremely important and part of what might be called a larger historical imaginary. This visual engagement with the past fed indirectly into serious historical narratives. Gibbon said he was inspired to write The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by going to the Roman forum and seeing its extensive monumental architecture at first hand, even though no visual analysis or description of the ruins enters into his history. Haskell was so intent on pointing out the separation of visual experience and published histories, and on pointing out disparities between them, that he did not explore the power and draw of images and artifacts in their relation to a historical imaginary. Yet one could say that visual artifacts informed the period’s fervent interest in Roman antiquities and drew readers to Gibbon’s book. There was a subliminal relationship between images and texts, a give-and-take that makes visual representation difficult to separate from historical representation and also makes its agency difficult to define: visual experience played into an interest in history, just as knowledge of history prompted curiosity about material artifacts, events, and people of the past, but without a systematic connection between the visual and the textual.

This essay argues that an impulse to visualize history through prints, drawings, and paintings took hold during the eighteenth century, with consequences for the newly popular print media’s effect on conceptualizations of history that remain insistently elusive. It was as if history, which conventionally drew its authority from texts, needed a supporting network of images to bring one closer to the past and lend a reality to its accounts. Theories and concepts of history were never argued through images, but these “visual documents,” as one might call them, still seemed capable of bridging the gap between present and past. If the mounting accumulation of images that bore witness to history in the eighteenth century could be said to have exerted an influence on writing about historical processes and events, the French Revolution placed some in evidence. The Revolution was seen as the ultimate event produced by history up to that time. It changed history’s course, and its energies seem to have released visual images from the usual textual scaffolding that bore witness to events that were perceived as making history. This development implied that history, or at least a history of the Revolution, would need to, and have no choice but to, incorporate images in order to provide a complete record of events, though how far this view of visual testimony extended remains is, by its very nature, impossible to pin down.

Some basic questions about terms of reference might be posed at the outset. What conditions enabled an impulse to visualize history to develop during the eighteenth century and what forms did it take? Equally important, what was meant by “history” at the time? An interest in secular history was decidedly on the rise during this period, which expanded the possibilities for imagining the human’s relation to the world and to time. Sales and reviews of history books and geographies increased steadily relative to books of theology and jurisprudence, indicating inquisitiveness on the part of the reading public about those areas of knowledge. At the same time, visual images multiplied, especially in the form of prints but in other media as well. Every quantitative measure of material culture in the eighteenth century attests to continuing growth in the consumption and production of paintings, prints, drawings, illustrated books, illustrated journals, and decorative arts embellished with images, to say nothing of forms of visual spectacle and popular entertainment or of images produced from optical experiments in the natural sciences. This expansion of visual culture was especially marked during the second half of the century, when an increase in prosperity and education led to an increased demand for printed images of all sorts for educational, informational, and entertainment purposes. There were so many printed images in circulation that the age was sometimes called “the papered century” or, in Germany, Papierkultur.

An impulse to visualize the past during this period can be divided into roughly two modalities: an antiquarian impulse to collect artifacts and to document them visually in drawings and prints, on the one hand, and an imaginary impulse to recreate scenes or events of the past through illusionistic renderings of them, on the other. In what follows, I look at examples from both realms, beginning with the documentary mode. This primarily took the form of objects, including prints, assembled in private collections and occasionally published. Here I shall focus on those collectors specifically interested in historical subjects. I then move to the imaginary mode, which envisioned past events visually as stories with actions and actors. I consider illustrations that were integrated into history books as well as large-scale history paintings that detached their representations of subjects from any originary texts. In the final section of the essay, I return to the documentary mode to consider the role of printed images during the French Revolution as creators of instant history.

The term “history” was so broadly used in the eighteenth century that it can be confusing to readers today. It embraced everything from compilations of knowledge such as natural history to stories in the sense of “istoria” as defined in Giorgio Vasari’s sixteenth-century treatise on painting. The deceptive breadth of the concept is suggested by Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d’Argenville’s use of it in a long essay published in the Mercure de France in 1727. Dezallier (1680–1765), a royal administrator and lawyer, was an avid collector and writer on subjects ranging from gardening and natural history to the fine arts. In his essay, he advised collectors on how to organize a cabinet of curiosities, including sizeable collections of printed images. The publication of this essay in the Mercure attests to the rise of the private collector or connoisseur and the importance of connoisseurial knowledge as a social code of distinction and language of polite sociability. Regarding prints, Dezallier advised collectors to classify them by subject matter rather than by artist, contrary to the market’s preference for identification by author, and to place them under three broad categories: history, portraits, and landscapes. The prominence of histoire in this scheme is highly suggestive, but on closer inspection, Dezallier appears to have meant “history” in the traditional and benign sense of “story.” He divided the category into sacred and profane history, which was conventional enough, but then proceeded to correlate profane history with the artists Godfrey Kneller, John Closterman, Daniel Teniers, and Adriaen van Ostade. These were seventeenth-century painters of portraits and low-life genre scenes, and they strike us today as surprising choices to exemplify a category largely associated with political or diplomatic events or judicial transactions of the past, subjects those artists rarely, if ever, painted. What, then, did Dezallier mean by “history”? He certainly was not thinking of what we might consider social history or a history of changing customs or moeurs. The question becomes all the more insistent in light of Dezallier’s classification of subjects that we often regard as historical events—“marriages,” “funerals,” “entries,” “battles,” “sieges,” “army marches”—under the category of landscape, not under histoire. His classification scheme suggests that ceremonies were perceived as ahistorical, as transcending time by virtue of repeating ritual enactments of power, or alternatively as transpiring in space (like “landscape”) more than in time. In attempting to understand what he meant by “history,” it becomes relevant to consider his debt to a rhetorical mode of classifying the fine arts, a realm with which he was very familiar as an art collector and writer on art. In the fine arts, “history” encompassed anything with narrative; “portraits” referred to portrayals of individuals; and “landscape” embraced representations of the environment. His use of the term “history,” then, was period specific and inflected by practice and criticism within the realm of the fine arts. Continue reading …

In this essay Susan Siegfried explores an impulse to visualize history in eighteenth-century France. She focuses on massive compilations of printed images that assembled overviews of history as represented by artifacts, portraits, and events and compares that documentary mode of visualizing the past to imaginary reconstructions of historical events in illusionistic scenes as depicted in the radically different formats of book illustration and monumental history painting.  

SUSAN L. SIEGFRIED is Denise Riley Collegiate Professor of the History of Art and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. She is completing a book on visual representations of fashion and costume in nineteenth-century Europe.

Eyewitnessing Through Prints

Eyewitnessed Historia and the Renaissance Media Revolution: Visual Histories of the Council of Trent

by Evonne Levy

The essay begins:

I look at a good painting . . . with as much pleasure as I take in reading of a good story [historia]. Both are the work of painters: one paints with words, the other tells the story with his brush. —Leon Battista Alberti

What happened when the most important genre of Renaissance painting, the historia (a “visual history”), built its images on scenes of eyewitnessed current events disseminated in the new medium of print? Is it a coincidence that a new claim to the eyewitnessing of current events in paint occurred in the fifteenth century, around the time that print made such palpably new histories available to a wide audience? While this essay will not undertake to prove that mechanical reproducibility put pressure on the historia to disseminate events as they appeared and as they happened, it will attempt to show the transformative encounter of these two things. A series of representations of a signal historical event enables us to see the convergence of the eyewitnessed image and print in action, and I propose to treat the meeting of the Council of Trent (1545–63) as my example, in part out of perversity. This event, which was in reality a visually uninteresting series of meetings (rows of people talking) spanning decades, was represented in a way that was both more textured and detailed than previous such scenes. And the long arc of time over which the council met was dealt with visually by representing what appears to be a single moment, a radical (and arbitrary) condensation in pictures—in a manner equivalent to the boiling down of a long war, with its many skirmishes, by representing a single moment in a single battle that in itself may have been of no particular significance. We will see, though, that a visual history that looks right to the eye in a given instant is still an image that has been put to work by specific agents. It was usually not sufficient merely to show a historical event; the artist had to make sense of it, to interpret it, to declare a position. The historia remained intact, and yet the eyewitnessed image, by virtue of its visual media, also had a stimulating effect as evidence-based history. Continue reading …

In this essay Evonne Levy examines the collision of Renaissance narrative or historia in the visual arts and the eyewitnessed event and the pressure put on that convergence by the dissemination of the latter in the new print media. The example discussed here is the Council of Trent, a storyless but signal event that conformed with difficulty to an ideal “historia,” and one that was often depicted after eyewitnessed scenes of the event had already been disseminated in engravings. The veracity of the scene captured in a print created new chains of media: prints led to paintings, and to more prints, and images led to written history, rather than vice versa.

EVONNE LEVY is Professor of Early Modern Art History at the University of Toronto. She works on the art, architecture, and historiography of the baroque in Europe and Latin America.

Seeing the Illustrious Past

Francisco Pacheco’s Book of True Portraits: Humanism, Art, and the Practice of “Visual History”

by Randall Meissen

Francisco Pacheco, portrait of Benito Arias Montano, c. 1580–1644. IB 15654, Biblioteca Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid.

The essay begins:

Pacheco was the foremost art theorist of his generation, a longtime member of Seville’s famed humanistic academy, and both father-in-law and mentor to two of the most prominent artists of the Spanish baroque, Alonzo Cano (1601–67) and Diego Velázquez (1599–1660). Pacheco’s unfinished manuscript book, Libro de descripción de verdaderos retratos, de illustres y memorables varones (Book of description of true portraits of illustrious and memorable men), currently held at the Lázaro Galdiano Museum in Madrid, was a work in progress for most of his professional life, as he gradually compiled it from 1599 until his death in 1644. The manuscript consists of fifty-six portrait drawings by Pacheco and forty-four short biographical texts on authors, artists, ecclesiastics, and other men of accomplishment. Most of the biographies are straightforward, consisting of a description of the individual’s education, notable military or literary achievements, any written or artistic works, connection to Seville (however slight), and occasional brief anecdotes highlighting the individual’s moral character.

In his treatise Arte de la pintura (On the art of painting; Seville, 1649), Pacheco indicated that he had drawn more than 170 portraits in black and red pencil with the intention of selecting from them up to one hundred eminent individuals representing all fields of learning. The physical construction of the Libro de retratos, evident from several of the unfinished sections, demonstrates Pacheco’s process, as he described it, of drawing, retaining, and selecting the portraits over many years. Seven loose, single-sheet portrait-biographies that he chose not to incorporate into his manuscript book still survive at the library of the Palacio real in Madrid. Pacheco cut each portrait from its original sheet, pasted it onto a sheet of the manuscript, and then framed it with architectural ornamentation drawn in ink and washed in sepia tones. At the top of each finished frame, Pacheco added a biblical verse, and along the lower edge he placed the individual’s name in capitals.

A completed portrait and biography in Pacheco’s Libro consisted of a single sheet folded in half to form two folios. A succinct two- to three-page biographical description followed each finished portrait and often concluded with an epithet or poem. Most of the biographies recorded the death of the individual, and some portraits of individuals who survived Pacheco have blank pages where the biography would go, a detail that suggests Pacheco avoided writing a person’s definitive biography until the ink upon the pages of their life had dried.

Pacheco chose to adopt a genre of historical writing with a classical genealogy for the preservation of Seville’s recent historical memory. The De viris illustribus (“on illustrious men”) genre, which can be traced back to Plutarch and Cicero, experienced a renewed popularity during the Renaissance. Pacheco was familiar with the illustrated editions of famous men by the Italian humanist Paolo Giovio (1483–1552) and the subsequent work on the lives of artists by Giorgio Vasari (1511–74). Pacheco lamented that although in other nations, “particularly Italy,” art itself was honored by those who wrote the lives of illustrious artists, “only our nation lacks that praiseworthy endeavor,” and artists themselves were to blame. Apparently Pacheco took it upon himself to remedy this shortfall, and he was uniquely well suited for such an undertaking. Unlike Giovio or Vasari, who depended on artists and engravers to translate their projects into print, Pacheco had complete control over both the text and the images of his manuscript book.

The Libro de retratos is in fact a visual history. In its recovery and preservation of a visual record of an illustrious past, it confirms that such a practice existed in Pacheco’s era. It was a practice manifested in a transmedial application of methods adapted from humanistic textual scholarship and early modern antiquarianism as they were applied to artistic media for the preservation and communication of historical knowledge. To understand his Libro it must be recognized that Pacheco constructed his images by basing them on other credible visual sources (employing a method I call visual philology). One might mistake the portraits for illustrations of the text, but instead the texts “illustrate” or describe the portraits, as Pacheco made explicit by titling the collection of works Book of Description of True Portraits.

His Libro is thus a useful object for exploring questions of material culture relevant to visual studies scholars, historians of the book, and early modernists. Pacheco’s claim to produce true portraits was closely related to the distinctive ways antiquarians and ecclesiastics of his era used material evidence to stake truth claims about the ancient world and about the virtuousness of historical personages, respectively. Pacheco attempted to show certain qualities of historical personages—such as prestige, prosperity, illustriousness, and holiness—that were tightly bound to display, pageantry, costume, and liturgy in Seville. My essay, then, will demonstrate how three intertwined visual cultures produced by the antiquarian reimagining of Seville’s Roman past, Catholic Counter-Reformation image theory, and the publishing conventions of Sevillian humanism shaped Pacheco’s expectations about how an illustrious past should look. Let’s consider first how Seville’s elites used reimagined classical imagery to celebrate the glory of their city and how Pacheco employed that visual vocabulary in his Libro. Continue reading …

Francisco Pacheco (1564–1644), the foremost Spanish art theorist of his generation, worked on his manuscript Libro de verdaderos retratos (Book of true portraits) for more than forty years. In this essay Randall Meissen addresses how the visual cultures of Pacheco’s Seville, especially the city’s reimagined imperial Roman past, Catholic Counter-Reformation image praxis, and visual conventions of Renaissance humanism, shaped Pacheco’s conception of how an illustrious past could be recovered and shown.

RANDALL MEISSEN is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Southern California and predoctoral fellow at the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute. He has held short-term fellowships at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California; the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island; and the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri.

An Alien World at the Limits of Modernity

Remembering “Planet Auschwitz” During the Cold War

by Kathryn L. Brackney

The essay begins:

In the summer of 1961, Auschwitz survivor and author Yehiel Dinur, who wrote under the pseudonym Ka-Tzetnik 135633, took the witness stand at the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Since the end of the war, Dinur had published several novels describing his experiences during the Holocaust. The first, Salamandra, written while the author was living in a displaced persons camp in Italy, takes its name from a mythical, lizard-like creature capable of surviving exposure to fire. His second book, the graphic and controversial House of Dolls, was published in 1953 and remains one of the most widely circulated novels written in Hebrew about the genocide of Europe’s Jews. When asked at the Eichmann trial why he chose to publish under the name Ka-Tzetnik, the witness presented himself as a kind of mystic-anthropologist back from a world he called “the Auschwitz planet” with its own inhabitants, atmosphere, and natural laws. The name, he explained, “is not a pen name.”

Yehiel Dinur Katzetnik, a prosecution witness at the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, at Beit Ha’am in Jerusalem.

I do not regard myself as a writer writing literature. This is actually a history of the Auschwitz planet, the chronicles of Auschwitz. I myself was at the Auschwitz camp for two years. The time there is not a concept as it is here on our planet. Every fraction of a second has a different wheel of time. And the inhabitants of that planet had no names. They had no parents and they had no children. They were not clothed as we are clothed here. They were not born there and they did not conceive there. They breathed and lived according to different laws of nature. They did not live according to the laws of this world of ours, and they did not die. Their name was a number, “Ka-Tzetnik” number so-and-so.

Referring to a prison uniform exhibited as evidence, he went on to declare,

This is the garb of those who lived on this planet called Auschwitz. And I believe wholeheartedly that I must carry this name as long as the world will not awaken after the crucifying of a nation to erase this evil. As humanity has arisen after the crucifixion of one man, I believe wholeheartedly that just as in astrology the stars influence our destiny, so is this planet of the ashes, Auschwitz, facing our planet, and influencing, radiating toward our planet.

Dinur’s agitation and tendency to speak in a highly symbolic register made his story untellable within the confines of the courtroom. After the judges urged the witness to focus on the questions posed to him by the attorney general, Dinur lost consciousness and had to be carried from the stand. To many spectators in the court and audiences following the proceedings on radio and television, his collapse was a devastating shock; ultimately it would become the most remembered moment of the trial. In The Juridical Unconscious, Shoshana Felman has argued that Dinur’s inability to describe his past serves as a testament to the trauma that constitutes the heart of the law. Though his testimony failed to produce evidence viable for the court, history still “uncannily and powerfully speaks” through the very collapse of the witness’s body.

Because Dinur’s silence seems the most fitting testimony to the nightmare he tried to describe, it is tempting to gloss over the words he was able to say as a mere prelude. Today, the vulnerable and all too human witness who fails to convey a trauma that still haunts him seems the more appropriate figure of memory than the alien “Auschwitz planet” that radiates toward Earth on a different wheel of time. The mix of symbolic systems that the author referenced to make meaning of the past and comment on the destiny of humankind may come off to contemporary readers as confused and even offensive, and, outside of the courtroom, Dinur’s books have been criticized as kitsch and pornography.

Yet Dinur was not the only public figure to draw on such metaphors to describe Jewish persecution in the broader “univers concentrationnaire.” Otherworldly descriptions of victims at Auschwitz appear early in Dinur’s postwar novels, and in his later work, such as the novella Star Eternal (1966), he revisited the topography of “Planet Auschwitz” in increasingly surreal terms. Omer Bartov has argued that in the early decades after World War II this language of otherworldliness spoke to the deep ambivalence that many Israelis felt about the compatibility of Jewish victimization with nationalist identity. Outside of Israel, as the Holocaust became differentiated from other crimes of fascism in the wake of international coverage of the Eichmann trial, artists and authors in Western Europe and North America also frequently figured Auschwitz as an alien world at the limits of modernity. Implicit in these works are questions not just about the inclusion of survivors in the nation but also about how to restore anyone touched by the Holocaust into the category of the human—and what “Planet Auschwitz” might reveal about the evolution of mankind. Through the 1960s and 1970s, authors and artists from Primo Levi to Stephen Spielberg evoked the memory of the Holocaust together with meditations on life beyond earth, using “Planet Auschwitz” as a vehicle for reimagining the status of humanity in the shadow of an other somewhere “out there.” In philosophy, Hannah Arendt characterized both totalitarianism and space travel as dangerous abstractions of man, while Emmanuel Levinas celebrated the technological capacity to escape earth’s atmosphere as consistent with a particularly Jewish conception of humanity, not rooted in blood and soil. With strange frequency during this stretch of the Cold War, Jewish identity, racial violence, and the penetration of the cosmos were thought together in sources that cannot all be dismissed as kitsch.

Most of these materials have not endured in the canons of art and literature of Holocaust memory. This is partly because the figure of “Planet Auschwitz” reflects a set of cultural intuitions anathema to many of us now. In 1978, the release of NBC’s miniseries Holocaust in the United States and abroad and the President’s Commission on the Holocaust renewed public attention to the experience of victims and provoked debates about representing the past. In 1979, the Holocaust Survivors Film Project gave survivors themselves a highly intimate format for narrating their own stories: video testimony. (That project was the basis of Yale’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony, which was founded in 1981.) In his extraordinary documentary art film Shoah, journalist Claude Lanzmann also relied on personal interviews, overlaying the oral testimony of survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators onto contemporary shots of empty extermination sites. Lanzmann’s refusal to circulate archival footage of murdered Jewish victims and his pairing of the graphic word with the barren image became highly influential in broader debates about appropriate aesthetic approaches to the Holocaust. Authors and critics from Theodor Adorno to Elie Wiesel had long characterized the Holocaust as presenting fundamental problems to poetry and literature, but in the 1980s and 1990s, the limits of representation as such were a major preoccupation for the French and American academies. Even as depictions of the Holocaust markedly increased, the conventions of its representation narrowed and became highly articulated. As a result, the most widely respected literature, art, and memorials to the Holocaust today tend to resist allegory or catharsis and either focus on personal portraits of victims or emphasize absence through the use of visual minimalism.

My aim here is to analyze a wider range of representational strategies and associative matrices that, for better or worse, also shaped how the Holocaust was remembered before such conventions became predominant. In debates about the documentary value of Shoah over the sentimental realism of Schindler’s List, or the virtues of abstraction over figuration in memorial design, how are we to understand literature and art that does not fit neatly onto the axes of realism or that addresses philosophical questions other than the ethics of representation. Taken together, the literary, legal, and film sources examined in this article can be understood as an alternative pattern of Holocaust representation particularly common before the 1980s. Before the Holocaust became an unimaginable trauma recounted by witnesses in quiet interviews in their homes, its memory was staged elsewhere. Outside of the intimate frames of documentary testimony, those who survived Auschwitz often appeared to be from an entirely different world. The sources in this essay reveal that in the early years of international Holocaust consciousness, Jewish victims and Nazi perpetrators emerged in the shadow of the Cold War as figures of identification somewhere between human and other, inhabiting a region imagined as both a distant and an inevitable destination in the evolution of mankind. In the two decades following the Eichmann trial, memory of Europe’s murdered Jewish populations, ongoing racial violence in the postcolonial world, and the penetration of the “final frontier” became overlapping sites of critical speculation about the nature of modernity and what it means to be a human being. (Continue reading … )

During one of the most famous moments of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, author and Holocaust survivor Yehiel Dinur took the witness stand in the summer of 1961 to deliver a brief and enigmatic testimony about what he termed “the Auschwitz planet.” Over the next two decades, as international Holocaust consciousness re-emerged in the shadow of the Cold War, writers, thinkers, and filmmakers would elaborate on the topography of “Planet Auschwitz,” figuring the Holocaust as an alien world at the limits of modernity. Drawing on a number of sources not always included in canons of art and theory of Holocaust memory, this article shows how the genocide of Europe’s Jews, ongoing global racial conflicts, and the penetration of the “final frontier” became overlapping sites of philosophical speculation during the 1960s and 1970s about the nature of modernity and what it means to be a human being.

KATHRYN L. BRACKNEY is a research fellow at the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies and a doctoral candidate at Yale University, where she works in the field of modern European intellectual and cultural history.

Rarity in George Eliot

The Stamp of Rarity: Ancestrality and Extinction in Daniel Deronda

by JULIÁN JIMÉNEZ HEFFERNAN

The essay begins:

In chapter 40 of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda we learn that the title character’s “more exquisite” quality lies in his “keenly perceptive sympathetic emotiveness,” his “profound sensibility to a cry from the depths of another.” Earlier on, Deronda is said to have “the stamp of rarity in a subdued fervor of sympathy, an activity of imagination on behalf of others” (178). This is not a casual trope. Deronda is extolled for being “receptive instead of superciliously prejudging,” and “receptiveness” is described as “a rare and massive power” (492). The terms rare and rarity recur in the novel, denoting what is very uncommon or unusually fine. As a modifier, rare is almost invariably paired with the nouns of Jewish singularity—moral “receptiveness” (496), vocal-physiognomic “perfection,” verbal “quality” (809), and “visionary excitement” (513). By the time Gwendolen realizes that her feelings have turned Daniel “into a sort of trust less rare than the fidelity that guards it” (430), the suggestion that moral redemption presupposes rarity is simply overbearing. The rationale of the polysemy is catachrestic because scarcity connotes value. The rare item is precious because its limited currency eludes the wider circulation of commodified objects and persons in liberal-capitalist society:

To save an unhappy Jewess from drowning herself, would not have seemed a startling variation among police reports; but to discover in her so rare a creature as Mirah, was an exceptional event which might well bring exceptional consequences. (378; emphasis mine)

Like the jewels bartered back and forth by the novel’s characters (Gwendolen, the pawnbroker, Daniel, Grandcourt, Lydia), something rare is valuable because it is ontologically unlikely: its ancestrality attests to the value of survival, and its exposure to the risk of extinction folds back on the value. However temporarily coopted by wider trade orbits, the jewels remain an intractable, inassimilable surplus. And so do Deronda’s Jews, always on the brink of an excessive, sacrificial, and sublime self-waste. Even the renegade Baruch Spinoza got “his crust by a quiet handicraft” (472) in lens-grinding before completing his Ethics. The jewels: the Jews: their stamp of rarity.

The contention that “receptiveness is a rare . . . power” involves a twofold implication: first, that receptiveness is a power, and second, that receptiveness is rare. Mesmerized by the range of hermeneutic possibility that the concept of sympathy affords, Eliot’s critics have addressed the former implication while neglecting the latter. Predictably, then, the response to Daniel Deronda has been spellbound by the shine of a familiar faculty (moral sympathy) that, because in principle unrare in Eliot’s narrative world, seems in little need of special examination. Indeed, the near scientific symmetries of a plot conceivably modeled upon the Goethean allegoresis of elective affinities reinforce the impression that everything in the story depends on moral relatedness. On the one hand we have the English characters, with the rich Grandcourt at the extreme of emotional stolidity. Then comes Gwendolen Harleth, an ungenerous dweller in “the border-territory of rank” (Deronda, 23) who marries Grandcourt to allay social anxiety. This doesn’t prevent her from cultivating an interest in Daniel, the character that occupies the novel’s central position. Daniel enjoys the best of both worlds: groomed impeccably as an English gentleman, he can also boast of “the keenly perceptive sympathetic emotiveness” that, in the novel’s logic, belongs to the Jews. Because, it turns out, he is also a Jew. On the other hand we have Mirah and Mordecai—Deronda’s Jews—which I designate as such to distinguish them from the common, money-minded, shop-keeping Hebrews also present in a novel where, let me recall, “there are Ezras and Ezras” (567). Mordecai is placed at the extreme, in figurative opposition to Grandcourt, whom he never meets. He is a concentrated, unproductive version of Jewish rarity: the passionate man who sacrifices his life to dig up the historical grounds of his people’s moral superiority. Grandcourt and Mordecai are both unrealistic, near Dickensian characters who belong in the world of romance (if not romantic farce): significantly, both die before the tale comes to a close. Between Mordecai and Deronda stands Mirah, Mordecai’s sister, a destitute Jewish girl, in a position of structural equivalence to Gwendolen. Like the English girl, she is saved by Deronda and falls in love with him. Unlike Gwendolen, she becomes the object of Deronda’s favor. The end of the novel describes their wedding and trip to Palestine to start a new life devoted to the construction of the nation of Israel.

The value of the central characters (Gwendolen, Daniel) is a measure of their ability to relate to characters standing—or seeming to stand—across the Gentile-Jew divide. Understandably, critics have been less interested in the dynamics of that ability than in the origin and function of Eliot’s sympathy toward the Jews. This sympathy most critics take for granted. I argue, however, that the overdetermined specificity of the cultural-ethnic division dramatized in Deronda forces Eliot to depart from the more generic-universal treatment of moral sympathy at work in her other narratives. And she certainly knows it: “Nothing is here narrated of human nature generally” (Deronda, 91). It forces her to realize, somewhere in her narrative unconscious, that sympathy is a passion not exclusively based on receptivity (the ability to receive the other), since it also depends on the givenness of the other. And her novel, I contend, construes the Jew as a poorly given, if not ungiven, alterity. The reason for Jewish ungivenness is rarity, a quality that stands in direct proportion to receptivity within the group: the higher your receptivity to those of your group (race, nation), the less chance you have of being received—even by the people inside the group whom you are most willing to receive. The “unpleasant” grabbing of Deronda’s arm, an action performed twice, first by the white-bearded Joseph Kalonymos in the Frankfort synagogue (368) and second by the consumptive Mordecai in the secondhand bookshop (387), testifies to the dilemma of ethnical-cultural asynchronicity and moral interruption that my article sets out to explore. The fact that rarity is bound up thematically and rhetorically with the parallel notions of ancestrality and extinction calls for biological considerations that Eliot may have discovered, as I will argue, in Charles Darwin. But insofar as these notions (ancestrality and extinction) map out a deep time without human time, Eliot’s depiction of Jewish rarity in Deronda raises the kind of metaphysical challenge that Immanuel Kant aimed to meet in his first Critique: What is the ontological status of nonhuman time? And what kind of epistemic (narrative, rhetorical) processing does it demand?

My attention to the rhetorical effects of this thematic focus on rarity may result in a corrective to standard accounts of George Eliot’s philo-Semitism. Although this is not the primary goal of my article, I do not disown it as a hermeneutic corollary. The fact that readers with a stake in Eliot’s philo-Semitism unfailingly overlook the existence of deconstructive approaches to the novel shows that disregard for the novel’s complex rhetorical texture can foster belief in versions of Eliot as a utopian ideologue, a champion of either proto-Zionism or cosmopolitanism. My interpretation, by contrast, draws on extant deconstructive and rhetorically focused readings of Daniel Deronda by critics such as Cynthia Chase, Catherine Gallagher, and Ian Duncan and yet seeks to reach beyond them by putting into play the metaphysical question of time that instigates the rhetorical-narrative processing of temporality.

When Deronda’s friend Hans Meyrick boasts that “there is really little difference between me and—Maimonides” (642) he is wrong in ways that go beyond—and against—his intended irony. In the novel’s moral-lexical economy, difference-making rarity is the exclusive property of the Jewish people. But they pay a great price for this distinction. They reach the present from an immemorial past—David Kaufmann has stressed “the enigma of their marvelous preservation”—and have limited hope of reaching the future. Compared to some of the substantial English people dwelling in the novel’s present, they seem hardly real. The figural etymology of rare underpins this unreality. Since the mid-fifteenth century, the adjective rare has meant both “unusual” and “thin, airy, porous.” The more specific implication of rare as “few in number and widely separated, sparsely distributed, seldom found,” can be traced back, via Old French rere (“sparse”), to the Latin rarus, meaning “thinly sown, having a loose texture; not thick; having intervals between.” Thus Jewishness and rarity concur in a shared implication of dissemination or diaspora. Thinly sown, airy, and scattered, Deronda’s Jews are inexorably disembedded, whence their paradoxical status as archaic ultramoderns. They roam the narrative as dialectical images of an Urgeschichte (prehistory) whose discrepancy in and for the present might harbor a utopian future. Alienated from the English community, they also risk losing touch with their related particulars: Deronda nearly missing Mirah, Deronda on the verge of discounting Mordecai, Mirah close to overlooking her family, Deronda, of course, forgone by his mother. The existence of these singularities is, moreover, steadily encircled by a void. If their future is dizzily open, their past is a riddle and a mire. Daniel, described at one point as a “yearning disembodied spirit” (365), ignores his origins; Mirah flees from them and attempts suicide; Mordecai tumbles into them and dies. Remote and obscure like Mordecai, elusive and unfocused like Daniel, fragile and fugitive like Mirah, these Jews cherish nonetheless a gift—a rare talent—of moral receptiveness that is at odds with the utilitarian lifestyle of most of the English. Hence the paradox: the differential aspect (the stamp of rarity) that deepens their unrelation—with the English, at least—is precisely their ability to relate, their extraordinary receptivity. This doesn’t mean that the problem is an English incapacity to receive them. In the novel this is less a problem than a fact. The problem—and Eliot makes it very clear that there is a problem—lies with the Jews, who cannot be received because, however fit to receive others, they themselves posit an unacceptable otherness. Though explicitly perspectivized through English prejudice—Deronda’s, the Meyrick women’s—the first forthright depiction in the novel of a Jewish person (Mirah) answers no other purpose than to uphold the racist preconception, denounced by Kaufmann, of the Jews as “a peculiar people.” Recall that, in its extended meaning, rare also means anomalous. Or that no English character wishes to keep the diamonds: the jewels end up “scattered around [Gwendolen] on the floor” (359). Just like the Jews at the end, shipped toward the uncertain. The jewels: the Jews: their stamp of diaspora. Continue reading …

There are patterns of continuité discontinu (Derrida) in the figural transactions between human groups and between humans and animals in George Eliot’sDaniel Deronda that remain underexamined. By emphasizing ironic incommensurability and difference, this essay seeks to reveal the logic of ungivenness organizing human interactions in a novel haunted by images of deep time and species extermination. Eliot’s interest in ancestrality and extinction was fueled by her readings in geology and biology (Darwin), but it also evinces a metaphysical concern with uncorrelated time (Kant) that is inseparable from her fascination with the idea of moral rarity.

JULIÁN JIMÉNEZ HEFFERNAN is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Córdoba, Spain. He is the co-editor (with Paula Martín Salván and Gerardo Rodríguez Salas) of the volume Community in Twentieth-Century Fiction and publishes on Victorian literature, modern fiction, narrative theory, and deconstruction.