medieval art history, navel gazing, horizon scanning
Monday, February 21, 2011
The Written Word (Hamila Haketuva)
Qumran cave 4 (of 11)
When? When was the first written word? What was that moment like? Was there a thunderous quickening of realization? A mundane interruption? Was there a new sense of the real? A revolutionary possibility of memory beyond oral tradition? Was the written word to be touched, kissed, admired, seen? And wasn't Thus Spoke Zarathustra playing in the background? It couldn't have been one moment (could it?), but it takes my breath away to think of the change in the course of human events when writing became an act. Pictographic writing, non-pictographic writing, images as writing, writing as images - the debates of origins run thick and fast, and in our ever more rapid dematerialization of the written word (in which this very writing participates!), might we just stop, I wonder, and savor the materiality of the written word. It's one of the stranger things we do, is write (the strangest thing we do is keep secrets, but that's another post), and every once in a while, the material reality of a text reveals the presence of a written word and its scribe or author, seeking to be remembered, and somehow, against many many odds, succeeding. The unique manuscript of Beowulf, survivor of fire, keeper of monsters, comes to mind. But in Israel, it was thinking through the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran that did this work, that made me remember that the written word is so powerful in its ability to convey human presence, that you can almost think it has a will of its own.
Qumran, Cave 4
Here's a slightly closer view of Cave 4 at Qumran, my favorite cave because it contained a fragment of the Book of Enoch, a swell apocryphal book of the Hebrew Bible that revels in monsters and that medieval Christian monster-thinkers (as early as Augustine) used quite a bit. It's one of 972 scrolls and fragments found in the 11 caves of Qumran, starting in 1946. Before the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest manuscript of the Hebrew Bible available for worship and scholarship was from around the year 1000 C.E. (A.D.). The Dead Sea Scrolls are a full 1000 years older than that - they catapulted the manuscript timetable back one thousand years to between 150 B.C.E. to 70 C.E. As the Romans swept through the land of Israel in their crushing fury, destroying the Second Temple in Jerusalem (which had been there since 516 B.C.E.), the small really strange sect of Essenes Jews who lived at Qumran hid their texts in jars (Hebrew Bible texts, and texts since deemed apocryphal, and texts about their really strange community - so strict, only men, bent on purity and writing, writing all the time) and ran up into the hills which lumbered up from the shores of the Dead Sea to hide their jars in caves. The Romans crushed the settlement, but didn't bother with the caves. It was a sheep (or a goat) that found them again in 1946, by falling into one, and its herdsmen that found the jars. Eventually, scholars found them, too, through the networks and vicissitudes of the antiquities market - and now they have been dematerialized, and rematerialized, and are in every otherwise very important indeed to (among other things) witnessing a love of text, of words and all that they carry, so profound as to pull off this crazy scheme of rescue. I don't know how many jars it takes to contain 972 scrolls and fragments, but I think of the multiple trips up into the hills, down into the caves, slipping on sandy rock, cradling jars themselves now protecting sacred, precious texts. Was there weeping? A sense of ecstatic relief when the transfer was over? Were they ready for the Romans to come?
The Synagogue at Capernaum
It was at Capernaum that the students had their first group conversation about the materiality of words. Sitting in one of the oldest synagogues extant (4/5th century C.E.) (and not even having seen Qumran yet), they were feeling the effects of the materiality of stones and places where this miracle occurred or that event happened (Christ preached at the synagogue in Capernaum, and performed an exorcism there as well). Two students had well-worn Christian Bibles, and our guide had his well-worn Hebrew Bible, and in the calm of a beautiful day, they began to wonder at the survival of these texts. Several confessed that they had never actually read the Bible, just knew the "basic ideas." Others wondered about truth (Truth) in the midst of all these copies and transmissions and historical accidents. Indeed. I'm sitting in on a dear friend's Hebrew Bible class (REL141 - it's going to make a big difference the next time I teach "Monsters and Marvels" as the references are almost all Hebrew Bible) and it's a daily struggle, the absolute reality of Biblical text (this is Truth, this is God), and its unfathomable fragility (what editor decided when to combine the J and the P source and create the hybrid Genesis we struggle with today?). We've just entered Exodus, and so now Moses has to bring the Word of God down from the mountain - I hear it's going to be heavy. But are words any lighter now? I think of Theodore Herzl publishing The Jewish State in 1896 and well, things happened very quickly after that. I think of Tunisia, and Egypt, and Bahrain, and Yemen, and Morocco, and Libya and revolution skimming along on digital texts that will settle into published histories.