I am delighted to share with you my further foray into the art world. ASAP/Journal (ASAP is the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present) has just published a special issue on autotheory (edited by Lauren Fournier and Alex Brostoff). To coincide with the issue, ASAP/J, the on-line open access platform of the journal, is hosting an exhibition on Transmedial Autotheories.
One of the commentaries from my in-process book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! is included. Here is the commentary but if you go see it on the ASAP/J webpage, you can zoom in and actually read what is written!
Sometimes, when I am working on a commentary in my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I find myself going down a rabbit-hole, frantically researching the most obscure, and apparently irrelevant, things. Whenever that happens, far from trying to discipline myself, I give myself the freest rein. I have an almost superstitious faith that I will always stumble upon something – some detail, some connection – that makes the effort worthwhile. And just so, it usually comes to pass.
I am currently working on the commentary to this meme:
The commentary will be one of the primary places in the book where I talk about shame, a major theme of the work. Well indeed might Robin be ashamed of his mockery of the elderly Wayne-family retainer, Alfred Pennyworth.
Working backwards in my mind from some incidents in my own life, through an obscure chain of connections, I begin the commentary with the story of Sir Charles James Napier (1782-1853), commander of the British forces in India. In 1843, having been ordered to enter the still-independent province of Sindh to engage in some military retribution, he vastly overreached and ended by occupying the whole province. It is told that he communicated both his disobedience and its result with the one-word dispatch to Lord Ellenborough, the Governor of India, “Peccavi” (I have sinned [Sindh]).
Like many great stories, it is not true. Although the joke may have been independently arrived at by several wits over the course of the 19th century, its first appearance was in the satirical magazine Punch, in 1844. There it is stated that Napier outdid even Caesar, whose “veni, vidi, vici” had hitherto held the record for shortest dispatch ever. There is excellent evidence (the virtual margins being too narrow, as it were, I shall not weigh down this post with its recounting) that the peccavi joke first came to Punch from a remarkable sixteen-year-old girl, Catherine Winkworth (1827-78). Apparently, she thought it up, quite spontaneously, in conversation over Napier’s much-discussed exploits with her tutor, Rev. William Gaskell (husband to the novelist Elizabeth), who encouraged her to send it to the recently created satirical magazine, which in turn cut her a check for it! (The evidence does not say for how much!)
In my commentary, you can be sure that I will give some further account of Catherine. But it is not she who chiefly interests me, but her equally remarkable elder sister Susanna Winkworth (1820-84). Both Catherine and Susanna went on to become translators of German religious material. Among Susanna’s accomplishments is an archaic-sounding translation of the Theologia Germanica, the fourteenth-century work of mysticism ‘discovered’ and made famous by Martin Luther (who held it closer to his heart than anything save the Bible and St. Augustine).
It is a moving passage from Winkworth’s German Theology that forms the epigraph to Clemence Housman’s little-read novel The Life of Sir Aglovale de Galis (1905). Here is the epigraph:
When a man truly perceiveth and considereth himself who and what he is, and findeth himself utterly vile and wicked and unworthy, he falleth into such a deep abasement that it seemeth to him reasonable that all creatures in heaven and earth should rise up against him. And therefore he will not and dare not desire any consolation and release, but he is willing to be unconsoled and unreleased; and he doth not grieve over his sufferings, for they are right in his eyes, and he hath nothing to say against them. This is what is meant by true repentance for sin, and he who in this present time entereth into this hell, none may console him. Now, God hath not forsaken a man in this hell, but He is laying His hand upon him that the man may not desire nor regard anything but the Eternal Good only. And then, when the man neither careth nor desireth anything but the Eternal Good alone, and seeketh not himself nor his own things, but the honour of God only, he is made a partaker of all manner of joy, bliss, grace, rest, and consolation, and so the man is henceforth in the kingdom of heaven. This hell and this heaven are two good safe ways for a man, and happy is he who truly findeth them.
Peccavi, indeed! Housman (1861-1955), who was the sister of the poet and scholar A.E. Housman (whose work forms the basis for another meme and commentary of mine which you can read here) wrote this novel in the style of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. In the most archaic and difficult prose, it tells the story of Sir Aglovale who, in this rendition, cannot extricate himself from a perverse course of deeds of which he is deeply ashamed. He is a man whose entire life is dedicated to shame, dedicated to it, one might say, with a passion, perhaps because it is one of the “two good safe ways for a man.”
Coming to the meme, young Robin is acting in a way that he is sure to feel ashamed of as he gets older. Poor Alfred, for all his English fustian, took care of Robin, “wiped his shitty ass for him,” and deserves much better than Robin’s thoughtless mockery. This is the light in which several events of my childhood now strike me; and I feel as though I would be happy to have been struck at the time, as Robin is here by Batman.
One thing I intend to investigate in the commentary is the link between shame and the slap, each of which brings blood to the face. Krista Thomason has argued it is a desideratum for an account of shame that it explain the link between the experience of shame and the desire to commit violence. Insofar as my memes often play out intrapsychic conflicts, you can no doubt see where all this is going.
And what of that rabbit-hole I mentioned at the opening of this post? The shape of my commentary, as laid out above, was complete in my mind when, following a hunch, I started obsessively tracing ancestry on the internet. And what gold my hunch yielded! Sir Charles Napier, the subject (if not the origin) of the peccavi joke, is the second cousin, four times removed, of Alan Napier, the actor who plays Alfred Pennyworth in the 1960s Batman show!
My colleague from Religious Studies, Professor Robyn Walsh, is teaching a class Star Wars and Religion. Part of how she is continuing to teach her class during the plague is by making podcasts and she has done one with me, on the grounds that there are Baby Yoda memes.
I had a very enjoyable conversation with Robyn and we talked about my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, auto–theory, the ontology of memes, spirit versus letter in St Paul, Star Wars, and yes, Baby Yoda memes (it’s Robyn who has all the cool things to say about that!).
Seven or so years ago, near the beginning of my analysis, I explained to my analyst, after some frustrating experiences, how important it was to me that they always engage with the actual content of what I was saying. I took a huge amount of care in expressing myself – choosing exactly the right words, multiplying distinctions in order to communicate with laser precision – and I didn’t want to be ‘interpreted’ before the letter of what I was saying had been fully attended to.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians (3:6), distinguishing between Jews and the new Jesus movement, that “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” and as a Jew, I have always understood that my job is to be for the letter. This has meant two things.
By “the letter,” Paul means the old covenant, the Mosaic law and its development by the rabbis of his day, whose views are recorded in the Mishnah. This he took to have been annulled by the advent of Jesus with a new covenant. Accordingly, the text of the Old Testament could no longer be read literally, but only ‘spiritually,’ by means of allegory, typology, and so on. The Jews were stubborn in continuing, in the face of the new covenant, to read their sacred books by the letter. So, one part of being “for the letter” has been a determination to treat the language I am exposed to from other people literally and precisely – not to try and get the gist or spirit of it, not to look beyond it to see where its originator is coming from.
But there is, alongside this, another way of being “for the letter.” R. Akiva, a near contemporary of Paul’s, was said to interpret “mounds of rules from every tip of the letters” (TB Menachot 29b). The ‘tips’ were ornamental ‘crowns’ that adorned the Hebrew script of the time. This type of reading, truly and radically literal (perhaps we should say “letteral”), can stand as synecdoche for a panoply of more or less perverse methods of interpretation associated with the Jews. In the words of John Wilkins, the 17th century inventor of a ‘real character’ (an ideal language which mirrors the structure of reality):
Amongst the Jewish Rabbies, is not any opinion, whether in nature or policy, whether true or false, but some of them, by a cabalistical interpretation can father it upon a dark place of scripture, or (if need be) upon a text that is clean contrary. There being not any absurdity so gross and incredible, for which these abusers of the text, will not find out an argument.
(The quotation is from his The Discovery of a World in the Moone of 1638.)
So Jews were taken to task, under the guise of the letter, for being both too literal and too fanciful. I have endeavored to honor these twin heritages: a laborious literalism with respect to what I read and write, hear and say, and an extravagant letteralism, a willingness to associate anything with anything by means of some devious chain, to father monstrous conjunctions of words and meanings through textual abuse. It feels to me as if there must be some relation – quite other than monstrous conjunction – between these two ways of being for the letter, but I cannot easily identify what it is. They are, perhaps, both subsumed by the term “pharisaism.” The historical Pharisees, and their successors who compiled the Talmud, stubbornly adhered to the plain meaning of the Bible (in some of their moods) and yet developed complex and sometimes rebarbative methods of interpretation partly to reconcile that text with a much more humane standard of conduct. I would like, therefore, to re-appropriate the term “Pharisee” from the infamy with which the fevered Christian imagination has painted it.
Those seven or so years ago, when I implored my analyst to take me at my word, it was, almost needless to say, only the first way, according to which it contrasts with “spirit,” that I had in mind. Two or three years after that, well into the analysis, I was becoming more comfortable and more curious. The tight control over my words – the only real power I could exert to protect myself and ensure the analysis did not unleash anything too scary – came to feel constricting, even suffocating. It was, I suppose, a Damascene moment. I relented, and gave my analyst permission to listen to the spirit of my words and report back on what they heard. (I have no reason to think my analyst’s behavior was in any way affected by either my initial injunction or my subsequent permission!) It was around that time that I composed this animated meme, which will appear in my book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! (perhaps even with commentary based on this very blog post):
Fast forward in the analysis to last week and a very exhausting and disspiriting session. At the end of the previous session, I had said I thought my presence in our sessions now was very different from how it used to be. My analyst agreed, adding that they, too, were a different analyst now from what they had been. The next day, I said that I would love – if not now, then perhaps towards termination – to hear about the ways in which they thought they had changed as an analyst during the course of my treatment. When my analyst asked what exactly I wanted them to explain, we set off on a frustrating tussle, lasting the whole session, in which I said, over and over again, in every way I could think of, what I wanted and my analyst kept alleging that they didn’t understand. Somehow, I don’t really understand how, I kind of got through; and my analyst conveyed how their attempt to hear the question behind the question kept them from seeing what I wanted to communicate. At the end I exclaimed “I’d like to go back to that injunction I made right at the start. Please make an effort to engage with the letter of what I am saying before trying to hear what is unsaid.” To which they replied, with some, subsequently confessed, hyperbole: “You do realize that is literally the exact opposite of what I’m supposed to be doing?!” (One reason to think that the designation of psychoanalysis as “the Jewish science” may be misleading.) In some sense, of course, what they said is obvious. They are listening for what is unconscious, which is unlikely to be found in the obsessively-controlled language that I wield almost like a weapon. But it startled me nonetheless and I decided to write this post to help work through it.
Unsurprisingly, being for the letter, in both senses I identified, is, deliberately, a large component of A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. It shows up in the commentaries themselves and in the relations of the commentaries to the memes they comment on. (I don’t think it anywhere shows up wholly within memes, which are too compact really to allow such devices.) Sometimes those commentaries pound away at the most minute aspects of a meme, trying to work out just what the artist (myself) meant by using a question mark where an exclamation mark seemed to be what was called for! Other times, they join with their memes in a monstrous conjunction. Occasionally, I confess, I even have something already written which I want to include in the book and so search out a dark place in the memes on which to father it.
One of the memes in the Batman Meme Project is entirely in Yiddish. I have just finished the nearly six-week process of writing (a draft of) the commentary on it – and it has turned out to be the longest commentary, by far, yet written. (I suspect it will remain the longest, but who knows! I didn’t expect this one to be so long.)
When I was composing the meme, back in Spring 2016, I had help with the Yiddish from a friend of a friend. I had produced the Yiddish text by using Google Translate, but it didn’t look all that right to me and I had no way of knowing if it was idiomatic, or even basically correct. This kind person helped get it into shape and, as part of that, she changed the Romanization (Yiddish is written in Hebrew characters) according to a standard established by YIVO – a Jewish and Yiddish cultural organization founded in 1925. That, she said in an off-hand remark, gave the text a ‘Lithuanian slant.’
Although my commentary touches on many things (the relation of speech and writing, Jewish naming practices, the etymology of one particular Jewish name, Robin Jeshion’s proposed principle of Single Tagging – basically, you shouldn’t name something if you think it already has a name, and others), the thing I got most caught up in was this ‘Lithuanian slant.’