To sidestep and integrate the automatic interior design propagated by the mass media in a self-authored private environment, some historical knowledge about the function of language is indispensable. The introduction of Christian teachings with the Vulgata by St. Jerome altered the function of language in ancient European cultures and their historiographies fundamentally. The very concepts of the resurrection and the transubstantiation, which structures the sacraments, introduced the realm of the immaterial to simple linguistic transactions like metaphor, simile, and poetic metamorphosis.
The new linguistic genre Christ introduced into human language in general and St. Jerome into Western languages was allegory. Christ invented this form of communication to speak to his disciples, because the truth he bore could neither be communicated nor understood by the followers through literal use of language. The simplest definition of allegory is telling a story with another story. The impossibility of a total match between the two stories, the manifest one and the one being illustrated, which is immaterial and internal, creates an opening, a caesura (see earlier post) for the immaterial to enter our material world.
There are two concepts of subjectivity, the deterministic concept and the Christian concept. The determinist view defines the interior as a largely unconscious entity comprised of emotional and psychological material. The Christian concept of subjectivity is open-ended and points to an infinity and to the immaterial. Behavioural psychology, psychiatry, psycho-pharmacology, and a large part of the psychoanalytic school contend that the interior of an individual consists of instincts and mental processes that are absolutely independent of the individual will, action, or emotions. According to this view, the interior is structured by biology, psychology, sociology, and the media. This view is correct as far as science goes, but it is by far not a total view and remains open to revisions and new knowledge. This opening is guaranteed by the introduction of immaterial transubstantiation with Christian thought. It is unlike Platonism, Aristotelian metaphysics, and unlike poetic metamorphosis, which were all known to the ancient pre-Christian world, which remained absolutely conditioned by physical and material laws.
We will continue to address the presence of the classical heritage in Christian civilisation, especially its philosophical foundations, but today it suffices to note that to earn a degree of autonomy over the interior, over the interior, private, subjective sphere, an individuality has to be established and furnished with its exclusive dwelling space of difference that refers to the immaterial.
Remains of Bare Life
The Christian world celebrates Good Friday every year. The idea of the calendar originated not so much in the need to coordinate activity and synchronise human life and labor, but rather in the need to indicate points of return for otherwise fragile, transient, and fleeting life forms. The desire to preserve something that is destined to perish is the cornerstone of all material civilisations. The old religions and their linguistic systems function much like calendars and serve the preservation of culture, which in turn guarantees the return of perishable life forms. But culture also chains, because what returns is already dead. The material remains that make up the physical world, to which we have dedicated our learning and science, are not living and breathing. We engage in acts of repetition to give them breath and life again.
Remembering the crucifixion on Good Friday, we also contemplate the significance of human remains and how they shape and design our world. Christ is raised on the third day and leaves no human remains for us to enshrine, worship, and lock under heavy symbolic, social, and actual keys, as the old cultural and religious systems have done. The difference between the material sarcophagi of traditional cultures and the fragility of bare life is illustrated, allegorically, in material design, in architecture for example. Intelligent, impactful design not only follows theoretical concepts, whether consciously or unawares, but can also introduce them to the world. The little chapel of Mary in the impressive but austere glass and stone Catholic building on the lakeside where I live, designed by one of the leading contemporary female architects, Heike Buettner — https://www.uni-weimar.de/de/architektur-und-urbanistik/professuren/grundlagen-des-entwerfens/personen/prof-dipl-ing-heike-buettner/competence-and-performance/ — is reminiscent of an unassuming wooden barrel and presents a stark contrast to the glittering weighty structure. It is shaped like a keyhole, a narrow passage way; it is open to all; no key, no barriers, no remains. Through Mary’s womb Christ entered the world and became human — the Son of Man — but he left no remains, only the empty grave signifying the greatest hope and the resurrection, on which our civilisation is built.
The fragility of human life, what contemporary political philosophers call bare life — http://quod.lib.umich.edu/o/ohp/10803281.0001.001/1:11/–impasses-of-the-post-global-theory-in-the-era-of-climate?rgn=div1;view=fulltext — is also its greatest strength, because, like the small keyhole barrel embedded in the lakeside church, it is the only portal through which God manifests Himself in our material existence and makes us, creates us continually in His likeness. The fragility of life consists in the impossibility of reducing it either to bare life or to biology. What remains when we remove every last trace of material existence is what makes us God-like.
St. Jerome and the Skull of Materiality
Christian saints are identified not only by name but also by their main attribute, which functions like a miniature allegory of the main trial in their hagiography. St. Jerome, whose translation of the Bible from Greek into Latin, the Vulgata, became the foundation of Roman Catholicism, is identified by the skull — http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2009/july/why-st-jerome-is-icon-for-our-times.html. The cranium is the epitomic representation of materiality. It is proof that something material remains after death, not in heaven, but here on earth. It stands for everything we value highly on the market and in our social interactions: possessions, everyday household items, medicine and hygiene tools, educational material, instruments of knowledge, real estate, family jewellery, objects of value. In their original conception, art collections don’t belong to this list, because they are private, and like everything private, designed in the realm of immaterial interiority. Today art collections are used as material assets in global circulation, which has degraded their original purpose. As far as they are reducible to their market value and material ownership, contemporary art collections mostly consist of meaningless objects.
The material world surrounding us is symbolically represented by the skull. It is everything that remains after we depart. European civilisation is built on two strong pillars: the classical Greco-Roman heritage and the Bible. The classical world is the last great pagan age and the most advanced civilisation known on earth. It continued to develop after Christ, but only in relationship to the Church. The article linked above represents an irresolvable paradox, a binary structure, that forever opposes the classical to the biblical heritage. They are, in fact, not in some kind of competition over dominion of the world, but have blended wonderfully in the medieval, Renaissance and modern European world. The philosophical structures of the contemporary political order have departed radically from the Biblical heritage and rely exclusively on the ancient pre-Christian traditions. The evacuation of the Biblical contribution to European civilisation continues to justify political orders like socialism, national socialism, and refugee socialism, which have eliminated the individual private sphere and with it the only symbolic place where subjectivity can be created and self-authored. These regimes continue to engage in inhuman treatment of individuals and are currently threatening to undo every cultural, moral, and political achievement of Christian civilisation.
Classical Aesthetics and the Bible
By introducing allegory in language through Christ’s words, the Bible became the world’s first material manifestation of the immaterial. Language is the paradoxical manifestation of the immaterial in the materiality of existence. In its function between linguistic elements, it is the only material trace that makes us God-like. The rest belongs to the realm ruled by the skull, which language names and masters by ordering it in our minds. St. Jerome belonged equally to the classical world of the past and to the always emerging, always breaking immaterial world of the transcendent word. St. Jerome’s passion for classical learning and aesthetics is the beginning of a long tradition of veneration for the classical arts that is still with us today. It has given us wonderful buildings to dwell in, beautiful art objects, sophisticated design, all theatrical and narrative arts from tragedy to Hollywood, plastic surgery aesthetics, the drive to dwell in healthy, beautiful bodies, and much more. The dominion of the skull is mighty powerful and it has a very specific origin: classical Europe. Language and writing were as highly developed and perfected in the Greco-Roman world as their material arts and sciences. But language was not considered a divine attribute as it is in the Biblical tradition. The classical world had little use of the immaterial. Even Plato and Aristotle could only conceive of ideas and metaphysics as metaphors and substitutive structures. Classical deities remained bound to dreams and phantasmagorias, to human wishes and desires that found no other manifestation than the materiality of a supremely powerful imagination, but they could not reflect anything beyond equivalencies between media of representation. St. Jerome remained enthralled by that beautiful classical world until his very last and this has something to do with his main accomplishment, the translation of the Greek New Testament into Latin. St. Jerome wrote the Vulgata, meaning popular, for the people, the common folk: http://www.vatican.va/archive/bible/nova_vulgata/documents/nova-vulgata_nt_epist-titum_lt.html.
St. Jerome the Translator
Translation is an activity that requires transcendence, the breath of God animating bare life between the fixtures of specific language systems. What is transmitted between languages is the only living form on earth. What we consider living is not reducible to the sciences of biology and zoology. Neither is living language reducible to the state in which it is used and recorded at any given time in history. The historicisation of language, that is, its systematisation according to the social and cultural recording network systems of any given time, reaches highest visibility in its translatability. This is why translation is a form of burial and mourning of linguistic being. Translation represents the form in which language ‘remains.’ It is an excavation tool that lays bare the fossilised form of language. Languages are living organisms and as such not reducible to their bare remains. The Biblical God dwells in the Word of the Bible. If letters and words are sheep, the book of the Bible is their only shepherd. The preservation of languages depends on the degree to which they are permeated by allegorical Biblical language. It is in translation, however, that they “die.” The skull is St. Jerome’s attribute because he was the first translator of the Bible and because translation represents the death of language. The Vulgata, however, instead of remaining encrusted in a dead language, Latin, became the source of all modern European languages, because it allowed for its infinite translation. St. Jerome is its author and as such the founding father of all modern languages founded on the teachings of the Bible.
St. Jerome’s Passion
The passion of St. Jerome was the classical heritage of Greco-Roman civilisation, which is still largely with us. His vision of his punishment at the hands of God’s angels for the sinful passion he nurtured for the classical arts is generated by his awareness of their historical demise and fossilisation. By the same token, however, the Resurrection also teaches us that everything that dies can be saved by the living breath of the Biblical word and thus transcend death. This is why St. Jerome’s translation is also transcendence. Latin is both a dead language and a transcendent language. The living breath of the word animates us and our languages, but it is not given in anything material, which is a mere fossil, mere remains.
Next to St. Jerome, Shakespeare is the other ‘founding father’ of modern language frequently pictured with a skull, not least because he wrote the most famous and most powerful scene with the mentioned prop, namely, Hamlet’s contemplation of the skull of his court jester and nanny, Yorick. Yet, Shakespeare’s skull is ironically the most notorious no-show in history. Periodicals circulate news of Shakespeare’s skull cyclically, obsessively, almost religiously. Here is the latest example: http://nyti.ms/1q4BmQg. The warning on Shakespeare’s grave, not to dig up his bones lest a curse befall the digger, is also meant to protect not a secret, but the very sanctity of life. As long as Shakespeare’s grave, like Christ’s, remains empty, his legacy and his language shall live. There is perhaps a degree of truth to the conspiracy theory that his skull was stolen. Every translation, every interpretation, every transfer of his work in other languages, media, and systems of thought is a kind of theft of the original that produces a skull. The remains are a work of translation and a dolorous work of mourning. Everything we “know” and understand clearly about Shakespeare is in fact stolen from the living breath of his language, the mystery that animates his creations and holds us in their thrall.
Life remains a mystery, its only manifestation being held in the living language of Biblical exegesis. By exegesis here I don’t mean scholarly interpretation, but rather a living hermeneutics, the power of the Biblical word to shape and re-create our daily life. Shakespeare’s work is deeply rooted in Biblical knowledge, though the scholarship of the past two centuries has been gradually moving away from reading Shakespeare side by side with the Bible. We will do so on this site and learn to read for our own reflection in the Bard’s incomparably rich, aesthetically immaculate, and morally superior texts. A future post will provide more literary historical and theoretical background to the infamous prop in Hamlet.
The skull made a spectacular appearance in the world of haute couture recently through the work of the late British designer Alexander McQueen. Fashion reaches the status of haute couture when it proves a faithful, more or less self-reflective record of historical cultural developments. At the same time, fashion has a historical record, its datedness, which it has to transcend to be considered art. The most recent developments in fashion originated in the bourgeois household that emerged with modern urbanisation. The transition from traditional landed gentry households to modern households has been plentifully documented in literature, but most memorably in the poetry of Baudelaire and the 19th century French novel. Future posts will take a closer look at the relationship between the adultery novel, the fashion world, and gossip media in more detail, but suffice to say here that modern haute couture has always been self-aware about its flowers — and passions — of evil. McQueen’s reference to one of the staples of Christian civilisation commemorating contemplatio mortis (contemplation of death) as a door or a keyhole between states, modes, cultures, and information systems was an expression of the designer’s struggle with the world he inhabited. His suicide, like the memorable, culturally significant designs, totalise his remains and bring them under the sign of absolute death. We’ll discuss this phenomenon in contrast to transformation and transubstantiation further in later posts.
The Saving Grace of the Word
The attraction of death is a mighty passion that participates powerfully in the design of our world and beckons with the pleasures of perdition. It possessed Christ as he took the dolorous path to Golgotha out of love for mankind, St. Jerome as he journeyed through the library of the classical world he could not let perish in oblivion, and McQueen’s designs as they weaved the condemned sites of our contemporary social milieus. The vigil we hold in the night of the Resurrection, however, and the living power of the Biblical word in Shakespeare’s texts provide the saving grace that will preserve the remains of passion’s work of destruction. From the veil of Veronica, the only material imprint of Christ’s passion, to McQueen’s prints our memory contains and curates the earthly remains of passion through the immaterial word within. Inside, in the hidden crevices and private languages of subjectivity, we weave the only living fabric of God’s image.