Unreal Nature

October 29, 2012

He Started It

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:28 am

… “You are mistaken, wretchedly mistaken, if not also abominably mistaken.”

Final post from The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, 2nd edition, by Leo Steinberg (1983, 1996). Fully half of this second edition is devoted to rebuttals to critical response to the first edition. I’m giving only some of Steinberg’s introductory text to those rebuttals [SC refers to the first edition]:

… Whereas American and Continental critics without exception kept a straight face in discussing SC, the British, with rare exceptions, came on punning and winking. Innuendo abounded: “‘Stimulating’ is not perhaps the most appropriate word to use in speaking of a book entitled ‘The Sexuality of … ‘” Or, “Steinberg’s book has aroused, if that’s the right word …” One reviewer (adopting a title of Samuel Beckett’s) warned of “More Pricks than Kicks.” Another referred to the censorship discussed in SC as “painting out penises and painting in loincloths … and generally making addenda to pudenda.” A famous author with tongue in cheek reported that “the naked Christ-child … who cheerfully waves His slightly tumescent willy about … turns out to stand for a solemn aspect of the Incarnation.” In sum: “[Steinberg’s] argument makes you bite back giggles. … ”

Not that the British reflex to SC was all giggly: a few sobersides managed unsmiling denunciation, and they succeeded in disappearing the book within weeks. The dispatch with which the firm of Faber and Faber unloaded its hot potato on the New York remainder market recalls the resourcefulness of the Sienese who, in 1357, having unearthed a statue of Venus and finding it to be evidently demonic, reburied the idol in Florentine territory to work its blight there on the enemy.

A somberer note was sounded by an eminent British philosopher, reviewing SC for The New York Times: “The most disturbing aspect of this strange, haunting book … is the resolute silence it maintains on all alternative views.” This rebuke has been taken to heart.

After sketching a list of the various critical counter-proposals to SC which he is about to rebut, Steinberg continues:

… Having weighed each of the foregoing alternatives, even the lightest, I find such discipline conducive to a rare sense of virtue; as if one were following the Church Father who wrote in the midst of some controversy: “I shall treat this question so carefully as to seem to be seeking the truth along with my questioners.”

Speaking of St. Augustine brings up another dilemma: whether to rest one’s case or risk the grating effect of polemics, insufferable even in a controversialist of saintly stature. Reading, for instance, the aged Augustine’s tract Against Julian, one’s respect for the mighty bishop wavers in proportion to his disputatiousness. Augustine flails and pounds at the underdog, kicking him when he’s down, so that all one’s boy scout morality wells up to protest. Poor Julian’s “fragile and oversubtle novelty is crushed,” crows the saint. “Behold, your whole case is overthrown, ruined, and like the dust which the wind sweeps from the face of the earth.” While the winner exults to have “answered and refuted all [contrary] arguments,” the loser (“a detestable heretic” with a “mind subverted by the vanity of [his] boasting”) grovels in “damnably and abominably impious error.” His “presumptuous attack” is but “obstinacy,” “headlong boldness,” and “madness.” “You are mistaken, wretchedly mistaken, if not also abominably mistaken” — and so on and on.

Repelled by these cruel punches, one inclines to forget the stakes (the institution of the dogma of Original Sin); forget that it was Bishop Julian who had started the fight (with a four-book attack on Augustine’s “disgusting” and “blasphemous” treatise On Marriage and Concupiscence); forget how much of Augustine’s counter-invective was period style; forget that Julian’s preceding onslaught had been personally abusive, and that his epithets (“false, foolish, and sacrilegious”) may have struck wounds still smarting as Augustine strikes back. But as we read, Julian’s own scathing (unless framed in his enemy’s refutation) is not at hand; what comes down to us in Contra Julianum is his prostration, suffering kick after kick. Not the most agreeable reading. And now a no-win situation invites me to emulate Julian’s antagonist at his meanest, in the role of the bully.

On the other hand: while defense may be admirable in litigation, karate, or chess, it rarely scores in response to one’s personal critics. One reads in old-fashioned biographies about men of mettle who take it on the chin, treating hostility — I believe the phrase is — “with the contempt it deserves.” But such ataraxy is easier envied than imitated; and it is this felt envy which defines the second of the three quandaries I leave unresolved.

The gravest of my insoluble problems concerns the reproductions, their number now raised to three hundred, all gray-and-white and some very small. They are — they ought to have been — the book’s beating heart.

He’s right. What they’re all arguing about is beliefs about beliefs about beliefs. If you’re interested in the further debate, I would encourage you to find a copy of the second edition for yourself. I prefer the near-ending to the first edition, quoted in last week’s post: “…  there are moments, even in a wordy culture like ours, when images start from no preformed program to become primary texts.”

My most recent previous post from Steinberg’s book is here.



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