Another Orphan – By Ana Schwartz

Ana Schwartz in the Blood Forum

Blood Cover
Gil Anidjar, Blood: A Critique of Christianity, Columbia University Press, 2014, 464pp., $40

See the Blood: The Element of Christianity Forum page for all contributions.

At the end of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the white whale destroys the Pequod. The boat sinks. So does the entire crew. How unsatisfying is that?

For American readers, this is not the end. The first edition of the novel, published in England in 1851, ended that way. But when Melville published in the United States a few months later, he added an epilogue to explain how the protagonist lived on to tell the tale. The epilogue begins by quoting the conclusion to an even older tale, when messengers brought news of the destruction that began the Biblical book of Job: “And I only,” the messengers conclude, “am escaped alone to tell thee.” In concrete terms, what’s American about Melville’s novel is that ending. Ishmael may be an orphan, but at least the plot makes narrative sense, and there’s no little satisfaction in that.

Anidjar concludes his own epic text by turning to Moby Dick, a work of literature that responds powerfully to the way that blood’s circulation has defined modernity and continues to qualify community in religious, political, and economic terms. The last chapter of Blood, along with Anidjar’s writing elsewhere on survival, helps to unpack the unresolved conflict at work in that self-identification. His last chapter here, though, the one with the most concentrated focus on reading a text, is most exciting in its prompt to attend to the literary qualities of blood. Reading blood through literary form shows how Christianity persists not only in laws and money, but how it also continues to flow through practices of reading, writing, remembering, and interpreting, and how these practices distribute and pass on the empathetic feelings of kinship and community.

Like Ishmael, Blood’s narrator admits impressive, broad-ranging ambitions, and he guides readers with compelling, stylish prose. Anidjar begins by showing how Christianity made blood the central concept of the modern world — both a literal and figurative thing. As Europe expanded its colonies in the early modern era, blood distinguished Christianity as the essence of national belonging, the property that would unify a group of people while distinguishing them from others. The difficulty of imagining a system of kinship or politics without using blood as a central concept, or the difficulty of substituting a different property to articulate continuity among people — bone, for example, as so often appears in Genesis — these difficulties attest to the influence Christianity has had in structuring relationships. (Even that word, influence … .) From the Early Modern period through the nominal secularization of the Enlightenment, Christianity persisted into the concept of the state by the state’s attention to blood, particularly — exemplarily — in the United States’ one-drop rule, which determined boundaries of citizenship and political participation. In a particularly memorable revision, Anidjar suggests looking at the one-drop rule not as a chapter in a narrative about race, but as a chapter in a narrative about blood.

The last step, or at least the latest step, in the process whereby “all significant concepts of the history of the modern world are liquidated theological concepts” is capitalism: the circulation of capital, like blood, determines the limits of political community. So, for example, in Moby Dick, the pursuit of lucrative whale oil unites a diverse crew of sailors. What makes them “American” isn’t their national or legal status, but rather, it is their presence on the Pequod. Although they venture far from American territory, the boat unites them as they seek that fluid capitalist commodity. Ishmael, the narrator, shows a persistent obligation to describe the American qualities of that community, and to show its affinities, and even parallels, with narratives of communities of the Biblical past.

The concluding citation emphasizes the urgency of his narrative work. It conveys Ishmael’s grief, and then some. His melancholic remainder laments the past, but it also makes demands for recognition on the part of readers, especially American readers, who recognize, dissolved in the structure of testimonial narrative, something like kinship. It makes a little more sense for American readers because of blood’s latent presence in American testimonial writing for almost two centuries prior.

One of the earliest and bloodiest appearances of the testifying survivor in American literature takes place at the start of The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. There, the allusion transforms a shared religious canon, like blood, into a figurative kinship. In 1682, Mary Rowlandson, a minister’s wife in colonial Massachusetts, composed her memoirs of captivity with the Algonquian enemy at the end of King Philip’s War seven years earlier. The allusion exemplifies the Puritan tendency to use typology, an exercise in narrative identification between the present and the Biblical past that also determines the shape of the community into the future.

For Erich Auerbach, this method of interpretation made Christian exegesis distinctively modern, though Anidjar goes on, in his fourth chapter, to show the longer history of blood that Auerbach’s Mimesis stops up, like a scar. But Mary Rowlandson goes further: In addition to claiming affiliation with the Biblical past through witnessing such violence when Rowlandson uses the Biblical narrative, she conveys the felt experience of thorough devastation, much as Ishmael would later.

From the ash and rubble emerges a possibility for new relationships. It can feel vague, and intuitive. It’s there, though, I promise. Recall that in Job, the first action that Satan takes against God’s most upright servant was destruction of his family and his property. By wind and fire, and attacks from the Chaldeans and Sabeans, Job loses his crops and his cattle, his children and the children of his children. When Rowlandson and Ishmael invoke the story, they recall Job’s immense grief, and furthermore, as witnesses, they point to the direct experience of violence that the messengers have and that Job has not — a destruction so intense and swift that three of the four messengers were interrupted by the next before any but the final messenger can conclude: “And I only was escaped alone to tell thee.” Each messenger insists that he has survived for a reason, and only one reason: to ensure that there will be a witness. But there’s more. When those messengers conclude by pointing to their imagined singularity, they prompt the listener, Job, who was probably related to them neither by blood nor bone, to reassess their relationship: what will Job do for these men and on the basis of what obligation or shared community?

Like Job’s messengers, Rowlandson’s lament is also an address. But she focuses on blood as the loss that she shares with her readers. Her forthright bloodiness preserves an illuminating moment in the history of blood in America and in literary form, a moment when blood dissolves into empathetic feeling. In one of the most graphic scenes, she narrates herself as one of the dying, alongside her sister and their children. “Thus we were butchered by those merciless heathen, standing amazed, with the blood running down to our heels.” Very soon, she is the only one left. But in order for her witness to resonate effectively as typology, the reader will relate not primarily to Rowlandson but first to the butchered Christians, the way Job relates not primarily to the messenger but to his dead kin. In this case, the visible blood is the reader’s blood too.

Dissolved into Englishness, Christianity persists in the emotional acuity of Rowlandson’s writing, the quality that preserves her narrative as one of the most important texts in the colonial American canon. Literary historians have identified her text as a major precursor to the modern novel, particularly in its narrative form and psychological insight. Mary’s melancholy, like the endless work of mourning Anidjar describes in his fifth chapter, saves a special place in the heart of the civic community for the unique satisfaction of blood kinship, especially among Christian families. This becomes clear at her narrative’s conclusion. Before her friends lease a home on her behalf in the center of urban Boston, they host her as a guest for about a year, and she expresses her great debt to their kindness. But she also lies awake at night, unable to sleep for the memory of the sovereignty and the goodness of God in preserving her as a living exception.

How successful her bloody appeal for kinship with American readers has been! Her narrative’s persistence in American literary history, like Moby Dick’s status as an American classic, testifies to the strength of empathy as a vital, circulating affect. Rowlandson, writing soon after the revocation of Massachusetts’ colonial charter, cares a lot about preserving Christian blood as the element of kinship. When Ishmael uses the same typological precedent to retrospectively justify his story to American readers, Melville tests the strength of that claim to kinship through Christian blood. Ishmael, after all, is the narrator’s adopted name. It would have been a name familiar yet hostile to Christianity, insofar as it challenged the ease with which pious American readers imagine themselves to possess a legitimate lineage with the divine.

How tempting to settle here — the singular survivor trope as the heart of American literature. But the only escaped survivor appears in literature beyond the United States’ borders. Where it does, so do the difficulties of kinship and national identification. Take for example, the protagonist of Carlos Gamerro’s 1998 Las Islas, a novel based on Argentina’s 1982 War for the Malvinas. For Felix, community identity makes little sense when the enemy isn’t the anti-Christian heathen, but the English.

The narrator of this novel imagines himself to be the only surviving witness of the Argentinean defeat at Mount Longdon, where fire rained from the sky like brimstone from heaven. As he works through the memories of loss and defeat, he tells himself counterfactual stories about the war; he reenacts the battle with a variety of different opponents, settling on an enemy whose differences would make possible a greater sense of national identity and closure. After Anidjar’s earlier work, particularly in The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy, it makes sense that Felix chooses to reimagine the defeat at Longdon as if it were the Gulf War, and it makes sense that during a pause in butchering his Mohammedans, he wonders how the Argentineans must appear to the English.

Felix’s struggle affirms Anidjar’s insight: when thinking about blood, there can be no question of national difference, the qualities that could distinguish Latin-American from Anglo-American histories. At the end of his book, Anidjar reminds readers that we may be only at the start of a Christian era, in which case periodization might be likewise, less relevant. Instead, these stories emphasize, especially together, an appeal to empathy that animates narrative form, the expectation that novels should, by means of their narrative, make readers feel something.

Who are we feeling with? And on the basis of what shared qualities? Anidjar’s conclusion with Melville’s novel is deeply satisfying. But the novel’s own conclusion with the testimonial trope suggests that the matter of blood’s circulation merits ongoing and updated attention, across genres and form, even when — especially when — they appear unrelated to our proper literary lineage.