19 September, 2011
This week on the Reading Rest I have a novel.
James Frey: The Final Testament of the Holy Bible. John Murray, London 2011.
Having spent a considerable part of my childhood in a Catholic school, run in accord with God’s Good Order (light)— fees accordingly were high and non-believers welcome, we weren’t even sexually harassed—a spring book called the Final Testament of the Holy Bible (FTHB) is exactly what’s needed a sunny weekend: again to contemplate Christianity in a deckchair, in a protected corner of your garden and wrapped in a dark blue rug perfectly absorbing the sun rays. As a final testament, implying that the other ones are fiction too, its structure, simple sentences, large types, short lines with ragged endings and the utopian liberation by love in whatever form possible, matches the world of its New York drop-out subjects and presumptive readers. And we who have read testaments before, but never been close to the day and age, when they were lived as events and understood to be testamental, are as comfortable with the distance as ever. Predictably, orthodox believers, such as tea-partying Christians, have not been beyond words in their reactions. Some, as usual are outraged and offended by finality and filth, others, weathering their phobic minds, sourly comment that Frey ’steers clear of muslims’—forgetting that ’the Final Testament’, i.e. the Quran, was always final. It’s the never-ending series of Christian testaments that meets eye. Luckily they prompt the final again and again. Not surprisingly, the novel is critical of ‘all the leaders of all the various sects and denominations, anyone on earth who thinks there is one God with the power to know all and judge all. They are all wrong’ (p. 319) – that kind of Muslims too. FTHB is a typical American novel and a good one, easy to read; disturbing and witty and as author-centred as they come.
In the autumn, commenting upon FTHB from the archaeologist’s point of view is not equally rewarding. It is a rather autumnal matter, a need to look at the links of a piece of the present to the long-term perspectives of urbanism and material culture. (Cultural historians can always read down a piece of good literature to complacency).
The meaningless, but keenly observed materiality of the city and people seen as things, is the starting point of the first chapters when the alienated bystanders or future followers of Ben Zion tell us of their first recollections of him as part of an environment, one of many living objects.
It is a sure sign of crisis, especially to politicians and authorities, when the dynamics of urban life are irresistibly focussing on the materiality of the urban rather than on interaction in a linguistic space taking place in a material setting. When objects, matter and materiality are allowed to take over, the urban dynamics takes over as well, they grow and become much less predictable because the possible meaning of the material contexts grows where it belongs, beyond moderation e.g. by verbal expression or a wish to communicate in other ways than by observation and non-verbal action. Not that actions aren’t telling.
When the dynamism of the material escalates beyond destruction, the verbal may be used to deceive. It happened when the bleeding boy in London was ‘helped’, first comforted by speech, then robbed in order for the agency of his robbing to become significant as action and a material metaphor of the dynamics of the urban mind. In fact everyone in the scene was transformed to an object – moving and non-moving, thugs, voyeurs and victim..
The reason why there are so few dynamic riots in small university towns is the stability of their urban landscape and the dominant linguistic interaction taking place on their urban scenes. In such environments one may quote and refer to the Allegory of Love by C S Lewis even today, as well as to any religious variety of the phenomenon and its practitioners. That wouldn’t do in James Frey’s New York where material dynamics changing the urban landscape by construction, a ‘forty stories of steel frame rising’, supplies the factor, a glass panel hitting Ben Zion from the 34th floor, that calls him forth as God, Messiah, Son and Prophet. (chp ‘Charles’).
In JF’s New York, the actual love actually, rather than the abundant abuse is the only way out. (Some critics are appalled, but denying a Christian congregation in the making of the necessary carnal love is simply not fair) The abundant abuse makes it obvious that there is no possible reformation of the city, only people can be redeemed. When cities fail, when the urban community cannot resist the effects of its own material dynamism, radical critique is a necessary step. Usually, and not only when it comes to Christianity, radical critique of the urban mind and the expressions of urban life is a matter of moving out into the countryside to remodel yourself according to a new standard and indeed a new Good Order. The Christian critique of the Late Antique city is model. It was led by Christian men who despised life in towns and cities. They turned hermits and started to preach in the desert developing a new Christianity later nursed in monasteries before it went back victorious into the city with a new symbiotic order that made Church and City early medieval(1). In FTHB, the country chapters probably remind readers of a sectarian green community experience rather than 3-4th century CE criticism of the urban. That’s the easy way out and it doesn’t work.
Predictably, speech, i.e. meaningful conversation and reflection, makes progress during most of the book. But it takes a leap forward when Judith from upstate NY on her yearly visit to town meets Ben. Judith owns a farm ‘overrun with weeds and little baby trees’ and she has something radical to say: leave the city come and live on my farm. The country is full of decrepit houses and small towns with crumbling factories and closed and boarded shops. Churches, liquor stores, gun shops and the odd gas station still work and nobody seems to be working. Out here radical reform takes place and the new community is born. The children will follow and Ben, having created this new order, returns invincible to finish his mission.
Being archaeologists the past has already taught us that returning to the city is nothing we can chose to do or not to do. Returning to the urban is a must because that is where the dynamism is. Since the dynamism of the urban is triggered by the materiality the city, a city can never be reformed by any final testament. The quality of the urban, moreover, is the dynamism of the city itself – even when we think that dynamism goes out of hand.
There is something very final, and something very testament, about the dynamism of urbanity.
(1) In the publication The Urban Mind — Cultural and environmental Dynamics. Uppsala 2010 http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-140898 Mats Eskhult, pp 311-328, and Eva Baliska-Witakowska, pp 329-366, describe the the Christian attitude to the city during the Late Antiquity.
5 September, 2011
This week on the reading rest I have an article from a Swedish journal:
Sven Kalmring. Of thieves, counterfeiters and homicides: Crime in Hedeby and Birka. Fornvännen 2010:4, pp 281-290.
Attuna Tingsrätt—the Attuna District Court – is modern cube with aluminium, steel and glass façades, opaque and impenetrable, a modern material metaphor signalling that justice is something taken care of by civil servants behind maximal security out of sight – not a public matter. This may be wrong or right, or just an unfair interpretation, but at least during
the Carolingian Iron Age, cia (750-1025 ce) crime, justice, sanction and gaining legal force were an open social concern in any community, probably not taken care of as well in the Attuna District Court. Nor were the names of the accused kept secret till they were convicted.
The 14th word in Sven Kalmring’s (SK:s) article and the first in the second sentence is Archaeo-Criminology. In some way this concept, a neologism as it happens, is the theme of the article. Notwithstanding, it is absent from both abstract and summary, but evidently linked to the caption of the section following the introduction: Worth Punishing: Normative-social Criteria of Injustice – which soon leads us, not to a theoretical discussion, but to the Hedeby Harbour and some contexts that may be indicative of different crimes such as theft, counterfeit and homicide, i.e. crimes that stand out as most probable even in prehistory because they are all too human. The last category, arms smuggling, would have been interesting if arms smuggling could in any way be proved, which it cannot. Nor can homicide. To be fair, SK, who is very well read and takes source criticism seriously, doesn’t argue that homicide or smuggling can in fact be attested.
The reason why it is difficult to prove smuggling and homicide rests with the fact that crimes classified as ‘smuggling’ and ‘homicide’ are denotations of very specific concepts difficult to define inasmuch as they are indicative also of very common-place cultural patterns of behaviour, i.e. distributing goods and killing people, which may or may not be a crime. The demand for significance in the material context is in other words high if we venture to document such very specific crimes. Not even intentionally killed bog people are clear-cut cases. Actually, it took the context of the Bocksten man so make homicide likely(1). Proof is difficult because we often take death caused while offering or fighting or punishing the unfree or base to be extenuating circumstances if someone is charged with murder.
This is not to say that CIA Scandinavians did not commit murder since we must at least suspect early 11th century Northmen to have killed Gerbjorn (2). Nor is it to say that going home from abroad, Scandinavians refrained from bringing whatever they could and fancied, be it purchased objects, gifts, contraband, stolen goods or any item that would fit the notion of external acquisition, even if acquiring and bringing it with them would mean breaking one or two laws and paragraphs.
Thieves, counterfeiters and Viking bandidos are to be expected as soon as goods are put in locked chests and coin circulations a fact. Innumerable coins bear witness of Scandinavian fear of counterfeit coins. SK:s example, the cast lead coins from the harbour is an interesting one, but cheating with metal – passing pewter for silver or gilded copper for gold, is nothing new to a harbour district such that of Hedeby .
The last part of the article tries to establish a parallel between Hedeby (and its criminal harbour scene) and Birka (and its perhaps, if excavations continues, criminal harbour scene). It is a very legitimate wish to compare Hedeby and Birka in any way possible. It is nevertheless doubtful whether the methodology sketched in the article, taking a criminology for granted and pointing to the earliest Scandinavian towns and their harbours as prolific criminal environments, is actually worthwhile.
Both the robbed wooden chest, loaded with a heavy stone which prevented it from causing suspicion bobbing up and down in the harbour basin, and the series of identical counterfeit coins that were thrown into the water, presumably because they were about to incriminate their owner, are wonderful curiosities. They exemplify the concept ‘dispose of evidence’, which in its turn indicates the importance of evidence and indeed exhibits. There’s a detective story to Hedeby crimes. Lack of incriminating evidence, of course, is a prerequisite of those who want to swear to the innocence of a man – criminal or not – on a medieval thing.
Or as the cross ‘conversation’ goes behind the Attuna District Court glass façade:
—Did you throw your counterfeit coins into
the harbour basin?
—Don’t remember nada, sorry – pissed!
(2) On the Uplandic runestone U 258 (Straight end style, c. 1000 CE) it says: Gunnarr and Sassurr, they had this stone raised in memory of Geirbjôrn, their father, Vittkarl/Hvítkarr of Svalunes’s son. Norwegians killed him on Ásbjôrn’s cargo-ship (my emphasis). Check at Samnordisk runtextdatabas: http://www.nordiska.uu.se/forskn/samnord.htm