Elisa Narin van Court

title.none: Cox, The Judaic Other in Dante, the Gawain Poet, and Chaucer (Elisa Narin van Court)

identifier.other: baj9928.0610.027 06.10.27

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Elisa Narin van Court, Colby College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Cox, Catherine S. The Judaic Other in Dante, the Gawain Poet, and Chaucer. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2005. Pp. x, 239. $65.00 0-8130-226-3822. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.10.27

Cox, Catherine S. The Judaic Other in Dante, the Gawain Poet, and Chaucer. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2005. Pp. x, 239. $65.00 0-8130-226-3822. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Elisa Narin van Court
Colby College

In The Judaic Other in Dante, the Gawain Poet, and Chaucer, Catherine S. Cox has produced a learned, densely textured, and provocative study of the ways in which these canonical authors interact with and deploy Christological hermeneutics inherited from biblical texts and traditions. Cox's focus, which is original and nuanced, looks not only at the "other" in the literature, but at the ways in which the "other" is an often ambivalent result of the authors" relationships with supersessionist theories both theological and literary. Thus, Cox finds in Dante a "subtle sense of ambivalence as a Christian writer," whereas the Gawain Poet and Chaucer are "more openly conflicted" concerning "confiscatory hermeneutic gestures," textual and spiritual (3). For scholars more accustomed to reading medieval texts through the lens of the centrality of Christianity and its images, Cox's book represents an important exploration of the fundamental hermeneutic gestures of appropriation and how this appropriation of the Hebrew Scriptures into the ideologies and texts of Christianity informs medieval literature.

In Chapter One, "(Re) Figurations of the Judaic," Cox sets out the ideological parameters for her book and provides an informed and necessary context for the readings with which her book is concerned. Reaching back to the early Christian period, the author provides a substantive and intelligent overview of scriptural hermeneutics and how the originary hermeneutical appropriations influence medieval ideologies of textual and theological supersession. Drawing on sources as diverse as Talmudic stories, New Testament passages, and Christological responses to Torah, Cox emphasizes the centrality of textual subsumation in shaping popular reception and perception, and the extent to which Christianity, in its texts and precepts, lays claim to a Hebraic heritage which will have profound influences both on Christian ideological development and on perceptions of the "other" in theology, culture, and literature. One of Cox's examples, the ways in which the ideal of "loving one's neighbor" has become a "commonplace of Christian thought and doctrine," can easily stand in for the many ways in which the New Testament supplants the Hebrew Bible as "the credited origin of the phrase in circulation" (5).

Throughout this first Chapter, Cox is assiduous in her detailing of origins and influences, and drawing on both Hebrew and Christian texts and sources, produces fascinating insights into the methods and effects of supersessionist appropriations. The forms of continuity implicit in supersessionist strategies, the extent to which the "New" is dependent upon the simultaneous continuance and subordination of the "Old," are discussed and lead to a comprehensive, if compact, discussion of the influence of the major Christian writers including Paul, Jerome, Augustine and Aquinas, and the many ways in which scriptural hermeneutics are embodied in attitudes towards the place of post-biblical Jews in social and cultural terms. While much of this section is review of now well-accepted analyses, the care with which Cox presents her materials and analysis renews current debates concerning textual and real Christians and Jews, and the extent to which the one (textual) effects the other (real).

With a light-handed use of the Derridean spectre and Kristeva's theories of the "abject," Cox establishes a theoretical framework within which to explore issues of inclusion and exclusion, and the kinds of identity politics that result from the paradox of Christian claims to a Hebraic heritage complicated by a simultaneous rejection of contemporary Jews and Judaism. The conflicted nature of Christian response to Jews and Judaism, and the consequences enacted upon the "literal" bodies of Jewish communities, are succinctly discussed in the contexts of the instability of Christian identity. And it is here that Cox adumbrates the real significance of her work: if identity is ambivalent and fluid, if, for example, gender identity can be relinquished as demonstrated by Carolyn Dinshaw, then, Cox argues, so too can religious identity. For modern readers more accustomed to read medieval Christian authors writing within a particularly stable, if sometimes conflicted, experiential religious identity, Cox's claim is both fascinating and intellectually capacious. It is also a fine and nuanced way into her readings of Dante, the Gawain Poet, and Chaucer which work "primarily within, yet also against, the tenets of medieval Christianity" (29). In the three Chapters that provide readings of Dante, the Gawain Poet, and Chaucer, Cox is adventurous, ambitious, and provocatively persuasive as she argues that each text, in variously different ways, "reenacts Christianity's appropriation and supersession of Hebrew scriptures" (31), and that Hebraic figures and figurations in each of the authors' works allows us to read "through" the works a sometimes subtle backstory or subtext of the authors' concerns with Christological exegesis and supersessionist hermeneutics.

In Chapter Two, "The Hermeneutic Jew in Dante's Commedia," Cox focuses first on Dante's use of the Medusa sequence in Inferno 9 as a "hermeneutic blueprint" (47) for his evangelical project, then turns, in part 2, to a discursive and theoretically dense discussion of the Dantean context for the "hermeneutic Jew," as a way to tease out the implications, in part 3, of a Christological hermeneutics that is simultaneously affirming and interrogatory of the "legitimacy of supersessionist tendencies as a means of ideological affirmation" (31). Heavily invested in christological and exegetical traditions, Dante's narrative develops from a supersessionist perspective yet Cox proposes an interpretive matrix within which Dante's poem is shown to betray ambivalence towards its own purported ideological reach. In an intriguing reading of Dante's "patristic" and, therefore, seemingly conventional "hermeneutic Jew," Cox finds an occluded figure of the "other," who passes unrecognized in the Christian community and is so doing, effectively erases the categorical distinctions between "self" and "other," between Christian and Jew. If Christian identity depends upon the figuration of Jew and Judaism, and the figurative (and literal) erasure of Jewish continuity and presence (subordinated, superseded), what does Dante make of the hermeneutic Jew who continues, from within Christian identity both communal and individual, to trouble the very constructedness of religious identity itself? And as Cox notes, while the problems inherent in his narrative may be resolved by the faith of Dante the Christian, Dante the poet is seemingly less sure of the measure of an ideological posture that simultaneously negates and reifies the presence of the "other" (75). Throughout this Chapter Cox's analyses are subtle and detailed, and we are well rewarded by the author's thought- provoking claims that invite us to a new understanding of the Commedia's anxious relationship to its supersessionist origins. Cox's deft analysis of Dante's "Pauline Medusa," as a way into understanding Dante's theological and literary involvement with supersessionist hermeneutics, is itself worth the price of admission to a Chapter that traces out the interconnectedness (and vexed incompatibility) of Hebrews, Jews, Old and New Law, christological binaries, and Christian supersessionist ideologies in the Commedia.

If there are slight but perhaps important difficulties in this chapter, they may be found in the second section which is highly theoretical in its deployment of Queer theory, identity politics, theories of specularity, and subject-object relations--a discursive adventure of unparalleled value--but whose very discursiveness fails to clarify a few essential and earlier stated goals, such as the association of destabilized gender categories with destabilized religious categories. If, as Cox claims, the "otherness" of heteronormativity can apply equally to gender, religion, and other formulations of identity described in terms contrary to normative (and straight) masculine Christianity, a more tightly articulated argument concerning difference and the relationship between "others" would be useful. For example, in her well-developed section on the Dantean hermaphrodite Queer and the complications of Christian binaries, the argument would benefit from a more rhetorically emphatic connection with and movement into other "Others" and the complications they create. Thus, for example, Beatrice's association with masculinity could be discussed both in the context of gender instability and in the context of religious instability (like Old Testament Jews, she is shadow or ombra). Or religious instability itself, as signified in the instability or absence of a perfected Christological supersessionist ideology, could be rhetorically deployed through parallels with the hermaphrodite Queer. Additionally, this second section of the chapter, like the first, sets the stage, as it were, for Cox's pivotal discussion of Dante's hermeneutic Jew, the poem's Jewish/Christian ideologies, and the disruptions in Christological supersessionist claims, but when she turns to these key issues in part 3, Cox's analysis of Beatrice's "laughing Jew," and the implications of the alterity and disruptive possibilities of the Jew "within," while astute and absolutely central, are not nearly as developed as that which leads up to it. The reader is left wanting more in this final and essential section--a reading of Beatrice's Jew that is as deftly handled as her earlier reading of Medusa and as instrumental in illuminating the fissures in Dante's hermeneutics of supersession. Nonetheless, the chapter as a whole is a challenging, theoretically sophisticated, and nuanced demonstration of the author's interpretation of Dante's paradoxically fulfilled and subverted evangelical impulse, as Cox explores both the deployment and the interrogation of the ideological discourse of Otherness and supersession.

In Chapter Three, "The Hebrew Truth in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," Cox analyzes the romance narrative's exegetical poetics with a view towards illuminating the ways in which the Gawain Poet draws on both Christian and Jewish exegetical modes. Unlike the earlier Dante chapter, the chapter is less theoretical in focus and more concerned with directly comparing Christian and Jewish exegetical traditions, particularly as they pertain to the biblical Cain story. In her finely detailed reading, Cox aligns Gawain with Cain as the Judaic Other and reads through Jerome's Christological version of the story (drawn from Hebrew sources) in his Vulgate translation of the Bible to reinscribe the Hebrew sources" "ambiguous polysemy" into the Gawain Poet's narrative (80). With a particular focus on sin and repentance in the poem, Cox argues for a reading of the poem in which the Hebraic interpretations of the Cain episode are fore-grounded. This is a challenging claim and one well worth making, yet Cox needs to make the line of transmission from Hebrew sources to Gawain Poet considerably more clear than she does, even if this connection is highly speculative in nature. Nonetheless, her argument concerning the exchange of blows as understood and enacted by the Green Knight as a fully developed exposition of the lex talionis or "law of retaliation," is a compelling account of a presentation of Hebraic traditions and their symbolic dimension in regards to talion, juxtaposed to the more literal Christian readings of "an eye for an eye." The chapter is ambitious in its claims, and illuminates the true "measure for measure" we find in the Chapel episode. Similarly, Cox's analysis of the "convenantal language that permeates" the poem, and the Arthurian court's response to Gawain's fault and penitence, raise intriguing issues concerning the Gawain Poet's use of the authority of the Hebrew text and the ways in which the narrative contends with the supersessionist hermeneutic of appropriation with its attendant binaries of Old and New (108-09).

When she turns to Chaucer's Pardoner in Chapter Four, "The Jewish Pardoner and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales," Cox aligns the problematic and elusively characterized Pardoner with Hebraic traditions, especially those that relate to scriptural injunctions concerning jealousy and adultery (114). Evoking both Christological and Hebraic authority, coupled with his commonly remarked upon sexual indeterminacy, Cox's Pardoner, as a "caricature of medieval anti-Judaic stereotypes" (111), is himself the Judaic Other in the narrative who "betrays a reliance upon the legitimacy and currency of the originary precepts," even as he "ostensibly" rejects them for a "christological, supersessionist" interpretation (144). The chapter is intriguing in its analysis of gender, performativity, and the ways in which the Pardoner's narrative interrogates essentialist categories, but it is not entirely persuasive in its reading either of the Pardoner's use of Hebrew exegetical interpretations or of the Pardoner himself as Judaic Other. Cox invokes the Pardoner's use of exegetical modes, and especially his referential "hooly Jew," as sources of Hebraic authority, and in his role as "exegete" she finds the trope of the "hermeneutic Jew" (129). While compelling in her use of Scriptural texts and Christological interpretations/appropriations, (and an interestingly nuanced reading of Chaucer's Prioress), Cox's reading of the Pardoner as the Judaic Other is less convincing than the similar gestures the author makes in the Dante and Gawain Poet Chapters. The connections between Christological reading and Hebraic authority are more tenuous here in Cox's use of the Sotah ritual as textual allusion (114). Yet here again we are invited into readings that are original and adventurous, and if a measure of speculation animates the chapter, Cox is careful in her introduction to acknowledge both the speculative and provocative nature of her readings as a whole.

In her Epilogue Cox relates her readings to contemporary events and the value of her work is undeniable in the face of continued bigotry and elisions of the "other." And because medieval scholarship has long focused on the Christian traditions that inform literary narratives, Cox's book is a necessary corrective to readings that are possibly more narrow than we generally acknowledge. Working within traditions that depend upon a supersessionist hermeneutic, the possibilities of a vexed engagement with the paradox of continguity and supersession is a real one for medieval authors and texts, as Cox's book successfully demonstrates. And for those of us who work with medieval Christian representations of Jews and Judaism, Cox invites us to move beyond representation into the considerably more complex study of Christological and Scriptural interaction and exchange. This is a fine and fascinating book that is sure to provoke a re-thinking of medieval Christian involvement with the very texts it appropriates and supersedes.