Friday, September 14, 2007

Poetry, Heresy, and Delirium

Yesterday I fell hard for a word.

I remember watching
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World at a drive-in somewhere in Connecticut with Danny Boyarin, Michael Cohn, and Mary Harrison. But really I don't remember much about the movie. This was sometime in the mid-sixties and you know what they say about those memories: that if you have them, you weren't there. Actually all I'm sure of is that Danny (a Goddard student before Goddard had anything to do with writing programs) utterly charmed me with a madcap grace and a pixyish hilarity that fit the wild scrapes up on the screen, which we were mostly ignoring. It wasn't a romantic occasion, just a delirious one, and the next day I went back to high school and never saw Danny again.

So it was lovely to stumble across mention of him on the web in the last few years. Danny is now Daniel Boyarin, the Hermann P. and Sophia Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture at the Departments of Near Eastern Studies and Rhetoric, University of California at Berkeley. Some search or other led me here, quite by accident, to this bit of jacket copy for Professor Boyarin's book Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004):

There were no characteristics or features that could be described as uniquely Jewish or Christian in late antiquity, Boyarin argues. Rather, Jesus-following Jews and Jews who did not follow Jesus lived on a cultural map in which beliefs, such as that in a second divine being, and practices, such as keeping kosher or maintaining the Sabbath, were widely and variably distributed. The ultimate distinctions between Judaism and Christianity were imposed from above by "border-makers," heresiologists anxious to construct a discrete identity for Christianity. By defining some beliefs and practices as Christian and others as Jewish or heretical, they moved ideas, behaviors, and people to one side or another of an artificial border -- and, Boyarin significantly contends, invented the very notion of religion.

This was provocative in lots of ways, especially for someone with roots in both Christianity and Judaism, but what took me into immediate ecstasies was the notion of heresiology. This was a word I seem to have been searching for all my life, with obvious applications to the devotional Marxism that surrounded me as a child and to the life of poetry, as we live it now.

Surely all schools of poetry have their core beliefs and catechisms and by the same token, their heresies and heresiologists -- those who grimly patrol the borders of orthodox belief, shunning the sinners and keeping the faithful in line.

But who are the heresiologists of the post-avant? Anybody spring instantly to mind?

I happen to be particularly immune to all forms of heresiology because of my childhood immersion in cryptoreligious foolishness -- well-intentioned foolishness, but foolishness nonetheless.

What strikes me now is how a word can come along -- a single word -- and not only tickle the brain but make sudden sense of the nonsensical, as unexpected things fall into place.

So today I am a little drunk on this new elixir. Thanks, Danny.

Heresiology! The heart sings.


myshkin2 said...

"Who are the heresiologists of the post-avant?"

Well we all know--but like Saint Paul, the original heresiologist, they are just too damn mean and powerful and flourishing in the blogosphere. And to name them, as your rhetorical question seems to imply, would be disastrous. All the same, I love anologies that link ancient religious wars and zeal to the poetry world

Rachel Loden said...

Thanks, Myshkin2 -- perhaps one could argue that since heresiologists spring up as relentlessly as spring flowers, and are apparently an inevitable stage in religion and art, we should embrace them (and be amused by them) as part of life's rich pageant. They serve some kind of useful, consolidating purpose, I guess -- a mooring of starting out (to crib from Ashbery), something to complicate and tug against and forget.

Well, that or I'm talking through my hat again. Which is more likely.