Grad seminar at London School of Economics, circa 1981
What is the point of a graduate level seminar in literature? In a Masters-level class in, for example, medieval Spanish literature, there are two goals.
The first is to help students achieve mastery of a corpus of texts that will provide them with a broad familiarity with Hispanic cultural production. This way, when they are looking for work as instructors at the post-MA or postdoctoral levels they will have a familiarity with major works and movements in their historical contexts. To this end we require them to read and demonstrate critical understanding of primary works and secondary essays.
The second is to help them develop professional skills. To achieve this, I feel it is helpful to draw on communities of practice pedagogy, which in a nutshell suggests that if you want to be a chemist you should do chemistry and not just learn about it.
In literary criticism this generally means engaging with texts and eventually producing a critical essay that is essentially a Fisher-Price version of an academic journal article. I feel this is a reasonable goal for a graduate class but that ten weeks of furious reading followed by a week or so of scrambling to put together an acceptably rigorous essay is not a fair approximation of professional academics.
We all have different working methods, but generally the road from reading to finished manuscript is more iterative. We read, take notes, discuss with students or colleagues, write abstracts, give papers, respond to questions, rework ideas, hand a draft to a colleague, perhaps blog a preliminary version, submit a manuscript for peer review, incorporate readers’ comments, and then —hopefully— have a finished manuscript.
In a traditional graduate seminar there are far fewer formal occasions to articulate and reflect on the ideas you are forming. This is partly due to time constraints: in ten or fifteen weeks it is difficult to both get through a list of books and drill down onto one of them in particular.
We can, however, take steps to offer our students a more graduated experience, one more in line with the experience they are likely to have as an academic literary critic. One way to increase the intensity of a course is to limit the syllabus to one or two major works to be read in full over the term. This way, students can spend less time frantically trying to cram themselves full of Canonical Works and spend more time understanding a single work in its particular context. They can read selections of related works or source texts, historical documents, and secondary essays. And they can work on a series of close readings of the week’s section of the work. All of these, hopefully, contribute to a deeper and more intensive understanding of the work in question.
This format is also more conducive to a critical practice that anticipates the work of a humanities researcher. Students can develop a concept or theme over the course of the term, in a series of related writing assignments, in a conference abstract, in a short paper delivered in class, and then in a term paper.
The communal focus that comes from all students focusing on different aspects of a single work creates a group of critics who all have a stake in the conversation that is based on a deep and sustained reading they have undertaken together. When they present papers, all of their interlocutors are similarly critically engaged in the same text, as in a conference panel where the audience has all read, taught, and written on the text in question.
There are, of course, tradeoffs involved. The monographic course does not get you much closer to the bottom of your exam reading list. You could argue that by showcasing a single work, students who are not likely to take more than a single course in (for example) medieval Spanish literature will not get a sufficiently broad understanding of the period from their subsequent individual readings of the rest of the works on their list from that period.
This can be allayed somewhat by making an effort to bring the work into dialogue with other major works of the time. In one course I required each student to present on a related work of the same period in order to get a better idea of the intellectual context of the times. This provides some synthetic overview of the period, but does not go into much detail about the related works.
This past term I taught a seminar on Fernando de Rojas’ Celestina (1499) putting some of these ideas into practice. It yielded some fine results. There was sustained, insightful discussion in every class session, and all students participated very actively. I could see the students developing their critical voices over the course of the term, and by the end of the ten weeks they were able to write with some authority on their selected themes. The Q&A sessions after the short 10-minute mini-conference papers were lively, and the resulting essays seemed more interesting and more rigorously thought out than the kinds of essays I would receive when the syllabus was more ambitious. For now, at least, I’d say that’s a case for slow reading in graduate education.
What do you think? Have you had success designing (or taking) courses focusing on one work? Courses with graduated assignments that take students through various steps of the idea-mongering process? I look forward to your comments.
This post was originally given as a conference presentation at “Scriptures in Medieval Iberia: Language, literature, and sacred text in a multi-religious society” (Monday, 6 June, 2011, Iona Pacific Inter-religious Centre, Vancouver School of Theology). I’ve also posted a pdf of the handout, including full versions of the texts referenced, along with their translations.
The idea of intertextuality is very useful for understanding the importance of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh in Spain’s medieval Hebrew literature. Intertextuality is the site of a good deal of theorizing, and while time constraints do not allow a full accounting of this discussion, I would like to borrow from Michael Worton and Judith Still’s understanding of the term in its most basic sense as it has been used by various literary critics and theorists. They write that “the writer is a reader of texts…before s/he is a creator of texts, and therefore the work of art is inevitably shot through with references, quotations, and influences of every kind.” This means that each work of art is a sort of group discussion, a collaborative process in which various texts, authors, experiences, and readings participate. The text is a fabric, a weave of a number of threads which in turn are pulled from other texts. Today I would like to talk about the processes by which this pulling and weaving happen in medieval Spanish-Hebrew texts, paying specific attention to the role of Biblical language and source texts.
Reading in the medieval period, especially of literary and poetic texts, was a very different experience from what is generally understood as reading in the modern age.
In this image, a miniature from a mansucript of the maqamat of al-Hariri of Basra, who wrote in the eleventh century, illustrates a literary gathering, where a popular preacher regales a crowd of listeners with his displays of rhetorical prowess.
There is not a book, page, or pen in sight. The experience is live, oral, aural, and judging from the hand gestures and gazes of both orator and audience, interactive. It is a social event.
This setting is recorded in the maqamat as well as in other genres of literary texts, and many of the structures of medieval literary texts and textual practices derive from a literary culture that is chiefly oral-aural as opposed to written.
By ‘scriptural textuality’ I mean the ways in which scripture is practiced and experienced by the community. This includes the visual reading of the text but also extends to the physicality of the text, its support and packaging, the physical and social contexts of its practice, and the aural-visual memory of its practice.
All of these contribute to biblical intertextuality in medieval Spanish-Hebrew literary texts, as we shall see.
Michael Sells has written about the ways in which Muslim communities experience the Qur’an and describes what he calls the ‘sound vision,’ the relation of sound to meaning, or the combined experience of seeing, hearing, and understanding the Qur’anic text in recitation.
Such recitations form part of the soundscape of a Muslim community, just as public recitations of the Tanakh form part of the soundscape of the writers whose texts we are about to examine.
Here is a demonstration of the idea of a sound vision of a text. This is Surat al-Qariah , “the Day of Reckoning” from the Qur’an, in a traditional modern printed edition. Take a look at the text.
Now, when the recitation and text are experienced together, the impression is quite different. And if the listener comprehends the text, the experience is one of layered visual, auditory, and narrative apprehension. This is the ‘sound image’ that Michael Sells is talking about – the multisensory record of the experience of hearing the text recited.
This understanding of reading as a verbal experience or embodied sensory event is recorded even within the Hebrew Bible itself, where according to Daniel Boyarin, the act of reading is nearly always described as a speech event meant to elicit action. A king reads from a scroll and people act upon the words. Prophets recite to exhort proper behavior from errant fellow Hebrews. Reading is not merely scanning a text but participating in a community, whether political or religious.
By way of demonstration I would like to try to illustrate or at least suggest the various forms of intertextuality that might obtain in any given reading of a biblical text. I’ll take the example of the Hebrew Shir HaShirim or Song of Songs. This text is a frequent source of language and imagery for medieval Hebrew love poetry, and also forms part of the liturgy for the Passover holiday, or Pesah. Here is an image of the opening verses of chapter one as they are written in a modern Torah scroll. The person reciting the text would be using this type of document as a visual support and would supply the vowels, which are absent from this text, and cantillation marks, or trope, from memory.
Any reference to the words of the Song of Songs in a poetic context would evoke, certainly for the poet and most likely for much of his or her audience, this text and its traditional recitation, the sound image similar to the Quranic example we have just seen.
For the poet and his audience that understands the meaning of the Hebrew text, the allusion would also rely on the literal meaning of the text in addition to the sound image of its recitation. This would seem to be obvious but is worth pointing out when one considers that the majority of the audience of such a recitation would likely consist of worshippers who might recognize the sound of the Hebrew words but would not necessarily understand their meaning. There are some billion Muslims worldwide who learn to recite the first chapter of the Qur’an, but only a relatively small percentage of them understand the meaning of the classical Arabic text.
In addition to the sound image of the recitation and the accompanying sensory memories of the gathering in the synagogue where it takes place, the allusion would also carry with it associations with the traditional exegetical interpretations of the passage. In this case, I bring examples from the commentary of Abraham ibn Ezra, a Sephardic rabbi who lived from the end of the eleventh century to the beginning of the twelfth. The traditional rabbinic interpretation of the Song of Songs is that, far more than a mere love poem, the text is an allegory of the love between God and the community of Israel.
To the sound image, literal meaning, and exegetical meaning, we might also add the liturgical context of the texts recitation as part of the Passover liturgy, with all the affective cathexis that attends the celebration of a major religious holiday: the specialness of the occasion, the hope for a good growing season, the spring fever that inevitably strikes the youth any community at this time of year. In this particular photo we see Samaritans celebrating the Passover in the West Bank.
In the same vein, the Song of Songs might well recall for poet and audience the social and familial context of the celebration: the foods, songs, and customs related to the celebration of Passover, the gathering of relatives and friends, the Seder or traditional ritual meal, the new clothes. In this photo we see a scene from a Passover Seder of the Jewish community of Manila in 1925.
All of these associations come bundled with poetic allusions to a biblical text: the textual image, the sound image, the literal and exegetical meanings, the lived experience of liturgical and social events related to the text. All of these may be indexed, consciously or otherwise, when a writer deploys biblical text in an original poetic composition, as well as by readers and listeners of that composition.
Let’s see how this intertextuality obtains in a specific example from a strophic poem, a muwashshah, by the same Abraham ibn Ezra who wrote the commentary on the Song of Songs that we have just seen. As you probably are aware, Ibn Ezra, like many of the prominent Jewish intellectuals of al-Andalus, was a gifted polymath who is also a noted exegete. He was highly educated in rabbinics as well as in secular Arabic poetry, lore, and science. The worlds intermingle in this poem, in which a number of intertexts are juxtaposed with the language of the Song of Songs.
The complete poem is number one in your handout. In this particular stanza, ibn Ezra juxtaposes language drawn directly from Shir Hashirim with a closing couplet or ‘kharja’ in Andalusi vernacular Arabic. The poetic image of the apple as a perfume for, or alternately a substitution for, the mouth of the beloved resonates both with the biblical text as well as with Arabic poetic tradition.
In the literal sense of the Shir Hashirim, the poetic voice describes the body of the beloved in a series of agricultural metaphors that suggest fertility and echo the idyllic setting of the love encounter.
In Ibn Ezra’s own commentary, he explains the literal sense of the text: the lover wants to climb up the body of the woman as if she were a grapevine or a tree, so that he can enjoy the fruit (her breasts) and smell the sweet scent of her breath, which is like apples.
He goes on to explain the religious allegory of these images: that the scent of apples from the beloved’s mouth represents the burnt offerings and incense burned by the High Priest or Kohen Hagadol in the Temple in Jerusalem, both of these being sweet to God.
Abraham ibn Ezra drew not only on Biblical language but was also consciously participating in a well established Arabic poetic tradition of using the apple as a locus of amorous discourse. Arabic, and later Hebrew poets frequently employed descriptions of apples in their poetry. The eleventh-century poet and vizier of Granada, Samuel Hanagid, wrote a series of 15 descriptions of apples, and Solomon ibn Gabirol likewise tried his hand at the genre.
Like the Shir Hashirim itself, this poem is a text written to be performed, and not just to be recited, as would have been the Arabic poem by Abu Nuwas. The muwashshah in particular was a poetic genre written for musical performance, and even for dancing, and so ibn Ezra’s text would have also been set to music something like what you are hearing now. This deployment of biblical allusion in an original musical poetic setting amounted to a kind of unofficial exegesis. In this recording, the contemporary Spanish ensemble Altramar performs their interpretation of a muwashshah by Andalusi poet Ibn Zuhr (1091-1161). Most experiences of Ibn Ezra’s poem would have been live, accompanied by music and dancing as well. These corporeal readings of the text brought new intertexts to the biblical sources he employed.
Modern critics of medieval Hebrew literature have suggested that these poetic reworkings of biblical language amounted to a form of creative exegesis, not strictly rabbinical but nonetheless significant in that they expanded both the semantic fields attached to the words themselves and the hermeneutics of the biblical texts.
In a 1977 article in AJS Review, Neal Kozodoy suggests that this creative exegesis was an important part of medieval Hebrew poetry, relying as it did almost exclusively on biblical poetic language for its lexical building blocks.
Abraham ibn Ezra lived during the waning of Andalusi political hegemony on the Iberian Peninsula, and by his death Christian monarchs had conquered large sections of what had been al-Andalus.
The generations of Hebrew poets who were raised in Christian Iberia, despite being educated in Arabic, had a very different linguistic experience than their grandparents who were raised in a country where Arabic was the official language of the court, the mosque, and the majlis or literary salon.
They were native speakers of romance vernaculars such as Catalan, Galician, Aragonés, and Castilian. They sang ballads and songs, and told stories that were common to all of their countrymen regardless of religious tradition. In some cases they were familiar with vernacular versions of biblical texts, either from paraliturgical contexts such as the vernacular versions of the Book of Esther that were performed as part of the celebration of Purim, or from popular ballads and other vernacular reworkings of familiar biblical stories.
By way of example I would like us to examine some texts and intertexts from Vidal Benvenist’s text Melitsat `Efer ve-Dina, the tale of Efer and Dina. Benvenist wrote Efer ve-Dina in Zaragoza around 1400, and it was first published by Gershom Soncino in Rimini in 1521.
The story tells of the misadventures surrounding the marriage of the rich widower Efer to the young girl Dina. The eminent scholar of medieval Hebrew literature, Hayim Shirmann, has called Efer ve-Dina a “tragicomedy” (which should resonate with those of you who are familiar with the late fifteenth century work by Fernando de Rojas, Celestina).
In the story, Dina’s impoverished father seeks to better his position by marrying Dina off to the elderly, wealthy widow Efer. Despite Dina’s protests, the two are married, but Efer is unable to fulfill his conjugal obligations to his young wife. He sends one of his servants to procure for him an aphrodisiac, but misjudges the effective dose and dies of a fatal overdose.
Benvenist explains in a lengthy excursus that the tale is a moral allegory, in which one should read Efer as the weakness of the human soul and Dina as the temptations of the material world that ultimately bring one no lasting benefit and in fact may lead to one’s moral demise.
At the time when Benvenist wrote the Jewish communities of Aragon and Castile were under tremendous pressure to convert to Christianity and those who did often enjoyed far higher standards of living than those who chose to remain Jewish, so Benvenist’s message is timely.
Like the poem of Ibn Ezra, the biblical language and allusions in Efer ve-Dina coexist with and interact with a number of intertexts, including the Dina story in Genesis, the Spanish ballad version of that story, the traditional Spanish malmaridada songs in which a young girl laments her marriage to an older man who does not love her, and lastly a kind of situational affiliation with the biblical Esther story and celebration of Purim that I like to call the Esterismo of Dina. Let’s now have a look at these intertexts and how they might have impacted readings of Efer ve-Dina by Benvenist and his audiences.
The ballad of El robo de Dina or the Rape of Dina circulated in Spain in the fifteenth century and probably dates approximately to the time when Benvenist wrote. It is attested in both Peninsular and Sephardic oral traditions as well as in editions printed in Spain in Early modernity. The text follows the story as it is told in Genesis 34, but as is characteristic of the narrative style of Spanish ballads, leaves off in medias res, as Jacob sends messengers to King Hamor to legitimize the relations between their children. The common thread between the biblical Dina and that of Benvenist is the idea that the moral integrity of the community is threatened when a young woman is married off to a man for material reasons. Both are moralizing tales. That of Benvenist is explained at length in his allegorical epilogue, and that of the Genesis version most succinctly in the protest of Simeon and Levi to Jacob: “Should one deal with our sister as with a harlot?” (Gen 34:31)
The biblical Dina intertext is woven together with the popular songs of the malmaridadas, the mis-married young girl who laments her unhappy state. These songs are attested in many western Romance versions, including those in Galician, Catalan, French, Castilian, and Italian. Both ballads, El robo de Dina and La bella malmaridada, were so popular that they were dramatized by the indefatigable Lope de Vega (1562-1635), who wrote thousands of plays during his lifetime.
In this version, the full text of which is at number four in your handout, the malmaridada is depicted in conversation with a knight who promises to take her away from her abusive husband. The husband discovers the two lovers and threatens to kill his wife, who for her part would prefer to die for her newfound love than to continue to live with her husband.
Benvenist’s Dina similarly laments her situation à-la-malmaridada, but with a decidedly more pro-active agenda. She (correctly) fears that a man of Efer’s age will not be able to fulfill his conjugal obligations to her, and lobbies her father in vain to cancel the marriage before it is too late.
Her protestations also echo with the biblical Dina. In Efer ve-Dina, Dina’s father is creating a situation in which Dina will be easily tempted to seek fulfillment outside the context of her marriage. This constitutes a sin on her father’s part, one which resonates with the protests of Simeon and Levi that their father should not put their sister Dina in a situation where her honor might be compromised.
The text is number five on your handout. I will read only the beginning that you see on the current slide, and then I would like to call your attention to two examples of biblical allusions in Efer ve-Dina and their specific intertextualities.
The original of this text is found at number six on your handout. Here, the allusion is to Hoshea 4:12, where the prophet describes how Israel has alienated itself from God through its practice of harlotry, fornication, and other types of poor behavior. The idea is that they are so misguided they seek advice from a piece of wood, which in the context of Biblical Israel would be a reference to idolatry.
So the first resonance of this description of Efer is that of the morally irresponsible Israel described in Hoshea. In addition, there is a double entendre: Efer’s “staff” speaks to him, or rather, he is thinking with his penis, his actions are motivated by his lust, not by correct moral values.
This second example is from the description of the wedding party of Efer and Dina, found at number seven in your handout. The celebratory noises of the wedding party are juxtaposed with the Biblical context, the unnatural (and in the original text synesthetic) sound of thunder coming from Mount Sinai in Exodus 20:15 (kol ha`am ro’im et ha-kolot), In the biblical passage, the unnatural sounds strike fear into the hearts of the Israelites, but here, the sense is that the wedding party sees marriage between the old man and the young girl as unnatural, and views it with disgust (ed. Huss 172 n 254). Benvenist ironically characterizes what should be a happy, natural occasion by using language describing a scene of fear of the unnatural.
The final biblical intertext for Efer ve-Dina I would like to consider before concluding is the Book of Esther or Megillat Ester, which is traditionally recited in the liturgy for the holiday of Purim, which corresponds roughly to carnaval in the liturgical cycle, and like carnaval, is a time to enact inversions of the accepted social order, to drink to excess, and to perform vernacular versions and parodies of traditional liturgies.
Like the story of Dina, that of Esther is like a European novella or comedia in that a woman’s honor or romantic fate determine both the dramatic outcome and in a larger sense, the fate of the community. Dina’s marriage imperils the moral health of both her father and according to Benvenist’s allegory, the entire community. Esther’s marriage to King Ahashverosh, as we all know, turns out to be the saving grace of the Jewish community of Shushan.
Despite Benvenist’s assurances that his text is meant as a serious moral allegory, in 1521 his publisher Gershom Soncino markets Efer ve-Dina as a Purim entertainment in the tradition of Purim literature that parodies the Talmud, the Prophets, and other traditional Jewish texts. He maintains in his introduction that he means for audiences to “delight in the tales of love and in words of silliness during the days of Purim.” Whatever Benvenist’s intentions may have been, at least some of his readers saw the Esterismo in Efer ve-Dina and sought to capitalize on it.
In conclusion, I hope to have demonstrated from these examples the following:
Biblical intertextuality is more than a simple matter of the recycling of words from the Hebrew bible. I see it much more (secundum Kozodoy 1977) as the metaphor suggested by the Latin etymon textus, a cloth woven from a number of threads, each one a metaphor for a different allusion, reference, sensory experiences, or memory. Together, these intertexts form a new text that in turn acquires its own life, much as the life of a garment as it is worn and passed from one owner to the next comes to mean much more than a simple combination of threads woven together.
Finally, it is important to recognize that Spanish Hebrew authors, even when drawing on Biblical texts for inspiration or for raw materials, were also placing these texts into discussion with the secular vernacular texts and traditions of their particular time and place. The resulting poetic exegesis was one that was filtered through vernacular artistic sensibilities, much as the Rabbis drew on vernacular culture and reality in their formal exegesis and jurisprudence.