Thursday, 28 April 2011

Two types of immortality found in radical sects and elsewhere

Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.
Matthew 26:6-13 (King James Version)
Jesus is staying at the house of Simon the leper when 'came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat.'  This gift of ointment sparks a political rupture within the group and possibly a wider power struggle within the milieu. At this point in the text, Judas breaks with the group because he perceives Jesus has broken the shared practice of asceticism. The woman has 'wasted' ointment which 'might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.' The group is scandalised by her generosity but Jesus is indulgent... because he is its object. 

As in all radical groups, there is a tension between internal hierarchy and group ideology... this is usually exacerbated over the question of exceptions to the general rules of principled conduct which a leadership awards itself. In this case there is also a wider question in which militant adherence to a self-sacrificing code is measured against the enthusiasm of others for the group but which is expressed in values that the group itself does not recognise. The welcome enthusiasm of supporters often takes a form that is not approved by the militant cardre... it is forced to ask itself the question, how are we to handle positive responses to ourselves which are not correctly formulated? In the given example, the host does honour to the guest by bestowing a valuable gift but it is a gift which the guest would ordinarily find objectionable. The contradiction between strict observance and reciprocation for hospitality is thus set in motion... Jesus must balance the demands for internal coherence with those of external relations and resolves this by instigating an exception, For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. The exception allows us to forgive the lapses in our own observances where we would condemn the lapses of others.

If the question of fidelity to the cause has a name, and if leadership of the cause has a name, and if the names of the combined acts for the cause together become a tradition then it is curious that we do not know the name of this woman who will be remembered for ever as the one who expressed enthusiasm for the cause inappropriately.

Being thus both unnamed and remembered, she introduces a different form of immortality... we register here the eternality of the de-individualised behavioural gesture and the psychological type. This depersonalised immortality takes the place of the fame and example that are ordinarily attached to individual biography. 

The immortality of the unknown woman, the rupture in the group that she catalyses, takes the form of a shell, a mould, a function, or an armour into which unformed potentiality is poured at moments of saturated overdetermination. She is the one who says what nobody else was thinking. And yet once she has spoken, the exception has been invoked and there is no return. The group is broken.

The birdsong in the garden is the same year on year, it always marks the juncture of a reproductive crisis, but the birds driven by the seasons into this eternal behavioural pattern are never the same individuals, but belong to successive generations.

Let he who has ears!