HUMANIST, Vol. 56 No. 4 (July 1996) Pages 28-30. THE WOUND AND THE COVENANT. Melvin Seiden We are tourists soldiering through Syria's monuments. Yesterday it was the Temple of Baal in Palmyra, today potholes and operatic merchants in Aleppo's covered souq. Our guide Walid has navigated its dark alleys many times and probably wishes that he were having a nice nap at the hotel. He stops at a shop perfumed and painted with spices, buys a paper cone of nuts, hands them to the nearest fellow traveler who happens to be me; I taste them cautiously, pass the cone to the person next in line. Aleppo, an eleventh edition of the Britannica says, "is the centre of a large district growing cereals, pistachios, and fruit" I can bring back the sights and smells of Aleppo with those salty sweet pistachios. My madeleine. Set you down this, And say besides, that in Aleppo once Where a malignant and turban'd Turk Beat a Venetian and traduc'd the state, I took by the throat the circumcised dog, And smote him-thus. I cannot say that Othello's valedictory words rang in my ears while I was eating pistachios in Aleppo. Vivid, violent, and hegemonic, a "malignant and turban'd Turk" did cross my mind. I thought about the unanimously bad press the Turks have been getting ever since the prophet's troops galloped into Christian Europe. As for the "circumcised dog,"the contempt and revulsion packed into the image reveals Elizabethan "orientalism" in precisely Edward Said's deprecatory sense of the word. If we want to understand Othello as a play rather than as an example of Elizabethan cultural imperialism, we need to inquire into the relationship between the Moor and his Islamic affiliations. We know inferentially and from Othello's own words that he is a Christian. He is also a Moor, a designation and status that strongly suggest the religion of Islam-more precisely, the Muslims of north Africa, the likely place of Othello's birth. (Desdemona's handkerchief, imbued with "magic in the web of it/Did an Egyptian to my mother give," Othello explains to his wife in act three, scene four.) Although Othello is a mercenary and almost certainly a man of color, the Duke and senators of Venice treat him with the utmost deference with the respect he has earned as a kind of crusading soldier. In the closing scene, the wife murderer sees himself as no better than the Muslims he has waged war against: he is a circumcised dog; the Muslim in himself must be punished by the Christian. Othello's suicide enacts on the battle field of his own body the war he has waged professionally against Muslims-those "malignant and turban'd Turks" In his agony, Othello cries: "I took by the throat th' circumcised dog/And smote him-thus,' but he is speaking metaphorically; only by analogy, it would seem, can Othello be so designated. Shakespeare has hinted at Othello's social and ethnic status in such a way as to foreclose one suggestive line of speculation; even so, we might ask subversively, why wouldn't this brave soldier and unforgiving moralist be literally circumcised? He had probably been born a Muslim. The question is risibly unanswerable. But we can imagine a skilled actor who makes us see that Othello in his final moments is discovering that he cannot be other than what he has always been: a man pledged by inherited religion to Islam and not to the Christianity of white Europeans. Would it be so crude and vulgar to have Othello on the stage aim the knife where it probably has been before? Possibly not. Othello believes that his Christian principles lead him to sentence himself to death. But if this self condemnation emerges out of a tradition repudiated and long forgotten-if the imagery of circumcision suggests an apostate's sense of buried guilt, and I think it does-then criticism need not apologize for trying to peer behind Othello's fig leaf. (I borrow courage for these speculations from Leo Steinberg's bold analysis of the genitalia of Jesus in Renaissance painting in his book, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion; Pantheon, 1983.) Othello dissociates himself from an Islam in which errant wives may be murdered by tyrannical husbands-that is, the alien world of the "circumcised dog" But an antithetical meaning can also be seen: when the would-be priest who sacrificed his wife now sacrifices himself, the Islam that has been mocked and spurned is given the last heretical word. We might say that circumcision has been given a covert dignity ostensibly denied it. In Jewish living rooms, the subject of circumcision-like that of dietary lawsoften gets dealt with by smooth rationalizations: the claim is made that removing the foreskin offers hygienic or medical benefits; we are told that the statistics for cervical cancer among women whose sexual partners have or lack the prepuce indicate such and such . . . we can skip the details. I recall a serio comic dining-room debate in which my old friend, an exasperated anthropologist, taunted our old friend, the Jewish doctor: "So that means you folks really are smarter than us gentiles. Even way back then, long before the rest of the world woke up, the Jews somehow knew . . . knew about things like trichinosis and cervical cancer- After that rhetorical bomb, amiable shouting and guffaws followed. I distrust the alchemy that transforms religious ritual into collective rationality and uncovers instinctive wisdom in the totems and taboos of a tribal people. I believe that circumcision, like Jewish dietary laws, has to do with community bonding, with staking out symbolic boundaries, with the virtually universal need of a people who choose to live inside an ideologically delineated pale to separate themselves from those who live outside its borders. Jews, it would seem, view themselves as a people who are defined by the rigor of the practices and prohibitions peculiar to them. Solidarity is Judaism's bottom line. Nowadays, however, at least in the United States, almost all hospital-born male infants undergo circumcision regardless of the religious affiliation of their parents. And a dissident minority has arisen to challenge the wisdom of medically prescribed circumcision. The critics remind us of the pain felt by the infant; they describe babies who have been violated; and like those who defend biblically mandated circumcision, the dissenters are utilitarians. Do the benefits claimed for surgical circumcision outweigh the harm done to the nonconsenting patient? The critics' answer is no. One can only speculate about the assault on the infant's psyche; it must be left to the experts to interpret the data that do or do not justify circumcision as preventive medicine. And since adult men who have been circumcised (I generalize from my own experience) do not have, nor are able to bring to consciousness, a distinct memory of the trauma, they are likely to be experientially neutral. Whether they favor or oppose circumcision will probably be determined by general philosophical orientation-by values, if that canting word may be permitted. I have tried to make myself imagine the pain of a wound wrought in flesh physiologically designed for pleasure-a failed effort, except that, in a spasm of revulsion, I found myself thinking more tolerantly about the anti-abortion zealot who begins with lofty principles and ends in violence and madness. I recognize an unwelcome affinity between those of us who believe that circumcision is mutilation and the outrage of the men and women who tell us that abortion is murder. This much, though, cannot be disputed: Judaism and Islam will persist in circumcising male children even if medicine were to establish beyond scientific doubt that the practice offers no health benefits to the child (and, let us also assume as beyond question, that it does no significant physical harm). Unequivocal scientific condemnation of the practice might provide an interesting test of the ability of a fundamental religious belief to survive a strong frontal attack; but one should make no rash predictions about how Jewish or Muslim orthodoxy might react to what in any case is a highly unlikely situation. Rabbinical exegesis may tell us that the foreskin is a solemn offering whereby the people of Israel seal the covenant between Yahweh and themselves. And we can assent to it, but only if we bring to it a kind of Coleridgean "suspension of disbelief." Sacralizing a communal ceremony whose origins are lost in prehistory can be understood as myth-making, story telling, the poeticizing of prosaic reality. In the nineteenth century, "advanced" writers described ritual circumcision as the enactment of a kind of thinking they deemed primitive, pre-rational, indeed superstitious. It will be argued against such old-fashioned positivism that it views the complexities of ritual through the rose-tinted glasses of progress: enlightened ("civilized") folk o not go in for ritual blood letting. But blood there is, and an uncircumcised Moses in Exodus must become "a bridegroom of blood" in order to please an angry God. My anthropology kit suggests an interpretation of circumcision different from the rabbinical one: might it be the fetishizing of the penis as the organ of procreation? (I bypass the subject of female circumcision.) This hypothesis, rather than separating Jews from gentiles as the covenant exegesis does, links them to the many other cultures in which fertility is given a sacred status. I turn now to what for me is an astonishing example of Judaic ritual, which I discovered in a formidably learned book, Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?-The Search for the Secret of Qumrum (Scribner, 1995). The author, Norman Golb, quotes from a scroll called "Rule of the Community" or "Messianic Rule": No man who is struck with any kind of human uncleanness shall enter into the assembly of God, nor will any man smitten with it be confirmed for office in the midst of the congregation; no man smitten in his flesh, or crippled in his feet or hands; none lame, blind, deaf, or mute; none smitten with a visible blemish in his flesh; nor an old man who stumbles and cannot keep still in the midst of the congregation. None of these shall enter to hold office in the midst of the congregation of the men of the Name, for the Angels of Holiness are with their congregation. Golb remarks blandly, "The passage . . . implies that these angels are offended by any display of physical impairments." More sensitive readers will not have this acquiescent response; they will be appalled by the brutal fastidiousness expressed in the document, for the dread of ritual contamination has made these servants of God incapable of compassion. Living as we do in the age of AIDS, we recognize in the brethren of the "Messianic Rule" the instinctive and, indeed, primitive reaction that urges us to shun the afflicted. We have to reason ourselves into suppressing the desire to incarcerate the leper, turn our backs on the lame and halt, walk away from misery in all its discomfiting infringements. And surely we can claim to have made real progress if a secular ethics allows us to see what Golb chooses not to see: that, while invoking the lofty purpose of spiritual perfection, the Qumrum purists are nevertheless bigots. How sad to imagine that, in the quest for holiness, pious men might indeed enact legislation as cruel as this. The Qumrum document's obsession with "uncleanness" takes us back to Othello's loathsome Turk, to the "circumcised dog" who does not deserve to live-and to this insight: from the point of view of Islam or Judaism, to be uncircumcised is to be unclean. Were these religion-proud Jews or Muslims to use the Greek term, they might call Christians barbarians. The jeering irony cannot have escaped the dramatist who created Shylock. But Othello, a Christian probably by conversion, vents his wrath on a religion and a culture whose inferiority is figured in the image of the wounded penis. It seems to me that Shakespeare's "circumcised dog" invites skepticism and the kind of moral relativism that is associated with the illuminations of modern anthropology. In the witches of Macbeth, Shakespeare creates a supernatural version of repugnant otherness. Strangely, even as the obscene hags cavort on a recognizably English heath, the dramatist transports us to the Aleppo of Islam: First Witch: A sailor's wife had chestnuts in her lap. And mounch'd, and mounch'd, and mounch'd. . Her husband's to Aleppo gone.... (Muslim and Jew also appear in the witches' incantation in the fifth act; bubbling in their vile stew are "Nose of Turk" and "liver of blaspheming Jew") Why Aleppo? Sinister associations attach to it: the English sailor who voyages to that part of the world encounters hostility; back home, in a scene of rustic tranquility, the sailor's wife munches on what must be domestic chestnuts. The ruminant wife waxes fat; her sailor husband (another Jack Sprat?) faces the dangerous "Mohammedans;' the circumcised ones, in their native Aleppo. We can't miss the black comedy of juxtaposing homey English chestnuts with the nameless, witch-tainted evil that lurks in the euphony of AAHL-LEP-PO; but I, confusingly, find it difficult to divorce the Aleppo of the "malignant and turban'd Turk" from its munchable pistachios. Author Affiliation: Melvin Seiden is an emeritus professor of English at the State University of New York at Binghamton.
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