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King Lear and the Naked Truth
Rethinking the Language of Religion and Resistance
By Judy Kronenfeld
Duke University Press Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Comely Apparel and the Naked Truth: Metaphor and Common Christian Culture
"Clothing" is a convenient metaphor (in Lévi-Straussian terms, "good to think with") for working through some of the major oppositions in Western thought such as nature versus culture, wisdom versus eloquence, the literal versus the figurative, object versus sign. Such broad dichotomies are bipolar; as Derek Attridge observes, crediting Derrida, they "do not and cannot function as stable, given, mutually exclusive oppositions, of which one member is simply primary and self-sufficient and the other secondary, exterior, and dependent." Indeed, the valences of such terms as "naked" or "natural" and the analogies built on them are always manipulable and relative—but always within certain cultural parameters. Each term or its opposite may be the "superior" one, depending on the particular paradigmatic contrast at issue (for example, "nakedness" may be better than "false" but worse than "decent" covering), and depending on the particular referents involved (for example, the "truth"—figured as a naked woman—is valued differently than an actual naked woman in Bedlam or on the street). To take a major Renaissance and Christian instance: nature, when understood as the God-given, as God's handiwork (analogous to nakedness as primal innocence), is superior to culture or art, understood as human traditions or institutions (analogous to clothing as "polluted" or deceitful). On the other hand, nature, when understood as fallen, perverted, or weak (analogous to shameful nakedness) is inferior to culture, art, discipline, or grace, understood as the supplier, repairer, or rectifier of nature (and analogous to clothing as decent necessity, or essential protection).
Such terms as "naked" or "clothed" are indeed positively or negatively valenced in the mainstream and on the fringes of Judeo-Christian culture as a whole. To give a sense of that multivalence, we'll begin with a brief sketch of the "naked" and "clothed" within Jewish and Christian culture in Greco-Roman times, and glance, as well, at nakedness and clothing in certain fringe religious movements of the sixteenth century. Then we'll focus on a detailed examination of these terms in central Reformation religious controversy, illustrating not only their flexibility and relativity within cultural parameters, but their culturally meaningful systematicity as well.
In part because the Jews sought to distinguish themselves from the pagan world of license where nakedness was routine in gymnasia and baths, there is "an enormous gap between Greek and Jewish attitudes towards the body," as Frank Bottomley indicates. In the Old Testament, after the Fall, nakedness is "related to poverty, destitution and exposure"; it is "a metaphor for complete vulnerability," "related to "subjective shame" and to "objective humiliation." In Leviticus, "the concept of nakedness seems to take on a special, almost technical, meaning" and "is particularly associated with incestuous and other unlawful sexual activity in the phrase 'to uncover his/her nakedness/" In fact, "nakedness' becomes almost synonymous with genitalia.'" "Conversely, ... clothes are related to status, honour and dignity," as well as associated with "protection and love." In his allegory of Jerusalem as ultimately unfaithful wife, Ezekiel describes how God "spread [his] skirt over [her]" and "covered [her] nakedness" when she was "naked and bare" (Ezekiel 16:8; 16:7), clothing her with "broidred work ... fine linen ... and silk" and decking her "with ornaments" — "bracelets," "a chain," "a frontlet," "earrings," and "a beautiful crown" (Ezekiel 16:10-12).
However, even in the Old Testament, clothing is not always a good; such glittering fineries may also be associated with the false allure of harlots and idols. "Thou didst take thy garments, and decked thine high places with divers colours, and played the harlot thereupon.... Thou hast also taken thy fair jewels made of my gold and of my silver, which I had given thee, and madst to thy self images of men, and didst commit whoredom with them" (Ezekiel 16:16-17). Somewhat rarer is the use of nakedness as a symbol of spiritually significant experience, or "religious ecstasy," as for example, when "the Spirit of God came upon [Saul]," and "he went prophesying.... And he stripped off his clothes, and he prophesied also before Samuel, and fell down naked all that day and all that night" (1 Samuel 19:23-24).
As Peter Brown shows in The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, Christianity gradually brought about a new sensibility to nudity in the late classical world. "Nudity and sexual shame" had been "questions of social status." "The way people felt about being naked, or seeing others naked, depended to a large extent on their social situation." Social superiors were immune from "sexual shame" and could move about naked "without a trace of ... shame in front of their inferiors," while those at the bottom of the social scale (such as the womenfolk of the poor), as "civic 'non-persons,' " had "no right to sexual shame." Early Christianity, in contrast, generally emphasized the "somber democracy of sexual shame," the "universal vulnerability of the body, to which all men and women were liable, independent of class and civic status."
However, apart from the mainstream, in the early Christian ascetic movements, the positive symbolic signification of nudity as innocence and freedom from sin was exploited. Insofar as the participants regarded life "in a body endowed with sexual charactertistics," "all present notions of identity tied to sexual differences, all social roles based upon marriage, procreation, and childbirth," as "the last dark hour of a long night that would vanish with the dawn," they could even practice nudity because of their exemption from its temptations. The imagery of divesting oneself of old garments was already tied to baptism, the "rite of entry into the church," which enacted "an explicit stripping off of the distinguishing marks on which the hierarchy of ancient society depended," and emblematized the "primal, undifferentiated unity" of believers. Thus, among the Encratites of the second and third centuries, who advocated strict continence for all the men and women of the Christian church, "baptism was presented as a rite of effective desexualization." When "the initiates stepped naked into the baptismal pool," they were understood "to have put off the sexualized garments' of their old body," and become "like little children." "The cold water cancelled out the hot fire that had given them birth. Into this water, the Holy Spirit descended, wrapping the person in a robe of glory."
While there clearly were positive symbolic meanings of nakedness for the early sects, and in the church's rite of baptism, on the other hand, the charge of lewd nakedness, even from early times, often accompanied charges of gross immorality or sorcery (as it did much later on in the case of accusations against radical sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sects—about which we will hear more in chapter 4). The ascetic Priscillian, bishop of Avila, tortured and put to death by imperial order at Trier in 385 because of occult activities, confessed, "under judicial examination, ... to his interest in magical studies, to having held nocturnal gatherings of (loose) women, and to having prayed naked [that is, to 'Adamianism']. The juxtaposition of the charges was surely intended to insinuate ... that, in what was believed to be Manichee fashion, these activities had gone on at one and the same time and place." As an anomalous state in a culture generally stressing sexual shame, nakedness clearly partakes of the potential of both the profane and the sacred.
The multivalence of voluntary nakedness and of fine clothing may be observed again in the stories of sixteenth-century messianic leaders like John of Leyden (Jan Bockelson), the messianic and militant ruler of Minister in the early sixteenth century. As Norman Cohn indicates, Bockelson's first religious and political act was to run "naked through the town in a frenzy and then [fall] into a silent ecstasy which lasted three days," but afterward he dressed in the magnificent clothes suitable to his special status as king of an egalitarian paradise on earth. Bockelson "explained that pomp and luxury were permissible for him because he was wholly dead to the world and the flesh. At the same time he assured the common people that before long they too would be in the same situation, sitting on silver chairs and eating at silver tables, yet holding such things as cheap as mud and stones." As Cohn also remarks, the "illiterate young slater of Antwerp called Loy Pruystinck," who was instrumental in spreading the doctrine of "Spiritual Liberty" —a messianic doctrine of the "Free Spirit" —over the Low Countries and France from about 1525 until it was suppressed in 1544, "as though to symbolize at once his vocation of poverty and his claim to a supreme dignity, dressed in robes cut as rags but also sewn with jewels." Naked poverty is worthy and holy, yet gorgeous apparel is a symbol of dignity and worth.
Broadly speaking then, in the Judeo-Christian tradition as a whole, spiritual worth, innocence, or a state of grace may be powerfully symbolized by nakedness as well as by the wearing of fine clothing and adornments; shame and degradation may be powerfully signaled by nakedness as well as by excessive adornment. It does appear that the shamefulness of nakedness and the worth of appropriate or comely apparel is somewhat more stressed in Scripture and historical situation than the glory of "the naked truth" and evils of adornment—even if one allows for the New Testament imagery of, and Reformation Protestant emphasis on, various versions of "the naked truth." Nevertheless, the meanings and evaluations of nakedness and fine clothing do depend on what each contrasts with and refers to in particular texts and cultural situations. It is this relativity—which is really the intrinsic relativity of language per se—that allows people to agree on abstract issues and on values, and thus talk to one another, while concretely disagreeing. And it is with such abstract agreement and concrete disagreement that Reformation religiopolitical opponents discuss church ceremonies and doctrines pertinent to church ceremonies—in arguments in which clothing figures saliently as actuality and metaphor. Like any argument, those between Protestant conformists and nonconformists about "clothing" and "nakedness" in the church depend on those areas of agreement as well as of disagreement. Christian culture (especially because it is based on shared sacred texts, overlapping interpretive traditions, and shared values encoded in those texts) permits an abstract theoretic agreement on statements of the type "Everyone should be properly dressed." It may even permit agreement on the referents and paradigmatic contrasts of "properly dressed" when it is used outside the area of controversy. However, when that concept or term is metaphorically extended to the areas of clerical dress, or of "dressing" the church, or of church doctrine, there is disagreement on the meaning relations within which it functions; that is, with which opposed concepts "properly dressed" contrasts in some particular usage (for example, with "overdressed" or with "underdressed"). There is similar disagreement on the concrete reference of terms; that is, on which specific attire is to be seen as an actual instance of "properly dressed."
The Multivalence and Systematicity of Clothing Metaphors in Reformation Controversy
The metaphors of "the naked truth" and "decent and comely apparel" are used throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in religious controversy about ceremonies, and modern scholars themselves use these metaphors as analytic categories. Here, for example, is the contemporary author of a standard work on theology and worship, who identifies Puritan nonconformists with a preference for the naked truth:
Yet for [the Puritans] all these Anglican delights were compromises with Roman Catholicism, debilitating distractions ... outward shows as pretty and irrelevant as carousels, the otiose gilding of the lily and the varnishing of sunlight.... When they came to build their own meeting houses, the houses were scrubbed, white, bare, as austerely naked as the soul should be in the sight of God, stripped of all its disguises and pretensions.
The Elizabethan divine Richard Hooker describes the Puritan position in similar terms, although he takes issue with it. "Suppose we that God himself delighteth to dwell sumptuously, or taketh pleasure in charge able pomp? No, then was the Lord most acceptably served, when his temples were rooms borrowed within the houses of poor men. This was suitable unto the nakedness of Jesus Christ and the simplicity of his Gospel." And roughly contemporary reformers or Puritans identify themselves with the metaphor of the naked truth.
The figurative priesthood as a shadow was perfected and ended in Christ, the one and only Priest. All they therefore that call again Aaron's apparel into the church dishonor Christ's priesthood, as though being the light itself he needed shadows....
... Why do we not ... in all things obey Christ, contenting ourselves with his naked and simple truth?
For there are some which think Christ too base to be preached simply in himself, and therefore mingle with him too much the wisdom of man's eloquence, and think that Christ cometh nakedly, unless clothed with vain ostentation of words. Others esteem him too homely, simple and unlearned, unless he be beautified and blazed over with store of Greek or Latin sentences in the pulpits: some reckon of him as solitary, or as a private person without honor and pomp, unless he be brought forth of them very solemnly, accompanied and countenanced, with the ancient guard of the fathers and doctors of the Church to speak for him: or else must he be glozed out and painted with the froth of philosophy, poetry or such like.
On the other hand, the Anglicans or conformists are commonly identified (and identify themselves) with the metaphor of decent and comely apparel. Hooker says "there is no necessity of stripping sacraments out of all such attire of ceremonies as man's wisdom hath at any time clothed them withal" (LEP, 5.65.3, in Works, 2:319). Donne argues in terms of apparel for the use of rich or set forms in religion: "Beloved, outward things apparel God; and since God was content to take a body, let us not leave him naked, nor ragged." He goes even further than such arguments, requiring for the church an "outward splendor," "a comeliness in the outward face, and habit thereof." "Be the King's Daughter all glorious within; Yet, all her glory is not within; for, Her clothing is of wrought gold, says that text. Still may she glory in her internal glory, in the sincerity, and in the integrity of doctrinal truths, and glory too in her outward comeliness, and beauty" (Sermons, 8:165 [no. 6]). Hooker's comely apparel may also be quite sublime:
Touching God himself, hath he any where revealed that it is his delight to dwell beggarly? And that he taketh no pleasure to be worshipped saving only in poor cottages? Even then was the Lord as acceptably honoured of his people as ever, when the stateliest places and things in the whole world were sought out to adorn his temple. This most suitable, decent, and fit for the greatness of Jesus Christ, for the sublimity of his gospel. (LEP, 5.15.3, in Works, 2:53)
Yet, in spite of these apparent and clear differences with regard to the subject of proper "clothing" in the church, the clothing metaphor used by these opposed groups actually shares an underlying semantic structure. The usage of the metaphor is constrained in some shared, definable ways, even if the overall emphases differ: that is, even if each group tends to employ different contrast sets and referents—out of the implicitly accepted pool.
For now, then, let us consider what they share: certain ideas about proper clothing per se, if not about the proper "dothing" of the church. (After all, in a debate, each side is trying to win over members of a common audience.) Of all the possible positive functions of dothing, both sides recognize the function of a comely and protective covering for nakedness—which may mean a decent covering that avoids the shamefulness of immodesty, or a covering nice enough to avoid the shamefulness of beggarliness. (The meanings of "comely" include "decent" ["proper," "seemly," "sober," "decorous," or "appropriate"] as well as "nice" ["fair," "pretty"].) Of all the possible negative functions of clothing, both sides recognize its potential uncomely use, when it is too inappropriately "mean," or too scant or immodest, or even wantonly superfluous, misleading, or deceitful, like the alluring "clothing" of prostitutes or idols—in which case the bare truth would indeed be preferable. The basis of the clothing metaphor, then, as employed in Reformation religious controversy, is an implicit agreement that clothing may be uncomely and that the absence of clothing would be indecent, and that both uncomely clothing and indecent nakedness are to be avoided. James I's description of the causes for God's invention of ordinary secular garments recognizes the exact same functions: "to hide our nakedness and shame; next and consequently to make us more comely, and thirdly, to preserve us from the injuries of heat and cold." James also warns of similar potential abuses: "If to hide our nakedness and shameful parts, then these natural parts ordained to be hid, should not be represented by any undecent forms in the clothes: and if they should help our comeliness, they should not then by their painted preened fashion, serve for baits to filthy lechery."
Excerpted from King Lear and the Naked Truth by Judy Kronenfeld. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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