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Poetics of the Flesh
By Mayra Rivera
Duke University PressCopyright © 2015 Duke University Press
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The Gospel of John
"The word became flesh" might well be the most remembered phrase of the gospels. "Word" gives "became flesh" a strange appeal. It joins the tangible and the intangible. It renders the real world evident and invisible. "It was thing and spirit both: the real/ world: evident, invisible," writes poet Marie Howe.
"Word became flesh" — or "verb became flesh," as I first learned it — continues to attract those attempting to think about corporeality in cultures influenced by Christianity. Poets and writers keep returning to this statement, even if doubtfully intrigued. "A word made flesh is seldom," Emily Dickinson observes. The statement also repels those who seek to liberate their intellectual traditions from the legacy of Christian thought. They are anxious that the word would imprison the flesh, making it a mere instrument of the Christian God. The phrase represents light for some and the "darkness of religion" for others — but its influence cannot be neglected.
I remain intrigued by the peculiar vitality of flesh in this ancient text — even when the subtle movements of this flesh are often swept away by gusts of metaphysical pronouncements. I note the places where those gusts directly impact the verses I read. But I do not follow their path. Instead I keep my eyes on the intricate qualities of flesh. And I assume flesh refers to all human flesh — and more. Some might object that the gospel does not authorize such a reading, that its visions are only for its own community, delimited by its reviled others — those who do not believe, do not understand, who are Jews. True. But I read with those who have read it as if it were speaking about all flesh, including their own, who have been moved and shaped by its poetics. I keep my eyes on the characterizations of flesh that disrupt, even if tentatively, the gospel's most restrictive impulses — and their ex-carnations.
The gospel's prologue draws from older biblical traditions, framing its account of the life of Jesus as an event of cosmic significance. It starts by turning back to the very beginning, to the point when the divine word creates — reminding readers of the creative word of God in the first chapter of the book of Genesis.
In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God. ... All things came into being through the word. ... What has come into being in the word was life, and the life was the light of all people. ... The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. ... And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen its glory.
Word, life, light, flesh, and glory ... Rather than a description of distinct species remembered from Genesis 1 — plants, birds, sea monsters — what is created is life itself. This life is also light — the first element called forth by God's word in Genesis 1. John's depiction of the light shining in darkness, neither overcome nor comprehended by darkness, evokes a statement in Genesis; namely that God "separated the light from the darkness." And the link between life and light would have been familiar to readers of the Wisdom of Solomon, where Wisdom (Sophia), the creative principle of God, is also depicted as God's radiance. But in the Gospel of John, these allusions to the creative word of God are followed by the announcement that the word became flesh. And immediately, one presumes simultaneously, the word is taking place among people and its radiance manifest as glory (doxa). Life, light, and glory appear as the word becomes flesh. Only in flesh. "Without ears to hear it, the Word remains unheard," Karmen MacKendrick observes, "and it seems that light too must become flesh as the very condition of its recognizability, its visibility, its shining." Thus in the flesh, the creative word becomes not only audible, but also visible and touchable.
Taken by itself, cut off from the creation stories that inspired it and from the images and events that follow, "word became flesh" could be construed as a simple progression: from a first principle, word, to the flesh. Or it could be read as describing the trajectory of word as a vector that touches flesh at one point, as a tangent touches a circle, to use Karl Barth's image. Perhaps readers are supposed to draw that line, as many have. But the verses just cited describe complex relationships between multiple elements — not just word and flesh — forming an intricate pattern of images that is hardly reducible to a single line. Word, life, light, flesh, and glory converge into and swerve from one another. As the narrative progresses, the gospel adds other elements to its poetic streams — water, bread, and blood. All of these elements circulate through the gospel narrative, moving, being exchanged, and transformed.
Attending to these patterns of relationship between the multiple elements in the gospel opens possibilities for richer interpretations of its flesh. Yet it is also easy to lose sight of flesh. I have found it necessary to mark the gospel's explicit references to flesh, as stepping-stones from which to observe its movements and transformations.
The discussion of the prologue already reveals the significance of flesh for the overarching argument of the gospel and by extension for Christian understandings of the body. In this most celebrated statement of the incarnation, there is no body (soma), only flesh (sarx). Indeed, the gospel uses the term "body" only in relation to the death of Jesus — its announcement and the descriptions of the actual event. While in this gospel body might be simply a corpse, flesh is unstable and complex. Flesh is what the word became (egeneto), but also what is born of the flesh: "What is born [gegennemenon] of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the spirit is spirit." A fixed boundary? Apparently not, or not so in any simple way, because those born of flesh are being called to be born of spirit. Thus not only does the word become flesh, but what became flesh will become spirit. The word is transformed as flesh and in the process flesh itself changes.
This is a well-known account of salvation as theosis (or theopoiesis). We remember it in Athanasius's terms, "God became man so that man can become God." Contemporary commentators of the Gospel of John often glance over "flesh" and read "man." Yet the distinct terms of the gospel's flesh evoke more elemental dimensions of life. The word became flesh so that flesh could become spirit — and bread.
Flesh — or his flesh — is also bread. Before establishing the link between bread and flesh, the gospel draws attention to the need to feed a hungry multitude. It then moves to a long speech about bread and life. Note how these elements seem to twirl around each other. Jesus talks about the "bread of God" (ho artos tou theou) that gives life to the world, "bread of life" (ho artos tes zoes), and "bread that lives" (ho artos ho zoe). The reader knows that the word is, contains, and gives life. Similarly this bread is, contains, and gives life. Indeed, the bread is the flesh that word became. In what has been aptly described as "the most shockingly sarctic language of the entire gospel," Jesus describes his flesh as bread given to be eaten. "The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." The prologue describes the confluence of word, life, flesh; here we are invited to contemplate the convergence of flesh, life, bread.
The circuitous statements about bread and life, bread and flesh, are easily channeled into the gospel's direct assertions: "I am the living bread that came down from heaven." It is tempting to take this as the real revelation. Why go through all the trouble of exploring the connections between bread, life, and flesh if we were given the answer to this riddle, namely that we have been talking about Jesus all along? But to skip over the images would flatten the gospel's elaborate characterizations and thus the distinctiveness of the text. Replacing the images and metaphors for a message deemed more important is, in other words, to dismiss the text's poetics, the impact of which derives from the intricate relation between the most common material elements and the strongest metaphysical assertions. The claim to be bread comes from the same Jesus who divided and multiplied bread and fish to feed a multitude. Surely, we are expected to interpret the hunger of the multitude and the food given as real. Still, readers are easily discouraged from contemplating common bread, most of all when it is said to be flesh. The text mocks a reductive reading of this passage, represented by the typically puzzled comments of the apostles, who focused only on the food that perishes. It also mocks those it problematically calls "the Jews" who focused on the bread from heaven and rejected its link to the son of Joseph. The characters represent differing views, both of which are presented as wrong. As I read them, their views are opposite sides of the same dichotomy, between this life — of common bread — and the life from heaven. And the reader may sense that the text would chastise anyone who fails to see the connection between flesh and bread, bread and life — we, the readers, who find all this material hard to digest. No wonder Rudolf Bultmann questioned the authenticity of these words.
And yet the text keeps insisting on the fleshy terms of its message — proceeding only to add blood to this depiction of life: "Very, truly, I tell you," Jesus reiterates, "unless you eat the flesh of the son of the human and drink his blood, you have no life in you. ... For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them." The images of Jesus dividing bread and fish merge with the distribution of his own flesh, divided and offered.
Flesh appears not as a self-contained mass, but as an element transformed as it is given. Like bread, flesh is shared, becoming part of many bodies, transformed into the very flesh of those bodies that partake from it. The exchange entails not only his flesh, but also the carnality of those invited to share in its life. If in the prologue word becomes flesh and appears in the midst of people — exposed — here we are invited to imagine it in the people — as food nurturing spiritual life.
The relevance of these verses exceeds definitions of flesh, but their strange carnal poetics is far from immaterial. The verses' offering of life has too often been received as an invitation to offer death — to all those who are not Christian, to the Jews — as a gift dependent on the exclusions of others. Those casted as spiritually dead can hardly escape embodied death. This history shall not be occluded. And we shall recall other less-known interpretations that open up the texts to give life to those who are excluded.
In 1514, Bartolomé de las Casas was already a priest when he converted, moved by seeing a connection that these verses suggest. In preparation for saying the Mass, he read in Ecclesiasticus 34, "Bread is the life of the poor." He concluded that the Eucharist could not be offered unless the Amerindians were freed. For the liberationist readers of las Casas, the bread offered in the Eucharist cannot be abstracted from the gifts of the earth and the labor that materializes in the bread. The Eucharist bread is at the same time the "substance of the Eucharistic offering" and the "fruit of common labor, exchanged among those who produce it," writes Enrique Dussel. An elemental materiality connects the bodies of workers with shared bread, with consecrated bread. These are not arbitrary metaphors — bread is produced by the labor of human hands and the fecundity of the earth. Sharing consecrated bread is a practice by which Christians receive and become the body of Christ. These practices overflow the boundaries of both symbolic and economic exchange.
Representing flesh as nourishing bread does not erase its connection with death, which is also described by referring to wheat. "Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." The death of Jesus is an ever-present reality in this narrative, which is told from the perspective of that death, and the potential death of its readers. Tat-siong Benny Liew reads flesh in John as a sign of the gospel's concern with vulnerability and death — comparable to Giorgio Agamben's notion of "bare life." For Liew this emphasis on death should be understood specifically in reference to the life of first-century Jews under colonial occupation, as "death-bound." The gospel is indeed haunted by impending death. But even if death is associated with the arbitrary conditions of imperial rule, it is still described through reference to well-known material processes, the ongoing exchange between individual things or bodies and the elements of organic life. This rhetorical approach risks naturalizing or spiritualizing contingent sociopolitical systems and thus legitimizing them. But foregrounding and analyzing how contingent human systems produce death should not lead us to forget that often those systems work by exacerbating corporeal vulnerability. In other words, seeing both the possibilities of life and vulnerability to death as embedded in material processes affected but not determined by human activity invites us also to explore the variety of forces that act on human bodies. Ancient communities, such as the one that produced the Gospel of John, were especially aware of this. Life and death are intertwined.
I have been referring to elements explicitly associated with flesh. And it is customary to proceed by contrasting flesh to spirit. Surely the gospel does so in straightforward terms: "It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless." The statement is puzzling for a gospel that says so much about the imbrication of flesh and life. And the apparent dichotomy might be rendered even more equivocal by comparing the gospel's descriptions of spirit with those of flesh. To do so, I trace the movements of water — which at crucial moments the gospel associates with spirit.
Flesh, bread, and life are in Jesus and given by him to his followers. In the process the flesh and bread seem to mutate — flesh is bread given, bread is life, wheat dies to gives fruit, and so on. Jesus's followers are in turn transformed by these elements — they come to have life in them. Water exhibits similar patterns of transformation and exchange. Initially, there is no indication that water might be anything but a common element. Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding, pleasing a celebrating crowd. This is Jesus's "first sign," a revelation of his glory. But transforming water into wine is a rather circuitous sign of glory. For what is the transubstantiation between such common elements supposed to reveal to those in search of the spirit? Does the fact that elsewhere in the gospel water stands for spirit give this transformation of water into wine any incarnational significance? Khalil Gibran imagines the bride deriving wisdom from the taste of wine, "The spirit of Jesus the Nazarene is better and more aged than any wine." The pleasures of good wine are a sign.
Water continues to flow and change through the gospel's narrative — at times lacking and yet overabundant. At the Samaritan well, Jesus asks for water. In contrast with his role as the leader feeding a multitude, at the well we find Jesus as a thirsty traveler. He needs water; he asks for water. There is no crowd here, just one woman. But as in the later story of the feeding of the multitude, a quotidian scene of tending to corporeal need gives way to elaborate discussions about life. Jesus asserts that he is the source of "living water." But he also claims that those who drink from his water will have it within them and become sources of living water. Similarly, at the feast of Tabernacles, Jesus says, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and drink," adding, "Out of the believer's heart will flow rivers of living water." The narrator here notes that Jesus is speaking of the spirit. As in the case of the speeches about bread, Jesus is, contains, and gives the water that transforms those who receive it. This spirit thus moves just like the flesh; its significance is revealed as the element is given and received.
The gestures of carnal and spiritual flow do not come to an end with Jesus's death. The motifs of flesh, blood, and water resurface at the crucifixion, when Jesus thirsts again and after drinking (wine) gives up his spirit. At this dramatic point Jesus says, "It is finished," and water and blood flow from his wounded side.
Excerpted from Poetics of the Flesh by Mayra Rivera. Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments vii
Introduction. Both Flesh and Not 1
Part I: Regarding Christian Bodies 15
1. Becoming Flesh: The Gospel of John 19
2. Abandoning Flesh: The Letters of Paul 29
3. Embracing Flesh: Tertullian 43
Part II: The Philosophers' (Christian) Flesh 55
4. Incarnate Philosophy 59
5. The Ends of Flesh 87
Part III: A Labyrinth of Incarnations 111
6. Inescapable Bodies 117
7. Carnal Relations 133
What People are Saying About This
"Mayra Rivera’s Poetics of the Flesh is an elegant exploration of the sensual, political, and theological fashioning of our materiality. Moving from ancient Christian texts to the most up to date material feminisms and postcolonial discourses, this book insistently returns us to the unsettled and elusive vitality of flesh even in the most unpromising theoretical contexts, and opens up the promise and possibility that our flesh, formed by those contexts, might through its practices change them in turn."
"Mayra Rivera has written a timely book, which brings to bear a novel notion of incarnation on matters of the flesh as a continually metamorphosing relational coexistence of matter and spirit, rhythm and texture, the epidermal and the cellular, the organic and the inorganic, the somatic and the carnal, and so on. Poetics of the Flesh charts a viscously embodied voyage from the Gospel of John and the writings of Tertullian to the more recent thought of Frantz Fanon, Luce Irigaray, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Édouard Glissant, and Judith Butler, in which Mayra Rivera reclaims the flesh as a pivotal site for the co-constitutive animation of body and world. In doing so, Rivera’s wonderful book makes indispensable contributions to postcolonial and religious studies, continental philosophy, and critical theory."