Saturday, January 25, 2014

25 January 2014

María Rosa Menocal [UCSC]

that stony landscape, fragrant with olive trees and sage brush, convulses with unnarratable inventions, the peaks of mystical and Gnostic subversions of each of the three great institutions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. At the same time — and again, remarkably, unaccountably, against each of the three great classical cultures — the strange new gods of vernacular poetries come to thumb their noses. It is not only that the troubadours were the secular masterpiece of a culture sated with the Heresy and eventually pillaged for it. It is also true that the Cathars were far from alone. They shared time and space and politics and basic beliefs with the Jewish kabbalists who created the great Kabbalah there and then, and, no less on any count, with the greatest of Muslim Sūfis, including Ibn ‘Arabī. None of them, in turn, were ever far from the many places where the three old and revered paternal languages were being shamelessly replaced or (perhaps worse still) made to dance to the rhythms of another.

A hint of the ultimately dizzying interweaving of all these strands can be gleaned from the minuscule and Byzantine story of the woman who became the wife of the young James II of Mallorca. The young James was assigned the equally young Ramon Llull as a tutor — a Ramon Llull whose first métier was as troubadour. Of course — lest stuck in our national language corners we forget — Llull’s Catalan is languedoc, and in this part of “Spain” that is the language spoken and sung — unless, like Llull, one became more than a poet and then, like him, one learned Arabic. In any case, the young woman is a refugee from the fierce war against the Albigensians, part of a diaspora that sent dozens of troubadours to Italy and most of the Jewish kabbalists to Spain, both with powerful historical repercussions. By all accounts (including the triumphant official ones) the war was unusually devastating and effectively razed that stony, fragrant landscape. But she was not just any young woman; she was from Montségur, the greatest of the houses of Perfects, the high and secret nobility of Cathars. Montségur was that great Albigensian stronghold whose bitterly sought fall in 1244 was “the last act of the Albigensian tragedy,” to quote Frances Yates.

What Yates also points out is that this charming connection is no doubt the “missing link” between the ever-enigmatic Llull (whose transition from troubadour to kabbalist-sounding mystic may now seem less unusual in our context) and the De divisione naturae of John Scotus Erigena, the ninth century text that Yates is sure provides a significant part of the basis of the most arcane of his theories, those that smack most of kabbalist notions. The De divisione naturae, it turns out, was not only a favorite book among the Albigenses; it had been banned by the Church precisely because it was assumed heretical given the kind of readership it had. As Yates points out (although her emphasis and intent is no doubt different from my own), piecing together this puzzle in a sense resolves “the other old problem” — which I left unbroached in the previous chapter — of whether Llull was “influenced” by the Jewish Kaballah, since the travels and fortunes of the text of the ninth-century, Greek-reading Irishman, Scotus Erigena, highlights the extent to which what flourished in languedoc, and was then scattered in the maelstrom, was a whole stable of “kabbalas.”

Back we are, then, to counting the ways in which the lyric’s birth takes place in radical exile.

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