Monday, May 14, 2018


 Here's my paper which I wrote for  a class on travel literature in the 1600s at the Santa Fe campus of the Breadloaf School of English in 2000. Seems like an appropriate time to share this!


In addition to this act of penitence and grace, the journey to Jerusalem also held deep mystical and legendary meaning for medieval men and women, for the scared city was believed to be the center of the world, the omphalos or navel, the scared hub of the world's orb. At the same time, it was the ideal of the sacred city - for Jerusalem was both the center of Christian history, the stage of Christ's redemptive sacrifice and resurrection, and the end of all history.
(From the Introduction, Guide to the Holy Land, Theoderich - Ithica, 1986)

Guide to the Holy Land is a medieval guidebook written by Theoderich, a German monk of the 12th century. It is a text that explores the sacred geography of Jerusalem, and allows us, as contemporary readers, to follow some of the ideologies, stories and sights important to a twelfth century Christian pilgrim. We are led, in this process, through the pathways of mediaeval Christian constructions of Jerusalem as a holy city, and end up with a virtual tour of a hyperreal space built out of exclusions, ahistoricism, mythic realism and nostalgia. Following the constructions of space throughout this text is akin to a guided tour to the appropriation of Jerusalem for Christianity.

Written in the detail-oriented language of the guidebook, the text is bare of emotions, and except for the rare spiritual epiphany, does not allow the narrator to interject his subjectivity. The book focuses exclusively on the spatial and architectural aspects of the city, leading people up and down buildings, churches, historical sites, stories and relics with the same dispassionate interest. While the text is very clearly a guidebook, it is written in a style that hails the reader as a pilgrim present, virtually, in the space as Theoderich leads ahead through the alleyways and city boundaries of the Holy Land. In the prologue, Theoderich writes: "This we have done in order that, according to the best of our ability, we may satisfy the desires of those who are unable to proceed there in describing those things that they cannot see with their own eyes and hear with their ears." The text, then, is a virtual tour, inscribing within its words the sacredness of the architecture, and leading people on a tour through the process of reading. 

The Twelfth Century Renaissance, which led to a renewed interest in the classics, as well as re-readings of the Bible, meant Theoderich was addressing a well read audience, familiar with aspects of the Bible. It was believed that through the act of pilgrimage, people could reenact the sufferings of Christ and gain redemption. In addition, there was a resurgence of popular spirituality, with interests in the relics of saints. Medieval pilgrims re-enacted the suffering of Jesus and of the saints by thronging to major pilgrimage sites. Jerusalem was the most popular. For people who might not be able to make the actual physical trip, the guidebook served as a metaphorical journey, one that brought alive the sights and sounds of a space of sacred cosmology.

The book leads us into the maze of buildings, providing us an exhaustive and omniscient tour. A description of The Church of the Holy Sepulchur, takes us, step by step, through its importance, a historical note of its royal patron, its shape, its orientation, its exterior and interior frameworks, each door, the sepulchur, the altar, the paintings that adorn and illustrate each Biblical event that is believed to have taken place in that altar. The minute details of mosiac, gilt and gilded crosses function to heighten the sense of realism that pervades the description. The architecture, in this way, becomes constructed as a natural frame to contain the scriptures, reproduced in the forms of quotations, which reiterate, again and again, the death of Christ and his suffering.

The earthly Jerusalem was clearly not the heavenly Jerusalem, built out of jewels and twelve pearly gates. And yet pilgrimage to the earthly Jerusalem, envisioned to be the center of the world, was seen by many to lead them to a vision of the heavenly city, fulfilling the prophecies of the Apocalypse. The apocalyptic visions were translated, at this particular point in history, by the first Crusaders, who had occupied the city. This military presence and occupation is never mentioned by Theoderich, except in oblique references. This piece of selective exclusion, we can assume, was either because Theoderich presumed that his audience would know about the Crusades already or because he did not want to draw attention to irregularities in his carefully drawn picture of a naturalized Christian space.

Besides the heavenly and the earthly Jerusalems, then, we can posit a third one: the hyperreal Jerusalem. As defined by Baudrillard, the hyperreal is when an image no longer has a referent, no longer has any connection with any basic reality - it becomes it own pure simulacrum. This simulacra, or copy, has no reality behind it, other than its own. In Theoderich's account, we see this construction of a hyperreal Jerusalem, see this as clearly as if it were being drawn in front of our eyes, with the words and images of Biblical references, with the selective omissions of other religious groups, with the minute awareness to physical details that eradicate all other realities. The city stops being an idealized space drawn on the moorings of the ideological frameworks of Christianity, and starts to take off as a pure simulacra.

The guidebook is constantly constructing and reconstructing a perfect Jerusalem. The construction of space that occurs throughout the guidebook, drawing mainly from legendary stories from the Bible, shows us how Theoderich spatially takes over the city for Christianity. This is a city which has been woven out of the tangled threads of many histories for centuries, moves in and out of conflicting versions of history. By eradicating all political, economic and religious ambiguities, and highlighting very simple narratives taken from the Bible, Theoderich manages to construct an elegantly reductive version of history, using the architecture as "proof" and historical evidence of their actual occurrence. The ordering of space, in this way, becomes linked to the ordering of a atemporal History. This epistemological takeover of the city for Christianity  becomes a symbolic part of the Crusades, even though the author refuses to draw a linkage to his ostensibly spiritual project, and their "political" one.

Theoderich, drawing upon the historical understandings of his time, places Jerusalem at the center of the world. The world, envisioned as a mandala-like circle, places Asia at the top, Europe at the bottom, and Jerusalem at the center of this circle. The orientation of this map reflects the importance people put on the centrifugal energy that drew and attracted all sources of power to the Holy Land. Readers, thus, are interpollated as pilgrims, real or virtual, present or potential, into this religious and spiritual mapping of geographical space.

Like all pilgrims, they needed a guide, a map, a bounded route and a translator in order to show them the correct path, and to dechiper the meanings of unfamiliar signs and symbols. By serving as guide, Theoderich not only creates the itinerary of the pilgrimage and determines the pathways the potential pilgrims will take, but he also has a hand in the policing of meaning that goes with any act of translation. As the authority on the boundaries of the Holy Land, he has authoritarian control in deciding which monument is important enough to be on the tour, why a relic has meaning, why a certain sight should be illustrated with that story, and not any other. In the introduction, we are told that his guidebook was one of a kind, an eyewitness, personalized account unusual for the time. His striking emphasis and knowledge of architecture - which has led people to hypothesize that he might have had some training in the field - and his usage of it as "material proof" and rack on which to hang certain mythic stories, shows as the power the author has in shaping meaning even in a seemingly innocuous genre like a guidebook.

Architecture, in Theoderich's hand, becomes conflated with Evangelical significance and meaning. The architecture is used to reproduce a specific ideology of Christianity - Jesus was murdered by the Jews, he suffered, and this is all inscribed in the rooms, the steps, the mundane details of the buildings. In the very first chapter, we learn that two Roman princes have driven out the "murderers" of Christ out of their own land to live among foreigners, and many of the names of places have been changed.

We are given no information about any conflicting claims on religious monuments made by the large Jewish and Muslim populations living within the city. Jerusalem's sacredness has been appropriated by Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups for their own ideological purposes for millenia, but we only get oblique references to this, as in the story of the Temple of Solomon, which is built and razed and rebuilt through successive regimes of Christians and Jews. This careful construction of boundaries, architecturally and symbolically, around the terrain of meaning sets up an invisible wall around the dangerous Other, who are never addressed except as passive background figures, or dangerous infidels -  potential but containable threats.  

The emphasis on spatial clarity and organization, ironically, also functions to obfuscate the complex political and economic structures of the Holy Land. Jerusalem, as a trading city, located in the crossroads of commerce, was mined with economic and political interests. In the introduction, we are told that the pilgrims often came back loaded with trade goods, including slaves, that would offset their travel expenses, but we are not told who they traded with. What were the sectarian linkages in that time and place? Who traded with whom, and for what purpose? All of this is obfuscated, and lost, in the myriad of small details that make up the image of a land replete with buildings, and absent of human presence.

Nostalgia, according to Baudrillard, assumes its full meaning when the real is no longer what it used to be. As Jerusalem was stirred by the turmoils of the Crusades, the moral line between right and wrong, between the oppressors and victims must have become muddier. Could the Christians have avoided internal moral questionings as they tried to take possession of the city, bringing conflict and a military regime to the Holy Land? It is in this moment of crisis, when the holiness of the land, made sacred by Christ's suffering, threatens to disappear under the suffering of the ostensible "oppressors", that the reality principle must have become less absolute. And it is in this moment of crisis when there is the clearest imperative for nostalgia, for bringing up the loss of what used to be, but perhaps never was. It is, in this moment, that it is most important to ressurect the figurative, and this is what Theoderich does with such immense power.

His guidebook, in this way, comes alive with the myths of the Bible. We are told about the cradle where Christ used, we are given Mary's lock of hair, we are shown the Cross on which he died. There is no way to refute the materiality of such absolute evidence. In fact, the mythical figures are much more vivid, present and alive than the real human beings who live and farm in the land at that moment in time. Nostalgia, again is in evidence, through this fetishization of the lost object. A nostalgic sacredness is constructed by privileging of this mythological history. This privileging serves a double function by inflicting symbolic violence against the Other until they are virtually erased, while at the same time heightening the "reality" of the Biblical tales. By making the Jews invisible, and voiceless, for instance, he can them proceed to tell miraculous tales like the one where the Jew who tries to tear Mary's shroud from her dead body sees his arms wither without loss of realism. Architectural solidity forms an unshakable foundation for the miracles.
  Jerusalem, in this narrative act, turns into a clean museum, a theme park of Christianity. The Holy Land is captured and memoralized as a trendy and fashionable relic through the preservationist attempts of the text. It is a city consisting of a few iconic buildings. There is no cityscape, no bazzars, no life beyond that of the ones that Theoderich selectively maps onto his bounded space. Even the peripheral cities, which are given some marginal afterthought, seem to appear only in order to validate the center. The outsiders who are recognized, are placed within the proper place in the hierarchy within the map of Christianity. It is a text that manages, every effectively, to control its alien Others through a ethnocentric and Eurocentric frame.

Pilgrimage, a seemingly innocuous cultural phenomena, was used as a process of staking a claim, and putting up boundaries, around a spiritual center. The military regime protected the pilgrims that moved about the city. Pilgrims, by becoming part of the symbolic landscape, validate the sanctity of geography, and also gave a reason for militarization. Human beings were needed in order to stake a claim to possession, whether spiritual, religious or economic, and pilgrims fulfilled these function in mass, voluntary numbers. The Holy Land, in addition to other material resources, also lay claim to producing holiness - a commodity that could produce spiritual benefits to the one doing the consuming, and therefore, worth fighting for.

Theoderich ends as he began - with no definitive beginning, or closure. His is a truncated account, with no explanation of the process of arriving and leaving. His interest in pilgrimage as an unmediated interaction between the Holy Land and the pilgrim, points to his belief that spiritual development is attainable without mediation. As a universalized, complete, definitive, text on the Holy Land, his book provides a self help guide in that direction. His text closes with a reiteration of his original purpose: that the mind of the pilgrim might awaken with love for Christ with the knowledge gained about the Holy Land. The circularity, and echoing of purpose, in some way points to a non-linear framework where time has not progressed,  and re-echoes his view of an atemporal historical space within his narrative.

The function of a travel narrative is often to create a fabulous world that prepares people for a material reality. Through expectation, people come to demand what has been given to them virtually. By this subtle act of claiming - through nostalgia, and through an ending of history - Theoderich stakes a claim on Jerusalem for Christianity, and in the process delegitimizes the claims of all other groups on its physical and symbolic terrain. 

I wrote this paper for "TRAVEL LITERATURE THROUGH THE 1600s," which I took during a summer at the Santa Fe Campus of the Breadloaf School of English in 2000.


No comments: