Sunday, January 20, 2008

On Birds

"One should be light like a bird, not like a feather"

In Land and Sea, Schmitt makes an enigmatic claim: after the Leviathan and Behemoth, the rulers of the sea and the land, will kill one another in an apocalyptic struggle, a third monster which rules the sky will come to the fore. Agamben’s The Open begins with a curious analysis of an illustration found in a German bible from the second half of the 13th century. In the lower part of the picture you can see a depiction of the feast that will take place in the end of days. The guests of honor in this feast will be the righteous, which are depicted here with human bodies and animal heads. According to a Jewish tradition, the menu for this meal will consist of three legendary monsters depicted on the top of the page: the sea creature leviathan, the land creature behemoth, and the air creature ziz. But what stands behind these mystical allusions imbedded in the arguments of these two critical thinkers? What follows constitutes a precursory response.

First and foremost, the allusion to the frontispiece of Hobbes’ Leviathan is an obvious one. It is also important to note here that a book called Behemoth, published after Hobbes’ death, will identify the land monster with all the powers (mainly religious) that undermine the sovereign state, this great leviathan, thus bringing about the horrors of revolution and civil war. According to the Jewish tradition, it is impossible to oppose the might of leviathan and behemoth. All that you need to do is simply to wait: sooner or later, the two monsters will fight one another; a fight that neither will survive. Without lifting a finger, the righteous will then have the main course in their messianic symposium.

But there is here an element which Agamben fails to linger on. Who is ziz, this griffin? What is its symbolic power? In the economy of politics and theology, leviathan and behemoth, sea and land, what is the place of this bird? Here are a few preliminary possibilities.

The first clue comes from various iconographers who investigated numerous images in which trees and birds are placed one next to each other. Although you can find this link in different cultures, the Jews give it a specific content: the tree is the paradisiacal Tree of Life, and the bird is called chol. According to the legend, Eve gave all the animals in the garden to eat from the tree of knowledge, therefore deeming them to the same horrible fate that befell the human race (this is in opposition to the common belief, which is a central motif in Elsa Morante’s writings, that asserts the innocence of all non-human animals). There is only one exception: chol rejected the forbidden fruit, and so God granted the bird a sort of eternal life in Eden.

This peculiar legend is based on the great reverence the ancients had for birds of all kinds. Think, for example, about the role of the dove in the story of the deluge: the bird is the sole messenger of salvation to the rest of the living kingdom trapped inside Noah’s arc. Think also about the sacrifice during Abraham’s covenant with God: the sacrificial animals are cut into two parts, but there are also sacrificial birds which remain intact, as they fly around the altar. Saint Augustine explains this scene:

“Carnal beings are divided among themselves, whereas spiritual beings are in no way divided, whether, like the turtle-dove, they remove themselves from the busy world of human affairs, or, like the pigeon, pass their lives among them. Both of those birds, moreover, are simple and harmless, thus signifying that...there would be individual sons of the promise and heirs of the kingdom destined to continue in eternal felicity.”

One can therefore wonder whether the myth of Icarus and Dedalus should be understood merely as a story about the vanity that blinds us to the physical facts that bind mankind to the ground. Standing between Athens and Jerusalem, we may suggest that the point of the myth has nothing to do with the technical ability to fly, but with a strive to escape the perpetual war in the land and on the sea. This is the urge to a life in the open air (not in heaven) that neither leviathan nor behemoth can reach, which is the zone of ziz, the Jewish phoenix.

One can also wonder whether Deleuze’s “Lignes de fuite,” or “lines of flight” stand only for paths of escape. After all “fuite,” like “flight,” is inseparable from flying. Lines of flight are like birds’ flight. Or, as Nietzsche puts it, “Thoughts that come on doves’ feet guide the world.” But remember that Nietzsche, one of Deleuze's heroes, has another very important allusion to birds: the "birds of prey," which are his prime symbol of noble morality.

Perhaps the most beautiful chapter in the iconographic history of birds can be found in another illuminated Jewish manuscript, which is also believed to originate from Germany between the 13th and the 14th century. This is the Birds’-Head Haggadah at the National Library in Jerusalem. Like the image that interests Agamben, we also have here a depiction of humans with animal heads, only that here all the heads are of birds wearing a special hat that the Jews had to wear in public. Those Jews/birds are not only depicted in the end of days. Throughout the manuscript they represent figures (Abraham, Moses, etc.) enacting famous biblical passages. There are also depictions of Jews/birds going through the traditional rituals of Passover. But there are exceptions: the sun, the moon, the angels, and the king (Pharaoh) all have human faces.

If you bear in mind the rich symbolic meaning of the bird as we tried to delineate it so far, the subversive political-theological message emerging from this magnificent Haggadah needs little explication (and it surely had to be carefully guarded by the mediaeval Jews who read it every year). Nevertheless, after you stare at those images long enough, another iconic image comes to mind - the anti-semitic image of the Jews with their big, beak-like noses. Ruth Mellinkoff tried to claim recently that the Birds’-Head Haggadah was actually illustrated by anti-semitic Christian artists, and is therefore a proof to the endless oppression of the Jews who allowed themselves to be slandered in their own prayer books. I, however, would like to suggest the opposite: Maybe the origin of the anti-semitic depiction of the Jews is based on this hidden messianic Jewish image of a man with a bird head?

It is therefore fitting to conclude with the most powerful representation of birds in our time: the already classic Hitchcock film, The Birds. What the psychoanalysts will never understand is that, from an iconographic point of view, this film is not merely perverse, but deeply subversive. How should we therefore understand this story of those white bourgeois men and women who are attacked all of a sudden by those seemingly innocuous winged creatures? If we retain for a second the comparison between birds and Jews, then this film could very well be used as a Nazi propaganda. You can also think here about our fear today from those other semitic people, the arabs, who fly into our buildings without any warning.

But this is not the point that I am trying to make. I think that what really seems to arise from all the examples of birds in the history of mankind put forth above is a symbol of a new kind of power, potential power, that evades all traps, that escapes our earthly grasp. While for the coming community the bird is the obvious icon of hope, for the current, modern, capitalist, biopolitical society, this seemingly harmless creature is a secret source of horror.

1 comment:

robert said...

I have to say that I'm very glad yr blog has returned; your writing is some of my favorite on the net.

In fact, I have been meaning to send a message to you inviting you to submit something to the journal PERFORATIONS for the issue on the Inhuman, #31. I know you have perhaps many other reading/study projects but if perhaps you have a few notes on some even tangential topic it would be very warmly received.

You can find PERFORATIONS here: , click on

Thanks in advance for any consideration.
Robert Cheatham
senior editor/perf

(sorry for posting this in comments, couldn't find an email for you.)