Derrida's Gift of Death, chapter 2: "Beyond"
I was reminded again and again in the course of reading “The Secrets of European Responsibility” of a curious little paper by Francis Landy, titled “Tracing the Voice of the Other: Isaiah 28 and the Covenant with Death” (found in Exum and Clines, The New Literary Criticism and the Hebrew Bible, 140-62). Landy writes: “The primary symbol in the passage [verses 1-8 of Isaiah 28] is drunkenness. Drunkenness in Isaiah is a paradigmatically inane defence against death, as the carpe diem motif, ‘Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’ (Isa. 22.13), suggests. Drink fends off but also anticipates death, anaesthetizing fear and rendering the subject unconscious.” (p. 150) This fleshing out of drunkenness leans on her earlier articulation of poetry: “Poetry plays with alternative worlds, with the infinite combinations of sounds and images, with the transition between narcissistic omnipotence and the terror of finitude. It is a game with language and the world that constitutes preeminently a ‘transitional object,’ transitional between mother and child but also between union and separation. The spoken or unspoken other player in this game is death, not only in that poetry tries to make sense of the world despite death, nor in that it seeks immortality for our voices and our lived experience, but in that it passes between being and non-being, what can and cannot be said, the thought of being and the unthought.” (p. 142) At precisely that point, she adds in a footnote about Heidegger on poetry: “But if poetry marks a trace of the holy, it also sounds the knell of the philosophical subject.” (p. 142).
I think this nicely traces the contours of Derrida’s discussion of Patocka’s paper: in Plato, Europe makes a covenant with death, but in Christ, death makes a covenant with Europe. But let me take up Landy’s paper primarily as a kind of excuse for reading Derrida in an Isaianic idiom (without trying to get too involved with genealogies, it was in part my encounter with precisely the Isaiah passages I’ll take up below that gave birth to this curious Abraham seminar…). That is, following up on a comment I made perhaps a week ago, I’d like to think more carefully about the Isaian image of the seal.
Isaiah 8:16 nicely articulates Derrida’s/Patocka’s Heidegger in (I’ll leave this undecided) 1976/1967: “Bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples.” Gerhard von Rad takes this passage as the key to an important historical puzzle: when and why did the writing prophets begin writing? (His brilliant reading of this problematic is found in his section on First Isaiah in volume II of Old Testament Theology.) If von Rad does not thematize the act of sealing at any length, let me emphasize the importance of doing so in any serious attempt to grapple with the broader problem of Mormon theology (and I imagine we can all sense which of our four questions is at the center of my thinking this week).
David John Buerger opens his “history” of Mormon temple ordinances (The Mysteries of Godliness) with the claim that “Some time between June and November 1831, however, LDS salvation theology changed, tied to the 3 June 1831 conferral of High Priesthood on church elders.” (p. 2) He makes this change primarily a question of sealing: “This notion, when taken with key Book of Mormon passages, represented a departure from biblical precedent. In the New Testament, for example, the terms ‘to seal’ and ‘to place a seal on’ referred to the ancient practice of placing a wax or mud seal to close and protect a document from misappropriation.” (p. 3) He unfortunately then goes on to sum up the Book of Mormon references to sealing up a text as “obvious non-figural usages of the term.” (p. 4) But it seems pretty easy to sense in Buerger’s approach a (rather common) presupposition that does a great deal of violence to the meaning of the Book of Mormon in the Restoration: the Book of Mormon, as a sealed text, is precisely a question of sealing the fathers and the children (according to what is usually dubbed the “Nauvoo theology”). The title page itself makes this clear, since, in all rigor, there the Book of Mormon is first and foremost written “to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever,” only secondarily---“also” is the term the title page itself uses---“to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST.” Nor is one justified in reading some kind of distance in the “Nauvoo theology” from textuality, translation, or writing: “It may seem to some to be a very bold doctrine that we talk of---a power which records or binds on earth and binds in heaven. Nevertheless, in all ages of the world, whenever the Lord has given a dispensation of the priesthood to any man by actual revelation, or any set of men, this power has always been given. Hence, whatsoever those men did in authority, in the name of the Lord, and did it truly and faithfully, and kept a proper and faithful record of the same, it became a law on earth and in heaven, and could not be annulled, according to the decrees of the great Jehovah. This is a faithful saying. Who can hear it?” (D&C 128:9)
But polemics aside, what of sealing---of Heidegger as a “book that is sealed,” of the purloined letter as sealed despite its broken seal (or really, its two broken seals), of Isaiah and the Book of Mormon as sealed, of Abraham’s facsimiles and even text as sealed, of families and covenants as sealed, etc.? But collapsing the sharp (ultimately historical) distinction between sealing documents and sealing covenants/people, might we not pave the way to some real work on what constitutes a uniquely Mormon theology? At the very least, we would thereby be laying the foundation of a theology devoted primarily to the two extremes that temporally define the prophetic work of the prophet Joseph: on one extreme, an angel with a text; on the other extreme, the “family kingdom.”
…Even as I would appear, I think, to leave off much of Derrida’s discussion, let me argue that I am hardly doing so. The “thought-through” (that is, impossible) Christianity Patocka pines for is precisely, I would suggest (but would anyone else here?), what began in 1820 in the Sacred Grove (and I don’t, by that, mean the Church, but the Kingdom). And if we can agree with Derrida about much of what he has to say about the mysterium tremendum---and I do, for now---then we might suggest that death has indeed made a covenant with Europe (or with Ephraim). That is, the impossible gift is being given in every temple we’ve built (gift: endowment), and it is being given in much the manner Derrida is describing. And that gets me thinking about two comments from the recent PBS special on Mormonism, one from Terryl Givens about the temple as a kind of vehicle for total reconstitution, and one from Harold Bloom about Joseph Smith’s Mormonism being the only religion that really aims at fully conquering death as such. But this preface is already twice as long as my entire post should have been…
At least this can be said of the sealed as such: the sealed is the epistolary (and the secret, the tremendum, as Derrida will say at the beginning of chapter 3). The Book of Mormon is a prime example. Written to the Lamanites and sealed up. And, as we are all quite aware, it remains a sealed text: two-thirds, they say, of the text has never been cracked. But what of the part we have read? Are we not simply reading the address of an epistle? The Book of Mormon, as we read it today, is precisely the seal (that is, the signature) and the address on the outside of a letter to the Lamanites (given: the address and seal are quite lengthy!). What in the Book of Mormon is profoundly public---all that has been published---is given to the Gentiles as to a carrier: the Gentiles have the task of working out (and in some detail!) the address, of making sense of the seal and the address, and then of delivering the text up to those who will break the seal and read the contents (and whether or not the addressees desire to share those contents with the Gentiles will be entirely up to them). (And we do not even begin to address here the question of having to translate the address/seal, etc.) And what is clearest, perhaps, of all in that seal and that address is that this is a letter written by the fathers and for the children, written precisely to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers (written: an act that can only be described as the turning of the hearts of the fathers to the children; and an act that can only be brought to completion in the turning of the hearts of the children to the fathers).
Hence, the epistolary, the sealed letter: a binding or welding link between the fathers (according to the covenant) and the children (according to the covenant), delivered “by way of the Gentiles,” the Platonic. (Joseph Smith as hermeticist, as translator: a Westerner trying to make sense of the Eastern---trying to translate characters of ancient date---in an attempt to retreat from the Western, to retreat from the Platonic, in what has been called, by Marvin Hill, a Quest for Refuge….) The absurd, as a kind of call (Nephi tells us that the deaf will hear the word of the book, remember), passes through the public---that is, ethical (in Kierkegaard’s sense)---sphere as a trace, as an address and a seal, being carried from one to another precisely by the individual, the citizen, the Platonist, the European, the Gentile. The text, sealed up and sent, comes as a message, a messenger, true messengers, fathers or angels with/by a book (or a letter, taking especially into account the theme of “the end of the book and the beginning of writing” in all its ambiguities).
But too many themes are converging here. In a word: Mormon theology as an epistolary theology?