‘Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?’ – Lady Macbeth
In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas addresses the problem of the vials of Christ’s blood so plentifully held in reliquaries across Europe. If Christ ascended bodily to heaven, he asks, then where did all this blood come from? Was it left behind when he rose, ascending to heaven bloodless and dessicated as a Eucharistic wafer? No, Aquinas says: rather, ‘the blood preserved as relics in some churches did not flow from Christ’s side, but is said to have flowed miraculously from some image of Christ when struck’. It was not enough, it seems, for Christ to die for our sins once: if we are to have his blood the violence must be visited upon him over and again.
Elsewhere Aquinas considers the ways in which the Eucharistic blood of Christ might be corrupted. What is to be done, he asks, if the blood of Christ is poisoned by a person seeking to murder the priest (like an overzealous employee with a risk assessment form, Aquinas’ concern here is not why somebody might want to poison a priest but the question of how procedure might properly be followed if such a circumstance were to arise)? What if it is spilt on an altar cloth or on the ground? Aquinas’ answer is straightforward, if surprising: if an insect falls into the chalice after the wine has been consecrated ‘the insect should be caught carefully and washed throughout, then burned, and the ablution, together with the ashes, thrown into the sacrarium. If it be discovered that the wine has been poisoned … it ought to be kept in a suitable vessel with the relics’. The sacredness of Christ’s body is made permanent precisely insofar as it has been violated.
Anidjar argues that the blood of Christ shed for us was not, as Girard thought, the end of violence but merely its new beginning in a world in which the confession of sin both brings to consciousness the violence upon which every society is founded and immediately washes it away in the purifying blood of Christ. This atonement, as the Calvinists know, is universal in theory but limited in practice. Christ, Anidjar says, ‘is the difference between innocence and guilt as the basis of human society, the difference across humanity between the old and guilty (humans) and the new and innocent (Christians).’ Where Constantine and Augustine hesitated on the threshold of baptism for fear of wasting their one chance at forgiveness, eventually the Church realised that the blood of Christ is all-but inexhaustible; to gloss St Jerome, he that is once washed white in Christ need never wash again.
Yet this remarkable and inexhaustible power of the blood of Christ is, as Aquinas knew so well, exceptionally vulnerable to corruption. Just one drop of black bile (for the Middle Ages, both blood’s opposite and its product) is enough to poison the chalice. Perhaps it’s for this reason that Christianity itself has come to seem impure, tainted with the wrong sort of blood. But although we have locked its putrefying corpse away in the reliquary of our past, its tell-tale heart continues to beat beneath our floorboards, blood seeping beneath the door of the crypt. We continue to be haunted by it, left, like Lady Macbeth, wringing our hands because we cannot scrub away that damned spot; we did not know that the old man had so much blood in him.
What Aquinas half-knew continues to be true: there is no way to keep the purity of our blood safe from corruption. But this has not stopped us from trying, from clinging to the dream that there is some blood which will wash us clean, or some way to wash ourselves clean of blood itself. Theologians trace back lines of descent to some purer form of Christianity free of the tain of the impure blood, be it the corrupting influence of secularism and multiculturalism or the degeneration into avarice and empire. Philosophers seek to uncover in their pedigree a pure enlightened vision of a world free from the corruption of bloody embodiment as such, or (as Dan Barber argues) a pure Aryan secularism without the congenital disorder of Semitic religion.
There are many ways to trace bloodlines and all of them are fictions. We can no more reckon with the totality of our ancestry than we can escape it. Our blood is tainted; nothing we hold sacred is pure; and both Christianity and blood persist precisely because they are not solid but liquid, flowing, constantly remaking themselves. Yet even Anidjar cannot resist the temptation to make genealogies, to trace lineages. In Christianity, he says: ‘the distinction between law-instituting violence and law-preserving violence is transformed into law-abolishing violence, and then into violence-denying love. Instead of collective guilt, collective innocence. Such is the Christian dispensation.’ This is true but it is not the whole truth; to ask whether it conceals more than it reveals is to ask what we are doing when we trace the lines of our blood. What does it mean to talk about Christianity as though it is a single line of pedigree, however miscegenous, however scandalous its ancestors? Is the blood of Christianity one blood or many? Is Christianity even always blood at all?
Anidjar leaves us, regardless, with blood on our hands, in our veins, and on our lips. However we understand ourselves in relation to Christianity and to blood we are none of us pure, none of us innocent. We are left not quite without God but without a God who will stand in judgement upon us and declare our guilt or innocence. We are left with the world as it currently is, governed by blood and by law, confronted with Christianity and the issue of its blood: nation, state, and capital. There is to be no divine judgement except, as Benjamin says, as a command with which to wrestle, the starting point for a disputation in which we must take upon ourselves the responsibility for our decisions. What kind of blood might begin to flow in our veins and across the lines which define and distinguish us if we began to treat things as sacred because of what they are in themselves and not insofar as we have done violence to them?
9 thoughts on “Out, damned spot — Blood Book Event”
Marika, this is a superb post—a great way to kick off discussions. In the first place, it highlights some of what I think are the most significant areas of contention in Anidjar’s argument: the centrality of violence to the concept(ion) of blood(s) (Red Mythology and Jesus’ Kin), the recourse to universal innocence (On the Christian Question), his overwhelming critique of Christianity, and the necessity of attending to “actually existing” or “really existing” Christianity (Part One as a whole). Moreover, you pursue lines of inquiry which need to be pursued.
“Is the blood of Christianity one blood or many? Is Christianity even always blood at all?” These are incisive questions, I think, because they seem to arise from the logic of the text itself. Anidjar’s critique of Christianity is absolutely necessary, as you reiterate. But, indeed, what varieties of Christianity have been crushed and abandoned precisely because of the ascendancy of a certain form of blood in the Western Christian tradition?
However, I am left wondering about the grammar of inclusiveness which materializes in the last three paragraphs of this post: “there is no way to keep the purity of our blood safe from corruption”; “nothing we hold sacred is pure”; “we are none of us pure, none of us innocent.” This is not “collective innocence,” but it surely is “collective guilt”. But what kind of guilt is it?
“As Freud explains … the (guilty and universal) claim that ‘we have all killed him’ is repeatedly, if surprisingly, rendered as ‘You killed our God’, which Freud helpfully translates: ‘You won’t admit that you murdered God’ ” (253). For Freud, if not necessarily for Anidjar, there are thus two kinds of guilt: the kind which is “shared by humankind as a whole” and the kind which amounts—even without acceptance and subsequent forgiveness—to the “Christianization of humanity” (254), which makes the “difference between innocence and guilt … the basis of human society”. There is a warning implicit in this distinction between guilts. I think Anidjar’s makes this warning explicit at the end of his Preface, when he writes, “I mean by this that blood is nothing, nothing much really, and that, reading blood, ‘we will discover a burden unsuspected and even actively exlcuded … that blood does not matter at all and to think otherwise is to think like a vampire’. And no, not everyone is like that” (xiv). While I am not entirely sure what Anidjar means by this final statement, it feels like he is resisting any general distribution of blood guilt.
Anyway, perhaps I have honed in too much on a grammatical slip or I have missed an intentional evocation of pre-Christian collective guilt.
Shoot. My apologies for the length of that comment.
Marika, great post! One of the things that I thought was missing from Blood was the deconstruction of Christian theological texts. You do a great job of confirming and extending Anidjar’s thesis through your look at Aquinas.
Somewhat in line with Gabriel, I want to discuss some of the latter paragraphs of your post. I think you raise an important question. Namely what is ‘Christianity’ for Anidjar? What is the answer to The Christian Question? Could there be an answer? Blood spends 400 pages playing this out, so I don’t assume that I can accurately or sufficiently summarize it in a comment, but I’ll take a provisional go at it:
Christianity is the process whereby pure/innocent blood has come to be the defining, positive marker of the community and therefore also of the enemy, who has impure/guilty blood. The enemy may be internal (e.g. Jews in the “Middle Ages” or Blacks in the US), or external (most often Arabs). Anidjar, by positing Christianity as this contingent, historical process, is not saying that it has always and everywhere been the case that those who call themselves Christians have or will continue this process. He references Freud’s theory of trauma: there are no clean origins. However, he is pointing towards “actually existing Christianity” as the agent that has unequivocally brought this about. Anidjar explicitly limits this to Western Christianity, both the Catholic and Protestant varieities. However, he appears to be unsure about other forms. Further, any ‘secular’ communities that have adopted this logic, which seems to be all Western liberal nations/states/economies, are “Christian” and perpetuate the bloody history thereof.
Gabriel, I think you’re right that it was partly carelessness at work in that last paragraph. I don’t know that it’s exactly clear in Anidjar’s book how far blood extends and whether there is – now, anyway – anywhere outside of it. If Christian blood has become the economic circulation of capital, wouldn’t that mean that we’re all caught up in it somehow? Blood hasn’t always been the substance of the community, on Anidjar’s account, but I think that’s as much about hope for the future as it is the assertion of actually existing bloodless communities present alongside the bloody communities of contemporary capitalism.
I wonder if there are two utopian gestures in the book: one is where he talks about blood and kinship in Moby Dick: ‘kinship was never blood, Melville seems to be saying, but on the other, as that is what we call it now, it will have to do’, and then describes a kind of queer kinship emerging between Ishmael, Queequeg and Tashtego, which suggests perhaps that blood can be redeemed (I know, awkward). And the other is with Benjamin’s divine violence, where he talks about a bloodless violence, which is about refusing to do ethics focused on ends and specifically on the victim, and about acting instead based on what our acts do to ourselves and to God. I wanted to write more about that but I just couldn’t really work out what I thought Anidjar was doing. The first of those gestures seems like it’s about acknowledging our blood-guilt and moving through it somehow; and the second is perhaps more of a radical break, perhaps more a rejection of the very notions of guilt and innocence. And if that’s the case, what does it mean for how we relate to guilt as such? And would that mean a radical break with Christianity? Because I’ve read enough Zizek to wonder whether in some ways that’s actually a pretty Christian move in itself. I honestly don’t know.
Are there any statistics on how many of these poisoned eucharist relics are out there?
I did wonder whether the scenarios Aquinas was worrying about ever actually happened or whether he was just trying to cover all the bases. I mean, it’s quite specific: he’s worried about what happens if a) the chalice has been poisoned and b) the priest knows it has been poisoned but c) only realises it’s been poisoned *after* he’s consecrated it. It seems, I don’t know, unlikely?
To return to Stephen’s point, I wonder whether it’s actually a problem that’s specific to Christianity or whether it’s just the problem of thought more general. I feel like Anidjar gets at a historical narrative of how Christianity and blood have been mutually transformative that’s really illuminating; I feel like he makes some claims about what’s unique about Christianity that are incisive; but it’s never the whole story. And he sort of acknowledges that, right? He says that “explanations are, if not a thing of the past, then a peculiar and peculiarly constricted struggle with finitude.” But I wish he’d talked more about what he was doing, because it wasn’t always clear to me how he wasn’t doing exactly what he said he wasn’t doing: writing a history, providing an explanation.
I guess the next question is if we have any leads on the identity of the smart-aleck student who asked him that question.
I don’t want to write too much, simply because I plan for my contribution to be an inquiry into what Blood (the “book”) is, if Anidjar set out not to write a book. But I think Marika’s question is rather important. In what way does Anidjar capture something elemental about Christianity and how? This clearly isn’t a work of historical scholarship, at least not something I would expect my historian friends to recognize, but it also isn’t a work of philosophy in the straightfoward sense of presenting a thesis and either the conditions for its claim or proofs. Yet, it seems to be a book of conditions, of empirical insights, of history, of literature, of theology, of economics (though I can already hear some of the political economics folks howling, if they cared to read), and perhaps it is almost a kind of index of an archive. So why this form? I get the impression that Anidjar isn’t out to convince anyone. And, frankly, I like that.
My sense is that your right, Marika. I feel confident saying that Anidjar wants there to be people who remain outside the vampire mentality. (Again, that strikingly abrupt sentence: “And no, not everyone is like that.”) And yet his insistence on blood’s pervasiveness doesn’t seem to fully allow that to be the case. The possible movements through/away from blood which you mention would appear to be ways for him to handle this bind. But as you said, it isn’t clear what Anidjar was doing at these moments.
I think part of the issue was that Anidjar isn’t fully aligned with Freud’s reading in Moses (that bit about universal guilt, perhaps), but he doesn’t spend time resolving his differences with him. Ending on that chapter, however, seems to give Freud’s reading the last (and definitive?) word.
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