Blossom Stefaniw, Christian Reading: language, ethics and the order of things. University of California Press, 2019.
It's Friday morning. The dishwasher just stopped running. The clock my aunt gave my mother in 1995, with a picture of the globe on its face, is ticking. I am bare-faced and sleepy, drinking cold coffee. My hair was cut yesterday and is a little too short. Outside the snow is fringed with hostile whiskering mud. Inside there is the eerie lustful quiet of writing. This detail is here to tell you about place and time and particularity, about embodiment, about the exquisite specificity of any certain act of reading or writing.
This certain act of writing has come to be because on another Friday morning (perhaps, but indulge me, for the sake of a prettily symmetrical narrative) a woman asked me to write something about my book for AJR. It was at a conference in Chicago last May, the same conference as every year, a regularity which has consistently propelled singularities into my life, surprises and blessings, lapses and gaps, like this morning and this text. This detail is here to tell you about contingency, about narratives, and about jolts and bumps in the timeline.
That is what my book is about: reading as specific embodied work which arranges time and tells stories about where we are in the world, reading as something which can cause the timeline to jump the tracks, about how reading can attach us to a certain lineage or detach us from the one like the one bulging into this room right now from the face of the clock. My book is about reading as world-building, because reading with a grammarian in antiquity meant reading in a pool of fragmentation, displacement, and homogenization to re-arrange time and re-align filiation.
When Didymus reads with his students in Alexandria in the late fourth century, he reads as one pulling up a plant on a field trip to a forest or garden, displaying the roots and leaves for the class, referring to Linnè's taxonomies, the inherited system of categorizing plants, and elaborating on the medicinal or traditional uses of the plant. Didymus treats each word or phrase in the text of the Psalms or Ecclesiastes like such a plant, an object which serves as an occasion for articulating the order of knowledge and of the world. The students, sixth-graders, let's say, are getting their shoes wet in the damp lawn while they inherit their place in the epistemic order as the sort of people who know the names of plants, or shuffling patiently in a shaded classroom in Alexandria and inheriting a place in another order, becoming the sort of people who know what a hyperbole is and the proper definition of fear. The plant and the word are specimens, anchoring knowledge to the material world.
Historically, academically, methodologically, this book also pulls up a plant to display, shaking off some weeds and loose soil to show how the past might look if we stopped talking about Christian textual practices in terms of influence and borrowing, if we stopped assuming that a Christian teacher teaching from the Bible must necessarily be doing something confessional, or that ancient Christian scholars' use of received reading practices requires a special explanation. When I dangle this book in the air like a specimen plant on a field trip I ask what could still happen if we shifted our map of late ancient intellectual life to accommodate sources like the lesson transcripts from the Tura papyri. In the final chapter of my book I count through the flowers and leaves to identify new terms in which the discussion about Christian reading practices might move forward, doing my own work of fragmentation and rearrangement, inviting the scholarly timeline to jump the rails.
Last night (in reality it's Wednesday now, a snowy evening with groceries to unpack pointing at me from the kitchen), with the need to write this piece looming in my mind, I picked up Adam Phillips' book Unforbidden Pleasures. That text does not have the same glow or weight for me that the Psalms or Ecclesiastes had for Didymus. I do not have it memorized as Didymus did large portions of his text. And yet Phillips' themes of past, language, reading and creativity seemed to ricochet between the text I was reading and the text I was about to write. It is that rapid silent ricochet between one discursive world and another which is the location of Didymus' pedagogical and epistemic work in the lessons on the Psalms and Ecclesiastes. I decided, on a winter night on my green sofa, to re-create for you the same ricochet effect by imitating Didymus' style and writing the following commentary on Phillips. Didymus articulates a Christian world within the ricocheting between his mind, his memory of dozens of texts, the text he is reading, and the way he imagines the march of time. I enter the same sort of space with you below in order to articulate the kinds of epistemic, historical, and textual worlds operational in the lessons from the Tura papyri which are the object of my book.
Like Didymus, who curates a complex and interconnected patrimony, I read with you a text which is itself an act of reading numerous other, earlier authors: Nietzsche, Freud, Wilde. Didymus takes a lemma and then discusses it, which is to say he discusses language and time and order and ethics in dialogue with the lemma in question. This gives him a way to anchor the whole world to biblical texts, just as I am going to anchor the book to the essay I just finished reading here in my brown clogs and steely grey shawl, staring at a glass vase with red and white budding twigs in it, asserting itself next to the clock my aunt gave my mother in 1995.
Unforbidden Pleasures: Laying Down the Law (p. 1-47)
To lay down the law can mean to state the rules, to establish and insist on the law. It can also mean to surrender the law, as in to lay down one's arms, to give up on something, to retreat or rest. So to lay down can be both a challenge and a shelter.
p. 7 ... forget certain words and use less familiar ones instead, and see what happens. If, as Pater wrote, habit is a form of failure, we should try out new habits, different ways of speaking.
What is familiar is familiar because the family did it, because it is part of the patrimony and indicates how the world naturally seems to be. What is familiar became familiar because of one's elders doing it and saying it as a matter of course. What is familiar is familiar because when we were freshmen it was announced to us and we said behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy will. If the familiar can be made it can also be unmade. Even if it once seemed natural and obvious to speak of the lessons from the Tura papyri in terms of commentary, and of their techniques and citations in terms of pagan influence or adaptation, it is also possible to speak of them in some other way. This book speaks in one other way about what was taken to be familiar as soon as it bulged out from one timeline into another in a limestone quarry being cleared near Cairo during the war.
A habit is a shelter without a challenge and as such is like the familiar but more egregious in a world which is always a challenge: the world of looking at the past.
A habit can also be the clothing of a nun or a monk, a worn signal of belonging, devotion to a different world, of walking a different path through the world.
p. 2 We may be a little too keen to make the necessary sacrifices; we may relish giving things up. Indeed, we may do what we do because of what we have to give up in order to do it.
Relish is a form of desire, a heartiness and eagerness. To relish giving things up is an apparent paradox, because in general desire is acquisitive. But if we do what we do with relish, we might cast things overboard with glee. We might write a book about texts squarely ensconced in confessional approaches to the Christian past and read those texts in terms of knowledge production and the epistemological work of chronography, map-making and genealogy. We may crave the absence of the taxonomy which was once our heritage, and we may be keen to be shot of that ballast. If you relish giving things up, you consider what will come to you instead. You desire what happens after the ballast sinks.
p. 2 At its best and at its worst to forbid is to coerce attention and to guarantee interest. It is to arrange a haunting. We must always be mindful, somewhere in ourselves, of what we have been forbidden, of what we have forbidden ourselves; being out of control is the way we tend to describe our doing of these forbidden things; though it does not follow that when we do unforbidden things we are in control. It is, in fact, only because we have created forbidden things that we have created the idea of being in control.
To arrange a haunting is a paradox, because normally one does not wish to be haunted, a haunting is involuntary. One wishes to go upstairs to bed with no phantom near the railings, for the house to be only itself, without noises or shifts one does not cause oneself. A haunting unsettles the houseness of the house as an object. A haunting allows the house to work upon us more so than it contains us. A haunting asserts that we are not master of our own home.
Where is the home of the reader? The reader allows her attention to be coerced by the object, the black marks on the page, and makes the book her home, even for a short time. Reading is always an arranged haunting, a haunting that is expected and desired, when home begins to act upon us, to shift and go bump in the night, to loom over the railings. One might read to acquire information or to take possession of a series of items of knowledge, but that is not how I read. I read mindful of the magnitude of unforbidden things, attending to the exquisite control exercised by the author which allows me, in reading, to lay down the law, to lay down control, to lay me down to sleep, as one at home.
When Didymus reads with his students, he does what he is not supposed to do, and what he is supposed to do. One didn't teach grammar from the Bible, one taught grammar from Homer and Menander. Yet the emperor Julian himself had demanded that texts and teachers be of matching religious species, from the same branch of an emerging taxonomy. Julian sought to put Christians out of the house. The house was the books everyone read, the home of the late Roman mind. Didymus refused to leave the house. Didymus is a good teacher being a good refugee, mending and making do, flourishing in the land God had promised our fathers and their fathers before them. 
p. 3 That is what Wilde was referring to when he wrote, in 'The Critic as an Artist' (1891), 'We teach people how to remember, we never teach them how to grow.' We may not be able to teach people how to grow, but in order to grow there are things you need to be able to forget.
We teach people how to remember when we teach them about the past. We teach them which parts of the past matter and where that past was leading. We teach them what to forget, what to discard, what to cast aside, which items are no long viable equipment. That process is a process of curation, the work that Didymus does as he teaches, setting out which parts of the past must be remembered like a man unpacking boxes.
We teach people to remember, we never teach them how to grow. How do people grow? Through love and courage, through doing something else, through walking on once they have made the necessary sacrifices, with that leaner kit which remains to them. That is not forgetting, that is knowing the difference between the past and the present, between a challenge and a shelter, a habit and a failure, a haunting and a home.
The intellectual past saw manuscript finds as the remembering of the white West, and of the location of the find as a vestige of the ancient dark, even if it was Egypt in 1941. 1941 was not the same year in America as it was in Egypt, and yet there were the Americans, in Egypt, remembering to filch folios of this ancient papyrus find, souvenirs for the American future. To grow is to write the story of a manuscript find in another way, to let the text be an object always attached to human bodies, and to all our works of salvage and refuge, displacement and shelter. To grow is to write the history of the manuscripts as a bigger, more human story, to write it and re-write it again and again, making the necessary sacrifices and casting more and more colonialist ballast overboard. To write a bigger story which has space for women and children, for bodies, for dark skin, for queer monks in the library, for contingency and particularity which persistently disrupt the notion of a single coherent trajectory for the codices from Egypt to the West. The first chapter of my book tells such a bigger story of the Tura papyri.
p. 24 The language of prohibition is the dream of a language of straightforward influence, not strange influence; a language of orders, not impressions.
Order vs. impression, straightforward vs. strange. I wonder if Phillips saw or heard or felt the mesh between the word 'order' and the word 'forward', and whether you hear and feel the mesh between those items and the word 'word' which I am fiddling up from under the lining for you right now. These are sounds of alarm, awkward sounds, the gagging sounds of prohibition.
Straightforward influence is like the influence model of how pagan and Christian and Jewish textualities relate. Each was in his own house with his own things. Like little dwarves, each ran back and forth to his neighbors to borrow and lend, or picked over the rubble to see what could be salvaged when his neighbor abandoned his house. Each item in this straightforward world was neatly colored and labelled and unique to each home and each hospitable little dwarf. Here I am using ludicrous images to suggest satirically that this model is ludicrous, a myth of order as far-fetched as any fairy-tale world populated by friendly little dwarves.
What is a strange influence? A strange influence is flowing, flight, flecked, flickered, fleshy, flown, a declination of sound and association. Strange, strangled, stringent, strict, strictures, strychnine, strife. If you have two languages at your disposal, you can go farther forward, you can let the influences be stranger yet, you can add flechten, to weave or braid, and you can add fremd, which is a conclusive mark on anything which fails to fit into the slots provided by the established taxonomy, a word so definite and compulsive that it is criminal to translate it with the eerie and elusive English strange. An English stranger is attractive, thrilling, full of surprises, will move the plot forward and deliver a message. A German Fremder is dismissed immediately, cannot even get into the story, waits in the halls at immigration, ejected from all narratives. Here I am using hyperbole, a literary device based on exaggeration. I am producing that exaggeration through contrast, and I am remembering waiting in the halls at immigration.
What is a strange influence? It is the kind of influence which obtains between things which are not separate. The kind of influence which is not a deed of ownership, transferred from one little dwarf to another, which is not a trajectory from one house to another. Strange influence obtains between everything all the time.
p. 24 'It is always,' Wilde wrote in 'The Decay of Lying', 'the unreadable that occurs.'
What is in the book is readable but also unreadable, a cloud of silences and elisions and erasures which follow the words like a swarm. What occurs is unreadable because it can't get into the book, it can't even haunt it, it is a complexity and expansion beyond what can go into a sentence, like every single untellable breath. When the unreadable occurs, the ordinary miraculous occurs, an idea comes or a thing shows itself to you, the moment when you see where the puzzle piece fits. The unreadable occurs when the graces and fates are on the march.
For example the first chapter of this book includes in its big story the years between the dumping of the papyri and their re-discovery, it includes the type of car that the woman who sold her couple of folios to BYU drove, and it includes the type of carpet I read on as a kid in 1984. Those things are readable and they occurred. But it does not include the weeks and months I spent harboring the book before I was able to start writing, or the nights waking up at two in the morning in a hotel room in Lund after I first saw the book and argued for the book and wondering into the dark “What have I done?”. The unreadable is unreadable because it isn't in the story, or it is secret, or it is the wrong sort of thing to be told in the way that one tells a story about reading.
p. 25 What we don't know, what we haven't understood, can be the realest thing about us. It can be what happens.
I don't know why I wrote the last chapter of my book the way I did. I will have to either remember or invent a reason before some one thinks to ask me. These blank spaces in my memory are what happens, all the time. Are they the realest thing about me? Are the things we can't see more real than the things we can? Is what is invisible more real than what is visible? This book tries to make things visible, to call up the real, the quotidian, in early Christian textual practices. Is the mundane more real than the exceptional? I am perplexed by modernity's pursuit of the realer real.
Here I have diverged from Didymus' precedent: he reads as I have read so far, but he does not offer any information about himself or his writings. The selves he produces through his pedagogy do not need to be disclosed, they need to fit, nestled into the expansive sheltering challenging order he is illustrating for his students, line by line, as if pointing to a diagram of a plant.
p. 25 To forget (or to unlearn) a vocabulary is to foster a remembering of a different self...
To foster can be to abandon or to harbor, to foster out or to foster talent, to send your child away or to nurture a child or other precious thing. What does it mean to foster a remembering? To harbor or to abandon a given notion of the past.
My scholarly past includes a vocabulary already-invented, words and works which built a home ready to live in, with no need to survey each beam and nail once again. I can take up residence as I take up my intellectual patrimony, all the post-structuralist work that has been done. I can take them as read.
Fostering those notions as my own patrimony allowed me in turn to find a new vocabulary and to present basic concepts that may serve as the foundation for a new theory of Christian reading, opening doors to a new kind of discussion of exegesis, philosophy, and ethics in the late ancient world, to integrate the strange influences of the manuscripts themselves into orderly straightforward words, labels on the leaves and roots and stem of the plant, pulled up from the sandy earth at Tura in 1941.
Remembering a different self when you are a Western historian means remembering that your self is different from your past, that the past does not belong to you, that you are the one doing the haunting, to know the difference between habit and failure, a challenge and a shelter.
 These terms and this way of construing grammar in antiquity come from C. M. Chin, Grammar and Christianity in the Late Roman World. (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).
 Adam Phillips, Unforbidden Pleasures. (New York: Penguin, 2016).
 The idea of refusing to leave does not match the idea of being a refugee. These two sentences mix images of squatters and colonists and pilgrims, a looseness typical of Didymus' ad hoc discourse in the lessons.
 The United States of America did not join the war effort in North Africa until 1942, so it is improbable that American servicemen were actually on site in Tura in 1941 at the time of the find. Yet at least one American soldier did, by means unknown to us, procure part of the find. This slippage around detail is also typical in Didymus' lessons because he is speaking extemporaneously.
Blossom Stefaniw is a Heisenberg Fellow of the German Research Foundation and author of Christian Reading: language, ethics, and the order of things (2019) and of Mind, Text and Commentary: noetic exegesis in Origen of Alexandria, Didymus the Blind, and Evagrius Ponticus (2010). Her current research focuses on textuality, pedagogy, ethics and masculinity in the ascetic literature of the late Roman world.