One of Giorgio Agamben’s most thought-provoking and clear explanations of “gesture” can be found in an essay entitled, “Fable and History: Considerations of the Nativity Crib.” But, what we find there is not so much a gag. It is more like a profane illumination that comes to us by meditating on the “crib as a historical gesture.” For Agamben, the crib mediates between the sacred and the profane. And, as a historical gesture, the crib takes us from the mystical and mythical to the secular and everyday. In fact, Agamben says that the crib “liberates time.”
But the catch is that Agamben focuses on a very specific example as mediating between ritual and secularization: the nativity scene. He reads this scene first as the “nativity crib” and, at the end of his essay, as a “historical gesture.”
What does this mean? What is at stake? And, in terms of what I am most interested in, what does this mean for the schlemiel? More importantly “who” is in the crib? Is the schlemiel in the crib or is it, rather, the Christian fool? And how does “he” (whoever he is) relate to the “crib as historical gesture”?
To answer these questions, I need to unpack the essay so as to follow Agamben’s logic and rhetorical tactics. I will begin this task here and carry it out over a few entries.
(Note: A cursory look at first words and final words of his essay show us that Agamben has a messianic end in mind when he claims that the crib is a “historical gesture” which, ultimately, takes us into history and into a messianic kind of event. Is this event-slash-gesture a secular one? Is it another crib? And will the fool or schlemiel be there in that messianic gesture?)
Agamben starts his essay by defining the crib as such: it is an “image of the world presented in miniature.” And the image-of-the-world-it-presents-in-miniature is, and this is key, a “historical image.” For Agamben, this means it is not a religious image or a mythical image; the crib is a “historical image.” And it discloses itself as a “moment” of transition. Using Benjaminian language, Agamben writes of this “moment”:
For what it shows us is the world of fable at the moment when it wakes from enchantment to enter history.
And this is possible only because the “fable has been able to separate itself from initiation rites.” And by “abolishing the mystery which was at its center and transforming it into enchantment.” This separation, abolition, and transformation of cult and ritual into enchantment is the key. But there is a difference. As Agamben explains, the “creature of the fable” may be enchanted but is not under a religious spell or trance:
The creature of the fable is subjected to the trials of initiation and the silence of the mystery, but without experiencing them – in other words, by undergoing them as a spell.
Agamben further explains that the creature of fable is “bewitched” but s/he is not “participating in a secret knowledge that deprives it of speech.”
But wouldn’t “enchantment” also be a deprivation of speech?
Anticipating this question, but not openly stating it, Agamben argues that this is enchantment “must be shattered and overcome.” I find this moment fascinating since, as I pointed out in my last blog entry, Agamben’s “gag” risks enchantment itself. After all, a gag is something you put in a mouth to keep one from speaking.
This, I would argue, is the danger of the gesture which, though it may be “historical” can easily become and remain “enchanting.” And although it may leave the creature on the other side of mystery, it may leave the creature in the midst of “enchantment.”
In the next entry, we will take a closer look at the creature and its relationship to the crib and the nativity scene. And within this scence-slash-historical-crib-gesture, we will find Waldo (I mean the fool who may not be a Christian fool).