- Writing History Intimately: The House of Jacob, the Quest for Home, and the Other Language
If one were to attempt an initial definition of the ontology of our age, one might do worse than to characterize it in terms of a war against inhabitancy.—Robert P. Marzec 314
The focus of this essay is Sylvie Courtine-Denamy’s The House of Jacob which received the Alberto Benveniste Prize for Sephardi Literature in 2002. This is an autobiographical journey into the turbulent history of Sephardic Jewry from fourteenth-century Spain to the death camps. As Julia Kristeva suggests in her foreword to the book, what is at stake in Courtine-Denamy’s herstory of an alternative Jewish tradition (a tradition that can be interpreted as critical to the one currently promoted in Israel) is “an intimacy that reinvigorates” (x). The force of this intimacy, according to Kristeva, lies not so much in the autobiographical sources of Courtine-Denamy’s account but in her use of a language which (in contrast to “Hebrew, the sacred language”) draws on sensory experience and “the universe of kinship” (xv, xiii). More importantly for my intervention here, this is the language of a landless people whose distinct fate and history exemplify what Robert Marzec has aptly called “the war against inhabitancy” (314). Inhabitancy, as Marzec defines it, refers to “an obligation between humankind and the land, between human subjects as born in and through a relation to an ecosystem” (315). According to Marzec, what we are currently experiencing in the face of “the ‘abject’ of dislocated inhabitants” is the latest stage of the erasure of inhabitancy as a distinct form of human subjectivity (310). Marzec traces this erasure back to the enclosure movement in England and imperial territorializing politics, arguing that the “specter” of this systematic severing of the bonds between the human animal and its habitat still “haunts all neoimperial orders of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century world” (314, 315). What I [End Page 49] find valuable in Marzec’s reclamation of the real of an interconnected land is that it opens up a space within which to rethink the human possibility of dwelling and dwelling-with against the “blood-and-soil” politics that has historically enframed this possibility and beyond the uncritical celebrations of “a free-floating human subjectivity,” a figure much cathected by certain forms of postmodern cosmopolitanism (Marzec 321).
As I will go on to demonstrate, Courtine-Denamy’s The House of Jacob makes an important contribution to the cultivation of a contagious, hospitable and guilt-free imaginary that does justice to the human need to connect through and across a shared (home)land. What is more, I will suggest, this imaginary functions as a form of resistance in the face of the distinct spatial pathologies that are part of the legacy of the war on inhabitancy: namely, territorial occupation, land dispossession, exile, displacement, migration, the nationalist politics of “blood-and-soil,” but also the systematic abjection of the national “thing.” In what follows, I intend to trace this imaginary as it unfolds in Courtine-Denamy’s sensory and affect-based language. Kristeva’s foreword to the book (significantly written in the form of a letter addressed to the author) will serve as the main intertext in light of which I will explore the intimate national and language politics of The House of Jacob. Given my concern with what for Kristeva is a central idea in the book (that is, “language as one’s only homeland” [“Foreword” xi]), my intention here is to attend closely to the possibilities opened up by this idea in Courtine-Denamy’s narrative. At the same time, I want to reflect on Kristeva’s cosmopolitan reinvestment of this idea, in other words, her (subtly yet clearly) corrective reiteration of Courtine-Denamy’s suggestion; to wit, “Languages as One’s Only Homeland,” which she uses as the subtitle of her foreword (ix, emphasis added). Finally, I propose to approach this reinvestment as the site of a productive (though by no means nonconflictual) dialogue between Kristeva and Jacques Derrida, especially his Monolingualism of the Other Or the Prosthesis of...