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  • On Truth and Lying in a Non-Modern Sense
  • Henry Berlin

“Let us consider in particular how concepts are formed; each word immediately becomes a concept, not by virtue of the fact that it is intended to serve as a memory (say) of the unique, utterly individualized, primary experience to which it owes its existence, but because at the same time it must fit countless other, more or less similar cases, i.e. cases which, strictly speaking, are never equivalent, and thus nothing other than non-equivalent cases. Every concept comes into being by making equivalent that which is non-equivalent[…] Like form, a concept is produced by overlooking what is individual and real, whereas nature knows neither forms nor concepts and hence no species, but only an ‘X’ which is inaccessible to us and indefinable by us.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense” (trans. Ronald Speirs)

One of the perennial questions reinvigorated by Jean Dangler’s Edging toward Iberia is what it might mean to live “between two societies,” a description Dangler applies to the lives of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, Alfonso X, and—the central subject of my interest here—the [End Page 486] Majorcan visionary and Christian apologist Ramon Llull (105). Dangler’s methodological adoption and adaptation of Manuel Castells’s network theory and Immanuel Wallerstein’s World-Systems Analysis (WSA) to “Iberian” Studies seems to militate against both the “between” and the “two” of this formulation, seeking as it does to undermine the “inert, simple binaries” (49) of earlier forms of analysis. Yet I wish to suggest in my brief remarks that the relational approach Edging toward Iberia advocates and exemplifies remains a powerful tool for scholars who find themselves confronting binary structures, discourses, and relationships. At the same time, it provides a novel framework for facing the lacunae that resist even the most assiduous attempts to harden or loosen such binaries.

Llull’s father was a member of Barcelona’s burgeoning urban aristocracy who accompanied James I of Aragon in the latter’s 1229 conquest of Majorca; he was subsequently granted lands there, and his son Ramon was born on the island in 1232 or 1233.1 During Llull’s upbringing, Majorca remained “a kind of frontier territory” (Bonner 9)—Muslims made up as much as a third of the island’s population, and there was a small Jewish community that nevertheless played an important role in several aspects of the island’s life. Most scholars agree that not all Majorcan Muslims were enslaved immediately upon the island’s conquest, although there is still debate about the size and composition of the “free” Muslim population, some members of which were likely not of Balearic origin (Abulafia 58–64). And just as, as Dangler reminds us, “Non-modern ‘slavery’ was a varied labour system that frequently depended on mutable associations between people, rather than on rigid characteristics of identity or economic coercion” (84), there was variation in non-modern “freedom” as well: the “free” Muslims in Ciutat de Mallorca may have had a mosque, but were forbidden to form an aljama, and thus were forcibly “unattached to a community” (Abulafia 60–61; of course, at other times and in other places the obligation to form an aljama must not have been felt as a sign of “freedom”). Moreover, religious identity, however fluid in everyday life, continued to have important juridical and economic consequences, affecting, for example, the rules governing both the cost of manumission and the social status of the manumitted “slave” (62–63). [End Page 487]

I wish to turn now to one such “slave,” purchased by Llull around 1265 for the purpose of teaching him Arabic. We know of this nameless figure because, at the instigation of friends and followers, Llull recounted his life to a Carthusian monk in 1311, toward the end of a two-year stay in Paris, when he was approaching eighty years old. The resulting text, A Contemporary Life (Vita coaetanea), survives in two Latin versions published about ten years after Llull’s death by his Parisian disciple Thomas Le Myésier, along with a later and highly embellished Catalan version (Bonner 7–8...


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