- Christ's Subversive Body: Practices of Religious Rhetoric in Culture and Politics by Olga Solovieva
Born of a virgin to give substance to the divine, to be as flesh transfigured, crucified, pierced, stigmatized, resurrected, and as wafer consecrated and eaten: what else has Christ's body ever been but subversive? Subversive of natural explanations as of theological expectations, the body of Christ has performed and been performed like no other. In Olga Solovieva's phrase, this body has held "lasting command over the imagination of the world" (3). The audacity of Solovieva's work lies in its own subversive strategy, to ignore the theological and church-historical subversions inaugurated in and by the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul, and instead to trace—albeit discontinuously, as she insists—further subversions achieved at certain discrete historical moments, and [End Page 394] within diverse discursive and cultural modes. Six are selected, and a chapter is assigned to each: a very early episode of iconoclasm in the late fourth century; a fifteenth-century book that treats of transubstantiation while enacting and embodying that miracle by alchemy; in the eighteenth century, the redemptive physiognomics of Johann Kaspar Lavater; in the nineteenth, Fyodor Dostoevsky's use in The Idiot of the image of Hans Holbein's dead Christ; in the twentieth, Pier Paolo Pasolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew, and in the twenty-first, the political subversion of the US Constitution by the "theocons." This latter chapter is the more disconcertingly persuasive in its analyses now that we have seen "Christians" rioting in the Capitol.
No reader of Solovieva's book is likely to be conversant with the scholarship pertaining to more than two or three of its chapters. In taking on the challenge, and confessing one's own limitations, one should not lose sight of the author's exceptional accomplishment, for there is nothing slipshod in either method or findings: Solovieva has brought to the surface cores of deep learning from disparate disciplines. While the author insists on the discontinuities of her argument, she tacitly invites us to suppose that there is nothing in Western culture, no artifact, no performance, no concept, that can assert its entire independence from Christ's body. Her introduction frames a photograph of a model playing the part of the Crucified for Antonio Gaudí, in 1910, the very year identified by Virginia Woolf as marking a change in human nature and now often taken as the acme of modernism. In Gaudí's crucifix the model is surrounded by polygonally positioned mirrors, one of whose destabilizing effects is to reflect and make visible the camera that captures the image. This photographic mise en abîme revolves throughout the book as an emblem of an enduring conundrum, the conundrum of a civilization that has for long held as its normative belief that the one brought to lowest abjection remains also the transcendentally all-seeing.
Gaudí's model is treated by Solovieva as exemplary of the "positionality of Christ" as a rhetorical trope, articulated to purposes that may be quite other than those determined by whatever church might claim that body as its own (3). In 1985 the historian of religions René Nouailhat identified such ideological articulations, and the vastly disparate purposes and interests that they serve, as the work of "the Christological Operator"; Solovieva shows in how many domains that Operator has been set to work, to ends that may or may not be thought to represent, express, or enhance the views of any church or to conform to any sort of theological understanding (6). "Practices of Religious Rhetoric in Culture and Politics" is this work's subtitle and in each of the instances discussed by Solovieva, far-ranging and disparate as they are in mode and in time, the rhetorical practice is firmly related to "the Christological Operator."
However "heretical" one might find the films of Pasolini, one must respect his "choice" (the Greek meaning of "hairesis") in deliberately asking (through The Gospel...