sovay: (Rotwang)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2015-08-05 03:12 am

The cities of the desert, the chariots, and the chains

I have just finished re-reading Tanith Lee's The Book of the Beast (1988) for the latest innumerable time. It's the second of her Secret Books of Paradys; it concerns a sexually transmitted demon of Assyrian origin, its introduction to the fifth-century Roman fort of Par Dis, and its outbreak after generations of dormancy in sixteenth-century Paradys. Each book of the quartet is themed by color: this is the green-and-purple book, relating recent events under the title "Eyes Like Emerald" and the late Roman backstory in the chapters "From the Amethyst." It has never been my favorite of the series, because I imprinted very heavily on the gender-bending primary colors of The Book of the Damned (1988), but the classical elements and the birdlike, lizardlike, shape-changing demon itself have always made me love it. It is also very weird about Judaism.

It's taken me years to be able to look at any of these books critically, because they weren't an influence on me so much as a wide-eyed rewriting: they were like reading fever dreams, smoky, liminal, transgressive, possessing. I read them my senior year of high school; I had just felt sexual desire for someone for the first time, and for a woman instead of the boyfriend I had agreed to go out with for what were classic stupid high school reasons, and I believe we talked once about the genderqueer vampire novella "Stained with Crimson" and my brain blew a fuse. (And I adore the covers by Wayne Barlowe: they look like the stories they come from and they look like dreams.) It does not surprise me that Lee's Jewish characters are exoticized, because almost everyone she writes about is. I'm wondering, though, if some of the ways in which her portrayal of Judaism strikes me as weird are not only because I'm Jewish,1 but because I'm American.

The Orientalism is the major unfamiliarity. Despite centuries of diaspora, Lee writes as though there is an unaltered continuity of culture between the days of Biblical Israel and her sixteenth-century present, so that the house of Haninuh the Scholar2 and his equally sorcerous daughter Ruquel is described entirely in allusions to an ancient, Eastern world:

The chamber was painted over one wall to the ceiling with a cedar tree; some guests had declared they heard all the owls and doves of Lebanon mewing in its branches . . . Inside, a lovely lamp of Eastern filigree hung from a stand and dusted the air with frankincense . . . The harp which Ruquel brought to the Cedar Chamber was a model of the little kinnor, a crescent of bow-horn which she leaned to her shoulder, from which crescent ten horsehair strings stretched to a horizontal bar of ereb willow . . . She plucked chords of a twanging fluidity from the harp, and, as the music found its way, sang very low a melody without words, old as the Jordan, perhaps.

I was under the impression the kinnor was one of these ancient stringed instruments about which no one is quite certain what it looked like or how it was played, unless there are depictions I don't know about.3 Haninuh himself is never described visually, although the text often refers to him as "the Jew," but we have two strong images of the adult Ruquel, known locally as "the Beautiful Jewess":

She had risen very early, and gone to pluck herbs in the house's inner courtyard; these seen to, she sat reading a treatise of Galen's, there in her bedroom which caught the morning sun. Her black hair hung about her like clusters of black grapes, and covered only by a little black velvet cap . . . Though the house was always well-lit, it was the hour of lamp-lighting, and Ruquel presented to her father a poetic oriental image as she stood before him, limned by the ivory candle-lamp she bore, in her silver earrings and little velvet cap, and barefoot about the house as she always was.

I mean, tell me Simeon Solomon didn't paint that sometime. Or Lawrence Alma-Tadema. And part of it is that Haninuh's house, this Oriental outpost near the corn market of Paradys in which the beast of the title will be cast out and defeated, is a deliberate mirror to the house of the "lily whore" who first carried the infection of the Assyrian demon to Par Dis, the mysterious, mauve-eyed "Eastern bit . . . Her name's some foreign thing, Lilu, Lillit—so they call her Lililla":

In the central room Rome ceased, and Par Dis too. It became an Eastern pavilion. Silk ropes, draperies, images of ivory. On glowing charcoal burned sticks of something that the Pharaohs might have favoured.

But this mirroring is because Lee envisions her two races of the ancient Near East as natural enemies, eternally opposed to each other, meaning that the magician Haninuh can sense when the utukku-demon of the Roman amulet becomes active again in his lifetime, even if he doesn't know what it is at first:

Blackness hung over Paradys, the book of night open randomly at the darkest page.

As usual Haninuh performed three rituals, and uttered some prayers which, upon white deserts and obsidian mountains, had long ago invoked the benign forces of fierce angels.

In just such centuries, the Jews had kept vigil against the hordes of Assyria. They had fought with them sword-to-sword under skies of flying arrows. The wolf-like Assyrians, whose cities were lilies of a river bank, had riven Israel. And Israel had brought down upon them the bolts of the one true terrible limitless God. Until the people angered Him, and He turned from them, and then the Assyrians leapt at the throat of Israel . . . it was all to do again.

From those times Haninuh's soul remembered the demon. The

The salvation of the protagonist Raoulin, who has been stupid enough to sleep with a haunting and thereby catch the demon which propagates itself, AIDS-like, through sexual contact, contaminated blood, and mother-to-child transmission, depends entirely on Haninuh and Ruquel, because their Jewishness gives them a native sensitivity to the demon and their sorcerous learning gives them the means to combat it. Textually, literally, they are magical Jews who rescue the Christian protagonist.4 But the nature of their magic, like their intelligent, solitary, esoteric natures otherwise, is essentially tied to the Near East and the strength of Biblical Israel and that's just not something I associate with contemporary images of Jews in America. I admit I haven't researched the subject. It may be a shift post-WWII; I certainly feel comfortable saying that I've seen nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American depictions of Jews draw on the same Orientalism that Lee is working with. (Hey, John Singer Sargent.) I'd believe that it started to fade here when Jews started to be accepted as white, or however you want to define the complex status which allows many American Jews to benefit from white privilege under the right conditions. If the association still exists in the UK and other non-U.S. countries, I'm happy to accept that it's what influenced Lee when she wrote The Book of the Beast. But it isn't the kind of othering I'm used to, is what I'm trying to say.

And so it interests me that by the time she returns to the figure of the Jewish magician in Faces Under Water (1998), the equivalent character is both less exoticized and less idealized. Doctor Dianus Shaachen is my favorite character in the book. He's one of the three main characters, although he looks like supporting color at first; he runs a free clinic in eighteenth-century Venus (Lee's Venetian analogue, like Paradys for Paris), studies anatomy from the bodies of the murdered and the drowned, and is popularly rumored to be over two hundred years old, "having sold his soul to Lucefero for knowledge. Probably he was sixty." He's snarky, distractible, fond of his own cleverness, cagey in ways that exasperate the protagonist and so genuinely private that it is not until two-thirds of the way through the novel that his first name is mentioned, or the fact that he is Jewish. His religion/ethnicity is not unimportant to the novel—[ profile] rushthatspeaks correctly points out that the story is consciously working against the hangover of The Merchant of Venice. His last name is one of his few markers of otherness. But it's more important to his characterization that he's a self-taught alchemist, that he dotes on his pet magpie, and that he's apparently irresistible to the ladies, which I find really endearing. The climax of the novel hinges on the nature of his conjurings, whether he is only the trumpery Dottore of the commedia or sometimes a magician. He is not at all decorous and he gets most of the best lines in the book. He is not a type of anything except the kind of eccentric magus that I love.

Thoughts appreciated. I know I didn't get around to discussing Lee's depiction of the Assyrians, who appear only in the dreams of a Roman soldier who doesn't know what he's seeing. There are other doublings I would want to mention if this were a paper. I may need to do some more reading no matter what. First I need to sleep.

1. And therefore, among other reactions, pretty confident that I don't have an inherited racial antipathy to the Assyrians, because otherwise grad school would have caused me to explode.

2. Normally I can figure out where Lee gets her not-quite-historical names, but "Haninuh" has been puzzling me since high school. I expect to feel like an idiot when someone finally tells me what it's very slightly tweaked from.

3. It is evidently an important symbol of the Semitic East for Lee, because it appears as well in the short story "Sirriamnis" (1981), played by a Carthaginian slave-girl in a Greek port city: "I considered the harp, when I should have been considering my first move of the game, and after a while it came to me that there had been a bar across the lower body of the harp. It was more like the kinnor of the east—and then I remembered that Skiro had mentioned Ishtar in his praises, the Semitic Venus . . . The hands at the window went on and on, tirelessly dancing to the moon over the sea, as they had tirelessly skimmed the kinnor at supper."

4. Who converts to Judaism on the last page of the book, in a paragraph that actually annoys me in a way that the Orientalism doesn't appear to: "For themselves, the Jews were kind to him. Even in Paradys, in their hearts, they reckoned their way was the only one, and had grown used to the insults and cruelties this knack provoked. For the gentile who approached them from the night, innocent, quietly asking, they could not help but feel some wondering affection. And as he grew in stature among them, they came to speak of their foundling with pride." Tanith Lee, Jews don't have a monopoly on thinking their culture is best, and it's certainly not the reason anti-Semitism exists. That feels, in fact, like a form of genteel anti-Semitism itself: well, if they didn't make such a point of it, there wouldn't be any trouble. Otherwise the ending of the novel is quite sweet.
skygiants: Lord Yon from Legend of the First King's Four Gods in full regalia; text, 'judging' (judging)

[personal profile] skygiants 2015-08-05 11:01 pm (UTC)(link)
Ah, yes, the comely Jewess! I trace the trope back to Scott and Ivanhoe at least, though it probably goes further.

In re: the inherited racial antipathy to Assyrians, the one I always remember is the bit in The Sparrow when Sofia explains that she has an inherited distrust of Catholic priests on account of the Inquisition. The trouble with all this is if it were true, by logical extension we would have to have an inherited antipathy to just about everybody, except possibly people from East Asia.
skygiants: the Ninth Doctor leaning smugly back against the wall (ayup)

[personal profile] skygiants 2015-08-06 05:12 am (UTC)(link)
I actually love Ivanhoe and Rebecca of Ivanhoe, tragically exotic Oriental beauty that she is. She's a hell of a character, though. "Oh, you say you'll kill me if I won't yield? Fine, I will just THROW MYSELF OUT THIS WINDOW and save you the trouble. Hah, called your bluff!"

One thing about the comely Jewess in that Maria Edgeworth book I read recently, she wasn't exoticized in quite the same way! Of course this is probably because she was not only an American but a SECRET CHRISTIAN, but.

(Well, Egypt! And didn't we get in a fight with Libya too at some point? Everything east and south of that is probably fine, though. And South America is cool! But everywhere in Europe is right out.)

[identity profile] 2015-08-05 08:54 am (UTC)(link)
I have not read Ivanhoe, I have read Edward Eager going on and on (and bloody on) about Ivanhoe in the kids' books in which kids go into books, but, given what little I know, does the portrayal of Ruquel and the vague Orientalism of the Judaism have anything to do with Ivanhoe?

Lee in general definitely has something to do with Melmoth the Wanderer, a book I really need to finish reading one of these days. That one has a very long sequence in which a guy who has had Terrible Things Happen To Him In A Convent Because Catholics Bad (to be fair, they are really well-written and interesting terrible things) tells his life story to the Wandering Jew, who lives in this weird little cavern under Paris full of manuscripts. He spends his time writing down the life stories of ghosts so they can move on, and attempting to dodge anti-Semitic persecution by never, ever leaving the house. Yes, I know that's not a very Wandering Jew. One gets the impression he picks up and moves to a new cavern every few hundred years and that is sufficient.

Anyway, that portrayal is both relatively sympathetic (Melmoth has such an anti-Catholic boner that anyone the Catholics don't like is automatically assumed to have good points) and very weirdly Orientalist. I think it may be the ur-Jewish-Angelic-Doctor portrayal, though God knows I bounced really, really hard off The Monk so IDK what even goes on in that.
Edited 2015-08-05 08:55 (UTC)

[identity profile] 2015-08-05 06:38 pm (UTC)(link)
I once tried to write a story in which Merlin turned out to be the Wandering Jew. It was eyeball-sporkingly bad.

[identity profile] 2015-08-06 06:37 pm (UTC)(link)
It does help a bit, thank you. Actually if I remember right I never even got to the part about the central conceit; it was the original scene-setting that was so terrible.

I kind of think there might have been a third figure involved (the Flying Dutchman, perhaps?), but fortunately the notebook in question is buried deep, so I cannot check (because that way madness lies and I should get even less done today, were that possible).


[identity profile] 2015-08-05 01:15 pm (UTC)(link)
Hanina is a fairly common name in the Talmud, and is related/basically the same name as Hananya and Hinena. (All these H's are Chets, not Hays- /x/, not /h/.) Modern Hebrew related names- Hanan, Elhanan. It means favored one, or favored-of-God, depending on which variation.

Hanina ben Dosa is a rabbi and a miravle-worker type character. ( He's the one who comes to mind as the likely namesake of Lee's character.

[identity profile] 2015-08-05 04:47 pm (UTC)(link)
I have to re-read this book, but I remember my thoughts at the time were tied up to the seemingly endless process of converting to Judaism which I was going through. I loved the fact that we had magical rabbis performing exorcisms and it seemed like a nice answer to my annoyance at the fact that Willow from Buffy was Jewish and yet all of her magical powers came from witchcraft instead of kabalistic workings (I know that's a silly complaint - well now I do).

I didn't object to the paragraph either because there's a lot of religious Jewish writing about being Chosen and how this provokes hatred among the goyim. I agree that it's not an accurate reason for anti-Semitism (neither is that one about Jews being bankers in the Middle Ages because they could charge interest) but it would be a fairly accurate depiction of how very religious Jews (especially ones who have magic powers) would think - especially in regards to converts who have overcome a great deal of cultural programming (some very hostile) to agree with them. I guess it's like the ideal convert who is told that converting to Judaism is a terrible idea because Jews are hated throughout the world and if he responds "I can only hope to be worthy" he is converted (or accepted as a conversion candidate in a rather horrible process without much oversight).

[identity profile] 2015-08-05 08:48 pm (UTC)(link)
Slightly unrelatedly, the last time I reread Faces Under Water I noticed that not only is it in dialogue with The Merchant of Venice, but the plot is an inverted Tempest, with our protagonist as Ferdinand and the girl as Miranda and her father as the evil-est Prospero ever, which makes Shaachen the King of Naples-- an idea which, oddly enough, works for me. But yeah, the drowning/not-drowning, and the conspiracy behind it, and the trials to win the girl imposed by the father, and it makes the masks Ariel which is nifty, and the magpie probably Caliban which is niftier. But the thing that made me decide it was intentional is that it explains Calypso's name, which nothing previously had done to my satisfaction. That is a really good book.