Baker Academic

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

replacing effacement with exaltation

A couple weeks ago my wife and I took our daughters to the local library. While they were looking through volumes of Junie B. Jones and Diaries of a Wimpy Kid, I wandered off to browse through the shelf of biographies immediately across from the circulation desk. Tucked away between the biographies of Adolf Hitler and Sam Houston, I found a surprising title.
There, three shelves from the floor, was a translation of Adolf Hitler's autobiographical manifesto, Mein Kampf. Here I was, the nearest I had ever been (as far as I can recall) to the ipsissima verba Hitler. Again and again I glanced furtively at the black, image-less volume, fascinated that this book should live here, among the heroes and celebrities of American history and culture.

I took the book off the shelf and began to look through the Translator's Note. Ralph Manheim offers the appropriate historical judgments about Mein Kampf's author and its ideas; he also is appropriately negative about the rhetorical effectiveness of its prose. One gets the sense that Manheim rendered Mein Kampf for English readers under a sort of compulsion, obligated by the historical importance and tragedy of its publication but mortified that his name might come to be associated with its ideology. If translation is usually a labor of love, this perhaps should not be called a translation at all.

But what especially caught my eye was the design and layout of the book's cover. Stated bluntly: I have never seen a book like this. A glossy, all-black cover from front to back. No image, either of its author or of its ideas. An understated font, seriffed for the title but sans seriffed for the author and translator. The only color: the title of the work in red, evocative of the NSDAP Parteiflagge. Both the author's and the translator's names in an unadorned, white typescript. But here the similarities end. The author's name appears in thick, bold lettering; the translator's in smaller, narrower lettering that nearly disappears against the glossy, all-black background. The author's name appears closely associated with the book's title; the translator's, on the other hand, stands alone, separated by black space. This book, more than any other, is the author's; it is not the translator's.

This cover, on this book, was striking for its rhetorical power. "Never judge a book by its cover" might be popular wisdom, but it does not describe how people actually respond to book covers. Cover design explicitly aims to elicit positive judgments: attraction, interest, curiosity. This cover, however, refuses to call out to potential readers, to lure them to the ideas expressed within. It's appeal is entirely silent, rooted in what's not there rather than what is.

This book design brought to mind the rhetorical effect of crucifixion. Today, the cross is the symbol of Christian faith, hung around pious necks and displayed atop as well as within places of worship. In the beginning it was not so. Like Mein Kampf, crosses beside roads elicited furtive glances, engaging the gazes of passers-by but shaming them in the process. According to Mark's Gospel, everyone who looked upon Jesus either joined Rome in heaping shame upon him (Mark 15.29–32), or they looked on from a distance (15.40–41). This is the point. Crucifixion does not display its victims. Crucifixion effaces its victims, replacing them completely with the awful visage of Rome's power and resolve. Crucifixion paints a person's biography black.

David Kertzer, in Ritual, Politics, and Power (Yale University Press, 1988), defines ritual as "symbolic behavior that is socially standardized and repetitive" (9). As "symbolic behavior," rituals communicate; symbols, after all, are "tangible formulations of notions . . . extrinsic sources of information" (Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures [Basic Books, 1973], 91, 92; my emphasis). An all-black, aniconic book amidst shelves of colorful, illustrated covers communicates. In the same way, broken, suspended bodies amongst the living communicate. More than this, they communicate the same thing: Here is some-thing/-one important enough to merit attention, but on-lookers ought not find them attractive.

What's the point? In all of this, I think the most fascinating questions arising from the study of Christian origins are simply these: How did the earliest Christians manage to replace Rome's all-black, aniconic rhetoric of crucifixion with the culturally and theologically vivid account of the messiah's "parodic exaltation" (Joel Marcus, 2006; see also Anthony's discussion, here)? How did they convince themselves of this replacement? And how did they manage—ultimately very successfully indeed!—to convince others? The historical account of this replacement is, I think, the story of Christian origins.


  1. Excellent post. There's a story about another translator's struggle with this notorious text at the BBC:

    1. Thank you, Sixtus. I'll have to follow up on this. I'm fascinated not simply by the events and figures of WWII but also by the moral sentiment that is attached to the memory of those events and figures.

  2. Early on it often struck me as scary and grim. When I was younger, I noticed how seldom the book came out in the open air. Except at the swearing of politicians - and funerals.. It was about hope; but only in inevitably, horribly fated, really hopeless situations.

    Religion was always tied therefore with death for me, at first. Religion and funerals went together. It was like Dracula showed up at executions, uttering a few consolations.

    I don't know if that ever changed for me. In spite of lots of' positive' 60s theology.

    You could get religion, but only at the cost of death. That was the main time it came up in spades.

    So it seemed that if I could avoid religion, I might avoid the death that went with it. Or at least dwelling on it.

    Any pastoral counseling for this?

    By the way, I lived in Germany right after the war. Lots of churches and skulls.

  3. I read My Struggle. Written from within prison, it offered at first a vision of a minority nation or group or heroic individual, seeking to overcome or exterminate, demonized rivals. With the help of an embattled but likely finally-triumphant leader or martyr.

  4. So you go full-frontal Hitler right out of the gate? Welcome to the blog... I think.

    1. I thought I had done well with "ipsissima verba Hitler," but that pales in comparison with "full-frontal Hitler." I still have much to learn.

  5. Professor Rodríguez,

    Your last paragraph is just brilliant with regard to historical causation. What was it that caused the followers of Jesus, a carpenter from Nazareth, suffering death by roman crucifixion, to proclaim him messiah, savior, son of God, resurrected from the dead, and exalted to the right hand of God? What explanation can the historian offer that has power and scope? And why didn't other so-called "messianic" figures around the time of Jesus have their followers use this same kind of language after they were killed? Why did their movements die out, but Jesus' movement effaced roman crucifixion and within a few hundred years transform the roman empire?

  6. The translator referred to here, James Murphy, asks in his introduction, written in Feb 1939, why Hitler hadn't revised the book since its publication. Murphy's answer is that at that point Mein Kampf was a historical document bearing the imprint of the time it was written. Revisions would take it out of it's historical context. The parallels to the Bible in this regard are obvious, and chilling.

  7. Thanks so much for this, Rafael. Again, welcome!

  8. Very interesting post, Rafael! Thank you very much for this. It is indeed striking that many German books about Hitler have a black cover. This could be worth an own investigation... I am afraid the subject is still associated with a kind of mysterious fascination.

  9. The excellent Kershaw biography, next to Mein Kampf on that library shelf, has predominantly black spines, I see. And I used to have a copy of Triumph of the Will that came in an mostly black DVD package. Then again, there are quite a few Bibles that are also all black, including those millions of Gideon Bibles as well as others in real or imitation black leather. At least Oxford had the temerity to issue its NRSV study Bible in red.