Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Derridean Mark

A favorite pastime of mine involves eating and browsing at the Alektor Cafe and bookstore, which is a great little place run by an Orthodox priest and his wife here in Nashville. One of the things I love best is the front room, full of various icons from across the globe.

A few weeks back, I discovered the icon to the left here, and bought it. It reminds me very much of Jacques Derrida's much-lauded tome, The Post Card, in which - among many other subjects - Derrida meditates on an image from a postcard showing Plato standing behind Socrates. The implication is that Plato is dictating to Socrates, who is seated at a writing desk -thereby reversing the traditional assumed "order" of things (namely, that Plato was transcribing and recording the spoken "events" of Socrates' life).

So imagine my joy in finding this icon, in which St. Mark is seated and transcribing the opening lines of his Gospel (see detail below). The "original" he is copying is a text, open on a strange lectern sitting atop a twisting, vine-like pole. The text on the lectern reads, The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God, as it is written ~~~.

Mark's copy, wonderfully, is slightly different. It reads, The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

My first enjoyment of this icon was in the very Derridean play it is making, through its visual arrangement, with the assumptions about the order of the Gospels. In much of current scholarship, Mark's Gospel is thought to be "first," meaning it predates the other Gospels and, along with other, unrecorded sources, serves as the font for the Gospels that follow.

Yet here, Mark is seen to be copying from some prior source. We can ask from whence this source comes - form the Holy Spirit? Perhaps. Or perhaps Mark is here presented as copying from some other Gospel, which precedes his, thereby reversing scholarly assumptions of Markan primacy. I have no idea what the icon writer actually intended with this image, but it definitely got me thinking.

(I should note in passing, as well, all the visual anachronisms involved in these words appearing before us in English, as opposed to Koine or Aramaic, as well as the fact that the writings are occurring on what appear to be folio and quarto codices, and not scrolls or parchment.)

Now that I own the icon, I have looked at it even more closely, and was struck by the differences I mentioned above between the writing on the lectern copy and the writing Mark is making. As he is copying the page, he is modifying and changing it. The words are the same, but the punctuation is altered. A comma is inserted between "Jesus Christ" and "the Son," and then a full stop is placed after the phrase "the Son of God."

This full stop, moreover, truncates the full phrase from the lectern copy, which concludes with the phrase "as it is written ~~". Mark (who is writing a copy), is omitting the phrase which refers explicitly to the writing preceding his writing, by adding the full stop in his copy.

In our current Bible versions, of course, these phrases are even more altered, with "As it is written" referring to the writings of Isaiah. But even here, these writings referred to are rewritten by Mark, who reads Isaiah's words as an explicit reference to John the Baptist.

This icon sits on my desk in the office, and I find myself returning to it often during the day. I like how succinctly it plays with my assumptions about where things come from, and what things say, and I like how it reminds me to pay attention to very mundane material matters like the visual represenation of media (codex vs. scroll), and punctuation (comma vs. full stop), can yield some interesting hermeneutic insights.