The Marrano Uncanny: The Last and the First of Jews

By | September 15, 2023

Look, look, he’s a marrano, lower than dust.

Juan de Lucena, De Vita Beata [1]

I once said, perhaps rightly: The earlier culture will become a heap of rubble, and finally a heap of ashes, but spirit will hover over the ashes.

Ludwig Wittgenstein [2]

This book is the first monograph wholly devoted to the issue of Derrida’s marranismo. It can also be regarded as a ‘sort of’ [une sorte] Marrano midrash: one long commentary on Derrida’s famous confession in Toledo –

I confided it to myself the other day in Toledo, [that] is that if I am a sort [une sorte] of marrano of French Catholic culture, and I also have my Christian body, inherited from SA in a more or less twisted line, condiebar eius sale [“seasoned with His salt,” St. Augustine], I am one of those marranos who no longer say they are Jews even in the secret of their own hearts, not so as to be authenticated marranos on both sides of the public frontier, but because they doubt everything, never go to confession or give up Enlightenment, whatever the cost, ready to have themselves burned, almost, at the only moment they write under the monstrous law of an impossible face-to-face. [3]

The place of this confession, Toledo, is far from accidental. Inspired by its genius loci, Derrida cannot but recollect the fate of the ‘Hebrew citizens of Toledo,’ the first Iberian conversos who underwent compulsory conversion to Christianity. ‘Baptized Jews’ – a new category of people, neither purely ethnic nor purely religious – emerged in Visigoth Spain as early as in 613 when the king Sisebut issued a decree forcing the Spanish Jews to convert or else leave his realm. Many Jews emmigrated, but also many stayed and formed a problematic group eventually to be called marrane, ‘pigs’: neither Jewish, because baptized, nor Christian, because not eating pork – and, simultaneously, both Jewish, because keeping major Judaic holidays, and Christian, because attending church masses. The ‘baptized Jews’ knew from the start that this is a no-win situation: either they become ‘full-fledged Christians’ or they would never evade persecution. They thus wrote a petition to King Recceswinth – Yirmiyahu Yovel calls it a ‘pathetic manifesto’ [4]– in which they tried to convince the Christian lord that they are as fervently Christian as he is himself and that they are going to eat pork on every occasion. It bear a collective signature: “the Hebrew citizens of Toledo.” 

Though indeed pathetic and extremely self-humiliating, this document remains curiously ambivalent, which did not escape Yovel’s attention: “Thus, in promising to keep away from ‘the sect of unbaptized Jews,’ they imply there is also a sect of baptized  Jews – their own” (ibid., 8). This implication, insisting on the existence of the third party with its own separate identity (or, as it will become clear soon, non-identity), goes against the overt meaning of the manifesto in the manner of performative contradiction. By openly claiming to have become ‘full-fledged Christians,’ the Hebrew citizens of Toledo nonetheless secretly assert their distinct status of ‘baptized Jews.’ This is, historically speaking, the first occurrence of the Marrano aporia of which Derrida will become a true master fourteen centuries later: the aporia of an insoluble tension, which simultaneously pledges allegiance to the host culture and secretly withdraws it; overtly subscribes to the officially accepted identity and refuses the identitarian closure. While it seemingly says no the to Jewish ancestry, it still preserves it; it remains paradoxically faithful in perjury.

Derrida dates and maps his Marrano confession in a Celanesque manner, but it is hard to tell when exactly he begins to think about himself as ‘a sort of Marrano.’ In Archive Fever, Derrida mentions “the Marranos, with whom I have always secretly identified (but don’t tell anyone),”[5] which would suggest that his marranismo is not just a late affair of the 90’s. In D’ailleurs, Derrida, a 1999 film directed by Safaa Fathy, Derrida refers to the Marrano persistency in keeping secrets as an art resistance to politics understood as a terror of transparency and identity, which he began to practice already in the late 60’s: “Secrecy should be held in respect. What is an absolute secret? I was obsessed with this question quite as much as that of my supposed Judeo-Spanish origins. These obsessions met in the figure of the Marrano. I gradually began to identify with someone who carries a secret that is bigger than himself and to which he does not have access. As if I were a Marrano’s Marrano […] a lay Marrano, a Marrano who has lost the Jewish and Spanish origins of his Marranism, a kind of universal Marrano.”

By augmenting the Marrano figure to the second power, Derrida deepens his commitment to absolute secrecy which now also excludes the ‘authenticated marranos’: those who can be publicly and officially classified as the descendants of the Sephardic conversos. Even his Judeo-Spanish origins are merely ‘supposed,’ forming a part of the play beyond any authentication: he refuses to accept them as a biographical factum brutum that would determine his identity, by imposing it on him from the outside and by force. Thus, the Marrano’s Marrano becomes the ultimate figure of protestation against any form of the ‘apo-calyptic’ – veil-tearing – thought which has not respect for the secret and wants to drag it into the light. The Marrano’s Marrano figure indeed appears as an aporetic identity the goal of which is to destabilize all identity – even the already shaky one of the so called ‘authenticated marranos.’ Derrida not only is ‘the last of Jews’: he also wishes to be ‘the last of Marranos.’ The least, the worst, ‘lower than dust,’ the most lost in his labyrinthine secret, which he carries in the blind inner crypt without doors, windows, and keys – but also because of that ‘the first’: the ‘true Marrano,’ the real guardian of unawovable secrecy. As he himself comments on the Marrano non/identity: it is “the identification in the rupture of identification, the same melancholy jubilation, the same analysis finite infinite”: the same reaching, again and again, of the unbridgeable limit – the blind spot which can never become veroffenbart and sonnenklar, fully revealed and clear as the light of the sun.

[1] ed. Govert Westerveld (Blanca [Murcia], Spain, 2012), 28.

[2] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, A Selection from the Posthumous Remains, eds G.W. von Wright and H. Nyman, trans. P. Winch (Oxford/Cambridge Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 5e.

[3] Jacques Derrida, Circumfession, in Jacques Derrida and Geoffrey Bennington, Jacques Derrida (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993), 170-71.

[4] Yirmiyahu Yovel, The Other Within: The Marranos – Split Identity and Emerging Modernity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 7.

[5] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever. A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: The Chicago University Press, 1996), 46; emphasis added.

Agata Bielik-Robson, author of Derrida’s Marrano Passover, is a Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Nottingham. Her publications include: The Saving Lie. Harold Bloom and Deconstruction (Northwestern University Press, 2011), Judaism in Contemporary Thought. Traces and Influence (coedited with Adam Lipszyc, Routledge, 2014), Philosophical Marranos. Jewish Cryptotheologies of Late Modernity (Routledge, 2014) and Another Finitude: Messianic Vitalism and Philosophy (Bloomsbury, 2019).

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