Barbara Johnson’s Moses & Multiculturalism is a neat little book that might have been 500 pages longer. Johnson gives us a Moses long lost in all the mania surrounding 9/11, political theology, the enemy concept, and monotheism debates. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Johnson was an old hand at literary Deconstruction. Her Moses is marked by all the moves from the old playbook –alterity, aniconism, writing, signs, interpretation, undecidability, and exile.
What’s new is the mix of source material drawn from the Bible, America, Germany, and from Jewish and African-American writers. Freud makes his obvious appearance, along with Schiller, Zora Neal Hurston and Frances E.W. Harper. And no Michelangelo, perhaps because the Moses that Johnson wants is precisely one who is not set in stone.
This Moses is democratic, not hermetic-esoteric, psychological and anthropomorphic, not animal-mystogogical, concrete and erotic, not abstract.
The poltical upshot is in the running theme throughout, which relates to nation-building and (not contra) universality, peoplehood and stranger-ness. I think the argument is precisely because there is no coherent unity to the figure of Moses as drawn down the generations, that this is what allows Moses to be Jewish-particular and (not contra) universal. It’s a nice idea, and I’d like to hope it’s true, or could be true in the best of all worlds where everything is possible, not just about Moses, but about the people whom he “represents.”
But old habits die hard. There’s Moses and the rough, atonal aniconism of Schoenberg against Aaron and the cult of images. One misses the midrashic voice here, an absence that is strange given Johnson’s roots in classical Deconstruction, when so many theorists raved about Midrash. Some of what she would have found in Midrash might have served her purposes. I’m thinking chiefly of the image of the meekness (!!!) of Moses, an image at odds with the impression of Moses, the stern lawgiver, which we find here as well (p.79).
Why does Moses always have to play the heavy? It’s no doubt a Christian thing. But even a better look at the Moses gracing the cover of Johnson’s book might have offered an interesting counter-image. Don’t look at the face and the prominent forehead. Just look at the body. As drawn by Gustave Doré, Moses is and positively voluptuous, with soft hair, chubby arms, big belly, wide swiveling hips, and dancing feet, “radiant” and “womanly,” I think, all at once.