A Sui Generis Purim – Individuals and Categories

mascettiBy Yaacov Mascetti*

Texts are organic entities – they breathe, grow, become old, fall into disgrace, rejuvenate and come back to life. The Book of Esther is one of these texts – it never fails to give me new feelings, it never stops talking to me, and, to say it with Kafka, more than a book it is a letter that never truly reaches its addressee but always delivers new messages. And of course, being the interpretational creatures that we are, caged within the four cubits of our hermeneutic circles, the things we perceive within the texts are always already what we wanted to perceive, and not what “there is.”

So I have recently become very interested in matters of particularity and universality, or better how the individual relates to the general, how the microcosmic represents metonymically the macrocosm, or if the fragments are actually parts of a whole. And while this has become something of a leit motif in my courses this year, and despite the fact that I would love to bore you all with yet another one of my tirades on Hamlet or Coriolanus or Othello, or on some poem by John Donne, it appears to me that the Book of Esther addresses the tension between these two concepts in a unique and very powerful way. The book’s narrative, that is, relies at once, on individual’s support of the general fabric of things (society, people, hegemonic culture, etc.) and the need for the specific rebellion of the “one” against the “many.” Of course we are all formed in the illusion of orderly structures, where the one serves the many and the many inform who and what the one is and wishes to be – but these are, as said, nothing but illusions, and the complexity of the Book of Esther comes as a compelling alternative to either anarchic or fascist models.

The first moment of tension is in the very first chapter, where at the very climax of Ahasuerus’s six month long feasting, Queen Vashti is called upon to appear before the “peoples and the princes” for the king to show her beauty. The king’s act is not only one of reification of the feminine body, but a nullification of Vashti’s uniqueness:

(10) On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Bizzetha, Harbona, Bigtha, and Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, the seven chamberlains that ministered in the presence of Ahasuerus the king, (11) to bring Vashti the queen before the king with the crown royal, to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to look on. (12) But the queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s commandment by the chamberlains; therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him.

Ahasuerus is not merely angry because a woman has defied a man’s order – he is furious because her refusal could become the precedent for social dissent within the very nucleus of society – the family. In addressing his anger caused by the incident, the king’s advisors depersonify Vashti even more and turn her into a narrative of rebelliousness, an example to be followed

(13) Then the king said to the wise men, who knew the times–for so was the king’s manner toward all that knew law and judgment; (14) and the next unto him was Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, who saw the king’s face, and sat the first in the kingdom: (15) ‘What shall we do unto the queen Vashti according to law, forasmuch as she hath not done the bidding of the king Ahasuerus by the chamberlains?’ (16) And Memucan answered before the king and the princes: ‘Vashti the queen hath not done wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes, and to all the peoples, that are in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus. (17) For this deed of the queen will come abroad unto all women, to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes, when it will be said: The king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not. (18) And this day will the princesses of Persia and Media who have heard of the deed of the queen say the like unto all the king’s princes. So will there arise enough contempt and wrath.

Vashti has not wronged only the king, but also “all the princes, and to all the peoples, that there are in all the provinces” of the kingdom. Vashti, from her individual, microcosmic act of defiance to her husband, is violently expanded to the dimensions of a macrocosmic example, one which will inform the actions of “all women, to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes.” The king, on the other hand, does not appear to be entirely aware of the fact that he too has been de-personified, and turned into an archetype – “when it will be said: the King Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not.” The politics of a kingdom will not allow for this incident to be read as a local quarrel between a pompous husband and a dazzlingly beautiful and defiant wife refusing to be shown off as a trophy or an object of some sort – Vashti is “all women” and Ahasuerus is “their husbands.” The space for the entrance into the story of Esther is carved out by this incident – from this incident unravels the chain of events, fortuitous or not, that leads to the saving of all the Jews in Ahasuerus’ immense empire. The mistaken and expanded conception of Vashti as “all women” leads, we may argue, to the saving of “all the people.” But is that supposed to console a suspicious reader like myself? Are we to suspend our otherwise harsh judgment of the male-centered hegemony that allows the king to kill his own wife because she disobeyed? I, myself, am not so sure…

A second, and most interesting moment in which the Book of Esther presents, in chapter 3, a blatant confusion of the individual with the collective, is when Hamman encounters the recalcitrant refusal of Mordechai to kneel to his majesty, or better to acknowledge the fact that Hamman represents, in his physical persona, the king’s majesty.

(1) After these things did king Ahasuerus promote Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him, and set his seat above all the princes that were with him. (2) And all the king’s servants, that were in the king’s gate, bowed down, and prostrated themselves before Haman; for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai bowed not down, nor prostrated himself before him. (3) Then the king’s servants, that were in the king’s gate, said unto Mordecai: ‘Why transgressest thou the king’s commandment?’

This moment is never, for not even one moment, allowed by the author to be about two people, two very strong willed individuals – Hamman is an Agagite, and is thus a descendant of Amalek, the Biblical archenemy of Israel; and Mordechai is presented in chapter 2:5ff as “a certain Jew… son of Jair the son of Shimei the son of Kish, a Benjamite,” and who thus belongs to the ethnic collective that had “been carried away from Jerusalem” as “captives” by “Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon.” The encounter between the two is, therefore, a veritable point of friction between historical narratives, a clash between two irreconcilable cultures. The act of defiance of Mordechai vis-à-vis Hamman is not simply a demonstration of lack of respect – it is a culturally charged decision to refrain from genuflecting in front of a representative of an enemy, and is also the refusal of a Jew to bow before a human being. The text is so tightly charged with collective connotations that the reader can barely perceive the individual stories of two men, Mordechai and Hamman, and is required to invest a considerable interpretational effort to perceive them for what they are – single characters is a cruel plot that will not allow individuality.

Hamman, though, is not a victim – he willingly decides to expand his hatred for Mordechai to the entire Jewish people. 3:5-6 report that “when Haman saw that Mordecai bowed not down, nor prostrated himself before him, then was Haman full of wrath” and that this wrath was then naturally, too naturally, turned into a decision “to destroy all the Jews that were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus.”

The cure to this generalization, to the destructive defacing and depersonalizing violence inherent in Hamman’s hatred, is the energetic focusing back of the story to the individual narrative of a single person – Esther. Esther, in fact, has the onerous duty of transforming the de-personifying blindness of Hamman, and Ahasuerus, to the painful particularity of one person, one story, one suffering. Esther will thus have to be seen by the king, will have to force him to perceive her individual suffering, feel her very specific pain – and yet, this she will have to do in order to represent to the king, with her individual story, and using a metonymic mechanism, the narrative of a whole ethnic group. This group is the Jewish people, and not, to use Hamman’s words, some vague “certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of [Ahasuerus’] kingdom.”
Chapter 7 unravels the tension:

(3) Then Esther the queen answered and said: ‘If I have found favour in thy sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request; (4) for we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish. But if we had been sold for bondmen and bondwomen, I had held my peace, for the adversary is not worthy that the king be endamaged.'(5) Then spoke the king Ahasuerus and said unto Esther the queen: ‘Who is he, and where is he, that durst presume in his heart to do so?'(6) And Esther said: ‘An adversary and an enemy, even this wicked Haman.’ Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen. (7) And the king arose in his wrath from the banquet of wine and went into the palace garden; but Haman remained to make request for his life to Esther the queen; for he saw that there was evil determined against him by the king.”

Hamman ends his life as “he that durst presume in his heart” to annihilate the people to which queen Esther belongs – he ends his path of forceful generalizations, as an individual. All the machinations he devises throughout the Book of Esther in order to manipulate the inevitably fragile tension between the specific and the general, are Hamman’s hubris – all the god-like presumptions of one man, end not only with his death, but with the annihilation of his entire family, and with a series of mass killings. With its complex web of allegories, as Shushan reacts to events with personified states of mind (sadness and grief followed by joy and relief), the Book of Esther is irremediably a story of groups, of collectives, clashing, hating each other, and never truly communicating. An individual is never only an individual, but belongs to a series of collective networks that bind him, define him, and may also, at time, cause his downfall.

And yet, what if we were to ask the text to tell us a story of individuality, a story of single men who do not understand each other and thus resume to strife and hatred? Is a sui generis reading of events in a text like the Book of Esther possible at all? Is Hamman ever only Hamman, and is Mordechai ever only Mordechai? Are we, as readers, called to perceive these men as metonymic representatives of broader groups? And if so, is there any way we can break loose of this hermeneutic trap? Personally, I am tired of these de-personifying narratives, of these cultural events defined and actualized by the mass – a perception of humankind as a chaotic, anarchic mass of sui generis individuals may be the utopic, dream-like solution to the bloodbath of the present semantic system, where we never are, alas, simply individuals.

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.