Thursday, September 16, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Daniel Boyarin, Socrates and the Fat Rabbis. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. Pp. xiv, 388. ISBN 9780226069166. $45.00.
Reviewed by Oona Eisenstadt, Pomona College


The broadest purpose of this book is to argue that Plato's dialogues and the Babylonian Talmud are examples of Menippean satire, or spoudogeloion, a genre in which high and low elements are mixed in such a way that the practices of intellectuals "are both mocked and asserted at one and the same time" (26). Almost every society, Boyarin tells us, produces such satire, but Plato and the Talmud are particularly comparable because they share a Hellenistic viewpoint (133) and because they apply the satire similarly. The meat of the book constitutes a description of the similarity through close readings of several passages from Baba Metzia and other tractates (chs. 4, 5, and 6), as well as the Protagoras (ch. 2), the Gorgias (ch. 3), and the Symposium, particularly the speeches of Pausanias, Socrates, and Alcibiades (chs. 7 and 8). Boyarin's interpretations of Talmud are novel and compelling, as is the evidence adduced of a general rabbinic familiarity with Greek and Roman stories. The interpretations of Plato probably offer the scholarship at large no net gain, but reframe the work of others in way that is consistent and engaging. The book is driven by delight in all things clever and witty, and, while often cavalier, is pleasant and unrancorous.

For Boyarin, Plato's texts operate in two "accents", one serious and decorous and another that undercuts the first through an often carnivalesque humor. He argues that the Platonic corpus as a whole is concerned almost exclusively with the distinction between philosophy and rhetoric, and this for reasons that might be labeled political: Plato coins the term 'rhetoric' and then spends his life criticizing it so as to carve out territory for the 'superior' endeavor that is philosophy. In the first accent, Plato plays this straight, lauding Socrates as the representative of the Truth, while in the second accent he offers a parody that reveals his self-doubt: as a succession of interlocutors is reduced to yes-men, we come to understand that Socrates' dialectic is more coercive than rhetoric, and "the Professor of Truth is ... shown up as a duplicitous dialectician" (110). The heroes of the second accent are men like Protagoras and Gorgias, whose perspectivalism and epistemological relativism are more democratic than anything Socrates represents or can induce. But the first accent is not over-ruled. The Truth of philosophy, which is a-physical and a-political, is seriously defended throughout the corpus at the same time as it is satirized as idealistic and potentially tyrannical. This is Plato's spoudogeloion. The grounding theorist here is Bakhtin, who discovers that conversations presented in literature are often the most monological or didactic elements of a text: writers use dialogue as a ruse to slant the discussion their own way, or to draw forth aspects of their own complex positions; this, says Boyarin is certainly true of Plato. Authentic dialogue in the Platonic corpus exists not between interlocutors but between the first and second accent.

The case of the Talmud is more straightforward. Ever since Walter Benjamin argued that the aggadic passages in the text subvert the seriousness of its halachah, it has been common to argue for the Talmud as a double-accented text. Boyarin does not, however, locate the divide between the two accents where Benjamin does, suggesting instead that the vast bulk of the Talmud is spoudaios, with the geloios best found in stories about the bodies of the rabbis, most notably about their gluttony and lust, and the sizes of their bellies and phalloi; these stories, we are told, are comparable to the hiccupping scene in the Symposium. Boyarin is most convincing when explaining how the apparent Talmudic polyvocality, far from conveying a true openness or dialogical quality, is the mode of a univocal discourse whereby the rabbis shore up their own authority and that of the Torah (as Plato did for philosophy) by incorporating and domesticating positions that might provide viable dissent. As with his Plato, an authoritative voice is thus produced, but it is challenged by the carnivalesque passages, and the true dialogue exists only between the first and second accent, in the Talmud's critical reflection on its own non-dialogicality (186). The answer to why these two texts are particularly comparable can now be stated. What distinguishes them "from most of the rest of the Menippean tradition is the total absence of a desire to obliterate the seriousness of the serious part of the discourse. The rug is not really pulled out from under the reader, but the ground is nevertheless made to shake" (340).

My critical reflections begin with the line I have just quoted, and in particular with doubt about how well Boyarin maintains for himself the tension between the two accents. At times, he suggests that we should reject Plato's distinction between philosophy and rhetoric as a mere political tool; this would imply that either Socrates' or Gorgias' way of doing philosophy would be a viable choice. At other times, however, far from rejecting the distinction, he makes use of it and turns it on its head: rhetoric is more concrete, Gorgias is more democratic, and the second accent trumps the first. The main thrust of the book asks us to read back from the passages presenting Socrates as authoritarian (and from any buffoonery, connected to any character) to the idea that one might have doubts about the nobility of the philosophical life, and thence to re-value rhetoricians. In this movement, the second accent loses its humor and takes on its own seriousness and decorum; it becomes a new authoritative voice, that of a liberal relativist.

In any application of double-reading, moreover, the way one defines the satirizing thrust has everything to do with the way one reads the ostensible thrust: the joke has to come at the expense of the straight man. Boyarin locates the critical accent in the bawdy because, in his understanding, the first accent in both Plato and the rabbis is that of the absolute rationalist (30). For Plato judgments are either false or true, with nothing in between (43, 85); the abstract is entirely separate from the concrete (83); and any argument that is illogical or extra-logical is inadmissible. This rather atrophied Plato does make Gorgias look good, and also makes the need for a second accent fairly urgent. But perhaps if we began with a more flexible Plato—in plain terms, a fuller reading of the one and only Plato—we wouldn't need a second one. Shame provides a good example. For Boyarin, shaming can have no place in dialogue; when Socrates shames an interlocutor it is browbeating, and thus a mark of monological coerciveness; the fact that he incites shame is itself a shameful departure from appropriate rationalist method (115-16). The argument falls apart if we think of the philosophical method as something less strictly rational, something that might even rest on our ability to be ashamed of ourselves, and shamed by others.

And something similar might be said of Boyarin's other text. While an appendix titled "On the Postmodern Allegorical" takes on Francisco Gonzalez's reading of Plato, there is no corresponding appendix treating 'postmodern' readings of Talmud, despite the fact that the Talmud in this book is explicitly a backlash against the recent spate of readings which laud the text as a repository of otherness on the basis of its polyvocality and inclusion of dissenting opinions. Boyarin eviscerates this understanding even on the ground where it might be thought to be strongest: "By insisting that all sides in the debate are correct [the Talmud] completely vitiates the power of genuine debate and dissent" (147); the Talmud eschews a genuine pluralism based on the idea that no one is ever completely right, in favor of an authoritarian insistence that no one is ever completely wrong, "as long as he... is in the right institution" (152). But while Boyarin is probably correct that the rabbis were primarily interested in creating a coherent truth, in bolstering their authority, and in explaining away differences, one can lament the fact that the readings here are so much poorer philosophically than those of, say, Emmanuel Levinas, whom Boyarin has taken on elsewhere. Boyarin's Talmud operates in a less original mode, one easily recognizable as ideological discourse, in which there is play between authority and demotic mockery, but marvelous layers of polyvocality are denied us. It may be truer, but it is substantially less interesting.

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