Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Kelso, Julie, O Mother, Where Art Thou?: An Irigarayan Reading of the Book of Chronicles (London/Oakville, Conn.: Equinox, 2008). Pp. xv + 247, Paperback, US$29.95. ISBN 9781845533243.

I had the pleasure of organizing and chairing a review session of this book at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Diego in 2007. I was delighted to see that there are authors (and an audience) interested in doing new and innovative readings of a biblical book that has been receiving some attention of late. This book by Julie Kelso, a revision of a doctoral thesis supervised by Michelle Boulous Walker and Ed Conrad at the University of Queensland, is a work of scholarship unlike any previous work on Chronicles. Indeed, it is difficult for me to recall any biblical scholarship with which to compare it. This is an important book, one I hope will be much read and discussed.

This book does several things. First, it provides an introduction to the thought of Luce Irigaray that should be accessible to biblical scholars. I am not aware of any other sustained engagements with Irigaray's thought by biblical scholars. Second, it provides a feminist reading of Chronicles, which has never been done before. Third, in a decidedly poststructuralist move, it intertwines the “scholarly” reading of Chronicles with a “poetic” reading of Lamentations – two poems written by Kelso as an interpretation of Lam 1 and 2. Bringing Lamentations and Chronicles together is a bold interpretive move; bringing an interpretation of Lamentations together with an interpretation of Chronicles is a metainterpretive move that is potentially exciting or potentially disastrous. Most authors would be satisfied with doing one of these three things; the strength of Kelso's book is that she has the courage to attempt all three.

In a brief introduction, Kelso lays out her main argument and its relationship to previous scholarship on identity in Chronicles. She argues that Chronicles works to silence women in several ways, “most radically through their association with maternity” (p. 1). The most obvious form of silencing is seen in the distinct lack of female characters in the book; they are excluded from this supposedly inclusive book. Kelso points out that the silencing of female characters in the book extends to the silencing of female scholars studying the book. As interesting as this analysis in itself might be, Kelso moves beyond it to argue that by associating women with maternity and then by repressing the maternal body, Chronicles imagines men as being the creators and procreators of the world.

The main bulk of the book is divided into two parts. The first part, “Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Hebrew Bible: ‘Introducing’ Luce Irigaray,” is briefly introduced, and followed by two chapters. The second part, “Our Production of a Past in the Present of Analysis: Engaging with the Book of Chronicles,” is also briefly introduced and followed by two chapters. The book ends with a short conclusion, followed by notes, bibliography, and indices of biblical references and modern authors.

In the first chapter, “‘The Monopoly of the Origin’ and the Mute Foundation of Psychoanalysis: The Theoretical Interventions of Luce Irigaray,” Kelso manages in 46 pages to give a lucid introduction to Irigaray's thought. She emphasizes Irigaray's claim that Western discourse operates through silencing women, building on a foundation of the murder of the mother. Irigaray's thought, based in and going beyond Lacanian psychoanalysis, requires some explanation of its own roots, and Kelso provides a summary of aspects of Lacan's thought and Irigaray's reformulation. She argues that Irigaray's contention that women do not have status as subject in the Western tradition is critical for interrogating both the biblical text and scholarship on the text. Irigaray's argument that the “silent traces of the historical process” of the erasure of the mother (p. 26, emphasis original) need to be exposed in order to rework the originary stories so as to not be complicit in the erasure is taken up by Kelso.

The second chapter, “Remembering the Forgotten Mother: Engaging with Chronicles in an Irigarayan Mode,” takes these aspects of Irigaray's thought and shows how they may be fruitfully applied to Chronicles. Irigaray's claim that the setting of psychoanalysis provides a location for feminist engagement with the text is taken seriously by Kelso. This is a “mode” of engagement, rather than a “method,” leading to Kelso's argument that psychoanalysis of the textual materials a) exposes the male structuring of the text, and then b) allows a (re)construction of the feminine in the present rather than in the past. The chapter is a detailed description and discussion of the setting of psychoanalysis. Kelso grafts onto Irigaray's mode the insight of Michelle Boulous Walker that silence is not the absence of speech but the exclusion, denial, and repression of women's speech. Silence is “a readable absence” (p. 99, emphasis original). Kelso argues that “‘[t]aking back’ the feminine…is the crucial first step towards speaking from, rather than speaking about, the place of ‘women’” (p. 99, emphasis added). The feminine voice is silenced in Chronicles by associating women almost exclusively with maternity and then by disavowing the maternal line.

What is interesting to me about these first two chapters is the privileging by Kelso of the masculine form of discourse while discussing the work of Irigaray. Kelso recognizes as much in her conclusion (p. 213). Perhaps this is a holdover from the dissertation form, a form that privileges the masculine logos-based discourse over any other. In my experience, to complete a dissertation is to show one's “mastery” of this form of discourse. Even to speak from a women's place is to first demonstrate that one can speak from the man's place. One must earn the license to speak the feminine.

The third chapter, “Who Begets Whom? Disavowing the Maternal Body: 1 Chronicles 1–9,” marks the shift to a feminine form of discourse by interweaving a psychoanalysis of the text with the creation of a poetic reframing of Lamentations. Kelso begins each part of her discussion by presenting the Hebrew text. She does this for aesthetic reasons, and for reasons of method (our estrangement as readers of her book), but of course it is also very helpful. The analysis itself takes the form of psychoanalysis — addressing the text in the second person, and taking the form of a narrative. Kelso makes the intriguing argument that the text of the genealogies harbours the phantasy of men giving birth to their own offspring, thus obviating the need for the maternal-woman. Whenever the verb ילד (yalad) is used and a female character is present, there arise grammatical and/or syntactical difficulties, or a breakdown of logic in the text. The feminine is constituted as the maternal, yet the text yearns for “mono-sexual, masculine (re)production” (p. 162).

Chapter Four, “The Debt-Free Masculine Subject: The Repressed Maternal Body in 1 Chronicles 10–2 Chronicles 36,” uses the same psychoanalytic mode and interwoven lamentations to analyze the rest of Chronicles. In this chapter, Kelso argues that it is the maternal body that is repressed in the bulk of Chronicles: the silencing of the maternal body is foundational for the narrative. The description of the temple in 2 Chr 3 reveals the repressed maternal body, as the temple conforms to the mono-productive male body—a phallic body (the overlarge vestibule) with a womb (the cave-like interior). The bodies of Saul and his sons, penetrated by uncircumcised men, indicate the repressed maternal body, while the diseased bodies of Jehoram, Asa, and Uzziah expose the maternal body's return. The internal organs (usually translated as bowels, but the word also means womb) are exposed in Jehoram's case, while Asa and Uzziah's bodies defile cultic purity laws. The only mother who speaks in the narrative, Athaliah, is a murderer.

Perhaps Kelso does not sufficiently problematize the essentialist nature of Irigaray's thought, reclaiming a “feminine” mode of thought and textual production. Yet there is, in my own experience, something very masculine about Chronicles and its scholarship. For example, a masculine critique of Kelso's argument that could (and surely will) be made is that the extreme height of the temple vestibule in 2 Chr 3:4 is a textual error, and Kelso's argument thus does not cohere. It surely does not cohere according to this masculine form of discourse, but Kelso is not working within that form of discourse. Recognizing an essential difference in her discourse is required to participate in it.

It is tempting to extrapolate from Kelso's psychoanalysis of the text of Chronicles to psychoanalysis of the author of Chronicles. Kelso herself does not do this. Yet, one might ask: What factors might contribute to the formation of an author of such a text? What factors might contribute to readers preserving the work of such an author? Understanding the power of these factors might give some help to constructing a feminine reading of the text that re-orients the myths of origins. The historical process of erasure exposed by using Irigaray's thought could then be taken further in constructing and reworking the myths of origins. As such, Kelso's book is one piece of a larger feminist project.

Christine Mitchell, St. Andrew's College