In the biblical book of Isaiah, the writer tells how ‘the Spirit of the Lord God is upon’ him to preach and heal and bring comfort and liberty to those who have been oppressed.
To give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called the trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord …
(Isaiah 61.3 AV)
It is a passage part of which the Gospel writer puts also into the mouth of Jesus (Luke 4.18-19): the one who comes from God brings liberty, gladness and beauty. Like trees ﬂourishing in a garden of the Lord, life and delight are promised by the one upon whom the Spirit of God rests. In the narrative of Western religion, however, there has been little focus on
beauty and ﬂourishing. Much more attention has been paid to ‘ashes’, the violence and destruction which is to be replaced by beauty. History itself, in the auto-narrative of the West, has constituted itself on the premise of violence. History is about politics and war, about ‘what happens’. Beauty does not ‘happen’, is not construed as an event, is therefore not a part of ‘history’. As Mieke Bal has written, there is an eagerness to deﬁne ‘history as primarily military and political history’ which ‘prevents scholars from seeing other issues and continuous structures’ (Bal 1988:13). Since that eagerness is rooted in an androcentric perspective it is hardly surprising that beauty has often been construed not only as not having to do with history but also primarily of concern to women. In the focus on death, violence and war, beauty is displaced to the future, to Utopia, to women, to the unhistorical. There are complex interconnected issues here, of historiography, gender,
aesthetics and religion. What counts as history? Who does the counting? – and from what perspectives of gender and power? How do ‘continuous structures’ like beauty ﬁgure in or frame history and how are they displaced? There is ongoing debate about these issues among historians and historiographers, and it is not my intention to bring theoretical resolution to them
here. Instead, I want to show how the Hebrew Bible itself, one of the germinal texts of the auto-narrative of the West, trains the gaze on ashes: the ashes of sacriﬁce, of burned cities, of holocaust and holy war, all based in an originary covenant with God. These are themes which have shaped and continue to shape Western self-understanding and action in their afterlife in our habitus, structuring the gendered symbolic of death and violence which I am tracing in these volumes. Yet always in the margins are the counter-memories which disrupt and
destabilize this violent symbolic and suggest alternatives of natality and ﬂourishing, of beauty for ashes. There are voices which protest at injustice, women and men whose understanding of the divine is not constricted by self-protective boundaries defended by aggression and violence, songs and stories which lift up beauty and ﬂourishing. And it is upon these, according to both the writer of Isaiah and the Gospel, that the spirit of the Lord rests.