May 18, 2002
Early Ibero/Anglo-American Summit
The Memoirs of Luis de Carvajal and The Autobiography of Thomas Shepherd
We were asked to restrict our comments to about 5-6 minutes. It may seem an act of hubris then to address two texts, rather than one in such a short time. In the spirit of this conference, I wanted to see if I could find a way to look usefully at two texts—one produced in New Spain and the other in New England—in order to address one of the questions of this seminar. Let me repeat the questions we were asked to think about: first how to make this material interesting to students. Then, whose life gets written, and how do we as readers and scholars define and delimit the notions of "life" and "writing" in the early period. How do these text challenge the conventional definitions of autobiography?
I looked at two famous examples of early modern life writing one by the crypto Jew Luis de Carvajal who renamed himself Joseph Lumbroso. Intended for his brothers, who had fled to Europe, Carvajal wrote this document after the Inquisition in January 1595 released him. He was rearrested in February, tortured, and burned at the stake along with his mother, three of his sisters and four other Jews on December 8, 1596. The second piece of early modern life writing I chose for this occasion will strike most scholars as more typical than the first; Thomas Shepherd’s so-called Autobiography written for his son.
To explain how I would make this material interesting in today’s classroom and to address the question of why these lives were put into writing, let me first explain the dilemma these texts pose. These texts are not autobiographies. At best, they deal only with select details of the writers’ lives. Yet, why would someone such as Carvajal write down those few details that he has recorded of his life as a crypto Jew? Why commit to writing the very sort of fact that would have meant his certain death if it were merely reported to the Inquisition? As for Shepherd, who wrote forty years later in Massachusetts, he says he wrote his text because he wanted his son to know and love God. Did he not, however, provide a Christian education for each of his sons? Did they not hear his famous sermons or read the published versions that were so popular? Why write, then, these few tidbits of a life?
By way of addressing these questions, let me make a brief digression. Six months ago, a philosopher at Columbia, Akeel Bilgrami, spoke to an interdisciplinary group on the philosophy of identity. He wanted to counter the pervasive opinion that suicide in the cause of terrorism was irrational, demented, and even evil. He wanted to propose a theory of identity that might lead to understanding a culture very different from that of contemporary liberal secular United States. His theory came immediately to mind as I prepared these remarks.
Bilgrami proposed three categories of identity.
1. The first and most familiar is based on genealogy. We activate this theory when we say: Where are you from? Who are you by birth and origin as in, “I am the grandson of a Bessarabian rug merchant.”
2. The second common category for identity is based on something like interpellation, meaning what cultural categories define you. I activate this theory when I say I am an atheist, a professor, a member of the liberal left, a Jew of culture
3. The third category is one that US academics and most of their students seldom understand. Although he argued that this category is crucial to the Islamic fundamentalist, Bilgrami could not label this as he could the first two, but instead used the well-known episode from Homer’s Odyssey where Ulysses orders his men to tie him to the mast to prevent him from responding to the Siren’s song. According to this descriptive theory, who we are depends on something we cannot change without changing who we are. Ulysses felt this way about yielding to his desire for the Sirens. To do so would prevent him from reassuming his position of authority back home in Greece. Well before he felt that desire to jeopardize his authority, he took out an insurance policy. He ordered that he be lashed to the mast. That was Bilgrami’s third definition of identity and that is the one that I would bring to bear on the life writing of Carvajal and Shepherd.
Luis de Carvajal’s memoirs explains how his father settled the family in New Spain, so that they—except for his oldest brother Gaspar who had been given to the Dominicans as a boy and joined the order—could live as Jews, even if that meant pursuing their faith covertly and imperfectly. He tells of his coming to knowledge as a Jew, how he performed his own circumcision and later that of his brother. He reports the prayers he had memorized and a variety of other details we learn concerned him as a crypto Jew. All these events make him a Jew by the first two categories I described a moment ago. It is the very writing of the memoirs, however, that binds him to the mast. Even though official records claim that he was reconciled to the Church at the last moments of torture and so was garroted before his flesh burned, four centuries later scholars still refuse to believe he truly recanted his Judaism. By life writing that proclaims he died a Jew, Carvajal cancelled out the inquisitor’s testimony that the subject was “reconciled” and kissed the cross before death. In this case, life writing is writing that gives life an identity of that third kind.
As for Shepherd, it is true that like Carvajal’s family, he was persecuted for his faith in the Old World. Like Carvajal, he, too, left the metropolis for the New World. Once in Massachusetts, Shepherd lived openly as a Puritan and won fame for his preaching. If he felt comfortable and at ease with his identity in New England, can we say that he was tied to the mast? Modern intuition would say no. He found a culture sufficient to contain him and give him a place he earned by merit. This is our modern individualism speaking. I would argue, however, that the Puritan Shepherd was more like than different from the crypto Jew. Like Carvajal, life writing was the means of securing identity for Shepherd.
If anything, these texts might be profitably taught in opposition to the prevailing notions that life writing is the means of self-expression. I would use these texts to show that not all identities can be understood in terms of family genealogy or cultural interpellation. Much of the past did think of identity as something that had to be preserved whatever the cost—even suicidally—indeed, as something on which the survival of community depended regardless of the individual.
In his so-called autobiography, Shepherd, as much as Carvajal confronted the task of canceling out certain aspects of himself that today we consider most human. His misfortunes were signs that God had singled him out and looked favorably upon him. His recoveries—and he was resourceful—were due to no agency of his own, but were signs again of God’s presence in his life. To achieve prominence in the radical Puritan community required nothing short of what in modern terms would be called self extinction, as it required the relentless attribution of cause and effect to someone else. By writing his life in these terms, Shepherd sought to convince his son that his high position in the Christian community came not from his father’s agency but from God. What is this if not a way of tying oneself to the mast?