Possibly the most delicate rendering of the Annunciation in visual art is, to my mind, Fra Angelico’s rendering (Figure I), the one that suddenly gleams upon the visitor in the little museum of San Marco in Florence, as s/he turns the corner at the top of the winding stair leading straight to this painting. And even its poster reproduction in my study surprises me with harmony and serenity.
Figure I (Beato Angelico, Annunciation, circa 1438–1445)
Gabriel has stepped into Mary’s balcony, their space is symmetrically divided as well as joined up by the central pillar, the two figures are united in their gesture of cross-armed, reverent bowing. They are caught up in the same world of colours, his wings picking up the green of her cloak, her hair-band reflecting the pink of his robe, and her green uniting the indoor space with the grass beyond the balcony, the enveloping zone which shades off into the outer space from which the angel has appeared.
That world and hers seem to be in the process of generative continuum, not in opposition. The threshold at which this encounter happens is figured as a space of union. Mary’s reception of the word seems beatific, accepting, and instinct with the numinous in this moment. The angel is clearly bent in the posture of salutation. It is a picture one wants to live with. The peace it breathes, however, is conditional upon what Derrida would call ‘absolute hospitality’: ‘The law of unlimited hospitality’, which displaces and overrides ‘the laws…which are conditioned and conditional…across family, civil society, and the State’.10 It is premised, in other words, on a ‘strange hierarchy’, but it is visually translated into symmetry.
Look now at another Annunciation (Figure II) – an image one would hesitate to invite into the habitable fantasy of one’s living space precisely because of its flagrant denial of this peace. Its vivid and visual acknowledgement of the incipient violence of absolute hospitality, with the muscular Gabriel (and his troop of sturdy little winged angels) breaking through the fragile roof of Mary’s abode, places this image in a counter-beatific tradition of representing the moment of arrival. This is Tintoretto’s Annunciation, bleeding through the darkly luminous surface of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, a vast canvas that bursts upon the guest, the visitor, the stranger, surprising her not with the harmony and containment of Beato Angelico’s vision, but with Dionysiac ravagement. There is a subtle transference here: the violence of the ‘foreigner’ is turned upon the observer who has come in from outside to partake of the moment of approach; the visitor, or foreigner, at the Scuola who, expecting consummation, finds confrontation. For ‘crossing the threshold is entering, and not only approaching or coming’ (Derrida, Of Hospitality, 123).
Figure II (Jacopo Tintoretto, Annunciation, 1581/2.)
It does more than acknowledge, and does something more violent; it questions the very process of entry. It is, of course, the very first canvas facing one as one enters the Scuola. Derrida offers a suggestive exploration of the ambivalence of hospitality, a crucial theme at stake in representations of the Annunciation. For him, it is at once a profoundly emotive and political metaphor, and one which, like the threshold the guest steps across, is Janus-faced:
…there is no politics without…an open hospitality to the guest as ghost, whom
one holds, just as he holds us, hostage.
The first, more obvious implication is that of the power of the host. This power and the ceremony through which it is tempered and controlled, when abused, can cause a tragic rupture in nature: witness how, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Macbeths betray the unspoken bond and hold Duncan in their castle inescapably – inescapably both for Duncan and, as they will realise, for themselves. But the even more painful betrayal is the one in which the host takes over, and defies the understood relation. When Tarquin turns rapaciously upon Lucrece in Shakespeare’s Lucrece, or Iachimo in Cymbeline, in a differently sinister way, upon Imogen who has housed him with grace, we have examples of this. The idea of ingratitude and betrayal implicit here finds a painful extension in Lear’s image of his Pelican daughters (3.4.71), and an equally vivid expression in the all-licensed fool’s jingle:
For you know, nuncle,
The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long
That it’s had it head bit off by it young;
So out went the candle, and we were left darkling.
(King Lear, Folio, 1.4.188–91)
In the same play, the guests in Gloucester’s house, Cornwall and Goneril, gradually become trespassers: first they order him to shut up his doors – a command that could be protective, but verges on the tyrannical; then the sisters have him blinded and ‘thrust him out at gates’ – his own gate, the threshold of his own house, becomes the site of tragic reversal (3.7.93). As Heather Dubrow, in a recent article on land law and Lear puts it, ‘The guest taking over the house, effecting a Bakhtinian reversal of roles, is of course a familiar and transcultural comedic turn.
But to Shakespeare’s audience the situation would also have signaled the insecurity of dwelling places in their own historical moment.’ Dubrow offers a rigorously historicist interrogation of what becomes, in the play, a tragic insecurity and dispossession, rather thana comedic topsy-turvydom.
What Shakespeare dramatises and Dubrow historicises, Derrida theorises. But crucially, Derrida is engaged with both sides of the fragile equation, though one takes the other over as his imagination progresses. He does not simply conceptualise the unconditionality of letting the guest in, but dwells, himself, on the threshold between addressing ‘the violence of the power of hospitality’ – and this belongs to the patriarch, the familial despot, the father, the spouse – and the subtle reversal through which ‘the guest becomes the host’s host’; and from host to hostage is one small step for the inviting host, as from guest to parasite. That threshold is where the peripeteia – or reversal – of the social, political or divine plot occurs; when the invited foreigner to whom we open our doors, be it in an act of invitation or asylum, but on whom we hope to retain our mastery, takes us over.
It is also the site where the conflation of invader, liberator and foreigner, as between guest and host, is made possible. After all, the Latin hostis, which means ‘guest’, also means ‘enemy’ – the double sense Derrida is playing on when he reflects on the ‘paradoxical filiation of the hostis’ . On the one hand, he speaks of the desire to be entered, to be occupied. On the other,
It is as if the stranger or foreigner held the keys. This is always the situation of the foreigner, in politics too, that of coming as a legislator to lay down the law and liberate the people or the nation by coming from outside, by entering into the nation or the house, into the home that lets him enter after having appealed to him… So it is indeed the master, the one who invites, the inviting host, who becomes hostage – and who really always has been. And the guest, the invited hostage, becomes the one who invites the one who invites, the master of the host…
This is a paradox easily identifiable in contemporary international politics, in vexed and controversial examples in the realms of political asylum and acts of terror, and of war and occupation. The balance keeps getting disturbed, and the ineffable symmetry of powers which maintains the equilibrium of political as well as domestic life is proved to be tragically vulnerable.
The tension between the householder’s mastery and the need, even desire, to abandon all claims to ownership, on which Derrida’s notion of ‘impossible’ hospitality pivots, is precisely the tension that is not allowed its delicate poise by Tintoretto.In his painting, the hostis tears through the fabric of Mary’s bedchamber, even as the holy dove pierces the surprised and passive ‘hollow of [ her] ear’, and divinity penetrates her womb, that very little room. The ‘door and windows’ – the point of entry into the interior that defines Derridian hospitality– crumble and dissolve into a whirl of wings, great and small, fluttering frighteningly into Mary’s chamber; the wood lies in a pile of wreckage around it, leaving only a broken pillar stripped of its paint and with the bricks showing. This is a pillar which, unlike Fra Angelico’s, marks the roughness of the crossing of the threshold, not the assimilation of the other. It sharply separates the divine space and Mary’s bedroom, contributing to the dominance of vertical movement which replaces the horizontal symmetry of Fra Angelico’s painting with Gabriel and Mary facing each other; here, Gabriel and his angelic cascade burst in from above.
Light itself becomes an invader from outer space, as it infiltrates the shady afternoon world where Mary has been knitting and reading. It is captured at the moment of transition, and not seen through to what van Gennep calls the ‘post-liminal’ stage. The light that streams in also lights up Mary’s face, with its look of absolute startlement and terror: she ha jumped out of her skin, which has made her book (the Bible) fall on her lap, her knitting to her feet. Gabriel’s face and posture, on the other hand, have the certainty of knowledge and of mission.
This vision of a violent annunciation finds its closest echo in the poetry of the twentieth century – in Yeats – though, after him, several poets have addressed this moment, most notably Geoffrey Hill and Charles Tomlinson. But that is another story.
Subha Mukherji teaches at Downing College, University of Cambridge. This is an excerpt from her essay ‘Invasion from Outer Space,’ from Thinking on Thresholds: The Poetics of Transitive Spaces (Edt.Subha Mukherji) Anthem Press, New York & London, 2011.