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Francesca Morgan Dissects the American Obsession with Genealogy

A Nation of Descendants: Politics and the Practice of Genealogy in US History 
by Francesca Morgan.
North Carolina, 301 pp., £27.95, October 2021, 978 1 4696 6478 1

Genealogy​ – the records of descent, the pedigrees of mortals and gods, of genos, race, kind and offspring – is one of the great feats of the human imagination: a vast collection of stories, both intimate and cosmic, that bind the living to the dead and to one another, the past to the present and the present to what is to come. It is a primal work of culture, a narrative cornucopia encompassing stories about the origins of heroes and kings; stories about nations, whose gnarly, almost metaphysical genealogical connections are bound up in the Latin root natus and its cognates; stories about ancestors told around campfires, in books and now in hyperspace.

The work of the imagination in metaphorical genealogies is obvious. In Hesiod and Homer, for instance, the gods of earth and sky produce the Titans, Cronus and his sister, Rhea, who gives birth to Zeus and other Olympian gods. Achilles is a great-grandson of Zeus through his grandfather Aeacus; through his mother, Thetis, he is a grandson of one of the gods of the sea. Hector is a great-grandson of Zeus through Electra, one of the Pleiades. And so on.

The genealogy of Christ has a different sort of fictive logic because it has a telos: the fulfilment of the prophecy that the Messiah would be a descendant of the House of David. This precludes the pyrotechnic genealogical loops of the pagan gods, but it also illustrates the problem of genealogy more generally. Where to start and who to include? The Gospel of Luke takes the lineal patriarchal story back to Adam, which makes us all Sons of Man, if not of David in particular. Matthew starts with Abraham and arranges the ancestors in three neat groups: fourteen generations from Abraham to David; fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon; fourteen from the exile to the Christ. The two gospels are in concordance between Abraham and David and then they diverge. Matthew goes forwards in time; Luke starts with Jesus and goes back to Adam. It is a genealogy that leaves room for subplots in the family romance. Onan was killed not for masturbating but for threatening to disrupt a lineage – that is, for spilling his seed on the ground when he had sex with his dead brother’s wife. It was left to his father, Judah, the fourth son of Jacob and Leah, to do the genealogical work of getting from Abraham to David via the body of his daughter-in-law.

Two aspects of Jesus’s story speak to the role of the imagination in the history of how and why we represent descent as we do. One engages the visual imagination: the invention sometime around the first millennium of the Tree of Jesse (the father of David), representing the prophecy in Isaiah 11:1: ‘And there shall come forth a Rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.’ We are still in the age of the family tree: with the root at the top or the bottom, it is in the branches and twigs that the serious work of the imagination is done.

Second is the question, still unresolved in Christological debates, which haunts Francesca Morgan’s A Nation of Descendants: what grounds for the claim of kinship do genealogical practices record and what follows from that claim? There is ‘genetic fetishism’, the modern form of the fetishism of blood; the fetishism of eidos (the essence, the species type, the organising idea); of matter-flesh; of adoption; of godparentage or step-parentage in various cultural contexts. All subsist as grounds of kinship by the human act of making them so.

Patriarchy – male descent – has historically dominated genealogy generally and the genealogy of Jesus in particular: all that begetting! But what exactly does descent entail? Joseph is of the House of David, but he is in no sense consanguineous; his is not the eidos that bore Christ’s essence and quickened the matter in Mary’s womb. That would be God. The prophecy is fulfilled because of a particular understanding of kinship: Joseph is the father because he was married to the child’s mother, because he accepted the child.

I take this story as a synecdoche for genealogy as an act of the human imagination. In that sense, genealogy can be a record of filiation that has nothing to do with biology: a branch of history, an exercise in historical interpretation. There are genealogies of feminism, of existentialism, of liberalism, of football dynasties, just as there are genealogies of families and peoples: they are all ways of constructing – of imagining – a past for the present.

Read entire article at London Review of Books