Monday, July 7, 2014

Performing with Non-Humans: Ceremonial Objects, Animal Imitation and the Penitential Acts of Sir Gowther

This past Saturday, having finally caught up with my quals reading and Greg off work for the first time in over a week, my partner and I felt the call to aventure. We responded by journeying out to Piscataway Park, just south of Fort Washington in Maryland (photos from my tour of Fort Washington, a place where each layer of its history is an almost tangible force affecting the present, can be found on my Facebook page, here). We arrived at a bridge, a boardwalk traversing a truly sublime splendor of swamp flora - marshgrasses and cattails, orange daylilies and trumpet flowers – and a motley pageant of fauna – deep-threated toads, buzzing, iridescent dragonflies, soaring hawks and painted turtles. In other words, we walked into an American Xanadu of white, middle-class, capital-N Nature. And yet, this excursion was only made possible by the interference of human carpentry, carpentry also responsible for an artificial driftwood-shelf that protects the biodiversity of the endangered swamp from the Potomac’s tide; and so, instead of lambasting the unnecessary intrusion of humans into this space in order to manifest a Romantic dream of the great outdoors, I celebrated the enmeshment of the human and non-human engendered by such manufactured structures.

Upon crossing the boardwalk, however, we unexpectedly found ourselves on the sacred territory of the Piscataway Tribe, a vast field that once supported the village of Moyaone and still holds the bones of its ancestors. A spokesperson and defender of the tribe, Turkey Tayak, was buried beneath a red cedar tree (also known as a juniper, juniperis virginiana) in the 70s, and a small shrine dedicated to his memory was erected before the arboreal monument. This shrine is a gathering of objects, a small circle of stones filled with totems and offerings of abundant diversity – from an owl statue and a plastic T-rex to an animal jaw bone (perhaps a fox), coins, an arrow and a petite wooden flute. Soon enough I was on the ground before this dedicatory assemblage of objects, thinking about Jane Bennett’s encounter with another peculiar gathering of things in a city storm grate (1). Although Bennett’s litany describes objects that perhaps found their own way to that grate, whereas the items before my eyes were intentionally left at this shrine, both collections of things vibrate with a similar allure.
Moreover, these objects, although likely selected for their symbolic resonances, because assembled for a certain ritual function, are left to perform their unique agencies regardless of the presence of intending humans. Gathered together in this way, these objects lose their for-human use value, their readiness-to-hand, and connect in a strange machinic collage, a poem of found objects, an ecology of the inanimate and non-human. They make a world as Levi Bryant describes, non-totalizing, dynamic and mutable, “fuzzy and without clearly fixed or defined boundaries and elements” (2). A world may be a stable and self-sustaining set of vectors and operations, yet just as it can survive the loss of an object transplanted out from its system, it is also open and accommodating to new objects, new machines that might make slight modifications within that world.

Thus the world of this material concatenation of Native American ritual objects invited me into its space and practice, to join in the dance and calibrate myself according to its flows and outputs. The allure of its objects compelled me to perform my own oblation, and so I left to Turkey Tayak a small golden bow I found upon the shore of the Potomac just minutes earlier. A dynamic world indeed! And its boundaries stretch well beyond the shrine, for that red cedar tree under which the meat and bones of Turkey Tayak decayed is itself another ritual object, decorated with sachets of tobacco, offerings to the ancestors, prayers to the dead. These red bags adorning the tree extend into the world of the shrine, although they are also engaged with their own network of billowing branches and breezes that mingle the spicy aroma of dried tobacco (and, according to the tradition, the prayers of their makers) with the musky fragrance of juniper berries into the sky. Not all worlds are disenchanted.

So what might any of this have to do with medieval literature, you ask? Of late I have been thinking quite seriously about the ways that performance theory and OOO/ANT might overlap, or at least engage in conversation with each other. Thus, the experience described above is brought to bear on my quals readings from this past week as I wonder about the nature of performance in the Middle English Breton lais and the way that non-human, and mostly magical, objects interact with human actors. This is, of course, a blog, so I will keep this relatively brief, but I would like to look at Sir Gowther, at the strange nature of his performances, his becoming-canine, and the function of the magical objects within the lai.

Richard Schechner famously defines performance as “twice-behaved behavior,” and includes ritual and religious rites amongst many of the standard and obvious examples of performance behaviors in everyday life. (3) Following Schechner, then, it is safe to suggest that Sir Gowther enacts a few performances with his titular lai, both through his acts of penance, and in the triad of combat sequences into which he bears (and is borne upon) a set of magical objects that appear only for the duration of the battles. Gowther, if you recall, is the spawn of an incubus (and of the same paternal ancestry as Merlin!), and the early part of his tale recounts his heinous terrorism of his own people, from an infancy gnawing nipples of nursemaids to a adolescence of arson, rape, murder, and other acts of sacrilegious mischief. The subject of a teleological romance narrative obsessed with piousness, Gowther eventually learns his demonic heritage, receives penance from the Pope, and redeems himself through acts of virtue and piety. I am acutely interested in the penitent practices and acts of redemption, not so much as acts that summon Gowther into the Christian hegemony of his era, but as performances that rely on non-human actors.

When Gowther receives his penance in Rome, the Pope directs his performance; Gowther is only to eat food he himself rends from the mouths of dogs and is not to speak until he receives a sign from God. He is evicted from the signifying order of hegemonic culture until, proving proper piety, he can be re-interpellated into medieval Christian society (or at least the imaginary monolithic Christian West). Yet, in order to prove his contrition, he must perform for an intended audience, an audience that can validate his fidelity to the Pope’s commands (of course, the proper audience is God alone, but the dictum that Gowther refrain from speech seems predicated upon the belief that Gowther will surely continue to seek human company). Surprisingly, however, Gowther’s first companion upon his leaving Rome is a greyhound, notorious friend to humankind, who brings food to the vagabond mute.

The brilliant folks over at In The Middle have commented on the curious way this scene interrupts the telos of redemption, since Gowther is required to wrest food from the dog’s mouth, not accept food as a gift from a canine companion. I would add, however, that this is also a scene of the actor-in-training, of Gowther’s learning an alternative mode of being in the world through an affective togetherness with a non-human; when Gowther reaches the Emperor’s court, he acts like a dog (hiding under a table, sleeping under a curtain), his penance becomes a mimetic performance – which is especially strange because he was ordered only to “yet no meyt bot that thu revus of howndus mothe,” but not to also behave like a hound (4). Thus, on the one hand, Gowther enacts a becoming-dog, for his performance emerges from his cohabiting a dog’s world, and he teases out concepts of loyalty and self-sacrifice just as he teases the food from their very mouths (cruel, perhaps, but the text says nothing of Gowther’s being bitten for his theft nor of any dogs starving, so I like to think that these hounds were quite capable of procuring another meal after losing their first). Yet Gowther also chooses to behave like the non-human companion that modeled compassion for him, an animal exemplum of the “Do unto others” injunction. Gowther begins his sojourn to reconciliation with God by straddling, and thereby blurring, the boundary between human and non-human animal (5).

Gowther’s next major performance is on the field of battle, for he thrice fights alongside the Emperor to keep at bay a Sultan who would have the Emperor’s mute daughter for wife (6). These battles are a part of Gowther’s penitence, and when the Emperor marches off to war, Gowther prays to God for the accoutrements that will allow him to participate. God, of course, delivers, for this salvific drama cannot unfold without its magical objects: Gowther receives armor, a shield, a spear and a horse, and altogether these objects form an ass-kicking warrior-machine. After each battle sequence and upon Gowther’s return to the castle, however, these objects disappear, only to re-appear just in time for the following military campaigns; these objects also shift colors, appearing first as black, then red, then finally white. The hues of these objects surely provide semiotic cues about the spiritual progress of Gowther, yet these things are more than human signs: they are the very things that engender the possibility of his penitential performance. Just as Gowther relies on the animal to learn moral behavior, he also depends upon inanimate things to practice righteous living; a thick mesh of object-agency, his world!

The repetition of this spiritual battle also creates a strange sense of time, an asynchronicity not unlike the queer time discussed by Carolyn Dinshaw (7). For the temporality within which Gowther practices his penitence is the uncanny time of ritual, of the performance that repeats and yet is never quite the same. Gowther enters into a shared temporal landscape with these ephemeral, magical objects, and performs as a warrior for the duration of the objects themselves, the weapons, armor and equestrian companion that disappear when the play has ended. This is the circular time of ritual, a ritual that adjusts to the aleatory nature of its unstable environment. It is the uncertain time of desire, desire to revive the violence of the past (Gowther still wields the falchion he crafted as a demonic youth), as well as to rescript that violence as a battle for his soul. It is the time of magical objects, for objects themselves “time,” manifest their own temporalities as they persist in the world and couple with other objects (8).

Objects make worlds within which humans participate and negotiate our place, but to which we are never outside or beyond. Just as I stumbled from one ahuman world into another, tangled in a web of marsh life and then invited to participate in a ceremony of object agency and thing-power, Gowther performs the tired tropes of Christian redemption narrative by negotiating canine culture and flowing with the rhythms of magical objects. So if the tidy conclusion of the lai is unsatisfying for its predictability and affirmation of a God-given, For-Human World, I take heart that at least Gowther’s journey was a messy enmeshment with unpredictable, inhuman worlds.

(1) Bennet, Vibrant Matter (Durham: Duke UP, 2010). I would quote at length, but any reading this blog is already familiar with the passage I reference above.
(2) See Bryant’s wonderful new book: Onto-cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2014): 122.
(3) See “What is Performance?” in Performance Studies: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. (Routledge, 2013)
(4) “Sir Gowther,” in The Middle English Breton Lais, eds. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo: TEAMS Middle English Texts, 2001): line 296.
(5) For more on animality, cohabitation and the medieval exemplum, see Joyce Salisbury, The Beast Within, 2nd ed.(Routledge, 2011), or Susan Crane, Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain (Philadelphia: Penn Press, 2012).
(6) Had I more time, and were this not a blog, I would trace the problematic relationships the text establishes between disability, animality, and Orientalism.
(7) See How Soon is Now?: Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time (Durham: Duke UP, 2012).
(8) See Timothy Morton, “Objects as Temporary Autonomous Zones,” continent 1.3 (2011).

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Bridging Life and Death in Parzival

I have a special fondness for bridges. Walking bridges, in particular. I do not care where they might take me; it’s not the promise of futurity, it’s not the desire for the other side, but the hovering in the middle that really delights. Bridges are records of the past, marked by traces of every foot, wheel, or paw that has crossed, as well as the invitation to step, amble, run, roll or crawl towards the unseen; yet the bridge itself lingers in the present as a pause and a duration. Bridges mark a liminal space, a middle, an amorphous potentiality of after before and not yet then, they offer the thrill of stopping somewhere in between. If bridges are the infrastructure of the State that enable the transportation of goods to the very markets that erase the labor of the crossing and the matter of the making, if the motility engendered by a bridge is movement within the Big Bad Capitalist Machine, then pausing to look over the side and wondering at the life forms and plastic bottles and monstrous thieves that make under the bridge their home are acts of resistance, practices of everyday life (1), errant wanderings away from the neoliberal subject-making machine that siphons the agency and autonomy from living (and non-living) beings.

Thus, just the other day my partner, aware that I was feeling particularly enervated, took me to a bridge in the hopes of putting a little courage back into my self-abasing animus. Together we practiced a bit of healing magic as we travelled back and forth across the bridge (pictured above), stopping and stopping and stopping to examine the peeling paint, the budding trees, the pools of tadpoles and timid painted turtles. As the weight of the past few days lifted from my chest, I suddenly felt myself transported to another bridge, the draw-bridge before Munsalvaesch in Wolfram von Eschebach’s Parzival, a bridge I had been, until that moment, unsure how to cross. Because, for all my talk of stasis and sitting in the middle, “bridge” is a verb as well as a noun, and eventually one makes his or her way to the other side. And in order to cross the bridge and approach “The Gral” offering its cornucopia of excess within the castle at Munsalvaesch, I needed to translate yet another bridge, one between a 13th century piece of Germanic Arthuriana and contemporary approaches to disability theory that take into consideration material agency and the neoliberal subject.

It’s certainly not an achievement (and it hardly takes a bridge) to locate and access a disability narrative within the Fisher King myth. King Anfortas, the appointed keeper of the grail (spelled “gral” in the German Parzival, but for the sake of conformity, I’ll maintain the traditional English spelling), suffers from a lance-wound to the groin and, consequently, cannot walk or even stand. Parzival first spots the king fishing on a lake, but comes to find out that the act of fishing is really a chance for Anfortas to let his festering wound take some air (and likely offer some olfactory respite to a court that applies inefficacious healing unguents and herbs primarily to cover the reek of bodily decay). This associative link between fish and the wounded king also gestures to the flaccid nature of the king’s (in)fertility organ, as well as positioning him with the animals in a medieval animacy hierarchy that subjects the lower order of beasts to mankind’s sovereignty (2). Thus the ichthyic Anfortas, king in name but sub-human in body, is subject to the authority of his court, of his caretakers, and of the Templars that police his every move. Anfortas even wishes to die, to release himself and his kingdom from plight, but “he was made to live against his will and not die (392).” (1) If traditional readings of the Fisher King myth insist that the king’s infertility plagues the kingdom, I argue that, in Wolfram’s Parzival, at least, Anfortas as enfeebled and piscine human is made to suffer by the will of the able-bodied kingdom.

Further, the very means by which Anfortas can be forced into prolonged existence, forced to survive without the chance to flourish, is the efficacy of the grail, for “however ill a mortal may be, from the day on which he sees the Stone he cannot die for that week” (239). Thus the members of Anfortas’s court drag him against his will before the stone, forcing their king to continue an agonizing existence he would just as soon abandon. In Wolfram’s Parzival, the grail is a precious stone, a virtuous gem that operates like a cornucopia, manifesting viands and libations, as well as life, for every body that comes before it. If the grail was delivered to earth by angels, there is nothing terribly sacred in its power to fuel gluttony, to give more, and more and more until the desire for more becomes the only possible desire of the grail’s subjects. Whereas the other agentic objects that inhabit the world of Parzival, from pain-inducing planets to magical healing herbs, evidence a trans-corporeal environment of things working through each other in richly material ways (4), the agency of the grail is more insidious as it becomes a machine that overwrites the desires of its subjects, just as the writing on the grail hails the next grail-king. Thus the wounded Anfortas, scripted as king by the grail and thus excepted from the polis by the very nature of political sovereignty (here summoning Agamben (5)), is reduced to a state of bare life when the hegemonic bloc of the grail-court preserve the king’s body in a powerless existence of impairment and decay.

The grail, then, produces a state of dis-ease that I find analogous to Lauren Berlant’s idea of slow death: “The phrase slow death refers to the physical wearing out of a population in a way that points to its deterioration as a defining condition of its experience and historical existence” (6). Of course, Berlant refers to a condition of late-stage capitalism in which unhealthy practices like overeating and drinking become episodic escapes from the exhausting production of consumer-subjectivities within an imaginary state of individual sovereignty, and it would be entirely irresponsible and ahistorical to read Parzival as a pure example of this condition of slow death. Yet the grail’s intra-action through the bodies of Munsalvaesch engenders an entire culture of sickness eerily similar to our contemporary condition in which all bodies seem to be failing the gold standard of the State apparatus in some way. For, although (as Foucault reminds us) the medieval body was sacred and not subject to biopolitical control, for although the pre-Modern market had not yet shaped the consuming body’s desire for ‘stuff’ somehow erased of its meaning and the labor of its creation, there is nevertheless something uncomfortably modern and proto-capitalistic about this tale in which a man is forced by the public to suffer his wounded existence despite his desire to die, and in which an object creates an endless supply of food and drink, creates the desire for an endless supply of food and drink, a supply that has no visible means of production. No, I do not wish to map a contemporary sociopolitical plight onto a medieval text, but the conditions of life within the castle that houses the grail in this 13th century text resonate quite audibly with the notion of a slow death culture of subordination to a capitalist hegemony. Of course, the bodies in Munsalvaesch never actually die, so perhaps un-death culture is more apropos.

What of the bodies outside this un-death kingdom of perpetual disability, what of the world of bodies that are permitted to die of their own accord? Moving back across the bridge away from Munsalvaesch, we find a crypt, a house of the dead juxtaposed against the castle of too much life. Within this crypt lies the body of a knight and the corpse of poor Sigune, a wretched, if beautiful, maiden whose life had been riddled with sorrow and loss. First encountered by the blithe young Parzival very early in the tale, she is found grieving over the body of her recently departed lover, Schionatulander, a prince unjustly slain by Orilus. Although Sigune and her dead prince are eventually avenged by Parzival, she nevertheless takes maidenhood and mourning as her vocation and builds a tomb for Schionatulander in the woods near the castle Munsalvaesch, where “above his tomb she led a life of pain” (223). The condition of her life is a perpetual state of mourning and suffering, a soul-deep despair that deprives her of any ability to flourish. Sigune wears the hair-cloth of mourning, her skin is moribund-grey, and “Her lover was Great Sorrow, who laid her Gaiety down and roused many sighs from her heart” (224). While lamentation and repentance were common practices of medieval female mystics, and although Sigune has taken up a life of prayer, her sorrow is surely not spiritual practice, and her utmost desire is for reunion with her mortal lover, not her divine maker. Thus, when we last encounter Sigune as a corpse interred in the same mausoleum she had constructed for her prince, we imagine she has found peace in death, that she is at last free from her suffering. Barred from ever crossing the bridge into Munsalvaesch, excluded from the Grail’s narrative of ceaseless vitality, Sigune has had the privilege of dying.

And death does seem a privilege in the world of Parzival. For even if the romance concludes with the restoration of Anfortas to health and beauty, with Parzival’s ascent to the throne of the grail kingdom, might we step softly on that bridge to futurity and wonder what is to come for our hero? What if Parzival should need to defend his queen and become wounded in battle (the Grail-king becomes vulnerable when distracted by love), will he be cursed as well with too much life, forced against his will to look upon the Grail and despair? The text only suggests that his son is next to take the throne, and such ambiguity invites the reader to consider what conditions might obviate the passing of the crown and begs us to imagine a grey-haired and frail Parzival, crippled by a festering wound, perpetually agonizing and begging for release. For in the Grail culture of un-death, just as in the contemporary world of slow death, might actual death be a gift, one last truly autonomous gesture, the privilege of leaping over the bridge when one is no longer willing or able to cross?

(1)Like the spatial practice of perambulating through urban spaces; see Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, esp. Chapter VII, “Walking in the City”
(2)Mel Y. Chen, in Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect, argues that when beings are ordered according to hierarchies of animacy, linkages between human and lower-ordered bodies work to mark certain humans as non-normative and inferior, especially when racialized bodies are metaphorically compared with non-human animals and minerals.
(3) All quotations from Parzival are taken from the A. T. Hatto translation, Penguin 2004
(4)See Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures...but anyone reading this blog already knows this.
(5) See Georgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Heller-Roazen – although Agamben is primarily concerned with political sovereignty and the authority to kill, the right to force a body to live is constructed along similar acts of inclusion/exclusion from the biopolitical power structure and shifting definition of “life.”
(6) Cruel Optimism, 95

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Black and the Grey: Haunted by the Inevitable in "Arrow-Odd"

For days I have been struggling to think not through but with and alongside the troubling Viking romance Arrow-Odd. It is a story that haunts, that hovers like an ephemeral ghost just out of reach, and the deeper one stretches into the story for some sort of answer, the more the tale withdraws into the darkness. Even now, this reader finds himself frozen and ensnared in its shadows. For Arrow-Odd is not a story to be dissected like an onion, peeled back like some fruit concealing grains of knowledge, however multi-valent and layered its narrative might be. It is not a story for thinking, but being, for entangling oneself in the is-ness of things, for hovering between objects like a ghost and finding one’s oikos in the rocky crags, the violent seas, and the wilds and wildernesses that don’t give a fuck about humanity. It is a story that demands its reader discard anthropocentric perspective and allow himself to be swept along the complex networks of living and dying as man, bear, giant, god, stone, tree or wind.

I chose the verb “haunts” above because Arrow-Odd is fraught with the hovering shadows and ghostly-relations born of violent forces and visceral intensities. The violence of Arrow-Odd is like the violence Deleuze reads in the paintings of Francis Bacon, it is the “violence of a sensation (and not of representation), a static or potential violence, a violence of reaction and expression” (Francis Bacon, xxix). It is the potential violence of the fate that hangs over Odd like a cloud, for after a witch foretells Odd’s supernaturally long life, his heroic fortunes, and his death by the skull of a horse, Odd coldly executes the horse – thereby securing his inevitable demise – and journeys throughout the entire imagined world, conquering and pillaging as he establishes and defends his reputation. This reputation, like his fate, is an invisible force which engenders so much of the tale’s carnage, for Odd’s earliest deeds of violence in Permia, a land of sorcery, results in the Permians’ training a magical anti-hero, Ogmund, to seek vengeance upon Odd. Odd’s reputation, fully embodied, is the parasitic enemy always at his heels, feeding on his accomplishments, weakening his resolve precisely as it engenders his story, a story always entangled with Ogmund’s. Ogmund becomes an irrepressible force of nature, a manifestation of fire and sea, blood and bone, the brutality of contact with the more-than-human world, a world that demands suffering and loss. The violence of Arrow-Odd is the violence of co-existence, of suffering with a fully sensate environment.

The sensations of suffering, painted in splashes of blood and swathes of fire, follow Odd as the brutal Viking hero navigates a world comprising improbable scales of time, space and size. Living beyond the life-expectancy of the human, Odd is ever-haunted by the impermanence of life as his friends, blood-brothers and children die off, leaving him frustratingly alive. In Arrow-Odd, time has not a winged-chariot, but a sluggish clubbed foot, and the impossibly slow crawl of time nudges Odd about impossibly vast stretches of space. Three-hundred years of adventure lead our hero from Ireland to Russia, Sweden to Greece, through heathen lands and Christendom, across oceans and into the lairs of giants. Odd even engenders a child upon a giantess, a giantess who perceives Odd to be an infant himself; this shift in perspective invites the reader to acknowledge that, from a monster’s point of view, the human is puny and vulnerable. Even the improbably long-lived and unimaginably well-traveled is nevertheless incredibly miniscule to something, because this is a tale (and a world) in which the improbable becomes the most-likely, in which stone ships bob afloat rivers, silks resist arrows, seas swell with ravenous leviathans, and gods whisper valuable advice but refuse to take up arms. Scale shifts and sways in Arrow-Odd because the world is not for human consumption, it is not an inert backdrop but an active, engaged actor comprising objects inexhaustible in their potentialities.

For Arrow-Odd illustrates the deep ecological entanglement of being, what Levi Bryant calls a “black ecology,” in which “things are characterized by a sort of mysteriousness harboring hidden powers that hold themselves in reserve, waiting to erupt under the right circumstances when they enter into the appropriate interactions with other things” (Prismatic Ecology, 292-3). Although, I would add that Arrow-Odd also explores the eruptions that result from inappropriate interactions, because networks are messy things, rarely stable, often comprising actors unable or unwilling to find accord with one another. Thus, not only Byrant’s black ecology but a “grey ecology” as well, the grey of “exhaustion, even obliteration,” that “also reminds that death is a burgeoning of life by other means” (Jeffrey Cohen, Prismatic Ecology, 270). Objects are flayed and mutilated to become new objects with new possibilities and intensities; a bear-skin becomes a magical weapon, trees are regularly hewn to become clubs, and after his face is torn off by Odd, Ogmund is born into a new identity, King Quillanus, and is inscribed with a political identity and reconciled with his life-sworn enemy. The messiness of porosity and the fragility of precarious relations erupt from a background – which was never only a background – that nourishes as it decomposes. And thus Odd, at the story’s end, returns home and digs up the skull of the horse prophesied to end his days. Beneath the skull, a poisonous serpent lies coiled and injects Odd with his fated demise. The ground, the earth, our oikos is as toxic as it is nurturing, for life and death carouse in a grey debauchery beneath the soil, in a ceaseless danse macabre that hails all and spares none.

“Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?”
(“Lobster Quadrille,” Alice in Wonderland)

Monday, March 31, 2014

A Patchwork Lancelot: Nomadic Spaces and Masculine Quilting in The Knight of the Cart

Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot unveils the uncomfortable and often uncanny overlapping and intermingling of spaces.

No, let me start over: after admitting to a small group of medieval-and-early-modernists over dinner that I find muppets to be truly horrific, I began to think about the perversities of felt, which led me to Deleuze & Guattari on smooth and striated spaces, which led me to think about the patchwork rhythms of Chrétien’s Lancelot and, consequently, to this consideration of the various trajectories through competing, conflicting and overlapping spaces in and about which our hero, the knight of the cart, wanders. Thus, a grad student who is terrified of anthropomorphized felt wants to think about difficult spaces in Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot. Hold your mules.

Step back: last week, as a way into our discussion of Lancelot, the director of my independent study invited me to think about beds, to move from bed to bed with Lancelot, and to consider what beds might mean, what they might do, how Lancelot’s relations with the various beds he encounters might offer an object-oriented reading of the text. We spoke briefly about the sarcophagus-as-bed, and what it might mean to resist one’s messianic calling, but now I am thinking about the more temporary beds, what is on the beds, about the fabrics that get set aflame, the sheets stained with blood, the coverlets upon which rape narratives play out; in short, the various textiles and textures upon which Lancelot/Lancelot writes and is written. For Lancelot is a nomad, a wanderer following his quarry – Guinevere – across un-mappable spaces and resisting again and again the invitations to familiar places written on the sheets of the beds that orient his errant aventure.

Very early in Chrétien’s romance, a beautiful girl warns Lancelot NOT to sleep in a most luxurious bed that is close to her own; which is as good as telling him that he simply MUST crawl in beneath its fancy fur sheets (one might suspect the girl knew exactly what she was doing in giving Lancelot such a warning). In the middle of the night, a flaming lance pierces the bed which Lancelot has chosen and sets “fire to the coverlet, the sheets, and the entire bed,” and even grazes Lancelot’s side and removes a little skin. Flame writes a call to adventure as it ingests the flammable samite; Lancelot, however, subdues the fire and sleeps soundly through the night.

A little later in the tale, after Lancelot spares the life of an enemy knight at the request of a lady, the same lady offers her lusting body as a reward. Lancelot agrees to sleep with the fair woman, and sleep, once more, is all he desires. The lady stages a rape scene upon the bed that she and Lancelot will share: Lancelot sees her bare breasts, pressed against the skin of her assailant, and in the struggle to slay the “rapist” – how unfortunate the knight she cast for that role! – Lancelot’s own top garments are severed, his chest exposed. Two half-naked bodies, blood pumping from the thrill of battle, the bed inviting them to a battle of another sort. Yet, Lancelot abstains from sex and simply falls asleep; Lancelot prefers to envelop himself in the sheets and not in the stories others try to write for him.

Thus these beds are like texts upon which different invitations are written, yet Lancelot prefers to write his own slumbery stories from the words already burned into the bedframes. Or perhaps the space of the bed itself resists certain stories precisely as it engenders others. For what are beds, but comfort machines composed from bits of the animal and vegetal world, acts of carpentry, hewn and stitched together to provide solace and relief to the human. Yet something of the vegetal remains in a bed’s flammability, something of the animal obtains in its porosity; the bed invites an intimacy with the more-than-human world. To say that a bed can be a text is quite true, for sheets are as inscribable parchment, for beds succumb to flame’s appetites as swiftly as books. Might beds have their own stories to tell, stories of liminality, of the spaces between animal and vegetable, mobility and repose, the tactile workings of fabric on human flesh? Or are the beds in Lancelot merely sites for the re-inscription of (male) human narratives?

In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari describe smooth and striated spaces – nomadic trajectories and the sedentary political spaces of the State apparatus – by examining various fabrics. Striated space, the urban political center, the seat of sovereignty, is directional, centered, and closed. Striated space, then, is a woven blanket of vertical and horizontal paths, easily navigable, each point plotted and definite, the familiarity of genre, the locus of control, Camelot. The smooth space, on the other hand, is the patchwork quilt that stretches indefinitely with no fixed points, only nomadic wanderings – it is non-directional dimensionality, the fluid and heathen space of Gorre. Thus as Lancelot moves from bed to bed throughout the various spaces of his tale, he practices a sort of nomadic quilting; or, to put it another way, Lancelot is writing his own narrative with the materials at hand, each bed a patch on an amorphous quilt. A pattern emerges from his fabric, but Lancelot creates a rhythm of dissimilarity, a smooth space upon which trajectories can be traced but which has no overarching, organizing principle. “Patchwork, in conformity with migration, whose degree of affinity with nomadism it shares, is not only named after trajectories, but ‘represents’ trajectories, becomes inseparable from speed or movement in open space” (D&G, 477). Lancelot is a nomad, stitching together a patchwork quilt of resistance.

What does Lancelot resist, whose narratives does he overwrite with his own errant trajectories? These beds are women’s spaces, the stories of female desires – perhaps locations dictated to Chrétien by his patroness, Marie de Champagne? Eventually we arrive at the romance’s ultimate bed, the sheets between which Lancelot and Guinevere achieve the long-awaited climax. Even here, however, Lancelot re-writes the story, scripting a new narrative in blood. Whereas blood on the sheets should signal a loss of female virginity, instead it is Lancelot who writes with in this sanguine script, whose bloodied hands leave an ineradicable trace on the white fabric. For this is not Guinevere’s story, but Lancelot’s; Lancelot the masochist, Lancelot who revels in the chance to rend his flesh for love. As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen reminds us, S&M is not as equitable a pairing as its acronym implies; although the sadist – Guinevere – is in the sovereign position of authority, the masochist participates too enthusiastically in the system, exuberantly exceeds expectations, and thus rewrites the very laws the sovereign can only enforce (for more on Lancelot’s masochism, see JJC’s Medieval Identity Machines). Sadist and masochist, striated and smooth, “the two spaces do not communicate with each other in the same way” (D&G, 475). Smooth and striated spaces overlap, relating not equitably, but instead mixing dangerously; one space is always bleeding through into another. The masochist ruptures the sadist’s desiring apparatus with the spilling of his blood.

Telescope out into narrative space and we find more ruptures and resistances to women’s narratives. The tale opens with Chrétien’s admission that he is in service to a patroness, Marie de Champagne, and that he is only the pen for her story, that he is only writing in the bed that she has made. But might not these moments of Lancelot’s resistance, Lancelot’s recumbence and sanguine revisions of what has been scripted for him, mark the actual author’s own aberrancy? Is Chrétien creating a patchwork of smooth space in opposition to the striations dictated by his muse? Like Lancelot’s, Chrétien’s story is the quiet refusal to take up arms or fully erect lance and, instead, sink deeper beneath the sheets, to squirrel himself away and abandon invitation – which is also to regain control of one’s own narrative, to reposition oneself outside the story in order to regain authority, to sew the patchwork quilt that is always multiple.

Thus Chrétien builds a tower in the middle of his page, to which he runs to hide, to hide Lancelot, creating a striated space within the smoothness, a point emptied of time; yet the building is loosed from its architecture, it is only ever an echo of its blueprint, for we know that here, in the tower, Chrétien abandons his narrative, his hero, his patroness, and leaves the story to another: Godefroy de Lagny. The patchwork quilt, I say again, is multiple, and we know from Godefroy’s own mouth (pen) that he is only telling Chrétien’s story, with Chrétien’s approval. But wasn’t this Marie de Champagne’s story? Thus it seems by escaping from the woman’s woven tale, by moving to the smooth space outside his patroness’s authority, by walling himself away inside his tower, he achieved ultimate sovereignty through an act of ventriloquism.

Muppets bleeding through…

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ocean is the New East: Contemporary Representations of Sea Life and Mandeville’s Monstrous Ecosystems

Spring Break was, well, hardly a break at all, but I celebrated its conclusion with some friends from Ohio who were visiting for the weekend. We dined, we drank, we danced and we toured a few of the MUST SEE sights of DC. Our last stop was the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, where I reveled in the gorgeous new exhibit: The Sant Ocean Hall. The only one of our cadre enamored of oceanic discoveries, I hurried from display to display, basking in bioluminescent beings, awe-struck at extremophiles and trembling before the model of Phoenix, the North Atlantic right whale. Deeply affected by these strange strangers, I stretched my imagination towards the inconceivable and wondered at the sheer breadth of possibilities for ways of living in these still-occult abyssopelagic regions.

I found solace in the evidence that so many vast and heterogeneous lives can flourish without the intrusive light of the sun or human reason, and that such animacy is possible in the darkness, in a “world where the Copernican revolution is irrelevant.” (1) I attempted to think with and alongside such creatures, to make myself uncomfortable by imagining myself breathing without oxygen, thriving at thermal vents, manifesting light with my own body, an aqueous and somewhat amorphous body squeezed and strangled by the only just bearable pressures of the deep sea. I attempted a posthumanist thought project similar to what Stacy Alaimo describes in “Violet-Black,” her contribution to Prismatic Ecology, in which she insists that “Thinking with and through the electronic jellyfish, seeing through the prosthetic eye, playing open-ended, improvisational language games with deep-sea creatures, being transformed by astonishment and desire enact a posthumanist practice.” (2)

Responding to the highly-stylized illustrations in books from the Census of Marine Life, Alaimo finds in such affective imagery an invitation to new ways of thinking life, and consequently the possibility for the dethronement of terrestrial ideas of sovereignty. Each Smithsonian display, like each vibrantly hued illustration of marine life, defamiliarizes this planet and renders a world that simply will not surrender to humanity’s hubristic desire for authority. Each impossible way of being, now proven possible, works to dismantle what Mel Y. Chen calls the “animacy hierarchy” by begging us to reconsider just what the hell comprises an “animate” body anyway. (3) And yet, as I wandered from station to station examining these oceanic bodies summoned from the abysses of the sea, lifeless, entombed in glass jars and carefully arranged for an American viewing public, I could not forget the relation between observers and observed, nor that human science and politicking still fashion a sovereign/subject relation between humans and the myriad strangers that populate the seas.

Thus as I wandered the Sant Ocean Hall, I thought about what it means to “wander,” who gets the privilege of wandering (Americans, human knowledge-seekers), and what remains the stationary object of scrutiny (the nonhuman body, the foreign object, the subject of scientific knowledge). These marvelous displays are discrete islands of monstrous creatures that underscore humanity’s desire to safely navigate strange waters. I chose the adjective “marvelous” very carefully, for my wandering about the various exhibits reminded me of a medieval journey to the marvels of the East and, more specifically, of Mandeville’s travels around the monstrous islands just past the Holy Lands and off the coasts of Africa and India. For the ocean, it seems, is the new East, compared against the way the medieval Western hegemony represented the East in its travel literature. The inhabitants of Earth’s oceans are put on display to be navigated, plundered, studied and represented by the sovereign powers of Western thought. Like Mandeville’s tale of fish that deliver themselves to the shore for human consumption, we expect the seas to divulge their mysteries for our ravenous desire to control by means of knowledge-making.

In Chapter 13 of the Defective Version of The Book of John Mandeville (ed. Kohanski and Benson), the narrator announces that, having completed his tour of the Holy Lands, he intends to “telle of yles and diverse peple and bestes” (1380). This rather lengthy chapter is rich in peculiarity and marvel, a veritable encyclopedia of the monstrous. An allegory-generating female spirit grants riches and doles out commensurate consequences for her supplicants’ greed. Gendered diamonds mate and spawn resplendent children, challenging notions about the inertness of lithic objects. Nudists, cannibals, blood drinkers, as well as pygmies, dog-headed creatures and headless bodies with ocular and oral orifices on their chests and shoulders roam these foreign shores. Mandeville fulfills the European desire to believe the East is wholly Other, a monstrous and invitingly dangerous land abundant in resources and passively awaiting representation by the Western imagination.

Yet, although his descriptions of the diverse beings of the East are certainly mythical, Mandeville also lends a certain scientific explanation for the monstrous by repeatedly attending to the extreme heat of this region; Mandeville offers a climatological cause for the wonders he claims to encounter. Ethiopians hide from the sun under feet large enough to shield their bodies; men on the isle of Ermes suffer their “ballockys hongeth doun to her shankes” (1557). In such intolerable climates precious stones spill from river banks, reptiles grow to enormous proportions and, as I mentioned above, fish are so “plenteuous” that they offer themselves up for consumption. Heat is generative, and the corporeal peculiarities of the deserts as well as the fecundity of the tropical East are, in Mandeville, responses to extreme climate - much like the extremophiles surviving sulfuric blasts of scorching heat from deep sea vents. Each coastal country and island in The Book of John Mandeville is a unique ecology, an oikos or home to the various and varying creatures that inhabit these spaces, and like contemporary scientific attempts to understand the porosity between bodies and ecosystems once thought uninhabitable, Mandeville offered something like a medieval ecological justification for the diversity of beings he describes.

Thus I wonder if we can assume that the imaginative spaces – and the marvelous creatures inhabiting those spaces – drawn by medieval travel literature generated new ways of thinking about an environmentally and ecologically complex world. Can we not find in such texts an anxiety and ambivalence about an earth more vast and verdant than God’s rubric allowed? Although giants erupt from Biblical origins, and blood drinkers, flesh eaters and necrophiliacs may mark anxieties about their obvious Catholic analogues– remember, Christians believe a man came back from the dead, a man whose actual body and blood Catholics consume at every Mass – what of the other strange strangers that emerge from the pages of Mandeville, the Cynocephales and headless figures with sensory organs in their chest? Are these curious beings the imagined consequences of thinking through previously un-thought ecosystems? Although fictitious, these tropical creatures seems to signal the disorienting encounter with evidence that the Earth and its beings are more heterogeneous than previously believed.

There is something disanthropocentric, then, to Mandeville’s imagining the wondrous creatures of the East, just as Alaimo insists that encountering the enchantingly strange creatures of the ocean’s depths is a sort of posthumanist practice. The Smithsonian’s website might argue that “It’s hard to imagine a more forbidding place than the icy cold, pitch black, crushing environment of the deep sea ocean. It’s even hard to imagine anything living there,” (4) yet, like Mandeville, we MUST imagine new possibilities of living on this Earth, we must see through the eyes of the abyssal aliens, feel the torturous heat with medieval monsters, if we are ever to dethrone Humanity from the heights of ecological sovereignty.

(1)Stacy Alaimo, “Violet-Black,” in Prismatic Ecology, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Minneapolis: U of Minn Press, 2013): 245.
(2)Ibid, 247.
(3)See Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, Duke UP, 2012)
(4)“The Deep Sea,” The Smithsonian Ocean Portal website:

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Consanguinity and Corporeal Excess in "The Knight with the Lion (Yvain)"

In her contribution to New Materialisms, “The Politics of ‘Life Itself’ and New Ways of Dying,” Rosi Braidotti investigates the shifting landscape of conversations about human subjectivity in light of our contemporary bio-political makeup, and finds in place of the formerly entrenched sense of the socially constructed human spirit (bios) a growing attention to the very real materiality of our corporeal existence (zoe). Braidotti celebrates the possibility that a new ethics can emerge which preserves not the hegemonic subject as much as the heterogeneity of subjectivities. Life is more than the span of a human’s political existence; life is also the relational encounters and strange mediations between lumps of animated matter. Thus Braidotti’s rhetorical questions linger like the viscous stuffs of existence: “Are we not baffled by this scandal, this wonder, this zoe, that is to say, by an idea of life that exuberantly exceeds bios and supremely ignores logos? Are we not in awe of this piece of flesh called our ‘body,’ of this aching meat called our ‘self’ expressing the abject and simultaneously divine potency of life?” (1)

Although Braidotti’s sense of the body’s materiality is informed by the techno-medical mediated bodies of the current culture of stem-cell research, cyborgs and genetic engineering, I kept thinking about her essay as I read Chretien de Troyes’s Yvain, The Knight with the Lion. Leaving behind medieval debates about the relation between the body and soul and the spirit’s relation to the matter of embodied existence, I find in Yvain something akin to Braidotti’s awe of the flesh, the corporeal “’self’ expressing the abject and simultaneously divine potency of life.” Corporeal existence is heterogeneous, is diverse and thick with a sort of chimerical materiality and beings that exceed the very categories within which they define themselves. A king is a man who eats and fucks and sleeps. A bestial peasant with “the eyes of an owl and the nose of a cat, jowls split like a wolf’s, with the sharp reddish teeth of a boar,” is also a man and “never anything else.” (2) Categories confound precisely because bodies always perform in excess of what is expected; flesh is always becoming.

Thus Yvain surrenders to the excesses of the flesh when he is abandoned by his wife and goes mad. Like many madmen of his literary tradition, Yvain sacrifices the trappings of culture that constitute the “human” and runs off to the woods to perform an animal existence. Naked as all other animals, Yvain hunts in the woods like a wild predator, consuming raw and bloody flesh, the flesh and blood that mark the similarity between species. On the one hand, Yvain evidences associations of madness with the animal – associations that work, in fact, not only to maintain humanity’s stable position at the pinnacle of an animal hierarchy, but to define precisely what kind of person belongs within the category of the “human” – associations still fiercely combatted by contemporary disability scholarship. Yet in a strikingly curious incident, the mad Yvain finds a lone hermit in the woods and trades his freshly caught prey for bread, water, and the hermit’s culinary preparation of the meat. Although one could read this as a scene that parallels the human domestication of the animal – consequently reinforcing the species hierarchy – Yvain’s preference for cooked food over raw meat reinforces his humanity. Yvain’s madness does not evidence a descent down a species hierarchy so much as it proves the instability of any system which seeks to reify notions of human exceptionalism.

Bodies are unstable and unpredictable, as matter cannot be hedged in by form. A lion participates in chivalric culture; Yvain’s leonine companion is a squire, a fighter, and something of a lover, attempting suicide after he thinks Yvain has died. When injured, the legendary animal of enormous proportions implausibly fits onto a shield and is carried like a cradled child. A giant emerges from the wilderness and lays waste to a town; he is a force of destruction incomprehensible to humanity. As Yvain rends the giant with a sword, the giant’s blood is compared to sauce, his flesh to meat for grilling. Suggesting the lion’s perspective, the text carves the giant into edible pieces. A giant is meat, prey for a lion, prey for the wild hunter dripping with the blood of his catch. The blood of consanguinity, the material excess of violent entanglements.

Blood and flesh mark what Tobias Menely and Margaret Ronda call a “red ecology” in their contribution to Prismatic Ecology. Red ecology attends to consanguinity – Yvain’s animality, a lion’s humanity, a giant’s nutritive potential – it is the first-hand encounter with the visceral, the fleshy materiality that evidences our shared condition of fragile corporeality with non-human beings. A red ecology illuminates the way to working under the sign of the red, to undertaking symbolic acts that uncover market forces that conceal the corporeal violence of labor and production. Under the sign of red, Yvain is able to challenge and overturn a proto-capitalist system in which young women are forced into wretched working conditions to manufacture clothing – yes, a medieval sweat shop. Yvain battles two demons – hybrids born of human mothers seduced by incubi – in order to release the tired hands and shine light upon the bruised bodies erased by the market value of textile commodities. Acts like Yvain’s which rupture seamless and invisible industries, even if only fleetingly, “draw attention to the commodification of nature continually underway.” (3)

Thus, the rich world of Yvain is one of complexity and heterogeneity, it is a viscous landscape redolent with corporeal excesses and unpredictable flows. The machinic beings of Yvain are mutating and unstable profusions of material exchanges, they are actors who constitute and are constituted by the ever-shifting nature of their relations. Yvain celebrates the exuberance of the body and the superabundance of corporeality that comprises every being while utterly rejecting any sort of species hierarchy. Like the Knight with the Lion, we must combat any attempt to conceal the abject and remain vigilantly aware of the consanguinity of the living – as well as the dead.

1. Rosi Braidotti, “The Politics of ‘Life Itself’ and New Ways of Dying,” in New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, ed. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (Durham: Duke UP 2010): 208.
2. Chretien de Troyes, “The Knight with the Lion (Yvain)” in Arthurian Romances, trans. William W. Kibler (New York: Penguin, 2004): 298-9.
3. Tobias Menely and Margaret Ronda, “Red” in Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013): 34.

Monday, February 24, 2014

A Journey to Germany with Margery Kempe

(Before I begin, please visit last week's post about Margery Kempe here. Also, let me note that most of this post was typed up while I waited for 2.5 hours at the DMV for my new Virginia license, so I apologize if any of my recollections of the text are slightly off.)

In Margery Kempe’s “The Later Years” – also lovingly nicknamed by this graduate student as “M.K. does Deutschland,” but most commonly known as “Book II” – we find our time-tempered and ripened female mystic more sympathetic than the emotionally volatile woman of her youth (even her insufferable wailing is mentioned less frequently). This senior Margery seems more accessible, more human, as we share in her hesitations about her divine protector when she suffers treacherous seas, as we envision a grey-haired woman over 60 having discarded her maiden whites only to find herself too destitute for anything more than a potato sack dress, yet still too ashamed to discard her rugged wardrobe in front of her impoverished traveling companions in order to pick vermin from her flesh. Most of all, we empathize with Margery Kempe as widow and suffering mother who, without confiding in anyone, absconds to Germany with her daughter-in-law, both women having lost their spouses (and for Margery, her son), both women fleeing the site of their most human tragedies, united in grief and the willingness to face the uncertain and unfamiliar after so much death.

As I considered “The Later Years” alongside Carolyn Walker Bynum’s Christian Materiality, I discovered within it a real sense of materiality that is not as present in Book I. My discovery was surely in part because, just as Bynum evidences the majority of her investigations into relic cults, Eucharistic miracles, and sacramental worship by describing artistic traditions from the high and late medieval Germanic cultures, Margery Kempe encounters relics and Dauerwunder only here in her senior years in Germany (excepting, of course, that “staf of a Moyses yerde” she misplaces while in Leicestershire in Book I). In Book II, Margery is traveling through a region riddled with sacred objects at a time when theologians were embroiled in the paradoxical arguments defending iconography while simultaneously proclaiming their contemptus mundi. Margery continues to commune with the Godhead even as she frets about her material poverty – she is clothed in little better than rags – and fears rape and attack by highwaymen. Thus the more mature Margery jaunting around Germany reads a bit like a Frau Welt, a woman of the world at once solidly planted on this earth, haunted by the lust and pride of her youth and worrying about the sanctity of her body, while always signaling her desire to transcend the flesh that will rot and decay.

By Frau Welt I refer specifically to the medieval Germanic iconographic statuary (most notably the sculpture at Worms Cathedral) which depicts to the viewer oriented in front of the carving a gorgeous, voluptuous, and perhaps haughty woman, while the viewer who investigates the statue from behind finds a body bored into and eaten away by worms and frogs. Allegorically, the icon signifies the evils of the material world, that no matter how many pleasures the body offers, humanity should not be distracted from spiritual determinations by the lustful desires of a flesh that will inevitably putrefy and decay. Yet the image also celebrates the paradox of simultaneously rejecting and celebrating materiality, finding divinity in the aesthetic and affective power of the mineral world which invites our touch and stimulates the artist’s desire to shape stone into story, as well as signifying with that story the mutability and instability of the body. Only the spirit transcends death; only the material ignites and inspires conscious awareness of the divine. Thus Margery Kempe, like Frau Welt, invites ephemeral communion with the spirit by simultaneously rejecting and relishing in the very realness of her flesh.

I would love to explore the parallels between Margery Kempe and the Frau Welt tradition further (the literal vermin on Margery’s flesh, the paradox of an intransigent stone’s representing the mutability of the flesh, senior-citizen Margery’s continued hypersensitivity to her sexuality), but this is a blog, my blog, and I intend to focus on my personal reflections. Thus, as I journeyed across Germany with Margery and cataloged Christian material culture there with Bynum, I thought deeply about my ever-present anxiety an aspiring medievalist to engage continental literatures without the aid of a translator. I have long assumed I would inevitably undertake the study of French – a language I have never once attempted to learn – since the Francophone route is the way most travelled by scholars of medieval English lit; but as my mouth playfully shaped the rich acoustic syllables of words like “Dauerwunder” and Das Nonnenturnier, I recalled my two semesters of German-language study as an undergraduate so many moons ago and wondered if I could learn to read German instead. The trials of graduate school are already severe enough, so I hoped I could ease my burden by, at the very least, pursuing the study of a language for which I have already built a foundation, even if that foundation is obscured after years of neglect.

Unlike Margery, I discussed my desire to head into Germanic territory with my advisor, who gave me his blessing while smartly advising me of the challenges I will face. The study of medieval Germanic literature is typically left to German language departments or falls under the aegis of Anglo-Saxon/Old English scholarship, but I intend to maintain my focus on English literatures of the high and late medieval periods. Thus, I will forge ahead with fewer travel companions at my side – but if I learned anything from Margery’s early years, it is that the pack will often turn against its very own, so there might be some wisdom in travelling with few companions.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Becoming Ill with Margery Kempe

Last week I returned to The Book of Margery Kempe for the first time since I read it as a senior undergraduate, nearly seven years ago. At the time I was a much disaffected and disenchanted young man, and, like Margery’s fellow travelers on her pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I was “most displesyd for sche wepyd so mech and spak alwey of the lofe and goodne of owyr Lord” (1407-8). Although I would be approaching the text as a more savvy reader with a different set of critical tools than I once possessed, I nevertheless worried I would still be turned off by the nearly impenetrable effulgence of affect, by a performance so hyperbolized that its excesses seemed only tedious and overwrought. I wondered if, this time around, the text would have the power to enchant.

Then illness struck. For three-and-a-half days I writhed and moaned on the couch as my temperature skyrocketed and hovered around 101 degrees, sweating and shaking in a feverish nightmare. Perspiration poured from my veins, chills riddled my flesh and mucus fought aggressively to carry the infection from my body. In fact, my body did not feel like my own, hijacked as it was by a virulent virus. Thus it was in this vulnerable condition that I vigorously engaged with Margery and, not surprisingly, my illness afforded me a wealth of sympathy for the afflicted mystic. Suddenly, like Margery, I was a contagious body.

I do not wish to imply that Margery’s mystical experiences should be read as sickness, or I would be as guilty as the folk of her hometown of Lynn who too easily conflate her bouts of illness with her affective responses to her encounters with the divine:

Sum seyde that sche had the fallyng evyl, for sche wyth the crying wrestyd hir body turning from the o syde into the other and wex al blew and al blo as it had ben colowr of leed. And than folke spitted at hir for horrowr of the sekenes, and sum scornyd hir and seyd that sche howlyd as it had ben a dogge and bannyd hir and cursyd hir and seyd that sche dede meche harm among the pepyl (2473-8).
Some said that she had the falling evil, for as she cried she wrested her body, turning from one side to the other, and waxed all blue and gray as if she were the color of lead. And then folk spit at her in horror of her sickness, and some scorned her and said that she howled as if she were a dog and banned her and cursed her and said that she did much harm among the people.

To read Margery’s weeping as illness is a dehumanizing gesture which seeks to equate Margery with objects much lower on what Mel Y. Chen would call an animacy "reference cline" by marking her as leaden and canine; Chen writes, “When humans are blended with objects along this cline, they are effectively ‘dehumanized,’ and simultaneously de-subjectified and objectified” (Animacies, 40).

I also do not mean to suggest that such a hierarchy is ontologically manifest, that humans are somehow privileged and more agentic than metals or dogs. Like Chen, I am interested in slippages along this hierarchy, I hope to uncover moments when the verticality of such a subject-making system is toppled and objects are perceived along an animacy continuum. Therefore, what I do mean to acknowledge is that my illness illuminated the real material excesses of the very condition of embodied being, material excesses of which Margery is fully engaged and aware, and which her townsfolk and other peers are too obstinate to acknowledge. Margery’s metallic flesh and bestial howling disturb the epistemological structure which shapes the desire to marginalize and exclude the very matter of our existence.

Although Margery Kempe’s union with the Trinity is spiritual, her experience of the divine is emphatically material and sensorial. The text relishes in the sensory details of her encounters, in the perfumed aromas of visitations, in the harmonious arrivals of inspiration, and in the corporeal extension of the body in the world, her torso thrusting itself into positions simulating the crucifixion. Her “boystows” voice (its disruptive agency thoroughly investigated by Jeffrey Cohen in Medieval Identity Machines) is perhaps so offensive to her interlocutors, as well as her unwilling audiences, in part because it carries all the material weight that my own contagious breath, redolent with viral particles, injects into my surroundings. Even the divine fire in her heart is more than mere metaphor, but a visceral burning she felt “as verily as a man schuld felyn the material fyer yyf he put hys hand or hys finger therin” (2063-4…or, might I add, if he should have a fever!).

Like Margery’s eruptions, then, illnesses are so abjected and abhorred precisely because they evidence a materiality beyond our control; our body seems not our own because it is not our own, but is instead an entangled network of organic tissues and fibers that we share with billions of bacteria, with the ephemera of other corporeal beings (see Caroline Walker Bynum for more in medieval fascination with and ingestion of sacred ephemera…or, if you live with a non-human animal, inspect your body for some fur or scales), and, occasionally, with viruses. Thus, the community that I forged with Margery over the past week was built from our shared engagement with matter and all its unpredictability. Our unwieldy and terribly strange bodies are always withdrawing from any understanding we might have of them. Margery’s keen attunement to her body offends precisely because it serves as an invitation to abandon ourselves to the superabundance of corporeal entanglements and to relish, even in illness, the excesses of the flesh.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Quid Corpus Dicit?

Two days before the start of the spring semester, my partner and I visited a lesser-known – to the secular crowd at least – tourist site here in DC: the Mount St. Sepulcher Franciscan Monastery. Like a Catholic Epcot Center, DC’s Franciscan Monastery recreates with contemporary materials various holy sites of pilgrimage in Europe and the Middle East, including the Lourdes grotto, the Tomb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Chapel of the Ascension and the Tomb of Christ in Jerusalem, and, surely of most interest to me, the Catacombs of Rome. At once pastiche and genuine commitment to touching the past (more on that turn-of-phrase to follow), DC’s own Franciscan monastery is nothing short of awe-inspiring, if also likely to inspire an irrepressible giggle when a gaggle of nuns shuffle from France to Mount Olivet in mere seconds.

In the mock catacombs we encountered the enigmatic figure of St. Innocent, a child-saint sent to the monastery from Rome. Behind a glass box, low to the ground in a recessed wall, the figure of St. Innocent lay in death’s repose, immaculately concealed in pristine sartorial splendor, a death-mask of a child’s face frozen in a look that suggests an unimaginably peaceful slumber even as shriveled and blackened limbs sully the picture-perfect arrangement of the body. The juxtaposition of the sacred, unblemished relic with the gnarly evidence of the ravages of unholy time on human flesh is arresting; the imaginary is too polluted by the real. Also arresting, in a quite different sense, was our tour guide’s tale about this St. Innocent: an incorruptible (are you sure about that?), St. Innocent died as a child (no shit), and is now a patron saint of all (Christian) children. The end. Really, that was the most our tour guide was able to tell us about one of the only two actual corpses in their faux-catacombs, the other a relic with bone fragments from St. Benignus of Armagh, about whom our tour guide narrated ad nauseam.

As I spent the following week puzzling over, and then pretty much forgetting, the fragmented and incomplete – if not wholly fabricated – story of the mysterious St. Innocent, I was given the following as my first reading assignment for an independent study with my advisor: Saint Erkenwald. Oh, the uncanniness!! Oh, the dulcet resonance!! All the questions surrounding this ‘innocent’ child’s corpse appropriated by the Catholics and entombed in a Franciscan dungeo…excuse me, catacomb, rushed to the fore as I thought about what it meant for an early medieval bishop to pardon the soul of a “pagan” – read Welsh or British or, as Karl Steel might suggest, Jewish – judge. If the text is explicitly about fulfilling the desire to assimilate the past, it also worries about the violence that occurs when we touch the past, when humans make contact with and get caught in the maelstrom of the material flows of time.

Like the body of the cryptic St. Innocent, the pagan judge erupts into the narrative with an obscure story; after delving and digging “down deep into the earth" (45), miners hoping to re-establish the foundation of a cathedral built atop a pagan temple uncover a “wondrous fair tomb” (46).1 The earth gives up its treasure, an incorruptible human body, to these archeologists, these re-constructors of time and history, but it also conceals its occult story; the text hewn into the marble of the tomb is indecipherable. Unlike St. Innocent, however, the corpse itself is made to speak, is granted the opportunity to narrate its own history. The text is wonderfully mimetic in its description of corpse-speak, attending to the physical barriers that a well-preserved but nevertheless un-ensouled body might have in manifesting speech-acts: “Then he hemmed a little who lay there, and let his head roll, / And gave a great groan, and grieving he spoke” (281-2). The dead judge, buried for centuries, is as much an earthy elemental being as a human corpse; like Tolkein’s ents, beings of such enormous life spans that their temporal sensibilities are almost incomprehensible to the fast-paced and relatively short-lived hobbit and human audiences, the corpse is slow to speak, its joints stiff with immobility and its face groaning with age.

I do not mean to imply, however, that this body is ‘stuck in the past,’ that it is so sedimented in history that it is only an archaism, something to be excavated, studied, and assimilated. Clearly the anxiety of the text, its ambivalent temporalities (I dare you to determine precisely when it is set), the strange conditions of the pagan’s appropriation (accidental baptism?), the mixed responses of the crowd (mourning and celebrating), and the even stranger response of the body to Erkenwald’s touch and his embodied affective response (his tears, the very condition of the accidental baptism, catalyze the corpse’s rotting and turning to dust), ask us to make something more of this body, to let it continue to speak to us even after all that’s left are ashes. Although writing ostensibly about Beowulf and theory/criticism, Eileen Joy asks the following questions, quoted at length, that should be brought to bear on any conversation about the body and its relation to story and time:

Bodies (both dead and alive), history, and language, and all of the fiercely tangled relations between them – what do the dead want from us, what might we want from each other at any given moment, and how might we sufficiently record our past and present histories in order to lend some kind of meaning and ethical content to what some of us fear, deep down, is a kind of unscripted chaos? How, further, can the past inform our future in a way that is ethically and socially constructive? (LIII).2
Like Beowulf – and perhaps the Gawain poet –, I conclude that the dead want to narrate their own stories, and not just stories of their past, but tales without finitude or tidy resolution; with incorrupt or eerily mummified hands, corpses continue to reach into each successive present moment and touch whatever bodies surround them. It is the responsibility of the touched to allow themselves to feel with the dead, and not only about them.

After considering Jules Michelet’s embodied affective responses to the historical events about which he writes, Carolyn Dinshaw concludes, “The historian manages thus, by writing, to ‘touch’ bodies across time. Resurrection is the aim of his history, unreached but nonetheless signaled” (47).3 I would add that the scholar and the lay person alike make contact with the past any time a reaction to story is corporeal, any time anyone “shudders to think about” or “trembles before” memory, recall, the historical event or, perhaps even more significantly, physical evidence. When one is confronted with a corpse, with the tangible, material evidence of a prior life, one struggles to forge a community with what was, to engender a story, whether fact or fiction – likely a mixture of the two – in order to sympathize, to feel with the imagined life that once animated the dead.

Yet why do we feel the need to hunker down and dwell in an object’s history? Is not a corpse still a physical body animated by its own material flows, part of very present and very active networks? Why must we bury the corpse in frozen time and sediment its story in ‘the past’? Is a dead body no longer an agentic being in the world just because it no longer speaks? What if it can be made to speak, what then? If we dwell only on the body’s history than we are no better than an Erkenwald, appropriating its story to satisfy our presentist and perhaps nationalistic/religious/political needs. We should work instead to be like crowd of onlookers, looking with fresh eyes at the mystery of the body; just as “Much mourning and gladness were mingled together" (350) for the crowd, let us sympathize with the dead and celebrate the yet-untold stories of the corpse’s futurity.

1. All quotations from "Saint Erkenwald" taken from The Gawain Poet: Complete Works trans. Marie Borroff (New York: Norton, 2011): 167-183.
2. Joy, Eileen A., “Introduction: Liquid Beowulf” in The Postmodern Beowulf: A Critical Casebook, ed. Eileen A. Joy and Mary K. Ramsey (Morgantown: West Virginia UP, 2006): XXIX-LXVII.
3. Dinshaw, Carolyn. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. (Durham: Duke UP, 1999).