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.

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