Sunday, September 03, 2006
Some might remember back in the heady days of our debate over whether or not the early Anglo-Saxons were apartheid-style racists, that I promised a debate with something like the title of, "yes, the Anglo-Saxons might have been racists, but did they have feelings?" Well, here it is. File this also under the heading of, "Eileen is working on this article and needs feedback" [like, seriously]. Not too long ago, Robin Norris [Anglo-Saxonist at Carleton University, Ottawa and fellow BABEL-er] asked me to contribute a paper to a Kalamazoo session she was organizing on the four anonymous Old English saints' lives included in AElfric's Lives of Saints. Of these texts, I know next to nothing, but I was always intrigued by the story of the Seven Sleepers, mainly because I thought it might work as an interesting metaphor for some ideas I had been batting around in relation to Beowulf, traumatic memory, and Isidore of Seville's idea that "history is a branch of grammar because whatever is written down is consigned to memory" [or words to that effect], and blah blah blah. I just liked the image of these men asleep in a cave for hundred of years and how I could maybe use that image alongside Isidore's definition of history in relation to my own ideas about history as an always-posthumous narrative of ghostly events, the "Real" kernels of which remain palpably, stubbornly *behind*. In any case, I didn't quite know what I was getting myself into when I said "yes" to Robin. As some may know, from my Ambien-induced essay, which JJC graciously and generously plugged here on his blog, I've been spending some time thinking about the ways in which contemporary social and political theorists describe modernity and the modern [or "late modern" or "second modern"] individual, and how they draw upon the Middle Ages [often quite wrong-headedly] as a kind of static and "traditional" social framework out of which modernity emerges. And I'm sure many of the readers of this blog have stayed current with all of the debates over how, supposedly, there were no "individuals" in the Middle Ages, and then, we decided the twelfth century was when/where the "individual" was born, and so on and so forth. Sometimes I weary of these kinds of discussion, and my usual touchstone text for this is Charles Taylor's beautiful work of moral philosophy, Sources of the Self. My larger purpose in all this has to do with my interest in formulating human rights in an age of, supposedly, "post-humanity." This is a subject that, actually, both obsesses and worries me. In any case, I am sharing with everyone here where my Seven Sleepers paper [presented at Kalamazoo this past May], which ended up dovetailing with my other project [which mainly focuses on Malory's "Tale of Balyn and Balan"]. Keep in mind that it's a short conference paper, and I am now developing it into a longer essay, to be published in a subsidium volume of Old English Newsletter. Further reading right now involves books on sociology of the body [Bryan S. Turner and Thomas Csordas] and religion and the body [Bynum and Sarah Coakley], and any other tips that can be thrown at me I would greatly appreciate. I'm especially interested in anything out there I might not know about that covers cognition and the Anglo-Saxons. Cheers.
The Seven Sleepers, Eros, and the Unincorporable Infinite of the Human Person
“. . . the self is not constructed solely by its environment, but also by the interpretive action that means not only suffering the world but also coming to understand it and your place within it. There is room here for a self to innovate and try to transform that place by thought or action. The particular way a self or groups of selves do so in the actual subject of history.” –David Gary Shaw, Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England
In Love and Its Place in Nature, the philosopher of classical antiquity and psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear writes that, for Freud, love has “distinctive psychoanalytic significance.” Further,
“[a]s Freud comes to appreciate that the individual is a psychological achievement, he becomes increasingly interested in the conditions under which this achievement occurs. The individual, he realizes, cannot be understood other than as a response to certain forces that permeate the social world into which he is born. And the individual is a manifestation and embodiment of the very same forces to which his existence is a response. . . . Unless we see love not merely as located in the human being but as permeating the world in which he lives, we cannot understand the psychic structure which constitutes the individual.”
Of course, as is well known, the Middle Ages, and certainly even more so, Anglo-Saxon England, is not supposed to be a place where the so-called “individual” even exists, and we are all well familiar with Jakob Burckhardt’s famous pronouncement in 1860 that, “in the Middle Ages, everyone was dreaming or half-awake, beneath a collective veil . . . woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession,” and where “[m]an was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, corporation—only through some general category.” According to Nancy Partner,
“[o]ne of the great impediments to recognizing the depth, complexity and individuality of the people who lived during the immense span of historical time we categorize as ‘medieval’ has come to mean the opposite of those qualities, at least as regards persons. Medieval culture, in terms of its art, literature and theology, has long been acknowledged as sophisticatedly complex and emotionally dense . . . . But somehow this collective cultural achievement is oddly disconnected from any idea of medieval persons of equivalent individual complexity.”
Further, the “prevalence of didactic genres (ranging from epic to sermons) which stress conformity with religious and social norms encourage the notion that in some way the pre-modern era of history was populated with pre-individuals.” In Partner’s mind, we need to “press harder than we usually do on the concept of the self operating silently here,” because “there lingers a common and unexamined assumption that ‘having’ a self . . . necessarily involves adopting one assertive style of individuality, even the set of values and goals we associate with the individualism which grounds western liberal modernity,” and it can often be too east to let medieval persons “sink down into a shallow bas-relief of ‘medievalness,’ defined by the moralizing conformist elements of the dominant literate culture.” It would be better to understand medieval men and women “as essentially like ourselves, of the same species at the same moment of development in evolutionary time, personalities formed at a deep level through the same developmental processes, as minds with the same emotional/rational structure confronting the world, however distractingly different their language, ideals and fervent beliefs.”
For Partner—and I must admit, increasingly so for myself—the discipline of psychoanalysis, “with its coherent structure of explanatory concepts, is our intellectual instrument for recognizing the human psyche over historical time and across cultures.” And I would argue, too, that recent discoveries in cognitive science are likely to support this idea. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson tell us in their book Philosophy in the Flesh, “the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment,” thought is “mostly unconscious,” and because the mind “is not merely embodied, but embodied in such a way that our conceptual systems draw largely upon the commonalities of our bodies and of the environments we live in,” the result is that “much of a person’s conceptual system is either universal or widespread across languages and cultures.” Further, “[o]ur conceptual systems are not totally relative and not merely a matter of historical contingency, even though a degree of conceptual relativity does exist and even though historical contingency does matter a great deal.” Partner’s belief that the discipline of psychoanalysis is our best “intellectual instrument” for understanding the human mind “over historical time” is indebted to the thought of the philosopher of classical antiquity and psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear, who, in his book, Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul, argues that Freud’s achievement was to locate the deep and often unconscious texture of the human mind fully inside the human world “without reaching for divine intervention or requiring a specifically religious world-view.”
Because psychoanalysis, as Partner tells us, is “in its essential interests and procedures, a theory addressed to the symbolizing activity of the mind,” the “forms of expression” of, say, the Anglo-Saxon mind—whether in the form of poetry, hagiography, sermons, sculpture, manuscript illustration, or otherwise—provide us with the means, I would argue, for tracing the “language of the self” of that mind, as well as the “the restless negotiations between this deeply stratified self and the real world.” What I would like to do here with the remainder of my time today is merely sketch out very briefly how, under the influence of the thought of Partner and Lear (but also of recent developments in cognitive science), I might begin to begin thinking about what Lear would describe as the psychic development of the individual as “a response to certain forces that permeate the social world into which he is born” in the Anglo-Saxon period through an analysis of the anonymously-authored Old English legend of The Seven Sleepers—a piece of literature so rich in the details of the psychic interior that I am somewhat amazed at the scant scholarly attention it has received. I would like to also ruminate how, in this legend, the self can be seen as what David Gary Shaw calls “a highly localized site of awareness” that is “bound, at least for this worldly life, to a body.”
One of the most striking aspects of the anonymous Old English legend of The Seven Sleepers is its psychological complexity, especially with regard to the character of Malchus, who is appointed by the others, hiding in a cave together, to go to the market for provisions, but also with regard to how even the city of Ephesus itself wishes its own walls could fall down rather than exist as a support for the hacked bodies of Christian martyrs that the Caesar has ordered be displayed there, and even the streets cry out against the “holy bones” scattered across them. In brief, the legend recounts the story of seven members of the “elite” class of Ephesian society who, horrifed at the emperor Decius’s torture and slaughter of those who refuse to worship his gods, have given themselves over to a kind of uncontrollable sorrow and weeping. While hiding in a cave outside the city, ostensibly to delay the emperor’s torture of them, Decius orders that the entrance to the cave be sealed, but unbeknownst to him, the seven men, due to their emotional state, have literally wept themselves into a death-like sleep, from which they do not awake until after 372 years have passed. Thinking they have only been asleep for one night, they send Malchus to the city market for more bread, and he enters a city, of course, he no longer recognizes because it is now thoroughly Christian. The upshot of all this, of course—after some scuffling at the market due to Malchus’s “intrusion” there as a kind of alien from another time (he is treated, quite literally, as a “foreigner” and suffers all the fear and terror of that Othering)—is that the seven men are recognized as having been “resurrected” from an earlier era, after which point, they “die” again and rise to heaven.
As Robin Norris pointed out in a paper she presented on the legend at the 2004 meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association, the emphasis on the emotional affect of the seven sleepers themselves (mainly sadness and sorrow), as well as of the world they inhabit is a “decidedly unÆlfrecian approach,” and also represents a very free adaptation and expansion of the legend’s Latin source, especially with regard to the physical manifestations of the seven martyrs’ interior suffering, such as the details regarding how, when crying, their eyes are fluttering (þa eagan floterodon, line 599). Ælfric, in fact, when he did address the legend—twice, in his Catholic Homilies—did so only very briefly in order to emphasize its doctrinal message that the resurrection of the body on Judgment Day had been visibly proven. According to Hugh Magennis, the Old English version of the legend is “untypical” in various ways, especially in “the portrayal of the saints as somewhat reluctant in the face of danger . . . . Far from ironing this feature out, the Old English writer is particularly drawn to it, deliberately exploring the very human worries and fears of the characters, who in some ways make unlikely heroes.” Further, Magennis writes that “the reader is struck by the insistent interest in the humanity and vulnerability of the Christians in their natural, if not ostensibly heroic, concern to preserve their lives,” and “[i]n one vivid simile the Christians are compared to grasshoppers pursued by heathens.” This “human interest . . . is also seen in the presentation of the persecuted Christians at the beginning of the narrative,” who “provide the emotional context for the immediate story of the Seven Sleepers. They are shown as terrified at the danger of being found out: they hide, they weep, they tremble. Through graphic description, the writer emphasizes the sheer terror and the reality of the suffering endured by the Christians.” And in the portrayal of Malchus, especially, on his expedition to Ephesus after the sleep, “[s]howing a sensitivity to human feelings uncharacteristic of hagiography as we have seen it described, and extremely rare in Old English, the writer sympathetically conveys both the bewilderment of Malchus and his fear of being brought before” the emperor. Finally, Magennis also points out that the Old English version, in contrast to its Latin source, “shows particular interest in the thoughts, feelings and direct words of the characters. Verbs of thinking to oneself, saying to oneself, feeling and wondering pervade the text.”
For these and other reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Old English version of The Seven Sleepers as a kind of creative attempt on the part of the anonymous author to individualize, through an exploration of the psychic interior, a sacred history—a sacred history, moreover, that locates itself, not in the tombs of what Peter Brown has called “the very special dead,” nor in an abstract world of disembodiments, but in the very human and living world. In this sense, the Old English legend can even be seen as a kind of resistance to what Brown has described as “the most marked feature of the rise of the Christian church in western Europe”: “the imposition of human administrative structures and of an ideal potentia linked to invisible human beings.” This is not to say that the legend does not affirm certain invisible powers—after all, the seven martyrs sleep in a death-like trance for 372 years and are “resurrected” by God before really dying a second time—and the ultimate “point” of the story, in its hagiographical essence, can only really be located in its medieval Christian doxa: the resurrection is real, and therefore it’s in the after-world where one finally, really “lives,” with body and soul together. But I would like to also pursue the idea that, in its emphasis on the emotional affects of it characters and even of its human world—in this case, the city of Ephesus—the legend also touches upon the theme of the development, through eros, of a certain archaic (and in this case, also spiritual) subjectivity. In this sense, it participates in what some would argue is a peculiarly modern project, although I would like to contest that, specifically through a further analysis of the Old English legend itself, which I see as representing a certain concern, and regard, for the interior life, and for the world which makes that interior life possible. It contributes, moreover, to psychoanalysis, when we understand psychoanalysis as, in the words of Jonathan Lear, “the history of a series of battles that are fought and refought within the human soul,” and also as the site where we can “trace the route of love as it is manifested in human beings” as “a force for individuation.” As a result, the Old English legend also grapples with, and even tries to answer, in my view, a certain problem of memory’s relation to history—in this case, of how to render an account of a sacred history that does not lapse into an undifferentiated doxology but retains a material and heterogeneous particularity that, in the words of the scholar of religious thought Edith Wyschogrod, also marks the place of an historical “excess that opens the dimension of the more, of an unincorporable infinite,” but only when we understand that we are talking about the “unincorporable infinite,” not of the divine, but of the human person.