Friday, October 31, 2008

Buy this Book: Untimely Matter

by J J Cohen

My colleague and friend Jonathan Gil Harris has just published his new book Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare. One reason to purchase or shoplift the tome is that -- unlike those works that we complain about here at ITM that pretend medievalists have never examined the topics they explore -- this volume is quite generous: many of our favorite communal citations from this blog are in the bibliography (and, more importantly, within the work). A second reason is that the project is brilliant. Here me now, O readers: buy this book.

And no, I am not getting any kickbacks for saying that. I really am that much of a fan of Gil's scholarship.

Bodies in Motion I

by J J Cohen
[EDIT 11 AM: I just noticed that the following constitutes ITM's 1,000th post. Happy One Thousand Posts, In the Middle! Your verbosity is an inspiration to us all.]

Below, the first part of my SEMA Mandeville piece. Your comments are welcome, since it is even as we speak being turned into an essay on travel literature for the new Oxford Handbook of Medieval Literature.

Quotations are from The Book of John Mandeville, ed. Tamarah Kohanski and C. David Benson (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2007) -- a nice new edition of the text.

If you urge them with their gross and unworthy misconceptions of the nature and the will of God, or the monstrous follies of their fabulous theology, they will turn it off with a sly civility perhaps, or with a popular and careless proverb. You may be told that 'heaven is a wide place, and has a thousand gates'; and that their religion is one by which they hope to enter ... By such evasions they can dismiss the merits of the case from all consideration; and encourage men to think that the vilest superstition may serve to every salutary purpose, and be accepted in the sight of God as well as truth and righteousness. (Archdeacon Potts, 1818; quoted in Homi Bhabha, “Sly Civility,” The Location of Culture)

The Book of John Mandeville is one of the most treacherous texts of the Middle Ages … only, you wouldn’t know it, because the work seems so damn welcoming. Yet the work is as perilous as it is recalcitrant, two qualities intimately connected to and well masked by its “sly civility”: it seems affable enough, it lures you into an encounter … and then it leaves you intellectually beaten up, defeated, wondering how it did that to you. Yet more than its “native refusal to satisfy the colonizer's narrative demand” (as Homi Bhabha would say) the Book is so intractable because it does not in fact exist: there is no singular Book of John Mandeville, but a volatile multiplicity of texts masquerading as a unity. The nonexistence of the Book as object, as thing, has serious consequences for its analysis: we’ll always be chasing after what was supposed to remain on the shelf or in the grave where we placed it, something that keeps moving just beyond the skyline, where terra cognita curves to harbor incalculable islands.

In honor of my peripatetic subject, I will follow a meandering path. But I don’t want to lose you. Here, then, is the rough itinerary I’ll use to pursue this ever-in-transit Questing Beast named the Book of John Mandeville. I will attempt to map the following:
  1. How the text transforms itself from a typical account of Holy Land pilgrimage [an itinerarium based upon William of Boldensele’s Liber de quisbusdam ultramarines partibus] to a boundary-defying ethnography capable of almost circling the round earth
  2. How the Book populates its worlds with bodies in motion – so much so that things which ought to be utterly immobile (rocks, ruins, graves) are possessed of magnetism, motility, radiative effects that medievals called virtu.
  3. How the constant forward motion of the text never arrives at its destination (the globe is circumnavigable only in theory … the world, being Defective, open, can’t be contained in a circle’s enclaspment)
  4. How for all the Book’s dreams of a cosmos where bodies are in constant movement, impediments (“lapidary narratives”) nonetheless serve to interrupt the text’s restless itinerary, transfixing the Book to small identities like English … identities which, even if imaginary, are nonetheless a powerful counterweight to the embrace of otherness found elsewhere.
  5. Finally, how the Book is ultimately less of a text than an event: how it performs its own content, how the Book itself becomes a body in perpetual motion.
I will be quoting throughout this talk from the version of The Book of John Mandeville known as "Defective," an appellation this group earned because “missing” a section known as the Egypt Gap. I work with this version in part because it possesses the best claim to be “the English Mandeville,” and in part because its supposedly “unfortunate name” captures something profound about why the Book should possess such enduring vitality. Of course, there is no single Defective text, so I’ve settled upon the recently edited British Library MS Royal 17 C. xxxvii, a “highly individualistic” treatment that, even if “somewhat compressed,” nonetheless contains most of the richest material found in other versions (Kohanski and Benson, 14-15). It also contains some fine illustrations, especially of buildings and mountains. Architectures, monuments, ruins and fragments of stone will be my own obsession throughout.

In the Myddel
The Book of John Mandeville was a medieval bestseller, and possibly the most popular travel narrative ever composed: a Fodor’s Guide to Nonexistent Places, the Rough Guide to Naked Communist Cannibals, the Let’s Go Vale Perilous, the Lonely Planet Guide to Polygamous Fantasy Islands. Its pages abound with realms where one might find professional virgin deflowerers (the gadlybyriens, 87), or hermaphrodites who know the enjoyments of both sexes, or an island where a lady still awaits the kiss that will free her from her dragon’s flesh and reward with wealth, a title, and lands the man so brave as to brush his lips against hers (Hippocrates’s daughter, 29-30). Travel narratives, like bestiaries or romances, allow their readers to enjoy pleasures ordinarily withheld, to consume fantasies otherwise precluded. Just as Satalia, the “greet cité" that “sanke adoun” when one of its dwellers could not resist opening a “grave of marble” and being with his beloved one last time – just as subterranean Satalia renders the paths that cross above “parolous passages” (31), so the Book of John Mandeville likewise possesses its textual perilous passages, marble tombs that when opened could divert pilgrims from their certain and orthodox roads.

For despite the salacity of some of its eventual destinations, the Book begins as a more personalized version of a venerable genre: an account of pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Conventionally labeled an itinerarium, this type of writing traces its history back to at least 333 AD, when an anonymous pilgrim from Bordeaux composed a laconic account of his voyage (the Itinerarium Burdigalense or Itinerarium Hierosolymitanum). Based upon a Roman model of verbal road maps, Christian itineraria tend to be terse records, providing some information on how to get to Jerusalem and a catalog of sites to behold once you arrive. Visited locations and encountered objects are tied through scriptural citation to whatever biblical event gives the building, well, town, mountain, altar its significance. Thus the Pilgrim of Bordeaux writes of some artifacts in Jerusalem:
Here is also the corner of an exceeding high tower, where our Lord ascended and the tempter said to Him, 'If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence' ... There is a great corner-stone, of which it was said, 'The stone which the builders rejected is become the head of the corner.'
Even when a fragment or a crumbled ruin is all that remains of the structure that provided the setting for a biblical story, that narrative nonetheless comes fully to present life by invocation: an “exceeding high tower” suddenly looms in a place where a pilgrim beholds its only extant corner. The bodies that once moved across these stages might have perished or risen heavenward long ago, but stones abide the silent centuries to offer lasting testament to the histories that unfolded nearby.

To journey through holy land is to traverse sacred time: you behold the rock of Calvary, and there you meditate upon the Passion as if Jesus and the two thieves were still hanging on their crosses. Pilgrimage is a kind of time travel, the terminus of which is absolution at the site of the resurrection. You might partake of some side excursions (Jericho, the river Jordan, Bethlehem), you might immediately return home, but in a way you are forever stuck at that place of revelation and redemption. There is no compelling story to tell afterwards, because the narrative was never about you in the first place. The Holy Land persists in its timelessness as the traveler (whose soul is now similarly wrenched from the temporal) quickly ends the tale. Pilgrimage is a one-way movement: even if the sketch of a homeward journey is provided, doctrinally speaking there is no return from Palestine.

Although known for its peregrination without certain destination, the Book of John Mandeville likewise almost becomes transfixed here in the middle of the world.

The Rock in the Myd of the Erthe
Mandeville gives us several options for arriving in the Holy Land, and some unanticipated sights to enjoy along the way – including that princess in dragon form and the city sunk below the earth for its necrophiliac resident. I want to skip ahead to Jerusalem for a moment, however, and linger – just as Mandeville does – at the very center of the center. This would be the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, within which is enclosed the rock of Calvary, upon which was set the cross of Christ, atop which Abraham attempted to sacrifice Isaac, under which was found in a crack the head of Adam. A sign in Latin and in Greek announces that we have arrived “in the myd of the erthe” (38). Ground zero – the middle of the middle – is to be found nearby, “in the myddel of this cherche,” within a “compass” [circle] drawn by Joseph of Arimathea: here was placed the corpse of “Oure Lord” after he was taken down from the cross: “And that compass, men seyn, hit is in the myddel of the world” (39).

The pivot of the earth, Jerusalem is central geographically, theologically, and historically – a place where the literal and the metaphorical are indistinguishable, where sign is thing. We find ourselves within the Holy Land, within the walls of Jerusalem, within the church of the tomb, within Joseph’s compass: within, that is, a series of ever shrinking concentric circles that announce, once we can get to no more medial a site, that we have arrived at the locus where time and space are one. For just as we can move no further geographically, so temporality itself seems arrested: we are witnesses with Mandeville of events that occurred thirteen or fourteen hundred years ago, a living history caught in an eternal loop. Thus not only can we glimpse the red stains of Christ’s blood upon the mortice that secured his cross, but the chains that held him to a pillar when he was scourged. Not far from Joseph’s compass was the cross itself entombed, placed “under a roche” by Jews. Almost every step of this sacrosanct expanse brings to mind a story from the Bible, brings sacred narrative into the present to unfold once more. The center of the earth would seem a place of profound stasis, inscribed with a history so holy that the very stones retain its crimson imprint.

Except that these precincts are inhabited, and not by Joseph of Arimathea or Adam or Abraham or the Virgin Mary: “This lond of Jerusalem hath y-be in hond of diverse nacions, as Jewes, Cananeus, Assirienes, Perces, Medoynes, Massydoyns, Grecis, Romayns, Cristen men, Sarasyns, Barbaryns, and Turkes, and many other naciouns with hem” (37). The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is Constantinople’s addition to the Levantine landscape. A Muslim Sultan now owns the building, and he has built a fence around the tomb of Jesus to prevent pilgrims from chiseling souvenir pebbles. Godfrey of Bouillon, Baldwin, and other crusaders who held but could not keep the city are buried nearby. The cross of Christ and the nails that secured him to its wood were long ago discovered and carried away, the latter now possessed by “paynems and Sarasyns.” Within the church that has engulfed this sacred region in stone, the priests who say the masses do not use a familiar liturgy. Rocks and tombs that once held secrets – subterranean or stonework spaces that had enclosed bodies and relics and kept them transfixed – these have all been opened, emptied. In the middle of the world, history carries on: clergy go about their business indifferent to Roman changes to the mass, colonizers and tourists of various faiths come and go, the Sultan who owns the place remodels with his own architectural additions.

“The tomb in Palestine / Is not the porch of spirits lingering. / It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”

To quote Wallace Stevens on “silent Palestine” is to go too far: Mandeville never implies that this sacred dominion where the Passion unfolded is as empty as that compass marking “the myddel of the world.”

And yet …

Rather than comment at every citation of this essay ...

by J J Cohen

... allow me to state, here and for the record, that this essay by Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is just silly. SJT is the former president of my university. Despite his line "Does, for example, an English department with 30 members really need three medievalists?" the English Department at GW has never had three medievalists -- in fact so far as I can tell, for 150 years it had only one, and last year we got number two. The History Department here went a very long time with no medievalists at all.

Yes, I know that he is using medievalists as a lazy shorthand for "scholars without much purpose." That doesn't surprise me. Trachtenberg was never a friend to the humanities. He did great things for GW's reputation, student body, and real esate holdings. He didn't do a lot for our intellectual climate. Luckily, tenure prevented him from doing much harm to the faculty he seems to have felt were mostly getting in his way.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Two pieces on spirituality and art from the NYT

by J J Cohen

Whether devoured by the eyes or mouth, whether its potential embarrassments are to be excused by ethnicity (Neo-HooDoo?) or culinary achievement (the Sierpinski carpet in marzipan?), spirituality continues to move art. Just like, you know, in the Middle Ages.

Though I'm not sure the FSM was a devotional cookie back then.

EDIT 8 AM: Behind this short post, placed at ITM as I browsed the morning news, is a question that has been haunting me for a few weeks. While visiting another university recently, a graduate student asked me (quite sweetly) what kind of Middle Ages I teach. A whole list of possibilities ran through my mind, but I kept thinking about the crucifix that was hanging in the room, so I answered: compared to the way that medieval literature has been taught frequently in the past, and in many quarters continues to be taught, it's a fairly secular medieval studies.

I'm not fully satisfied with that answer, even if it is essentially true. Trained as I was in the late 80s into the 90s, I learned to be skeptical of Robertsonian, Christian allegorical readings: the Patrologia Latina as the key to all mythologies. Easy enough to reject, I suppose, because to be honest the materials never really resonated for me personally. I am far more interested in how worldly genres like romance resist or create human history (and not how these genres might be theologically motivated and circumscribed ... philosophically propelled, maybe, but not so much theologically). When I have worked with hagiography, it's mostly been the stranger and more exorbitant materials: Guthlac, for example, or Margery Kempe. In my own work I'm far more at ease speaking of aesthetics rather than spirituality, even while suspecting that the former is a secular substitute for the latter (see here, where an inhuman beauty propels art out of mundane history ... and thanks to Karl and Dan for their comments on that post, comments that I've been ruminating over for a few days, and are behind what I am typing now).

I have sometimes thought that spirituality is a club to which I never received my membership card. I have a slight envy of those who do possess the card -- not because I yearn for something that would fill some inner emptiness (there is no void that I am aware of), but because it sometimes strikes me that in the absence of such a yearning the Middle Ages that I am capable of knowing is somehow impoverished. Yes, I know, probably not: nothing gets in the way of interpretation like belief. But still, I do wonder how much of my own interpretive stance comes about from the thing that I silently define my Middle Ages by excluding, because I do not possess the desire to make it my own.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Dating Advice from Medieval Historians

by J J Cohen

No, that title is not a joke.

[h/t Bonnie Wheeler]

Brunanburh at Starbucks

by J J Cohen

I was early to campus this morning in order to prep for my Chaucer class and get some paperwork off my desk. Because I'd been up late last night at a farewell dinner (for the Scots-Asian writer and polymath Suhayl Saadi, who has been in residence at GW this month), and because the day is dark and the rain cold, I stopped to get coffee before heading across H St to my office. As I was sleepily wiping drips from my overfilled cup, a young man raced over and said "Professor Cohen, do your remember me from Myths of Britain?"

I did.

"I've been up all night," he declared "reading translations of the Battle of Brunanburh."

"Wow. You're hardcore." Then it hit me. "We didn't read Brunanburh in that class."

"I know. But I've been kind of obsessed with Old English since we read Beowulf. Look, I've been writing my own poetry about it."

He showed me a notebook page filled with alliterative rumination on the weight of history and the work of art. "You made my day," I told him. "You really made my day."

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Breaking Down Barriers: Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference


Wiley-Blackwell Compass Journals will be holding, from October 19th through 30th, 2009, their first-ever Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference in the Social Sciences and Humanities on the theme of "Breaking Down Barriers," with the sub-themes: Paradigms, Borders, The Environment/Energy, Communication, and Justice/Human Rights. Registration for the conference is completely free and all submissions and presentations will be electronic [textual and also in podcast]. From the website for the conference:
The conference will be entirely virtual taking place online 19-30 October 2009. Participants can attend at any time during the conference, when it suits their schedule, to download keynote addresses, read and comment on papers, and take part in other activities. The conference will include all the sessions you would expect from a real conference including keynote speakers, workshops, question and answer sessions, and a book exhibit. Papers will be posted online along with commentaries for discussion and comment. Accepted papers will be published in special issues of the Compass journals.
I myself will be presenting one of the keynote addresses [on . . . ask me again in six months, but I'm pretty sure I'll be going with the human rights sub-theme in relation to BABEL's various "humanisms" and "anti-humanisms" projects], and I think this presents a wonderful opportunity for medievalists to engage in cross-disciplinary discussion with scholars working in other periods and disciplines on subjects that are critical to the future of higher education [and thereby, to the future of the place and role of medieval studies within higher education]. In other words, I think medieval studies should crash this conference as a virtual gang, a long wave, a cyber-time machine, or . . . something like that.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library

by J J Cohen

The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library is launching a new series of medieval texts, "The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library." Published by Harvard University Press and modeled after the revered Loeb Classical Library, these books will offer works in Byzantine Greek, Medieval Latin, and -- yes! -- Old English, all with facing page translations.

Dan Donoghue is the general editor for the Old English series. The editorial board also includes Rob Fulk, Drew Jones, Andy Orchard, Toni Healey, Elizabeth Tyler, and Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe. I'm about to head off to the wine reception to celebrate the launch at the little Georgetown mansion that houses the research library... though the books won't be out until 2010, when the first ten titles debut. Still, why not drink to them now?

Medieval Inhuman Art: Geoffrey of Monmouth and Marie de France

[illustration: the subterranean dragons of history erupt into art, Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain: Lambeth Palace Lib. MS 5 f. 43v]

by J J Cohen

Below you will find the third section of my draft for an essay on "Inhuman Art," a recent obsession of mine. Part one of the essay is here; part two here; a description of the book in which it will appear here. I've realized, in fact, that I have much of my fourth monograph sketched out, its working title something like Art from a Stone: Dreaming the Medieval Prehistoric.

Aninormality is an inhuman beauty both superfluous and intimate to that which holds and is held by it, confounding distinctions between self and other, object and milieu. This ecstatic disruption of boundary and its intermixing of what might otherwise seem discrete occurs through the opening up of sublime new worlds -- or, to foreground the activity that inheres in aninormality, broaches a possibly infinite series of worldings. Roger Caillois found such enfolded eruptions within animals and stones. Medieval art, however, is also filled with aninormality’s aesthetic dispossessions and interpenetrations.

Take, for example, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, a Latin text widely known not for its artistry, but for its contributions to history: the establishing of a new historiographical tradition, the promulgation of a potent origin myth for Britain, the bestowal to the future of Arthur and his court. Likely composed to boost Welsh ethnic pride, this rhetorically unadorned twelfth-century work could not be more time-bound. Its vision of ancient Britain is an antidote to English triumphalism, to the dominating version of the past of the island, a history previously told in England only from an Anglocentric point of view. The History of the Kings of Britain was an instant success from the moment of its first appearance (c. 1136), likely because it offered a radically reconfigured insular past in which the Welsh and Bretons played a heroic role. By offering a counter-narrative to Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History was seen in the twelfth century as the truth of early English history, Geoffrey’s History offered the possibility of a present that did not have to culminate in lasting English glory, a present in which room existed for the Norman transformation of the country into the appendage of a transmarinal empire. The popularity of Geoffrey’s text can be ascribed to the cultural needs it satisfied: Welsh and Breton patriotism, the Norman desire for a present in which their presence was something more than a baffling interruption of the island’s English destiny, a more pluralistic vision of the British archipelago.

Yet if the text were so wholly of its moment, we should expect the enthusiasm elicited at its appearance to dissipate as the exigencies it arose to address were mitigated by its success. The History of the Kings of Britain should have followed the arc of all propaganda, from spectacular ascent to rapid decline in the wake of the cultural changes it embodied and brought about, to lingering existence at some margin where it could be acknowledged the somewhat embarrassing remnant of a transcended past. Ardor for the text, however, only burgeoned over time. Copies and versions proliferated. Translations from its international Latin into the indigenous tongues of French, English, and Welsh appeared quickly. From historiography its narratives migrated into chronicle, lyric, romance, lais. Each transformation was an amplification: as the poet Wace, for example, translated Geoffrey’s unadorned Latin prose into rhymed French verse (c.1155), he added details like Arthur’s creation of a Round Table. Through his publication of the History Geoffrey created what might be called a consensual world, a time-place that may never have existed, that comes into being and is sustained only through the texts by which writers populate its envisioned landscapes, but a world which nonetheless functions as if real, inviting other authors and scholars and fans to contribute their fictions masquerading as histories, their new characters, their enlargements of the consensual world’s inherent possibility. Without Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Arthurian realm would not have come into being. Stories of the Grail, Lancelot, Morgan le Fay, the Lady of the Lake, and the Green Knight are simply the additions of later writer-fans to a universe of which the loose parameters and initial content Geoffrey of Monmouth was the primary engineer. This expansive worlding of Geoffrey’s rather sparse textual realm originates at least in part from the powerful moments he placed in his narrative when art (which we could gloss as what Caillois called an innate or objective lyricism) propels the text outside of history.

Lists of kings with regnal spans, bare accomplishments, and progeny structure long expanses of Geoffrey’s narrative, a chronicling that tends towards the laconic. The dullness of his lists of data give the History of the Kings of Britain the heft of an artifact, the substantiality of something real. Thus the brief but exciting story of a sodomite king devoured in the wilds by “ravening wolves” is tempered by the dry facticity of his son’s data-heavy vita:
After the death of Mempricius, his son Ebraucus, who was very tall and a man of remarkable strength, took over the government of Britain and held it for thirty-nine years. He was the first after Brutus to sail a fleet to the shores of Gaul. He made war upon the provinces of the Gauls, slaughtering their menfolk and sacking their cities. By the time he came back victorious he was enriched with a vast booty of gold and silver. At a later date he founded a city on the farther side of the Humber, which city he called Kaerebrauc after himself, that is to say the City of Ebraucus.
At that time King David was reigning in Judea and Silvius Latinus was king in Italy. In Israel, Gad, Nathan and Asaph were the prophets.

Ebraucus also founded the city of Alclud over in Albany; and the castle of Mount Agned …

What is more, by the twenty wives which he had, he was the father of twenty sons and of thirty daughters. For forty years he ruled over the kingdom of Britain with great firmness. The names of his sons were as follows: Brutus Greenshield, Margodud, Sisillius, Regin, Morvid, Bladud, Lagon, Bodloan, Kincar, Spaden, Gaul, Dardan, Eldad, Ivor, Cangu, Hector … (78-79)

Twenty sons are listed in total, and, having finished this catalog, Geoffrey goes on to name the thirty daughters, a weighty piling up of information that imbues this catalog of British, Roman, Greek, and invented appellations the verity of an archive. This truth effect is enhanced through reference to events happening simultaneously in Israel and Rome, giving an invented past the authority that derives from unfolding alongside biblical and classical history. Invoking Brutus, the founding father of Britain in Geoffrey’s History, builds Ebraucus’s majesty and buttresses Brutus’s own tenuous reality through self-referentiality.

The inventory of countries conquered, cities founded, and children fathered does its work, answering the preceding account of a king turned too much inward. The sodomitical copulations of Mempricius, Ebraucus’s father, express sexually his unwillingness to think about the life of his country beyond the termination of his reign (“he did away with any who he feared might succeed him in the kingship … he deserted his own wife”), of his inability to rouse himself from self-enclosure in Britain and to expand his domain into an empire. His lupine ingestion within a valley where he wanders alone and abandoned is a rebuke to the tyranny through which he has built paninsular dominion. His son’s regnum offers a complete contrast: a king whose vigorous imperialism is paralleled in his exuberant heterosexuality, whose ardor for founding cities and building castles finds biological expression in his fecundity in producing heirs. Geoffrey’s rhetorical prowess is evident in how he structures the opposition between the two monarchs. His tale of father and son allows him to buttress quietly a kind of empire-loving kingship never practiced by the Britons of whom he writes, but beloved by the Normans who had annexed England to holdings that stretched to Sicily and the Levant. Geoffrey’s History, in other words, advances a useful argument about contemporary kingship and thereby makes itself cultural necessary.

Because it is structured through such cleverly contrived historicality, the History of the Kings of Britain remains largely an unadorned chronicle, its art more evident in its deep structure than in anything that effloresces from the work itself. Yet the narrative is interrupted by moments of unexpected and superfluous beauty, smaller stories that derail the progress of the larger plot with their vividness and, at times, poignancy. Such aesthetically charged eruptions can saturate this otherwise arid text with moments of profound emotional enlargement. Think, for example, of Princess Ignoge, Greek captive on a Trojan ship, forced to marry the warrior who has ruthlessly defeated her father. In this moment when the forward movement of the History eddies backwards, in this interlude when “history itself is forgotten,” we watch with Ignoge as she stares fixedly across a widening sea towards her receding homeland. We behold with her eyes everything she knows dwindling to its vanishing point, lost as an ocean she never desired to sail propels her towards a future she cannot know. We understand why “as long as the shore lay there before her eyes, she would not turn her gaze” [Nec oculos a littore auertit dum littora oculis patuerunt, a nicely balanced bit of Latin lyricism, 8]. We comprehend why she weeps. If we are responsive to this uncharacteristically poignant effusion ebbing through the sangfroid of the text, her tears become ours as well. Geoffrey can give her weeping no answer, no conclusion: enervated by sadness, Ignoge falls asleep in her new husband’s arms.

The vessel speeds onward regardless (“Meanwhile the Trojans sailed on for two days and one night …”), British history speeds onward regardless (“Then they touched land at a certain island called Leogatia …”), but Ignoge’s stubborn gaze upon shores from which she never wished departure stays with us. By leading our eyes back towards what has been left behind, the vision keeps returning us to stories without conclusion: the narratives of those forced onto this vehicle of relentless forward motion, this ship of history on which some unwilling passengers find no waking solace. We last behold Ignoge when, “worn out with crying,” she falls into forgetful slumber. Her story literally ends with that sleep, ends with a hero’s embrace, but emotionally such closure is denied. How can we not wonder about the life towards which she is relentlessly conveyed, how can we not wonder about her future?

Other than to acknowledge that she bears Brutus three sons, Geoffrey is silent. By refusing to provide the narrative space opened by her longing with a conclusion or resolution, Geoffrey keeps Ignoge alive forever in alluring despair, like the heroine of an opera whose voice reverberates long after she has departed the stage. Meditating upon such performers, especially in operas that feature the spectacular demise of female protagonists, Carolyn Abbate writes of the “unconquerable” voice of the women seemingly silenced by opera’s murderous narratives, arguing that “this undefeated voice speaks across the crushing plot.” Abbate observes that such a woman can be “undone by plot,” yet remain “triumphant in voice.” Geoffrey of Monmouth goes farther, demonstrating how a woman can be undone by plot yet triumphant in art – traumatic art, in which grief and death are nearer to hand than survival and life. Yet Ignoge’s tears are an art of endurance that lacks neither beauty nor ethical complexity. Once voiced, her despair and her desires form a circuit of identification between reader and text-event (which is also a temporal circuit between past-as-text and the reading, imagining present) that brings the History out of history and into a new realm, a new world – and this worlding is art. This moment of art, moreover, is wholly in excess of any historical demands placed upon the text, wholly in excess of cultural needs. In its lyricism, its superfluity, its captivating aninormality, its liquid love of oceans and weeping and movement and dreams over the stability of fatherlands and promised destinations, this little work of art within the text opens a space within that narrative, one difficult to close or to forget.

The eruption of art that occurs in the Ignoge episode involves an efflorescence of emotive beauty. An aesthetically moving moment caused by unanticipated estrangement from the dominant narrative of the story, Ignoge’s vision transforms her ardor for a lost home into something that seems striking, new, capable of lifting us out of our solitary orbit (which so far has been tracing great men and their celebrated deeds) to encounter a more capacious world. This ecstatic effect depends upon Ignoge’s human, all too human longing. Yet Geoffrey is also capable of mixing the human and the inhuman in order to produce strange new kinds of art. His book is interrupted at times with moments of lyrical mystery, sometimes through effusion of what is his text’s most sublime substance, blood. Take, for example, the pluvial gore that drenches the island during the rule of the obscure king Rivallo, a soaking in crimson both awesome and gruesome to visualize: “In his time it rained blood for three days and men died from the flies which swarmed” (87). By saturating the landscape with an element alien to it [pluuia sanguinea], this vivid reddening of the island estranges place from world: a medieval version of Christo’s “Pont Neuf Wrapped” or “Surrounded Islands” hitched to a kind of charnel house art in which even death becomes an aesthetic element. The text offers a narrative precursor to T. Coraghessan Boyle’s story “Bloodfall,” in which a similar hematic rain transfigures the world into something violent, rotting, and weirdly beautiful.

A rather similar moment involving blood occurs later in the text, when the History takes a swerve into what seems like a new generic register (though just as likely this swerve is actually the invention of a new genre, romance). On the run from his Saxon enemies, the traitorous British king Vortigern is frantically attempting to bring stability back to an island he once dominated. With the lines Uocatis denique magis suis (“in the end Vortigern summoned his magicians”) the tone of the narrative is transformed: previously Geoffrey’s History has been largely empty of enchantment, its wonder confined mainly to the natural or the naturally inexplicable, such as the sudden rain of blood. Enter the magicians. These magi – the first in the text, and the first therefore in Arthurian myth -- are charged by Vortigern with imagining a way to bring durability to a fugitive life. The magicians declare that such permanence can be found only in the creation of a work of architecture, “an immensely strong tower” (166). When a suitable site is chosen at Mount Erith, however, whatever stones the masons erect one day is swallowed back into the earth the next. The magicians declare that to lay secure foundations, the mortar must be sprinkled with the blood of “a lad without a father” [iuuenem sine patre] – with blood, that is, that carries none of the kind of history that Geoffrey’s own text embodies, obsessed as it is with fathers, sons, and persistence through generations.

Such an escape from history – or at least from story -- is impossible: the lad without a father, a surly and precocious boy named Merlin, is the progeny of a nun and an incubus. In the form of a very handsome youth [in specie pulcerrimi iuuenis], the demon made frequent, secret love with the nun in her chamber’s solitude. Eventually she bore his child. Ancient books verify, according to an authority summoned by Vortigern, that incubos demones exist between moon and earth [inter lunam et terram, 72]. Possessed of a pedigree that ties them to the fallen angels of the Bible, incubi were in the Middle Ages monsters who incarnated the very spirit of Geoffrey’s own History – that is, they incarnated a kind of counter-history, stories at war with dominating traditions and mundane realities. Enter the magicians: What Vortigern’s magi have unwittingly demanded is the coming into the narrative of a living embodiment of the shattered border between the quotidian (the ordinary world where people remain in the times and places history allots to them) and the extraordinary (the space of possibility where a cloistered nun can find love in the embrace of a mysterious, handsome knight). These magicians transport the History of the Kings of Britain into a new realm, where the rules that have so far structured its narrative unfolding are suspended, remade anew.

Merlin, the boy in whose body the blood of a different kind of story pulses, has his own ideas of how Vortigern can construct an enduring structure. Merlin declares that the only true method to create a durable architecture is not to commit more violence in the present, but to acknowledge the unstable history that underdwells that artwork’s coming into being. Merlin insists that Vortigern’s tower topples at each foundation because he is constructing its base upon ground inhabited by unsettled history. Beneath Mount Erith, within an underground pool, inside two hollow rocks [duos concauos lapides] at the bottom of that water, twin dragons slumber [duos dracones dormientes, 73]. These are dragons of history: the white monster embodies the marauding Saxons, while in the red’s pugnacious body resides the story of the Welsh. Once this buried past is spoken and moved beyond (after the boy’s revelation, the dragons are dismissed from their subterranean enmity), Merlin is freed from the compulsion to yield his blood … and can endure in the story to erect on Salisbury plain the vast architecture of Stonehenge, rocks that when drenched with water heal bodily ailments. Vortigern, meanwhile, is eventually burnt to ash within his tower, his incineration a reminder of the oblivion that comes to those who reside only in history.

Stonehenge becomes Geoffrey’s shorthand for art itself, a lithic yet living structure that conjoins distant pasts (the stones journey from Africa to Ireland to Britain, and conjoin the stories of their primal architects, the giants, with those of humans) and unexpected futures (transported to Salisbury through Merlin’s engineering feats, Stonehenge stands for the futurity bestowed upon the House of Constantine, for not only will it last eternally as a memorial to the kings Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, the only great ruler from this family not interred there will be Arthur, whose absence body allows the possibility of a return to come). Merlin through this calculus becomes not so much an engineer as an author, an artist: his magical power is not the wizardry of spells, but the ability to add to that which would otherwise be merely functional or historical a beauty that enlarges the world into which it arrives, that ensures the structure it inhabits and worlds will nurture its own mobility, that guarantees the artwork will endure. Thus the Vortigern’s Tower episode concludes with some words about Merlin’s transformation from bastard child to uncanny spirit of creativity and estrangement:
[Vortigern] was more astounded [ammirabatur, “possessed by wonder”] by Merlin than he had ever been by anything. All those present were equally amazed [ammirabantur] by his knowledge, and they realized that there was something supernatural about him [existimantes numen esse in illo]. (169, 73)

Like a medieval Caillois, Merlin is expert in the writing of stones, in lapidary art – even when the stone in which this art has been enclosed has been sunken in a pool and placed within a mountain. By discerning the colored dragons within the stones’ heart, or the healing powers within Stonehenge – by discerning the inherent surplus in something as seemingly cold and inert as buried rocks and ancient monoliths – Merlin speaks the inhuman, self-dispossessing, and unhistorical truth of art.

Geoffrey of Monmouth was far from the only medieval artist to discover at the boundary between body and world, history and ecstasy the lyrical yet confounding power of inhuman art. Marie de France, a contributor to the consensual world put in place by Geoffrey, structured many of her lais are around an aesthetic object so dense in its significations that it cannot be reduced to a single meaning: the talkative, bisexual hind and the ship of dreams in Guigemar; the woven cloth that materializes a sexuality in La Cordre; the clothing that maintains and yet confuses the corporal line between human and wolf in Bisclavret. Guigemar, for example, is a knight so self-enclosed that he knows love only of solitary pleasures. While hunting he encounters a deer with antlers, a bisexual or hermaphroditic creature that also possesses human speech. His arrow rebounds from this living artwork of an animal, wounding his thigh and hurling him into erotic possibility. Guigemar’s world, like his body, has been penetrated, and will henceforth never be so circumscribed. He boards a boat that awaits him in the harbor, a ship that may be made of dreams, or it may be the bark of Solomon which worthy knights board to seek the Holy Grail, or may be a metaphor for all the beauty of poetry. The ship conveys him to a distant land, where his ardor for an imprisoned lady allows her access to a more capacious worldview. Notably, she is not allowed to sail across the sea and find him until she makes the choice to propel herself out of a familiar story in which she plays the affection-starved young wife to a dry old man. Once she makes that choice, she finds the door to the tower in which she has been enclosed has always been unlocked, and that the Ship of Poetry awaits at the harbor. Could lyricism take a less human, more beautiful form than that vessel gliding across the world’s seas, enlarging the world with every wave its prow traverses?

In closing I offer a scene that, like Rivallo and the pluvial gore, opens another world through blood; a scene enclosed, like Geoffrey’s sleeping dragons, in stone. The unnamed heroine of Yonec has been imprisoned in a tower by her jealous and elderly husband. She wastes away, losing her beauty, until one day, she wishes that the alternate worlds of which she has apparently been reading might be true, that ladies might discover lovers “so handsome, courtly, brave and valiant / that they could not be blamed, / and no one else would see them” (98-100). She wishes, in other words, that she might be like Merlin’s mother, enjoying in secret the embraces denied to her in the small space into which she has been confined. Upon its utterance her wish takes fleshly form: a hawk flies to the ledge of the tower and enters the room as “a handsome and noble knight” (115) – a man who has loved her from afar for many years, but needed her to articulate her desire for a world configured otherwise before he could fly to her chamber. Not an incubus exactly, but acting very much like one, this fantasy knight eventually impregnates the lady with a son. Her wicked husband discovers the truth of his wife’s enjoyment, and sets sharp spikes along the window ledge. When the hawk-knight attempts to enter, he is torn apart, and stains the bedclothes with his blood (316).

When her dying lover returns to his distant land, the lady decides upon an extraordinary course of action: she leaps from her window, leaps into activity and out of her prison of self-possession. She follows a glimmering trail of blood straight into a hillside, where after a subterranean journey an Other World opens in splendor: “There was no house, no hall or tower, / that didn’t seem of silver” (362-3). She enters a series of chambers, each with a slumbering knight she does not recognize: other lovers for other dream-filled ladies. On the third bed in the third room she discovers her dying knight, who speaks to her of a beautiful future yet to come. The story ends exactly where we expect: with the son taking vengeance against his wicked stepfather, the lady dying in a mixture of bliss and grief at the grave of her true love, tidy closure for this intricate little work of art. Yet to return to the lai’s middle space, to its underground chamber that in no way seems beneath the earth: here we glimpse the entrance to another world where sleeping knights without names, without narrated stories, await the cloistered dreamers who will dare to envision their own rescue from the stories that imprison them. This Other World, sealed beneath a hill but reached easily after a frightening leap of faith, through an encounter with one’s own potential obliteration, this Other World offers the possibility of infinite worlds, of spaces so strange within this earth that human imagination alone fails to capture all their potential for disrupting the seeming solidity of the ordinary worlds we inhabit.

Inhuman art: not in the culmination of the story of Yonec, which is an all too human tale of revenge, but in its dream of a hollow space within the hill, where possibilities are multiplied, where the world as we know it expands exponentially and induces the ecstasy, the vertigo, of ceasing to know one’s place.

In memoriam: Derek Brewer

by J J Cohen

Derek Brewer, who changed the landscape of medieval studies through his scholarship as well as his publishing ventures, has died.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Convivial literary studies

by J J Cohen

The office of department chair yields much fodder for complaint: the hours can be long (yesterday I arrived on campus at 7:15 AM, and wasn't home until 9:00 PM), the paperwork an endurance test, personnel issues can mount, deadlines come like piranha schools and nibble your soul to its skeleton, the tiny aggravations can accumulate in the course of days and months.

Whatever. Readers of this blog have likely gleaned already that I'm not much given to complaint, that in fact I have very little tolerance for kvetch modes. I'd much rather be involved in affirmative projects with clear goals and tangible outcomes. I've enjoyed being chair of the English Department at GW. My three year term comes to a close this spring, and I am nostalgic in advance as its end looms. I hope that what I have called my Reign of Terror will in fact be remembered for attempts to build a lasting, convivial community that includes faculty, students, alumni, and the world outside this particular university. I leave it to my colleagues to decide if I have been at all successful.

Last night I ran an event that gave me some hope that this community really has come into being. I put together a panel called Literature in a Global Age, and invited GW's faculty and undergraduates. We made a special effort to reach out to alumni as well, hoping to lure them back to see how energized and vibrant our English department remains. The event was not a celebration of globalism in literature, but an exploration of how scholars and creative writers analyze, meditate upon, and produce art that explores, reflects, deflects, critiques the culturally complicated time into which it is born. We had a wide ranging discussion of universals, humanism, particularities, posctcolonialism, neocolonialism, politcs, power ... and art. So many people registered for this event that we reached our capacity of sixty-five: who knew there was such an audience for professorial pontification? The only drawback is that we had so much to say on the panel, yet had not allocated sufficient time for discussion: convivial indeed, but all too brief.

I share this at ITM because I believe -- contra the Charlotte Allens and Nancy Partners of the world -- that medievalists do not in fact suffer from a congenital inability to communicate with their colleagues in later periods, and that attempts at conversation are not symptoms of desperation or loneliness. Quite to the contrary: this globalism panel was in many ways an extension into the present of work undertaken by medievalists. Sure, many of the panelists did not know this in advance ... but the Middle Ages were referenced repeatedly as having been reapproached as a time period not of local solitudes but of nomadism, world movement, cultural flow. Globalism as catalyst to change, creativity, discontent is one of the more obvious topics through which medievalists can enter into lively conversation with their colleagues in other time periods and disciplines. Gerry Heng has already proven this well. Globalism in its complexity is also an excellent way to break down the divide between what is scholarly and what is artistic, part of what I have called (stealing a line from Wallace Stevens) a lingua franca et jocundissima that allows us to "to roam that space where philosophy and narrative embrace or even become art."

At least, that's what I beheld my colleagues doing last night ... and extending the conversation to form a community that extends well beyond the faculty of an English Department. I don't think I've ever seen such a lively group attend one of our events. So, all hail convivial literary, artistic, and cultural studies. All hail.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Waste Studies and Chaucer's Fecopoetics: A New Paradigm for Literary Analysis

Figure 1. Andres Serrano, "SHIT (Heroic Shit)"


Under the heading of "here's something from the SEMA conference," here and elsewhere [at wraetlic, Indirections, The Whim, etc.], we've had eros and the event, resurrected pigs, books pleasuring bodies, liturgical reading, jongleurs, weeping with Erkenwald, cosmic sorrow, and faces, so now, how about some shit? Susan Morrison has graciously agreed to allow us to post her SEMA paper, "Waste Studies: A New Paradigm for Literary Analysis as Applied to Chaucer's Fecopoetics." Some may recall that after last May's Kalamazoo Congress, Susan, and waste studies more broadly, were one of Charlotte Allen's chief objects of Allen's decrying of the damage cultural studies has wrought upon scholarship of the Middle Ages. Although it is not too difficult to parody or make fun of waste studies, for Morrison, waste studies are deeply ethical and also form one possible avenue toward a greater mindfulness of the Other whose excremental body we share. But I won't say more about what Morrison can say better than me:

Waste Studies: A New Paradigm for Literary Analysis as Applied to Chaucer's Fecopoetics

Susan S. Morrison

1) Waste Studies

In a world in which material prosperity and, arguably, life itself are inevitably linked to pollution and the production of waste and filth, how can we humans--ourselves sources of waste both bodily and in terms of how much we throw out--understand and cope with waste? Has waste always been viewed in the same way in Western culture or have views changed over time? From garbage-filled moats to overflowing landfills, waste has been and continues to be an enduring issue. The field of waste studies emerges out of a conversation increasingly focused on filth, rubbish, garbage, litter--even excrement. There is a veritable canon of anthropological, archeological, sociological, and theoretical works which address waste as a category, such as Zygmunt Bauman’s Wasted Lives, Michael Thompson’s Rubbish Theory, Allan Stoekl’s Bataille’s Peak: Energy, Religion, and Postsustainability, Gay Hawkins’ The Ethics of Waste, and John Scanlan’s On Garbage, all of which argue how, in varying ways, we have disciplined ourselves with regard to dirt. Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger: An analysis of concept of pollution and taboo, along with Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection and William Ian Miller in The Anatomy of Disgust, influentially set up the category of dirt and its relationship to order and boundaries, reading excrement as impurity and disorder. The figuring of excrement as shit — low, horrifying, disgusting — is a manifestation of the mind-body split. Reason is antithetical to excrement.

Excrement, filth, rubbish, garbage, and waste are central to how we see and treat the world and those in it. They touch myriad aspects of our lives. Waste has appeared as a humorous and horrifying element in literature, is key to property rights and legal boundaries in historical documents, has been of concern in philosophical disquisitions on between the mind and body, and has been a focus for anthropological and psychological research. Waste studies require a plural verb; they are rhizomatic, a network of critical discourses.

2) Chaucer’s Fecopoetics and Pilgrimage Literature

Excrement was literally of concern for pilgrims as we can see in an account by the Dominican Felix Fabri of Ulm, who traveled to the Holy Land in the early 1480s. He writes his account to help future pilgrims on their sojourns and describes the boat journey to Jerusalem where just being able to defecate was a trial:
A few words on the manner of urinating and shitting on a boat.

At sea it is easy to become constipated. Here is good advice for the pilgrim: go to the privies three or four times every day, even when there is no natural urge, in order to promote evacuation by discreet efforts; and do not lose hope if nothing comes on the third or fourth try. Go often, loosen your belt, untie all the knots of your clothes over chest and stomach, and evacuation will occur even if your intestines are filled with stones. [1]
References to excrement, the body’s product, are unusually frequent in fictional pilgrimage texts. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer often uses excrement for signaling illicit greed for money: the friar desirous of wealth in The Summoner's Tale befouled by the fart; greedy religious punished by the image of Satan’s anus; the avaricious pardoner insulted by a turd. Excess desire, greed, and lust are punished by excess in the form of shit. The body politic is controlled by insulting the human body, by using its own filth to cleanse homeopathically.
Additionally, excrement is an ingredient Chaucer uses to break open, explore, or question genres. Excrement functions as a kind of generic question mark, to criticize host desecration tales which demonize "others," to probe our supposed separation from animals in a beast tale, to point up the playful and animal lust at the heart of the "love story" between Damian and May. Filth does not just belong to the fabliau; it is everywhere human actors are present. Alison’s “hol,” punctuated by Nicholas’s fart, destroys Absolon’s courtly love fantasy. The Reeve attempts to control the danger or phantom of sexual assault through genre manipulation. The genre of the poignant dawn song spoken between Malyne and Aleyn interrupts the ostensible fabliau of The Reeve’s Tale, exposing this romantic encounter as rape. [2] By forcing a disjunction of genres, signaled through excrement (when Symken's wife goes to piss), Chaucer discomforts us. Chaucer allows the disjunction, this rupture of the fabliau, to alert the reader to the problem of functioning solely within a genre. We want to passively succumb to the genre; we desire the oppression genres wield through their own version of social control. But Chaucer does not let us wallow in our generic ease.

The medieval body--unfinished, unbounded, and fragmentary; filthy and incomplete--is linked with pilgrimage. Pilgrimage, a ritual wedded to spiritual amendment and change, and excrement, which composts into fertilizer to be useful, both involve the process of material or spiritual metamorphosis. The body--the body of the pilgrimage poem and the physical body of the pilgrim--has no closure. The body of the literary pilgrimage text enacts fragmentation metatextually, as, for example, with the many tales in Chaucer’s poem and the multiple and conflicting versions of Langland’s Piers Plowman and DeGuilleville’s The Pilgrimage of Human Life. I was thinking of Jeffrey Cohen's plenary address yesterday concerning Mandeville's Travels as a multitext, how it is rhizomatic. Such narratives recognize that the self is not whole or finished but under constant revision. The poet must amend his poem, an analogue for body and soul. This ever-changing pilgrim body, exemplified in the production of excrement, is linked to the ever-changing narrative or text, which is continually revised, revisable, and unstable. Both bodies--the pilgrim body made of flesh, the pilgrimage texts made of words--continually undergo amendment and revision.

Imaginative pilgrimage literature recognizes the fantasy of the unified self. Pilgrims seek out shrines with relics, which typically are body parts of the dead. The pilgrim desires access to the saint’s fragmented body. In pilgrimage literature, the narrator is not a unified subject; hence the many tales, the non-cohesion, and multivocality. The fragmentary text gestures at complete meaning just as the relic is a metonymy for the saint’s body. Indeed, as Jay Ruud so brilliantly argued two days ago in the "Dead Bodies" session, the relic suggests the inviolable "resurrected body."

The concept of concomitance, in which Christ was fully present in every crumb of the eucharist, allowed for the idea of perfection being seen in the part, the whole is present in the fragment or relic. [3] Hence the fragmented pilgrimage texts, those works headed to the part, the relic, the fragment. We eat a work, chew the cud, and try to create some higher good from it; but chewing suggests at the same time the final product--excrement. Just as a saint’s relic, a dead piece of bone, can be understood to be healing, so too dead words can, alchemically, be transformed into “gold” and transform--amend--the reader-pilgrim. Rather than a grotesque body like that in the Bakhtinian model, where the reversal of up and down, though celebrated, retains the hierarchical binary, Chaucer’s poetry suggests a different understanding of the pilgrim body. Excrement functions as an ingredient in the alchemical stew of his writing, not just as a spice to "saffron" it, as Latin does the Pardoner's speech (VI.345), but as a vital ingredient, which punctures, deflates, and but also allows for hope. Chaucer's fecopoetics is representative of social commentary beyond mere gross humor. [4] The poet's use of scatological discourse acknowledges the porous boundaries of the contingent, to use Wendy Matlock's term, body.

Chaucer, like May, consigns his letters, his poetry, to the privy. But this is no act of the abject; rather, a means for May to express her agency [5] and for Chaucer to create a fecopoetics that grapples with issues with religious, gender, environmental, and poetic ramifications. The accident of Chaucer’s verse may lie in the realm of the exoteric with its fecal vocabulary, genres like host desecration tales, and a moral tale told by an immoral man, but their esoteric substance is redemption. The real magic is poetry, even poetry laden with filth.

3) Brown Methodology: Embodying Fecal Morality

Waste demands a moral attention that the current amalgam of theoretical positions is unable to provide; it demands a meaningful new set of critical tools. We need to consider the body by borrowing from those writing on the ethics of waste and garbage to understand a “new materialism.” If we take Waste Studies as a method, these are the kinds of things we look for:

We need to think about simultaneity, how excrement is both outside (food) turned inside and the inside turned outside when it is produced. It both is us and not us, or at least not "truly" us, as Aquinas would agree concerning the resurrection of the body. Anne Scott spoke about how Mary ate food fromt he angels; clearly this food would be uncorrupt so she would not excrete it. Currently, we see the excremental body as immoral, unethical, horrifying, unhealthful, distasteful. While scholars are expected to be detached, reasonable, and logical, we are "concrete, embodied human being[s]." [6] Toril Moi has eloquently argued for reclaiming Simone de Beauvoir's "concept of the body as a situation." [7] One undeniable aspect of our bodies' situation is the production of excrement. Bodies do not necessitate illogic; you can be embodied, attached, and still logical.

We need to think about process, fluidity, and transformation. [8] Waste studies deal with the consequences of the breakdown of binaries and allow us to understand that the body is not simply a bounded object out of which disgusting fluids and solids are ejected. The matter within us touches an exterior; our bodies, then, embrace a world beyond the envelope of our skin.

We need to think about mindfulness. Excrement is a way to acknowledge the body; and, with it, comes an awareness of the interconnectedness of one’s own body with those of others, enabling compassion for others. [9] There are dangers in ascribing weakness or disgust to defecation. We can lose our compassion for others when we sense they have lost their dignity. Mindfulness can enable a full, aware, nonjudgmental, and loving experience of our bodies, the bodies of others, and the world. [10]

We need to think about affinity, webs, connectivity. We coalesce not through identity, which leads only to fragmentation, but through affinity. [11] Excrement provides us with a reason for acknowledging affinity among all people, one we normally deny. Waste is the great leveller, linking us all through elective affinities. [12]

I shit, therefore I think. I, fully embodied, think; therefore I, fully embodied, act fully.

Waste studies offer ethical and moral frameworks for us to pay attention to, understand, and act on bodily and societal waste--material aspects of our world. The excremental body is the body each one of us possesses. Medieval excrement is not a sign of otherness, but of similarity that connects to us in the twenty-first century. The “civilizing process” [to use Norbert Elias's term] is just that--a process--never a finished state. Part of our civilizing process is to recognize the value of that which we deem uncivilized and to see ourselves in that threatening, filthy alterity.


[1] Georges Duby, A History of Private Life, Volume I, From Pagan Rome to Byzantium
From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 586.
[2] Susan Signe Morrison, "The Uses of Biography in Medieval Literary Criticism: The Case of Geoffrey Chaucer and Cecily Chaumpaigne," The Chaucer Review 34 (1999), p. 81 [69-86].
[3] Carolyn Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), pp. 314, 316.
[4] I am basing this term of Jonathan Bate’s “ecopoetics,” on, for instance, Song of the Earth, p. 266.
[5] Elizabeth Robertson, in a paper delivered at the "Revisiting Chaucer and Christianity Conference" (July 2003), titled: “I have…a Soule for to Kepe: Discerning the Female Subject in ‘The Merchant’s Tale.’"
[6] Toril Moi, What is a Woman? And Other Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 35.
[7] Moi, What is a Woman?, p. 43.
[8] See Adrienne Harris, Gender as Soft Assembly (Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press, 2005).
[9] Linda Holler, Erotic Morality: The Role of Touch in Moral Agency (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002), p. 171.
[10] See, for example, Daniel J. Siegel, The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being (New York, W.W. Norton and Company, 2007).
[11] See Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto," p. 155-6.
[12] Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto," p. 157. The phrase comes from Goethe's novel of that title, Die Wahlverwandtschaften.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

RSVP for Touching the Past at GW

by J J Cohen

If you intend to attend the Touching the Past symposium (the inaugural event of the GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute) on Friday November 7, would you let us know that you plan to come? You can email Lowell Duckert ( or me (

We'd like to ensure that our room is large enough and that we have enough cookies for everyone.


Why I will never leave my office again. Ever. I'll die in here, I really will.

by J J Cohen

So we took a little family trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. A wind storm aside, it was great: just the moment of calm we all needed in the windstorm that seems to be the Cohen family life.

Today's photograph is entitled "Here is what I face today." That's my Riverside Chaucer in the foreground, open to the Merchant's Tale (teaching it at 11). The salmon colored sheets are detailed instructions for the paper I am about to assign. Other papers include CVs for a Judaic Studies matter, course enrollment spreadsheets, instructions for the formal invitation I need to compose to Michael Chabon to come to campus in the spring (introduced by Edward P. Jones -- on my theory that The Known World and The Yiddish Policemen's Union are versions of the same book), an outline for a program I'm running tomorrow for alumni on "Literature in a Global Age," and a stack of books and journals that I want to read immediately but that only seems to grow. Ah yes, I remember back when I was not chair and could do fun things like read. Assorted notes, reminders, journals, magazines, and some fruit complete the picture (the last item is either for throwing at those who disturb me, or for lunch, depending).

Happy, happy days here at GW. And what I really want to do is spend some time on Eileen's post about faciality. Not yet.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Like an Old Inscription that has been Scratched Away and Covered with Leaves: A Meditation on the Face


What we see in the face is not . . . its nothingness, but rather a certain mode of registering the world.
--Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, from Forms of Being

WITT [Jim Caveziel]: Maybe all men got one big soul everybody's a part of; all faces are the same man.
--from The Thin Red Line

For a long while now, my friend Michael Moore and I have been having our arguments about humanism. You might say that, when trying to grapple with where we might stand now--here, in this troubled late century--with regard to humanism, in all its forms [early and late], and human [and other] rights, that it has become increasingly difficult to defend the status of the human as a kind of measure by which the adjudication of the joys and sufferings [and being-ness] of the world could ever be adequately attended to. I, myself, want to embrace Michael's more hopeful viewpoints, as he has expressed them in both of his essays, "Wolves, Outlaws, and Enemy Combatants" [in Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages] and "Notes Toward a Miloszan Humanism" [Journal of Narrative Theory 37.2]--that friendship, with oneself and others, "might form the basis for a reawakening of the classical political demand for amity and justice," and further, that a "new humanism would be a valuable position, even a source of joy, because of its purposes: to provide resources for personal liberation and the confrontation of contemporary cultural and political reality with ancient alternatives" [and this new, even poetic humanism--following Milosz's project--"would prove beneficial because it would neither project an ideal humanity nor offer an historicist project for transforming humans into a new humanity"]. But then, I also hear Karl's insistent arguments, as he recently expressed them in his SEMA conference paper, that
If the human establishes itself as human by dominating animals, then, in another instance of the key insight of any number of postmodern philosophies, there is no essential human identity; there is only a fundamental conflict. The human is both a structural position and an ongoing event that seeks to produce both the human and the animal by elevating one and denigrating the other. It might be expected that this conflict could end once humans resurrected into an afterlife populated only by God, angels—or demons—and by other humans, where humans will have assumed their perfected bodies, freed from all flux. By passing through death, humans finally realize their distinction from nonhuman earthly life, and, in an afterlife lacking any lifeforms that can be dominated, they should be freed from the necessity of conflict. This peaceful end might be understood as the point when the human at long last comes into its own. But if the meat-eating by which the human struggles to be human contaminates the human body, if the pork we eat resurrects with us, then that struggle will be marked on the human body for eternity. Rather than finally arriving at an identity, the human will permanently display a corporeal reminder of its systemic antagonism; rather than transcending flux, flux would be fixed in the human forever. The truth of human nature—its contingency, its inessential relationality—will be irrepressible.
Is it possible, finally, to talk of human or any other rights without recourse to the idea of something like a stable [or readily identifiable] human being, and more troubling still, without recourse to a religious, or metaphysical, viewpoint? This was the problem Simone Weil wrestled with when writing her "Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations," where she wanted to conceptualize a way of translating "God" into language that would be meaningful to the religious, agnostic, and atheistic, and where she wrote,
There is a reality outside the world, that is to say, outside space and time, outside man's mental universe, outside any sphere whatsoever that is accessible to human faculties. Corresponding to this reality, at the center of the human heart, there is a longing for an absolute good, a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world. . . . Those minds whose attention and love are turned towards that reality are the sole intermediary through which good can descend from there and come among men. [Simone Weil: An Anthology, ed. Sian Miles, pp. 201, 202]
I am reminded here of Levinas's thinking on la petite bonte [the "little act of goodness"]--the idea that goodness cannot be accomplished all at once in the world when everyone is all of a sudden and unreservedly for-the-Other-before-themselves [this could never, will never happen], but rather, resides in those small singular moments when "the human interrupts the pure obstinacy of beings and its wars." This goodness, which is little and passes from one person to another, is ultimately "fragile before the power of evil," and yet is the only means available for ethical attention since goodness can never be "a regime, an organized system, a social institution" [Is It Righteous to Be? Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas, pp. 207, 218, 217]. But, what calls upon this goodness? What hails it, causes it to turn and address itself to a plea [or even, to turn in anticipation of a plea not yet expressed]? Is it the face, and if so, what kind of face, or faciality? For Levinas, of course it was [while we must also remember that the face, for Levinas, was both the human face and also an "expression" that overflowed all images that might seek to contain it--in this sense, it is not bound within the human form but also has a primary "residence" or "dwelling" there].

I recall a powerful scene in Terence Malick's film about the Pacific theater in World War II, The Thin Red Line, when, after a successful yet deadly battle to secure an enemy gun turret on a hilltop, the camera moves to a closeup of just the face of a dead Japanese soldier whose body [including most of his head] is submerged under the gravel and dirt and who, in voiceover, addresses American Private Witt [played by Jim Caveziel]: "Are you righteous, kind? . . . Are you loved by all? Know that I was too. Do you imagine your suffering will be less because you loved goodness, truth?" This is a scene of the human face as the locus of recognition of self-sameness, of companionability in suffering, and also in joy. Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, in their book Forms of Being, devote one entire chapter to this film, and especially to Caveziel's character Witt, and to Malick's "nearly obsessive filming of Witt's face," whose look [incredibly open and ontologically passive throughout the film] "indiscriminately register's the world's appearances" and refuses to impose a moral or aesthetic identity upon that world [p. 163]. Further, the
precondition of his wholly receptive gaze is a subject divested of subjectivity. The astonishing unprotectedness of Witt's look designates a subject without claims on the world, who owns nothing (not even the life he so freely gives at the end). . . . The attentive way in which Witt's look simply lets the world be also replicates the world as an accretion to a consciousness, and a look, ceaselessly receptive to the world. The forms it absorbs constitute the identity of the absorbing consciousness. Lessness is the condition of allness. [p. 165]
Witt believes in "another world" that the men he fights with cannot see, and he also believes in souls--especially in his own soul and its capacity to, in Bersani's and Dutoit's formulation, welcome all appearances. Witt's look, then, "is not the sign of a decision about the world; it acknowledges an inescapable connectedness, the fact that I am only in the world. I move within my repeated, disseminated being," and "the surfaces of all things 'quiver' from the presence within them of all the other things to which they relate" [p. 169]. And perhaps putting an important spin on Weil's idea of "another reality" that is supposedly outside of human mentality and understanding, there is, "as Witt insists, another world, but it is in this world seen as a vast reservoir correspondences, of surfaces always ready to 'open' in order to acknowledge, to welcome, to receive that which is at once their outer and their immanent being" [p. 169]. There is another world, but it is in within this one and also within our [human] capacity to see and to hold.

Bersani and Dutoit's ruminations upon Witt's face and its receptivity [through an open looking] provides, I think, an important ethical counter-narrative [or, companionable narrative?] to Levinas's thinking upon the face of the Other as that to which we are held hostage and in which there shines forth an "exteriority that is not reducible . . . to the interiority of memory" and which "breaks through the envelopings" of all material forms, calling into question the subject's "joyous possession of the world" [Totality and Infinity, pp. 51, 76]. But if the human, as Karl has argued so beautifully elsewhere, has no essential position, does it also possess no essential face, and without faces, without looking through faces and the receptivity of faces, how do we construct and enact our ethical projects of welcoming, of hospitality, of wonder and admiratio and finally, love? Do we labor under a tyranny of what Deleuze and Guattari called "faciality," in which, "[a]lthough the head, even the human head, is not necessarily a face, the face is produced in humanity. But it is produced by a necessity that does not apply to human beings ‘in general’; there is even something absolutely inhuman about the face" ["Year Zero: Faciality," A Thousand Plateaus, p. 189]? They write further,
Faces are not basically individual; they define zones of frequency or probability, delimit a field that neutralizes in advance any expressions or connections unamenable to the appropriate significations. Similarly, the form of subjectivity, whether consciousness or passion, would remain absolutely empty if faces did not form loci of resonance that select the sensed or mental reality and make it conform in advance to a dominant reality. The face itself is redundancy. [p. 186]
For Deleuze and Guttari, "if human beings have a destiny, it is . . . to escape the face, to dismantle the face and facializations, to become imperceptible, to become clandestine, not by returning to animality, nor even by returning to the head, but by quite spiritual and special becomings-animal, by strange true becomings" [p. 189]. Quite spiritual and strange? Here I see an almost perverse-yet-real knotting together of Weil, Levinas, Bersani and Dutoit, and Deleuze and Guattari regarding the [hopeful] possibilities of Karl's "human" as "ongoing project" and "structural position," and even, as a means of a type of transcendence of itself [an undoing only possible within the being that must undo itself while, perhaps, always recalling itself as something special, something human?] that could bring justice into more full being, although I really hesitate at the loss of faces, of faciality, of subjects and objects, and even, of myself. Is what Bersani and Dutoit describe as our, at once, "fascinating and crippling expressiveness" what we have to discard? I wonder if one possible way out of this impasse, if I want to be, not just Bersani and Dutoit's "light hidden behind psychic darkness," but also expressive and bodily-erotic human form, might be found in Thomas Carlson's new book, The Indiscrete Image: Infinitude and Creation of the Human [Chicago, 2008], in which the form of the human as creator [which is a type of love] keeps the human [and world] neither closed icon nor transcendent meaning, but infinitely open and always in play. I don't know, because I have only just ordered the book, so we shall see. But in the meantime, I wanted to share with everyone here the paper that Michael Moore presented at the SEMA conference, "Meditations on the Face in the Middle Ages," because it contributes to what I think is perhaps one of the most important ethical questions of our time ["what is a human face and what of goodness does it do in this world?"], and also because it spurred all of my reflections here today, and thank you to Michael for allowing us to post it here:

Meditations on the Face in the Middle Ages

Michael Edward Moore

The human face appears to us as fraught with significance, whether menacing or vulnerable, whether regarding us, or turned away from us [Emmanuel Levinas, Liberté et commandement. Paris, 1994, p.43]. We see every face as unique, each scar and wrinkle recording the history of a person. The twentieth-century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whose writings provide a starting point for this paper, observed the ethical and political significance of the human face, suggesting that the face is the ultimate location of human meaning. In the Middle Ages, the face was usually connected to the theme of humankind’s likeness to God, and this was true of Levinas as well. The twelfth-century reformer Gerhoh of Reichersberg (†1169), in a Psalm commentary, insisted that “the Lord impressed his Face like a royal seal on our faces, mirrored in our spirits, a true mirror when it is pure.”

What connection was made between the human face and the ethical or spiritual meaning of humanity? Walter Ullmann noted that with the rise of medieval humanism, painting and sculpture began to move from the “abstract typified image” to the “portrayal of a human personality in all its substantial individuality and realistic concreteness” [Walter Ullmann, A History of Political Thought: The Middle Ages. Harmondsworth, 1968, p.166].

The shift seems incontrovertible. In assessing the meaning of the human face in the Middle Ages, we must also examine the problem of humankind as the image of God: we can take as one landmark the Tympanum of Chartres Cathedral, where in the phrase of Chenu, humanity was “portrayed as Christ’s double.” I hope to explain, in what follows, the significance of this resemblance.

For Emmanuel Levinas, to encounter the face of the other is like stumbling upon an unexpected crevasse in the surface of the world. The face of the other person, in its vulnerability, implicates us and calls us to take responsibility, to “face up” to the other person and his demand for justice [Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other. Pittsburgh, 1987, pp. 106-107]. “That responsibility is…brought about by the face of the other person” as it breaks into the phenomenal world: it serves as “an order issued to me not to abandon the other (the Word of God)” [Emmanuel Levinas, Outside the Subject. Stanford, 1994, p.44]. This command is the “order par excellence,” as he suggested in Alterity and Transcendence. The face of the other leaves an imprint on us, an image. This is the “word of God,” according to Levinas, albeit the Word of an “un-known God who does not take on a body…” [Emmanuel Levinas, Alterity and Transcendence. New York, 1999, p.35]. As he said: “[God]… is not the model of which the face would be an image. To be in the image of God does not mean to be an icon of God, but to find oneself in his trace” [Emmanuel Levinas, Basic Philosophical Writings. Bloomington, 1996, p.64]. The face of the other is the trace of an absent God.

One ally discovered by Levinas was the Swiss visionary, Max Picard. Picard’s prophetic writings seemed to Levinas like messages conveying a sense of snow-covered mountains. Max Picard wrote a book on the human face which Levinas admired [Max Picard, The Human Face. New York, 1930]. As Levinas explains, Picard often referred to the biblical concept of man made in the image of God, suggesting that “the face of man is the proof of the existence of God.” In the human face “the trace of God is manifested, and the light of revelation inundates the universe” [Emmanuel Levinas, Proper Names. Stanford, 1996, p.95]. And here Levinas felt a kinship with the Swiss thinker.

The concept of humanity’s image and likeness to God is complex: God is distant from us. Despite the doctrine of our likeness to God, according to patristic and medieval theologies, we must approach, with a sense of awe, a God that is unknown. Jewish and Christian tradition accepted the doctrine that man was made in the “Image of God,” the theme of Genesis 1:26-27.
26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
27 So God created humankind in his image,
In the image of God he created them;
Male and female he created them. [NRSV]
A kind of cloud surrounds these basic texts. As Lohfink remarks: “it is not easy to say what this means, for from ancient times there have been extended discussions of this subject among theologians” [Norbert Lohfink, Theology of the Pentateuch. Minneapolis, 1994, p.3]. Did it mean, first of all, that the physical human form resembled the form of God? This suggestion was generally rejected in Jewish and Christian tradition.

In a glossary of words having to do with the body, compiled by the Carolingian scholar Walahfrid Strabo, we have the following discussion of the face: Facies. “The face is so called from “in the likeness of,” or effigie: [the face] is where resides the whole figure (tota figura) of a man, and [our] recognition of every person.” This confident assertion of human likeness to God was indeed captured in certain works of Carolingian and Romanesque art.

Christian theologians normally took the image and likeness in a different direction. For Paul the concept of an “image of God” could only refer to Christ. The “image” to the extent that it resided in humanity, was only a shadow, a sign that one day we might become like Christ. The celestial man, or Christ, is the true image of God, while the terrestrial man is not. Gregory of Nyssa and the Cappadocian theologians followed in this vein. There was a divine impress, but it was obscured by the influence of sin: this caused “the defacing of that image … which had been formed in us when we were created.” [Gregory of Nyssa, Oratio Domini, Chapter V. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, 44:1181]. The image of God referred only to humanity as a whole. There is one human nature, created before Adam, and Christ is the archetype of this likeness.

This was the view of Theodore of Mopsuestia and the Antiochene theological tradition as well. “If some king, after having constructed a very great city…ordered…that his image…be set up…as proof of his founding of the city, the image of the king who built the city would necessarily be venerated…” [Trans. Frederick G. McLeod, The Image of God in the Antiochene Tradition. Washington, 1999, p.65]. By honoring humanity, you therefore honor God the Creator. Christ is the one who fulfills the role of image of God. Such a concept lies behind the many medieval sculptures and portraits of Christ in majesty.

Along this route, the theologians moved from the face to the interior in their search for the likeness of man to God. In the view of Tertullian, “the glory of God is on the face of Christ because this is the face of the invisible God turned toward the world. The face… is the… manifestation of an unknowable God.” Tertullian’s view is quite similar to that of Emmanuel Levinas.

How could the human face refer to the divine face, which after all is invisible, and expressly forbidden to us? This is emphasized in crucial texts from the Book of Exodus. When Moses was to receive the Law on the mountain, God first reminded him: “you cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live” (Ex 33:20). To prevent Moses from seeing his face, God placed him in “a cleft of the rock” and covered him with his hand until he had gone by (Ex 33:22). When Moses saw the Burning Bush, he hid his face, afraid to look at God (Ex 3:6).

The sense of a distant, unknown God was shared by Christians. In the Psalms, a troubled people questioned God in these terms: “How long will you turn your face? (Ps 13:2). Thomas Aquinas, commenting on Psalm 27 said that the divine face had served as an exemplar for creating the soul as the image of God. The Psalm reads: “‘Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.” Thomas held that such expressions signaled the coming of the incarnate Word. Thus Christ appeared as an opening in which the formerly hidden God could in some sense be seen.

According to St. Augustine, the image of God was impressed on the mind, rather than on the face. The Carolingian theologian Alcuin took this direction as well. According to Alcuin, man is in the image of God, and this is a unique condition: Homo solus ad imaginem – only man was made according to the image. And this similitude is in interiore.

According to Emmanuel Levinas, the face of the Other is the location or the occasion of ethics, and is an image of God, but only in the form of a subtle trace. We could say it is like an old inscription that has been scratched away and covered with leaves. Nevertheless, to quote Gerhoh of Reichersberg once again: “the Lord impressed his Face like a royal seal on our faces.”

Despite the fact that the traces of God are weatherworn and faint, to the point of mystery, one lesson conveyed by the medieval tradition of the face was that the image of God must be honored in our fellow human beings.