Monday, April 06, 2009

"The Flow of Blood in Medieval Norwich," early version

by J J Cohen

The following will likely not strike ITM readers as being as interesting as it was to me, but here goes. This morning I was using Google Desktop to seek ancient lecture notes on King Lear, a play I'm teaching this spring after a lapse of at least eight years. The following draft of a hoary talk surfaced because it contains a reference to the play -- a reference excised once the draft became the plenary at a Medieval Guild conference at Columbia. Though the Auden poem grew to loom over the entire essay as it grew, Lear never reasserted himself, not in the Speculum essay that this piece eventually became, nor in the two chapters of Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity for which it provided the base. Much of what is tentative below solidified; much that seems solid here vanished into air.

So, for you archaeologists of knowledge, here is a long lost child: an early draft of "The Flow of Blood in Medieval Norwich."

In the face of trauma cultures deploy various symbolizing and sense-making technologies (especially incorporation of trauma's messiness into the well delineated contours of narrative), but trauma remains fundamentally exterior to epistemology, for it destroys signification itself. A good working definition of trauma is, therefore, the Lacanian one: an irruption of the Real, a "gaping hole" in the material of reality that menaces those order-making structures founded upon its exclusion. Trauma, in other words, is like the Storm and tempest which erupts in the midst of Shakespeare's King Lear. Two responses are possible in its wake: utter despair (Lear on the heath), or a gathering together of the broken pieces of a world and the imagining of some new community. When trauma disrupts a collective imaginary, it can also precipitate and ground a stronger sense of social cohesion, enabling the emergence of a newly experienced "we," a first person plural in which the particularities of those differences which might previously have prevented wide union can be quickly forgotten. Traumas through which affinity coalesces enable new visions of citizenship, belonging, nation.

What happens, though, when trauma fails to attain such grandeur?

"About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters." Brueghel's The Fall of Icarus is a visually overwhelming painting: gorgeous expanses of ocean, luminous hills and trees, a world alive with people and objects. The young boy with failed wings plummets to his watery death in a crowded foreground. A ship travels obliviously onwards, a farmer ploughs his fields, the sun radiates indifferent gold. Transforming Brueghel's painting into poetry, W. H. Auden observes in "Musée des Beaux Arts" that catastrophe occurs with a diurnal weariness:
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there must always be
Children who did not especially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood.
For Breughel and for Auden, the event's sadness is its spectacular ordinariness. The ship traversing the sea into which Icarus is swallowed may have witnessed "Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky," but it "had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on." It is on this level that most of us experience trauma: unlooked for accidents that, even if they reconfigure our own worlds, barely register notice in our communities, catastrophes all the more difficult to bear because the pain they radiate does not travel far.

The tragedy of Icarus's fall is that nothing changes in its wake, for it brings into being no community to bear lasting witness to the loss it signifies. Under what conditions, I would like to ask, might the death of a child "who did not especially want it to happen, skating / On a pond at the edge of a wood" -- a small death, a sad death, but an event almost below the notice of any but a grieving few -- how might such a death be transformed into Shakespeare's resounding Storm and tempest, a reality-reconfiguring Act, a trauma that doesn't simply destroy but has the potential in its wake to call into being new kinds of community? How might the passing of an ordinary boy become invested with the fears and hopes of a heterogeneous and divided multitude, rendering them for the first time a unity? For that is exactly what happened in Norwich in the years following 1144, when a twelve year old named William was murdered by unknown hands and his corpse abandoned in the woods. His family tried desperately to ensure that William would not, like Icarus, slip silently into oblivion, but found that their fellow citizens simply were not as moved by the crime's effects as they were. But a decade later the bones that had been resting quietly were reanimated, enfleshed through the power of a collective trauma of long duration which suddenly found a possible resolution in the sanctification of the boy's corpse. The flow of blood which emanated from St. William of Norwich, first English victim of the murderous Jews, tells an intriguing story about postcoloniality, the suturing of community, the creation of monsters, and the imagining of contemporary race in the wake of 1066.

The long history of the British Isles could accurately be described as a series of postcolonial moments: peoples who have and have not left textual histories settled the land in successive waves or in comigrations, killing off or intermarrying with previous colonizers, inscribing the landscape with funereal architectures, stone and wood ritual structures, farmsteads, towns, cities. A flow of languages, religions, cultures, genes and memes traversed the land, hybridized, disappeared or thrived. Some large consolidations are well known to history: Roman Britannia, the Mercian hegemony, King Alfred's omnivorous Wessex. By the time Edward the Confessor ascended to the throne, the southeast portions of the island had long ago become a nation, England. But even that unity was precarious, as the English, Danish and Norman co-claimants to the throne made clear at Edward's death. In some of my previous work, I have joined more contemporary-focused theorists in arguing that postcoloniality does not necessarily indicate a rupture, but might instead mark a nonprogressive temporality -- indeed, I have gone so far as to suggest that we might usefully label much of the Middle Ages "midcolonial," and stop worrying so much about beginnings and ends. Today, however, I'd like to talk about a date that continues to exude a somber, almost magical gravitas: 1066, a year so important that every student of history can recite it, "the year of the Conquest," the Battle of Hastings, a date so fateful that most literary medievalists avoid it entirely, preferring to work on one side or the other of its divide. Let me admit something: I'm so absent-minded that when I had to choose a PIN for my ATM card, rather than pick my son's birthday or something normal like that, the only number that popped into my head was 1066. Now, since I'm reminded of that fateful year several times a week, it will probably come as no surprise that I've begun to turn in my scholarly work to a consideration of the Norman conquest as colonialist trauma, and the struggles in the aftermath of 1066 to discover how a divided, multiethnic population imagined community. Because this line of thinking began for me in the constricted space of a glassed-in bank machine, it will be no surprise that the story I will tell today unfolds in the closeness of regional rather than the vastness of national space, and that it involves money-lending.

The murder of the child William in Norwich in 1144 was brutal, but in a way it arrived too early: the events surrounding his death did not inspire the same national awe awakened by little Hugh of Lincoln in the next century. A tanner's apprentice and a rather free-spirited lad in life, this "poor neglected little fellow" (as some of his fellow Norwichians labeled William) was transformed a decade after his death into a saint, into a new patron to a city which had been quite literally riven by the Conquest. "English" child with a Norman name, William offered in his sacred body a suturing point at which those differences that had formerly divided the citizens of Norwich could be transcended, calling into being a civic totality, allaying the trauma of 1066. This new harmony demanded new visions of affinity, race, community. It also demanded new monsters. And so for the first time in written history we encounter in Norwich a figure destined to become familiar throughout the western world: the murderous Jew, whose imagined lust to shed Christian blood ensured that a shared sense of Englishness could consolidate, at least temporarily, in a thriving East Anglian riverport...


Eileen Joy said...

Thanks, Jeffrey, for sharing this earlier draft of a later article I know very well. First, thanks for telling us how you come up with pin numbers for ATM cards and such, and keep your wallet close by when I'm around, okay? Second, I have taught "King Lear" pretty much every year for about 8 years now, and it is one of my favorite plays to teach [I noticed recently, on one of my older syllabi, that I gave the students a handout which asked them to think about "Lear" through 3 texts: Freud's "Civilization and Its Discontents," Terry Eagleton's "After Theory," and your essay, "Monster Culture: 7 Theses" [as these were undergraduates, I excerpted these texts for them and we talked about them in class]. A major resource for me in teaching Shakespeare [and also classical drama] over the years has been Ian Johnston's notes and lectures that he makes freely available on the web at his site "Johnstonia":

His ENG366: Studies in Shakespeare lectures are here:

I immediately thought of his "Lear" lecture in relation to what you wrote about in this short piece vis-a-vis "Lear," the storm, and trauma, because Johnston ends his lecture with the question of, "what happened to the Fool?" [He basically disappears in the middle of Act III, saying he is going to bed, and never reappears; when Lear says, in the final act, "And my poor Fool is hanged," critics don't really know whether he means Cordelia or the Fool.] Johnston brings in a 1971 Russian film adaptation of the play that I had never heard of, directed by Grigori Kozintsev. And I'll just paste here some of Johnston's commentary on the film, which I think ties in to your commentary here on trauma as both occasioning huge black holes as well as community re-building:

[beginning of excerpt from Ian Johnston's course lecture on "King Lear"]

Kozintsev has, throughout the film, associated the Fool with music, specifically with playing a small wooden flute. In the closing moments of the film, we hear the Fool playing his music above the desolation, and as he plays, we see the crowds of people (including, significantly, women) slowly and tentatively start to pick up things and move towards the beginning of some reconstruction.

Incidentally, the music in this film (composed by Shostakovitch) is truly memorable, one of the most eloquent reminders in the history of Shakespeare film production of the importance of music in shaping and sustaining a particular interpretative mood.

This final image of the common people initiating a process of rebuilding has important implications for the political sense we take from this play (something I will not be discussing in any detail). For it suggests that the old order of patriarchal feudalism has now gone. Most of its leading members are dead or about to die, and the few remaining (Edgar and Albany) are so isolated that there is no rich social hierarchy for them to repair. The aggressive self-serving individuals are also dead. Hence, the future of the community is going to be in the hands of the people, the ones who earlier in the film looked to the imposing figures of the court for security and guidance. Such a vision would, of course, accord well with any Marxist view that this play envisions the destruction of both the feudal aristocracy (which lacks any intelligent sense of virtue) and the new individualism (which turns everyone loose against everyone else). Any hope for the future thus rests with the common people working, as they are here, together, in harmony.

At the presentation of his film, Kozintsev spoke eloquently about how his vision of Lear had been shaped by the experience of the siege of Leningrad, the site of particularly painful and sustained suffering in World War II. And, as I recall, he referred to how a sense of the recuperative powers of humanity, as presented in King Lear, had sustained him during that horrific time. In the light of that, his subsequent comments on the music in the closing moments of his film were particularly significant. And I can think of no better last word for this lecture than the reflections of this wise artist on Shakespeare's most famous fool:

Symbols change. The Fool's cap and bells have long since gone out of fashion. Perhaps the Fool's foolery isn't quite what it used to be either? I imagined a paradoxical situation. The Fool is laughed at, not because he is foolish, but because he speaks the truth. He is the one who shams idiocy--no longer a court comedian but an urchin taken from among the most humble. The least significant tells the most mighty that he's a fool because he doesn't know the nature of his own daughters. Everyone laughs--but it is the truth.

For these people nothing is funnier than the truth. They roar with laughter at the truth, kick it like a dog, hold it on a leash and make a laughing stock of it--like art under a tyrannical régime. I am reminded of stories about how, in a Nazi concentration camp, an orchestra of prisoners was got together. They were forced to play outside in the compound. They were beaten so that they would play better. This was the origin of the Fool-musician--a boy taken from an orchestra composed of men condemned to death.

This was the origin of the particular tone of the film, its voice. In King Lear, the voice of human suffering is accorded more significance than the roar of thunder. Working on the score with Dmitri Shostakovitch, I dismissed the idea of dignified fanfares and the roll of drums. We were carried away by ideas of a completely different kind of instrumentation--the sound of a wooden pipe, which the Fool has made for himself. I'd asked for the film titles to be written on coarse, torn sacking. This linkage of ideas acted as kind of key. Rags, and the soft sound of the pipe--the still voice of suffering. Then, during the battle scenes, a requiem breaks out, then falls silent. And once again the pipe can be heard. Life--a none too easy one--goes on. Its voice in King Lear is a very quiet one, but its sad, human quality sounds distinctly in Shakespeare's work. (from "'Hamlet' and 'King Lear': Stage and Film," in Shakespeare 1971: Proceedings of the World Shakespeare Congress Vancouver, August 1971 [Toronto: U. of Toronto Press, 1972]: 190-199).

[end of excerpt from Ian Johnston's course lecture on "King Lear"]

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Thanks for that, Eileen. I actually left my class stranded at the storm scene on Monday. We mapped Lear's disintegration with the systematic emptying out of every meaning system of the play, alongsiide its love of apocalypse -- it's a lot like Beowulf that way. The storm we saw as the exteriorizing of everything Lear held within ... and so his coming apart as well. The Fool is, I think, his interior Cordelia (and maybe played by the same actor in a doubled role?)

Lowell Duckert (whom you know well) will give the second part of the lecture: good luck trying to rescue Lear from the straits at which I left him. I believe that he is going to show a piece of a Russian Lear to start the class -- maybe the Kozintsev one, I'm not sure.

Eileen Joy said...

Johnston notes in his lecture that some scholars surmise that the same actor played the Fool and Cordelia, and hence the disappearance of the Fool in the middle of Act III, since that is about the same time Cordelia shows back up. But I like the idea, too, of the Fool as Lear's "inner Cordelia."

Good luck, Lowell! [I want to hear what happens next.]