Monday, October 05, 2009

Stony Arguments

by J J Cohen

Lithic metaphors tend to dwell upon stone's perdurance. When transferred via trope to the human, this most durable of substances becomes a figure for impermeability, for being closed off to change. A Jew might be called stone-hearted by a medieval theologian, because to that philosopher of the divine God's no longer Chosen People had hardened their hearts to a message that should have transformed them utterly. Stones seem a blunt material useful for ending argument, easier to hurl (verbally or physically) than to touch, work, transmute.

I say all this because in my own work on stones, medieval and otherwise, I have discovered either in them or in myself (or perhaps in the interspace between us) a resistance to argument. Rocks, gems, lapidaries, desert landscapes, ruins, neolithic architectures: all have demanded a porous, adaptive, meditative prose rather than the keen structure of exposition, building of thesis through citation and carefully staged deployment of evidence, dénouement based upon coldly rational system of argument. Oddly, my work on stone has demanded a move to an affective register that ahs always been present in my work, but nowhere so pervasive.

Right now I am eyeballing the copyedits of an essay with the deceptive title of "Pilgrimages, Travel Writing, and the Medieval Exotic," forthcoming this March in the new Oxford Handbook of Medieval Literature in English (follow the link and check out the ToC: the book is going to be wonderful). The piece is in fact simply a better footnoted version of my SEMA keynote on Mandeville's geologies (here, here, and here). What strikes me most upon rereading the essay is its utter lack of the usual template (overview; review of previous criticism; close reading with scholarly footnotes; strongest articulation of argument; closing). I can't call the work anything but a meditation. Apparently I have grown weary of arguing.
[x-posted FLA]


Eileen said...

The table of contents for this book looks wonderfully eclectic! I'm really impressed.

Karl Steel said...

I also wonder if your stoney subject, Jeffrey, demands a different approach. After all, it's not a subject on which a review of literature will function very well, since, I'm presuming, previous studies of stonework have been source-studies for lapidaries, narrative cladistics of stone-stories through the ages, and so forth, none of which makes any contact with what you've been doing in your work since the mid-90s. How could you review this literature? What good would that do? Now, for Mandeville, where Mandeville readers and you have been working in some of the same conceptual narratives, other scholarly approaches, generous to your colleagues and fore-bearers, would be required. For stonework, you need a different approach. So I'm disinclined to say that the change is in you (or at least in you only); it's also in the field, which, to a certain degree, you're inventing.

As for the book, yes, it looks wonderful, but I wish it hadn't limited itself to English, as this grossly misrepresents the way literature and writing worked in medieval Britain, projecting the conditions of the 15th and 16th centuries (or even of the 19th century, if we recall the literary dominance of Latin) back through the centuries.