Part I is here; Part II is here; and now, finally, in as good a state as I can get it now, Part III.
Last week, one of our medieval colleagues gently expressed some incredulity when I said I was trying to produce something publishable on Kempe after spending only a few days "mastering" (hahah) the secondary criticism. She's right! The only way I'm getting away with this, probably, is that I'm writing for a non-medieval audience. I aim to be as good an ambassador as I can be; I aim to get Kempe still more readers than she already has (though Anthony Bale's already doing quite well on this front); I hope to do her a little justice.
Writing on Kempe and flesh is a decades-long project by now (thanks Karma Lochrie!), and writing on women and/as the "body" is at least as long. What I'm bringing to this conversation, if anything, is an interest in posthumanisms, new materialisms, and critical animal theory. And of course I owe a debt to Lisa Kiser's fantastic article on Kempe and animals. In a longer version of this project (perhaps as part of the introduction my always developing second book?), I can see engaging with, say, Leo Bersani ('is the rectum a grave?') and Mel Y Chen: maybe for this Fall's "Problems in Posthumanism" seminar!
Flourish of horns.
|Add MS 37049 28r - "rede flesche"|
Karma Lochrie argues that the "primary human conflict" for medieval Christianity was not body against soul, but "the life of the flesh against the life of the spirit" (19). The body was neutral and passive. It did nothing on its own. Flesh, not body, was the true enemy of our better self. Flesh was "heaving" "pervious" (4), and "heterogeneous -- neither body nor soul, but carnal and spiritual at the same time" (39), for it was both materiality and materiality's own disturbingly autonomous disorder. It was both desirable in itself and desire incarnated. Flesh tended towards things it should not. It drew us after it. And flesh was a woman: as Augustine explained, "your flesh is like your wife ... it lusts against you like your wife" (caro tanquam coniux est...Concupiscit adversus te, tanquam coniux tua; on Psalm 140, PL 37: 1825; see Lochrie 19-20; also important for me: Suzannah Biernoff, eg, 34; also, minus the attention to gender, Ben Woodard)
Kempe's Book tends to use "body" to represent whole things: her body as a whole, or her husband's, or Christ’s, either hanging on the cross or in the form of the Eucharist. The body, neatly bordered, coherently designates an individual. "Flesh," the other hand, is material and willful, desirable and disgusting, human or animal, and whether dead or alive, always irrepressibly lively. Flesh is sex (as in "fleschly knowyng" [Chapter 9] or "fleschly comownyng" [Chapter 3]). It is the thing that draws us away from spirit ("fleschly affeccyon" [Chapter 28 and others]). Flesh is sometimes the edible body of Christ, sometimes the aspect of self that operates without our willing it. When Kempe awaits an Archbishop’s interrogation, she "stod stylle, tremelyng and whakyng ful sor in hir flesch wythowtyn ony erdly comfort" [Chapter 13], standing still and trembling at the same time, as if she were commingled with another, unquiet self. Flesh is human and animal flesh both, and also meat, because Middle English vocabulary, like Latin, did not distinguish between "meat" and "flesh" (the Middle English "mete" simply meant "food" in general). Kempe’s flesh therefore recalled the body all in its lustiness, its exposure, its vulnerability, its edibility, its irrational motivations, and its sublime Eucharistic incarnation, recreated every time Catholic priests performed a Mass.
She is a woman, a mother, separated from her husband, and an older person (in her 50s) and widow by the time she has the book last last written down (for discussion, especially on the Book's ambiguous dating of Kempe's widowhood, Tara Williams): her culture would have made her into a figure of flesh in its its danger, its filth, its concupiscence, its edibility, all that a masculinized order sought to render governable by abjecting it from itself (so that "your flesh...lusts against you, like your wife"). Widows were considered to be sexually knowing; older women were commonly portrayed as repulsive (SGGK; Wife of Bath's Tale; Niebrzydowski's work for nuance). Her contemporaries prefer that she either hew to these roles or be silent. Failing that, they prefer her to be a hypocrite, so she confirms the truth of what they really know her to be. They accuse her of pushing aside a red herring at one meal in favor of a tastier, more expensive pike [Chapter 9]; by calling her both a Lollard heretic [Chapters 13, 46, 52, 53 etc] and a Jew [Chapter 52], they accuse her of not sharing correctly in their enjoyment, particularly of Christ's Eucharistic flesh (still useful); they want to believe her chastity a fraud, that she and her husband regularly sneak off to "woodys, grovys, er [or] valeys usyn the lust of her bodiis" [Chapter 76]. They insist that she eat meat, stop weeping, and keep her conversation about holiness to herself [Chapter 27]. She carries on, inhabiting and inhabited by flesh in all its characteristics simultaneously, on terms that both enact prejudicial certainties and deny them, because she is living as woman, as wife, as animal, as food, as desire, as a particularly sublated desire at that, and as the body of Christ.
|Additional 37049 33r|
A short poem included in a fifteenth-century Middle English Carthusian devotional anthology helps illustrate the operations of this densely tangled node of signification. It imagines a falconer that entices a restless bird to return by showing it a hunk of "rede flesche" (Additional 37049 28r): so too, explains the poem, does Christ draw us back, so that we can join him on the "cros of penaunce" through "discrete poneyschyng of thi body." Jessica Brantley dryly remarks that "the poem sets up a number of complex equivalences" (132): Christ is falconer, but also meat, while the reader is a falcon who becomes both "meat and crucified savior" through penance, which for a Carthusian means the lifelong penance of vegetarianism, which preserves pleasure by penitentially subjugating it. All the Carthusian poem lacks is an explicit reference to gender. Elsewhere, the same Carthusian compilation imagines a once beautiful women beset in the grave by vermin, gradually made to come to terms with her putrefaction and edibility (me; Elizabeth Robertson). The debate's first page features an illustration of a cloaked man kneeling before a crucifix, decorated with nearly naked Christ figure whose white flesh bleeds redly from its every surface (33r). Flesh, especially suffering flesh, runs though this compilation in all its forms: edible, suffering, disdained, repulsive, feminized, and the stuff of redemption.
Similarly dense identifications operate in Kempe’s fasting and identification with suffering. When Christ first orders Kempe to eat no flesh but that of his own body, he promises too that “you shall be eaten and gnawed at by the people of the world as much as any rat gnaws on the stockfish” (“Thow schalt ben etyn and knawyn of the pepul of the world as any raton knawyth the stokfysch” [Chapter 5]). Kempe twice compares herself to being meat chopped up for stew: “If it were your will Lord, I would for your love and for the magnifying of your name be chopped as small as meat for the pot” [Yyf it wer thy wille, Lord, I wolde for thi lofe and for magnyfying of thi name ben hewyn as smal as flesch to the potte" (Chapter 57, line 3358; see also Chapter 84, 4861)]. She goes without (animal) meat; she eats the (divine) meat of the Eucharist; she imagines herself as meat. The most insistently public form her piety takes, her writhing and wailing, even make her animal-like, as it cuts her off from the articulate voice that was among the definitive features of rational humankind: when she first receives her white garment, she emits her strongest wails yet, so that people “said that she howled as if she were a dog” [seyd that sche howlyd as it had ben a dogge” (Chapter 44, 2477).
When she sees animal suffering, she too suffers:
If she saw a man who had a wound or a beast of whatever sort, or if a man beat a child before her or smote a horse or another beast with a whip, if she might see it or hear it, she thought that she saw our Lord be beat or wounded in the same way that she saw the man or beast beat or wounded, whether in the field or in the town, whether alone by herself or among the people.
[yf sche sey a man had a wownde er a best wheþyr it wer, er ʒyf a man bett a childe be-for hir er smet an hors er an-oþer best wyth a whippe, ʒyf sche myth sen it er heryn it, hir thowt sche saw owyr Lord be betyn er wowndyd lyk as sche saw in þe man er in þe best, as wel in the feld as in þe town, & be hir-selfe [a]lone as wel as a-mong þe pepyl. (Chapter 28, line 1586 ff)]
In a superb study, Lisa Kiser enumerates several other comparisons between Christ’s and animal suffering in late medieval English religious writing; she points out how Kempe's comparison differs from the norm by beginning with animals and then moving to Christ. From this, Kiser proposes that in Kempe's weeping, we even witness a rare, even precocious instance of both "emotional fervor and moral disapproval" over the suffering of animals (for a brief treatment, also sympathetic, Katherine Wills Perto's Kinship and Killing).
Kempe's compassion is not, however, for animals so much as it is for injuries in general, whether animals or human. More importantly, Kempe has no interest in preventing this suffering; rather, she passionately seeks out suffering, joins with it, and renders it, whatever its form, an occasion for entanglement with the suffering of Christ. A typical scene from the Book has Kempe see Christ’s “precious tender body, rent and torn with scourges all over, more full of holes that "evyr was duffehows of holys" (Chapter 28, line 1618), whereupon she collapses and shouts wyth lowde voys, wondyrfully turnyng and wrestyng hir body on every syde, spredyng hir armys abrode as yyf sche schulde a deyd" (Chapter 28, line 1621), or as if she were herself hung on the cross.
This is empathic identification with suffering, but without any desire to end it. All the affective elements that we might think necessary for the development of animal rights, and even critical animal philosophy, are present, yet all they do is exacerbate the need to have suffering animals. I stress this, again, to argue against the notion that attention to or awareness of or even unease over animal suffering will be enough to activate a resistance to violence against animals. This is not to accuse Kempe of not being "good enough" from a modern animal rights perspective: that would be absurd. It is rather to keep open the chance to observe the real strangeness of Kempe's animal identifications and "carnivorous" vegetarianism.
However much her religious ecstasies may normalized by contextualizing them with analogues in other late medieval mystics or contemplatives, her Book, at least, wants us always to know how much her identifications disturbed her contemporaries. Kempe performs this identification in and through her flesh, in public. Though she does rationally dispute with professional clergy to defend herself from charges of heresy, she expresses herself most characteristically through ecstatic weeping and howling, like a dog. More accurately, none of this is her performance or expression so much as it is a performance, an expression, generated impersonally or through a mobile melding of persons through and in the flesh in all its qualities as desiring, vulnerable, edible, disdained, and profanely sacred. This performance is not wholly agential, not wholly human, often not linguistic, but through all this indelibly gendered.
If we return to Derrida's praise of the "nonpower at the heart of power," we can see both how she lives out this quality, and how she does Derrida one better. Derrida is a philosopher, and a male philosopher at that, granted through that professional status a certain bodily abstraction. Though his famous essay puts his own body on stage, briefly, to speak of his embarrassment over his embarrassment of stepping out of his shower to find his cat looking at his penis, Derrida is himself largely absent from it, except in the expected form of philosophical language. Though his attention to the "nonpower at the heart of power" aims to break down language's pretensions to autocratic, rational agency to enter into its subrational passivity and helplessness, he still does this through the medium of language, his language in particular.
Kempe's "physical piety," her insistent fleshiness vividly expresses this "nonpower," without having to preserve any pretensions to autocratic ratonality. To put this bluntly: she lives what Derrida only talks about. She enacts what Derrida only thinks about. And by distinctly living out this "nonpower" through her own body, Kempe renders any generalized statement about suffering or "nonpower" impossible. Kempe is not operating with the homogeneous categories of "human" and "animal" that Derrida's text preserves, despite its efforts. I join with Myra Seaman in stressing that "Kempe's state is supposedly beyond human, yet it remains utterly human as well: embodied, and intensely physical" (258), which is to say, that it is also animal and divine and woman and mother and widow, and that the medium that makes all this possible is the flesh.