Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Holiday Question

Ptown Gravetown

On the flight to Boston on the way to Provincetown, I was reading Catherine Brown's "In the Middle," JMES 30 (2000): 547-74, where she recalls "[Paul] Zumthor, who dizzied me and my students with the impassable abyss that separates us from the Middle Ages, also reminds us how we can start engaging with the differences between us and the “things” we read." She quotes him, from Speaking of the Middle Ages:
Thus, reading is, at least potentially, a dialogue; but in it two agents confront one another: I am in some way produced by this text, and in the same moment, as a reader, I construct it. A relationship of active solidarity rather than a mirror-effect; a solidarity promised rather than given, pleasurably felt at the end of the long preparatory work required by the traversing of two historical distances, going and coming back.

I have tended to think about my field of study as a set of texts and practices that have awaited my critical intervention. They need me to be able to speak the truths that they have been speaking all along but have been unable to articulate openly. In other words, the texts of the Middle Ages are my patient and I their analyst.

Then this blog came along, and its discussions of wonder, and I found myself wondering when a text, when a practice, has spoken me. As I'm on vacation, I haven't been able to rummage my mind for the texts that have surprised me with their knowledge about me, but I'd be very interested to discover when you, dear readers, have found yourself surprised in this way by the Middle Ages.

When have you found yourself on the couch and the text in the chair?


Jeffrey Cohen said...

I am not sure that relationship -- the text reads you rather than you read the text -- is what Zumthor and Brown are getting at: it seems to me that they both want a kind of textual and subjective co-constitution. In this way they are not all that different, say, from Deleuze and Guattari when they write "un livre lui-même [est] une petite machine, "a book itself is a little machine," connecting with and altering the reality (including the reader) into which it is released.

BUT you ask a very interesting question: can the book have more knowledge of you than you have of yourself? I'm certain the answer to that must be yes, though I'll be damned if I can name what book has this knowledge! I'll give that some thought.

Enjoy P'town. I once saw a whale breach not far from the shore there; it was the most amazing thing.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Not a precise answer, but I think that meaning, our construction of meaning with a text, which is always something that the text is "trying" to say, something that it will not or cannot say openly (for to say it openly would destroy its meaningfulness!?), is about recognition, about witnessing its memory of something latent in us.

In these terms, Karl's question is about when that latent thing which the text articulate and/or we articulate in it is a form of self-knowledge.

The final sonnet of the _Vita Nuova_, "Oltre la spera che piu larga gira . . .", comes to mind as a medieval text that has "spoken me" by my frequent speaking of it, usually while riding my bicycle for some reason, not I think for what it says or means but for the form of knowing that it enacts, knowing without knowing, knowing on the very boundary of language, the knowledge of the sigh, that secret little voice-breath that, as voice that is _not_ sent out, can traverse the universe.

Karl Steel said...

I am not sure that relationship -- the text reads you rather than you read the text -- is what Zumthor and Brown are getting at

Now that I'm home, and I finished the Brown, I have to admit that, yes, you're right. I found her essay very moving, but what I found in it was not what she was getting at.

More to come when I recuperate. And I did see a whale. Many whales in fact.

Preliminary text: the Old Man's speech in the Pardoner's Tale. "leeve mooder, leet me in" has always chilled me. Whether or not it's discovered something in me, given something in me voice, whether or not it's done more than just frightened me, will take a bit more thought.

And I hope to do Nicola justice too.