by Mary Kate Hurley
When Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval first came out in 1999, I was still in high school – I wasn’t even sure I’d be a medievalist yet, though I think by my junior year I’d decided I wanted to be a professor. I’d never heard of queer theory, much less queer history. Moreover, I’d never seen Pulp Fiction. Granted, I still haven’t seen Pulp Fiction, but there’s only so much one can do in nine years. It took me nine years years to come to this text – though while I was reading it this past weekend, it felt familiar, and strangely so. I’d imagine that at least a part of this strange familiarity is because the work resonates with more recent work that I’m also familiar with (if hard-pressed to identify), but the greater part is probably because of a course I took with CD last year at NYU. The course was on "Time and Temporality" in medival literature – and so the ideas I take from Getting Medieval are largely concerned with time. How might we think through what this text means in 2008, and what does it mean to encounter a groundbreaking text later, though still not late, in its reception critically. Moreover, what questions does the text enable us to ask in 2008, nine years after its entrance into medieval studies? What does it do to our relationship to the past as an object of study, when it too now comes to us from a past?*
On the final page of the book, CD defines “getting medieval” as this: “using ideas of the past, creating relations with the past, touching in this way the past in our efforts to build selves and communities now and into the future” (206). This conception seems to get us into the thick of a problem of temporality – how does the unidirectional “arrow of time” stop being so unidirectional upon closer inspection? How, to borrow from CD in her reflection on the book, “Got Medieval” (published in the Journal of the History of Sexuality, No. 10), do we identify and examine the “copresence of different chronologies to explore the power of multiple temporalities in a single moment?”
One of the things that most struck me about this book is that it inspired not a sense of argument in my response, but a more general sense of assent. If I’ve identified it correctly, I think a part of that reaction is bound up in the question of methodology – CD is outlining a methodology that uses texts, not using a methodology to uncover something about a specific text, as Dan Remein formulated so brilliantly in his comments to JJC’s post below. If I’m touched by this book, it’s not in terms of how I view a specific medieval text – Dinshaw outlines a theory of texts which resonates with my experience of them, but if the book is rewriting my sense of the past, it is doing so on a much more global level, like a techtonic plate shifting in the course of centuries, not a minute phenomenon that has quantifiable results.
Still, there is a moment in the text that I think materializes, or at least localizes, the idea that I find most intriguing. Quoting from Glück’s Margery Kempe, CD cites one of the moments in which Glück feels, most profoundly, the articulation of the self-as-performance in relation to Margery Kempe: “But the main interest of the novel lies in the melding of the narratives, characters and voices, most passages in Bob’s voice, one in Margery’s (Chapter 9), others in a hybrid of those two voices: ‘I’m Margery following a god through a rainy city. The rapture is mine, mine the attempt to talk herself into existence.’ (MK 13)” (167)
To talk herself into existence. Depending on how you take this phrase, meanings begin to crop up right and left – to talk so that she might exist, to talk herself into wanting to exist, etc. The question here – raised explicitly in the interview CD cites with Robert Glück—might be phrased thus: “That quandary over what experience means and how the authority, or whatever authenticates experience, runs back and forth between yourself and the world” (GM 170). As Dinshaw herself points out in the chapter, there is a kind of community-forming impulse that goes along with the text, one that is specifically related to the distension or extension in time performed by the text: “The work is thus an “open form,” opening the possibility of relations between characters and readers, not all of which are controlled by the writer” (171). CD goes on to cite Glück in another essay, “Fame,” and she asserts the following: “If ‘the fragment of language evokes the melancholy pleasure of a ruin,’…its ‘eternal’ and ‘shared’ qualities here are nonetheless limited at last.” (173)
I want to question that quotation for one moment. I wasn’t able to find the entire essay on short notice, but I did find the text cited elsewhere, and the lyric beauty which characterizes that first fragment continues through the line: “the relinquishing of meaning, the falling away and recontextualizing of human scale to include the non-human, the unshared, mysterious and unsharable…which is shared.” It seems to me (and I am hardly an expert) but a part of what is so touching, if you will, about a ruin, is that it insists on touching you, without letting you into the reality of its own existence**. Out of time, and therefore, out of place in a landscape that has already outlived the ruin’s first time, if you will, there is a certain untimely-ness about the ruin, the way it impinges on the present in a way that asserts not only that the past endures but that the past continues, and does so with or without the will of a (fictive) present. It suggests, perhaps, that time is a fabric, not an arrow, or a stream. Moreover, it’s a fabric that is remade as parts wear thin, with threads of a past so intertwined with our own that separating them out can unravel reality itself. Now, I’ve taken the metaphor a bit far, but what I think matters here is the gesture: I wonder if, having looked back to see the ways in which we can forge a relationship with the past, part of what we can start to see in 2008 as we re-encounter Getting Medieval –or in my case, are touched by it for the first time—is the way in which what survives from the past is like a ruin, the ways in which Medieval Studies itself might be a kind of ruin***. Untimely in a world that insists on the past AS past, the Middle Ages can profoundly trouble our sense of a the Modern – by asserting, with Bruno Latour, that we’ve never been modern in the first place. The question – perhaps without definitive answer, but still useful for all that – is what are we to do with the past? And what is the past to do with – or to – us?
* - Thanks to Jeffrey for helping me formulate this -- I'd be interested to hear how other readers felt concerning the book, because I had a very hard time finding a way to interface with it...
** - I thought this might particularly resonate with Karl's work on animals.
*** - I know I'm profoundly influenced by Eileen on the past-as-ruin, but can't come up with specific citations.