Friday, August 08, 2008

The Past in the Past

by Karl Steel

In her post below, Mary Kate writes:
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?”
This leads me into my next, brief question. In GM, the medieval past touches the present in various ways. However, as much as CD corrects the homogeneous premodern of Bhabha, Baudrillard, and others, as much as she demands that the so-called modern allow itself to be or realize that it is touched by an abjected, mobile past, her own medieval strikes me as homogeneous as well to the extent that it is not itself touched by its present pasts.

CD writes well about the Lollard assault on the 'crimen Sodomorum' of institutional religion, on its wealth, on its alimentary excess. I don't believe, of course, that CD presents this material as if it sprang ex nihilo (or ex Wycliffo); after all, she cites and uses Penn R Szittya's important The Antifraternal Tradition in Medieval Literature. At the same time, I don't think there's enough mobilization in GM of one of the most peculiar aspects of medieval textuality, namely, its habitual, even constitutive reuse of centuries-old writings, and of the mnemotechnics in which production was always a rearrangement of pasts. Antifraternal critique reuses moral approaches from the twelfth-century Parisian critique of bad living clerics, which itself redeployed work by Gregory the Great; no doubt we could keep pushing this further back, or expanding the lines outward to form something more rhizomatic than genealogical. I also imagine--although I haven't done the legwork--that Lollard ecclesiastical critique, especially its antimendicant critique, derives at least in part from the work of the Spiritual Franciscans, and thus we would have seen critiques internal to the Friars turned against the Friars as a whole, and from there, turned against the whole of the Church.

GM is already a big book, and it's certainly a great book. It seems ungracious to complain that it should have been bigger, more capacious, that CD should have loosened the 40-year boundary she set for her medieval analysis. We would have needed another 100 pages. I should, then, present this not as a critique but as a call to be inspired by GM to keep on pushing. Readers of ITM know that this work is already being done, especially with JJC and MKH's attention to the polychronicity of ruins and stones, of the distant past of ruins and the very distant, unfathomable past of fossils inhabiting and confounding various medieval presents, whether they're 8th or 10th or 12th century. Although this question might remind us too much of the postmodern inability to break with the past, we might also wonder in whose voices the Lollards speak when they think themselves using their own voices?


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Three things:

(1) This is a great point and shows something inevitable about us scholars: we'll always yearn for a larger version of any book we read.

(2) CD does grant the past in theory a huge amount of heterogeneity -- though in practice sex often seems more difference-ridden than the histories she examines. Or maybe that is just a way of saying that it is through affect/gender/sexuality that the heterogeneity of the past is most evident in GM.

(3) Your point about citation and presence of the past even in 'contemporary' (14th C) discourses is a very good one indeed, and very dear to my heart: you know that I am obsessed with tracing multitemporal moments and finding the ways that the past is speaking even as a modernity is being declared. I think, Karl, that you will be VERY interested in an excellent, eloquent piece by Maura Nolan that will be published in the same Posthistoricism volume in which my essay on the Weight of the Past will appear. Maura's point of departure is that moment in my own essay when I am looking at Augustine looking at the fossil washed up on the beach of Utica ... and she proceeds from there to a compelling read of medieval uses of the past that seem like this vignette, when fragments of other discourses understood but not wholly assimilated are collected. It's a powerful piece and quite beautifully composed.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Karl, what your post most reminds me of, focusing as it does on the Lollards and the question with which you close your post: "Although this question might remind us too much of the postmodern inability to break with the past, we might also wonder in whose voices the Lollards speak when they think themselves using their own voices?"

Back when I was reading for my orals and seriously contemplating a dissertation that was entirely about biblical translation, what was most striking in my readings (in Anne Hudson's edited edition of Lollard texts, and also in the Idea of the Vernacular by JWB and company) is how often they pick up on themes that have been in play since at LEAST Jerome if not earlier. The questions they ask, as if for the first time, reflect (incompletely, or differently) those asked by Alfred (in his preface to the Pastoral Care) or Jerome (in the letter to Pammachius, of course, it's hardly a question of translation but rather a definitive answer -- in other prefaces and introductions, his feelings on the question of translation aren't quite so clear).

This takes us a bit far from the critique of the clergy -- but of course, the question of vernacularity (and the status of the vernacular as less holy, less appropriate to holy things -- more carnal, finally) is one that was deeply intertwined with the religious rebellion of the Lollards, and though I don't have my notes here (am currently lounging about the beach on the coast of NC), it seems it might also be a place to look for the ways in which the Lollards pick up on the past, and are intertwined to it, when they write in their own English tongue.