Figure 1. Potter's Field (New Orleans, 1907)
by EILEEN JOY
Realism . . . falls short of reality. It shrinks it, attenuates it, falsifies it; it does not take into account our basic truths and our fundamental obsessions: love, death, astonishment. It presents man in a reduced and estranged perspective. Truth is in our dreams, in the imagination.
Down here, the sun clings to the earth and there is no darkness. / Down here, the silence of the sea and the silence of the swamp seep into our muscles. // All night, Dolores labors between the sea grapes and the empty park. / Our town prostitute, she listens for a long time. Her listening makes her strong. // The teenage boy locks his door and combs the obscene magazine. / His callused left hand chops the gloss in waves. The silence of the naked ladies builds. // The Cape Sable seaside sparrows’ population dropped 25 percent. Females are silent. / Male calls are counted and multiplied by sixteen: this is how we track what cannot be seen. // Gay waiters examine their haircuts in the mirrors. / Perhaps tonight their pursuit of love will end in some permanence? // Juan escapes from our prison; he duct-tapes Playboy magazines to his rib cage. / With his glossy carapace, he vaults over the razor strips of the chainlink fence. // Egas Moniz wins the Nobel Prize in 1949 for pioneering lobotomies. / I am a pioneer of silence but the silencing of madness haunts me because it is unresolved.
—Spencer Reese, from “Florida Ghazals”
In medieval studies, many articles and books are about the so-called Middle Ages themselves. We might say that they attempt, as best as they can and with as much awareness as possible of the drawbacks and imperfections of any historical methodology and of history’s ineradicable fissures and silences, to draw pictures and tell stories about medieval persons, places, and events that are attentive to what Leopold von Ranke called “how it really was” [wie es eigentlich gewesen]—the only thing “needful” for history, as Ranke also claimed. Other studies are more concerned with historical methodology itself and with exploring how our various methodologies for “doing history” [whether in the form of analyses of literary and other texts, grave remains, architectural ruins, historical persons and events, mentalities, and so on] can never fully capture or fix in any one time what Dipesh Chakrabarty has called the “irreducible plurality in our experiences of historicity” [Provincializing Europe, p. 108], which is not to say that “how it really was” is not a concern of the authors of this second type of study. It is only that, for these scholars, “how it really was” is always a heterogeneous affair, and the main interest is often in tracing the limits of history’s intelligibility—the places at which, again following Chakrabarty, history “knots” up and is resistant to rationalist interpretation—as well as in showing all the ways in which, as Fernand Braudel would have said, history moves at different speeds. This is work that is also sometimes concerned with “working through” [in the psychoanalytic sense] and perhaps even in ameliorating and adjudicating the personal and more largely social traumas occasioned by history and by its resistance to the types of re-narrativization that would “make sense” of the past [we might call this the “redress” model].
And if we are at all concerned with what might be called living in a society without history [a frightening affair well outlined by Carolyn Dinshaw in her book Getting Medieval, especially pages 173-82, and also terrifyingly illustrated in Alfonso Cuaron’s film Children of Men, and well, just consider the Bush Administration’s legal memorandums on torture or the hysterical moralizing that erupts every time a politician sleeps with a prostitute], I am also reminded of something Joseph Kugelmass wrote on his blog The Kugelmass Episodes in May 2007, that our best resistance to a “society without history” might be “aimed at protecting those processes of development and change that are slow enough to have a past; resistance derives its strength from the slow time of human life, including the continual grief of repressed cultural or personal identity, and the protracted agonies of living under oppression. Each step forward should be so fully comprehended, and massively parallel, that it endures. It is the only possible approach for [those of us who are] . . . devoted to literature. Works of art help change to ripen, measuring its costs carefully, and calling it by old names.” What other way would there be, without art (or without history practiced as a form of art—even, as an affective art, even as an affective life, in Dinshaw’s and others’ hands), to record how, as the poet Spencer Reese writes, “Philomela held her cut tongue in her hand like a ticket. Although her past was history, her silence strengthened her, gave her wings.” Or how else could Robert Gluck in his 1994 novel Margery Kempe, as Dinshaw illustrates for us so beautifully, push himself [and his fictional persona Bob] under the surface of Margery’s story, and thereby demonstrate how all of us—not just Robert/Bob, the lover L., Margery, Jesus, and even the scholar Dinshaw herself, but also ourselves/her readers—are always forming and building our selves through various “crossings” across lives, texts, and times that may or may not actually [literally, physically] meet except under the dis/organizing touch of the queer historian, and also the artist, and any of us who might be able to grasp the idea of an individual life as an asynchronous artwork of what Foucault called “not being oneself.”
And this brings me also to the matter of time. Partly thanks to current work in postcolonial studies and in critical temporality studies, current work in medieval queer studies and also in medieval postcolonial studies [and also, I think, in studies in medievalism], has become concerned with the idea, as expressed by Chakrabarty, that “humans from any other period and region . . . are always in some sense our contemporaries,” and thus “the writing of history must implicitly assume a plurality of times existing together, a disjuncture of the present with itself” [Provincializing Europe, p. 109]. In this scenario, historical scholarship might not be overly concerned with von Ranke’s “how it really was” or even with the gap of the “irreducible plurality in our own experiences of historicity,” but rather, in the words of Glenn Burger, it might seek to “practice a historicism that brings the past and the present, premodern and postmodern, alongside each other in a rich heterogeneity, that stresses a temporality and spatiality that is coincidental, affective, and performative rather than stabilizingly teleological, segmented, or hierarchized” [“The Place of the Present in the Middle Ages: A Scene of Possibility,” paper presented at International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, Michigan, 11 May 2008]. Or, following the thought of Elizabeth Grosz, in The Nick of Time, which Karma Lochrie cited at this past May’s Kalamazoo Congress, what history might give us now “is the possibility of being untimely, of placing ourselves outside the constraints, the limitations, and blinkers of the present. This is precisely what it means to write for a future that the present cannot recognize; to develop, to cultivate the untimely, the out-of-place and the out-of-step. This access to the out-of-step can come only from the past and a certain uncomfortableness, a dis-ease, in the present” [p. 117]. And this can’t but help remind me of a point that Jeffrey himself made in 2000 when he published The Postcolonial Middle Ages, where he stressed, in his introductory essay “Midcolonial,” that medieval studies “must stress not difference (the past as past) or sameness (the past as present) but temporal interlacement, the impossibility of choosing alterity or continuity (the past that opens up the present to possible futures)” [p. 5].
And I hope I will be forgiven this long-ish preamble to my thoughts on Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval, as I believe that one of the chief values of her book is in its wrestling with all of the aspects of the historical enterprise I have outlined above: with “how it really was” [which I would say, in Dinshaw’s work, and following her obvious obsession with Foucault’s essay “Life of Infamous Men,” is a concern with the tangible existence(s) of real, but also with fictionalized, historical persons who are capable, even though dead, of producing “vibrations” felt in the body of the scholar situated in the archive]; with the irreducible plurality in our experiences of historicity, or, as Dinshaw might put it, with the disaggregating and anarchic processes of history and of its “surfaces,” its textualities as much as its body-nesses and all the gaps of historical intelligibility in between; and finally, with the ways in which, in Grosz’s words, history “is not the recovery of the truth of bodies or lives in the past; it is the engendering of new kinds of bodies and new kinds of lives. History is in part an index of our present preoccupations, but perhaps more interesting, the past is as rich as our futures allow” [The Nick of Time, p. 255].
This is not to say that, in the final analysis, all of these concerns, evidenced in Dinshaw’s book, are ultimately reconcilable with each other [at times, they are not compatible at all], but that is the book’s greatest virtue in my mind: all the ways in which it foregrounds its own processes of reckoning the past and of making use of the past [processes that are not always companionable with each other, for the past may sometimes want something very different from the desires we detect in it, and how could we ever really know the difference? we can only proceed with ethical caution and care and at least some kind of desire, any desire and hope at all of bringing light, which is like Auden’s “affirming flame,” which is a form of love], for personal but also and more importantly, for more broadly communitarian liberatory ends. The book is also virtuous for its willingness to make what Joan Retallack has termed the “poethical wager”: an “urgent and aesthetically aware thought experiment” in which meaning arises from a “dicey collaboration” between the imagination and the intellect, and the “question of poethics” is ultimately “what we make of events as we use language in the present, how we continuously create an ethos of the way in which events are understood” [The Poethical Wager, p. 9]. Dinshaw’s work is history, or historiography, as poetics, in the sense that John Caputo describes [and thank you, Dan Remien, for first pointing me in the direction of this passage]:
A poetics gives voice to the properly symbolic discourse of the kingdom [for Caputo’s “kingdom,” substitute Dinshaw’s/Barthes’ “the real”], while a logic enunciates the literal discourse of the world. As a symbolic discourse, then, a poetics is a certain constellation of idioms, strategies, stories, arguments, tropes, paradigms, and metaphors—a style and a tone, as well as a grammar and a vocabulary, all of which, collectively, like a great army on the move, is aimed at gaining some ground and making a point. We might say that a poetics is a discourse with a heart, supplying the heart of the heartless world. Unlike logic, it is a discourse with pathos, with a passion and desire, with an imaginative sweep and flare, touched by a bit of madness, hence more of an a-logic or even patho-logic, one that is, however, not sick but healing . . . . [The Weakness of God, p. 104]This wager, this poethical scholarship, also means taking on, with some courage I imagine, what Retallack calls the “against-all-odds project of recomposing some small portion of the habitus” [p. 17]—and this is why it is not so difficult to see why some in our field were and continue to be discomfited by Dinshaw’s delving into the personal responses to John Boswell’s work on homosexuality in the Middle Ages or reading the “medieval” through a contemporary film like Pulp Fiction or confessing to the bodily feeling of mystical vibrations in the archive or analyzing Congressional debates over NEH funding or describing the delightfully irreligious fucking of Robert Gluck’s novel Margery Kempe, in much the same way many of us are discomfited by James Earl confessing his Freudian dreams in Thinking About Beowulf or by Jeffrey dwelling on the socio-cultural implications of Alfred’s hemorrhoids in Medieval Identity Machines or by Karma Lochrie writing on the Supreme Court case Lawrence vs. Texas in Heterosyncracies—all of these and numerous other examples point to a concerted effort, in whatever increments, to transform the habitus of our discipline and, as Steven Kruger and Glenn Burger have written [in their Introduction to Queering the Middle Ages], to “preposterously” rethink the Middle Ages and our relation to it. This work will always have its detractors, but perhaps these detractions would be far less if we considered that such work does not demand that we all stop doing old-fashioned historicist work and start doing something else, something more presentist or more preposterously theoretical or more temporally “whack,” but rather, in Dinshaw’s eloquent plea at the conclusion to Getting Medieval, that we begin to at least try to imagine a communitarian model for doing our work in which we work very hard not to essentialize: either history or ourselves or others whom we might claim are “too different, too queer” from ourselves [at the same time, I do not completely follow Dinshaw, who is also following Foucault and Bersani, among others, into the desire to imagine new histories in which everything is post-identitarian, disaggregated, and all surface—all bodies turned inside out: more on that in a separate post, with the caveat that Dinshaw herself questions Foucault’s valorization of bodily surfaces].
It has to be admitted at the same time, however, that a “queer” history is what is being privileged in Dinshaw’s and others’ medieval scholarship [that of Glenn Burger, Michael Camille, Jeffrey Cohen, Lara Farina, Allen Frantzen, Cary Howie, Anna Klosowska, Steven Kruger, Karma Lochrie, Robert Mills, James Schultz, Diane Watt, and Lisa Weston, among others] which many will not want to embrace, while at the same time, I am more and more convinced that there cannot be any higher ethical scholarship than that which attends to what Dinshaw has described as a queer and anachronistic history:
[A] history that would reckon in the most expansive way possible with how people exist in time, with what it feels like to be a body in time, or in multiple times, or out of time, is a queer history—whatever else it might be. Historicism is queer when it grasps that temporality itself raises the question of embodiment and subjectivity. Michel de Certeau has written in The Mystic Fable that “time is . . . the question of the subject seized by his or her other, in a present that is the ongoing surprise of a birth and a death.” [“Temporalities,” in Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature: Middle English, ed. Paul Strohm, p. 109]The subject seized by his or her other, in a present that is the ongoing surprise of a birth and death. I can think of no better description of what has happened to Dinshaw herself through the craft of her scholarship, of its ongoing-ness as a practice and a mentality, and as a form of embodiment [even, dis-embodiment] in which she allows herself the risk of wanting to be surprised by the “intensities” of past bodies that are almost beyond bearing, or as Cary Howie has described her historical project, of wanting, “like the voice of the Lorenz Hart lyric, a nearness that is ‘nearer than the wind is to the willow’” [Claustrophilia, p. 112]. And this has some affinities, too, with Howie’s own project of an anachronistic reading practice in which “the metonymic, participative touch (or look, or reading) brings more fully into being the bodies, texts, and buildings it brushes against” [p. 7].
And here I want to linger on the phrase in the long quotation from Dinshaw’s essay “Temporalities” above, what it feels like to be a body, with a special emphasis on a body. For although Dinshaw concludes Getting Medieval with a plea for a kind of communitarian disaggregation—an embracing of the idea [or is it a fact?] that there is no such thing as a unified, essential self [and who would disagree? not me, no, not me], and that subjects are formed in the inbetween moments of restless and various crossings between alter persons, places, and times—at the same time, throughout her work, both in Getting Medieval and elsewhere, there is this corollary [and I believe, valuable] assertion of the importance of singular, embodied persons and of the significance, as the political theorist George Kateb has written in his book The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture, of the fact that those persons, in their minds and bodies, have “touched reality and become real,” and some understanding of their understanding of the world, as Kateb would argue, is “indispensable to the completeness of the world.” Dinshaw’s preoccupation with the vibrations and intensities of affect of past, singular persons [primarily embodied, now, in textual and artifactual “remains” as well as in contemporary narratives and artworks that take them up and also, in Robert Gluck’s formulation, “push under” them] is also connected, I believe [or maybe this is my own preoccupation? I confess it is, eternally], to Edith Wyschogrod’s notion that every artifact of the past is “a gift of the past to the presented affected with futurity” and which is “inscribed with the vouloir dire of a people that has been silenced, of the dead others” [An Ethics of Remembering, p.248]. I want to say, I want to say, I want to say . . . . And here I am also recalled to Jeffrey’s words in Medieval Identity Machines that
Time unfolds and enfolds within “individuations,” creating what Duns Scotus called “haeccities,” historical differentiations and particulars. Time therefore cannot be divorced from the material and social world, from particular significations and from particular bodies. [p. 9]I take it as a salient point regarding what I will risk [again] calling one of Dinshaw’s personal obsessions, that in her essay “Temporalities,” which only just appeared in 2007, she returns to a careful reading of Foucault’s essay, “The Life of Infamous Men” [which was supposed to serve as an Introduction to an anthology, never published, of “lettres de cachet and other documents consigning atheistic monks, obscure usurers, and other wretches to confinement”], which she also treats in Chapter 2 of Getting Medieval. As we know, Dinshaw is interested in this essay primarily for Foucault’s confession of his “physical reaction” as, immersed in the archive of these documents, he “experienced the terrifying, austere, lyrical beauty” of these documents, which was also “the sensory experience of being-made-an-outsider which these unfortunate men lived” [“Temporalities,” 112]. In Dinshaw’s view, such a moment in the archive “introduces a temporal multiplicity, an expanded now in which past touches present, making a ‘physical’ impression,” and “[i]n a genealogical framework that seeks to overcome the denial of the body in traditional historicism, we could attempt an analysis of the experience of such times” [“Temporalities,” p. 112]. Foucault in the archive with his heretics, Dinshaw in the library at Bryn Mawr with Hope Emily Allen--these are queer ghost stories that also call to mind Anna Klosowska's confession in her book Queer Love in the Middle Ages that throughout her work on the book "Roland Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text stayed near, like a fellow passenger on the train" [p. 145] as well as Howie's admonition in Claustrophilia that to "hold is . . . not just to behold; it is to be held, even to be held in suspense" [p. 152].
A personal “shock” for me as I was reading Dinshaw’s essay was an admission of Foucault’s [and also, by extension] of Dinshaw’s, that did not appear in Getting Medieval: that, in Foucault’s words, “the primary intensities which had motivated me . . . might not pass into the order of reason.” What, then, Dinshaw asks, “will allow us to analyze these feelings, these experiences?” [p. 112]. What, indeed? Dinshaw’s essay is partly maddening for the answers it does not provide to that question [I ultimately take away from Dinshaw’s current preoccupation with mysticism, Margery Kempe, the physical stirrings of a scholarly body open to its and others’ implicit inter-temporalities, and queer historicism that the answer lies in some form of mystico-poetic knowledge, as preposterous as that might sound, and to expect a neat answer, in any case, to how something that is decidedly not rational could be explained rationally is a whole other matter], but more important for me personally is Dinshaw’s admirable desire to formulate an historical practice that could help us “to expand our apprehension and experience of bodies in time—their pleasures, their agonies, their limits, their potentials” [“Temporalities,” p. 122]. As regards, especially, those bodies which are marked, historically, as “outside,” “queer,” “perverse,” “mad,” “abnormal” and the like [and this includes Margery Kempe as it does Chaucer’s Pardoner as it does Hope Emily Allen, Kempe’s first modern editor], I see in Dinshaw’s work what Dan Remein has recently termed a poetics of medieval historiography.
This poetics of medieval historiography has real affinity with the work of actual poets, such as Spencer Reese, who in his volume of poems The Clerk’s Tale is preoccupied with the lives of the queer “discounted” living on the fringes of West Palm Beach and elsewhere, as well as with those on the “outside” of history [both “real” and fictional]: Elizabeth Bishop’s “mad” mother incarcerated in Novia Scotia, an escapee from Florida’s death row who drowns in a swamp “thick with processed excrement,” Philomela, Holocaust survivors, AIDS patients, Tiresias, Christopher Isherwood, T.S. Eliot, an aging homosexual sitting alone on a park bench, Anne Frank, the 2,000 migrant workers drowned in the flood unleashed by the 1928 hurricane in South Florida, his young cousin who was beaten and then drowned in a river in St. Augustine: “I press on the keys of the typewriter,” Reese writes, “attempting to record all those lost and unmarked.” [And, yes, the nod to Chaucer is purposeful in the title poem that details the homely yet elegant labors and fraternal solitude of two gay clerks working in a Brooks Brothers in the Mall of America in Minnesota who “no longer have a need to express ourselves”].
In “Florida Ghazals,” Reese weaves together in seven sections of seven ghazals each the lives of Dolores, the town’s prostitute whose son died in Vietnam; his beaten and murdered cousin; Juan, the prison escapee; the nameless migrant workers drowned in the 1928 flood; Robert Fitzroy, the “father of weather forecasting,” who committed suicide by slitting his throat [“Is it brooding on the future that drives us mad? The silence of it?” Reese asks]; Egaz Moniz, inventor of lobotomies; Philomela with her cut tongue; Elizabeth Bishop; and himself, committed to a mental asylum, where, “Behind the dirty jalousie window slats, the AIDS patients play cards.” Practicing poetry as a form of historiography that is almost monastic in its fierce meditative attention to the thrumming silences and unresolved madnesses of the world [human and inhuman], Reese’s poems account, as Dinshaw might say, for the heterogeneities of fragmentary and contingent times and bodies, or as Reese himself writes, “Down here, the lonely claim my voice and make it strong.”
There is always the risk of melancholia, of course, which weighs heavily upon many of Reese’s lines [this is the “darkness” which he claims to have “emerged” from in the mental asylum in “Florida Ghazals”], and which also reminds me of Benjamin’s caution against the type of history that is
a process of empathy whose origin is the indolence of the heart, acedia, which despairs of grasping and holding the genuine historical image as it flares up briefly. Among medieval theologians it was regarded as the root cause of sadness. Flaubert, who was familiar with it, wrote: “Peu de gens devineront combien il a fallu être triste pour ressusciter Carthage.” [“Theses on the Philosophy of History”]This is a sadness that I believe also weighs upon some of Dinshaw’s writing on the lives of those, like Margery Kempe or Hope Emily Allen, who often struggled, with great anxiety, to be listened to and often felt isolated and abjected as a result. One could even say that their “life projects” had, at a certain point, to be aborted [or quite literally came to a standstill as in, as Dinshaw details, the point at which Jesus’s noli me tangere puts a kind of halt to Margery’s desire to have a bodily relationship with him], and the work of an affective scholarship such as Dinshaw’s labors mightily to reclaim these voices, bodies, and projects [or to at least register the palpable potentialities broken off “in the middle,” as it were, and maybe even to reactivate these potentialities in the present as what Benjamin would have called “chips of Messianic time”]. And through the process of writing itself, Dinshaw also attempts to “touch” these particles, let’s say, of human abjection across time—this is a deeply humanist project [if perhaps, at times, too appropriative—this risk is always present; think of Czeslaw Milosz’s lines in his poem “Child of Europe”: “He who invokes history is always secure. / The dead will not rise to witness against him. / You can accuse them of any deeds you like. / Their reply will always be silence”]. This project resonates also with the insight of Marguerite Yourçenar, observing and reflecting on the engravings of Piranesi, “let us consider for a moment, magnifying glass in hand, the miniscule humanity which gesticulates on the ruins or in the streets of Rome” [quoted in Michael Moore, “An Historian’s Notes for a Miloszan Humanism,” Journal of Narrative Theory 37.2].
Ultimately, any attempt at rendering these lives and thereby “joining” them, as Dinshaw herself has written, is fraught with the inevitability of belatedness, of always arriving, as it were, afterwards, or while traveling along a different, if related temporal plane, and to feel like an anachronism is to choose, I really believe, to inhabit a plane of temporality that is always, to some extent, constructed by ourselves prior to entering it [which might be another way of conceptualizing a life as an artwork which, nevertheless, possesses its own tangible reality], although granted, the physical body itself is already an archive of history. But can it be advanced, if even tentatively, that Dinshaw labors, as does Reece, at a sort of spiritual discipline? I am reminded, finally, when reading her work of these words from the poet George Mackay Brown [and thank you, Michael Moore, for introducing me to Brown]:
I have a deep-rooted belief that what has once existed can never die: not even the frailest things, spindrift or clover-scent or glitter of star on a wet stone. All is gathered into the web of creation, that is apparently established and yet perhaps only a dream in the eternal mind; and yet, too, we work at the making of it with every word and thought and action of our lives. [quoted in Maggie Fergusson, George Mackay Brown: The Life, p. 289]