Fictional Bodies

Literary Persons and Medieval Fiction in Bernard of Clairvaux’s Sermons on the Song of Songs

by Julie Orlemanski

Like many exegetes before him, the twelfth-century Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux regarded the lovers in the Song of Songs as allegorical fictions. Yet these prosopopoeial figures remained of profound commentarial interest to him. Bernard’s Sermons on the Song of Songs returns again and again to the literal level of meaning, where text becomes voice and voice becomes fleshly persona. This essay argues that Bernard pursued a distinctive poetics of fictional persons modeled on the dramatic exegesis of Origen of Alexandria as well as on the Song itself. Ultimately, the essay suggests, Bernard’sSermons form an overlooked episode in the literary history of fiction.

Image: Francisco Ribalta, Christ embracing Saint Bernard, Museo del prado, madrid

 

The essay begins:

Osculetur me osculo oris sui. “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth.” In the first words of the Song of Songs, a voice announces itself, and with it, a corporeal figure comes flickeringly into existence. A voice speaks from the page and summons a body around it. The utterance implies a literary person not merely in the sense in which Quintilian explains the trope of prosopopoeia or fictio personarum, remarking, “We cannot of course imagine a speech except as the speech of a person.” No, with its first-person object, “Let him kiss me,” the textual voice refers to its own body, a body that can be kissed, with a mouth that is an organ not just of speech but of sensation and erotic action. The o of this open mouth—of the speaker’s mouth but also of any reader who reads the words aloud—is echoed visually on the written page: Osculetur . . . osculo oris. In a medieval manuscript, the initial capital would likely be written on a larger scale, emphasizing the graphic dimensions of the letter, and in an illuminated Bible it might even be filled the with the image of a man and a woman kissing. In the likeness shared between the o of the speaker’s mouth as she seeks a kiss, the o of a reader’s mouth pronouncing the verse, and the o of the letters on the manuscript page, the mixed ontology of literary persons shimmers into view. Is this utterance, Osculetur me osculo oris sui, something that I perceive or something I do? Where is the body that speaks? Suspended between a scene to watch and a script to follow, it seems to belong at once to mimesis and performance, fiction and rhetoric.

This verse’s associative movement from text to corporealization was a point of fascination for readers and writers in the Middle Ages. Its sudden drama, its intimate but peculiar phrasing, and the crosshatched invitations both to watch a spectacle of desire unfolding and to make this speaker’s voice one’s own helped render the Song of Songs the most frequently interpreted biblical book in medieval Christianity. The present essay considers an especially sophisticated and influential instance of that exegesis, the Sermons on the Song of Songs (Sermones super Cantica Canticorum, hereafter SCC) by Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), an undertaking that occupied the final eighteen years of the Cistercian abbot’s life and that survives in more than a hundred manuscripts.

In the first of the eighty-six sermons in the collection, Bernard launches his consideration of the language of the Song by imploring, “Tell us, I beg you, by whom, about whom, and to whom it is said: ‘Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth.’” Bernard’s words, we might notice, are at once a breathless plea for language to explain the personae it proliferates and, too, a canny enactment of that proliferation, conjuring an I, a you, and a we of its own. Grammatical persons multiply, and Bernard presses the urgency of their reference. In effect, he plunges his audience into a fundamental problem of understanding the Song. Because the Song consists entirely of direct speech, a series of unattributed lyric utterances, even the most rudimentary sense-making requires figuring out who is talking to whom. As Bernard begins to describe these speakers, his exegesis shows itself quiveringly alert to the operations of pronominal reference, deixis, and other indices of address. But it is not only the correct identification of speakers that interests him. These speakers become, I suggest, rhetorical resources for the SCC. Bernard’s preacherly style pursues a distinctive poetics of fictional persons, modeled in part on the Song of Songs itself. In its twelfth-century context, the SCC articulated new explanations for the Song’s carnal rhetoric of fictional bodies and, at the same time, operationalized that rhetoric in a distinctive program of literary experience.

What does it mean to discuss the Song of Songs in terms of fiction? From the point of its incorporation into the Hebrew Bible, the Song raised questions about the interpretive status of its central figures, a feminine and a masculine speaker who are accompanied intermittently by a chorus of companions. Nowhere are God or his chosen people mentioned. Jewish and early Christian exegetes concurred that the Song’s extraordinarily frank erotic images—“your breasts better than wine,” “his left arm under my head and his right hand will embrace me,” “your lips drip honeycomb”—were not to be interpreted straightforwardly, referring to actual individuals’ erotic love. Rabbis in the second and third centuries taught that the Song was a figuration of the love between God and the people of Israel, and the early Christian commentary of Hippolytus of Rome (d. c. 236) followed suit with an ecclesiological interpretation. The foundation for the Song’s exegesis in the Latin West was undoubtedly Origen of Alexandria (d. c. 253), whose Commentary on the Song of Songs (Commentarium in Cantica Canticorum), brought together the allegory of the church with that of the individual soul: the book is sung “after the fashion of a bride to her bridegroom, who is the word of God, burning with heavenly love. And deeply indeed did she love him, whether we take her as the soul made in his image or as the church.” The ecclesiological interpretation prevailed in subsequent centuries, shaping influential commentaries by Pope Gregory I (d. 604) and the Venerable Bede (d. 735), until the twelfth century, when tropological interpretation, focused on the individual soul, became a prominent framework as well, thanks especially to Bernard’s influential sermons.

For most medieval readers, then, the bodies conjured by the Song of Songs were rhetorical specters, effects of a divinely inspired discourse. Bernard fits squarely within this tradition of regarding the Bride and Bridegroom as allegorical fictions—but he does so with a crucial difference. The fictive bodies of the Song remained of profound commentarial interest to him. Unlike other medieval exegetes, who largely ignored the literal level of meaning in their expositions, Bernard returned again and again to the mimetic operations of the Song’s language, in which text becomes voice and voice becomes fleshly, fictional persona. He not only engaged in the well-established practice of prosopological interpretation (or the effort to resolve scriptural ambiguity by identifying the personae of speakers and addressees) but also pursued those explanations into new prosopopoeial invention. In mixing interpretation and literary person-making, Bernard had several models at his disposal. These included the devotional recitation of the Psalms in the Divine Office, the schoolroom exercise of adlocutio or prosopopoeia, and, finally, the “dramatic” analysis offered in the Commentary by Origen. Although Bernard has long been recognized as having revived Origen’s focus on the individual, tropological significance of the Song, I suggest that the Alexandrian’s tendency to amplify the Song’s fictive scenes in a self-consciously theatrical mode was also an important influence on the SCC. Both Origen’s Commentary and Bernard’s Sermons consolidate the Song’s fleetingly evoked personae into durable referents that sustain the extended exercise of imagination.

It is true that Bernard does not refer to the Song of Songs as a fiction (fictio or res ficta), nor does he draw on closely related terms like fabula and poetria—terms colored by their association with the works of pagan authors. The abbot shows little interest in such idioms of medieval literary theory. Instead, it is at the level of rhetorical design that his sermons testify to a fascination with what might be called the cognitive realities of fiction, or how language induces mental images that provoke sensory and emotional responses in an audience. In the case of the eroticized bodies of the Song, however, those images were possessed of a crucial unreality as well. If exegetical tradition had colored the Song’s celebration of heterosexual love with a certain tincture of disbelief—looking past carnal passion to spiritual union—Bernard invited his audience into the willing suspension of that disbelief, as it were. Ultimately, I suggest, the Sermons form an overlooked episode in the history of literary fiction. Though the twelfth-century secular genres of courtly romance and Ovidian love poetry have loomed large in fiction’s historiography, devotional literature likewise contributed to the changing semantics of imaginative writing in the period.

In what follows, I concentrate my analysis on the figure of the Bride in the first nine sermons of the SCC to show how the sermons both comment on and incorporate the Song’s carnal rhetoric of fictional bodies. I then compare this prosopopoeial poetics to the Psalms performed in the Divine Office, grammar-school exercises in prosopopoeia, and, most extensively, to Origen’s Commentary on the Song. I suggest in closing that the mode of fictionality pursued in the SCC, one uniquely alert to the dynamics of reception and the mixed ontology of literary persons, sheds new light on twelfth-century developments in fiction. Continue reading free of charge for a limited time …

JULIE ORLEMANSKI is Associate Professor of English at the University of Chicago. Her monograph Symptomatic Subjects: Bodies, Medicine, and Causality in the Literature of Late Medieval England appeared in 2019 and was shortlisted for the British Society for Literature and Science book prize. She is currently at work on two book-length projects. One concerns prosopopoeia in medieval writing. The other follows the tangled genealogies of fictionality and disenchantment to argue for a comparative poetics of fiction.

Sidney’s Psalms

Impersonating Devotion

by Constance M. Furey

What can biblical psalms teach us about literary devotion? An unexpected answer to that question is provided by Philip Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy (1595), a touchstone of literary criticism in its time and in ours. The argument in this essay unfolds from analysis of a single paragraph, which reveals how Sidney’s description of King David’s Psalms challenges our regnant categories in the following way: If today religion connotes fidelity or devotion to an external authority, as for many it does, and if literature entails authorial sovereignty and independent creativity (also a widespread assumption), then Sidney’s approach deviates by equating divine inspiration with poetic creativity. His celebration of variable voices and personae, in particular, undermines the distinction between fidelity and autonomy by offering the psalmist’s voice as a model of transformative self-expression.

The essay begins:

What can biblical psalms teach us about literary devotion? An unexpected answer to that question is provided by Philip Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy (1595), a touchstone of literary criticism in its time and in ours…. Few studies linger over the details of this sketch, for it appears just before Sidney differentiates divine poets from right poets and appeals to Aristotle’s definition of poetry as an art of imitation. This ordering makes it tempting to treat David as prologue to the main event and to conclude—as many commentators have done—that Sidney is most interested in defending secular poetry. Others counter that biblical sources and theological ideas inform all of Sidney’s work. Yet none acknowledge that Sidney’s account of David challenges our regnant categories in the following way: If today religion connotes fidelity or devotion to an external authority, as for many it does, and if literature entails authorial sovereignty and independent creativity (also a widespread assumption), then Sidney’s approach deviates by equating divine inspiration with poetic creativity. His celebration of variable voices and personae, in particular, undermines the distinction between fidelity and autonomy by offering the psalmist’s voice as a model of transformative self-expression.

It is all too easy to take the Psalms for granted and presume that their importance is understood. There is no more important devotional source for biblical traditions, but even those who have never read the Hebrew or Christian Bible, or prayed the Psalms alone or with a religious community, are likely to know and appreciate some of their most familiar phrases and to imagine that the Psalms are also literary because of these memorable expressions of emotion. “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength,” we read in the King James Bible’s version of Psalm 8. And “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” these same translators offer us, in Psalm 23. Many Psalms describe God as “my rock and my fortress” (as in Psalm 31), and the Psalms—from a Hebrew word meaning something sung—soar with words of praise for the creator and creation. The Psalms are, in short, well known as texts that provide comfort to those who grieve, refuge to those in need, and satisfaction for the righteous. But how? What gives the Psalms such a satisfying intensity? Since late antiquity, Christian commentators have emphasized that the power of the Psalms arises not just from their content but also from their form, and from the poetics of voice and personification, in particular. This commentarial tradition’s longstanding interest in poetic personae coalesces in Sidney’s work and should—or so the current essay argues—prompt a new understanding of the relationship between religious and literary devotion.

Certainly most scholars of English Renaissance literature know that their favorite authors read, prayed, and often also created their own poetic psalms. One could fairly say that the Psalms filled the airwaves in premodern Europe. England was no exception. Before Henry VIII dissolved most monasteries, the entire Psalter was recited at least weekly by monks following the Rule of Saint Benedict. The Psalms were less frequently, if no less devoutly, prayed by pious laypeople, who could read them in books of hours and penitential psalm collections and hear and sing them in church. The metrical version of the Book of Psalms by Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins was the best-selling book in early modern England: appended to the Book of Common Prayer beginning in the 1560s, it was sung and recited by generations of English churchgoers well into the nineteenth century. The Psalms were cited by John Calvin and numerous other reformers as evidence that no other poetry needed to be written. The Bay Psalm Book was the first book printed in British North America, in 1640. And the Psalms unquestionably influenced all early modern lyric poets within Christianity’s orbit.

Yet agreement on the fact that the Psalms matter does not mean consensus on how. The centrality of the question as well as uncertainty about the answer is especially clear when it comes to Sidney. In addition to his memorably vivid appeal to King David in a work avowedly not limited to defending religious poetry, Sidney also embarked on a poetic translation of the entire Psalter. This project was completed by Philip’s sister, Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, after his untimely death (he was felled by gangrene after being wounded by a Spanish cannonball, when he was only thirty-one years old). The Sidney-Pembroke Psalter is invariably described as metrically inventive, and often praised as inspiring all subsequent English poetry—echoing John Donne’s appreciative insistence that the Sidney translation “both told us what, and taught us how to do.” Accounts of the place of the Psalms in Sidney’s literary theory nevertheless vary widely, ranging from detailed appraisals of his rhetoric and theology to grand claims about how the Psalms provided religious cover for what was ultimately a secular vision of imaginative writing.

What these assessments have in common are two mistaken (and usually unstated) assumptions. First, that when Sidney talks about the poet being “lifted up with the vigour of his own invention,” he must be talking about a singular voice. Second, that this description cannot apply to the divine poet, because his creative strength would come from God rather than “his own invention.” Both impressions can find textual support. Sidney regularly refers to “poet” in the singular, and “own” had the same meaning in his day as in ours, connoting possession by a singular person or thing. And Sidney refers to both “divine poets” and “right poets,” appearing to distinguish between them. Yet these unexamined notions are wrong. Consequentially so.

This misreading of Sidney arises from a limited understanding of how the poetics of personification and textual voices relate to the personhood of writer and reader. Personification should be understood as connoting both anthropomorphism (attributing human characteristics to nonhuman entities) and voice (a correlation still apparent in the description of grammatical voices, for example, “first person”). Understood in this sense, personification was crucial to Sidney’s conception of poetic force and energy. It was essential to the distinction he draws between poetry’s capacity to deceive and distract, which he condemns, and its unrivaled ability to conjure alternative realities and make them appealing, which he commends. In particular, Sidney’s focus on the rhetorical practices (rather than thematics) of personification, rooted in his devotional experiences of the Psalms, differs in decisive and revealing respects from personification understood, as Susan Stewart has described it, as one of lyric poetry’s primary aims and challenges. Sidney’s account of personification differs from that of modern theorists because he is not concerned, as they are, with the challenges of alienation, objectification, agency, and imaginative writing’s capacity to destabilize reality. The intrigue of Sidney’s work comes from his psychologically astute insistence, informed by a long history of Psalm commentators, that poetry is powerful precisely because it offers readers and writers alike the opportunity to identify with multiple voices, unimpeded by the structural logic of narrative or drama—and thereby offers an alternative to contemporary literary theory’s emphasis on agency and objectification. Continue reading …

CONSTANCE M. FUREY is Professor and Chair in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. Recipient of a multiyear Luce Foundation grant for a collaborative project, “Being Human,” she is also the author of two monographs, most recently Poetic Relations: Faith and Intimacy in the English Reformation, published by the University of Chicago Press. Among other projects, she has written multiple essays on the Immanent Frame blog, including “Human” for the Universe of Terms Project, and is at work on a co-authored book about devotion in religion and literature.

The Poetics of Prayer and Devotion to Literature

The Poetics of Prayer and Devotion to Literature: Introduction to the Special Issue Practices of Devotion

Available free of charge for a limited time

by Eleanor Craig, Amy Hollywood, and Kris Trujillo

 

In the introduction to this special issue, three of the co-editors explain that their goal “is to desegregate religious studies and theology from the humanities more broadly by reasserting religion’s significance to the histories of critique, theory, and literature … [and to] pursue connections between devotional practices, literary production, and contemplative or intellectual labor so as to move the intellectual project called Religion and Literature away from an emphasis on thematics and toward an investigation of practices.” 

The introduction begins:

Is there a place for devotion in criticism? What about love and desire? Recent attempts to historicize and parochialize critique as one method of interpretation among others lead to these questions. Deidre Lynch’s Loving Literature: A Cultural History (2015) identifies love as a requirement for critique and turns “to histories of criticism, canonicity, literary history, and ‘heritage,’ and, above all, to the emergence . . . of new etiquettes of literary appreciation . . . so as to examine how it has come to be that those of us for whom English is a line of work are also called upon to love literature and to ensure that others do so too.” Rita Felski offers a different analysis of the field in The Limits of Critique (2015), positing and resisting as central to literary study a version of critique to which love is antithetical—that is, a critique that “highlights the sphere of the agon (conflict and domination) at the expense of eros (love and connection) [and assumes] that the former is more fundamental than the latter.” Despite their distinct formulations of the relationship between love and critique and the role each plays within literary studies past and present, Lynch and Felski both argue that love ought to be central to the discipline.

This newfound interest in love, desire, and affect echoes, in many ways, to the call voiced a decade and a half ago in the edited volume Polemic: Critical or Uncritical (2004). There Jane Gallop, Michael Warner, and others ask that literary scholars think with and about practices of “uncritical” reading and author love in order to understand the modes of subject formation to which these reading practices are bound. The “uncritical” reader, in particular the one who identifies too closely with characters, who invests too deeply in a plot, or who becomes a card-carrying member of an author’s fan club, remains a serious object of study, especially in light of theoretical developments in affect theory, digital humanities, and fan studies. Yet a slightly different argument also appears in the volume. This is the claim that religious readers, like Lynch’s literature loving readers, can be and in fact often are also critical readers. Michael Warner’s pious readers and Amy Hollywood’s mystical subjects have been joined in recent years by Mark Jordan’s convulsing bodies, Aisha Beliso-De Jesús’s electric “copresences,” and Ashon Crawley’s stomping spirits. Yet despite the foundational role that religion plays in twenty-first century conversations about the history and value of critique, these religious figures seem largely to have disappeared from literary critical discussions of the issue.[v] Why are religious readers, particularly markedly embodied religious readers, absent from recent histories of literary criticism? Have they been forced to remain uncritical, scapegoats whose erasure enables other modes of putatively “uncritical” reading to be reclaimed as less excessive, credulous, or nonrational? Does postcriticism require a disavowal of the critical religious subject? These questions carry particular political relevance today, as the need for critical reading is ever more pressing and, simultaneously, the dangers of paranoia as the presumptive critical stance have become all too clear.

The essays collected here return to the questions raised in earlier scholarship about the interplay of love and the literary-critical enterprise by attending to the practices of devotion. Following Richard Rambuss’s claim that devotional texts “afford us a plethora of affectively charged sites for tracing the complex overlappings and relays between religious devotion and erotic desire, as well as between the interiorized operations of the spirit and the material conditions of the body,” the essays gathered here demonstrate the close relationship between literary reading, critical reading, and devotion. Attending to the intersections of devotional practices (among them, prayer, recitation, scriptural exegesis, meditation, and contemplation) and the rhetorical and literary arts (invention, poetry, and fiction), contributors explore the ways in which the reading, writing, and contemplative practices of Christianity contribute—both historically and in the present—to the training, cultivation, and disciplining of affective attachments to, investments in, and analyses of literature. Contributors also examine the relationship between religious devotion and the devotion to literature through analyses of the ways in which materiality and embodiment condition the connections between devotional practices and the textual arts.

The goal of this special issue, then, is to desegregate religious studies and theology from the humanities more broadly by reasserting religion’s significance to the histories of critique, theory, and literature. Most of the authors are scholars of religion, and we all work with the assumption that the putative secularity of literary study in English is largely a ruse. Rather, religious frameworks, sensibilities, and practices have been present in the study of English literature from the beginning, even at the moments when the literary was most strenuously attempting to differentiate itself from the religious. This is not only a more accurate account of contemporary critical frameworks and their evolution, but a signal of their limitations. Practices identified as the sole domain of a largely secular form of literary expertise may be more parochially Christian than their practitioners realize. Generalized understandings of literary devotion developed within these frameworks might inadvertently limit what is considered critical or rigorous, even literary.

We use the term “devotion” in its broadest sense in order to question and undo the epistemological restrictions generated by sharp distinctions between the secular and the religious. These essays pursue connections between devotional practices, literary production, and contemplative or intellectual labor so as to turn the intellectual project called Religion and Literature away from an emphasis on thematics and toward an investigation of practices. We follow Niklaus Largier’s proposal that those writing the history of Christian mysticism and secular modernity move away from identifying persistent motifs and intellectual paradigms shared by medieval mystics and modern intellectuals and, instead, toward an interrogation of the ways that practices of reading shape sensation, perception, and what he calls “a poetics or poiesis of experience.” We ask not only how religious practices are organized around literature but also how these practices are transmuted into putatively secular forms of devotion. How might one be “religiously devoted,” for example, in a political (devotion to candidate, cause, state), epistemological (devotion to methods and objects of disciplinary formation), or aesthetic (devotion to artistic pursuits, modes of experimentation, or artifacts of popular culture) sense? To what extent can we demarcate religious and nonreligious devotion, and what is at stake in attempts to do so?

Most importantly, perhaps, these essays demonstrate that the work of devotion is as much about the transformation wrought through it as it is about the specificity of its object. Moreover, as these essays show, this emphasis on transformation was already in place in the Christian Middle Ages. We collectively are interested in devotion not as a stance of subservience before a divine or human other, but as transformative practice. Devotion does not merely—or uncritically—receive, follow, and reinscribe predetermined patterns of thought or courses of action. The ends or outcomes of its critical performances are not fully known in advance, even when they are animated by identifiable desires. The essays in this issue thus read for textual accounts of devotional practices as well as the ways in which the text itself delivers or demands particular forms of practice. Read the full introduction free of charge …

ELEANOR CRAIG is Program Director and Lecturer for the Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, Rights at Harvard University.

AMY HOLLYWOOD is the Elizabeth H. Monrad Professor of Christian Studies at Harvard Divinity School and a member of the Committee for the Study of Religion at Harvard University.

KRIS TRUJILLO is Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago.

New Special Issue, Representations 153

NOW AVAILABLE!

Number 153, Winter 2021 (available free for a limited time from UC Press)

Special Issue
Practices of Devotion

“The goal of this special issue … is to desegregate religious studies and theology from the humanities more broadly by reasserting religion’s significance to the histories of critique, theory, and literature … [and to] pursue connections between devotional practices, literary production, and contemplative or intellectual labor so as to move the intellectual project called Religion and Literature away from an emphasis on thematics and toward an investigation of practices.” –from the editors’ introduction 

Edited by Eleanor Craig, Amy Hollywood, Niklaus Largier, and Kris Trujillo, this volume demonstrates that the work of devotion is as much about the transformation wrought through it as it is about the specificity of its object.

Eleanor CraigAmy Hollywood, and Kris Trujillo
Constance M. Furey
Julie Orlemanski
Rachel Smith
Robert Glenn Davis
Eleanor Craig
Kris Trujillo
Amy Hollywood

Down on the Farm with Dylan

Bob Dylan in the Country: Rock Domesticity and Pastoral Song

by Timothy Hampton

At the close of the 1960s two developments changed the shape of mainstream rock and roll music. The first was a new focus, on the part of a number of influential artists, on music about domestic life—kids, spouses, home. The second was a new interest in blending rock rhythms with instrumentation and themes taken from country music. This essay explores the ways in which these two concerns overlap in the work of Bob Dylan. I argue that Dylan’s work at the turn of the decade offers insights into our own current moment, when the relationship between the public world and the private world is being renegotiated. I show how Dylan’s “country” songs are, in fact, models of self-conscious experimentation that push against the conventions of popular song and highlight the conditions of their own production.

The essay begins:

One day, around 1970, John Lennon took a bath. Then he wrote a song about it. “In the middle of a bath I call your name,” sang the composer of “Revolution.” Next, he shared his call with his wife: “Oh, Yoko! Your love will turn me on.” About the same time, Lennon’s erstwhile writing partner, Paul McCartney, went to his second home in rural Scotland to get away from the press. There, the composer of “Eleanor Rigby” got down to work: “Fly flies in, fly flies out,” he sang on his second solo album, Ram. While McCartney was in Scotland, the American writer Paul Simon went to his doctor for a checkup. His song “Bridge Over Troubled Water” had recently stood with McCartney’s “Let It Be” as an anthem of consolation for a generation exhausted by war and political violence. Both tunes had achieved broad success with both white and black audiences—in the latter case, through covers by the soul singer Aretha Franklin. Simon’s GP read him the riot act about his fast living. Simon passed the news on to his spouse: “Peg, you better look around! How long you think you can run that body down?”

What is this stuff? By the end of the 1960s, rock and roll music had generated a canon of powerful songs built around a set of frequently reworked themes: sexual desire, regret, more sexual desire, rebellion, drugs, despair, escape, sexual desire. Now, all of a sudden, major composers in the field were writing about trivia.

The turn to domestic themes on the part of major white rock stars reflects the changing relationship between public art and personal expression at the end of the 1960s. Rock music’s extraordinarily rapid rise to dominance in the field of entertainment was built on images of rebellion and fictions of expanded consciousness. Now it seemed to have run out of steam. In part, it had been overwhelmed by the explosion of spectacle and drama that had taken over much political and social life. In the United States, the violence and confusion that followed the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King and the Democratic Convention in Chicago dwarfed expressions of youthful rebellion on the part of rich rock musicians. So these artists increasingly showcased themselves, not as rebels or teen-magazine “stars,” but as personalities. Songs about family life, bathing experiences, and dietary regimens began to creep into the canon, and listeners were turned into paparazzi in spite of themselves. The music seemed to be at a crossroads.

The moment has resonance. We now enter our own new “decade” (that conventional unit of pop culture history), and face a set of challenges that have rearranged our relationship to the public world, to private space, and to our understanding of community. The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has imposed a new experience of domestic space, as millions of people are compelled to shelter in place and wait for signs of improvement. Daily rituals of bathing (Lennon), home life (McCartney), and self-medication (Simon) replace the public experiences of political gathering (say, “Revolution”), face-to-face conversation (“Hey, Jude”), and street life (“The Sound of Silence”). In our own moment of nesting, not communing is both the prudent and the ethically correct thing to do. And yet, as the massive protests against racial injustice that erupted in May 2020 have also shown, the domestic idyll of self-quarantine is shaped by race and class. Sheltering in place is largely the prerogative of a professional class that remains overwhelmingly white, even as the protests against a segregated society have been strikingly multiracial. All of these factors raise the question of what we can learn from an earlier moment of political upheaval, and from the escapist art that was produced in response to it. Continue reading …

TIMOTHY HAMPTON is Professor of Comparative Literature and French at the University of California at Berkeley. His book, Bob Dylan: How the Songs Work, appeared in paperback in fall 2020. A new study,  The Secret History of Cheerfulness:  Shakespeare to Facebook, is forthcoming from Zone Books in 2021.  He writes about literature, music, and education at www.timothyhampton.org.

 

Attention!

Attention

Thursday, Feb 4, 2021 4:00 pm PST
An online conversation 

From the series: (Re)making Sense: The Humanities and Pandemic Culture sponsored by the Townsend Center for the Humanities at UC Berkeley

Click to watch the livestreamNo registration required.

Every previous major disaster in human history, from the Black Plague to the Great Depression, has elicited a reimagination of the world, a reinvention of collective life through culture. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. The arts and humanities—two areas of inquiry that focus on value and meaning—provide crucial resources for reconceptualizing our lives together during, and after, our current crisis.

In this online discussion, three UC Berkeley professors consider an aspect of university culture and daily life that has changed significantly in the COVID era: our sense of attention. We pay attention differently than we used to. This shift is due both to the technologies with which we must work, and the noise of anxiety and suffering that rumbles in the background as we read, write, teach, and learn. They discuss the forms of our attention, both now and in the past. How do the humanities and arts shape and cultivate attention?  How can they help us reshape our attentive selves going forward?

Hannah Ginsborg is the Willis S. and Marion Slusser Professor of Philosophy at UCB. Her scholarship encompasses the work of Immanuel Kant, the history of philosophy, and contemporary philosophy, with a focus on the theory of meaning and the philosophy of mind.

Ken Goldberg is the William S. Floyd Jr. Distinguished Chair in Engineering at UCB. He is an inventor working at the intersection of art, robotics, and new media, whose inventions have been awarded nine US patents. He is cofounder of the Berkeley Center for New Media.

Berkeley Associate Professor of English and Representations editorial board member David Marno studies the relationship between literature and religion, with a focus on the act of prayer. His book Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention reads John Donne’s Holy Sonnets as a site where devotional, literary, and philosophical investments in attentiveness become visible.

 

Kent Puckett on J. M. Keynes

J. M. KEYNES AND THE VISIBLE HANDS by Kent Puckett

at Public Books

“…For Keynes, hands are not only something to see or to look at. Hands are also something for which the seeing is, in and of itself, significant.”

Kent Puckett is a long-time member of the Representations editorial board and the author of War Pictures: Cinema, Violence, and Style in Britain, 1939-1945 and other books. His “Rand Narratology” appeared in our Winter 2020 issue.

Image: Members of the Commission of the League of Nations created by the Plenary Session of the Preliminary Peace Conference, Paris, France, 1919. Wikimedia Commons.

Political Theology or Theological Politics? 

Political Theology or Theological Politics? Hugo Ball, Early Christian Hagiography, and a New Vision for Society

by Sebastian P. Klinger

A contribution to modernist studies and the history of political ideas, this article examines the unlikely intellectual dialogue between Carl Schmitt (1888–1985) and the former Dadaist Hugo Ball (1886–1927), a dialogue that frames the formative scene of politico-theological discourse in the twentieth century. Based on close readings of Ball’s aesthetic, intellectual, and philosophical exchanges with Schmitt, the essay offers insights into the peculiar case of a Catholic intervention into political theology.

The essay begins:

For more than a century, political philosophers and cultural critics have grappled with the problem of political theology, whose resurgence seems to align with the crises of liberal democracy. Defined in general terms as the reassertion of religion’s place within the putatively secularized public sphere, political theology has sparked extensive scholarly debates in the past two decades, driven by the work of social, legal, and political theorists such as Giorgio Agamben, Claude Lefort, Chantal Mouffe, Paul Kahn, and Eric Santner. At the center of these debates is the conceptual legacy of the right-wing jurist and political philosopher Carl Schmitt (1888–1985). In his influential book Political Theology (1922), Schmitt postulates that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” and links this claim to a theory of sovereignty that invests power with transcendent authority. To finesse and further the understanding of the founding scene of political theology, the present essay rereads Schmitt’s dialogue with the artist Hugo Ball (1886–1927), which paralleled the publication of Political Theology in 1922. Bonding over Catholic values, Ball and Schmitt studied each other’s writings, exchanged letters, met in person, and discussed their book projects. But the elective affinity between the Dadaist-turned-oblate and the prospective “Crown Jurist” of the Third Reich ground to a halt after Ball published the first-ever examination of Schmitt’s thought. The study at hand analyzes how Schmitt and Ball begin from Catholic principles but then move apart as they seek to define political theology.

Ball’s contribution to political theology has been mostly overlooked in the wider scholarly debate for three reasons: the historic encounter of Ball and Schmitt seems unlikely; the texts in which Ball’s critique unfolds are hermetic and difficult to access; and the thrust of his argument points in a direction different from more recent studies on economic-political theology. Today, Ball remains best known for his flamboyant involvement with the Zurich art movement Dada, in particular, for his legendary performance as a “magical bishop”; for his friendships with Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch; and for an antiwar activism that expanded into a thorough intellectual critique of German militarism. But in the aftermath of the Great War, the former Dadaist broke with his left-wing past and returned to the Catholicism of his childhood, searching for a form of life that negated the violent turn of Western culture. It was then that he entered into dialogue with Schmitt, whom Ball initially perceived as a new Catholic philosopher, “great and expansive like a scholastic.” Between 1919 and 1925, they discussed what political theology could mean—an urgent question in the face of the historically unprecedented opportunity to rethink Germany’s social order from scratch after the November Revolution of 1918–19 had unseated the emperor and launched the country on its ill-fated and crisis-ridden experiment with parliamentary democracy.

Ball and Schmitt shared many concerns, but their dialogue revealed fundamental divergences on political theology. Near the end of their exchange, Ball noted: “In my experience, reaching an understanding with someone else is a thorny and delicate matter. For this reason one has to write books.” In direct response to the appearance of Schmitt’s seminal Political Theology, Ball published two texts of his own that are entwined with his turbulent exchange with Schmitt. One of these texts bears in an obvious way on the dialogue: Ball’s essay “Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology” (1924) combines a magisterial command of Schmitt’s thought with a subtle but scathing intellectual critique of his interlocutor. It points out the shortcomings of political theology with regard to the nature of the zoon politikon, the concept of politics, and the notion of sovereignty. Concurrently, Ball laid out his own political vision in a strange book entitled Byzantine Christianity: The Lives of Three Saints (1923). This book focuses on the form of life developed by John Climacus, a monk and hermit of the seventh century; Dionysius the Areopagite, a late fifth- to early sixth-century Christian theologian and philosopher; and Saint Simeon Stylites, a fourth-century anchorite. Although Ball’s startling turn to hagiography seems to stand out as a departure from pressing questions of politics, Byzantine Christianity contains, paradoxically, a new vision for German society. Why, though, did Ball choose the genre of hagiography to convey his ideas? In what follows I will argue that these two texts work together as an intervention into political theology.

Approaches to the later work of Ball tend to fall into two camps: that of his “Catholic quietude” and that of a “sacralization of power.” Yet Ball’s association and interaction with Schmitt complicates both of these arguments. My argument differs from the quietude thesis, as it shows that Ball strives to deactivate the distinction between friend and enemy as the “specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced.” And it differs from the “sacralization-of-power thesis,” as Ball’s theological politics seeks to establish the transcendent law as an “institution” that “can never come into direct relation with the state.” For Ball, the church becomes an institution only in its suspension; what legitimizes it is resistance to a government gone rogue. Basing my argument on close readings of Ball’s Byzantine Christianity and “Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology,” I contend that such theological politics must be conceived as a critique of Schmitt’s thought. If Schmitt legitimizes political authority with a transcendent source, Ball delegitimizes it; if Schmitt glorifies the sovereign, Ball champions the saint; if Schmitt does away with human rights, Ball declares “opposition” to the violation of human rights as “the highest duty.” I develop my argument in two steps: I begin with a discussion of Ball’s political vision in Byzantine Christianity, paying close attention to the aesthetic form of the book and its place in history. I then examine Ball’s “Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology” and bring out his critique of Schmitt. Continue reading …

SEBASTIAN P. KLINGER is a PhD candidate in the Department of German at Princeton University. His research investigates sleep experiments in literature, science, and society, 1899–1929.

 

Weird Scholarship Meets Weird Studies

Literally. We just found out that Phil Ford, one of the authors in our just-released Weird Scholarship virtual issue, is also the co-host of the podcast Weird Studies, whose most recent show is “On Ishmael Reed’s ‘Mumbo Jumbo,’ or, Why We Need More Magical Thinking.”

For more on our virtual issue (available free for a limited time), visit Representations at UC Press. And check out the the full roster of episodes from Phil Ford and co-host, J. F. Martel, at Weird Studies.

Weird Scholarship

Read Representations’ new special virtual issue, “Weird Scholarship: From Curious to Rare,” free for a limited time.

Of the many cross-disciplinary and topical strands that have emerged from nearly forty years of Representations in print, one stands out: a kind of research that perhaps originated in the journal’s pages and remains difficult to find elsewhere–what might fondly be called “weird scholarship.” We invite you to dip into a virtual issue featuring some of the most representative examples in this vein, available free of charge for a limited time.

The essays selected for this virtual issue highlight examples from the early years of Representations, by which the contours of New Historicism became known, and many examples from more recent issues, which show how the conversation among disparate discourses has born strange and wonderful fruit.

Weird Scholarship: From Curious to Rare

Table of Contents

Introduction

Terry Castle. The Female Thermometer, no. 17, 1987

István Rév. In Mendacio Veritas (In Lies There Lies the Truth), no. 35, 1991

Nathaniel Mackey. Other: From Noun to Verb, no. 39, 1992

Elaine Scarry. On Vivacity: The Difference Between Daydreaming and Imagining Under-Authorial-Instruction, no. 52, 1995

Michel Zink. Nerval in the Library, or The Archives of the Soul, no. 56, 1996

Jessica Riskin. Eighteenth-Century Wetware, no. 83, 2003

Sue Waterman. Collecting the Nineteenth Century, no. 90, 2005

Phil Ford. Taboo: Time and Belief in Exotica, no. 103, 2008

Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby. Negative-Positive Truths, no. 113, 2011

Carolyn Steedman. Cries Unheard, Sights Unseen: Writing the Eighteenth-Century Metropolis, no. 118, 2012

D. Vance Smith. Fallacy: Close Reading and the Beginning of Philosophy, no. 140, 2017