What Was Anselm Thinking?

Prayer and the Art of Literature in Anselm of Canterbury’s Proslogion

by Robert Glenn Davis

In this article, Robert Davis reads the Proslogion of the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury as a drama of seeking and finding God. He guides the reader through a process of rhetorical inventioi, with all of its attendant risks, pleasures, and discontents. The text opens a space or gap of desire, speaking in the voice of the soul who seeks anxiously to find (invenire) God but turns up only absence. The “I” who speaks and addresses itself to itself and to God learns not to close that gap but to inhabit it, affectively and intellectually, just as the monastic rhetor must, when he directs his inventive activity to God.

The essay begins:

What was Anselm thinking when he attempted to prove God’s existence in the Proslogion? By the time he wrote the little meditation as a monk at Bec, sometime between 1076 and 1078, he had evidently already offended his teacher, Lanfranc, by “putting aside all authority of Holy Scripture” in advancing his arguments about the nature of God in his Monologion. In the Proslogion, which contains what philosophers of later centuries would call the “ontological argument” for God’s existence, he went further. Here, as the great twentieth-century Anselm scholar Richard Southern writes, “he was on his own, and he stretched out to the furthest limits of his powers. At the end, he trembled with the awe of a new discovery.” This new discovery was not the necessity of God’s existence (of which Anselm was already convinced), but rather the methods of arriving at that certainty. In the Proslogion Anselm eschews, methodically, the evidence of the senses and the authority of the past in order to seek truth through introspection, thinking through the process of thinking itself and through the dynamic of desire that wants to know and feel the truth for and in itself. For this reason, Anselm figures heavily in modern historiographical narratives that posit a “discovery of the individual” and, relatedly, the advent of “affective piety” in eleventh- and twelfth-century Latin Christendom. According to these narratives, Anselm taught generations of late medieval and modern Christians how to turn inward to seek and to find God in the beliefs and desires of the heart.

At the same time, because of what we know of the circumstances of Anselm’s writing, as narrated by the author himself and by his biographer Eadmer, Anselm’s discovery in the Proslogion plays a paradigmatic role in another influential historiographical narrative. In Mary Carruthers’s indispensable studies of memory in medieval European literary culture, the process by which Anselm finds or “invents” his argument bears witness to the profound influence that earlier Roman rhetorical practices had on shaping medieval monastic intellectual and literary production in Western Europe. The activity of rhetorical and literary production (inventio) was, as Carruthers illuminates, an intellectual, affective, and bodily practice. It involved intense effort, time, good luck, and uncertainty. It could lead to frustration and exhilaration, and there was no guarantee that the one would eventually give way to the other. The story of Anselm’s discovery of his argument in the Proslogion is full of such adventures. Yet it has not been fully appreciated, in the wake of Carruthers’s work, how thoroughly the content of the theological meditation in the Proslogion reproduces the circumstances of its authorial production. That is, the Proslogion’s drama of seeking and finding God guides the reader through a process of rhetorical inventio, with all of its attendant risks, pleasures, and discontents. The text opens a space of desire, speaking in the voice of the soul who seeks anxiously to find (invenire) God but only turns up absence. Yet the drama of the Proslogion does not proceed from absence to presence, desire to fulfillment, but rather holds open the distance between them. The “I” who speaks and addresses itself to itself and to God learns not to close that gap but to inhabit it, affectively and intellectually, just as the monastic rhetor must, when he directs his inventive activity to God.

As Michelle Karnes puts it, with reference to the monk’s Prayers and Meditations, “On the topic of distance, no one is more thoughtful than Anselm.” Indeed, Anselm is thoughtful on distance; he is the thinker in the history of Latin Christian thought who perhaps most precisely locates, within distance, the place of thought. Anselm’s meditation on God’s existence in the Proslogion models not only the way in which the gap between desire and fulfillment makes room for thinking and discovery but also the way in which the anguished, uncertain work of inventio can itself be a devotional practice, no less “affective” for its employment of grammatical and logical tools.

Rachel Fulton Brown characterizes the aim of Anselm’s prayers as “a starting point for compunction and fear,” tools for producing in the meditant the emotions that the prayers express. Simply to think of written prayers as tools to be employed in meditation or scripts to be performed, Fulton Brown argues, is insufficiently to appreciate monastic prayer as a skilled profession, a set of habits that took time and practice to develop. While it is a mistake to read Anselm’s emotionally excited prayers as spontaneous expressions of interior experience (his own prefaces warn against such a misreading), this does not mean that medieval monastic tools of prayer—and the long hours spent learning how to use them proficiently—did not aim at producing affective experiences that were no less authentic for being the product of effort and imitation. In her analysis of Anselm’s prayers, Fulton Brown frames the historiography of medieval devotional practices as itself a practical, rather than simply theoretical, challenge. How can one understand the function of a tool without some working knowledge of how to use it?

In recent work, Fulton Brown has written more explicitly about the limitations of modern scholarly approaches to medieval devotion. Her book Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought, opens with an invitation to the reader to take up the book and pray, to participate in the medieval devotee’s love for the Virgin, “if only for the sake of experiment.” In Fulton Brown’s estimation, historians of medieval devotion still suffer under the legacy of the nineteenth-century turn to the psychology of religious experience, with a resulting “loss of faith” that has rendered the most essential aspect of medieval Christian devotional experience—its divine referent—inaccessible. Fulton Brown argues that historiography focused on the experience of prayer, or even the embodied practice of medieval prayer (to which her work has given much sustained and insightful attention), misses the point, or rather, the “object” of medieval devotion. “Over the centuries, ancient and medieval Christians developed various practices to help train their attention on God . . . always, however, with the conviction that it was not the practice as such that mattered, but rather the object.”

But the sharp divide she draws here between experience and object itself owes more to nineteenth-century assumptions than to medieval devotional practices. In the Proslogion, Anselm again and again directs attention to the practice of prayer that the book enjoins, in ways that ultimately undermine even an analytical distinction between practice and object. The English term “prayer” groups together a range of different activities, not only oratio but also reading/writing (lectio) and ruminative thinking (meditatio/cogitatio), a semantic range that brings into comparative view contemporary practices of writing and scholarship. For Anselm, learning to think well, to use logic appropriately and adventurously, is integral to the cultivation of prayer. The Proslogion models prayer as an activity akin to literary and artistic invention, aiming less to establish a definitive proof (even as it does, in the author’s terms, succeed in this task) than to convey the affective and intellectual habitus of thinking and desiring God that constitutes the practice of prayer.

In Anselm’s writing, that practice is above all directed at opening up the question of the devotional object, that is, at allowing the object of devotion to appear as a question for thought and meditation rather than as a given or even a starting point. I do not mean to deny that Anselm and his contemporaries believed in God, or to deny that they understood God as the object of their devotions. But an approach such as the one Fulton Brown calls for in her putative participant-observation of medieval devotion to the Virgin risks taking for granted the very things scholarship is in a position to interrogate and illuminate. Anselm’s own meditations make insistently clear that, if God’s existence is logically self-evident, the relationship by which God might serve as object (of belief and of devotion) for the meditant is not at all self-evident, but must be rigorously excavated through introspection and exposed to the risk of thought. Or, if such a task is not strictly necessary for proper devotion, it is at least worth a try, if only to see if it can be done. For all the anguish that the Proslogion performs, the author also registers delight at the ludic nature of his devotional experiment. Historians of medieval devotion should aspire to be as adventurous as our subjects in playing with the objects of our practice.

If, as many commentators have demonstrated, Anselm’s Proslogion is best understood as both a devotional exercise and a scholastic argument, perhaps this is not because Anselm managed, against the odds, to integrate two divergent genres. The text might be understood, rather, to trace the practices common to the work of scholarship and devotion. Central to those practices is the work of rhetorical and literary invention, the slow, unpredictable, and experimental work of producing novel thoughts, images, and arguments. As I argue here, the process of literary inventio governs not only the circumstances of the Proslogion’s composition but also the logical-grammatical argument that is its centerpiece. As any writer knows, the process of shaping ideas into a written work requires devotion—a commitment to return, again and again, to a space of frustration, uncertainty, and sometimes even delight and a commitment to following a question through to a hoped-for conclusion that, were it known in advance, would hardly be worth pursuing. Continue reading free of charge for a limited time …

ROBERT GLENN DAVIS is Associate Professor of Theology and Medieval Studies at Fordham University. He is the author of The Weight of Love: Affect, Ecstasy, and Union in the Theology of Bonaventure, published by Fordham University Press in 2017.

Image: An illuminated O featuring an archbishop—presumably Anselm—from the copy of Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations found in MS. Auct. D. 2. 6, a 12th-century illuminated text collected by the Benedictine nunnery at Littlemore and held since c.1672 by Oxford’s Bodleian Library.

 

Devotional Literalism and Medieval Fictionality

“As Often as His Heart Beat, the Name Moved”: Devotion and the “As if” in The Life of the Servant

by Rachel Smith

This essay considers an instance of medieval fictionality through the devotional text The Life of the Servant by the Dominican Henry Suso, specifically, through an examination of the “Servant’s” attempt to identify with Christ. Two forms of doubleness issue from this attempt, namely, the human servant seeking to embody the divine without remainder and his figuration as sinner and savior. Insofar as the text allows for a play between these polarities, the servant’s devotional practice can be understood as inhabiting the “as if,” or a kind of fictionality. The temptations of a devotional literalism—fiction striving to overcome its fictionality—is portrayed in the Life alongside a vision of devotion that retains the suspensions and play of the fictional.

The essay begins:

In the early period of his devoted apprenticeship to “eternal wisdom” while he was yet a beginner, the fourteenth-century Dominican Henry Suso (c. 1295–1366) writes in The Life of the Servant of how “the servant” inscribed the name of the beloved on his chest as “a sign of love that would give testimony as an eternal symbol of the love between you and me, one that no forgetting could ever erase.” As courtly lovers write the name of their beloved on their clothes, so he

threw aside his scapular, bared his breast, and took a stylus in hand. Looking at his heart, he said, “God of power . . . today you shall be engraved in the ground of my heart.” And he began to jab into the flesh above the heart with the stylus in a straight line. He jabbed back and forth, up and down, until he had drawn the name IHS right over his heart. . . . Kneeling down he said, “My Lord and only Love of my heart, look at the intense desire of my heart. My Lord, I do not know how to press you into me further, nor can I. Alas, Lord, I beg you to finish this by pressing yourself further into the ground of my heart and so draw your holy name onto me that you never again leave my heart.”
. . . The letters were about as thick as a flattened-out blade of grass and as long as a section of the little finger. He carried this name over his heart until his death. And as often as his heart beat, the name moved. (chap. 4)

The servant seeks here to become one with the prayer composed of the name of Jesus, to permanently wear the name of the beloved to whom he is devoted. It is an embodied strategy to solve the problem raised by the injunction in 1 Thessalonians 5:16 to “pray without ceasing.” This inscription promises to overcome the predations of time, to deal with the anxiety of forgetting that “erases” the memory of the love between the soul and God, and with it, belief. It occurs following the first intense blush of love in which the servant enjoys two encounters with God and confidently declares to Wisdom, “Joy of my heart, this hour can never be lost to my heart” (chap. 2). However, despite the fullness of divine revelation in raptures that transcend time, the servant inevitably returns to the weight of the body and wonders what trace of these meetings with the beloved remained, how to realize such divine excess in a human life. By carrying the sign of this love in the flesh, the servant hoped he could not lose the beloved even while inhabiting the body. The scar was a permanent mark resting on top of the heart beating—keeping—time.

Inscribing and being inscribed by the name turned the servant into a book, his skin, parchment marked by letters from a stylus, available in turn for readers of the Life as a model for the spiritual path. This “certain Swabian friar” become the bearer of another name is fabricated as a living prayer and made available as an image of divine discipleship to those who encounter the text. The Life offers here another iteration in a chain of exemplarity textually transmitted, giving the servant’s life and body for the regard, consumption, and imitation of readers. The servant’s scarification echoes stories of figures as important as Ignatius of Antioch, whose martyrdom was included in the widely circulating thirteenth-century compilation The Golden Legend, where it says that the name of Christ was found not on but in the martyr’s heart, proving the efficacy of his “unceasing repetition” of Jesus’s name on the way to his execution. His heart and bones were said to be the only things untouched by the lions, and when his heart was cut open, the pagans saw the inscription “Jesus Christ” in gold letters.

This scene introduces a section of The Life of the Servant that lasts for a lengthy nineteen chapters, in which the servant details the bodily and imaginative practices undertaken by him in order to compassionately identify with the sufferings of Christ and his mother. These practices include penitential offerings for the servant’s sins and his imitation of divine suffering. It is on these chapters that this essay will focus. Devotion, for the servant, is not the adoration of the beloved from a distance but rather seeks to unite with Christ such that the servant becomes him. Devotional identification here entails the inscription of the beloved on the body, whether through stylus, ritualized bodily practice assiduously repeated, or works of imagination. The essay will consider the structural features of the servant’s striving to identify with Christ. It will show that two forms of doubleness issue from this attempt to become the beloved. The first is the tension between the human servant—finite flesh—seeking to embody the infinite divinity without remainder. The second is the figuration of the servant as simultaneously a sinner and Christ the savior. The fascination of the text in large part arises from the ways in which it wrestles with these performative contradictions.

Insofar as the text allows for a play between finite and infinite, sinner and savior, I will argue that the servant’s ascetic practice can be understood as one of inhabiting the “as if.” In other words, as a kind of fictionality. This is not the fictionality of the modern English novel but rather a historically specific account of the fabrication (fictio) of the self through ritual practice that renders the subject both oneself and another. Suso’s portrayal of the devotional “as if” offers a vision for a practice and a theology of exemplarity that does not operate according to an allegorical structure, which would entail the imposition of a form upon a content in which the aim is the latter’s defeat; it does not model the dream of the transmutation of letter into spirit. A vision of the play possible within devotional identification is represented by means of portraying the possibility of such play in ascetic practice, yet also through the ultimate failure and renunciation of the asceticism of the first part of the Life. Chapters 4 through 19, I will argue, work out the futility of an allegorical logic through a dramatization of its temptations—the temptation of a fiction attempting to overcome its fictionality—culminating in its defeat in chapter 18, in which the servant hears a divine voice tell him to desist from his bodily mortification. The ground of such temptation is already apparent in the scene of bodily writing that opens chapters 4 through 19. The servant, seeking a union with the beloved that transcends time, carves the name of Christ on his body, thereby seemingly overcoming the distance between himself and Jesus through the permanence of a scar; the body is forever marked, the name never lost. The servant, it seems, attains perfect success in the quest for union at the outset of his journey. Such embodied literalism is, however, represented as increasingly dangerous—courting death—as the text portrays the servant engaged in the acts of violent ritual repetition required to overcome the fear of a loss of memory and presence that insistently asserts itself, despite the initial inscription that promised to transcend time. Literalism—the notion that to say “I am Christ” is a truth that can be wrought in the flesh—is shown to be an attempt to overcome the peculiar suspensions, play, and doubleness of the devotional “as if.”

In order to unpack the notion of the “as if” that I see as operative in the Life, I will turn first to a very different medieval figure, the twelfth-century Cistercian Bernard of Clairvaux. The author of eighty-six sermons on the Song of Songs, in which he develops the allegory of the monastic soul as the bride of Christ, is not remembered for his life of self-denial. Bernardine views on asceticism were passed on to later medieval readers under the dominant note, Simone Roisin argues, of “moderation,” despite the fact that such a portrayal was not entirely consistent with his representation in sources like The First Life of Bernard of Clairvaux, traditionally known as the vita prima. In bringing together Suso and Bernard, I hope to show that, although there are crucial and telling differences between the thought and forms of life of the two men, there are also important continuities between them. A decidedly unbloody Bernard might help us understand the representation of the servant’s asceticism, and not only by way of contrast. In order to do this, I will look to Burcht Pranger’s study of what he terms Bernard’s poetics of artificiality. I will then turn back to The Life of the Servant and its portrayal of the servant’s self-mortification. At the end of the essay, I will briefly compare this medieval example with some modern notions of the fictional. I will argue that there is a contrast between the novelization of imagination and the explicit artificiality of this instance of the literature of exemplarity. The hyperrealism of Suso’s fictional practice, although it is a making that makes real what is formed through the work of ritual repetition, is not an expression of credulity; he works against credulity. The point of his ascetic practice is to meet Christ through artifice, the artifice of ascetic imitation rendered explicit in order to become a manual for others to follow. Continue reading free of charge for a limited time …

RACHEL SMITH is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University. Her first book is Excessive Saints: Gender, Narrative, and Theological Invention in Thomas of Cantimpré’s Mystical Hagiography (Columbia University Press, 2018). She is currently writing a book on mystical theology for Brill Publishers.

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.

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.

 

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.

 

A Spectacle in New Spain

The Sultan Hernán Cortés: The Double Staging of The Conquest of Jerusalem

by Nicole T. Hughes

In 1541, the Franciscan friar Motolinía sent to Spain an account of the Tlaxcalan people performing the religious drama The Conquest of Jerusalem in Tlaxcala, New Spain. Previous scholars have read his festival account to reflect only local political interests. In this essay Nicole Hughes argues that the account is a palimpsest, describing both the Tlaxcalans’ ambitious diplomatic strategy, expressed in their performance, and Motolinía’s own efforts to steer Castile’s policies in the Americas and the greater Mediterranean.

The essay begins:

The very idea of a “New World” conveys a sense of rupture. Yet the culture of sixteenth-century New Spain is rich in interwoven historical imaginaries. Hall-of-mirrors effects were particularly complex in theatrical spectacles based on Mediterranean battles that featured as characters Turks, Moors, and Catholic knights. It is often assumed that European actors always depicted Catholic forces destined for victory while all indigenous participants played Muslims doomed to defeat. This conforms to the false expectation that, after the conquest, there were only triumphant Europeans and defeated “Indians” in Mesoamerica.

Yet when the Tlaxcalans, the conquistadors’ most famous indigenous allies, performed the drama The Conquest of Jerusalem for the feast of Corpus Christi in 1539, they played many roles. These included Moors and Turks as well as soldiers from Italy and Germany, “Indians” from Peru and Santo Domingo, and the pope. More strikingly still, one of the play’s central characters was neither exclusively Muslim nor Christian, neither wholly defeated nor resoundingly victorious. This is because he is a double character. The Franciscan friar Toribio de Benavente, also known as Motolinía, introduces him as follows in his account of the feast: “[The Spanish army] marched in good order straight upon Jerusalem, and as the Sultan, the Marquis of the Valley, Don Hernando Cortés saw them come, he ordered his people to go out into battle.” Motolinía describes a figure that condenses Hernán Cortés, the Catholic conquistador who led the Siege of Tenochtitlan in 1521, and an Islamic sultan who defends and ultimately surrenders Jerusalem in the drama. The sultan’s paradoxical identity challenges the scholarly expectation of clean-cut opposition, not only between European and indigenous figures in the Americas, but also between figures of Muslims and Christians in the “Old World.”

This article reveals the full complexity of the “Sultan Hernán Cortés” by first focusing on the doubled audience of The Conquest of Jerusalem: the one in Tlaxcala, where this auto, or short religious drama, was performed, and the other in Spain, where Motolinía’s account of it would be delivered to his patron, who was tied to the Spanish court. The sultan himself, and the textual and historical complexities of his character, will reveal the stakes of Motolinía’s text within contemporary debates concerning royal policy in New Spain. Continue reading …

NICOLE T. HUGHES is Assistant Professor of Brazilian and Mexican Literature and Culture in the Department of Iberian and Latin American Cultures at Stanford University. She is completing a book manuscript entitled Stages of History: New Spain, Brazil, and the Theater of the World in the Sixteenth Century.

England and Scotland: A Metaphorology

On the Knees of the Body Politic

by Lorna Hutson

In this essay, Oxford’s Lorna Hutson analyzes the fullest theoretical elaboration of the doctrine of the King’s Two Bodies in the Elizabethan period, Edmund Plowden’s Treatise on the Succession (1567). It argues that Plowden here deploys the King’s Two Bodies not, as has been thought, as a legal proof against the foreign birth of Mary Queen of Scots, but as a way of embodying and sacralizing the disputed historical relations of England and Scotland. Plowden’s sacralizing metaphors of embodiment transform the highly contentious English claim of Scotland’s historic vassalage into the indisputable and timeless truth of political theology.

The essay begins:

Ten years ago, Representations ran a special forum on fifty years of The King’s Two Bodies, Ernst Kantorowicz’s vastly influential study of medieval political theology. The influence of Kantorowicz’s concept shows no signs of ebbing. It has become routine to cite titles that echo his—The Poem’s Two Bodies; The Law’s Two Bodies; The People’s Two Bodies—as well as to instance Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben as both influenced by and transformative of Kantorowicz’s conception. In this journal and in a subsequent book, Victoria Kahn has shown how Kantorowicz’s genealogy of sovereignty was identified by critics of liberal democracy as a key, if ambivalent, text of twentieth-century political theology, responding as it does both to Carl Schmitt’s theological modeling of the sovereign exception and to Ernst Cassirer’s critique of political myth. Readings of Kantorowicz have run the gamut of political-theological possibility among literary critics, political theorists, and constitutional historians. For some, the two-bodies theory proves an early modern belief in “rule by a sacral king,” while others look to the secular, constitutionalist way in which the doctrine renders the monarch “a creature of the law”; others still have shown how the regal corporation sole is just one among many incorporating forms, and may not even be the most important, if we look at the unparalleled political influence of corporations in modern Western capitalism.

In view of this conceptual range, it might seem reductive to propose that one of the doctrine’s fullest early modern articulations was aimed at Scotland. To propose, that is (as I wish to do) that it was designed to render Scotland’s territorial sovereignty unimaginable, by separating the “body natural” of Scotland’s ruling dynasty from its power to signify Scotland’s body politic or autonomy as a state. The habit of imagining an English insular exceptionalism in which Scotland is implied while simultaneously being excluded is common in analyses of the current crisis of the United Kingdom’s relation to Europe. Without positing a direct line of descent, I contend that such a habit was consciously fostered by the metaphors of English constitutional thought as it developed in the sixteenth century.

To give a current example: in 2016, the result of the British referendum on the question of whether or not to leave the European Union was manifestly split between a majority for “Leave” in England and an even more decisive majority for “Remain” within Scotland. In December 2019, this split was repeated, with a majority in England voting for Boris Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” Conservative manifesto, while in Scotland the Scottish National Party, the party of Remain, won a resounding majority. Yet in analyzing Boris Johnson’s appeal “to the millions of Brits . . . for whom many of the Conservative party’s prejudices and presumptions are simply common sense,” Professor of Politics Tim Bale, at Queen Mary University of London, articulates the issue in a way that signals the legacy of centuries of what I wish to analyze in this paper. The “most fundamental” presumption that “Brits” share with Boris Johnson, Bale wrote,

is the idea that Britain is, can be, and should be, Great. . . . To call that belief a sense of manifest destiny would be an exaggeration. But it is a patriotic attachment to the idea (however illusory) of an island nation, albeit one with global interests and reach, that is fundamentally unique and, yes, better than many of its closest neighbours, especially those unfortunate enough not to speak English—or else to speak it with a Scottish or southern Irish accent. 

Bale’s is a skeptical diagnosis, but he nevertheless makes Scotland unthinkable. Scotland’s implicit (and essentially defining) inclusion in the terms “Brexit,” “millions of Brits,” and their attachment to an “island nation,” turns out to be illusory. Within a sentence, Scotland morphs from being part of “an island nation” into being the “closest neighbour” whose inferiority to and exclusion from insular exceptionalism is required to prove the British propriety of the latter. Bale by no means believes in the myth of British insularity, yet he fails to see how integral to it is a doublethink that has always rendered Scotland a nonplace: essential to the “Br” in “Brexit,” but in no real sense part of the English exceptionalism that demands to be “Great” or to be free of Europe.

It is the argument of this paper that Bale’s conceptual elision, part of the currency of everyday English thought, is the imaginative legacy of a conscious set of strategies shared by a number of genres of Elizabethan writing that were variously engaged in transforming the discourse of England’s claims to sovereignty over Scotland (till then grounded in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s legends of Brutus, Arthur, Leir, Kymbeline, and so on) into a pervasive metaphorics of English insular indigeneity. Some texts that contribute to this transformation are more obviously poetic or chorographic. Spenser’s Faerie Queene, for example, or William Harrison’s Description of the Iland of Britain, as well as William Camden’s Britannia and a range of tragedies that model their handling of “British” Galfridian material on Senecan tragedies of Thebes. Early modern legal fictions, though not to be conflated with epic poetry, drama, or chorography, also involve, as Victoria Kahn has shown, an element of poeisis or poetic making. Following Hans Blumenberg, Kahn calls Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies a “metaphorology.” In this paper, I want to engage in a metaphorology of the most elaborate theoretical account of the King’s Two Bodies in the Elizabethan period. It occurs in Edmund Plowden’s Treatise on the Succession, written in 1567 to support the Scottish Queen, Mary Stewart, in her claim to the English throne. In this treatise, the King’s Two Bodies is deployed not merely as a legal refutation of arguments against Mary’s right, as has been thought. Rather, its primary energies are what we would call literary or poetic. Subtly exploiting the somatic and sacred resonances of an established legal language of royal incorporation, the text works to transform a legendary and partisan English history of Scottish vassalage into an allegorical drama in which a Scottish body politic is bound to perpetual genuflection, its consequent lack of sovereign autonomy thereby rendered an immutable theological truth. The Treatise thus translates a historiographical dispute between nations into an English political theology of insular sovereignty that persists today in the “metaphors we live by,” the common currency of Brexit talk. Continue reading …

LORNA HUTSON is Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford. Her books include Thomas Nashe in Context (Oxford, 1989), The Usurer’s Daughter (Routledge, 1994), The Invention of Suspicion (Oxford, 2007), and Circumstantial Shakespeare (Oxford, 2015). She edited the Oxford Handbook of Law and Literature, 1500–1700 (2017) and is now working on a book entitled England’s Insular Imagining.

Participatory Performance in Monastic Life

Performing (In)Attention: Ælfric, Ælfric Bata, and the Visitatio sepulchri

by Erica Weaver

The central regulatory document of the tenth-century English Benedictine Reform, Æthelwold of Winchester’s Regularis concordia, contains an important performance piece: the Visitatio sepulchri, which standard theater histories understand as an anomalous originary text that marks the reemergence of drama in the European Middle Ages. This article resituates it alongside the schoolroom colloquies of Æthelwold’s student Ælfric of Eynsham and his student and editor Ælfric Bata to argue that these texts together cultivated monastic self-possession by means of self-conscious performances of its absence. By staging (in)attention, they thereby modeled extended engagement in moments and spaces that could otherwise seem too quiet or empty to hold concentration for long, from the classroom to the sepulcher to the page, while also exposing the limits of “distraction” and “attention” as analytical terms.

The essay begins:

As a key component of the tenth-century correction movement that effectively created Benedictine monasticism, and in the process reshaped monastic life across Europe, Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester appointed a new kind of monastic figure for all of the familiae of England: that of the circa or roundsman, so called because the role required making rounds. First attested on the Continent in the eighth century and included in consuetudinaries (guides to the customs of particular monasteries) from across Francia and Lotharingia, the office had initially been conceived of as a means of policing sins of the tongue and ensuring silence, but it quickly became a deterrent to sexual misconduct and the temptations of sleep among other increasingly psychological threats to ascetic life. Æthelwold’s Regularis concordia (ca. 970), the central regulatory document that tailored the Rule of Saint Benedict for all English monks and nuns, sanctioned by King Edgar (r. 959–75) and ratified at the Synod of Winchester, dedicated one of its twelve chapters to the figure. Here, Æthelwold specifies that when the circa noticed aberrant behavior on his rounds, he silently swept by, but “in Chapter the next day” (in capitulo uenturi diei), he would publicly chastise wayward monks and nuns for their faults unless they immediately begged forgiveness “for some trifling offense” (pro leui qualibet culpa; 118.1381–82). The coercive surveillance was meant to feel absolute. As Ulrich of Zell (1029–93) enjoined a half-century after the office was introduced in England, “Let them patrol the whole monastery not just once but many times a day, so that there may be neither a place nor an hour in which any brother, if he should be up to anything, is able to be untroubled about being caught and shamed” (Totum claustrum non semel, sed multoties in die circumeant, ut nec locus sit nec hora in qua frater ullus securus esse possit, si tale quid commiserit, non deprehendi et non publicari).

Tenth-century reformers added a lantern to the circa’s arsenal, “so that in the night hours, when he ought to do so, he might position himself to look around” (qua nocturnis horis, quibus oportet hec agere, uidendo consideret; 119.1390–91). Thus equipped, the figure was meant to keep an especially close watch during matins, the long office occurring nightly between midnight and dawn, when he would patrol the ranks with his lantern in order to spotlight anyone who dozed instead of standing at attention. Æthelwold provides a vivid portrait:

And while the lections are being read at nocturns, during the third or fourth lection, just as it seems to be expedient, let him circulate through the choir; and, if he should discover a brother overwhelmed by sleep, he should place the lantern before him and go back [to his own spot]. That one, soon, with sleep shaken off, should beg pardon with bent knees and, with that same lantern snatched back up, let him circle around the choir himself; and if he should manage to find another compromised by the vice of sleep, he should do to him just as it was done to himself and go back to his own place. (119–20.1392–1401) 

As this passage beautifully epitomizes, the circa’s central function was thus to guard against lapses in self-possession. What at first seems like an effort to enforce attentive reading and prayer—by waking the monks sleeping through the lections—instead becomes an exercise in inculcating a broader kind of mental vigilance amid the early morning inducements of bodily lethargy. This explains why the disciplined monks are not watched for further signs of distraction as they continue to attend to the reading but are instead asked to take up the lantern themselves and patrol the choir. Discipline itself is at stake. And bodies in motion not only reanimate hands and knees, lips and eyes, but also rechoreograph the mental gymnastics of monks and nuns before their texts. Rather than regulating distraction and attention per se, or even cultivating the broader obedience Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe has deftly located at the heart of the correction movement, the circa fosters a related, yet distinct, kind of monastic custody (custodia), or unceasing communal and personal supervision meant to cultivate habituated self-possession and discretion, especially in scenes of reading, learning, and performing the liturgy.

Although his public proclamations and nightly rounds might seem to take this to an unnecessarily theatrical extreme, the Concordia and related schoolroom texts from Æthelwold’s circle—namely, the Colloquy by Æthelwold’s prolific student Ælfric, who is now responsible for roughly one-sixth of surviving Old English literature, and the Colloquies by Ælfric’s own student and editor, Ælfric Bata—can thus help us to recover some of the complexities obscured by “attention” and “distraction” as analytical terms with a growing hold on literary studies. Indeed, as Caleb Smith observes, “To call our work reading is to cast it as a discipline of attention”—a framing that, he argues, is particularly prevalent in postcritical methods, which are calibrated “not only against distraction but also, especially, against malign forms of hypervigilance like paranoia and suspicion.” “Passive” textual attention thus becomes an ethical goal, which frees the would-be critic from any charges of violence. But attention and related modalities are neither passive nor impersonal.

Moreover, although distraction and numbness are now too often and easily diagnosed as decidedly modern maladies—particularly as theorized by Walter Benjamin, Georg Simmel, Jonathan Crary, and Paul North—concerned tenth-century schoolmasters were well aware of the temptations of diversions and digressions both in the classroom and beyond it. (After all, digression was a fundamental feature of Old English poems like Beowulf, and monastic thinkers had long grappled with the dangers of distraction.) Somewhat paradoxically, however, even as they worked to develop pointed pedagogic strategies to counter these threats, their texts inculcated self-possession and related self-regulatory goals like continentia (self-restraint) by literally spotlighting its opposite—the dispersal or disintegration of the self—with an impressive flair for the dramatic possibilities of dozing monks and darkened choirs. Confronted with slackened self-regard as an incessant threat to devotional life, monastic writers thus reflected on the problem by composing sometimes-sensational scripts of distraction and mischief, which their students were then required to memorize and perform, much as Bata, Irina Dumitrescu has noted, strategically incorporates violence into his grammar lessons in order to cultivate proper behavior by contrast. They thereby strove to cultivate classroom and liturgical spaces in which students were “distracted from distraction by distraction,” or, at least, by means of scripted lapses in monastic custody, on the side of both the teachers and the students.

In short, the Colloquies and the Concordia together cultivated mental discipline by means of self-conscious performances of its absence. They thus developed a broader model of self-regulation, which sometimes falls between the axes of attention and distraction but is distinct from both. And in the process, they developed a culture of participatory performance, in which the apprehension of knowledge was dramatized and worked through collectively and in which a kind of community theater made legible cognitive activities and self-fashioning processes that are otherwise difficult to conceptualize. As a result, their schoolroom practices are intimately bound up with broader concerns about how to foster self-possession—or, with how to keep the mind and the body focused on things that elude them, whether in the form of a new and difficult language, an intractable text, or even of the disappearance of Christ at the heart of the Easter celebration and, by extension, monastic life.

It is thus no accident that Æthelwold’s Concordia also contains another vivid portrait of a performance at matins: the Visitatio sepulchri, or “Visit to the Tomb,” in which monks and nuns reenacted the scene of the “three Marys”—the Virgin Mary; Mary Magdalene; and Mary, the sister of Lazarus—coming to Christ’s tomb and being informed of his resurrection. Indeed, this scene would also have taken place as dawn was breaking, when the circa and others would busily scan the ranks for wandering minds, and it shares close affinities with pedagogical texts like Ælfric’s and Ælfric Bata’s. Continue reading …

ERICA WEAVER is Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she is currently working on a book about the role of distraction in the development of early medieval literature and literary theory, particularly during the tenth-century monastic “correction” movement traditionally known as the English Benedictine Reform. She is also co-editor, with A. Joseph McMullen, of The Legacy of Boethius in Medieval England: The Consolation and Its Afterlives (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2018) and, with Daniel C. Remein, of Dating Beowulf: Studies in Intimacy (Manchester University Press, 2020).

Manuscript image above: London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius A III: Æthelwold, Edgar, and Dunstan bound by text