Music at the Edges

Music Histories from the Edge

by Martha Feldman and Nicholas Mathew

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Feldman and Mathew, guest editors of our just-released special issue “Music and Sound at the Edges of History” introduce the issue:

Lately, across the humanities, historicism in its many guises has been in retreat—a retreat that music studies has in some respects hastened. This collection of essays asks why sound and music appear to induce exhaustion with history and historical method and how a renewed focus on musical practices might motivate fresh histories and novel forms of history writing.

Such questions were the premise of a multidisciplinary Mellon-funded collaboration between Yale University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Chicago, and King’s College London that met from 2016 to 2018. Charged with rethinking the relation of music to history, the participants ultimately wondered why scholars, musicological and non-, have so frequently deployed music to disrupt or delimit historical projects—indeed whether music itself tends to elicit or even cause such disruptions and delimitations. The ironies here are patent. Not long ago, musicologists would regularly posit history as the most efficacious cure for what ailed their discipline. The study of music, so it was thought, always risked having its head in the clouds, especially the vapors of German idealism. To write music history was to place music’s feet on secure ground—to resituate, rematerialize, and re-embody in ways that checked the transcendental and formalist tendencies of old. “History,” by this reckoning, also designated a place, one where values are produced, where things are exchanged, where bodies move, where politics is played out. And yet, as many have observed, music has never been an entirely convincing occupant of this place, whose solidity is specious at best. Vibrational, ephemeral, footloose, politically mobile, and semiotically uncertain, music forever raises the specter of old philosophical anxieties—about the relation of the aesthetic to the historical, of sensuous experience to rational knowledge, of political orthodoxies to the undercommons of insurgency and resistance, of the vivid present to the absent past.[ii] Small wonder that so many theories of music’s historicity have treated musics of all kinds as strange and exceptional historical actors, even improbable bearers of special historical insight. “Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix say more about the liberatory dream of the 1960s than any theory of crisis,” Jacques Attali once proclaimed.

Given this inheritance, it is not surprising that music studies has been receptive to the postcritical—and to a degree posthistoricist—ethos that has settled on parts of the humanities over the past decade or so. That ethos has entailed a range of aestheticizing impulses, in which immediate sensuous appeal or formal organization are the preconditions of any theory of art’s historical agency or political impact. Even the performative, network-oriented theories of society inspired by Bruno Latour, which some music scholars have strongly endorsed, have to some degree recuperated the art object as a multivalent social actor alongside any number of others. But if such ideas have gained a certain traction in music studies, a still farther-reaching incredulity with history-as-usual has come from those seeking to contest the political ontologies and colonial ideologies of the archive: Paul Gilroy in his account of Black Atlantic diaspora; Fred Moten in his theory of the Black radical tradition; the feminist and queer visions of Latinx and Black futures advanced by the music- and sound-oriented generations of Deborah Vargas, Josh Kun, Kara Keeling, and others, not to mention cognate projects in postcolonial and indigenous studies. These perspectives have challenged conventional notions of history and origins, drawing on the presence and performativity of music to model the disruptively enfolded temporalities and oblique regimes of historicity they wish to theorize. “No originary configuration of attributes but an ongoing shiftiness, a living labor of engendering to be organized in its relation to politico-aesthesis. It’s always going on and has been,” says Moten.

If, under the pressure of these political imperatives, the past has become ever less stable, so too has the music that helped to reconceive it. Sound studies and voice studies, cutting across and through disciplinary boundaries, have in recent years made the very category of music appear both narrow as an object of study and indefensibly colonial—a contingent configuration amid the seemingly more inclusive arenas of sonic practices, vocal utterances, and vibrational experiences. From this perspective, “music” and “voice” designate privileged centers by contrast with lesser peripheries and, accordingly, raise fraught questions about who gets to call what “music” and who and what are demoted to the realm of sound or dismissed as mere noise(making). These subdisciplines frequently seek to disperse sounds into the resonating bodies that have historically produced and mediated them and so seem to promise more materially grounded visions of sonic historicity. Yet they also tend to complicate the very idea of historical situatedness, foregrounding processes of mediation that fold and traverse geographical and chronological distance. Moreover, as music is diffused into the soundscapes, technoscapes, and taskscapes that have newly preoccupied the humanities and social sciences, it begins to trace a transhuman domain that threatens to transcend the ambit of human historicity altogether.

And so the essays in this issue aim to be more than mere experiments in music-fixated forms of historical writing—more, that is, than sonically recalibrated accounts of historical circumstance or epochal transformation in which music (rather than literature or visual art or architecture) plays an unusually prominent role. While remaining chary of inherited claims on behalf of music’s specialness as a vehicle of historical revelation, they ask how musical practices might be thought to instigate and sustain entirely new conceptions of the past and even how musico-critical practices might invoke ontologically broadened notions of music to revise historical thought. Continue reading …

MARTHA FELDMAN is the Edwin A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor of Music at the University of Chicago. Her books include Opera and Sovereignty (Chicago, 2007), The Castrato (Oakland, 2015), and the coedited The Voice as Something More: Essays toward Materiality (Chicago, 2019). She is now working on a book on castrato phantoms in twentieth-century Rome.

NICHOLAS MATHEW is Professor of Music at the University of California, Berkeley.  He is the author of Political Beethoven (Cambridge, 2013) and The Haydn Economy, forthcoming with the University of Chicago Press.

Samera Esmeir on “the struggle of the dispossessed” in Palestine

In response to recent and ongoing events in Israel and Palestine, Representations board member Samera Esmeir has written about the resistance to defeat and persistence for Open Democracy. Her essay, “The Palestinians and the Struggle of the Dispossessed,” chronicles the continuous fight against dispossession by Palestinians against Israeli dispossession.

For another way of historically contextualizing the contemporary resistance to settler colonialism in Palestine in affective and literary terms, see Nouri Gana’s essay in Representations 143, “Afteraffect: Arabic Literature and Affective Politics,” which “discusses the politics of affect in post-1967 Arabic literary and cultural production.”

Samera Esmeir is also the editor of Critical Times. Find the most recent issue here.

 

Angelology

Honoré de Balzac, Henry James, and Seraphic Devotions

by Amy Hollywood

In reading Henry James’s late novel The Wings of the Dove with Honoré de Balzac’s Seraphita, Amy Hollywood argues that James performs through his novel an act of secular devotion, a memorialization of lost others through which he enables himself to continue to live.

The essay begins:

In the eighth book of Henry James’s late novel The Wings of the Dove, the young orphaned American heiress Milly Theale has a party. She has rented a Venetian palace from which she is too ill to leave. She is even too sick, although she refuses to acknowledge it, to come down for dinner. But she will, her companion Susan Stringham tells Merton Densher, one of the three key figures in this (doubly) failed marriage plot, come down after dinner, to a candlelit frescoed room filled with music. (“He had found Susan Shepherd alone in the great saloon, where even more candles than their friend’s large common allowance—she grew daily more splendid; they were all struck with it and chaffed her about it—lighted up the pervasive mystery of Style.”)

Mrs. Stringham insists that Densher stay to participate in what he calls the “court life” Milly and her companion, together with their Italian cicerone, Eugenio, have created. Milly is, Mrs. Stringham insists, a princess. (This has been her refrain for the length of the novel.) But Milly is more than that. When Densher admits all that Milly has done for him and those who attend her court, Mrs. Stringham

promptly showed how this was almost all she wanted of him. “That’s all I mean, if you understand it of such a court as never was: one of the courts of heaven, the court of a reigning seraph, a sort of a vice-queen of an angel. That will do perfectly.” (Wings, 560)

Milly is an angel, and not just any angel, but a seraph, the highest of the angelic orders, one of those who stand closest to God and are fully infused with God’s light and love.

The biblical basis of James’s word choice echoes, of course, the words of the Psalm with which he names the novel. James’s seraph elicits Christian conceptions of the celestial hierarchies as well as nineteenth-century British and American domestic angelology, yet the more direct reference is, I think, to a very specific seraph, the title character of a short novel by Honoré de Balzac, published in the Revue de Paris in 1834, later republished with Louis Lambert and “Les Proscrits” as Le Livre Mystique. James had most certainly read Séraphîta, as he seems to have read all of Balzac’s work in preparation for various essays designed to assess the work of the French realist for American audiences. The Ambassadors, written in 1900 and 1901, before The Wings of the Dove, but published a year after, in 1903, takes Lambert as the name of its hero, Lambert Strether. Other hints scattered throughout The Wings of the Dove point us to Seraphita, as I will show.

But just as Balzac crucially revises his Swedenborgian sources in writing Seraphita, so too does James use Balzac to his own ends in The Wings of the Dove. If the character Seraphita is something like a Swedenborgian angel come to earth, male and female united in one figure (and hence in strictly Swedenborgian terms, a married angel), or, alternatively, if she or he is a human being who has become an androgynous angel before death, Milly Theale is that earthbound angel rendered as an ordinary, if extremely wealthy, American woman. Like Seraphita, Milly is on the verge of death, and she is instrumental in the romantic affairs of a heterosexual couple. But whereas Seraphita longs for death, Milly wants desperately to live; and while Seraphitus does all he can do to bring together Minna and Wilfrid, the two humans who love her, to unite them in love for each other and for God, Milly, wittingly or not, pulls Kate Croy and Merton Densher—who know and love each other long before Milly comes on the scene—apart.

After Milly’s death, Densher lives on, devoted, religiously, to her; his memory of Milly is the sole artifact available to him of her brief life. The religious language is James’s own, as he describes Densher taking the thought of Milly “out of its sacred corner and its soft wrappings; he undid them one by one, handling them, handling it, as a father, baffled and tender, might handle a maimed child” (Wings, 683). The shift in number is both puzzling and crucial; Densher’s thought is singular and multiple. It is his constant wondering about what was in Milly’s last letter to him, a letter he handed over to Kate, who immediately cast it into the fire. He knows it tells him Milly left him her fortune. What he would never know, what he puzzled over and tended, hidden from Kate, “was the turn [Milly] would have given her act.” This “he would never, never know” and “his imagination . . . extraordinarily filled out and refined” that space of unknowing (Wings, 683). Although Densher did not love Milly when she was alive, death renders her the primary object of his devoted attention. He tells Kate he would still happily marry her, yet a part of him will always, Kate knows, tend Milly’s altar, the thought of her now infinite magnanimity. Milly was a seraph in life and she becomes ever more seraphic through Densher’s devotion to her in death.

I do not want to argue that Balzac’s Seraphita provides “the key” to The Wings of the Dove. There is no key to The Wings of the Dove, and a certain part of its mystery will always, perhaps should always, remain. Yet attention to the similarities and differences between Balzac’s and James’s novels, and between Balzac’s novel and its Swedenborgian sources, illustrate or draw out crucial issues in James’s novel and in all of his writing about the living and their relationship to the dead. Continue reading free of charge for a limited time …

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. Her most recent book, Acute Melancholia: Mysticism, History, and the Study of Religion was published by Columbia University Press in 2016. Devotion: Three Essays on Religion, Literature, and Politics, co-authored with Constance Furey and Sarah Hammerschlag, is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.

GLQ and the Terms of Ritual

Queer Melancholia

by Kris Trujillo

GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies, founded in 1993, offers an exemplary site for understanding the rise of queer theory, which, from the start, has struggled with the tension between institutionalization and radical resistance. By situating the emergence of this journal and queer theory in general within the AIDS crisis and the literary tradition of the elegy, this essay offers a reading of conventional academic practices as rituals of queer melancholia that comes to challenge the assumption of queer theory’s secularity.

The essay begins:

“Time for a new journal,” announce founding editors Carolyn Dinshaw and David M. Halperin in the first issue of GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies. Time, thus, presents itself as one of queer theory’s central concerns from the start, but what kind of time is ushered in by Dinshaw and Halperin’s words? In their declaration that it is “time for a new journal,” they invoke at least two temporalities. On the one hand, “time,” here, is the historical moment of GLQ’s founding—that opportune moment in the early 1990s when the coincidence of a vibrant and necessary queer politics and increasingly innovative queer scholarship seemed to call for “a journal dedicated solely to this interdisciplinary field, a field that is at once rapidly expanding and delimiting itself.” This time is kairotic time—an opportune moment for decisive action that, in this case, opens up the possibility to reimagine queerness and, what is more, the very queerness of time. On the other hand, the time they invoke is also the regular and regulated time of scholarly production—not only the regularity of a journal that adheres to quarterly publication but also the regularity of newly appearing journals meant to keep apace of the constant development of new fields. Indeed, GLQ’s dominant association with a version of the queer that emphasizes disruption, opposition, and radicality obscures the institutionalized conventions to which it adheres as a journal in the first place.

The extent to which Dinshaw and Halperin acknowledge the significant move toward institutionalization that founding a journal marks cannot be overstated. Instead of forgoing institutionalization altogether, Dinshaw and Halperin “make no bones about the fact that with this journal [they] seek a broader, wider niche for lesbian and gay studies in the academy and in cultural life.” As they elaborate, “Such institutional and cultural acknowledgment brings money, curricular space, and jobs, and such support increases our capacity to do new work.” And even as they recognize that “as everyone is aware, with growing institutional recognition, lesbian and gay studies runs the risk of losing its edge and narrowing its desires,” they do not take this as a reason to disavow entirely the institutional forms that render queer theory legible to the academy. On the contrary, they rely upon institutional conventions just as much as they seek to remake them. As they explain, “GLQ locates itself in this tension, seeks to play it out.” Instead of opposing repetition and disruption, then, Dinshaw and Halperin suggest that the very notion of queer theory that emerges from the pages of GLQ requires the citation of older and established forms. In other words, the radicality of queer theory is inseparable from a logic of iteration, or, as I would suggest, it is precisely through repetition—by which I mean the citation of norms and practices and not the perfectly faithful reproduction of the same old institutional forms—that the very notion of queer disruption is cultivated and even made possible. By attending to the institutional norms from which GLQ draws, we may better situate the journal and queer theory within a set of intersecting conditions including the history of the theory journal, the queer politics of grief in the context of the AIDS crisis, and the elegiac mode of literary studies. The ritualization of these norms, I will suggest, shifts focus away from the queer exceptionalism of iconoclasm, disruption, and shock toward queer repetition, persistence, and survival.

Rather than see the institutionalization and professionalization of queer theory as necessarily restrictive to the field, I turn to the theory journal in order to understand what possibilities for transformation and resistance exist in such a conventional object of the profession. As Jeffrey Williams claims,

The theory journal, in its profusion and institutional mass, did not only report the developments of theory but created the expectation of theory; like a museum that has a wall of frames of a certain size and color to be filled, it precipitated a certain form of writing. Temporally, the theory journal did not merely gather things after the fact but prompted the kind of writing known as theory. 

Following Williams, I ask how GLQ, as a theory journal, generates the possibility of new forms of queer theory rather than simply gathers theories that conform with its expectations. Indeed, in recounting the founding of GLQ, Halperin is clear to place it alongside other theory journals like Representations, Screen, Yale Journal of Criticism, Qui Parle, Raritan, diacritics, Textual Practice, differences, and Signs and, therefore, to emphasize the journal’s relationship to literary studies. My focus here will be less on the institutional history of the theory journal and more on the ways in which institutional forms like the academic journal sustain affective attachments and devotions to particular texts, people, and communities.

I will argue through a reading of GLQ that queer theory normalizes intellectual labor as itself a practice of mourning and that this ritualization of grief challenges the assumption of queer theory’s secularity. Following Jacques Derrida, who claims, “All work in general works at mourning,” I suggest that queer theory’s sustained scholarly attention to Freudian melancholia is inextricable from the experience of what I call “queer melancholia,” which forgoes any clear distinction between normal mourning, on the one hand, and pathological melancholia, on the other, in favor of what Jahan Ramazani calls “melancholic mourning,” or a mourning bereft of consolation. By situating the emergence of queer theory amidst the AIDS pandemic and within a longer tradition of the elegy, I hope to show how the practice of queer theorizing is inseparable from the rituals of caring for the dead. Ultimately, to frame queer time within the terms of ritual, I suggest, is both to challenge queer theory’s secularity and the progressive temporality to which it is bound and to arrive at an understanding of how the conventions of ritual repetition in theory can actually give rise to resistance and new forms of communal life. Continue reading free of charge for a limited time …

KRIS TRUJILLO is Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago, where he teaches and researches Christian mysticism, religion and literature, theories of gender and sexuality, and queer-of-color critique. He is currently working on two book projects. The first examines how rituals of communal, embodied, and affective devotion give rise to Christian mystical poetry. The second offers an intellectual history of ecstasy from early Christianity to queer theory.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Devotional Practice

The Ambiguity of Devotion: Complicity and Resistance in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s DICTEE

by Eleanor Craig

This article offers a reading of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s 1982 experimental text DICTEE as performing purposefully ambiguous devotional work. As a meditation on unfinished struggles against colonial and patriarchal violence, DICTEE registers devotion’s role in both oppression and liberation. Cha’s engagements with female martyrs, Korean mudang shamanic practice, and colonial languages demonstrate the inseparability of structures of domination and traditions of resistance. The essay argues that even as DICTEE wrestles with inescapable forms of complicity, its efforts to transform perception denaturalize the violence of racial, gendered, and political divisions.

The essay begins:

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha made three visits to Korea between 1978 and 1981, a period of repeated popular uprisings and rapid political change. Cha had not seen Korea since emigrating with her family to Hawai’i and then California when she was twelve, and the passages in DICTEE that seem to refer autobiographically to these return visits register continuities between the time of her departure and the present, as well as ways that both time frames echo past struggles for national independence and democracy. As Elaine Kim notes, this brief period saw dictator Park Chung Hee’s assassination, a 1980 military coup and subsequent uprising contesting military rule, and labor protests. General Chun Doo-hwan declared martial law on May 18, 1980, igniting the Gwangju Uprising, in which soldiers and police killed, assaulted, and tortured a still unknown number of prodemocracy protestors.

In Cha’s multigenre, multimedia book DICTEE, a letter to the narrator’s mother from Seoul, Korea, dated April 19, relates

I am in the same crowd, the same coup, the same revolt, nothing has changed. . . .

. . . They are breaking now, their sounds, not new, you have heard them, so familiar to you now could you ever forget them not in your dreams, the consequences of the sound the breaking. The air is made visible with smoke it grows spreads without control we are hidden inside the whiteness the greyness reduced to parts, reduced to separation. Inside an arm lifts above the head in deliberate gesture and disappears into the thick white from which slowly the legs of another bent at the knee hit the ground the entire body on its left side.

The passage goes on to describe more explicitly the physical impact of tear gas and its overwhelming, disorienting effects: “The stinging, it slices the air it enters thus I lose direction. . . . In tears the air stagnant continues to sting I am crying the sky remnant the gas smoke absorbed the sky I am crying.” This protest scene is a site of violence and death, one that recalls and repeats other such scenes. It is, in fact, difficult to tell when these passages are portraying events contemporary for the narrating voice and when they are blending depictions of these events with more distantly past occurrences. “Step among them the blood that will not erase with the rain on the pavement that was walked upon like the stones where they fell had fallen. Because. Remain dark the stains not wash away.” DICTEE is a meditation on unfinished struggle against entrenched patterns of violence. It is also, I will argue, a study in the practices of devotion that sustain liberatory struggles of all scales (from the individual to the transnational) that simultaneously registers devotion’s role in upholding those same modes of violence.

DICTEE juxtaposes multiple forms of religious, national, familial, and textual devotion. It reiterates these devotional forms in ways that are themselves constitutive, generative modes of practice. Yet it is an uneasy practice, one that raises uncertainties about its own motivations and outcomes. DICTEE’s practices of devotion are neither faithful nor cynical; they offer critical interpretations at the same time that they mobilize ritual power. Rather than striving to determine relative degrees of critique and credulity, irony and sincerity, I want to offer a reading of Cha’s text as engaging in purposefully ambiguous devotional work. DICTEE addresses and inhabits an intertwining web of historical traumas associated with colonialism, gendered and racial oppression, and personal experiences of loss and dislocation. I argue that Cha’s devotional practice, often read as caught between inescapable conditions, attempts to work through sites of apparent impasse by grappling directly with these tensions.

DICTEE is engaged in transformational work that blurs media, traditions, languages, and timescapes in a method that Cha once referred to as “alchemy.” Devotion is a key mode of this work and a significant barrier to undoing systemic violence and historical trauma: it upholds militarism and drives militant anticolonial resistance; it reinforces patriarchy and relativizes masculine power in religious, familial, and political contexts; it confers power and demands sacrifice in cultural mythologies with complex outcomes for women/feminized actors. In these devotional forms and practices, there is no easy division or absolute distinction between complicity and resistance, violence and healing. While DICTEE foregrounds and insists upon these ambiguities, it draws attention to the mechanics of its own artistic work in ways that expose the fractures that propositional statements and linear narratives would allow ideology to conceal. Ultimately, Cha strives to rearrange the patterns of perception that naturalize racial, gendered, and political divisions and (often unconscious) complicity with violent repetitions. Continue reading free of charge for a limited time…

ELEANOR CRAIG is Program Director and Lecturer for the Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, Rights at Harvard University. Craig is co-editor with An Yountae of Beyond Man: Race, Coloniality, and Philosophy of Religion (forthcoming from Duke University Press, 2021) and a member of the inaugural cohort of Emerging Scholars in Political Theology.

 

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.