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

Sensuous Knowledge

Marx, Silk Poems, and the Pretext of Qualities

by Kathryn Crim

Karl Marx’s comments on silk manufacture in “The Working Day” chapter of Capital, volume 1, demonstrate how “quality”—usually associated with “use value”—has been mobilized by capital to naturalize industrialized labor. Putting his insight into conversation with a recent multimedia poetic project, Jen Bervin’s Silk Poems (2016–17), Kathryn Crim examines the homology between, on the one hand, poetry’s avowed task of fitting form to content and, on the other, the ideology of labor that fits specific bodies to certain materials and tasks.

The essay begins:

In “The Working Day” chapter of Capital, volume 1, where the historical detail vigorously textures Karl Marx’s argument, our attention is gradually drawn to a presumptively natural fit between workers and materials. In response to Britain’s Factory Acts, he writes, silk manufacturers complained that, if forced to reduce the working day to less than ten hours, “it would be impossible for them to buy a sufficient number of children over 13.” The exposure of this “deliberate lie,” writes Marx, quoting from the Reports of the Inspectors of Factories (1844–46), does very little to stop the manufacturers

throughout the subsequent decade, from spinning silk for 10 hours a day out of the blood of little children who had to be put on stools to perform their work. The Act of 1844 certainly “robbed” the silk manufacturers of the “liberty” of employing children under 11 for longer than 6 ½ hours each day. But as against this, it secured them the privilege of working children between 11 and 13 for 10 hours a day, and annulling in their case the education which had been made compulsory for all other factory children. This time the pretext was “the delicate texture of the fabric in which they were employed, requiring a lightness of touch, only to be acquired by their early introduction to these factories.” (406)

In his characteristic way of reading for telling turns of phrase, Marx gives us the “voice of Capital,” complaining that its rights of liberty and property have been injured by the regulations. The real physical and intellectual injury done to children, then, is not so much ignored as readily explained by the pretext offered next. A “pretext” (Marx’s German der Vorwand suggests a pretense, excuse, or smokescreen) conceals one’s real purpose; but it can be distinguished from a lie in its power to maintain a literal truth. Here, an observation about similarity slips into an argument for compatibility: the fingers and fabric are fitted together to produce a natural fact about production, that the luxury cloth “requires” a lightness of touch. As readers of Capital have often pointed out, the progressive rationalization of large-scale industry not only repressed qualitative distinctions between different kinds of labor but also eliminated qualitative variations between workers, who were progressively forced to conform their bodies to the machines. Yet Marx’s comments on silk work demonstrate one crucial way in which “quality,” fragmented and abstracted from the body, is mobilized by capital to naturalize industrialized labor.

In line with a tendency to synonymize the alienation of labor and the abstraction of exchange value from use value—in which fungible quantity is substituted for singular quality—we often assign political and aesthetic value to the concrete detail, to those marks that bring the body and the phenomenological experience of work back into view from behind the “screen” of quantitative calculation. Indeed, this revelation and re-visioning of human processes of making would seem to be one of the critical functions of art and literature. From the eighteenth-century picturesque to twenty-first century materialist poetics, an aesthetic emphasis on texture, in particular, has foregrounded the human hand in and across materials. But placing such an emphasis does not in itself constitute a critical gesture. Just as scholars of the pastoral mode have argued that representations of the laboring poor risk naturalizing structural inequality, an aesthetics of material qualities risks cultivating a palliative attitude toward the real exploitation of workers. One of my central aims in this essay is to explore how “quality” can subtend capitalist logics and to show how this history offers a lens on the critical possibilities, and limitations, of aesthetic practice. In what follows, I put Marx’s references to silk and silkworms in volume 1 of Capital in conversation with the recent poetic project Silk Poems by American artist and writer Jen Bervin. Read alongside each other, Marx and Bervin illuminate the homology between, on the one hand, the ideology of labor that naturalizes the relationship between bodies and materials and, on the other, poetry’s avowed task of fitting form to content. While Silk Poems ultimately remains entangled in the pretext of qualities that capitalist production has itself deployed, the challenge the project poses to easy forms of lyric identification, as well as to the pace and situation of literary reading, offers a critical opportunity to pursue Marx’s insight into capital’s capacity to produce and exploit sensuous knowledge.

In 2010, Bervin visited the Tufts University Biomedical Engineering Department, where she met with researchers developing a biosensor made of reverse-engineered liquified silk that, once implanted in the body, can help track “medically interesting molecules” such as hemoglobin or tumor markers. It was the potential to turn the sensor into a surface for writing that intrigued Bervin. “Due to its optical nature,” she explains, “[the silk film] can be read as a projection with fiber optic light. . . . I thought, if it is possible to write in that context—inside the body, on silk, at that scale, I wanted to think further about what else might be inscribed there.” This thinking set off a six-year long international collaborative study that took Bervin to “more than thirty international textile archives, medical libraries, nanotechnology and biomedical labs, and sericulture sites in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.” Following this intercontinental journey, Bervin wrote a poem in the voice of a silkworm that draws on the worm’s five-thousand-year history of interacting with human culture, from ancient China to the Tufts Silklab. Back at Tufts, Bervin worked with David Kaplan and Fiorenzo Omenetto, along with Bradley Napier, to fabricate the poem on a silk film: The scientists “used a mask to etch the poem in gold spatter on a wafer and poured liquid silk over it. When the silk dried, the letters were suspended in the film” (173). Each line was limited to the six letters of the gene sequence, too small to be read without the help of the microscope. The pattern of the poem on the film, meanwhile, mimics the path of a silk thread made by the worm producing its cocoon. First exhibited in 2016, the Silk Poems project consists in three parts that extend poetic practice beyond the linguistic realm: the nano-imprinted poem in gold spatter on the silk film, a ten-minute video by Charlotte Lagarde documenting the research journey, and a small book, available to general audiences, published by Nightboat Books. The silk film (under a microscope) and the video were featured in Mass MoCA’s 2017 group exhibition Explode Every Day and have since been on display elsewhere in the United States and Hong Kong, along with further iterations of the project including, most recently, an artist book entitled 7S, or Seven Silks. These multiple multimedia editions testify to the open-endedness of Bervin’s initial premise: to conceive of a poem that traces and reiterates the material manifestations of silk itself. Continue reading …

KATHRYN CRIM is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at University of California, Berkeley. She is completing a dissertation entitled Fit and Counterfeit: The Emergence of a Documentary Aesthetic. 

Biological Metaphor

Skeletal Classicism: Zoological Osteology and Art-Historical Method in Early Twentieth-Century France

by Todd P. Olson

In this essay Todd Olson follows an art-historical method, from a formalist analysis of French Classicism derived from the natural sciences to the nineteenth-century biological discourse that identified hidden analogies rather than visual similarities among different specimens, whether they were animals or paintings. Olson shows how an ambivalence to the use of biological metaphors in North American art history may be traced back to this theoretical genealogy.

The essay begins:

A constellation of numerals is superimposed on Nicolas Poussin’s L’Inspiration du poète. The numbers 35, 20, 26, 12, 23, 34, 22, 36, 59, 60, 62, 33, 9, and 3 are scattered across the surface of the canvas. The numbers may indicate a caption, or, more likely, since the numbers range from 3 to at least 62, they refer to an index. One may also infer that the numbers correspond to motifs in an attempt to provide an iconographic catalog. Yet, the repetition of 20, 23, and 59 reveals a lack of correspondence between number and depicted object. Although 23 refers to the flesh of two putti, 20 marks both rock and tree trunk; 59 indexes two patches of sky.

The transparent paper overlay with the numeric system on the photographic reproduction is one of several in Otto Grautoff’s Nicolas Poussin (1914), a major catalog of the French seventeenth-century painter’s oeuvre. Paintings were numerically compared to one another. Poussin’s L’Inspiration du poète was linked to Les Bergers d’Arcadie: the shoulder of the woman among shepherds and the garland-bearing putto’s skin, the tomb and the patch of rock. The cloth falling over the knee of Apollo and a bacchante’s drapery in the London Triumph of Pan share the number 36; aside from “36,” L’Inspiration du poète and a bacchanal have nothing in common.

The clue to the pattern of numbers cross-referencing the fields in individual paintings with other pictures by Poussin is offered by a chart (Farbentafel) in the back of the book, where sixty-two brushstrokes of oil paint were applied to sixty-two printed rectangles. Grautoff made it possible to analyze Poussin’s palette through systematic chromatic separation, numerical hue assignment, and graphic indexing.

Grautoff and his publishers were caught between the age of engraving and the era of color photography. In the first years of photographic reproduction, black-and-white prints may have sufficed for the analysis of iconography. Ten years after the publication of Grautoff’s book, Aby Warburg famously began creating a photographic archive to display the iconographic specimens in his Mnemosyne Atlas. Warburg traced motifs through time and across geographies, such as the Mithraic mystery cult’s “world-spanning range and force” from the Roman Empire to the Hopi kiva. By contrast, Grautoff’s numbers attend to the formal characteristics of a single painter. Nevertheless, the color analysis of Poussin’s paintings registered the patterns of a complex system. Things, regardless of their shape or function, were sorted out and made commensurate under another differential visual order. The painter’s palette entered a chromatic archive.

Grautoff provided the basis for scientific analysis without regard for iconography. The numerical register of colors reminds us of the diagrams used by the anthropologist John Layard in the 1930s to analyze the impersonal cultural patterns shared by Malakulan dance and graphic art. It would appear that by 1914 a similar rigorous formalism was already in place, which Grautoff was able use to organize the dispersed easel paintings of the seventeenth-century artist into a coherent oeuvre in the absence of documented provenance.

The study of the systematic distribution of color lent itself to the kinds of formal analysis found in the German art-historical tradition of Jacob Burckhardt and Heinrich Wölfflin. In Walter Friedländer’s contemporary folio edition Nicolas Poussin (1914) we find the most explicit association of Poussin with Classicism. Following his teacher Wölfflin, Friendländer established an opposition between the Classical and the Baroque in his analysis of Poussin’s painting. For Grautoff and Friedländer, culture is an impersonal operation.

The author was dead, yet, “Poussin” was hard to kill. Much of the appreciation of the artist in France followed from Honoré de Balzac’s short story Le Chef d’oeuvre inconnu, in which the character of the young Poussin sacrifices his lover, Gillette, in the service of art as Frenhofer’s model. The artist would continue throughout the nineteenth century to be the central organizing principle of the discipline of art history in France. Émile Magne’s Nicolas Poussin, for example, was published in the same year as Grautoff’s and Friedländer’s books. Magne drew on the recent publication of La Correspondance de Nicolas Poussin, edited by Ch. Jouanny, to construct a work of biographical criticism, which complemented his other major work on seventeenth-century French literature, Scarron et son milieu (1905). In this work, Magne sets the classical Poussin as a foil to Paul Scarron, the author of the burlesque Virgile travesti. Many have rushed to Poussin’s correspondence to underscore this opposition: “My nature compels me to seek and love things that are well ordered, fleeing confusion, which is as contrary and inimical to me as is day to the deepest night.”

Based on a reading of the major German publications of 1914, it would appear that Poussin was securely associated with the discourse of Classicism and a formalist account in art history. While Grautoff’s numerical system may now seem anachronistic, his formalist project premised on the dissociation of color from iconography would have a lasting effect. Similarly, Friedländer’s formalist approach to the problem of Classicism was influential in twentieth-century art-historical scholarship in the English language. Wölfflin’s binary of the Classical and the Baroque would hold sway over the association of Poussin with Klassizismus.. By contrast, Magne’s approach to archival research resonated with the study of l’art classique in France, but it did not offer a rigorous theoretical foundation for that scientific project. It would seem that the identification of Classical art with Poussin’s painting was deeply rooted in a formalist approach that based its model of transformation on German rather than French philosophical traditions.

Yet, if we look to the French publications surrounding the acquisition of L’Inspiration du poète by the Musée du Louvre in 1911, a different theoretical lineage of Poussin’s Classicism emerges. While Magne’s archival and biographical approach continued to have a lasting impact on scholarship in France, an important latent French formalist discourse independent of the German tradition was in an early stage of development. In the prewar period, French literary modernism and the natural sciences were aligned, offering a formalist discourse for the criticism of painting that was paradoxically ambivalent toward vision. Form was hidden. Continue reading …

TODD P. OLSON is Professor of Early Modern Art in the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the editorial board of Representations.. He is author of Poussin and France: Painting, Humanism and the Politics of Style (2002) and Caravaggio’s Pitiful Relics (2014). His current book project is Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652): Skin, Repetition, and Painting in Viceregal Naples.