Representations board member Debarati Sanyal was awarded a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship! Find her essay “Calais’s “Jungle”: Refugees, Biopolitics, and the Arts of Resistance” in issue 139 and “Soccer Match in Auschwitz: Passing Culpability in Holocaust Criticism” in issue 79.
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.
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.
An Ongoing Revolution
On October 3, 2020, UC Berkeley celebrated the 150th anniversary of admitting women as undergraduate students. The 150 Years of Women at Berkeley History Project has responded to Chancellor Carol Christ’s call to “convert this anniversary into a lasting archive” by documenting the struggles and achievements of students, faculty, and staff since 1872 — from the earliest days of “co-education,” to the “gender revolution” of the sixties and seventies, and beyond.
To join in the commemoration, the Townsend Center presents An Ongoing Revolution: Reflections on Gendered Struggles and Feminist Scholarship in the Humanities. Faculty members representing Comparative Literature, English, East Asian Languages & Cultures, History of Art, Music, and Spanish & Portuguese gather for a discussion of the role and experience of women at Berkeley, asking such questions as, how have departmental and disciplinary cultures changed over the years? How have issues of gender and feminism been brought to bear on scholarship and teaching? What has been the changing relationship between political battles in the streets and research in the academy? Whose stories have we lost track of as institutional life continues to transform? What fights are still to come?
Representations board member Catherine Gallagher (English) will moderate, joined by former board member Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby (History of Art), Francine Masiello (Comparative Literature and Spanish & Portuguese), current board member Mary Ann Smart (Music), and Sophie Volpp (Comparative Literature and East Asian Languages & Cultures).
About the Speakers:
Catherine Gallagher is Ida May and William J. Eggers Professor Emerita in the Department of English, and co-chair of the 150 Years of Women at Berkeley History Project. A long-standing board member of Representations, she is the author of a number of articles, including “The Politics of Culture and the Debate over Representation” (Representations 5), “George Eliot: Immanent Victorian” (Representations 90), and “The Formalism of Military History” (Representations 104).
Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby is the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor in the Arts and Humanities and winner of the Clark Prize for Excellence in Arts Writing. A former board member of Representations, her essays “Rumor, Contagion, and Colonization in Gros’s Plague-Stricken of Jaffa (1804)” (Representations 51), “Patina, Painting, and Portentous Somethings” (Representations 78), and “Negative-Positive Truths” (Representations 113) have appeared in the journal.
Francine Masiello is Sidney and Margaret Ancker Professor Emerita in the Departments of Comparative Literature and Spanish & Portuguese.
Mary Ann Smart is Gladyce Arata Terrill Professor of Music. A current board member of Representations, she is the co-editer the special forum on “Quirk Historicism” in Representations 132 and is the author of “The Queen and the Flirt” in Representations 104.
Sophie Volpp, professor of East Asian Languages & Cultures and Comparative Literature, specializes in Chinese literature of the 16th through 19th centuries.
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.
In a study based on the systematic sampling of nearly 2,000 French and English novels written between 1601 and 1830, UC Berkeley professor of French Nicholas Paige asks how, precisely, the novel evolved. Instead of simply “rising” (as scholars have traditionally described its appearance as a genre), the novel is, in Paige’s view, a system in constant flux, made up of artifacts — formally distinct novel types — that themselves rise, only to inevitably fall.
Paige argues that these artifacts are technologies, each with traceable origins, each needing time for adoption and also for abandonment. Like technological waves in more physical domains, the rises and falls of novelistic technologies don’t happen automatically: writers invent and adopt literary artifacts for many diverse reasons. Looking not at individual works but at the novel as a patterned system, Technologies of the Novel (Cambridge, 2020) presents a new way of understanding the history and evolution of art forms.
Nicholas Paige works on17th- and 18th-century French literature and culture, history and theory of the novel, quantitative literary history and digital humanities, aesthetics and image theory, and cinema (French New Wave). His essay “Bardot and Godard in 1963 (Historicizing the Postmodern Image)” appeared in Representations 88.
Paige is joined by UC Berkeley professor of English Dorothy Hale. After a brief discussion, they respond to questions from the audience.
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.
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.
Through an engagement with the philosophies of Marcel Proust’s contemporaries Félix Ravaisson, Henri Bergson, and Georg Simmel, author Suzanne Guerlac (French) presents an original reading of Proust’s magnum opus, Remembrance of Things Past (A la recherche du temps perdu). Challenging traditional interpretations, Guerlac argues in Proust, Photography, and the Time of Life (Bloomsbury, 2020) that Proust’s novel is not a melancholic text, but one that records the dynamic time of change and the complex vitality of the real.
Situating Proust’s novel within a modernism of money, and broadening her analysis through the exploration of visual technologies and cultural developments of the period — including commercial photography, photojournalism, and pornography — Guerlac reveals that Proust’s true subject is the adventure of living in time, on both the individual and the social level, at a concrete historical moment.
Guerlac is joined by Representations board member Damon Young (French and Film & Media). After a brief discussion, they respond to questions from the audience.
Suzanne Guerlac is the author of “Humanities 2.0: E-Learning in the Digital World” (Representations 116, Fall 2011) and “The Useless Image: Bataille, Bergson, Magritte” (Representations 97, Winter 2007) and a contributor to “Reflections on Durational Art” (Represenations 136, Fall 2016) for the Representations Special Issue Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts.
For even more from Representations on Proust and photography, see Dora Zhang’s article “A Lens for an Eye: Proust and Photography” (Representations 118, Spring 2012).
Every previous major disaster in human history, from the Black Plague to the Great Depression, has elicited a reimagination of the world, a reinvention of collective life through culture. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. The arts and humanities—two areas of inquiry that focus on value and meaning—provide crucial resources for reconceptualizing our lives together during, and after, our current crisis.
The series (Re)making Sense: The Humanities and Pandemic Culture examines the utility of the arts and humanities for helping us navigate the ethical challenges and practical reinventions that lie before us. Top scholars, writers, and artists at UC Berkeley discuss how their disciplines, and the skills and abilities fostered by their fields, can help in our efforts to reimagine and rebuild.
The pandemic has underscored the need to attend to the life of the spirit. In the fifth event of this series, we explore the relationship between spirit and art. What is the duty of the poet or artist toward the world of spirit? How do poetry and prayer intertwine? What is the spiritual responsibility of the critic or scholar? How can we mobilize the many intersections between the worlds of art and spirit as we move forward? What can spiritual practices teach the artist or critic?
Professor of Music and Representations board member Nicholas Mathew studies the relationship between music and politics, including the ways in which music produces social attachments and collective identity. He is the author of Political Beethoven and has completed a new book project on the deep history of music and markets in the long eighteenth century.
Laura Pérez is professor of ethnic studies and chair of the Latinx Research Center. Her recent book, Eros Ideologies: Writings on Art, Spirituality, and the Decolonial, examines art as a laboratory for creating, imagining, and experiencing new forms of decolonial thought.
John Shoptaw teaches poetry in the Department of English. His 2015 poetry collection, Times Beach, a meditation on the cultural and environmental history of the Mississippi watershed, won the Notre Dame Review Book Prize and the Northern California Book Award in Poetry.
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The most recent issue of Representations, a special issue on Practices of Devotion, takes up a question that dovetails with those underlying these talk. For thinking more about the intertwining of poetry and prayer, see Robert Glenn Davis’s “Prayer and the Art of Literature in Anselm of Canterbury’s Proslogion.“