F for Fake

F is For Failure is this post’s preferred title, but it’s already been taken, a mere couple hundred times. It’s also unfair. The film succeeds, like this:

As Finnegans Wake was for Joyce, F for Fake was for Welles a playful repository of public history intertwined with private in-jokes as well as duplicitous meanings, an elaborate blend of sense and nonsense that carries us along regardless of what’s actually being said. For someone whose public and private identities became so separate that they wound up operating routinely in separate households and sometimes on separate continents, exposure and concealment sometimes figured as reverse sides of the same coin, and Welles’s desire to hide inside his own text here becomes a special kind of narcissism.

It succeeds like this, which is to say, it succeeds in its own way, but it might have been something far more subversive. The editorial playfulness, the reflections on authenticity and fraudulence, the market, surveillance and sex, and the entanglement of all these in the hidden figure of capital (played here by Howard Hughes), all that couldn’t have been more prescient of postmodernism. All of what I remember about Mark Leyner is here, in this film.

But that 1990s postmodernism is done with, and good riddance. Were someone to make this film, now, I’d like F for Fake to be a far more serious enemy of culture. Let my filmmakers clear out the girl-watching opening and the whole invented sequence at the end with Picasso–both the invention of Oja Kodar (herself presciently engaged in postmodern feminism)–and be interested in the right subject. Let it remember that our Hungarian art forger,  Elmyr de Hory (born Elemér Albert Hoffmann), was gay and Jewish, definitely imprisoned for both by the Nazis, and that his parents may or may not have survived the Holocaust. And, making his way through America and Europe, imprisoned for a time in Franco’s Spain, de Hory gets by, his forged “new” paintings by the great prewar European artists–Matisse, Picasso, Modigliani–finding their way into collections worldwide.

J for Gay.

The believer in authenticity will always be victimized by those who just don’t care. And who better to be the enemy of authenticity than a gay European Jew, the last lover (maybe?) of a great white Minnesotan giant with the improbable name of Mark Forgy? Who would make a better enemy to Europe’s dream of itself, to its Great Named Men of Modernism, to its Iberian dream of Gothic Purity, to its dream of Christian Virility, who better than this fraud out of Central Europe? Who better than this true fraud who never signed his forgeries?

T for Troll.

All this is may be getting us back into the territory of Lee Edelman: good. The Nazis thought Jews were an infestation, a drain on the nation and its masculine order, the enemies of its authenticity and future. And along comes de Hory, it almost seems, to willingly step into that role, but, and this is of paramount importance, to use that charge against them. If we read de Hory correctly, we have to know, of course, that there’s no there there, that the Nazi dream of lost authenticity is, like any dream of authenticity, a fraud.

But this doesn’t get us back to postmodernism, because there is another authenticity, practiced by de Hory, who’s so much better than a Troll.

F for Fan.

de Hory’s perfect imitation of European Culture witnesses to his perfect knowledge, acquired and practiced not through credentials, not through “natural” right, not through knowing the right people or being the right people, but through style and love. This is the authenticity not of the name but of the fan, the only authenticity that matters, and the enemy, in its pleasure, its serious delight, of all “natural” pretensions to heritage.

For more from me on fandom, see here.

SMITHS NERD

Analog Notes

by KARL STEEL

Last night, NYU held a celebratory roundtable for Carolyn Dinshaw’s latest book, How Soon is Now: Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time, with José Esteban Muñoz, Carla Freccero, Moe Angelos, and Emanuela Bianchi.

Though I haven’t yet read the book, I was there, as much as I could be, making faces in the front row. Here follows a very brief and very incomplete (but I hope not partial) report, because I don’t want to get anyone wrong, and then a response by me, inspired by the event. I mean “inspired by” not in the pneumatic or “heav’nly Muse” senses but rather in the shoddy, filmic sense of “inspired by true events”: whatever I’m saying later Dinshaw helped inspire, but when I inevitably diverge from what she’s doing, blame my habit of going off script.

Muñoz riffed on another Smiths song, “Stretch Out and Wait,” which, assuming you know the lyrics, works perfectly (“let your puny body lie down”, “let your juvenile impulses sway,” “god how sex implores you to let yourself lose yourself” etc.), not least of all in its imagining of an expansive, lingering present; he then played with the amateur’s refusal to separate work and leisure, and how amateurs “do it for love.” Freccero spoke about the amateurs at the heart of Renaissance writing: Rabelais, Petrarch, Montaigne, Marguerite de Navarre, et alia, each devoted to some endeavor that had nothing to do with his or her own responsibilities. She reminded us of the temporal peculiarity of Petrarch living and dying before Margery Kempe, and then played with a conceptual disjunction between Chapters 3 and 4 in HSiN (whose operations are more delicate than I was able to get down properly in my notes) before building a response to Traub that emphasizes the continuing value of deconstruction and psychoanalysis for not forgetting the real, “what hurts,” what remains in “a temporality reignited in each mortal encounter in time” (the last bit may or may not be an exact quote. I’m no stenographer). Then followed an interlude, with Angelos and Dinshaw alternating in a reading from HSiN, the former beautifully voicing material from the letters of Hope Emily Allen and the later reading her own scholarly narrative surround: in the Q&A, Angelos explained that she aims to “bring life to [the words], but not [to] bring them back to life” so that they are “alive and dying at the same moment.” Bianchi dealt with less attractive senses of not fitting in with the present, primarily Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics X and Metaphysics on contemplation and its unmoving non-time, “supremely rational and supremely patriarchal,” to which she contrasted “aleatory or interruptive time,” a not-at-all-incorporeal “embodied receptivity.” Finally Dinshaw‘s response: she teased Muñoz a bit about his claim that her book didn’t deal with “true amateurs” (which suggests Muñoz knows who and where they are), and, in response to Freccero‘s suggestion that Renaissance scholars think of themselves as amateurs in relation to medievalists, Dinshaw proposed that we likewise consider ourselves amateurs in relation to classical scholars (we do!); with Bianchi‘s observations about the apparently normative gender relations of, say, Renaissance Faires, Dinshaw emphasized how amateurs often rank and disparage each other, and how, for example, English colonial administrators in India used their amateur enthusiasm for medieval England to reimagine India as still medieval.

There’s more! I know I haven’t been fair. I’m happy to be corrected or tweaked or supplemented in comments.

The q&a bogged down for a while in the distinction between professionals and amateurs, with Dinshaw, if I remember correctly (and I probably don’t), emphasizing that she’s describing differing modes of engagement rather than, say, job titles.

I suggested that the category “nerd” might help bridge these concepts.

Like professionals, nerds want to get it right, but unlike professionals, they aestheticize their knowledge. What they know takes them. They like what they like too much, and what they like they wish they’d be asked about, even if they worry that they’ll let themselves go once they get started. I remember buying the Correale and Hamel Sources and Analogues at NCS 2010 (here they are in my carry-on bag) and pressing each tome to my face and, frankly, writhing a bit with joy. I remember this because I remember being seen by Dinshaw (who smiled, and who, I hope, doesn’t remember this too) and me thinking “god I am such a nerd.” I want “nerd” rather than “geek” because geeks have been normalized far more than nerds. That’s my hunch, anyway. Nerdery, then, is a bit queer, a bit off, a bit unpleasant, and also, of course, unfortunately agonistic. It works well, then, to describe the overripeness of passionate attachment to what we do for love, where love, remember, is always a bit awry or repulsive (a point I get best from Dominic Pettman’s Human Error).

Now my own Smiths nerdery. On a bus in Tacoma in 1986 my friends were teasing me about my inapt taste in music. It wasn’t good, not at all, I can see that now (Thompson Twins, Howard Jones, Depeche Mode, Human League), but more importantly, it wasn’t theirs. Then something white and plastic hit the ground between my feet, interrupting the argument. It was a Smiths tape, maybe The Queen is Dead, hurled from my ego-ideal, a new wave girl up front who waved when I traced the trajectory back to her. I put the tape in and listened, rapt, until my stop, when I handed it back with thanks. Soon I knew that Keats and Yeats didn’t rhyme (and who they were at all), soon I had the lyrics to, yes, “Stretch Out and Wait” written on my pants (“Amid concrete and clay / And general decay / Nature must still find a way”), soon I filled time with “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” (my favorite), and soon I learned not only “Unloveable” on the guitar (obligatory) but also “Oscillate Wildly” on the piano (TOTAL NERD). How soon!

My family thought every Smiths song sounded the same. They had a point. “How Soon is Now” is an outlier, a song about a club meant for clubs, but everything else might be thought of, collectively, as one long riff by Marr, one long wail by Morrissey, sonically and lyrically never leaving a present that would stretch out so long as the Smiths and I remained sadly together.

edit and update: Rick Godden at Modern Medieval provides a wonderful, more detailed post, from, get this, someone who has already read the book. Great stuff. Go and read.

Feeding the Dogs

Images by Saiman Chow. Source, without words.

Images by Saiman Chow. Source, without words.

Ryan Judkins reminds me that:

during the curee, the dogs were usually fed on the innards of the deer, including the stomach, lungs (if they be hot) and the intestines, after they’d been washed, usually chopped up and all mixed together with blood and bread.

How to Make a Human talks about this too:

Humans’ mastery over their hunting animals is even more apparent in techniques that prevented dogs from killing or freely eating the prey. Dogs were allowed to slow, harry, and corner prey, while humans were meant to deliver the killing blow. Hunting rules required that the field butchery reserve a portion of the prey for the dogs, but they also required that the dogs eat only at their master’s command. In practical terms, the restrictions preserved the bulk of the carcass for the human hunters while ensuring that the dogs received the positive reinforcement of a reward. At the same time, to restrict dogs’ actions in hunting, restrain them from the kill, and permit them to eat only with human permission ensured that neither the dogs’ violence nor their necessity to human hunting might call human mastery into question. The ritual protection of human mastery encompassed even carrion birds, which were left the scraps from the carcass; as the Middle English Tristrem puts it, “þe rauen he 3aue his Ʒiftes, / Sat on þe fourched tre” (to the raven he gave his gifts, and set them on the forked branch; 502–3). The ravens now became beneficiaries of the hunters’ largesse, their appetite appropriated by a ritual that indicates that the control not only of violence but also of meat-eating concerned humans (64-65).

Judkins’ forthcoming JEGP article on the royal hunt stresses the community around the breaking of the deer carcass, in which servants and colleagues, whether human or animal, receive their due. More and more, I’m slipping away from my strong paranoid reading of human mastery (see above!) and sliding towards readings like Judkins’, which consider affects other than anxiety and cruelty. Love, familiarity, conscientious attention to particular appetites, shared joy: these matter too.
This isn’t something as simple as a switch from negative to positive affect. Things are more complicated. Think of this brief encounter in Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation:

Each boar had his own little perversion the man had to do to get the boar turned on so he could collect the semen. Some of them were just things like the boar wanted to have his dandruff scratched while they were collecting him. (Pigs have big flaky dandruff all over their backs.) The other things the man had to do were a lot more intimate. He might have to hold the boar’s penis in exactly the right way. There was one boar, he hold me, who wanted to have his butt hole played with. “I have to stick my finger in his butt, he just really loves that,” he told me. Then he got all red in the face (103).

Grandin aptly calls this section “How to Make a Pig Fall in Love.” Like all love, things can go awry. Our face might go red, maybe because the pig doesn’t love us anymore, or maybe because we’re a bit embarrassed. When intimacies that can hardly be named find their way into the public eye, things can be a bit disgusting or embarrassing for the guardians of human exclusivity. For more on love’s weirdness, see my post below, and also see Dominic Pettman’s Human Error77-101, which discusses the films Zoo and Tierische Liebe (Animal Love) as well as Haraway’s dog love in When Species Meet and J. A. Baker’s The Peregine to track love’s strangeness, how it can entail, don’t forget, “monomania, projective narcissism, and so on,” a “familiar libidinal economy, involving the kind of struggles around difference and recognition that can lead to passive-aggressive sulking because of perceived miscommunication” (95).
I have this in mind because I’ve just read Kathy Rudy’s Loving Animals: Towards a New Animal Advocacy. Rudy, a dog lover, says that “the task of coming out as gay was a piece of cake compared to coming out as–what?” She observes “there is not an adequate name for the kind of life I lead, the way my desires organize themselves around animals, especially dogs” (35), that “it’s not so much that I am no longer a lesbian…it’s that the binary of gay and straight no longer has anything to do with me. My preference these days is canine” (41). For more on this kind of love, we might look to “Michael Field” and their love for and through Whym Chow: perhaps start here and here.
Rudy cooks for her dogs. One loves any kind of meat, another needs a lot more food than you’d think to look at her, and another, Duncan, a yellow lab mix, goes nuts for oatmeal and scrambled eggs (when I told my wife, Alison, about this, she cried “he’s a breakfast dog!”). Rudy’s learned a lot more about her dogs by feeding them; it’s another way to “talk” to the dogs, to build affection and knowledge, another way to render “their subjectivity more visible” (184). She’s made a better love between them, which is to say, this queer animal lover is making love to them in a new, better way.
Feeding animals, eating with them–as Cuthbert did with his horse, you remember–makes us companions, a word Haraway often uses in When Species Meet. And companionship can be very intimate indeed. The scholar of How to Make a Human would claim that this is just bad faith: after all, look at Chaucer’s Prioress, so deeply sad about her dogs and mice, but still happy to feed her dogs roast meat. Charity begins and ends at home, says the old me. The scholar I am now isn’t so sure, and Rudy’s partially to thank for that. Because becoming companions (or concarnians, as I say in AVMEO) with animals might mean something’s not quite clicked with your human relations. It isn’t just hypocritical humanism. To be sure, animal companionship isn’t necessarily a better love; it’s just, perhaps, a love that disorients you from the community of humans. It’s a weird love, like any love, but weirder than most because it lacks the veneer of (human) normalcy.
After all, isn’t the Prioress a bit camp, what with her silly romance name, her (arguably) bad French accent, her fancy wimple, by which I mean, aren’t the Prioress and her dogs a bit queer?
I have in mind dog-feedings, like the one Judkins describes above. Or Yvain and his lion sharing meals when the lion may be the only one who knows who Yvain really is. Or even the willingness among the philosophers (of all people, generally the most obstinately human)–Albert the Great, Thomas of Cantimpré, Vincent of Beauvais–to repeat Pliny’s observation that certain cuts of deer meat disgust dogs, unless (as Vincent says), they’re especially hungry. Or Richard Wyche’s fifteenth-century account of his religious persecution, where amid his tortures, he “asked the bishop to have my horse taken to his stable, and I gave what I had in my purse to the man leading it there” (trans. Christopher G. Bradley, PMLA 127.3 (2012): 630 [626-42]). Yes, Richard asks this because the horse, a special kind of transportation machine, needs sustenance, but I have to think he asks also because he likes his horse, and he, a religious man (of all people &c.), remembers it, even with execution looming, with nothing mattering for eternity, we would think, but his imperiled soul.
So the shared affect of a meals draws my attention. The love the hunters and the dogs share matters, even as we must not forget the dismembered carcass of the deer around which this affect clusters.
One more thought on the queer love of dogs: if this particular project continues (and it could, if someone’s looking for a Kalamazoo paper to fill a slot?), think of the stories of knights who love hunting and disdain the love of women…until they’re forced to grow up. Guigemar, for example, but we could come up with dozens more. Think of how queer that love is, particularly when read with the compulsory erotics whose force draws the knight out of his pleasures with his horses, hounds, and hawks, and into his human, only human maturity.
(for more stuff on zoophilia, see James Goebel’s excellent musings over at “A Geology of Borders”)

Samesex, Not Queer: How the Brahmans Do It

Screenshot at 2011-11-05 07-31-24

Our women are not adorned to please us. Indeed, they reckon adornment a burden since they wish to be beautiful not for their ornaments but for their innate nature alone. For who can improve on nature’s work? If anyone does wish to improve it, that is a crime which cannot be permitted. (History of Alexander’s Battles 92)

Neither they nor their womenfolk strive to make themselves more beautiful than the way they were born; they realise that no-one can improve on the work of nature. Hence they think that the use of ornaments is more of a burden than a decoration. There is no fornication, incest or adultery, nor do they sleep together except for the sake of having children. (Robert Grosseteste, On the Six Days of Creation 23)

Oure paramours vs to plese, ne pride þaim beweues,

Nouthire furrers, filetts, ne frengs, ne frettis of perle.

Is þam na surcote of silke ne serkis of Raynes,

Ne kirtils of camlyn, bot as þam kynd lenes.

Ne ne3e we neuire þaim on ni3t to naite for na luste,

Bot for to sustayne oure sede & syn ay to voide. (Wars of Alexander 4465-71)

I’ve talked here already (this and this) about the medieval tradition of Alexander and the Brahmans, focusing on the text’s peculiar ecological thinking. Something odd struck me the other day, though, about the women Brahmans. I’m glad it did, finally. With these texts, as with my work on humans and animals more generally, I haven’t done much on gender, much to my annoyance (though I think I might be fair in saying that most critical animal theory doesn’t do much with gender, for what it’s worth: but see here).

Here goes something.

The Brahman women are basically men. Though the women make barely any appearance in the most popular of the medieval Brahman traditions, I can safely say from what little we see of them that there’s no real sexual difference. They’re no disunity among the Brahmans. They’re all philosophers, all contemptuous of cultural excess and perhaps of culture as a whole, all contemptuous in particular of cosmetics and fancy clothes, the features in any number of textual traditions (an early one: 1 Corinthians 11:6-15) of women and dandies.

Brahman sexuality, in other words, is, structurally speaking, samesex sexuality, but antiqueer samesex sexuality. It attempts to imagine a sexuality without the disintegrations of desire (see for example this guy). It’s not quite Augustine’s Eden, but it’s close enough.

Women tend to be put on the side of Nature, there to be conquered and dominated. Though this may be true, say, for the Albina legend, it may not be the case for classical and medieval texts more generally, where women, along with cosmetics and nonreproductive sex, belong to culture and its human errors (linked to aspirationally as a book I’m looking forward to reading). It’s not the case, either, for moden masculinist nature writing (as condemned, e.g., by Morton), where men go out into the wilderness to commune with a masculine sublime nature, free of all inauthenticity (read: cosmetics, decorations, etc.).

In the medieval Brahman tradition, though, these philosophical women and men are on the side of nature and reason, categories indistinguishable from one another. On the one side Nature/Reason and on the other (where we find Alexander, and his silk shirts and nice food) culture. As usual, the queer’s on the side of culture, against nature. Except this time, it’s what the kids used to call “opposite sexuality” that’s queer. Odd? Worth playing around with some more?

Something else to play around with for the persistently interested: Dindimus speaks on behalf of the Brahmans, but especially on behalf of the men. “Oure paramours vs to plese” divides us, the male philosophers, from our women, even as the presentation of the women immediately subsumes them into masculinity. Here, then, is the first obstacle to my reading. Find more obstacles with my blessing!

“Nature”; also Guigemar‘s Hermaphroditic Cervid

1) Point the First: saw an excellent paper (“Lost Geographies and The Awntyrs off Arthure”) by Kathleen Coyne Kelly at the MLA in the “Alliterative Romances” session, where something struck me: When did “nature” become a place? When did it become possible to go out into nature? When did nature cease to be, primarily, a synonym for “kynde,” or a word meaning “all of creation”? The Middle English Dictionary, the OED, the Anglo-Norman Dictionary, and Glossa aren’t helping me here.

2) Point the Second: On the topic of Nature: I recently read Timothy Morton‘s The Ecological Thought (for a hit-and-run review, see here). Enjoyed it enormously, not least of all for his take-down of heteronormative, hearty, unironic “nature.” Morton says, for example:

Rugged, bleak, masculine Nature defines itself through extreme contrasts. It’s outdoorsy, not ‘shut in.’ It’s extraverted, not introverted. It’s heterosexual, not homosexual. It’s able-bodied–‘disability’ is nowhere to be seen, and physical ‘wholeness’ and ‘coordination’ are valued over the spontaneous body (81)….Masculine Nature is unrealistic. In the mesh, sexuality is all over the map. Our cells reproduce asexually, like their single-celled ancestors or the blastocyst that attaches to the uterus wall at the beginning of pregnancy. Plants and animals are hermaphrodites before they are bisexual and bisexual before they are heterosexual. Most plants and half of animals are either sequentially or simultaneously hermaphorditic; many live with constant transgender switching. A statistically significant proportion of white-tailed deer (10 percent plus) are intersex (84)….The ecological thought is also friendly to disability. There are plentiful maladaptions and functionless phenomena at the organism level (85)

Follow the link, the source for Morton’s observation about the frequent intersexuality of white-tailed deer. If you’re a medievalist, and this doesn’t remind you of something, I recommend you reread my post’s title.

En l’espeisse d’un grant buissun

vit une bisse od sun foün.

Tute fu blanche cele beste;

perches de cerf out en la teste (89-92)

In the densest part of a great thicket, he saw a doe and her fawn. this animal was completely white; it had a rack of antlers on its head. (5)

Morton, via Joan Roughgarden, talks of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), not native to Europe, and certainly unknown to Marie (but not unknown in their intersexed form to American hunters). But Roughgarden goes on to speak about several other species essential to the high-class hunting culture of twelfth-century Northern Europe:

a male morph in black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus) called cactus buck may be a form of intersex as well. Elk (Cervus elaphus, also called a red-tailed deer), swamp deer (Cervus duvauceli), Sika deer (Cervus nippon), roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), and fallow deer (Dama dama), all have a male morph with velvet-covered antlers, called a peruke, that is described as nonreproductive. (36-37)

Now, Marie’s white deer with a fawn doesn’t quite correspond to the so-called male morphs of Elk or red-tailed, fallow, or roe deer; but the mixture of secondary sexual characteristics (at this point, would you please turn in your hymn-book to hymn #25, “All Sexual Characteristics are Secondary (Praise J. Butler)”) in/on a cervid would not have been entirely unknown to Marie. It would not have been purely fantastic, nor purely symbolic. However, my sense from my dipping into Marie criticism is that this hermaphroditic deer’s characteristics tend to be taken this way. If we take this as a known variant in cervid bodies (again, thanks, this time with the hymn book, “All Bodies Are Variants”), if we accept that what we tend to think of as “nature itself” “will not be pitched into binary assignations” (thanks Richard Maxwell, via Amy Hughes), then we, and Guigemar, ought not to take this critter as being as much a wonder, or monster, as we perhaps have been prone to do. Please do more with this if and as you like.

(image via the post “Something is missing on this 10-point ‘buck,'” here)

Will Wonders Never Cease: St. Erkenwald with Claustrophilia

seminar 3by KARL STEEL

First! More zombies!

Second, thanks very much to our guest bloggers (and to Jeffrey’s organizational moxie) for what’s become a brief history of large chunks of the medieval blogworld.

I’d like to think everyone at last Friday’s Claustrophilia seminar believed it a success. Thanks much to Jeffrey, George Washington University, and MEMSI for the chance to participate in it. For the interested, my paper follows:

The events of the late fourteenth-century Middle English alliterative poem St. Erkenwald take place in seventh-century London during the rededication of England’s pagan temples to Christianity. Deep in the greatest temple, which would become St. Paul’s, workmen unearth a gothic tomb, carved with mysterious letters.1 Prying it open, they discover an immaculate body, royally dressed. The bewildered citizens summon their bishop, Erkenwald, who speaks to the corpse, which confesses itself an ancient pagan judge, buried as a king for his righteousness, but barred as a pagan from heaven. Erkenwald weeps, accidentally baptizing the corpse, which promptly rots while its spirit ascends to paradise. Then Erkenwald and the crowds parade through London, while the bells of the city ring out about them.

With few exceptions, criticism of Erkenwald splits into political-historical or doctrinal-historical explanations, which variously locate the poem within conflicts between the City of London and Richard II, or within debates about Pelagianism, Donatism, Wyclif, and so on.2 As necessary as such critical efforts are, they defer the ‘decision’ of reading onto the text and its historical situation. Such efforts preserve the critic as just an observer, watching the text do its work; they preserve the critic from responding to the poem. Let us have an irresponsible reading practice, in the sense of refusing to let the text and its history make our decisions for us, or, in a Derridean sense, let us have a responsible reading, in which we do not feel we’ve done our duty to the poem by situating it in this or that historical struggle.3 Our response should seek to preserve the wonder that drew us and still draws us to the poem; to be just, our response should not leave us untransformed; we should be thrown by what we read.

Claustrophilia is among my allies in the hope that, in reading Erkenwald, we might not unlock it but rather lock ourselves up with it, and to it, as hands or eyes lock together, fascinated and enraptured in their meeting. Howie decries the substitution of “epistemology for phenomenology,” and insists that we need not be constrained by what he calls “the cult of the evidentiary, which would separate ‘imaginings’ from ‘reflections’” (15). Following Claustrophilia, let us intensify rather than explain,4 especially with Erkenwald, since there is perhaps no poem in Middle English that better offers itself to a Claustrophiliac reading.

Howie joins other thinkers who reconceive time as embedded instead of as a sequence in which the past is neatly and continuously swapped out for the present.5 For Howie, moments touch on one another and become moments through this touch; moments drag others behind them; they are in networks around each other in which no moment will ever quite be abandoned or ever simply be itself. In Erkenwald, we need not struggle to rethink time as topographical and interfolded—to recall Michel Serres—rather than geometrical.6 Its time is piled up, mixed, all moments touching:7 it takes place “noȝt fulle longe” [not very long] (1) after the crucifixion, yet somehow in the seventh century; the judge, asked when he had lived, answers enigmatically, interweaving dates,8 and the “New Werke” [New Work] (38) at St. Paul’s took place in the thirteenth, not the seventh, century. The alliterative christening of London’s temples preserves as much as it converts: although those of Jupiter and Juno become the churches of Jesus and James (22), the temples persist in or with the churches poetically, through the stressed J that sustains the past as a point of contact, as an echo.9 In their co-presence and non-assimilative contact with the London of Erkenwald’s day, the temples recall Howie’s “metonymic understanding of poetics…in which contiguous terms come to participate, not just semantically but also in a sense ontologically, in one another without losing their distinctness” (15).

Nowhere is Erkenwald so available for Claustrophilia as in its architecture.10 First the people of London, and then Erkenwald, penetrate into the foundations of St. Paul’s. They are enclosed within a space that receives them. In the depths of the temple, a tomb emerges into their midst, drawn up from the ground.11 Bordered with letters whose sense will never be deciphered, enclosing and giving up a judge whose name the poem never reveals, the tomb reserves the fullness of its own being to itself. It is paradigmatically a space that, to quote Howie, “resist[s] the gaze of its public even as it offers itself to this public” (13).12

Erkenwald arrives and locks himself away to pray “to kenne / Þe mysterie of þis meruaile þat men opon wondres” [to know the mystery of this marvel that men wonder upon] (124-25), and, his prayer granted, he leads a Spiritus Domini mass. His increasingly agitated questioning, however, suggests that Erkenwald has not in fact been granted knowledge; there is a miracle here, but it is not one of knowing. The miracle is like this one, from the Acts of the Apostles, “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a mighty wind coming, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them parted tongues as it were of fire, and it sat upon every one of them: And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they began to speak with divers tongues, according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak.” For the Spiritus Domini is a a Pentecost mass, or a Votive mass,13 associated with the visitation of the Holy Spirit, and the miraculous traversal of linguistic difference. “Þurghe sum lant goste lyfe” [through some lent ghost life] (192),14 the corpse can speak, and through the ghostly investment of Pentecost, Erkenwald can speak with the dead: speak with, become open to, know himself in the presence of, but only in the sense of knowing himself to have been “summoned…into a more concrete, ecstatic relation to what lies not just beyond but within these boundaries” (Howie 4). This is a figure for our responsible encounter with poetry, we might say, especially as Erkenwald, having intended to know all by absorbing more and more about the judge’s life and history, is instead stricken with more intense wonder, and finally is brought to where he “hade no space to speke so spakly he ȝoskyd [had no space to speak so violently he sobbed]” (312).

As for the crowd, they have already joined with the tomb itself. When the judge begins speaking, “Þer sprange in þe pepulle / In al þis worlde no worde, ne wakenyd no noice / Bot al as stille as þe ston stoden and listonde / Wyt meche wonder forwrast, and wepid ful mony”15 [there sprang in the people in all this world no word, nor wakened no noise, but they stood as still as stone and listened, seized with much wonder, and very many of them wept] (217-20). D. Vance Smith remarks that “this apparently miraculous scene extends—and even displaces—the crypt outwards to the site of the living, who gaze back at the judge’s corpse with a marmoreal quiescence. The work of metaphor transforms the living into memorial stone.” Yes, I say, to the crowd enclosing the tomb with their own bodies, yes, as well, to the tomb itself joining with the crowd, yes I say to what’s implicit here, namely, that it is as if the crowd lends its speech and motion to the corpse, who in turn lends his immense stillness to them; but, pace Smith, this is not a metaphoric substitution. This is metonymy, as Howie writes, “contamination by contiguity” (19), “catching, in both senses: grasping even the most rigorously exposed unlikeness,” a stony and alien pagan tomb at the heart of frenetic Christian London and a speaking, singular, and honored corpse amid a motley assemblage of Londoners. To repeat, this is metonymy, “grasping even the most rigorously exposed unlikeness and making of it, of that momentary contact with it, a new creature: a monster or a miracle” (107). Not substitution, not assimilation, but transformative contact. The tomb has emerged into their midst, emerged, not unconcealed.16 From Howie again: “In order for other people and things to ’emerge’ we must in a sense ‘merge with them: not in an appropriative fashion, nor in the sense of a reductio ad unum” (33).17As Howie urges, drawing on the language of Kaja Silverman, we must participate. The crowd has not only seen the tomb, marked its edges, wondered at its being while considering how it holds its mystery to itself. They are, in the heart of St. Paul’s, within the tomb, stone themselves in the moment and space of this contact, where the tomb itself comes to speak and move; they are, I must emphasize, with-in the tomb, at once with it and in it, around it and a part of it, enclosing it and being enclosed by it.

If I could, I would freeze the poem here, stop reading, arrest its and my progress amid the crowd and the tomb; this would be a sacred without a telos, an apocalypse without an eschaton. But the poem moves on; the judge is baptized; and “sodenly his swete chere swyndid and faylide / And all the blee of his body wos blakke as þe moldes / as rotten as þe rottok þat rises in powdere” [and suddenly his sweet face wasted away and failed, and all the color of his body was black as grave-dirt, as rotten as decayed matter that rises in powder] (342-44). London, faced with a gap in the foundation of its civic consciousness, assimilates the threat; but the horror of the judge’s transformation suggests that London, having satisfied its desire, has arrived inevitably at the nauseating Real. Is this what their desire wants? Perhaps, if it is a grasping desire, an explaining desire, driven by lack. But Howie gives us another model: “Between mine and not mine, what intervenes is close to mine, neither appropriable nor wholly other: within reach, without ever being fully grasped” (15). With this, we might ask what the crowd lost by gaining its desire’s object, when it ceased to remain with it, where it might have let itself be and be had in its desire. With the judge gone, the crowd goes out, and “meche mournynge and myrthe was mellyd to-geder” [much mourning and mirth mingled together] (350): in closing, we might ask what they are mourning, when, happy to believe that they know what has happened, thinking that the past is finally shut up, they leave nothing behind in St. Paul’s except an empty tomb.

Works Cited

Bugbee, John. 2008. Sight and Sound in St. Erkenwald: On Theodicy and the Senses. Medium Aevum 77, no. 2: 202-21.
Chaganti, Seeta. 2008. The Medieval Poetics of the Reliquary: Enshrinement, Inscription, Performance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Chism, Christine. 2002. Alliterative Revivals. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Derrida, Jacques. 1990. Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’. Cardozo Law Review 11: 921-1045.
———. 1995. ‘Eating Well,’ or The Calculation of the Subject. In Points: Interviews, 1974-1994, ed. Elisabeth Weber, trans. Peter Connor and Avital Ronell, 255-87. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Grady, Frank. 1992. Piers Plowman, St. Erkenwald, and the Rule of Exceptional Salvations. The Yearbook of Langland Studies 6, no. 1: 63-88.
———. 2000. St. Erkenwald and the Merciless Parliament. Studies in the Age of Chaucer 22: 179-211.
Harris, Jonathan Gil. 2009. Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Howie, Cary. 2007. Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Nissé, Ruth. 1998. ‘ A Coroun Ful Riche’: The Rule of History in St. Erkenwald. ELH 65, no. 2: 277-295.
Otter, Monika. 1994. ‘New Werke’: St. Erkenwald, St. Albans, and The Medieval Sense of the Past. Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 24, no. 3: 387-414.
Scattergood, John. 2000. St. Erkenwald and the Custody of the Past. In The Lost Tradition: Essays on Middle English Alliterative Poetry, 179-99. Dublin: Four Courts Press.
Schwyzer, Philip. 2006. Exhumation and Ethnic Conflict: From St. Erkenwald to Spenser in Ireland. Representations 95, no. 1: 1-26.
Sisk, Jennifer. 2007. The Uneasy Orthodoxy of St. Erkenwald. ELH 74, no. 1: 89-115.
Smith, D. Vance. 2002. Crypt and Decryption: Erkenwald Terminable and Interminable’. New Medieval Literatures 5: 59-85.
Turville-Petre, Thorlac. 2005. St. Erkenwald and the Crafty Chronicles. In Studies in Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Texts in honour of John Scattergood: ‘The Key of all Good Remembrance’, ed. Anne D’Arcy and Alan J. Fletcher, 362-74. Dublin: Four Courts Press.
Whatley, Gordon. 1985. The Middle English St. Erkenwald and Its Liturgical Context. Mediaevalia 8: 277-306.
———. 1986. Heathens and Saints: St. Erkenwald in Its Legendary Context. Speculum 61, no. 2: 330-363.

1 MED s.v. “rūnish,” (a) “mysterious, strange.” Turville-Petre 2005 at 373 ingeniously suggests that the tomb might correspond either to the St Paul’s Rune Stone, discovered in the 19th century, or some earlier find of the same sort (for image, see here); at 371, he also observes that the MED correctly suggests “that the meanings of renish and runish have here become confused, for in these quotations the sense is that derived from the common Middle English noun roun (from Old English run), which has a semantic range that includes ‘voice, utterance, secret’ as well as ‘written character.”

2 The better examples of such readings include Bugbee 2008; Chism 2002; Grady 1992; Grady 2000; Nissé 1998; Sisk 2007; and Whatley 1986. Otter 1994 and Smith 2002 are rare exceptions to “closed” readings of Erkenwald. For example, at 408, Otter writes that “The searching and digging, the guessing, deciphering, and questioning, begin to stand all by themselves, and even for themselves: the poem, itself part of the questioning and deciphering of the past, at one level mirrors itself.”

3 Derrida 1995, 286, “responsibility is excessive or it is not a responsibility. A limited, measured, calculable, rationally distributed responsibility is already the becoming-right of morality; it is at times also, in the best hypothesis, the dream of every good conscience, in the worst hypothesis, of the petty or grand inquisitors”; also Derrida 1990, 252, “A decision that would not go through the test and ordeal of the undecidable would not be a free decision; it would only be the programmable application or the continuous unfolding of a calculable process. It might perhaps be legal; it would not be just.”

4 “Intensify” and “intensification” appear frequently in Claustrophilia; for example, at 18, “This ethics of intensification has distinct ontological consequences: intervention within the compromised appearance of enclosed bodies and texts amounts to participating in these appearances’ being-apparent. Interpretation, or aesthetic reception, is thus not entirely discrete from aesthetic production: it reaches across the aporia between seer and seen, to make something more visible, contingently, approximately, and thereby also offers itself to sight. This movement also makes something more hidden, deepening the artwork’s depths even as it intensifies the surface. Claustrophilia thus, beyond readerly “response” and deconstructive supplementarity, makes singularity more apparent through participative intensification.”

5 Among others, see especially of Harris 2009, 2, which critiques the “national sovereignty model of temporality”, where “each moment [has] a determining authority reminiscent of a nation-state’s: that is, firmly policed borders and a shaping constitution”; Harris writes against the notion of a moment “as a self-identical unit divided from other moments that come before and after it” (5) to disrupt the old binary of synchronic versus diachronic study (10).

6 At 174, Harris 2009 quotes Michel Serres’ Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (with Bruno Latour), “Classical time in related to geometry, having nothing to do with space, as Bergson pointed out all too briefly, but with metrics. On the contrary, take your inspiration from topology, and perhaps you will discover the rigidity of those proximities and distances you find arbitrary. And the simplicity, in the literal sense of the word pli: it’s simply the difference between topology (the handkerchief is folded, crumpled, shredded) and geometry (the same fabric is ironed out flat).”

7 This is not an uncommon observation about the poem: Schwyzer 2006, for example, writes “Wreaking havoc with the temporal equivalent of depth perception, the queasy fascination of the preserved body consists not only in making what is far away seem near, but also in robbing the near of its wonted security and familiarity. Thus, the Londoners in the poem experience not simply the simultaneous failure of living and historical memory but also a collapse of the distinction between these two modes of memory” (7).

8 “Hit is to meche to any mon to make of a nombre. / After þat Brutus þis burgh had buggid on fyrste, Noȝt bot fife hundred ȝere þer aghtene wontyd / Before þat kynned ȝour Criste by Cristen acounte: / A þousand ȝere and þritty mo and 3 thren aght” (205-210). Scattergood 2000, 196, provides a model from 1269 shrine of Edward the Confessor in Westminster abbey, made by Peter of Rome, ‘ANNO MILENO DOMINI CVM SEPTVAGENO ET BIS CENTENO CVM COMPLETO QVASI DENO HOC OPVS EST FACTUM QUOD PETRVS.”

9 Other commentators have also noticed the effect of alliteration, but have read it as either an anxious inability to suppress the past or as metaphoric substitution. Chaganti 2008, 67, is a rare exception: “Particularly in this visual and material sense, alliteration reinforces a pattern of vestigiality: letters are repeated in pagan and Christian names, so that the past not only prefigures the present, but it also leaves behind pieces—letters, like statues and buildings—which are adapted in the present and incorporated into newly cleansed Christian structures and words. The poem uses the narrative capacities of material objects and the material capacities of letters and language to demonstrate the trope of vestigiality, the reliquiae, that which is left behind. The inscriptional aspect of alliteration thus provides a defining temporality for the poem; the recursive return to what has been left behind,” so suggesting “ceremonial temporality.”

10 To a different end, Chaganti 2008, 69, also finds the poem interested in enclosure, “At the level of the poem’s explicit narrative…exist many self-enfolding layers of enclosure, establishing the role of enshrinement in the text’s imagery.”

11 I echo Otter 1994, 410, where the tomb “unexpectedly surfaces—literally—and is simply there, a fait accompli, ‘fourmit on a flore,’ as the poem solidly puts it.”

12 See also Chaganti 2008, 56, where the runes “both embellish and obscure the meaning of an enshrined object. And in this capacity, their illegibility symbolizes the mystified nature of the late-medieval shrine in English churches and cathedrals. The runes speak through their very impenetrability, their resistance to being read as language, about the nature of ceremonial encounters with shrines as decorated objects, a mystery at once challenging and suggestive.”

13 Whatley 1985, especially 295 n10.

14 Note that I follow the manuscript reading here rather than Peterson’s tendentious emendation to “Þurghe sum Ghoste lant lyfe.” See Whatley 1982, 294 n9.

15 Smith 2002, 66. Vance’s reading is, in essence, an epistemological one, concerned with our inability to know, whereas mine concerned with our ability to be touched: in sum, the very fact of being moved by the tomb is itself a presence. Other critics have remarked on the stone image: Nissé 1998, 289, “In this way, the memory of the Trojan past is reinscribed in a collective historical consciousness: ‘Bot al as stille as þe ston stoden and listonde’”; Chaganti 2008, 53, “The poem defines the judge not only as a bounded material object, but also as an occasion of performance and performative self-constitution. In the above simile, ‘as stile as the ston,’ the transfer of the stone’s materiality from the judge’s tomb (and static body) to the people looking at it makes them interactive participants in a scene of performance blending spectacle, ceremony, and architecture….the language of the poem renders indeterminate the boundary between the stone tomb and the astonished audience, so that both fill the positions of either a material thing or an occasion of spectacle.”

16 Howie 2007, 33, which explains his preference for emergence over unconcealment: “I prefer the latter term inasmuch as it consolidates both moments better than ‘unconcealment’ can. To be sure, ‘unconcealment’ presents itself as the constitutive negation of the hidden, but ’emergence’ speaks forth an even greater, and more spatial, paradox: literally e-mergere, emergence plunges, immerses, engulfs not into but out of: it is enclosure figured as disclosive opening, approximation as distance.”

17 See also Sara Ahmed Queer Phenomenology, “What touches is touched, and yet ‘the toucher’ and ‘the touched’ do not ever reach each other; they do not merge to become one,” quoted in Harris 2009, 149.

The Past in the Past: Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval

In her post below, Mary Kate writes:

On the final page of the book, CD defines “getting medieval” as this: “using ideas of the past, creating relations with the past, touching in this way the past in our efforts to build selves and communities now and into the future” (206). This conception seems to get us into the thick of a problem of temporality – how does the unidirectional “arrow of time” stop being so unidirectional upon closer inspection? How, to borrow from CD in her reflection on the book, “Got Medieval” (published in the Journal of the History of Sexuality, No. 10), do we identify and examine the “copresence of different chronologies to explore the power of multiple temporalities in a single moment?”

This leads me into my next, brief question. In GM, the medieval past touches the present in various ways. However, as much as CD corrects the homogeneous premodern of Bhabha, Baudrillard, and others, as much as she demands that the so-called modern allow itself to be or realize that it is touched by an abjected, mobile past, her own medieval strikes me as homogeneous as well to the extent that it is not itself touched by its present pasts.

CD writes well about the Lollard assault on the ‘crimen Sodomorum’ of institutional religion, on its wealth, on its alimentary excess. I don’t believe, of course, that CD presents this material as if it sprang ex nihilo (or ex Wycliffo); after all, she cites and uses Penn R Szittya’s important The Antifraternal Tradition in Medieval Literature. At the same time, I don’t think there’s enough mobilization in GM of one of the most peculiar aspects of medieval textuality, namely, its habitual, even constitutive reuse of centuries-old writings, and of the mnemotechnics in which production was always a rearrangement of pasts. Antifraternal critique reuses moral approaches from the twelfth-century Parisian critique of bad living clerics, which itself redeployed work by Gregory the Great; no doubt we could keep pushing this further back, or expanding the lines outward to form something more rhizomatic than genealogical. I also imagine–although I haven’t done the legwork–that Lollard ecclesiastical critique, especially its antimendicant critique, derives at least in part from the work of the Spiritual Franciscans, and thus we would have seen critiques internal to the Friars turned against the Friars as a whole, and from there, turned against the whole of the Church.

GM is already a big book, and it’s certainly a great book. It seems ungracious to complain that it should have been bigger, more capacious, that CD should have loosened the 40-year boundary she set for her medieval analysis. We would have needed another 100 pages. I should, then, present this not as a critique but as a call to be inspired by GM to keep on pushing. Readers of ITM know that this work is already being done, especially with JJC and MKH’s attention to the polychronicity of ruins and stones, of the distant past of ruins and the very distant, unfathomable past of fossils inhabiting and confounding various medieval presents, whether they’re 8th or 10th or 12th century. Although this question might remind us too much of the postmodern inability to break with the past, we might also wonder in whose voices the Lollards speak when they think themselves using their own voices?