Christopher Roman

title.none: Davis, Mysticism and Space (Christopher Roman)

identifier.other: baj9928.0811.006 08.11.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Christopher Roman, Kent State University Tuscarawas,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Davis, Carmel Bendon. Mysticism and Space: Space and Spatiality in the Works of Richard Rolle, "The Cloud of Unknowing" Author, and Julian of Norwich. Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2008. Pp. xiii, 271. $74.95 978-0813-21522-8. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.11.06

Davis, Carmel Bendon. Mysticism and Space: Space and Spatiality in the Works of Richard Rolle, "The Cloud of Unknowing" Author, and Julian of Norwich. Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2008. Pp. xiii, 271. $74.95 978-0813-21522-8. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Christopher Roman
Kent State University Tuscarawas

Finally, a book dealing with spatial theory that takes on Henri Lefebvre's seminal book The Production of Space head on. Davis's use of Lefebvre's theory, though at times sticking a little too closely to the theory, proves illuminating when dealing with the seemingly ephemeral subject matter of mystical texts. Davis's Mysticism and Space situates the work of Richard Rolle, the Cloud-author, and Julian of Norwich in terms of their use, representation, and creation of space. This is an exciting book (and important in terms of furthering the use of spatial theory in medieval studies), in many ways in that it grapples with the complex spatial theory not only of Lefebvre, but also of Foucault, Bourdieu, van Gennep and Panofsky while thinking through the mystical dilemma of representing the unrepresentable.

In the Introduction Davis provides and outline of the books and introduces the concept of the mis en aböme or the casting into the abyss. By this, Davis means the "an impression of infinite regress that duplicates within all its layers the qualities of the larger, initiating structure without" (6). This mis en aböme is a recurring figure throughout Davis's book and is used as a controlling metaphor for both the work that the mystics do (they represent this infinite regress in their writing) and as a way to understand the work (it reflects the infinite regress of the visions themselves) and its space (it is the infinite regress). The Introduction also acquaints us with the texts under investigation and a brief discussion of the theory that will be use.

Chapter Two presents the mis en aböme in terms of physical space. Davis calls physical space the "outer layer of experience in which bodies and material objects exist, social life is enacted, texts are produces and circulated, language is exchanged and inscribed, and religious practice takes place" (21). My expectations for this chapter were challenged when Davis discusses this layer in terms of the medieval understanding of the earth and its relation to the stars and a discussion of the Ptolemaic universe. Davis then moves on to discuss the space of the anchorhold or cloister and, finally, the space of the body. This is an ingenious way to present this material in that the connection of universe to body is important in understanding the ways the mystic connected themselves and their experience to Creation. My problem with this chapter (and this criticism can go for Chapter Three, as well) is that I wanted more specific contextualization of Rolle, the Cloud-author and Julian of Norwich.

Chapter Three deals with the concept of social space. In this chapter, Davis discusses the concepts of the mystical space as seen in the Middle Ages, the earthly and heavenly society as seen through St. Augustine, the concept of habitus and its enactment in mystical practice within the church, van Gennep's theory of the rites of passage as it pertains to the mystics, and liminality and heterotopia. I offer up this laundry list not a little flippantly. Reading this chapter felt like reading a list of theories and seeing little checkmarks next to each line item. I had the most difficulty with this chapter, because, I think, the author was attempting too many theoretical moves. This chapter could have been handled with a lot less theory and a lot more specifics on the mystics "rites of passage" from their own texts.

Chapter Four centers on text and language. Again we are met with the mis en aböme and Davis's insistence that texts and language "are represented in all strata." This phrase is repeated throughout the book. In this chapter, Davis examines the way that the mystics represent God through spatial metaphors, from Rolle's comparing Christ's body to a book to the Cloud-author's insistence not to be taken in by spatial language though he uses it himself, to Julian of Norwich's God in the smallest thing, in a point, the God's all encompassing nature. The language of the mystics often privilege spatial language which supports the point that Davis makes early on that the mystics are best understood in spatial terms, rather than in terms of time.

Chapter Five offers close reading of Richard Rolle's use of space in his works, specifically The Fire of Love, Ego Dormio and The Form of Living. Davis traces what she calls Rolle's "curious alternation between an apparent denigration of the in favor of the embracing of the spiritual...dimension, and a conflation of physical sensation and its spiritual source..." (141). Davis moves through metaphors of space to connect Rolle's tripartite canor, dulcor, and calor in terms of space. Experience of all three of these moves the body from physical sensation to mystical sensation; he moves from body to heaven, providing a spatial movement that is important to his sense of the mystical.

Chapter Six focuses on The Cloud of Unknowing. In this text, the Cloud-author is intent on unknowing as the dominant mystical idea and therefore, one must place a cloud of unknowing between oneself and God. Davis connects this cloud of unknowing to the text itself, remarking that the author himself mirrors this idea in his anonymity and insistence on immateriality. The Cloud-author's spatial practices would be best understood in terms of the absence of space, in that the unknowable nature of God can only be met briefly, if at all, on earth.

Finally, Chapter Seven works with Julian of Norwich and her use of space. In her text space is both a reflection of her social space and a representation of the mystical space in the soul. The images that Julian of Norwich uses, such as the crown of thorns and its focus on the circle of blood, or the blood as thick as rain on the eaves of the house, are examples of that reflection of social space. Julian of Norwich also uses the blood of Christ to invoke the spatial movement of Christ (from Hell to Heaven to Earth and back again). It is in this space that Julian of Norwich and Christ meet.

In a brief epilogue, Davis defends her privileging of space over time in analyzing mystical texts. This is an important point to make in that Rolle, the Cloud-author, and Julian of Norwich are spatially centered. They work with the spaces of earth, church, and anchorhold to create a space to contemplate and have a relationship with God.

This book has many, many strengths. Wrestling with spatial theory and texts that defy theorization to some degree is often frustrating in that the experiences are beyond language. Understanding how space and language work together in its attempts to represent that experience offer readers insights into spatial and religious practices that only survive in a minimal way (how many people strive so much to find quiet space in our busy, cell phone ringing world?).

However, this book's weakness is also its use of theory. At times, the theory overwhelmed the point being made (see Chapter Three). As well, Davis often refused to go beyond Lefebvre and merely points out, for example, that Julian of Norwich's use of space fulfills Lefebvre's definition of representational space. Maybe it does, but this approach feels cookie-cutter. Lefebvre is writing his book to a capitalist world (hence the production of his title) and not everything he is writing works in the medieval world. Lefebvre is important, but Davis's book would have been a perfect place to show us those limitations and extend our understanding of space beyond the categories that Lefebvre presents.

This book is a valuable addition to medieval spatial studies. Spatial theory has only begun to touch the mystics. Davis offers us the next step, but the question remains how did medieval mystics experience space differently from us?