Emma Campbell

title.none: Kay, Place of Thought (Emma Campbell )

identifier.other: baj9928.0812.004 08.12.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Emma Campbell , University of Warwick,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Kay, Sarah. The Place of Thought: The Complexity of One in Late Medieval French Didactic Poetry. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Pp. xii, 236. $59.95/39 978-0-8122-4007-8 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.12.04

Kay, Sarah. The Place of Thought: The Complexity of One in Late Medieval French Didactic Poetry. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Pp. xii, 236. $59.95/39 978-0-8122-4007-8 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Emma Campbell
University of Warwick

Sarah Kay's The Place of Thought sets out to demonstrate that, contrary to what post-Bakhtinian criticism may assume, dialogism is neither inherently more challenging nor more interesting than monologism. Taking as her focus didactic literature from the long fourteenth century (from the 1270s to the early fifteenth century), Kay argues that this most monologic of medieval genres presents an intricate engagement with notions of "oneness" that deserves greater attention than it has hitherto received. Monologism is, in the texts Kay examines, founded upon a form of oneness that is at once philosophical and aesthetic: integral to what Kay terms "the complexity of one" in this literature is the use of place as a means of situating thought. Spatial imagery is common in many didactic poems of this period and, insofar as it serves to unify the expression and reception of thought in this literature, is both a prop of didacticism and that which underpins the monologic nature of such texts.

One of the most significant aspects of Kay's study is its consistent demonstration of how the engagement with concepts of oneness in didactic literature of this period can be related to philosophical discussion of such concepts taking place in the fourteenth century. Several philosophical developments are relevant to Kay's argument in this respect. From the late thirteenth century onwards, the universals debate underwent changes that Kay contends had major implications for poetry as well as theology: Platonist epistemology yielded to more Aristotelian ways of thinking, subjective psychology became more prominent, and the so-called "integral one" or "one of singularity" came under scrutiny. A further philosophical development relevant to Kay's study is the interest in knowledge of singular beings that develops around this time as part of the Aristotelian inheritance. Aristotle contended that only singular entities exist but only universals are intelligible, thereby insisting on the gap between being and knowledge. This posed a problem for Christian thinking, which maintained that entities without a body (i.e. God) might be known and that God had knowledge of individuals in their singularity. An important strain of medieval thinking from the late thirteenth century onwards therefore focused on how such knowledge might be accounted for within a philosophical framework.

Debates about "oneness" were thus very much part of the intellectual climate of the later thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and Kay argues that didactic texts of this period reflect these currents in various ways. The uniqueness and potential inexpressibility both of the divine One and individual experience takes on considerable significance in poetry (as well as philosophy) from this period. The writings examined in the book manifest their concern with the uniqueness of God, with the potential for community with God, and with the nature of the individual, while secular authors also wrestle with the problematic of the individual and the universal in exploring themes of the good, desire, and power. As the long fourteenth century progresses, poetry demonstrates and develops the interest it shares with philosophy in whether singulars are intellectually cognizable and how far the perceptions of the individual subject of knowledge condition what is known. Though it evolves at one remove from philosophy proper, the oneness of meaning on which didactic poetry relies is thus nonetheless caught up in comparable reflections on unity and singularity and the difficulty of working from one to the other. As a result, the loci in which poets place their thought are often difficult--sometimes impossible--to visualize. The book explores this general thesis across six chapters.

Chapter One--"Book-Trees: Deleuze, Porphyry, and the Breviari d'Amor by Matfre Ermengaud"--focuses on the transformations of the tree as a familiar medieval model of thought in order to re-examine the use of this model in the work of modern philosophers Deleuze and Guattari. The Porphyrian tree is designed to make accessible Aristotle's works on logic. Unlike many medieval trees, however, Porphyry's is organized from the top down, an arrangement that becomes even more complex in Matfre Ermengaud's appropriation of the Porphyrian tree in his Breviari d'Amor, which uses the structure of its model to display the relationship between human love, the natural order, and the divine love that is their ultimate cause. Kay concentrates on features of Matfre's tree that centre on the problem of oneness. Matfre's tree differs from that of Porphyry in laying claim to absolute unity; it affirms the singularity of God; and it reconfigures the interconnected identities of a singular God with his individual creatures in terms of the flow of love. The intricacies of the work's unitary purpose are further demonstrated in manuscripts by discrepancies between representations of the tree in verse, prose, and painting. As a result, in contrast to what Deleuze and Guattari claim about trees such as this, Matfre's tree possesses many features in common with their concept of the rhizome; in line with the monologism of its purpose, the Breviari moves towards a form of tree unknown to Deleuze and Guattari: one that celebrates not the multiple (as the rhizome does) but the singular.

Chapter Two--"Form in Anamorphosis in the Landscapes of the Ovide moralisé--explores how, in the fourteenth-century Ovide moralisé, the moralist's constant shifting between the supernatural framework of his source and Christian meaning of the text he is creating has implications for the conception of oneness in this poem. Kay argues that the Ovide moralisé's consistent reference to a single truth (in this case Christ's incarnation) has a paradoxically distorting effect. The effect of anamorphosis is to make discernible--through antitheses of perspective--a single, eternal form in dissolving bodily shapes. The form of God is manifested anamorphically, through his adoption of a series of mortal bodies. Moreover, the unity of interpretations in Christ provides a foundation for readers' potential community with Christ, a potential form of community that Kay explores in connection with Giorgio Agamben's notion of the "coming community." The spatial framework for these ideas in the Ovide moralisé is the entire landscape: a place that, through the transformations with which it is associated, enables communication between the single and the common. By means of physical metamorphosis, invisible forms can be discerned via anamorphosis, making the place of thought in the Ovide moralisé at once visual and difficult to visualise. At the same time, anamorphosis discerns the form thanks to which individual entities both exist as such and have the potential to meet in community. Anamorphosis thus discerns both the uniqueness of beings and their potential for community with the divine, a community mediated by the dependence of being on place and hence, in the Ovide moralisé, on landscape.

Chapter Three--'The Divided Path in Guillaume de Deguileville's Pèlerinage de Vie Humaine: Separation and Identity"--explores how the Pèlerinage explores the complex relationship between body and soul and the doubleness or oneness of man's nature. The divided path running either side of the Hedge of Penitence is the place of thought in which this exploration occurs. Kay argues that the poem represents the pilgrim's nature as both single and double, since the Hedge at once separates and connects what lies on either side of it. The shifting character of this boundary is echoed in the manuscript illuminations representing it. Kay additionally argues that, insofar as the dreamer of the Pèlerinage seeks to know himself as an agency through his inner division and the potential that it creates for self-deception, this poem forms part of the Western history of the cogito: the inquiry into the relationship between thought and existence most famously epitomized in Descartes.

Chapter Four--"Universality on Trial in Machaut's Jugement Poems"--argues that, unlike the texts examined in pervious chapters, Machaut suggests that the universal does not include individuals, even if it may be abstracted from them. Focusing on Machaut's Jugement dou roy de Navarre (the companion and corrective to his Jugement du roi de Behaigne), Kay explores how tension between the different didactic models used in these two poems--models derived from the tradition offering advice to rulers and that representing the court of love--communicates this exclusion of the individual from a higher unity. The Navarre represents a public world where happiness is revered as a supreme good. However, the narrator--like the lovers in the exemplary stories--is subject to happiness only in his exclusion from it. Machaut's concept of the universal in the Navarre suggests that an abstractive concept of the universal is problematic, marking a point of significant divergence from Boethius. Kay associates this divergence with the influence of Aristotle on Machaut's poem while arguing that, over and above Aristotelian Ethics, the poem recognises that its universality is blocked not just by the differences in particular experiences of happiness but also by the partiality that results from sexual difference.

Chapter Five--"Understanding, Remembering, and Forgetting in Froissart's Le Joli buisson de jonece--explores the way in which thinking about universality and singularity intersects with questions of knowledge and memory in the dream world that this poem creates. Once again, Kay argues that the philosophical background to Froissart's work is significant, particularly debates on universality and singularity as these were related to memory and knowledge. Medieval Christian commentators of this period drew on the Aristotelian distinction between memory and reminiscence, while finding Aristotle's view that memory dies with the body unacceptable. Yet, if memories were to survive the body they would need to be intelligible, mental and universal, leaving hanging the issue of whether singular things could be recalled. Kay argues that Froissart's poetry, in its engagement with questions of remembering and forgetting, reflects philosophers' proposed solutions to this dilemma, which often focus on subjectivity as constructed through a subject's memorial acts, while allowing that particular objects of memory might fall into oblivion. Focusing on two aspects of the poem which are clearly linked to one another--the presentation of the poem's eponymous bush and the episode where Philozophie directs Froissart to seek out a portrait from a strongbox--Kay explores how, despite their common investment in the way thought and memory provide access to nature and poetry, the two scenes also oppose one another. The bush- portrait dialectic lies at the heart of the problematic of oneness in the Joli buisson, since it questions our capacity to know singulars and/or remember universals. Indeed, the dream world of the poem suggests that the one of universality and the one of singularity sit in paradoxical relation to one another: the particular cannot be called to mind except in a generalized form, but the form that it adopts is conditioned by the particular state one is in. Kay points out that the bush, as a place of thought, is also full of spyholes and hideaways, suggesting that there are places outside thought that are also contained within it: places that are associated with sensation as oppose to intellection. Drawing on psychoanalysis as well as Aristotle, Kay examines an episode where Froissart burns and thus "remembers" his passion for the Espinette as a return of sensations that exceed what can be grasped intellectually. Thus, though Froissart does not altogether deny the possibility that we might know singulars, the traces of memory and its repetition in behaviour risk being disturbing.

The final chapter--"Melancholia, Allegory, and the Metaphysical Fountain in Christine de Pizan's Livre du chemin de long estude"--examines the relation between autobiography and universality in this poem, concentrating on the fountain of the Muses as the place of thought from which the poem is produced. In representing a transformed version of Christine's library, the fountain in many respects stands for another significant place of thought in the poem: the author's study. Yet, whereas, at the beginning of the poem, Christine's study is a place of melancholy, the fountain is a source from which glorious female figures emerge, all of whom represent abstractions of universal forms of Christine herself. Kay argues that the female figures born from the fountain--the Muse Calliope, the Earth, and Wisdom--emerge from Christine's awareness of the problematic relation between her own embodied individuality and intellectual universality. Drawing on Kristeva's account of allegory as the expression of and remedy for melancholy, Kay also contends that these female figures enable Christine to transform her own, melancholic body. Unlike Christine, the abstractions that emerge from the fountain are incorporeal: their being depends on reasoning and reflection. These figures stage the recognition that the universal alone can be thought and that this is so because of a bodily particularity that remains shrouded from knowledge. Kay thus contends that these dream-vision personifications offer a way of compensating not only for Christine's bereavement but also for the impasse at the heart of Aristotelian epistemology as she understands and experiences it.

Kay's conclusion, in addition to offering an overview of the book's argument, also addresses the influence of the Roman de la Rose, as both a model for and counterexample to the corpus she has investigated. One aspect of the Rose that lent itself to fourteenth-century imitators was its use of place. Concentrating on Genius' address to Love's army, the conclusion thus sets out to clarify the relationship between place, thought and didacticism as these things might be represented in this enormously influential poem. Kay points out that Genius' sermon would be an exemplary model of didacticism if it weren't for the fact that the thought he places in his locus of choice--the parc--is impossible to take seriously. This sermon seems to have been read as a text about didacticism if not as a didactic text. Yet, Kay suggests, if the didactic texts studied in the book rely on such techniques, and even share certain themes with Genius' discourse, they also display a much fuller and more nuanced understanding of how oneness is complex.

This is an impressive book in almost every respect. Though the argument is focused on fourteenth-century poetry, its range is much broader and has a demonstrative importance for the history of ideas both within the Middle Ages and beyond it. Kay moves confidently and convincingly between poetic and philosophical discourses, modern and medieval thought, and visual and textual material. The one fault that one might find with the book--namely, the lack of a sustained analysis of the Roman de la Rose--is deftly handled in the conclusion. One cannot help but agree with Kay's observation that a more thorough analysis of the Rose from the perspective she outlines would demand a book-length study of its own and its absence from the main body of the study is, from this point of view, justifiable. In sum, this is an erudite, complex, and elegantly written study that demonstrates the dynamism of representations of place in medieval poetry and that deserves to have a significant impact on studies of place both within medieval studies and beyond.