Susan Uselmann

title.none: Bryan, Looking Inward (Susan Uselmann)

identifier.other: baj9928.0810.028 08.10.28

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Susan Uselmann, University of Rochester,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Bryan, Jennifer. Looking Inward: Devotional Reading and the Private Self in Late Medieval England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Pp. 288. $49.95 978-0-8122-4048-1. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.10.28

Bryan, Jennifer. Looking Inward: Devotional Reading and the Private Self in Late Medieval England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Pp. 288. $49.95 978-0-8122-4048-1. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Susan Uselmann
University of Rochester

This book is a welcome addition to the lively conversation about readers and reading in late-medieval vernacular devotional literature. Scholars have long sought to combat humanist narratives that trace a growing complexity in the psychological landscapes of readers and writers, a trend embodied by the likes of Petrarch and Dante or, more generally, in the increasing tendency to document private lives in diaries and personal letters. Jennifer Bryan, an associate professor of English at Oberlin College, adds an important voice to this effort by situating medieval vernacular devotional literature as a genre that is crucial to this narrative yet has been somewhat misunderstood. What medieval devotional writers reveal, Bryan argues, is that "inwardness" does not necessarily refer to a private, inner core. Indeed, the technologies for imagining the private self often invoked language of "showing" and "seeing"--as well as the construction of personae and psychic spaces that could rival the likes of even Donne.

An important premise of Looking Inward is that the private self is "as interpretively fluid and problematic for devotional writers as it is for modern critics" (8). One objective of Prof. Bryan's study is to prove this point from the "inside," so to speak. This book is not interested in modern theories of subjectivity or identity-formation so much as in how medieval writers themselves constructed a discourse of inwardness that nevertheless resembles strikingly that of modern scholars. Indeed, it is a testament to her incisive and sophisticated readings that any student of psychoanalytic or poststructuralist models of analysis will recognize a host of invisible participants from Irigaray to Lacan to Kristeva, without being distracted by recapitulations of their theories: featured in this study, for example, are examinations of the speculum of the other (ideal) self, the dividing or "splitting" of the self, the self's separation from the mother, and the language of desire and abjection, absence and presence. One of the remarkable facets of this book is that these modern theoretical approaches remain nameless, and instead are placed deftly in the service of historical and rhetorical analyses.

Chapter one expands the elusive, shifting and nuanced notion of "inwardness" to include a "fuller range of categories...than even devotional writers encourage," offering a new taxonomy of this term that will doubtless become a point of reference for any scholar of the late-medieval interior life. Although she defines seven categories in particular, Bryan implies much play among them, fueled in part by the late-medieval affinity for Augustine. Following other scholars of literacy and reading such as Brian Stock, Bryan casts Augustine as a sophisticated theorist of the psychological landscape whose emphasis on the rational soul intersected--and at times collided--with the popular emphasis on affective devotion to make the definition of inwardness "spin out of control." From the self-absorbed and overly optimistic affectivity of Richard Rolle to the inviolable, physical enclosure of the anchoress, and from unenclosed readers who "imagine[d] some inner core of true selfhood...kept pure and clean for their spiritual spouse" (49) to potentially heterodox portrayals of a lone heart fighting against a persecuting world, the private self was constantly being restructured, redefined, and re-imagined. In some cases, this redefinition involved decidedly public concerns, such as in liturgically oriented texts that self-consciously intersected with broader debates about vernacularity and national identity. In other cases, it approached a rhetorical art, as in the elaborate meditations on bodily innards and entrails that were designed to train readers in extreme humility and self-abjection. But the act of self-scrutiny found its most sophisticated and widespread articulation in Augustinian models that suggested cognitive faculties such as reason and self-examination could reflect the imago dei in the soul. These various approaches to inwardness, Bryan suggests, presented a series of questions: "What kinds of authority--and danger--does the inward turn produce? What is the relationship between seeing inward and showing outward, between introspection and the poetics of personal display? What are the profits of tribulation" (178) and self- abasement? These issues help structure the chapters that follow.

Chapter Two examines Syon Abbey's The Myroure of Oure Ladye to explore a central premise of the book: that the growing use of mirrors in late-medieval England, both as material objects and as textual metaphors, created new technologies for devotional writers and readers to learn about or reform themselves. Of course, metaphors of seeing and beholding had long been used to describe the process of self- examination, but Bryan locates at Syon abbey--an abbey famously promoted by Henry V as both a bastion of orthodoxy and symbol of Lancastrian power--a self-conscious use of the mirror-trope to bridge the gap between outer and inner, public and private, real and exemplary selves. The Myroure explores in full the metaphor of "seeing" (and, by extension, Augustinian understandings of the rational soul) to reveal a "doubled image of the self" that exists in both real and exemplary forms. Thus, while readers of the Myroure examine their likeness to God in their cognitive faculties, they also mediate the process of self-examination by scrutinizing their own failed attempts to imitate this likeness.

As Bryan reveals, part of the significance of the mirror-trope is that it suggests that the process of self-examination is particularized to each individual. The Myroure constantly redirects the sight of God to the reader's self, "making textual and imaginative vision ideally self-referential--while still anchoring it to the performance of group identity" (91). Bryan contrasts this approach with that of other contemporary writers such as Mechthild of Magdeburg, who sought to erase herself by melting into God, or the author of Cloud of Unknowing, who discouraged displays of personality. Even when visualizing the Passion, for example, the reader's contemplation is centered less around Christ than it is the reader's own experience--a "dialogue between a self and a better self" that the nuns are asked to reconcile by bringing private and public selves into perfect alignment. But if the mirror-trope underscores the self's doubleness, it also implies the potential for self-alienation. For Bryan, this possibility--that the act of looking inward might not solidify but in fact destabilize the subject's self--fuels creative approaches to first-person personae that are the hallmark of complex interior landscapes. This premise informs the last three chapters of the book.

For lay readers, the most readily available tool for navigating the gap between a real and exemplary self could be found in Passion narratives, which Bryan discusses in Chapter Three. These narratives, she argues, offered readers a transformative tool through the rhetoric of self-abjection and suffering. From A Talkynge of the Love of God to The Prickynge of Love, the language of abjection provided readers with "new lenses" for seeing themselves, asking readers to "consider their own small failings in the hyperbolic terms of the Passion, and to transform narratives of frenzied emotion into the grounds of more routine self-awareness and practical imitation" (112). Narratives like A Talkynge, according to Bryan, depended vitally on the language of abjection, and were "more about the ravenous needs of the beholder than the courtly worthiness of the beheld," defining inwardness not as "spiritual or rational insight, but of the inaccessibility of an individual psyche" (119). Unlike the Myroure, however, A Talkynge does not seek any communal or public identity, so that the extreme inaccessibility of this psychic landscape poses a risk for unenclosed readers.

A more apt solution for lay readers, Bryan suggests, may be seen in The Prickynge of Love, where the rhetoric of desire is used to transform the gap between real and ideal into a "restless, divided self" that may nevertheless pursue the mixed life (126). In a series of acute and eloquent readings of the text's maternal imagery, Bryan questions traditional scholarly efforts to categorize this text as "mystical," arguing that the "'unenclosed' mystical discourse [of Prickynge] produces Christian identity not as more fluid and less self-conscious, but as ever more deeply divided, guilty, and self-aware" (139). Here, the distance between a real and ideal self makes the "I" aware of its own conflicted impulses, and creates a double voice: one of "social moderation" that reflects outward concerns such as the busy life, and another voice that reflects the reader's "passionate eloquent desire for Jesus" and a "stylized violence of suffering and desire." Unlike A Talkynge, Prickynge does not reject the outside world but redefines it as "an imperfect reflection of, and an entirely proper form of longing for, the ideal world" (143).

Misinterpreted famously by Margery Kempe, Prickynge espouses a distinction between public and private selves that is perhaps too demanding and, according to Bryan, and raises an issue that threads throughout devotional discourses of the Passion: "When is self- fashioning spiritual progress, and when is it just self-absorption?" This question, Bryan suggests, lies behind the most famous "I's" in medieval religious literature, from William Langland to Julian of Norwich.

Chapter Four explores one of the most often studied--and yet still perplexing--first-person narratives in late-medieval England: Julian of Norwich's Revelations. For Julian, the answer seems to be that self-fashioning can lead to spiritual progress if it rejects the assumption, perpetuated by many Passion narratives, that a divided self is in any way problematic. As Bryan puts it, "Julian feels the interiorizing abjection fostered by private devotional models of the Passion is dangerous and excessive, threatening to cut the beholder from the very mercy she seeks" (163). Drawing heavily on Augustinian modes of knowing, she "rejects the boundaries of the self" espoused by her contemporaries (such as the author of The Chastising of God's Children), using a "typically private experience of the Passion to confront the universal problem of sin and the broader relationship not between Christ and one soul, but between God and humanity" (170).

It is in Julian, Bryan suggests, that we can truly see the radical potential inherent in metaphors of seeing and beholding. The famous vision of the "hazelnut," for example, asks readers to inhabit a variety of perspectives: If the thing-like-a-ball seems tiny and insignificant to its beholder, Bryan points out, or if the soul seems less in its own sight, "it is not because the soul is worthless but because from this perspective it cannot seem otherwise" (156). Each individual act of beholding (or of watching someone else behold) thus becomes a vehicle for exploring the difference in perspective between God and man--an assumption that necessitates Julian's careful assertion of her "I." The figure who best exemplifies this combination of universal and particular is of course the Virgin Mary, in whom one could find not only the source of all redemption but also "the singular and special, the human, the temporal, [and] the particular age of every man." By insisting on the general and the universal, Julian highlights the value of beholding the rational mind at work, complete with all its limitations. As Bryan fascinatingly concludes, Julian's book is a testament to "her faith in the power of human reason to find meaning in subjective experience--and in the very personal failure that she so scrupulously records and examines, convinced of its ability to reflect some aspect of the divine plan" (170).

The literary potential of watching the mind at work is realized in Chapter Five, where Prof. Bryan innovatively extends the canon of devotional literature to include Thomas Hoccleve's religious and secular works. Like Julian, the Chaucerian heir is interested in the limits and potential of the "I" being explored by his contemporaries, but "where Julian challenges the boundaries of private devotion, Hoccleve occupies and exploits them, crafting a witty, confessional persona that can move from private abjection to public speech and back again" (177). Hoccleve constructed his famously "guilty, self- conscious, isolated speaker" for the reading pleasure of some of the most prosperous citizens of his time and those who were, Bryan argues, "trained to identify abjection with self-knowledge, and pleased to be granted the intimacy of personal access to the supplicant's heart...created as clever literary effect" (186). As it navigates the distance between private self and social identity in Hoccleve's works, the frenzied devotional "I" is repackaged as a kind of commodity: "The self-remembrance of Augustine and Abelard is twisted from a penitential into a self-promotional aesthetic. The familiar admonition to 'Forget not thyself' becomes something more like 'look out for number one'--because if you don't, only Nobody will" (186).

The capstone of the chapter is a riveting analysis that yokes together Hoccleve's "The Complaint of the Virgin" and the Regement of Princes to show just how far devotional discourses had penetrated late-medieval literary approaches to subjectivity. Like his contemporaries, Hoccleve feared that too much interiority could lead to instability, but he was more deeply invested in the public and political implications of this problem. In "Complaint," for example, Hoccleve dramatizes a "loss of subjectivity" whereby the Virgin's hysterical outpourings finally dissolve into a public voice that allows her to "assume her designated role in salvation history" (191). This disappearance and loss of the "I," Bryan argues, is the central concern of the poem, and for Hoccleve--unlike Julian--it is a necessary precondition for the Virgin's (and for the poet Hoccleve's) futurity: "The exposure and destruction of her private self not only gives power and authority to her new, public voice, but also makes possible the audience's emotional catharsis and redemption.... Her subjectivity becomes publicly available and is thus effectively erased" (193). In his poetry, then, Hoccleve's autobiographical persona offers readers an instructive model and a "guide to subjection" for readers familiar with devotional discourses and seeking ways to examine themselves.

The brief "Afterward," which gestures at some implications of these conclusions for later figures like Thomas More, underscores the ease with which Looking Inward moves among a vast range of texts-- secular and religious, medieval and early modern--with equal spirit and vivacity. Some of these are studied in depth; others are tantalizingly mentioned only in parentheses. I have only a small reservation, which is the adherence to MLA guidelines for prose texts, which in Middle English devotional texts can be frustratingly imprecise (references to Nicholas Love's lengthy Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, for example, cite only page numbers). Other readers may find they wish to see more discussion of modern theories of subjectivity or to elaborate on some of the more abstract terminology. But for this reader, Prof. Bryan's study brings to the subject a commanding authorial voice and sense of detail that makes it a lively, enjoyable read. The expansive canon of vernacular devotional literature often causes scholars to shy away from yoking together texts that are not geographically, historically, theologically or authorially linked in some way. In this book, Prof. Bryan allows us to see A Talkynge of the Love of God and Troilus and Criseyde as an outgrowth of the same creative moment.