Cynthia Ho

title.none: Brown, Contrary Things: Exegesis, Dialectic and the Poetics of Didacticism (Ho)

identifier.other: baj9928.9905.015 99.05.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Cynthia Ho, University North Carolina at Asheville,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Brown, Catherine. Contrary Things: Exegesis, Dialectic, and the Poetics of Didacticism. Figurae: Reading Medieval Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. Pp. xvi, 209. $45.00. ISBN: 0-804-73009-I.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.05.15

Brown, Catherine. Contrary Things: Exegesis, Dialectic, and the Poetics of Didacticism. Figurae: Reading Medieval Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. Pp. xvi, 209. $45.00. ISBN: 0-804-73009-I.

Reviewed by:

Cynthia Ho
University North Carolina at Asheville

Brown begins her book Contrary Things by "Reading in Walter's Library." On the surface, this might seem like a conventional start, a review of the books her authors would have read. However, it is much more, for this opening gambit plunges us (with her) into the many simultaneous conundrums interwoven cleverly throughout the book. While Walter is the audience of Andreas Capellanus' De amores, he is also is the "fictional placeholder for an extratextual Any Reader -- that is, Us" (1). Brown's analysis ricochets (as do the authors she studies) between a number of opposites: teachers and students, real and fictional, sacred and secular, teaching and unteaching, truth and not-truth. Looking at notoriously contradictory texts, Brown seeks to show what these works mean and how they arrive at that meaning. The truth they teach, however, turns out to be not only sacred or profane knowledge, but also more importantly, how truth itself should be taught. What makes this especially clever is the way Brown crafts her own book into an example of the kind of text she describes. John of Salisbury, Peter Abelard, Andreas Capellanus and the Archpriest of Hita write books whose rhetorical methods themselves argue for a kind of knowing, and Brown herself mirrors this approach. Her modern reflections in the introduction and conclusion place this all in a familiar context for many of us: teachers and their students struggling with content and method, and the intersections of the two.

Today, Brown points out, didactic works and the study of didacticism are at a disadvantage. On the one hand they are unfashionable with many modern readers because of their very didacticism, while on the other hand the difficulty of the texts makes readers uncomfortable with their lack of discernible epistemological closure. Brown thus seeks to make these texts intellectually interesting yet accessible by showing how each presents a message "self consciously doubled and divided." To begin, Brown uses diverse authorities to demonstrate the importance of "contraries" in medieval texts, and she re-emphasizes this throughout the book, referring us to numerous citations. One of the strengths of this study is the wide range of support material presented. Two traditions, the Bible and Ovid's writings (one religious and the other secular) are the cornerstones of "the library of contradiction" from which the later works will draw inspiration. Brown's study, "to understand the recurring connections of teaching with contradiction in some major texts of the European Middle Ages," falls into two parts. The first three chapters present the framework of dealing with contraries, most importantly by contrasting the inclusiveness of Christian exegesis, "in which Biblical contradiction is the textual incarnation of a truth that is at once and paradoxically singular and multiple" (3) with dialectic which seeks to resolve contradiction by favoring "either one proposition or the other." The distinctions she draws here are necessary for understanding the final two chapters which study two highly contradictory secular works in light of the methods of exegesis and dialectic.

Chapter 1, "Diversa sed non adversa: The Poetics of Exegesis," examines in detail the interpretive agendas of exegesis, the first of the two methods Brown proposes as a way of reading with/against the later secular texts. The contradictory aspects of scripture are resolved by exegesis which employs a "both/and" simultaneous acceptance of meanings, a process of "rich thinking" (17). Scripture models the methods employed by later texts: it teaches and within that teaching it demonstrates how to teach. Why does exegesis offer such bounteous multiplicity? Because the "readerly labor" of seeing through the contradiction to the deep meaning beyond is the method of self teaching being promoted. Chapter 2, "Contradiction in the City. John of Salisbury and the Practice of Dialectic," contrasts the "both/and" of exegesis with the "either/or" of dialectic. This very helpful and clear formulation identifies two refinements in dialectic, the constructions of John of Salisbury and of his teacher Peter Abelard. Brown begins with the student, John of Salisbury, and his text Metalogicon in which John "writes a moderate and moderating critique of the excesses of contemporary dialectical teaching and reading" (40). What John argues for essentially is a mediating "Middle Term," which is, however, modal and dependent on context and intention. Metalogicon is an interesting choice. While it is useful in making Brown's point about John's stance on dialectic, it is also a transparent work which directly addresses what and how to teach while demonstrating the same within itself, "John has a constant preference for teaching process over content -- for active or nominal doctrina "(46). John's relatively straightforward approach serves as an enticing contrast to the works subsequently discussed, which perform the same moves with much more contrariness. The following chapter "Negation is Stronger: The Question of Abelard" focuses on two issues: Abelard himself and Abelard's writings on dialectic. In observing that Abelard as a biographical subject is a walking contradiction, Brown connects the well-known history of Abelard with his philosophical writings. Just as he practices dialectical reasoning, Abelard sets up a system in Historia calamitatum which employs "the oppositional model of self-definition;" the struggle to defeat his teachers and his correspondance with Heloise reflect a life spent in dialectic. Abelard's answer to the dialogic conundrum is much different from John's mediating Metalogicon. Abelard's Sic et non consists of conflicting biblical and patristic citations juxtaposed without the buffering mediation of authorial commentary and resolution. Yet, Abelard's introduction guides readers out of the aporias into which the text places them by valorizing active reading with an objective to finding the "either/or" truth.

The study of these three approaches to contradictory writing -- the multiplicity of exegesis, John of Salisbury's dialectic compromise, and Abelard's dialectic "yes or no" -- lays the groundwork for understanding the method of the two secular texts which follow. Chapter 4 "Sophisticated Teaching: The Double-Talk of Andreas Capellanus" takes contradictory instruction into the secular realm and shows how De amore, like the previously discussed works, has as much to teach about teaching and reading as it does about its ostensible subject. Critics have long agreed that Capellanus wrote a dialectical text. In the first half (Books 1 and 2) the teacher is an admirer of love and women and in the second half (Book 3) he overturns all that has gone before in misogynist tirade. Critics, have not, however, been able to agree on the work's meaning. Is it searching for mutually satisfying multiple meanings, for a compromise a la John of Salisbury, or for definitive truth? None of the above, exactly. Brown proposes that De amore produces a double meaning which works as a "sic et non," but "Where Abelard's oppositional structure is designed to provoke . . . a guaranteed epistemological and spiritual payoff, Andreas' assiduous reading process . . . is sealed with the text's own processes and bounds (114). Mirroring Capellanus, Brown does not tell us what the text means, but instead how it means and how it teaches us to understand what it means. The final chapter, "Between One Thing and the Other: The Libro De Buen Amor," demonstrates how this difficult teaching text operates like De amore in pitting heavenly and carnal love against each other. But, "Where Andreas' preceptor insisted on either/or distinctions, the first-person narrator of the fourteenth century Spanish Libro De Buen Amor seems intent on collapsing senses rather than distinguishing them. This is a text delighting in the in-between" (117). Here, Brown examines the ways exempla contribute to the melt-down of decisive meaning. The Exemplum of the Greeks and Romans illustrates that all strategies are both right and wrong, while the moral of "The Tale of the Five Astrologers" returns to the exegetical approach that "Teaching might be multiple." This is a text which implies there is an answer, but does not give it. It is, finally "a teaching text that teaches Everything" (143).

In her conclusion which returns to the thesis that all of these are works which primarily teach teaching, Brown reiterates, "The poetics of contrary teaching in the Middle Ages are built on an insistent return to Augustine's dialectic crossroads where, when the fog lifts, the way is marked with mutually noisy signs" (149). She amply demonstrates this in her book Contrary Things. Throughout, Brown deals with concepts difficult to express fully and clearly, and yet she makes the job easier on the reader by repeating her thesis frequently from different angles, giving alternate ways to view the same point, and by clear signposting and organization. All of this is presented in a pleasingly authoritative, and yet entertaining, scholarly voice.