contributor.author: Derrick G. Pitard

title.none: Frese and O'Keeffe, eds., The Book and the Body (Pitard)

identifier.other: baj9928.9905.012 99.05.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Derrick G. Pitard, Slippery Rock University, lollard@worldnet.att.net

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Frese, Dolores Warwick and Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe, eds. The Book and the Body. University of Notre Dame Ward-Philips Lectures in English Language and Literature, Vol 14. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997. Pp. xviii, 169. $24.95 (HB) 0-268-00699-7. ISBN: $15.00 (PB) 0-268-00700-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.05.12

Frese, Dolores Warwick and Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe, eds. The Book and the Body. University of Notre Dame Ward-Philips Lectures in English Language and Literature, Vol 14. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997. Pp. xviii, 169. $24.95 (HB) 0-268-00699-7. ISBN: $15.00 (PB) 0-268-00700-4.

Reviewed by:

Derrick G. Pitard
Slippery Rock University
lollard@worldnet.att.net

At the beginning of his third sermon on the Song of Songs, St. Bernard encapsulates the power of textuality in a wonderfully brief sentence: "Hodie legimus in libro experientiae," "Today we read in the book of experience." Bernard's sermons on the Song of Songs, the text which beyond all others in the Bible is concerned with bodies, are brilliant examples of the church's power to turn even the consummate bodily experience of sex into a text to be "read." The Biblical lovers' intimate perceptions of sight, touch, smell, and taste address fundamental desires and apparently un-Christian (or at least un-monastic) impulses, but Bernard's sermons show that it is because of the text's eroticism, not despite it, that the Song of Songs becomes an ideal location to reauthorize the discursive power of the church. In Bernard, texts create bodies, not the other way around. Because it is about bodies, one comes to think, it must be about texts. Bernard's purpose is to re-order learning by making the text, specifically the interpretation of the Bible, into the supreme authority which interprets experience, fighting against the impulse to read a text in the light of one's past acts or experiences. Each of the four essays in this volume, by Mary Carruthers, Michael Camille, Seth Lerer, and Carolyn Dinshaw, examine how and why writers argue for such discursive authority. Since each project differs greatly from the others, I will comment on each in turn, though I will draw out several common threads which recur.

In the first, entitled "Reading with Attitude, Remembering the Book," Carruthers describes how writers from late antiquity through the twelfth century (her examples include Cassian, Bernard, and Anselm of Bec, among others) conflate images of the body with arguments for the primacy of the Text. This paper is presumably part of her larger project freshly published by Cambridge entitled The Craft of Thought, which promises to be a complement to her popular study The Book of Memory (though I haven't yet seen the new volume). Continuing with her earlier work on memory, for instance, she here describes Bernard's counsel on how to interpret experiences which pre-exist a conversion to Christianity. Should they be deliberately forgotten? This is impossible. She cites Bernard, who tells how forgetting as well as remembering are impressed upon the body: "what scraper could bring it about that my memory would remain whole and yet its stains be dissolved? Only that living, powerful word, more cutting than any two-edged sword: 'your sins are forgiven you'" (19). The (one assumes painful) process of converting to Christianity, of inscribing the allegiance to the Text into one's experience, is only partly composed of creating new memories. To a great extent it also requires the re-interpretation of memories which pre-exist conversion. Such experiences must be re-ordered, and this is one of Carruthers' primary points. One's "attitude" or "stance" towards those memories is "critical to their moral utility" (20). She also makes this point via an analysis of the associations which circulate around the syllable "punct-" and its linguistic descendants "compunction," "punctuation," "puncture," and so on: "the wounding of the page (in punctuation) and the wounding of memory (in `compunctio cordis') are symbiotic processes, each a requirement for human cognition to occur at all" (2). The wounding of the page presumably means (she does not explicitly tease out the analogy) to provide an order to thought; Malcolm Parkes in his Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West describes how in antiquity readers, not scribes, provided their own punctuation to a text in order to make sense of phrases as they read them aloud (9-12). Making text readable is necessary to make it legible. Understanding, analogously, requires readers to punctuate themselves, to create identities which are legible according to the communities' norms. This could be physically acted out in compunction: she notes the late medieval trope which likens the Body of Christ to a page of parchment (notable in versions of the "Charter of Christ"); it did not escape notice that parchment was flesh.

Michael Camille's "The Book as Flesh and Fetish in Richard de Bury's Philobiblion" describes a man apparently more obsessed with the flesh itself in his efforts to create a textual community in a much more literal sense -- out of his library. Camille describes the dizzying variety of ways in which de Bury, a bishop of Durham during the first half of the fourteenth century, eulogizes his personal collection of manuscripts shortly before his death. De Bury conceives of his books as bodies, and (to cite the sections of his argument) Camille therefore demonstrates how de Bury fetishizes, engenders, mortifies, defiles, and memorializes them as objects of desire. Camille has written on this topic before, notably in his essay "The Image and the Self: Unwriting Late Medieval Bodies" in the volume Framing Medieval Bodies. Whereas that essay describes how various kinds of social identities are articulated through the metaphor of the body, here Camille describes how de Bury's obsession seems to overwhelm the proper order of things described by Bernard. Books are objects to be desired in many ways apart from their contents. The book is an extensively theorized fetish for de Bury, "in the Freudian sense of the eroticized substitute object . . . a provocation to desire and possession" (36).

Even more than in Carruthers' essay, Camille's demonstrates the seductive critical temptation of using one set of metaphors to clarify another. Seth Lerer, in the essay which follows Camille's, notes that "one might well resist the wholesale application of Freudian theory" to an earlier period, presumably because this would run the risk of committing an anachronism (107). The impression of psychoanalytic images onto de Bury's is irresistible, however, if not necessary, for us as late twentieth-century readers to make sense of the density of de Bury's text. Camille mentions that "de Bury becomes a test-case . . . for the interpenetration of corporeality and codicology that is crucial to an understanding of the late medieval book" (36). His interpretation of de Bury is very convincing, but I would very much like to hear more of what Camille has to say about this larger cultural context for his discussion. Yet this is, presumably, part of the purpose of collecting these essays together in such a volume, to illuminate each other. The associations which Camille teases out of the Philobiblion between a mother's body and language acquisition, between the penetration of the manuscript leaves and the penetration of the body, and the scopic desire of peering into a library all complement Carruthers' points about the medieval desire to use texts to define identity, though the desire seems to remain in de Bury himself, in the writer, rather than, as Bernard would have it, in the reader. Seth Lerer, in "The Courtly Body and Late Medieval Literary Culture," discusses a community which is more social than de Bury's textual fantasies, but in many ways just as intimate. His contribution, related to his larger project published in 1997 by Cambridge entitled Courtly Letters in the Age of Henry VIII, argues that during the early Tudor period the use of later medieval, especially Chaucerian, literary paradigms "provided not the rules of public but of private life." By analyzing the ways in which texts circulate among readers, he disputes the "traditional line . . . propogated by C.S. Lewis, John Stevens, Raymond Southall, H.A. Mason, and others," who argue that the change from medieval to Renaissance, especially in the change to the court of Henry VIII, was a change from the gray to the colorful, the austere to the aureate (80). Lerer begins with Stephen Hawes allegorical Pastime for Pleasure, an interesting choice after Lewis's comment in The Allegory of Love that "no poem gives us the impression of so wide a gap between its actual achievement and the thing it might have been" (179), and A.C. Spearing's more recent comment in Medieval to Renaissance in English Poetry that "Hawes is at his best poetically not, as he would presumably have liked to think, at his most allegorical, but at the moments of romantic picturesqueness which really are reminiscent of his admired Lydgate" (254). Yet Lerer does not try to resurrect Hawes as a brilliant poet or allegorist. Rather, he examines aspects of the Pastime, especially blazons and the moments of "romantic picturesqueness" to which Spearing refers, to "define the courtly self as something of a body on display, caught between openness and priviness" (89). While Lerer sidesteps rather than directly argues against the objections made by Lewis and Spearing, his critique brings the text into the critical space opened by Stephen Greenblatt and others in the context of later writers, including More and Wyatt, about the personal "self-fashioning" of Tudor culture. Lerer makes the private nature of this self-fashioning fascinatingly evident in the use to which the Pastime was put by one of its readers, Humphrey Wellys, who anthologized the work with others in a private manuscript. Wellys' manuscript contains works that would have been enjoyed by his social circle in Staffordshire in the mid-1530s. Partly because of this, and that it was compiled after the advent of print, it is a more private kind of compilation than later medieval compilations such as those by John Shirley or Robert Thornton which imitated the patterns of manuscripts constructed for public dissemination. Wellys' is more of a commonplace book, and therefore contributes "to the idea of literary authorship and, as a consequence, [to the study of] early modern subjectivity itself" (108). Wellys' selection and compilation of his items "refigures the idea of a body of work. It makes the commonplace book into a body. The personal anthology becomes a blazon for a larger work: a selective dismembering that takes the individuated sections of a text and makes it the precious object of visual (or scribal) delectation" (109). Lerer's analysis here is, to an extent, metaphorical, as he too plays with the slippery term "body." His underlying point, however, seems clear -- that Wellys' enjoyment of Hawes, Chaucer, Skelton, and the other authors whom he includes not only demonstrate his voyeuristic impulses, but make us critical voyeurs as we examine the corpus of his text. Carolyn Dinshaw's essay which closes the volume, "Getting Medieval: Pulp Fiction, Gawain, and Foucault," is an entirely different project altogether. She addresses three very disparate texts -- Quentin Tarantino's film Pulp Fiction, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality -- yet her object is not to interpret them, but to articulate her experience of reading these texts as a queer critic. Unlike the other critics, who disclose medieval critical communities, Dinshaw contrasts "Quentin Tarantino's Middle Ages" with her own view of the medieval period ("My Middle Ages"), framed in a discussion of Gawain, to show how the Middle Ages has provided modern readers with a place for the normalization of straight white masculinity. Much of the uniqueness of the essay in this volume lies in Dinshaw's voice, which because of her agenda speaks with both an academic and a personal clarity; partly for this reason, and partly because of the complexity of her argument (her essay is by far the longest, though I would also say the most intereresting, in the volume), I will only comment here on one thread to lead back to the issues of identity I have commented upon in the previous three essays. She begins with the now infamous phrase from Pulp Fiction in which Marsellus Wallace, a large, black underworld boss played by Ving Rhames, vows to take revenge on a white, sado-masochistic southerner (Zed) who has just raped him: "I'm gonna call a coupla pipe-hittin' niggers, who'll go to work on homes here with a pair of pliers and a blow torch. [To Zed] Hear me talkin' hillbilly boy? I ain't through with you by a damn sight. I'm gonna git Medieval on your ass" (cited by Dinshaw, 116). Most occurrences of the word "medieval" in English don't refer to the historical period, but are somehow synonymous with "cruel" or "barbaric." So as Dinshaw argues, the point here is the appearance of "ass" and "medieval" in the same sentence. For the first term, sodomitical rape becomes the worst of many potentially barbarous fates in the film, so bad that Bruce Willis' character (Butch Coolidge) returns to rescue Wallace, though Wallace had only minutes before been trying to kill him. And for the second, as Dinshaw notes, the medieval always lies behind the modern. It is the cruel, sodomitical past which we cannot erase that contrasts with the straight present. If the medieval in the film represents "the impurity of these apparently pure concepts (straightness, whiteness, identity), then 'getting medieval' redoubles that impurity by making the medieval (the abject) itself a role or game" (123). It turns representation into action.

Her aim in citing this she makes clear in the beginning of her discussion of Foucault: Pulp Fiction takes an easy way out of the labyrinth of cultural problems it maps; it is easy at least in part because of its long history -- a history that includes the strategies in SGGK [Sir Gawain and the Green Knight] but which is not inevitable, as Foucault helps us see. My aim is to understand how the all-too-familiar dynamics of a work like Pulp Fiction can be exploded and how . . . a new, post-identitarian and post-medieval ethos can be forged.(137) In Pulp Fiction, and in Gawain, hetero-normativity asserts itself despite, Dinshaw argues, its slippage or confusion at key points. The texts question such normativity at moments of action. These acts are only defined, given meaning and therefore an identity, as the normalizing structures re-assert themselves: the violent actions of Pulp Fiction are in the end resolved for the audience, and Gawain, who briefly "acts like a woman" (130), is saved as Bertilak's wife gives her a knightly favor, the girdle, an act which re-affirms his chivalric manhood, thought the item remains to signify the moment of its slippage. Similarly, I would say in a return to the opening of this review, Bernard in the end contains the sexually transgressive Song of Songs within the normalizing force of his monastic, male textuality. Alone of the four critics in this volume, Dinshaw asks her questions not simply as an academic critic, but as a body: "I'm not only a medievalist but a queer medievalist in the cinematic audience" of Pulp Fiction (125). And as has been a theme through the four essays in the volume, identities -- communal or individual -- are articulated through bodies. Carruthers, Camille, and Lerer write essays which can be plumbed for information, but Dinshaw's essay compels reading as a whole. This, it seems to me, is because she does not sublimate her critical identity to the norms of the text. Her essay enacts what the other critics only point out of their subjects, that the formation of identity is based on acts. Dinshaw cites an interview by Foucault in which he says that "in anonymous sexual encounters there is 'an exceptional possibility of desubjectivization, of desubjection . . . . It's not the affirmation of identity that's important, it's the affirmation of non-identity'" (147). Such encounters are actions devoid of any external construction. They are potentially painful moments: as Bernard says, quoted by Carruthers, "how can I not have pain when the gut of my memory is filled with putrid stuff?" (18). Yet while such moments pose a threat to norms, they are also potentially those at which new positions can be formed. I hope to read more of such writing in medieval studies in the future.