03.09.09, Hollywood, Sensible Ecstasy

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Deeana Klepper

The Medieval Review baj9928.0309.009


Hollywood, Amy. Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History. Religion and Postmodernism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Pp. xvi, 371. ISBN: 0-226-34952-7.
ISBN: 0-226-34951-9.

Reviewed by:
Deeana Klepper
Boston University

The study of gender in medieval Christian spirituality has been moving in new directions in recent years, both building upon and challenging Carolyn Walker Bynum's groundbreaking work in Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (1982) and Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Women (1987). Where Bynum fostered an understanding of medieval women's spirituality as substantially different from men's, one direction within recent scholarship focuses on the tension between women's spiritual leanings and gendered expectations in medieval society, suggesting that we need also to distinguish men's perception of women's spirituality from women's spirituality itself.

Amy Hollywood has established herself as one of the most important scholars in the field through her learned and subtle reading of medieval mystical writing. In The Soul as Virgin Wife (1995) she compared Beatrice of Nazareth's description of her mystical path with that of Beatrice's hagiographer to demonstrate the imposition of embodiedness on female mystical experience by male religious authority and then drew a convincing depiction of Mechthild of Magdeburg and Marguerite Porete as pushing against the imposed limitations of somatic mystical experience. Insofar as women did embrace a more affective, embodied mysticism than men, Hollywood reminds us that such a path was the only one deemed appropriate for women by male religious authorities, and Marguerite Porete's death at the stake indicates the potential risks inherent in violating those norms.

In her most recent book, Hollywood builds upon this earlier work but also brings together her interests in medieval Christian mysticism and gender theory in new ways, crossing disciplinary boundaries and bringing medievalists' concerns to new audiences. Published in Mark C. Taylor's "Religion and Postmodernism" series, this work will be of interest to scholars of postmodern intellectual culture, gender theory and philosophy of religion as well as medievalists. Drawing on her deep knowledge of medieval mysticism and her previous work on the problem of gendered spirituality, Hollywood concentrates here on a group of twentieth-century French intellectuals-- George Bataille, Simone de Beauvoir, Jacques Lacan, and Luce Irigaray--exploring their fascination with the sort of affective, embodied, extreme religious experiences attributed to medieval women mystics. While acknowledging that "the relationship between the four thinkers is not without tensions and contradictions," (13) she sees each of them utilizing the affective mysticism of medieval women as a way to explore subjectivity in modern experience. While her primary focus in the book is on her twentieth century subjects rather than the medieval figures they embraced, Hollywood's analysis also furthers our understanding of gender and spirituality in the Middle Ages, framing new ways of thinking about the mystics' use of bodily language in describing their experiences and the problem of subjectivity in medieval context. The theoretical discourse developed throughout the work may fit into a literary or philosophical framework more readily than a historical one, but even medievalists who may not find the psychoanalytic reading compelling have much to gain from this book, from the fresh perspectives on familiar medieval figures and, perhaps above all, from Hollywood's reiteration of the caveat she has issued in other works: before we attribute certain kinds of characteristics to women's spirituality and religious practice as distinct from men's, we need to sort out the relationship between actual religious experience and its literary representation.

The book is divided into three unequal parts, each with its own introduction. The first is centered around Georges Bataille's understanding of and identification with mysticism, suffering, and the dissolution of the self in ecstasy, the second, much shorter, section on Simone de Beauvoir's and Jacques Lacan's respective gendering of mystical experience as essentially feminine, and the third on the complex feminist revaluation of mysticism by Luce Irigaray, who saw in Christian mysticism as "the first site in which a feminine imaginary and potential symbolic appear." (5)

In chapter one, Hollywood looks at Georges Bataille's Story of the Eye, analyzing the relationship between the "violently erotic" first half, Tale, and Bataille's seemingly autobiographical commentary upon it, Coincidences. Most compelling in its implications for the reading of medieval religious writing is her discussion of autobiography (Bataille's "autobiography" here) as a rhetorical device employing the self in order to dissolve the self rather than a literal presentation of historical fact. The end of the chapter includes a brief exploration of the parallels between Bataille's erotic desire and the medieval mystic's spiritual desire, setting up the next chapter's more extensive look at the role of sadomasochism/suffering in the obliteration of self in Bataille's Atheological Summa and Angela of Foligno's Book. Chapter three continues and expands the parallel into the realm of visualizing meditative practice and the literary imitation and invocation of that practice. Hollywood analyzes Guilty, the second book of Bataille's Atheological Summa in which he discusses his wartime meditation on photographic images of torture--sharply criticized by contemporaries and, Hollywood suggests, seriously misunderstood--with reference to Angela of Foligno, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and finally Marguerite Porete and Meister Eckhart. Hollywood makes good use of her earlier material on Mechthild, Marguerite and Eckhart here, further clarifying her thought on the medieval use of visual/visionary meditation and the intimate relationship between cataphatic and apophatic mystical experience, between the processes of "saying" and "unsaying."

The second part of the book on the gendering of mysticism is divided into two chapters, one on Simone de Beauvoir and the other on Jacques Lacan. Hollywood suggests that for Beauvoir, mysticism represented an attempt--especially on the part of women whose power to act in the world was limited by society-- "to be everything" (120-121) while for Lacan mysticism represented an essentially feminine reality of lack, of "not all". (119) Where Beauvoir was interested in the way real women in the world turned to mysticism in their quest for fullness, Lacan's gendering of mysticism rested in the realm of the symbolic rather than the historical.

From opposite assumptions and to different effect, both Beauvoir and Lacan consciously employed gender to achieve an understanding of Christian mysticism (or, as one might equally say, employed Christian mysticism to achieve an understanding of gender). Part three involves a more thoroughgoing engagement with explicitly feminist critique, exploring Luce Irigaray's struggle with sexual difference and the essential misogyny of psychoanalytic understanding of subjectivity from Freud to Lacan alongside the struggle of medieval women mystics with the essential misogyny of medieval religious thought.

Chapters six and seven deal with Irigaray's writing on God, mysticism, Christian theology, sexual difference and subjectivity. In a fascinating discussion of Irigaray's search for a distinctive feminine model of subjectivity and engagement with the Christian concept of God and medieval mysticism in that search, Hollywood is truly in her element, joining a highly readable, well-drawn analysis of Irigaray's feminist philosophy with alternative, more sustainable readings from the medieval context. In chapter eight she turns her attention to medieval women mystics' experience of the body in light of medieval assumptions about women and the body. Irigaray's feminist rejection of extant definitions of subjectivity is linked with Beatrice of Nazareth's rejection of a male defined embodiment of mystical experience. Hollywood probes the complexity of the problem of embodiment in medieval women's spirituality. Medieval women do seem to have utilized their bodies as devotional sites more excessively than men, and they do seem to have embraced bodily metaphors as ways of describing even thoroughly interior sensations. But as Hollywood points out, when we learn about women's spirituality through hagiographical sources, the nature of the genre amplifies this embodiedness, as it tends in general to "represent the internal disposition of the soul through external narrative devices". (252) Hollywood argues that this general characteristic of hagiography is heavier handed in the lives of holy women. She attributes this to the identification of women with the body in medieval thought and the resulting assumptions about the "mystically marked" female body, a medieval power structure that granted women religious authority almost exclusively through visionary/auditory or mystical experience, and the linking of the body with those imaginative processes. Bodily metaphors intended by women to represent internal experience were "literalized and externalized by hagiographers". (253) Though this may seem a familiar trope from Hollywood's previous work, it is presented here in quite different form, as she approaches the problem from the perspective of a feminist discourse on subjectivity, placing the now somewhat familiar concern in a new light.

Hollywood finishes the book with a very brief conclusion expressing the conviction that feminist philosophy might "learn from the doubleness of mystical discourse and practice, which reflects and speaks to the deep ambiguities within bodily existence. Poised between the desire to transcend the body's limitations and the recognition that transcendence occurs only through the body, women like Beatrice of Nazareth, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Hadewijch, and Angela of Foligno hold out the possibility that endless ceaseless, illimitable desire might be thought and lived outside of a phallic law of impotence." (278)

Though deeply immersed in the language of psychoanalytic and feminist theory, Hollywood achieves an impressive clarity of thought and expression in this book. Even those without her thorough grounding in theory will find what they need to be able to follow her thought. By crafting an introduction to each part as well as to the whole and by summarizing her ideas at the end of each chapter, Hollywood highlights her direction explicitly for the reader. The first ten pages of the introduction are highly condensed and presume a greater familiarity with the figures and texts introduced than may be warranted, but Hollywood does go on to provide everything a reader unfamiliar with either the twentieth-century or the medieval texts would need to know to benefit from the book.

Hollywood's mastery of theory and the power of her analysis make this a compelling and thought-provoking work. Beyond its contribution to our understanding of medieval religious literature and gender distinctions, its creative interaction of medieval and modern material also provides a valuable model for the use of theory in medieval scholarship.

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Author Biography

Deeana Klepper

Boston University