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13.07.02, Cervone, Poetics of the Incarnation

13.07.02, Cervone, Poetics of the Incarnation

Poetics of the Incarnation is a fascinating study that articulates a new way of understanding late Middle English religious writing. Using cognitive linguistics and theology along with literary critical approaches, Cervone explores what she calls "Incarnational poetics," a way of writing that uses the complexities of language itself to express and reflect the mystery of the Incarnation.

An Incarnational poetic, she argues, is an intellectual rather than an affective mode; while the two categories are not mutually exclusive, she is interested in the "more intellectual investigations of Christ's humanity" that emphasize language and how it both expresses and stimulates thought about his incarnation (1). Incarnational poetics "epitomizes a way in which writers sought to understand the relationship of God to humanity by encoding the concept of the Incarnation within linguistic and rhetorical forms that point to Christian truths" (3). Thus, language itself is used in a way that plays with the paradox of the god-made-man, employing metaphors that entail cognitive shifts or reifying Christ's body through interlocking, never fully realized networks of images. Incarnational poetics, then, is invested in the linguistic expression of what would seem to be beyond language. In contrast to the frequent focus on the ineffable in mystical writing, Cervone is interested in supereffability: the ways in which language is used to express the seemingly inexpressible. This happens when language "mak[es] manifest more than it says directly" (159), by pointing beyond its concrete referent, for example, or enacting a paradox through play with narrative time or structure.

Cervone offers this way of reading Middle English religious literature as a corrective to what she sees as a tendency to categorize religious writing too strictly; "mysticism" and "vernacular theology" have begun to be employed simplistically and predictably, limiting our interpretive approaches to--and depth of understanding of--these works (12). Accordingly, she treats a variety of texts in her book. Those that recur most frequently in her study are Julian of Norwich's A Revelation of Love, Langland's Piers Plowman (primarily the C-text), the "Long Charter of Christ," Hilton's Scale of Perfection, and some shorter lyrics. All of these texts employ at least two of three groups of images to represent Christ's body: "book, text, or language," "cloth, clothing, or enwrapment," and "plant, growth, or life force" (5; italics in original). Structured around characteristics of Incarnational poetics rather than analyses of individual works, the book allows for the exploration of parallels between these texts, working against the compartmentalization that Cervone sees as a problem. It also creates a kind of recursive structure--the same texts circle back into the discussion throughout the book--that subtly echoes one of the linguistic turns that interests Cervone: images that recur and expand without ever exhausting themselves.

Each of her five chapters explores one major characteristic of Incarnational poetics. In brief, these are (1) using language in ways that allow it to refer beyond its frame of signification; (2) an interplay between abstract and concrete language that invites us to hold both categories in mind simultaneously; (3) ambiguity regarding the distinction between doer and deed, which is particularly manifest in what she calls "linguistic dilation"; (4) a dual representation of time that seeks to evoke both historical and transhistorical perspectives; and (5) a structure that replicates Christ's role as mediator and midpoint between divine and human. This is, of course, a reductive summary of Cervone's analyses, and the chapter summaries below will provide a fuller explanation of each. But what they have in common is that each hinges upon a doubleness and a seeming paradox. It is this apparently paradoxical quality that is at the crux of attempts to conjure the Incarnation in writing: the need to express both divine and human, the paradox of God becoming man.

Following an introduction that situates the book within current conversations in Middle English literature and briefly introduces both Incarnational poetics and the disciplinary approaches that the book will employ, chapter 1 ambitiously "addresses how language signifies" (15). Specifically, Cervone explores the figurative potential of language, investigating the ways in which language can be used to point beyond its literal meaning (although "literal" and "figurative" become contested categories here). Arguing that metaphor is not a mere ornament, but "fundamental to a way of understanding" (21), Cervone first focuses on single words that bear considerable signifying weight and point to the referential power of language ("Word" and "enigma" for Augustine, Hilton's "Jhesu," and Langland's "figuratyfly"). In the second half of the chapter, Cervone explores how, for medieval writers, language and its cognitive potential are related to embodiment; believing perception and cognition to be based in the body, they use images of the body for matters of the spirit. In the writings of Julian and Hilton, for example, the negotiation of "bodily" and "ghostly" understanding illustrates how sensory perception remains a primary vehicle for spiritual meaning. Focusing on sets of metaphors (sight for understanding, spatial metaphors for the Trinity), Cervone analyzes the careful negotiation of metaphorical language that enables these writers to create a language to express the hypostatic union.

Chapter 2 uses medieval poems that explore metaphors for Christ's humanity to examine the "interplay between abstract and concrete" (15). This interplay is important not only to the use of concrete images to refer to abstract things, but, most importantly for Cervone, to those moments when writers wish to refer simultaneously to something concrete and to an abstract concept, such as in the phrase "the Word made flesh." The tension between the two modes of linguistic signification is particularly significant in metaphors for Christ's humanity, as they bring to mind both the materiality of an image and the immateriality of the metaphorical referent; such metaphors are reflective of and indicate "the challenge of comprehending the nature of the hypostatic union" (57). Here, Cervone draws on the image of the "trewlove," a flower that carries multiple theological significations, in several poems; the use of several image groups in the "Long Charter of Christ"; and clothing imagery in Piers Plowman and Julian of Norwich.

At the end of chapter 2, Cervone coins the term "linguistic dilation" to refer to the "near-personification" that accords agency to an abstraction without actually personifying it (80). This rhetorical move relies on the tension between concrete and abstract, and its means of according agency to language within a narrative is the topic of chapter 3. Entitled "Agency: When Christ as 'Doer' Is Also the 'Love Deed,'" the chapter's guiding image is of a legal deed; in the "Long Charter of Christ," Christ is both the deed and its maker. The image of the deed appears in similarly complex ways in the "Short Charter" and an inscription on the wall of Cooling Castle. Cervone analyzes the ambiguous deictics of these texts and the way in which they blur the boundaries of agent and action. The second half of the chapter considers the same blurring with respect to the Leaps tradition, which plays with the image of Christ--or Love--performing a series of salvific "leaps" (into humanity, into hell, etc.). Ultimately, the leap is both what love is and what it does. Linguistic dilation, Cervone argues, allows this duality; it fleetingly confers agency upon an abstraction without actually personifying it. Linguistic dilation occurs in other Incarnational contexts, such as in Julian's image of "The pretious plenty of his [Christ's] dereworthy blode," which does a great many things without actually becoming a synecdoche for Christ (118-19). The conflation of doer and deed, abstraction and action, is one characteristic of Incarnational poetics.

Time is the subject of chapter 4. As with the other characteristics of Incarnational poetics, the works under consideration embrace a contradictory duality when it comes to time, attempting to evoke both historical and transhistorical perspectives. This duality reflects the paradox of the Incarnation, as Christ was present in historical time but transcends historicity. Using Piers Plowman, the "Long Charter," and Julian's parable of the Lord and Servant, Cervone analyzes passages that conspicuously reflect on time and that suggest that reading can give a glimpse, though not full understanding, of the Incarnation (125-26). This glimpse is granted when the authors of these texts shift the place and time of their narrative in such a way that "an experiential present" emerges--through, for example, the repeated "nows" in Julian's description of the parable (154-55).

Cervone's study culminates in the fifth chapter, "'He is in the mydde point': Poetic Deep Structure and the Frameworks of Incarnational Poetics." Here, Cervone explores the ways in which the "Long Charter," Hilton's Scale, several botanical lyrics, and images of the Lily Crucifixion allow understanding to develop in the reader over time. Reading and writing, she argues, perform a mediating function which reflects but cannot duplicate "the mediation of the Logos" (160). The structure of Incarnational poetics thus situates Christ as a midpoint, both conceptually and through the composition of the poems themselves.

While her readings are complex, Cervone provides lucid explanations of both her arguments and the texts upon which she bases them--her explanation of Julian's theology is one striking example--and offers a compelling way to read literature of the Incarnation. Engagingly written, Poetics of the Incarnation deftly grapples with multiple disciplines, placing present-day cognitive linguistic theory in easy conversation with medieval literature and theology. This book provides exciting new readings of Middle English religious works and a new way of thinking about how language itself creates meaning.