The Medieval Review 15.05.01

Doležalová, Lucie, Jeff Rider, and Alessandro Zironi, eds. Obscurity in Medieval Texts. Medium Aevum Quotidianum, 30. Krems, Austria: Gesellschaft zur Erforschung der materiallen Kultur des Mittelalters, 2013. pp. 196. ISBN: 9783901094323 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Jehangir Yezdi Malegam
Duke University

The Christian reading of Genesis makes obscurity the primary consequence of the Fall, when a cloud hid God from humanity and the mortal condition became one of persistent misunderstanding. Shaped by this ontological catastrophe and by neo-Platonic attempts to "make sense" of our lost sensibility, western literary and philosophical traditions owe a peculiar debt to obscurity. As with other religions of the book, Judaism and Islam, the written word elevates through mystification. In deference to their origins in revealed truth, these traditions must treat words as devices whose raison d'etre is lucid communication--but obscurity reminds that texts tease. Making present a wealth of absences, the written word prompts us to search around and within for ever-greater elucidation, unearthing more obscurity in the service of further meaning.

Obscurity in Medieval Texts developed from a conference held in Prague during October 2011. The conference brought together philologists, historians, scholars of literature and of philosophy, who all appropriate obscurity somewhat differently. By taking obscurity seriously, the contributing authors of this volume complicate and thus reinforce the value of recently challenged hermeneutic approaches to medieval literature. In the introductory essay, the editors discuss the etymological variants of the term obscurity and its historical usage within the western tradition, and provide an overview of the remaining contributions in the volume. They suggest three distinct senses of obscurity handed down from the Indo-European root and expressed in Sanskrit as variants of darkness: suffering, burden and secrecy. The historical discussion that follows demonstrates how western, especially Christian modes of reading could make this darkness productive of transformation but only if such transformation was the order of the day.

The contributions are organized according to chronology of subject matter, and while this produces a disconcerting movement back and forth between themes, the arrangement successfully elaborates changes in the understanding, appropriation and rejection of obscurity between the fifth and fifteenth centuries. Florin Calian's opening essay on Proculus's reading of Parmenides shows a neo-Platonist deliberately producing obscurity to turn Plato's student handbook into a "magical" device. Proculus goads readers deeper into the text with the promise of multi-layered allegorical readings, and then draws them upwards by using allegory as a means of elevating comprehension. Calian astutely suggests we see this recourse to allegory alongside contemporaneous Christian exegesis but strangely he appears to include the Hellenized Jew Philo and the Carthaginian Augustine of Hippo among Alexandrine Christian exegetes.

The alternating acceptance and rejection of obscurity in literary practice knits together most of the subsequent essays. Christiane Veyrard-Cosme treats the world of seventh- and eighth-century Latin poetry, through an elegant discussion of a collection of "enigmas" by the Anglo-Saxon abbot and bishop Aldhelm. In this monastic milieu, enigmas were miniature worlds, obscure by reason of brevity but therefore indicative of the mysteries of creation. Rhetorical strategies of obscuring the text challenged the mind to explore an immeasurable reality but the Carolingian literary "Renaissance" effectively did away with this cultivation of obscurity. As there is no essay covering the Carolingian period, we must look to echoes in later centuries but clearly self-conscious intellectual "awakenings" seem to find obscurity burdensome. While Jeff Rider and Greti Dinkova-Bruun show twelfth-century authors and readers embracing the "play" of obscurity, even as the latter were developing techniques to counter it, Carla Piccone argues that in the production of a distinct genre of thirteenth-century texts, grammar books, obscurity-- and especially brevity--cultivated in a previous age now appeared as a vice.

That such variations of attitude might be the result of era as well as genre come through thanks to Réka Forrai and Päivi Mehtonen. Forrai suggests that medieval and Renaissance translators were working with very different conceptions of obscurity. The former insisted that translated text retain secrets from the original for readers to unlock; they should be translated literally, and in case of difficulty, truth was made by reading the text through reason (i.e. in accordance with the religious system) and not in accordance with the presumed intentions of an author. Renaissance translators opted instead for elegantia and ignoring its conceptual possibilities, found obscurity to be nothing more than a rhetorical roadblock. Mehtonen demonstrates that in at least one late medieval genre, "mystical" texts, obscurity had become essential and was carefully cultivated toward surprising effects. She compares Teresa of Avila's reflexive use of the first person with Samuel Beckett's juxtaposition of the self with its own images to show how a varying "aesthetics of obscurity" serves humor and excitement.

Variations of acceptance do not comprise the sole thread of this collection. Both Hiram Kumper and Noel Putnik show how obscurity in medieval texts inscribed authority for later generations of commentators. Kumper describes commentaries on the Sachsenspiegel and Magdeberg law, by means of which fifteenth- and sixteenth-century jurists sought to maintain the authority of traditional but anachronistic and hence obscure legal texts. Meanwhile, Putnik shows how an unorthodox Renaissance humanist Cornelius Agrippa essentially authorized himself through explication of scriptural obscurities. A contemporary of Martin Luther, Agrippa developed a theology of transformation through faith by putting statements from Paul and John into strange new contextual frames, in one case even arriving at a scriptural justification for magical practices.

The close integration of most of these essays exaggerates the outliers, excellent though they may be in their own right. Zironi's discussion of Virgil's demonic presence in Middle High German poetry is fascinating, and delightful to read but it sits oddly with contributions in which obscurity is the explicit theme. However, as with the medieval commentators who pepper this book, closer reading allows one to appreciate a theme of secrecy that surrounds the Virgilian motif. Similarly, Susan Small's discussion of infinite regress (the production of refracted meaning through constant juxtaposition) is actually a meditation on hermeneutic destruction that takes place when a husband kills a nightingale that his wife has been using as an excuse to communicate with her lover.

Well argued and elegantly written, the essays in this volume are tantalizingly brief on occasion, flirting with their own version of obscurity. In this they clearly bear the marks of a conference volume but as with any good conference--and this must have been one--brief arguments and things left unsaid afford energy and a drive toward further questioning.

Copyright (c) 2015 Jehangir Yezdi Malegam

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