17.11.17, Hollywood, Acute Melancholia and Other Essays

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Rachel Fulton

The Medieval Review 17.11.17

Hollywood, Amy. Acute Melancholia and Other Essays: Mysticism, History, and the Study of Religion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. pp. xiv, 398. ISBN: 978-0-2311-5643-1 (hardback) 9780231156448 (paperback) 978-0-23152-743-9 (ebook).

Reviewed by:
Rachel Fulton
University of Chicago

Amy Hollywood has long been recognized as one of our field's most incisive critics of the way in which we as medievalists approach the study of religion, particularly with respect to questions of the body, sex, gender, and sexuality. In this volume, she brings together eleven essays, ten published between 1999 and 2006 along with one previously unpublished lecture from the same period, prefaced with a new introduction in which she wrestles poignantly with the question at the root of her ongoing quest: how, if at all, is it possible to study religion critically without faith?

The essays as a collection make for challenging reading, as each invites the reader to enter into this fundamental problem of critique: what does it mean to talk about religion from the outside without invalidating the understanding of those who experience religious thought and practice from within? Throughout there runs a melancholic thread of suspicion that the answer is no, it is not possible to understand religion without faith, making critique ultimately impossible without worship, and yet, without critique, nothing can be asserted to be real or true--except pain.

The negative becomes perhaps most poignant at the conclusion to the introductory "triptych" in which Hollywood laments the failure of her quest: "For too long, the injunction to critique has rested on unquestioned—uncritiqued--melancholic foundations. For Freud, the self-critical function comes into the psyche through melancholic incorporation. Today, I think, the internalized judging agency has become the sorrowing, suffering world" (63). At this point--the end of the introduction but in fact the most recent moment in the book--Hollywood seems to be looking for a way out of the sorrow, thus arguably the continuing attraction of the sources she studies.

Building on the work of theorists including Judith Butler and Georges Bataille, critique taught her that the real was founded in the body, suffering, and trauma, and what could be more traumatic than the lives of many medieval female mystics? And yet, as Hollywood herself has repeatedly shown, the women themselves did not describe their lives as traumatic, but filled with joy. What to modern readers trained in Freudian and post-Freudian critique looks like hysteria, to medieval Christians trained by the daily practice of singing the psalms looked like the ecstasy of worship. Whereas for modern readers what is unspeakable is the reality of another's pain, to medieval Christians it was their joy, all the more real and true for the fact that it was grounded in praise.

"Might joy be as real as trauma, or at least potentially so?" Hollywood asks (60). "Are we [modern critics of religion], like [Henry Adams's character] Wharton, only capable of finding the real in 'intense suffering and at the instant of death'?...Are we no longer capable of telling stories in which the unspeakable is the site of jubilation rather than lamentation, of beautiful voiceless song rather than inarticulate screams, of a body spinning with delight [Hollywood has been talking about Christina the Astonishing] rather than one twisted in agony?" (62). Her answer is telling: "The danger [to whom?] of [Thomas of Cantimpré's] Life of Christina the Astonishing and the story it tells about joy and suffering is that the one depends on the other....What Christianity shows...[is that] we can't live well--we can't live--on sorrow and anger and rage alone" (63-64).

Why is this conclusion dangerous? And to whom? Not to the women and men whom Hollywood has studied over the past several decades and to whose writings she returns--in her own word, doggedly--over and over again in the essays collected here. For Christina the Astonishing, Beatrice of Nazareth, Margaret Ebner, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete, Hadewijch, Margery Kempe, and Meister Eckhart, the image of the suffering Christ was not primarily one of melancholy, but of joy. Their problem was not to look upon it with jubilation, but with "sorrow and anger and rage," thus, arguably, the meditations which Hollywood describes in the titular essay to the collection, where Beatrice of Nazareth and Margaret Ebner develop practices in which they rehearse over and over again the trauma of Christ's passion. If for Ludwig Feuerbach, God was "a projection and reification of human capacities, values, and possibilities onto a divine other" (86), for Beatrice and Ebner--as Hollywood argues--God was found in the recognition of loss and responsibility to others, in mourning, not in yearning towards an ideal. And yet, is this reading of their meditations not itself a projection of Hollywood's own sense of loss, poignantly captured in her own closing meditation to this essay through the story of her brother's death?

"No one in my family can tell a story without telling twenty-five," Hollywood confesses, "not just because one story inevitably leads to another, but also because any given story is embedded with endless digressions, only seemingly incidental anecdotes, all wending their way toward some grand narrative finale, which tends never quite to arrive. (As my students know, this is all too often the way I teach)" (67). It is also the way she writes, wending her way through medieval examples and modern criticism, effortlessly and yet with great intellectual labor. Some will find these essays exhilarating to read, dense as they are with allusions to critical theories never quite explained, medieval lives never fully revealed. Others, more historically inclined, will find them frustrating for much the same reasons.

If Christina the Astonishing spent her life chanting the psalms, as Hollywood herself acknowledges, which psalms and what did they say? What effect did these ordinary practices have on the way in which medieval Christians experienced and understood their faith? The challenge continues to be that posed by the historical-critical method with its emphasis on reason as opposed to (rather than supported by) faith. "What would it mean to give oneself over--even provisionally--to a form of life in which criticism is grounded in the divine, in tradition, authority, or community?" Hollywood asks. "The world is full of others--living others--who challenge me more immediately [than medieval Christians like Marguerite Porete, with whom she has been wrestling about Reason], and to whose challenge I must respond with a willingness to hear what is different in their beliefs, their words, and their actions, even if those differences call into question the things I most deeply hold and am. The goal is not agreement, consensus, or the discovery of common ground. The goal is to hear what I cannot assimilate" (145). But what if we cannot hear without allowing that what those "living others" say is real and true even exists?

I found this book profoundly sad. I have been reading Hollywood's work with great interest since her The Soul as Virgin Wife: Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete, and Meister Eckhart (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press) came out in 1995. I have followed her intently as she wrestled with the work of our colleagues, particularly Caroline Walker Bynum and Barbara Newman in their attempts to discover peculiarly feminine forms of medieval spirituality. I read the majority of these essays when they originally appeared ten or more years ago, although as their greatly expanded notes indicate, the questions that they raise are far from answered. What saddened me was not that the questions remain--the question of pain cannot be answered, only felt--but rather that Hollywood herself yearns for an answer that cannot come in the terms that she has set.

Over and over again in these essays, she overturns others' efforts to reconcile that which can be said (the cataphatic) with that which escapes expression (the apophatic), reason with the excesses of sorrow and joy. In her own words: "The essays collected here all, in one way or another, touch on my preoccupation with the real, the true, and critique; they explore the ways in which we make real the worlds in which we live; they attempt to demonstrate the inescapably intertwined work of imagination and critique through which we create and discover the true" (17). Like Henry Adams, whose grief over the suicide of his wife Clover Hollywood uses to set the stage for her own grief at the loss of "a reality not mired in melancholy" (41), Hollywood appears to long for a way to feel the Virgin Mary as well as her Son as a "force"--something real, not just something imagined--even as she insists that the answer cannot lie in resurrection from the dead, in Easter rather than Good Friday, in joy rather than pain.

Reading as a Christian, which Hollywood takes care to point out she is not, it is impossible not to feel sad, not because her absence of faith makes her unqualified or "incompetent to participate in the debate" (9), but because faith is so clearly the thing that she wants to understand. Even sadder, however, is the fact that, like Dorothy in Oz, the answer is already on her feet and has been all along: it is the soul at work in worship of God and love of neighbor. As Meister Eckhart showed, in Hollywood's own words: "Every act of justice...is the birth of the son in and as the soul" (266). Or, as one of my own friends recently put it, the answer to despair is not reason, but praise

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