18.02.05, Davis, The Weight of Love

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Sarah McNamer

The Medieval Review 18.02.05

Davis, Robert Glenn. The Weight of Love: Affect, Ecstasy, and Union in the Theology of Bonaventure. New York:Fordham University Press, 2017. pp. 195. ISBN: 978-0-8232-7453-6. (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Sarah McNamer
Georgetown University

This is a slender but ambitious book. With its resonant title, arresting cover illustration--a hooded image of Francis of Assisi deep in shadow, holding a skull--and opening injunction from Bonaventure's Legenda Maior ("Take a corpse, and place it where you like" [1]), it compels attention. It deserves and rewards that attention in its thoughtful interpretation of affectus, the scholastic concept of synderesis, and the "becoming-body of the soul" in selected works of Bonaventure. Throughout, Davis explicates the mystical and cosmic vision of the sixth-century Syriac ascetic Dionysius the Areopagite and the uptake and redeployment of Dionysian mystical theology in the Bonaventuran corpus. But as he does so, he seeks to link this strand of Bonaventure's thought--the mystical--to another strand, the devotional. The central argument of the book is that "the medieval devotional techniques aimed at inciting and intensifying affective response (usually of compassion, pity, and grief) to Christ's passion found their complement in scholastic reflection on the nature of the affectus and its relationship to the space and time of the soul's return to God" (4).

The volume's five chapters on Bonaventure's works are written with lucidity, precision, and analytical rigor. They are addressed chiefly to those in the field of historical theology. But the book's "Introduction: Weighing Affect in Medieval Christian Devotion" targets a broader audience: it seeks to engage those working in the fields of devotional literature, the history of emotion, and affect theory, inviting such scholars to recognize the relevance of theological analysis to current conversations in these domains. "Affect" is the keyword here, one that Davis takes care to distinguish from "emotion"; invoking Rei Terada's Derridean reading of affect, Davis frames his study as one that "does not assume a unified, self-transparent subject," noting that this seems the most useful way to approach "the seemingly paradoxical experience of dispossession that medieval mystical texts describe" (28). The introduction thus frames the study as one informed by critical theory, affect theory, and histories of emotion, devotion, and mystical theology. Multiple broad claims are set forth, in eloquent formulations. Among the most important of these is a historical claim: that the familiar "affective turn" in medieval devotion, the turn to compassionate identification with the suffering Christ exemplified in the life of Saint Francis, had a parallel in another "affective turn": the revival of interest in Parisian schools of the twelfth century of the Dionysian vision of the cosmic order and ascent to union with God. These two turns, Davis argues, ought to be examined together, for their "coincidence and coimplication has remained largely unexamined" (4). Through a study of their coimplication in the writings of Bonaventure, Davis asserts, we are in a position to see that "the meditational techniques and writings that scholars identify as 'affective' must be examined in conversation with medieval theological sources on the nature and significance of affectus" (5).

The chapters that follow take up aspects of Bonaventure's thought on affect across genres. Chapter 1, "The Seraphic Doctrine: Love and Knowledge in the Dionysian Hierarchy," examines the question of the relation of affect to cognition in Dionysius's mystical theology, tracing this as a means of explaining more fully the image of the Seraph, its importance in high medieval thought, and its significance in the writings of Bonaventure. Davis presents complex material with clarity here, describing Dionysius's program of mystical ascent and esoteric angelogy in brief and compact terms. Observing that the Seraphim, the order of angels closest to God in the Dionysian celestial hierarchy, came to be associated with love and affection only in post-Dionysian interpretations, he illuminates the basis for these affective associations by highlighting the language of light and warmth in Dionysius's own writings. The Seraphim, the highest order of angels, reflect the light and warmth of God; their motion is that of an "endless, marvelous upward thrust toward God" (33). Davis traces how the Seraphim in the Latin version of Dionysius's work, the Celestial Hierarchy, came to represent in the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux, the Victorines, and ultimately in Bonaventure the "ardor of affection" (34) that transcended the intellectual and cognitive capacities of the soul. In the Itinerarium mentis in Deum, Bonaventure describes the soul's transitus ("passing over") and excessus mentis (ecstasy or exceeding of the soul) as a process in which "all intellectual operations must be abandoned, and the height of affect [apex affectus] must be completely carried over and transformed into God" (38). Davis underscores the sense of movement here, noting that Bonaventure "calls the capacity for this supremely simple motion synderesis: The apex of the soul is above intellect and unaffected by knowledge" (44). For Bonaventure, the "inclination by which the soul is moved in ascent belongs to the affectus" (44).

In chapter 2, "Affect, Cognition, and the Natural Motion of the Will," Davis develops his reading of Bonaventure's concept of synderesis. At the outset, he describes this "now-obscure" concept--"the highest point of the soul and the principle of mystical ascent"--as "a focused lens through which to view the interpenetration of scholastic theology and devotional practice" (45). One important claim here is that Dionysian mystical theology "organizes" a devotional program (45). (Precisely whose devotional program--that of St. Francis? Bonaventure's readers? theologically-trained contemplatives who aspire to mystical union?--is not specified). The analysis of synderesis here draws on other thinkers, from Saint Jerome to Thomas Gallus to Joseph Ratzinger, in an effort to frame Bonaventure's thinking on the relationship between cognition and affect. Davis exposes conflicting accounts of synderesis in Bonaventure's writing, but he argues that these are not grounds for dismissing Bonaventure's efforts; rather, the "enduring obscurity" in Bonaventure's analysis is due to "the very intractability of affect, the limits of reducing it to an account, and the ways in which the distinction between the cognitive and the affective pushes, pulls, and twists (yet never fully breaks) Bonaventure's theological synthesis" (49). Davis also traces how Bonaventure thinks through the question of the moral status of synderesis: if synderesis is the will's natural infallible motion, can it err in its desires? No, it seems--unless it is compromised through other, inferior powers of the soul. Bonaventure advances a simple metaphor here, comparing synderesis to "a knight who, in himself, always sits well on his horse, but when his horse falls, he is said to have fallen too" (61). Davis concludes by observing that synderesis, this most "interior" of qualities or capacities, is simultaneously "exterior" to the soul: "in Bonaventure's attempts to represent this pure interiority, a strange reversal or torsion occurs--the innermost becomes ecstatic, a curiously alien force acting upon the soul" (64). This is an important moment in the book, as Davis underscores a paradox that sets up the analysis for the remaining chapters: "The innate affective motion to God, more interior than the structures of discursive knowledge, is also ecstatic, standing outside those structures. As an interiority that exceeds and eludes the order of reason and the logic of cognition, synderesis conforms itself instead, perversely, to the dynamics of embodied movement" (64).

The three chapters that follow elucidate the "embodied dynamics of the natural affectus, tracing at the same time this torsion of interiority and exteriority that manifests itself more spectacularly in the body of Francis, as it is shaped and inscribed in Bonaventure's account" (64). Chapter 3, "Elemental Motion and the Force of Union," will be one of the most intriguing chapters for those interested in the nexus between historical theology and the histories of emotion and the senses. Here Davis analyzes the language of heat, warmth, and weight in Bonaventure's writings on synderesis. "Just as the intellect needs a light for judging, so the affectus needs a certain spiritual heat and weight [calor and pondus] for loving rightly" (65). One of the clearest definitions of synderesis in Bonaventure's writing follows: "Therefore just as in the cognitive part of the soul there is a certain natural judge, which is conscience, so in the affective part of the soul there will be a weight directing and inclining to the good, and this is synderesis" (65-66). Davis links this notion of "weight" to motion. "Bonaventure's theory of affect depends on a theory of motion"(72)--a theory informed by Aristotle but also by Augustine, whose reflections on the "weight of love" in the final book of the Confessions were so influential: "My love is my weight (pondus meum amor meus). By it I am carried wherever I am carried" (76). For Augustine, this weight can be carried upward, towards ecstatic union with God: "In our hearts we rise as we sing a song of ascent" (76). Bonaventure did not invent the trope of the "weight of love," then; but in a characteristically deft formulation, Davis argues that what he did do was to "elevate it from a trope to a key dynamic in his theology of creation and return" (81)--a claim Davis substantiates chiefly through close attention to the Breviloquium.

Chapter 4, "Hierarchy and Excess in the Itinerarium mentis in Deum," Davis returns once more to Dionysian mystical theology, drawing it into an analysis of Bonaventure's interpretation of Francis of Assisi's Seraphic vision as exemplifying "the most ardent love of the Crucified one" (90). Here, Davis links the language of "unknowing" from the Dionysian mystical tradition to affective ascent and union in the Itinerarium. Chapter 5, "The Exemplary Bodies of the Legenda Maior," takes up the question of free will and its relation to affect in the Itinerarium en route to a consideration of Bonaventure's representation of Francis in the Legenda Maior. Even as he acknowledges the generic differences here, Davis seeks to underscore resonances and affinities. "In both accounts, what Bonaventure reveals is the paradoxical coincidence of activity and passivity, the surprising but not inexplicable torsion of inner and outer effected by the divine origin and goal of human beings' natural capacities" (116). Davis advocates reading the Legenda in the context of Bonaventure's other writings about affectus, seeing Bonaventure's Francis as exemplifying the movements of synderesis, in which "subject becomes object, lover becomes beloved, the moved becomes the mover" (126). Francis, in turn, functions as exemplar for "all spiritual persons," as Bonaventure puts it (126).

The conclusion, "A Corpus, In Sum," argues that even in Passion meditations that do not explicitly draw on Dionysian mystical theology, the dynamics articulated in the previous five chapters are at work; "medieval meditation on Christ's passion had a mystical purpose" (132). Davis offers an interesting reading of On the Perfection of Life Addressed to Sisters in this context, highlighting passages of the text that do indeed resonate with the language of mystical ascent and union that he has analyzed in Bonaventure's more overtly Dionysian texts. Passion meditation in general is, in this reading, Dionysian, in ways that previous scholarship has not sufficiently recognized: "The pious affections proper to Passion meditation reveal themselves to be what they always already were--Dionysian, deifying eros" (135).

This is an intelligent book, and it is rewarding to travel through Bonaventure's writings on affect and the "weight of love" with such an engaged and engaging guide. Davis displays sure-footedness in the precise and careful analysis of mystical theology, and he strives to connect the language of traditional theology and theological analysis with contemporary critical theory and with other strands of research on affect and emotion. If the goal has been to bring theology into "conversation" with work on medieval devotion and emotion, however, this goal has only been partially achieved. While the Introduction demonstrates Davis's awareness of recent scholarship and conversations concerning critical theory, affect theory, and the history of emotion, the five chapters that make up the heart of this book do not explicitly engage with or deploy methods offered by work in these fields. There is a significant difference in texture, then, between the Introduction (which gestures towards interdisciplinary questions and debates) and the rest of the book (which for the most part stays within the terms and uses the tools of traditional historical theology).

Another recurrent tendency in the book, especially in the Introduction, is to advance claims that are overly broad or assertive. Can a study of complex theological concepts in the works of a single author, Bonaventure, offer explanatory power for "medieval devotion" in general, in all of its diversity and complexity? Is it really true that "meditational techniques and writings that scholars identify as 'affective' must be examined in conversation with medieval theological sources on the nature and significance of affectus?" (5). Although Davis states that the latter need not demand that we see clerical Latin works as "a theoretically inexhaustible 'background' that guarantees the meaning and import of popular vernacular texts" (5), the distinction between this "limiting interpretive model" and the model advanced by Davis is difficult, at least for this reader, to define. The thrust of Davis's argument often seems to be that there is a rich, complex, esoteric Dionysian theology that undergirds not only Bonaventure's thought, but "medieval devotion" and "late medieval devotional practices" in general. Taking "late medieval devotional practices studied under the banner of 'affective devotion'" (9) as his scope, Davis states, "I suggest that the place of affect in medieval Christian devotion cannot be understood outside of its role in the Neoplatonic cosmos and the program of ascent that medieval theologians in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries found--and substantially expanded and reimagined--in the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius" (9). This is quite simply too broad a claim. It is the kind of sentence one happens upon often in this book, in which the term "devotional" seems to be used interchangeably with "mystical." In part, Davis aims to dissolve the distinctions between these categories. But for empirically-minded readers, it will be all too easy to come up with exceptions to the capacious claims advanced in the introduction (What about the particular textures and uses of vernacular devotional lyrics? What about the pseudo-Bonaventuran strand of Passion meditation, which does not seem to aspire to "mystical ascent"?). One is left wondering how Francis of Assisi himself fits into the model for devotion/mysticism advanced here. Is Davis implying that Francis was aware of the Dionysian concept of synderesis, and that his devotional practices, his experience of interiority, and the imprinting of his flesh with the wounds of Christ were motivated or informed by the Dionysian schema?

One can quibble, but on the whole, the carefulness and precision of the five analytical chapters is exceptionally strong, and even the tendency to reach for the grand, resonant phrase is, in its own way, worthy of admiration. This book seeks to participate in "conversations" about theology and affect, and its intelligent and perceptive author has clearly distinguished himself as an interlocutor one wishes to have at the table.

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