18.03.06, Krug, Margery Kempe and the Lonely Reader

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Karma Lochrie

The Medieval Review 18.03.06

Krug, Rebecca. Margery Kempe and the Lonely Reader. Ithaca NY:Cornell University Press, 2017. pp. xii, 241. ISBN: 978-1-5017-0533-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Karma Lochrie
Indiana University
klochrie@indiana.edu

The title of this book imbeds the author's argument in a lovely allusion to Adrienne Rich's account in "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision" of a specific kind of feminist awakening wherein the lonely female reader turns to books in search of herself and her own path in the world. When this female reader fails to find herself in books, however, she experiences another kind of awareness of the readerly community of which she is a part. Out of the lonely female reader emerges the no-longer-lonely reader who eventually becomes a writer engaged in revising her cultural narrative and contributing to new possibilities for collective identity. Krug opens her book with Rich's concept of revision as awakening by way of addressing what she takes to be the central dynamic of the fifteenth-century Middle English mystical autobiography The Book of Margery Kempe, which is the transformation of both the book's subject and its reader from lonely reader to collaborator in Kempe's mystical project. For Kempe this awakening takes the form of a complex engagement with, and revision of, late medieval devotional literature of comfort in conjunction with her search for fellowship and community with her contemporaries and her reader. This significant revisionary act, according to Krug, is responsible for a mystical autobiography that uniquely features both the self-in-process of formation and the emerging social bonds enacted intra-textually within the world she creates and extra-textually, with her community of readers. For the "lonely reader(s)" alluded to in the book's title, Kempe's book enables a similar therapy against loneliness by inviting them "to read themselves into the pages of the Book itself as active agents participating in the same process of reflection, revision, and self-creation in which Kempe, as both author and reader, engages" (3). Krug's argument deploys and builds on her earlier work on medieval literate practice by demonstrating how Kempe and her book seek out complex and dynamic networks of collaboration whether Kempe is being read to by her spiritual advisor or composing her book with her scribes. The collaboration extends to the reader of Kempe's "autography," a term Krug borrows from feminist literary studies to capture Kempe's efforts to create a community of reader and writer in her book, as well as to construct an ongoing, often nonlinear act of re-envisioning her own life as a "self-in-the-making" (17). Because Kempe's goal is the search for spiritual comfort and community rather than the establishment of theological principles, Krug maintains that the Book is "more therapeutic than theological" (19). Most scholars would agree, but what Krug's study contributes beyond most assessments of Kempe's book is this idea of a self under construction, Kempe's revisionary and collaborative project, and the affective rubric within which we can more fully understand Kempe's complex mystical and autobiographical journeys.

Krug's analysis of the affective structure of Kempe's book begins with the mystical author's expressed aim of providing comfort for herself and her fellows. Krug argues that Kempe was dissatisfied with devotional books of comfort because of their emphasis on personal wretchedness and sinfulness. Kempe's version of comfort ventures in a new direction into the heady realms of "high desire" that "offered a refuge against the depredations of a worldview based on personal wretchedness" (45). Krug tracks Kempe's search for this alternative consolatory aim of high desire and communion with others alternating with her awareness of her own sinfulness in a series of temporal units, from Kempe's experiences in the early years of her conversion, to her isolation and exile in the 1420s and 1430s, to the social scene of writing later in her life, whence Kempe sought to reconnect with like-minded spiritual seekers and escape her isolation. Kempe's consolation thus turns out to be a re-evaluation of what spiritual comfort means, as well as how it is achieved. In this sense, Kempe is not simply the inheritor of a medieval convention, but an active and critical re-shaper of that tradition. This claim in particular is as refreshing as it is persuasive, offering a bracing direction for understanding Kempe as a self-conscious and emotionally intelligent author.

Comfort serves as the gateway affect to the rest of the book. For all the commonplace associations of Margery Kempe's spirituality with late medieval tradition of affective piety, there has been no concerted effort like Krug's to consider what Kempe actually brings to this tradition, rather than what she derives from it. Having suggested the ways in which Kempe revises traditional approaches to comfort based on a persistent, static, and negative awareness of one's own wretchedness, Krug launches into the other four affects contained in Kempe's consolatory project: despair, shame fear, and loneliness. The chapter on despair raises the simple question that is nevertheless rarely raised: why does Kempe begin her book with the story of her post-partum depression and despair over her "secret sin"? Krug argues that Kempe's secret sin was the temptation to commit suicide and that the despair that led her to a failed confession provided the opportunity for a new beginning and a new kind of "narrative proof against despair" (84). Despair proves to be not only the origin of Kempe's autobiography but the beginning of her work as an author to describe and reflect on her feelings. In this respect, as in Kempe's re-visioning of spiritual consolation, she salvages from the destructive dangers of despair a rationale and direction for self-expression, an understanding of God's love, and an experience of joy.

Kempe's struggles with shame in her spiritual development are also reshaped and reinterpreted as evidence of divine favor, while she seeks ways of coping with her own feelings of worthlessness, especially with the visionary reassurances of her own perfection in the future. In this chapter, Krug considers how Kempe redeploys conventional ideas about the spiritual benefits of shame for a more liberating focus on the possibility of the perfected self of the future. Of especial interest in this chapter is Krug's analysis of what she calls the "soundtrack" for Kempe's Book, by which she means a "web of phrases" that together constitute "part of Kempe's strategy against static categorization of shame/self" (114). Among the patterned phrases that Krug examines the book's use of Jesus est amor meus ("Jesus is my love") and the rhyming of heart and smart at various times in the book. Both represent what Krug views as linguistic strategies for enabling a horizon of possibility beyond shame and a more fluid sense of self. Krug briefly alludes to the "gendered" character of some of Kempe's shame insofar as it is associated with female bodiliness and sexuality, but the implications of gender for Kempe's strategies of dealing with her shame goes unexplored.

Fear proves to be one of the most persistent emotions to be found in Kempe's book, according to Krug, from her initial fear of damnation for her secret sin to her fear of the socially alienating effects of her tears. Despite the pervasive role that fear plays in Kempe's life, Krug demonstrates how she is able sometimes to displace it with verbal triumphs over her clerical adversaries and masterful tale-telling. The final chapter on loneliness provides the motive for Kempe's delay until late in her life to write her book as a way of creating a community out of her own isolation. In the ordeal of collaborating with successive scribes, Kempe seeks to reach for a fellowship denied her late in life, as Book 2 documents in her rejection by her daughter-in-law.

In the Afterword to her book, Krug situates her own interests within the historical study of emotions, but she avers that the recent developments in affect theory remain "farther afield" from her work. The lack of engagement with affect theory, however, means that this otherwise stimulating and inventive book misses an opportunity for collaboration with other medieval scholars, as well as contemporary affect theorists. Even if, as Krug explains, she is ultimately interested in "literary and linguistic structure" (214) to understand Kempe as subject and author of her book, her interest in affect as a principle of Kempe's self-fashioning warrants more than a glancing reference to recent work in affect theory in the Afterword. Despite this oversight, Krug's book nevertheless makes an exciting and significant contribution to our understanding of Margery Kempe, theories of autobiography and self-formation, and the complex processes by which an author such as Kempe engages with a devotional tradition in order to revise it and ultimately, to assuage the loneliness of herself and her readers through a newfound community.

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