20.04.10 Johnson, Staging Contemplation

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Theresa Coletti

The Medieval Review 20.04.10

Johnson, Eleanor. Staging Contemplation: Participatory Theology in Middle English Prose, Verse, and Drama. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2018. pp. viii, 254. ISBN: 978-0-2265-7203-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Theresa Coletti
University of Maryland College Park

This study advances a multi-layered argument about the contemplative ambitions of late medieval English religious literature, represented here by a range of works that cross genres and literary forms: The Cloud of Unknowing, Julian of Norwich's A Revelation of Love, Piers Plowman, the N-Town Mary plays, and the dramatic texts Wisdom and Mankind from the Macro manuscript (Folger MS. V. a. 354).

Scholarship on Middle English religious writings has affirmed that contemplative practices became more broadly available in late medieval England, part of a larger impulse to promote for lay society devotional habits and preoccupations once considered solely the domain of vowed religious, solitaries, and other individuals committed to a lifework of prayer. Johnson pushes that understanding in bold, new directions, defining "contemplative literature as a subset of devotional literature...that models for audiences a way of coming to know God as fully as possible, and of coming to understand their own relation to the divine experientially" (2). Dislocated from the institutional contexts and cultural assumptions that traditionally have attended it, Johnson's "contemplation" signals "not just an overarching mode of life but also a quotidian practice...not just a vocation but also an avocation, something done occasionally, sometimes seriously and sometimes playfully, sometimes in isolation and sometimes socially" (2-3). Importantly, Johnson's "contemplation" thus turns toward, rather than away from, "participation in the social world, the world of labor and other people" (3). This study further argues that the contemplative commitments of the works it examines are realized--i.e., rendered participatory--in and through the works' formal properties: e.g., their language, poetic idiom, structure, rhetoric, and tone. The sensory, and especially aural, nature of these contemplative texts as literary and poetic entities stages for readers and audiences their central aspirations to know and connect with the divine. Crucially, in Johnson's view, the potential of literary form to inspire and shape participatory contemplation in these works also involves the sophisticated resources of the Middle English vernacular.

The keywords framing this project merit attention. "Participatory contemplation" is a serviceable term, tasked with providing a concept sufficiently capacious to subsume the ostensibly varied devotional aims of prose religious writing, allegorical narrative in alliterative verse, and poetic drama. Derived from Augustinian Trinitarian theology, participation as construed in this study applies to the experience of textually material as well as overtly dramatic verbal artefacts. In relation to these, the idea of "participation" sometimes functions interchangeably with the "staging" of Johnson's title as well as with the term "performance" and its cognates. The religious works examined here helpfully declare their contemplative affiliations. Whereas the Cloud-author directly and Julian more obliquely (53) speak to the process and experience of contemplation, Piers Plowman, N-Town's Mary plays, and Wisdom make contemplation a topic for representation and analysis and even, in the case of Piers and the Mary plays, a narrative or dramatic character. Likewise, as Johnson notes, "partycypacyon" functions almost as a "keyword" in Mankind, where its circulation in "different contexts and grammatical forms" and citation by different dramatic characters bear witness to her claims regarding the social and material styles of late medieval English contemplation (170-71).

As deployed in this study, though, the terms "contemplation" and "contemplative" sometimes prove too elastic. For example, in the book's discussion of the Mary play's MARIA acrostic, the fourfold method of scriptural exegesis silently becomes "four different modes of contemplative reading" (126); Saint Paul is ambitiously affiliated with "Latin contemplative writers" (144). Nonetheless, Johnson's broad formulation of the contemplative impulses of late medieval English religious writing aims to give a name to these works' shared preoccupation with strategies for apprehending and signifying encounters with divinity. Johnson's characterization of Piers Plowmanacknowledges the complexity of such strategies when it points to Langland's promotion of a "more concretely coincident relation between self, other, social world, and Christ" (107). The pressure to formulate contemplation along these lines emerges most clearly in this study's attention to the mixed generic expectations that circulate, especially, in late medieval English drama. Within her larger critical paradigm, Johnson wants to find a space for "comedic contemplation" (169) in N-Town'sMary plays, Wisdom, and Mankind. Her ostensibly counterintuitive claim for the "contemplative power of shared laughter" (167) staged by these plays prompts us to think anew about late medieval English drama's well-known mediations of sacred and profane. Johnson demonstrates how sophisticated manipulations of literary form and vernacular poetics go into the making of "comedic contemplation." If the terms contemplation and participation at times circulate rather loosely in this study, their doing so points to the challenge of capturing efficiently in critical language the simultaneous cognitive, sensory, and material dimensions, in the world and in texts, of experiences that channel the sacred--and to the challenge of recording how far and how deep late medieval writers were willing to go in their efforts to understand and articulate the creatively enabling paradox of the Incarnation.

The major new insights of this book are too plentiful to be easily catalogued, much less summarized; I highlight a few here. Part one explores "participating in time and eternity" in this study's two most overtly contemplative works. For the Cloud of Unknowing, Johnson demonstrates how the work's prose style enacts a theory of "atomic time" whereby eternity is "made sensible to a time-bound" contemplative (31). Despite an opposition to "sensation as a basic spiritual tool," the Cloud-author ironically deploys intricate "aural and rhythmical effects...in English prose" as a point of entry to the contemplative experience (39-40). Just as Julian imagines an expansive contemplative community of "evencristenes," her Revelationcharacterizes, through its prose modalities, the time/eternity boundary as fluid and porous, generative of a "sensory simulacrum of Jesus's temporality, his eternity, and his perpetuity" (51). In one of this book's most significant departures from traditional assumptions about late medieval contemplation and contemplatives, Johnson's discussion ofPiers Plowman recognizes "the radical compatibility and even coincidence of labor with contemplation" (104). Important in itself, this claim also serves as the pivot point between this book's two parts, introducing the late medieval dramas that Johnson is about to take up as continuing evidence of the "social and contemplative energy" of Langland's poem going "rogue" (104). Just as bold is her notice that medieval English literary scholarship may have posited a fifteenth-century decline in "innovative and original contemplative writing" because it has been looking for it in all the wrong places (107). The right places, she contends, are the vernacular stages of the East Anglian dramas. Johnson's groundbreaking analyses of the performative theologies of these works underscore how their stylistic and theatrical achievements work in tandem with their spiritual aspirations. In particular the Macro Wisdom and Mankind emerge as works primed to speak to each other in exciting new ways. Although Johnson does not highlight the point, the fact that four of this book's six examples of participatory contemplation are of East Anglian origin productively raises new questions about the spiritual and social proclivities of late medieval regional literary cultures.

Staging Contemplation is an important study. Beyond its contributions to the long critical conversation about medieval English religious writing, the book's complicated argument advances the recent case for thinking hard about the signifying properties of medieval English literary forms. At the same time, Johnson's careful elucidation of the stylistic and linguistic properties of these Middle English works expands knowledge of that vernacular as a site of cultural innovation. To that end and more specifically, her application of linguistic concepts (fluency and disfluency; code-switching) to these late medieval works of participatory contemplation produces new opportunities for thinking about the Middle English vernacular itself as powerful theological resource. The sustained and dazzling acts of close reading that furnish the core of every chapter of this book demonstrate just how powerful a resource that could be. Though not a stated intent of this book, Johnson's reading across genres and texts has the potential to disrupt traditional assumptions and arrangements of late medieval English literary history. This book deserves a broad reading audience, one commensurate with the range of works it embraces and the ambitious scope of the questions that it pursues.

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