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21.03.20 Smith, Arts of Dying

The Medieval Review

21.03.20 Smith, Arts of Dying


D. Vance Smith's Arts of Dying: Literature and Finitude in Medieval England is a challenging but deeply rewarding meditation on the role of finitude in medieval English literature. The title of this book is a literal translation of ars moriendi, the well-known set of late medieval treatises on the art of dying well, but Smith for the most part eschews didactic or pragmatic texts as subjects of analysis in favor of those that offer a more complex and multilayered engagement with idea of dying. For Smith, efforts to use language to name and describe the experience of dying (that is, the separation of the soul from the body rather than the state of being dead) raise a set of both literary and philosophical problems oriented around finitude, issues which he identifies as a shared concern of medieval and postmodern thinkers.

While scholars have considered the topic of death in premodern literature from a variety of historical and theoretical positions, Smith begins from the somewhat counterintuitive premise that "people in the Middle Ages were unable to talk about death" (1). More specifically, Smith argues that, as it negotiates the affordances and limitations of language and form, literature is itself a confrontation with finitude and thus with death and dying itself. In this way, Smith writes, "literature fills the impossible space between the two convictions, between the faith that language reached the dead, and the logic that denied that it could" (1).

Smith traces the formal and philosophical ramifications of efforts to fill this gap across six centuries of writing in English, which he divides into three broad categories: in the earliest period, spanning roughly 900 to 1300, the dominant motif is that of the soul leaving the body, or speaking after it has left the body. In literature of the second period, concentrated in the fourteenth century, Smith explores the crypt as an organizing metaphor for death and dying. Death, in this case, is an act of both literal and epistemic encryption, as the dying person passes from the realm of the knowable into illegibility. The book's last section concerns fifteenth-century poetry, and the ways in which writers like Thomas Hoccleve and John Lydgate consistently equate death with dispersal into a kind of textual archive. (The difference between the crypt and the archive, in Smith's telling, is that the crypt seeks to seal the living away from the dead, in contrast to the archive which makes the dead in some sense public and legible to the living [148].)

Smith's treatment of this varied corpus of writing about death is united by a shared set of contemporary philosophical and theoretical referents, especially the work of twentieth-century philosophers like Maurice Blanchot and the political philosopher Gillian Rose. Blanchot's Literature and The Right to Death, in particular, provides an animating insight for Arts of Dying: that notion that language, by naming and individuating, introduces the idea of being and non-being and therefore the concept of death (in Blanchot's provocative phrase, "the concept is the murder of the thing"). Following on Blanchot, Smith throughout takes care to distinguish the experience of death, the "dying" of the book's title, from the state of being dead. It is here, for Smith, that the connection between death and literature is lodged, as both literary writing and writing about death necessary engage in speculative modes. In both instances, crucially, "language exists to call us to something that is not there (10)." Not incidentally, this philosophically formalist (or formally philosophical) approach allows Smith to transverse elegantly two major disruptions that often fracture accounts of English literary history in the longue durée, the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the arrival of the Black Death in England in 1348.

The first section consists of three chapters dealing with Old and Early Middle English texts that dramatize the relationship between the body and the soul. Chapter One deals with a variety of Latin sources concerning medieval efforts to resolve the philosophical problems posed by death: if death is a state of non-being, how can one say that a person is dead? To speak of the dead, in Smith's account, is to demonstrate a profound faith in the vital representative properties of language. Medieval writers put this into practice, for example, in the dialogues between the body and the soul. However, as Smith notes, in such texts the soul is able to speak only after it has completed the process of dying and left the body, leaving experience of death itself still fundamentally unspeakable. The framework afforded by these philosophical inquiries provides the basis for thinking through the relationship between death and language in a range of Old English texts, including the poems known collectively as the elegies (which Smith adroitly points out take on much of their apparent elegiac quality when they are viewed through the prism of subsequent linguistic and archival loss), Aelfric's Colloquies, and riddles. The reparative aims of Aelfric's Latin lessons for schoolboys in the Colloquies, Smith argues, combine with Aelfric's interest in poems about death to constitute a kind of late style, following Adorno's use of the term. This is idea is explored further in the following chapter, which focuses on the texts copied by the so-called Tremulous Hand, the scribe who glossed a number of Old English manuscripts at Worcester Prior in the thirteenth century, a time when the language truly was fading from view. Glossing, for Smith, is an enterprise that both preserves and cancels in much the way that attempting to speak of the dead does.

The core of the book is its second section, which consists of seven chapters examining a range of mostly thirteenth-century Middle English texts. Smith's analysis here is oriented around the crypt and the separation between the living and the dead. The first chapter in this section opens with a dazzling reading of the widely-attested but seldom studied short poem beginning "Erþe toc of erþe," before assessing the poem's place in the well-studied miscellany British Library MS Harley 2253, known for its Middle English lyrics. The second turns to two works by Chaucer, The Book of the Duchess and the Pardoner's Tale, and asks how each confronts the unknowability--and hence unspeakability--of death. The following chapter continues onto Chaucer's Knight's Tale, and its reworking of Boccaccio's Teseida alongside the ongoing influence of Boethius's Consolatio. The poem, in Smith's telling, returns readers again and again to Theseus's efforts to put limits on the infinite through the force of law. When these efforts inevitably, tragically fail, mourning remains the only alternative. The third chapter in this section focuses on William Langland's Piers Plowman and the shift, over the poem's revisions, toward a complex and nuanced exploration of death through the figure of the pagan emperor Trajan and his cryptic question of his salvation. In the next chapter, Smith takes on Pearl, an elegy powerfully, painfully preoccupied with limitation and finitude. The work of measurement, formally and conceptually, lies at the heart of the poem; nevertheless, the narrator must inevitably confront the fact that terms are not very good at defining non-being. St. Erkenwald, the subject of Arts of Dying's ninth chapter, sits at the juncture of this and the concluding section of the book, its nameless judge, long deceased but not fully dead and encased in an illegible casket, an enigmatic figure of the work of dying left uncompleted.

In the final section, oriented around the idea of death as a dispersal into the archive, Smith turns to three fifteenth-century poets, John Lydgate, Thomas Hoccleve, and John Audelay. Lydgate's attempts to situate himself in relation to Chaucer are troubled by Chaucer's dual position, in the view of his successors, as both the inception and culmination of English poetic eloquence: the tradition in which Lydgate situates himself is both inaugurated and truncated by Chaucer's death, with predictably anxious results manifest in works like the Troy Book. The following chapter takes up Hoccleve's Series, which both depicts its author's own experience of mental illness and recovery, and incorporates a translation of Henry Suso's Horologium Sapientiae dealing with the "ars vtillissima sciendi mori." The third and final chapter of this section reassesses Audelay's intricate poem Three Dead Kings, a dream vision in which the narrator witnesses a trio of noble hunters confronted by themselves in revenant form; as in his chapter on "erþe toc of erþe," Smith moves here from careful formal analysis to a considered assessment of the poem's place in its manuscript.

As this summary suggests, Arts of Dying weaves together analysis of an almost vertiginous range of literary texts. Throughout, Smith's writing is lucid, erudite, and often witty. At every step, it synthesizes deep knowledge in both contemporary philosophy and medieval English literature. For readers who lack the Smith's learnedness in one or both of these fields, however, the presumed familiarity with both Heidegger and Piers Plowman alike may be a stumbling block. Some attention paid to such readers (for example, providing translations for all Latin quotations) would help to make this important book accessible to a broader academic audience. Its absence here is disappointing, since Arts of Dying brings significant historical and literary insight to bear on philosophical explorations of death and dying, in ways that might benefit philosophers and literary historians alike.

A final note must be made of the book's preface, in which Smith candidly discusses his own experience with bipolar disorder and suicidality and its entwinement with the subject matter and writing of this book. Arts of Dying contains a multitude of insightful and erudite claims about form, language, and the philosophical of death, but its most urgent argument is about living. "Any possible stigma in seeking help, or even in letting your 'secret' be known, is vastly preferable to death," Smith writes in this preface, "if you are someone who has any kind of administrative power, please work as hard as you can to erase this stigma or even the perception that there is one" (ix-x). This is a call we should all heed.