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23.12.06 von Contzen/Simpson (eds.), Enlistment

23.12.06 von Contzen/Simpson (eds.), Enlistment

It is tempting to compose a review on a book dealing with lists that would be entirely made out of lists: a list of contributors; of literary works discussed; of literary effects attributed to lists; of lists one may make while reading. All the more so when the reviewed book is an edited volume, that odd scholarly genre, that shares more than a few characteristics with the lists discussed within it. Like lists, edited volumes promise completeness but hint at the potentially infinite and of failure to reach it. They play with order and anarchy, challenging the reader to intuit about organizing principles, as well as whether all items indeed belong there. They move on the line between boredom and play. The relations between the items and the coherence of the list depends largely on the reader. The title, just like editors’ introductions may help, but also confuse. A line may connect all dots, but its shape is not given. The items, that is, the essays, are gathered together but can be, and usually are, read separately. The edited volume as a form mirrors, like lists, disorder and ordering of knowledge and its in/completeness in a specific field; at times, coherence and incoherence of a community of scholars. It calls for addition, manipulation, interpolation, linking by way of argument and narrative, raising trust and suspicion.

Eva von Contzen and James Simpson gather here ten essays addressing lists and enumerations in medieval and early modern English literature. As items in a list, the essays stand as independent units. Naturally, this specific edited volume invites such a comparison between their own volume and the characteristics of lists with great force. Indeed--all the features mentioned in this review are taken from its pages.

As editors and some contributors note, lists generate both a sense of order (don’t worry, I put everything in the drawer!) and of potential disorder (what a messy drawer...wait, what is this doing here???). Unlike diagrams, lists refuse to provide hidden connections but hint at the potential of finding such. The essays of this volume do not converse with each other through direct or indirect references, even when the same works are discussed or mentioned (Chaucer’s House of Fame, for instance). Their itemic-atomic nature is evident also in the readings they offer. All studies employ the traditional method of close reading, focusing on one or five texts. Among the authors discussed are: Widsith, Chaucer, Richard of St. Victor (translated Middle English), Peckok, Douglas, Erasmus, Cromwell and Bale. Lists or catalogues that venture through different works are, among others: the catalogue of ships; tree-catalogues; lists of divine names; and items related to Catholic rites. Literary effects ascribed to lists include: opening a category against the author suggests finitude (Becker); flattening history, offering different perspectives on history and temporality (Johnston); challenging infinity and shaping religious belief and practice; signaling to both past and present participating in a community of poets and developing tradition; devaluating items as a polemical strategy by creating a sense of excess; evoking a sense of reality and materiality; and so on. Yes, readers of reviews: lists are tiresome.

Back to the itemic nature of the essays in the volume. In the majority of cases, analysis does not include any primary sources or modern studies beyond the well-defined field of English literature: no comparative approach looking to the continent for possibly illuminating analogues or counter-examples in medieval French, German, Dutch or Iberian texts; little engagement with scholarship on lists in other periods or languages of European literary history; very little attempt to go beyond the traditional literary discourse and inspire or be inspired by specific cognitive or linguistic studies of lists; no engagement with the visual or material aspects of lists, or with quantitative methods. This insular (literally and metaphorically) approach may raise a brow, but it provides several very nice contributions, and allows contributors to examine quietly, eye to eye with the text, the nuances of the effects lists produce when authors insert them into their epics, practical manuals, liturgy, devotional texts or dream-poems. As the editors state: “Our choice of essays lays open the richness and the potential of enumerative practices and principles of order at the intersection of practical list-making and lists as a poetic means” (13).

Kathryn Mogk Wagner, in one of the best essays in the volume, ponders how lists “require the reader to intuit relationships between terms, whether by constructing a sequential narrative, or extrapolating an abstract category from its particulars by logical induction” (56). Indeed, the verb “invite” recurs throughout the volume, and no wonder: when one bumps into a pile of objects, be it divine names or essays on medieval lists, the work is left to her. I am not sure that I complied well with this requisite or invitation by either of the strategies, when trying to accept it and apply it to the essays as a whole. The editors offer very helpful key parameters for analysis and list how each study relate to them: the desire for completeness and incompleteness; effects of order and disorder, generating sense of familiarity or non-familiarity; and boredom versus play. These grant some coherence to the group, but are indeed more analytical tools than historical arguments.

Clearly, as the editors and contributors note, while lists and other enumerative practices abound in practical contexts throughout history, their salient presence in premodern poems “provokes a certain degree of critical bafflement...and evoked a sense of vague aesthetic and/or intellectual insufficiency” (35). Such a collection could help us understand something particular about this peculiar salience or other peculiarities of the medieval use of lists that distinguish them from lists in modern periods or other cultures.

Several authors discuss the tense relationship between lists and narrative: stuck in the middle of a captivating narrative, they challenge it, halt it, make the reader forget about the plot or leap forward, hesitate, or leave a room for the author to reflect. The editors have chosen to order the essays by the chronology of the works they explore, from the early medieval Gerefa to the sixteenth-century reformation. Yet the analogy between edited volumes and lists sustains here as well regarding historical narrative: this ordering hints at one, but in fact challenges it. It even, as Andrew J. Johnston suggests in his reading of Widsith, flattens history, and at times, “bring[s] into view competing histories of varying depths” (53, applied originally to Widsith but here allegorically to the volume as a whole).

Instead of providing, therefore, tenets for an argument or a narrative regarding the use of lists in medieval English literature, the essays present a repertory of functions and effects, efforts to make sense of a form and its effect on readers. Kathryn Mogk Wagner’s lists of divine names give rise to a beautiful study. Going through didactic, liturgical, and magical contexts, the essay examines specific traits of lists (capacious, portable, asyntactic, accumulative--we stumble to listing again!). It shows how each of them is attractive for the impossible mission of naming the ineffable, and how these very features explain the history and uses of such lists. Eva Von Contzen and Ingo Berensmeyer, too, trace the adventures of specific catalogues (catalogues in the matter of Troy and tree-catalogues, respectively) among authors, copyists, annotators and genres, but with more modest results.

Alexis Kellner Becker tries to read Gerefa and connect practical management and worldly power to lists and their lexical power and weakness. Wolfram R. Keller presents a sophisticated, complex interpretation of the effect of lists in dream poetry. He builds on the analogy between the poem and the epistemological processing of external impressions. The different architectural spaces or the parts of the poems are analogous to the ventricles of the brain, as well as to households in the real world. In this threefold allegory he constructs, the management of items at the poetic and cognitive levels reflects different ways to manage real households in a period of changing approaches and economical change.

Alex Davis and James Simpson both contextualize their investigations in British history. Davis moves from Erasmus’s rhetorical lists to Bale’s King Johan, trying to show that “both properties of the list--the regularizing and the anarchic--had a role to play within a moment of intensive state centralization and reform” (174). Simpson proposes an analogy between syntax and culture, so that lists within sentences parallel in a certain way cultural “junk” that a society needs to deal with. Early sixteenth-century England and its dealings with what used to be sacred are the set to play with this idea.

Lists also sharpen one’s senses regarding categorization and misplacement, belonging or not. I was not sure how the essays contributed by Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Martha D. Rust were related to the topic of lists: these two beautiful articles are concerned with schemata (the tree of Jacob’s children and the four rivers of Eden, respectively)--a different form of organizing items, which offers readers, quite literally, not only dots, but also connecting lines. They are however worthy of reading in their own right, especially to those (the author of this review included) interested in allegory and its relation to other cognitive tools such as the list or the diagram.

And so on :-)