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slouching towards vocabulary

I keep finding myself, in numerous failed attempts to gather and structure all my thoughts in this chapter, returning to invoke "popular misconceptions about the middle ages." The problem is that I am not sure of my perspective anymore.  This may be a "straw man." But I am not really *sure.* I mean, I don't regularly have conversations with anyone who believes in these so-called popular misconceptions. But then again, I have conversations with, er, myself, and with my philosophy professor committee member.  And with a couple of people who have read Augustine very very carefully. And it is actually a fact that many scholars invoking Augustine to talk about early medieval Christianity in England do not read Augustine very carefully at all, and here as well as in my chapter I do not want to be nasty and point fingers and accuse scholars of an earlier generation for doing what scholars of an early generation simply did.  (I am not saying the "later generation" does things better necessarily - just differently. In this I'm thinking of Peter Brown calling for "micro-Christianities," for people to just stop making sweeping statements about "medieval thought" and "medieval Christianity" or even "Platonic philosophy" or "medieval belief about the soul" because no statements like that are ever going to be true across so much time and across so many texts and continents and even neighborhoods.  In my prospectus, I picked on C.S. Lewis, because I feel like I have known him for a very long time, having first studied him as an apologist in 1991, plus also he's safely dead and not likely to show up at a panel I'm on to take the piss out of my sophomoric framework.  But even Lewis admits that his description of "medieval thought about the soul" is very sweeping and attends to the dominant things, not the undercurrents and bits later deemed heretical or lost in history, notes that for every Hrothgar there were fifty Hectors etc.)

I simply have *too much stuff* but am having the worst time finding a shape for it. And until I find a shape for it, it continues to just be a bunch of stuff.  That would be fine if I weren't in a bit of a hurry.

What I am complaining about is stuff I know I have heard and read here and there, but who knows exactly where and when, about body-denigration and overwhelming identification of fleshly with female and the soul being the inner man and true self, always and everywhere and without question immortal, immaterial, and intellectual.  This is just not true all the time, that body=flesh and that soul=life force=immortal, immaterial, intellectual/rational.  But that doesn't seem to be a good place to start.  So when I think, "ok, then what do I have?" what I have is a bunch of weird stuff that does not conform to or cohere into any particular dominant doctrine or theology, and indeed I think that is the point. Or rather I should say that I do not think a coherent doctrine or dogma was the point in any case.

Yet again I do not want to posit an ontology that was decisively "the" ontology (in the first case, I do not think there was only one, not even in any given 100 year span of Anglo Saxon England.  And in the second case, Leslie Lockett has already done that and poked around in all the nooks and crannies and cupboards of Alfred's and Alcuin's and Aelfric's bookshelves.)

But I also am not really arguing that we need to read this stuff "only" as literature - though I certainly think we do, in the sense that the narrative truth, the way things are told and what happens in the dramatic portrayals of the devil walking around, or a saint throwing a key of hell over his shoulder, or a soul revisiting a body in a grave, is as important as "what Brother so and so believed to be true about the nature of the soul."  I mean that I do not want to avoid ontology, but I do not think we can attend to ontology without considering narrative. I feel this to all be very clumsy, that I do not have the vocabulary for this.  In part I mean this in the sense that these stories and poems and homilies dramatize scenes and put forward ways of thinking about the self, and use metaphors for a reason, and creat Soul and Body as *characters* in a narrative structure: "first the soul does this. Then the body does this. Then teh worm does this, and then God says 'STFU'."  or "the soul tries to leave the body and the devil bops it on the head. then the soul tries to leave through the nose and the devil, who has a big eye in the center of his scaly forehead, laughs maniacally."  This is not to say it's the same thing as "here is your official weekly bit of formal teaching about the soul and body, and an actual picture of what the enemy of mankind looks like." But it is also NOT to say 1. it is just stuff cooked up to scare the peasants senseless and control them so who cares about theological niceties (another huge and hugely bothersome, and very real, misconception about medieval Christianity that I WILL write a book about one day, a book accessible to people who say shit like that after watching Monty Python movies), 2. it is just entertainment, or pure "folktale," and should not be considered important as regards how to live as a rational embodied Christian being in a certain community and in a certain time and place.  But I find myself very unsatisfied  - for instance, what do I mean when I say "we should not consider this unimportant"?  What kind of argument is that?  (A lame one, that's what kind.)  I do not want to frame this as either/or - but I do need some kind of way to frame it, and some kind of vocabularly to talk about what I think these works are doing.  It does not seem quite enough to say "here are some ideas and images that are not "Augustinian" that were floating around, and nobody notices them because the tendency is to twist the text to fit a preconceived notion of what medieval people believed, which comes down to something like this: Augustine wrote it, therefore all medievals must have believed it (and therefore structured dramatic narratives in accordance with it).  If you want to be more responsible, you can say "here's the proof this was true for Anglo Saxon England - Aelfric quotes Augustine right here.  Case closed."  All of this is itself a myth – one that has seriously limited our understanding of medieval spirituality.  Augustinian theology is critical, sure, and it is also a LOT more subtle and complex than it is usually given credit for being, but we must put patristics into conversation with the medieval vernacular.  What do we GET when we do that, though?  I feel like I don't have the words for this.

Am I just overthinking that part?  Is that not just obvious to anybody?  Yet so much scholarship surrounding Soul and Body refers to whether or not the poet or the poem is orthodox or heterodox. I think those terms are not useful.  I do not think that is the point of these works, even if there were some monolithic teaching circulating in insular Christianity saying "here is what to tell the rabble next Sunday, Aelfwine," and there was NOT.  And I think framing the discussion that way leads us to ignore or just plain miss what is really interesting nad uniquely Anglo-Saxon about them.  This is part of why scholars like Bynum can just skip right over Anglo Saxon england when writing about medieval concepts of embodiment, and why Raskolnikov can say that sowlehele is a Middle English concept/term.  That would be news to Alfred, who used sawla haelo to translate Boethius' salus animorum 500 years before the writers Raskalnikov focuses on.  But who will make this stuff accessible to non-Anglo-Saxonists when Anglo-Saxonists are tripping over themselves to subsume all questions of the soul under the headings of psychoglogy and cognitive linguistics?  These dratted, embedded secular, post-Cartesian models irritate me. Why can't we take the soul as seriously as we take, I don't know, monsters?  AS England turns human souls into characters in narrative bits far more often than it ponders the humanity or fate of Grendels in heroic poetry.

But there's another important element, and that is that these sorts of conversations have always been had in story and dialogue form. Aquinas comments on Augustine who comments on Paul who comments on what is happening in whatever little backwater.  Augustine comments on Plato who tells us a story about Socrates, in which Socrates talks about the soul in a narrative with several other characters and they try different images and metaphors and theories on for size.  In all of this mess of orthodoxy or not, people are saying things like "so and so was opposed to the Platonizing Christian tendency to do x y and z."  AS IF there were *A* single Platonizing Christian movement with a membership card!  And as if every Platonic text says the same thing. Sure, Augustine rejected the notion that man is "soul using body," and the image of man as "soul using body" does crop up in Plato.  But so do lots of other images. But you know, my job here is also to stay with the literature and not write a "history of the reception of Plato in early medieval England" either.

Far, far too much stuff.  And a meeting wtih my advisor tomorrow, which needs to count for a lot and which probably will involve me blathering like an idiot and wasting valuable time.

ETA: It occurs to me that something in the realm of myth studies, folklore studies, or even narrative theory might help me find vocabulary here.  Some days I do not know if what I am saying makes any sense at all. And some days it seems so obvious as to not be worth saying at all.  But then - Witness, for instance, Mari Womack, The Anthropology of Health and Healing, Rowman and Littlefield, 2010, used as a textbook in medical anthropology classes:  “in medieval theology, the distinction between mind and body was . . .  clearly defined as a war between God and the carnal form of the human body. . . .  In theological terms, the word ‘carnal’ is linked to consumption and enjoyment of bodily pleasures, such as eating, drinking, and sexuality.  These activities . . . are condemned as ‘sinful’” (56).  Sorry folks, but that is a grave mischaracterization.  This makes me think all of this stuff needs saying, more, again.  Though one would think after Bynum's _Resurrection_ that the saying did not need repeating in a scholarly context anyway....

ETA2: Lockett: “I am less concerned with the literary conventions by which the soul is personified and the corpse is made to speak; the crucial thing to observe is that all participants in these scenes  . . . attribute virtually all responsibility for an individual’s actions to the body, in ways that reinforce the idea that the mind is not at all part of the soul” (391 n. 52).  SO - I guess literary conventions it is for me.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 23rd, 2011 07:33 am (UTC)
I have similar problems -- I'm always worried that I'm creating a strawman to argue against. I also often run up against the barrier of my own ability to express some of the ideas I have in my head.
Sep. 23rd, 2011 04:54 pm (UTC)
I am wary of the straw man but one of hte reasons I risk it is because I don't want to position myself so specifically against or in response to any one particular scholar, either, you know? I mean, that can backfire/be nasty but it can also be simply unfair, and also really "date" a work/age it prematurely, I worry - if that makes any sense. Oh, I just wish I had more TIME to do this properly!
Sep. 23rd, 2011 11:00 am (UTC)
i don't have words to suggest, but i do love what you said about the taking the soul as seriously as we do monsters. i think that's really great.
Sep. 23rd, 2011 03:08 pm (UTC)
I do think that this stuff needs to be said more and again even if medievalists "get it already" (in my classes i frequently use monty pyton to evoke such commonly held imagery in order to challenge it. It never fails. People DO think that). It's funny that you would cite a medanthro textbook because this has been one of my frustrations with my own discipline: we know how to particularize our own little areas but are apt to making bullshit authoritative statements about how countless different people and groups actually thought across vast spaces and through deep time. However, there is the growing trend of seeing such identifications as emergent, and as a way to think about the present rather than the past. There is growing attention to the fact that periodizations like "antiquity," "middle ages" and "modernity," along with their stereotyped epistemologies, are products of the present, "straw men" as you say, constructed in the present and for the present, for political purposes. As such there is also a growing interest in re-problematizing such facile images of past thought and experience and doing an honest "archaeology of knowledge" of sorts. So maybe instead of calling people out for "doing what scholars of the previous generation simply did," you can rephrase it in terms of contributing to this new archaeology?
Sep. 23rd, 2011 04:49 pm (UTC)
thanks for chiming in
Certainly in Anglo-Saxon studies, dominated as they were for so long by a certain type of philology and influenced by a certain type of nationalist (imperialist?) impulse, the political purposes have certainly been there. But lately, honestly, I see the bigger problem as being something in this snarl: 1. these writers were Christian. 2. We (academia) do not honestly take religious identity very seriously - we don't know *how* to, and the closest we get is "here is how women anchorites used Christ imagery to retain agency in their own lives in a male-dominated milieu" (which I guess is actually coming pretty far, but not far enough). 3. If we do think of spirituality as being an important component of subjectivity, we nevertheless often find ourselves a bit embarrassed by the demons or angels or narrative frameworks these people used, because we simply do not take these things seriously anymore except in terms of psychology. 4. If we do venture into "the Christian subject" in "x" time period, we tend to project what we (think we) know onto the past, through our received summaries of Augustine or whoever, without considering that we read him a certain way, our authors read him a certain way, neither of those ways are "singularly right" and that has to be acknowledged somehow without becoming the obstacle to communication that it has become for me! 5. literature scholars are often not very good theologians, but then again why should they be? 5. But it's pretty hard to write about the religious literature of a culture without knowing a little more about the historical specificity of the culture that produced this literature. One problem in this particular case is that this stuff is not easily accessible. Who has time to become an Augustine scholar (or an archaeologist, or a philosopher) on their way to gaining the languages and skills necessary to read and study these early medieval texts?

And yet this is not to say "we can simply read these lists of books and thus be able to put ourselves in the shoes of a person living in this time period." Our conceptual filters can't so easily be shed... and even people who try to do an archaeology of knowledge misstep in those terms (eg, a lot of people have tried to contextualize and give the history of this "legend of body and soul" motif or theme I'm working on - but our *building blocks* are not even safe, our very basic vocabulary is not always safe. "Flesh" does not always mean what we think it means. "Body" does not mean what we think it means. "Soul" does not mean what we think it means.) How to invent or adopt a vocabulary? Go back to Origen? Borrow Foucault's? (my worry about using the term "archaeology" is the Foucault resonance though I think the archaeology metaphor apt - let me mark out this particular square meter of earth here and let me sift through it very carefully and let me ask you to consider what we find *in its own context* for just a moment, as much as we can within our cognitive limitations - and let's see if this does not change the way we interpret what we unearth in the next meter over. but that is an old problem.)
Sep. 23rd, 2011 04:50 pm (UTC)
Re: thanks for chiming in

Can i use the term "archaeology" without invoking Foucault? (Foucault has no business here, not in this project.) What I have done so far is try to describe what I want to do in terms of what Clare Lees and Gillian Overing have called for, for more specifically historicized Christianities - and this is a necessary step in getting Anglo Saxon studies out of the closet/margins/pick your metaphor. I mean, this call to "archaeology" or at least specificity has certainly been made - I just do not know how to frame what I am trying to do within it, exactly. So I'm trying to avoid narratives of history which tend to relegate the less familiar (in this case, the evidence we have of what images AS people used to think about their own souls and beings) to the margins as unimportant or even, one senses, unfathomable, the tendency to note the differences of the early medieval period, if at all, as temporary and negligible aberrations in an otherwise orderly progression towards the modern subject. But boy has that framework lent itself so easily to earlier work - we grok "chronological" and progression narratives so easily, and when I take those away I simply do not know how to start.

So that leaves me without a vocabulary and without a framework. We think of "soul" and we import certain presumptions into our readings, same as if we think of "red." But "red" didn't mean the same thing in Old English that it means in ModE. But now how do I communicate? How far back do I have to go to do this contextualizing? I could do an entire diss that was nothing but semantic/lexical studies. And I suppose I'm still unhappy with that "here's a contribution" thing - I don't think "here is a contribution" is quite enough without making some larger claim. Then again, it's a bit early in the game for the larger claim - maybe I just have to trust that that will emerge, or maybe I'll find it won't, but all I can do right now is dig. I know this diss does not have to do everything, but I am having hte worst time identifying what it is that it should be doing, where I am going to draw the line, how to mark off my patch of earth for digging. I *thought* I was going to start with a contribution towards an alternative, non-Augustinian ontology, but then this damned book came out and that has already been done, now. I have yet to find a place where I can say "here, I will extend this little corner of this little recent articulation by so and so towards this badly-needed reconceptualization"...

And of course it's impossible to just stick with your own marked-off square meter of dirt anyway, and naive to think otherwise. I mean, you can't *really* separate yourself from your own conceptual lenses, not entirely. And you have to interpret based on /something./ Or else you end up with this http://people.virginia.edu/~sfr/enlt214m/mystmotel.html

Sep. 23rd, 2011 04:50 pm (UTC)
Re: thanks for chiming in
I don't know - it's constant tension, this going back and forth between micro and macro and meta. It makes it very hard to articulate what I'm doing and know *how* to write this. It's a big, "whole project" concern, but it's also a "today" concern - for instance, this week I've produced a few paragraphs illustrating how some previous models have worked and showing how they do not work in this case, but I get far, far afield sometimes, I realize I'm not really saying anything anybody else hasn't already said except scattered all over hundreds of years of dissertations and articles, and I find myself writing things that are a bit shirty, and then wandering off to spend a day in the rabbit hole of "how did they translate Isaiah 9:6 anyway, could have this anything to do with this line in the poem?" except then I'm ranging far afield of a stated intent to "just start with what the poem says, and then step back and look at how related works contextualize it. stop trying to interpret for a minute and just read." I mean, that's funny, right?! Stop trying to interpret! That's hilarious - impossible. And that is exactly the problem. How "True" can an archaeology of knowledge be? If I'm telling people they cannot trust so-and-so's summary of Augustinian influence in early England, then I am telling them they have to trust mine, eh? And again, part of this is that I am also not trying to do theology, but I'm also not trying to read religious literature secular-ly. So I keep resorting to vocabularies that belong to other disciplines because if what I'm trying to do has its own vocabulary, I haven't learned it yet. Or found it. Or whatever.

Wow, I'm not sure that long ramble made any sense. But it's a snapshot of the mess that my thinking and my chapter are in right now. I mean, I can write a list of things that are interesting. But that is not much of a chapter.

lol... thanks for "listening" and "responding" - another part of my problem is that I spend too much time alone in my house without anybody to bounce this stuff off of. And I haven't seen any of my friends in months and months for more than a second... you in probably more than a year, now, huh? So I have nowhere to have these conversations. And wouldnþ you know my advisor wrote this am to postpone our meeting this afternoon :/ Glad I didn't stay up ALL night trying to get a draft into draftier form...

Sep. 24th, 2011 04:51 am (UTC)
Re: thanks for chiming in
It actually did make a lot of sense, at least to this outsider. :) You have made me think, though I'll refrain from sharing as I'm sure you don't need one more opinion to muck things up at this stage.

You may not have a clear sense of where to go in the paper, but I can tell your voice and argument style is still top notch. :)
Sep. 24th, 2011 11:44 am (UTC)
Re: thanks for chiming in
At the beginning of this post, it seems to me that what you are really messing with is preaching, preaching as a dialogue that is: what is said, what is understood, what the preacher (by which, given the material, I guess we almost entirely mean Æfric but oh, dear, how atypical he must have been) believes people understand and how he pitches to change or increase that understanding... but these are preoccupations of mine so it may be that I project. Nonetheless, until you get to literary conventions that seems to be a set of questions that open up the concerns you're articulating here. Once you get to literary conventions, I suppose audience and the courting of it or working round it may still be questions to ask? Anyway. That's the macro, and then the micro:

Foucault has no business here, not in this project.

Not that he would agree of course (http://loltheorists.livejournal.com/32429.html) :-)

I realize I'm not really saying anything anybody else hasn't already said except scattered all over hundreds of years of dissertations and articles

But that's legit! A "guys guys guys this stuff is out there!" pitch is a pitch we often need.

If I'm telling people they cannot trust so-and-so's summary of Augustinian influence in early England, then I am telling them they have to trust mine, eh?

Beause you are differently informed and maybe see things they could not from where they were. You may not have a better take, but as I am fond of quoting (it was Paul Edward Dutton at Kalamazoo 2010 if you need to), sometimes, "the best we can hope for is to be wrong in new ways". Even if you are (eventually) wrong, this is not the same as being without value.
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 2nd, 2011 12:58 am (UTC)
Jesus Christ, will you FOAD? Go spam somebody else, you asshat.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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