for Marcus Castro
Part III: The Homeliness of Its Imagery
We led our lives / or they led us, and how would we know which?
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, / The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, / The solemn temples, the great globe itself, / Yea, all which inherit it, shall dissolve, / And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, / Leave not a rack behind.
—William Shakespeare, The Tempest
The medieval mystic has to manage two conflicting tasks: on the one hand, receiving new revelations and, on the other hand, keeping those new insights consistent with established doctrine. To fail the latter task is to become a heretic.
In future epochs, without the concern for doctrine, a visionary—one who might have been a mystic in another time—is kept in check only by the prospects of institutionalization or self harm.
When Unica Zürn was a child she had a dream that she passed through a mirror.
I imagine it much like Jean Cocteau’s Orphée when Jean Marais puts on the rubber gloves. The film runs in reverse a shot of his hands taking off the gloves. “Avec ses gants,” Orpheus’ chauffeur tells him, “vous traversez les miroirs comme de l’eau.” Then he places his gloved hands into the mirror as if it were a vertical pool.
After passing through the mirror in her dream, Zürn had a vision of a figure she called the “Man of Jasmine.” She was struck by the blueness of his blue eyes and secretly, inwardly married him. Years later, she encountered the real man himself when she met Henri Michaux. “A vision has become reality,” she wrote. And from there she lost her reason.
Zürn suffered from an anxiety of meaning where meaning had become superabundant for her. A mundane situation on a plane, for instance, became a conspiracy. She was obsessed with anagrams and the number nine. “H.M.” was everywhere, signifying, by turns, Herman Melville, Henri Michaux, the Hotel Minerva, and so forth.
“Each idea gives way to a new one.”
In 1970, she killed herself by jumping out her apartment window.
Descartes infers his own existence because he’s convinced of clear and distinct ideas.
But being convinced is a poor epistemological standard. After all, Descartes had previously been convinced of other ideas that he had to call into doubt (e.g. the existence of the external world). And God could still have been deceiving him into feeling convinced.
Descartes eventually concludes that his idea of an infinite and benevolent God could have no other origin than God instilling that idea innately in him, which he now perceives clearly and distinctly.
So clear and distinct ideas allow certainty only because Descartes can be certain that God—whom he clearly and distinctly perceives—does not deceive him.
‘Round and around we go.
Descartes strays well beyond reason.
In Speculum of the Other Woman, Irigaray exposes the masculinist ideology permeating the Western intellectual tradition and carves out a liberated space within the mystical.
La mystérique: this is how one might refer to what, within a still theo-logical onto-logical perspective is called mystic language or discourse. Consciousness still imposes such names to signify that other scene, off-stage, that it finds cryptic. This is the place where consciousness is no longer master, where, to its extreme confusion, it sinks into a dark night that is also fire and flames. This is the place where “she”—and in some cases he, if he follows ”her” lead—speaks about the dazzling glare which comes from the source of light that has been logically repressed, about “subject” and “Other.” …This is the only place in the history of the West in which woman speaks and acts so publicly.
Because of the ways gender has been culturally constructed, mysticism has been the only realm where women have been allowed true agency.
The women mystics, in short, are proto-feminists.
Irigaray studied with Jacques Lacan at the Ecole Freudienne de Paris in the 1960s. She published her second dissertation, Speculum, in 1974.
Their fallout is famous.
For her criticisms of phallocentrism and misogyny in the psychoanalytical tradition, she was expelled from her teaching post at the University of Vincennes and shunned by Lacan and his coterie.
None of the mystics are included in my Major Authors edition of the Norton, which makes Queen Elizabeth the first woman to appear. In another edition, Volume One, 6th ed., the editors redress the conspicuous absence of women writers by including Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich.
But the manner of their inclusion is less than ideal. The selections of Kempe should focus more on her visions and less on her pride, failed brewery business, celibacy negotiations with her husband, and defense against heresy before the archbishop. Moreover, the introduction emphasizes her eccentricities and, I would go so far as to say, encourages suspicion, describing her life as “a holy life that she claimed to have received in personal visions from Christ and the Virgin Mary.”
Claimed? An unnecessary editorial judgment.
Later the editors—eleven of the thirteen of whom are men—write, “Like the Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales, Kempe was illiterate and acquired her command of Scripture and theology from sermons and other oral sources.” Although Kempe is like Alisoun in her method of acquiring scriptural knowledge, the comparison carries baggage and is odd in other respects.
Their differences outweigh their similarities. For example, when Kempe’s husband asked what her response would be if someone threatened to “smite off [his] head” unless the married couple slept together again, she replied, “I had [rather] see you be slain than we should turn again to our uncleanness.” Alisoun, by contrast, remarried four times, argued against chastity, and contended that genitals were for procreation as well as pleasure.
If the editors wanted to make the comparison despite significant differences, they might have mentioned more than illiteracy, stressing, for instance, their common ingenuity, resourcefulness, and power.
In the introduction for Julian of Norwich, the editors note that Julian’s A Book of Showings is “one of many distinguished mystical texts.”
They call Walter Hilton’s The Scale of Perfection and the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing “brilliant works of instruction for those who would follow the mystical way.” Conversely, Julian’s work stands out, the editors say, because of “the homeliness of its imagery and feeling.”
Chapter 22: “He comforteth readily and sweetly signifying thus: It is sooth that sin is cause of all this pain; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner thing shall be well.”
Chapter 86: “I was answered in ghostly understanding, saying thus… Learn it well: Love was His meaning. Who shewed it thee? Love. What shewed he thee? Love. Wherefore he shewed it He? For Love…. Thus was I learned that Love was our Lord’s meaning.”
Homeliness? What homeliness?
The degree to which The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale support feminist readings has been hotly contested in Chaucerian criticism.
For having depicted women poorly in Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer offers The Legend of Good Women as penance: “Now wol I seyn what penaunce thow shalt do / For thy trespass… thy tyme spende / In makynge of a glorious legende / Of goode women, maydenes and wyves, / That were trewe in lovynge al here lyves.”
Even if Chaucer had intended The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale to empower the figure of Alisoun and to challenge gender stereotypes of the time, his motivations might have been shaped by more than just noble intentions.
The Wife’s Tale tells of a knight, “a lusty bacheler,” who raped a young maiden. Rather than sentencing him to death by beheading, the queen intervenes and tells him: “I grante thee lyf, if you kanst tellen me / What thing is it that women moost desiren.”
It is in answering this question that the knight learns deference to his eventual wife.
In 1380, one Cecily Chaumpaigne charged Chaucer with raptus. They eventually settled out of court, and she released him from the charge.
Scholars have fallen over themselves to stress that in both ancient and medieval Latin “raptus” could have signified either abduction or rape (just as “ravish” could have meant either in Donne’s sonnet). Many scholars either conclude it was abduction or minimize Chaumpaigne’s charge. The Riverside Chaucer, for instance, stresses the fact of the release: “The record, however, is clear; it means that Cecilia Chaumpaigne clears Chaucer of all responsibility.” This claim is clumsy, if not downright deceitful. She did not clear Chaucer of “all” responsibility—only legal responsibility, after Chaucer paid her a considerable sum. The Riverside even goes on, in the passive voice, to offer another suspect: “It has also been suggested that Grove, because of his financial involvement, was the principal in the case and Chaucer only an accessory.”
That view is transparently defensive of Chaucer. Although it is impossible to know exactly what happened, Chaucer was charged with rape, in the modern sense of the term. (See Christopher Cannon’s “Raptus in the Chaumpaigne Release and a Newly Discovered Document Concerning the Life of Geoffrey Chaucer.”) And he very well may have been guilty of the charge. I suspect that he was.
In the prologue to the bizarre Tale of Saint Thopas, Chaucer (the poet) has the Host (the poet’s character) describe Chaucer (the character) as follows: “This were a popet in an arm t’enbarce / For any woman, small and fair of face. ”
Any woman who is small and has a pretty face would love to embrace him in her arms.
Not, it would seem, Cecily Chaumpaigne.