Saturday, May 2, 2009

excerpting from the corpse...

An excerpt from the middle-end of a seminar paper called "Knowledge, Sense, and Security: A Treatise with Reference to Walter Benjamin and Julian of Norwich," for a now-complete course called 'Security Issues":


For, the vision is of the head of a dying or dead Christ, an image not alien to Benjamin’s Trauerspiel book. The passage is so astonishing that I will quote it here at length:

And in alle that time that he shewd this that I have now saide in gostley sight [of the Virgin], I saw the bodley sight lasting of the plenteous bleding of the hede [of Christ]. The gret droppes of blode felle downe under the garlonde like pelottes, seming as it has comen oute of the veines. And in the coming oute they were browne rede, for the blode was full thicke. And in the spreding abrode they were bright rede. And whan it came at the browes, ther they vanished. And notwithstonding the bleding continued tille many thinges were sensed and understonded, nevertheles the fairhede and the livelyhede continued in the same bewty and livelines.

The plentoushede is like to the droppes of water that falle of the evesing of an house after a grete shower of raine, that falle so thicke that no man may nomber them with no bodely wit. And for the roundhede, they were like to the scale of hering, in the spreding of the forhede. Thes thre thinges came to my minde in the time: pelletes, for the roundhede in the coming oute of the blode; the scale of a herring, for the roundhede in the spreding; the droppes of the evesing of a house, for the plentoushede unnumberable. This shewing was quick and lively, hidous and dredful, and swete and lovely.[1]

The head is continually bleeding, as if an infinite source of sensual sorrow and dying/decay, but with the constant and incessant mechanisms of life still at work. This is the combination of bleeding (as an operation of a body that is dying by bleeding out or by having been tortured with the ‘crown of thorns’ but also as the operation of a healthy living body when cut or even, in medieval medicine, bled for medicinal reasons) with the assertion that what is shown to bleed is, while hidous also lovely and in fact, with a certain “fairhede and livelyhede” in “the same bewty and livelines.” Thus the head itself and its gloss give way to a lively and bustling production clarification of colors and their location in the image which in turn gives way to a description of movements and shapes by means of strange similes—some very oddly specific (the herring) and others quite vague. That the vision in this image is only of the head is even more astonishing, as if presenting another impossibility in the Head of Christ severed (even if only for the sake of or in the representation of the vision) from the body: the decapitated God. The vision actually could have potentially contained within it the same problem Benjamin sees facing the writers of the Trauerspiel, that of a world where certain religious mechanisms remain, but the sense has been evacuated. That this could have been a problem for medieval writers, in advance of the Protestant removal of religious sense from profane life, is perhaps an emendation to be made to Benjamin’s historiography. What is important is that this play of representations, the simultaneity of death constantly refreshing itself in the vanishing blood within the mechanisms of life and dying (bleeding) becomes the absolute source for the productions of sense in Julian’s poetics, gives way to a whole flurry of similes concerning the sensual qualities of the dying Christ-head which are then re-iterated in terms of both the fact of their occurrence as simile and their sensual relation to things of this world. Julian, structurally, thus understands in advance what Benjamin claims for the poetics of the Trauerspiel:

And if it is in death that the spirit becomes free, in the manner of spirits, it is not until then that the body too comes properly into its own. For this much is self-evident: the allegorization of the physis can only be carried through in all its vigour in respect of the corpse...Seen from the point of view of death, the product of the corpse is life. It is not only in the loss of limbs, not only in the changes of the aging body, but in all the processes of elimination and purification that everything corpse-like falls away from the body piece by piece. It is no accident that precisely nails and hair, which are cut away as dead matter from the living body, continue to grow on the corpse. There is in the physis, in the memory itself, a memento mori; the obsession of the men of the middle ages and the baroque with death would be quite unthinkable if it were only a question of reflection about the end of their lives.[2]

Benjmain even cites Lohensteins’s work “celebrating ‘the passion of Christ in alternate Latin and German poems, arranges like the limbs of the human body.’”[3] What is important to notice about this is the view of the corpse from the point of view of death, but for the sake of life, and the production of writing (be it critical or literary) and its sense in relation not just to the sensuality of the body, but to the figure of the body at its most secure and insecure—the dead body (sure it is dead, yet being dead, entirely vulnerable). Christ’s head, without his body, provides a most compelling example of this phenomenon, still sensing, seemingly forever producing sense extending out from the profane things of Julian’s own world. And the relation of Julian’s writing to the impossible (decapitated for the sake of the vision) head of Christ is one of sense-production, bound up in the manifestation of this kind of sureness not related to the sureness of gnostic knowledge for salvation from this world.

Julian pulls off an extraordinary trick in the order of sense available to her late-medieval female position, fully embodying this very logic of the corpse not only in her writing, but in an effort which effectively returned sense to the order of this world for her. The certainty that her writing manifests is written already in, on, and around, the sensations of Julian’s own late-medieval female body, and specifically her own death experienced as her life as an anchoress. That is, we speak not only of writing and sense related to the figure of a corpse, but also the writing of Julian’s own corpse. That becoming an Anchoress meant undergoing a ritual of last rights and enclosure into the anchorhold (as a tomb) as a gesture of being dead to the world is a commonplace of scholarship on late medieval piety.[4] Underscored by Julian’s own near-death experience which accompanies her vision, we cannot but wonder to what extent this ritual actually freed Julian to determine the course of her writing—to what extent being dead-in-life exempted her experience of this world from the compulsion to produce knowledge for the sake of salvation in the other world of resurrection. She writes that we are to be seker (against the dominant usage of the term as knowledge/safety-from-damnation) not to produce security but by taking the security of sense in writing for granted and thus paradoxically writing from the security of the corpse. By becoming dead, and becoming a corpse—by asserting the security of her body as dead—she locates the security of her writing’s ability to relate to the order of sense in this world. Julian locates the security of sense in this world in the writing of the corpse.

[1] ibid., 7:9-24. To clarify: the passage is explaining that Julian saw the bleeding head also, during the entire time that she experienced her ghostly vision of the Virgin.

[2] Benjamin, Origin of German Tragic Drama, 217-218.

[3] ibid., 218.

[4] See Christopher Cannon, “Enclosure,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing, ed. Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 109-113.

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