1. Madness, Methodology, Medievalism (Roundtable)
Mo Pareles (New York University) and Eileen Joy (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville), Co-Organizers
Eileen Joy, Presider
Historicizing madness produces two-fold definitions. On one hand, medieval literature and history is populated with those who were sometimes tormented by demons and beatified by visions. What we may now call schizophrenia, some medieval texts perceived as contact with the divine. Saints self-mutilated and starved themselves (“holy anorexia”), turned a supposed abhorrence of sex and the body into super-charged modes of holy eroticism, and were visited by wracking anxieties and irresistible compulsions, not to mention episodes of psychosis. On the other hand, madness was hardly an empty empirical category in the premodern period. Medieval views of madness, while not coextensive, do overlap with our own. They provoked doubt about the visions of some, generated compassion for the sick, and led to ruminations on (among other things) the consequences of sin. In our own time genius has been closely coupled with mental illness (Nietzsche to Eve Sedgwick) and even suicide (Woolf to Deleuze to David Foster Wallace), and scholars (especially in queer studies) have found in sorrow, depression, schizophrenia, trauma, and other forms of negative affect the grounds and inspiration for critique—and even new critical modes. Others reject the romanticization or valorization of mental illness, personally experience it as crippling and devastating to productivity, or embrace optimism and sanity in their scholarship.This roundtable discussion session will showcase debate and dialogue on various aspects of mental illness as both subject matter of and mode of scholarship on the Middle Ages, to include possible discussion of: new perspectives on “holy anorexia,” demon possession, fits, and visions in medieval hagiography; problems of historicizing madness; trauma studies and medieval studies; mental illness and feminism; transcultural mental illness/mental illness and postcolonialism; mental illness and deconstruction; “queer optimism”; the geography of madness; the ethics of historical compassion; negative affect as critical mode; etc.
The revelations and raucous behavior of fourteenth-century mystic Margery Kempe have tempted psychological diagnoses both medieval and modern. John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces, written in the United States in the 1960s, can fruitfully be read as a tragicomic commentary on this aspect of the The Book of Margery Kempe. Kempe and Confederacy’s Ignatius Reilly both engage in amateur devotional passions so extreme as to constitute affronts to community standards and to professional counterparts (medieval clergy and medievalist scholars, respectively). Both are labeled mentally ill. While Ignatius never mounts a fully effective defense against pathologization, Kempe successfully counters attempts to unseat her visionary claims by establishing expertise in madness and distinguishing it sharply from mysticism. Reading A Confederacy of Dunces as an analogue reveals that definitions of expertise and amateurism are at stake in modern debates over Kempe’s alleged mental illness, and that her text continues to resist criticisms in a particularly strategic way. This paper ultimately calls for a revaluation of mental illness in medieval texts, including recognition of the usefulness of madness in spiritual autobiography and vocation.
This paper explores the spatial vicissitudes of agoraphobia. It begins by introducing what I see as a central problematic reinforced through generations of scientific and academic scholarship on this illness: though very much a ‘madness’ wrought from modernity and the modern landscape, and a possible subject in our “geographies of madness,” -- weighed down by architectural metaphors and a singular focus on built environments (J. Holmes 2006) -- the networks implicit in this interpretation hold primacy in the representational, or visual, over the aural, or acoustic environment. I suggest that it is the everyday sonic landscapes of our past and present which will provide the necessary entry point into any discussion on agoraphobia, its history, and ultimately its subjectification; or, on how the soundscape has determined how agoraphobia affects people’s thinking and social activities.
Looking at R. Murray Schaeffer’s theory of the soundscape, the paper then turns to how, beginning in the Middle Ages with the historical re-emergence of the parish bell as “the loudest sound to be heard in European and North American cities until the factory whistles of the Industrial Revolution,” agoraphobia simultaneously inserts itself as a profile (opposed to a constructivist or dynamic nominalist category) within the community. Looking at this peculiar contrast will illustrate how this profile is undone, dynamically shifting the socio-cultural psyche and its perceptions where the spaces for this future ‘madness’ and its residences (the asylum et al.) are nurtured. A critique of modernity is subsequently explored, where I show how the conditions I previously outlined derail the power of the church as a social force therein, and sacred noise becomes ordinary noise.
My object is not to prove, from a structuralist standpoint or the like, that agoraphobia has a long history in the social consciousness or historical profile of the West (though, perhaps it does). Rather, the methodologies -- scientific, or otherwise -- used to form the general category (as opposed to a profile) of the agoraphobe since 1871 have completely ignored the aural environment as a central conductor in their conceptual framework of this profile. From the Middle Ages into modernity, the visual and architectural spaces of the built world are too readily sought after in order to define and classify who the agoraphobe is and what the remedy for their social well-being should be (in a normative sense) (Holmes 2006). This is a deliberate exteriorization of the illness for social dominance and power. Conversely, the indoors or private realm, as Schaeffer stresses, “resonant frequencies are used as natural amplifiers to strengthen fundamental tones . . . giving sound a numinosity and amplification quite unlike anything possible . . . .” Perhaps, then, the agoraphobe is not so much a category, but -- paradoxically -- is more attuned to the social sphere and natural environment/built world because of their primal attunement to our acoustic spaces.
In his “mirror stage” Hoccleve describes a crisis of authorial selfhood involving his social and literary misreading or illegibility. This paper will investigate the ways in which Hoccleve uses the idea of an intertextual female audience to stabilize -- or perhaps to create -- a legibly masculine authorial persona. Late-medieval English masculinity, according to Derek Neal, was a negotiation predicated on clear social legibility. This paper will analyze Hoccleve’s seemingly paradoxical turn to the obscurity and misinterpretation of madness (if this mad episode is a literary trope rather than an historical fact) and suggest that both madness and femaleness offer Hoccleve an oblique way into social and authorial masculinity.
The best things we have come from madness, when it is given as a gift of the god. – Plato, Phaedrus, 244a
The Cloud-author’s account of proximate madness produced in the affective intensity of a divinely desperate existential sorrow (sorrow “that he is”)—“For as ofte as he wolde have a trewe wetyng and a felyng of his God in purtee of spirit, as it may be here, and sithen felith that he may not . . . as ofte he goth ni wood for sorow; insomochel, that he wepith and weilith, strivith, cursith, and banneth, and shortly to sey, hym thinkith that he berith so hevy a birthen of himself that he rechith never what worth of hym, so that God were plesid”—provides a phenomenally opulent opportunity for thinking the necessity of being at one’s wits’ end. This necessity, as I intend to articulate it, is intelligible as the intersection of the desire to be everything (Bataille) and the imperative become what you are (Nietzsche). Being at one’s wits’ end means to feel the simultaneous urgency of these aims, the intoxicating gravity of the impossible fact that one is everything and yet still oneself. Proximate madness, being nearly mad, is the essential experiential form of this ineluctable pull. On the one hand, it figures the liminal synthesis of the equally unrealizable alternatives of being wholly oneself and of being totally beyond oneself, the way of being that is nearest to both. On the other hand, it figures the simple, honest realization or disclosure of what one always actually is: nearly mad. The necessity of being at one’s wits’ end is in these terms a pure necessity, a necessity without object, and thus a necessity that frees the one who feels it more and more from being the subject of needs. Near madness is the feeling of getting close to being what one must. It is the arrival of the endlessly beneficial and absolutely useless necessity of being itself. That this arrival takes the form of sorrow in the Cloud of Unknowing inversely attests to exactly what is at stake in our closeness to and discourse on madness: the possibility of a real, creative relation between knowledge and joy.
2. Queering the Muse: Medieval Poetry and Contemporary Poetics (Roundtable)
David Hadbawnik (University at Buffalo, SUNY) and Eileen Joy (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville), Co-Organizers
Anna Klosowska (Miami University of Ohio), Presider
20th-century poets have long used the medieval for inspiration, notably Ezra Pound, whose version of “The Seafarer” marked an important step in his poetic development, as well as being a superb contribution to the corpus of translations of Anglo-Saxon poetry in its own right. However, not enough thought has been given to the ways in which contemporary poets reuse, reinterpret, and otherwise engage with medieval poetic tropes and practices. How can formally experimental “translations” of Old English, which take into account recent poetic and translation theory, be beneficial to the contemporary avant-garde? Or, to turn the question around, how can quintessentially contemporary reading and writing practices -- such as the game-based approaches of OuLiPo, Conceptual Art with its ideas of “exhaustiveness” and boredom, and the use of factual/archival material—provide ways of reading or understanding medieval writing? Finally, in looking at an unpublished translation of Beowulf by poet Jack Spicer, recently discovered in the archives at Univ. of California, Berkeley (and which one of our panelists is helping to edit for SUNY's “Lost and Found” translation series), the roundtable participants will explore the ways such poetic practices constitute queer approaches to medieval translation, which results in a wilder, more experimental, and perhaps truer way of understanding and engaging with the medieval poem.
I am, sir, a knight. Puzzled/ By the way things go toward me and in back of me. And finally into my mouth and head and red blood. -- ‘Book of Percival,’ Jack Spicer
The poets weave themselves as the erotic hunters./ They wear bright jerkins of a rich brocade/ and silk of forest green upon their thighs. -- ‘Banners,’ Robert Duncan
These remarks will consider how the phenomenological architecture and topography produced by the respective poetics of Spicer’s The Holy Grail along with that of Robert Duncan’s Medieval Scenes provokes a particular kind of medieval temporality within the scene of a twentieth-century American avant-garde, and suggests the potential importance of the medieval to current radical poetics in English. I will ask a explore questions which follow from a moment in Spicer’s lecture on the ‘serial poem’ for which the example from his own work is The Holy Grail, in which he cites as a paragon of the serial poem itself, Duncan’s often overlooked Medieval Scenes. How is it that the (only?) two poems from the San Francisco Renaissance most obviously engaged with anything remotely medieval occupy such a prominent position on Spicer’s short-list of serial-poem exemplars? Why is it that Duncan, whose ‘field composition’ may have more to do with the poetics of expansive continuity and continuous historical cosmology would appear congruent with the discontinuous seriality of Spicer’s poetics precisely where both poets’ work can be understood both as a continuation of, and a literary-historical work relating to, medieval poetry? My remarks will elaborate how this point of intersection relies on and provokes the possibility of a poetics whose tendency towards cosmology makes that same tendency palatable and imperative to past and present poetic avant-gardes specifically to the extent that it attempts an impossible production of a phenomenological architecture which occurs simultaneously as a continuously expanding field and as the discreteness of recursive seriality. In particular I outline how such a phenomenological lean-to (or perhaps a medieval ‘pavilion’ or ‘tent’ of the sort found in Chrétien) is made possible and necessitated by the possibility of a relation of erotic wonder between contemporary radical poetics and the medieval (the extent to which these poetics might continue to constitute and write the literary history of medieval poetry outside of what Heidegger calls the ‘historical-objective-relation’): the potential importance of the medievalness of contemporary poetics.
In poet Jack Spicer’s unfinished detective novel The Tower of Babel, he depicts the character Arthur Slingbot recording a broadcast for local public radio (the character was based on fellow poet Kenneth Rexroth, who did record broadcasts for a program on KPFA). Slingbot says,
The fact of the matter is -- and it should have been apparent to anyone with half an ear for poetry years ago -- that the Beowulf is a hoax, an enormous fake. It was mysteriously discovered in the Cottonian library in the late 18th century at just about the time Chatterton was discovering the Rowley poems and Macpherson was discovering Ossian. The anonymous gentleman who perpetrated this hoax was more ingenious and more learned than either of those two (although he had to fake a fire in the library to explain the condition of the manuscript) but anyone who bothers to examine the poetic contents of it -- who is not a professor or an idiot -- will recognize the pale Christianity and picturesque bedtime-story folktale that is typical of all antiquarian writing in the late 18th century.
In reality, Spicer was a serious medievalist who trained at UC-Berkeley in the late 1940s under philologist Arthur Brodeur and Ernst Kantorowicz. While studying with these two, he himself undertook a largely complete translation of Beowulf -- never before published and only recently discovered in his papers -- pursuing questions of language and exploring the famous “gaps and fissures” in the text, as well as its tendency to challenge notions of coherent authorship via multiple digressions and a seemingly uneasy balance between the lyric, the elegiac, and the epic, in ways that would haunt and inspire him through his poetic career. All of the innovations that poets and critics now attribute to Spicer -- his stunning mixture of “real” and “fake” translation in After Lorca, his constant toppling of the stable lyric “I” with his insistence on poetic “dictation,” even his curmudgeonly fascination with literary kingship and knightly circles -- can be traced to his lifelong engagement with the medieval. Meanwhile, as the above passage shows, Spicer’s irreverent and playful attitude towards sacred medieval texts provides new ways of viewing them from the point of view of (post)modernity -- as “serial” fragments, perhaps, where origins are inherently unstable and the very idea of cohesive authorship is a hoax.
The reader of Jack Spicer’s translation of Beowulf will be able to witness the poet teaching himself Anglo-Saxon, gaining, line-by-line, fluency in the language of the dead. While much has been discussed about Spicer’s insistence, in his later poetry and poetics, upon receiving “dictated” messages from dead poets, few have noted how this thanatic receptivity has its lineage in a scholarly pursuit of dead languages. Yet, Spicer’s interest in “inhabiting the same space as [the dead]” (Peter Gizzi) can first and most manifestly be witnessed in his interlinear translation of the Old English epic, only recently discovered among the poet’s notebooks. As I will attempt to show by way of specific examples, Spicer painstakingly trains away his creative ego -- following his injunction that poets “clear your mind away from yourself” -- in the space between the lines of Beowulf.
At the same time, what Spicer’s work with Old English provides him is an influx of “furniture” for the incoming voices to arrange. Spicer says in his first Vancouver Lecture: “Language is part of the furniture in the room . . . It’s something which is in the mind of the host that the parasite (the poem) is invading. Five languages just makes the room structure more difficult, and possibly more usable.” By increasing his word-hoard from the etymologies and compositional formulas of Beowulf’s diction, Spicer thereby augments the combinatory possibilities present in his own poetic diction. Yet we might better view its influence on Spicer’s poetry negatively, traceable only by its disappearance:
[T]he whole structure of language is . . . an obstruction to what the poem wants to do, and the more you understand about the words and understand about the structure of language, the easier it is for you to see where the obstructions are and prevent them if possible from interfering with the message of the poem.
We are thus provided in Spicer’s Beowulf with a fascinating paradigm for translation as an extra-poetic practice, in which the structure of language is “used up” so that it might not interfere with the arrival of the poem.
Certain "experimental" or "avant-garde" writing and reading practices that seem thoroughly situated in the twentieth or twenty-first century (such as the ludic and mathematically-derived writing practices of the French group Oulipo; "international style" visual and concrete poetry that engages with language without necessarily engaging with the specifics of any particular language; or conceptual poetry, which often is intended to be interesting to think about but dull to read) can suggest new and fruitful ways of reading and misreading premodern texts, anachronistically, diachronistically, and antichronistically. Sexiness ensues.
Grace Jantzen’s work on the politics of mysticism points to the problems of gender and power in claims of access to God: “if mystical experience could be delimited as private and subjective, this would be a way of ensuring that it did not have to be taken into account by those making social and political decisions: religion could be kept out of politics” (Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism, 2). As Grantzen suggests the problem of mysticism lies in not only claims to truth, but how that truth is used (i.e., does it oppress, does it liberate?) The poet Anne Sexton’s posthumously published book The Awful Rowing Towards God encapsulates this struggle between gender and power and politics. As this book moves from heaven to earth searching to touch and be touched by God, Sexton engages with a medieval problem that has not left us. Like the medieval mystic Richard Rolle and his attempts to be touched by God through fire, through song, Sexton’s touching is material based: she finds God in tears, fruit, or children. While critics writing on medieval mystics point to horrid abjections as the predominant model of reaching towards God, Sexton’s medievalism suggests the body is central to touching God. The voices of her poems imagine heaven, earth, fallen angels, Creation stories and souls, but each of these is mediated through Sexton’s bodies. This last point is salient since Sexton chooses various bodies to contemplate the mystical: the defeated, the broken, the young, the old. This paper examines Anne Sexton’s work as shedding light on medieval mystical works through the position of the (queer) body. The more bodies, the more grounded, Sexton suggests, the stronger the touch of God, the hotter the fire.
In his essay, “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction,” Walter Ong argues that “history partakes quite evidently of the nature of poetry. It is a making.” As representational forms, both history and poetry utilize language to make meaning. They do so in an attempt to speak past death, to imagine what Judith Butler has called the “possible” moment of fantasy in which new identities might exist outside the bounds of present ideologies. This paper examines the allusive axis shared by two disparate poems, William Dunbar’s 15th-century “Lament for the Makaris,” and Sharon Olds’ 21st-century “The Makaris,” arguing that in these texts poetry is imagined as an immaterial moment of poetic invention. This invention, or making, is a representational fiction embodied within a gendered subject, one that enacts a self that can speak across time. The “makaris” speak generatively, in these poems, using English as the performative locus to create both a speaker and an audience. To their late medieval contemporaries, the “makaris” are composers of vernacular verse forms. Reserving the term “poet” for Classical masters like Ovid and Petrarch whose works persist across time, these English “makaris” present seemingly more ephemeral, vernacular texts. They are “shapeshifters, who can step back and forth over the borderlines of narrative; they may tell or read narratives, act out roles within their stories by using gestures and actions, address their audience or comment on their tales from a position outside the fictional world.” This shapeshifting, performative quality is not unique to the medieval, however, as Olds’ poem makes clear. Where Dunbar laments the dead and reifies Chaucer as a poetic forefather in rhyming late medieval Scots, Olds confesses to postcoital exhaustion and procreative fecundity in early 21st century American free verse. Yet each text identifies the maker as one who performs poetry in an act of “immaterial labor,” to use Maurizio Lazzarato’s term. To make poetry is to memorialize, to speak in aesthetic language across time in a performative act that vanquishes death’s silence.
The Transcultural Middle Ages (Paper Session)
postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, Sponsor
Laurie Finke (Kenyon College), Martin Shictman (Eastern Michigan University), and Eileen Joy (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville), Co-Organizers
Laurie Finke and Martin Shichtman, Co-Presiders
The Transcultural Middle Ages is a project that would track the flow of ideas, words, people, goods, money, books, art objects, and artifacts across national boundaries. Through this project we hope to encourage collaborative migrations into conceptual territories mapped by geographical “middles,” by trails and routes. Our aim is to explore movement across and between medieval cultures generally understood as distinct and internally homogeneous, to reveal the hybridity and fluidity produced by cultural interaction: by commercial traffic, migration, nomadism, intermarriage, imperialism, and diaspora. Two border crossings are central to our purpose. First, we want to shift the focus within medieval studies from the uniqueness or distinctiveness of the national cultures that have defined medieval studies, encouraging scholarship that elucidates the mobility of cultures and the exchanges between them, ultimately decentering Europe as the locus of medieval culture. For this reason we are especially interested in work from outside of Europe or work that connects Europe to other areas of the world. Second, we want to encourage traffic between disciplines, fields, and areas of expertise in the academy. We want to establish a place “in the middle” where scholars with different expertise can come together and create a common space and language for thinking more globally about routes that connect rather than borders that separate and define, and in so doing perhaps rethink their own expertise. Laurie and Marty will be co-editing a special issue of postmedieval relative to this project, due to be published as Issue 2 of Volume 4: June 2013.
In my paper, I would like to propose a new method by which the traces of Juan Ruiz’s Libro de Buen Amor arrived in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale.” I will begin by examining the four possible transmitters as suggested by Eugenio M. Olivares Merino in his article from 2004 entitled “Juan Ruiz’ Influence on Chaucer Revisited: A Survey” and then go on to examine the relationship between Oton de Graunson, a poet-knight in the retinue of John of Gaunt, and Geoffrey Chaucer to see whether there is a case for his acting as the transmitter of Ruiz’ poem to Chaucer. Graunson is known to have been imprisoned in Spain and fluent in Spanish, and his subsequent arrival in Gaunt’s retinue provides an ideal circumstance for the transmission of Ruiz’s work to Chaucer.
William Caxton, we all know, is the first English printer -- but Caxton’s “firstness” and “Englishness” are difficult to maintain under close scrutiny. Not so much an innovator as an importer, he transported from overseas into England preexisting moveable print technologies, which in turn originate further East. Moreover, his role as translator and Continental traveler renders his Englishness conspicuously fluid. The editions Caxton produced in Cologne (1473) are the first printed texts in English and in French (granting him equal title as first French printer), and the verbs Caxton employs for transcultural mediation in editions made in England (translatyd, reducyd, chaunged, drawen oute) draw from multiple tongues, conveying his restless linguistic habitus. Most conspicuously, Caxton’s prologues register his acute estrangement from English itself: he sees an Anglo-Saxon text “more lyke to the Duche” than his “own” (Middle) English, and in his anecdote about dialect diversity (Eneydos, c. 1490) an English fisherwoman misapprehends a Flanders-bound merchant’s Somerset dialect as “Frenshe.”
This paper explores Caxton’s under-appreciated first-person prologues and Dialogues in French and English (c. 1483), reassessing him as translingual mediator. Drawn from a Dutch/French source, Caxton’s parallel French/English text (bilingual phrasebook for merchants) effaces the third “relay language” of Dutch; i.e., Caxton places English beside French in the textual column once occupied by Dutch. Nonetheless, Caxton’s own English is riddled with Dutch-inflected idioms, verb usage, and grammatical features that evoke this “lost” intermediary tongue. Non-native coinages don’t just belie Caxton’s graphic illusion of “straight” bilingual translation. They confirm Caxton’s acknowledgment (elsewhere in his prologues) that his own idiolect hovers somewhere between spoken English and Dutch.
Translatio -- movement from one language (or place) to another -- is hardly ever “straight,” and Sarah Ahmed asks us to rethink the “work” of the “straight line” and generate “alternative lines, which cross the ground” -- and, I would add, the sea -- “in unexpected ways” (Queer Phenomenology, 83, 20). Caxton’s unexpected acts of translingual mediation are poised to reanimate our discussions of how multilingual identities are shaped through technological flow, and his first-person and bilingual works profoundly challenge (hetero)normative modes of Anglophone literary history and linguistic historiography.
The monster would first appear to constitute the epitome of otherness. It represents not only what the self is not but also what threatens the self. And yet, monsters are not the autochthonous creation of distinct and internally homogenous cultures. Rather, there was as well a medieval transcultural traffic in monsters. Stories of monsters traveled across linguistic and cultural borders. They were borrowed and assimilated as ways of thinking about what lies beyond civilization in the borderlands. Along with this traffic, I suggest, ideas about self and other, and relations with foreigners are transmitted, adopted, adapted, and reconceived.
One major source of monster lore was the Alexander Romance. The Greek Alexander Romance itself is the product of cultural borrowing and assimilation. Composed in 2nd- or 3rd-century Greek-ruled Alexandria, Egypt, its monster lore comes from earlier Greek conceptions of the marvels of India, including Ktesias of Knidos’s and Megasthenes’s descriptions of India. The Alexander Romance proliferated in many languages and versions across Eurasia. My paper proposes to examine two late-medieval adaptations of the Alexander Romance from two ends of Eurasia for their depictions of monsters. Both are 15th-century texts and thus contemporaneous with each other, but they were produced in geographical locations very remote from each other, with distinctively disparate languages, cultures, and religions: Gilbert Hay’s Scottish Buik of King Alexander and the Southeast Asian Malay legend of Alexander, Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain. My texts’ ultimate source is the Greek work misattributed to Callisthenes but they derive from different branches of the tradition. The Scottish text derives from the 10th-century Latin translation by Leo Archipresbyter, and the Malay text ultimately derives from the 6th-century Syriac version through Arabic and Persian sources. Both the Leo Archipresbyter and the Syriac come from one of the recensions of the Pseudo-Callisthenes.
Comparing and contrasting depictions of monsters (both similar and different) in these two culturally-distinct texts, one which very-nearly Christianizes Alexander and the other which unabashedly Islamicizes him, I want to consider how their repertoire of monsters in fact constitutes a body of shared knowledge and shared culture between two island societies on the edges of the world. As island societies, the sea both acts as borderlines to define an internal culture but very much also acts as conduits for external influences. Consonant with recent scholarship by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and others that monsters are hybrid creatures strangely kin to the self, I suggest too that in these texts, the monsters are less strange than they first seem. We see a surprising similarity of monsters in works from two dissimilar languages (one Indo-European, the other Austronesian with a strong Sanskritic and Arabic influence), a similarity attributable in part to their common source. But I suggest too that both texts strive to assimilate what is foreign, to make the monsters part of themselves.
Recent studies in neurobiology posit that the same “topological shapes” exists across all alphabets in natural languages and that “more common configuration types among visual signs are the more common configuration types among natural scenes, thereby exploiting what humans have evolved to be good at visually processing.” That is, the shapes of human letters correspond with shapes in nature, and the evolution of human sight aids the recognition of letters because letters are like natural forms.
Postructuralism and particularly postcolonial studies have tended to view these kinds of universalizing and naturalizing ideas about cultural production with suspicion. They would counter that alphabets do not arise out of natural processes but historical and social factors. Indeed, they may say that alphabets are a sign of difference and not, in Hardt and Negri’s term, “commonwealth.” Indeed, alphabets are limit cases in the perceptions of Others because alphabets are in themselves untranslatable.
This paper will study Rabanus Maurus’s De inventione linguarum, Boccaccio’s Zibaldone Laurenziano, and the different versions of The Book of Sir John Mandeville, texts that purport to transcribe Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, Scythian, runic, and other alphabets. The aim is to see whether the representations of alphabets in the texts of Latinity offer what Geraldine Heng has described as a “master vantage point” from which to view the world’s cultures, one that is “generative of, and entirely familiar to, scientific discourse,” including these recent developments in neurobiology and eco-evolution studies. Or are we seeing in these authors’ presentations of other alphabets something closer to Bruno Latour’s “cycles of accumulation,” that is, more cultural and historical processes. This would be closer to the sense that Oliver Sacks writes about in a recent article on alexia (a neurological disorder where a person cannot recognize written letters): “We are literate . . . through a cultural invention and a cultural selection that make a brilliant and creative new use of a preëxisting neural proclivity”?
I hope to show that cruxes in the representations of alphabets and the accompanying discussions in De inventione linguarum, the Zibaldone Laurenziano, and the Mandeville manuscripts indicate neither ideas about universals nor cultural-alphabetical Otherness but a comparative linguistics that shows a variety of West-East, Christian-Muslim, and other correspondences. I also intend to explore how these texts’ insights into alphabetical cross-cultural systematicity contribute to and problematize neurobiological studies of writing, sight, neural networks, ecological forms, and evolution.
This paper reads two 12th-century Iberian Andalusian muwassaha poems as poetry. The first composition was originally written in Arabic by Abu Bakr al-Jazzar (ca. 1060–1120) and the other was composed initially in Hebrew by Moshe Ibn Ezra (1055–after 1138). Each poem includes in its final stanza the same kharja, two verses written in either dialectical Arabic or a version of Spanish. For two centuries, the muwassaha and its kharja (Arabic for exit, departure) have been called upon by Hispanists and Arabists alike to represent for a series of causes. Such causes include the autochthonous origin of strophic Andalusian (i.e. Spanish) poetry in the Iberian Peninsula, or, rather, a consideration of the muwassaha as a unique, but definitive descendent of Arabic poetics.
The paper examines how each poet uses the supposedly “repeat kharja” as well as similar tropes to paradoxically -- paradoxically within the confines of the 19th- and 20th-century debates on the muwassaha -- to show how the muwassahat are not repeating at all. Instead, each poem plays with subjectivity in such a way that representation itself, and thus the modern-day arguments, have little luck taking hold. These “put-upon” poems, when read as poems, are shown to engage a series of plays on subjectivitiy and representation that allows them to effectively operate in a realm that could be called the “space of the it” -- the neutral, "free" space in sentences beginning with “it is” before a thing/person is named: e.g., It is a poem.