The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory
University of Chicago Press, 2005
276 pp., 37.0
Erin Felicia Labbie
Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2006
288 pp., 26.00
Last year I was leading a student through the dark wood of postmodern theory. A week or two into the term, he observed that postmodernism felt like a rarefied form of courtly love. Whatever they call it—the Transcendental Signified, the Other, God—theorists know the Good they long for remains forever out of reach. Derrida. Lyotard. Levinas. They're all panting for la belle dame sans merci who bats her green eyes and toys with them, scornfully hiding behind her veil. That's as good a description of postmodernism as any, and it turns out that the similarity is no accident. Theorists are the frustrated courtly lovers of philosophy because their theories are (sorry, theory is) cobbled from fragments of medieval poetry, literature, and theology.
Medieval influences on theory are widely ignored. They shouldn't be. In The Premodern Condition, Bruce Holsinger, professor of English and music at the University of Virginia and author of Music, Body and Desire in Medieval Culture, examines the influence of medieval studies on a circle of French avant garde intellectuals, several of whom founded the influential journal of theory, Tel Quel, in 1960. By "medieval studies" he means both historical investigations, particularly those of Marc Bloch and others of the Annales school, and theorists' own study of medieval texts. Far from looking to the Middle Ages with quaint Victorian nostalgia, theorists have plundered medieval texts for fundamental philosophical concepts and language, theories of textual meaning, models of inquiry. Theory is a critique of modernity from the perspective of modernity's Other, the benighted Age of Faith. Renaissance Humanists and Enlightened philosophes reached back to pagan antiquity for weapons to bash the medieval system. Postmodern theorists reach back to the Middle Ages for weapons to bash the Enlightenment. It's sweet revenge. That distant rumble you hear—that's Thomas Aquinas laughing from his tomb.
Holsinger examines five theorists: Georges Bataille, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, philosopher Jacques Derrida, and literary theorist Roland Barthes. A Catholic-turned-debauched-atheist, pornographer, and celebrant of limitless eroticism, Georges Bataille was the only trained medievalist in the group. Bataille begat Lacan, and Lacan's mesmerizing seminars, which began in 1951 at Paris' St. Anne Hospital and continued every week for several decades at various Parisian locations, passed on some of Bataille's medieval obsessions to a who's who of theory: Derrida, Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Claude Levi-Strauss (who was honest enough to confess his puzzlement about Lacan's theories).
Bataille's medievalism is evident in the title of one of his major works, La somme atheologique. Though often read as parody, La somme is a seriously theological work of anti-theology that deploys medieval mysticism and negative theology against Thomas' Summa theologiae. La Somme opens with an invocation of the 13th-century mystic Angela of Foligno, and it's organized on the model of Angela's Liber de vere fidelium experientia. Bataille disputes what he (mistakenly) sees as Thomas' pretentious effort to summarize Christian theology once and for all. Every Summa fails. No one can pin down reality with words like a display of butterflies. Bataille's treatise, furthermore, obliquely intervened in the battle for the body of Thomas then raging between paleo-Thomists (who regarded Thomism as the absolute and final system of Catholic theology) and neo-Thomists (who, inspired by Leo XIII's 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris, placed Thomas in historical context and frequently discovered a more modest and more existentialist Thomism). Neo-Thomist advocates of a return to the Fathers were no doubt surprised to find Bataille beside them in the trenches.
A lapsed Catholic like Bataille, Lacan was contemptuous of his pious, middle-class upbringing. Vain, ambitious, dandified, Lacan cultivated intellectual stardom while giving spare moments to coiffing his impressive hair and servicing his multiple mistresses. His debt to the Middle Ages is most overt in the Seventh Seminar, the Ethics of Psychoanalysis, which invokes St. Bernard and Abelard and examines poems by the troubadour Arnaut Daniel. Courtly love fascinated Lacan because it exposes the character of desire. Courtly lovers impute an impossible beauty to the Lady. The Lady is not merely unavailable, though she is that. She's literally non-existent, since no actual woman can live up to a dreamy troubadour's fantasy. Yet, every self-respecting courtly lover wants to annihilate himself before this desirable void, this nothingness that masters him. Courtly love gives poetic expression to Lacan's Zen-like axiom, "there is no sexual relationship." Lacan subordinates the history of knowledge to the history of desire, and so epistemology has the same structure as courtly love: the "Thing" fades forever from the knower yet seduces precisely by escaping his lustful gaze and grasp. Lacan also sees in courtly love a secular form of negative theology, in which the unnamable God is known only by what he is not, unveiled only in his veiling.
Erin Felicia Labbie apparently learned to write from Lacan, whose Delphic style was legendary. In Lacan's Medievalism she locates the magus' work in the context of the "quarrel of the universals" initiated by Boethius. Surprisingly, Labbie's Lacan comes out a realist. Lacan's obsession with mathematical formulae and his strange fascination with knots reflect the influence of medieval numerology and the pentangle on the knight's shield in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Lacan is an inverted Thomist. His theory of desire rests on an absent cause—that inaccessible Lady of all desire—just as Thomas' theology rests on an absent-present God. The only small tweak is that Lacan puts the unconscious in the place where Thomas puts God.
When Pierre Bourdieu translated Erwin Panofsky's Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism into French in 1967, he included a lengthy "Postface," which Holsinger translates in an appendix. There Bourdieu stresses the importance of Panofsky's concept of habitus for cultural analysis. Instead of merely noting surface similarities between Gothic architecture and scholastic theology, Panofsky penetrated to the habitus of high medieval culture, the "meaning-generating core of cultural production" expressed in both cultural forms. For medieval theologians of the 12th and 13th centuries, habitus was a disposition toward particular moral or religious ends. Justification, medieval theologians said, took place through the gracious infusion of a habitus, an inclination toward good works. Translating habitus into sociology, Bourdieu discovers a way to express the link between individual creativity and cultural context. Our actions are unconsciously guided by our inherited cultural habitus, but we put these schemes into action in uniquely creative ways. Habitus avoids both a naïve individualism that ignores cultural conditioning and a stifling structuralism that reduces the individual to nothing but the "bearer—Trager—of the structure."
Derrida's medievalism is more covert. In Of Grammatology, Derrida's main target is Rousseau's Essay on the Origin of Language, which traces the decline of language from natural melodious song to artificial harmonious speech. Derrida discerns a tension in Rousseau's argument. Rousseau wants to tell a story of a fall from a linguistic Eden, but in the story he actually tells, the sources of decline are there from the beginning. In thus "deconstructing" Rousseau, Derrida challenges the claim that the Middle Ages was an age of linguistic decadence. Rather, Derrida suggests, the medieval liturgy approached Rousseau's ideal language, the "inarticulate" breath of speech, speech that acknowledges it can never fully express what it experiences. More broadly, for Holsinger Of Grammatology is a critique of the ideological assumptions underlying Rousseau's implicit periodization of history, which casts the Middle Ages as the murky dusk before the dawn of Reason.
Roland Barthes spent his career fuzzying up the boundaries separating text and commentary, writer and reader, poet and critic. Barthes also believed that texts are multiple, not single. Faddish as they are, these habits of reading have precendents in medieval biblical interpretation. In a little-known essay on Ignatius Loyola, Barthes draws directly on the medieval notion of a "fourfold sense" of Scripture and reads Loyola's Spiritual Exercises as four texts in one. Alongside the literal text are semantic, allegorical, and anagogical texts. Barthes' manically close reading of Honoré de Balzac's Sarrasine, published as S/Z, employs five literary "codes" that, Holsinger claims, are transformations of the same medieval fourfold method. Though rarely mentioned in discussions of Barthes, the French Catholic Henri de Lubac looms large in the background. De Lubac begins his history of medieval exegesis by citing Nicolas of Lyra's prologue to the Glossa ordinaria, and says his own treatise is "merely a commentary" on Nicholas. In other words, de Lubac writes a "commentary on a commentary on a commentary on a commentary." This appealed to Barthes, who once said in an interview that he could imagine "writing infinitely on past texts." Both Barthes and de Lubac, in Holsinger's words, regard "the multiplicity of the text as the boundless object of hermeneutical delectation."
One of the strengths of The Premodern Condition is Holsinger's resolute refusal to observe artificial disciplinary boundaries. Historical theologians trace the influence of French nouvelle theologie on 20th-century Catholicism. Intellectual historians fawn over the avant garde circle of 1960s Paris. In reality, these worlds intersected in all sorts of ways. Barthes attended colloquia on the history of biblical exegesis. Bataille debated the future cardinal Jean Danielou (a prolific author, and editor of the patristic collection Sources chretiennes) about Nietzsche in Marcel More's living room in occupied Paris in March 1944. Danielou and other Catholic intellectuals spent evenings in the company of Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty arguing over Bataille's work on sacrifice and Christianity.
Holsinger also helps makes sense of what could otherwise be an inexplicable "theological turn" within postmodern thought. In the years before his death, Derrida could speak of little but God and gifts and, always, death, and he is as responsible as anyone for the resurgence of interest in Augustine. French phenomenology has taken what some now describe as a "theological turn," and the unclassifiable Slovenian atheist Slavoj Zizek writes about the Apostle Paul. As Holsinger shows, theology is nothing new to theory. Through medievalism, theology was there when the new age dawned in the Sixties. And perhaps, for all its perversities and inadequacies, the "theological turn" is a Mars Hill moment. Perhaps it leaves an opening to say, "This God whom you worship in ignorance, I proclaim to you."
Peter Leithart is professor of theology and literature at New Saint Andrews College and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho. Among his recent books are Deep Comedy: Trinity, Tragedy, and Hope in Western Literature (Canon Press) and a volume on 1 and 2 Kings in the Brazos Theological Commentary series (Brazos Press).
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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