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Staring by Rosemarie Garland-Thompson

Garland-Thompson is interested in the cultural status of the stare– what it does, and how it can be used. Staring, she argues, is a social taboo, which is seen as isolating, dominating and othering. However, staring can also be seen as a moment of connection. If we stare at human variation, then “staring makes things happen between people” (33); if modernity is all about rushing us towards sameness, then difference is what we stare at; in other words, we are pushed towards sameness, but stares show us that we want novelty.

In a similar way to Lennard Davis, Garland-Thompson evokes the idea of the “hypothetical average”- the abstaction of data that combines to form a person who is not real, but who is a combination of many different people. This, she says, is what we aspire to and yet will never be able to reach. This reminds me of Julie Orlemanski’s argument about the use of the zodiac man in Symptomatic Subjects: an aggregate of wounds and bodily differences that is of use to everyone, potentially, but is actually no one. This sense of an average is where she begins to speak about disability. Visible disabilities invite staring because they are different from the norm. She uses the example of the Allison Lapper statue in Trafalger Square, a statue that has featured in another essay I read several years ago about film and visual art (I can’t remember the author, but she talked about female bodybuilders too…  I will see if I can come back and add this). What the other essay mentions that Garland-Thompson doesn’t is that Lapper’s statue might not be a wholly pure victory for disability rights; it is an example of visibility but not necessarily representation. However, Garland-Thompson’s point is that the statue is stareable and forces us to re-think what we value as worthy of being on a pedastal and looked at.

The history of staring runs counter to the history of controlling one’s gaze or one’s seeable-ness. What she calls “baroque staring”, an unashamed look for aesthetic reasons that refuses legibility, is unlike our usual reason for staring: getting information. “Ugly laws” and anti- sex work laws exist less to protect people from being stared at, and more to protect the staree from having to see something “disgusting”. The fact that these laws exist categorizes the stare as a judgement (what’s being stared at is gross, or inappropriate) and reflects on both people involved. Modern people also have what she calls “consumer vision” (29), which corresponds to Sontag’s discussion of photos as consumable objects. If staring is our main way of engaging with the world, we make ourselves vulnerable to the repeated sameness of consumerism, “accumulations of identical items that at once deaden and draw our visual attention” (30).

The question is less so whether we should stare, she concludes, but how we should stare. She xplicitly brings up another book of Sontag’s, Regarding the Pain of Others, in which she determines that looking at human pain and suffering from a distance is immoral, much like the war photography she condemns in On Photography; the only good way to stare is through ethical engagement and activism. Garland-Thompson asks what ethical engagement is when starees are alive; she lands on Elaine Scarry’s idea that both beautiful and repulsive things demand engagement, and in doing so become ethically stareable. At stake here is whether the staree has agency. She uses the example of Harriet McBryde Johnson’s 2003 NYT cover, in which Johnson recounts becoming comfortable in her own skin and having been subject to stares for her entire life, before “teaching” the readers how to look at her by voicing her own self-confidence. I don’t think Garland-Thompson is saying that disabled people should be obligated to do this, but I’m also not sure what else she’s suggesting. If the best way for disabled people to engage with ethical staring is to put themselves in the public eye, what about people who cannot do that– and how is the valence of the stare not almost totally dependent on how the starer reacts? Perhaps this is her point, that ethical staring needs input from both parties, but if that’s the case I am not sure why the address is towards disabled people rather than non-disabled starers to engage ethically. She emphasizes the importance of the disability community she credits with helping starees to be more authentically themselves, but I am still unclear about what she thinks a perfect ethical staring relationship looks like concretely, and how exactly the onus in on the non-disabled starer instead of just the disabled staree. Disability visibility expands the concept of human variation, but this seems– to return to her criticism of capitalist ocularcentrism– to be an example of representation that is geared toward affecting the starer more than the staree, and doesn’t take into account, at least in detail, the danger of interactions where staring occurs, for disabled people and also POC, trans people, etc. This may be too narrow a reading of this book, but I have trouble taking visibility/representation as an ending point rather than a starting point.

Wendy J Turner, Madness in Medieval Law and Custom

This collection of essays aims to present a view of medieval madness and legal reactions to it. In contrast to previous study on madness in the medieval period, which often claims medieval people with madness were either not noticed or were not cared for, it illuminates particular places and times where people with mental disabilities were cared for and were a part of society. Turner’s introduction opposes itself to Foucault’s Madness and Civilization in particular, which she critiques for generalizing both time and space/place and also for insisting that medieval mad people were excluded from community. Rather, Turner argues, while medieval disability and madness in particular were still occasions for discrimination, often there were legal and care-based options for mad people, especially those with resources, to survive and be part of society.

The first half of this book deals with the treatment of mentally ill people under the law, while the second half deals with how the mentally ill were utilized as symbols or guides for appropriate emotion. Mad people were “innocents” in the eyes of the law, meaning that they were not able to serve as witnesses and could have their sentences negated if they were deemed to be mad. The main way this seems to have occurred is through witness testimony, meaning that you were dependent on other people to deem you mad (or not). Alexandra Pfau’s chapter, which focuses on the importance of remission letters written to ask the king to pardon someone for something, replaced the idea of “justice” with law as a vehicle for social order. If madness is a social problem, resulting in misunderstandings of usual social norms and ruptures of social relationships, then it requires a solution that is focused on reestablishing social bonds. Evidently, madness was often seen as enough of a punishment for a crime; at other times, people self-exiled in order to remove themselves from the community, though usually they remained in the community and were assigned a guardian who took care of them. While this was nominally to protect the person, as Turner points out it also allowed the crown or the guardian to make money from the mad person’s goods.

I was also interested in James King’s chapter on the “mad rector” (and royal clerk!) Thomas, who was appointed a coadjucator to assist him and eventually was able to prove his sanity. The bishop in charge of Thomas’s diocese was known for providing coadjucators for people with physical disabilities, and this move shows his ability to identify and account for mental disability as well. Thomas’s advocacy for himself in order to prove he was no longer mad is one of the only points in this book where a mad person’s own testimony is admissible in court. As Pfau points out (in her dissertation), mad people were generally not allowed to be witnesses, and witness testimony from others was usually required to prove that someone was not mad. This case makes me wonder if there were other situations where someone was allowed to participate in their own defense, or if the prohibition was usual. In either case, King argues that the Bishop’s actions– appointing a guardian to help and take care of the rector– was not only an instance of compassion, but reflective of thirteenth-century society as a whole.

This book, and Pfau’s chapter in particular, rehabilitates the medieval potential for thinking about madness complexly, without failing to critique the ways that the management of madness bled over into surveillance or disenfranchisement in the name of social order. Indeed, this is another point at which the collection opposes Foucault, as it shows that imprisonment was used as a punishment, and that madness was seen as folly, inconvenience, and disease as well as “spiritual knowledge”. Pfau (here but especially in her dissertation) focuses on remission letters from all walks of life, and notes in the diss that a large proportion of remission letters come from “laborers”, not an especially wealthy class of people. This further helps to refute the exclusion hypothesis; while clearly wealth is a very important factor in terms of who gets care, it is not the only one, and its absence does not always equal social shutting out.

 

 

Lisa H. Cooper, “Agronomy and Affect in Duke Humphrey’s On Husbondrie”

I am really excited about this article, because it brings together several things I want to write about more: labor, ecological/material viewpoints on literature, and affect. This essay’s project is to examine the poetics of this commissioned manual, “On Husbondrie”, and how its translation into Middle English from Latin affected its affect (ha). Cooper argues that this translation is rooted in affects that are material, visual, and often non-human, and that its “affective ecology” makes it an ideal place to explore the interconnectedness of humans and plants in medieval literature. Moving from Latin to English has increased the affective force of this poem, and allows the translator to do different things than the original poem: center the experience of Duke Humphrey, but also aiming to turn practicality into “fruyt” as a poem.

She begins by identifying a central issue in affect studies, the tendency to not specifically define what “affect” is when you refer to it. She argues that agronomy manuals (and this one in particular) contain what Sianne Ngai identifies as “tone”, the tenor or orientation of a work that slips between the reader’s feelings and the text’s feeling and ends up constituting a “web” (or, for Connor, an ecology) of affect between different people or things. In going through the poem, she identifies moments when this web is most present, for instance the recurring theme of poetry’s meter that is pulled from the “prosis black” or the arrangement of colored text on the last page that looks like a prepared garden. (She also cites Sarah Kay on animal skin as part of her argument about the text being intrinsically connected with agriculture in a material way). The text ascribes feelings to plants, refers to them as children, and generally makes humans and plants interconnected.

She also says something that reminds me a lot of Carol Rawcliffe’s note about astrology requiring extremely specific information in order to be successful: agronomy is “taking the right action with the right tools at the right time” (79). While it is obvious from Connor’s argument that literature and agriculture are both “affective labor”, that they are being compared in the text, I see a way that medicine can be included here too, or at least personal well-being. If plants and people are inextricably tied up with each other, then their well-being is dependent on each other (and the well-being of the person is dependent on ensuring the well-being of the plant, in that it needs particular conditions to be “happy” and thus produce food for people).

I appreciated her nod to the difficulty of determining what affect is, but I was still shaky on what she meant by affect even after her lengthy explanation. I guess my best summary of her stance is that affect is an “ecology” that is between the reader and the text and occasionally in both, and it generates feeling (something which she does ascribe to the medieval period, unlike others like Boquet who do emotions history, because of its potential to communicate materiality as well as medieval definitions of fele (many, or inquire into). Using Ngai’s concept of tone, “an artifact’s disposition”, between the reader and the text, she argues that the text’s affect represents the ecology between humans, plants, and animals, and that the Middle English text (in the language and linguistic choices, and its centering of Humphrey’s role as a figure shaping the text) increases this affective force. I am more and more interested in Humphrey as someone who Hoccleve, Lydgate and this anonymous translator were all working for, and I wonder if there is a collection of the things he commissioned over his lifetime or if anything has been written about his collection as a whole.

Susan Sontag, On Photography

Sontag’s essays on photography revolve around the question of what photography is, and what it does. While photographs seems like reality, they are actually more like paintings: they don’t reflect reality, they reflect the “real”, or the interpretation of reality that their photographer has shaped and captured. Unlike other forms of art, photos are only enhanced by the passage of time; their effects (like bloom, shadow, etc.) are less important to their overall effect than distance and time, which are what make a photo truly “surreal”. However, surrealist photos that rely on their content for effect are not actually surreal; or rather, every photograph is surreal, because every photo is creating an artificial world.

Photography as a way of making the world more available to us, going along with making others’ suffering and lives in general more available, feeds into the function of photos as consumable objects. Photos can be aesthetic or they can be informative; either one can be used to serve capitalism by making peoples’ image consumption make them believe 1) that images and reality are the same, and 2) that their choice between images is actually freedom. While Sontag does not think photography is art, she does think that it makes what it photographs into art, which is its unique quality. However, even as a legitimate aesthetic technology, it carries with it the problem that photos subvert reality, a process she thinks is getting worse over time. If we consume too many images, the implication is, we will no longer be able to distinguish reality from images, and will live entirely in the image-world.

I found her essay titled “Melancholy Objects” most interesting. Building on her discussion of Surrealism, which relies on assemblages of objects that produce meaning (or alternately, dispassionate photography that gives everything equal meaning), she argues that photography in America makes everything into a relic. Giving examples including the photographing of native tribes’ dances which were staged for the camera, she notes that the act of photographing something is often artificial. She argues that inventories of America are suffused with loss, because they are anti-scientific efforts to take specimens that stand in for the whole, but in taking specimens they (their authenticity, and therefore their power) is destroyed. In turning the past into a “consumable object” (68), it’s made into a fantasy. The Surrealist taste for fragmentation makes photographers into collectors interested in the past, photographing what will be (and already is) gone and can’t be preserved. I am very interested in her idea of an inventory of objects as making up a collection of loss, which I see as connected to the “too-muchness” of Burton’s writings on melancholy and to a certain extent other approaches to writing about melancholy like Avicenna. The sourcing of multiple different explanations that contradict, cross over or bleed into each other gives the illusion of a reality, while in Burton’s case it just makes the reader go through a reenactment of melancholy, and in Avicenna’s it does… something else.

Fowler, Mourning, Melancholia and Masculinity in Medieval Literature

Following are my notes on Rebekah M. Fowler’s dissertation “Mourning, Melancholia and Masculinity in English Literature”. Fowler wants to explore a pattern of emotion that

consists of love, loss, grief madness and/or melancholy, wilderness lament/consolation, and synthesis and application of information gleaned from the grieving process, which is found in diverse texts from the twelfth century romance of Chrétien de Troyes‘ Yvain to the fifteenth century dream vision/consolatio Pearl. A focused study of how bereavement is represented through this pattern gains us a deeper understanding of medieval conceptions of emotional expression and their connections to gender and status. In other words, this project shows how the period imagines gender and status not just as something one recognizes, but also something one feels” (i).

She is specifically interested in masculinity’s relationship to bereavement, which she argues can be a push against socially sanctioned values: “my purpose is not to view losses as lack, but rather, to see them as a positive impetus to push beyond the limits of social behavior in order to realize textually various outcomes and to suggest the limitations of such socially sanctioned conventions as literary forms, language, rituals, understanding, and consolation to govern the enactment of grief” (ii). In other words, she wants to reconsider medieval men as men who feel, even if literature ends up not being able to contain that feeling.

All of the characters she examines– Yvain, Orfeo, the Pearl dreamer, and the Black Knight– follow the pattern of grieving but also supercede it, and it is by deviating from the pattern that they feel authentic emotion. She is not talking about lovesickness, which these characters have usually been subsumed into, but “grief madness” at losing loved ones. Grief itself is not insanity, but it can lead to insanity; if it is prolonged or intense, it can cause mania. Lovesickness, on the other hand, is never having had the love object to begin with; grief madness is having it and losing it. Her approach here seems Freudian, although again he is more concerned with ego than with loss; I don’t know that the ego of characters makes an appearance here. However, she makes the point that each character is trying to reclaim a lost object that should be gone, and is varyingly successful.

In her introduction, Fowler cites Dixon who makes a very similar argument to Boquet/Nagy’s about sensibility: “he contends that our modern term ―emotions is far too broad and simplistic and lacks the precision of earlier terminology and its usage (i.e. passions, motions, and affections)” (5). He distinguishes passions (earthly impulses) from affections (spiritually directed feelings). She also brings up the stigmatization of public grief in courtly society: “Grief over a personal loss is, perhaps, inevitable, but to publicly display that passion is not” (6). Finally in this section, she addresses my previous question about what “adust” means (it means burnt, and burnt bile causes mania).

Out of the four texts she discusses, “Sir Orfeo makes the strongest case for a humoral reading of melancholia, as his illness lasts for ten years and his physical description suggests that black bile is in abundance in his system, manifesting itself in his dark, hirsute appearance” (8). Duration is important here. So is the concept of encomia common in medieval love poetry: just as beloveds there account the virtues of their lovers, the grief-stricken men do so here. All four of them go to the/a forest, “only to find that traditions are hollow and fail to convey the sincerity or truth of loss” (17). Orfeo’s grief allows him to express emotion in public, where previously he can only do so in private; for Fowler this means he is redefining masculinity as a way to be a man emotionally. When he praises the steward for being a “trewe man”, he is using the archaic “true”, meaning real or honest. In other words, the steward’s shock and grief at Orfeo’s made-up death proves that he is a real man. Heurodis, on the other hand, feels her grief and “mania” with her full body and makes “the chaos of her own loss” public (103). Orfeo needs to retreat to solitude in order to do so. The poem happens because he has lost his wife and needs to grieve, not find her. He does this in the forest because it is a liminal space “of bereavement and despair” where he can find himself (123).

I found this about Orfeo’s materiality especially interesting: “That he resides alongside death is evidenced in the line―Bot wilde wormes bi himstrikeþ‖ (But wild worms [serpents] by him glide [slither]; 252). Though this line could refer to snakes (serpents were often called ―worms‖ in Middle English) and therefore unholy and evil torments or actual vile neighbors of theslithery sort, it could also refer to simple earthworms. If the latter, Orfeo is side-by-side with the worms, who make meals of detritus and dead flesh, attesting to his proximity to death and serving as a memento mori for both himself and the readers of this story” (123). This is when Orfeo slips into melancholy, Fowler argues, and if this is true then his proximity to worms and digestive life reflects interestingly not only on the ubi sunt of the previous lines, but on melancholy’s own construction as a digestive illness (cf Rufus of Ephesus). She continues this: “That Orfeo spends so much time close to the ground and digging and rooting for tiny morsels to eat recommends itself to Avicenna‘s description of melancholic behaviors, which include ―a constant looking at only one thing, and at the earth (77). And Neaman explains that black bile is ―cold and dry like earth‖ (7). As noted above, Orfeo‘s connection to the earth may also be indicative of what Avicenna sees in ―certain ones‖ as a ―love [of] death” (125). While I am not totally convinced dark hair and proximity to the earth are enough to signal melancholy, this is something I want to keep thinking about.

One part of this argument I have a problem with is the assertion that Heurodis is definitely alive at the end of the poem. Fowler argues that she does not need to be vocal because she has been “incorporated” into Orfeo’s body (143). This reminds me of Torok: incorporation is not resolution, but failed mourning. I know this is a turn of phrase, but if he were actually incorporating her, this implies that 1) she is gone, and 2) he has failed to overcome his melancholy, and in fact may still be pre-melancholy (not yet shaken from the idea that Heurodis is still alive).

The chapter on the Book of the Duchess explores the possibility of shared understandings of grief. The knight’s grief informs the narrator’s melancholy, but their communication is obstructed by the use of forms (lament, love poetry, etc.) The only way to really express grief, for Chaucer, is to combine forms in order to try and express what is inexpressible. For instance, the narrator uses memory (the practice of imagining sensory images that must be searched for in the “storehouse of the mind” (193) to find the knight in the first place, and he believes it will help the knight overcome grief to remember White. However, since Black’s understanding is “lorn” (lost), he is unable to conjure the images and thus unable to get rid of his melancholy. He never does so, and the narrator eventually achieves understanding: “What Chaucer achieves in this text is not universal understanding of another‘s grief, but universal understanding that loss and grief exist, and a plurality of understandings of what loss and grief are, why we suffer them, and how they feel” (201). Fowler’s last chapter is about Pearl, in which she argues that the speaker seeks to dissolve himself into his daughter and God (incorporation?) but cannot. The poem characterizes appropriate and inappropriate ways of suffering, and posits that the dreamer’s substitution of Christ for his daughter teaches him “there is no end to sorrow, only a substitution of one sorrow for another—corporeal for spiritual” (254).

Being a study about masculine grief, this dissertation comes to an interesting conclusion: that genuine grief is genderless. “This project argues that society often argues for gendered emotions or affect while the reaction to an emotion as strong as grief is actually genderless. Gestures of grief are often those given to us by our culture and are gendered; genuine grief often is not, and the grief demonstrated in Pearl, being the most affective of the four here, exemplifies just such a genderless grief” (257). Rather than just being the opposite of femininity, “masculinity in the Middle Ages is also defined by how well a man understands and performs his role as man of a particular socio-economic estate” (258). Overcoming melancholia, and reintegrating into society, becomes restating one’s masculinity. The question I have about this is whether any of these characters, particularly Orfeo and the Dreamer, really do. If her argument is that nobility becomes associated with humanity, and melancholy needs to be overcome in order to establish nobility, then characters can’t be melancholy and human at the same time– though melancholy and loss are two different things.

Foucault, Madness and Civilization

I am rereading the first three chapters of Madness and Civilization, a book that I had a mildly antagonistic relationship to when I read it two years ago. While I can’t say my feelings have changed, I did notice a lot of things that I hadn’t realized on my first reading. What I take as Foucault’s mission statement here is that when madness was classified as a mental illness in the eighteenth century, this created a gulf between madness and reason which did not exist prior to this. He is attempting to write “the archaeology of that silence” which exists because modern psychiatry has ignored the things that exist between madness and reason, the kinds of language and identification which was prevalent prior to the eighteenth century. In his view, medieval madness is a mystical experience that only rarely crosses over into a medical problem. This is, in my opinion, an essential misunderstanding.

The Stone of Madness | ScienceBlogs
Bosch, The Extraction of the Stone of Madness

I was so annoyed at Foucault’s characterization of the medieval period in 2019 that I wrote this (the clip I mention is in reference to Michael Camille’s 1996 guest interview on This American Life):

In sending me this twenty-plusyear-old audioclip,my friend unknowingly provided me with the perfect way to express my frustration with Madness and Civilization: it is an unintentional record of modern ideas about the medieval period that borrows from twentieth-century conceptions of the Middle Ages without reflecting on the fact that it is doing so. Like Medieval Times,it is a collection of the ways we think about the Middle Ages today,a thought experiment in the weirdness of the modern period as distinct from, but also similar to, the medieval.

In addition to stressing an irreversible shift from banishment to confinement that happens between the medieval and early modern period, Foucault never defines what madness is, and conflates madness and folly.

It is both a haunting precursor to the apocalypse and a foolish affect that can’t be the focus of fascination and can’t be taken seriously. Is it intellectual disability? Is it mania? Is there any point in trying to compartmentalize it, or must it be approached in the way Foucault does it: as a sweeping category that can mean whatever he wants it to mean?

To be clear, I still stand by my point. However, on rereading there were a number of interesting things that Foucault brings up which I want to know more about. The first of these is his argument that in the fourteenth century, the figure of the leper is replaced (in terms of its societal function) with the figure of the madman. Given that lepers were seen as having too much melancholy humor (cf Rawcliffe), I think this transition is a really interesting one and also not as medically drastic as Foucault seems to believe. He also states that in the late middle ages, madness ceased to become a statement about one’s unpreparedness for the apocalypse (people are mad not to prepare), and became a sign that the end of the world is coming. He places this at the time just before the “dawn of the renaissance” when things became too burdened with signs, so much so that they lose their own form; humans and animals become nondistinct from each other, because the straightforward religious significations of animals have given way to embodiments of madness without secure meaning (18). I am very interested in why he believes this, but tragically there is not a note. His interest in the apocalypse continues, though, and he argues that apocalyptic imagery changes in a formative way in the fifteenth century from a standard story with God at its heart to a proliferation of madness. Madness and the end of the world are entwined, which is a fascinating statement but again, I have no idea where it comes from.

At the same time, medieval madness is dark but not complicated: “all within it is brilliant surface” (25). Men who seek knowledge too seriously go mad not because they are serious, but because their work doesn’t mean anything. Madness is all around in the world but it is men who are susceptible to it, a convention which is shared by spiritual understandings of madness (cf Fowler, M,M &M). In Foucault’s words, “Madness deals not so much with truth and the world, as with man and whatever truth about himself he is able to perceive” (27). This is a medieval attitude, but it’s late medieval, and he pushes to have it attributed to the renaissance. In either case, he characterizes medieval madness as both simple and cosmic, “out there”, before it comes to rest inside people. The seventeenth century is the crucial shift at which madness ceases to be tragic, and instead becomes a moral problem of “unreason”. In other words, madness stops being a conduit for divine knowledge and starts simply being a problem.

The main thing I still want to understand, and still don’t get, is what Foucault means by the overlap of madness and reason before the eighteenth century. If it’s because madness is a kind of knowledge, I don’t completely agree, but I think he comes around to complicating this anyway in his assertion that learned men don’t actually know anything. But his account seems to ignore all medieval discourses about reason and what it means to be reasonable. I think what he actually means is that madness begins to be classified; each disparate kind of madness has its own solution and begins to be confined within it. This ignores the entire history of medieval neurological/emotional treatment, in which different kinds of madness are classified and treated differently. As my notes say, “he wants material conditions to work as metaphors for the popular view of madness”, and they just don’t. Reason tames madness because we are in the age of reason now, and pre-reasonable societies couldn’t have confined mad people or treated them as ill rather than uniquely knowledgeable.

Foucault wants so badly to create a break between fifteenth and sixteenth/seventeenth century understandings of madness, and it just doesn’t work. Avicenna’s translations and Burton’s Anatomy (600 years apart) speak to each other in similar ways. Foucault interestingly does not mention madness getting treated with more respect in the EM, as melancholy does for some people when it is aestheticized; aestheticization rather seems to be the medieval issue that is solved by rationality in the seventeenth century. For obvious reasons, while Foucault brings up some interesting threads here that I’d like to know more about, I can’t help but disagree with him.

Damien Boquet & Piroska Nagy, Medieval Sensibilities

This extensive study is attempting to do two things: provide a history of cultural medieval affect in particular, and rehabilitate the status of affect studies in general. Arguing that emotion has been neglected, especially in the premodern period, it focuses on the study of “sensibility”, or the sensible, which includes not only feelings but moods and atmospheres. Although I find the sensible as a category to be incredibly useful– I want to focus on atmospheres in my own work– I am also unsure where the category of the sensible comes from beyond Fevbre, and why it drops out in favor of emotion in the rest of the book.

The book travels through a history of Christian emotion from the third century to the fifteenth, focusing on the transition from ascetic emotion (emotion as a sin or distraction) to emotion as a natural state. Evagrius of Pontius in particular thought separation from the body was essential, and blamed sloth on the “noontide demon” that attacked the soul, a belief that is the origin of the seven deadly sins. In the 1100s, Abelard posits that emotional personalities are natures, not faults; thus consent and intent are the deciding factor in whether an emotion is a sin. This conflict between spiritual and physical concepts of emotions happens at the same time as “a rise of the medieval science of the emotions” (135), a greater interest in emotion as the subject of sustained thought. Avicenna proposed a difference between intentio (an impulse or response to external stimuli) and estimativa (a human decision-making response, which this text seems to imply is shared by the highest-order animals). Emotions are a process, and the actions they lead to can be controlled through reason. This also led to the question of whether body and soul were entwined, or whether they were totally distinct.

This chapter also contains an aside about melancholy that I found to be quite vague. It argues that melancholy was not a salient category, which I agree with, but then goes on to argue that the treatments for it, which it limits to dancing, music, friendship and company, etc., would have only been available to the upper classes. It also claims that melancholy became a marker of elite status at the same time, which is an Aristotelian viewpoint that in my previous opinion only becomes apparent in the early modern period. I am open to being convinced otherwise; others like Rufus of Ephesus write about scholarly melancholy in a way that is not completely negative but also not positive but could perhaps be interpreted as positive?? Regardless, I found myself wishing melancholy were more than just an aside here.

The rest of the book focuses on more secular emotion.The expression of feeling in 11th century poetry, especially in the fin amor, and its makeup of three categories of mezura (measured emotion), joy, and morosa or morose delectation as a hallmark of love poetry (the delay or interruption of love or joy) is used to express the focus on emotion as an expression of social power: literary emotion is what a character wants + what social or societal ideas the character reveals. In the social body, emotions are threatening to the whole. It moves on to assert that the twelfth century renaissance, concurrent with the creation of these romances, has been seen as the site of the beginnings of anthropology, or reflections on the emotions (I’m unsure why this isn’t phenomenology but regardless); however, Avicenna’s innovations were actually preceded by thinkers in the eleventh century like Abelard that moved emotion from a spiritual to a physical/natural quality.

The conclusion of this book makes it clear that its project is to encourage modern readers to take emotion seriously, but this is a project that is only present in the introduction or the conclusion. I did not come away from this book with a sense of why I should care about monastic emotion (other than that I, uh, need to professionally) and I think this is because that’s an enormous task. This book is trying to provide a comprehensive emotional history and also transport that history up into the 21st century, and I think this would be possible if its scope were smaller, but in my reading I did not see it. Given the book’s focus on sensibility, I wanted to see more of a focus on affects that are not included within emotion– atmospheres, for example– and their absence motivates me to write about them in my own work. The main thing I am taking from this book is the sensible as a comprehensive term to refer to the many sides of affect, and I am interested to see if other histories of emotion approach this differently. However, I also appreciate the attention paid to emotion as a way of forming political community, and also the encouragement to see emotions within the medieval period as complex.

Rufus of Ephesus, On Melancholy

Some of them [melancholics] imagine that they do not have a head. We saw something of the sort close to the city of Kairouan. We burdened his [the patient’s] head with a qalansuwa (tiara) which we made of lead and put on his head in place of a helmet. Then he realised that he had a head. – Ishaq Ibn Imran, On Melancholy

Ishaq Ibn Imran calls Rufus of Ephesus’s work “a pleasing book on melancholy”. In it, Rufus identifies three subtypes of melancholy, but focuses on one: hypochondria. “This disease starts out in the region beneath the rib-cartilage [i.e. the hypochondria] and at the [cardiac] orifice of the stomach… Yet, one could have derived this name for them [‘hypochondriacs’] from a term denoting the faculties of the soul” (Yaqb al-Kaskar, Compendium on Medicine). Rufus’s position, as with Galen’s, is that there are two main reasons for melancholy: a disposition, and a disease (or innate and acquired). The introduction to this edition seems to make the “disposition” seem almost fashionable, a la Daniel, but I don’t see (at least here) that melancholy is a fashionable disposition to have.

Melancholics believe things because their bodies back them up. For example, they might believe that they have no head because their head feels light. As opposed to the belief that melancholics are wholly surface and no substance, or that their beliefs are unrelated to their bodies, Rufus believes that the body and the mind affect each other. Also, when melancholy “settles” (as in leprosy or other disorders) there is no melancholy; melancholy is a result of black bile being diffused in the blood. The head and stomach are connected through the esophagus; the diet makes people melancholy, and what happens to the stomach can affect the head. Ingesting emetics and purging is the best remedy.

People who are scholars and spend a lot of time thinking are predisposed to melancholy. ‘Noone who devotes too much effort to thinking about a certain science (ilm) can avoid ending up with melancholy.’ How can we be certain,
if we are obsessed by illusions, that this description does not apply to us?” (Miskawaih, Epistle on the Soul and the Intellect). Melancholy is tripartate, as Galen believed; however, Rufus names only hypochondria (windy melancholy), not head or body melancholy. Galen’s thinking in the 300s is influenced by Rufus in the second century. He also influenced Ishaq Ibn Imran, whose On Melancholy was later translated by Constantine.

I am most interested in Rufus’s focus on digestion and links to mental health. I also think the case studies that close out this collection of fragments are going to be useful in illuminating what the treatment of melancholy actually looked like (and they are interesting to read in their own right). For example: “The reason for his illness was the constant contemplation of geometrical sciences; he also had social intercourse with kings.” The testimonials also make me wonder how the physicians’ claims that they have cured patients of their melancholy through songs and food measure up to the experience of chronic melancholy in the classical period (statements like “for the rest of his life, no attack recurred” (73)).

Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy

I’m unsure how to begin to write about something that is essentially a collection of lists and attributions. Anatomy of Melancholy begins with a series of portraits of the different kinds of melancholy, as well as little poems about them: hypochondria, mania, and lovesickness all make an appearance. Mania (characterized as violent and insane) has a sonnet which ends, “twixt him and thee, there’s no difference”. This is odd to find in a book that goes on to expand on the many differences between the sick and the well, but also makes sense within its larger framework: what Burton stresses throughout is that anyone can become sick with melancholy. Things like your temperament and your environment put you at greater or lesser risk, but at the end of the day even genial, friendly and outgoing people can be stricken with melancholy. It can be pleasurable or painful; as Burton mentions, most but not all melancholy causes sadness.

Just like there are different types of melancholy, there are different severities. Mania seems to be the most severe. Phrensy is madness, but accompanied by a fever. Delirium is an umbrella term for madness, and hydrophobia is a fear of water (or more specifically, getting rabies and seeing mad dogs in water, and therefore being unable to drink). Melancholy comes from love, study, and divine action. It was unclear to me reading the summary section whether Burton considers madness to be a type of melancholy or vice versa, but I believe that medical convention and also the series of portraits at the beginning suggests the first one.

One thing this text has done is give me a possible answer as to why people seem to put Avicenna and Galen in conflict with each other all the time. Here, it seems like Aristotelianism is just a rejection of humoralism (155) but maybe there is something else there. Humoral theory seems to suggest that the type of melancholy you get depends on your temperament, as well as where in your body the “melancholy adust” settles (I cannot remember now whether adust is a synonym for bile itself or a material refuse left behind by the blood, but either way it is a humoral remnant). Breaking out into the skin, it can cause leprosy and jaundice, and in the brain it causes madness. (Burton goes on to divide it into head melancholy, bodily melancholy– i.e. a melancholy temperament– and “windy melancholy”, or hypochondria, in the liver and spleen.) Hot brains incline to madness, while cold ones incline to melancholy. The process of adustation is a physical one, and one that I would like to look into descriptions of more. He also mentions a “Book of Melancholy” by Hippocrates that I should look into.

Beyond these categorizations, I am most struck by the discussion (157-9) of the difficulty of determining what melancholy is. If something is so various, Burton asks, doesn’t it make sense we’d be confused by its different manifestations? He describes a situation where hypochondria was mistaken for asthma, and concludes that although medical authorities usually focus on one discreet kind of melancholy, the three variants (head, body, and windy) are usually mixed. “‘Tis hard, I confess,” he writes, “yet nevertheless I will adventure through the midst of these perplexities, and, led by the clue or thread of the best writers, extricate myself out of a labyrinth of doubts and errors, and so proceed to the causes.” This confusion and co-incidence of different types of melancholy is the main thing I am taking from this text, as well as Daniel’s invitation to see the list format as melancholizing, and to read this as a text trying to elicit a melancholy affect.

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