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Esther Cohen, Pain in Late Medieval Culture

Cohen argues that medieval pain is an individual phenomenon but also something that’s communal and shared. People either accepted pain as a holy experience, deliberately sought out pain, or ran from pain. Medical discourses, meanwhile, saw pain as an unfortunate but unavoidable fact of life. Although there were attempts at eradicating pain, generally it was seen as a part of life, if not a desirable spiritual outcome. This is because of medieval society’s structuring around religious pain and in particular Christ’s passion, meaning that pain is not only not preventable, but prevention is not desired. The key distinction between the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries and the time after it is that pain had a positive significance and came to be desired; suffering was characterized broadly as a good thing. As an example of this point of view, she mentions William of Auvergne’s claim that pain is good because it is bad. Madness, on the other hand, is an indication of “bad pain”– suffering that will be overcome by an external force like a saint.

In her introduction, she states that “This book is not about pain in the middle ages, for pain itself cannot be known; it is about what people thought and did about pain” (3). However, each person who experienced pain recorded and transmitted it in particular ways, with particular meanings. Chapter 6 of this book deals with the ages of man, arguing that each has its own level and kind of pain that can be expected. This is where Cohen mentions William of Auvergne, and other contemporaneous ideas that sickness and pain could be positive. Illness in this view is both a punishment for sin and a (positive) distraction from worldly things, in much the same way as suffering. Just as the physician can cure the patient, only Christ can cure humanity. This association continues in her discussion of late medieval framing of Christ’s suffering as lifelong– his pain, although it was undertaken freely, was also continuous throughout his life. If experiencing pain is potentially a salvific, spiritual experience, then Christ is the ultimate model.

Cohen’s belief that pain is a shared social reality is in line with Barbara Rosenwein’s research on emotional communities and also Amy Hollywood’s thoughts on melancholy. Both also line up with Cohen’s pain scripts, how people in particular situations– women in childbirth, for example– learn to react to pain in particular ways depending on what kind of pain it is. Public manifestations of pain were discouraged, and medieval martyr narratives offered a script for bearing pain more reservedly. However, pain– whether epilepsy, visions, or headaches– was broadly seen as outside the sufferer’s control. If pain leads to madness, then both are experiences their sufferers can’t choose to have or avoid, but their manifestations must be controlled.

Tobin Siebers, Disability Aesthetics

In Disability Aesthetics, Siebers defines aesthetics as what bodies feel in the presence of other bodies. Works of art that engage with bodies, especially in regard to modern art, are also engaging with disability. Not only is disability representation a factor in art, it has only grown stronger over time. While we tend to subscribe to an ethos of disinteredness when it comes to art, our response to disability is decidedly materialist (it seems less beautiful and more “real”). This provides pushback to the idea that making or appreciating art requires intelligence or taste, and therefore disability aesthetics not only imagines new forms of representation for disabled people but also asks how disability enriches our understanding of art. In his words, “disability operates both as a critical framework for questioning aesthetic presuppositions in the history of art and as a value in its own right important to future conceptions of what art is” (20).

The chapter that was most interesting to me is on vandalism. Siebers argues that vandalism modernizes art, making pieces that have to do with the body into pieces in dialogue with disability. While we are willing to accept art that depicts disability, we are reluctant to name art that has been destroyed or changed as art about disability. These images fail to represent what they represented before, recalling to my mind chronicity and ongoing illness that changes ones life or appearance. Since they were not “about” disability before, “Their content has nothing to do with disability. Rather, their shattered form evokes the idea of disability” (92). This is why vandalism can be described as art about disability. Vandalism returns attention to material aspects of art, making form supercede content. Vandalism also removes art from its association with genius or intelligence, meaning that vandalism’s status as art is always up for debate, but Siebers believes it can be art because it gives old art new meaning. The one critique I have of this argument is that it feels like it slots easily into the idea that disability is always associated with woundedness or brokenness, a theme this book returns to. If I were thinking about RGT, where would the opportunity for positive representation and mutual looking come here?

The last chapter on literature and images of disability is similar to WJT Mitchell’s stance on the distinction between images and words. Siebers is less interested in proving that this difference is fluid, and more interested in using disability aesthetics to reverse the primacy of words over images. He does this by examining examples in literature, most notably Ulysses’ scar, that are moments of detail which are visual in nature, even though they’re written down. He uses Barthes’ punctum to describe the emotional impact of these images. If difference is what pricks us, if the attention of the beholder requires difference, and if disability is difference, than both visual and narrative small differences like pockmarks or scars spur viewers to pay attention and push against sole representations of the healthy body (one not marked by difference).

Like Sontag, Siebers believes we are in an age of public images characterized by opticality, which reduces the importance of materiality and the body in visual perception. While Sontag believes the photograph is accelerating this change, Siebers thinks disability aesthetics in art, including photography, are helping to push back against it. “Disability aesthetics” as a term makes me feel that my investigation of melancholy atmospheres has legs. Siebers manages to argue that disability is a critical framework while not discounting its importance as a lived experience. Similarly, I want to keep melancholy as an extant experience close to me while also seeing where it is used to characterize or expand literary ideas.

Arrival, Hoccleve, Affect, and Time

Spoilers for Arrival (2016) and Thomas Hoccleve’s Series

I watched Arrival for the first time last night, after about 2 years of people telling me to watch it. It’s a film that is all about humans coming into contact with non-linear time, and how the negotiation of that time has to be mediated through particular human registers, namely emotional experiences. The lead linguist Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, who incidentally is the cool HEL prof that I want to be when I grow up, is tapped by the US military to translate messages from an alien pod that has landed in Montana. Eleven other pods have landed across the world, and all the countries they are in are working to translate their messages before something catastrophic happens.

The chief conflict in this movie is between different methods of interpretation, most notably between the primacy of science and language. This is brought up in an early scene where Louise and Ian (hot dad physicist) are riding in a helicopter to the military base, and he quotes from her introduction about language being the foundation for society before telling her she’s wrong– science is. This conflict extends on a national scale, when the Chinese government interpret a phrase the aliens, which they name heptapods, repeat as “weapon”, while Louise believes it means “tool”. When Louise is given this tool about three-quarters of the way through the movie– or, more specifically, when she realizes she has it– she becomes unstuck in time and aware that she is experiencing it non-linearly, which allows her to see the future and intervene before other countries attack the aliens.

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This non-linearity is accessible to Louise from the beginning of the movie through memories of her child, who dies after the central events of Arrival from a rare disease. Because of her possession of the alien weapon/tool, however, Louise experiences this future event as past, and her awareness of it affects other aspects of her life, most notably her relationship with Ian, which “begins” at the end of Arrival. We become aware of Louise’s non-linear experience of time at the same time she does, and we see clues in her “memories” that make it clear they’re events that haven’t happened yet– the heptapod her daughter makes out of clay, or the drawing of Louise and Ian next to the caged bird they take in when they converse with the aliens.

So not only is this movie staging a debate between science and language, it is also teaching us to understand a non-linear version of time, alongside Louise. I would say that this movie positions time as its own language, which not only affects spoken and written language but is itself a system that has to be decoded. The way that Louise does this, and the way the movie affectively pushes us to do it, is through emotion. The scrambled “memories” Louise has are centered around her daughter, maybe because they are the most emotional or strongest; we don’t know why. But her sorrow is the focal point of the movie, first as PTSD, then as anticipatory grief.

I have been thinking a lot this week about how sorrow reshapes time. Yesterday I also re-read Thomas Hoccleve’s Series, the first section of which, My Complaint, is about Hoccleve’s experience with madness and the grief and separation he feels after recovering, but still experiencing judgement from his peers and friends. He wants to demonstrate that his madness is gone, but he’s worried that it’s not– it could reoccur at any moment, sending his life back into disarray. Meanwhile, his disaffection is causing him to become depressed and isolated. Writing is his solution to both problems, but communicating his problems to other people, as well as dwelling on them himself, has the potential to backfire. He is forced to exist in two realities at once, one– his– where he is well again, and the other– everyone else’s– where he is chronically mad, and his balancing act between the two is wearing him down. His melancholy forces him to relive his past experiences, and he says everyone else does as well, although, as we learn later from his friend, everyone else seems to have forgotten about Hoccleve’s sickness altogether– it is just him who remains living in the past.

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Mark Fisher’s hauntological melancholy is all about the recurrence of the past in the future, repetition with a slight difference. I would say that the viewer experiences Arrival as hauntological because *we* have to see Louise’s memories in a linear framework, even if it’s not *her* linearity. What I mean is we see the memory of the child playing with clay twice, but we only *know* that the heptapod is there the second time; the camera lingers on the bird in the cage longer in its second appearance, even though we’ve seen it before. For that reason I feel comfortable calling this a hauntological film, because we experience her “memories” as repetitions with a difference even if in a linear framework they have not happened yet and won’t repeat.

This brings me to the conclusion of the film, where Louise receives a vision from the aliens where General Chang gives her his private number and reveals the words she said to him that changed his mind about attacking the aliens. When she calls him in the present, she averts the attack and the world begins to work together, and once they stand down the heptapods leave.

I have been reading a lot about left melancholy, most recently Anne Cvetkovich’s work on depression and organizing, Depression: A Public Feeling. When imagining otherwise is not an option, despair (and for Cvetkovich, depression) is the result. Arrival is interesting because it seems to be buiding towards disaster, then has a mildly hopeful ending, then reasserts the tragedy of Louise’s foresight before ending on a note of hope– persisting in the face of sorrow, it seems to say, is not only possible, but right. I do think this movie is hopeful in the end, which is interesting given the overwhelming precedence of media where this kind of coming together doesn’t happen– and real life, where (this week, for example) vaccines are being hoarded by the US which is creating not only a public health disaster in India but is prolonging and worsening COVID for everyone. The kind of hope Arrival holds just isn’t happening, and I’m not sure how to relate to the movie’s ending because of that.

My main takeaway from seeing these two texts together, and I want to think more about them with each other, is that they both use different methods to express how emotions reshape one’s experience of time. Louise, with supernatural help, becomes unstuck and relives her future over and over. Hoccleve wants to break away from his madness but his sorrow, and the opinions of others, keep him there. The main salient experience here, though not the only one, is melancholy. Melancholy allows us to reimagine how time works and how we situate ourselves within it, for good or bad. In the case of Hoccleve especially, chronic melancholy is outside of normal time, and observers are unable to understand how it flows or whether/why it is over (or why it’s not). For Louise, what would normally be grief at the death of a child is stretched by non-linear time into something else, an anticipatory sorrow that is excessive and troubling to those around her, and that in turn is the main conduit for her to access non-linear time in the first place. Grief becomes melancholy when it is in the wrong time– too long, too excessive, out of order. Melancholy allows access to different modes of experience, but those experiences vary widely and are not always positive. Still, speaking of emotional power, in both cases melancholy allows us access to non-linear or non-normative versions of time, opening up experiences that center the non-human and help us as readers or viewers critically look at our own perspective.

“The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”– Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

Carol Falvo Heffernan, The Melancholy Muse

In The Melancholy Muse, Carol Falvo Heffernan’s central argument is that Chaucer and Shakespeare, as emblematic authors of their respective periods, had extensive knowledge of the medical discourse of their day and used that experience when writing. Her central point is that Chaucer and Shakespeare are taking the knowledge of their time about melancholy and transmitting it into poetry, while also adding their own insight. She contrasts this with medical texts’ engagement with poetry, which she says is nonexistant– until Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, there are not (quasi-)medical texts that examine poetry in the same way poetry is examining medicine.

The structure of this book is Heffernan examining specific instances where her authors use medical knowledge in their texts, and tracing it back to possible points of origin. I found her chapter on the Book of the Duchess especially helpful because she directly addresses the controversy over what the narrator’s eight-year sickness is. She agrees that it is not lovesickness, and in fact believes that it is melancholia canina– a subtype of melancholy also called lycanthropy, where people begin to think they are or act like wolves or dogs.

In this chapter, she wants to examine how reading, sleeping and talking were used to treat melancholy by physicians and how Chaucer’s work is in dialogue with that. Citing Rhazes on sleeplessness (who says that melancholy people often go out at night and cry, especially in cemeteries!) and Paul of Aegina’s chapter on melancholy and sleeplessness, she confirms that the association between the two was well-known and that Chaucer is clearly playing off of it. Not only is sleeplessness a common symptom of melancholy, it has several possible cures: sleeping, but also reading. In turn, the process of talking to the knight, where the narrator seems to consider himself (Heffernan says) as a kind of physician, mirrors medieval beliefs that talking could soothe lovesickness and melancholy (cf the Dialogue). However, I don’t necessarily agree that the Black knight is “talked out of” his lovesickness b the end of the poem; this is also an interesting mirror with Lydgate’s narrator in A Lovere’s Lyfe, who laments that he is unable to talk it out– unlike the knight, he has no one to relieve his sorrow, and he can’t wholly play that role.

This book’s argument has a lot in common with Julie Orlemanski’s Symptomatic Subjects, yet its conclusion is not the same. While both reach the conclusion that medieval literature is broadly speaking in dialogue with medical traditions, and is both theorizing and humanizing contemporaneous medicine, Heffernan believes that medicine is incapable of doing what literature can do– humanizing or remixing medical discourse. Orlemanski, on the other hand, while her text is focused on literature, does leave medicine room to humanize itself. One example of this is in the form of the wound man, who is both an everyman and has very specific and affecting injuries; another is in the case of regimens of health, where doctors essentially use directions for their patients to tell highly specific stories about their lives (the connection between regimens and storytelling is mine here, but I think that it bears out what’s in the text).

This book also did something else useful for me, which is that it gave me a source for the often repeated claim that Aristotle makes melancholy an aesthetic category or character trait. Heffernan locates this in Problem XXX I (attributed to pseudo-Aristotle), which asks the question “why do creative people experience melancholy?”, Aristotle determines that it’s because of the quantity of black bile they have, NOT their drinking habits/external causes/ or contra-naturals; in other words, the imbalance is innate, not caused by the environment. This is a useful distinction although I would like to know if this idea gets complicated in any of Aristotle’s other writings, or if this overrides all of those.

Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling

Mark Fisher’s statement that it is impossible to imagine alternatives to capitalism under capitalism hangs behind this book, which seems to assert that responses to adverse events (including capitalism, but also wage theft, disenfranchisement, and its other results) can and should bring about feelings of change, even if they also bring despair. Cvetcovich begins her analysis by asserting that depression is not just negative; it can be used to generate hope and action. Pushing against the melancholy leftism of the 2000-10s, this book, and the Public Feelings project, wants to generate the affect of hope that’s missing from modern politics. In this aim as well as in its title, it seems to participate in the same engagement as scholars like Barbara Rosenwein and Rosemary Garland-Thompson– feelings are sites of social participation and are shaped by those around us.

She defines depression in her introduction as “a way of being stuck” (26). I can’t help but feel this is metaphorizing depression, although maybe that’s my resistance to a pure social model showing. Cvetcovich is clearly part of critical psychiatry, although she spends a lot of time in the “memoir” section of this book noting that she has been helped by medication. Rather than subscribing to the social model, she is mostly reacting against the medical model, while also searching for a new model that can work for her. On the other hand, the affect of stuckness is very relevant to my own explorations of melancholy as a non-productive state, outside of feeling or expression.

Her first analytical chapter is focused on acedia, a medieval emotional category related to sloth, in a Christian context. She’s using it as a model for thinking about depression in a contemporary context (it is not pharmaeceutical and it’s also not agential, but it does leave room for hope).She later describes it as “carelessness”, which I think is closer to a definition I would agree with. She connects acedia, which she defines as always spiritual in nature, to contemporary activists’ feelings about failure and political disappointment (86). In contrast to someone like Rosenwein, who cautiously connects feelings to a history generated by descending communities, this comparison seems more like the general comparison between depression and premodern feelings adjacent to melancholy, which I am still working out how to respond to in my own work. Connecting acedia directly to political malaise doesn’t sit right with me, in the same way that metaphorizing depression doesn’t sit right with me. But at the same time, I do want to acknowledge the importance of making connections between medieval and modern emotional/affective realities.

It becomes clear that she is writing this against Andrew Solomon’s description of acedia as something from the “dark ages” in his book The Noonday Demon. She also brings up Carolyn Dinshaw, whose work “embraces forms of transference and affective connection that link past or present” (87). It is clear that Cvetkovich is not trying to make acedia and depression seem like the same thing, and indeed she says this several times, but she is trying to use acedia mostly as a mirror for contemporary reactions to (and specifically the medical model of) depression– which is in and of itself reinforcing the centering of modernity that Dinshaw discourages against. If I were to compare this work to a medievalist’s, I would think of the spiritual model of disability that has been theorized as a premodern alternative to current models, which I cannot find the creator of– sorry. While I disagree with this as a replacement model, since there is plenty of evidence that the social and medical model of disability can work just fine in a medieval context, it is important as a dimension of medieval emotion, and Cvetcovich rightly points out that acedia has been passed over in favor of Renaissance/Aristotelian melancholy (creative/dispositional melancholy). All these things are true, but positioning acedia as the predominant form of melancholy in the medieval period, and using it chiefly as a point of connection for contemporary emotions, doesn’t work for me. I guess I am just irritated at the use of medieval people as a “pure” status analogous to anti-medication/diagnosis stances today– of course there were not antidepressants in the fourteenth century, but there were treatments across different symptoms and causes and implying otherwise is not accurate.

Nevertheless, this chapter and on the whole this book is an in-depth intervention into a field, the memoir/critical text, that has historically been crowded with medical-first accounts and little critique of medication. If I find myself resistant to Cvetcovich’s approach, I also have to admit that there are parts of it I find compelling, especially her analysis and critique of left melancholy, which lines up with some of Mark Fisher’s work as well as some perspectives from apocalypse studies/ecocriticism– particularly the assertion that “bad feelings” are necessary for political action, not just a liability. Her critique of the history of melancholy as one that follows humanist trajectories as a teleology from ancient to modern while skipping the medieval is one that I also agree with. Finally, this section from her epilogue has stuck with me: “One solution to the challenges writing this book presented for me was to turn doggedly to thinking of my scholarship as creative work whose only importance might be that it mattered to me. Or as Lynda Barry astutely puts it, “We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay” (205).

WJT Mitchell, Picture Theory

Mitchell argues that we are experiencing a “pictoral turn” which is actually a return to pictures as an interplay between people, institutions, and looking. It is the realization that spectatorship is as important as reading, and that images are not subservient to text. He believes that the best way to combat growing surveillance and propaganda images is with critique, and so his book is an attempt to explore the specifics of that critique: the nuances of pictures and how they relate to words, power, and surveillance. There are no “pure” arts, and pictures and words, while there are important distinctions between them, words and images are almost never totally separate. The only issue is that we still don’t know what pictures are, and how they affect the world. His initial definition of the picture is a concrete object that contains images, but as he admits throughout the book, the category can be much more complex.

Most of the middle of this book is taken up by defending the ability of images to function as importantly as text has usually been thought to. Pictures can create their own theory, as in pictures that show images being created like Las Meninas. If pictures can theorize their own nature, they can also help us to undiscipline ourselves and stop separating words and images. The importance of images as theory (as opposed to visual language that posits the truth as imageless) can be seen in the work of William Blake, as well as in photo essays that separate word and image and in doing so make sure that one is not seen as subservient to the other.

In this chapter on essays, he troubles “the aestheticizing response to what after all is a real person in desperately impoverished conditions”, in reference to Evans’ photos of people in the Great Depression. This strikes the same note as Sontag’s thoughts on war photography. However, Mitchell thinks this problem can be subverted by the way image and text are separated in Evans’ essay, preventing the reader/viewer from completely internalizing the subject and is in fact an ethical stance that gives its subjects privacy. Another essay he looks at in this section is Camera Lucida, which he argues is a rare example of an essay on photography that is also a photo essay. This is because Barthes’ images are not illustrating the text, but are given co-equality, sometimes not receive textual commentary, and even when they do not being reduced to examples for the text. Barthes is not mastering the photos, and he can’t take them; he’s an observer.

The last part of this book brings together Mitchell’s theory of images with his perspective on modern power dynamics. He expresses image power through two terms: illusionism, which is the power of suggestion or deception towards a subject, i.e. the spectacle (an ad), and realism, which is the power of surveillance directed at an object or a subject made “objective”, and which relies on an interchangeable “normative” subject, i.e. capacity (bureaucracy).Spectacle is an ideological form of realism, and realism is spectacle’s bureaucratic and disciplinary manifestation. The telescreen of 1984, and by extension the television, brings together illusionism and realism, offering propaganda and convincing arguments while also acting as a tool of surveillance. As he says in his first chapter, “[technologies] are altering the conditions under which human vision articulates itself” (24). This eliminates the boundary between the public and private sphere and decreases the resonance of usual oppositions (mass market vs avant garde, art vs camp, etc.), foreclosing possibilities for resistance. There is also a new “transparency” to images, as seen in the Rodney King beating and footage, which is made of “accidental” or non-professional images, as opposed to the smooth scheduling of other television, which is not opposed to transparency but helps enable it. He argues that this is a sign that we are moving from interpreting visual images to changing them, establishing a similar shift to that Denson identifies from cinema to post-cinema. This new visual culture has the potential to be used in service of “soft” fascism, but it might also be used for more critical images of the public sphere (369).

One main way he sees modern art creating this critical space is through destructible art, which is made to be destroyed or to be unmarketable. Although a lot of art resists this, and even more fails at it, there is the potential for self-destroying art to bring back the lost oppositions and re-organize the public vs. private issue. As he reminds us, the public is built on its exclusions, even when it is aesthetically inclusive (i.e. the statue of liberty in a country that disenfranchises women). Public art, while it has been said to be intrinsically violent, is based in either doing or representing violence; often it obscures the violence it is doing by appearing passive or static, while television foregrounds and exaggerates it. In addition, public art aspires to cinema; it wants to be photographed. This leads into a discussion of the contrasting visuals of the Vietnam War and Operation Gulf Storm, which were on the one hand focused on the human body and on the other focused on computerized images.

Mitchell describes his stance in the conclusion as a “de-disciplinary effort”: if literary studies wants to deal with media and mass culture, it can’t simply add it on to the existing framework. Instead, we have to find a new way of looking at images. He ends with the statement, “though we probably cannot change the world, we can continue to describe it critically and interpret it accurately. In a time of global misrepresentation, disinformation, and systemic mendacity, this may be the moral equivalent of intervention” (425). This is a pretty good summary of his stance towards contemporary media. Like Sontag, he is concerned about the potential for new media to disseminate misinformation and propaganda, and (to a limited extent) commercialization. However, he is much more interested in the importance of critique: if we can critique images, we can learn from them. He does not believe that we gain power over pictures by understanding what they are doing, but does believe in the investment in a “negative critical space” that reveals how little we still know about pictures and how they are ultimately, for most people, uncontrollable– which is why determining how they are used as an expression of power is vital.

A Disputation Between the Body and the Worms

This is one primary text I am using that doesn’t contain an explicit mention of sorrow or melancholy. I am mainly interested in it because of its associations with earth and the extended descriptions of decomposition it contains. I am interested in these things because the first is intimately tied together with melancholy in the medieval period, and the second provides a compliment to issues of metabolism that other sources I’ve read have discussed at length (Denson, Conner). Digestion of the human by the non-human is used to conjure up a memento mori, an “I was once like you” that is more personal because the reader is seeing the Body go through this process in real time. Even if the Body is not melancholy, the poem encourages melancholy reading by guiding the reader through someone else’s process of contemplation on mortality and suggesting that everyone should do something similar while alive. I would like to suggest, and perhaps go on to argue, that the melancholy of this poem is there, but it lies in the way it wants to be read and the emotions it wants to evoke.

Like the wound man (via Orlemanski), the Body while exceptional in her beauty and grotesqueness is not specific, her beauty is taken for granted by the poem and only gets three lines of description (and her decomposing body gets none, until the worms describe it). While I think her gender could prevent her from being a figure of the everyman, I’m not sure that it does. It seems as though the narrator of this poem is able to identify with her just fine, despite the (presumed) gender gap that exists between them.

This poem is very concerned with the mechanics by which the worms ingest the body, and melancholy is intricately tied to digestion. If you eat the wrong thing, your mood can shift and you can become unbalanced and/or melancholic. The worms are obviously delighted at their meal, but they do say that if they could smell or taste, they would never eat the Body, because she is disgusting. There is no opportunity for distinction, and yet the Body is what they choose: they are following a certain kind of taste (preference) that is presented as natural. This sequence not only unbalances the setting of the human above the non-human, by suggesting that human dominion over animals is limited to the time they are alive (and further reduced because humans are plagued with fleas, mice, and stomach illness for their whole lives), it also presents an intricate picture of digestion that is reframed as cleaning. The Body’s flesh is “nothing but clay”, suggesting that this cleaning is also a metabolizing process where the worms turn her into earth– at least, until the last Judgement, when she’ll be reconstituted.

The worms are clearly not affected by their food, and the Body doesn’t seem to be melancholy, nor does the speaker when he wakes up. So why am I interested in this poem? I think it provides a particular medieval example of a similar phenomenon to what Daniels identifies in Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and an example of Middle English poetic affect in a similar way to On Husbondrie. Obviously it is a case of religious meditation on death, but I think one of the things that makes this poem so compelling is its atmosphere of loss and temporariness, which is underscored by these very vivid descriptions of decay and digestion. We don’t get interiority from the speaker, but we get a ton of matter. Additionally, the speaker is escaping a plague, which is 1) probably a pretty bad situation for him and 2) a disease thought to be caused by an imbalance of melancholic humors, like leprosy.

I should link Karl Steel’s post on this poem here, especially this observation: “if the body is ordered, neatly bounded, suitable, for example, for political metaphors (the “head” of state, and so on), flesh here represents the disorganized, pullulating remainder”. The Body is flesh that has to un-associate herself with mere flesh, at the same time as she is linguistically an organized whole, putting her at odds with her name. This post comes to the same observation that I have, that the body in the tomb functions as a sample body for the reader to learn about and thereby observe their own. However, the narrator interacts with Body specifically as a woman’s body, with all the attendant sexualization that contains.

If the Body is both a figure aware of itself and distinct from an essential soul, if it is between things, then what kind of emotions is it allowed to have? Similarly, if the worms are an (animal) unit positioned as a central figure, what emotions can they feel? I think maybe this is the wrong question. Both of these figures tell us what they are feeling, kind of, but they don’t show us. Rather, the atmosphere of this poem is one oriented towards sorrow, and I think although its overt message is one of holy sorrow and contemplation, it also has a deeper current of despair.

Lydgate, Compleynte of a Lovers Lyfe

I am reading this immediately after Book of the Duchess, so I guess it’s inevitable that there will be some crossover between the two. The most immediate difference from that poem, although they begin almost identically, is that the narrator of this poem isn’t in a dream. He is also suffering from a “sekenes” that “sat ay so nygh myn hert” (18). In order to relieve it, he goes to a forest where he can hear songbirds, thinking that it will help him. As with Chaucer, we then get a forest scene, in this case one where the light is breaking through the fog as it lifts.

We then get an inventory of various trees and plants, interspersed with gods and other mythical figures that they either are associated with or represent, starting with:

The eyre atempre and the smothe wynde
Of Zepherus amonge the blosmes whyte
So holsomme was and so norysshing be kynde
That smale buddes and rounde blomes lyte
In maner gan of her brethe delyte
To gif us hope that their frute shal take,
Agens autumpne redy for to shake.

Nature here seems to be described both tenderly and with delight, which suggests that it actually is having an effect on the speaker, if not necessarily curing him. We also have seasonal imagery, in that the blossoms now are imagined as future fruits to be shaken down in autumn, but winter is absent; we only have plenitude.

A few lines later, the narrator drinks from a well that is so wholesome it is supposed to be able to soothe angry hearts and comfort the weary; part of his “smerte” is healed, but not all of it. When he comes across the knight, the speaker works to describe his paleness and his black and white armor, and uses the same word to describe his condition as he does for himself (“sekenesse”). Then we get this lament from the narrator:

But who shal helpe me now to compleyn?
Or who shal now my stile guy or lede?
O Nyobe! Let now thi teres reyn
Into my penne and eke helpe in this nede,
Thou woful mirre that felist my hert blede
Of pitouse wo, and my honde eke quake,
When that I write for this mannys sake.

For unto wo acordeth compleynyng,
And delful chere unto hevynesse;
To sorow also, sighing and wepyng
And pitouse morenyng unto drerynesse;
And who that shal write of distresse
In partye nedeth to know felyngly
Cause and rote of al such malady.

But, he says, he knows nothing of such things. Instead, he will be like a scrivener, copying the work of his master. This whole scene is reminiscent of the “15 Sorrows of Mary”; he sees someone suffering and feels compelled to write it down and witness it, through compassionate piety. But he is not skilled enough to resolve to problem of sorrow, or to write about it originally. While his emotional outburst here seems to be on behalf of the knight’s woe, it also seems to hint at his own inability to express his sickness; writing another’s sorrow is therapeutic for that person, but also potentially for the writer.

This also seems to be a nod to the story’s origin. From what I can read about this poem, it seems to be assumed that it’s just a reworking of Chaucer’s story. Lydgate gets compared to Thomas Hoccleve a lot, who himself is tied to Chaucer in more or less every critical appraisal of his work, and both of them worked for Duke Humphrey of Gloucester.

It’s unclear why the writer writing about woe needs to know about it, beyond the extent that anyone writing about anything needs to write about it. He needs to know the cause, which is medical terminology, but he also needs to “know felyngly”, that is, know sympathetically. It would seem like the narrator here does know about woe sympathetically, given his introduction. However, he goes on to say that he has no experience, which is why he needs a guide. All of this begs the question of what knowing felyngly really means, and why the narrator is bereft of it. If you have melancholy but don’t know its cause, would this imply that you can’t actually know it? (This would further imply that knowledge is a combination of experience and medical knowledge, even self-knowledge, so that anyone who wants to claim experience has to know themselves in several registers.) This could also be a case for the idea that Lydgate’s narrator is experiencing head melancholy, as we covered with the Book of the Duchess, rather than lovesickness (though I disagree with this interpretation, as I’ll get to in a minute).

Then we get to the knight’s story, which as a result of expertise the narrator has refused to amend and has written exactly as he heard it. It is in its own section, titled “Compleynt”. I actually don’t have very much to say about this, beyond that fact that it’s interesting that the complaint is bracketed off on its own. I am wondering whether this is a genre convention at this time, or if this comes from somewhere else. Unlike Chaucer’s black knight, this one has been refused by his lady, rather than separated from her by death. Lydgate writes down his lament, asking for the reader’s patience if anything in it is wrong: “But for to sey the same, / Lyke as this man his compleynt did expresse, / I axe mercie and forgevenesse” (ll.607-9). He then ends by addressing his lovesick readers directly, as he did right before the start of the complaint: he says that he hopes by the morning, each of them will hold a lady in their arms, and, perhaps more importantly, that each of them will be able to “in al honesté, / Withoute more, ye may togedre speke / Whatso yow list at good liberté, / That eche may to other her hert breke (open)” (ll.659-62). While this never turns into a manual, and no cures are given, Lydgate takes care to express how painful lovesickness is, and his earnest hope that it is resolved.

The narrator implores his readers to self-expression, but he is never able to express himself. He doesn’t lay claim to expertise about sorrow, and we don’t get a sense that his own is resolved. In fact, if we are to understand the envoy de quarye at the end as coming from the same narrator as the poem, it would seem that his sekeness is, in fact, lovesickness. This makes sense in the context of his sympathy for the knight, and also for the many readers he imagines who are suffering from the same problem. However, it doesn’t clarify why the narrator fees unprepared to give his own thoughts about lovesickness, and especially why he claims he has no experience with it.

Barthes, Camera Lucida

I finished reading Camera Lucida this morning later than I meant to, because I got distracted by reading this article in Esquire by Jeff Sharlet titled “All That We’ve Lost”. Sharlet has spent this year tweeting about people who have died from COVID-19, mini-obituaries. One of them struck me in particular; a daughter speaking about her mom, who died of coronavirus last year. “It’s kind of stupid how much I look like my mother”, she says.

If you have read Barthes before, you know about the punctum essay– what I didn’t know about it is that it was only part of what is not a collection of essays, but one essay divided into two parts. Camera Lucida is Barthes’ musing on what a photograph is, and indeed whether photography exists. There is an inherent tension in trying to decode a photograph, as he explains. If photography is unclassifiable, finding out what it is is a hopeless project.

The first half of this essay outlines Barthes’ theoretical exploration of what a photograph is, and why photographs compel. Like Sontag, he determines that what makes a photograph interesting is not its formal composition or skill– an amateur photographer can take an arresting photo. While Sontag is more interested in the role of the photographer as one capturing random chance (you are lucky enough to see the random event that’s meaningful), Barthes determines that photos are interesting when they contain two elements that are at odds with one another.

Sometimes, these elements are the studium and the puntum. The studium is the historical or social context of the photo and the questions you ask about it– where and when it was taken, what the place was like, etc– the social-cultural field that is waiting to be pierced. The punctum is the point of interest that comes out of the photograph to arrest you, eclipsing all social knowledge and indeed all context. The photo of the nuns crossing the street behind construction workers is arresting because it is 1) taken by chance, and 2) the nuns provide a punctum that strikes the viewer. If the photograph kills its subject, turning them into an object, then the punctum brings it back to life.

Barthes ends this section by musing that although he has discovered more about his own desire, he has no better idea than when he started about what a photograph is. The second half of Camera Lucida represents his attempts to learn more about photography through his own personal experience as a spectator– by looking at photos of his mother.

This essay, and this part of the essay, is famous because it does what it describes. If the punctum makes you think about scenes in your life that are similar to what’s in the photograph, this essay makes you think about parts of your life that are similar to it. Of course this section made me think of my mom. On the one hand– photos of her, of which there are not that many. Barthes describes an alienation on looking at his mother as a child, except in one photograph where she stands in a winter garden for a posed photograph. There are a few black-and-white photos of my mom as a kid, mostly school photos, and one or two color ones of her running around with her best friend DeeDee with her hair in braids. There is one I can remember the existence but not the composition of, where she is a counselor at what she describes as “diabetic camp”, where she went for several summers. The punctum there I guess is the situation, which is something I’d think was made up if I hadn’t heard it from her. These photos don’t alienate me, like Barthes– they make me sad, because they make me think I would have liked to be friends with my mom when she was a kid.

Of course, the other thing this section of the essay makes me think about is this past year. My mom just got her second vaccine shot. Up until a few weeks ago, every day I woke up and worried about her. I worried about my dad too, of course, because he’s in his fifties, but my mom is multiply immunocompromised and lives in a rural area where things like food delivery that lessen contact with other people are unaffordable and therefore impossible. Having her get the vaccine is a huge weight lifted, although not completely, because vaccinated people can still get sick less severely and that would still be very serious for her. For that reason her life is still restricted, and will be for who knows how long. I don’t know what I’ll do next time I go to visit her; I might isolate again, even though we’re both vaccinated. We are in this unbearable time at the moment where we don’t know how effective vaccines are at reducing transmission, and until we do, I’ll be nervous about going home.

My mom isn’t an angry person, but in the past few months she has gotten angry. At the beginning of the year it was about the inequity of the rollout and how neither she nor her friend, another disabled person, would be eligible until June. Then, it was about how the revised guidelines left out both of her conditions, despite both of them raising her risk exponentially. (She was lucky enough to qualify, eventually, but this is still an enormous inequity.) More recently, it’s about her neighbors who refuse to get vaccinated and yet keep coming over to say hello, and expect to be met with friendly conversation. I get angry at them on the phone, and normally she would defend them to me, but now she just agrees. Since last year, she has been angry on behalf of most of the country and at some points the world, which is an exhausting process. I only have the energy to be angry on behalf of her.

The emotional experience of reading Barthes right now, alongside those twitter obituaries, is chiefly one of sorrow. Thinking about how many people have experienced just this one kind of loss is crushing; even how many people I know who have, my students especially, but also friends.The experience of loss that is present in Barthes’ transmitting how he feels has always been there and has clearly always been affecting. But right now there is also the sense that his loss, like our collective loss, is in media res, as in “I shudder… over a catastrophe which has already occurred… every photograph is this catastrophe” (117). Or when he exclaims that in front of the winter garden photograph “I am a bad dreamer who vainly holds out his arms toward the possession of the image; I am Golaud exclaiming ‘Misery of my life!'” (122). As with Sontag’s critique of capitalism, he sees too many images, but they form a labyrinth at the center of which is the winter garden photograph, the only one that can possibly, through its connection to him, reveal the essence of photography.

And yet, Camera Lucida never settles on one definition of what a photograph is. It can be made into art, in an attempt to tame it, because “no art is mad”; it can separate perception from attention, in order to encourage us to glance at something in particular. It is the “that has been” (noeme), a representation of what was (even when it still is), which is why photography, if it is not boring, is always melancholy. The two forms of photography in modernity are the real and the fake, or the unadulterated vs the staged or generalized. The first has the punctum, and the second has destroyed it. Barthes believes this destruction is inevitable in contemporary American society: images are lively, and yet they are unaffecting because they have been tamed by either other interests or norms. Pictures taken by indifferent mediators, existing by chance, are the last refuge of the photograph.

Chaucer, Book of the Duchess

My interest in “Book of the Duchess” is chiefly on this passage, the narrator’s description of his feeling, which comes in the first few lines of the poem:

Al is ylyche good to me —
Joye or sorowe, wherso hyt be —
For I have felynge in nothyng,
But as yt were a mased thyng,
Alway in poynt to falle a-doun;
For sorwful ymagynacioun
Ys alway hooly in my mynde.
And wel ye woot, agaynes kynde
Hyt were to lyven in thys wyse,
For nature wolde nat suffyse
To noon erthly creature
Nat longe tyme to endure
Withoute slep and be in sorwe.
And I ne may, ne nyght ne morwe,
Slepe; and [thus] melancolye
And drede I have for to dye.
Defaute of slep and hevynesse
Hath sleyn my spirit of quyknesse
That I have lost al lustyhede.
Suche fantasies ben in myn hede
So I not what is best to doo.
But men myght axe me why soo
I may not slepe and what me is.
But natheles, who aske this
Leseth his asking trewely.
 Myselven can not telle why

This article argues that the narrator’s “eight year sickness” is caused by head melancholy, not lovesickness, interpreting the “one” physician the narrator says can cure him not as a love object but a literal physician. I’m not sure that I agree, but the interesting implication here is that Chaucer is using the vocabulary of lovesickness to talk about a different kind of melancholy experience– after all, we don’t hear anything else about his mistress in this poem.

I think the resonances in this section for me are in the ambiguity of the narrator’s illness. We don’t know what it is, we don’t know why it exists, and most importantly we know it has lasted eight years but not how long it will continue. “For I have felyng in nothnyg”– I don’t have feeling for anything, or maybe my feeling is *in* nothing (I’m apathetic, anhedonic, or hopeless). [I want to interrogate this particular phrase further because in a modern context this would seem to have the potential to connote space (his feeling is happening within an atmosphere of nothing, or surrounded by nothing) but this might be a stretch.] Regardless, I think this holds true for his diagnosis of himself, too– since his feeling is a negative (non-feeling), his problem also becomes a negative (the absence of sleep/joy/etc.). There is no cause beyond the controversial interpretations I’ve outlined above.

The narrator then takes on the sorrow of Alcyone as he reads about her, commenting that he feels worse the next morning because he is thinking about her. He then promises Morpheus that he will give him a gift if he puts him to sleep, and falls unconscious immediately, on the book. (He says while this is happening that he would have died had he not read this book, and therefore had the idea of praying to sleep.) His last “reading” comment in this section is that no one– not even Joseph– will be able to interpret his dream, a challenge that seems in direct tension with the imagery Chaucer uses in the dream-sequence, which is very vivid and seems to lend itself to interpretation (i.e. the black knight, the forest, the bell awakening him at the end, etc.).

Like with so many of these texts, we have the distinct emotions of sorwe and “sorrowful imagination”, the first of which is communal (in sympathy) and the second of which is individual. I wonder how distinct these emotions are, because even though they have essentially the same name the first one does something (makes the narrator feel and indirectly causes the rest of the story to happen) while the second blocks the narrator from experiencing things. While not sleeping is an important quality of the narrator’s sickness, in that it causes it, they are not interchangeable, and he doesn’t speak of being cured when he wakes up– his illness is always in the present tense. All *is* ilyche good to me. Put another way, even if his sleeplessness is gone, his melancholy seems to remain.

After the narrator enters the dream and describes the forest, we meet the black knight standing under an oak tree. The first thing asked after “who is this?” is “what ails him?”. (Interestingly the knight’s lament to himself is called a “compleynte”.) While lamenting, the blood drains from the knight’s face and we are treated to a description of his heart pumping blood through his body. When the narrator tries to introduce himself, “so through his sorrow and empty thought/ made it so that he had heard me not/ for he had well nigh lost his mind” (l.509-11). When he does notice the narrator eventually, he is so courteous and aware that the narrator remarks it’s as though he were another person.

When the narrator offers to solve his problem, the knight replies that neither Orpheus, nor Galen and Hippocrates, nor Ovid’s remedies can help him, and then offers himself up as a kind of test of other peoples’ empathy: “who so wil assaye himselve/ Whether his herte can have pite / Of any sorwe, lat him see me” (l.574-6). His situation is a parallel to the narrator’s ambiguous sickness: “This is my peyne withouten reed/ Always deinge and be not deed… for I am sorwe and sorwe is I”. While both issues are chronic, the knight’s is clearly the result of lovesickness. However, one difference I do notice is that the knight is suffused with sorrow, literally to the point of *being* it, where the narrator is outside of feeling entirely– joy and sorrow are the same. I think this is one potential argument for his sorrow being different than the knight’s and perhaps being the “head melancholy” the article talks about (in addition to his following assertion that no man would feel this amount of joy for a “queen”). In that case, the defining factor of melancholy as opposed to lovesickess(or love loss, as similar to Orfeo) is not just its indeterminate length, but its lack of a cause and also its estrangement from feeling.

I could see myself writing a lot about this poem (I remember how much I liked it when I read it in undergrad) and I want to find more things people have written about this introduction.

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