Amy Hollywood, Acute Melancholia

Amy Hollywood’s collection of essays is about the experiences of medieval mystics and other religious women, and modern attempts to reckon with and define their experiences. As she mentions in the first section of the introduction, she is interested in determining “what it might mean to say that the Virgin is real– actual, present, palpable– in one time and place and not in another” (2). Just because something is a force (cf Lacan), just because people experience it as real, does it exist outside of human practice– and, if not, can it still be defined as real?

Hollywood argues that yes, treating the experiences of medieval mystics in particular, and medieval people interacting with religious figures in general, as real (what takes place from an individual’s perspective) without regarding it as true (what a third party witnesses) is not only possible, but the best way to ethically engage with writing about mysticism and religious experience. She centers this argument on an understanding of Christian religion as self-critiquing, through the ideas of locative and excessive religion, the first of which is seen as traditional, and the second as radical:

locative- religion that affirms the basic order of the world and places human beings within it, focused on place

excessive- religion that goes beyond stable ideas of order and world, destabilizing authority, focused on non-place

Not only can both of these be self-critiquing, Hollywood argues, they are often entwined and not separate. They are also determined by repetition with a difference, swinging between cataphasis (naming or locating God) and apophasis (human insignificance in the face of God, meaning we ‘unsay’ the name of God and can’t locate him in things like ‘love’ or ‘truth’). Swinging between these two things, each of which requires the other, means that Christian religion is constantly moving between cataphasis and apophasis, meaning that traditions change and repeat with a difference. Finding out what is “real” and what is “true” requires not only the critique, changing, and also handing-down of tradition, but also understanding that there is a “gap between what is handed down and what is received… Critique emerges as a self-conscious modality in the moments when we realize that we occupy the world differently– or desire to occupy the world differently– than at least some part of the traditions into which we have been born demand” (17). This realization requires sameness– we change from something– and difference– we are changing. Finally, she asks, if sadness, trauma, and melancholy can be real, can joy be real, too? And if so, can it be used for political or ethical goals larger than the individual? (In other words, if melancholy and trauma are sites of the unspeakable real, can inarticulate joy also be real, and– through action– can it make something true?)

Her question is, as she admits, unanswerable. The answer that she comes to, though, is that it is important to emphasize the subject’s experience of the real. If religious practice can make God, the saints, or any other divine figure real, then individuals can as well, meaning that when we read accounts of mystics touching God, or being in close proximity to him, we should take them seriously as real– even if they’re not true.

Chapter 6 is a good example of an application of this thesis. Hollywood takes up a discussion of differences between the norm and the natural (natura), through an examination of Dinshaw’s concept of the “queer” as what defines the normative/natural by opposition. This wanders into the longstanding argument within disability studies, that you can’t talk about “normalcy” and therefore disability in the premodern period, because there was no premodern language for normality. Dinshaw’s reading of Margery Kempe as “queer”, precisely because she fails at her ultimate goal to “touch” Christ has, for Hollywood, the potential to pathologize Margery, who did in fact believe that it was possible to touch Christ, and who believed that she had been successful in doing so. In refusing to accept Margery’s experiences as genuine, we are in danger of pathologizing her.

This echoes some parts of Rosenwein’s argument about Kempe in Crying, that it is impossible and indeed irresponsible to speak of Margery in terms of particular or even general diagnoses. But while Rosenwein seems to want to restrict how we define Kempe because she doesn’t see evidence for her being depressed, suicidal, etc., Hollywood refuses on principle: Margery thought of herself in a particular way, that was real for her, and it is not our responsibility to describe her as queer, or depressed, or anything else. Real=for the individual, true for ‘us’ has some interesting implications for the study of melancholy, too. Is self-description of an experience enough to make that experience “real”? On the flip side, do we invest too much in trying to match narratives to what we believe or expect to be true about someone’s mental experience in the past, even if they would not have described themselves in that way?

I think Hollywood would say yes. After all, Kempe and other women like Christina the Astonishing describe their experiences as divine, and there is no evidence to suggest that they were forced to do so by a male authority, as is usually suggested. Christina’s joy deserves to be taken seriously, as does Kempe’s joy and suffering/ecstasy/sorrow. Suffering is real, but it is not the only real; joy is real too. If melancholy has been seen as critical, in other words, then joy can be critical (and lead to action) too.

All in all, Hollywood makes me consider whether (especially) melancholy and joy are emotions, feelings, experiences, or something else entirely. She would probably say all (and/or the distinction isn’t what’s important) but I feel like in advocating for the importance of joy in medieval mystical narratives, what melancholy is to her becomes increasingly unclear. Is there room for medical discourse on melancholy, or self-definition as melancholy, or a post-medieval aesthetic of medieval melancholy (which is mentioned on p29: Henry Adams’s medievalist turn is seen as evidence of his mourning, and p.41 where the return to the medieval is seen as nostalgic) in her definition of melancholy as related to trauma? Part of me thinks that while this book takes great pains to flesh out a certain kind of Freudian melancholy, there is a lot more under the surface that is more compatible with the revolutionary, radical, or social impulses she wants to locate in joy.

Keywords: melancholy, the real, the true, Lacan, mystics, Kempe