A quickie on academic work/life balance and the pressure to apply, apply, apply …

The other day, I read Rachel Moss’s post on the subject of academic work/life balance. She titles it ‘Choosing Not To Give,’ and it was timely for me, as she speaks about balancing the demands of having a baby with the demands of having an academic career, something I’m going to have to learn about in short order.

I’ve read a lot of Rachel’s posts on this broad theme of career expectations, and I remember finding her post about applying for jobs (which I came across when I really needed to read something reassuring!) really helpful. There, she pointed out that the common advice to early career academics, to stop being snobby about jobs and to look beyond Oxbridge, is based in a misconception about where the jobs are – and she noted, too, that when she got her own Oxbridge job, it wasn’t the most attractive option she was offered, it was the only option. It’s an awesome job, so her point is well made.

The two posts together got me thinking about the choices we make as early career academics. At the moment, career choices are on my mind, as I’ve just finished a 26 month postdoc as a Teaching Associate at Cambridge, and I’m currently freelance teaching on the same courses for a couple of Cambridge colleges. The transition from ’employed’ to the dreaded status of ‘Independent Scholar’ has been pretty gentle for me as a result of this freelancing. It’s let me stay in the same place, use the same libraries, teach the same courses (ish), and enjoy networking with the same lovely colleagues. I didn’t even have to ceremonially return all of my library books, though I have said goodbye to my office key. My situation is paradoxically both more and less scary because we’re also expecting our first baby in March. More scary, because – argh, a baby, what if I never write again and she screams all day and my brain dribbles out of my ears and I never get a job and we end up living in the gutter and busking with a repertoire of the more tuneful bits of Lydgate?

Less scary, because realistically, it gives me something to concentrate upon and a very good motivation for working hard. It’s made me prioritise. Yes, I could apply for exciting temporary jobs in the US, or starry visiting fellowships in European libraries. But it’s not really a good idea for me, in terms of that work/life balance. And, in the time I could have spent putting together applications for highly competitive, short-term posts, I have written two solid chapters of my book, which is now in much better shape than it was last October (aka, the end of the first trimester). I’m fairly confident that not applying for things was actually the right decision for me – so why do I feel a constant need to justify what I’m doing?

In academia at the moment, I think there is a pressure to be seen to be applying for every job, every grant, every opportunity – however time-consuming it might be, however unlikely it might be that you get it, and however much you might anticipate (deep down) a sinking cold feeling of dread at the prospect of actually having to do (relocate for, retrain for) said job if you got it. You can’t get the jobs you don’t apply for! people remind us. There’s an almost superstitious element to it: if you miss applying for one job, if you forget to salute one magpie, you might bring down the wrath of the Hiring Gods for next time.

At the moment, I’m trying to spend my time more carefully, applying for a smaller number of things. I worry that this can be seen, not just as the lazy option, but as the arrogant option. Some academics (ECR and senior) give the impression that you’re not doing every single thing you can (including, frankly, unrealistic things that waste other people’s time as well as your own), then you must be complacently assuming a permanent job will fall into your lap. So, we write defensively (as I do) about changing priorities, about the demands of our families, about the importance of self-care and health. All of these things matter, of course. But I think it also matters to acknowledge that sometimes, we apply for things because of this pressure to be seen to be applying, and that’s bad in itself, no matter what external work/life considerations we might be keeping in mind.

Lesbian Anxieties, Queer Erasures: The Problem with Terms Like ‘Subversive Femme’

The paper I recently gave at the Gender and Medieval Studies conference in Canterbury was titled – after much thought – ‘Walled Desire and Lesbian Anxiety in Chaucer’s “Legend of Thisbe”‘. It should be out in The Chaucer Review before too long, but for the moment, I want to think about that second term: ‘lesbian anxiety,’ which has proved to be a topical one in much wider context that I could have anticipated when I responded to the Call For Papers.

My work is, obviously, mostly about medieval England, centuries before anyone (still less a mainstream writer such as Chaucer) thought to fling around a term like ‘lesbian’ with the cheerful abandon of a BBC blurb for a Sarah Waters adaptation.

The category of women I’m looking at are difficult to recognize. They are fictional women in mainstream literature, and therefore we don’t see them engaging in actual same-sex sex. They aren’t, on the whole, gender nonconforming in overt ways – like, for example, the cross-dressing heroines of earlier French romances, who frequently end up in flirtations with, or even in bed with, women – and, even if they were, gender nonconformity isn’t a particularly good litmus text of medieval female preferences for same-sex desire anyway. There’s a strong tradition, as Karma Lochrie has shown, of medieval onlookers interpreting ‘masculine’ behaviours and activities in women the result of imbalanced humours, easily found in women such as the cheerfully cougarish Wife of Bath. And after all, what we recognize as ‘female masculinity’ is heavily socially conditioned in the first place. So, how do I identify – and write about – women whose same-sex desire is revealed through suggestions and innuendos that are anything but ‘queer,’ either in the popular sense of uniting same-sex desire with gender nonconformity, or in the academic sense of being boldly subversive and disruptive? It’s hard, and my recent conference paper succeeded (I think!) in demonstrating that there’s a difficulty, without giving me a concrete answer to the problem.

No sooner had I written it, than I came across the Slate’s thought-provoking series of articles, published recently, on the contested subject of the word ‘lesbian,’ and particularly, Christian Cauterucci’s piece. I wish I’d seen this before I gave my paper, because it’s such a good illustration of the sorts of political and social (as opposed to academic) viewpoints I’m navigating as I figure out what terminology to use. I’ve seen some readers pretty furious with this piece. Cauterucci begins with a long anecdote about her recent history of sneering at groups of lesbians and, with a friend, making rude gestures at them, and I do find it slightly disingenuous that she attempts to explain this away by claiming that she perceived herself to be more cosmopolitan, more politically aware, than the women she was bullying. But, I do think she’s probably being quite honest about the way a lot of young women feel.

Of course there’s an argument to be made – and Cauterucci makes it – for not using ‘lesbian’ if the term doesn’t describe your situation. At the conference I’ve just been attending, a fellow delegate made this precise point: as a bisexual woman, ‘lesbian’ isn’t appropriate, and ‘queer’ can be a more useful descriptor. And I do very much like Cauterucci’s [friend’s] well-expressed point, that ‘lesbian’ potentially ‘implies a kind of sameness she doesn’t see in her relationship or those of her peers’. I think I would quibble that this implication is more overt in the term homosexual (in which, pace my dad, the homo is not the Latin for ‘man’ but the Greek for ‘same’). But it is a useful and interesting point, and chimes in with the experience some people report, of their hormone therapy shifting their sexual attraction in terms of the gender to whom they’re attracted, but remaining steady as a preference for perceived ‘sameness’. But where do you locate someone whose same-sex desire is not continuous with gender nonconformity, or even, someone for whom gender identity is experienced as an externally imposed construct?

Cauterucci struggles, too, with some of the same issues I experience in my work. She draws attention to the lack of any terminology covering ‘all of those who are not [privileged group]’ that does not, simultaneously, blur the differing identities of those different people into one homogeneous mass. See, for example, the Green Party’s infamous decision to plump for ‘non-men’ and the unfortunate coinage ‘non-white’.

But something that’s rather awkwardly handled in the piece is history. Cauterucci claims that the term lesbian confers the benefits of ‘a strong identity and legacy,’ whereas she understands her preferred terms – ‘queer,’ qualified later with ‘butch/femme’ – as ‘starting from scratch’. This is quite a short view of history. As a mainstream term, ‘lesbian’ is a newcoming: it’s just about within living memory that women (or a certain, upperclass set of women …) preferred ‘sapphic,’ and Sarah Waters’ novels give a gorgeous sense of the rich variety of appellations for women engaging in various same-sex activities.

All of these terms, too, come with implicit alignments to differing configurations of class, race, and geography: ‘butch/femme,’ for example, has strong ties to working-class women: there’s a sharp irony in the contrast between Cauterucci’s account of her own belittling of ‘lesbian’ women, and the scene in the film If these Walls Could Talk 2, where a group of young, politicized lesbians loudly mock the butch/femme couples they stumble across in a local bar. Young, privileged women presume that older, less privileged women have it all wrong and couldn’t possibly be political: plus ça change.

000wct_michelle_williams_013

Still from If These Walls Could Talk 2. I really wanted the image of the middle-aged butch women looking angry at being mocked, but guess how easy that is to find?

Much of Cauterucci’s identity politics, as she describes it, is grounded in self-presentation: performance, clothing, appearance. In particular, I was caught by her use of the term (much beloved of queer theorists everywhere), ‘subversive’: she locates herself in a culture of ‘dapper butches and subversive femmes’.

At this point, it’s relevant that I came into feminism from a second-wave context, from women whose work began during the second wave and is ongoing, and from women whose work has evolved out of that context (rather than beginning after it, or in conscious and complete opposition to it). And that’s still the context I draw on a lot of the time, although obviously I discard what I don’t find useful and incorporate plenty of other things. One thing I do find unfailingly helpful is the analysis of social pressures on women to perform femininity, and especially, the unpicking of all the subliminal messages that coerce women to spent time, energy, money and (crucially!) anxiety on presenting an acceptably ‘feminine’ face to the world. Of course, this is a difficult message to accept. We all want to think we make free choices – or, better, that our performances of femininity are somehow different from those sheep-like Victorian women strapping themselves into corsets, or those docile Chinese mothers binding their daughters’ feet. And the market colludes with us in this desire, telling us that performances of femininity are ‘self care,’ ‘pampering,’ ‘me-time,’ or selling them as opportunities for feminine bonding. Indeed, because women have always carved out spaces for themselves from the structures forced upon them, there genuinely is overlap between a site in which women perform socially-mandated practices of femininity (such as the nail salon or the waxing salon), and sites where women do bond, share, and support one another.

These considerations do remind us that we are in the middle of an ongoing process, and cannot extricate ourselves from the accommodations we make with the patriarchy. But I think they do not detract from the basic point to be made about performances of femininity, which might best be summed up in Audre Lorde’s words: ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’.

Despite being resolutely un-‘woke’ (and, being white and British, un-keen on appropriating that terminology anyway), I can picture what a ‘femme,’ even a ‘subversive femme’ might look like, and it doesn’t look very different from how I’ve been dressing for the last few days, for an entirely conventional (and rather lovely) academic conference. I know this because of the volume of people who are keen to tell me so. I enjoy my dresses and heels and backseam stockings and so on. I’m very glad the 1950s is currently mainstream fashion and that seamed stockings are no longer remotely ‘alternative’. And I am quite happy with the idea that this fashion repurposes the trappings of a decade mythologised as the quintessential era of patriarchal conditioning of women (the ‘1950s housewife), and gives them a distinctly un-surrended-wife connotation.

But, for me, this isn’t ‘subversive,’ not only because the myth of the 1950s is just that (and rather insulting to femininst trailblazers of the 1950s), but also because I struggle to interpret anything yoked together with a term cognate with ‘femininity’ as ‘subversive’.

If you do, that’s fine. But I don’t. The power dynamics remind me a bit of Tison Pugh’s introduction to his Queering Medieval Genres (which I feel it’s ok to criticize a little as it’s now nearly fifteen years old and superseded by his more recent work). Pugh anchors his analysis of ‘queering’ in comparisons to modern identity politics and experience – implicitly, the politics and experience of men, although he occasionally tacks on an ‘… and women’ when he remembers. He explains how a ‘queer’ dynamic can disrupt existing power structures, using this example:

‘In the wake of recent anti-gay violence (“fag-bashing”) in several urban centres, homosexuals adopted a slogan of resistance: “Fags bash back.” In this reconfiguration of the semantic powerlessness embedded in the phrase “fag-bashing,” homosexuals warn potential attackers that violence is not only the tool of their oppressors.’

Only, they don’t. Pugh argues that ‘fags bash back,’ but the precise point of the slogan is that they do not: police did not repel armies of gay men (for it is men to whom Pugh primarily refers) as they marched on Klan headquarters and Westboro Baptist Church with pickaxes and claw hammers. The power of the slogan ‘fags bash back’ lies in the implicit defiance directed inwards, to other members of the same community, as reassurance ‘we have not been silenced. We will not be cowed’. As such resistance, the slogan is effective. It is community-building. It is affirmative. But it is not a reconfiguration of powerlessness – even semantic – for it depends upon all hearers and readers knowing that no violence is proposed.

These same seems to me to be true of some of Cauterruci’s arguments about a ‘queer’ identity. In theory, being a ‘dapper butch’ or a ‘subversive femme’ might change people’s ideas about gender, about the inevitability of aligning femininity with heterosexuality, about the nature of masculinity … but, in practice, I think often the questions raised are raised only to a particular audience. I’ve seen, far too often, women vibrantly, emphatically, obviously projecting ‘queer’ identities only for the straight man in the room to ask, mystified, ‘but how on earth could you guess she was gay?’ I am not convinced, then, that it’s possible to be terribly ‘subversive’ in the way Cauterruci seems to envisage, and I think by focusing so much on subversion and on the politics of antagonism against other groups of women, she misses an important trick.

What women do share – and share, I’m sure, with plenty of other ‘non-men’ (to use Cauterruci’s wryly-acknowledged-as-inadequate terminology) – is a capacity to recognise hints and cues and covert indications of which the aforementioned straight man in the room is blissfully ignorant. If you like analogies, it’s a little similar to the way in which prey animals are honed to recognise subtle cues invisible to predator animals, simply because their lives depend upon it. This is fantastically effective as a means of constructing a community, and a community that exploits the unintended positive flipside of the privileged group’s lack of attention. We fly under the radar. It’s a bit the same when I meet up with my colleague, and I admire her dapper bowtie and she compliments my Frieda Kahlo-print ’50s dress. We bond, and part of that bond is rooted in the unspoken fact that we are noticing each other’s very different modes of participation in a shared, invisible dialogue. Most people don’t really notice these details and certainly don’t catch any cultural references we might attach – so there’s not much we’re ‘subverting’ – but we certainly are benefiting from sharing a perception of different ways of being different.

This reminds me, once again, of Audre Lorde and of the power of terminology and difference. Yesterday, I saw a tweet celebrating Lorde as a ‘queer’ writer and a righteously fierce backlash against it. Lorde is someone who has written thoughtfully, provocatively, lovingly, extensively, about the word ‘lesbian’ and its meanings. I have come across her using the term ‘queer’ to describe other people’s perceptions of her (notably, the Harlem Writers’ Guild), but not as a term she owned for herself. And self-definition was important to her. As she says, ‘If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive’. In Sister Outsider, she writes poignantly and brilliantly about the ways definitions that recognize selfhood do not exclude, but expand:

When I define myself, the place in which I am like you and the place in which I am not like you, I’m not excluding you from the joining – I’m broadening the joining’.

We do not all have to subsume our identities into a single definition: we can use different definitions (and different identities) that allow us to see a wider picture and to participate in a bigger conversation.

 

download

Note: when you google ‘subversive femme,’ you will come across a truly delightful sewing blog, by the eponymous subversive femme, and I want to make clear I think it’s awesome and brilliant and not remotely the target of any comments here.

I am aware, too, that ‘subversive femme’ as a term has a much broader set of meanings than either Cauterruci or I claim for it here: this is not accidental, as I suspect that the watering-down of specific political statements into a more nebulous ‘queer’ vocabulary is part of the problem I am dealing with.

Renewable Sources of Memory: Speech, Silence and Structure at the Gender and Medieval Studies Conference in Canterbury

dsc00433

I’m writing this in the shadow – or, actually, underneath the floodlights on the towers – of Canterbury Cathedral. My hotel room looks out past overlapping rooftops dripping melted snow, to a peering gargoyle and the fabulously-named Butter Market on one side, and the cathedral precincts on the other. I’m here (with a slightly premature post, before the last half-day) attending the conference on ‘Gender, Places, Spaces, Thresholds’ hosted by Canterbury Christ Church University and the wonderful Dr Diane Heath.

I came to this conference to give a paper on – amongst other things – the ways spaces and structures informed medieval people’s assumptions about the sexualities of their inhabitants. In particular, I’m interested in the way spaces occupied only by women generated a volatile blend of fascination and anxiety amongst male writers, who could only speculate (and censure, worry, or fantasise about) what women got up to inside, together. This is a large area of study, but the example I’m working on has been causing me problems, because the terminology I use carries complicated, and sometimes competing, connotations in various academic, political, pedagogical and personal spheres. In places, the debate maps onto the widespread conflicts you may have seen playing out on social media, over territory that is both ideological and physical. ‘Queer’ spaces and ‘lesbian’ spaces are often set in opposition, made to stand for whole systems of antagonistic thought. In this big debate, my small part is that I’m finding, increasingly, that the term ‘queer’ is blotting out a particular way of understanding ‘lesbian’ identities and histories.

All of this makes me keen to speak up in this debate, but also worried that, in doing so, I’ll be understood to have placed myself immutably on one side of a polarised disagreement, with no freedom to reinterpret the parameters or to develop my own position. And I think this is an issue we’re increasingly quick to produce in our modes of response to current political crises. We’re often urged to speak out, as if speaking out were a form of necessary social action, a morally mandated act. “Speak out!” “Bear witness!” “Add your name to this petition!” “Don’t stay silent!” Such requests demand that we accept our interlocutors’ picture of the ongoing debate and (often) that we respond in their terms, to the binaries they have drawn. More and more, I worry that we’re making silence – or provisional, measured, experimental forms of speech – tacitly unacceptable.

I found, though, that this conference offered me a new set of ways to think about speaking, and this, in turn, led me away from the rigid, polarised structures of debate I’ve been anxious about finding myself caught up in.

Speech, Hannah Shepherd told us in her paper, was considered a sense by medieval thinkers. It did not come after the thinking, considering, connecting work of the mind, and it did not simply give audible form to thoughts already finalised, polished, ordered and arranged. If speaking and writing are necessary parts of the process of thinking, then we write (or speak) in order to learn what it is we really think. This is all feels very close to twenty-first century pedagogies and theories of cognitive processing, but I think it’s also very medieval. Thought is structured by the objects and materials of the physical world: they offer models that are ‘good to think’ with, good to help us understand more abstract connections and ideas.

For medieval people, buildings are one of the central metaphorical structures for thought, and the medieval building par excellence, the building saturated with the most significance, must be the chapel, church, or (above all) cathedral. And what’s key about these buildings is that they are never finished. They are in a constant state of construction and reconstruction, like the edifices of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, that ‘rise and fall, crumble, are extended,’ endings and new beginnings overlapping and reforming around each other. Of course, some of this is still true today. From where I sit, I can see scaffolding on the tower of Canterbury Cathedral; an arresting and poignant image in the news yesterday showed the great rose window of Soissons Cathedral broken by the storm.

5184

But we tend to think of the work that goes on in these buildings as reconstructive work, work aimed at repairing what is broken, replacing what is worn out, or simply fighting against the constant slow decays of time. In contrast, medieval churchgoers expected their churches to be renewed and refashioned, often startlingly quickly, and in ways that can seem oddly intimate to us. Wills, for example, provide evidence of medieval women leaving their best cloak to dress statues of the Virgin or of favourite saints; new paint is regularly ordered to brighten up the cacophony of colours that once decorated church interiors, and over-hasty, over-ambitious building works on Lincoln Cathedral in the early fourteenth century reputedly resulted in a tower so high it overtopped the Pyramids of Gaze … for a slim 200 years, until it crashed down into the nave and was abandoned as a bad job.

All of this bustling building and rebuilding invites us to think, like medieval churchgoers, of a cathedral itself as a work in progress, a monumental structure, to be sure, but a structure that changes the way we think about memory itself: not as something fixed and immutable, but as something that might accommodate new materials and make space for new emotional responses. If speech is one of the senses, then all processes of thought and memory are processes of exploration as well as consolidation, ongoing rather than fixed.

This should make us think more about what work speech might do, and how we might use speech. And this conference offered possibilities for speech that was not final and finalised, that modified the structures of debate. Laura Varnam read Margery Kempe’s interactions with angels as a means of constructing woman-to-woman bonds of expression, which extended the sanctifying spaces of patriarchal control to reach out to and heal fellow female sufferers. Hannah Piercy argued that the conceptual enclosures of romance could act as models for ‘unsafe safe spaces,’ safe spaces that reach out and speak beyond their own confines. Daisy Black contrasted the York mystery plays’ ranting Herod, dominating the stage with sound and spectacle, with the silent power of Christ, showing how Herod’s noise and gesture exhausts the audience while Christ’s much-remarked silence gains tenure on their curiosity and intellectual engagement. Her paper showed how the Shearmen and Tailors’ Pageant uses song to change the spoken texture of the stage space, undercutting Herod with the ‘scopic authority’ – authority produced in the audience’s shift of attention to them – of the women singing the poignant Coventry Carol. Grace Timperley re-told the story of Octavian to show how ‘exile’ in romance offers women new lives, as ‘loss’ becomes a ‘loosening’ of bonds. All of these papers, and many more, challenged established scholarly narratives and – quietly – demolished established maps of the distribution of power and agency in medieval conversations, real and imagined.

As I came back to my partner after each conference session, I brought esoteric snippets and discoveries from the papers I’d heard. About the tomb of Christ and the cave of the Nativity, the topographies of Canterbury and of Bethlehem, the symbolic properties of rose-water or the smell of the angels, the French maps of routes where women wore burning crowns of straw and the eighth-century Arabic spell-books brought to medieval Britain.

Predictably, she suggested I needed to watch Indiana Jones while I wrote this post.

The film think how much we love the idea of discovering hidden symbols, piecing together arcane signs into new maps that unlock unified and unifying truths. But it’s really the systems of signs themselves that are the new treasures, the Grails, as the omniscient drawl of Sean Connery reminds us.

“Elsa never really believed in the grail. She thought she’d found a prize.”
– “What did you find, dad?”
“Illumination.”

Granted, it’s an irritating piece of misogynistic cliche, this response, aligning the material desire with the female and the cool, detached rationality with the male, but it’s straight out of medieval theories of both thought and gender, so we’ll charitably assume it’s part of the film’s tongue-in-cheek send-up of its subject matter. Like the grail, speech ought to be a structuring process, a process of becoming rather than of expressing certainties in the linguistic equivalent of quick-set cement. As we speak, we learn to re-position what we think we know – about ourselves and about the past – and in the process, we find we’ve constructed new mental edifices and spaces for thinking further. It’s an added bonus if we get Harrison Ford’s leather jacket into the bargain.

dsc00428-2

Strange Motherhood, King’s College Cradle, and the Women of Bethlehem

virgin-and-child-with-st-catherine-and-mary-magdalene-jpglarge

Virgin and Child with St Catherine and Mary Magdalene

It’s hard to write a warm, cheerful, joyous Christmas post this year. I have, personally, a lot to be joyful about, but undeniably the world looks pretty bleak. Families in Aleppo and across Syria have been torn apart; refugees are struggling to find countries to shelter them, and children are amongst those unable to leave war zones. Both here and in the US, we’re looking at leaders whose views of what kinds of people – and what kinds of families and communities – deserve protection and respect, are disturbingly narrow and exclusionary. And we struggle to welcome refugees, outsiders, those who do not ‘fit’.

In this context, it seems particularly self-centred to celebrate the religious narrative of Christmas in the way we’re so often encouraged to celebrate it. Well-meaning speakers and writers try to make Mary, Joseph and the baby sound like a cosy middle-class British family. Christmas is, after all, all about ‘family’ – and family, in this case, is defined with unthinking narrowness as the stereotypical configuration of father, mother, and children as approved by the most ‘family values’ Conservative. And we smooth away the parts of the Biblical account that are sadder, more uncertain, more unorthodox, than this comfortingly secure image.

I thought of this when I opened the paper this morning, to read a vicar explaining – without the most cursory indication of guilt – how, when he and his wife were struggling to have a baby, he’d insisted his wife be subjected to a battery of intrusive fertility tests before he agreed to provide a (painless) sperm sample, on the excuse that he was suffering ‘proud man syndrome’.The piece particularly jarred with me, because I saw it just after reading a very different account of the poet Lemn Sissay’s work to provide children in the foster system with a celebratory sense of Christmas. For context, my partner described one of these tests as ‘the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced’. Startlingly, it is still legal for fertility clinics to allow these painful and potentially dangerous procedures to be carried out before a painless test that could make them unnecessary. Apparently, though, it’s nothing compared to the existential agony of ‘living in a spermless marriage’. How this is excusable or remotely Christmassy, I’m not sure. I don’t doubt the author’s genuine sense of hurt. But the emphasis of the piece reminded me, uncomfortably, of a ham-fisted rewriting of the Christmas story I recently heard, and made me think of the dangers these seemingly anodyne narratives might be doing to our capacity to empathise.

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a young and earnest preacher hastening to put Joseph’s perspective front and centre. Think, the preacher urged us, how embarrassed Joseph must have felt at the prospect of any chink in his social image. Imagine how impressive it was that he resolved his issues. This is, so far as it goes, not untrue, and yet it felt to me rather an odd attempt to normalise, to bowdlerise, what is essentially, a narrative that displaces earthly paternity. With Joseph’s worries centre stage, Mary is relegated to an anodyne feminine figure bewildered by the angel’s message, and the main fears are not Herod, nor the more distant Pilate, nor even human damnation, but the fragile masculinity of an otherwise saintly elderly man. And with that resolved, there’s nothing to trouble us, to challenge us or to make us uncomfortable.

This bland accessibility contrasts sharply with the discomforting view of the Christmas story we find in medieval writings. There, Mary is not innocently bewildered by the angel’s message. She has a deep foreknowledge of events to come, and her joy at the birth is tinged with sorrow about the pain to come; the Christ-Child knows His fate. The relationships are not those of the nuclear family; many of these relationships, too, are fractured by violence threatened or remembered, by loss and suffering. Carols voice the empty lullabies of the women of Bethlehem in the shadow of Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents; they are, like Peter Warlock’s lovely, startlingly irreligiously composed carol ‘Bethlehem Down,’ permeated by the lingering scent of myrrh brought to the cradle to symbolise the death; they evoke the mixed joy and sorrow of a mother who knows she will mourn. Like the Christmas readings, Christmas music is anchored in the much older words of the Old Testament. At King’s college Advent Service this year, we listened to the beautiful, odd prose set to music of ‘This is the Record of John,’ with its ancient image of the voice crying in the wilderness and Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming of John the Baptist … and our baby, who can hear the vibrations from the organ we were sitting almost underneath, kicked up a storm. The other voice crying through the Old Testament – ‘a voice is heard in Ramah, Rachel weeping for her children’ – also echoes into the New Testament, but bitterly, as a foreshadowing of the Slaughter of the Innocents. It, in turn, is memorialised in the plangent medieval Coventry Carol. Medieval lyrics do not tell us which emotions to privilege, which families – the broken or the complete, the orthodox or the atypical – to celebrate.

These texts draw their emotional depth from allusions to relationships that lie outside of – or on the edge of – that image of the nuclear family headed by a man. I have written before about the hauntingly beautiful carol ‘Arise and Wake,’ with its roots in a medieval monastery  and its resonant picture of heaven itself as an echo of the same community of ‘brothers’ united not in blood, but in religious vows. So too, the voices of the ‘sisters’ in the Coventry Carol gathered around their doomed children, or the dialogues between angels and humans, prophets and listeners across the ages. Disruptions of the neat flow of time underline disruptions to the neat and restrictive pictures of what constitutes a family, what constitutes a community.

These temporal disruptions – images of the ending cradled in the beginning – are very old, and often literalised. We see this in the rhetoric of Lancelot Andrews, who, while he was Bishop of Ely, preached a sermon for Christmas Day 1618, broadens the emotional vocabulary of the Christmas story to its widest compass. Andrews was one of the main architects of the King James Bible, and his sermon has a similar, simple eloquence. It is filled with layered puns on the cratch, the cradle or crib in which Christ was laid, and the way people cratch (scratch) the sign of the cross to make the most primitive of signatures. Andrews writes:

We may well begin with Christ in the cratch [manger]; we must end with Christ on the cross. The cratch is a sign of the cross… To be swaddled thus as a child, doth that offend? What then when ye shall see Him pinioned and bound as a malefactor? To lie in a manger, is that so much? How then, when ye see shall Him hang on the cross?

14545376648_3802dd7f76_b

King’s College Chapel

Andrews was –  as I am indebted to King’s chaplain Andrew Hammond for observing –  a bishop tellingly immune to the calculatingly feminine flirtations of Elizabeth I; a man who never married. His moving description of a baby in a cradle is, then, not merely the voice of paternal experience, but something based more in empathy and thought. Cambridge, where he studied and where he was master of a college, was then dominated by the brooding rectangular mass of King’s College Chapel. Now, that structure is crowded on the skyline by other buildings: the spire of John’s, and the blocky twentieth-century tower of the University Library, the high concrete roofs of the Lion Yard and the Grand Arcade. Then, though, it was recognisable for its lone, distinctive shape. As Nicky Zeeman’s history of the building explains, the chapel was once known as ‘the Cradle’ on account of this shape, which resembles a high-sided, barred medieval or early Modern cradle, of the kind that was used in nativity scenes to house the infant Christ.

medievalcrib

Cradle of the Infant Christ (Met Museum).

This cradle – a strange, giant, stone-built crib rearing against the sky – served a congregation predominantly made up not of families and children, but a community very like that of the medieval monastery. Its name bears witness to the fact that feelings we too often imagine to be narrowly restricted to certain roles – motherhood, fatherhood – might resonate much further beyond.

Community is built, not of blood relationships, but of the shared emotions, the shared spaces, the shared volitions of people who come together. A narrative is built, not of neat and tidy steps from beginning to ending, but of juxtaposed images, juxtaposed past and present and future, juxtaposed emotions of joy and sorrow, which coexist and make room for one another.

The fourteenth-century lyric ‘Als I lay at Yoolis Night‘ captures the poignancy implicit in this doubled sense of present and future. Over on her blog, Eleanor Parker has also written about this lyric, in the version that’s found in a preacher’s handbook of 1372. But I was most interested in the copy I saw in Cambridge University Library the other day, which is the only version to survive with musical notation, and which records the name of one of its owners – John, a joculator or professional performer – and a note describing how he obtained the book. John was given his book by one Thomas Turke, sometime a Dorset vicar, but by 10th December 1418 (the date on which he gave his book away) a Carthusian monk in the Charterhouse of Hinton. This history is touching and revealing in itself, for Carthusians were, in theory, strictly enclosed in their monasteries, and even restricted from community life within the monastery, spending most of their time in solitary cells. Paradoxically, though, the English Carthusians had a keen interest in the simplest, most emotional and accessible forms of religious devotion, and frequently flouted the rules of their order in able to maintain bonds of shared faith with the most unlikely of laypeople.

The text pivots, as so many medieval carols do, around the wordless refrain of of the lullaby (‘lullay, lullay’). But it begins as a dream-vision, with the medieval singer falling asleep on Christmas Eve night – just hours away as I write this – and dreaming of a conversation between a pair of speakers, never identified by name, a maiden and her newborn child. The maiden seeks to rock her child to sleep without singing; the child – authentically and delightfully demanding – insists upon a song:

The childe him thought sche ded him wrong
And bad his moder synge

“Synge now, moder,” seyde the childe
“Wat schal to me befal
Heerafter wan I cum til eld
For so doon modres all.”

The child’s request – for a song telling what will be his future when he comes to maturity, such as all mothers sing – is met with consternation from the unnamed maiden.

“Swete sune,” seyde sche,
Weroffe schulde I synge?

Ne wist I nere yet more of thee
But Gabrielis gretynge.”

fra angelico  prado 2 (1).JPG

Gabriel’s Greeting

The words are deceptively simple. Of what should I sing? .. I have not known more of you yet/ Than Gabriel’s greeting. So the maiden claims, but that ‘yet’ works against the grammar of the tense (‘I never knew’). The response sounds like – and is – an evasion, a response which, by the logic of the carol, marks Mary out from the common run of mothers who sing to their children with stories of what those children will be when they grow to maturity, and yet a response which in which Mary denies any knowledge of her position outside the common run of mothers. Gabriel’s greeting, in the lyric, is the moment in which we listeners can positively identify the speakers of the text as the Christ-child and his mother; the moment at which we know what that fate ‘what I cum til elde’ will be. Yet the moment of knowledge is inseparable from the depiction of the mother pretending not to know who her baby is and what pain is his to come. Mother and child mime the actions of a typical human family, but do so with a foreknowledge and a foreboding that echoes unspoken through the text, deepening its Christmas message to something that disrupts the tidy present moment with the timelessness of the narrative. Mary’s motherhood is both an experience shared by all mothers – a role as traditional and stereotyped as any unimaginative sermon I might hear – and also something more uncertain, unmoored, and filled with uncomfortable potential. The dreaming listener, whose vision frames the whole carol, looks back into the Biblical past to find a narrative weaving in and out of its own present and future, never stably moored.

Medieval lyrics, with their tangling of present, past and future, remind me of the poem a friend of mine, Daisy Black, wrote just a few days ago, reflecting on the aftermath of brutal violence. The poem is sad, as it must be, in the context of the current crises in Aleppo, and across Syria. Yet this new poem also offers us ways to speak about the present world without evasions, without perpetuating the unthinkingly exclusionary, narrow, and hurtful hierarchies we seek to escape.

From their plangent carols, generations of medieval and early Modern listeners and singers pieced together the stuff from which their religious communities were cemented and built up. Like stone cradles rearing dark against the skyline, or scribbled carol notations passed from man to man, or otherwise-inclined bishop-translators birthing a new Bible for a new Anglican age, these texts may seem unlikely Christmas narratives. They would make uncomfortable images for listeners who would like something ‘relatable’ to confirm cherished stereotypes. But, in all their oddity, they – and this new poem – are more inclusive than the attempts of many preachers and vicars to make a neat twenty-first century version of a Nativity story, for they contain the room to bear witness to the possibilities for sorrow and joy, for fear and hope, for the unorthodox and the strange, as well as the secure default.

I end with Daisy’s poem:

The Girls Left

Afterwards, the women of Bethlehem said never again.
They turned their faces away from the palace
And emptied all their love into their surviving children.
A group of girls grew up without brothers.
Learned to pull the plough, to herd the sheep,
To barter at the market, to cut a fair deal with traders,
To play in the streets without shame.
They wove cloth with sand worked into bright threads.
Without brothers they learned to track the stars’ remote courses.
They learned to read.
A thousand young women grew
The gritty weight of Rachel’s cries at the core of their frames.
As they sowed, cut and milled their own grain,
Herod withered softly behind his gold doors.
When the exiles returned from Egypt
The town thrummed with new stars.

*

2016-12-24_024_medium

Happy (and hopeful) Christmas!

 

Blood, Sweat and Tears: Medieval Literature, Cambridge, and Leonard Cohen

 

tumblr_mvcd7y3y3j1soj7s4o1_r1_1280

London, British Library, Egerton MS 1821, ff. 1v-2r

I was thinking, this morning, how there is never enough time for some things. 82 years, for instance, feels like far too little time – even though I had been expecting to read that Leonard Cohen had died every time I saw his name in the depressing little facebook ‘sidebar of 2016 shitshows’ that has evolved over the course of this year.

The image above – the opening pages of a medieval prayerbook made in the fifteenth century – came up in my teaching today. We were reading Julian of Norwich and talking, amongst other things, about the grotesque, weirdly solid droplets of blood she visualises – like the scales of a fish – dropping down Christ’s face as he dies on the cross. Medieval literature is very keen on blood, sweat and tears, as the image demonstrates. They flow, drip, trickle, spurt, smear and gush from text to text and (revoltingly, but historically and scientifically verifiably) across the pages of stained, damp-puckered, grimy manuscripts that have plainly caught the worst of human effluvia over the centuries. Such tears can seem both overwhelming, and off-putting. Margery Kempe weeps so often and so loudly that (she proudly records) onlookers frequently presume her to be drunk in church. Piers Plowman‘s Will wails so prolifically that he exhausts himself into deep sleep. Chaucer’s Troilus experiences what should be temporary sexual frustration as a fully realised episode cardiac and sanguinary gushing.

But blood, sweat and tears are also, depressingly, part of the experience of studying medieval literature at university. Echoing both medieval imagery of tears and the medieval love of sensory contact with books with impressive authenticity, a student describes how

‘[Y]ou open the book you’ve probably borrowed from the library. You are hit by the smell of the tears of thousands of other[s] … who have had to endure the same pain.

This idea of being caught in a tradition of academic suffering is not unique to Cambridge. When I started my Masters at Oxford (which is, admittedly, not a million miles from Cambridge in ethos), I read a helpful guide to the process, written by an academic. It mentioned – with no apparent hint of irony or humour – that a likely consequence of nine months of intensive study of English Literature was (I kid you not) ‘the dark night of the soul’. Both pieces of writing reminded me of an article by Mary Carruthers, which begins with the bizarre religious writings of the medieval theologian Peter of Celle. Peter wrote a book called On Affliction and Reading, which sounds suitably negative. By ‘affliction,’ Carruthers explains, Peter means:

examination of conscience … oral confession, flooding tears, mortification, kneeling in continuous silence, psalmody, and lashing.

Peter goes on to describe what the ‘reading’ part of his topic requires: not only mind-numbing repetition, carried out in the lonely narrowness of the monastic cell, but also something akin to physical torture. It is reading that lacerates the flesh, strips skin and muscles from the underlying bone, and tears at the body until the blood flows. It is like being in:

a market, where the butcher sells small amounts of his flesh to to God, who comes as a customer. The more of his flesh he sells, the greater grows the sum of money he sets aside. Let them, therefore, increase their spiritual wealth and fill their purse by selling their own flesh and blood, for flesh and blood will not possess the kingdom of Christ. 

As Carruthers comments, what is even more distasteful is the rhetoric of commodification, for the process is a lucrative transaction with God. However – having established this unsettling tradition in medieval theology – she acknowledges that medieval writers seemed to believe it was, at least, a kind of suffering that was necessary to gain benefits. She concludes, ultimately, that Troilus’ incessant weeping in Chaucer’s poem – weeping that’s often seen as absurd, comic, or pain annoying – is actually part of this tradition:

in Troilus, as in a great deal of medieval art, there is a deep connection between the grief and the argument, indeed, in some way the grief sets the arguing in motion … in this psychology, arguing needs an emotion like grief in order to come fully into being, to be invented and fruitfully intended in the first place, or else it remains dry and without fruit. 

Plainly, Peter of Celle – and all the other medieval writers who seem to glory in the experience of thoroughly miserable, painful, and excessive reading – must have believed they actually did stand to gain something from the experience, whether we believe that gain was actual enlightenment or, more cynically, the status achieved through a virtuoso performance of suffering. But should reading hurt?

In my favourite of Leonard Cohen’s songs, he teaches his listener to:

… leave no word of discomfort
And leave no observer to mourn
But climb on your tears and be silent
Like a rose on its ladder of thorns

I love this image of tears as a structure, a process that solidifies into a scaffolding that gives you the support to be silent. I love the epithets he uses to describe body and soul, including the gorgeous phrase ‘tangle of matter and ghost’: words that echo back to the King James Bible and to medieval English. And finally, I love the lines with which Cohen ends the song, with a litany of images of renunciation and farewell that end:

Bless the continuous stutter
Of the word being made into flesh.

I have listened to these lines, and this song, a lot of times. I’ve puzzled over that image of the word ‘stuttering’ as it turns into flesh – which is an image I love, but also a profoundly weird image of creation, and an image of creation that is startlingly accepting of brokenness and what we might see as impairment. I’ve listened to it all so many times, while I was speed-reading a particularly boring, un-poetic translation of the Roman de la Rose, that the image of the rose on its ‘ladder of thorns’ has seeped, irrecoverably, into my mental map of that text. I’ve never actually looked up what the song means (or is ‘supposed’ to mean). I could have looked it up for this post – but I really didn’t, and don’t, want to. And I didn’t enjoy putting into words even the tiny little bit of a response that I’ve managed in this post. I can’t help seeing me writing (clumsily) about Leonard Cohen as something a bit like that process of tearing off one’s flesh strip by strip in order to make money: a transaction that’s excruciating and simultaneously extremely crass. I’d like to write really beautiful, crafted, self-effacing sentences that somehow let Cohen’s poetry speak for itself, unimpeded, while also saying something. I don’t have the time.

What I do have, is the mental equivalent of muscle memory. I had the experience of writing two essays a week, eight weeks a term, for three years. A lot of those essays were awful. Some of them never got handed in. Some of them weren’t complete. But they pushed me to write a lot of words, and to think about a lot of words. They pushed me to read a lot. So, I know that – if I want to, or if I ever need to – I can sit down and write 1200 words to compare the images of blood and tears, flesh torn and flesh stuttering into Resurrection, across texts written eight centuries apart. I can learn to understand those texts I love better – even if I never really think about them in an academic way – because there’s an ingrained habit of writing out, testing out, building up, new responses to every text I ‘have’ to read, however little time there might seem to be.

50743-40311

RIP

The Window

Why do you stand by the window
Abandoned to beauty and pride
The thorn of the night in your bosom
The spear of the age in your side
Lost in the rages of fragrance
Lost in the rags of remorse
Lost in the waves of a sickness
That loosens the high silver nerves
Oh chosen love, Oh frozen love
Oh tangle of matter and ghost
Oh darling of angels, demons and saints
And the whole broken-hearted host
Gentle this soul

And come forth from the cloud of unknowing
And kiss the cheek of the moon
The New Jerusalem glowing
Why tarry all night in the ruin
And leave no word of discomfort
And leave no observer to mourn
But climb on your tears and be silent
Like a rose on its ladder of thorns

Oh chosen love, Oh frozen love…

Then lay your rose on the fire
The fire give up to the sun
The sun give over to splendour
In the arms of the high holy one
For the holy one dreams of a letter
Dreams of a letter’s death
Oh bless the continuous stutter
Of the word being made into flesh

Oh chosen love, Oh frozen love…

Gentle this soul

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Horcrux Theory of Chaucerian Manuscript Transmission

download

Adam Scriveyn

To those expecting that famous writers occupy their time with lofty, noble and improving thoughts, Chaucer’s shortest surviving poem must come as something of a disappointment. In fine British tradition, it’s a moan elevated to the level of an art form:

‘Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle,
Boece or Troylus for to wryten newe,
Under thy long lokkes thou most have the scalle,
But after my makyng thow wryte more trewe;
So ofte adaye I mot thy werk renewe,
It to correcte and eke to rubbe and scrape,
And al is thorugh thy negligence and rape.’

The poem – Chaucer’s account of his working relationship with his scribe – strikes an authentic note of irritation I can relate to today, especially considering that the third line translates (approximately) as an imaginative wish for the scribe’s annoying hipster beard to be afflicted with chronic flaky dandruff.The gist of the message is that Adam, the scribe employed by Chaucer to copy out his genius literary output, is constantly introducing errors. Chaucer is forced to spend his time doing corrections which, clearly, he feels are beneath his dignity.

For us, readers accustomed to print culture and to digital culture, to copyright laws and to fairly frequent news stories of authors jealously guarding their work against the distortions of film adaptations, TV versions or, even, internet fanfic, this seems a natural attitude for an author to take. We may snigger at Philippa Gregory – who now ‘insists’ on a clause in her contract prohibiting film makers from changing what the novelist, well known for her flexible relationship with historical fact, calls ‘the history of the novels’. But we broadly understand what she means.The accumulated changes and variations of generations of scribes represent a progressive ‘corruption’ of the original text that wrongs the author. Editors of medieval texts, from Caxton to George Kane, represent themselves as diligent correctors, wading through the scribbled masses of badly-copied manuscripts to weed out scribal errors. And it’s easy to imagine that this process is a process of restoring the author’s reputation, repairing damage done to his work and his reputation. Scribes and authors are thus natural enemies: the former weakening and chipping away at the work of the latter.

But I wondered, did medieval authors really feel this protective desire to control their words? Despite his poem to his scribe, Chaucer often seems oddly keen to exploit the potential for scribes to come up with different, and variant, readings. I’ve argued before that his Legend of Good Women is a suspiciously error-prone text, almost begging for the inclusion of predictable scribal variations. I’ve shown how the name of one male protagonist – Theseus –  gives way immediately to the oddly similarly-named Tereus, at exactly the point in the text at which Chaucer begins to talk about the corrosive effects of words and the slippery significance of men’s names. It seems entirely in keeping with the antifeminist cynicism of the Legend to find that, elsewhere, one scribe misread the word ‘venym’ (venom, or poison) as ‘wenym’: women. Such changes seem less like misrepresentations of the original spirit of the text, and more like deputised workings from the same source that set up the potential for error in the first place.

Enter a theory from Ben Clarke, who makes analogy – persuasively – to popular culture. He argues that we might see the inevitable splitting of the work of medieval authors such as Chaucer into multiple, different versions as akin to that great invention of J. K. Rowling, the Horcrux.

Horcruxes, as you will recall, are the splinters of the soul into separate parts, which increase the power of the individual by allowing him to send his soul out into the world, diversely embodied. Each Horcrux, or soul-fragment (or manuscript) acts both subordinately to the guiding soul, and with physical autonomy. The image is one of schism and splitting of soul (authority, self) that is not merely destructive, but paradoxically powerful – and it is powerful because it accepts this inevitable pluralising of the self and this process of reduplication. With this analogy in mind, perhaps we can stop thinking of the variant manuscripts of a text such as Chaucer’s Troilus or his Legend of Good Women as a series of erratic scribal corrosions of Chaucerian authority.

Each new manuscript isn’t so much a fragmentation that disempowers the author, as a Horcrux, a split fragment of his soul that goes out into the world to carry on his authoritative work in (or on) a multitude of new bodies.

images

This is not a Horcrux – though it is a split manuscript body – but rather, how I picture Dumbledore’s face, when Rowling outed him.