Acute Melancholia and Other Essays
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Acute Melancholia and Other Essays

Mysticism, History, and the Study of Religion

Amy Hollywood

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eBook - ePub

Acute Melancholia and Other Essays

Mysticism, History, and the Study of Religion

Amy Hollywood

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About This Book

Acute Melancholia and Other Essays deploys spirited and progressive approaches to the study of Christian mysticism and the philosophy of religion. Ideal for novices and experienced scholars alike, the volume makes a forceful case for thinking about religion as both belief and practice, in which traditions marked by change are passed down through generations, laying the groundwork for their own critique. Through a provocative integration of medieval sources and texts by Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, Talal Asad, and Dipesh Chakrabarty, this book redefines what it means to engage critically with history and those embedded within it.

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ACUTE MELANCHOLIA
1
NO ONE in my family can tell a story without telling twenty-five, not just because one story inevitably leads to another, but also because any given story is embedded with endless digressions, only seemingly incidental anecdotes, all wending their way toward some grand narrative finale, which tends never quite to arrive. (As my students know, this is all too often the way I teach.) I am going to give the abbreviated, nondigressive version of the story of my paternal great-grandmother, Maria (long i) Hollywood. (It will be—for me, at least—incredibly difficult.)
My mother is the one who told me this story, one she had heard from my Grandfather Hollywood. His mother, after whom I was unwittingly named (here is the first long, omitted digression, and I promise now to stop marking each of them), my great-grandmother, starved herself to death. She lived in lower Manhattan. Her bartender husband, my great-grandfather, Patrick, died young, leaving her with those of their eight children who remained alive at the time. My grandfather, Joseph, graduated from the sixth grade just after his father died, left school, and worked to support his mother and younger brothers and sisters. First he sold newspapers; but he loved chemistry and somehow caught the eye of a chemical salesman who sold to the paper. (Not as a chemist, of course, but as a salesman. He was apparently one of those guys who could sell anything to anybody.) Eventually, he co-owned a chemical sales business. But that was later. Through his twenties he lived with his mother and one remaining sister, until, when she was sixteen, that last sister, Mary, died. And when Mary died, his mother, my great-grandmother, Maria, stopped eating, refused doctors, and she too died.
There is something awful now in thinking about my mother telling me this story when I was just a small child. But the truth is, I loved my mother’s stories, even when they involved starving Irish grannies and impecunious youth, maybe in part because I never quite believed them. Now I can see all the key narrative elements—Horatio Alger meets Newsies meets a certain much beloved (to Irish Americans at least) strand of melodramatic Gothic.
So I loved the story—or was at least fascinated by it—and later could analyze its religious, political, ethnic, and gender implications, and the play of power, oppression, desire, and anxiety that ran through each episode (and, perhaps even more, provided the conditions of its telling). On some fundamental level, though, the older I got, the less I believed it.
But the thing is, it turned out to be true. After my father died, I opened the grey lock box that I had seen on his desk for years (and oddly, given that I had rifled through every other available object in the house, had never touched). I remember only two of the documents that were in the box: my father’s flight record from World War II (it was the original flight record, now lost) and a copy, now also lost, of my great-grandmother’s death certificate. Maria Smith (therein lies yet another complex story) Hollywood died at the age of fifty-five. The cause of death: acute melancholia.
I tell this story—about the power of loss literally to kill—because it serves as a cautionary backdrop for my current research. From medieval Christian mysticism to psychoanalysis and contemporary feminist philosophy—an odd array, I grant—I have learned that one way we deal with loss is through an internalization of the lost other, who then becomes part of who we are. I am interested in the bodily, psychic, spiritual, and mental practices by which we are formed and reformed; in the role of loss and incorporation in those practices; and in the ways in which they give rise to forms of subjectivity that are always and necessarily intersubjective. (And also always and necessarily, although in complex ways, sexed, gendered, sexualized, raced, and marked by the other salient differences that constitute the social worlds of which we are a part.)
It is not an accident, of course, that the relationship between mourning, melancholia, and Christian mysticism first became starkly apparent to me—it had always been, I can now see, a crucial yet undertheorized aspect of my work—the year that one of my brothers and one of my sisters were both very ill. I was, inevitably, thinking about mourning and melancholia and, less inevitably, reading Margaret Ebner’s Revelations.1 There it was—the complex interactions between trauma and loss, mourning and melancholy—enacted in and by Ebner’s book. Despite my own worries about reading anachronistically, I am convinced these interactions are in this text and in many others, and not just a result of me reading melancholically.
I hope to convince you of this and to suggest the foundational role of trauma and loss, mourning and melancholic incorporation in the writings by and about two medieval women. I will then turn, albeit briefly, to what these women’s stories can tell us about Freud, melancholia, and what we might call the theological imagination. To get at these questions, I need first to lay out a three- or sometimes fourfold movement visible in the devotional, visionary, and mystical lives of Beatrice of Nazareth (1200–68) and Margaret Ebner (ca. 1291–1351).2 The most striking feature of this pattern is its movement from external objects to their internalization by the devout person (the key component of melancholy for both medieval and modern theorists), and then their subsequent re-externalization in and on the body of the believer (the rendering visible of melancholic incorporation whereby the holy person becomes Christ to those around her).
BEATRICE OF NAZARETH
Beatrice of Nazareth was a Cistercian nun, the author of a short vernacular treatise, Seven Manners of Loving, and the subject of an extensive Latin life. I’ve written at length about the crucial differences between Beatrice’s own text and the hagiography, presumably written by a male cleric shortly after her death. Here I will read the two documents together, however, for only then do we see the three- and fourfold pattern of female sanctity in which I am interested.3 Most crucially, the hagiographer tells us about Beatrice’s use of external objects as an aid to devotion, just as he will emphasize the external manifestations of belief on Beatrice’s body. Beatrice, on the other hand, is intent on describing her experience as internal, and eschews discussion of external objects of devotion and of her own, externally apprehended body. Although as an historian, I remain skeptical about whether Beatrice’s hagiographer gives an accurate account of her life, medieval readers decidedly were not. Hence taken together the two texts—Beatrice’s treatise and her hagiography—give a picture of movement from external to internal and back again that we then find repeated in fourteenth-century texts like Margaret Ebner’s Revelations.4
After briefly describing the ascetic rigors to which Beatrice subjects herself, the hagiographer writes of her devotion, particularly to the cross of Christ:
Day and night she wore on her breast a wooden cross, about a palm in length, tightly tied with a knotted string. On it was written the Lord’s passion, the horror of the last judgment, the severity of the judge and other things she wanted always to keep in mind. Besides this she also carried tied to her arm another image of the Lord’s cross painted on a piece of parchment. She had a third, painted on a piece of wood, set before her when she was writing, so that wherever she went, or whatever exterior work she did, all forgetfulness would be banished, and by means of the image of the cross she would keep [firmly] impressed on her heart and memory whatever she feared to lose.5
Not only does the hagiographer portray Beatrice as making use of devotional objects to aid in her meditative practice, but there is a proliferation of these objects, suggesting both a desire that the cross be ever present to the believer and its tendency to slip from memory in the absence of external reminders.6
The wooden cross and images of the cross painted on wood and parchment ultimately, however, become unnecessary. The goal of Beatrice’s meditation on Christ’s cross seems to be met when she has so fully internalized the image of Christ’s Passion that she is unable not to see it before her mind’s eye:
Thereafter for about five unbroken years she had the mental image of the Lord’s passion so firmly impressed in her memory that she scarcely ever quit this sweet meditation, but clung from the bottom of her heart with wonderful devotion to everything he deigned to suffer for the salvation of the human race. (LBN, 92–93)
The hagiographer thus depicts Beatrice as having so successfully internalized that which is represented by the cross as no longer to require external aids for her meditative practice.7
Turning to Beatrice’s own treatise, Seven Manners of Loving, we find no explicit reference to her devotion to Christ’s cross, either as externally apprehended through created objects or as internally present to the mind. Yet the language Beatrice uses to describe her intense love for God can be traced to contemporary discourses on and representations of the Passion (discourses and representations closely tied to ancient and medieval medical accounts of melancholia). In describing the violent and overwhelming experience of the fifth manner of loving, Beatrice writes that
at times love becomes so boundless and so overflowing in the soul, when it itself is so mightily and violently moved in the heart, that it seems (dunct) to the soul that the heart is wounded again and again, and that these wounds increase every day in bitter pain and in fresh intensity. It seems (dunct) to the soul that the veins are bursting, the blood spilling, the marrow withering, the bones softening, the bosom burning, the throat parching, so that her visage and her body in its every part feels this inward (van binnen) heat, and this is the fever of love.8
The wounding of the heart by love calls to mind both Song of Songs 4:9 (“You have wounded my heart, my sister, my bride, with one of thy eyes”) and the piercing of Christ’s side by Longinus’s spear. In sermon 61 on the Song of Songs, Bernard of Clairvaux writes that the spear, in piercing Christ’s side, laid bare his heart, the very heart wounded by the glance of his beloved.9 Beatrice’s words, then, evoke the Passion in ways that may seem oblique to modern readers but would have been clear to her contemporaries. In writing of her own heartache, moreover, she not only internalizes a mental image of the Passion, but herself comes to experience internally the suffering Christ felt on the cross (a movement of identification facilitated by the Song of Songs itself, which moves between the laments of the Bridegroom and his Bride).
The conflation of language from the Song of Songs with events from the Passion narrative is further reinforced by the application of medical accounts of lovesickness and melancholia to the Song of Songs. Twelfth-century commentators on the Song wrestle with the problem of how lovesickness, which they considered to be a physical illness, “could signify spiritual love.” Yet by the thirteenth century, William of Auvergne, bishop of Paris, argues that the medical language of lovesickness can be used to help describe and understand mystical rapture.10 The soul languishing for love of God (“for I am sick with love,” Song of Songs 2:5; 5:8) becomes emblematic of mystical rapture itself, and the effects of lovesickness and mystical desire are almost indistinguishable.11 Medieval natural philosophers and theologians, moreover, closely associated lovesickness with melancholia and both, it must be added, with languor.12 Although in the Middle Ages, melancholia is often associated with acedia and anger13 and, much less often, with envy and avarice14—all sinful states—lovesickness as a species of melancholia is clearly not, or at least not always, sinful. Instead, mania, sorrow, despair, and languor (not easily assimilable categories, to modern ears) are so closely associated with melancholic lovesickness that by the twelfth century, as Mary Wack explains, “the medical signa amoris came to be applied to mystical love.”15 And not only, I argue, with mystical love of the soul for God, but also with the love of Christ for humanity.
When Beatrice writes that it seems to her as if her veins were bursting, her marrow withering, her bones softening, her throat parching, and, above all, her blood spilling, she borrows from late-medieval medical discourses about lovesickness and melancholia.16 She describes herself as sick with love, not for another human being, but for God. By juxtaposing this language with that of the heart wound, moreover, she conflates the soul’s love for God with God’s love for the soul as demonstrated by the Son’s death on the cross. For medieval medical writers within both the Christian and the Muslim traditions, lovesickness as a form of melancholia (or sometimes as a forerunner to melancholia) is a malfunctioning of judgment or the estimative faculty. Like Freud, as we will see, Avicenna and those who follow him argue that the melancholic (whether lovesick or not) overestimates his or her object.17 Although often read within the terms of humoral theory (a complicating factor I don’t have space to discuss here), Avicenna and his followers fundamentally agree with Freud that lovesickness and melancholy involve an overvaluation of the object, suffering in the face of one’s own inadequacy before the beloved and the beloved’s loss or absence. We can discern here why melancholic lovesickness for God or Christ cannot be sinful, for the object of love cannot be overvalued, nor the lover ever sufficiently debased before its divine beloved.18
The tie between Beatrice’s internal experience of a lovesickness reminiscent of Christ’s Passion and her meditation on the Passion of Christ becomes clearer when we see how Beatrice’s hagiographer chose to translate the passage of the treatise cited above. As elsewhere in his rendering of Beatrice’s words, the hagiographer externalizes what she describes as internally apprehended experiences:
Indeed her heart, deprived of strength by this invasion, often gave off a sound like that of a shattering vessel, while she both felt the same and heard it exteriorly. Also the blood diffused through her bodily members boiled over through her open veins. Her bones contracted and the marrow disappeared; the dryness of her chest produced hoarseness of throat. And to make a long story short, the very fervor of her holy longing and love blazed up as a fire in all her bodily members, making her perceptibly (sensibiliter) hot in a wondrous way. (LBN, 308–11)
Lest this body, with blood boiling over through its open veins, seem far from the representations of Christ’s Passion on which Beatrice might have meditated, we have only to turn to an image now in Cologne, and probably produced in the Rhineland during the fourteenth century (see figure 7.2).19
Here we see Christ depicted as awash in blood, suggesting a visual rendition of the reading of Christ’s Passion as lovesickness evoked textually by Beatrice’s hagiographer. We cannot know if she ever saw images like this one. Nonetheless, it is clear that a common set of biblical and medical references enables the conflation of Christ’s Passion with the love of the Bridegroom for his Bride in the Song of Songs and medieval discourses on lovesickness. Christ’s Passion is—iconically and experientially—melancholic lovesickness. In taking on that lovesickness, internalizing and then externally enacting Christ’s melancholic desire, Beatrice herself shares in and is depicted as reenacting Christ’s Passion.
As I have said, the emphasis on external objects of devotion as aides to meditation and the subsequent externalization of the internalized image of Christ’s suffering on the body of the saint appear only in Beatrice’s hagiography, not in her own text. She quite explicitly emphasizes the internal nature of her experience, likely in an attempt to forestall thirteenth-century presumptions of the necessarily bodily nature of women’s sanctity. As I argue in “Inside Out” and elsewhere, the hagiographer’s transl...

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