Friday, May 24, 2013

CS Lewis and the Fruit of Failure

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with essays from "Blunder (a Round-Table)" 

The following is a version of a talk on FAILURE
from the International Congress on Medieval Studies
at Kalamazoo, Michigan on May 10th, 2013


Can we fail yet? Where and when does failure bring us? To answer this I ask yet another question: What fruit is this?

Experience provides me with information, sensations, instances of fruit that are like it, fruits that I have handled and tasted, but those fruits are not this fruit. Those fruits provide formal and sensual representations which may serve as a kind of utopic ideal of this fruit, but the particular reality of this fruit, let’s say its taste, resists incorporation and conflation with these expectations. These expectations are bound to fail, to be replaced by the assertion of the unexpected particulars I experience when biting into it. That is what reveals that these other fruits are utopic, because they are not topical here and now. The real presence replaces the ideal present. In this way, realism through contradicting the ideal, through failure, disturbs our sense of the potential towards material possibilities.

Failure rhetoric as of late has tended to be utopic, in Jose Munoz’s line of thought, revealing what is missing or failing in present realities and thus opens us up to change. This does not go far enough. I argue that the experience of surprise and failure in the topical reveals the reality that is missing in the imagined present --- directing us towards changes which have already occurred and towards a greater investment in the possibilities of the present, rather than the potentials of the future. Put another way, failure is an object-ion to a form of phantasmal subjectivity --- it is bound up in the very process of cognition. Expectation and thought fail, and “the reason why the thing can’t be expressed…is that it’s too definite for language” (CS Lewis, Perelandra, 30).

An imagined theoretical proof of this I draw from the speculative medievalist work of CS Lewis from the 1940s, drawing on scenes from the Great Divorce where the narrator is brought to paradise through a dream vision and from Peralandra where the protagonist is brought to paradise through angelic intervention. In both cases, Lewis’s paradises bring the reader from a present day world into an aesthetic suggesting the medieval aesthetic suggesting an unreachable elsewhere time and place in existence.

Drawing from medieval accounts of paradise, Lewis furnishes both with signature ecological pieces, giving particular attention, not surprisingly, to trees and fruit which uniquely disturb time and space. In the Great Divorce, fruits disappoint a consumer's attempt to collect, sell and make them into capital gains by asserting a distinctive space. In Peralandra, fruits disappoint a sensualist’s attempt to continually repeat a pleasure by asserting a distinctive time.

By making Utopias topical, “something happened to [the protagonists] which perhaps never happens to a man until he is out of his own world: he saw reality, and thought it was a dream;” or rather, awakened to the lack of mastery our modes our ideals hold over material realities, revealing our world to be far stranger and unknown than we would like to admit (CS Lewis, Perelandra, 40). Through this methodology, Lewis provides object lessons on transformation through experiences of fruits and failure.

A thing fails because it is not the thing we thought it was, or else this is not the time and place we thought, so the failure may exist in equal or greater part in the observer. If we find the Utopic in the here and now, rather than on the horizon, (in other words: if we realize that one of the hardest places to be present is in the here and now) we may better attend to and work with real material possibilities.


In Lewis’s speculative work, what he called his “supposal” literature, he claims to alter our experience of the now by imagining our own reality shifted in time, space or quality. The Great Divorce follows in the tradition of the medieval dream-vision, offering a sleeper who travels to paradise in real time and encounters things-in-themselves, a world where the essential being of things have flourished to such a point as to make blades of grass, leaves on trees, and fruits on the ground so definite that they resist hardily change, even in location, through a kind of ontological persistence that re-frames our relation to things:

I noticed that the grass did not bend under their feet: even the dew drops were not disturbed. Then some re-adjustment of the mind or some focusing of my eyes took place, and I saw the whole phenomenon the other way round. The men were… as all the men I had known had been…It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison…something had happened to my senses so that they were now receiving impressions which would normally exceed their capacity … after the first shock, my sensibility "took" [them], as a well-built ship takes a huge wave. (GD 490).

By bringing subjectivities into a world where objective being asserts itself, no longer allowing representations to speak for it, these intelligences become as ghosts until they learn to live with other bodies in a way which does not seek mastery through tricks of exchange: language, industry, or capital. If these visitors are willing to accept a more democratic position in relation to other things, a certain unknowingness and surrender of another's destiny and value, they will begin to harden and become things-in-themselves as well.

This develops in turn into a recoding of failure from a kind of lack, to a kind of refusal to become other than what one is at that place in their existence; affirming the premise put forth in the preface that “[A thing] does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection. Good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different… from other good” (Lewis, GD 465). This “ripening” thus defines difference and distinctiveness of every thing in existence with all its specificity in time and space.

Taking the case of such essential ripening to actual fruit, the dreamer in the tale encounters a scene where another stranger to the land discovers a tree which has just dropped a pile of these hard as diamond apples in front of him. Working towards the scheme he shared with the dreamer earlier, he attempts to pick up as many as he can to bring back home and sell as a whole new category of product. Failing to lift the pile, he attempts to just pick up one and carries it a little way until he gives up and traveler and fruit fall to the ground.

Suddenly, the water-fall beside the tree begins to speak to the traveler, saying "Fool… put it down. You cannot take it back. There is not room for it [somewhere else]. Stay here and learn to eat such apples. The very leaves and the blades of grass in the wood will delight to teach you" (Lewis, GD, 492). The dreamer then turns away from the scene as a bright spirit appears to give a lesson on haecceities and how the “this-ness” of a thing can serve an impetus for more pragmatic ontological and ethical relations to the world. Lewis, revealed as the dreamer, experiences an orgasmic vision of the manifold coincidence of time and space in the moment of the real shatters his vision and awakens him.


The majority of Lewis’s other supposal literature take the form of a there and back again narrative, where persons from the nominally real here and now travels to another world, usually imagined overtly or covertly, except for those familiar with his sources, as a kind of medieval-ish other time and place. The most familiar instance of this occurs across all the Chronicles of Narnia, but are also present, much earlier, in his Space Trilogy, of which Peralandra forms the second installment.

In this tale, Ransom is carried away from his English cottage by an angel, where CS Lewis literally watches him disappear into the heavens. From there he is carried to Venus, which he discovers has recently awakened into life as a new Paradise. It shares critical similarities to medieval visions of Eden, including one man, one woman, a tempter, and a plethora of fruiting trees and non-violent animals. Lewis however introduces key differences into this Paradise which distinguish it both from traditional visions of paradise and from the one imagined in the Great Divorce. Peralandra, rather than embodying the essential, persisting being of things, instead emphasizes the sensual, transforming becoming of things. It is an entirely aquatic planet where the only lands are floating islands

with hills and valleys, but hills and valleys which changed places every minute so that only a cinematograph could make a contour map of it… A photograph, omitting the colors and the perpetual variation of shape, would make them look deceptively like landscapes in our own world, but the reality is very different; for they, are dry and fruitful like land but their only shape is the inconstant shape of the water beneath them… furnished what would have been a dozen landscapes on Earth-now level wood with trees as vertical as towers, now a deep bottom where it was surprising not to find a stream, now a wood growing on a hillside, and now again, a hilltop. (Lewis, P., 36-37). 

This instance on the “now,” always different than any other “now” is an ethical, as well as ontological, imperative for change, with Peralandra’s one and only rule that no one may live on the planet’s one fixed land-mass.

This ontology of perpetual change meets ethics for the protagonist after he discovers an orchard of trees on one of these floating islands, where he tastes his first fruit, “so different from every other taste…a totally new genus of pleasures,: something unheard of among men” which he could only ever describe as “not like that.” Such an object is a refusal of what Graham Harman calls the “undermining” and “over-mining” impulse  to view it as an instrumental part of some-thing else (Harman 8-11). By disrupting the continuity between the past, present and future, the disorienting surprise functions to turn us away from trying to subsume all things together into one narrative plot line and instead attend to unexpected realities:

[As he was] about to pluck a second one…for whatever cause, it appeared to him better not to taste again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity—like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day… he stood...wondering how often in his life on Earth he had reiterated pleasures not through desire, but in the teeth of if life were a film that could be unrolled twice or even made to work backwards… of arresting the unrolling of the film. (Lewis, P., 43). 

What Lewis did with the spatial particularity and hardness in the Great Divorce, he here does with temporal particularity and inconstancy in Peralandra, demonstrating that each thing in each moment is so real that trying to subsume it into a kind of ideal type which can be exchanged across the world or sustained throughout time. Having experienced this scene, Ransom turns and meets “the Green Lady” who explicates this principle:

One goes into the forest to pick food and already the thought of one fruit rather than another has grown up in one’s mind. Then, it may be, one finds a different fruit... One joy was expected and another is given… at the very moment of the finding there is. a kind of…a setting aside. The picture of the fruit you have not found is still, for a moment, before you. And if you wished/you could keep it there… after the good you had expected, instead of turning it to the good you had got. You could refuse the real good; you could make the real fruit taste insipid by thinking of the other. (Lewis, P. 53).

Failure is produced by holding on to Utopias and not allowing the topical, the things. here. and now. to speak of their own accord. Failing to hold fruits across time and space reveals a disjuncture between the ideal & failed now. Things we encounter are ever changing, never what we knew or expected; failures disturb us from a utopian present to dwell-in-the-world here and now; to taste its strangeness and surrender our mastery over the narrative of the world.

All this attests we don’t know what fruit this is, but we can learn from it. Rather than look for potentials on the utopic horizon, let us attend to the possibilities in the failure of the here and now, for utopias, that are not topical as well, may do the work of building for as Lewis writes, “Other things, other blessings, other glories...But never that. Never in all worlds, that" (Lewis, P., 65). 


Harman, Graham. The Quadruple Object. Washington: Zero Books, 2011.

Lewis, C.S. “The Great Divorce.” The Complete Works of CS Lewis. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1946

Lewis, C.S. Peralandra. New York: Scribner Inc., 1943. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Narrative as Prosthesis in the Book of Margery Kempe

The following is a transcript of a talk on PROSTHETICS
from the International Congress on Medieval Studies
at Kalamazoo, Michigan on May 9, 2013

Ruins of Faith

Breaking faith is done with shaking hands. The hammer of the iconoclast falls on itself, writes Bruno Latour on “the Slight Surprise of Action” (Latour 270). In breaking the object of faith, we make it like ourselves. Tobin Siebers writes that it is in fracture, vandalism, and failed restoration that we form a disability aesthetic (Siebers 85). Is that why so much medieval art, as Caroline Walker Bynum has demonstrated, appears to “emphasize the parts as parts”, relics as remains, multiplicity in wholeness (Bynum 196)? What if God needs to be broken and bleeding to come closer to us? Might iconoclasm be a mode of embodying faith, making Christianity more like Christ? Latour, himself a Catholic, contends just that:

Modernists believe they make the world in their image just as God made them in His. This is a strange and impious description of God. As if God were master of His Creation! As if He were omnipotent and omniscient. If he had these perfections, there would be no Creation...God too, is slightly overtaken by His Creation, that is, by all that is changed and modified and altered in encountering Him.. Yes we are indeed made in the image of God, that is, we do not know what we are doing either. We are surprised by what we make. (287)

Breaking, then, is a kind of world making and a mode of opening up our world to more beings. By embracing the positioning of the medieval and of disability as pre-Human, we assert that on the time-line of Creation, the Human and Humanism has not yet solidified, it is not-yet Sunday; we cannot take a day to rest on our ontological laurels. There is work to do and things to break.

By breaking open the Book of Margery Kempe, we open ourselves to share its iconoclastic faith. Margery encounters Christ as God and Man, then piously, iconoclastically cripples both stations. Opening up her Book, we share in its project of Cripping Christianity and in its Crip Christianity, attending to its introduction & conclusion where it dictates the process of its writing; to how it

(I) affects traumatic unknowingness about one another, (II) ministers us into a community where care is given without predicates, and (III) shifts how we encounter the Book as a prosthetic. This paper takes on the form of its function, as a brick to be thrown, discarded, and made a corner stone, by which faith becomes bent out of shape, enhancing its ability to care.


Traumatizing Prayer

I: Breaking open the Book of Margery Kempe is an experience of trauma.

We need not clinically diagnose Margery to embrace her, or her Book, as mad. Each are bodies broken, inarticulate, incomplete, self-divided, fractured, and schizophrenic in their multiplicity. They are full of dancing lights, ambient sounds which become music, a tingling fire in the chest. We feel them out of time, as they draws us into what Carolyn Dinshaw calls the “asynchronic” moment of Margery Kempe, for whom past, present & future continually overlap (Dinshaw 105).

 The manifold voices and presences that occupy her Book and body cannot be separated from our own; we hear them in our body when we read and contributed our own voice to the cacophony. Many books do this, but Kempe’s Book, in its crip aesthetic lays bare to us our participation in it. Margery & her Book wonder over the loss of power and knowledge over the self, if it is of God:

whan sche had telde [the priests] hir felyng, sche was ful sory for dreed whethyr he schulde sey so wel as sche had felt er not, for revelacyons be hard sumtyme to undirstondyn. And sumtyme tho that men wenyn wer revelacyonis it arn deceytys and illusyons, and therfor it is not expedient to gevyn redily credens to every steryng but sadly abydyn and prevyn yf thei be sent of God… sche had no joye in the felyng tyl sche knew be experiens whethyr it was trewe er not (383)

The admission of chaos and trauma, breaks up the wholeness and orthodoxy of a community, insists on difference and vulnerability. Manifesting difference, trauma can break bodies into disabled non-entities, because corporations are unwilling to acknowledge the presence, power, perspective of the split. Yet her Book comes to affirm fracture and trauma as holy significant:

this [inarticulate] felyng of this creatur… was very trewth schewyd in experiens [so that] hir dred and hir hevynes turnyd into gret gostly comforte and gladnes (383-4).

Rather than dismissing multiplicity of experience for not being orthodox, madness for not being rational, the body for not being mind, the female for not being male, the crip for not being normate, the iconoclastic unknowingness in Margery’s Book collapses them, reveals them as mutually constituted in the chaos of trauma; and in turn implicate the reader by breaking down the distinction between subject and object, self and other, reader and text, knower and known.

The chaos, madness, and wildness produced in no longer holding such firm distinctions open us up to new possibilities for danger and for care. Lynne Huffer in her revolutionary text Mad for Foucault, calls for the turning of critical theory from the study of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality to the History of Madness, where we find in the Lazarus Houses the rational foundation of Modern thought. These houses, situated in the heart of towns, institutionalized, walled in and closed off embodiments of madness, allowing a healthy and sane community to assert itself.

Opening up the Book of Margery Kempe, we cross these boundaries. We join with her as she moves between these mad houses and the outside world, such as in the 64th chapter of her Book, wherein she demonstrates the desire within abjection, the need to kiss the leprous bodies we hate; fueled, as Margery narrates, because of a “coextensivity” between lepers and the body of Christ, between the crippled and the Christian (Huffer 29-32). In opening these doors, we open up the risk of infection and of participating in the trauma and care of difference. It also makes the text infectious. The very contact between Kempe and Christ appears contagious.

Jhesu havyng pety and compassyon of hys handwerke and hys creatur turnyd helth into sekenesse, prosperyté into adversyté, worshep into repref, and love into hatered. Thus alle this thyngys turnyng up so down, this creatur whych many yerys had gon wyl and evyr ben unstable was parfythly drawen and steryd to entren the wey of hy perfeccyon (42-3)

Rather than straightening, rationalizing or fixing either her body, ministry or Book, Kempe’s Christ appears to continually turns the normate into the broken, the constant into the unstable, and locates perfection in the broken, the poor and the marginalized. Rather than drawing her to reasonable authorities, those who employ walls and institutionalization, Christ invites Kempe to become further broken like him, turning to those disabled bodies out in the cold and on the side of the road.

Literally on route to Rome, she turns to Robert from Ireland, in the gutter; having broken his back in an illness now begs for his life. Together they form a ministry of care, bearing openly their breaking of body, faith, and social order as they march on to St. Peter’s Square.


Revolting Ministry

II: To open the Book is to open up the self to the (in)corporation of care.

Such a community joins together the broken with the broken at the point of shared contingency so that we may access agency in and through the other, and to minister to our needs. This is not simply a fracturing of the self, but the social relations which selfhood institutes to produce itself through the subjugation of others. Margery goes to live with the lepers, and brings the readers with her across the divisions of madness and reason. She calls Robert to her and they care for each other on the side of the road, and we travel along with her across the division of care giver and care taker. 

We touch and are touched, as they touch each other. Such a model of relation, in opening up bodies through touch, functions via infection. Regardless of her intention, the enacted agency of Margey’s writing project produces such a Crip Christianity ministry by which illness flows through the network alongside conviviality, narrative and faith; perhaps even in the form of one another. The very demands of the Book’s construction, Margery’s illiteracy, open communal infection and ministry. The 1st of many scribes that add themselves to the Book:

havyng good knowlach of this creatur and of hir desyr, meved I trost thorw the Holy Gost, cam into Yngland wyth hys wyfe and hys goodys and dwellyd wyth the forseyd creatur tyl he had wretyn as mech as sche wold tellyn hym for the tym that thei wer togydder. And sythen he deyd (47)

A multilingual, trans-national, multi-gendered, semi-polygamous affective community comes together under one roof to minister together through the productive of the first draft of the Book. In the process, we get first conviviality and also death. We get a book, but a very sick book.

The booke was so evel wretyn that he cowd lytyl skyll theron, for it was neithyr good Englysch ne Dewch, ne the lettyr was not schapyn ne formyd as other letters ben. Therfor the prest leved fully ther schuld nevyr man redyn it, but it wer special grace. (47-8)

The gift of each other’s care and service are given without assurance of the outcome. Thus the disturbing multiplicity of the first draft demands another writer, more change and translation, bringing yet another writer into this trauma, this corporation of care, and this book.

While the openness of Margery’s home, money and affections are enough to persuade the first scribe to join into her community, the second scribe Margery approaches recoils from the traumatic contact with her and her narrative. When she prays upon his financial insecurities and contingencies, he consents to acknowledge that he may need, and even desire, to engage with Margery and her broken Christianity. The problem for the second writer is that the Book and the body of Margery remain unreadable to him, “he cowd not wel fare therwyth the boke was so evel sett and so unresonably wretyn.” (48-9). Using spiritual powers and knowledge of faith,

[Margery] browt [the book] to the prest…preyng hym to do hys good wyl, and sche schuld prey to God for hym and purchasyn hym grace to reden it and wrytyn it also. The preste, trustyng in hire prayers, began to redyn this booke, and it was mych mor esy (49).

Part of Margey’s power of persuasion is then that her community of care includes spiritual bodies that possess difference capacities, including the ability to help the priest to read. Having thus twice consented to Margery’s care, financially and spiritually, in the process of producing the second draft from the broken remains of the first, the second scribe’s body reveals yet another contingency, matching his inability to understand Margery or her Book: poor eye sight.

Whan the prest began fyrst to wryten on this booke, hys eyn myssyd so that he mygth not se to make hys lettyr ne mygth not se to mend hys penne. Alle other thyng he mygth se wel anow. He sett a peyr of spectacles on hys nose, and than wast wel wers than it was befor. He compleyned to the creatur of hys dysese...Whan he cam ageyn to hys booke, he myth se as wel, hym thowt, as evyr he dede befor be day lyth and be candel lygth bothe (49-50)

As he cares for Margery, giving her friendship and narrative, so that she might see and be seen, the second scribe becomes infected, his vulnerable body in need of care and prosthetics to see. Thus shared care reveals shared contingencies and trauma. Ministry breaks, as it is itself broken. The good words of the Book are a message and act which may break open all who touch it.

Narrative as Prosthesis

III: Book making and reading are enraptured by a prosthetic impulse.

Crip Christianity, unlike certain forms of mysticism, is not simply a mode of meditation, but a call and means for the social justice of materially providing our mutual contingency: home, money, prayer, eyeglasses. Prosthetics do not cure, but share and care in the crip embodiment. We too become a prosthetic device which the Book uses to be read, through which Margery touches the world. 

The Book and Margery introduces her text as a schizophrenic conviviality with and for readers, as “a schort tretys and a comfortabyl for synful wrecchys, wherin thei may have gret solas and comfort.” (41). The Book is a wreck, crafted for wretches, so that they may find comfort, community, communication, fortification & strength.

This nonlinear book presents what Bynum calls parts as parts. Wholes antagonize parts, silencing them so as to speak on their behalf, instead of letting them speak, as Kempe’s Book does, as a cacophony of subjectivity: our thoughts, its thoughts and the thoughts of other persons, narratives & times are inseparable.

“Whil the forseyd creatur was ocupiid abowte the writyng of this tretys,” she accounts that:
  1. “Sche had many holy teerys and wepingys” 
  2. “And oftyntymys ther cam a flawme of fyer abowte hir brest ful hoot and delectably” 
  3. “And also he that was hir writer cowde not sumtyme kepyn hymself fro wepyng”. 
  4. "And oftyn in the mene tyme, whan the creatur was in cherche, owr Lord Jhesu Crist wyth hys gloryows Modyr” 
  5. “And many seyntys also comyn into hir sowle and thankyd hir, seying that thei wer wel  plesyd wyth the writyng of this boke.” 
  6. “And also sche herd many tymys a voys of a swet brydde syngyn in hir ere” 
  7. “And oftyn tymys sche herd swet sowndys and melodiis that passyd hir witte” 
  8. “And sche was many tyme seke whyl this tretys was in writing” 
  9. “And, as sone as sche wolde gon abowte the writyng of this tretys, sche was heil and hole sodeynly in a maner.” (382-383). 
In this passage, made here into a list, we can read the emphatic insistence on the “and” which includes more and more into Margery’s body, the writing process and into the Book. Fire, Christ, the Blessed Mother, Saints, music, sickness, seizures, and tears participate across these bodies. A prosthetic impulse, like trauma and ministry perpetually infects multiplicity with multiplicity.

Framing the experience of being “heil and hole” is qualifying attained “in a maner,” is key, as with Bynum’s framing of parts, so as to make wholeness as yet another part participating in the narrative and not an all-consuming ontological transfiguration. Wholeness is a book cover, but the manifold pages remain; wholeness is a prosthetic that is added as yet another part without totalizing.

Yet the narrative spills over into a Second Book. It resists linear, orthodox readings, as it was formed by & for a body that does not experience the world or time in a straight line but as a heterodox, multiplicity occurring all at once and all together. Kempe admits in the introduction:

Thys boke is not wretyn in ordyr, every thyng aftyr other as it wer don, but lych as the mater cam to the creatur in mend whan it schuld be wretyn, for it was so long er it was wretyn that sche had forgetyn the tyme and the ordyr whan thyngys befellyn. (49).

Thus even after two scribes and now decades of scholarship the Book of Margery Kempe resists being fixed and made to function transparently, quietly as a straight-forward tool for an ablist medieval Christian scholarly project. It resists becoming what David Mitchell calls the Narrative Prosthesis whereby the figure of disability functions as a tool for the storytelling (Mitchell 6-10).

Margery breaks out of the text, to speak back to the narrative as a tool for her use and abuse. There is often tension between contemplation & activism; Margery herself fears at the Book’s conclusion that her tears for it interfere with those she sheds for the world, until Christ tells her:

Drede the not… For, thow ye wer in the chirche and wept bothyn togedyr as sore as evyr thu dedist, yet schulde ye not plesyn me mor than ye don wyth yowr writyng, for dowtyr (379).

Care exists as a mode of relation; openness that awaits reception of these desires by unknowns. What our works and our narratives may do, what they may break and who they may turn to what are beyond our ability to control. As such, given whatever divine assurances or not, Crip Christianity and the Book of Margery Kempe are bricks thrown without knowledge of what faiths may be broken, what will be built on them, and who’s shaking hands may pick them up.