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.

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