Thursday, May 29, 2014

Visions of the Dark Ages: Eclipse & Cloud of Unknowing

"They must be playing with the blind-spots in your vision"

Eclipse, Stephanie Meyer

Working in trans, queer, and disability theory in the field of medieval literature, I have found myself compulsively seeking what Eve Sedgwick calls "reparative readings" of rejected persons, narratives, cultures, and even time periods. I have come to firmly believe that a smart reader makes a book smarter. While Twilight has been a public success, it remains an abject or guilty pleasure for many serious academics. In many respects, however, the things that attract readers to Twilight queerly reflect much of the allure of medieval literature; including shared relations to time, conflicts and magical realisms. Pulling Twilight and Medieval-Early Modern Literature together becomes not only a queer project of appropriating from the mainline but a medieval project of messing with the archive. Enjoy!


In the Twilight Saga by Stephanie Meyer, Eclipse distinguishes itself by dimming the vision of the character of Alice Cullen, a sort of walking plot-device, whose ability to look into the future rail-roads many of the plot-lines in the series. The "Alice-has-a-vision" moment marks the beginning and nearly all the significant plot points in the series. It is because of Alice's vision that Bella will one day be a vampire that Bella and Edwards romance is allowed by the Cullens and the Vultori, the vampire ruling class. Alice's vision is the mechanism by which Edward is brought back in the second book after his long absence. Attentive readers of the books remain suspicious of whether the "Team Edward" or "Team Jacob" love triangle is ever a real conflict, given Alice's consistent predictions that Bella eventually joins the world of the undead.

The most tense moments in the Twilight books all play upon "blind-spots" or uncertainty in Alice's visions. Because there is free-will, explains Edward, the future that Alice sees is constantly changing. She has to focus on persons to foresee the results of their life changes. If Bella's enemy, Victoria, means to attack, Alice brags "I would have seen her decide," but not before then. She can also watch other enemies choices at the same time, like the Vultori through "Aro's decisions." There are persons that live in the dark spots of her sight. She cannot see the were-wolves, says Edward, because they are like change incarnate. Alice can only be looking in so many directions at once. By focusing on certain people's futures, the decisions and consequences of other people remain outside her vision. Rather than crediting her with omnipotence, Meyer liberates her plot and her character by acknowledging that epistemological truth that "every way of knowing is a way of not knowing something else." (Robert McRuer, "Queer Austerity and Excess: Cripping the Crisis; or, the Rise of Disability Capitalism." the University of Maryland, Feb 7, 2013. Keynote). In addition to recognizing diverse ways of knowing, there is a kind of queer vitality given by unknowing. 

Once time becomes dim, more things seem possible. This seems to be the promise of Eclipse for its young adult readers. In this book, the plot hinges in the second act on "Alice-not-having-a-vision," or rather having suggestively incomplete knowledge of the plot of neighboring vampires seeking vengeance on Bella and the Cullen family. By deploying unknowing against a the certainty of previous books, Eclipse speaks to young adult readers who have just left the relative certainty of childhood and adolescence behind. In previous posts I have examined how these moments in childhood development are mirrored in the first two books of Twilight. Nearly a hundred years younger than Edward and less physically (and socially) powerful, the progress of Bella's relationship with her lover mirrors that of a hyper-protective parent of their child. In Eclipse, the reigns loosen a bit and provide some space for Bella to make her own choices. The personal conflict of this book is that it marks the point in the series where Bella is making her "final" choice between a life as a human (presumably with Jacob) and an unlife as a vampire (decidedly with Edward). Towards this end, Alice's vision needs to be dimmed in order to allow a real choice to be made.

For young adult readers, the feeling of leaving a childhood behind and being initiated into the liberal position of a self-governing subject, brings with it the dangers and joys of unknowing. This may account for some of the attractiveness of the Twilight series as a kind of coming-of-age story. Yet for Alive and Bella, entering into the dimness of the future is a relatively passive event that they try to break past as soon as possible. How might turning to literature that revels in the thought and promise of the "dark ages" might liberate our reading the Eclipse as an active process of unknowing?


In the fifth chapter of the Cloud of Unknowing (c 14th century), the unknown author describes a method of mystic contemplation called the "cloude of forgetyng" (5.423). Participating in an ontological argument of God, sometimes called negative theology, the "cloude" prescribes the dismissal of all things, "good or ivel," from the mind in order to experience "the nakid beyng of Him" (5.431-447). 

The argument for this emptying is not that knowing (i.e. attending to things with the mind) is bad in itself, "it be ful profitable sumtyme to think of certeyne condicions and dedes of sum certein special creatures," but that by attending to certain things you obscure your knowledge of other things (5.433-434). When one thinks on something, "thi soule is openid on it and even ficchid therapon, as the ighe of a schoter is apon the prik that he schoteth to" (5.436-438). The language of an archer here exhibits an exclusionary mode of vision whereby intense focus allows for certain objects to become highlighted while allowing other things to fall away. 

For the mystic's goal of entering more fully into the presence of God, any knowledge puts an object "bitwix thee and thi God" (5.439). The difficulty is that any knowledge will inevitably spur on other knowledge. Attending to any thing will cause one to not only think of the thing itself, but "alle the werkes and the condicions of the same creatures" (5.428-429). Seeing a person will spur thought of all that has made that thing and all that it makes happen. In this way, knowing makes a thing present in such a way that pulls the mind into the past (history) and into the future (prophecy). This suggests that all rational and metaphorical thought works like the power of dynamic prophecy. This works against being present in the moment with "nakid beyng."

What the Cloud of Unknowing describes here in terms of relating to God (as Being par excellence), can be applied more broadly to liberating the way one relates to the present. By surrendering the compulsion to know things, one enters into the darkness that creates between the influence of history and prophecy a moment in which choices might be made. The trouble with this cloud or darkness, warns the author, is that these metaphors will be taken as things in themselves rather than a process. "For when I sey derknes, I mene a lackyng of knowyng; as alle that thing that thou knowest not, or elles that thou hast forgetyn, it is derk to thee... it is not clepid a cloude of the eire, bot a cloude of unknowyng" (For when I say 'darkness,' I mean the lacking of knowing; as all that thing that you don't know, or else all that you have forgotten, it is dark to you... it is not called the cloud of air, but a cloud of unknowing; 4.415-419). Thus rather than being a means of dismissal or essential being, darkness becomes a critical mode of action by which one liberates one's self from the trauma of the past or the prescriptions for the future in order to assert one's power and presence in the moment.


Considering the medieval canon, Alice's place in a history of mystic woman with prophetic visions is brought into focus. During her human life, Alice had been kept in a dark room at an insane asylum. This confinement and claims of madness resonates with the Book of Margery Kempe and the Showings of Julian of Norwhich, who found themselves, bound (by choice or force) to forms cloistering that become sites of mystic visions. For Alice, it was not until she was freed from the Asylum and made into a vampire that her gift of prophecy crystalized, but as with all special gifts in the Twilight Saga, it begins within human experience. The language of blindness and darkness takes on a more critically active role in considering Alice's prophecies. The hyper-ability of her sight inscribes into its center the work of isolating madness. To be a visionary in this way is to be a "super-crip" (Eli Clare, Exile and Pride). Disability is not excluded from ability, but subtends it. Ultimately, Alice's experience of the darkness is not dwelled on for its own sake but used instrumentally to provide Bella with her moments of choice.

The work of isolation then is to undo the chains of the history and futurity. This offers the potential for violence when committed against one's will or for liberation when adopted by choice. Undoing or unknowing seems to enact both dangers and hopes at once. For Bella, as young adults, there is consistent anxiety at the prospect of giving up either past lives or possibilities for the future. She would be saying good-bye to her mother and father, the stewards of the past. She would no longer being able to conceive a child, to act as a steward of reproductive futurity. "Every so many years, everyone you know will be dead." In this sense, becoming a vampire is to enter into a fixed present that never changes. She would "always be this. Frozen. Never moving forward." With Edward able to read Alice's prophetic mind, their life holds no secrets. As Bella tells Edward, "I know you know what she saw." Edward always seems to know. Unknowing does not come easily with him. To commit to him is to surrender "possibilities," to commit to a certain future where this critical moment of darkness is exchanged with the cloud of the air (i.e. the night). 

On the other hand, to chose to remain a human ties keeps her moored in the normative script that runs from high-school, college, marriage, children, parenting, retirement and death. Besides her super-natural companions, Bella does not seem to buck expectations in any peculiar way. If we account for her choice to stay human as aligning her with Jacob and the werewolves, her future may turn out to be more liberating. He is "flesh and blood and warmth" and she "wouldn't have to change" to be with him. As a werewolf however, he is hyper-mutable, "incapable of control." The danger of the beasts is that they are hyper-changing, emotional, creatures of the moment. Yet to give up being the "vampire girl" to be the "wolf girl" may only be a minor improvement as it still yokes her to a lifestyle determined by the animacy of another. No matter what she chooses, the thing begins to work backwards and forwards to contextualize her existence. The moment of darkness is broken no matter which way the spheres move. However she occupies this dark age, it is a precarious way of being.

This vicarious freedom and precocity expresses key tensions for young adults in the ages of unknowing. Danger comes in losing attachments to the things that provide the circumstances for life and choices to arise. Conversely, the state of unknowing is perhaps impossible to maintain. Even the choice to defer choosing has its consequences. Once a choice is made, things fall back into lines of sight and as with Alice's visions, suddenly our path is mapped. Hope remains in continuing to play with these blind spots and allowing our visions to mark their mutability and limits because it is at these points of contingency that we contact the unknown. We begin to reach backward and forward against yet never totally leave our dark ages behind.


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