Thursday, May 21, 2015

Psalms of Silence: Illness Memoir in Grove of the Infirm

"He makes a sign with His fingers to His lips 
and thus lets them know 
that it behooves them to be quiet"

Grove of the Infirm
Teresa de Cartagena

Introduction to English Literature 1 
A Genealogy of Gender and Genre 

In this course, we explore gender and genre through literature produced in and around the early British Isles, from the elegiac poetry of the Anglo Saxons to the Epic poetry of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In this survey of medieval and early modern texts, we trace how forms of narrative were informed by and acted on the construction of concepts of sex and sexuality. We study how debates around nature and nurture, essential and artificial, eternal and mutable came to produce later notions of transgender, queerness, disability, race, and religious difference.


Medieval Illness Narratives

"It is necessary for my consoling counsels to bring me to the cloister of their gracious and holy wisdom without shouting into my deaf ears," writes Teresa de Cartagena at the opening of her treatise, Arboleda de los enfermos (Grove of the Infirm, Dayle Seidenspinner-Nunez trans). "Aspiring to the nobility and sanctity of the very virtuous king and prophet David, I began to look at his most devout songbook called the Psalter for good consolations" (24). After gaining a hearing impairment while studying in a Spanish university, de Cartegna was brought to a convent to adapt to her new mode of embodiment and to live out the rest of her life as a nun. As part of her process of embracing her deafness, de Cartagena contemplated the holy music of scripture through the Psalter. By selecting for the topic of her reading a text (or series of songs) that are primarily used to provide musical accompaniment to a Judeo-Christian prayer services, de Cartagena turns the Psalms from an auditory to visual text. This textual transformation mirrors and informs the revaluation of her body. A product of the cooperation of scriptural authority and personal experience, the Grove of the Infirm provides an Illness Narrative through which the deaf body becomes understood as a metaphor-machine that by connecting texts and contexts, demonstrates that every way of knowing is also a way not to know. These embodied metaphors combine the work of analogy, by which one text is understood through another, to redirect how readers understand hearing impairments. Hearing and the Psalter can be understood in one way through the medium of sound, but when the chain of signification passes through sight new meanings arise for the text and the audience.

In this section of the course, we examined 15th century illness narratives and mysticism, focusing on disability and gender. Shifting from England to Spain, after spending some time reading the Book of Margery Kempe, we considered the life of a noble woman turned deaf nun. After being pressured into a cloister, Teresa de Cartagena writes two important books: Grove of the Infirm (about her deafness as a spiritual gift) and Wonder at the Works of God (composed as a defense of her abilities as a woman after her first book is criticized as being so good that it must have been written by a man). Teresa recounts how at first when she became deaf and was taken from a public life as a noble woman then put into a convent was a period of great suffering for her. She felt she had been taken from a place of conversation and community into silence and solitude. In time, she came to see this change as positive. 

The hearing lack the insights that deadness provides, writes de Cartagena, “foolishly unaware that it may be to their advantage to be silent and listen, who keeps on gabbing. But if among them is a discreet man who knows that the voices are worthwhile to hear, he make a sign with his fingers to his lips, and thus lets them know that it behooves them to be quiet, and their foolish persistence ceases completely”(26). Benefitting spiritually from the physical and social changes that accompanied developing a hearing impairment, de Cartagena becomes aware of how the lives of the non-mute community can be so full of a cacophony of voices that speech impairs the hearing from discerning the special wisdoms silence brings. Comparing the sign of discretion to a finger against the lips, de Cartagena draws readers to consider the body as the source of meaning and metaphor that (depending on the body) points towards certain insights and away from others. 


The Body as Metaphor

"Now let me explain for those who have never suffered affliction - since those who have already know from experience - how ailments can be called bit and bridle" writes de Cartagena (34). In the first part of her Grove of the Infirm, the author close-reads scripture and her own embodiment as metaphors that carry her from vain worldly concerns to a greater spiritual health. Like the Wife of Bath and Margery Kempe, de Cartagena plays on a tactic that defines much of medieval feminism and mysticism: the power of experience. While women had limited access to scriptural authority, the insights of God in the body and daily experience were still available as sources of wisdom. In the case of a deaf nun, she uses her hearing impairment to push further at her female particularity. A "bit and bridle," de Cartagena's embodiment impairs her from engaging knowledge in certain ways while directing her to others. This suggests that as a deaf woman, she might possess a power unavailable to hearing men. "Who can hear with the ears of his soul such healthy advice if his physical ears were filled with the noise of human voices?" asks Cartagena (32). Without denying the privileges provided by being one of the hearing, the author suggests that it is this physical capacity and social environment that makes listening to the subtler insights of spiritual guides more difficult. Implicit in this question is the distinction between spiritual hearing and physical hearing. While de Cartagena is impaired from participating in worldly conversations, by becoming a nun devoted to silent prayer she can now hear the messages of God better through these alternative lines of communication.

To stress the way in which embodiment functions like metaphor, especially the way in which deafness offers a different kind of spiritual hearing, de Cartagena close reads sections of the Psalms and the Song of Songs. "Oh Lord, I long to listen to and hear the sweetness of your voice, For without a doubt I can say, 'for thy voice is sweet, thy face comely!'" writes de Cartagena quoting the Canticles (29-30). This desire and belief is inspired in her through the scriptures, which change her relation to her deafness both through the act of reading and its content. "Straining my ear of understanding - since that of my body helps me not - I seem to hear spiritually these words resound: 'Listen, oh daughter, and behold, and incline thy ear: forget thy people and the house of thy father'" continues de Cartagena quoting Psalm 44, verse 11 (29-30). At first, she is struggling to hear God's voice after the loss of her hearing, lost in the seeming silence of her deafness and suffering. Approaching the songs as a written medium, accessible through sight and contemplation, de Cartagena regains a connection with the heavenly music. 

The repetition of different directives to listen in the text of the Psalm suggest a multiplicity of ways of hearing. De Cartagena responds to this manifold and reiterative mode of attending to music wit her own repeated return to scripture. "The initial words that warn me again and again to hear and to ponder and to listen intently," writes de Cartagena, "lead me to understand that the subsequent words about forgetting my people and the house of my father have another meaning than what is literally represented" (29-30). Without needing to go further into de Cartagena's close reading of the Psalm, we see her here arriving at an understanding of how metaphor can help her reconsider her body and how her body can help her understand metaphors in new ways. If de Cartagena's body functions metaphorically, able to signify in multiple different directions but not all simultaneously, than so too may a text function in multiple alternative lines of signification. She does not need to abandon her past embodiment and society (also suggesting a sustained tension with her family's Jewish heritage) but through the power of metaphor and mystic contemplation all things may be transformed. "What I used to call my crucifixion," writes de Cartagena, "I now call my resurrection" (29).


Silence is in the Environment

"Now let us examine the difference between voluntary and forced suffering," writes de Cartagena. "It follows that the two types of suffering should be distinguished in this manner: those who suffer gladly and willing have a special grace from God, and those who suffer beyond or against their will receive from God a singular Love" (56). 
The difference between these two types of suffering/silence then is whether it is enacted with or without the cooperation of those involved. Silence can be a powerful metaphor, embodiment, and practice for a wide community of diverse bodies (deaf and non-deaf), especially in a monastic tradition. The singularity the author refers to is the suffering (or impairment, silence) that causes forced isolation from the wider community. This may be effected by being cut off from communication with others, such as being put in a convent after gaining a hearing impairment. Or the solitude may come from the internalized isolation brought on by the trauma, despair, or shame that push persons to mistrust others and wall up into themselves. In this way, de Cartagena locates silence, suffering, or deafness not in the body but in the social environment. Embodying metaphors is a power that is not merely up to the deaf to enact, but requires a physical and political context that allows that power to enact itself in a wider discursive system. This means that however marginal a person may seem to society, or however marginalized a person may be, the dependencies of the body and society are constant invitations to cooperate in the deployment and empowerment of silence and deafness.

As a result of learning how to listen through silence, we become increasingly trained to listen to the silence. By regarding deafness as an embodied source of power and meaning, the aesthetics and metaphors that mark hearing impairment change as well. While readers are trained to recognize the infirm by certain signs, "the color of their pale face, their labored or feeble walk, the translucent bones of their hands," society too often sees this as the shallow sign of a deficit, a limit, an end to knowledge (64). De Cartagena does not dissuade the use of impairment or illness in signification but stresses that these signs not be regarded as the inciting the end of thought or a lack of thought. It is not enough, or even entirely accurate, to merely attempt to label or identify disability. Even less, should deafness or silence be regarded as the end of discourse. Rather, it should be regarded as a starting point, a sign that points to a complex relation to the body, society, and the wider (spiritual) environment. "This mortification," writes de Cartagena, "is like the source or stamp of our suffering, for just as a seal placed over wax leaves its own impressions, so afflictions with the stamp of mortification impress on the body and face of the sufferer the seal of its own coat of arms" (63-64). De Cartagena calls for a deeper examination of suffering, silence, and illness as alternative systems of metaphor that propel narratives of power and dignity. Deafness is not the summation of a life but the metaphorical wax that offers distinct directions on how a body engages with the environment. Silence is not a hermetic seal that closes off discourse, but seal of a letter like a coat of arms, signifying that within this body lies a noble and socially important message for readers capable of plumbing its depths and communicating it the wider world.


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