BRYN MAWR REVIEW OF COMPARATIVE LITERATURE

Volume 6, Number 1 (Winter 2007)
 
Bruce Holsinger, The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory.

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 
xi + 276 pp. ISBN 0226349748.

Reviewed by Maud Burnett McInerney
Haverford College

Booksellers will have difficulty deciding where to put Bruce Holsinger's The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory. Does it belong in Medieval Studies, next to his previous fine book, Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture: Hildegard of Bingen to Chaucer? Or does it belong with critical theory, between Derrida and Lacan? Ideally, it should be found in both places, for while the book is grounded in medievalism and medievalists have much to learn from it, students of twentieth-century philosophy and literary theory have even more to gain from these densely packed and deeply engaging pages. The book includes two appendices consisting of new translations by Laurence Petit of texts central to Holsinger's argument, Bataille's essay on "Medieval French Literature, Chivalric Morals, and Passion" and Bourdieu's "Postface to Erwin Panofsky: Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism." Even were the rest of the book not so deeply thought-provoking, the anglophone world would owe Holsinger and Petit a profound debt for making these available.

Holsinger begins by invoking Bataille, cited as inspiration by so many of the French intellectuals whose names have become identified with postmodernism (Blanchot, Derrida, Lacan, Kristeva, Barthes, Bourdieu, Sollers). The fact that Bataille was a "practicing medievalist," a paleologist by training and employed as an archivist for thirty years in Paris, Orléans and Carpentras "has been all but forgotten, the casualty of a presentism that continues in large part to define the historiography of modern critical thought" (2-3). The book as a whole is an attack on this presentist turn of mind; Holsinger demonstrates that Bataille's fascination with the medieval is not anomalous among those twentieth-century French intellectuals whose names have become synonymous with "high theory." Indeed, Bataille is only an exception in that he was a professional medievalist, whereas Barthes, Bourdieu, Kristeva and the rest were amateurs (in the case of Lacan in particular, dilettante might be a better word). Holsinger aims to explain "this coterie's recurrent fascination, even obsession, with the historical period that modernity most consistently abjected as its temporal other. In its variegated assault on the legacy of the Enlightenment, the critical generation of this era turned to the Middle Ages not in a fit of nostalgic retrospection, but in a spirit of both interpretative and ideological resistance to the relentless inevitability of modernity" (5). A second, related theme is "the seldom acknowledged but often momentous pressure of Catholic theology on various avant-garde aspirations from the end of World War II through the 1960s" (20). A persistent undercurrent in the book is the curious unwillingness of so many writers on the postmodern to acknowledge the importance of either of these habits of thought, and this leads Holsinger to engage in some very pointed critiques of recent scholarship.

Let me be quite clear: what Holsinger is challenging in this book is not "theory." Rather, he calls into question "the particular hypostatization of theory as a distinct institutional formation and mode of critical engagement whose practitioners were not always willing to address honestly their debts to even their most immediate precursors" (9). The invocation of "theory" thus may (although it need not) become an excuse for not acknowledging the continuing presence of the past in the present, a pretext for a kind of intellectual isolationism. This excuse may in turn provoke another, equally disabling one: "a growing tendency in medieval and early modern studies to construct "theory" as a presentist, formalist and inherently external formation which, while it may have taught us important interpretive lessons for a few decades, must now be recognized as a discursive effect of modern intellectual history" (11). Holsinger's project is to demonstrate just how misleading such divisions are; his book is not concerned with making medieval studies relevant in the postmodern era (he takes that relevance, as I do, for granted) but rather to show that the postmodern is in fact self-consciously medieval at its very foundations.

The first chapter, "Para-Thomism: Bataille at Rheims," argues that Bataille grounds "all 'revolutions' in which he participated -- aesthetic, theoretical, religious, and ideological -- within a long historical view, eschewing easy generalizations and manifestos extolling the exceptionalism of the present" (27). In 1918, the still-Catholic Bataille composed a meditation on the bombed-out ruins of the cathedral at Rheims; by 1922 he had renounced Catholicism and finished his thesis on the thirteenth-century Ordene de chevalerie; and in 1926, his contribution to La révolution surréaliste consisted of translations of several fatrasies, medieval nonsense poems -- surrealist very much avant la lettre. Holsinger's focus, however, is La somme athéologique, which Bataille began to write during the first years of World War II, and its relationship to Aquinas's Summa Theologica. Scholars of Bataille have tended to dismiss the Somme's relationship to the Summa as simple parody or rejection, but Holsinger argues that what Bataille is doing with Aquinas, and indeed with medieval theology, is much more complex; he represents Bataille as "an energetic student of the discourses of Thomism intent upon contributing in his own weird way to shaping Aquinas's intellectual Nachleben" (33). The Somme may name itself for the Summa, but it directly evokes a very different medieval inspiration (as Amy Hollywood has also recently noted); Bataille claims to have been reading Angela of Foligno's Liber de vere fidelium experientia as he began to write. Angela was a mystic and a contemporary of Aquinas, and for Holsinger she appears as "Thomas's theoretical doppleganger" (37). He demonstrates the way the Somme balances the ghost of Aquinas's text against the ghost of Angela's, and reminds us that this balancing act is taking place in the context of an energetic twentieth-century debate about the persistent value and meaning of Aquinas. Angela's book serves Bataille both as formal model and, in its experiential and apophatic qualities, as an alternative to the intellectual and positivistic theology of Aquinas: "Angela allows Bataille to expose both the hilarity and the tragedy of Aquinas's attempt to systematize Christian knowledge in the face of the inevitable non-knowledge of God that terrifies Angela yet provides the mystical foundation for her visionary life" (37). The mystical absence at the heart of Angela's book becomes identified with the (Nietzschean) absence of Bataille's atheism -- but both absences (that of a God too real to be apprehended and that of a God utterly unreal) have the same shape. On this reading, the Somme athéologique appears not as a rejection of medieval theology (as if, in any case, there were only one medieval theology!) but as an embrace of an alternative but equally medieval sensual apophatic mysticism founded upon immanent absence rather than presence.

Bataille's identification with Angela's mysticism also permits an identification with the erotic, which, for him, can never be separated from torture and humiliation. Eroticism, violence and excess remain dominant themes in much of Bataille's later work, and Holsinger demonstrates the extent to which The Accursed Share and The History of Eroticism root themselves in a particularly generative if quirky medievalism by reading these texts alongside a 1949 essay entitled "La Littérature française du Moyen Age" (Appendix I). Bataille's work as a whole, Holsinger argues, "provides us with the most complex theoretic medievalism of the twentieth century, an intermillenial consciousness so intimately entwined with the form and argument of Bataille's central theoretical works that it necessarily raises questions about the ramifications of his medievalism within the subsequent development of French avant-garde thought" (52). Foucault, he points out, was directly influenced not only by Erotism but also by Bataille's 1959 edition of the trial documents in the case of Gilles de Rais, the infamous fifteenth-century serial murderer. As the rest of The Premodern Condition makes clear, Bataille's legacy was both permeating and persistent.

Holsinger's second chapter, "Apocalypse and Archaeophilia: Lacan's Middle Ages and the Ethics of History," argues both for the occluded effect of Bataille on Lacan, and for the importance of the Middle Ages to "Lacan's truly bizarre understanding of the nature and purpose of ethical reflection" (61). It is perhaps the most entertaining chapter in the book, because Holsinger embraces the fundamental absurdities characteristic of so many Lacanian pronouncements with gusto and because he chooses to go mano-a-mano with Teresa Brennan's History after Lacan. "Medievalists," he remarks wearily, "have long since grown weary of responding to glib narratives about the communal, collective, unbounded, public nature of pre-Renaissance egos and subjectivities" (74); he limits himself to pointing out that Brennan falls into a trap avoided by Lacan, that of assuming that the "individual" did not exist until the seventeenth century. In the Lacanian version of the history of the human subject put forth in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, the problematic of desire is created by (or at any rate simultaneously with) Courtly Love; the "ethical genealogy" (78) of the relationship between men and women (indeed, that emptying out of the feminine with which Lacanian psychoanalysis has become so identified) can be traced back to the eleventh century. Similarly, the apocalyptic and apophatic qualities of the seminar are self-consciously rooted in the Middle Ages; Lacan's "offhanded but weirdly persistent medievalism speaks a larger truth about the seminar's ethical argument" (92), Holsinger insists; it creates a critique of Western science particularly appropriate to the nuclear age. This is not to say that Lacan was ever particularly scholarly or even truthful when he evoked the Middle Ages; one of the delights of this chapter is Holsinger's discovery of a completely imaginary fourteenth-century manuscript (of Andreas Capellanus's De arte honeste amandi) and its equally imaginary publication in 1917 by a fictional Old French scholar called "Renouart." Lacan, Holsinger remarks, "seems to have fashioned this scholarly micro-narrative out of thin air . . . one can easily imagine Lacan's audience nodding sagely at the erudition of the master, pretending knowledge of an important archival discovery that had never actually taken place" (79).

Chapter Three, "Indigeneity: Panofsky, Bourdieu and the Archaeology of the Habitus," is not, perhaps, as pyrotechnic as the preceding chapter on Lacan; nevertheless, it is absolutely central to Holsinger's argument. Holsinger demonstrates that in the postface to his 1967 translation of Erwin Panofsky's Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, "we are witnessing Bourdieu's initial discernment of the habitus" (107). Panofsky's short book was to become seminal for medieval art history and indeed medieval studies more generally, arguing as it did for an almost infinitely fertile exchange between Gothic art and Scholastic Philosophy, while the habitus is perhaps the single concept most profoundly associated with Bourdieu's thought. Without denying the impact of Mauss on Bourdieu, Holsinger argues persuasively that it was Bourdieu's reading of Panofsky that inspired him to "adopt a term and an idea that [would] profoundly influence the course of his subsequent sociological writings for the next thirty years" (108). Even as he moves away from his initial enthusiasm for Panofsky, Bourdieu remains in dialogue with him, transforming him in the Outline of a Theory of Practice into "a whipping-boy for art-worshipping empiricism" (111). This reversal has to do with what Bourdieu came to see as the excessive "indigeneity" of the philosophy Panofsky was exploring: "The particular habitus unearthed by Panofsky, Bourdieu argues in the postface, is an excrescence of the medieval (and of course specifically French) schools, the institutional forebears of the contemporary Parisian academies that will figure so significantly in Bourdieu's subsequent sociological writings" (109); by 1972, the Panofskian habitus has become for Bourdieu the representative of a kind of ideological limitation, rather than of generative possibility. Still, "what Bourdieu found most provocative in Panofsky . . . were those forms of apperception . . . that transform the artistic field itself into a visual archaeology merging past and present in a process of cultural interiorization" (113). What Holsinger, in his turn, finds most provocative in his reading of Bourdieu reading Panofsky, it seems, is the notion that medievalism is itself the habitus that shapes theory.

Moving from Bourdieu's translation of Panofsky to Derrida's Of Grammatology, Holsinger acknowledges that the two texts seem worlds apart. "Yet," he insists, "the insights elaborated in these two books work toward ultimately complementary ends, engendering an archaeology of the premodern that both Bourdieu and Derrida discern specifically within the sacred sounds and spaces of liturgy. If Bourdieu's postface uncovers the hidden structures generating the philosophical and architectural habitus of Gothic cathedrals, Of Grammatology devotes some of its most illuminating pages to the "Gothic" liturgies that breathed musical and spiritual life into their cavernous depths" (115). In turning to Derrida reading Rousseau on the subject of music, Holsinger returns also in some degree to the subject of his last book, Music, Body, and Desire. He argues that Derrida's reading of Rousseau works to redress the historical repression both practiced and symptomatized by Rousseau's philosophy in general and the Essay on the Origin of Languages in particular. Rousseau describes a "musico-linguistic catastrophe of epic proportions" (139-140), occurring when the barbarian invasions of the earliest middle ages disrupt the unity between language and music, a rupture, fissure or interval that "separates speech from song, just as an ideal musical mimesis will always elude human capacities. Rousseau's interval is the historical 'trace,' the surplus of musico-linguistic identity over which the Essay has no control" (140). And this surplus "is, very clearly in Of Grammatology, the trace of the medieval. Rousseau's construction of the Middle Ages serves as Derrida's most crucial point of attack against the Enlightenment's invention of the millennium it did so much to darken" (140).

Holsinger goes on to discuss the celebrated disagreement between Rousseau and Rameau concerning the primal nature of music:

Harmony for Rousseau is an invention of the Middle Ages, when the advent of liturgical polyphony served to corrupt once and for all the already degraded melodic speech inherited from antiquity. Rousseau's pathologizing invocation of the Gothic -- as sickness, as perversion, as destruction, even as a kind of enslavement or "shackling" of mimesis -- speaks volumes about the larger historical stakes for the Enlightenment in defining the medieval against itself. If Rousseau takes Rameau to the mat for his ethnocentric vision of harmony as universal and natural, Derrida exposes the sense in which Rousseau's own unacknowledged ethnocentrism -- and thus the Enlightenment's, and thus the Western tradition's -- must be indistinguishable from the medievalism that subtends it, a medievalism inspired by its moral rejection of "the evil and the science proper to Europe": namely, the liturgical harmonies of the medieval Church. (145)

Paradoxically, as Derrida goes on to reveal, Rousseau's most potent evocation of the fantasy of a pre-linguistic unity between sound and meaning occurs in his entry on neuming in the Dictionary of Music. The neum is the wordless, unwritten melisma built upon the last syllable of the alleluia, a sort of liturgical coloratura, and Holsinger argues that Derrida's recognition of its importance to Rousseau demonstrates the way that "even as the Middle Ages draw speech and song inexorably asunder, the era embodies the most idealized form of pure musical speech in its doxological performances" (148). For Holsinger, Derrida's recognition of this paradox within Rousseau amounts to a "movingly recuperative stance toward the liturgical aura that Rousseau abjects . . . . If writing represents the "death" of language, then, it is death only in a liturgical sense, a death under erasure that will always and everywhere condition the linguistic renewals that writing comes to embody" (148-49).

The recuperative quality of Derrida's medievalism has, according to Holsinger, been misread and/or overlooked almost systematically, especially by those of his critics associated with the Radical Orthodox group of Christian revisionists to whom Derrida appears as an almost satanic embodiment of the most negative, indeed necrophiliac, aspects of modernity; much of this chapter is dedicated to an energetic rebuttal of the extended critique of Derrida as it appears in Catherine Pickstock's After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy. For revisionists like Pickstock, the "modern" (that is, post-medieval) age is characterized by the invention of politics as a pseudo-liturgical power; kings, dukes, even popes turn religion to what are essentially political ends: the creation and maintenance of secular power. Pickstock (rather oddly) sees Duns Scotus as the origin of this tendency, and Derrida as following in the same footsteps. Holsinger argues, to the contrary, that Derrida's sense of the liturgical may be very particular but is also profoundly authentic, grounded in a sense he shares with Levinas (whom he cites at the very beginning of Of Grammatology) that the liturgical is identical with the ethical. It is transcendent and diachronic, but its proper subject is not the relationship with God, which is not apprehensible, but rather that relation of the subject to its neighbor which bears the trace of God (131). He also points out that the corrective prescribed by Pickstock is not actually a return to the original (medieval) liturgy, but rather to the Tridentine Rite, itself a Counter-Reformation phenomenon and thus already "contaminated" by the very modernism she decries. As in the case of his response to Brennan's History after Lacan, the pages in which Holsinger confronts the arguments of Radical Orthodoxy head on make for some of the most exciting reading in the book.

The last theorist treated in The Premodern Condition is Barthes, and his inclusion may seem simultaneously obvious and peculiar: obvious because the famous distinction between Author and author-function is so clearly relevant to premodern studies, and peculiar because the text Holsinger engages most fully here is S/Z, Barthes's reading of Balzac. As in previous chapters, however, Holsinger establishes Barthes in a very specific mid-century intellectual context, one that was in many ways defined by its own medievalism in its return to exegesis as a central and potentially salvific practice, both for the religious and the secular worlds. The French avant-garde, as the chapter on Bataille (who returns to haunt this chapter as well) makes clear, was the product of a Catholic culture experiencing (not without plenty of upheaval) its own avant-garde moment in the years leading up to and away from the Second Vatican Council. Barthes, raised a Protestant, was intimately involved in what Holsinger terms the "exegetical culture" (158) of the time; he was a participant in a 1971 conference on structural analysis and biblical exegesis held at the University of Geneva, but, as Holsinger argues, more important is the way that medieval exegetical practice shaped his own understanding of reading. Juxtaposing Barthes's discussion of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola with his interpretive method in S/Z allows Holsinger to demonstrate the evolution in Barthes's work of a new method of allegorical reading. The classic four levels of allegory named by Dante in his letter to Can Grande and elaborated by the Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac in his massive Exégèse Médiévale are, of course, the historical (or literal), the allegorical, the moral and the anagogic. In S/Z, these grow into five levels of interpretive reading, the proairetic, the semantic, the cultural, the hermeneutic and the symbolic: "From de Lubac's writings on medieval hermeneutics to Barthes's essay on Loyola . . . the textual levels or codes remain roughly the same . . . . From Sade, Fourier, Loyola to S/Z, on the other hand, the codes are augmented by one while losing the ethical sheen of anagogy" (182). The premodern structuralism of the allegorical system thus morphs virtually painlessly into the postmodern structuralism of Barthes's reading of Balzac.

Similarly, Holsinger argues, Barthes's meditations on the "incarnational text" in The Pleasure of the Text (1973) reconfigure the famous Beautiful Captive image which migrates from Deuteronomy to Origen to Jerome and eventually to de Lubac: "For de Lubac this 'beautiful image' of a 'purified' habit of reading demands that pagan texts be approached as a tempting but sullied female body, a textualized corpus that must undergo a vigorous process of scraping, purging, refashioning, and rewriting before it is suitable for Christian consumption . . . . Sarrasine's readerly act of "undressing" this body sounds very much like the moral purging of the Beautiful Captive in the exegetical tradition" (192). Holsinger concludes by noting another parallel between Barthes's mode of reading and medieval exegetical practice: "Writing at the end of a decade breathlessly invested in its own interpretive innovations, Barthes imputes to the text the same celestial boundlessness that provide medieval biblical exegesis with its justifying purpose" (194).

Holsinger's epilogue reiterates the motivating question of the book: "How is it that the most consistently abjected era in the Western tradition came to assume such a formative role in avant-gardiste theorization of language, culture, and society?" (197). Part of the answer that he has provided is that the French avant-garde was utterly determined to clamber out from the long shadow of the Enlightenment, and that the medieval past provided a variety of useful strategies for a critique of modernism. Much more important and original, however, is Holsinger's understanding of the "sacramental character of the avant garde's relation to the medieval past . . . . Understood in its critical fullness, this sacrament need not be a religious one (certainly not a Christian one), for its sacralizing function embraces the historical totality of critical thought as its very medium of miraculous transformation. Modes of critique, habits of mind, and means of subjection are not simply inherited from the medieval past, nor patiently reconstructed out of its ruins; rather they are invoked, called into being, summoned from another place, translated from isolated fragments into whole systems of thought that maintain the dialectic of belief and doubt that characterized the sacramental culture of the Middle Ages" (202).

Holsinger's book is an invitation to rediscover and savor both the French avant-garde and the medieval culture that inspired it so curiously. The pleasures of his text are so varied and so profound that it is to be hoped that as many readers as possible will partake of this challenging, brilliant and beautifully written book.


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