Incarnational Poetics and the New Theological Literary Studies – By Ryan McDermott

Ryan McDermott on Cristina Maria Cervone’s Poetics of the Incarnation: Middle English Writing and the Leap of Love

Cristina Maria Cervone, Poetics of hte Incarnation: Middle English Writing and the Leap of Love, University of Pennssylvania Press, 2013, 320pp., $69.95
Cristina Maria Cervone, Poetics of the Incarnation: Middle English Writing and the Leap of Love, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013, 320pp., $69.95

I often have to explain to friends who went to college in the 1990s that English literary studies is not the theory hothouse it once was, and often still is, reputed to be. Under the professionalizing and diversifying pressures of the late-modern academy, Derrida’s bricoleurs — the Jacks-of-all-trades who improvised among the ruins — spent more and more time in their own corners of the deconstruction site, and eventually became specialized artisans who formed their own guilds. Most English departments did not balkanize to reflect these new formations, although the wounds incurred in the social skirmishes of the Theory Wars in the 1980s can still be palpated in many departments today, and the race for innovation at the graduate level could still create a kind of graduate-school EU in which interdisciplinary affinities become more important than departmental affiliations.

While we all belong to one or more theory guilds, what has continued to unite the faculty of English departments is the object of study, broadly defined. And because we continue to reproduce ourselves according to periodized specialties — medieval, early modern, eighteenth-century, and so on — the primary methodological point of reference we all share is historicism. Even the most methodologically agile, interdisciplinary departments pride themselves on fostering transhistorical work. The very possibility of transhistorical research assumes that each subfield rigorously historicizes its own domain, following Fredric Jameson’s dictum, Always Be Historicizing! The English department of the twenty-first century thinks across these fiefdoms, troubling boundaries and rendering borders permeable. But these gestures play out within what Eric Hayot could still in 2013 call “the ideology of a normative historicism [that] structures the fabric of the literary profession.” Historicism remains to English literary studies what Rawlsian liberalism is to political theory: there are plenty of dissenters, but they all must dissent against the same thing.

Within this context of prevailing, often ideological historicism, literary studies books that engage seriously with theology enter life at a certain disadvantage. Because Christian theology has traditionally claimed to be “the queen of the sciences”; because it offers the grandest of grand narratives; because it conceives of a unified telos for history; because it presupposes a living tradition in which the quick and the dead can speak to each other; because it considers authority a prerequisite of free thought; and because it considers faith a boon to rational inquiry, it can seem inimical to the rigorously historicizing enterprise of literary studies, always running afoul of literary history’s cardinal prohibition: Never Totalize!

Indeed, there are ways to apply theology to literary texts that remove them from their historical context and overwhelm their subtle, culturally specific pulsations with blasts of eschatology and dialectic. Perhaps a majority of literary studies faculty today are old enough to have experienced first-hand the last religious turn, which was inspired by a cultural turn in liberal Protestant theology. The religion-and-literature movement of the late twentieth century enlisted theology and philosophy of religion to get at what Paul Tillich called the “ultimate concern” of usually canonical, often modern literature. Practitioners of this brand of religion-and-literature often worked in religious studies departments. Religion-and-literature had a proprietary methodology that required, for some of its leading proponents, separate institutional space and degree programs in which to train new practitioners — hence the development of Ph.D. programs in Religion and Literature at Chicago, Virginia, Emory, Glasgow.

The goal of these initiatives was not typically to understand literature in its historical and cultural specificity, but to enlist it in “an interdisciplinary attempt to examine the possibilities for theology (mainly but not exclusively Christian) in a contemporary culture,” as David Jasper, the founder of the journal Literature and Theology, describes his own work. This first religious turn imported its own methodology, and traditional literary scholars had trouble knowing what to make of it. At best, it could seem like another brand of High Theory, a unique access point to Heidegger via Bultmann and Tillich rather than Derrida and de Man. At worst, its abstract obsessions with transcendence, presence, analogy — even William T. Lynch’s programmatic, “incarnational” commitment to the particulars of human finitude in Christ and Apollo — earned the field a reputation for totalizing scholarship.

The most recent religious turn in literary studies is quite different. It has happened almost exclusively within literature departments, and it has tended to operate within methodologies already practiced in the field of literary studies at large, especially New Historicism. Individual scholars turned to religion when it became apparent to them that their historical objects, often embedded in religious practices, could not be understood without sympathetic attention to the religious texts, habits, and institutions that shaped the world they wanted to understand. The Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, who famously “began with the desire to speak with the dead,” realized that in order to understand Hamlet, he must understand purgatory— and not just as an ideological formation that concealed, while perpetuating, the institutional church’s will to power. The religious turn has therefore been especially prominent in medieval and early modern literary studies, where the objects of study are often religiously observant writers and readers.

But literary scholars often continue to mistake this recent religious turn for the first one, especially when the focus is on theology rather than religious culture. It’s one thing to write a book about purgatory and its cultural paraphernalia, and quite another to write a book about “incarnational” poetics. This particular topic can be especially difficult for historicist literary scholars to appreciate because it has been the topic of many books on a disturbingly broad range of literature. In recent books, scholars have claimed to identify an “incarnational” theory or poetics in the work of writers as stylistically and historically diverse as Annie Dillard, Flannery O’Connor, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Milton, Shakespeare, and Dante. How can the same terms meaningfully be applied to all without flattening out the differences that make them interesting in the first place?

Yet this shared critical interest in the incarnation need not entail a uniform theoretical template or a de-historicizing preference for abstract ideas. On the contrary, the theological acumen of some recent work fosters fine-grained attention to the workings of poetic language and form, which in turn accentuates the historical contours of literary culture. In Recovering Christina Rosetti: Female Community and Incarnational Poetics (2004), Mary Arseneau reframes Romantic theories of the poetic symbol within Anglo-Catholic aesthetics and Christology in order to “reconstruct important aspects of [Rosetti’s] constructedness within the discourses of her time that scholars and critics have not yet recognized.” Beatrice Groves’ carefully-defined understanding of Shakespeare’s “incarnational aesthetic” enables us to discern important differences between early modern neo-classical dramatic theory and Shakespeare’s own approaches to characterization, genre mixing, plot structure, and violence. Kimberly Johnson’s Made Flesh: Sacrament and Poetics in Post-Reformation England (2014) argues that previous studies of early modern poetics have adopted church-historical perspectives that reproduce Reformation-era polemics while obscuring transconfessional complexities of belief and eliding the delicate confections of word and flesh, faith and works that poets on both sides of the Reformation achieved in their poems, if not in their confessional affiliations. Johnson’s attention to incarnational and sacramental poetics, then, reveals theological possibilities that previous literary histories and historical theologies have been unable to perceive. Her focus on poetics yields better theology, which in turn yields better history.

In fact, the new theological literary studies is well positioned to contribute both to the ongoing enterprise of literary history and to the transhistorical configurations that literary studies is increasingly open to exploring. Because theology is a deeply traditioned discourse, it facilitates the distinctions and fine-grained tracking of change that historicist approaches require. Because theology at its best is a universal but not totalizing discourse, theologically agile scholars are well prepared to think beyond reductively historicist categories while fending off reductively theoretical approaches to history. Cristina Maria Cervone’s Poetics of the Incarnation: Middle English Writing and the Leap of Love (2013) is perhaps the sharpest and most productive recent example of this kind of synthesis.

Frans Floris, 1562. The Sacrifice of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Gathering and Protecting Mankind. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Frans Floris, 1562. The Sacrifice of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Gathering and Protecting Mankind. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Verbum caro factum est. When John the Evangelist proclaims that the Word was made flesh, is he speaking figuratively or literally? Christians cannot read this statement literally without reducing the Incarnation to a tawdry metamorphosis. Neither can they read it figuratively and still consider Jesus God. Augustine would recognize the theoretical potential of this poetic and philosophical enigma. Wanting to express the ineffable mystery of the Word made flesh, John builds the conceptual oscillation between literal and figurative predication into a metaphor, one that dynamically turns and stretches human language toward the ineffable but pulls back before it ceases to be literal. Hardly ornamental, John’s metaphor gives form to the doctrine’s “supereffability,” in Cervone’s word, and animates generations of theological and philosophical inquiry.

Until recently, modern theory of metaphor could not account for this kind of dynamic play of form and sense, of metaphor-that-is-more-than-metaphor. But as Cervone lucidly relates, recent research in cognitive linguistics has come to see metaphor “as a basis for form within thought itself.” Metaphor functions beneath the semantic register of simile (where two or more meanings combine into one), forging conceptual coherence among disparate cognitive domains — in this case, infinite and finite, divine and human, intellectual and material, etc. But Cervone does not enlist cognitive linguistics to make essentializing claims about metaphor and humanity. Rather, she thinks that the cognitive theory of metaphor reflects a current, historically conditioned theory of language that is surprisingly but plausibly similar to that of a group of fourteenth-century English writers: William Langland, Julian of Norwich, Walter Hilton, and the anonymous authors of lyric poetry that deploys traditional imagery of the “Charters of Christ,” the “True-love,” the “Lily Crucifixions,” and “Love’s Leap.”

Cervone convincingly demonstrates that this group of writers understood the cognitive power of metaphor and used it to theorize the Incarnation. They also reverse-engineered the Incarnation by turning flesh into words of poetry and prose, figurative language that, in turn, transfigured Christ’s body into other material forms such as the parchment of a legal charter or the crucified petals of a lily. Saturated with an Augustinian sense of the profound consequences for language and embodiment when the Word of God has been made flesh, the Middle English lyrics, dream visions, and devotional prose studied here pursue “a way of seeking a way of knowing” that is formally and conceptually modeled on the Incarnation’s dynamic interface of word and flesh. Cervone reveals surprising affinities among premodern theology, contemporary metaphor theory, and cognitive linguistics to illuminate her central texts and material artifacts.

Cervone uses the term “Incarnational poetics” to indicate the very specific, recognizable combination of features shared by the poetry and visual art treated in the book. It indicates a manner of working plus the specific topic of the Incarnation. All of the texts studied involve — by my count — five technical or methodological characteristics, plus one topical property:

1. An iterative, layered, varied working through
2. of a figure of the phenomenon of God become Man,
3. which perforce occurs over time–both in the sequence of reading and in the ruminative return such reading invites–
4. which figure functions as metaphor but then draws back to insist that it is more than metaphor,
5. thereby dilating the capacity of literal predication.

+1. And this figural working-through happens in the context of and as shorthand for narratives of the life of Christ.

These points are better appreciated in an example, the A-text of the “Long Charter of Christ,” a 234-line lyric composed perhaps in the mid-fourteenth century. The “Long Charter” presents itself simultaneously as Christ’s first-person life story, delivered from the cross, and as the charter or “love-deed” by which Christ reclaimed humanity’s inheritance from the devil. As he narrates his own vita, Christ keeps coming back to and subtly altering the charter trope, deftly manipulating the legal terminology of seisin, fiefment, contract, and indenture. Too poor to obtain parchment, he gives his own skin over to the demanding process:

To a pillar I was plight (bound)

Tugged and tawed all a-night

And washed in my own blood

And straightly strained on the rood (cross)

Strained to dry on the tree

As parchment ought to be

Christ then draws this vivid, violent metaphor back from the figurative brink with an arrestingly literal deictic: “This I made for mankind / My love deeds to have in mind / Do this in remembrance of me.” As Cervone notes, the proximal deictic this “points to material reality: Christ’s body in the Eucharist, of course, and also as the parchment on which ‘love deeds’ are inscribed, which Christ has invited the reader/viewer to read precisely to keep his ‘love deed’ in mind.”

One consequence this book has for the study of medieval religious writing is that it opens up a new range of focus for the study of devotional literature and affective piety, a field that has considered embodiment primarily only in the context of Christ’s Passion. The charter/parchment/body figure, Cervone emphasizes, pulls the poem’s devotional focus out from the suffering body on the cross and extends it to the plot of the Incarnation — Christ’s “emanation” or descent from the Father, his lodging forty weeks with a maiden, his deed-in-gift of humanity’s salvation. “Read imagistically,” Cervone writes, “the charter metaphor draws attention to the Passion, to be sure. Read formalistically, the Incarnational framework prompts a closer look at the poem’s entire system of imagery. …The poet demonstrates his intellectual appreciation of how the pieces fit together: passion, and Eucharist, and liturgy, and charity in relation to kingship, lordship, and emanation.”

Poetics of the Incarnation is a work designed to reveal similarities. The book carefully explicates how its textual and visual artifacts work. The likenesses that unite the works and authors studied, besides their common tongue and rough contemporaneity, are likenesses of craft or method. At first glance, it could seem that by identifying a manner of working and carefully explicating it across a range of texts, Cervone substantiates Nicholas Watson’s observation in 2006 that “all vernacular writing about religion is connected, part of a single field or arena of discourse.” But Watson’s basis for connection was that all vernacular religious writing is necessarily a political act. By contrast, not all religious writing is animated by an Incarnational poetic. John Capgrave, who figures prominently in the introduction as an example of vernacular politics, “does not go on to write in the form of an Incarnational poetic,” for his brief consideration of the Incarnation is “not part of a systemic form that yokes poetics to theology by thinking through the hypostatic union repeatedly, over time.” Statements of contrast such as this are rare in this book, for its express interest is more “in qualities medieval works share than where they differ.”

But this meditation on likenesses is hardly totalizing. To the contrary, Cervone refines the tools of distinction in a field where the baggy terms “religious” and “mystical” are still commonly used as significant modifiers of “literature.” A major consequence of Cervone’s articulation of Incarnational poetics is that it helps us identify a religious form of writing that is not primarily a political act nor a hitherto recognized form of theology or catechism. And so although the book is almost exclusively devoted to writers and specific texts that fit Cervone’s definition of an Incarnational poetics, the term “exclusive” operates quite powerfully. For Incarnational poetics excludes a wide array of religious writing. It’s not that other religious writing is “anti-Incarnational” (though it could be), but simply that Incarnational poetics accomplishes a certain kind of work through a certain manner of working in order to bring about certain kinds of devotional and theological goods. By introducing this category the book allows scholars of medieval and early modern writing to move beyond the potentially fossilizing terminology of “vernacular theology” and make meaningful distinctions about the traditions, forms, and theological affordances of vernacular poetry.

Cervone’s finely attuned theological criticism opens up new approaches to trans-Reformation research, allowing us to listen for the continuos and modulations beneath the din of ecclesial rupture. The book’s conclusion contains one of its rare contrasts, this time in a discussion of the Protestant George Herbert, whose “The Quidditie” illustrates “the ‘how’ of an Incarnational poetic,” even though it is not written “in the form of an Incarnational poetic.” The book has amply prepared us for this kind of distinction — between mode and form of Incarnational poetics — and it makes sense in this context. But Herbert wrote other poems that adopt at least some of the formal marks of an Incarnational poetic, and it would be misleading to think that the lone Protestant poet in the book stands for a general contrast between full-on late-medieval Catholic Incarnational poetics and later Protestant Incarnational poetics-lite. Cervone certainly doesn’t seem to intend that suggestion.

Why not, then, end with Herbert’s “The Call,” surely a formally as well as modally Incarnational poem, with its repetitions and variations, its complex layering of vehicles, its metaphor that is more than metaphor, its unfolding over the time of its singing (in its modern hymn setting by Vaughn Williams)? True, “The Call” does not directly treat the moment of the Son of God’s becoming an enfleshed human. But perhaps this reflects a shifting emphasis in the theology of the Incarnation from body to language. Then the principal kenotic movement of the Incarnation — “love’s leap” — is the descent of the Word into human language, prefigured in Exodus 12 with the revelation of the tetragrammaton, the name of the One God. It culminates in the Incarnation, when at the Annunciation the Father gives his Son not only to human flesh but to human language in giving him a name, not a name that must never be uttered, but a personal name, a name by which his people will call on him for salvation: Jesus, Emmanuel. Herbert takes up this Incarnation-by-name in “The Call”: the Way, the Truth, and the Life. In their original context in John 14, it is ambiguous whether Christ gives these figures as names, but Herbert personifies them, makes them names. The Incarnation in this poem is Christ’s coming, his advent, into the body of one whose new life is defined according to the identity Christ revealed in the giving of his names, the Way, the Truth, the Life.

This brief reading suggests how Cervone’s work on Incarnational poetics complements other theologically astute criticism, enabling judgments about theological and poetic development across temporal and confessional divides. In her study of early modern sacramental poetics, Kimberly Johnson finds that in Herbert’s poetry the unified “spiritual and material registers” of the Eucharist repeat “the incarnational model of the Word made flesh and influence the representational strategies of Herbert’s poetic practice.” Read side by side, Cervone’s and Johnson’s books raise important questions about the historical development of literary strategies that fuse poetic form and theology. Informed by research such as this, future scholars will be able to follow new pathways across one of the most vexing period divides in literary history.