Getting Medieval on Postmodernism

If, like me, you enjoy listening to Professor Peterson take on the fallacies of postmodernism, you will have heard him acknowledge – “to give the Devil his due” – that there is one thing that the founders of postmodernism got right:
They actually put their finger on quite an important problem: the fact that any set of phenomena has a near infinite number of potential interpretations.
Which, Professor Peterson argues, is true, as researchers in artificial intelligence learned when they tried to make machines that could perceive the world. What the AI folks found, like the postmodernists, was that there is “a very large number of ways to perceive the world,” just as there is a near-infinite number of ways (or so the postmodernists would insist) to perceive a text.

Except (much as I hate to disagree with the good professor) this is not quite what the founders of postmodernism said. Here’s one of the most famous founders – albeit not one that Professor Peterson alludes to – talking about the way (at least certain kinds of) texts work:
[T]he text is replete with multiple, discontinuous, accumulated meanings, and yet burnished, smoothed by the “natural” movement of its sentences: it is an egg-text...we can say that any classic (readerly) text is implicitly an art of Replete Literature: literature that is replete: like a cupboard where meanings are shelved, stacked, safeguarded (in this text nothing is ever lost: meaning recuperates everything); like a pregnant female, replete with signifieds which criticism will not fail to deliver; like the sea, replete with depths and movements which give it its appearance of infinity, its vast meditative surface; like the sun, replete with the glory it sheds over those who write it, or finally, acknowledged as an established and recognized art: institutional.
I remember hearing about this author – it is Roland Barthes, in the conclusion to his interpretive manifesto S/Z, published in 1970 – back when I was in graduate school in the late 1980s. My fellow graduate students were breathless with the insight that there might be multiple meanings latent in a text. Following Barthes, they called it “polysemy,” although “always already” they seemed to discover only three: race, class, and (you guessed it) gender.

At the time I was immersed in trying to make sense of a somewhat older interpretive tradition, one that (according to my fellow graduate students) was hopelessly out-of-date, having nothing to say to the vicissitudes of the postmodern world, bound up as it was in the study of the Bible as scripture. So what if medieval commentators on the Song of Songs read Solomon’s love song as a dialogue between Christ and his mother? (Yes, you read that right.) That was nowhere near as sexy as George Bataille’s obsession with torture (modeled directly on the medieval Franciscan mystic Angela of Foligno’s account of her encounters with the crucified Christ) or Jacques Lacan’s obsession with ethical exegesis (modeled antithetically on Bernard of Clairvaux’s twelfth-century rumination on the Song of Songs) or Jacques Derrida’s obsession with the “trace in language and the psyche as the haunting immanence of the past within the present” (in my fellow graduate student Bruce Holsinger’s words, talking about the way Derrida thought liturgically even as he attempted to escape the logocentrism of the tradition in which he had been shaped). Oh, no, what my fellow graduate students were reading was much more exciting than impenetrably dull old commentaries on the Bible.

Even my teachers agreed. “I found it really boring,” my postgraduate advisor at Cambridge told me when I announced that I wanted to work on William of Newburgh’s Explanatio sacri epithalamii in matrem sponsi – and he (my advisor) had written a review of the edition that I was going to use! (Further proof, to my postgraduate self, that my advisor knew something about everything, even if I did disagree with him about William.) But what did William mean when he insisted that writing commentary was harder than writing history? (William is better known, as I told you back in December, as the twelfth-century historian who called out Geoffrey of Monmouth for his fake news.) Wasn’t he, after all, just making it up?

“Our bed is flowery,” Mary tells Christ in the words of Song of Songs 1:15, as read by William:
Truly, you are beautiful, my beloved, and comely, but according to the bleary eyes of humanity you have neither form nor comeliness [cf. Isaiah 53:2]. Truly, you are the sun of justice, in whose rays are health, but by suffering the eclipse of your holy death, you will appear to men like a hairy garment, and like a light extinguished, you will be hidden under a bushel, you will be placed in a tomb. Truly, what will be the utility in your blood, if you should descend into corruption? Therefore, on the third day, your flesh will flower again, and your bed will be flowery, namely, that bed on which your flesh will rest through the Triduum in hope. But your bed, is it not also mine? For without a doubt, I will have died and have been buried with you through my maternal affection. Therefore, “our bed is flowery,” that is, your flesh having blossomed again will bloom again with the flowers of the new resurrection.
Have you ever read such nonsense? Solomon – or whoever wrote the Song of Songs – wasn’t talking about death and resurrection, he was talking about sex! Oh, wait. Well, he certainly wasn’t talking about Jesus and his mother sharing the same flesh such that she died with him on the cross and lay with him in the tomb “through her maternal affection.” And where does William get all this gibberish about reading Jesus in Isaiah’s description of the suffering servant? Or calling him the “sun of justice” suffering an eclipse? Lord knows, medieval exegetes read all sorts of things into the scriptures that were never there, but surely this takes not just the cake, but the whole bakery! “Our bed is flowery,” indeed. It sounds almost...postmodern.

Gotcha. As, of course, did Roland Barthes. Sure, he sounds all high and theoretical when he talks about things like “signifieds” and literature being “replete,” not fuddy-duddy traditionalist at all. Certainly, that is what my fellow (non-medievalist) graduate students thought. But, as Bruce, my fellow (medievalist) graduate student, latterly Professor of English and Music at the University of Virginia, showed in his The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory (2005), the Big Secret about Barthes (see p. 180, n. 59) is that when he came up with his ideas about the “depths and movements” which give texts the “appearance of infinity,” he had been reading the great Catholic apologist Henri de Lubac (1896-1991). More specifically, Barthes had been reading de Lubac’s magisterial four-volume history of medieval exegesis in which de Lubac talked about the way in which medieval commentators read texts according to – wait for it – multiple senses.

Here is de Lubac in his Exégèse médiévale, volume 1, p. 75, published in 1959 (cited by Holsinger, p. 185, in parallel with the above passage from Barthes):
Scripture is like the world: “undecipherable in its fullness and in the multiplicity of its meanings.” A deep forest, with innumerable branches, “an infinite forest of meanings”: the more involved one gets in it, the more one discovers that it is impossible to explore it right to the end. It is a table arranged by Wisdom, laden with food, where the unfathomable divinity of the Savior is itself offered as nourishment to all. Treasure of the Holy Spirit, whose riches are as infinite as himself. True labyrinth. Deep heavens, unfathomable abyss. Vast sea, where there is endless voyaging “with all sails set.” Ocean of mystery. Or raging torrent....
Sound familiar? It certainly did to me after I had spent several years reading William and his fellow exegetes going on about the flowery beds of Christ and Mary that they discovered in the Song of Songs. Vast oceans of significance? Labyrinths of meaning? Deep heavens? Inexhaustible treasuries? They were all there, cleverly disguised as medieval exegetes’ fantasies about how the Old Testament was filled with figurae (to give the technical term) that were realized in the New.

Oh, sorry, does that sound like cultural appropriation? It wasn’t. The earliest Christians were Jews who insisted that they knew how to read the scriptures correctly, as Jesus himself demonstrated when the scribes and Pharisees constantly tried to trip him up. “What do you think of the Christ?,” Jesus asked them one day. “Whose son is he?” They answered: “The son of David.” “How is it then,” he quizzed them, “that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying: ‘The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, till I put thy enemies under thy feet’ [Psalm 110:1 RSV]? If David thus calls him Lord, how is he his son?” “And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did any one dare to ask him any more questions” (Matthew 22:41-46 RSV) (with what results, everyone knows, thus the reason Mary ended up talking about Christ’s “flowery bed”). The New Testament (i.e. the earliest Christian writings that we have, starting with the letters of Paul) are full of such unlockings of the mystery: in the person of Jesus, the scriptures were fulfilled, the Lord had become present to his people in the flesh, just as the prophets like Isaiah had foretold.

As I show in my forthcoming book (see, I’m learning from Milo!), the scriptures were likewise full – or so ancient and medieval Christians insisted – of images of Mary, particularly those books associated with Wisdom, the Lady through whom the Creator (re-)made the world (Proverbs 8:22-31). Even better, they were full, to coin a phrase, “like a pregnant female, replete with signifieds which criticism will not fail to deliver.” (Both the sea “replete with depths and movements which give it its appearance of infinity” and the sun “replete with the glory it sheds over those who write it” were read as images of Mary. Just sayin’.) In other words, Barthes – and all those postmodernists who have come after him in their search for the polysemy of the text – was reading like a medieval Christian, without, however, the structure according to which medieval Christians read, namely, belief in the incarnate Word.

Again, in William of Newburgh’s words, commenting on Song of Songs 4:12, “a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed”:
Clearly [Mary] is a fountain, from which life flows to us, but sealed, because it was not fitting for life to flow, except from a sealed fountain. It was not fitting for the Word to be born except from a virgin mother... If you know who is the fruit of this garden, you know also that this garden is a garden enclosed. If you know that she is the mother of the Word, you know also that she is a virgin mother. For God the Word could not be born in body except from a virgin [as Solomon foresaw].
If you wonder why Professor Peterson talks so much about the Logos as the antidote to postmodernism, this is why. Like Marxism, postmodernism is a heresy containing within it a veiled truth: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Medieval exegetes knew that this was the reason the scriptures were inexhaustible: not because texts can mean anything, but because God had revealed himself through them – and who is to say that we have exhausted our understanding of God?

Quotations from William cited from Rachel Fulton, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary (2002), pp. 446-47, 457.

Image: “Dixit Dominus” (Psalm 109 [110]:1), Shaftesbury Psalter, London, British Library, Lansdowne 383, fol. 108r.


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