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Visiting Scholar, Amy Hollywood

Amy Hollywood, Elizabeth H. Monrad Professor of Christian Studies at Harvard University, was a Director’s Visiting Scholar at Dumbarton Oaks during March. Francisco López interviewed her.

What has been your impression of Dumbarton Oaks?

When he invited me here, the Director, Jan Ziolkowski, promised that Dumbarton Oaks was a beautiful and quiet place. The promise is, in fact, real! Dumbarton Oaks is beautiful and peaceful, and the quiet is helping me to get a lot of work done.

Have you found any surprising or unexpected connections or relevance between your work and the areas of scholarship pursued at Dumbarton Oaks? Perhaps through your interactions with Fellows, other scholars, or staff?

In my time at D.O. I have been working to finish a couple of projects. The first is a paper about an odd medieval Latin hagiography, the holy life of a woman who dies and comes back to life. Her story is recounted in the Life of Christina the Astonishing. The hagiographer, Thomas of Cantimpré, describes Christina dying and going to purgatory, where she encounters tortured, suffering souls. On returning to life, she undergoes intense forms of suffering on behalf of the souls that she had met in purgatory. By experiencing their suffering, Christina helps the individual souls escape purgatory, but also exhibits the experience of purgatory to the people around her. In effect, she is preaching about what will become of those around her if they, too, die in sin.

The work I’m doing now is pretty focused on Latin and Western material of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It is work that does not have an immediately apparent connection to the core interests of Dumbarton Oaks and its collection.

However, in giving an informal talk to Fellows and staff, and in talking with colleagues here, including Margaret Mullett, Director of Byzantine Studies, I have found that there are people here currently who are indeed asking questions and doing work with a discernible connection to my own research. For example, there are scholars working on issues regarding the relationship between text and image, such as the bearing of apophasis (to describe by stating what something is not; denial; negation) and cataphasis (to describe by stating what something is; to limit the definition) in the visual realm. Both are at play in the Life of Christina and in what is often referred to as “the mystical life” more generally.

An interesting notion, which I have found reinforced in my experience here at D.O., is that Byzantinists, and scholars generally working on eastern material, tend to make a sharp contrast between asceticism and mysticism in a way that western scholars, in my experience, do not. In western scholarship, the ascetic life and ascetic discipline are part of, or at least part of the pursuit of, the mystical life.

I have a sense that the Byzantine tradition is more focused on practice. This may be a result of the reformation in the west. There is, conversely, a certain way of reading Christianity, central to western academia, which is very focused on the notion of belief divorced from practice. In Byzantium, the intensity of the embodied practice as central to the theological vision does not get broken apart in the same way it often does in the west. There is a rupture in the west affecting the way that we study the early period.

I look forward to a future return to D.O., at a time when I am working on something more closely related to the Byzantine world. I am very interested in Evagrius [Ponticus], how he is picked up in the east as opposed to the west. I am interested in the way that the ascetic life is theorized as having a very mystical end or goal. Does that get picked up differently in subsequent traditions in the east and west? I’d love to pursue that question at D.O. with people working on eastern material.

In your recent talk at Dumbarton Oaks, you commented on the interesting phenomenon that mysticism, beyond being misunderstood, is often described by different people in diametrically opposed ways. These opposing characteristics are invariably related to practice, which you describe as the essential context within which mysticism and the mystical ought to be understood. What would you describe as being politically and socially at stake in favoring one or another of these diametrically opposed, but central, characteristics of mysticism and the mystical?

I gestured toward this in my talk here at D.O. I continually wonder about the political or social stakes involved when people favor one or the other of the sides of the dialectic that I put forward as fundamental to what mysticism is.

In studying the ways that mysticism has been named or talked about, one wants to be able to make a generalization, but the sources reveal a multiplicity of different understandings—there is an incredible variety of things that people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries use the word “mysticism” to name and describe. It is mind-boggling to try to create any order here. It is difficult to extract any coherent core or to form an historical narrative to explain from whence that multiplicity comes.

In my work, I have gestured toward one way of looking at how “mystic” and “mystical” are used within premodern sources and the kinds of practices and experiences the terms were used to describe. In trying to draw from what I know of the premodern texts and the wide range of phenomena that are in play, it seems to me that at least some of the variety is captured by thinking in terms of oppositions which are often encountered even within the same text: “imminence vs. transcendence,” “saying vs. unsaying,” “time vs. eternity,” and “the singular vs. the communal.” Consequently, a central question in the modern study of mysticism is “why?” Why emphasize one side of the dialectic over another?

One of the first people who tried to argue for the philosophical interest of mysticism was W. T. Stace in Mysticism and Philosophy (1960). In order to do so he had to have mysticism be all about transcendence and about the solitary individual experience. Stace’s mysticism leans heavily on the apophatic, disembodied transcendence and on the unnamable aspects of God. It is heavily grounded in the notion of the eternal as opposed to the temporal. Stace does away with all the extraordinary experiences having to do with the temporal coming into time, disrupting time (visions or raptures or ecstatic states of union with God). In constructing his philosophical conception of mysticism, in order to claim that mysticism tells us something important about the human condition, Stace negates a great deal of the practices and experiences that were constitutive of what was called “mystical” in premodern Christianity. This is an example of the kind of argument that I want to resist.

What emerges from much modern writing on mysticism is a set of decisions. At least one result of the decisions being made, especially within the philosophical literature, is that certain kinds of people and certain sets of experiences are written out of the account. There is a privileging of a certain intellectualist account of what the mystical life is and it tends to privilege certain kinds of texts and people. Women, except for a very few, generally go missing.

In looking at the Catholic theological material, there is often a privileging of quite different aspects of the mystical life. There were debates in the early twentieth-century French Catholicism about whether mysticism is something to which every Christian should aspire, or whether it is a special state that only certain individuals can attain. The question here is whether one believes that all Christians can attain a life of Christian perfection or whether it is reserved for only a few. The decisions that are made about what mysticism is—the definitions that are favored—have a lot to do with sorting people, sorting the experiences and texts in a way that privilege one group over, or against, another.

Women were not always played down. There were circles in early twentieth-century France for whom the unlearned woman who miraculously comes to know God through suffering is an enormously privileged figure. Even then it is only a handful extraordinary women, not women in general. Women’s holiness is often attributed to, or at least described in terms of, their suffering and has little or nothing to do with their intellect. Such was the model of piety, or model of mysticism, that made sense of what these groups experienced at a particular historical moment.

Can you tell us a little about your forthcoming Columbia University Press book, Acute Melancholia and Other Essays? How it relates to your previous work on Christian Mysticism and how you became interested in the concept of melancholia?

Acute Melancholia is a collection of essays, most of which have been published elsewhere. In part, the collection has to do with melancholia and with how we tell the history of the middle ages. Other, related essays focus on sexuality and how we think about it in historically responsible terms—in ways that do not presume that all questions about sexuality are modern and without significance to the middle ages. This is especially significant regarding issues of same-sex or queer desire. There is a lot of tension in medieval studies about whether reading mystical texts in terms of queer desire is anachronistic. What I try to show is that, at the very least, a love that is a love for God is something other than a love for a person of the opposite sex. Therefore, it follows that there is something, from the contemporary perspective, inherently queer about mystical love.

The melancholia piece, the front essay, also has to do with practice and how practice relates to belief. I see late medieval meditation on Christ and his suffering as a form of what Freud refers to as “melancholic incorporation.” In experiencing melancholic incorporation, the subject does not want to let go of what has been lost, so it is consumed—internalized.

One argument in the book is that the tradition of high and late medieval passion meditation is designed to make it impossible for a person not to see Christ’s passion before their eyes or to feel his suffering in their bodies and souls. Something very close to the model of melancholia Freud develops in Mourning and Melancholia (1917) and The Ego and the Id (1923) is very visible in these medieval texts. Accounts claim that Christ must be made present through unremitting meditation on and chewing on and reflection on his suffering. In the fourteenth century, Margeret Ebner claims, essentially, "I cannot not see Christ, suffering on the cross, before my eyes, I cannot help but cry out, constantly, because I see Christ before my eyes."

There are medieval medical conceptions of melancholia that describe bodily phenomena very similar to those found within the mystical texts. Melancholia is understood as a form of love sickness. For medieval natural philosophers, as for Freud, melancholia is the overvaluation of the object. Yet within the medieval theological framework, lovesickness and melancholia may likewise be understood as the overvaluation of the object—but there is no way to overvalue Christ. Therefore one can be lovesick for Christ and it is legitimated. The mystic is continuously, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, represented as lovesick for Christ. Likewise, Christ is represented as lovesick for humanity, because Christ’s love for humanity has no bounds.

When I started out on this work I thought that I was using modern theory to look at medieval material. It turned out that the medieval texts already have a similar theory in place. I am thinking of melancholia as structuring the relationship to Christ. As the thirteenth-century mystic Hadewijch explains: “in order to be God with God, we must first suffer with Christ in his humanity.” Through suffering with Christ, one can save others. Practices are meant to form people as certain kinds of subjects. Late medieval passion meditation and passion mysticism, as forms of practice and self-formation, are meant to form people as melancholic subjects.

When I am done with melancholy, I will begin work on “enthusiasm” and “joy”!

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