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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Transformation of Convention in Mechthild von Magdeburg

(Here I deploy the tools of deconstruction to discuss a medieval German mystic. The essay first appeared in the Mystics Quarterly which had recently raised its ambitions and revised its format. In its earlier incarnation, it had been called the 14th Century Mystics Newsletter, which suggested to me Monty Python's hermits exchanging pleasantries.)

An understanding of the varieties of intertextuality is essential to a fully competent reading of medieval literature. For centuries critics recommended and poets practiced principles of imitation, convention, and reliance on “auctoritee” which little recognized the post-Romantic ideal represented by Pound's dictum "Make it new!" Too often, however, relations between texts are reduced either to simple similarity (in which case it is called “influence” or a topos) or difference (in the twentieth century often praised as innovation or irony). In fact, every linguistic utterance, including the intentionally aesthetic, is generated by the simultaneous observance and violation of convention. Intertextuality thickens the density of the information borne by the literary code in ways that have received little systematic investigation. Even the prescriptions of theoreticians such as Geoffrey of Vinsauf and Matthew of Vendome are often treated as though they were nothing but stultifying recipe books for producing acceptable hackwork, whereas in reality the rhetorical writers consistently advocate not the replication but the transformation, the "rejuvenation"-'- of past models.

Mechthild von Magdeburg’s Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit [2] provides an illuminating case study of the semantic implications of the appropriation of convention. She has received little attention as a poet, [3] usually mentioned rather in accounts of the Frauenmystik of her era, but she provides a most useful paradigm for the consideration of the general problem of convention. In a broad sense she may be said to have adapted the devices of the secular Minnesang tradition to describe her mystical experiences. Though this makes her vulnerable to psychoanalytic intrusion [4] as well as literary oversimplification, she used the conventions of the courtly literature of her day, not only because it provided a convenient poetic vocabulary, nor simply in default of a better option for the expression of the ineffable, but as a strategy carefully calculated and artfully appropriate. A close reading of her work indicates the way in which the adaptation of genres, situations, and imagery devised for poetry of worldly love increases the efficiency of her own writing by imposing a new layer of semantic association over the old and creating from the juxtaposition of the two an altogether new meaning. Examination of several particularly problematic images which emphasize the tension or incongruity between the divine and human love relation indicates, not an artistic failure, but rather an extraordinary and dramatic reversal of meaning. This process illustrates a significant variety of intertextuality and suggests a provocative set of implications about literature and language as a whole.

Long before Mechthild, of course, Christian writers had spoken of the love of God in terms derived from human love. The Song of Songs, the central scriptural text for Jews and Christians which belongs in this tradition due to its interpretation if not its original intention, had received much clerical and popular attention as a result of the commentaries of Bernard of Clairvaux during the century before Mechthild's time, and many writers raided it for directly Biblical systems of imagery. Many of the great texts of early German literature speak of Mary or the personified church in terminology that suggests the lover speaking of his beloved. [5] Furthermore, it must be made clear that Minnesang conventions are not ubiquitous or even dominant in Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit. More common, for instance, are pieces structured as lists intended to serve as meditation guides or as easily remembered moral instruction.

She was a devotional rather than an intellectual poet, and she found in Minnesang qualities useful to the expression of her themes. The language of hyperbole which has always ornamented much love poetry, the emotional similarities between the spiritual and corporeal giving of oneself in rapturous attachment, the suffering of the pains of separation, and the discipline of a dedicated program of self-development to make oneself worthy of the beloved are all closely congruent areas that, in her work as well as in others, made direct borrowing possible.

Thus she adopts the general terms of the standard situation of courtly love with little change (apart from the sexual reversal necessitated by the poet's being a woman). If Christ or God is conceived as a young man and his social status as aristocratic, it is obvious that his physical beauty is nothing but the projection of essential excellence and his nobility an analogue for a profounder loftiness.[6] The vicissitudes of a love affair parallel those of the contemplative life, by now familiar through the writings of many who succeeded Mechthild and systematized for our time by the popular books of Evelyn Underhill and others. The culmination of earthly love in sexual union is depicted, too, by Mechthild in terms not far different from other writers on the subjects of spiritual betrothal, marriage, and union.

Mechthild goes beyond the general Christian tradition, though into further correspondences specifically recalling Minnesang. A list of the main elements significant in each variety of love drama would include the initial Gruss by which the beloved signals the suitor that there is some hope of favor, the lovers' communication by intermediaries and messages, the presence of jealous watchers who seek to frustrate the fulfillment of the love, the process of self-refinement (sometimes compared to the transmutation of gross elements in the alchemist's crucible), the speaker's denigration of self and exaltation of the love object, and the wash of bitter-sweetness over the whole experience. All of these elements are examples of simple transference, since their basic meaning and function in the structure of the relationship is identical in secular and divine love poetry. Mechthild uses them as a kind of shorthand that will immediately indicate to the reader that a vast range of experience and emotion with which he is familiar may help him toward a sympathetic understanding of her own. Two brief examples will suffice to demonstrate the existence and nature of this sort of adaptation of convention to a new context.

The Gruss is at once a genre of poetry and a ritualized part of the Minne drama. It is the acknowledgment that encourages the lover, however slightly, to continue his attentions. Though she does not, by granting a Gruss, commit herself in any way, she would be blameworthy were she to mislead a lover with such a greeting when his quest was wholly in vain. The Gruss, then, is a promise of the potential of the future, though it does no more than open the possibility of eventual success. A long process must normally follow after the lady has met her suitor's eyes or inclined her head toward him in a Gruss before the affair progresses to its next stage.

For Mechthild, this Gruss is an "inner” one, promised by the divine lover's "blessed eyes." [9] Like the aristocratic lady, he inclines his head toward her, though in his case it is in reality the "holy tree of the Trinity" [10] that nods in promise. Most revealing, perhaps, is the passage concluding Mechthild’s magnificent dialogue between the soul and knowledge: "The true greeting of God comes from the divine blood." [11] Thus the promise of a potential love relationship with God is contained in the sacrifice of Christ's crucifixion which alone makes human redemption possible. It does not commit God to the salvation of any given soul, but it opens the way for the soul to begin the process of making itself worthy. Thus Mechthild retains the naturalistic associations of the Gruss and exploits her audience's familiarity with the details of the secular code of love while making a structurally similar point in a compressed and vivid way.

Another motif common to Minnesang and Mechthild is the Bote or messenger. This, too, is a poetic form (as the message may be the entire contents of a poem) as well as a part of the Minne drama. Reinmar's "Lieber bote, nu wirp also” [12] is a good example of the dramatic function of the Bote. As the lovers are separated, the woman's longing is represented as heightened; the poignance of the situation is increased by the fact that she must entrust her intimate feelings to an intermediary. Thus the Bote convention allows the simultaneous expression of loving affection and frustration.
Boten figure in several of Mechthild's poems. [13] They generally convey the very same emotional mixture outlined above. More interesting, however, is her preface which begins with the following words:

I send this book as a messenger to all spiritual people, both good and bad, since when the pillars of the church fall, the building cannot stand, and since it portrays Myself alone and announces my secrets with praise. [14]

Here the entire book is said to be the word of God sent as a messenger, like a love note or like Christ, to assure the people of the world of God's love. The indirect form of the communication and the mention of the peril of the church's fall, however, admit the difficulties preventing perfect intercourse. Like the previous example, this use of the Bote requires an audience previously familiar with Minnesang convention. Building upon the earlier poetic Bote, she may suggest without explicit mention the theological doctrine of salvation by grace and express by means of the single word "botte" an entire dramatic relationship.

These are examples of relatively simple transference since the elements borrowed from secular poetry retain the same structural role and fundamental meaning in Mechthild's work. The relation may be considerably more problematic, however, in certain examples of shared imagery which cannot be satisfactorily interpreted as carrying an isomorphic semantic load in each system. In particular, the images of the nightingale, of plucked blossoms, and of the dew seem at first to be infelicitously placed in a setting where their conventional associations are cramped or altogether blocked. These represent Mechthild's most provocative and intriguing use of Minnesang, a use which in fact exploits the specific resources of poetic language especially fully.

The nightingale is unmentioned in the Bible, but appears frequently in classical and medieval literature. Probably the most important single source for its connotations in the Middle Ages is Ovid's version of the story of Philomela. [15] In this tale and in others, the nightingale is associated with frustration, longing, and the transience of the pleasures of love. It was, indeed, sometimes used as the type for worldly love as opposed to religious devotion, or as the emblem for superstition generally. [16] This area of meaning has been consistent even up to the present day. Among the many examples of medieval German lyrics evoking the nightingale as a symbol of fleeting or unsatisfied love are the anonymous "Nahtegal, sing einen don mit sinne" and Wolfram's "Ursprinc bluomen, loup uz dringen."

Mechthild again assumes that these traditional connotations are known to her readers. She represents longing and love and mystery with the bird, but in the end, her nightingale poses a direct challenge to the nightingale of earlier poets. In her most grandly encyclopedic piece [19], she hears the nightingale's song, but to her it sings of "melodious union with God," of "holy knowledge." [20] Thus, while the worldly nightingale is ultimately a bird of loss, representing the distance between what is desired and what is attained, a moving image for the inevitable failure of human aspiration, for Mechthild it becomes very nearly the opposite, a symbol of glory which is reachable. The limitless energies of her nightingales derive from the very same source as the limitations of others. She says, "The nightingale must always sing, for its nature plays – it is made of love.” [21] In another poem she equates the nightingale with the dove, the symbol of holy wisdom, as creatures uniquely qualified to dwell before the majesty of God." [22] Whereas the Bote and the Gruss were used to construct analogies between different registers of similar experience, the image of the nightingale contradicts itself. Mechthild employs the previous associations to heighten her own usage by contrast, by emphatic inappropriateness.

Imagery of flowers permeates both Minnesang and Mechthild's work. In both places it is sometimes merely decorative, sometimes subtly linked to the world-energies evoked by the renewal of life in the springtime, but the most intensely erotic flower imagery is that of broken or plucked blossoms. This is again traceable to classical poetry as in Sappho's fragment. [23] Probably the most well-known use of this image in Minnesang is found in Walther's famous "Under der linden,” [24] where the female speaker describes the broken blossoms as the only witness other than the nightingale to their tryst. She implies the hostility of society to their love by her anxiety over secrecy and speaks fondly but warily of the transience of their pleasures. The ephemeral flowers are an apt means of expressing this sort of love. Their brief period of bloom and the sense of violence and destruction inherent in the act of plucking them conflict with the simple celebration of their beauty.

Many of Mechthild's images of plucked, strewn, or broken flowers are consistent with the traditional meanings. They are sometimes simply decorative offerings [25] or rather vaguer mysterious enchantments, [26] but perhaps Mechthild's most striking use of the image is in her passage on the orchard of love.

I exist in myself
everywhere and in all things
as I was from the very beginning.
I wait for you in the orchard of love
and break for you the blooms of sweet union
and make you a bed
from the flourishing grass of holy knowledge.

Here the parallel between sexual union and mystical union supports the traditional associations of the image, but there can be no place for the usual natural implications of loss and transience. On the contrary, these blooms are plucked for a future consummation. God in this passage is specifically affirming his absolute qualities and the Minnebett not only transcends, but is opposite in kind from the earthly model. In Mechthild's poem the whole Baumgarten der Minne is made into an allegorical second Eden in which the Fall is systematically undone and complete harmony restored. Each element of this definitive locus amoenus is identified for the reader in a new sense. The secretiveness of the lovers which had been for Walther a social necessity here comments on the incapacity for language to contain the experience. By contrast to the case of the lovers in Tristan which was described in an almost equally idealized way but which provided so brief a respite, for Mechthild the plucked flowers of divine love bear an absolute value and can suggest no sense of loss. Again, the specific associations of the image are directly reversed.

Finally, the dew is used by medieval German poets as well as by those of other epochs as a standard poetic image of the delicate and beautiful but short-lived appeal of earthly love. Its fructifying dampness is qualified by its rapid evaporation. Examples are many. [28] Mechthild's appropriation of the image has ample Biblical precedent, so it will be clear that her poetic usage is not idiosyncratic.[29]

How God Comes into the Soul
I come to my lover like
Dew on the flower. [30]

Here the English reader will inevitably recall the lyric "I sing of a maiden," in which the image in used with a similar tenderness and charm, though hardly with the breathtaking immediacy of Mechthild's couplet. But in each of these cases, the semantic areas of ephemerality, of superficiality, of elegy are lost since the divine consolation is eternal. What, then, can be the point of making an image work against itself? To be sure, Mechthild speaks of the dew in other contexts in which the problem does not arise [31], but when it does, can she simply be discarding the bulk of the meaning of the phrase?
The whole medieval hermeneutic habit and Mechthild's frequent references to alchemy, numerology, and the “strangeness” of her book [32] might seem to resolve the problem. She may have anticipated an esoteric interpretation which would seek to ignore the apparent significance of her words, pursuing only their coded meaning. This explanation, however, denies any special efficacy to her strategy, reducing it to a historical curiosity.

Late in her book, in a section composed during her reflective residence at Helfde, she expresses a conceptual base that provides a second solution to the problematic images. God is speaking: "Whoever knows and loves the nobility of my freedom could not bear to love me alone on my account — he must love me rather in created things. In that way I remain closest to his soul." [33] Though she was by no means a theologian, this sort of assumption implies that the things of this world are to be not merely accepted, but celebrated with recognition but without apology for their shortcomings. The very inexactness of correspondence between the things of the creation and God may be read as itself significant. The pattern of poetic metaphor in relation to its intended object would then define the relation between Mechthild, her art, and the entire creation and God. The failure of the poetic image to deliver what it promises is then meaningful, and what had seemed imprecision becomes greater precision. The incongruity of the image becomes significant of the failure of language and this in turn of the failure of the flesh.

Even this explanation remains wholly within thematics, but it leads to an issue rich in theoretical implications for literature and for the understanding of language itself. Referentiality and representation in language have been debated continuously, but the last several decades have seen more radical attempts to deny all signification to the written word. Writers have been thought to be doing their proper work primarily when drawing attention to this very inability. This notion surely causes the reader of medieval texts to look with a new eye on what is generally called the modesty topos (in which the author protests his inability to carry out his project adequately) and the special form of this topos common in mystical literature (and, indeed, in religious writing generally) in which the writer insists that language is wholly unable to convey the information he would like to express. Many of the modernist self-reflective devices of contemporary fiction writers have early precedent in these medieval authorial concessions that the text can do little justice to the topic.

The fact is that literature seems unable to rest easily either altogether within or without referentiality. The best critical opinions have often stressed the ambiguity of the relation, as when Hesiod's muses declared to him that they could both tell the truth and lie, or when Eco defines the sign as that which is capable of falsehood, or in recent deconstructive criticism. Just as Mechthild's imagery can indicate the gap between the indescribable divine, the ultimate reality, and the earthly mortal is mediated, evaluated, magnified, but never eliminated by systems of poetic language, the writer on any subject will find a gap between the "reality" to which he plays the game of referring and the words which must serve to do the job. The space between signifier and signified had been perceived as far back as linguistic records go, but it is acutely present in a text like Mechthild's where the failure of language is a central theme. Read as a commentary on language's lagging race to catch up with its subjects, the wistful tone of the problematic images returns with a new meaning, a lament for exile from a linguistic Eden, from an imaginary prelapsarian golden age of language when words could reflect the world. This fall parallels without replacing those other falls which have wrung tears from flesh, but it, too, can be treated as a fortunate fall for just as Adam's sin made history possible, the fall of language is the precondition for literature.

1. The term is Geoffrey's, but the concept is common to him, Matthew, John of Garland, and their classical antecedents.

2. This is the usual form of the title, though the most convenient edition today is Mechthild von Magdeburg, Offenbarungen der Schwester Mechthild von Magdeburg oder Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit, ed. P. Gall Morel (Regensburg, 1869; rpt. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1963). As this book is a collection of brief lyrics rather than a continuous text, reference will be to the individual poem with the part (Theil) specified by Roman numeral and the item by Arabic.

3. The one book-length literary study is James Franklin, Mystical Transformations (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978). Franklin is primarily concerned with tracing and describing image patterns.

4. See, for instance, Jeanne Ancelet-Hustache, Mechthilde de Magdebourg 1207-1282, etude de psychologie religieuse (Paris: Ancienne Honore Champion,1926).

5. This category would include, for instance, the "St. Trudperter Hohenlied," the "Melker Marienlied," and the "Mariensequenz aus Muri."

6. This depiction is implicit throughout the book, but it is most evident in Mechthild I, 11; I, 46; and II, 23. Passages which imply sexual union are Mechthild I, 3; I, 19; I, 22; I, 44; II, 3; II, 19; II, 23.

7. Examples of the Gruss in this sense abound. Among them are Kaiser Heinrich's "Ich grueze mit gesange die suezen" and Friedrich von Hausen's "Wafena, wie hat mich Minne gelazen." To simplify my references to Minnesang, I cite them all from the collection by Max Wehrli, Deutsche Lyrik des Mittelalters (Zurich: Manesse Verlag, 1955). Thus Kaiser Heinrich's poem is Wehrli, p. 87 and Friedrich's is Wehrli, p. 93. Note also the earlier example, in Latin with certain key words in German "Dixit: 'Die illi de me corde fideli,’" Wehrli, p. 26.

8. Mechthild I, 14.

9. Mechthild II, 23.

10. Mechthild II, 25

11. Mechthild II, 19. Quotations from Mechthild within the text will be my own literal translations. The originals will be found in the notes as here: Der ware gottes grus/ Der da kunt von der himelschen blut.

12. Wehrli, p. 171.

13. In Mechthild I, 44 and II, 3 for example.

14. This is the very beginning of the book. The text reads: DIS BUCH SOL MAN GERNE ENPFAN, WAN GOT SPRICHET SELBER DIE WORT. Dis buch das sende ich nun ze botten alien geistlichen luten, beidv bosen und guten, wand wen die sule valient, so mag das werk nut gestan, und ez bezeichnet alleine mich, und meldet loblich mine heimlichkeit.

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