dissertation thinking

April 21, 2012 at 10:38 pm (Uncategorized)

The job market this year was a complete wash, and when it became apparent that I had nowhere to go were I to finish my dissertation for a summer graduation as planned, I applied for some sixth-year funding/fellowships. Those were all a wash too, the final word having come in earlier this week. (One of the crucial criteria for fellowships seems to be so much progress on the dissertation that one doesn’t actually need the fellowship in order to finish it. As someone who totted up 28 semester hours of language study above and beyond what the graduate school or department require for PhD coursework, I’m a bit vexed that being halfway through a dissertation that involves a great deal of original translation in a thoroughly dead language isn’t good enough.)  So I still have nowhere to go, but also no way to pay for the tuition and health insurance fees I’m required to pay while I’m still technically a student.  So I still need to get this over with and graduate.

To that end, I need to shake myself out of this funk that has me hitting snooze on a Saturday because being asleep is cozier than solving any of the problems facing me, at the diss level or at the larger life level.  I will only see my freshmen four more times this semester and once the end-of-term grading is done, I have nothing else to push the dissertation further down the priority list.  Avoiding its knots and snarls will be a matter of procrastination and not competing priorities.  So I’d best get on with it.

One of the things I’ve been troubled by in reading scholarship on the Old English “Soul and Body” and related soul and body works is the tendency to presume that orthodox understanding or teaching on soul-body relationships is essentially Augustinian, and, crucially, that this “Augustinian model” means the soul is inherently rational, intellectual, and immortal, pretty much equated with the essential self.  Leslie Lockett has recently taken the legs out from under that default stance in her Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions, a terrifyingly erudite work that demonstrates, among other things, that the so-called “unitary” model of the rational, intellectual, immortal soul isn’t all that widespread for most of the period and does not fit with the portrayal of soul-body relations in most vernacular works that invite us to consider them.  Rather than a unitary intellectual and immortal soul, responsible for agency and cognition and thus forming the locus of what one would call the immortal part of the self, Lockett finds that agency and cognition are associated more closely with what she terms the mind-body complex.  This is necessarily an oversimplification of her argument, and I am focusing on only one facet of it since that’s what I’m working on right now, but her book is a long-overdue correction to a long-held assumption that has resulted in some injurious characterizations of Anglo-Saxon soul-and-body works: that Anglo-Saxon works of soul and body ignore theological correctness in favor of shock value, that they are incoherent, a mish-mash of competing and contradictory concepts or models, that they display disgust for or hatred of the body. [1]  One thing her work demonstrates is that it is a mistake to think of ‘Augustine” and “orthodoxy” as synonymous in Anglo-Saxon Christianity.  I do not disagree with her findings that emotion and cognition are intimately associated with the body and described in somatic terms in the corpus, nor with her conclusions that the patristic model of a unitary soul does not fit most of the literature.  Lockett even acknowledges that it is reductive to assume there was a single patristic model that held sway.  However, this enlarged view, informed both by semantics and anthropology, also does not fully account for the relationship portrayed in soul-and-body works, though it does a much better job than anything that has come before it, in my opinion.  Sussing out what’s going on in these particular works, which sometimes do seem to contradict themselves in portraying soul-body relations, is my larger project.

But there’s a related problem/issue/concern, and that is the uninterrogated presumption that what some critics think of as “Augustinian teaching on the soul” is 1. accurate and 2. the same understanding that Anglo Saxons familiar with Augustine would have had of “Augustinian teaching on the soul.”  What follows is part of what I talked about at SEMA last year (in what was frankly a train-wreck of a conference paper, largely because I wasn’t able to wrestle this stuff down to easily summarizable conclusions by the deadline), and I’m not yet sure that this is not something I’ll need to shelve for another, later project.  But one larger concern might be the reduced view of Augustine that is at work in so much criticism, having as it does a tendency to assign to Augustine a simple, reductive view of soul-body relations, from those who claim Augustine identified the self as the inner man, [2] to those who grant that Augustine may have redeemed the body to a certain extent, but only by proclaiming it “totally subordinate to the soul.” [3]  Augustine is often summarized as claiming that the  soul =  the self = the inner man, which is not precisely untrue, though  it is not precisely true either.  But taken in its larger context, the following oft-cited passage from the Confessions reveals a much more complex schema, one that is not reducible strictly to a dichotomous soul-body relationship, and one that is at heart not about a strict ontology so much as about a rigorous mode of self-inquiry that could seem utterly confused if misunderstood, as it inevitably is when taken out of context.  Augustine writes,

et direxi me ad me et dixi mihi, `tu quis es?’ et respondi, `homo.’ et ecce corpus et anima in me mihi praesto sunt, unum exterius et alterum interius. quid horum est unde quaerere debui deum meum, quem iam quaesiveram per corpus a terra usque ad caelum, quousque potui mittere nuntios radios oculorum meorum? sed melius quod interius. ei quippe renuntiabant omnes nuntii corporales, praesidenti et iudicanti de responsionibus caeli et terrae et omnium quae in eis sunt dicentium, `non sumus deus’ et, `ipse fecit nos.’ homo interior cognovit haec per exterioris ministerium; ego interior cognovi haec, ego, ego animus per sensum corporis mei.

[And I turned myself to myself, and said to myself, “Who are you?” And I answered, “A man.” And behold, in me body and soul present themselves to me, one without, the other within. By which of these ought I to seek my God, whom before I had sought through the body from earth to heaven, so far as I was able to send messengers, the beams of my eyes? But the better is the inner.  For to it, as to one presiding and judging, all the bodily messengers brought the answers of heaven and earth and all things therein,  who said, “We are not God,” and “He himself made us.” The inner man knows these things by the ministry of the outer: I the inner [man] knew them; I,  I the mind, through the senses of my body]. (10.6.9, emphasis mine)

Certainly, as is often quoted, the speaking “I” here identifies himself with the inner man – for a moment.  But to pull this quotation out of context is to miss the movement and inquiry that led up to it.

The speaker turns himself to himself; he is clearly neither body nor soul, both of whom present themselves to him.  He does not ask “which of these am I?” but “by which of these ought I to seek my God?” noting the limitations of his previous efforts in seeking God through the bodily senses and thus concluding that the inner man is the better.  But nowhere does he denigrate the body; rather, he insists that what the inner man came to know, he came to know through the outer man, through the ministry of the senses.  Augustine does not simply say that man is soul; when the speaker does come to identify himself with one of the “characters” in the psychological drama, he is able to do so because of this process through which he separated the parts of himself and became aware of them as separable parts; and while the anima is the inner man at the start of the passage, the “I” who says “ego” is not the anima simply at the end of the passage .  The I is the animus, who has come to know that he is non-identical with either soul or body.  This passage, so often cited to demonstrate Augustine’s identification of the self with the inner man, is part of a larger project which dramatizes an individual’s self-aware, self-reflexive action as a rational embodied being, the process of a thinker who turns himself to himself, and identifies the parts of himself.  He is not “the inner man” by virtue of essence or inherent identity; he is the inner man because he has become the inner man.  He has become the animus, once he has known himself to be non-identical with the outer man, whose information comes through the senses and the body.  For soul can be rational soul, and mind can be a part of soul, but soul is truly rational only potentially.  Not until that potential is realized through the act of turning oneself to oneself does that speaking “I” become identified with the inner man who knows (and presides, and judges). [4]

I do not mean to present this as a summary of Augustine’s thought – it too would be woefully reductive.  In a larger context, Augustine elsewhere in the Confessions, in City of God, and in Morals 4 will make it clear that man is not soul or body alone but the union of both.  “Not the whole man, but the better part of man, is the soul; nor is the whole man the body, but it is the lower part of man; but when each is joined to the other, that is called man” (Civ. Dei 13.24).   In places he will say that he is mind, in others that he is soul. [5] But nowhere does he say that he is soul in any kind of simple equation.  He does stress that the soul should have primacy. But the soul does not have primacy unless the whole man looks within, separates himself and then reorders himself, and knows himself as a self-aware creation.  That the mere possession of  a soul is not enough is clear in 4.4.9, where clouded by grief, Augustine became a “great riddle” [magna quaestio] to himself, writing, “interrogabam animam meam quare tristis esset et quare conturbaret me valde, et nihil noverat respondere mihi” [I asked my soul why she was so sad, and why she disquieted me sorely: but she knew not what to answer me].

Why, then, is he not consistent?  Why would he contradict himself on on such an important matter as the locus of self?   Not from carelessness in assembling his sources, and surely not because he is confused about what he believes.  By dramatizing the internal process by which a self comes to know itself , he emphasizes the self as an object of inquiry who can come to know itself as an object of knowledge, that he is not identical with his life-force nor with his bodily senses.  The goal is not, however, to escape any prison of the body or relegate the flesh to uselessness; it is to turn the knowledge gained through the imaginative and spiritual exercise displayed in the Confessions towards a new, different unity of being which is decisively embodied but which enables disidentification with the body.  The “I that knows” is the animus only insofar as it knows itself as a creation, and that awareness of self as creation is of a piece with awareness of that self’s creator: “Hence it must know that it is a creature.” [6]  Is this, then, a strict anthropology? No.  But since when has Christian ontology, with its emphasis on potential, been strict anthropology, with its emphasis on description?

I belabor these points not because I intend to write about the Anglo-Saxon reception of Augustine, and not because I am claiming Augustine’s Confessions were a direct influence on soul and body works in Anglo Saxon England, but because it is worth noting the miniature drama which Augustine puts on here, deploying parts of the self into dialectic so that together, they may collaborate in order to 1. recognize their lack of self-sameness, to know themselves as not identical, and 2. to turn the person who has so realized that he is not identical with his senses or his body to work in cooperation with the senses in order to attain knowledge of God.  This drama is one of a conscious alienation of the self from itself, and this is repeatedly the central characteristic of soul-and-body works in Old English.  The works emphasize potential over anthropology, and this makes perfect sense within a penitential context.  For everyone is born with lif, hyge, sawl, lic, but no one is born a Christian.  One becomes a Christian, and then one must continually choose to remain a Christian.  In that sense, confession is conversion; as Augustine spoke to his own soul in Confessions 4.11.17, “ut quid perversa sequeris carnem tuam? ipsa te sequatur conversam” [Why then be perverted and follow your flesh? Let it be converted and follow you].   Works of soul and body are part of a larger penitential theology which offers a method for the individual human being to enact precisely this type of constant conversion.  And the works delineate a model of being that should be understood not as Anglo-Saxon psychology, but as penitential ontology.

So, I certainly don’t have all the fine points sorted out, but essentially I think that’s what I’m doing right now, trying to demonstrate what a larger view of Anglo-Saxon soul-and-body works — one that does not concern itself primarily with the question of which of the two, soul or body, should properly have responsibility for sin and salvific action in life — can give us towards our understanding of Anglo-Saxon Christianity more largely, or even soul-and-body relations more narrowly.  There’s a lot of thinking still to be done, and a lot of prose still to be smoothed over (the above is certainly not my best writing), and there’s also more translation to be done than I will ever have time to do justice to.  But that’s the best I can do right now to articulate the goal of the first three chapters.


[1] Benjamin Kurtz deems “Soul and Body” a vehicle for “calculated hatred” and judges its emphasis on the body’s corruption as unorthodox dualism betraying a belief that flesh is evil.  Gifer the Worm: an Essay Toward the History of an Idea, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1929.  “Mishmash” is Karen Jolly’s term (75);  Jolly also proclaims the literate Anglo-Saxon worldview Augustinian (see esp 72-81), citing Benedicta Ward in Miracles and the Medieval Mind who “demonstrated that an Augustinian worldview, essentially Platonic, prevailed in western Christendom” (192 n. 2).  Milton Gatch characterizes soul and body works as displaying confusion or lack of concern with consistency and structure; see “Eschatology in the Anonymous Old English Homilies,” Traditio21 (1965), 117-65.  Ann Ross charges homilists with uncritical use and careless integration of source material  in her dissertation “Anglo-Saxon Teaching on the Soul” (1992 Diss. UNC Chapel Hill, pp. 138, 44, and passim). Underlying much of this criticism is the presumption that the Anglo-Saxon church taught a model of a unitary, rational soul which should rightfully have responsibility for care and direction of the body, that this is an essentially Augustinian model, and that deviations from it are careless if not heterodox.

[2] Amity Reading: “it is with the soul that Augustine identifies the self” (54).  2009 Diss., Univ of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

[3] Michelle Hoek, “Violence and Ideological Inversion in the Old English Soul’s Address to the Body,” Exemplaria 10 (1998): 273.

[4] I am indebted throughout this discussion to Kevin Corrigan’s discussion of Augustine in “The Soul-Body Relation in and Before Augustine,” Studia Patristica XLIII 59-80, esp. at 63, 65 and passim, though I illustrate his outline with my own choice of passages and thus am solely at fault for any errors, mistranslations, or complete misreadings.

[5] 10.6.10 “iam tu melior es, tibi dico, anima” [now you are the better part, to you I speak, anima].

[6] De moribus ecclesiae Ch 12.21.

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