Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sounding Emotion in St. Erkenwald

I'm rereading the seven or so pages I managed to produce this past week in the cozy climes of West Liberty's Local Grounds coffee shop and I'm struck by how much of my discussion of emotion is focusing not only on its potential to build community but on the troubling ambiguity of emotional vocabularies.  In particular, I'm trying to figure out what to do with the sound of emotion.  But before I get to sound, I should quickly spell out the source of St. Erkenwald's emotional ambiguities.

Most, if not all, scholars read Erkenwald's and his London flock's emotions during the interview with the pagan corpse as unambiguous compassion mixed with sorrow.  The dead body reveals his soul's plight in the hell-mouth and everyone feels bad and cries.  Fairly straightforward, right?  While it's pretty difficult to argue against the authenticity of Erkenwald and the people's compassion, I think there's a level of ambiguity to their emotions that has yet to be discussed.  More specifically, I would argue that the pagan's uncorrupted body presents a frightening theological quandary that threatens some of the fundamental beliefs of the Christian church.

If I'm not mistaken, in the Middle Ages the uncorrupted body is an unequivocal sign of sainthood.  To have flesh that defies decomposition is to have a soul that stands among the ranks of the beatified.  Yet, the Londoners cannot find any record of this individual in local chronicle or necrology and, when Erkenwald questions the vibrant corpse, they discover that the man is in face a pagan who never knew Christ.  It is this disconnect between the expectation of sainthood and the pagan's identity that I think sparks an intense anxiety in Erkenwald especially.

“Quere,” Erkenwald fretfully presses the pagan corpse, “is ho [soul] stablid and stadde if þou so stre[g]t wroghtes?” (274). The bishop, I suspect, can hardly contain his anxious apprehension, at once uneasy at the thought that a noble pagan man has entered the ranks of the beatified and yet fearful that this “stre[g]t” man, this noble and virtuous judge, might languish in hell.  Erkenwald can’t negotiate what the pagan means or what he’s supposed to feel. With his uncorrupted body “stablid” in the foundations of New Work, buried under the bolsters of St. Paul’s cathedral, the monument that is meant to “Christendome stablyde,” it seems incongruous to Erkenwald and his London flock that a body marked with sanctity lying at the heart of their unfinished Christian monument would not have once caged a soul that now resides in heaven. In these anxious moments, the body defies the conventions of sainthood and affective piety, disrupts the expectation that devotion to and contemplation of the saintly image will transport the devotee to heavenly climes.  If the body represents a spirit roiling in the hellmouth, what happens to those who gaze and perhaps fetishize this seeming object of devotion? Erkenwald yearns for some kind of resolution, perhaps hoping against hope that the pagan’s soul has somehow achieved God’s grace.  Erkenwald well knows that a pagan can’t possibly reach heaven no matter how good the works he “wroghtes” in life, but the bishop nevertheless insists that good works might be enough to save the pagan, quoting a “psalmyde” as if he’s trying to convince himself: “Þe skillfulle and þe vnskathely skelton ay to me” (278).   Erkenwald wishes aloud that righteousness (or, the skillfulle) should be enough to leave the spirit unscathed.  The bishop begs the pagan to say that his “soule in sele quere ho wonnes,” that he has somehow become Christian enough not only to warrant the “riche restorment” of his body and clothing, but enough to sit among the blissful choirs in heaven’s kingdom (279-80).  Of course, the pagan can’t claim membership in the community of the “sele quere”; he can’t resolve Erkenwald and his flock’s anxieties and confusions.

This brings me to the sound of emotion.  I think St. Erkenwald is very much interested in interrogating the efficacy of sight and sound in religious devotion, interpersonal communication, and community building.  I suspect once I hammer out the final version of my thesis, I will end up arguing that the Erkenwald-poet is privileging sound over sight, favoring the ephemeral over the tangible.  But before I make any final decisions, I need to work through what exactly is going on when the pagan corpse makes noise.

For one, I think the body's noise further disrupts the Londoners’ sensibilities. Erkenwald’s fretful interrogation is met by a series of garbled, inarticulate sounds and frantic, apoplectic gestures of the head.  The corpse “hummyd,” writes the Erkenwald-poet, a Middle English word that covers a range of suggestive sounds that include humming, murmuring, and buzzing.  In fact, the MED also suggests that this vocal sound elicits a particular affect, an “inarticulate” range of mumbling sounds that are intended to cover up shame and embarrassment.  The pagan corpse doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t know how to say it, cannot articulate the shame he feels for not being among the “sele quere,” for his righteousness not protecting his soul that now scathes in the hellfire. And as the murmurs suggest a staggering shame that the pagan hasn’t come to terms with, his convulsive wagging of the head further indicates an unstable and irresolute wavering.  The word “waggyd” indicates, according to the MED, struggle, vacillation, and lack of steadfastness.  The wagging, humming corpse cannot converse but can only sound and gesture affect, a raw emotional outpouring that denies Erkenwald and the Londoners any coherent resolution.  With a “gronynge ful grete,” the pagan upsets the desire for an easy solution to his incongruous body and, for a moment, dislocates language from emotion and instead privileges primeval noise (282).  Humming, wagging, and groaning, the pagan unleashes an affective spectacle that suggests but does not pronounce, that intimates but does not enunciate, and leaves the audience ultimately unable to reconcile his sorrow, shame, and/or vacillation. In this moment, the pagan and his incongruous body continue to disrupt and resist.

Maybe?  I have more work to do.

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