Productive Destruction: Torture, Text, and the Body in the Old English Andreas
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 11 (1994)
Writing in the Old English Andreas is at once both a productive and a destructive activity. We first become aware of the dangerous power of the written word quite early in the poem, when we learn that the Mermedonians have subverted the normally productive activity of writing into a tool for calculating the execution dates of their prisoners (134-37).1 Later, the words uttered by the devil to incite the Mermedonians against Andreas illuminate the lexical relationship between the destructive nature of writing and the productive nature of torture in the semiotic context of the poem. Finally, in a sort of “double-subversion,” these same Mermedonians are the agents by which the destructive practice of torture is itself transformed, as they “write” upon Andreas’s body his identity as a type of Christ. It is precisely this analogous relationship between production and destruction, between inscription and infliction, between the act of writing and that of torture and the transformative powers bound up in each practice which I will explore in this paper, focusing on how Andreas’s body ultimately serves as the page upon which this multivalent (and seemingly paradoxical) text is written.
An exploration of the analogy between acts of writing and of torture is central to my discussion of Andreas. More to the point, I wish to define the tangible results of these acts the “texts” composed through both writing and torture in the context of this analogy. To this end I will begin with a discussion of several passages in which the language of production seems, either linguistically or thematically, to be bound up with concepts of destruction. Having developed a philological model which suggests a relationship between concepts of production and destruction, I will posit a theoretical construct of the “gendered” structure of the act of writing, and show how this structure may parallel that of the act of torture. I will conclude with an analysis of the transformative power of pain, and a discussion of the literary parallels to that power as they appear in Andreas.