A Response to Kathleen Biddick
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 11 (1994)
Kathleen Biddick’s paper is characteristically inventive. Ranging across a wide range of current writings in a multiplicity of fields in cultural and post-colonial studies, it is full of suggestive comments on their potential relevance to medieval studies. It is a fine example of that breathless intellectual curiosity which is at the heart of so much creative, original work. Her “counter-ethnographic” lecture has been an admirable invitation for us to renew our forms of self-reflexion. It is an invitation for all of us who earn our living, or hope to earn our living, by teaching aspects of the European past, to review our own relations to its disciplinary regimes and its persecutory mechanisms. It asks us especially to connect this review with the globalization of these persecutory formations, a globalization that cannot rightly be hived off into a specialist discipline called “post-colonial studies,” since it concerns us all–as medievalists and as human beings struggling with its legacies. The stories Biddick tells are, she emphasizes, stories about us too. As she conjures up the inquisitors and murderous regimes of the past she would have us recognize ourselves, academic disciplines and institutions in them. Here her oration reminds me of one of my most cherished encounters, that between Milton and his own figure of Satan in Blake’s epic Milton. There Milton descends again to earth to revise his old battles with renewed, deeper understanding. Blake himself waits for Milton in his cottage by the Sussex coast, standing “in Satan’s bosom” where he “beheld its desolations,” its “furnaces of affliction,” its tortured labour, poverty and crushing of human potential. Milton is once more threatened by Satan insisting that he is indeed “God the judge of all,” demanding total submission to the ways of the world and his own satanic version of order and reality, one in which Jesus and his gospel of forgiveness is a pernicious “Delusion”. But now Milton encounters his adversary with transformed insight: “Satan! my Spectre!” He now grasps the dialectical unity between himself and the satanic forms of life he rightly opposed and accepts the consequences, heroically: “I come to Self Annihilation.” How does this figure forth our situation?