Private Passions: The Contemplation of Suffering in Medieval Affective Devotions
By Susan M. Arvay
PhD Dissertation, Rutgers University, 2008
Abstract: This dissertation examines the representation of suffering in medieval affective devotional texts. Images of physical and emotional suffering from Christ’s life and Passion abound in these materials meant for private meditation. Critical assessments of this suffering often cast it as indicative of child-like literalism and sentimentality. By contrast, I argue that these texts require the reader to engage with this suffering in far more complex psychological ways.
Chapter one explores the connection between imagined suffering and the ethical function of affective meditations. Drawing on Mary Caruthers’s work on the cultural meanings and uses of memory, I demonstrate how the classical art of memory evolved during the Middle Ages from a secular tool for orators into a Christian tool for self-fashioning.
Chapter two examines the process of self-transformation encouraged by the Meditations on the Life of Christ and questions the perception that the Meditations merely offers a script for a meditator to passively follow in order to feel compassion for Christ. I use performance theory to argue that the Meditations instead relies on a productive tension between pleasure and pain that causes the meditator to experience the act of inflicting emotional pain upon herself as a pleasurable act of self-creation.
Chapter three employs Emmanuel Levinas’s ideas about the nature of an ethical relationship with the Other to illuminate the nature of Margery Kempe’s relationship to Christ in The Book of Margery Kempe. Kempe’s Book demonstrates the necessity to the affective project of failing to make God and his suffering “familiar” to the reader.
Chapter four uses Caroline Bynum’s work on gender in medieval spirituality to argue that the Quis dabit, one of the most popular and influential texts in the planctus Mariae genre, embodies assumptions about gendered spiritual roles that affect how male and female readers relate to Christ and Mary. In the Quis dabit‘s conversation between Bernard of Clairvaux and Mary, Bernard’s attempt to identify with Mary’s suffering turns into his appropriation of Mary’s own narrative in order to make her better fit the “feminine” role that he needs her to play for his own spiritual ends.