A couple weeks ago, Languagehat quoted historian Solomon Volkov on the great literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin:
Bakhtin was particularly interested in the use of “reported speech” [chuzháya rech’]–that is, citation–in medieval literature, where “the borders between another’s and one’s own speech were fragile, ambivalent, and frequently convoluted and confused.”
Last week I came across a particularly striking example of this, in an anthology of German Mystical Writings (ed. by Karen J. Campbell for The German Library, Continuum, 1991). Mechthild of Magdeburg (1207-1282) stands out for her daring use of Brautmystik, “bridal mysticism,” in which the contemplative’s journey ends in ardent longing. What the body might experience as the torments of hell, Mechthild says, the soul perceives as the “high delight” of union with the Godhead. She began her major treatise as follows:
THE FLOWING LIGHT OF THE GODHEAD
This Is the First Part of the Book
This book is to be joyfully welcomed for God Himself speaks in it
This book I now send forth as a messenger to all spiritual people both good and bad – for if the pillars fall, the building cannot stand. The book proclaims Me alone and shows forth My holiness with praise. All who would understand this book should read it nine times.
This Book is called The Flowing Light of the Godhead
Ah! Lord God! Who has written this book? I in my weakness have written it, because I dared not hide the gift that is in it. Ah! Lord! What shall this book be called to Thy Glory? It shall be called The Flowing Light of the Godhead into all hearts which dwell therein without falseness.
This prologue is followed by a poetic dialogue between Love and the Soul, modeled after the courtly love poems of the Minnesingers.
Obviously, the blurring of borders between author and Author here helps advance the mystical argument. Notice, however, that the divine Word is spoken; only human words are written. The emphasis on calling and proclaiming, the thrice-repeated title, and the injunction to read the book nine times, remind us of the extent to which spellcraft influenced (and continues to influence) the language of prayer.
Incidentally, if you think “flowing light” sounds a little sexual, I don’t think you’re mistaken. Mechthild’s revelation mixes allegory with bodily imagery in a manner that can hardly fail to strike the modern reader as bizarre. For example, from Part 1:
19. God caresses the soul in six things
Thou art My resting place, My love, My secret peace, My deepest longing, My highest honor. Thou art a delight of My Godhead, a comfort of My manhood, a cooling stream for My ardor.
And you thought the via negativa was weird! Actually, what this most reminds me of was something I read in Rolling Stone a few years back. Some popular hip-hop guy was being interviewed about his Christian beliefs. He said, “I’m on God’s dick!”
Further musings on the divine phallus will have to wait for another time.