How Soon is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time.
About seven years ago in Kalamazoo, I joined a vast throng squeezing its way into Western Michigan University's sweltering Stinson Lounge to hear four luminaries of medieval scholarship read papers. The first, and the one for whom I was most willing to suffer the heat and claustrophobia, was Carolyn Dinshaw. I was a new (though not particularly young) medievalist, but I knew Dinshaw to be a top scholar in medieval and gender studies, two of the fields most important to my own PhD work. Having read her excellent Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (1999), I also knew that Dinshaw was an expert at elucidating vital connections between medieval and contemporary culture, defying the popular, politically-correct image of medieval studies as hopelessly irrelevant and of medievalists as doddering relics of elitist academia utterly out of touch with real-world issues. I cannot say that medieval studies or medievalists in general have successfully dispelled this pejorative view in the intervening years, but I can certainly witness to Carolyn Dinshaw's uncanny ability to demonstrate its falsity. In How Soon is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time, Dinshaw once again demonstrates the interwoven nature of the medieval, the modern, and the contemporary in her study of medievalism, the amateur, and time.
How Soon is Now?, a re-thinking of modernist linear time, joins an increasing body of philosophical and interdisciplinary scholarship debating our understanding of time as a linguistic, anthropological, social, and cultural construction. Dinshaw notes recent scholarly discussion of "the now" from ethnographer Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, physicist Martin Land, and anthropologist Jonathan Boyarin as evidence of the current relevance of this debate. She structures her exploration of multiplicitous, plastic, and unstable temporalities around the figure of the amateur medievalist of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and defines their amateurism not on the basis of being paid or unpaid, but on their "affections, their intimacy with their materials, their desires," explaining that the amateurs' "operation" outside the "culture of professionalism" opens them to experience temporal connections in ways foreclosed to the professional--thus necessarily detached and objective--academician (29, 25). In addition, she characterizes her amateurs as queered by their connections to the past, as well as by their separation from the linear temporality of patriarchal reproduction. Dinshaw's amateurs include historian Frederick James Furnivall, authors Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Washington Irving (along with his creation Geoffrey Crayon), scholar Hope Emily Allen, as well as amateur medievalist Thomas Colpeper, who is a character from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's baffling 1944 motion picture A Canterbury Tale. She adds herself to the list of amateurs, as well, in spite of her professional success and recognition. The chapters of the book are generally structured around a medieval text or group of texts that have been particularly loved by and influential upon one of these amateurs. Connecting the queerness of time and its concomitant links between medieval text and modern amateur with her own experiences of queerness and time, in each chapter Dinshaw enacts the temporal complexity that she seeks to elucidate: throughout the book the medieval impinges upon the modern, joins present with past, and blurs into in the now of Dinshaw's contemporary lived experience.
The introduction to How Soon is Now? opens Dinshaw's examination of queerness and time through the lyrics of the 1984 song by The Smiths from which she takes her title. Noting the "shifty" meanings of the words "soon" and "now" in the song, she establishes the relative nature of time and the impossibility of fixing these notions outside of perception and context (2). Defining her project as an exploration of "forms of desirous, embodied being that are out of synch with the ordinarily linear measurements of everyday life, that engage heterogeneous temporalities or that precipitate out of time altogether," Dinshaw situates her postulations about temporality in a theoretical tradition "starting ... with Aristotle" and deeply influenced by Augustine (4, 2). In chapter one, Dinshaw focuses on amateur medieval tales of asynchrony in which a character either sleeps away centuries and awakens out of time or is somehow transported to a different temporality from which he emerges at a time far removed from his own. Using the exemplum known as "The Monk and the Bird" from The Northern Homily Cycle and various other versions of the same basic plot, including "The Seven Sleepers" and "King Herla," Dinshaw traces the lure of asynchrony to the Golden Legend of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. She argues that Longfellow's narrative creates a "temporally complex now through medieval poetry and prose [that connects] him to other people across time and space," satisfying his amateurish, "queer desire" for "another kind of time" that she labels "temporal copresence" (68, 71, 64).
In the second chapter, Dinshaw turns her attention to The Book of John Mandeville, first drawing her reader's attention to Mandevilles's own temporally copresent, albeit temporary, experience of the fountain of youth. She asserts, as she does at other points in the book, that in The Book of John Mandeville and other medieval texts to travel east is to travel backward in time. Journeys eastward draw travelers into realms of the primitive or exotic, spaces somehow always in touch with a mythological or folkloric past. One of Dinshaw's amateurs in this chapter is Andrew Lang, the "later-nineteenth-century man of letters" deemed "divine" for his quality prose by Oscar Wilde (93). Lang's affectation of "Middle English" as well as the content of his comic letter to Mandeville demonstrate the attraction of asynchrony for the amateur, but even Lang's queering of time is overshadowed the sham "lost" chapter of Mandeville's book penned by the young M. R. James, who later in life became a professional medievalist. Dinshaw's links the queered spatial and temporal desires of Mandeville and others in the chapter to her own sense of displacement, which she calls her "own not-quite-white queerness," claiming through this sense of "diasporic experience" a kinship to the amateur and a place in the "asynchronous now" (104).
Although she includes personal experience and observation throughout the introduction and first two chapters, in chapter three and the epilogue, Dinshaw's own experiences become more integral and important to her argument. The third chapter of How Soon is Now? is extremely personal. In it Dinshaw explores the asynchrony of Hope Emily Allen, the amateur whose work with medieval texts brought The Book of Margery Kempe into the twentieth century. Allens untimely production of the text, The Book of Margery Kempe (itself a wealth of complex temporalities and disordered time), and Dinshaw's experience with a displaced tombstone that she found on her property in the Catskills, which is of course the site of another story of sleeping oneself out of time, are intermingled throughout this chapter, producing in the reader an amazingly coherent sense of the integration of the medieval past, the near past, and the immediate now. In her epilogue Dinshaw turns to the exceedingly odd and mildly criminal character Thomas Colpeper and his attempt to create a sort of "transtemporal communion" among the Kentish countryside that he calls home, the soldiers and Land Girls who pass through it, and the medieval world of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (162). Dinshaw, perhaps humorously, likens herself to Colpeper: "he's my personal nightmare version of the Chaucerian--me--trying to interest an indifferent audience in the Canterbury Tales. This statement, however, strikes me as somewhat disingenuous, since the relevance of the medieval to the unfixed now is masterfully demonstrated throughout How Soon is Now
In spite of the book's somewhat personal tone, Dinshaw does include a smattering of theoretical analysis of her subject. Perhaps the only complaint I might have with How Soon is Now? is that Dinshaw might have given a bit more time to the analytical aspects of the book. However, because she situates How Soon is Now? in relation to recent scholarship on queer temporalities such as Judith Halberhsam's In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (2005) and Jose Esteban Munoz's Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009) as well as in relation to contemporary theoretical work such as that of historian Dipesh Chakrabarty and literary scholar Svetlana Boym, Carolyn Dinshaw seals the scholarly value of her investigation of temporalities, medievalism, and medieval literature, but reading How Soon is Now? seems far less a scholarly exercise than a pleasurable foray into Dinshaw's thoughtful and very personal connection to the medievalist amateur of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well as to the medieval texts to which they and she have devoted so much study. Each chapter offers insightful analyses of the multiple temporalities in the medieval texts, cogent explication of the asynchronous attachment to and engagement of these texts by various amateurs, and a connection to the now of Dinshaw's own lived experience. Readers of Christianity and Literature, both professional and amateur, who have an interest in temporality, medieval studies, queer theory, or medievalisms, will find reading this book a valuable and singularly pleasurable use of their time.
Dallas Baptist University
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|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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