Neighboring Texts, Christian Literary Theory, and A Few Dodgy Sandwiches

A little background on my previous entry:

Last summer, I had the privilege of presenting a paper at a panel called “Romance and the Neighbor/Stranger” at the New Chaucer Society conference (held in Portland, OR, which meant that I spent about a third of my time listening to wonderful papers, another third geeking out with a submarine service vet aboard the USS Blueback and the other third making myself ill on street-cart food). I was presenting on the odd Scottish “neighbors” that show up in a late 14th century English romance known as the Stanzaic Morte Arthure, but the highlight of the conference, though I didn’t quite realize it at the time, was a short conversation, after that panel, with a scholar named George Edmonson (which I’m sure he doesn’t remember). He and several others had mentioned his recent book The Neighboring Text: Chaucer, Boaccacio, Henryson in the context of some really fascinating conversations, so, of course, my first act upon returning home was to devour that book.

It turned out to be my favorite kind of scholarly book: the kind that creates lively conversation and interaction between text and reader, the kind that opens up new and fruiful ways of thinking about texts, and the kind that is every bit as useful and enlightening in the spots where I found myself disagreeing with the writer’s conclusions about a text as it was in the moments where I found myself nodding vigorously. It’s a book that’s been, in Edmondson’s own sense of the term, a very good neighbor over the past few months.

The book isn’t an easy one for those without a pretty solid initiation in the terminology of Lacanian psychoanalysis, but I can talk about it here because, in many ways, the book’s most brilliant idea is also its simplest: Texts, like people, can be neighbors. Neighbors that one might love as one’s self.

Edmonson’s study is ostensibly a comparative one, using Chaucer, Boccacio, and the Scottish poet Robert Henryson as its main subjects. Edmondson points out that relationships between these texts (and between texts in medieval literary studies generally) has most often been conceived in terms of genealogical metaphors, ideas of kinship, lineage, influence, and power: which texts are the fathers and mothers of which others? Which texts were enacting influence and pressure on others (a hard question in a field where dating texts can be a problem)? Which manuscripts derive from which others in “family trees” of textual transmission? Edmondson’s simple-but-brilliant innovation is to switch metaphors: “What would happen,” Edmonson writes, “if we began to think about relations between certain readers and certain texts as ones of neighboring, defined by proximity and carrying the weight of an event…what would happen if we pushed the matter further and, employing the same logic of “miscelleneity” that governed seemingly random arrangements of medieval manuscripts, began to think about the relations among certain texts as ones of neighboring rather than kinship?” (4). That switch, from metaphors of kinship to those of neighboring, raises a number of intriguing possibilities for thinking about literary relationships–not to mention human ones–that extend well beyond Edmonson’s medieval subject matter. Edmonson notices that “the neighbor [like the text] is both intimate and strange, both proximate and remote, both reassuring and threatening,” and that it may make sense to “describe relations between readers and texts as an ambivalent mixture of sympathetic understanding, misrecognition, and, in come cases, mutual aggression” (8).

I think there are a great many useful implications of thinking about texts this way, but the one I’m interested in in this particular venue is its potential value for those scholars of literatures and cultures who, like myself, engage in their scholarship at institutions that explicitly identify with a religious faith, particularly Christianity. In that case, the idea of “loving one’s neighbor as one’s self” is, of course, not just an interesting ethical idea one can trace through Freud, Kierkegaard, Buber, Lacan, Rienhard, and others (though it is most certainly that), but also a direct commandment from the central figure of that faith that the practicitioner is under the clearest of imperatives to follow. Bringing such an idea to a text, I suspect, can lead to some very useful questions (I posed these, with astoundingly productive effect, to my Senior Seminar students this past Spring): What is one’s goal as a reader/scholar of a text? To get something out of it? Make it, like a torture victim, cough up its secrets? Extract a resource? Control or contain what’s troubling about it? Or does one, as the imperative to love the neighbor as onesself might direct, decide to do what the Samaritan in the parable does: open one’s self to an encounter with an Other, approached as such, with all it’s own potentially disturbing, disruptive difference and desire intact, acknowledging responsibility for the fact that one is going to find things in it that are potentially threatening, incomprehensible, incommensurable with and even dangerous to one’s own identity and “worldview” and love those things in it. Even love them as yourself.

I’m wondering what such a practice might look like. How might it change the ways in which one reads, what one looks for in an encounter with a text? Can I become open to surprising, unsettling, and even dangerous encounters without trying to contain that danger–either through the pre-emptive employment of other frameworks or after-the-fact attempts at explaining it away, much less acts of dismissal or rejection? The most common paradigm in what’s sometimes called “Christian Literary Criticism,” like most ideologically-oriented schools of thought, seems prone to such acts, a critical methodology that insists on comparing every text with a laundry list of doctrinal propositions said to constitute a ‘Christian worldview.’ That kind of exclusive ‘worldview,’ conceived as a set of characteristics designed to mark texts or people as falling within or without a particular category, is, after all, precisely what Christ himself seems to warn us against in his parable–the Samaritan is the “good” one precisely because, as we’ve already explored in the previous entry, he acts in mercy without regard to category. Applying the imperative to love the neighbor to texts, perhaps, can allow for an approach to literary texts that is at once distinctively Christian (in that it starts with an application of Christ’s primary commandment) while remaining fully open to the suffering, the difference, the danger of every wounded pilgrim we pass.

2 thoughts on “Neighboring Texts, Christian Literary Theory, and A Few Dodgy Sandwiches

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