Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Surface Interiorities: Representing the Quebec Convent

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Surface Interiorities: Representing the Quebec Convent

Article excerpt

The practice we have cultivated around here of focusing on interior things is a good safeguard against falling into such beastly ways.

Saint Teresa d'Avila The Interior Castle

WHAT ARE INTERIOR "THINGS"? For Saint Teresa d'Avila, the sixteenth-century Spanish nun, mystic, and reformer, the things of the interior are not the contents of an inside place but, instead, the matter of the interior's formation, that is, the form, materials, labour, technology, and affects pertaining to its construction. Each successive chapter of The Interior Castle--entitled "First Dwelling;" "Second Dwelling;" and so forth--is itself an interior that soon becomes the outer threshold for an interior to follow. Structured in this way as a series of dwellings that guide readers ever further into the "castle;" Saint Teresa's access of the infinite interior through and especially as limitless movement is comparable to the much more recently conceived phenomenon of "nomadism" associated with Gilles Deleuze. By constantly moving from dwelling to dwelling, The Interior Castle "separates or moves between matter and soul, the facade and the closed room, the outside and the inside." Further, "it is a virtuality that never stops dividing itself" (Deleuze, The Fold 35). For the question of the interior, precisely an architectural one, will always traverse the span between the building material, the exterior walls, the frame, and the space enclosed inside. In fact, in Saint Teresa's "Fifth Dwelling;" movement is a state of the "rapture God gives to the soul" in which

   Suddenly, the soul will become aware of a movement so swift
   that it seems as if her spirit were being whisked away. The sheer
   speed of this movement is terrifying-at least at the beginning....
   I have heard of certain people whose bodies were even
   raised up with their spirits! (195-96)

Saint Teresa's openness to an unforeseen, unpredictable movement, one that is decidedly material as much as it is spiritual, is similar to what I want to explore here, but in the context of nineteenth- and twentieth-century representations of the Quebec convent. Whether in the early travel guides to Quebec, the "autobiographical" expose Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, Abbot Thomas Maguire's history of the Ursulines entitled Notes sur l'erection primitive du Monastere des Ursulines de Quebec, or Clara Gustche's photographs that make up The Convent Series, the convent has posed a significant problem to the authors and artists who have sought to represent this ultimate interior locale on paper. The result, as I will argue here, is that these attempts to come to know and reproduce the convent interior work in such a way as to keep both those who make them, and those who subsequently encounter them, at the surface. To this end, if Saint Teresa's travels to the inside of the castle/soul are subject to the interrupting movement of an outside force, then those who make and engage with the Canadian texts in question are similarly interrupted, in this case from their journeys "in" to the convent. Yet, while these interruptions would seem to prevent the convent scholar from knowing the interior (although perhaps sanctifying it by doing so) they in fact introduce a different representational aesthetic, one that proves satisfactory insofar as it offers a multiplicity of interiors.

Saint Teresa seems an appropriate introduction to this essay on convents, but she also serves as an exemplary figure for Deleuze's project of re-orienting the interior as a surface locale. Specifically, Deleuze sees the interior and the exterior as the product of a surface that is in the continual process of "folding." For Deleuze, Bernini's statue of Saint Teresa is a primary example of the way in which folds exhibit the surface's propensity to be moved by outside forces. He asks: "Is it not fire that can alone account for the extraordinary folds of the tunic?" When the surface of the sculpture can be shaped by "fire," then, by extension, the nature of representation as we know it requires a kind of reshaping or re-orientation with respect to the space of signification. …

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