Academic journal article Magistra

Riddling the Subject: Female Mystics, Hysterics' Faith

Academic journal article Magistra

Riddling the Subject: Female Mystics, Hysterics' Faith

Article excerpt

Several hagiographie narratives interpret the cloistered space as a seat of mystery and describe life within that cloister as an imitation of death. This paper poses the question: how is the subject-object division effected by women who use this liminal space to demand and respond to epistemologies circumscribed by patriarchal power plays? This paper suggests that the destabilized subjectivity that surfaces through the tension between death, desire, and secrecy indicates an alternative model of personhood in anchoritic life wherein the mystic becomes the instigator of discourse by creating an injunction to respond.1

In the Lacanian sense, this marks the mystic as a hysteric. No claim is made here to fully assimilate the breadth of Lacanian logic associated with this term, but rather consider the hysteric here as the "object that cannot be mastered by knowledge." 2 In this discursive model - the master's discourse - the master situates himself as the origin of knowledge and therefore power, using the disciple's desires to solicit recognition of his autonomy. The hysteric, however, creates a disjunction in the flow of knowledge production, and this is what may be considered as the site of her riddled subjectivity. Approached through a Derridian interpretation of liminal space, this model will offer a helpful lens through which to consider the rhetorical significance of the hysteric's discourse as transindividual in nature, providing fresh perspective into productions of knowledge in medieval holy women's lives.

This focus on female spirituality comes out of a broader interest in medieval women's writing, particularly in how women's narratives work to navigate a cultural environment that often masked behaviors that could be considered disruptive or otherwise problematic for the hegemonic and predominantly patriarchal milieu. Religious women were especially capable of subversive acts that society viewed as a part of the divinization process and allowed them to serve their communities as conduits to God.

Karolyn Kinane interprets the extraordinariness of their lives as empowering these women as "living relics of God," and this furthermore suggests an alternative interpretation of the mystic's relationship to her own female body, which Kinane also points out as a significant gap in current critical studies of anchoritic spirituality. This paper therefore explores the intersection of death and desire in the hysteric's discourse and the implications that arise when this intersection is considered in the context of secrecy in the rhetoric of faith.

Holy women's revisions of traditional Christian narratives often indicate a junction of knowledge and secrecy when focusing on the female body as a reflection of Christ's humanity,5 and Hildegard of Bingen contributed to these variations in no small part. In the Scivias, her specific refraining of the fall privileges women because their excessus, the visceral experiences that comprise their ecstasy, qualifies and reinvents their knowledge of God as experiential rather than merely theoretical.

Indeed, Hildegard sees "the figure of the woman," not the man, "as the Son of God hung on the cross ... like a shining splendor hastening forth from the ancient counsel brought to Him by the divine power." Drawing on the Bernardian bridal narrative, Hildegard moreover describes woman as "raising herself up ... bathed with the blood and joined in happy spousal through the will of the supernal Father" so that "the Church was thereby strengthened in pure inheritance of the eternal kingdom and was faithfully joined by the will of the most high Father."6 This particular attribution of the Church's purity to female spiritual potential suggests that God invites the mystic to participate in Christ through her excessus instead of being condemned for it.

Adam, moreover, is targeted as not only the source of woman's life matter, but as the symbolic roots of her own evils as well, which Hildegard suggests in a letter to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux:

Therefore I weep with sorrow before you, since I am fickle in my nature, with the motion of the winepress, the tree born of the root springing in Adam from the suggestion of the Devil, whence he became an exile in the pilgrimage of the world. …

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