Mapping the Problems of Sexual Desire in the Book of Margery Kempe. (Literature)

By Sikorska, Liliana | Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies, Annual 1996 | Go to article overview

Mapping the Problems of Sexual Desire in the Book of Margery Kempe. (Literature)


Sikorska, Liliana, Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies


Because he dreams of seeding the world with
words
his eyes bite
She looks He looks away
He is snowblind
from staring at her breasts
They make love
This is marked by asterisks
those gaps
disguised as stars
* * *

He thinks the future is a mouth
She invites him into her apple (1)

Erica Yong's interpretation of original sin brings forward the very controversial question of the initial fallibility of women. Eve, the first temptress, appears to be the first active element in the history of mankind and, as it seems, it is her activity that forwards the couple's banishment from paradise. Yet, to many scholars (Bal 1987: 11-36) Eve is not the physical cause of the fall; she symbolizes the coming of the inevitable, the recognition of sexual identity. Paradise lost, then, signifies the beginning of the human world with human sexuality as the creative and affirmative force of life. Erica Yang's redefining of the symbolic apple intensifies the sin of carnal knowledge. In the symbol of the "apple" knowledge is equated with the recognition of fleshly desires and earthly needs, which in turn is responsible for the development of individual identity. This paper deals with female subjectivity in the Late Middle Ages as exemplified in The Book of Margery Kempe. In Kempe's book the terms of the two do mains, the erotic and the metaphysical, are interchangeable, raising the question of the true nature of mystical union with the divine. My paper discusses the issue of control over one's body, mapping the problems of sexual desire disguised as ideal love for the Son of God.

Margery Kempe was considered to be a minor mystic, as Knowles observes (1961: 149) "little of spiritual instruction is to be found in her book". She was classified as a second-rate writer not because of a doubtful value and authenticity of her experience but because of the awkwardness in which she renders her visions. Her mysticism lacks the spiritual insight we find in so many other mystical works. Undoubtedly, there is earthly simplicity in her communication with God. As Margery Kempe was dictating her text, by contemporary standards she was not creating the book, she was recreating herself through her visions of God. She narrates the events chronologically only to confirm her own spiritual development. Thus, her desire to fully understand the love of God gives her work a confessional nature. Putting genuine divine experience into primary position the text, however, often makes itself available to an erotic reading. Love scenes in her autobiographical self-conception are the generative matrix of the text.

Margery Kempe externalizes in her cumbersome manner her inner psychic needs, she attempts to recreate herself as a woman through her love of Jesus. Her book presents a reflection of identity as the surface of a mirror. She is the ultimate centerfold, embedded -- when her text is published -- within the narrative of the priest. She performs a self-definition in relation to significant others. The "I" of the text is changed by the priest into "she", but usually she features as "this creature". So we, as readers, are additionally distanced from the author's self. And, what is more, textually that self looses part of control over her confessions. It is that process of "speaking" that plays a crucial role in the process of appropriating subjecthood. And here even more so than in later female writings one can see how she becomes the "thief of language" (Rubin Suleiman 1986: 10). As female autobiographer she mediates her selfhood through the text that is being created, her invisibility results from her lack of a tra dition, and marginality in the male-dominated culture. Her fragmentation is social and political as well as psychological.

Margery, however, attains a sense of self-importance through the feeling of being chosen by God. Such certainty was very much needed not only to convince the priest about the value of her visions that had to be written down, but also establish her own voice in relation to the community she lived in. …

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