Saturday, April 28, 2012

"A mystery only metaphor could contain"

I've been struggling with this post, as is only appropriate, and attempting to place my thoughts into words that seem insufficient to describe what is at work, not only in the Marian mystery, but in these texts. Which, again, is only appropriate, for as we discussed in class, our poets have staged the mystery of how Mary, as vessel, might “contain the uncontainable” as a problem of how words might attempt to “describe the indescribable.” We also mentioned that one way to attempt this is by sheer length of description, as Walter's attempt to exhaust Marian attributes (or, in other cases, to systematize them) is really an expression of infinity— to list all that one could possibly contribute to Mary and then declare that she yet supersedes them all.

By offering so many possible metaphors, the poets suggest that she is many things simultaneously, not bound by any particular comparison but combining and surpassing them all, to create a composite of attributes that is yet non-composite (I am reminded at this point of the encyclopedic/natural science tradition of reading aspects of nature as the reflection of divine attributes; perhaps it is not that Mary is like a cell, but rather a cell like Mary). “KP” posits that “The answer of why these songs are so difficult to comprehend is that they have so many underlying themes.” I agree, this is a very important aspect of the difficulty—the very multiplicity and richness of the referents (Song of Songs, wisdom literature, etc.) creates a sense of cognitive vastness, of so many individual possible correlations that the whole seems unattainably incomprehensible.

But what else might be happening to assist this effect of infinity and indescribability? I am hypothesizing that there is also something even more deliberate at work in these poems, suggesting a complexity that surpasses that of multiplicity. Compare, for instance, these two passages from Walter of Wimborne:

3.  Hail, glorious virgin,
you who are the comment and gloss
of prophetic scripture,
whose gloss lays bare
that which is veiled 
by the hard shell of the letter.

8.  Hail, virgin, cell of the Word,
concealing the light-beam of deity
under a cloud of flesh;
hail, virgin, covering of God,
through whom the clouded, bleary, blind
eye of the mind has its salve.

Mary's role in the first is that of revealing; in exegetical terms, she is the explanation, the text that pulls meaning from content, the addition that gives purpose to an already written text. She frees and unveils. In the second passage, Mary conceals, she clouds, she provides a “cell” for the Word. On the surface, so to speak, these passages appear in conflict-- Mary simultaneously veils and unveils. Yet this is what I think is a “productive cognitive dissonance,” if I may be allowed such a jargon-y phrase. The contrast is, I assume, deliberate. What can it mean that Mary simultaneously veils and unveils? The metaphors appear incompatible. And yet it is the case, and force us into some mental gymnastics. In this case, perhaps they can be reconciled by inferring that in both passages, Mary is an agent of human understanding—first by giving something a clear explanation, then by giving that explanation a form that is accessible to human cognitive abilities (she “clouds” the Word so that the “clouded” human thought process can keep up.)

But can the metaphors always be reconciled? I also agree with “DAY” that light, and especially reflected light, is a powerful Marian image that describes her relationship to the divine. To “DAY”'s examples I would add this one:

86.  Hail, bright torch of heaven,
whose brightness and splendor is never covered
by damp cloud,
whose face produces a quivering [dazzle],
at which the cherub, that he may gaze upon it,
is compelled to blink.

Yet, then, what do we do with this?

18.  Hail, cloud shot through
with the flames of Phoebus and adorned
with the rainbow of divinity,
you who conceal the light under a shadow
and who cover the eternal Word
with the mantle of our flesh.

Is she light or is she cloud? Is she veil or is she mirror? The answer, I think, is both; the contradictions open up new cognitive associations as we attempt to align them into something that is a unified, comprehensible whole, and in moments when that is simply untenable, we are forced to acknowledge that she is both and she is neither because she herself is simply not containable in metaphorical terms. The dissonance created by these metaphors creates a larger space in which she may dwell. This is perhaps also the point of lines in which Walter juxtaposes opposite images, as in s.77, “through you the crooked is made straight,/ through you the ancient one becomes a boy.” Mary's “span” is sufficiently broad as to bring together polar opposites:

84.  Hail, virgin, through whom
your diseased host is made healthy,
through whom the exile returns;
hail, through whom harsh death
is subdued, which loosens
and unbinds that which is joined.

All this is not to deny that “every keen rhetor sours/ and seems paltry in eloquence” (s.35) when they attempt to describe Mary, but to assert that part of this “souring” is not only running out of words because no amount of words is sufficient, but also recognizing that though Mary is logic, she yet defies logic. The overlapping and competing metaphors gesture to whole that not only supersedes them in number of attributes, but reconciles them. The very juxtaposition, confluence, or divergence of the metaphors help the poets to say something about Mary, even as they must admit that they can say nothing; or, perhaps, to repurpose Frauenlob's words,

“See what is mixed, what is unmixed,
and what is threshed from the mixture.
If the mixture keeps its force,
how it rejuvenates the source!” (s.17)

(The phrase that I used for my title, and most of the ruminating that went into this post, must be attributed to Professor Fulton Brown's talk on Thursday at DePaul)



  1. "Mary is an agent of human understanding"--I'm going to use this! Wonderful meditation on Walter's imagery, exactly the kind of ruminating that I think he was aiming for. I particularly like the way you point to the contrasts in his imagery (veiling and unveiling, logic that is beyond logic) and how they allow him to say something about Mary, even as he recognizes that it is wholly inadequate. There is the piling up of images, and then there is the mystery expressed through each individual image. Fully to appreciate Walter (and through Walter, Mary) we need to take account of both.


  2. I really enjoyed this blog post! I particularly like the way you compare verses and point out the seeming contradictions that help to, in a strange way, clear up the conception that these poets had about Mary, in terms of her inconceivability. This relates also to our discussion in class about humans' capacity to relate to her, as well as the constant mystery that she is shrouded in, especially concerning the texts about Mary that are accessible to the majority as well as texts that are intellectually demanding and require a sophisticated understanding and thought process.

    It's interesting that this contrast and seeming inconsistency might be deliberate; however, I don't know that it would be “productive” - if I correctly understand the term “productive cognitive dissonance”–that the descriptions are contradictory to one another. As a non-Christian, I might not be able to speak to this particular situation, but I know I would feel frustrated if I were presented with this depiction of a divine figure that, to me, clouds more than unveils.

    I think that you are right, that she is both veil and mirror, light and cloud, but at the same time uncontainable in language – even metaphor which is possibly our best way of drawing these sorts of comparisons and finding a way to describe something that is seemingly indescribable.


  3. Very impressive close look at the two Walter of Wimborne passages. Yes, by “veiling” the Word in flesh Mary “reveals” God to the world, AND it would seem (based on centuries of debate and exposition up to this point) that this is the only way that it could have happened. Fantastic explanation too, with this: “she ‘clouds’ the Word so that the ‘clouded’ human thought process can keep up.”

    A thought about the conflicting metaphors: The light (especially as a torch) and cloud metaphors, of course, resonate with Jehovah leading the children of Israel through the desert as a pillar of fire by night and a cloud/shadow by day. So on the one hand, we could ask if there is really no more to these particular metaphors of William than mobilization of familiar forms and imagery. On the other hand, at the very least, these comparison would equate Mary with God (on a metaphoric level, anyway).

    In the end, however, I prefer your reading.

  4. I think this passage is really excellent:

    >The answer, I think, is both; the contradictions open up new cognitive associations as we attempt to align them into something that is a unified, comprehensible whole, and in moments when that is simply untenable, we are forced to acknowledge that she is both and she is neither because she herself is simply not containable in metaphorical terms. The dissonance created by these metaphors creates a larger space in which she may dwell.

    I wonder if this space between the terms of a paradox is not only intended as revelatory of Mary, but of Christ and if this second order of revelation is actually the ultimate end. The veiling and unveiling within (about? around?) the figure of Mary seems to map closely on to notions of apophatic and kataphatic understandings of God. Every affirmation of God only serves to veil Him, as our concepts cannot approach the divine except “clouded, bleary, and blind.” I think the connection between apophatic/kataphatic contemplation of God and Mary lies in the repeated positioning of Mary as a gateway for the divine, a mirror of the divine, someone utterly infused and permeated by the divine light. The incomprehensibility of Mary, which forces us to consider her in terms of paradox and contradiction, is a reflection of the even deeper incomprehensibility of God. Realizing this in Mary can lead us deeper into contemplation of the divine, by understanding the mirror, we can understand at least in part what is reflected within. So your classification of Mary as “an agent of human understanding,” I think, is really spot on and operating at a very high level. Mary is an agent of understanding of the divine incomprehensibility, especially as it is made Incarnate in her son.