Sink or Swim?

My goal for the next few weeks is to finish up an article on Julian of Norwich and get it ready to be sent out to a journal. Oddly enough, this is the phase that always throws me because I start second-guessing everything – the argument, of course, but especially my writing style. (My students are always surprised when I say this, as if, at some point, that particular concern just disappears. Oh, if only.) In particular, there’s that question: is the argument, which I think is important, written in a useful and interesting way? And of course: how will it be read by peer reviewers? The last, unfortunately, is always outside an author’s control.

So what exactly do I want to say in this article? Let me share a few tidbits.

“[T]he ‘memory of faith’ [is] recollecting God with the intention of either restoring a relationship with the deity or achieving a deeper understanding of faith. A loss of memory or an imperfect memory can lead to an inability to remember God, and, thus, a breakdown occurs in the relationship between human and divine. A threat to memory is a threat against an individual’s faith.” – The definition. For anyone who has ever listened to me expound on the subject (my apologies to all of you), the fact that memory and recollection show up in medieval texts in varying forms is no surprise. Here, I want to narrow recollection, and its opposite forgetfulness, down to the human-divine relationship – thus, the relationship between Julian and God. In particular, the focus is on the breakdown in that relationship as a result of forgetfulness. This becomes more complicated because there are positive forms of forgetfulness (see The Cloud of Unknowing), and it will be necessary for me to be sure I am clear when defining the differences.

“[I]t has not been demonstrated how a key bout of forgetfulness plays a vital part in Julian’s motivation to understand and record her visions, thereby clarifying why Julian depicts recollection as such an essential aspect of her experience even from the beginning of the short version. Through recollection, she hopes to redress the transgression of forgetting.” – The crux. Why Julian is concerned with recollection. When she recovers enough from her illness to speak to a priest and forgets to value her revelatory experience, she classifies the moment as a sin. Her interest then in recollection when she composes becomes more understandable.

“Julian’s reaction, defining her forgetfulness as ‘a grete sinne and a grete unkindness,’ reveals how deeply she believes she has erred. By classifying it as sin, she is stating that forgetfulness can create a separation with God, which is a significant characteristic of sin.” – The moment. As the moment has not been previously identified as forgetfulness, I do feel I need to spend some time defending my reading. Most of this is in her wording – her visions “passing from her mind” – that she uses in reference to forgetfulness elsewhere in her texts.

“The fear of repeating this act of forgetfulness is essential to the development Julian undergoes throughout her account of her revelations because she is constantly seeking ways to avoid it in the future.” – The greater good. There are so many references to memory, recollection, and forgetfulness in the rest of the Revelations that I just cannot see them as a coincidence. This is my attempt to tie them together, present an alternate reading of certain sections. It defines a project, a concern, on Julian’s part that she sustains throughout her
composition. Useful and interesting? I hope so.

The article is almost finished. The introduction is fighting me, but then that’s always my Achilles heel. When I get that sorted out, then it will be time to send it into the deep end of the journal pool to see if it can swim!



Filed under Julian of Norwich, Professional stuff

2 responses to “Sink or Swim?

  1. jpsexton

    Since I know you’ve done plenty of work in this field, allow me to shamelessly ask a question to help me build my lectures on the subject: Julian’s preoccupation with the dangers of forgetfulness stem not just from the generalized fear of forgetting that suffuses a great deal of medieval religious thought, but from the responsibility that goes along with receiving the visions. How and to what degree is that responsibility for remembering shaped and governed by the other exhortations to active remembering (penitential, but also contemplative) Julian might have been exposed to?

    And a second question: what devices of memory (mnemonic, associative, meditative, etc.) do you see Julian constructing as part of her strategy for remembering?

  2. Kisha Tracy

    There seem to be several factors at play in Julian’s memory work. One that stands out to me, because it is my field of interest, is how forgetfulness is tied to the act (or rather the breakdown) of confession. In the scene with her priest, because she has allowed the visions which God granted her to slip away from her thoughts, Julian does not consider herself worthy to confess. Normally, the sin of forgetfulness takes place during confession, causing a breakdown in the sacrament, but, in this instance, it is forgetfulness that prevents her from confessing (there’s a relationship here to the typical representation of the sin of sloth). Julian’s understanding of the process and what can derail it seem to be what shapes how she depicts this experience. Also, the long text is more influenced by contemplative concerns with active remembering than the short one. Julian is able to navigate her memories to establish even deeper insights in the long text – the parable of the lord and the servant is a prime example of this. She represents herself as finally able, through repetitive analysis made possible through recollection of her visions, to approach insight into certain aspects of her experience that she could not comprehend at the time it happened.

    Strategies for remembering. Definitely mnemonic – there’s the “typical” (if you read Mary Carruthers) mnemonic device of the Cross, which kickstarts her recollection of the Passion at the beginning of the Revelations. Then it’s the vision of Christ himself that leads her to remember other things – particularly Biblical passages. Also, meditative – again, especially in the long text, or, more specifically, in the process leading to the composition of the long text. Another strategy I would say exists in the texts is “emotional” (or perhaps even affective memory). Julian’s intense exercises in recollection throughout are designed as preventative measures, for the more personal connection Julian has with her experiences, the less likely she is to forget them. She revisits past emotions in order to aid her in creating a frame of reference for what she is envisioning. Memory provides the necessary images that allows her to make connections with the scenes she is witnessing, moving her from merely passively observing to interacting and, thereby, counteracting forgetfulness.

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