The Poet’s Grasp at Emotion: Medieval Configurations of Sloth (résumé de la thèse de Ioana Balgradean)

Le vendredi 16 décembre 2011, Ioana Balgradean a soutenu une thèse en littérature médiévale à l’université de Genève (sous la direction de Guillemette Bolens) intitulée : « The Poet’s Grasp at Emotion: Medieval Configurations of Sloth ». En voici ci-dessous le résumé rédigé par l’auteur.

Between the 12th and the 14th centuries, medieval poets write the complex affective concept of sloth (and/or sorrow) into ever so fluid literary formulations. Their artistic grasp at emotion is self-conscious and multiple, as it engages with a most unstable anthropologic manifestation which closely resonates with the functioning modes of poetic expression. The scope of my dissertation is to uncover the intimate operations of this double expressive movement, where literature grapples with the fundamental mobility of emotion, through active exploration of its own figural possibilities.
My literary corpus proposes specific configurations of the affective phenomenon of sloth by writing it as an interweaving of various discursive strands, ranging from early theological traditions to Latin formulations of Greco-Arabic philosophies and scientific theories. In the second part of the 13th century, the academic curriculum at the University of Paris requires the mandatory study of Arabic interpretations of the Aristotelian corpus, leading different thinkers to formulate their own divergent epistemological reception thereof. It is to this dissonant and complex intellectual scene that Bishop Etienne Tempier replicates in 1270 and again and decisively in 1277, by exerting the supreme jurisdictional prerogative pertaining to his office: he both institutionalises and condemns an intellectual system that threatens to unsettle the doctrinal agenda and epistemological authority of the University as ecclesiastical institution. Tempier’s ambiguous gesture is the pivot which articulates the complex ideological dynamics of his age, and appears as strongly symptomatic of a galloping inclination towards free intellectual exploration of alternative theories of knowledge. As of the 12th century, literature had been one of the most privileged spaces of such experimentation with epistemological possibility, principally because of the fundamental mobility of its formal mode, which enables the infinite actualization and transformation of figures, while flouting dogmatic rigidity. My examination of some of the extant sources aims to reveal the specific strategies underlying their alternative intellectual systems.
In the light of these plural enquiries into the nature and ethical implications of epistemology, my literary corpus emphasises the phenomenal quality and the impossibility of containing and fixing emotional events within one definitive conceptual formula, as well as the necessity of allowing its fundamental ungraspableness to mould itself into multiple expressive forms. The twelfth-century anonymous Roman d’Eneas, John Gower’s Confessio Amantis Book IV, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess and Troilus and Criseyde are texts that propose authentic narrative explorations of the said anthropologic impossibility and necessity, as organized around a powerful logic of corporeal action and interaction. To this purpose, the poems write the figures and schemes inherited from early monastic, philosophical, medical, iconographic, and literary discourses into poetic events, fluid narrative expressions of affect, which build onto likewise supple lexical, grammatical and tropical patterns. This discursive florilegium reminds us that one of the fundamental qualities of the literary mode is to allow for the rhetorical, epistemological, and ethical possibilities inherent to the affective phenomenon to organise themselves flexibly into manifold embodied figural variations. In this sense, an accurate exploration of medieval literary configurations of sloth is only possible by means of the careful tracing of its fluid formal modulations, within a methodological approach that necessarily moves beyond the inadequate categorial dissonances between affect and intellect, body and mind, lay and religious, philosophy, theology, and science.
My thesis thus tracks a nexus of epistemological inquiries, which stretch across the permeable boundaries of multiple discourses. A closer examination foregrounds the circulation of specific problematics across variable, provisory schemas. This movement reveals a relentless endeavour to account for the perceptual processing of emotion, passion, or affect, for human enactings or expressions of emotion, for the nature of emotion, cognition and agency, or the relation between emotion and the human condition. It is by means of a rigorous selection and operation of adequate historical conceptual tools that I propose to access one of the crucial moments in the history of Western epistemology and tropology of emotion. Following the red line leading from the akedia of the fourth-century Egyptian desert, to Middle English poetic writings of sloth, can prove an extreme methodological challenge. It is only by proceeding to systematic analysis both within and across discursive boundaries, by activating the intra- and intertextual organicity of this affective network, that one can begin to tackle its semiotic instability, and the specific epistemological implications of the infinite verbal and figural iterability of emotion.