Monday, August 24, 2009

You can call me... The Doctor

The observant among you will have noticed a small, but key, edit made to my profile. That's right, I successfully defended my dissertation today, and so am no longer a grad student, but a Doctor of Philosophy.

Mostly, I am still too excited to actually make coherent thoughts. But I wanted to thank you all who have supported me in this project, both those of you that I actually know, as well as those of you who just dropped an occasional comment on one of the posts where I was stressing about the dissertation again. It helped. I appreciated it. Thank you.

A defense begins with a personal statement. In lieu of anything more exciting to say, this is mine. It's a brief explanation of bits of my project, and why it was important to me, and how I wound up writing about what I did, anyway.

In A Revelation of Love, Julian of Norwich uses the concept of different streams of time to explain her revelations in a manner which makes them doctrinally acceptable to the church. A key part of her text includes a passage where, from a place seemingly outside of time, Julian watches the separate parts of her showings simultaneously unfolding before her. As I look back over the process of writing my dissertation from the perspective offered by its completion, I am struck by the different places in time in which this project began, and came together.

Officially, this project began slightly over three years ago, when I selected the texts that I would focus on, and began my secondary research. At that point, I had only the vaguest idea of how the texts of these four women – Julian of Norwich, Joan of Arc, Margery Kempe, and Anne Askew – fit together. Aside from a generalized curiosity, the only thing in my head that even approximated a thesis was the suspicion that when two women that history has defined as holy were burned as heretics, the definition of “holy” might be worth looking into.

Yet if we wrinkle time just a bit, the beginnings of this project were much earlier, somewhere back in elementary school. Joan of Arc has been my favorite saint, a hero of mine, for as long as I can remember. Probably my fascination with reading about her began when I talked my parents into buying me Regine Pernoud’s Joan of Arc: Her Story at a book sale at Holy Rosary Church. I went through a period of obsessively reading saints’ lives, and I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where having books to read was a necessity, not a luxury. Reading about Joan, this fearsomely brave and articulate young woman, who, like King Arthur, had a miraculous sword pulled from a stone, only increased my interest in her. My desire to work on her life in a scholarly fashion began after law school. I was researching an article that argued that freedom of dress is inherent in the first amendment right to freedom of expression, and I discovered that the crime that condemned Joan to the stake was the fact that she wore men’s clothing. I was appalled. It seemed like such a petty, cowardly reason to condemn someone to death. And it was a death as a heretic, orchestrated by the Church that later canonized her.

But while some of this project grew out of my fascination with Joan, and my desire to better understand how the events of her life and death unfolded, other strands of this project were woven at an even earlier time. When I was in first grade, my Mom’s friend Gail gave me a copy of Madeleine L’Engle’s Newbery award winning book, A Wrinkle in Time. It is the first book I remember reading on my own, and the experience of reading, and rereading, that book shaped the kind of reader that I am. Through that reading I learned that literature can wrestle with the numinous, that Story can be a tool to explore truths beyond the literal meaning of the words on a page. This is the reason that I came to study literature in a formal capacity, and a component of why I write: I believe that if the universe can be created with a Word, that words hold the key to our understanding of the universe as well. It was in A Wrinkle in Time that I found the tools to understand Julian of Norwich’s use of time as a means to explaining her revelations, and the shape of this project as a whole.

It was also A Wrinkle in Time that gave me one of my strongest experiences of the effect of context on perception, something that became a key factor in formulating my argument in my dissertation. I am sure that I am not the only one here who knows the opening line of A Wrinkle in Time: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Because of the quality of L’Engle’s book, for years I considered that to be one of the greatest openings in literature. It was not until I began grad school that I heard of the Bulwer-Lytton contest for bad fiction, so named because Edward George Bulwer-Lytton began his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, with the following convoluted agony of an opener: "It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness." Context is everything in perception, in fiction as well as in holiness.

Here, as in Julian’s showings, the threads of time loop in on themselves, and as much as the roots of this project go back to a book first read in the earliest days of my education, they also go back to a little over a year ago, and a conversation with a friend. We were discussing why people choose to write the kinds of stories that they write. There are only two kinds of stories, he said, the mimetic, and the speculative. People who write mimetically are interested in explaining the world as it is. People who write speculatively are interested in exploring the world as it could be. This distinction exists in theology as well, and is perhaps even more true there. The purpose of theology is to seek to understand what is ultimately unknowable. Thus, nearly any theological writing contains a certain degree of speculation. But the four women that my work focuses on wrote texts that pushed the boundaries of acceptable theological speculation to engage in what I would call speculative theology. In their writings, they perform the theological equivalent of a tesser, a wrinkle in time, and end with the realization that the shortest distance between two points of understanding is not necessarily a straight line.

At its heart, my dissertation is about perception, and the gap in perception that occurs in speculative theological writing. It explores the interstices between what is perceived to be holy by an outside group, and what is experienced as holy by an individual, and the consequences when those two definitions of holiness cannot be made to exist harmoniously. There is a quotation by Samuel Taylor Coleridge that is often used to explain the process by which a witness interacts with the presence of speculative elements in a work of art. Coleridge defines that interaction as: ”That willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” My project analyzes these four works of poetic faith and looks at something that was equally fantastic – the act of willing belief that they all asked of their readers.

The difficulty inherent in speculative writing, whether fiction or theology, is that not everyone is willing to engage in acts of poetic faith. Julian temporarily doubted her showings, denying them as ravings. Margery’s dramatic gift of holy weeping caused people to wonder whether she had a devil within her that caused such behavior, and she was imprisoned and tried as a heretic. Joan wore armor, and led an army, and dared to say that she did both by God’s command. Anne quoted Scripture to provide evidence for her theological assertions, and knew her Bible better than the learned churchmen who interrogated her. Both were burned.

The sticking point in each of these instances, the thing that prevented the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief, was the gap between mimesis and speculation. The spiritual experiences of these women were too far from what was perceived as acceptable to be believed, much less tolerated. Their experiences weren’t understood, and so they were not seen as holy. Because of this, one of the things that became most important to me in working with their texts was determining what these women wanted to accomplish in their presentations of themselves and of their spiritual experiences. Their writings were their means of bridging the gap between the mimetic and the speculative. And as much as they sought to increase our understanding of the ineffable, I believe that it is my duty as a scholar to wrinkle time – to see from a different perspective, and increase our understanding of their lives and work.

The last chapter of Julian’s A Revelation of Love opens with the line, “This boke is begonne by Goddes gifte and his grace, but it is not yet performed, as to my sight.” Stating that a work is unfinished is an unusual way of ending it, but also a deeply true way. For as much as a project has many beginnings, it has many endings as well, and both are ongoing. As Eliot writes, “What we call the beginning is often the end/
And to make an end is to make a beginning./
The end is where we start from.” The completion of this dissertation marks an end, and a beginning for me. Thank you for being part of both.


  1. Yay, I'm so happy for you!

    (Funny coincidences, too -- I just reread A Wrinkle In Time and The Arm of the Starfish today. Lovely books.)

  2. Congratulations, Doc Howard!

    I love it how you handle both language and the blade with grace and poise. I hope this will continue to be a great year in all compartments!

  3. Thank you both. I'm still sort of in the state of shock that this isn't a major component of my life. Also, that I'm not going back to school this fall. Weird.

    Also, Sarah, in nice, circular fashion, The Arm of the Starfish was a key text when I was writing my personal statement to get into grad school. I dedicated my dissertation to Madeleine L'Engle's memory.

  4. Congrats, Kat! All your hard work and brilliant ideas have come to fruition, and I am so proud of you. Madeleine L'Engle's works have been a huge influence on me, too. Best of luck on your new beginning.