How Soon Is Now?
Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time
Durham (North Carolina): Duke University Press, 2012
Paperback. xix + 251 p. ISBN 978-0822353676. $23.95
Reviewed by Jessica Stephens
Université Sorbonne Nouvelle–Paris 3
Time warps; time travel; disruptions in the chronological time frame; altered perceptions of time; the “voyage East” ... such are some of the themes that Carolyn Dinshaw explores in her book, How Soon is Now?, whose title is taken from a song by the British rock band, The Smiths.
The introduction focuses on three themes: what does it mean to be in the now – through various philosophical definitions of the concept of time, namely by Aristotle and Saint Augustine –, queerness – strangeness and the fact of being “outside of normative reproduction” –, and, thirdly, amateurism – as referring to the work and attitude of scholars, journalists and others who feel and write passionately about the Middle Ages. Carolyn Dinshaw draws on a variety of genres – tales, sermons, treatises, short stories, letters and a movie – ranging from the 12th century to the mid-20th century, in order to illustrate the fundamental “asynchronies of everyday life”, that is the manifold and heterogeneous dimensions of the now. The accounts that provide the basis for her analyses are interspersed with less well known stories but are also often related to more seminal texts. In the same way that the present and the past criss-cross and are intertwined, the stories that Carolyn Dinshaw discusses are often embedded – “A Royal Poet” by Washington Irving is haunted by a subtext, the Kingis Quairis, which itself echoes Beotius’s Consolation of Philosophy.
In the first chapter, “Temporal Warps”, Carolyn Dinshaw examines liturgical and scriptural temporalities through tales relating asynchronous experiences during which characters fall asleep only to slip into another world, another temporality – The Monk and the Bird, The Seven Sleepers, King Herla and Longfellow’s Golden Legend tell of time warps whose consequences prove meaningful or disruptive.
In the second chapter, “Temporally Oriented”, the author maps the complex correlations between the journey back in time and the “voyage East”. In The Book of John Mandeville, the narrator, Sir John, claims that his travels have taken him from the West to locuses such as the court of Gengis Khan, the holy land, India and even the Fountain of Youth – an episode inspired, in fact, from the Letter of Prester John written in the 12th century. In Sir John’s retelling of his adventures, the correlation between the past and a sense of geographical and social distance is highlighted. Carolyn Dinshaw then goes on to analyse the identification process between Henry Yule, a 19th-century colonial administrator and philologist who travelled to the East, and the explorer Marco Polo. In the late 19th century, John Mandeville’s book is seen by the scholar, Andrew Lang, as “proto-imperialist” (Letters to Dead Authors) and Lang senses the waning of the British Empire. Melancholy permeates the supposed lost fragment of Mandeville’s book, a “Supplement” in fact written by M.R. James who was a Cambridge scholar writing under a pseudonym: James’s writing also carries a sense of failure, as the gap between past and present can never be fully bridged through the science of philology, a science which remains incomplete.
In her third chapter, “In the Now”, Carolyn Dinshaw explores the “everlasting now of divine eternity” in the present through religious accounts like that of Margery Kempe (The Book of Margery Kempe) and she discusses how the issue of time – and more specifically mystical time – when it is not in sync with our habitual chronologically linear perception – can be addressed. According to Gadamer and Ruskin, understanding a medieval mystical experience is perhaps easier for the modern reader whose necessarily broader scope of knowledge facilitates queer identification with past experience. The independent scholar, Hope Allen, did just that as she developed a personal relation with Margery Kempe when she edited The Book of Margery Kempe, thereby bridging the divide between the Middle Ages and the 20th century. Carolyn Dinshaw, sitting in the archive of Bryn Mawr College, perusing Allen’s notes on Margery Kempe, feels that she is caught up in a very similar identification process.
A personal anecdote opens the fourth chapter: Dinshaw’s land in the Catskills having been flooded, she is led to ponder the concept of “the stream of time “ as critiqued by Johannes Fabian, but she also has the distinct impression that she has travelled back to the 19th century and is experiencing the same disruption as Rip Van Winkle. In this tale by Washington Irving, time is subjectively perceived by Rip as elapsing in a smooth and orderly fashion but, when he wakes up from his sleep, his body now grown old and no longer able to procreate, belongs to one timeframe whilst his mind has remained youthful. In another story taken from the same book (the Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon), Geoffrey Crayton, a fictional avatar of Irving himself, travels from the New World back to Old Europe: he looks at England through the prism of the Middle Ages. Because it is steeped in nostalgia, his perception is outdated and at odds with the reality of life in England at the time. Perhaps it is this very sensitivity which allows him to deeply connect with King James I of Scotland as he wanders around Windsor Castle.
In the epilogue, Dinshaw further explores the notion of asynchrony through an analysis of the 20th-century filmic reworking of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales into a detective story: in The Lay of the Land, the local magistrate, Thomas Colpeper, endeavours to teach the local inhabitants the traditions and history of the region. He devises a wild and very odd scheme to boost attendance at his lectures. The film can be seen as a “propaganda” movie celebrating the traditions and values of England where the past is welcomed into the present.
In How Soon is Now, the author’s literary inquisitiveness, her ability to create links between very different, heterogeneous concepts, together with her narrative flexibility rooted in a plethora of examples, make for a very creative, dynamic and didactic book.
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