|Texts and Contexts|
The Cloud of Unknowing is one of a group of seven English prose texts written in the late fourteenth century by a single anonymous author, perhaps a Carthusian monk, on the subject of contemplation. I recently completed a new translation of four of them for Penguin Classics, and doing that led me to read what I could of what has been written about them, and also to think hard about how they use language.1 Contemplation has a very specific meaning in medieval religious thought. It means the activity whose goal is the union of the soul with the Godhead in this life. That union is understood to be the highest and most desirable experience of which human beings are capable. Before the Fall, the first human beings enjoyed it at will: “this is the work [the author writes] in which humanity would have continued if we had never sinned” (Cloud ch.4). On earth, as a result of sin, we are cut off from the continuous union with God “for which we were made”, but it is possible, by total dedication to the contemplative discipline, to be made one with God at least for brief, unpredictable moments, and this experience is so precious that, for those with the spiritual capacity, it is worth devoting their lives to achieving it—and that is what The Cloud of Unknowing aims to teach.
The period around 1400 was one of the great ages of religious prose in English. The Cloud author was a near-contemporary of Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, and Nicholas Love, but his fundamental approach to religious truth differed from theirs. These other writers belonged to a tradition, going back to Saint Anselm and Saint Bernard in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, that focused on the Incarnation: on Christ as a wounded and suffering man, sent by his Father to arouse compassionate love in other human beings, and thus to draw them back to God. A consequence of this conception of the relationship between God and humanity was that the language of human feelings, the human body, and the material world, could be freely used to refer to experience of the divine. For example, this is Julian of Norwich on her perception of God: “I saw that for us he is everything that we find good and comforting. He is our clothing, wrapping us for love, embracing and enclosing us for tender love...”.2 And this is Walter Hilton writing about the contemplative path as a journey towards Jerusalem, which he imagines like a medieval city, so that as you get nearer, “by small sudden lightings that glide out through small crannies from that city thou shalt be able to see it from far, or [ere] that thou come thereto”.3 Real clothing, real candlelight, are means by which we can grasp and feel the presence of God. The Cloud author belongs to a different tradition, that of the via negativa, the way of negation, which goes back to a writer of around 500 AD, known as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (Denis for short), and which focuses not on God’s humanity but on his divine nature, seen as totally transcendent, totally beyond the reach of human thought and human language. Denis wrote in Greek, but in the medieval West his work was known mainly in Latin adaptations, which put a greater emphasis on love as the bridge between God and humanity. The Cloud author knew these adaptations and translated one of them into English, the De Mystica Theologia, which he called Deonise Hid Divinité—the secret or mystical theology of Saint Denis. The fundamental idea of this negative theology is that we can achieve union with God in this life, but only through a process of deification which involves “unknowing”—leaving behind all perceptions of the senses and reasonings of the intellect, and entering into complete darkness (except that you cannot call it darkness). In the Cloud, the English writer quotes a sentence which sums up the basic Dionysian idea: “The godliest knowledge of God is that which is known through ignorance” (ch.70). In the final chapter of Denis’ Hid Divinity he gives a stunning list of the things you cannot say about God:
...he has no power, nor is he power, or light, nor does he live, nor is he life or substance or age or time, nor is there any intelligible contact with him, nor is he knowledge or truth or kingship or wisdom or one or unity or Godhead or goodness; nor is he spirit according to our understanding of spirit; nor sonship nor fatherhood nor anything else known to us or to any who exist; nor is he any of the things that do not exist or any of the things that do exist...nor is there any means of approaching him by reason or understanding; he has no name; there is no knowledge of him; he is neither darkness nor light, neither error nor truth....
It is hard to see what place there is for the central Christian doctrine of the Incarnation in the Cloud author’s work. He is careful to insist that salvation is attainable only though Christ’s Passion, but he regards meditation on the Passion, the central form of late-medieval religious devotion, as something to be left behind in the quest for union with the Godhead, and even as a temptation sent by the Devil to distract the contemplative from his task. Now you might suppose that a writer so committed to God’s transcendence of human thought and human language would choose to write in Latin, the language of the Bible and of theology, the language of the heavenly father, written before it was spoken, rather than in English, the mother tongue, the language of daily life, spoken before it was written, and strongly associated with the body. He writes indeed that, “given that speech is a bodily activity performed by the tongue, a bodily organ, it must always be spoken in bodily words”, and “of the work that belongs to God alone I dare not take it upon me to speak with my blabbering fleshly tongue” (Cloud, chs.61, 26)—a phrase that, as you speak it, makes you terribly aware of your tongue as a fleshly organ filling your mouth. Yet he chose to write in English, and in an English that often imitates speech, using questions and answers, you and I. One chapter begins, “But now you ask me, ‘How am I to think of God himself and what is he?’ And to this I can only answer, ‘I do not know’” (ch.6). The purported reason for this is that the you addressed is a young novice, who perhaps did not know Latin very well; and it is probably true that the author envisaged a readership including laypeople, because this was an age in which the laity, women as well as men, were beginning to pursue even the highest kinds of religious devotion. Yet Carthusian authors usually wrote in Latin, and one of the two manuscripts that contain all seven of the Cloud author’s works is heavily glossed in Latin, so I think we have to regard the choice of English, and of a very bodily kind of English, as deliberate rather than imposed by circumstances.
To put it briefly, I think the author’s aim was not to avoid the bodiliness of language but to use it so as to make it undo itself—his motive was in fact deconstructive in a classical Derridian sense, though he of course could not have put it like that.4 Derrida writes that “The movements of deconstruction do not destroy structures from the outside. They are not possible and effective, nor can they take accurate aim, except by inhabiting those structures”.5 The Cloud author inhabits the structures of bodily language in order to deconstruct them, and we can see him doing this when he refers to the “darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing” that stands between the contemplative and God, and goes on:
Do not suppose, because I call it a darkness or a cloud, that it is a cloud condensed out of the vapours that float in the air, or a darkness like that in your house at night when your candle is out. By intellectual ingenuity you can imagine such a darkness or cloud brought before your eyes on the brightest day of summer, just as, conversely, in the darkest night of winter you can imagine a clear shining light. Give up such errors; that is not what I mean. (ch.4)Do not suppose that I mean darkness like that in your house at night when your candle is out! (In the original the author writes “thine house” and “thy candle”, using the singular form of the second person, which implies greater intimacy.) How could a medieval reader, living in a world of night-time darkness lit only by candles, fail to imagine what she is being told in such concrete terms not to imagine?—first the candle, then its absence. The imagination is stimulated to draw on the memories of bodily experience stored in bodily language.
What I have been talking about is the use of language as something active and dynamic, something more than a mere vehicle for conveying religious doctrine; and that goes against the grain of most interpretation of the Cloud author’s work. The author claims to be the voice of a permanent and absolute truth, rooted not in uses of language and human responses to them, but in a divinely founded and guided institution, the Catholic Church. That claim has been tacitly accepted by many of the scholars from whom we have learned most about his writings. Let me quote some remarks by one of the leading experts, Father James Walsh:
A most important aspect of the Cloud corpus that has never been given sufficient attention by its students is the doctrinal cohesiveness internal and external alike, of its various treatises, and with this the traditional nature of the spirituality it teaches. This coherent body of doctrine is what Dom Cuthbert Butler, in his account of the teachings of Sts Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Bernard of Clairvaux on contemplation and the contemplative life, has called “Western Mysticism”.6That is the statement of a believing theologian, to whom it comes naturally to stress the perfect consistency of the Cloud author’s work and its perfect correspondence to earlier Catholic teaching on contemplation. And the approach represented by Father Walsh and Abbot Butler has tended to dominate even those who do not share their religious commitment. I know this from my own experience. The teacher to whom I owed most as a Cambridge student was Elizabeth Salter, and she had been a student of Phyllis Hodgson, whose life’s work was the first, and still standard, scholarly edition of the Cloud author’s writings. Elizabeth Salter had no religious beliefs, and, though I never met Phyllis Hodgson, I would guess she was an Anglican, certainly not a Catholic. Yet, under their joint influence, when I first read The Cloud of Unknowing, I read it in the way almost everyone reads Dante even now, as the expression of what claimed to be, and had to be imaginatively accepted as, absolute truth. You will have noticed the vestiges of this training, perhaps, in my passive acceptance of the pronoun we (for humanity as conceived by medieval Catholicism) when I was talking about what “contemplation” meant. Medieval studies have been nourished by Catholicism, whether actual or virtual, and that is something for which medievalists ought to be grateful, but of which we ought also to be wary. The danger of this approach, I now see (but it took me a very long time to see it), is that it makes the medieval author one whose crucial relationship is to an established body of doctrine that we simply accept (or pretend to accept), rather than to a specific historical situation in which “truth” was, as always, in the process of being constructed.
The late fourteenth century was an age not just of great religious prose but of acute religious controversy. Many writers, including Langland and Julian of Norwich, discreetly questioned the Church’s traditional teaching on eternal damnation. England’s first home-grown heresy, that of John Wyclif and his followers, the Lollards, attracted widespread support, with its questioning of transubstantiation, of the role of images in worship, and of the validity of priesthood and of the Church as an institution. Wyclif’s views were not hereticated till just before his death, and Lollardy was never completely suppressed, despite violent persecution. At the same time, extreme forms of personal devotion were spreading among the laity, under the influence of continental mystics whose work was being translated into English. The Cloud author was not writing as a serene teacher of the accepted truth of “Western Mysticism”, but in a situation of stressful conflict about the nature of religious truth and the means to union with the Godhead. In one chapter he warns against extremes of bodily self-mortification even to the point of self-castration (ch.12); in another against violent weeping of the kind practised by Mary of Oignies and other continental women, followed later in England by Margery Kempe (ch.50); in a third, against the danger of allowing the intense sorrow that for him must arise from awareness of one’s own separate existence to lead to a wish not to exist (ch.44). Such a wish, he writes, would be “diabolical madness and contempt for God”; and here he is probably alluding to the teaching of the French mystic, Marguerite Porete, burned at the stake in Paris in 1310—her work The Mirror of Simple Souls became available in English about this time, and one copy of it is found in the same manuscript as the only copy of the shorter version of Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love.
The most important context for the Cloud author’s pursuit of truth must have been Lollardy. Catholicism focused strongly on bodily practices and external ceremonies. The Lollards opposed this, but so, in his different way, did the Cloud author. He writes contemptuously of “presumptuous young mystical disciples” who take the preposition “up” in too literal a sense, imagine that God lives up there above the planets, and “fashion a God as they please, and clothe him in rich clothes, and place him on a throne, far more elaborately than he has ever been painted on earth” (Cloud, ch.57). A Lollard might well have written like that about his orthodox contemporaries, as fashioning a God as they pleased, yet the Cloud author is manifestly not writing as a Lollard. Late-medieval orthodoxy was richly concrete in belief and worship, focused on things and bodies (statues, pictures, vestments, the real presence of Christ’s body in the consecrated host); the author despised this, yet he had no wish to align himself with heresy. In the later chapters of the Cloud there are several references to “heretics”, which, in late-fourteenth-century England, could only mean Lollards. Chapter 53 includes heretics in a vigorous satire of the grotesque behaviour of those deceived by “false contemplation”. Chapter 56 elaborates on the supporters of heresy: their motive, he claims, is that heretical teachers offer “an easier path than that ordained by Holy Church”, and those who support them will ultimately be revealed as “proud lechers inwardly”. Here he is probably alluding to powerful patrons of Wyclif such as John of Gaunt, who “lived in open sin with his daughters’ governess, Katharine Swynford”,7 while defending Wyclif against his ecclesiastical opponents—defending him largely because Wyclif favoured confiscation of the Church’s wealth by secular lords like Gaunt himself. A further reference to heretics in chapter 58 has a more disturbing ambiguity. The author is arguing that all bodily revelations have spiritual meanings, but that we must not reject the bodily in favour of the spiritual,
like the heretics, who are aptly compared to wild men whose custom it is, whenever they have drunk from a fine cup, to throw it against the wall and break it....By the cup...I mean the visible miracle, and all suitable bodily practices that are in accordance with the work of the spirit and do not hinder it. By...the drink I mean the spiritual significance of visible miracles...for people will kiss the cup because there is wine in it.In these terms, Lollards could be seen as breaking the cup (that is, rejecting “bodily practices”), but the further image of kissing the cup because there is wine in it complicates the issue by evoking reverence for the chalice holding the consecrated eucharistic wine, which, according to orthodox theology, does not just signify but literally is Christ’s blood. The theology of the eucharist was centrally at stake between orthodoxy and Lollardy, and I suspect that the Cloud author was led into greater complexity than he intended by what he calls the “marvellous fanciful images” (Mystical Theology, ch.2) that obscure the naked truth of God. If so, that was a danger inseparable from the use of language itself. His fundamental assumption, as I have said, is that human language is incapable of expressing the absolute truth of transcendent Godhead, and language with its irremediable bodiliness and metaphoricity is one of his most explicit themes; yet he makes the deliberate choice to “inhabit” the structures of language at its most bodily and human, in the ever-changing vernacular, in his quest to get beyond them. To inhabit language is to inhabit history; that is obvious enough, but it has a special significance in this case of a writer whose goal is the fantasy of an absolute truth outside language—a fantasy shared by most of his interpreters.
1. Quotations are from the forthcoming translation: The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, trans. A. C. Spearing (London: Penguin, 2001). The present paper is based in part on the introduction to this volume.
2. Revelations of Divine Love, trans. Elizabeth Spearing (London: Penguin, 1998), Long Text ch.5.
3. The Scale of Perfection, ed. Evelyn Underhill (London: John M. Watkins, 1923), Book II, ch.25.
4. Cf. the point made independently by Nicholas Watson in his excellent chapter on “The Middle English Mystics” in The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, ed. David Wallace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp.539-65: “Most of the Cloud is a self-deconstructing attempt to undo the carnality of the language in which it is written...” (p.552).
5. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), p.24.
6. These are the opening sentences of Father Walsh’s “Translator’s Introduction” to A Letter of Private Direction (i.e. The Book of Privy Counselling), in The Pursuit of Wisdom and Other Works by the Author of The Cloud of Unknowing (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1988), p.185. The work of Cuthbert Butler, Abbot of Downside, to which Walsh refers is his influential Western Mysticism (London: Constable, 1922).
7. May McKisack, The Fourteenth Century, 1307-1399 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959), p.393. Katharine was Chaucer’s sister-in-law; Gaunt eventually married her in 1396, after his second wife’s death.
|TEI Markup by John Unsworth|