Saturday, February 26, 2011

Different Versions of the Cloud of Unknowing

I'm far enough along in my work on The Cloud of Unknowing to respond to some requests to comment on the various versions I'm working with, so here goes. These comments at the moment are little more than very rough impressions since I'm only about a third of the way through creating the parallel text. I will list the versions in order of closeness to the original manuscripts, but not necessarily in order of merit.

However, it should be remembered that while editors such as Underhill and McCann copy the word 'behold' from the manuscripts they are using, none of the introductions or the translators takes into consideration the importance of this biblical word, which is absolutely central to the Cloud itself. The possible exception is Progoff, who uses it at least once. There is also the problem that the translators substitute modern words for the Middle English that distort the meaning of the original: McCann's substitution of 'deadly' for 'deedly' is an example, the former having negative connotations, and the latter being a Middle English word that contains the entire history of salvation, from the fallen deeds of human beings to the great deed done by Christ and those of his saints which, with grace, are in the gift of all the redeemed, mortal though they be.The problem with any translation of a Middle English text is that modern English is much more linear, two-dimensional—and duller—than older versions.

In addition, all of these interpreters without exception fall into the 'experience' trap (discussed in previous posts, especially since September 2010) in rendering the Cloud—this in spite of the fact that several of them seem to understand the problem, e.g., Progoff, who is the most explicit about it in his introduction, and Walsh, whose text is full of footnotes on this point even though he is one of the worst offenders as regards using the word indiscriminately. All of the introductions, with the exception of Hodgson, should be taken with a very large handful of salt, each for a different reason.

A further problem is that most of these versions have a Counter-Reformation view of 'spiritual direction' and take pains to impose this model on the text where it doesn't exist. Again, Walsh is one of the worst offenders. They also fail to distinguish between confessor and director, which are two distinct functions, even though a confessor may give advice. It is significant that the Cloud-author uses 'counsel and conscience' to indicate taking advice from the elders, but makes it clear that the ultimate discernment was up to the individual, thus avoiding the unhealthy dependence attached to Counter-Reformation (and contemporary) 'spiritual directors'. In the Middle Ages the role of confession was strong, but the notion of a personal confessor was rare outside of aristocratic circles. In a monastery one could go to whom one chose, though the selection necessarily might be limited. The goal of the Cloud-author is to teach self-forgetfulness, not self-preoccupation, as he takes great effort to explain.

The Counter-Reformation's rigid ideas about so-called spiritual direction would have been considered shocking in the Egyptian and Syrian deserts: the maxim of the desert was non-interference (what some religious traditions call 'respect'). One did not presume to tell another what to do or think or how to pray. Often a suppliant would beg and cajole one of the Fathers or Mothers for direction, but the elder would respond with silence. This tradition also recognised that the same person did not always have the Word for the seeker, hence the saying about half the time spent in cell, half the time consulting the elders (plural). There were no novice-masters in the Carthusian Order at the time of the Cloud. There were elders, again, in the tradition of the Egyptian desert.

Finally, none of these versions really presents the Cloud-author in all his energy and complexity: the modern term 'edgy' perhaps comes close to describing him, at least for me. His text does not shrink from conveying raw truth in no uncertain terms. He can be unexpectedly tender; he uses humour, sarcasm, and biting satire. He does not hesitate to make trenchant judgements. (We must remember that the modern notion of never 'judging' people is a misinterpretation of the biblical injunction, which in fact means that we must never judge finally, i.e., claiming to judge from God's point of view; but in fact we must make judgements all the time if we are to negotiate our lives. This does not preclude engaging people with respect and without preconception or stereotype.)

The Cloud-author, to my way of thinking, would have been a fiercely intelligent, very amusing, slightly scary and utterly refreshing person to know, a genuine radical, one who wants to renew the connection with the roots of the Order in the apophatic tradition over and against the prevailing devotionalism of his day. He is something of a force of nature and maybe a bit of a loose cannon. He's not worried about being popular. He knows that what he is writing is dangerous for the times. He is not a kindly uncle, or a pontificating 'spiritual father', or a genteel commentator; least of all is he a human potential guru or a buddy. Each of the versions below, aside from Gallacher's version of the text itself (though not excepting Gallacher's introduction), falls into one of these unlikenesses. Like Julian's Long Text, the Cloud is, in the end, untranslatable.

1. The benchmark version is Hodgson; it's the one that scholars use. This volume contains all the works of the Cloud-author and Hodgson's work is impeccable. However, the text is in the Middle English spelling, which the non-scholarly reader may find difficult. The other drawback is that there is a lot of interesting work that has been done on the Cloud since this volume was published, and those seeking to pursue matters further would do well to check the bibliography in some of the later versions. René Tixier's work is quite wonderful.

2. Gallacher's version. This was published by TEAMS and the Medieval Institute at Western Michigan University. This version follows Hodgson very closely—I haven't done a line-by-line check yet—and has the advantage not only that the spelling is modernized but that in addition to being published as a paperback it is also available online There is a helpful glossary and some notes. I don't think much of the introduction, to put it mildly.

3. Underhill version. This is the closest of the modernized versions to the Hodgson benchmark but has some curious interpolations about spiritual direction, possibly due to her contact with von Hugel. She has not changed many words and for the modern reader may have not changed enough, but her version hast the advantage of clarity without intruding too many anachronisms. She has kept thee and thou and the -eth endings but somehow these are not intrusive as with McCann. This version is published online at several sites including the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Type 'Cloud of Unknowing Underhill' into your search engine. She omits the author's hyperbolic phrases that would offend genteel sensibilities, such as the mention of cutting off of private parts in chapter 12.

4. McCann. Oh dear, there are a number of problems here. First, while he claims to have used an assortment of mss, his version differs from Gallacher/Underhill enough so that one suspects he is privileging the Ampleforth manuscript, which he calls the 'second recension', and which is very different from the Hodgson text. Next, he has paraphrased, often quite patronizingly. His filter seems to be an effort to make this radical manuscript acceptable to a highly conservative, anti- 'modernist' pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic church. He has kept 'thee' and 'thou' and the -eth endings but there is something deliberately antiquated, a bit kitsch olde worlde about his paraphrases for reasons I haven't been able to put my finger on—yet. He also censors phrases such as that in chapter 12 about private parts—but we have to cut Underhill and McCann a little slack in this regard as they were working in the 1930s. McCann somehow makes the Cloud author sound precious, which he most certainly is not.

5. Wolters. Wolters' is an outright translation and he has the same concerns as McCann to make this work acceptable to a very conservative Roman Catholic audience on the cusp of Vatican II. His version has the advantage that he has dropped the 'thee', 'thou', and '-eth', but sometimes his paraphrases amount to Counter-Reformation glosses, and he seems to leave out or condense sections. He claims to be using Hodgson, but he also says he has consulted McCann, and, like McCann, he leans towards Ampleforth and the Latin (the original text is in English). As I create a parallel text of these versions, there are often times when I wonder if Wolters and McCann are using the same Middle English text as I and some of the others are.

6. Walsh tries to make the Cloud-author into a neo-scholastic, which he most certainly is not. His translation is prolix and full of the 'experience' problem. He is prone to making absurd and completely unsupportable claims such as: the practice the Cloud teaches cannot be undertaken by non-Christians. His scriptural and other citations are often wildly scattershot, not really seeming to relate to the text properly, as if he had a lot of references on slips of paper and threw them all up in the air and then wrote down whatever came to hand. He did the same with Julian's texts. However, his text has the advantage that it includes Richard Methley's comments in the footnotes. To my ear (but maybe this is due to the fact that I dislike his translation so much) he sometimes sounds fatuous.

7. Spearing is a self-confessed Cartesian and thinks that the ideas that you use to construct a sense of self are in fact your self, a view that is directly contrary to the Cloud-author's. In Spearing's paper on Marguerite Porete (whom, as he himself says, he doesn't understand, doesn't like, and is perhaps quite frightened of—one wonders why he published this paper), he scoffs at the notion of excessus mentis; he won't allow it. It seems rather strange for a self-proclaimed Cartesian to reject empirical science. Thus, in spite of the readability of his translation—if anything, it is too smooth—he gets the most of basic points wrong, exactly backwards, such as interpolating 'at himself' in the mirror section, when the whole point is that there is nothing to look at. And of course his text is full of 'experience'.

8. Progoff. This translation was done long before he became a journaling guru. In a strange way I rather like Progoff's translation: he is psychologically acute and his view in the introduction of who the author was rings true. However, he leaves out chunks of the text; the book was badly edited and sometimes his sentences don't make sense; and his application of Freud and Jung in the introduction is hopelessly crude and out of date.

Progoff's strengths far outweigh his weaknesses. He understand the 'experience' problem even if he is careless in his use of the word. He states bluntly that 'If, for example, the individual feels or experiences himself as being in unity with God, that very feeling and awareness of an experience indicates that real unity has not yet been achieved . . . the individual who experiences God thereby emphasizes the duality of his own individual existence, his personal thatness, and the existence of God as separate from him. In that case it cannot be said that he knows god truly and intimately in oneness.' Hooray for Progoff; would that the others had been so insightful and so forthright.

9. Johnston. This purported translation—only in part; it is really more a platform for Johnston himself—is so strange and has so many modern interpolations that I often wonder if he is using the same text as the rest of this group as a basis for what he is writing. Johnston comes from a humanistic psychology and human potential movement background, and is anachronistically continually looking at the Cloud through the lens of the much later John of the Cross. Johnston feels free to move paragraphs around or omit them altogether, to interpolate material that simply isn't there or even implicit. I'm not quite sure what this book is, but it doesn't have a lot to do with The Cloud of Unknowing.

My recommendation? Read Gallacher, with Underhill and Progoff together as a pony. Use a little Spearing if you have to in order to clarify but remember that he doesn't accept the basic premises of the text psychologically, theologically or philosophically. Keep in mind, too, that while his text is smooth, at key points it is exactly opposite to what the original says.

In closing I should say that I realise there are other, more recent, purported versions of The Cloud of Unknowing out there, but having glanced inside their covers I have not had the stomach to go any further.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Let Them Use the Market

And now we have seen Cameron's market ideology at work in a life-and-death crisis: hundreds of Britons stranded in Libya are told to use commercial flights to extricate themselves when no commercial airline in its right mind would fly in and out of Tripoli.

It's his version of "let them eat cake".

How more out of touch could Little Lord Flauntleroy be?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Matter of Degree

It's a time of tremendous change. There is hope for freedom in countries that have never before known hope. Egypt and Tunisia are forever changed; Baharain, Libya—the futures of all of the small countries of the Middle East are uncertain as their governments are held to question. One can only hope the best for them.

But as Cameron makes his grandstanding appearance in Cairo (seeking to paper over, perhaps,the fact that much of the mess in the Middle East is the legacy of the British), supposedly to promote freedom and the building of democracy, his government, ideology run amok, is tyrannically imposing the tyranny of the market on the British public.

With all public services for which Britain is highly regarded held out to tender, with the unbreakable contracts that can be bought and sold that this move will bring, the social fabric of the UK will be so badly torn that it is doubtful if it can ever be repaired. There will be no choice for anyone about this. In consequence, human need will be at the mercy of the cash-cow milkers, the bean-counters and the bottom line. Cameron is supposed to be an educated man, but in terms of the inhumanity of market-run services he seems to have a massive blind spot.

What can be done to halt this dehumanizing takeover? Can Britons take to the streets with any effect, or will the sort of police brutality that was seen during recent student gatherings in London put people off? And what, pray, is the difference between this government's intolerance of protest and that of the tyrants it purports to rejoice to see overthrown, except one of degree?

Monday, February 14, 2011

More from Moshe Idel

Idel pointed out that the Ars Combinatoria tradition came into Europe through Ramon Lull, a fascinating 13th c. Franciscan. There's some interesting material on him on the Web for those who want a quick look. He was a contemplative and mathematician. He learned Arabic, determined to convert the Muslims. He made a three-part wheel to show theological argument and refutation; evidently this grew out of his work with the Ars Combinatoria as there is a sketch of a similar wheel used to combine letters. Astute readers will already have leapt to the idea that this wheel made up of three concentric wheels was an early antecedent of computers. He also wrote The Book of the Lover and the Beloved which is one of the great contemplative texts.

According to Idel, the Ars Combinatoria thread emerges in the Renaissance: works on the Ars Combinatoria were found in Pico della Mirandola's library, and in northern Europe it was also known to Reuchlin and then to Leibnitz. In France the thread winds down to the modern day through Mallarmé to Derrida and the Italian Eco.

Although the Ars Combinatoria seems to have been originally designed to move the mind beyond the limiits of a semantic way of thinking, it had a ripple effect through the mathematical world.

A far cry from the so-called kabbalah of Madonna and her ilk!

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Scholarship, Kabbala and Praxis

I have just finished revising a paper that I'm giving this summer to a conference on medieval English texts, so I'm in that shaky moment between submission and feedback. This paper elucidates some of the material in previous posts about the problems that arise when theological discussions lose their empirical foundations—what I have called the work of silence; that is, how the mind works in and with silence, and how the silence changes the life of the person. Unsurprisingly, the loss of this perspective is also a problem that affects the study, translation and transmission of medieval English contemplative texts.

Yesterday I had the great good fortune to attend a lecture by the great scholar of kabbala, Moshe Idel. My knowledge of kabbala is very limited, but my ears really pricked up when I heard him talking about the problems he had run into in the history of scholarship of kabbala.

Idel is particularly interested in the ars combinatoria, a practice of combining the letters of the Torah in a search for all knowledge and knowledge of the All. Idel has a very soft voice and spoke quite rapidly, so some of what follows may not be entirely accurate as to the details of dates. He was speaking of some volumes of medieval kabbala commentary that were found in Spain on the Catalonian border. There were at least a dozen of these volumes, and in the 18th century all were published except the volume on ars combinatoria. Scholars, Idel dryly observed, in their preoccupation with theory and abstraction, have a real problem with the practical.

Evidently working with the letters is analogous to working with silence: if it's wrongly done, it can be very dangerous. As every scholar knows, an exciting project can be all-consuming; one has to keep the text from taking over one's life. The material, which is leaping into existence from wherever it is that texts arise, demanding immediate attention, has to be disciplined without losing its wildness. I've had a taste of this in the last few weeks with The Cloud of Unknowing: it keeps unfolding and revealing itself at the oddest and most inconvenient moments. Perhaps, I remarked to a friend in the audience after the Idel lecture last evening, I shall end up wandering Oxford streets gibbering strings paradoxes, and then I shall be sectioned. Not a chance, he replied; you'll just be like the rest of us around here.

Though much of the content of Idel's lecture to was beyond me, I came away reassured that what I had perceived about problems with interpreting and transmitting medieval contemplative texts is paralleled by problems with interpreting and transmitting kabbalistic texts. It is a topic, as scholars are wont to say, that's in the ether.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding

‘Maggie Ross clears away the "white noise" that so often attends writing and talking about faith. She invites us into real quiet, which is also real presence, presence to ourselves and to the threefold mystery that eludes our concepts and even our ordinary ideas of ‘experience’. A really transformative book.’ — Archbishop Rowan Williams