- Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure, and Punishment in Medieval Culture
The cover of Mills's Suspended Animation shows a panel from a fifteenth-century altarpiece depicting the life of St. Barbara in which the half-naked saint, her arms stretched over her head and tied to a column, appears unperturbed as a leering male figure wields a knife just poised to cut off her left breast. Historians, art historians, and scholars of literature such as Jeffrey Hamburger and Brigitte Cazelles have over the past twenty-five years paid attention to the paradox that such visual and literary images, although they appear both simply horrible and possibly pornographic, were also evocative of the triumph and ecstasy at the very heart of late medieval Christian piety. Mills wants to go further than these scholars have done. Beginning with questions about medieval violence and punishment also recently asked by Mitchell Merback, Daniel Baraz, and Valentine Groebner, Mills explores whether depictions of the torture of evildoers left open the possibility of empathetic identification with the body-in-pain of the victim; he then draws the more counterintuitive conclusion that torture in which the torturer fails, at least briefly, to inflict pain or fragmentation might have opened a space within which medieval viewers experienced masochistic ecstasy. He sees this interpretation as "queering," although he sometimes uses "queer" simply to mean any sensitivity to the many places in medieval religious language and art where gender (or even other) binaries "come unstuck."
Mills is both serious and passionate; and there is no way one can refute (nor need one want to) an argument that there "may be" space for a given reaction to medieval art and text because some modern person "may" experience something not necessarily even very similar but only loosely analogous. It is hard to see, however, that either his method, which he calls "suspended animation," or his conclusions do much to capture the real power of the literature and art he studies. He gives sensitive readings of François Villon (chapter 1) and The Wohunge of ure Lauerd (chapter 6). But his descriptions of his method are repetitious and clotted; [End Page 516] and he too often reduces art to ideology. Hence the spaces within which individuals might have found their personal desires piqued or expressed by images are actually quite limited. For example, in chapter 4 (the weakest in the book), he reads the wholeness of Barbara's body as a symbol for the hegemonic church, suppressing dissent. For women, then, the alternative reaction to being co-opted by religious didacticism is being "aroused" by seeing female flesh tortured. This seems to me unnuanced in the first instance, improbable in the second.
Medieval religious art and literature was, in my opinion, far more complex, multivalent, labile, and glorious than Mills evokes for us. In it, pain was internal to the self as well as inflicted from without; desire was simultaneously bodily (sensual and sexual) and religious (directed toward an Other that gives meaning). The power of such art and devotion lies not so much in "suspension" as in paradoxthe simultaneous assertion of opposites. For all his claims to make the culture he studies contingent, heterogeneous, and infused with potency, Mills sometimes seems to impoverish it by straining for responses that, at most, "may not be impossible."
Caroline Walker Bynum, formerly a MacArthur Fellow, is professor of medieval European history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and University Professor Emerita at Columbia. Her books include Jesus as Mother; Holy Feast and Holy Fast; Fragmentation and Redemption; Metamorphosis and Identity; and The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336.