Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Poynts and Spots: Molecular Revolutions, Mystical Desires, and the Pearl-Poet
by Staples, James C., Ph.D., New York University, 2019, 378; 13811488
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation draws on disparate medieval discourses, from geometry to religious mysticism, to reveal the revolutionary thought of an anonymous fourteenth-century poet invested in discovering a better but at present unknowable world. The poet, editorially called the Pearl-Poet, is known for his masterful wordplay, though the contents of his four poems are rarely discussed with equal attention. Although most scholarship on the poet has studied him and his milieu from a humanist perspective, deeply influenced by Neoplatonism, I show that the poet is much more interested in how present-tense desires undermine preconceived ideas about the human and the world. I reveal a medieval epistemology much more radical than has been recognized by focusing on two interconnected polysemous concepts, poynt and spot, used in all four of the Pearl-Poet’s poems.

The poynt, recalling the geometric principle of a partless, shapeless indicator of zero-dimensionality, discloses the possibilities of a virtual reality. Although real, the poynt resists comprehension without the aid of an accidental, dimensioned thing: a spot. The spot is the poet’s simplifying reification of the poynt, though he maintains its denotative complexity by using spot to mean (often simultaneously) place, stain, dimensioned dot, and sin. The poet reveals, for example, the difficulty of seeking a “spotless pearl,” since spotless perfection might necessarily entail spacelessness. Spots ground structure, while poynts require pushing beyond structural limits to engage the world differently. The Pearl-Poet applies the geometric aspects of the poynt to the fourteenth-century tradition of contemplative theology that seeks Paradise (often risking heresy) in an ecstatic poynt of union with God. The poynt—unknowable, though ontologically real—becomes a tool for imagining a better, not-yet-conscious, reality.

The Pearl-Poet’s “revolutionary thought” emerges when considered from the post-May’68 theoretical tradition of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Deleuze and Guattari, in Mille plateaux, seek the indiscernible points existing between lines or beyond the discernible points of traditional structures. Their revolutionary theory proves valuable to reveal a more heterogeneous Middle Ages, despite the fact that few medieval literary scholars have engaged with this tradition in much depth, and no one has looked at the Pearl-Poet in this way. The Deleuzoguattarian lens reveals that the poems of the Pearl-Poet express a desire for social or ethical change, requiring a complete reimagining of the possibilities of the present. Even if the poetry itself did not have lasting or calculable effects on its historical context, it opens a space to discover a new kind of agency within structural conditions where agency seems impossible.

The dissertation begins with the third poem in the manuscript, Patience, which opens with the enigmatic statement, “Patience is a poynt.” The poynt, here relating to space and time, introduces a non-extensive spatiotemporality that problematizes traditional connotations of “patience”: a patience directed at the “here and now” rather than a “there and then.” The concept of an intensive patience, drawn from both Patience and Julian of Norwich’s Showings, becomes the very spur to revolutionary thinking. Jonah, the protagonist of Patience, paradoxically discovers the Kingdom of Heaven within the hellish slime of a whale’s guts, challenging the logical hierarchies of Jonah’s worldview that are grounded in his nationalist affiliation with Judea, and opening up the possibility for a more inclusive Kingdom of Heaven.

The second chapter reads Pearl alongside Marguerite Porete’s Le mirouer des simples âmes, arguing that the poynt challenges rational articulation and must be experienced outside of logical structures. Considering the demands of absolute spiritual poverty, both the poet and the beguine seek a language beyond reason. The musical poynts of the “New Song” encountered by the Dreamer in Pearl offer alternative structural possibilities that do not rely on language’s limiting logic. Both Pearl’s and Marguerite’s excessive song-like wordplay, keeping multiple meanings in play, lead readers beyond the limits of the possible toward madness to discover a better world. The poynts of the New Song invite the abandonment of virile logic and a discovery of femininity more in line with becoming a bride of Christ.

Chapter Three, on Cleanness, addresses the potential danger and violence resulting from claims to ontological certitude. “Filth,” the sin that the poet attributes to the antediluvians, Sodomites, and Babylonians, results from proclaiming that the poynt is discernible and lasting, misconstruing spots as poynts. Although visionary texts promise the real possibility of coming into God’s presence, such experience ought to be beyond comprehension. The poet, considered alongside Richard Rolle, expresses the physical effects of the poynt as an embodied experience of Paradisal bliss. Further, the poynt, by collapsing binaries, inspires the poet’s unparalleled celebration of sexual pleasure; however, institutions or identities attempting to rationalize this pleasure construct spots that fail to realize the revelatory pleasures of the poynt.

Finally, in Chapter Four, the poynt serves as a model for revolutionary identity in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Although Gawain’s nature is associated with the twenty-five interconnected poynts of the mysterious pentangle, the poem concludes by celebrating Gawain for characteristics that have, in their simplified legibility, denied this nature. The expectations for a legible subject established by romance conventions and pastoral conduct, when read in the context of Henry Suso’s theological exhortation of complete self-detachment, actually obstruct the imperceptibility demanded by an association with the poynt. The Pearl-Poet invites the reader to consider how subjective legibility must be perpetually problematized in order to discover the revolutionary possibilities of the poynt.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Dinshaw, Carolyn
Commitee: Kay, Sarah, Cannon, Christopher, Davis, Robert, Rust, Martha
School: New York University
Department: English
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 81/2(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Source Type: DISSERTATION
Subjects: British and Irish literature, Medieval literature, Comparative literature
Keywords: Deleuze and Guattari, Mysticism, Pearl-Poet, Queer theory, Theories of revolution, Vernacular theology
Publication Number: 13811488
ISBN: 9781085678384
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