"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, August 23, 2013

Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through Catherine Pickstock

I was cleaning up my garage the other day and discovering old files of articles from the 1990s I read with great interest then. One of the most interesting, as I noted earlier this summer, is the Cambridge Anglican Catherine Pickstock, whose thinking on matters liturgical, especially the revisions to the Latin liturgy in the aftermath of Vatican II, remains to my mind the most serious criticism as yet unanswered (so far as I have seen). I'm not referring to her idealization of the medieval guilds and societies or her treatment of Plato, Derrida, and others in After Writing: On the Liturgical Cosummation of Philosophy. Rather it is her insightful understanding of the structural repetitions of the pre-conciliar liturgy that I find so compelling, and their elimination in the Pauline missal so unnecessary and damaging. (Sacrosanctum Concilium's sneer about "useless repetitions" has to be the most fatuous line in the whole document, and its invention of the idea of "noble simplicity" is romanticized twaddle, if not borderline iconoclasm.) Here the Byzantine rite, and other Eastern traditions, retain a crucial "advantage" it seems to me, by maintaining such repetitions which, far from superfluous, are in fact reflective of human psychology and human prayer: a constant start-and-stop; a beginning and re-beginning; a "praying that we might pray" as Pickstock would put it.

In an article I wrote more than a decade ago now, I used Pickstock's insightful understanding of the role of repetition to examine the Byzantine liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. It was nothing special, and I confess that I have not been able to go back and make myself re-read it, fearing that my younger self probably said things I would find at least slightly cringe-making now; but the whole issue will bear renewed thinking early next year when Pickstock's next book comes out: Repetition and Identity: The Literary Agenda (Oxford UP, 2014), 216pp.

About this series and this book we are told, respectively:

The Literary Agenda is a series of short polemical monographs about the importance of literature and of reading in the wider world and about the state of literary education inside schools and universities. The category of 'the literary' has always been contentious. What is clear, however, is how increasingly it is dismissed or is unrecognised as a way of thinking or an arena for thought. It is sceptically challenged from within, for example, by the sometimes rival claims of cultural history, contextualized explanation, or media studies. It is shaken from without by even greater pressures: by economic exigency and the severe social attitudes that can follow from it; by technological change that may leave the traditional forms of serious human communication looking merely antiquated. For just these reasons this is the right time for renewal, to start reinvigorated work into the meaning and value of literary reading.

Repetition and Identity offers a theory of the existing thing as such. A thing only has identity and consistency when it has already been repeated, but repetition summons difference and the shadow invocation of a connecting sign. In contrast to the perspectives of Post-structuralism, Catherine Pickstock proposes that signs are part of reality, and that they truthfully express the real. She also proposes that non-identical repetition involves analogy, rather than the Post-structuralist combination of univocity and equivocity, or of rationalism with scepticism. This proposal, which is happy for reality to make sense, involves, however, a subjective decision which is to be poetically performed. A wager is laid upon the possibility of a consistency which sustains the subject, in continuity with the elusive consistency of nature. This wager is played out in terms of a performative argument concerning the existential stances open to human beings. It is concluded that the individual sustains this quest within the context of an inter-subjective search for an historical consistency of culture. But can ethical consistency, and the harmonisation of this with an aesthetic surplus of an 'elsewhere', invoked by the sign, be achieved without a religious gesture? And can this gesture avoid a tragic tension between ethical commitment and religious renunciation? Pickstock suggests a Kierkegaardian re-reading of the Patristic categories of 'recapitulation' and 'reconstitution' can reconcile this tension. The quest for the identity and consistency of the thing leads us from the subject through fiction and history and to sacred history, to shape an ontology which is also a literary theory and a literary artefaction.
As the above indicates, Pickstock is a writer not easy always to understand at first glance, and overprone to the use of jargon, but the deeper thought merits attention. I hope to have more to say in the spring when I've read the book. 

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