Book Review: Enchantment

C. Stephen Jaeger, Enchantment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. 440 pp. (HB, e-book available) $69.95.

Stephen Jaeger has long aimed at dispelling post-Romantic conceptions of a diminutive Middle Ages, “a period of small, quaint things and people” whose emotions are cartoon-like, lacking the subtleties of our more modern passions.1 Indeed, followers of Jaeger’s earlier work on refinement and education in tenth- to thirteenth-century French and German cathedral schools will recognize Enchantment’s project of restoring the past’s emotional complexity through a study of Western art, broadly construed to include literature, sculpture, iconography, painting, and film.2 Jaeger’s study of charisma deeply engages Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis—the seminal study of Western literary portrayals of reality—stressing how the blend of sublime and realistic creates a hyper-mimetic world that complicates Auerbach’s insights into the nature of representation.3 Given this broad focus, the book should reach its intended generalist audience of professors, graduate students, advanced undergraduates, and anyone interested in histories of the arts. Although Jaeger’s refreshingly lucid prose should inspire some good will, his book faces the problem of all multidisciplinary, millennia-spanning studies: specialists—here art and film historians—outside of the author’s core of expertise may reckon their subject’s treatment to be superficial. On the other hand, generous readers may find that Jaeger’s literary-historical background gives him a unique lens with which to view the visual arts.

Jaeger argues that enchanting art arises from the bodily charisma of the extraordinarily beautiful or talented person whose projected glory enlarges, affirms, and redeems those whom it enchants, though—more dangerously—it potentially decreases critical sense, judgment, and personal conviction. He investigates extensions of these effects in a variety of canonical works: the “charismatic dynamics” of Odysseus’ fall and rise,the aura and representational charisma of icons and relics, charismatic layering in Durer’s Christ-like self-portrait, and the persistence of courtly romance’s effects even when satirized in Don Quixote. Transitioning into the modern world, he examines how charisma transcends human limitations in Goethe’s Faust, redeems the secular in Rilke’s poetry, and creates glamorous alternative realities in twentieth-century film.

Jaeger sees a historical development from the bodily charisma of arts like Maori face tattooing, where ancestors appear present in the faces of descendants, to the surrogate arts of Westerners, which export the charisma of the dead to non-living supports like stone, papyrus, and wood. Without embodied commemorative art, he argues, the West must rely on representation to recuperate the loss of significance from the world by creating powerfully charismatic compensatory illusions (66). While immanent ancestral or divine charisma has undeniably been lost, and vast new worlds of artistic charisma have been discovered, Jaeger’s argument tends to romanticize this lost, embodied charisma. The 30,000-year-old cave drawings discovered in 1994 at Chauvet in southern France call this narrative into question. The horse profiles on the cave walls exude charisma, particularly in their potentially religious setting of the cave where firelight would have played across their three-dimensional forms. At least by this date, then, heightening reality was an artistic goal, showing that charismatic representation did not derive (at least not wholly) from older, more embodied practices, but existed concurrently with them. So while charismatic effects do change and develop, they do not do so in a linear, progressive fashion, but rather modulate to fit a community’s openness to obvious charismatic effects and the availability of different media. Once we problematize the overarching argument, Jaeger’s close readings address these ever-changing dynamics quite convincingly.

For medievalists, one of the most directly useful chapters treats icons and relics as devotional conduits of divine presence. Christian history is littered with debates over the proper way to mediate the divine presence, and identifying the powerful blend of human and divine that iconodules capture in their media of devotion lays the groundwork for understanding these conflicts. Whereas relics tend to act through aura, the layering of associations onto a remnant of the saint’s physical presence, icons evoke the real presence of the divine through emblems of divinity—crosses, holy books, saintly gestures—combined with the inescapable humanity of the human face. Another study along these lines that suggests itself is the relationship of icon to text in vivid hagiographical romances. What iconic properties do hagiographers project into the minds of their audiences, and how does that serve to create a charismatic blend of human and divine? Further, the various forms of affective meditation cry out for an explanation in charismatic terms. While Jaeger focuses on icons drawing out worship almost against the will of their beholders, it remains to map out the complicated interactions between pious artists, hyper-mimetic works, and imaginatively synthesizing respondents that make up late medieval charismatic piety.

Jaeger also brings his new emphasis on charisma to the well-trodden ground of courtly romance, a genre that blends sacred and secular charismatic effects. Chrétien’s romances, for example, instrumentalize Christian symbolism, layering it onto Lancelot, among others, making the allegory in a tale like The Knight of the Cart secondary to the charismatic exemplum. The romance becomes a “selection test”: a place where the knight can determine whether he is one of the elect. The marvelous adventure tests and teaches both knight and reader, “luring the individual to believe in the attainability of the impossible” (174-75). The novelty of Jaeger’s approach is not so much in telling us that romances present a fantastic world better in many respects than the real or that the romances present an aspirational world for an intellectualizing martial class—these are old, though still potent, insights. Rather, Jaeger presents these elements of the romance as part of an enduring and necessary but overlooked force of the arts, a primary motivating factor behind the artistic productions of any given age.

While Jaeger has demonstrated enchantment’s centrality to histories of emotions, pedagogy, and ideas, and its vital role in connecting aesthetics to ethics, the central distinction between embodied and representational charisma will require some filling out by specialists. For example, scholars of early vernaculars can examine their texts in light of Jaeger’s claim that “heroic cultures, be they the cultures of prophets, warriors, courtiers, or intellectuals, or all of these at the same time, do not produce charismatic art because they do not need it . . . . Charismatic representation emerges when the sensed force of living presence weakens” (160). A reading of Beowulf along these lines might be especially revealing in terms of its pedagogical force—does Beowulf (or Hrothgar) teach by charismatic example? Other questions will surely suggest themselves to Enchantment’s readers because the gaps in Jaeger’s argument ask for extension, especially by those interested in the burgeoning fields of the history of emotion, as well as those within the more traditional academic disciplines. While the answers Enchantment offers may not always completely satisfy, its questions should stimulate investigations in a number of exciting directions.

Stephen Barker


Stephen Barker studies Old English at Ohio State University, where his doctoral work focuses on Anglo-Saxon rhetoric, emotion, and ethics. He is currently investigating intellectual shame in the Old English Soliloquies.

Creative Commons Licence
Book Review: Enchantment by Stephen Barker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


[1] C. Stephen Jaeger, ed., Magnificence and the Sublime in Medieval Aesthetics: Art, Architecture, Literature, Music (New York: Palgrave, 2010), 5-6.

[2] The Origins of Courtliness: Civilizing Trends and the Formation of Courtly Ideals, 939-1210 (1985), The Envy of Angels: Cathedral Schools and Social Ideals in Medieval Europe, 950-1200 (1994), and Ennobling Love: In Search of a Lost Sensibility (1999).

[3] Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953), Trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

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