Affecting Forms

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What can literary representations of affect tell us about the 'event' of literature? More specifically: What kind of knowledge, or affective possibilities, do medieval dream vision poems finally claim to offer us, or their often hapless narrators? This essay will examine this question, using Gavin Douglas's late medieval dream vision poem, The Palis of Honoure (1500/1501), as a test case. It will make an argument that is neither 'history of emotions', nor contemporary 'affect theory' (in the sense of affect as preceding 'emotion'), but which draws particularly on Altieri's aesthetic theorisation of affect, in conjunction with what the dream vision poem articulates about the coming-into-being of the figure of the poet.

Rather than producing (or reproducing) approved forms of knowledge, the poem is marked by powerful affective 'surges', which initiate, but also prevent or complicate the circulation of cognitive processes and didactic counsel, even as they stimulate poetic invention. While the dream is meant to show the way to living a 'good life' – that is, to being honourable (which is to be virtuous and, through virtue, to be happy) - the dreamer's encounters are repeatedly characterised by feelings of alienation and terror. These, in turn, reduce his capacity for thought or action, bringing him close to madness and annihilation. Throughout, the dreamer-poet vacillates between sensory excess and sensory deprivation; both conditions produce bodily states that are beyond rational control and which cause unpremeditated responses. These are also the moments in which the his actions provoke disapproval from the authority figures he encounters. Since the poem is concerned with 'honour', and with the authoritative cultural narratives that preserve and transmit that ideal, the particular and individuated affective responses of the dreamer act as irritants or scandalous provocations. Torment (understood in a range of ways), Honour and Poetry are interconnected in various, not always compatible, ways.

Douglas's little-discussed poem provides an ambitious and ambivalent commentary on the ethical and affective possibilities of the dream vision genre. In its presentation of multiple, intensely affective 'happenings', the poem performs an encounter between social norms, the conventions of literary genre and the (haplessly) resisting subject. This, in turn, becomes matter for 'new' poetry, the voice of the dreamer-poet. Considering the poem - and the dream vision genre - in light of 'affect' demands of us also that we reflect on our own literary-historical and disciplinary assumptions; the combination of affective, authoritative and disciplinary energies that shape us as (medievalist) scholars.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMedieval Affect, Feeling and Emotion
EditorsHolly Crocker, Glenn Burger
PublisherCambridge University Press
Publication statusSubmitted - 2019


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