Robert Weimann. Authority and Representation in Early Modern Discourse. Ed. David Hillman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. xii+244 pp. ISBN 0801851904 Cloth; 080185191 2 Paper.
Anthony Johnson
Åbo Akademi University

Johnson, Anthony. "Review of Authority and Representation in Early Modern Discourse." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.3 (1996): 5.1-8 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-3/rev_joh2.html>.

  1. The reader of Robert Weimann's prodigious critical output in English and German -- which runs, excluding reviews, to some hundred and forty four books and articles over the last twenty years -- will be aware that a significant number of them, especially since the early nineteen-eighties, have been implicitly or explicitly concerned with the relation of authority to literature (particularly in the early modern period). For such a reader there is much that is familiar in the present work, since it comprises an expansion and reworking of a number of previous articles as well as the opening chapters of a book -- Shakespeare und die Macht der Mimesis: Autorität und Repräsentation im elisabethanischen Theater (Berlin: Aufbau, 1988) -- representing, in all, a body of writing which -- both geographically and temporally speaking -- appears to owe more than a little of its acuity to the conditions of its own composition on both sides of the wall.

  2. Readers unfamiliar with Weimann will quickly discover that they are in the presence of a formidable work by a formidable scholar. And if they are prepared to persist through the slippery terrain of the first thirty pages, with its dense rhetorical foliage and stylistic obliquity, they will find that the work opens onto a series of clearings -- or, perhaps (more aptly), unconcealments -- in which Weimann engages with two separate but interrelated issues: the rupturing of the authority structures of the middle ages by the Reformation; and the crises of authority that are engendered in early modern fiction (in part, at least), by this change. Hence the volume breaks into halves: one concerned with close readings of passages from Luther, Calvin, Henry VIII, Gardiner, Bancroft, Bacon, and "Martin Marprelate"; the other preoccupying itself (after an initial consideration of the Beowulf poet, Chrétien de Troyes, and Malory), with chapters on the prose fiction of Erasmus, Rabelais, Nashe and Cervantes.

  3. Within the context of such a work it soon becomes clear that Weimann's rhetorical strategy is not based on whimsy. Rather, it would appear that his prose, like that of Walter Benjamin (who is invoked on several occasions as a prolegomenon to some of the more illuminating observations), is designed to resist the easy binarisms and clichés of mainstream American scholarly prose: an issue that is certainly germane to the subject of the book itself. For what is at stake in the volume (as the epilogue makes clear), is -- on one hand -- an attempt to embrace the new world of historical perceptions afforded to early modern studies by works such as Foucault's The Order of Things, and -- on the other hand -- a critique of the weaknesses and magisterial oversimplifications implicit in Foucault's view of the period. In particular, Weimann takes exception to what he sees as the reductivism of Foucault's "sixteenth century episteme," whereby early modern representation and interpretation could be comprehended, for the most part, within the terms of a four-fold figural pattern comprising "convenientia, aemulatio, analogy, and the play of sympathies" (191). Despite its attractions, such a model, Weimann suggests, is simply not enough to account for the instability, resilience, hybridization and functional contrariness of sixteenth-century representations: not least, because it disregards (or minimizes) their involvement with "nondiscursive practices, with market relations and new technologies of distribution," as well as neglecting the importance of Geneva, Wittenburg, and Port Royal (191). Accordingly, Authority and Representation in Early Modern Discourse draws attention to the open and disturbing questions of early modern culture, highlighting the contradictions, the unlikely bedfellows, and the paradoxes enmeshed in its world pictures.

  4. Weimann's opening up of these questions is highly suggestive. Accepting the emergence of the centralized nation state as the arena for his investigations (at the same time as he rejects its self-legitimating claims as a monolithic source of power), his studies in the first half of the book concentrate on the contradictions inherent in the triangular relationship between discourse, authority and power. For Weimann, the sixteenth century offered a series of locations in which the mediaeval practice of subordinating the act of writing to a prior authority (mediated by ecclesiastical power), was progressively (though not systematically) challenged. Luther's elimination of the ecclesiastical middle ground between the self and "the Word as revealed in Scripture," collapsed potestas into auctoritas in a new way, enabling him, through a rhetorical appropriation (in the vernacular) of the carnivalesque guise of the fool, to consolidate a defiantly self-authorizing position (37). There was, however, a sense in which, for Luther, the resonances of such an act were contained by the consonance of the scriptural message with the revelations of the heart and a dualistic (neo-Augustinian) conception of the "two kingdoms" -- the spiritual and the mundane -- which allowed him to assert the freedom of the spirit (from a personal religious viewpoint), in tandem with an acceptance of the subordination of the flesh to the politics of the nation state. But for others the rift which Luther had helped to create was capable of generating unforeseen indeterminacies. In a deft analysis of Genevan cultural tensions in the 1540s and 1550s, Weimann shows how Calvin -- having reinforced the Latin collocation of potestas and auctoritas in an attempt to reconcile political and ecclesiastical ministration -- was plunged into a new "two-fold polemic" between the traditionalizing forces of the old church and the subjectivizing forces of the Anabaptists (for whom revelation was an unfinished process). Calvin's solution -- that revelation had been closed by the Scriptures and merely needed to be "sealed" by the testimony of the individual Spirit -- represented, of course, a compromise (as did his attempt to "fix" constructions of the Holy Spirit itself). And it is perhaps understandable that, from this point onwards, Weimann's text focuses increasingly on the pragmatic and the contingent -- Henry VIII's "politization" of religion; Gardiner's debate with the Duke of Somerset over the limits of authorisation (especially with regard to "printers, players and preachers"); or Bancroft's strategic navigation between Catholic and Puritan positions in an endeavour to reconcile the disparate views of his diverse congregation at Paul's Cross with the reactionary (yet enforceable) terms of the Elizabethan Settlement (75). In so far as any general tendency can be seen in all of this, it is that with the passing of time and a widening of the gap between modes of discourse and the traditional channels of legitimation it becomes possible to articulate an increasing repertoire of attitudes on an increasing number of subjects, both within and without the ecclesiastical sphere. Authority, as well as being repressive, may also be a creative and productive "aspect of power" (192).

  5. By 1651, Thomas Hobbes (ignoring the mimetic precepts of tradition), could define acting in terms of the representation of words and actions owned by someone else: namely, the author (12); and there is a sense in which this observation sets the frame of orientation that guides the second half of the volume. For here, Weimann concerns himself with the isolation of a series of representative moments in which such a severance from traditional literary authority could be achieved. After three brief thumbnail sketches of authorial positions in the middle ages, he proceeds, in what appears to be the richest section of the book, to demonstrate the means by which the traditional discursive categories of allegory, chivalric romance, and (neo)classical rhetoric can be emptied out and reappropriated within the terms of the new author functions which were generated in the early years of the sixteenth century. Hence the Erasmian Praise of Folly, in an excellent reading by Weimann, homes in on the abgrund -- the abyss between what is said and what is meant -- intercepting the traditional lines of allegorical signification through an ironic inversion of the positions of Wisdom and Folly that resists any sort of easy solution or closure. Hence Rabelais, in his discussion of Gargantua's colours (white and blue) questions the authority behind their traditional symbolic meanings, opening the way for that "playful exploration of indeterminacy" (154) that is to become a constitutive element of much subsequent fictional prose. Hence Nashe, in The Unfortunate Traveller, mixes the modes of fabula and historia -- the "phantasticall" and the historical -- in a state of suspension that encourages an interrogation of the traditional distinctions between them. Hence Cervantes in the introduction to his Don Quixote, abrogates his own judgments on the Don in favour of the reader's opinion, thereby articulating a new aesthetic of reception in which the meaning of a text emerges as a function of the consumer's own readerly experience (188).

  6. This, then, is Weimann at his best, producing a rhizomatic text packed with sharply realised close readings that (supported by powerful subterranean interconnections), is capable of suggesting the contours of imaginative change without succumbing to the dictatorial temptations of a grand narrative. Where the book is less successful is in its more schematic moments. The "radically foreshortened perspective" that Weimann offers on "preliterary patterns of narrative legitimation" (116), and the treatment he accords Anglo-Saxon and later medieval fiction suffers (by contrast with the closely contextualised dense readings that he supplies for early modern writers) from a lack of presentation space. Here, Weimann does not really do justice to the complexities of the cultures and historical contexts covered. For example, his comment that "Abbot Aelfric's clerical basis of legitimation seems deliberately to reject the almost diametrically opposed inclination in Beowulf to sustain an oral context as a strongly supplementary ground on which to validate what is represented," creates an uncomfortably steep gradient for comparison between a tenth-century ecclesiastic, an eighth-century secular poem, two vastly different social settings, and dissimilar positions for the evaluation of oral or textual legitimations (119). The transmission of Christian thought in Anglo-Saxon society was, of course, a highly textualised process, but a more telling contrast might have been to invoke Alcuin at this point. Or to take another example, the community of audience and teller (118), which is posited (via Ker's 1908 comment on "unity of sentiment") in connection with Beowulf could be quite easily questioned when the heterogeneity of cultural authority that is displayed in the poem itself (or lamented by the culturally displaced persons of the elegies) is taken into account.

  7. What is at issue here is that rather than schematically perpetuating the stereotype of a monolithic middle ages in order to contrast it with the discursive diversity of the early modern period, Weimann may have done better to open out the former as a environment where the fluidity of manuscript transmission prevented the totalizing fixities of authoritative statement that became possible with the advent of print culture; where what Walter Ong has called the "structural amnesia" of oral culture could become a potent tool in the disregarding of unwelcome authoritative precedents; or where the troping of biblical texts within chants could alter their agency and, hence, undermine their stability. (In such a context the history of heresy; Bede's propagandistic construction of the Roman view of the church in his Ecclesiastical History; or Aelfric's battle of authority against the vernacular Bible also come to mind as suitable subjects for investigation.) In short, the sort of rhizomatic approach that Weimann has adopted toward the early modern period could be profitably extended backwards into a similar (though not, of course, identical) understanding of the history of the Western Church (with its correlative literatures). For here, too, is a tale of negotiation and instability (a major difference with the Renaissance, however, lying in the extent to which its construction of the illusion of a monolithic culture has been given credence by subsequent generations).

  8. There is much, then, that this book has to offer for a reassessment of the past against which early modern sensibilities reacted. But for the moment the main thrust of Weimann's energy appears to have been taken up by looking ahead; and his forthcoming volumes on Shakespeare and on modern American fiction promise a welcome extension to the necessary but difficult project, outlined in the present book, of rethinking the role of authority and representation in the early modern imagination.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(December 31, 1996; rev. Jan. 28, 1997)