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Editor-in-Chief
Alex Carnevale
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Mia Nguyen
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Reviews Editor
Ethan Peterson

This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Tuesday
Mar202012

In Which We Long To Put Our Arms Around Them

Access Denied

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Susan B. Anthony learned to read and write before the age of five, in a time when women were often not taught to do either. Her first teacher was slow to recognize her ability, so she forced the man to teach her long division.

Her father lost his cotton mill due to hard times. The family moved to a town called Hardscrabble (this was before irony). Susan's education was prized before material things; her father Daniel's Quaker background reeked of egalitarianism. After a visit from a travelling scientist, she told her dad, "He described only the good organs, and said nothing of the bad. I should like to know the whole truth."

Financial collapse had its unintended benefits. Thousands of women went to work, and not just the poor ones. Susan's first job was as the assistant principal at a girls' boarding school in New Rochelle. It was the largest town she had ever seen. Her brother-in-law recommended that she not try to "niggerize" the school, for Susan saw nothing of either traditional race or class barriers.

For her first 15 weeks of work, she received $30.

Her new job was also a refuge. Men were attracted to Susan, and some even proposed. A part of her wanted that life, but another, more persuasive part of her was made a little nauseous by it. Susan's clothes were less expensive than they looked. Men were astonished by her intelligence; she was disgusted by their consumption of alcohol. After one lovely evening, she wrote in her diary: My fancy for attending dances is fully satiated. I certainly shall not attend another unless I can have a total abstinence man to accompany me, and not one whose highest delight is to make a fool of himself. 

In later life she said, "It always happened that the men I wanted were those I could not get, and those who wanted me I wouldn't have."

susan's attic workroom

Turning her off from the insitution of marriage permanently was the death of her cousin Margaret. The  mother of four suffered severe complications during her last pregnancy, and lay on her deathbed. Her husband spent that time complaining endlessly of a headache. "I've had one for days," Margaret told him. "Oh yes," he responded, "but I mean that I have a real headache, very painful. Yours is just a natural consequence."

Susan told her father she wished she could go west and pan for gold.

1848's Seneca Falls Convention was the brainchild of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, both women from upper class backgrounds. Elizabeth was a mother of seven. After being ejected from a London convention against slavery, the two women were forced to their own cause by the attitudes of purportedly enlightened men. Elizabeth's demand for women's suffrage at Seneca Falls shocked her even her most ardent supporter. "Thee will make us ridiculous," Mott told her.

Elizabeth in later years

Susan was drawn by Elizabeth's eloquence as well as her boldness. The friendship suited them both; Elizabeth did not like the hard detail work the movement required, and Susan was tireless, steadfast and not much of a writer. Their first idea was a woman's temperance society, but that fell apart when males were admitted into the organization. The men changed the name of the society to the People's League, and bullied all the women out. A new message and structure was needed for the movement to survive.

Susan spent most of her time when she was not travelling at Elizabeth's house. Although she did not agree with Elizabeth on everything, she usually objected only at the moments when Elizabeth's impracticality was evident. Stanton's revolutionary ideas about divorce and birth control were as new to many of her allies as they were to her foes.

Whereas Elizabeth's father had been dismissive and condescending about her ideas, Daniel Anthony's only objection to his daughter's new life was that he knew he would see less of her. She carried the message so far and so fast that she very nearly lost her toes from frostbite.

This organizing precipitated the first victory of their movement, a successful if temporary challenge to the English common law which viewed women as property instead of as property holders. The next step was merely the full and complete citizenship of women, and both women would be long dead before that was accomplished.

A sense of history extended over the age. They knew a total overhaul was impossible within their lifetime. This inspired Susan and Elizabeth to pursue their many volumed History of Woman Suffrage. Many of Susan's friends within the movement got married while they waited, and recommended it to her. One told her, "Get a good husband. That's all dear." She viewed their choices as something of a betrayal, since it was impossible to dedicate yourself fully to the cause if you were a mother.

In 1857, she was forced to cancel the National Women's Rights Convention because of this.

Elizabeth & her children

Susan spent much of the Civil War in Kansas, aiding freed slaves. Elizabeth wrote her often:

I hope in a short time to be comfortably in a new house where we will have a room ready for you when you come East. I long to put my arms around you once more and hear you scold me for my sins and short-comings. Your abuse is sweeter to me than anybody else's praise.

Elizabeth's own marriage was an unhappy one. She related to her husband only on the few issues with which they shared some common interest; it would be kind to say she was mostly humoring him. As she became older, the movement looked to Susan for its leadership, and Elizabeth scaled back her public speaking. Elizabeth's ideas about interracial marriage, employment and financial rights, and a woman's right to refuse her husband still remained outside the mainstream. When Frederick Douglass married a white woman, Helen Pitts, in 1884, Susan begged her friend not to publish a letter of a support.

They were always told, "this is not the way." As banal as their methods were, men were insistent on making them scandalous and extreme. When someone loses the ability to argue their point, they attack their opponent's method of persuasion, in unending fashion. The method by which something is done constitutes the least important aspect of it. Elizabeth's eloquence and Susan's persistence eventually managed to make such a rebuke impossible.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording and the on-again off-again love interest of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

"The Hours" - Beach House (mp3)

"Wishes" - Beach House (mp3)

"Troublemaker" - Beach House (mp3)

Friday
Mar162012

In Which It Was Unlikely From The Start

photo by molly dektar

Blue Like You

by KARLA CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO

The flesh is sad, alas, and I have read all the books.

- Stéphane Mallarmé

I grew up poor, I guess, though not the kind of poor that’s rhetorically advantageous. It wasn’t, that is, a son-of-a-mill-worker kind of poor — not yet — because it is an ongoing, unresolved kind of poor, the kind where you list class and poverty as research interests in your doctorate profile but come home to a family’s fridge of just condiment jars and a bottle of seltzer water and Judith Butler can’t really lend you a hand with that one, you dig?

My father was trained as a physicist in Ecuador and has used, in this country, his knowledge of gravity’s moods to master balancing eighteen bags of hot food on his bike at Wall Street noon, but he used it first to bend my childhood into a shape he liked: admittedly poor, but inconspicously poor, immigrant-poor, lives lived as a gamble that education would fix it all. We talked less than we read and we didn’t talk to anyone outside of each other. When my parents moved to Brooklyn in the 90’s, they moved to a tiny neighborhood where nobody spoke the same language, rejecting the enclave, a Babel of their own design where nobody could influence me but them. Books and foreign newspapers were stuffed into every corner of the house, piled above Bibles, as armrests and door stoppers. We read with urgency. How could we not have? Our ancestors famously lacked a written system and here we were, hemorrhaging language.

When we fought, we stopped talking but wrote each other letters that we left by the kitchen sink to find when we brushed our teeth in the morning. Milestones were pre-scripted:

Judy Blume for when I turned ten and started to bleed.

Keats and Neruda for the first time I liked a boy.

Eileen Myles for the first time I didn’t.

Gloria Anzaldúa for the very first time I heard “spic” directed at me.

Everyone has a list like this. The problem with mine was that it became religious; reading became a sacramental penance.

Then I got sick.

I

When doctors ask when it all started, I think of a line in a Les Murray poem — “from just on puberty, I lived in funeral” — but say I was around 16. When they ask whether I have ever contemplated suicide I ask them what they mean by contemplated and what they mean by suicide, but then they begin to write down words faster than I am speaking them, so I say no, no, not at all.

When I was still very little, there were uninspired attempts at things with outcomes I couldn’t have known how to think through — mouthfuls of toothpaste and capfuls of mouthwash, knotted rags under bathwater, traffic. They were harmless motions of sensuous violence; my esophagus may have burned and my palms may have moistened but it was nothing that couldn’t come undone by some red clover tea.

(I say red clover tea because that’s what I imagined the Pepper family drinking in Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, which isn’t exactly a handbook for living in the ghetto but it might as well have been. What I actually drank was warm liquid Jell-O prepared on the stove. It was red. )

II

Friends talk about my first three years of college as The Lost Years. I am not exaggerating when I say I remember almost nothing about them. At the end of my freshman year, an advisor gave me an anthology of e.e. cummings’ poetry, a slim little volume wrapped in bright paper. On the title page she wrote, “”To my kindred Franny.”

(I’d found “Franny & Zooey” in the spring.)

III

I came to Joan Didion through a Jezebel comment I found sometime after my sophomore year. The comment was a link to “On Self Respect” re-typed sloppily on a blog somewhere. That’s all it took.

I bobbed my hair like Joan’s, wore dresses and skirts long enough to graze the floor but not gather dirt. Her drink was bourbon and for a while I made it mine too, self-conscious when the bartender asked for a preferred label, embarrassed when I could not hold it, regretful after the third boy from a midtown sports bar whose name I could not remember. From Joan I learned to eat cucumber sandwiches on flattened slices of white sandwich bread my mother paid for with food stamps and learned to sit through panic attacks with my head in a brown paper bag except I used the white plastic ones from the corner Chinese takeout place instead, the ones with the yellow smiling faces. From Joan I learned it was okay to take expensive taxis, so long as I could cry in them. I read her packing list in The White Album as a check-off list: I was missing a typewriter so my friends found me two. Again, the bourbon. She wore leotards with stockings so I started to as well. They looked different on my body, hips and ass and breasts, not those of a steely postwar West Coast waif. 

I get the impression, through Didion’s other essays, the ones written post-cry, that she wouldn’t much like me, that we wouldn’t be buds. In “On Keeping a Notebook,” she writes about being 23, “skirts too long, shy to the point of aggravation, always the injured party, full of recriminations and little hurts and stories I do not want to hear again, at once saddening me and angering me with her vulnerability and ignorance.” 

Didion’s over it, and me, and the girls I meet at parties who wear the leotards too. Her work inspires what Caitlin Flanagan called “a cult’s kind of fierce and jealously protective loyalty” because hearing about another person’s love for Slouching Towards Bethlehem is troubling —i t means we’ve landed “both a landsman and a rival.” But I know enough to know I’m not Caitlin Flanagan at the hunger games. We don’t fill out the leotard in quite the same way.

In Blue Nights, she describes how stressful it was to adopt her daughter Quintana Roo — named after a Mexican state — which is only aggravated when a social worker visits her home:

What if the social workers were to notice that Arcelia spoke only Spanish? What if the social worker were to happen into the question of Arcelia’s papers? What would  the social worker put in her report if she divined that I had entrusted the perfect baby to an undocumented alien?”

What if my mother were to notice she’d entrusted her perfect brown baby to a rich white woman in dark glasses, smoking by the water in Malibu?

It didn’t matter, because I hoped the weight I carried would help me deserve my way into whatever space she made hallowed by her presence. I belonged more than the other leotard-wearing girls belonged. I really wished that fervently.

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes  —
I wonder if It weights like Mine — 
Or has an Easier size.

- Emily Dickinson.

I hoped that if she pressed her palm to my forehead, she’d find my sorrow sound.

III

I went into Boston the day I decided not to take anti-depressants. I went into Boston because it was hot and I lived in an un-airconditioned dorm with some 250 girls and 250 boys — a righteous halving guaranteed by the housing algorithm and replicated in every other sphere at the college except the finals clubs, where the vulgarity of ratio was the whole point. All the girls wanted to lay on towels with their backs to the sun and the boys all wanted to play Frisbee. I wanted to be away from them.

After reading in the sun for a few hours, everything started to look bathed in an incandescent vapor, sleepy and white like a wet sheet of tissue paper held against a flame. I had forgotten my sunglasses at the dorm and the blue-white gloss of the magazine pages I was holding hurt my eyes. A group of shirtless boys threw around a football. The girls shared a joint. There were ants on the dress I’d pulled down to my waist to tan. When I sat up to brush them off, one of the football-throwing boys came over to see if I wanted a beer. I unscrewed the cap of my orange juice bottle and held it under his nose. He asked what I was reading.

I was reading an essay in an old copy of The New Yorker I picked up from a pile of unread issues. I chose it because I liked the cover — a bundled up woman in a fancy hat walking a dog in the snow. It was a Malcolm Gladwell review of two books, Gary Greenberg’s Manufacturing Depression and Irving Kirsch’s The Emperor’s New Drugs.

I was moved by it in the way you are moved when you are looking to be, by whatever. I could just as easily have found Jesus or Libertarianism or the Grateful Dead during that time. I was looking. Anyway, this part, the conclusion, stood out, and I tore out the page and carried it around for a while until too many wash-and-tumble cycles turned the paper into a dusty pulp.

Maybe we think that since we appear to have been naturally selected as creatures that mourn, we shouldn’t short-circuit the process. Or is it that we don’t want to be the kind of person who does not experience profound sorrow when someone we love dies? Questions like these are the reason we have literature and philosophy. No science will ever answer them.

Those last two sentences — that was it. Seventeen words, seven of them nouns, only three verbs, none of them poetic or philosophical or exceptional. But they imbued the poetic and philosophical and exceptional with a talismanic majesty and so they made sense to me and so I abandoned my treatment.

IV

My senior year, I sort of emerged whole and without a backstory, like Athena fully-armed born from Zeus’s forehead. I mean, that was the reception — how else do you explain abrupt and sudden there-ness? Whenever I’d go get dinner at the dorm where I had lived for more than two years, classmates and resident advisors stopped me by the fountain drinks to introduce themselves and ask if I was a transfer student.

September was a liminal space. One too-warm night, I sat by the Charles, along the joggers’ path, and tried to light a cigarette with a red plastic lighter I picked up at the dollar store the afternoon I decided I would smoke. (I decided I would smoke like I had decided, in high school, that I would love Bob Dylan. It took a few spins before I stopped pretending I liked the taste.) It was very windy and the lighter was not working and my thumb was striped purple from trying. A clean-shaven guy in a thermal walked over, and said he’d help. I handed him the lighter. When he continued to talk, I realized he was severely retarded. The whole of that scene overwhelmed me and I so wanted to be away from the water. I took back the lighter, must have said sorry, and ran to the ice cream shop a few blocks away. I called my mother.

She visited that weekend. We ate takeout from the Square and she cleaned my room in the near-dark while I slept. When she wasn’t cleaning — and there was a lot of cleaning, the first thing to go is cleaning — she made her way through a stack of imported tabloids from the library about octogenarian Spanish duchesses with frosted hair and their bullfighter boyfriends. When she left, and she left, she left my room very clean, sticky-clean, the clean of Clorox and Sweet Williams.

VI

In October, a professor friend from Colombia rented a car and drove us to Providence to watch a performance of “Adios, Ayacucho,”  a play about a Peruvian peasant who returns from the dead to find and bury his body. A boy I desperately wanted to like invited me to a party that was secret garden themed but I didn’t have a floral dress and I didn’t have money to go to the Downtown Crossing Mall so I bought a few stems of hydrangeas and attached them to a metal hanger I’d bent into misshape.

It was raining and traffic was slow. While María drove, we gossiped about the Spanish department and about President Uribe, that lying motherfucker, while I fastened petals to wire with ribbon and scotch tape. By the time we arrived at the party, just after midnight, the police had shut it down. At the end of the night, the boy I was with gathered my wilted petals, waxy and excreting futile juices, off his futon and into a Kleenex I threw out myself.

I could scrape the colour
from the petals
like spilt dye from a rock.
If I could break you,
I could break a tree.

- H.D.

I rode the bus back to my dorm with the crown in my hands, the pale pink ribbon coming undone around the peeling gold wire, the scotch tape not even worth describing.

V

By November, I was fine. A very wealthy man, a family friend who for years had given me shopping bags full of his dead father’s books to read, paid for a gentle electric current therapy. He didn’t like that I opted for the highest pressure and so he told me to stop and also sent me stories and books, so I stopped and I read them. The treatment was very gentle and it was very nice and it helped me go to sleep at night but it dyed everything a kind of blue. So I read William Gass’ On Being Blue and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and every Bukowski poem with the word “blue” in the text. Google Books is great.

VI

Some weeks before I took the train into Boston, the day I decided not to take anti-depressants, New Directions published Roberto Bolaño’s The Insufferable Gaucho. Bolaño was dying of liver problems when he wrote it. He dedicated an essay in it to his hepatologist, Victor Vargas. The essay is called, “Literature + Illness = Illness.”

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New Haven. She last wrote in these pages about sex and the ivory tower. She tumbls here and twitters here.

"Inchworn (Silent Servant remix)" - Battles (mp3)

"White Electric (Shabazz Palaces remix)" - Battles (mp3)

"Rolls Bayce (Hudson Mohawke remix)" - Battles (mp3)

Thursday
Mar152012

In Which We Grow Hoarse Without A Lung

This Creature

by ALICIA PUGLIONESI

Margery Kempe wrote one of the earliest autobiographies in the English language, except that she didn't write it. Kempe dictated her life story to a scribe because, like most medieval women, she was illiterate. This resulted in a number of strange effects, the most jarring of which is that the scribe replaced her first-person “I” with the phrase “this creature” throughout the text. It's possible that Kempe spoke in the third person as "this creature." Some scholars suspect that she was secretly literate and wrote the book herself, taking pains with the story of the male scribe and the elimination of personal pronouns in order to evade persecution.

Other scholars question whether Kempe existed at all because her story is so profoundly strange.

Already this creature leads us into a tangle of difficulties: was Margery Kempe a radical who cannily manipulated religious and social conventions in order to live a life beyond the limits set for women of her time? You wouldn't think so looking at her. In her book she sometimes seems like a wild, frightened animal in our modern sense of “creature." Or a creature in the sense of a monster, suddenly strange and frightening to herself, desperately seeking an escape into the divine. All creature really means in the fifteenth century, though, is a thing that God created, and over which he has dominion. The Book of Margery Kempe is about a normal woman who believes that God chose her – because of her lack of any special merit – to demonstrate how his divine love transcends all human conventions. The question, of course, is whether the bulldozing of those conventions was God's idea or Kempe's, and whether we could ever tell the difference.

People have wondered what was wrong with Margery Kempe for centuries: was she insane, possessed, divinely-inspired, or incredibly canny? She was known for weeping uncontrollably at inappropriate times – like in the middle of a church service, or while traveling with strangers, or while trying to persuade a local mob that she wasn't a heretic who should be burned at the stake. Kempe didn't see her incessant crying as a problem. She thought it was a gift from God – God had chosen her for this form of penance, a mark of difference and divine favor. She seems to have spent a lot of her time sitting or lying down and weeping for the soul of mankind.

a lively concern with death

This was the late fourteenth century, a time of some political tension and much religious strife in Europe. The Catholic Church was working hard to bring its authority to bear on heretical sects like the Lollards that claimed direct communication with God. The Church found that communication with God was a particularly slippery thing to regulate. A complex set of rules and hierarchies mediated Catholic access to the divine, but the religion was based on stories of ordinary people receiving unexpected revelations. This contradiction was becoming a sticking point. Margery Kempe is a footnote in the long and messy run-up to an even longer and messier schism; her hedge was that none of her words or actions were her own, a common-enough maneuver for speaking truth to power.

Medieval religious devotion was also passing through a sort of ecstatic sentimental phase around this time. Passion and weeping, fantastic love and impossible longing, became popular expressive paradigms, to the consternation of the Church which just wanted people to behave in an orderly fashion.

Since this “affective piety” was coded feminine, some interesting gender issues surfaced – there's talk of suckling at Jesus' teat and quasi-sexual encounters with the godhead. Revelations about the ecstatic nature of God's love came from a new class of religious mystics, many of them women cloistered in religious orders. Marie d'Oignes, St. Bridget of Sweden, Clare of Montefalco, and Julian of Norwich were popular subjects of the female sacred biography genre – texts usually written by male clerics which authorized the spiritual experiences of holy women. Because these women were nuns they could often read and write, but their stories had to be told by men in order to assimilate material that could otherwise pose a danger to the Church.

can I help you with that ma'am?

Margery Kempe claimed never to have read any of the mystic texts popular during her lifetime, although she would at least have heard some of them read aloud. She was the daughter of a wealthy merchant in Bishop's Lynn, a town a hundred miles north of London. The mature Kempe describes her young self as “set in great pomp and pride of the world.” This means she liked to wear fashionable clothes. She was never "content with the goods that God had sent her...but ever desired more and more.” This means that she had an entrepreneurial streak; she ran a brewery and a grist mill. This seems like a medieval approximation of our modern feminine ideal: a woman who runs her own local, independent business and looks good doing it.

When she was twenty, Kempe married a local merchant and quickly got pregnant. The pregnancy was rocky – she was sick and bedridden, and after a difficult birth she “despaired of her life, thinking that she might not live.” Fearing death, Kempe called for a priest and tried to confess to him a dark secret. Keep in mind that matters of Catholic dogma and heresy were very, very serious for ordinary people in the Middle Ages: Kempe's dark secret was that “she was ever hindered by her enemy, the devil, evermore saying to her that...she needed no confession but could do penance by herself alone, and all should be forgiven.”

She had arrived, on her own, at the heretical belief that one could deal directly with God without the church as an intermediary. This was so heretical that the priest wouldn't even hear Kempe out – he cut her off in the middle of her deathbed confession. Without a confession Kempe knew that she was doomed to Hell for all eternity. At this point, she went completely nuts.

no confession? too bad.

Or as she describes it: “This creature went out of her mind and was wonderfully vexed and labored with spirits for half a year, eight weeks, and some odd days. And in this time she saw, she thought, devils open their mouths, all inflamed with burning flames of fire...and [they] bade her that she should forsake her faith...she slandered her husband, her friends, and her own self...she knew no virtue nor goodness...she would have killed herself many a time with her stirrings, and have been damned with them in hell...save she was bound and kept with strength both day and night so that she might not have her will.”

Kempe was tied up in the basement for six months. This was a common medieval strategy for handling what we would call mental illness – modern readers have diagnosed her with everything from schizophrenia to postpartum depression. Finally, one day she had an ecstatic vision in which Christ appeared beside her and ordered her not to forsake him, “and anon the creature was stabled in her wits and in her reason as well as ever she was before.” Kempe's servants untied her and she vowed to devote her life to piety and prayer in thanks for her miraculous recovery. Except that she really liked nice clothes and money, and having sex with her husband. She basically went back to business as usual.

Only after her brewery and grain mill failed and she'd given birth to ten more children did Kempe have another mystical vision ordering her to forsake the things of this world and devote herself to Christ. She interpreted her commercial failure as God's punishment for pride and covetousness. And she wanted to interpret the voice in her head as the voice of God. This time, perhaps with less to lose, Kempe embarked on a mystical odyssey that would take her from Bishop's Lynn to London to Jerusalem, often penniless and at the mercy of suspicious strangers.

When she started weeping uncontrollably in public and preaching about the joy of heaven, her neighbors suggested that she was either mad or possessed by the devil. Kempe, herself fearing that this might be the case, sought explanations for her strange experiences. She consulted the female mystic Dame Julian of Norwich and many other ecclesiastical experts, all of whom reassured her of the authenticity of her visions. She worked her ecclesiastical connections hard – perhaps aware of the precariousness of her position, she shored up support wherever possible.

The biggest obstacle to Kempe's career as a mystic was her status as a married woman. At that point, the Church was advocating celibacy as the highest ideal for all of its followers – everyone who wanted to win God's love and forgiveness was supposed to give up sex. Previous female mystics had been celibate nuns, or widows who became celibate nuns, or virgins forced into marriage who got their husbands to take vows of celibacy before the deal was consummated. Virginity was the centerpiece of female holiness, but Kempe had been popping out babies for years and wasn't able to stop as long as her husband claimed his legal rights over her. She cut a deal that epitomizes her strange intermingling of sacred calling and worldly savvy: she got her husband to sign a vow of marital chastity in exchange for her paying off all his debts.

Even with a piece of paper certifying her (renewed) chastity, Kempe was a tough sell for many of her countrymen. People complained about her flamboyant weeping and wailing, accusing her of overacting. Kempe considered their hatred another test that God wanted her to endure – the more people scorned her, the more highly she would be rewarded in heaven. It seems like she was genuinely difficult to be around – her fellow pilgrims ditched her on the way to Jerusalem, and clerics back in England kicked her out of services because of her disruptive weeping. Her chaste husband, a remarkably loyal supporter of her work, tended to make himself scarce when Kempe started a scene in the public square.

There was still suspicion that Kempe “had the devil in her.” She carried on extensive conversations with God, Christ, and various saints, who she describes as speaking directly to her mind or soul, but the trick of medieval demonology is that demons could masquerade as holy figures in order to plant seeds of evil. Most of the ecclesiastical experts who Kempe consulted chose to interpret her visions through the lens of divine revelation, but many laypeople assailed her motivations as selfish, and her voices as demonic. Madness wasn't off the table either: one friar banned Kempe from his sermons on the grounds that she was not having visions, but rather suffered from a mental disease.

ways to be mistaken for a witchThe thing is that Kempe could be awfully convincing. Claiming illiteracy, she impressed religious authorities by reciting obscure Biblical passages and offering exegeses. She made accurate prophesies and fielded theological queries. Many ordinary Catholics accepted Kempe as a holy person and paid her to weep (copiously) for the salvation of their souls. Kempe won for herself freedoms and intellectual possibilities that were completely off-limits for most women of her time. Just in terms of mobility, she made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and visited scholars and mystics all over England, when most women weren't allowed to leave their villages without the permission of husbands and church officials. At times she publicly criticized the Church for corruption, and urged women to leave their husbands and become brides of Christ.

To call Kempe's career subversive, though, would be to overlook the very real affective power of faith in medieval life. Maybe she got something she wanted – freedom to think and travel, freedom from endless childbearing – but she was also tormented by desire for what she had given up. The “things of this world” were the things that had offered her the most satisfaction; she particularly struggled with the demands of chastity. Her visions were sometimes terrifying and visceral, and she describes these traumatic episodes as tests of her love for God. Perhaps the deeply Catholic worldview of her age drove Kempe to a life of torment and self-denial, perhaps it equipped her to make sense of destabilizing psychological experiences.  For a lowly creature who had surrendered her will to God, she managed to leave a highly personal record of her interior world – Kempe's voice is incredibly rich, simultaneously familiar and strange. This richness of voice may be all we need to know about her.

Alicia Puglionesi is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Baltimore. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about the Personal Pelvic ViewerShe tumbls here.

"God Treats You Right" - Tonetta (mp3)

"Crucify Me" - Tonetta (mp3)

"I'll Remain As I Am" - Tonetta (mp3