(Reprinted with permission from the journal Medium Aevum, written by Jeffrey Hamburger.)
Mary Carruthers’s study, The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images 400-1200—a sequel to The Book of Memory—is one of those rare works of scholarship that will find readers across a wide array of disciplines, in part because it works to break down the boundaries that defined them in the first place. Carruthers’s focus remains rhetoric and the art of memory, but her real concern is what one might call the meditational mode, a style of thought and imagination that governed all the monastic arts, not just those genres that we might classify as literature (e.g. prayer, exegesis, dream-vision, and, of course, meditation itself), but also the visual arts (manuscript illumination and, above all, architecture) and, more important still, the art of visualization.
Carruthers is at pains to emphasize what she, borrowing a term from comparative study of religions, calls “orthopraxis”: a mixing of theory and practice that is admirably embodied by her own authorial practice, in which clear expositions of method are combined with close, exacting readings of texts from Augustine, Boethius, Prudentius, and Gregory the Great to Hugh of St. Victor and Baudri de Bourgeuil. In keeping with her title, Carruthers’s emphasis is on memory, not as a set of rules or theories, but as a body of performative practices that enabled an essentially mimetic and experiential effort to reproduce, emulate, and expand the wisdom embodied by a set of venerated exemplars (persons, not just the texts they wrote).
Defined in these terms, the craft of memory becomes a flexible rule of life. It is hardly limited to recollection or reconstruction—there is nothing rote about it. Quite the contrary, the monastic memorative arts are what made invention and interiority possible; they were ultimately prospective, not retrospective, productive, not reproductive. Their real goal was the production, not of art, but of virtue.
Whether reading texts or images, Carruthers’s first question is not “What does it mean?” but “What is it good for?” In other words, Carruthers is interested less in an iconography of interpretation than instruments and mechanisms of thought. Indeed, the word “machine” occurs frequently in her book as a way of describing texts and images designed, in her view, to transport the reader to and through a series of places understood, as stepping stones along variable paths to wisdom, insight, and salvation. The craft of memory supplied the rules of reading and writing, themselves understood as vehicles that induced forms of viewing and that were ultimately intended to impel the monk along an itinerarium culminating in the vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Carruthers’s book follows a similar trajectory, beginning with a discussion of the craft of memory as “an architecture for thinking,” progressing via chapters on “Remembering Heaven,” “Cognitive Images,” and “The Mystery of the Dream Chamber” (a reference to the mind as a place of union with God), before culminating with a discussion of architecture, real and imaginary, entitled, “The Place of the Tabernacle.” The imagery of the soul as a structure evokes the language of edification.
Carruthers’s book brims over with insights and productive lines of enquiry. Yet it also poses some problems, some of which can be mentioned here. In defining the interrelationship between writing and reading, Carruthers comes down firmly on the side of reading and reception. At times, however, she seems to imply more interpretative liberty than the texts and the traditions that governed them might have allowed. Carruthers emphasizes the freedom of the medieval reader/
author to “see” in images whatever they brought to them, no matter how “inaccurate” (her favorite example, drawn from her own experience, is seeing a gaping jaw in an unfamiliar Batman logo). Communication, however, requires recognition; medieval images are not Rorschach blotches. All images depend on stereotypes and conventions, which can in themselves be powerfully expressive, even as they channel interpretative response. The architectural metaphors running through Carruthers’s book are among the most familiar of the images that provided flexible, yet finite armatures for meditative practice, an aspect Carruthers emphasizes in her discussion of the “shared activity” of commemoration at public war memorials. Elsewhere, however, despite her interest in the social function of language, the power of the collective often gets short shrift.
Carruthers tends to see little difference between a work of art and an ekphresis, its verbal description, between an evocation of architecture and an actual building. She admits to being somewhat loose with her terms, a deliberate imprecision that lends flexibility to her argument, but that also, at times, blurs important boundaries. Carruthers writes with imagination and insight on important monuments such as Saint-Riquier, Cluny, Moissac, and Pontigny; her comments on the plan of Saint-Gall are particularly provocative. Buildings, however, be they churches or monastic complexes, were more than ways of structuring meditations. They also served to configure the liturgy, segregate various groups from one another, commemorate the saints, shelter relics, and channel pilgrims. They also had to stand up. Carruthers is right at times to draw back from what she characterizes as the complexities of iconographic readings. But her readings of works of art tend towards the cursory, unlike her nuanced readings of texts. None of this, however, undermines the main thrust of her argument, which, in defining reading and memory as modes of seeing and imagining, makes her book memorable in the sense in which she characterizes the term: creative, productive, and full of food for thought.
A monastic oratory is a building that experienced practitioners in meditational craft can use; it can easily be internalized, readily “laid out” in distinct units, each of moderate size, in one’s mind, and can be “re-visited” both mentally and physically. It is not a lazy or a jaded person’s building.”
—Craft of Thought