“[S]treite unto my myrrowr and my glas”: Disability and the Social Performance of Intersubjectivity in Hoccleve’s “My Compleinte”
Thomas Hoccleve’s “My Compleinte” relates the speaker’s anxiety about his past madness as he contemplates the accuracy of others’ suspicions that he may still not be well. The ostensible sincerity which imbues Hoccleve’s verses has prompted critics to question whether “My Compleinte” imparts a genuine representation of his mental illness or proves an overtly stylistic depiction typical of medieval self-representation. Looking into a mirror, the speaker strives to modify his appearance to indicate wellness, and meditates on his behavior while mad, a retrospective action only possible via other people’s overheard descriptions, given that he was insensible at the time. I suggest that “My Compleinte” presents a skillful rhetorical construal of madness that highlights its rhetoricity and that of identity more generally, to underscore their communal dimensions. Hoccleve accomplishes this by deploying a fundamental rhetorical process based in relationality, identification, at both the diegetic and mimetic levels of the poem. Through his use of this device, he underscores the intersubjective character of medieval identity, madness, and meaning—not only as individual notions but as entangled ones. Consequently, “My Compleinte” reveals connections between identification and madness that can still inform present understandings of disability. Such knowledge points up the enduring relevance of medieval studies to show, as Rachel Fulton and Bruce Holsinger argue, that “our lives are ultimately not ‘other,’ from the past,” that what we consider history “is still very much with us, even as it shocks or comforts us to see that so much has changed” (288). By looking to the past we might more fully understand and learn to engage with our own notions of dis/ability.
Currently, the three main models of disability are the medical, the social, and the cultural models. [Slide 2] The medical model describes disability in bodily terms, framing it as an issue based in physical norms and compulsory treatment. Emphasizing the importance of diagnosis, this model distinguishes individual pathological deviation from normal embodiment, unlinking disability from lived and social settings. [Slide 3] In contrast, the social model differentiates between physical impairment and disability, framing disability primarily as a consequence of ableist contexts while retaining an emphasis on bodily difference. This model makes disability less about an individual’s pathology and more about society’s failure to provide for difference, although a stringent separation of situational accessibility from embodiment can fix critical attention on social structures at the expense of a person’s corporeal experience. [Slide 4] Finally, the cultural model of disability avoids extricating impairment from the conditions that create disability and associated stigma. Instead, it understands disability as the result of many factors, including social classifications of the body and embodied experiences of the individual, that constellate in diverse ways. It is the cultural model that I bring to bear in my reading of Hoccleve’s poem as it allows for a vast range of constellations of constitutive elements, including the specific features that characterize Hoccleve’s historical and literary contexts.
The constellating disposition of the cultural model allows us to trace the complex networks that form(ed) identity without rendering the speaker’s ethos wholly fungible with the facts of Hoccleve’s life. They also allow us to appreciate the forces that influence(d) the identities of both poet and speaker. Unlike Chaucer, who has long been recognized as a highly rhetorical author, many critics continue to read Hoccleve for the accuracy of his self-depiction rather than said ethos. D. C. Greetham notes that despite “occasional mumblings that Hoccleve’s methods might be more parodic and ironic than autobiographically accurate,” critics prefer “to concern themselves with (and in general terms to accept) the historical rather than the literary validity of Hoccleve’s self-characterization” (243). Perhaps this is because in terms of establishing ethos, Hoccleve seems his own worst enemy. Given how eagerly he bemoans his poverty and melancholy, it is little wonder that he has been described as “the little man who tries unsuccessfully to maneuver in a bureaucracy designed to crush him” ([Malcolm] Richardson 313). Yet critics like G. Gregory Smith and Jerome Mitchell argue for Hoccleve’s persona as “more conventional and rhetorical, and of a pattern, than individual” (Smith qtd. in Mitchell 3), although Mitchell nevertheless views much of Hoccleve’s work as one whole “complex self-portrait” (19). I believe these two interpretations need not be read as altogether divergent if we pay attention to the rhetoricity of the poem’s speaker’s identity and his madness.
Certainly, my attention to rhetoric is a nod to Hoccleve’s particular context as a clerk and person of his station, as someone whose career and art revolved around rhetorical forms. However, rhetoric’s focus on the intersubjective aspects of communication and social interaction, primarily facilitated by identification, sheds light on the complexity of Hoccleve’s poem. [Slide 5] Identification—and its analogue, dissociation—is one of the most important rhetorical devices, certainly one of the most powerful. It operates at the semantic and rhetorical levels, movements reflected by their uses in the poem. Here, I briefly define identification and dissociation as the bringing together and severing of ideas, respectively. However, these devices work at the audience level as well, for audiences must identify with a speaker for persuasion to occur and with one another if persuasion is to translate into collective action. Likewise, individuals can be persuaded to dissociate from a group or they might be excluded by the group as a collective. Identification and dissociation have corporeal consequences: social action as reification of their functions. Thus, we can classify them not only as rhetorical devices but forces with the power to connect or divide ideas and people, forces that inform every aspect of social existence and even personal definitions of identity. These principals can highlight the place of the body in the construction of disability, recognizing the lived impact of bodily difference without regarding it as a wholly corporeal condition free of social context and interpretation. Identification and dissociation as both devices and forces pervade “My Compleinte,” allowing us to appreciate the impression of communal quality of medieval existence as well as that of medieval madness both within and outside of the text.
“My Compleinte” begins with a prologue wherein the speaker suffers a bout of melancholy, leading him to contemplate a previous crisis in the part of the poem that forms the complaint. Thinking on his past experience, the speaker—whom I’ll deem “present Hoccleve” since he exists in the present within the poem—relates that five years earlier, he lost his mind. He thanks God for curing him, noting that he’s been fine since the time of his recovery though he has since suffered because others don’t believe he is well. [Slide 6] These lines establish a series of seeming dichotomies between several sets of elements: between “present Hoccleve” and his past self; between sanity and madness; between himself and others. Yet it is the dialogic relationship between past and present Hoccleves that composes the comprehensive identity of the speaker; sanity and madness are matters of corporeal and mental arrangement; and, despite the disrupted associations that now mark his presence in the community, the speaker and the community nonetheless remain joined through the social arrangements enabled by identification. These pairs are not really marked by polarity but by an underlying metonymy that sets each along a spectrum of possible location.
The relationship between “past Hoccleve” and “present Hoccleve” is fomented by the actions of his neighbors: their collective behavior changes when he approaches and they say hurtful things that cause him sorrow. [Slide 7] Overhearing them say many more things regarding his actions while mad, he hies to his mirror to self-scrutinize. He inspects his expression, ready to change it to the best of his ability if it seems suspect. Here Hoccleve explicitly references the object’s double nature, calling it his “mirrour” and his “glas.” It does not just have a function; it has meaning. It is both thing and text, reflecting one’s image and soul as a speculum inviting introspection. Cary J. Nederman defines a speculum as “most essentially, a book of advice addressed to an individual or (more commonly) a group, detailing a code of conduct or set of values appropriate to its addressee's social position or standing” (18). Not always thematically religious, they also could be political, connecting issues of morality to the social performance of correct behavior. This harmonizes with Jennifer Bryan’s claim that as both mirror-books and mirrors themselves became more commonplace in late medieval England, specula proved popular with laypeople who were “more interested in creating new identities for themselves then in melting into God” (78). This is what we see in “My Compleinte.”
Deep in melancholic contemplation, the speaker recalls how others’ suspicions drive him to study his mirror image to determine whether they are correct that his madness lingers. The speaker can see himself, according to Stephen Harper, “as both subject and object, [who] wonders whether his perception of the external world is distorted by madness” (393). He examines his inner self but just as diligently contemplates his mannerisms and appearance to compose a new visage and new identity as necessary. Via the speculum trope, Hoccleve refracts the individual to reflect the polyvalent construction of the speaker’s ethos. In depicting the speaker gazing into the glass, Hoccleve signifies multiple iterations of an image, representing a complex figure composed of various interactive personae that incorporate even the reactions of multiple audiences. The speaker is able to contend with his past self in a manner that substantiates Merleau-Ponty’s notion that the horizon “is what guarantees the identity of the object throughout the exploration” (78). That is to say, the poem’s diegetic Hoccleve emerges in relation to and against those around him but also against the mimetic self that gazes. Conversely, the present’s “recovered Hoccleve” coheres through dissociation with the former self as well as the people he overhears. In this triangulation, there is no clear delineation between the identities of these parties, including facets of the self, only horizons that shift depending on who is doing the looking and the judging. “Mad Hoccleve” and “recovered Hoccleve” cannot be so easily distinguished. Rather, the speaker’s disability renders the assumed division between past and present a matter of perspective.
Likewise, impressions of wellness and madness reside along a continuum of communal perception concerning corporeal and mental rectitude. The speaker tells us that he was insensible and cannot remember what happened while he was mad, but that he hears from others that he “looked like a wild ox, looking every which way, moving my head side to side” (l. 120-122). His movements were frenetic, marked my constant movement even when he stood still (l. 127-133). Writing on medieval communal identity, Wout J.Van Bekkum and Paul M. Cobb assert that it was “at least partly a product of social contact, of communication, and thus, ultimately, of texts” (5). We may see all three of these features at work in and through “My Compleinte” and doubtless with good reason since, whether Hoccleve’s depiction of madness proves genuine or fabricated, the lesson imparted regarding one’s status in the community remains a vital one. Reputation was akin to capital (Palliser 141), especially for those like Hoccleve who lived in urban areas, and its loss resulted in detrimental social, economic, even physical, effects (Shaw 130). A pronouncement of madness “required the consensus of the community, rather than an expert voice, to establish that a person was indeed mad” (Pfau 94). Hence, madness could render individuals ostracized or subject to abuse. The arrangement of things like one’s body and one’s thinking served as signs of social dis/order that determined one’s insider or outsider status. Philosopher Gail Weiss argues that “human bodies themselves contribute, in an ongoing way, to the construction of narrative intelligibility” (68-9). In the case of the speaker’s affliction, select expressions, gestures, movements, and affect are unified within the topos of madness so that a communal pronouncement ostensibly proves reified in the flesh.
In “My Compleinte,” madness depends on interpretation based on identification both visual and rhetorical—in the detecting and classifying of particular gestures through communal rubrics, and in the coming together of those whose shared views and values sustain those criteria. Identification has a foundation both corporeal and intellectual. However, the poem suggests that the vectors of interpretative authority need not be unidirectional. The speaker’s actions set him apart from the crowd but the crowd’s collective body language also allows the speaker to better understand his situation when he sees that their demeanor changes, that their faces grow pale, and that they draw away from him. Those with whom he had previously identified pretend not to know him, as if they don't see him (l. 70-77). Roger Ellis states that “Hoccleve’s self-presentation witnesses to a growing interest in the discovery and representation of the individual in the later Middle Ages” (5). I suggest that the interaction of the two diegetic Hoccleves demands an examination of the individual’s relationships to and within society for if Hoccleve as individual is constrained by the words of his peers, the outside world nevertheless is apprehended and probed by the individual. Identification proves central to deliberations of madness and wellness, indeed, to the construction of identity in “My Compleinte.” Even if the result is alienation, shared experience is crucial to an appreciation of self, establishing others not as figures of extreme alterity but as essentials for knowing one’s place in the world. This idea is supported by the fact that during his madness, when the speaker is unable to perceive himself as sharing in a common experience, his notion of self dissipates, for there is no cohesive whole in the absence of the communal horizon. His body disappears within his own consciousness but also when the amalgamation of social conventions deemed a body unravels. We might compare this to Metzler’s discussion of the ungestalt, the later medieval German term for a “no-body,” the mutilated remains of the dead that are so “hideous” that they are also “formless” (52). Mad Hoccleve’s bodily presentation is literally repulsive to his neighbors but also signifies that his lack of a properly organized body makes him a nobody (Metzler 52). In this way, “My Compleinte” illustrates David Howes’ assertion that “[p]erception does not just go on in the head” but that “[r]ather, perception is a social phenomenon” as well (451). (There’s also something to be said about how ineffability is powerful and underscores the constructed character of “natural” things like the body and madness.) Consequently, Harper detects in “an awareness of a gap or mismatch between outer, physical appearances and inner, mental or spiritual realities” which should “make us question both the principle that medieval madness was essentially spectacular and the one-sided view of medieval consciousness which underpins it” (394). In presenting an impression of an exposed inner self where power to define that inner self is determined by the individual and others, Hoccleve problematizes a common view of the Middle Ages that situates identity in the social sphere and discounts any notion of a personal life, a view leading critics like Caroline Walker Bynum and David Shaw to assert the difference between everyday life in the Middle Ages and the chosen focus of literary representation.
However, the function of literary representation, too, can be problematized as the poem’s theme that relationships are intersubjective carries over to the rhetorical level of meaning as well. Distinguishing between the mad speaker as object and a subject speaker typified by reflection, Hoccleve presents an overtly crafted image. The subject self sees the object self engaging in social mimicry to appease others not unlike the construction of authorial ethos. [Slide 8] Whether contemplating Hoccleve as an everyday person or an author, the individual’s affinity to others is underscored. In addition, this network of subjectivities sets the speaker himself as among those who must be appeased as an observer and reader. This interplay reveals the perceptual horizons available to each persona as well as how these horizons overlap, creating a form of intersubjectivity within the polyvalent speaker himself. The locus of identity shifts but never fully escapes either personal or public orientation, but perhaps that is the crucial lesson. According to M. C. Seymour, “Where Chaucer composed for his own dramatic recitation before the court of Richard II, Hoccleve intended (and indeed had no other choice) a private reading by his patron” (xxv). Within such a rhetorical context, the didactic function of the poem depends upon personal reflection being inspired within the reader, and Hoccleve certainly draws from choice instructional genres. [Slide 9] Given that allegory, confessional literature, and specula are all intended to foster individual belief while stressing the reader’s membership within a (religious) community, so, too, does Hoccleve exploit this fundamental connection. He reminds his audience that the limits of the private and social selves are not so easily ascertained but that they must be contemplated if one is to not lose reputation. Others, too, are as mirrors to one’s body and soul, leading to introspection even if, as he claims to do, one merely ignores them in the end. Ultimately, madness with its challenge to communal organization becomes the glass through which we might extricate and scrutinize all aspects of our identities.
In closing, I would like to suggest a few ways that Hoccleve’s poem informs contemporary perspectives of disability. 1) Its depiction of madness as a complex and interactive phenomenon contests the medical model’s view of disability as mere pathology with nothing to teach us, and the social model’s impression of disability as a public reading of static impairment. Instead, “My Compleinte” offers nuance to the cultural model of disability by stressing corporeality as a crucial, contextually-determined element of inter/subjectivity. Hoccleve’s poem illustrates the rhizomatic composition of embodied identity, exemplifying Weiss’s claim that “images of the body are not discrete but form a series of overlapping identities whereby one or more aspects of that body appear to be especially salient at any given point in time” (1).
2) Understanding one’s identity as the result of negotiation allows us to better appreciate how the speaker uses identification to engage in rhetorical maneuvers. Kendall R. Phillips defines these as violations of “the proscriptive limits of our subject position” to draw on “another subject position we have occupied” (312). According to Phillips, “a given subject position creates the expectation that one will perform in a way that subsequently satisfies this position” (Phillips 314); rhetorical maneuvers exploit subverted expectations to change the contours of the subject position and possibly create new ones. In “My Compleinte” the speaker highlights his previous position as madperson as a source of firsthand authority even as he denies that the madness endures and that he is someone else. His doing so becomes a potent occasion of resistance to dominant narratives about disability. His social shame singularly bolsters his rhetorical ethos when he invites us to gaze into our own specula and reflect on our own attitudes concerning disability.
And finally, 3) a focus on identification and dissociation, and the corporeal intersubjectivity that they enable, help is bridge the emic-etic divide that Metzler points up. The emic perspective relies on “the specific world-view of a culture as it is usual within that culture” and the use of “cultural criteria as related to internal characteristics,” while the etic perspective is “generalizing and comparative” and regards “cultural criteria as absolutes or universals” (Metzler 10). She defines disability as emic, ever contingent on cultural context, and impairment as an etic notion, transcultural and transhistorical. According to Eyler, this absolute distinction must be amended by regarding disability as the confluence of “bodily difference and social perception” (Eyler 8). Understanding identity and disability as processes of negotiation stresses procedural similarities and differences across contexts over comparative views of ontology and pathology. It permits us to approach Hoccleve’s poem as a historically-situated text that nonetheless speaks to the concerns of critics and disabled individuals over time. And ultimately, perhaps by heeding voices like Hoccleve’s, we can, as Fulton and Holsinger state, “allow ourselves to … recognize our entanglement with the past, its passion, mistakes, and ideals, as a part of what we already are” (Fulton and Holsinger 288) as we wonder where we might go from here.