Personification and Alienation: The Case of Deguileville (30/5/17, Old Combination Room, Trinity College, 5.15)

Professor Nicky Zeeman will give a paper entitled ‘Personification and Alienation: The Case of Deguileville’ as part of the Poetics Before Modernity seminar series, on Tuesday 30th May at 5.15 in the Old Combination Room, Trinity College. An abstract for the paper, and a biography of the speaker, are below.

Personification and Alienation: the Case of Deguileville

I shall be looking at the rhetorical and poetic figure of personification (known variously as metonymy, prosopopoeia or conformatio) with a view to asking if the way that writers form their personifications can tell us anything about how they understand the subject. One starting point is Angus Fletcher’s observation that the personification could be seen not just in the Stoic manner as daimonic but as a kind of maniac or obsessive. Personification yokes together a number of elements that are in tension with each other: if on the one hand it invokes the idea of the ‘person’, along with its implications about the possibility of inner life and a capacity to speak, act or change, personification also involves a delimiting characteristic, category or bias that constrains the person, something that is true whether the personification represents a particular term, concept or ‘thing’, or whether it represents a particular historical, mythical or fictional character. My hunch is that because the ‘person’ in personification is in some way partial, driven or over-determined, and as a result potentially at odds with itself or its surroundings, it may also be for medieval writers a way of thinking about how the subject might also have these features. The tensions and contradictions that are fundamental to the figure of personification, in other words, mean that writers can use it to think about about the difficulties of being a subject, all the while evading the connotations of coherent personhood that are, potentially at least, to be found in more mimetic narrative modes. My test case will be the personifications of Guillaume de Deguileville’s fourteenth-century French Pelerinage de vie humaine, with their dislocated voices, grotesque bodies and insecure relation to the embodied world: I shall be arguing that they model an alienated subjectivity that can also be seen across the text as a whole – and one that may not only be premodern.

Nicolette Zeeman
(King’s College and University of Cambridge)

Nicolette Zeeman is Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English in the Faculty of English at King’s College and the University of Cambridge. Author of Piers Plowman and the Medieval Discourse of Desire (Cambridge University Press, 2006), she contributed to and co-edited with Jean Michel Massing King’s College Chapel 1515-2015. Art, Music and Religion in Cambridge (Harvey Miller, 2014), and with Dallas Denery II and Kantik Ghosh Uncertain Knowledge. Scepticism, Relativism, and Doubt in the Middle Ages (Brepols, 2014). She has also published other essays on Piers Plowman, Chaucer, medieval literary theory, song, psychology and allegory. Her next monograph will be Arts of Disruption. Conflict and Contradiction in Medieval Allegory and Piers Plowman, and she is developing a project on ideas about idolatry in later medieval culture, provisionally entitled Caught in the Body.