“What characterizes a god?” Reading Robert Glück’s Margery Kempe
All is Vanity, Charles Allan Gilbert, c1929
by Cam Scott
“In the 1430s, Margery Kempe wrote the first autobiography in English. She replaced existence with the desire to exist,” writes Robert Glück. And in the early 1990s, Glück wrote Margery Kempe, a fictionalization of the would-be saint’s life, shot through with anecdotes of the narrator’s own contemporary love affair. Although the intervening centuries impel comparison, Glück’s Margery Kempe depicts the transhistorical affinity of lovers at the end of time, conveying the eschatological fervor underwriting a Medieval scenery to the ambient fright of the AIDS epidemic and its constant aftermath. In collating these lover’s tales, Glück himself offers a compelling instance of memoir-as-self-replacement. For just as Kempe’s desire outlives her historical existence in writing, Glück backdates his own desirous being by some five-hundred years, offering her life as an interpretive gloss on his own.
From the first pages of Margery Kempe, Glück revels in the salacious details of his retelling; his Margery is sexually assertive, sensuously avid, awaiting the arrival of Jesus Christ in her life with unrequited conviction: “If Jesus had not abandoned her, would she be so vehemently attracted?” In explicit prose, Glück narrates Margery’s relationship with Jesus, interspersing anecdotes of his narrator Bob’s contemporary dalliance with the wealthy, beautifully aloof L., whose single initial stands for both tell-all veridicality and a gossip’s restraint.
As an amateur Medievalist with scandalous designs upon his source text, Glück is in good company. In 1993, one year prior to the appearance of Margery Kempe, poet Catriona Strang published Low Fancy, an experimental rewriting of the Carmina Burana, an anthology of lascivious poetry and song compiled by Benedictine monks in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. At moments, Strang’s writing within this material could furnish Glück’s sexual pilgrims a credo: “Characterized by a bitter antisacerdotalism and a certain love of SPEED, the wanderers’ constant vigilance produced a dangerous abundance of interceptions, and pigmented the imagination of an entire century.”
Indeed, a reconstructed Medieval imaginary has proven useful for all manner of transgressive art. Decades prior, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s films used this scenery to allegorize an extant class society and its sexual mores, offering an overripe physicalism as the reflection of spiritual hypocrisy. Earlier still, Georges Bataille, a trained medievalist, maintained an essentially religious dualism throughout his fiction, in which desire tortures a body that it must eventually outstrip. In a 1941 story, Madame Edwarda, the narrator fatally pursues a sexual relationship with God in the shape of an aging sex worker; and while she sacrifices her body to this encounter, her client, in a twist straight out of a Medieval morality tale, exposes his soul totally.
What of the Middle Ages does Margery Kempe retain and adapt? From a Jewish standpoint, wary of Christian martyrology, Glück adopts the mystic’s expectation of ecstatic physical rapport with Christ. Adapting variously esoteric doctrines of physical incarnation, Glück uses the scaffold of religious experience to present a vivid account of romantic love, as a structure of lack and supplication. In Kempe’s original account, she keeps company with Christ, whose palpable presence forbids physical excess: “boldly clepe me Jhesus, thi love,” he instructs her, “for I am thi love and schal be thi love wythowtyn ende.” In Glück’s imitation, however, the arc of Kempe’s life is rewritten as a sexual encyclopedia, and her relation to Godhead as a rotating tryst. In this updated version, the pleasure of God in his subjects models a bodily jouissance, transcending phallic sexuality—and the narrator’s present-day dalliance is captioned accordingly, as a feminine desire. As Glück’s narrator, ‘Bob,’ writes:
I perform my story. By lip-synching Margery’s loud longing but I wonder if that visible self-erasure is just a failure to face L. I want to be a woman and a man penetrating him, his inner walls rolling around me like satin drenched in hot oil, and I want to be the woman and man he continually fucks. I want to be where total freedom is. I push myself under the surface of Margery’s story, holding my breath for a happy ending to my own.
Bob’s longing borrows body and volume from Kempe’s precedent, but this is no masquerade. Rather, as the lover has no body of their own but may be gratified only through the beloved, Glück’s narrative affair requires the mediation of another, and thus appears a lustful supplement to someone else’s scripture. For this reason, and others readily perceptible, Margery Kempe becomes a touchstone of queer experimental writing.
Few have pursued this cause as vigorously as the group of writers identified with New Narrative, a tendency with which Glück’s name is virtually synonymous. Formalized in a Bay Area writing workshop during the 1970s, New Narrative begins as a movement of experimental writing with a particular interest in sexuality as textuality; as a candidly queer reply to the contemporary undertakings of Language writing; and above all, as a communal endeavor. This community extends between texts, too, as many early New Narrative experiments involve a ‘writing-through’ of literary precedent: with his friend Bruce Boone, Glück produced a rewriting of the fables of La Fontaine in 1981; and important works by Steve Abbott and Dodie Bellamy gesture to Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets and Bram Stoker’s Dracula respectively.
In his Long Note on New Narrative, Glück credits Boone with the elaboration of its trademark mode, “text-metatext.” In such writing, a running narrative appears with a parallel level of commentary that “asks questions, asks for critical response, makes claims on the reader, elicits comments … In any case, text-metatext takes its form from the dialectical cleft between real life and life as it wants to be.” This cleft encompasses Kempe’s writing too, at least in Glück’s description, which renders her in terms amenable to his own program. Between existence and desire, real life and the life-to-be, Glück posits the consistency of writing, as a body other than his own. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate intertext for this demonstration than the biography of a Medieval mystic, who claimed physical visitations from the Holy Spirit, and who took upon herself the proprietary task of biblical exegesis in spite of her professed illiteracy.
Words Made Flesh
In her study of the historical Margery Kempe, Karma Lochrie proposes that the mystical memoirs of the Middle Ages exemplify a “feminine writing of the body”; but how so? According to Lochrie, women of this era were identified not with the body but with the flesh, as a sensuous impediment to bodily communion with the spirit. In her description, this corporeal surplus both “threatens the masculine idea of the integrity of the body,” and forms the basis for the mystic text, which construes the author herself as a medium of transformation. The mystic, Lochrie says, makes claim “to a privileged language, the Word made flesh and uttered through the flesh,” thereby entering into an affinity with Christ, in whom the spirit is legible.
Infamously, Jacques Lacan describes Medieval mysticism as a feminine enterprise, opposing a world of imputed essence under the banner of the not-all; which is otherwise to say, supplementing positive appearances from a standpoint of desire, or lack. As for this feminine or mystical jouissance, “it is clear that the essential testimony of the mystics consists in saying that they experience it, but know nothing about it.” From this description, it would seem that mystical experience must necessarily elude the text to which it appears dedicated.
Somewhat differently than Lacan, Lochrie situates the woman mystic at the threshold of signification: “she seeks to transgress the limits of a language which is hopelessly exterior and which excludes the marvelous,” frequently citing the insufficiency of language before experience. In the 1430s, one might say, Margery Kempe sought to replace the inert word of social convention with a physical transmission: “Je pushed out, then sus, inward and under her tongue,” Glück writes, the name spanning inside and out, becoming breath. In Margery’s pronunciation the two syllables of Jesus’ name blur into the private incantation that “I am.”
By its own account, Glück’s novel is deeply concerned with the bodily mediation of writing, as well as the constructed threshold between man and woman, body and soul. But Lochrie’s suggestion of a somatic writing, closely identifying the feminine with an abundance of bodily self-evidence, risks inverting the phallic order of appearances to the temporary benefit of an historically female—rather than feminine—subject. Lacan, by comparison, locates the feminine position within a structure: that of love, for example, in which nothing is exchanged but exchange itself. This permutating relationship, of supplementary rather than complementary elements, drives the many transformations of Margery Kempe. “Gender is the extent we go to in order to be loved,” Glück writes; and this dynamic description, admitting joy in partiality, approaches Lacan’s meaning when he speaks of feminine jouissance as belonging to the body. One shouldn’t, however, presume to know anything of the body under question.
Rather than chastely devoting herself to the idea of Christ, Margery not only receives but reciprocates Jesus’ touch. In this sensory communion, Margery adjusts the feminizing asymmetry of courtly love—a complex of Medieval conventions whereby an admirer professes unconsummated love for a noblewoman beyond his standing, modelled on the hierarchies of feudal and religious society at once. Lacan describes such distant loyalty as a “highly refined way of making up for the absence of a sexual relationship, by feigning that we are the ones who erect an obstacle thereto.” In Bob’s affair, it’s clear that this devotional curve serves L., whose wealth and inaccessibility only compound Bob’s idealization. The Godlike distance of the beloved from their idolater is superimposed onto an actual geography: L. lives on the opposite side of the country inasmuch as he lives anywhere, thus securing “his larger existence, the imperative that meaning stay with him, the mobility to retreat from the deep surrender he inspires.”
In a note from 2000, Glück explicitly proposes that this unequal arrangement is compounded by, and reflected in, the present society: “L.’s ruling class status equals the divinity of Jesus,” he explains. This adds a compelling layer of interpretation, where the non-relationship of the lover and beloved initiates love, as capital mediates the non-relationship of the working and ruling classes. This comparison would come as no surprise to Lacan, who describes the constitutive asymmetry of desire as producing “surplus jouissance,” going so far as to claim that Marx discovered the symptom before Freud. Contrary to the expectation that a power differential must obtain between unequal essences or symbols, Lacan reminds us that it must be constantly reproduced as a relation over the course of its parties’ employment. For Lacan, pleasure is always on behalf of the other; and insofar as they occupy this position, both L. and Jesus live off the desire of their admirers. “Jesus does not miss Margery,” one reads, “though he seems to need her.”
Christ the Modernist
These themes are elaborated throughout Glück’s first novel, Jack the Modernist, published almost a decade prior. Like Margery, Jack exemplifies a staple subset of New Narrative—the Novel of Unrequited Love as Vehicle for Sublimatory Digression. Similar in function to L., the eponymous Jack is effusive, well-liked, comprehensively read, but emotionally unavailable; and Jack’s asymmetrical relationship to the narrator, Bob, incites the novel, from its indelible first sentence (“You’re not a lover til you blab about it”) to its dishy end, dispensing heartsick with a kiss-and-tell insouciance. The earlier novel even appears as a point of reference in Margery Kempe, when L. quippingly addresses “Bob the Moronist,” mocking at the author’s romantic credulity without addressing his own typecast counterpart.
Over the course of this book, Bob traverses the fantasy of Jack—the Lover-Intellectual, the proficient Modernist—arriving at an image of castration so anticlimactic in its literality as to lampoon the foregoing anguish. Jack claims that he has been sexually remote because he’s afraid of Bob’s profligacy at the baths; after their breakup, Bob finds out that Jack had contracted gonorrhea from a fling, and was withholding out of embarrassment and a secretive consideration for Bob’s health. The punchline, ‘gonorrhea,’ is a trifle, and like every late arrival retroacts a fatal absurdity upon a novel’s worth of escalation.
“What used to be my sex appeal/Is now my water spout,” Bob recites, a bit of phallic doggerel for Jack in his authoritative absence. This there-and-gone-again refrain repeats in different playful registers: “Seize the day, I said to Jack, remember death.” The schoolboy Latinisms of this plea are obverse in their superegoic obscenity; go on and live, you’ll surely die. The metaphysical assumptions of this text are less explicit; but much like the figure of L./Jesus in Margery Kempe, Jack’s enjoyment requires distance. This absent presence underwrites a series of sexual adventures that give body to longing, at the same time as the author’s longing overreaches any actual person available to its purposes, of which Jack remains the unwitting—and unwilling—beneficiary.
Remember death, goes the Latin instruction; both a stoical reminder to enjoy the moment and a Christian platitude regarding the life to come. Jack the Modernist is a paean to the deindividuating effects of sex and obsession, and a robust defense of the deathly as it bears on desire. Notably then, the novel precedes the AIDS epidemic by several years, permitting a metaphorical treatment of these themes. In a heartbreaking afterword from a 1995 reissue, Glück describes his own retreat from bathhouses and cruising spots, the book’s facilitating scenery, as the virus ravaged his community. For this reason, any contemporary reading is bound to feel haunted in retrospect. Certainly Jack’s bacterial imbroglio comes as an extra shock in its benignity, an ironic token of sexual innocence; and the religious morbidity of Glück’s metaphorical language assumes an added weight in light of what’s to come.
The Place of the Skull
As Margery aims to lose herself crossing the distance between two irremediably separate entities, “to be engulfed but to retain that loss of self in the memory of her skin,” her capture of the moment is death-hued, too. And Glück’s ventriloquizing of Margery, on the basis of her ecstatic’s knack for “self-erasure,” enacts a miniature oblivion in writing. As quoted above: “I want to be a woman and a man penetrating (L.), his inner walls rolling around me like satin drenched in hot oil, and I want to be the woman and man he continually fucks. I want to be where total freedom is.” This echoes the mortal concerns of Jack the Modernist, in which Bob glosses his pleasure with an illustration, C. Allen Gilbert’s Vanitas:
Getting fucked and masturbated produces an orgasm that can be read two ways, like the painting of a Victorian woman with her sensual hair piled up who gazes into the mirror of her vanity table. Then the same lights and darks reveal a different set of contours: her head becomes one eye, the reflection of her face another eye and her mirror becomes the dome of a grinning skull/woman/skull/woman/skull—I wanted my orgasm to fall between those images. That’s not really a place. I know. The pious Victorian named his visual pun ‘Vanity.’ I rename it ‘Identity.’ I relinquished the firm barrier that separated us—no, that separated me from nothing. I might have liked to shoot for boundlessness but when I get fucked in the ass that rarely happens, it just spills.
Compared to the similar passage from Margery Kempe, this fantasy is less bisexual than sacrificial; omni-, and not inter-, personal. Even so, “total freedom,” or “identity,” is placed athwart sexual difference, as the property of the other, whose enjoyment is a formal output of own’s own incompleteness or desire. Strikingly, Glück places this threshold between one and the same person, in the realm of their own fantasy, rather than between two equal or complementary partners. Furthermore, the earthly attempt at boundlessness “just spills,” shy of its impossible target.
In Vanitas, one sees another figure of the other-as-threshold for desire; for this is how the conventional sign of death works in the visual allegory that Glück regards at length. Gilbert’s memento mori places the gaze in a manner not unrelated to Holbein’s Ambassadors, which so fascinated Lacan. By comparison, the skull in Holbein’s portrait is not only concealed, but appears to be floating distorted, separated from or rending pictorial space. In this respect, the skull no longer functions as part of a standardized vocabulary, placed in accordance with convention, but does what it otherwise says, severing the image from itself.
Likewise, the optical illusion of Gilbert’s illustration dynamizes the allegory. The appearance of the skull, looking at the viewer as they are looking elsewhere in the opposite direction, marks an entirely excessive aspect of the representation that “reflects our own nothingness, in the figure of the death’s head,” Lacan writes. The apprehension of this image, he continues, involves the subject captured thereby; it encourages the artist to “put something into operation.”
As a visual puzzle, Vanitas works on a similar principle as the famous duck-rabbit illusion, which Ludwig Wittgenstein used to mark the difference between “seeing” and “seeing-as.” The latter optic, according to Wittgenstein, is practically superfluous except in the case of doubtful reinterpretation: one doesn’t say that one sees something as a rabbit or a skull, for example; one simply sees a rabbit. The grammatical doubling that occurs in cases of ambiguous or multiple interpretations occasions creativity. “‘Seeing as …’ is not part of perception,” Wittgenstein asserts, but it makes the world flare selectively before one’s ken. Theologian John Hick adapts this demonstration as a touchstone of his religious epistemology; expanding on the simple “reapperception of a puzzle picture” to present a multi-faceted notion of “experiencing-as.”
According to Hick, religious faith entails an attribution of meaning to available experience, such that nothing more than reality is required by way of evidence. In this way, Hick explains religion as a subjective decision: “knowing God” is a particular experience of the world, in spite of which “there is no extra person, whom we call God, in addition to the world.” This differs from pantheism, however, for the worldly phenomena under examination need not be regarded as divine in itself. Rather, the world appears to the believer “as media of God’s activity towards him.” In Glück’s novel, Margery expresses as much in effluvial detail: “All we know of the external world is our own shit, piss, tears, sweat, spit, snot, come, pus, babies, and sometimes blood,” and yet, “flesh was not all flesh but partly appetite.” Desire gives something to experience, non-additively; for, as Lacan says, “if beyond appearance there is nothing in itself, there is the gaze.”
To return upon Glück’s gloss on the ghostly boudoir, one might observe a difference between getting fucked and getting fucked-as, where the latter, transitive verb describes the kind of de- and re-subjectivation during sex that Bob craves in each of the passages above. With Hick’s God and Lacan’s gaze in mind, one could describe the difference in terms of attendance; for the desire that remediates experience on sight is never one’s own, but an attribute of the other. Moreover, the oscillating image (“skull/woman/skull”) is “not really a place,” one is told, but a process; and the most interesting transformations that occur over the course of Jack the Modernist and Margery Kempe are not of a relationship itself, but of a lover’s manner of relating to a non-relationship.
In Margery’s quest after Jesus, the metonymic substitutions driving religious devotion attain to fleshly autonomy of their subject, offering a fantastic solution to an impasse of phallic sexuality. In one explicit passage, the lovers explore one another’s bodies with mechanical versatility: “they pushed fingers inside each other and strummed as though trying notes till they located the nerve of an exact turmoil.” For love’s purposes, Jesus wears an orifice in his side for the devotee to feel and see: “Jesus’s asshole seemed like a flaw that drew her attention more than the beauty it marred, till finally the flaw became an expression of herself by dint of her struggle.” 
Perhaps everyone is a doubting Thomas in lust, demanding sensory verification of a wishful rapport. On this principle of transmutatory attraction, any detail excerpted from the body carries a powerful charge. Margery all but indirectly quotes Stendhal on the limitations of beauty, who speaks of the concentration of attention on the blemish as a token of reality; an example of what Lacan calls objet petit a. “Beauty can only supply us with probabilities,” Stendhal writes, “while the glances of your mistress with her small-pox scars are a delightful reality, which destroys all the probabilities in the world.”
Our narrator’s present-day fixation on L. charts a related movement— from the limitless abstraction of attraction to an acquisitive specificity. The effects of fascination are paradoxical, however; for the process by which the beloved is selected from a world of beauty requires the further abstraction of a trait from the beloved, by which they may be represented to desire. Accordingly, the object that negates the secular, or probabilistic, world not only functions as sensible media of the other—it metonymizes the lover’s desire, rather than the body of the beloved per se. Posing demurely with his cock out of his pants, “L., as Jesus” taunts our narrator: “L.’s cock testifies to the human form he chose,” Glück writes of this earthly incarnation—“so strange to him that he will not let me touch it, as though keeping co-conspirators from meeting.” Describing L.’s endowment as a collaboration, Glück reminds us in wonderfully crude terms that only desire can make a phallus of human form.
A Trinity in Two Parts
In this account, love is essentially dualistic, giving something to reality that cannot be deduced from appearance. Bob calls his friends to actuate his love: “In the theaters of their consciousness I stage my drama,” he writes: “That my love for L. is possible, actual. That my joy exists. Interaction shifts the ground of the finite … Margery turns the cosmos into the witness of her love.” A fantastic co-theory issues from this social appeal, whereby Glück’s friends are identified with the whole of divine creation, summarizing his earthly joy from above. As Bob the Moronist might say, you’re not a lover ‘til you blab about it; for language affords the next best thing to spilling.
Lacan attests to this witnessing function when he insists that God surely exists, if only as a formal requirement. God, Lacan suggests, exists as “the third party in this business of human love,” triangulating the one and the other so as to impel attraction. God then names a condition of encounter, marking the necessity of symbolic intercession between two irremediably separate beings. Bob’s fervency of belief, maintained with a little help from his friends, parallels the physical ecstasy of Margery with Jesus, who is God’s body, after all; and to suggest that Bob’s community mirrors that of God is to extrapolate queer kinship from one of the kinkier articles of Christian faith.
In Saint Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, husband and wife are described as one flesh, and the church submits to Christ as wife to husband, and a body redeemed thereby—“that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word.” Karma Lochrie has this Pauline doctrine in mind as she details the feminine bearing of the flesh, quoting Saint Augustine: “Your flesh is like your wife … Love it, rebuke it, until it is made into one harmony, one bond [of flesh and spirit.]” In this, Lochrie explains, the feminine is outside representation until bonded with the word.
That the conjugal body of an upright couple models the correspondence of a social body to God sets a physical precedent for religion, and Glück takes the marriage motif to extremes. On November 9, 1414, Glück writes, God the Father is married to Margery. “Daughter, I’m glad,” God tells her, “especially because you love the manhood of my son.” This double entendre offers a startlingly literal affront to the trinity, which maintains the identity of God the Father and his human incarnation. Thus Margery’s desire for Jesus’ manhood, or his member—“the strongest pleasure that can exist occurred in Jesus’s cock”—represents devotion to the Father, whom she marries in his stead.
This bifurcated home life corresponds to the structure of patrilinear marriage rite. Margery, “more like a human spy than a bridge,” can only fuck the body, or the son; as she can only marry spirit, or the father. Likewise, to marry is to take another father’s name, for want of an errant, or actual, copy. As for the terms of their marriage, “the father, Mary, and Jesus were reversible; they juggled amongst themselves the conditions that defined Margery: daughter, wife, mother, her need for money, her mortality, her desire.” Glück wields the doctrine of identity as a feminist allegory of domestic life, where Margery’s enrolment in the Holy Family divides material interest from subjective desire, as different aspects of the same relationship. “Now she’s wedded to Jesus, but father and son decline to remember which is which.” One recalls that in Lacan’s account of surplus jouissance, it is God himself who enjoys.
The Writers Who Love Too Much
The two obsessive affairs blur somewhat in the narrator’s account—Jesus, after all “had L.’s Scottish face”—but for the most part, one plot explicates the other at a distance. “How can the two halves of this novel ever be complete?” the narrator asks incredulously. Perhaps there is no relationship between the two, only a space of difference, suffused with desire; a gulf motivating identification. In her voraciousness, Margery appears both prototype and composite of Glück’s coterie, laughingly designated by L. as “the Writers Who Love Too Much.” Furthermore, her mystical conversions correspond to the ambiguities of gay social life centuries hence: as Glück writes, “the tension between masculine-feminine and inside-outside pervades all levels of my community.”
By way of Margery’s travels, Glück finds flashes of a liminal community amid a company of disassociated pilgrims; and with the worldliness of one cast to the street, Glück’s Margery makes a religion of her raw experience: “Margery had not founded an order like St. Bridget or promoted church reform like St. Catherine. She looked for glimpses of Jesus in handsome men on the streets of Rome.” This interested derivation of religion has a textual complement, as well; for just as Margery bases her image of Christ on a survey of her social surround, their sexual escapades borrow shape from Glück’s peers, from whom he solicited morsels of personal description: “I asked my friends for notes about their bodies to dress these fifteenth-century paper dolls … My friends become the author of my misfortune and the ground of authority in this book. We are a village common producing images.”
Glück’s choice of words alludes to the village collective as a productive unit, and to the modicum of traditional rights that communities enjoyed under feudalism, prior to the land enclosures that definitively ended the Medieval world that Margery inhabits. (One of the earlier significant uprisings against enclosure, Kett’s Rebellion of 1549, took place in Norfolk not far from the place of Kempe’s birth.) In this quick comparison, Glück suggests that the bourgeois novel enacts a privatization of the world it depicts, as he sets out to redistribute his authorial prestige. In the village novel of his suggestion, Glück dotes on these descriptions, quoting from flesh as a painter might enlist a model, and luxuriating in a surplus of erotic trivia. On both counts, the author’s arousal exceeds the requirements of religious allegory.
At the same time, Glück takes license from the anatomically baffling and frankly pornographic detail of Medieval depictions of Christ. Margery’s contemplation of Christ surpasses religious merit: “She liked skinny men and wanted to climb his body like a ladder.” Reciprocating her excitement, he fingers himself provocatively: “Jesus shoves two fingers between the lips of the wound in his side. He was not in pain; he aimed his tight excitement at Margery as he exposed himself.” Sumptuously, Glück sexualizes the various devotions that attend the Holy Wounds, as the suffering Christ becomes a vehicle of God’s own exhibitionism; in which, Lacan explains, “what is intended by the subject … is realized in the other.”
Reading Julian of Norwich, Lochrie suggests that the wounds of Christ comprise a memory system, upon which a devotee may physically train. This psychosomatic affinity manifests a conduit between bodies, exemplified in the various stigmata worn by mystics in their deepest sympathy with Christ. In the fourth and final section of Margery Kempe, the crucifixion parallels Bob’s break with L., and Margery herself bears the searing pain of Christ’s final hours: “she was ripped in two: half of her was the absent Jesus.” Just as love intervenes where there is no relation, this feeling of absence finally connects the pair.
Hélène Cixous—whose écriture feminine is prefigured in the mysticism of Margery Kempe, so Lochrie suggests—theorizes a lacerating, painful paradigm of writing that she calls the ‘stigmatexte.’ Describing the relation of literature to incident as that of a scar to a wound, Cixous counsels her reader to cultivate inscription from experience: “in fleeing, the flight saves the trace of what it flees.” Thus writing purposes itself at an object with resurrectionary zeal, ultimately asking passage of the very time it would repair. Without the distance that permits relation, and the difference underwriting repetition, suffering is prior to inscription. As Glück relates, of Bob’s pain by way of Margery’s pathos, “it was too soon to bind this injury with strands of language—to make it inevitable, normal. She was just a wound.”
This mystical account of textual attraction establishes Glück in relation to Margery Kempe as Margery Kempe stands in relation to Jesus Christ; as a distant admirer writing in bodily overlay, swapping physical attributes across time. Margery becomes the literary principle, or term of non-relation, by which faith and love are possible: “She had access to the body of Jesus—that is, belief in the value of life and such ecstasy as my corruptible tongue cannot express. I reconstruct the memory of that access as a ruin, a hollow space inside meaning, a vehicle for travel. Still, Jesus can lift me out of time to be his lover.”
Love in Space
The Christological pretense of this break-up novel permits, and perhaps entreats, the reading reproduced above; but even as love beckons toward the transcendental, the options for its expression are nonetheless historically conditioned. While the novel’s eroticism enacts a timeless blur between subject positions, Glück vividly involves the reader in the historical circumstances of Margery’s pilgrimage, if only to pursue further comparison. Specific dates and details punctuate Margery’s travelogue, corresponding to civil wars and crusades, to an accelerating slave trade, and other territorial conquests. Such material detail relativizes Margery’s religious quest, situating her self-overcoming in an all-too-real world that cannot be circumvented by the immediacy of divine transcendence. “She looked up in surprise. It was 1420; experience was crumbling.”
In this moment of surprise, an intimation of historicity threatens subjective coherency, and opens onto the indifferent externality of material reality: “It amazed her that pleasure was so mechanical, so located in space.” Margery’s love itself becomes an object in history, however otherwise fantastic; pursued by plague and circumscribed by patriarchal offices, of lecherous mayors and faithless friars. Furthermore, Margery’s historicity obliges Glück to clarify his own:
Margery lived during the Hundred Years War, the collapse of feudal systems, and the plague. Towns had walls; at night the gates shut. At the beginning of modernity the world and otherworld lay in shambles. Margery was an individual in a recognizable nightmare: the twentieth century will also be called a hundred years war.
Written in the early nineties, during the salad days of neoliberal hegemony and at the height of the AIDS crisis, Margery Kempe glosses innumerable crises of politics and personal experience at once, if obliquely. Along her journey, pilgrims pay Margery to entertain them: “Two ladies of quality love each other entirely,” one story begins. “One of them falls sick with plague and desires to see the other, who will not come, fearing catching it.”  After her death, the afflicted party appears to her lover, as a final goodbye and a forerunner of illness. This story fantastically portrays plague law as impediment to, and therefore proof of, physical love, where only death and its preparations can separate two wholly devoted lovers.
In the present day of Bob and L.’s affair, Bob explains that “L. has joined ACT UP and does AIDS graphics. I encourage, approve—he needs some human scale in his life. I also take part in political demonstrations, but I aim my desire for freedom at myself and L. in the form of total arousal.” In this passage, beyond which AIDS is scarcely mentioned, Bob opposes the rapport of activists to that of lovers; but the condition of this comparison is that, if only as a terrible contingency, these stations refer to a common adversary.
The difference between Margery Kempe and Jack the Modernist, post- and pre-AIDS, is marked; where the earlier novel is dialogue driven and highly episodic, moving from gathering to gathering, bathhouse to bar, and rendering the author’s community in anecdotal form, Margery Kempe interprets a relatively secluded love affair through the experience of a distantly bygone interlocutor, whose ecstatic religious conversion established a one-to-one relationship with Jesus Christ; an historically furnished experience that nonetheless posits itself outside of history as such. In a reflective essay, entitled ‘HIV 1986,’ Glück summarizes the culture that furnishes Jack the Modernist its backdrop:
In short, it was gay community—well organized, inventive, imperfect, equipped for urban life in the seventies and eighties, and subject to its pluses and minuses. Unlike older communities, ours thrived in an urban setting, in commercial institutions like bars and baths and cafés; it added its own chapter to the history of love in those decades. What other population could respond to urban anonymity by incorporating it into the group’s love life as anonymous sex? To the degree that my own aroused body expressed the sublime, it broke every social contract, while invitation to the sexual act unified a community and was its main source of communication, validating other forms of discourse. As we created the community it taught us a new version of who were, then we became it. Such a shift in perception about oneself is almost mystical …
This mystical reorganization of the self certainly describes Margery Kempe, and underwrites the author’s transhistorical affinity with Margery herself. Perhaps the mysticism of Margery Kempe proceeds upon the tremendous social specificity of Jack the Modernist, though each is present in the other, as a kind of retreat from the conditions of anonymous conviviality described above; in which case the attributed cameos of friends’ bodies take on a daring significance, insisting on the possibility of physical love.
Of all the obstacles to love that this book stages in order to overcome, or at least to symbolize, mortality is perhaps the most persuasive. At the outset of his study of eroticism, Georges Bataille writes that for humans, “discontinuous beings that we are, death means continuity of being.” This deathly ecstasy, however, obviates social being altogether, as another expression of the super-human desire for continuity. Glück celebrates this striving above, describing a tension between sublime arousal and the social contract. For this, Bataille affirms, “eroticism can only be envisaged dialectically, and conversely the dialectician, if he does not confine himself to formalism, necessarily has his eyes fixed on his own sexual experience.”
The contradiction that Glück names, between desire and the state, is not quite a restaging of the contradiction between the individual and the collective, except insofar as the life of the collective often requires the death of the individual ego. (Bataille will write of the religious necessity of “dying to oneself.”) In Glück’s description of gay social life, civic deindividuation even hones desire. All of these stakes, of course, were exaggerated and actualized by AIDS with a cruelty too acute for commentary, and perhaps the initial phase of New Narrative concludes with the foreclosure of some staple tropes regarding limitless transgression. “AIDS creates such magnitude of loss that now death is where gay men experience life most keenly as a group,” Glück writes in a moving summation of this era.
This, perhaps, is where Margery Kempe confronts and eludes the stakes of its moment. The religious scaffolding is not simply an allegorical means of relating a love story, but a structure of feeling appropriate to the ravages of contemporary experience, conditions of which are said to be crumbling before the author’s eyes. Where these tribulations are concerned, the novel’s eroticism is ineluctably escapist, separating the individual from the world if only to surpass this distinction altogether; and Margery’s Christian lexicon is once again an historical contingency, standing for something far more basic in the way of demand.
For Bataille, “flights of Christian religious experience and bursts of erotic impulses (are) part and parcel of the same movement”—from separation to communion—and Glück’s novel would seem to agree. Discussing the importance of sexual excitement to mystical experience, Bataille decrees the mystic to have ascertained the identity of life and death, pleasure and pain, at once. This creed furnishes Jack the Modernist its central illustration, and Margery her calling. But just as eroticism recommends death, love demands everlasting life, and the implication of one in the other makes the Christian worldview useful to Glück’s work of longing. As Margery writes of Jesus, or Bob writes of L., “intimate touch made a promise of immortality.”
Ironically, eroticism only names so many fantastic solutions to the absence of a sexual relationship. But L., Glück reminds his reader, is “the god of non-relation,” in which role he compels desire absolutely, such that longing suffuses Bob’s entire world. As Bataille writes in the preface to Madame Edwarda, frustration brings us back to God as supplicants; “yet this God is a whore exactly like all other whores. What mysticism cannot put into words (it fails at the moment of utterance), eroticism says; God is nothing if he is not a transcendence of God in every direction.” It is only because eroticism is a mode of experiencing-as—of seeing God in the world, however otherwise vulgar—that L., who may himself be nothing other than a common flake, becomes a principle of life.
If Margery Kempe has any religion, it would surely be as antisocial as Bataille’s. But Glück’s desires, one might suggest, are far too socially beholden to permit any such metaphysical obscurantism with respect to their object. One may designate the needful standing of its narrator by any of its historical names, but Glück’s novel commends itself to everyday use by its keen sense of the social vicissitudes of desire, which are both structuralized and situated throughout. “This novel records my breakdown,” Glück admits: “conventional narrative is preserved but the interest must lie elsewhere. Like L., Jesus must be real but must also represent a crisis.” This designates a misalignment of real life and fantasy; of text and commentary; of history and the individual, that writing can preserve if not repair. Correspondingly, the true love story here concerns the feeling with which Bob engages Margery across time, and the community of witnesses that see to this agreement. It is a reader’s fortune, then, to vigilantly authorize the lover’s interpenetrating worlds, and to enjoy what they can only suffer, together, alone.
 Robert Glück, Margery Kempe (New York: New York Review of Books, 2020), 3.
 Glück, 2020, 8.
 Catriona Strang, Low Fancy (Toronto: ECW Press, 1993), 19.
 Lynn Staley, editor, The Book of Margery Kempe. https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/staley-book-of-margery-kempe-book-i-part-i
 Glück, 2020, 49.
 Robert Glück, Communal Nude: Collected Essays (South Pasadena: Semiotext(e), 2016), 94.
 Karma Lochrie, Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), 6.
 Lochrie, 45.
 Jacques Lacan, translated by Bruce Fink. The Seminar Of Jacques Lacan Book XX: Encore (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), 76.
 Lochrie, 47.
 Glück, 2020, 6.
 Glück, 2020, 57.
 Lacan, 1999, 69.
 Glück, 2020, 12.
 Glück, 2020, 167.
 Jacques Lacan, translated by Russell Grigg. The Seminar Of Jacques Lacan Book XVII: The Other Side Of Psychoanalysis (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), 75.
 Glück, 2020, 48.
 Glück, 2020, 67.
 Robert Glück, Jack the Modernist (London and New York: Serpent’s Tail, 1995), 123.
 Glück, 2020, 132.
 Glück, 2020, 49.
 Glück, 1995, 55.
 Jacques Lacan, translated by Alan Sheridan. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (New York: Norton, 1977), 92.
 Ludwig Wittgenstein, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte. Philosophical Investigations (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 207.
 John Hick, Faith and Knowledge: A Modern Introduction To the Problem of Religious Knowledge (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2009), 143.
 Hick, 144.
 Glück, 2020, 137.
 Lacan 1977, 103.
 Glück, 2020, 15.
 Glück, 2020, 15.
 Stendhal, Love (New York: Penguin Books, 1975)
 Glück, 2020, 118.
 Glück, 2020, 12.
 Lacan, 1999, 70.
 Ephesians 5:26 KJV
 Quoted in Lochrie, 19
 Glück, 2020, 74.
 Glück, 2020, 70.
 Glück, 2020, 76.
 Glück, 2020, 77.
 Glück, 2020, 41.
 Glück, 2020, 137.
 Glück, 2020, 48.
 Glück, 2020, 75.
 Glück, 2020, 90.
 Glück, 2020, 37.
 Glück, 2020, 37.
 Lacan, 1977, 183.
 Lochrie, 34.
 Glück, 2020, 146.
 Hélène Cixous, translated by Eric Prenowitz. Stigmata (London and New York: Routledge Classics, 2005), xi.
 Glück, 2020, 161.
 Glück, 2020, 133.
 Glück, 2020, 133.
 Glück, 2020, 31.
 Glück, 2020, 98.
 Glück, 2020, 21.
 Glück, 2020, 237.
 Georges Bataille, translated by Mary Dalwood. Eroticism (London: Penguin, 2001), 13.
 Bataille, 2001, 254.
 Bataille, 2001, 9.
 Glück, 2020, 61.
 Glück, 2020, 161.
 Bataille, 2001, 269.
 Glück, 2020, 80.
About the Author:
Cam Scott is a poet, essayist, and improvising non-musician from Winnipeg, Canada, Treaty One territory. He performs under the name Cold-catcher and writes in and out of Brooklyn.