Johannes Wolf
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Margery Kempe as de-facement
in Encountering The Book of Margery Kempe
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The Book of Margery Kempe has, since the earliest days of its rediscovery, been read as an autobiography. This chapter explores the dynamics at play in this generic ascription, arguing that the post-structuralist emphasis on autobiography as a mode of reading rather than one of writing can help to lay bare some of the effects of treating the Book as a historical witness to a life. In exploring the responses of readers, both academic and general, to the provocations of this text the chapter draws parallels between autobiographical reading and the tendency towards diagnostic and pathologising interpretations of Kempe’s story common in late twentieth-century interpretations of the Book. These interpretations, it is argued, are prefigured and guided by the Book’s own structural concerns and by a number of key episodes of Middle English interrogation, interpretation, and diagnosis. As moments of tension and sometimes violence, the episodes of the Book allow us to recognise in our own autobiographical desires a tendency towards control and domination of fluid narratives. In recognising the complicity of both text and reader in such analytical gestures, this chapter seeks to stress the affective and semiotic entanglements that constitute any moment of encounter, and further to suggest that an approach that recognises the essential role such dynamics play in the formation of Margery Kempe herself open the way for readings that reflect, in their own capacious way, an important part of The Book of Margery Kempe.

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