Today i’m sitting around looking at my thesis, and marveling at what an odd creature it has become. I now have four confirmed chapters (well five, but one of them is a theory chapter) relating to a variety of topics from a variety of perspectives. After thinking about it a while, I decided that it might be time to put a synopsis of my thesis up here. I’m doing this in the hope that forcing myself to spit out a description of my thesis will give me some ideas.
I am also hoping that anyone who might be out there with some feedback will come forward and say hello. I’m at the stage where I know what kinds of ideas I want to engage with (or have engaged with) but need some inspiration. So without further ado, I present a short outline of my thesis!
Working Title: The Poetics of Water in Twelfth Century Western Christendom: A Multidisciplinary Collection of Essays
Water’s diversity is, in some respects, a key to its meanings. Here is an object that is endlessly transmutable, moving readily from one shape to another: from ice to stream, from vapour to rain, from fluid to steam. It has an equally broad range of scales of existence: from droplet to ocean, trickle to flood, cup to lake.1
The influence of water over the imagination comes from its multiplicity: it has a symbolic potential – beyond that of any other element in the natural world – for change, and it is this quality that gives it such symbolic value. Within this ontologically mysterious substance, abstraction and empiricism are combined, the observable traits of water serving to narrate the complexities of abstract principles, with a reciprocal transfer of symbolic meaning through which the sensible and empirical world becomes filled with human imaginings.
Why water? What is it about this fluid, ubiquitous and ambiguous entity that makes it the focal area of interest for an enquiry into the twelfth century? The answer, I propose, lies in the very traits I have described; water possessed to the medieval mind, and still possesses to us today, the traits of a dynamic system coupled with the ability to hold moral or ontological meaning. Water has meant many things to many people in diverse contexts throughout European history; indeed this is the reason for its significant qualities. It has the flexibility and, if you will pardon the pun, the fluidity, of form, valence, context and function to capture the imagination and draw the eye. Many treatments of water in academic discourse have held a certain premise to be true: that water’s meaning may be taxonomically analysed as a reducible entity, significant through the tropes and symbols that it forms and expresses.
Water, it seems, is a thing of great sophistication, both in nature and within the human imagination. To that end, it has been deemed profitable to explore and catalogue aqueous traits in order to better understand it. Water is a symbol of rebirth, water creates and destroys, water can be pure or impure: the debate has continued in this fashion for decades. This is a worthy endeavour in its own right but one, I argue, that only takes the interpreter so far. Once traits are listed in detail, it is possible to see the meaning of water in context, as human beings use it, be it in books, or in architecture, or in landscapes. Yet once the thrill of this new knowledge has faded, the world of intellectual history is left much as it was discovered. We learn more of what water can mean, but little of why it might mean these things. It is within this niche that I self-consciously position this thesis. Water is a topic of great interest within contemporary discourse, and yet is poorly understood as an ingredient of human thought; as a medium rather than a message. Many questions remain to be answered before the interpretation of water can be enriched. How does water express narrative? What is is about water that allows it to act as a surrogate for abstracts? What kind of abstractions can it narrate? Finally and most importantly: How can water illuminate new vistas within High Medieval thought?
It is the above questions that my thesis proposes to address through a series of interrelated and yet free standing essay-chapters. These essays make use of a parallel thematic and multidisciplinary structure focusing on five separate and distinct narratives of twelfth century thought. Each essay has its own goals, its own priorities and its own distinct areas of interest, and each makes use of a different disciplinary approach. Despite their uniqueness, each of these chapters shares a common goal that will converge by way of conclusion: to provide a wide range of prismatic visions of High Medieval thought through the poetics of water.
1 V. Strang, ‘Common Senses: Water, Sensory Experience and the Generation of Meaning’, Journal of Material Culture, vol.10, no.1, 2005, p. 98.
- Murmurs from a Thousand Streams: Formative Theoretical Influences
- Thirsting for the source: The Liquid Poetics of Godfrey of Saint Victor’s Fons Philosophiae
- Purgation and Irrigation: Cistercian Spiritual Hydrology in the Description of Clairvaux
- Fluency of Style: The Aqueous Argumentation of the Preaching, Dictaminal and Rhetorical Arts
- Liquid Vibrancy: Abstract Fluidity and Twelfth Century Imagination
If you have any thoughts or questions, i’d love to hear from you. I have posted this here in order to reflect on the character of my thesis and to work on my abstract and ‘elevator pitch’ technique, but i’m very interested to hear your opinion.