Acute Melancholia and Other Essays

Mysticism, History, and the Study of Religion

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Amy Hollywood
Gender, Theory, and Religion
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , March
     416 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the introductory “triptych” of Acute Melancholia and Other Essays, author Amy Hollywood reflects: “the essays collected here all, in one way or another, touch on my preoccupation with the real, the true, and critique; they explore the ways in which we make real the worlds in which we live; they attempt to demonstrate the inescapably intertwined work of imagination and critique through which we create and discover the true” (17). Hollywood’s essays are ambitious in their disparate interventions into the study of religion, medieval studies, philosophy of religion, theology, and feminist and queer theory; and yet they remain unified by a shared interest in issues of sex and gender, and the centrality of texts from the Christian mystical tradition.

Throughout the fourteen essays, Hollywood impressively manages to balance charitable readings of all her authors—whether medieval mystics such as Beatrice of Nazareth or modern theorists such as Talal Asad—with a commitment to the demands of critical theory. In so doing, Hollywood avoids marginalizing these medieval texts as mere objects for theorization or critique and instead amplifies the medieval authors as subjects of continuing relevance who problematize our current critical assumptions. The three essays that constitute the opening triptych of the volume are also noteworthy for their occasional autobiographical insights. In a volume that focuses on the real, the true, and critique, it is both entirely appropriate and thoroughly refreshing that Hollywood is unafraid to reflect a critical lens upon herself and her own beliefs.

The third panel of her triptych, “The Unspeakability of Trauma, the Unspeakability of Joy,” is arguably the most exciting contribution of the volume. The essay focuses on Thomas of Cantimpré’s the Life of Christina the Astonishing, a nigh-unbelievable text whose subject has been widely diagnosed by modern scholars as traumatized and hysterical. Hollywood first engages with these prevailing readings, and the tendency to extend epistemological privilege to trauma, before she pivots to an unlikely subject: joy. “What I want to ask, finally, is whether returning to the Middle Ages … helps us to understand our contemporary situation and to pose another possibility—the possibility that joy might also be the site of an unspeakable real. At the same time, I want to ask why we believe in the realness and the truth of the traumatic—its properly historical truth—but seem unable to hear joy” (47). After acknowledging the sorrowful foundations of the injunction to critique—which she explores more fully in the following essay—Hollywood gestures to the “realness” and ineffability of joy. In one of her most exciting interventions, Hollywood argues that joy represents a potent, alternative source for critique and the “energy for efficacious action” (64).

The second essay, “Acute Melancholia,” illuminates the foundational role of trauma and loss, mourning, and melancholic incorporation in the writings by and about two medieval women: Beatrice of Nazareth and Margaret Ebner. Hollywood proposes that: “to disavow the subject’s melancholic constitution is to disavow the complex constellation of others who make us who and what we are. It is to disavow our losses and our grief as well as that which supports and enables our subjectivity, our agency, and, paradoxically, our responsibility” (86). The role of melancholia in subject formation is necessarily also a relational or intersubjective project: a point Hollywood movingly illustrates by ending with a poignant elegy about her own brother. The essays that constitute the second part of the volume concern a variety of historiographical issues yet still center on the nature of critique. “Gender, Agency, and the Divine in Religious Historiography” is especially noteworthy for Hollywood’s position that: “[i]f part of the project of women’s history is to hear the other—in all of her alterity—we cannot unquestioningly presume that our own explanatory and descriptive categories are valid and those of our subject are invalid” (124). In other words, careful consideration of such radical historical texts as Mechthild of Magdeburg’s Flowing Light of the Godhead challenges our unquestioning embrace of 19th and 20th century formulations of critique. Part 3 expands Hollywood’s insistence on the role of embodied practice in subject formation, although with emphasis on theoretical and philosophical contributions.

The volume’s closing essay concerns medieval debates about the merits of Martha and Mary, allegorical personifications of active and contemplative lives respectively. Hollywood uses Meister Eckhart’s reading of the biblical sisters—and his iconoclastic exaltation of Martha—to probe “what it means for a reading or a set of religious claims or an experience to be real, what it means for them to be true, what it means to engage with the other that is history. It asks, finally, whether there are moments in which our responsibility to history fades in the face of our responsibilities to one another, living, now” (18-9). This essay nicely captures Hollywood’s principal aim in the volume: to recalibrate the injunction to critique so as to balance the judicious reading of historical figures with a commitment to the ethical and political demands of the present. As Hollywood ends: “[h]ow can we possibly say, as someone once did to me, that Eckhart, praising Martha and Mary as a Martha, gets it all wrong?” (269).

Hollywood’s academic capaciousness is captured by this selection of essays, which span over a decade of her work. As such, readers with a variety of interests will find something of value in Acute Melancholia and Other Essays. Yet I suspect that Hollywood’s primary audience is less the one of her earliest work, The Soul as Virgin Wife (University of Notre Dame Press,1995), and instead for scholars whose primary interests are in feminist and queer theory. Arguably, the highlights here are the introductory triptych and the concluding essay on Martha and Mary. Both are certainly the most contemporary of her contributions, with the “triptych” original to the volume itself. Although Hollywood laments that the “essays presented here remain, of necessity, fragmented,” the introductory essay serves as an eloquent constellation of the disparate essays (19). The triptych even benefits from a reading after working through the essays in the volume.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark Lambert is a doctoral candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
April 17, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Amy Hollywood is the Elizabeth H. Monrad Professor of Christian Studies at Harvard Divinity School. She is the author of Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History and the award-winning The Soul as Virgin Wife: Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete, and Meister Eckhart. She is the coeditor, with Patricia Z. Beckman, of The Cambridge Companion to Christian Mysticism.


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