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The Harrowing Of Hell Dialectic And Spectacle

Updated October 8, 2019

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.. resent only as it is textualized and narratized in the past performance of Christ: “This is the day when our Savior broke through the gates of death.” The audience of the feast of Corpus Christi, like the congregation of Holy Saturday, responds to the power of the dramatic harrowing by realizing a position of deprivation. The audience cannot act; it can only be acted upon. The audience’s passivity is further underscored by both the textual and visual representations of the Harrowing of Hell preceding the dramatic performances during the Corpus Christi pageant. The narrativizing of the visual in the iconography (see the Holkham Bible Picture Book, for example) again represents the completion of activity before the activity begins. As in much of medieval iconography, temporal spaces are collapsed, endings and beginnings are conflated in single representative moments, and the spatiality of the image subjugates the implicit narrative of events.

Rosemary Woolf’s description of the Limbo of Fathers demonstrates the conflation of crucifixion, harrowing, and resurrection in a single spatial moment: “the Limbo of Fathers is depicted as a small, battlemented building: its doors with their heavy locks, have already crashed to the ground at the touch of Christ’s Resurrection Cross” (emphasis mine). Complementing the iconographic representations of the Harrowing, the Gospel of Nicodemus, in its full mystical and miraculous detail, was the popular and textual source for the Harrowing’s dramatists. Yet, as Rosemary Woolf and other contextual critics have noted, the plays hardly convey the dramatic force or poetic possibility of the Gospel. Instead, the plays textualize the apocryphal source into the orthodox doctrine, creating a spectacle of excess without the empowering visual interpretation by the audience.

To some degree, the iconographic and apocryphal referents of the Harrowing of Hell provide the base level for interpretive possibilities: the historical and textual referent. However, as I would hope to demonstrate, interpretive possibilities are obliterated in the dominating desire of the play — and the church — to control the social structure and to entrench the values — and therefore “laws” — of the church apparatus. Oscillating within the literal referential articulations of the play, the allegorical, moral, and anagogical levels or senses operate. The allegorical mode is directed through the implicit parallel between Christ’s history — his redemption of the souls — and the church’s history — the break near the end of the play (Chester 337 and Towneley 305) when the audience/congregation chants the “Te Deum laudamus.” The moral level is the individual, where the subject in the audience is able to participate in self-interpolation, placing the individual of today in the history of both the past and the future simultaneously. The individual’s redemption, however, remains collective, addressed to Adam’s “osspringe”: Peace to thee, Adam, my dearlynge, and eke to all thy osspringe that ryghtwise were in yearth livinge.

From mee yee shall not severe. To blys nowe I wyl you bringe there you shalbe withowt endinge. (Chester 334, 205-210) Isias. Adam, thrugh thi syn here were we put to dwell, This wykyd place within; The name of it is hell; here paynes shall neuer blyn.

That wykyd ar and fell loue that lord with wyn, his lyfe for vs wold sell Et cantent omnes “salutor mundi,” primum versum. (Towneley 294, 37-44) Identification with Adam’s sinfulness prefigures a (re)collection in Jesus’s redeeming effort to break the gates of hell. Nonetheless, the activity is utterly collective; morality cannot be apprehended on an individual level, excluding individual interpretation from the audience’s role. The exclusion of the individual places the interpretive dilemma at the anagogical level, confronting the collective “meaning” of history and giving authority to the spectacle of the performance itself.

Earlier in this paper I identified the performance with sport — a type of game in which the arbitrariness of the result is predetermined by the apparatus of its production. What the Corpus Christi pageant in general and the Harrowing of Hell play in particular present is a dialectical foundation of empowerment and control. The spectacle posits a knowing of “truth,” creating an audience empowered by its own capacity to know what is and to therefore possess that knowledge. The real, as it is signified in the clarity of its repetition and form, is entrusted to an audience of arbiters, who decide a personal validity for the means of its articulation (to extend Barthes’s reading of wrestling, the audience may judge the performance and the value of the performance even if it does not judge the necessary relationship between the body of the wrestler and the outcome of the event).

The play, however, within its limited origination as church extension, reaffirms the authority of the church by limiting the authority of the individual. The collective is privileged over and against the individual — so that, indeed, an individual consciousness exists in the play only as rebellion (e.g. Judas and Cain are left to dwell in hell with Satan exactly because they positioned themselves as individuals, against the dominant domain of Adam’s sinfulness). The dialectic between the play as spectacle — and therefore a means of enlightenment — and value-producing mechanism of the “collective” church which institutes the myth as valid poses the problem of seeing both operations, that is both functional modes, within the play as identical. Adorno and Horkheimer’s potent and persuasive definition of myth and enlightenment shows how each mode of cultural operation serves to exercise power through what Lukacs calls reification: Myth turns into enlightenment, and nature into mere objectivity.

Men pay for the increase of their power with alienation from that over which they exercise their power. Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator toward men. He knows them in so far as he can manipulate them. For Adorno and Horkheimer, myth and enlightenment, magic and science, mechanization and spirit, all serve as polar oppositions in a dialectically organized agenda of manipulation and control. Likewise, the pageant and the play orchestrate a subsumption of the individual’s power — especially the interpretive power of the masses — into the collectivized agency of the church. The result of transforming the individual consciousnesses present in the audience and the congregation into a homologized and homogenized extension of orthodox values is coded in the presentation of its form.

All history as it is posited within the play has already been written; the only question — and here I mean the undervalued question of a member in the audience — is what position is marked — not necessarily predestined or predetermined, although the means of making this a self-determination have been completely removed from the mass culture of medieval Catholic orthodoxy — for the individual. Will the audience member be a member classified as goat or sheep (a question addressed in a parable played briefly before the Harrowing? Is hell harrowed for him/her? Moreover, the result of the question interrogates mass culture itself, for the operations of the church-state apparatus are not distinctly separate in effect from the culture industry and the mechanization of the factory that Adorno and Horkheimer evaluate: Culture as a common denominator already contains in embryo the schematization and process of cataloging and classification which bring culture within the sphere of administration. And which entirely accords with this notion of culture. By subordinating in the same way and to the same end all areas of intellectual creation, by occupying men’s senses from the time they leave the factory in the evening to the time they clock in again the next morning with matter that bears the impress of the labor process they themselves have to sustain throughout the day, this subsumption mockingly satisfies the concept of a unified culture which the philosophers of personality contrasted with mass culture.

Indeed, what could be more subsumptive than a mythos of redemption and salvation, constructed through a series of social and socially required events, that ultimately demand a vilification of self-value and a celebration of the church establishment. In both the Towneley play and the Chester play, the chorus of prophets, all participating in the monolithic community of hell-to-be-redeemed, offer a collective subsumption of the individual. The greatest desire of the audience must be to share in voice with the prophets who speak of both praise and thankfulness. The consumptive and subsumptive chorus in the Towneley play moves from Moses to David to Isaiah in progressively shorter lines to silence the audience, rather ironically, by invoking their collective chorus in litany: Dauid.

As I saide ere yit say I so, “ne derelinquas, domine, Animum meam in inferno;” “Leyfe neuer my saull, lord, after the, In depe hell wheder dampned shall go; suffre thou neuer thi sayntys to se The sorow of thaym that won in wo, ay full of fylth and may not fle.” Moyses. Make myrth both more and les, amd loue oure lord we may, That has broght vs fro bytternes In blys to abyde for ay. Ysaias. Therfor now let vs sing to loue our lord ihesus. (Towneley 305, 389-402) Affirmation through association becomes the fulfillment of the audience’s constructed desire.

The members of the audience join ranks with the great prophets who have all been associated with their own histories during the action of the Harrowing. The audience must join, for it does not have access to the already written history; by being displaced from the narratizing of redemption, it can only associate with the characters who already participate in the code. By this code I intend to suggest the positioning of the already achieved narrative action which cannot be possessed as spectacle, but, instead, must be apprehended as the mechanism of the church-state apparatus to maintain power. The state apparatus is “defined by the perpetuation or conservation of organs of power.” The state apparatus, to borrow an analogy from Deleuze and Guattari, is a contained system with components and limits similar to the game of chess. The game is played with a definite code, the pieces are determined to be what they are by what they are. A knight is always a knight simply because he is.

A king will always be protected. In the same way, as a character to be “played” again and again, in every year of the pageant and in every other formulation of church doctrine, Jesus is always Jesus; he must always win against Satan who is always Satan. God, in his redemptive activity must be consistent (we still have this code and its response in contemporary culture, as is typical in the Baptist belt where the phrase “that’s not my God, my God is ..” indicates an utter lack of interpretive understanding as it is constrained by the operations of a fundamentalist approach to a univocal God in a univocal way). The consistency of the players, whether on a chess board or a medieval horse-drawn carriage platform, necessitates the homogenization of the players’ audience — the church’s congregation.

Deleuze argues that the state’s ability to reproduce itself exactly is determined through its own public presentation — i.e. the fact that the state is and must be public: “The State-form . . . has a tendency to reproduce itself, remaining identical to itself across its variations and easily recognizable within the limits of its poles, always seeking public recognition (there is no masked state).” The Corpus Christi plays offer then an extension of the church-state apparatus to construct, even as the mass does, a congregation utterly unified in its interpretive understanding and consolidated in its desire for redemption and its means of happening.

The collective meaning of history — the anagogical level of interpretive meaning — is discernible only through the allegorical — which is to say that church history accurately reflects redemptive history to the point of requiring participation in one to assure inclusion in the other. These claims concerning the plays and its most dramatic representative of redemptive force, the Harrowing of Hell, attempt to discern the mechanism of producing the power of the church-state apparatus — how indeed, the superstructure gains support from its base — and how, in fact, the pageant is the most accessible form for disseminating the conservation of this power. The plays demonstrate as a combination of social artistry and cultural design an historical moment of political conservation and dominant authorizing. It seems we are not merely to claim, as Hardin Craig does, that the plays are “a theological intelligence motivated by structural imagination that lasted from age to age in the development of a great cycle of mystery plays.” Instead, we should interrogate the multiple dimensions of artistry and artificiality of the play; our task is to ask how these plays operate as a performative moment coming directly from the dominant arms of orthodoxy while still being influenced by the severely limited mass culture.

We may find, then, at the center of the controlling mechanisms of the church-state apparatus, the necessitated desire for community that even Satan validates and proclaims: Nay, I pray the do not so; Vmthynke the better in thy mynde; Or els let me with the go, I pray the leyffe me not behynde! The desire, of course, extends past Satan’s plea, for the homogenized desire of the congregation ultimately — which is in history written and yet to be — is directed toward a different answer from Jesus: one that affirms salvation and again confirms the church’s orthodox pageantry of performance. .

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The Harrowing Of Hell Dialectic And Spectacle. (2019, Oct 08). Retrieved from