Saturday, February 26, 2011

Different Versions of the Cloud of Unknowing

I'm far enough along in my work on The Cloud of Unknowing to respond to some requests to comment on the various versions I'm working with, so here goes. These comments at the moment are little more than very rough impressions since I'm only about a third of the way through creating the parallel text. I will list the versions in order of closeness to the original manuscripts, but not necessarily in order of merit.

However, it should be remembered that while editors such as Underhill and McCann copy the word 'behold' from the manuscripts they are using, none of the introductions or the translators takes into consideration the importance of this biblical word, which is absolutely central to the Cloud itself. The possible exception is Progoff, who uses it at least once. There is also the problem that the translators substitute modern words for the Middle English that distort the meaning of the original: McCann's substitution of 'deadly' for 'deedly' is an example, the former having negative connotations, and the latter being a Middle English word that contains the entire history of salvation, from the fallen deeds of human beings to the great deed done by Christ and those of his saints which, with grace, are in the gift of all the redeemed, mortal though they be.The problem with any translation of a Middle English text is that modern English is much more linear, two-dimensional—and duller—than older versions.

In addition, all of these interpreters without exception fall into the 'experience' trap (discussed in previous posts, especially since September 2010) in rendering the Cloud—this in spite of the fact that several of them seem to understand the problem, e.g., Progoff, who is the most explicit about it in his introduction, and Walsh, whose text is full of footnotes on this point even though he is one of the worst offenders as regards using the word indiscriminately. All of the introductions, with the exception of Hodgson, should be taken with a very large handful of salt, each for a different reason.

A further problem is that most of these versions have a Counter-Reformation view of 'spiritual direction' and take pains to impose this model on the text where it doesn't exist. Again, Walsh is one of the worst offenders. They also fail to distinguish between confessor and director, which are two distinct functions, even though a confessor may give advice. It is significant that the Cloud-author uses 'counsel and conscience' to indicate taking advice from the elders, but makes it clear that the ultimate discernment was up to the individual, thus avoiding the unhealthy dependence attached to Counter-Reformation (and contemporary) 'spiritual directors'. In the Middle Ages the role of confession was strong, but the notion of a personal confessor was rare outside of aristocratic circles. In a monastery one could go to whom one chose, though the selection necessarily might be limited. The goal of the Cloud-author is to teach self-forgetfulness, not self-preoccupation, as he takes great effort to explain.

The Counter-Reformation's rigid ideas about so-called spiritual direction would have been considered shocking in the Egyptian and Syrian deserts: the maxim of the desert was non-interference (what some religious traditions call 'respect'). One did not presume to tell another what to do or think or how to pray. Often a suppliant would beg and cajole one of the Fathers or Mothers for direction, but the elder would respond with silence. This tradition also recognised that the same person did not always have the Word for the seeker, hence the saying about half the time spent in cell, half the time consulting the elders (plural). There were no novice-masters in the Carthusian Order at the time of the Cloud. There were elders, again, in the tradition of the Egyptian desert.

Finally, none of these versions really presents the Cloud-author in all his energy and complexity: the modern term 'edgy' perhaps comes close to describing him, at least for me. His text does not shrink from conveying raw truth in no uncertain terms. He can be unexpectedly tender; he uses humour, sarcasm, and biting satire. He does not hesitate to make trenchant judgements. (We must remember that the modern notion of never 'judging' people is a misinterpretation of the biblical injunction, which in fact means that we must never judge finally, i.e., claiming to judge from God's point of view; but in fact we must make judgements all the time if we are to negotiate our lives. This does not preclude engaging people with respect and without preconception or stereotype.)

The Cloud-author, to my way of thinking, would have been a fiercely intelligent, very amusing, slightly scary and utterly refreshing person to know, a genuine radical, one who wants to renew the connection with the roots of the Order in the apophatic tradition over and against the prevailing devotionalism of his day. He is something of a force of nature and maybe a bit of a loose cannon. He's not worried about being popular. He knows that what he is writing is dangerous for the times. He is not a kindly uncle, or a pontificating 'spiritual father', or a genteel commentator; least of all is he a human potential guru or a buddy. Each of the versions below, aside from Gallacher's version of the text itself (though not excepting Gallacher's introduction), falls into one of these unlikenesses. Like Julian's Long Text, the Cloud is, in the end, untranslatable.

1. The benchmark version is Hodgson; it's the one that scholars use. This volume contains all the works of the Cloud-author and Hodgson's work is impeccable. However, the text is in the Middle English spelling, which the non-scholarly reader may find difficult. The other drawback is that there is a lot of interesting work that has been done on the Cloud since this volume was published, and those seeking to pursue matters further would do well to check the bibliography in some of the later versions. René Tixier's work is quite wonderful.

2. Gallacher's version. This was published by TEAMS and the Medieval Institute at Western Michigan University. This version follows Hodgson very closely—I haven't done a line-by-line check yet—and has the advantage not only that the spelling is modernized but that in addition to being published as a paperback it is also available online There is a helpful glossary and some notes. I don't think much of the introduction, to put it mildly.

3. Underhill version. This is the closest of the modernized versions to the Hodgson benchmark but has some curious interpolations about spiritual direction, possibly due to her contact with von Hugel. She has not changed many words and for the modern reader may have not changed enough, but her version hast the advantage of clarity without intruding too many anachronisms. She has kept thee and thou and the -eth endings but somehow these are not intrusive as with McCann. This version is published online at several sites including the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Type 'Cloud of Unknowing Underhill' into your search engine. She omits the author's hyperbolic phrases that would offend genteel sensibilities, such as the mention of cutting off of private parts in chapter 12.

4. McCann. Oh dear, there are a number of problems here. First, while he claims to have used an assortment of mss, his version differs from Gallacher/Underhill enough so that one suspects he is privileging the Ampleforth manuscript, which he calls the 'second recension', and which is very different from the Hodgson text. Next, he has paraphrased, often quite patronizingly. His filter seems to be an effort to make this radical manuscript acceptable to a highly conservative, anti- 'modernist' pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic church. He has kept 'thee' and 'thou' and the -eth endings but there is something deliberately antiquated, a bit kitsch olde worlde about his paraphrases for reasons I haven't been able to put my finger on—yet. He also censors phrases such as that in chapter 12 about private parts—but we have to cut Underhill and McCann a little slack in this regard as they were working in the 1930s. McCann somehow makes the Cloud author sound precious, which he most certainly is not.

5. Wolters. Wolters' is an outright translation and he has the same concerns as McCann to make this work acceptable to a very conservative Roman Catholic audience on the cusp of Vatican II. His version has the advantage that he has dropped the 'thee', 'thou', and '-eth', but sometimes his paraphrases amount to Counter-Reformation glosses, and he seems to leave out or condense sections. He claims to be using Hodgson, but he also says he has consulted McCann, and, like McCann, he leans towards Ampleforth and the Latin (the original text is in English). As I create a parallel text of these versions, there are often times when I wonder if Wolters and McCann are using the same Middle English text as I and some of the others are.

6. Walsh tries to make the Cloud-author into a neo-scholastic, which he most certainly is not. His translation is prolix and full of the 'experience' problem. He is prone to making absurd and completely unsupportable claims such as: the practice the Cloud teaches cannot be undertaken by non-Christians. His scriptural and other citations are often wildly scattershot, not really seeming to relate to the text properly, as if he had a lot of references on slips of paper and threw them all up in the air and then wrote down whatever came to hand. He did the same with Julian's texts. However, his text has the advantage that it includes Richard Methley's comments in the footnotes. To my ear (but maybe this is due to the fact that I dislike his translation so much) he sometimes sounds fatuous.

7. Spearing is a self-confessed Cartesian and thinks that the ideas that you use to construct a sense of self are in fact your self, a view that is directly contrary to the Cloud-author's. In Spearing's paper on Marguerite Porete (whom, as he himself says, he doesn't understand, doesn't like, and is perhaps quite frightened of—one wonders why he published this paper), he scoffs at the notion of excessus mentis; he won't allow it. It seems rather strange for a self-proclaimed Cartesian to reject empirical science. Thus, in spite of the readability of his translation—if anything, it is too smooth—he gets the most of basic points wrong, exactly backwards, such as interpolating 'at himself' in the mirror section, when the whole point is that there is nothing to look at. And of course his text is full of 'experience'.

8. Progoff. This translation was done long before he became a journaling guru. In a strange way I rather like Progoff's translation: he is psychologically acute and his view in the introduction of who the author was rings true. However, he leaves out chunks of the text; the book was badly edited and sometimes his sentences don't make sense; and his application of Freud and Jung in the introduction is hopelessly crude and out of date.

Progoff's strengths far outweigh his weaknesses. He understand the 'experience' problem even if he is careless in his use of the word. He states bluntly that 'If, for example, the individual feels or experiences himself as being in unity with God, that very feeling and awareness of an experience indicates that real unity has not yet been achieved . . . the individual who experiences God thereby emphasizes the duality of his own individual existence, his personal thatness, and the existence of God as separate from him. In that case it cannot be said that he knows god truly and intimately in oneness.' Hooray for Progoff; would that the others had been so insightful and so forthright.

9. Johnston. This purported translation—only in part; it is really more a platform for Johnston himself—is so strange and has so many modern interpolations that I often wonder if he is using the same text as the rest of this group as a basis for what he is writing. Johnston comes from a humanistic psychology and human potential movement background, and is anachronistically continually looking at the Cloud through the lens of the much later John of the Cross. Johnston feels free to move paragraphs around or omit them altogether, to interpolate material that simply isn't there or even implicit. I'm not quite sure what this book is, but it doesn't have a lot to do with The Cloud of Unknowing.

My recommendation? Read Gallacher, with Underhill and Progoff together as a pony. Use a little Spearing if you have to in order to clarify but remember that he doesn't accept the basic premises of the text psychologically, theologically or philosophically. Keep in mind, too, that while his text is smooth, at key points it is exactly opposite to what the original says.

In closing I should say that I realise there are other, more recent, purported versions of The Cloud of Unknowing out there, but having glanced inside their covers I have not had the stomach to go any further.


Anonymous Ryan said...

Thanks for the helpful thoughts.

7:26 p.m., February 27, 2011  
Blogger Bo said...

Magnificently useful!

10:16 a.m., February 28, 2011  
Blogger Sean said...

good stuff, would like to speak further, may try the pony up idea, recently stumbled across the Cloud

4:36 a.m., May 01, 2013  

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