Vol 8, No 1 (2012) Lamented or Demented? The Psalmist-Subject of the Complaints and the Possession at Loudun


Fiona Black


In an effort to investigate the poetic contours of lament as a consequence of subjectivity, this essay reads the lamenting subject in the Complaint Psalms against the backdrop of Michel de Certeau’s evaluations of the Ursuline nuns in the Possession at Loudun. The 17th-century nuns, possibly as part of a response to the major metaphysical crisis of a plague, began to exhibit signs of possession, and eventually an elaborate system of classification and exorcism developed around their illness. A major interest for Certeau, and for this essay is not, however, the actuality of demon possession, but the apparent creation, social control and management of alterity—in the nuns’ case, madness—in the psalmist’s case, (hysterical) lament. In the psalms, lamentation provides a means of articulating an alternative reality, one that has its own conventions and limitations. In this context, the lamenting utterance threatens to position the subject of the psalms as a place of siege; the subject fights to be heard above the din of “normality” and the rigours of divine expectation. Moreover, his body is a contested site for enemies and illness, among other afflictions. On the other hand, though, the ultimate act of confession at the end of the complaints threatens to undermine his existence, to make him vanish into that very context from which he initially differentiated himself as a speaking subject. The essay considers, therefore, the psalms’ alternative reality as the locus of a balancing act between the subject’s complicity and annihilation. This, in turn, is pondered within the context of poetic discourse, which might be viewed as an impulse to showcase—and manage—“possession”.


Complaint Psalms; Certeau; Possession at Loudun


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