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Personification and Alienation: The Case of Deguileville

When May 30, 2017
from 05:15 PM to 06:30 PM
Where Old Combination Room, Trinity College
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Professor Nicolette Zeeman shall be looking at the rhetorical and poetic figure of personification (known variously as metonymyprosopopoeia or conformatio) with a view to asking if the way that writers form their personifications can tell us anything about how they understand the subject, drawing on Angus Fletcher's counter-intuitive insight that the personification could be seen as a kind of maniac or obsessive. Personification yokes together a number of elements that are potentially in tension with each other: if on the one hand it invokes the idea of the 'person', along with its implications about the possibility of inner life and a capacity to speak, act or change, personification also involves some delimiting characteristic, category or bias that constrains the person, something that is true whether the personification represents a particular term, concept or 'thing', or whether it represents a particular historical, mythical or fictional character. Because the 'person' in personification is in some way partial, driven or over-determined, and as a result potentially at odds with itself or its surroundings, it may also be for medieval writers a way of thinking about how the subject might be driven and over-determined, or at odds with itself or its surroundings. It is the tensions and contradictions that are fundamental to the figure of personification, in other words, that mean that writers can use it to think about the subject without using the more familiar or seemingly coherent tropes of personhood to be found in more mimetic narrative modes. Prof. Zeeman's test case will be the personifications of Guillaume de Deguileville's fourteenth-century French Pelerinage de vie humaine, with their dislocated voices and grotesque bodies: she shall be arguing that ultimately they model an alienated subjectivity that can also be seen in the poem's narrator figure – one that may not only be premodern. 

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