The Afterlife of Words: Reflections from Spring Hill

By Andrew Tumminia, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Spring Hill College

Photo courtesy of Andrew Tumminia, Ph.D.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Tumminia, Ph.D.

I still hear their voices.

I received my undergraduate degree from Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore. I completed both my M.A. and my Ph.D. at Fordham University in New York. Now, I teach in the English Department at Spring Hill College, in Mobile, Alabama. And still, I hear the voices of my past professors.

When I write, research, teach, grade, and advise, their voices echo into the present. Sometimes I hear Kim Hall, Robert Miola, Kelly DeVries, Mary Bly, Stuart Sherman, Eve Keller, or Vigen Guroian. Other times, it’s Frank Boyle, Moshe Gold, Bryan Crockett, Susan Greenfield, Carol Abromaitis, or the late Paul Bagley. The words they spoke years ago defy time and become present again in my mind and through my actions. Perhaps that is simply how memory works, but it’s also, I suggest, how eloquence becomes perfect.

In the great document of Jesuit education, the Ratio Studiorum, Eloquentia Perfecta develops in time, according to a predetermined series of steps meant to ensure sequential mastery. Perfect eloquence results from, as the title of the Ratio indicates, “the course of study.” Or, I should say, “as the title can indicate.” Latin does much with relatively few words, so words often have a wide variety of meanings.

According to Lewis & Short, ratio can also mean a calculation, a procedure, a method or even reasoning. Each of those renderings casts a slightly different light on the aims of the Ratio Studiorum. The perfecta of Eloquentia Perfecta is more straightforward; it comes from the verb perficere, to complete. The Ratio depicts perfect eloquence less as an ideal than as the assured end product of thorough, regimented training. The intention, of course, as many have noted, is to promote the common good, but eloquence itself is both the result and the measure of a sequence of actions. Complete the course of study for complete eloquence.

The Ratio stipulates that students share the words that they constantly produce. Eloquentia Perfecta thus demands an audience. And according to one seventeenth-century Jesuit taxonomy of eloquence, that audience just might encounter a hero. Eloquence, as Steven Mailloux observes, was divided into human, divine and heroic varieties, with the last of them combining “human skill and divine inspiration” and manifesting through “informed thinking, moral discernment, and civic responsibility.”

Based on these criteria, Michel de Certeau, S.J., a French Jesuit who published his best-known works in the 1970s and 1980s, is also a hero. His eloquence, challenging and grand, demands an audience, too.

The Possession at Loudun, de Certeau’s history of the infamous exorcisms performed on Ursuline nuns in Loudun, France, during the 1630s, is a book without heroes. Not even the historian is immune. In a very brief epilogue, de Certeau turns history into metaphor; the possessions at Loudun come to represent all types of alienation.

Throughout the book, he plays with the then-ness of the Loudun possessions, indulging the dismissive view that such things would not, could not happen now. However, in the epilogue, de Certeau drives home his point that analogous processes continue to happen all the time, and historians, more often than not, are participants.

The historian, de Certeau writes, “has received from society the exorcist’s task…to eliminate the danger of the other.” However, he argues, there is no getting “rid of that strangeness internal to history by placing it somewhere on the outside, far from us.” The specific events at Loudun are temporally distant—“dead,” according to de Certeau—but the social dynamics implicated in them persist.

Perhaps, we can think of the strangeness of history as the stranger or the estranged. Our society needs Others to label as dangerous and push to the margins; historiography, de Certeau asserts, helps fulfill that need.

Othering is ever-present, but that does not make it right. The problem of the Other preoccupies de Certeau across his works, and his scholarship responds by seeking out Others across time, taking them in, and letting them speak. De Certeau’s practice, evident throughout The Possession at Loudun, is, I believe, a call to all scholars.

In the epilogue, de Certeau brilliantly turns an academic exercise into an ethical imperative. Eloquence cannot be perfect without first listening and then acting. De Certeau is a model for doing both. Void of heroes, The Possession at Loudun is also a book without villains. De Certeau doesn’t condemn figures of the past, because, as he titles the book’s introduction, “History Is Never Sure.”

After all, certainty would signal scholarly arrogance. As de Certeau’s friend and intellectual preserver, Luce Giard, notes, “his untiring work of reading/writing…was an ‘art of doing,’ as he liked to say, that consisted ‘of passing more than of founding’ in the ‘gesture of clearing a path, without cease.’”

The image of the scholar clearing the path between subject and audience is, quietly, both lovely and instructive. Giard identifies de Certeau’s “vocation to the Other,” which carries through his works. The epilogue of The Possession at Loudun turns an unsavory history into a call to look to the margins. Giard notes that de Certeau joined the Jesuits to become a missionary in China, something he would never end up doing, but she detects that missionary impulse in his scholarship.

De Certeau’s scholarly mission avoided both imposition and proselytization. He was too Ignatian for that; he was, instead, a clearer of paths. Giard writes that he sought “an encounter with the Other in order to be…in his own words, ‘transformed’ and ‘wounded.’” His vulnerability led him to allow the marginalized to speak for themselves through his works, while he focused his interventions on what their words revealed about culture, both historical and contemporary. His mission was to give voice to history’s casualties and today’s minor rebels in order that they might speak to the shame of the centers of power. Eloquence was the medium for his art of doing, “But,” as he concludes his introduction to The Possession at Loudun, “first we must try to understand.”

The epilogue of The Possession at Loudun sticks in my mind, and I hear it, along with the voices of my professors, when I write and teach. I try to work the epilogue into all of my classes—a little de Certeau goes a long way in the classroom—so that its imperative might echo in my students’ minds as they follow their course toward eloquence.

If I could pick the words that my students hear in my voice years from now, the words their actions will make present again and again, I would choose de Certeau’s lesson: you are obligated to listen to, and to clear the path for, the voices from the margins. Eloquence in the Jesuit tradition advocates, and so its perfection resides in the afterlife of words, first spoken and then made present again through action.