Hypertext: A Sacred (He)Art?
Cor ad cor loquitur from Augustine to Shelley Jackson
Martin L. Warren
It is in and through language that man constitutes himself as a
subject, because language alone establishes the concept of ego
in reality, in its reality which is that of the being.
Emil Benveniste, Problems in General
Linguistics (224) 1971
Begin by considering yourselfno, rather, end by that.[. .
.] For you, you are the first; you are also the last.
Bernard of Clairvaux, de consideratione
II. iii. 6. c.1150
For now, while [the soul] is still in the body, it is said to her,
Where is your God? But her God is within, He is spiritually
within and spiritually beyond: [. . .] the soul cannot succeed in
finding Him, except by passing through herself.
Augustine, Enarr. in
Ps. 130 12
Self-discovery, self-exploration, the creation
of the self or the Subject is a human pre-occupation that goes beyond
the postmodern era. The epigraphs that begin this paper show that
the human concern with how language and representation play a crucial
role in the formation of the subject flows back through time from
our present to Augustine, the fourth-century master of the art of
self-knowledge, and beyond. When Augustine started writing his
Confessions, the self as something to write about, a theme or
object (subject) of writing activity, was already well established.
In his Confessions, Augustine uses cor ad cor loquitur,
or to put it plainly, having a heart to heart with God. Such a conversation
was meant to change his life by teaching him how to revise himself
in Christ's image. In other words, cor ad cor loquitur is
a lesson in subjectivity.
Today, as someone who is a medievalist,
theologian, and techo-geek, I find myself pondering how this ancient
and never-ending conversation echoes still, even in the realm of
hypertext. And yes! I did say hypertext. As theologian and medievalist,
I wander on my pilgrim way in many different worlds, antique and
contemporary. For me, the hypertext world of Cyberia (that computerized
technological world in to which we are presently evolving) continues
the ancient trail of a conversation, of heart speaking to heart,
in which subjectivity evolves. The mechanism of self-reflection,
central to cor ad cor loquitur, resides in the rhetorical
structure of hypertext. Contemporary pilgrims negotiating their
way as author and audience through the lexias1
and byways of Cyberia's hypertext find themselves following in the
footsteps of their medieval ancestors who pondered on author and
audience in the book of the heart known as cor ad cor loquitur.
I invite you to accompany me as I use the medievalists lens
to investigate how hypertext is the latest evolution in cor ad
An early pilgrim in the lexias and byways
of Cyberia is Robert Coover. In writing about teaching the very
first hypertext courses at Brown University, Robert Coover describes
how he and fellow instructors aimed at examining "the interactive
role of the reader, intentional networks, and the redefinition of
the 'author'" (Coover 2). Detailing the history of this new
medium, Coover writes that:
Pioneer narrative hypertexts
explored the tantalizing new possibility of laying a story out spatially
instead of linearly, inviting the reader to explore it as one might
explore one's memory or wander a many-pathed geographical terrain,
and, being adventurous quests at the edge of a new literary frontier,
they were often intensely self-reflective (Coover 2).
One such "intensely self-reflective"
hypertext is Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl.
This electronic novel gives life to Mary Shelley's monster's female
mate who engages in a heart to heart conversation with her creator,
Mary Shelley. As the novel grows in rhizomatic fashion, the monster
pursues the remaking of herself beyond her original "monstrous"
image. This new image, this new self, is found in the way she is
revisioned in her lovers' eyes, one of her lovers being Mary Shelley,
the monster's creator. Such a revisioning, particularly through
the monster's conversation with her creator, reflects a striking
similarity to the dynamic at play in the cor ad cor loquitur of medieval Christianity where Christians sought to
be revisioned as the image of the creator God was inscribed on the
blank page of their heart. The connection between the dynamic at
work in cor ad cor loquitur and the self-reflectivity of
hypertext is borne out in N. Katherine Hayles' analysis of the workings
of hypertext. In her media-specific analysis
of Patchwork Girl, Hayles lists eight points that should be
considered when contemplating hypertext. These eight points are connected
to the discipline of cybernetics, the field of science concerned with
processes of communication and control. Point eight is titled "Electronic
Hypertexts Initiate and Demand Cyborg Reading Practices" (Hayles
lexia 13). Explaining what she means by this, Hayles writes:
Because electronic hypertexts
are written and read in distributed cognitive environments, the
reader necessarily is constructed as a cyborg spliced into an integrated
circuit with one or more intelligent machines. To be positioned
as a cyborg is inevitably in some sense to become a cyborg, so electronic
hypertexts, regardless of their context, tend toward cyborg subjectivity.
Although this subject position may also be evoked through the content
of print texts, electronic hypertexts necessarily enact it through
the specificity of the medium.
A cyborg is a human whose being is aided, fashioned,
remodeled, revisioned by mechanical or electronic devices. Hayles
thus suggests that within readers and authors who are negotiating
the hypertextual world, hypertext "will enact and express a
new subjectivity" (lexia 15). Hayles' statement leads me to
reflect on hypertext as the latest evolution in the history of the
self-book metaphor, of cor ad cor loquitur and its role in subjectivity. To grasp what is at play
within hypertext, we would do well to examine the forces at work
in cor ad cor loquiturfrom its beginnings.
Medieval Narrative and the Book
of the Heart
The narrative subject is one subjected, both to a discourse of
which he is not the master, and to the will and intentions of
other subjects, including not merely other characters but God
and the narrator as well(Vitz 2).
Through the event of the Incarnation, of
God taking on human flesh, the human body becomes a privileged site
in Christian practice. As much as the body may be the site of sin,
it is also the vehicle for goodness, the field where the struggle
of salvation is played out. Although early Christians perceived
the body and all bodily activity with deep distrust, in proposing
the abandonment of fleshly pleasures the body could become the "temple
of the Holy Spirit," enabling early Christians to move beyond
the identity constructed for them by society (Brown 88-89). To become
the temple of the Holy Spirit, early Christians sought to erase
the self so that Christ himself might be inscribed within and upon
the Christian's body. In other words, the body presented opportunity
for identity-making as the Christian became an alter Christus,
another Christ. This metaphor of body as text is investigated thoroughly
by Eric Jager in The Book of the Heart.
In his introduction, Jager writes: "As
the written word has taken various material forms over the centuries,
so the self or psyche has been successively likened to the ancient
scroll or the writing tablet, the medieval manuscript codex, and
the modern printed book" (xiv). To this list I would like to
add hypertext as the newest written material form to which the self
is likened. From the time of Augustine until the printed book was
firmly ensconced in western culture, inward experience was described
through the tropes of reading, writing, erasure, and interpretation,
the central metaphor being the heart as a manuscript codex. Thus
in the book of the heart the individual was revealed. The heart
as the locus of the inner life finds its roots in the Bible.
In the Hebrew world, the heart (lev)
is the center of a person's intellectual and moral life. Explicating
the Hebrew tradition, Michel Meslin writes that the heart "is
man's interior, or qerev" (235). The human heart is where God's law resides,
for as God says: "I shall put my law within them and write
it on their hearts" (Jer. 31:33). Thus God and the human speak
heart to heart. The inscription of God's law on the human heart
makes the heart "an active center where the ideas and impressions
received are transformed into deeds; the heart thinks out man's
projects and is the seat of the individual's creative power in the
form of consciousness" (Meslin 235).
Continuing his investigation of the heart
as the locus of the inner life Meslin moves from the biblical to
the classical world. Meslin argues (236) that the Latin term (cor):
The concept of "writing" one's
life and then looking back to "read" it in the light of
God's vision grows stronger in the centuries after Augustine so
that by the twelfth century the trope of heart as text develops
to the point where the written text itself is seen as a kind of
body, that is a corpus. Miri Rubin writes that "[i]n the medieval
context the body was a metaphor of metaphors, embedded in the sacramental
cosmology as well as in personal experience" (269-70). Hence
it is no surprise that around 1330, there appears in Middle English
the Charter of Christ in which Christ's body is seen as a legal document.
The suffering inscribed on Christ's body details the promise of
redemption resulting from the fulfillment of the contract of salvation:
Ultimately, the Christian's heart
(cor) is linked to Christ's
body (corpus), allowing
Christ to act as author writing on the individual's heart. The nails
of Christ's passion become the pens with which Christ inscribes his
sufferings on the heart of the Christian turning the believer into
another Christ. This trope of heart as book is underlined in the fourteenth-century
lyric "Ihesu that hast me dere I-boght":
Sone aftyr y-straynyd upon a tre
As parchement owght to be
Herknyth and ye schall wete
How this Chartour was y-wrete
Of my face fill downe the ynke
Whan thornys on my hed gan synke
The pennys that the lettris were with wrytene
Were skorges that y was with betyne
How many lettris there-in bene
Rede and thow myste wyte and seene
With vmcccc fifty and ten
Wowndis is my body blak and whane
Ffor to schew the of my loue-dede
My-sylue Woll the chartor rede. (157-70)
Ihesu that hast me dere I-boght,
Write thou gostly in my thoght
That I mow with deuocion
Thynke on thy dere passioun:
For thogh my hert be hard as stone,
Yit maist thou gostly write ther-on
With naill & with spere kene,
And so shullen the lettres be sene. (1-8)
Yet as Jager continues his examination
of the book of the heart, he sees a profound change taking place
in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the emergence of
empiricist psychology. At that point, the book of the brain supersedes
the book of the heart:
Despite the arrival of empiricist philosophy,
the exchange of hearts between Christ and the Christian continued.
In seventeenth-century France, for example, devotion to the Sacred
Heart of Jesus grew. Marguerite Marie Alacoque, a member of the Order
of the Visitation, received a revelation from Christ in 1675. Christ
informed her that she was his chosen instrument to spread devotion
to his Sacred Heart. The picture of the Sacred Heart with which I
began this essay is part of the devotion that Alacoque initiated.
The law writes itself on bodies. It engraves itself on parchment
made from the skin of its subjects. It articulates them in a juridical
corpus. It makes its book out of them (de
For some the heart continued to be seen
as superior to the brain. Pascal wrote that "[i]t is the heart
which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith:
God felt by the heart, not by the reason" (278). Nonetheless,
as medical science reduced the heart to a pump, philosophers began
to reposition the self to the brain. Hence, as Jager pointed out,
the book of the brain came to replace the book of the heart. What
becomes more problematic for Jager is the loss of the book metaphor
as we enter the twenty-first century. According to Jager, the rising
trope of brain as computer means the loss of textual metaphors completely.
To underscore his point, Jager quotes Illich: "As the intellectual
historian and critic Ivan Illich summarizes the matter, 'The book
has now ceased to be the root-metaphor of the age; the screen has
taken its place'" (Jager 172). But Jager has neglected the
possibility of a new textual metaphor for the self, that of hypertext.
A consideration of the self as hypertext
is entirely in order. As Jager has shown, textual metaphors of self
evolved from self as codex into self as printed book. Does that
mean we are now headed for the e-book of the heart? Probably not,
but an investigation of the self as network, as hypertext, allows
the continuation of cor ad cor loquitur,
albeit in a newly evolving form.
Cor ad cor loquitur
is in many ways a spatial practice. In the medieval practice of
the book of the heart, God writes on the believer's heart and a
new subjectivity evolves. How then is hypertext to be explored as
a spatial practice? One way is to play with the word "metaphor."
In Modern Greek, the vehicles of mass transit are called metaphorai.
So when you take the bus, you travel by "metaphor."2
Negotiating hypertext means traveling by
"metaphor." Lexias are selected and linked together by
hyperlink. As hypertextual author and reader you travel on your
pilgrim way following various itineraries in the mass transit of
hypertext. This spatial practice of hypertext profoundly affects
the spatial practice of cor ad cor loquitur.
In the earlier textual metaphor of the
book of the heart, a new subjectivity arose in the human person
but not in God. In the conversation of cor ad cor loquitur,
the sacred heart of Christ is inscribed on and transforms the human
heart. Thus God as ultimate author is unaffected. The heart to heart
conversation of hypertext however, means that both author and reader
have the possibility of a new subjectivity.
Jager is short-sighted. The trope of the
brain as computer does not mean the end of textual metaphors in
the realm of subjectivity. Rather the heart to heart conversation
of hypertext means a new textual metaphor is available, the self
In his discussion of hypertext, Gaggi points
out that unlike the printed word which carries a sense of private
ownership, hypertext is really a conversation "that encourages
a value system that emphasizes the solving of problems and the growth
of learning by and for the good of the community as a whole"
(106-7). This echoes the structure of cor ad cor loquitur, for here the individual is not at the center but is
part of an ongoing conversation. Indeed, as Gaggi describes it,
in hypertext "[t]here is a polyphony of voices, and the authority
of each of them is continually qualified by their mutually commenting
on one another" (111). This sense of commentary and conversation,
of an exchange of hearts, is seen in hypertext narratives.
A book has a pre-established order. The
reader progresses from paragraph to paragraph, from page to page.
But in hypertextual literature "the narrative is not a clearly
delineated path but a textured space available for exploration"
(Gaggi 123). This enhances the sense of dialogue since the reader
has the responsibility of navigating from lexia to lexia, which
can be organized in different ways. Thus the reader can return any
number of times, literally reading the hypertextual narrative in
various ways. That ability to navigate actively also gives the reader
the role of author. Rather than passively consuming the text constructed
by a conventionally authorial author, the reader is empowered to
engage more powerfully in conversation with the hypertext. "There
is no center of the text, [. . .] no clear unitary authorial voice,"
Gaggi writes (105). Instead the text is initiated and returns to
its original creator as something different, for a participant,
whoever she or he may be, can alter or add to what has been received.
The individual, the subject in hypertext plays a "risky interactive
game of agency and construction, of constituting and being constituted"
(152) while negotiating the metaphorai,
the transit system of hypertext. This idea of self as hypertext
can be seen in Shelley Jackson's hypertextual narrative, Patchwork
Patchwork Girl makes us all into Frankenstein-readers stitching
together narrative, gender, and identity, for as it reminds us:
You could say all bodies are written bodies, all lives pieces
of writing (Landow).
is a hypertextual narrative founded on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
The protagonist of the narrative is the female companion to Frankenstein's
monster. In Mary Shelley's novel, just as Frankenstein finishes
assembling the female monster he tears her apart again in horror.
As a reader of Patchwork Girl,
we are left not only to pick up the pieces of the monster but also
to play the part of putting her back together in various ways. Quite
simply, Shelley Jackson leaves us the space in her novel to record
our own comments that may be commented upon in turn.
Keeping in mind the idea of hypertext as
mass transit, the terminus a quo for Patchwork Girl
is a black and white image. Thus the reader meets the protagonist
who has been stitched together. Linking from there, the reader travels
to the title page, a crossroads where five routes are offered: "a
graveyard," which contains the stories of the creatures whose
parts make up the female monster; "a journal," which is
Mary Shelley's journal where she writes of her interactions with
the female monster; "a quilt," "a story," and
"broken accents," which is a collection of metatextual
reflections on writing lives. The reader can take any of these routes
traveling from lexia to lexia.
In an early lexia, the monster tells us:
"I am buried here. You can resurrect me, but only piecemeal.
If you want to see the whole, you will have to sew me together yourself"
Quickly, the reader is introduced to the idea that she or he is
piecing together the story, just as Shelley Jackson wove and stitched
together elements from Frankenstein and Baum's The Patchwork Girl of Oz. Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, is woven as a character into Patchwork Girl.
And, of course, the monster is a weaver of herself:
My birth takes place more than once. In the plea of
a bygone monster; from a muddy hole by corpse-light;
under the needle, and under the pen.
Or it took place not at all.
But if I hope to tell a good story, I must
out of the muddle of my several births to the day I
parted for the last time with the author of my being,
and set out to write my own destiny. (birth)
Continuing the theme of stitches, sewing,
and seams, the narrator of Patchwork Girl points out that "[t]he comparison between a literary
composition and the fitting together of the human body from various
members stemmed from ancient rhetoric. Membrum or 'limb' also signified 'clause'"(typographical).
This concept, dare I say, is "fleshed out" in the female
monster's flexible frame which is mirrored in the linked hypertext
structure of the narrative.
Building on the concept of flexible forms the narrator comments
that for all humans:
The difference between the medieval textual metaphor of the self
as codex and the contemporary textual metaphor of the self as hypertext
is that in hypertext we are authored by many as opposed to one.
The narrator explains:
Our subjectivity, as Hayles would say, is
therefore one of "subject-as-assemblage" (lexia 29). In
Patchwork Girl Shelley Jackson
points out that the concept of "subject-as-assemblage"
should not be so startling, especially when we keep in mind contemporary
In a presentation called "Stitch Bitch: the
patchwork girl," Jackson describes authors as those who
That brings me to where I began. Jager's
work showed clearly that the mechanism of self-reflection central
to cor ad cor loquitur could be found in the medieval book of the heart. But
his concern that the trope of the brain as computer means the end
of textual metaphors in the realm of subjectivity is false. In Patchwork
Girl, Shelley Jackson shows
us that hypertext is simply the latest textual metaphor for the
self. The practice of cor ad cor loquitur
continues. The individual may no longer engage God in a solitary
conversation through which the image of God is inscribed on the
believer's heart, creating a new subjectivity. However, we are still
pilgrims searching for that sense of identity in conversation, heart
to heart. In our postmodern world we still find ourselves constructed
in a textual fashion. No longer are we constructed by the Logos
of God alone. Now our cor ad cor
stretches across a broader field. We have moved beyond seeing ourselves
as reflected as self as codex or self as book. In hypertext we can
describe ourselves as constructed by the Logos of society. We are
both subject and author, writer and written. As George Landow says:
"Sooner or later all information technologies, we recall, have
always convinced those who use them both that these technologies
are natural and that they provide ways to describe the human mind
and self" (Landow). For us, self is a hypertextual narrative
Snyder offers this definition of "lexia": "Lexias
are units of local stability in the general flux of the hypertext"
(46). To put it in plain English, a lexia is a chunk of text. These
chunks of text do not follow in a linear sequence. As the reader
follows hyperlinks in a hypertext, she or he moves from lexia to
lexia via the hyperlinks embedded in the document. Return.
genesis for this allusion to hypertext as spatial practice is derived
from the work of Michel de Certeau who writes of stories as metaphorai
and spatial trajectories (115). Return.
words in parentheses at the end of quotations from Patchwork
Girl refer to the titles of
the various lexia. Return.
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Migne, PL 37, col. 1712.
Benveniste, Emil. Problems in General Linguistics.
Trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek. Coral Gables, Florida: U of Miami P,
Bernard of Clairvaux. de consideratione.
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Brown, Peter. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation
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de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life.
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Coover, Robert. "Literary Hypertext: The Passing of the Golden
Age." FEED. 10 February 2000. 26 June 2001. < http://www.feedmag.com/document/do291.shtml>.
Hayles, N. Katherine. “Flickering Connectivities in Shelley
Jackson’s Patchwork Girl:
The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis.” Postmodern
Culture10:2 January 2000. 26
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-----, "Stitch Bitch: the patchwork girl." Transcript
of Jackson’s presentation given at Transformations of the
Book conference at MIT, October 24-25, 1998. 9 July 2001. < http://media-in-transition.mit.edu/articles/jackson.html>.
Jager, Peter. The Book of the Heart.
Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 2000.
Landow, George P. "Stitching Together Narrative, Sexuality,
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6 July 2001. <http://landow.stg.brown.edu/cpace/ht/pg/pgmain.html>.
Meslin, Michel. "Heart." The Encyclopedia of Religion.
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Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1999. 6 July
Rubin, Miri. Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval
Culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1991.
Snyder, Ilana. Hypertext. New York: New York UP, 1997.
Vitz, Evelyn Berge. Medieval Narrative and Modern Narratology. New York: New York UP, 1989.
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