Featured Minds: Paul Megna

Krishnan

Paul is a recent graduate of UCSB’s English PhD program, and one of the Literature and the Mind Initiative’s earliest members.  His dissertation, “Emotional Ethics in Middle English Literature,” examines the surprising extent to which medieval literature anticipates recent revelations concerning emotion’s centrality in ethical decision-making.  He continues this work as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia, contributing to the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. His current research focuses on emotion and ethics in Middle English and medievalist drama. He has published pieces in Exemplaria, Glossator, The Yearbook of Langland Studies, and PMLA. He has pieces forthcoming in Postmedieval, The Once and Future Classroom and Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Literature but Were Afraid to Ask Žižek: SIC 10.

On the Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich

What are you working on now in your research or teaching that relates to the mind?

I’m currently working on two projects, both of which relate to the emotional mind. First, I’m adapting my dissertation into a monograph, tentatively entitled Existential Emotion in Middle English Literature, which explores the trans-historical resonances between the discourses on emotion contained in Middle English literature and nineteenth- and twentieth-century existential philosophy. I’m particularly interested in the ways that both of these extremely multifaceted fields of thought characterize “negative” emotions including anxiety, despair, shame and lovesickness as essential to authenticity. On the one hand, I read this apotheosis of ugly feelings as powerfully therapeutic: a way to make philosophical lemonade out of the lemons of human suffering. On the other hand, premodern and modern philosophers who zealously authenticate painful emotions often do so from a position of privilege and sometimes do so to camouflage their privilege in the guise of heroic suffering. Throughout the book, I compare case studies in Middle English literature and existential philosophy in an effort to ethically assess the long history of existential emotion.

Secondly, I’m starting a new project on medieval and post-medieval passion plays (i.e., dramatic renditions of Christ’s capture, scourging, crucifixion and death). This project is quite interdisciplinary. Drawing on historicist and literary critical methods, I analyze medieval passion plays, assessing how and why these dramatizations of Christ’s suffering solicited compassion from their audience. Turning to anthropological and sociological methods, I attend and interpret passion plays performed in Australia, Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States. Interviewing actors and audience members, I am pursuing questions including: Do the producers and consumers of modern passion plays understand these plays as exercises in medievalism? To what extent do their understandings of the devotional value of passion plays align with those of their medieval precursors? Do modern passion plays contain any of the anti-Semitic undercurrents common, but not ubiquitous, in their medieval precursors? In addition to live performances, I examine cinematic passion plays including Denys Arcand’s Jésus de Montréal (1990) and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), as well as popular and critical reactions thereto.

How did you become interested in this field?  (Either generally, or pointing to a particular book or scholar that initially drew you into mind studies)

I owe my interest mind studies completely to UCSB. When I was working on my MA in English at the University of Rochester, with some really wonderful professors, and becoming interested in Lacanian psychoanalysis, one of those wonderful professors (Thomas Hahn) recommended that I read Aranye Fradenburg’s Epilogue to Sacrifice your Love. For me, that act of reading was a revelation—it changed the way I think about enjoyment, medieval studies, and the humanities; it made me apply to UCSB’s PhD program. When I arrived at UCSB, the Literature and the Mind MA exam reading list was brand new. Reading through it opened my eyes to a wide array of mind studies including, but not limited to, psychoanalytic theory. I read theories of trauma, cognition, affect/emotion, gender, and post-colonialism. As I began my dissertation, I became particularly interested in critical discussions of affect and emotion. I took a class with Julie Carlson on the affective turn and romantic literature and another with Aranye Fradenburg on anxiety, both of which were extremely important experiences to me. In the latter class, we read Kierkegaard’s book on anxiety alongside Freud’s work on the subject and Lacan’s tenth seminar. At the time, I was also reading things like Piers Plowman and the mystical autobiographies of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. That really provided a starting point for the work that I’m doing now.

What unique contributions to mind studies are literary scholars (or scholars of the arts, or of the humanities in general) positioned to make to mind studies?

I think the work being done by the faculty and graduate students in UCSB’s Literature and the Mind program really answers that question, as does Professor Fradenburg’s recent book Staying Alive.

How do you see your interests in literature and the mind intersecting with other fields of study in the humanities (such as environmental scholarship, gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity…)?

Just as gender and race studies are insisting upon intersectional approaches that attend to differences while forging alliances, so too should mind studies speak (and listen) to other critical paradigms including ecocriticism, Marxism, new materialism, feminism and critical race studies (to name a few). A great example of this critical intersectionality was the beautiful and powerful talk that Fred Moten gave at UCSB on improvisation and race in the wake of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of the Ferguson Police Department. Sitting in the audience with so many folks from diverse research clusters within UCSB’s English department, as well as other departments, I remember feeling that, in these trying times, mind studies cannot afford to be an insulated world unto itself.

Where do you see this field heading?  What’s unanswered (or just beginning to be answered) that you are curious about?

Of course, the field should not move in just one direction, but continue to explore different avenues. I’d love to read more work on animal minds and I think the rise of disability studies opens up really important vistas of thought on neurodiversity, a term that is currently being theorized in really fascinating ways. In terms of my own interests, in the future I hope to collaborate with (social) scientists to produce some studies on the neurological and psychological effects of watching performances of religious violence, such as passion plays. The more we can replace interdisciplinary squabbling with creative collaboration, the more mind studies will continue to thrive in literature departments and elsewhere.

 

Selections from Paul’s Work:

Below you will find the abstract for Paul’s article in PMLA (vol. 30, num. 5), “Better Living through Dread: Medieval Ascetics, Modern Philosophers, and the Long History of Existential Anxiety.”  

Intellectual historians often credit Søren Kierkegaard as existential anxiety’s prime mover. Arguing against this popular sentiment, this essay reads Kierkegaard not as the ex nihilo inventor of existential anxiety but as a modern practitioner of a deep-historical, dread-based asceticism. Examining a wide range of Middle English devotional literature alongside some canonical works of modern existentialism, it argues that Kierkegaard and the existentialists who followed him participated in a Judeo-Christian tradition of dread-based asceticism, the popularity of which had dwindled since the Middle Ages but never vanished. Following medieval ascetics, modern philosophers like Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre cultivated and analyzed anxiety in an effort to embody authenticity. By considering premodern ascetics early existentialists and modern existentialists latter-day ascetics, the essay sees the long history of existential anxiety as an ascetic tradition built around the ethical goal of living better through dread.