Some Ways to Read Julian of Norwich

            Because of Julian’s nearness to us in time, and her startling claims to authority by means of talking directly to the Christian god, many readers are unsure how to deal with her text. Here are some suggestions. Do you have others you can share with us? Please be open about your reactions.

Literal/Supernatural: She warns you not to read her naively when she says "I neither can nor may show you the spiritual vision as openly or as fully as I would like to" (ST 7: 11). However, she also passionately desires us to approach her words as a kind of gateway through which we might have the same inspirational experience she did. For the literal/supernatural reading, the Christian god is running the universe and was the real author of the events she reports on May 8, 1373.  Julian becomes the scribe and interpreter of that super-Author's utterances, so we are "reading a reading" of the invisible, even non-linguistic "text" of those "showings."

        If you accept this way of reading, be aware that Julian was just as conditioned as we are by her era’s vocabulary of images and coded ways of interpreting reality. The church’s stained glass windows, manuscript illuminations, and verbal images delivered in daily sermons would have been sufficient to provide her mind with a set of pre-loaded ways of seeing and understanding what she saw, even in such a circumstance. The very existence of the Long Text, in addition to the Short Text, shows that converting the "showings" of that single day into literature was no simple "seeing." However, this way of reading tends to accept Julian’s authority as final—it is as she says.  Nevertheless, you can study how she uses her skills as an interpretive reader of these experiences.  Like a Renaissance poet who responds to a vision of his Beloved by writing a sonnet, Julian is producing this prose text to celebrate and come to terms with her own vision of a "Beloved."  What techniques does she use to make that vision visible to her readers, and how does she attempt to control our interpretation of what she shows us?

Medical/Psychoanalytic: She tells you she was near death, experiencing all the symptoms one might expect from one whose pain and weakness made her nearly unconscious of the external world. Such a condition might easily produce seizures and hallucinations, and she, herself, dreads this is the case (ST 21: 32). However, at the very end of the day of "showings," the voice tells her explicitly "what you saw today was no delirium; accept and believe it, and hold to it, and you shall not be overcome [by the Fiend]" (ST 22: 34). The medical/psychoanalytic reading assumes she interpreted the seizure activity of her brain in terms of the religious iconography in which she was trained. Disturbed by the possibly dangerous implications of what her mind showed her, she writes to re-examine and reinterpret its significance to save herself from the unthinkable heresy of personal authority while preserving the authenticity of her experience. She’s not trained as a poet, but she must invent poetic expressions to communicate all this. This way of reading denies Julian’s authority, assuming it couldn’t possibly be as she says, but rather assumes that the now distant reader can better know what happened than she and those around her could know. Nevertheless, diagnoses will differ, reader by reader.

Metaphysical/Hermeneutic: She has had a visionary experience from a source which she profoundly believes to be her god. In trying to use language to describe non-linguistic experiences, she reorganizes those events into puzzle-like short narratives which the reader must engage as a detective, solving the puzzle and extracting the core meaning hidden within it. Since hermeneutic interpretation always intimately involves reader’s own innermost beliefs and identities, this way of reading merges the readers’ authority with Julian’s, and borrows from her the capacity to see somewhat as she sees. Because of variations in readers’ identities, readers likewise will generate differing types of readings that usually will group together because of readers’ shared values.

Poetic: This reading assumes she may even not be telling the truth, but that she has imagined a kind of higher truth which nevertheless may be more important than anything that could have come to her in a fevered dream. Poetic readers tend to concentrate more on how and why she says it, rather than what mechanisms may have motivated it. She may well have had the ecstatic experiences she reports, and she surely sounds earnest about denying her own authority and recommending the visions’ authority as the ground of our understanding (ST 6: 9-11). Nevertheless, the poetic interpretation treats her as a poet, one whose unique position enables her to use language to create new understandings human possibility from familiar materials. Because she apparently has not had formal training as a poet, she does not create unusual stanza forms, rhyme schemes or multi-strand romance narratives. Instead. she employs what artful uses of language she knows to communicate her most profound imaginative understandings (e.g., the metaphor and simile of the "hazelnut," ST 4: 7-8). The poetic interpretation does not ask whether those metaphors and similes are truly God’s or Julian’s. It is enough that they are beautiful and significant to the work’s importance.