29 – 30 Sep 2017

The Shape of Return

Progress, Process, and Repetition in Medieval Culture
In his Convivio, Dante claims that ‘the supreme desire of each thing, and the one that is first given to it by nature, is to return to its first cause.’ Yet this formulation is marked by a tension: return is both a destination and a process. On the one hand, the desire for return is teleological and singular; on the other, it is meandering, self-prolonging, perhaps even non-progressive. Return, then, is an uncanny thing, with a distinctive temporality that conjoins recollection, satisfaction, and frustration. It also shapes literary texts: romance heroes desire to return to their homeland, but the obstacles placed in their path, or the digressions that they undertake, are the basic preconditions of the stories in which they find themselves. In such cases, only a deferred return can satisfy; and even a return is not inevitably satisfying — it can also be a frustrating repetition of a well-trodden path. This is true of lyric texts as much as narrative ones: medieval lyric poems are often concerned with the human inclination to go back to an unfruitful site of pain, loss, or even dangerous enjoyment.

This conference will explore the ways in which medieval literary, artistic, musical, philosophical, and theological texts perform, interrogate, and generate value from the complexities of return, with particular reference to its formal and temporal qualities. Reconsidering the practical and theoretical implications of return — a movement in time and space that seems to shape medieval culture in a fundamental sense — we will investigate the following questions: What shapes does return take, and how does it shape cultural artifacts of the Middle Ages? How does return (as fact or possibility) regulate the flow of time and the experience of human life? How can return as a final goal and return as a problematic repetition coexist? Is repetition simply identified with a state of sin, or can it lead somewhere? Reiteration, after all, can disrupt linear and teleological progress, but also empower it.


ICI Berlin
(Click for further documentation)


Suzanne Conklin Akbari
Elizabeth Eva Leach

Organized by

Francesco Giusti
Daniel Reeve
An ICI Berlin event.

In English

First published on:
Rights: © ICI Berlin
Cite as: The Shape of Return: Progress, Process, and Repetition in Medieval Culture, conference, ICI Berlin, 29–30 September 2017 <>