Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Dead Lovers

In the Middle is your source for quick glances at books not yet published! (catchy new blog motto, soon to be trademarked). Here is the table of contents for an edited collection I just blurbed, followed by a short excerpt from each essay that provides a glimpse of what the piece attempts.

Dead Lovers: Erotic Bonds and the Study of Premodern Europe
Edited by Basil Dufallo and Peggy McCracken
University of Michigan Press (forthcoming)

Introduction (Basil Dufallo and Peggy McCracken)
"What does it mean to enter the affective world of the dead, to embrace death as a site of erotic attachment? ... It is the claim of this volume that the study of dead lovers ... has something to tell us about our own investment in a 'dead' but eroticized past that we seek to recover, with 'we' here understood primarily as 'scholars,' those passionate, obsessive searchers after lost objects for whom notions of distance, objectivity and dispassion have traditionally been founding disciplinary practices."
The Best Lover (David Halperin)
"Little wonder, then, if, according to legend, Achilles fell in love with Penthesilea in the very moment of killing her. Greek vase painters never tired of depicting the supreme moment when, as the two bodies came together over Achilles's spear, their eyes met for the first and last time, each of them dazzled by the spectacular and rapidly fading vision of the other's beauty. It was, as Robert Mapplethorpe might have called it, a perfect moment, and it continues to find echoes in the work of Genet and Mishima. The entire subsequent history of occidental erotics has been downhill from there."
Propertius and the Blindness of Affect (Basil Dufallo)
"I will argue first that, although ["biographic" and "intertextual aesthetic" approaches] appear to be different and even opposed to one another, they may both be versions of the seemingly natural attempt to illuminate the personal affective life of the past. Even recent efforts, furthermore, to reconcile and move beyond this dichotomy may be grounded in its shared assumption about such literary representations as fulfilling this function. While they can be illuminating, I maintain, such readings may also blind us to the collective concerns of the society in which the literary artist works."
Wilfred Owen's Adonis (J. D. Reed)
"William Bell, my ninth-grade English teacher, used to begin his poetry unit with the admonition that 'poetry is not about daffodils in the meadow turning their cheeks to be kissed by the wind; poetry is strong stuff,' and he would then prove his anti-Wordsworthian point by reciting Wilfred Owen's 'Dulce et Decorum Est,' with its image of consumptive Tommies cursing their way through sludge. The present paper is about a similar point in another of Owen's poems that Mr. Bell read us. We are concentrating on an image of a wounded soldier about halfway through 'Disabled.'"
Embracing the Corpse: Necrophilic Tendencies in Petrarch (Alison Cornish)
"Taking violent possession of the beloved is eccentric to the usually passive attitude of the weeping Petrarchan lover. The revival of Rome requires the will to dominate, whereas the love of Laura demands humility, fear, pallor, servitude. Yet the similarity between these two loves, which I would like to explore here, is in an underlying morbid eroticism, the uncanny allure of scattered remains and lifeless body parts."
Orpheus after Eurydice (According to Albrecht Durer) (Helmut Puff)
"The imprint of Eurydice's 'double death' (gemina nece), to quote Ovid, on Orpheus's life after Eurydice's death is what interests me here. Nowhere does her hold on his life become more apparent than in tellings of Orpheus's own death, a death that reflects, inverts, and reinterprets the story of Eurydice's own. This focus on Orpheus after Eurydice skirts the question most frequently asked with regard to our myth (Why did he turn back?) and shifts the focus to: How did he continue to live (and die)? In particular, I will explore one motif, "Orpheus the first bugger."
Dead Letters (Catherine Brown)
"When I was little, I knew that time passed. I did not think I could stop it. I hid letters to a future self in secret places around the house: a cavity I found in the old bedstead in my parents' room, an imagined secret drawer in my father's desk. And on December 24, when all was dark and quite and lit against the night, I wrote a note about how all was dark and quite and lit against the night, scrolled it up tight, and slipped it down the neck of one of the balls on the Christmas tree. And then, in the trough of nothing special that follows Christmas day, I would look at the ball and secretly think of magic air suspended." [Thence follows a riff on the opening of King Tut's tomb ...]
'Until Death Do Us Part?' The Flesh and Bones of Politics in Early Modern Spain (Samuel Sanchez y Sanchez)
"The present essay focuses on the postmortem erotic bond between Juana and her husband Philip in order to elucidate the role of the dead body. Philip's cadaver [which Juana disinterred, embalmed and paraded around with her], despite its status as an ephemeral physical entity, was capable of serving as a solid political instrument for challenging patterns of royal authority, protonational identity and marital status."
Dead Children: Ben Jonson's Epitaph 'On My First Sonne' (Silke-Maria Weineck)
"The death of the child is not only the central motif in father-son narratives - 'only,' as if that weren't noteworthy enough – but it seems to function as nothing less than the condition of their possibility. One should hasten to add that this is only the case as long as these are, if such a distinction may be allowed, the father's stories, told in the father's voice, articulating paternity rather than filiality. The sons are more eloquent, speak more freely, and triumph more easily. Sons' narratives abound, and they come in all shapes – it is only the fathers who must write in, with and through blood."
'Give Sorrow Words': Emotional Loss and the Articulation of Temperament in Early Modern England (Michael Schoenfeldt)
"In this essay I will look at the physiology of grief in the era we somewhat narcissistically call the early modern period. I will try to locate this powerful emotion amid the fecund incoherence with which early modern culture confronted the passions. I want in particular to explore the ways that this singular physiology imagined speech might be an effective venue for purging the fierce and corrosive emotion of grief."

Dead Lovers is, admittedly, a mixed bag. Some of the essays are old fashioned historicism; some are ambitious attempts at new kinds of writing; some are field specific; others open up all kinds of questions across time periods. I'd certainly recommend reading the book; it's an enjoyable glimpse into some passionate scholarly minds. I don't think its omnivorous approach to the topic works against its cohesion. My personal favorites in the collection are the essays by Halperin (snarky, insightful, sometimes infuriating) and Weineck (very useful analysis of how dead sons serve their fathers well). The strangest piece belongs to Catherine Brown, a gyre of intertextuality that swirls together Henry James, the Tremulous Hand of Worcester, Howard Carter's letters, personal recollection, Nietzsche, Pliny, A. S. Byatt, and oh so much more.

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