Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Query for the Recently Ossified Professor Cohen

For my seminar on monsters and demons in medieval literature, we turn to Beowulf this week and next [having spent some time already with the Old English Wonders of the East and the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle], and along with that, my students are reading several critical texts, including the first chapter, "The Ruins of Identity," from JJC's book Of Giants. One of my students emailed this afternoon to say and ask me this:

I understand the conception of giants in Norse lore, the remnants of their presence through the stone works, etc., but what I don't quite fully grasp is Cohen's notion of loss as experienced by Nordic people through the absence of the giants. Cohen writes: "The existential melancholy that drives such etiologic narratives arises because these more than human beings have abandoned humanity to itself, leaving enigmatic traces of a joyful proximity never to be regained." Is he arguing that people long for a "proximity" in time to giants . . . because of the fantasy they can provide? the superhumanity--super power, perhaps--they represent? I guess I'm just flummoxed with his choice of phrase "joyful proximity" because until this point, my sense was that humans fled from monstrosity (figuratively and quite literally), or at least kept it at a voyeur's distance.

One way that I might begin to answer my student's question would be to explain how--in JJC's version, let's say, of a giant history--the figure of the giant always exists prior to the Law [with a capital "L"], prior to human institutions and societies with their strictures and prohibitions and curtailing of excess [sexual, violent, gustatory, etc.], and therefore the giant can be, in the cultural imagination, a figure of the enjoyment of things that are no longer allowed to be enjoyed. As Cohen puts it, "The giants of the homilists are the ancient, primal, but dead Fathers of Enjoyment who committed every sin" [p. 19]. But what Cohen means, more specifically [I think], by his phrase "joyful proximity," is that the giants of the past are often viewed, in particular medieval cultures, as having been "the constitutive first matter of the earth" [p. 11]--they possessed a certain "oneness of the world" [p. 21] that is now lost to us. Although God [let's say, the Western Christian God], technically banishes/destroys the giants who, according to Genesis, once roamed the earth, they continue to haunt our consciousness [and selfhood] as the figure of everything that is now forbidden to us, and which both secretly thrills and terrifies the delicate architecture of our supposedly more human selves. The actual giants who keep reappearing in literature--like Grendel and his mother--are, in a sense, a kind of wish-fulfillment of our darkest nostalgia/fantasy for the giants of the supposedly "oldest days": there is a secret thrill [jouissance] to be had in getting close to these figures, which also requires that we kill them, over and over and over again.

Any other thoughts, JJC? [And please let me know, too, if in characteristic fashion, I've mishandled your intentions and meanings.]


J J Cohen said...

Wow! It is truly frightening, Eileen, that you seem to know my mind better than I do myself. Your summation seems exactly on target to me. Although I didn't use the the Lacanian expression "subject supposed to enjoy," I probably should have: the giants of ancient history enjoyed everything barred to us "contemporaries." Somehow the knowledge that this full, indulgent enjoyment was available to someone at sometime makes our own lack of access to such pleasures more bearable. (It's all a myth, of course -- we can't be who we are unless [in this Lacanian model] we lack, but somehow the belief that someone or something did not lack gives us a certain certainty, even a kind of enjoyment).

I was really Lacanian back in the day.

I'd only also point out that in the passage your very bright student quoted I wasn't speaking specifically of Norse etiologic myths (though I did mean to include them). I had just made a veiled reference to Chariots of the Gods?: Unsolved Mysteries of the Past (1968) by Erich von Däniken, a truly weird and almost inexplicably popular book that argued that the gods of old were extraterrestrials who had once lived among us, and had now abandoned us for their cosmic homes. I wanted to get at the persistent human desire to think that there was once a time when the burden of being merely human wasn't so insupportable, when angels or gods or giants or aliens lived among us, a "joyful proximity" that likely will never be ours on this earth again.

It's always strange and a little uncomfortable to encounter your old self in your old scholarship (hello, not yes ossified JJC of the 1990s!). But thanks for inviting me to think about this.

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks so much for responding, JJC; hopefully, my students will get a kick out of that. I'm hoping to post more comments and questions that come out of this seminar, as the semester progresses. Re-reading your chapter again [myself] this morning, I saw immediately that the "etiological" myths in my student's quotation of you was a reference to "Chariots of the Gods" [among other contemporary arcana], a book, I am embarrassed to admit, that was an absolute favorite of mine when I was in junior high school [early 1970s]. It got me thinking, too, prompted by something one of my other [and also very smart M.A.] students wrote in one of her response papers, about how science fiction replaces, in a way, those classical and medieval narratives regarding the marvels and monsters of the unexplored regions of the world, such as the Antipodes. Since there is no longer any unexplored earthly region, we cast certain of our monsters into outer space [or, in the cases of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, we place them in geographies that are navigable, but in which, the monster somehow keeps eluding us by remaining in its most secret hiding places].

This got me thinking, too, about what we might call the "intelligence" of monsters; typically, in science fiction, the alien foes are terrifying because they possess either higher levels of intelligence and/or physical agility than us, and therefore, we can never fight them with conventional means--they *exceed* us, and therefore call into question what we believe is our superiority as a species, and also our idea, evolutionary-wise and perhaps even spiritually-wise, that we are eternal. I think the Donestre of the "Wonders of the East," because they can speak "our language" and beguile us, are especially frightening for this reason. While many monsters of the classical and medieval periods are simply racial sterotypes "made monstrous" that participate in the idea that certain Others are "less" than us [mentally and physically], and therefore we have a right to subjugate them, the Donestre raise the discomfiting question: what if the monster is smarter than you, and also just as "human"?

kdegruy said...

Coming to the party late in the midst of a dizzying semester (oh, it's really the start, I guess, and I can't think of that for long)...

First, I wish I was taking that class.

Second, I have an uncle who gets paid to get in little submarines and dive into these ocean floor caverns and volcanic sites and film the absolutely incredible creatures that live there, blind, or pulsing with light, or living in lava, creatures that seem too fantastic to live. I think I'll have to expand my thoughts on this "unexplored territory" and the images he's beamed us from there in my own blog, for fear of running out of space, but I think the 'turning inward' can produce an encounter, a la the Loch Ness monster you referenced, that might echo, or might complicate, the pleasurable horror one experiences in thinking about Alien Life out there somewhere, super-sentient and aware of us and part of one possible originary myth. Outer space might be the opposite of evolution in the originary myth.

Finally, on giants, hamburgers, hunger, and a hatred for quiche (had to catch several posts at once today), I've been reading Malory and wondering if the encounter with the giant on St. Michael's Mount in "Arthur and Lucius the Emperor of Rome" isn't, in addition to bearing traces of the racial Othering, not a version of the "real men don't eat quiche" reflex. In Malory, real men don't eat at all, or at least don't enjoy it. Eating is cast entirely in terms of social interaction and later, penance. What is so remarkable about this "corsaint" is the detail with which his meals are described. As horrible as the roast babies are, there is in that moment an undeniable pleasure in eating that is absent elsewhere. (I'm such a one-note wonder).

[/insufficiently caffeinated ramble]