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.]