Ages ago I asked for bibliography for an article on Shakespeare's "The Phoenix and the Turtle." Thanks for your help back then, and, if you have time, or the energy, or the interest, or the desire to procrastinate, thank you again for your current help. I've finished a draft of the article, which I present here less to be read than to spur me to get it into a better shape before Tuesday, when I present it to my Brooklyn colleagues, and before Saturday, when it's due for the initial stages of assimilation into the anthology. Comments now will be very gratefully received.
I make no claims to advance queer theory. There's no coinage here. When I'm most tired, I'm convinced that this article is, at best, simply the q.t. article that "The Phoenix and the Turtle" invites and so one that must be written (the text of this short poem: here). At worst, I think I'm flattening out and misrepresenting arguments, tending towards the banal, and wasting everyone's time, including mine. We'll see.
Mine is not one of the poem's many good historical readings. If you're interested in such things, the Times Literary Supplement has been thick with them this century. The tendency now seems to be to read it as a crypto-Catholic lament: if it's read as personal allegory, Elizabeth and Essex, traditional designees for the Phoenix and Turtledove, have been swapped out in favor of obscure (to me, anyway) martyrs. For a superior example of such a reading, see John Finnis and Patrick Martin in the April 18, 2003 TLS (e.g., on the middle stanzas, "But first they are mathematical, and echo Euclid: 'in twain, / Had the essence but in one, / Two distincts, division none: / Number there in love was slain.' The cumulation invites us to ask: What has 'distance and no space,' length and no breadth (Euclid i.1, def 2; translated Billingsley, 1571), no area? A line-by extension, Ann and Roger Line.") But of course!
My argument's below, but, if you haven't done so already, have a look at Jeffrey's most recent posts, especially this lovely meditation on Hebrew, Marie de France, and Mayan bracelets
(EDIT: The comments below are a lovely testament to what academic blogdom can achieve once we put down our swords and try, instead, to help one another. I realize that all this talk of love can make it sound as if we don't have irreconcilable differences. Some of us do; but we need not be jerks about it. And a warning to anyone who wants to quote the draft below: while the version that's going off to Madhavi Menon tomorrow has the same argument, it's different in structure, emphasis, and in its evidence [i.e., I've corrected some misreadings]. I plead with you, quoting people, if such people exist, not to quote this, unless, of course, you're doing a paper on academic blogging or, better yet, revision.
Thanks to all.):
IT'S A DRAFT FOLKS: read above!
Shakespeare's short elegy “The Phoenix and the Turtle” opens by demanding that an unnamed “bird of loudest lay” (1) herald a procession of those birds possessing “chaste wings” (4). Despite the peculiarity of the image, the message is clear enough: eros is unfit for this ceremony, as are death and other tyrannical powers, for the herald also forbids the “shrieking harbinger” (5) and “every fowl of tyrant wing” (6). The prohibitions suggest that the poem will go on to chart a Boethian stoical technique for altogether spurning the powers of death and life and love. It comes as a surprise, then, that it instead aims, first, to celebrate the ecstatic contact of the Phoenix and Turtledove, and then to mourn their deaths. Have unchastity, the shrieking harbinger, and grim death been allowed in?
By no means; but neither have they been forbidden entirely from the procession. Not all tyrants have been proscribed; only all “save the eagle, feather'd king” (11). Granted space to “keep the obsequy so strict” (12), the eagle is participant and enforcer of the ritual’s gravitas. Into this solemn space enters the “death-divining” (15) swan-priest, whose expertise in funereal music is at once professional and highly personal, since the swan’s song heralds its own death. By joining its dying voice with the grandeur of this funeral march, the swan’s service to the procession also dignifies its own end. The swan thus suggests that the poem may be understood as both a memento mori and memento vivare, as instruction on how a decorous life and proper death each serve the other. The crow follows. As a figure clothed in “sable” (18), it is the chief mourner in a ritual that accepts and promotes death “as that which gives 'meaning' to life, or is the precondition for the 'true' life of man" (Marcuse, "Ideology of Death" 64). For in calling the crow “treble-dated” (17) Shakespeare indicates the crow’s long life and also that however long its life, death is its limit: “treble” may be considerable, but it is not infinite. Simultaneously, as John Klause argued, Shakespeare echoes the “hoc, nunc, and usque in saeculum” (henceforth, now, and unto eternity) of the Dies irae (“The Phoenix and Turtle in its Time,” in In the Company of Shakespeare: Essays on English Renaissance Literature in Honor of G. Blakemore Evans, 2002, 217), a poem that fantasizes about the last judgment and the reduction of the world to cinders. The suitability of the allusion to this poem needs no explanation. Combining its temporal reach with its “breath,” by which it “givest and takest” life (19), the crow shackles together eternity, death, and life. In this complex, life is always a tending towards an inevitable end, at whose conclusion it will be exchanged for and rewarded by ceremony of death. Death becomes no merely technical, biological problem, but rather the last, inevitable, most proper terminus (Marcuse 69). When death comes, as it must come, it should come not as the shrieking, undignified end, not as the terrible loneliness of one's own private death; in a proper death, overseen by the forces these three birds embody, life and death are each communal. And the community’s most suitable response is not noisy grief, resentment at death’s terrible injustice, or a refusal of the sacrifice, but rather only the bloodless tribute of a sighed prayer (67).
An anthem follows to mark the passing of the Phoenix and Turtledove, and also simply to wonder at a love whose intensity bursts forth in otherwise unthinkable modes of relation. Presented with this refusal to fall into line, Property is “appalled” (37) and Reason “confounded” (41). Theirs, after all, is the power by which things are sorted into distinct entities. In its confusion, Reason recapitulates and deepens the avian procession’s first effort, the initial anthem that proclaimed the death of Love and Constancy (22) before it fell into enthusiasm for the two birds’ love. Like the anthem, but with a more sustained dignity, Reason’s threnos mourns what the world has lost with the passing of the Phoenix and Turtle: Truth, Beauty, Rarity, and Grace. Because it seeks to confine the birds to a monument formed of what it demands be recognized as their own separate, and indisputably defunct selves, Reason's song is more a summons than a commemoration. It seeks to fix them into abstractions, which, precisely because they are incorporeal, are perfectly dependent on rationality; in exchange for their own existence, Reason gives them an existence only in itself. By substituting abstractions for the Phoenix and the Turtledove, and by declaring the abstractions now passed from the world, Reason shuts off their existence from all others and hollows out a melancholy in anyone suitably moved by the poem. Reason demands that devotees of the Phoenix and Turtledove recognize that there is a truth, but that it is a truth lost to the world. Joining in the threnos under the terms Reason sets means coming to recognize that there is something to long for, that this something is the greatest of things, and that it can never be had, that it can be experienced only as an absence, that it can only be longed for. When all are made to desire the Phoenix and Turtledove while being made to comprehend themselves in the impossibility of fulfilling their desire, grief becomes a necessary condition of being.
In its threnos, Reason nevertheless allowed the Phoenix and Turtledove a kind of physical presence; if they are present at all, they are present by being “here enclosed” in “cinders.” Yet despite Reason's designation of the cinders as a grave, they should be thought neither the container for the birds, nor as the remnants of their life and love, but rather as witness to a failed effort at enclosure. For in being a form of the Phoenix, the cinders are not “merely an infertile, dead substance, but on the contrary a breeding-ground of new life” (Christine Gilham, “'Single Natures Double Name': Some Comments on the P and the T” 127). The cinders are therefore anything but a mark of finality. They might be thought instead what has been left behind, as the remnants of the legibility of both birds to Reason once they have passed into illegibility; the cinders have been rationalized, while the birds, as the anthem declared, have “fled / in a mutual flame from hence” (23-24); and by slipping away with its flaming lover, the Turtledove has picked up at least one of the Phoenix’s tricks. Understood this way, the cinders signify that something may be occurring elsewhere, and also that Reason gets it wrong. Mourning here is a ceremony by which something too difficult to observe, too troubling to experience, something too titillating, too present, is deliberately misplaced—or, more pointedly, shut up.
Its threnos, then, furthers Reason’s initial appraisal of the two birds’ ecstasy, the moment of its first confusion. It first described the birds’ love as one in which division “gr[e]w together” (42) so that two “simples” (44), the most basic of elements, become “well compounded” (44), joined together into one homogeneous compound. With their two loves collapsed into perfect concord, this is a desire that is no desire at all, but only the self-satisfaction of a single being containing its all in itself. When paradox has been cooled into harmony, and the becomings of ecstatic contact into one being, the poem offers itself up as mystical allegory, as it does in the New Cambridge Shakespeare (both 1992 and 2006 editions). There, the two birds, by modeling Platonic bisexuality, vanish into one body, Shakespeare’s, whose different aspects they represent. Comprehended this way, if the birds have any kind of existence, it is an existence as allegory, disembodied properties of reason sequestered from all the impurities of lived existence. Trying something else, Reason then suggests that the birds are a “true..twain” (45), devoted to one another but also truly double. Split asunder from each other, they are confined to their individual subjectivities. This desire is like that of the mourners at the poem’s end, a desire driven by some lack, tantalized by some promise held out by the other. Here, the only paradox, if it could be called that, would be the “tragic scene” (52), as Reason terms this ceremony, of the insatiability of desire that could not be abandoned.
Reason’s two appraisals at this first contact misconstrue the Phoenix and Turtledove as badly as does its Threnos. The avian procession describes the ecstasy of the Phoenix and Turtledove as one in which there were “two distincts, division none” (27), “hearts remote, yet not asunder” (29), in which “either was the other's mine” (36) and at whose contact “number…in love was slain” (28). In this ecstasy, no one model of contact or desire predominates. When there is no space between “the turtle and his queen,” they are in a relationship in which there are separate but perfectly contiguous; for even in this intimacy, they still remain two birds. This is the touching or being besides described in Cary Howie's Claustrophilia, where he calls for an awareness of “a relationship of contiguity or juxtaposition that would not be reducible to either an antagonism, on the one hand, or simple collapse, on the other” (149). In this touching, the Phoenix and Turtledove are not absorbed into one another; they are embraced, not disappeared; they not assimilated, but with-in. This might also be thought the mutual touching of Sara Ahmed's queer phenomenology (“Toward a Queer Phenomology,” GLQ 12 (2006), 551), in which our contact with something, or someone, is also the contact that it makes with us, a contact that conjures us into a mutual, mobile identity of being-with. In this model, neither self of the two birds is “the same” (38) so long as they brush against one another. Theirs might also be thought less a touching and more a disaggregation of boundaries, yet still without the complete disappearance of the two selves. After all, while the “double name” of “single nature's double name” clearly refers to the two names of the birds, Phoenix and Turtledove, as Christine Gilham observes, “double name” might just as well mean an ambiguous name (“Reply,” Connotations 3 (1992/3), 125), something shifting and ultimately unknowable, something without the borderings, however intimate, of the contact described by Howie and Ahmed. Certainly about the precise borders of identity, or indeed certainty about the self-presence of identity, is lose in an ambiguity that might be considered through what Tom Boellstorff called the copresense without incorporation of a queer meantime (“When Marriage Falls Queer Coincidences in Straight Time,” in GLQ 13 (2007), 227-48), or what Cary Howie, drawing on Kaja Silverman, called “participation” (33), a merging rather than mutual touching, yet without a reduction into one being; this might be thought a being together rather than a being with. Or, following the suggestion of the co-presence in “either was the other's mine,” theirs might be yet another model of being, by which they become so intimate that they render the concept of relationship itself inadequate. In this model, the concepts of interiority and exteriority no longer function (echoing Bersani, “Psychoanalysis and the Aesthetic Subject,” Critical Inquiry 32 (2006), 170); it may not be possible to talk accurately of touching, or of the stimulated contact of phenomenology. Given the multiplication and expansions of being that such contact brings forth, this should not be thought a mutual possession, with its connotation of a possession shared out between a pair, but rather a multiple co-possession in which all hold each other in common. Finally, with the declaration “number there in love was slain,” the two birds model yet another model of desire and its effects, one in which identity is altogether obliterated. This is a “radical disintegration and humiliation of the self” (Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave,” 217), by which the Phoenix and Turtledove “reject personhood, a status that the law needs [for] discipline” (Bersani, Homos 129). With this approach, the birds have slipped altogether from the poem's sad progress. Not being directed at satiation, nor at community, conjugality, or, for that matter, progeny—certainly the very image of the future-as-child that Edelman has so repeatedly decried—theirs is a contact of pure ends that aims at nothing: by refusing to make the gift of oneself in contact, by not expecting a flowing of their being into the other, without even mutual recognition, the birds in this moment have “trace[d]...the untraversable path that leads to no good and has no other end that an end to the good as such” (Edelman, “Antisocial Thesis in Queer Theory” Roundtable, PMLA 121 (2006), 822).
Whatever the model of desire, of contact, of presence—and my uncertainty about precisely what's being modeled requires me to stop speaking of desire, contact, and presence and to write, instead, “whatever is being modeled”—the truth of the Phoenix and Turtledove is not a truth of unification, nor a truth of loss. If the birds have been rendered a coherent whole, the whole is only the cinders before which the birds of death raise their anthem and join together in sighing; if anything is lost to this world, it is because Reason demands that it be put away. Without Reason, and here I use without spatially, there can be witnessed another kind of truth, one that can only confound the rigors of Reason: it is no transcendent, unattainable abstract, but rather a truth of the moment that continually emerges into existence, under different forms, at the time of being with, being together, or even the absolute abandonment of being. What truth is here is the truth that is in no way an absolute, that in no way stands apart from the crowdings of bodies in contact, unless, as the middle stanza of the lyric demonstrates, it stands in a watching that is itself ecstatic participation.
If anything has been united, it is the image of pure constancy and pure motion, the emblematic traits of the Turtledove and the Phoenix: one always wending toward the other, refusing to swerve aside, and the other always on a course towards giving itself up to its own self-obliteration and to its own unceasing renewal. If such birds have progeny, it is only themselves (James H. Sims, “Shakespeare's Phoenix and Turtle: A Reconsideration of Single Natures Double Name,” Connotations 3 (1993), 65), not this melancholic community; or it is also this record, which is witness both to their contact and to Reason’s techniques of oblivion. Together the Phoenix and Turtledove form one image, which, however, should not be thought a unity, nor as something fixed in eternity, but instead as an ever-shifting image of dedicated, perpetual falling into one another. Wondering at such an image, I want to imagine—certainly not identify—the unnamed "bird of loudest lay" of the opening line as the two purportedly dead birds, who, by slaying number, by slipping the confines of Property, can sing at their own funeral, unknowable but perhaps not unheard for a procession that would rather give Reason the last word.