Monday, March 10, 2008

A final return for the Phoenix and Turtle

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.

11 comments:

Michael O'Rourke said...

I enjoyed reading this Karl and wanted to ask you a question about the difference between "being-together" and "being-with" as you see it? The language you deploy is very Nancean (being-with, sharing, contact and so on) and it seems to me that Bersani's work (and Howie's {avowedly} and Ahmed's {implicitly})would wholeheartedly endorse Nancy's ontology of co-existence, of proximity in distance while Edelman's scheme leaves no room, I think, for a political ontology of spacing and commingling. So, I guess I would also want you to say more about the move from Bersani to Edelman (who has been writing on Shakespeare for his new book *Bad Education*) in that key paragraph in which you cite both and ask two--related-- questions:
(1) where does sexual difference or indeed just sexuality come into this schema of commingling and self-dispersal? Is it an anchoring point? It certainly isn't obvious that it is for Nancy in Being Singular Plural although one can certainly argue that it is very much there (especially in the essays scattered throughout A Finite Thinking). I think your essay is very well placed to bring this out further. And (2) Isn't there an incompatibility between the relationality of Bersani and the anti-relationality of Edelman? Nancy is again instructive here (or at least a certain reading of Nancy, i.e. mine plus Simon Critchley's!). Since in Bersani's ontology self-destitution leads to a re-creation (I wouldn't want to totally empty this word of its religio-theological anchorings) of one's being-in-the-world or more precisely since all hangs on the climamen one's being-with others in the world (even Foucault and Deleuze could be mobilized in this argument)then isn't Edelman's very refusal of relationality, or at least its foreclosure (and his unrestrained disdain for allness) radically inconceivable for Bersani's theorization of subjectless subjects and refashioned modes of sociability (in the later esays on cruising, genital chastity, intimacy and so on)?




MOR.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks so much for reading this, Michael.

First, I have to admit that I've read so little Nancy that I might as well say I've not read him at all. According to my notes, all I've read is "Wild Laughter in the Throat of Death," MLN 102 (1987): 719-736, where my comments are primarily: a) in all this talk about Baudelaire and this dark star of a woman, why didn't Nancy bring in Beauvoir? b) perhaps he and I are getting at something similar when he writes about the interminglings of the desire to paint, die, and laughter: ""What is the woman laughing (or coming) at? She is laughing at the dying artist as he comes in his own death, because she knows about death. All that she is and all that she knows is 'nocturnal.' She knows about immortality, which she herself is presenting. She knows how immortality comes--that is, by never being given as present. Or she knows that she is herself that immortality which is death's own immortality." (724).

So that's all I have there!

I'll take the other questions in my own peculiar order.

where does sexual difference or indeed just sexuality come into this schema of commingling and self-dispersal?

It doesn't. In the conversation with Eileen this weekend (and it seemed like one uninterrupted conversation, no doubt carried out in the hallways at night by our somniloquent selves), Eileen declared that there's no such such as "homo" anything. This made immediate sense to me: self-identity, at least when we understand it as homogeneous and coherent, is always a fraud. Although this sounds like such a cliché when I say it, there's always difference, sexual or otherwise.

Thus, although the Phoenix is a woman and the Turtledove a man ("'twixt the turtle and his queen"), we must still think this contact queer. Homo-contact, if such a thing ever occurs, should not be a privileged site of the queer, since that just fixes the het in its own fantasy of normalcy, self-coherence, and impermeability in relation to the other. But as you know all this, I'm talking here primarily to clear things up for myself prior to this afternoon's presentation. In a way, then, this essay is an experiment in dropping the whole complex of masculine/feminine, male/female, and the various permutations, as unnecessary structures for analysis...so long as I'm not jettisoning this stuff and inadvertently reverting to the default masculine as the (invisible-to-me) analytical filter.

In short: having ignored (dismissed?) sexual difference, do I miss it in this essay? No, I don't. So why use it? (Maybe because you miss it, and for good reason?)

As for sexuality, my sense is that it's equally unnecessary for sexuality to be the privileged site for the dispersals of self-same identities. Certainly it's not in (this century's) Bersani, (what I've read of) Ahmed, or even in the direction Edelman is (I hope, if he will let me hope!) tending now (here thinking of his 'gotcha! you're experiencing pleasure despite the seriousness of your political engagement post-de Man Nazi scandal!' in a very fine essay on Barbara Johnson, "The Student of Metaphor," Differences 17 (2006): 195-204). Yes, this poem is about observing eros and containing its powers, but, again, I don't think I need to talk about sexuality, as such (if there is such a thing), to get at the points I'm making, such as they are.

What do I lose when I lose an explicit discussion of sexuality? A particular, perhaps the most intense mode, of thinking (literal) bodies in contact. But even these bodies and penetrations are there not because they're privileged in themselves (despite, if I remember correctly, Bersani's strenuous reminder in Homos of the need to keep actual sex in the analysis), but because they're good to think with. So, my reading is implicitly sexual; e.g., "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." When I wrote this, I was recalling 1991 or 1992 (whenever it was that the fashion was overalls with one strap undone), when my recently out friend took me, less certainly straight than I am now, cruising in some park in Seattle: he was too tentative to participate, and I too clueless, and it took me years to realize what we were doing that night, but I'd say in the watching, in the being cruised (as I was, even though I didn't know it: "Sure!," he chirped, "I have the time."), there was still a kind of ecstasy.

Isn't there an incompatibility between the relationality of Bersani and the anti-relationality of Edelman

My sense is that there is now, but it's less clear in Bersani's work of the later 80s to mid 90s. So far as I can tell, Bersani did the antisocial thesis first, and then moved on to what Eileen called this last weekend "mysticism" (and, despite my own hesitations about mysticism, she meant no insult by the word). With that in mind, I deliberately brought in the Bersani of "Is the Rectum" and the Bersani of "Forms of Being," in part to give Bersani (or, depending on your feelings about the antisocial thesis, the devil) his due, and also from the fun of citing one name in two different places with two very different sets of ideas. After all, I'd like to think that the best of us don't just run in place in our ideas. I'd say, again judging on that Barbara Johnson piece above, that even Edelman doesn't. Given the last sentence of your comment, I'm not accusing you of missing the distinction between the two Bersanii. With that in mind, I'll pose this whole paragraph as a question: am I getting this right?

a question about the difference between "being-together" and "being-with" as you see it?

To end with the beginning: as I see it, "being-together" is a mode of intermingling (without the obliteration of the subject(s)), and "being with" is a mode not of intermingling but of contact, but of contact so intimate it verges on intermingling. My graph on modes of desire means to follow a trajectory towards complete obliteration. Being-together doesn't think so much in terms of borders, and being-with, with its discussion of enclosures, does. However, because I see a distinction between Ahmed and (again, the recent) Bersani, I still want to distinguish "being together" from what I called the "multiple co-possession" of the next step in my catalog. In Ahmed, there are still subjects; there's still the table, and still the person who touches it/is touched by it.

Now, my sense--but here from reading only one essay! ('Queer phenomenology', here spelled right) is that Ahmed does better with politics and power than Bersani. Ahmed might ask "how did this thing come to be here, where we come in contact with each other," whereas I don't see Bersani asking those questions. Like Deleuze and Guattari, Bersani tends towards animism; Ahmed doesn't. And I'm very happy to get corrected here.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

This is great, Karl: fine writing (many memorable turns of phrase), an excellent close reading, and the queering of a text that I had never thought especially welcoming to such an approach.

A line that lingers with me is: 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.
I know you try to move beyond allegory (disembodiment, stilled signification) ... but I can't help wondering about the animality of the birds (birds not as figures for something else, birds not as anthropomorphic lessons, but birds as birds). The perpetually unsettled [anti]subjectivity that you envision at the end ("an ever-shifting image of dedicated, perpetual falling into one another") is still a human thing, isn't it? That is, it still depends upon reading the birds as figures for nonavian things .... and while, at the one hand, such a reading is absolutely necessary, I wonder what of the animal remains, what (if anything) in the birds resist human readings?

Since MOR invokes Edelman, the last chapter of No Future is all about nonhuman birds (or how bords refuse the figurative burden that might be palced upon them); it's my favorite in his books.

Karl Steel said...

Radical structural revisions underway at this very moment, folks.

Edelman No Future on its way to BC for a last-minute foray.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: thanks for this very thought-provoking essay. I think the poem itself is extremely enigmatic and I had to read it several times while perusing your essay, and thank god for your careful, almost line-by-line close reading. Even so, I don't feel, still, like this poem gives itself to easily, so to speak, to the reader, except as a kind of allegory, although I'm glad you bypass the historical allegory kind of reading for something that might even be said to be as enigmatic [and still as allegorical] as the subject of your analysis, which I hope you don't mind me saying.

A few things:

1. I wonder, as you write,

"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,"

if "this something," through the threnos, can also be recognized as the thing that *can* be had and which has possibly already been had. But perhaps that's what you mean, a little further on, by the thing that is "too present" that Reason desires to "shut up."

2. I can understand why this poem is sometimes described as an early form of the metaphysical conceit [that Donne will later develop more intensively], especially in its description of the birds' love as a "division" that "grew together" and of the birds themselves as "simples" that have been "compounded." But I am not sure I buy the "concord" that you [or Reason?] see implicit in this, and I also wanted more of an explanation of what you mean by "Platonic bisexuality," and of how, finally, the "different aspects" of Shakespeare are represented in the "ecstatic contact" of the two birds [which is, somehow, nevertheless, not desire]--is this according to other descriptions/explications of poem [that is not entirely clear].

3. Are the cinders really a failed effort at enclosure [regardless that something will rise from them again], or are they the perfect indication of a certain solubility of the twain? What, exactly, is going to rise again?

4. I wonder about the idea of "touch" and "contact" and "contiguity" between the two birds since the predominant image of their "concourse," as it were, is of them *fleeing* in a "mutual flame." I kind of want you to push the "motion" angle a bit harder--the idea of that "disaggregation of boundaries," perhaps pace Deleuze and Guattari [and here, too, is where the question of sex/sexuality appears, although I certainly don't expect you to push that if you don't want to, and I agree with you that "queer" needs to be configured beyond the so-called "homo"].

5. In relation to "number there in love was slain," I think your use of Bersani, especially from "Homos," is very apropos. Now, we'll never be able to parse all this out in this comment thread, but I'm not sure we should try to distinguish an anti-sociality from a relationality Bersani. I'm still trying to figure this out for myself, but I really believe that what Bersani does in "Homos" lays the groundwork, in certain ways, for what happens in "Forms of Being," as regards the "shattering" of the self, or what might be called a *movement* of the self outside of itself into the world. In "Homos," via Genet's "Funeral Rites," the argument feels hostile somehow but by the time you get to "Forms of Being," the tone is one, amazingly, of gentleness, but still we're talking about certain forms of obliteration, of refusal of, let's say, the *normal* social, but in order to move into a richer sociality and relatedness. So, there are not really two Bersanis, but there is a Bersani in movement along a certain line of thought.

6. I see how you are working, hard, the angle of the two birds/lovers as "a merging rather than mutual touching, yet without a reduction into one being," yet the cinders seen to continually undo the idea of reduction. And while I know you don't want to delve into gender, and shouldn't have to, can sexuality be entirely left to the side in your discussion?

7. I love this part of your essay:

". . . 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,"

BUT: isn't satiation, somehow, everything in this "contact" through which they "flame" away from us?

8. I understand your uncertainty about describing, too precisely, what is being "modelled" in this poem, though you might stick your neck out and risk it, anyway, while still capitulating the "queer" reading that does not aim "at ends" [in Edelman's terms].

9. Okay, now here is the part of your essay that "sings":

"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."

Push this harder. Please. [And I love your "perverse" imagining of the two lovers-birds as the "bird" [singular] of "loudest lay" who is *verboten* at the funeral--lovely. Truly [even if crazy!].

Cheers, Eileen

Eileen Joy said...

Okay, so now I'm obsessing about the invocation of "Platonic bisexuality" in your essay [via the "New Cambridge Shakespeare"?]--is this some kind of deliberate oxymoron, and how, more specifically, does it connect [in whoever's view] to Shakespeare's own person? Just sitting here in Saint Louis wondering, that's all.

Karl Steel said...

I also wanted more of an explanation of what you mean by "Platonic bisexuality," and of how, finally, the "different aspects" of Shakespeare are represented in the "ecstatic contact" of the two birds [which is, somehow, nevertheless, not desire]--is this according to other descriptions/explications of poem [that is not entirely clear].

Okay, so now I'm obsessing about the invocation of "Platonic bisexuality" in your essay [via the "New Cambridge Shakespeare"?]--is this some kind of deliberate oxymoron, and how, more specifically, does it connect [in whoever's view] to Shakespeare's own person? Just sitting here in Saint Louis wondering, that's all.

Wasn't planning on returning to the essay until AFTER my Chaucer class today, but since you're fretting:

1) thanks VERY MUCH (all of you: you really came through in a pinch) for the comments. More detailed response as soon as I can get to it;

2) the Platonic should be NEOPLATONIC (will fix in draft-in-progress), and it's not MY idea. It's from the New Cambridge Shakespeare, which no doubt represents the collective opinion of lots of people. In this argument--which I think is CRAP--one bird represents Speare's female side, and the other his male side, and they come together (but not, like, in a sexual way, unless it's sex-as-symbol of union), to form a nice coherent whole. It's mystical stuff, and no doubt intellectually historically accurate, in an exegetical/philosophical sense, but I think it's about the most *boring* reading I can imagine.

So, maybe I haven't made it clear enough--and I'm sure Alison, who's doing me the enormous favor of sitting down and doing a close edit with/for me--but that reading, and other readings that promote a nice, neat, coherent, placid union, is about the furthest thing from my reading that I can imagine.

Karl Steel said...

he Platonic should be NEOPLATONIC (will fix in draft-in-progress), and it's not MY idea.

Or, I'll check this, maybe it is PLATONIC, and it's a reference to Symposium...

Karl Steel said...

First, thanks again everyone for the comments. Owing to your suggestions, and demands for clarification, and owing, again, so much to ALK's careful read-through of the paper to me, and owing to the fun conversation with my colleagues at Tuesday's Works-in-Progress seminar, the draft you see above has gone through A LOT of changes.

For example, for Jeffrey's sake (and also because I needed just that shove to get the idea in), and also for Eileen, who encouraged me to push harder, I've rewritten the very ending as this:

Wondering, I want to imagine—certainly not to identify—the unnamed “bird of loudest” lay of the opening line as the two purportedly dead birds, the singing dove with-in the perpetual presencing of the Phoenix, in whose form the birds are so mingled that they have become unrecognizable, but not unseen. Despite the poem’s generic affiliation with other poems of avian allegory, I want to imagine this bird, and all its birds, not only as disguised human subjectivities, but also as animals, not allegorical, divided by the human only by the dictates of Reason, brought into intimacy and a shared, indeterminate existence through the powers of love’s own reason (47). In the language of Deleuze and Guattari, I want to imagine them becoming-arboreal with the “sole Arabian tree” (2), whose name in Greek, as Christine Gilham pointed out, is phoinix. I want to imagine this ever-shifting, singing structure, whatever being it is, as having slipped the confines of Property, as singing at its own funeral, unknowable but not unheard by a procession that would rather give Reason the last word.

In response to EJ: I'm inclined to think that the cinders are what you get once you finally get the thing you wanted, at least so far as Reason is concerned. This way, we can think of the cinders as the Real, the repulsive mingling together that would be better off at a distance. Pretentiously, I might identify Reason as Lacan and Love as D&G. The cinders, as I see it, signal one thing to Reason and another to me: for Reason, they're a sign of ultimate absence (or too close presence...if the Real were inert and gross instead of throbbing and gross), and for me, they're a sign of the remnants of a constrained existence and (pretentiously?) a being-toward-death once the birds have gone off to something else. So I'd rather think that nothing has risen again from the cinders; that's why I like the characterization in the Gilham quotation, "new life," not a recapitulation, but something altogether new, at once present, but also "fled from hence." With that in mind, I tried to push on the motion thing a bit, as you suggested, by writing:

If Reason succeeds in reestablishing its truth by fixing the birds into a coherent single or double existence, then that existence is only a grave, the cinders before which the birds of death sigh their prayer; if the Phoenix and Turtledove are lost in the regulated, reasonable world, it is because Reason demands they be put away. Without Reason, and here I speak both spatially and temporally, another kind of truth occurs, one that can only confound Reason’s comprehension. The “hence” from which the birds have fled (24) is the time in which life and its pleasures are conjoined to death, the time of order that sorts all that could possibly be into two realms: for the birds, the mortal, grieving and supersessionary, and for Reason, the eternal, transcendent, and static. Having eluded Reason, but still being present to the world, the birds embody an embodied truth of the moment that continually emerging into existence, under different forms, in different pressures, in different contacts, in a being with, being together, or even in the absolute abandonment of being. This truth is in no way an absolute; it is not one to be anticipated; it is here, now, in no way aloof from the crowdings of bodies in contact; it may even emerge, as it does in the middle stanzas of the lyric, in watching that is itself ecstatic participation.

As for metaphysical conceit: iirc, I've seen the poem identified as a version of a hymn by Aquinas to the Trinity. That is, as much as its metaphysics anticipate the 17th century, they recall/continue the 13th. If we think of the poem as Trinitarian, the issue of concord becomes much clearer...I think (this is something I simply don't explore in my reading, because while getting into the thickets of trinitarian doctrine could be VERY productive for advancing our theories of love, getting into the t. of t.d. would take months and months of reading...)

Finalish draft clarifies the Platonic bisexuality thing, and I killed "satiation" because your comment helped me realize that I didn't need it. I tried to bring eros out a bit more in my new version, and I'm still refusing to land on one model of desire as the privileged one, because I sure as hell don't know which one is preferable. Somedays I feel Edelman-y, and somedays I feel Howie-y. Depends, and, like the Wife, I don't won't to have "but oon hole for to sterte to."

And now I can get to that gargantuan love-increasing post...tomorrow I hope.

Karl Steel said...

"the birds embody an embodied truth "

Harh. Now edited, "the birds' love is an embodied truth of the moment, continually emerging into existence under different forms, in different pressures, in different contacts, in a being with, being together, or even in the absolute abandonment of being."

Thanks again folks. You're the best.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: the rewrites you share with us here are excellent, especially your strengthened conclusion, and especially especially the idea of the conjoined birds escaping the "confines of Property." Bravo.