Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Strange Conjunctions: Patočka/Derrida and Sancho Panza

by Karl Steel

(Okay, so I've been writing. And reading. And standing to the side, just over here, watching our blog get along fine. Good! Warning: what follows is just plain silly)

Last night, reading The Gift of Death, I ran across something too familiar in the midst of one of Derrida's paraphrases of Jan Patočka. He writes "Death is very much that which nobody else can undergo or confront in my place."

Please compare:

"Since your grace has been locked in the cage, enchanted, in your opinion, have you had desire and will to pass what they call major and minor waters?"

"I do not understand what you mean by passing waters, Sancho; speak more clearly if you want me to respond in a straightforward way."

"Is it possible that your grace doesn't understand what it means to pass minor or major waters? Even schoolboys know that. Well, what I mean is, have you had desire to do the thing nobody else can do for you?"

"Ah, now I understand you, Sancho! Yes, I have, quite often, and even do now. Save me from this danger, for not everything is absolutely pristine!"
Don Quixote, Part I XLVIII, Grossman trans.

I'm reminded in turn of a scene in the film Derrida where our hero, when asked what he'd like to see in a documentary about a philosopher--say, Heidegger or Kant--responded, "their sex lives." It's funny, and would no doubt be telling, given the evidence of the picture above. One imagines Kant, by whose regularity in his daily constitutional the housewives of Königsberg would set their watches, as being as dutiful as Walter Shandy, who, contra the opinion of his son, generally "minded what [he was] about when [he] begot me." I'm sure that whatever Hannah Arendt did with her Martin, or Simone Weil did with her God, would give us something.

And yet: sex and death. It's a bit operatic, don't you think? How would philosophy had [grammar edit!] have been different if it had built itself upon what else no one can do for you? Where would philosophy have tended if Patočka or Heidegger had remembered eating and its natural end, a kind of being-toward-supper (Sein-zum-Abendessen?)? If Plato had imagined creation as something other than a globe consuming its own waste?

When the sequel to Derrida comes (something like this), if someone asks me his question, I know what I'd like to have seen: Adorno in his kitchen, and perhaps elsewhere.


Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Karl, a refreshing little post -- like a mojito on a warm night. Love the illustration as well. Here is a snippet from Medieval Identity Machines about Aristotle's imagined sex life:

A widely disseminated medieval icon of Aristotle depicted a woman named Phyllis mounted upon the back of the naked philosopher. To his obvious pleasure, she rides him like a horse. Henri d'Andeli captured a similar moment vividly in his Lai d'Aristote, in which the tutor to Alexander the Great is transformed into a frisky pony by the Persian princess Roxana:
The smartest clerk who ever was
Put on a saddle for a horse
And pranced and cantered on all fours
Over the grass like a skittish sorrel …
He trotted up and let her mount
Upon his back.
A quatre piez, his body submitted a loi de beste (or, in John DuVal's inspired translation, "ridden, driven, pasture fed"), the philosopher becomes under the sway of the sensual and exotic Easterner comme roncin (451, 476, 450). Roxana and Phyllis with their whips, Aristotle lost in the blissful domination of saddle, rider, and bit hint at a transhistorical alliance between passionately submissive human bodies and domesticated animal forms, among which the horse seems to hold an especially privileged place.

I think the contemporary analogue to the medieval desire to imagine this thing that other people can't do for you (but ar ehappy to envision on your behalf) is James Miller's biography of Foucault, which takes great relish in accompanying the philosopher into S&M dungeons.

Eileen Joy said...

Interestingly enough, BABEL will have two interlocked panels at the SEMA meeting in Saint Louis [October] on eros and phenomenology [with myself, Jessica Rosenfeld, Cary Howie, Anna Klosowska, Lara Farina, Nicola M., Tony Hasler, and Amy Hollywood], and here is the abstract for Jessica's paper, which, amazingly, relates to this post [!]:

Jessica Rosenfeld, "Philosophers in Love"

This paper will examine the popular medieval topoi of the "mounted Aristotle" and the clumsy Thales (falling into a well while looking at the sky) as a means of investigating late medieval ideas about the vulnerability of the intellect to the physical world, and especially to eros. While these tales were typically used in sermons to demonstrate the extreme weakness of all mankind, made manifest by the fall of the archetype of the wise philosopher, they were also used to explore the vulnerability of the intellect itself as it ignores the force of the physical world and human desire. This latter reading, I
argue, is the more subversive and compelling, and one that animates /Piers Plowman/ and Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” among other texts. While medieval moralists were drawn to interpret these tales in terms of the dangers of wily women, or excessive intellectual/sexual desire, the poets were equally drawn to dissect the assumptions that render us willing to accept that an intellectual should be considered least susceptible to erotic compulsion. These tales offer rich material for an investigation of the inherent connections between philosophy and eros, and the way that medieval anti-intellectual discourse roots itself not only in a theology of Augustinian grace, but in convictions about the intractability of the material world.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks folks. In late July in the Northeast, I'd rather be likened to a mojito than just about any drink.

I like the Foucault reference. It also reminds me that I had thought about sex, Jeffrey, as akin to death in its being something that no one else can undergo for you. This doesn't work, however, for several reasons: a) assuming one doesn't believe in Christianity, no one's death can prevent yours: it can only delay it (this bit from familiar faces paraphrased at some length in Gift of Death). Sex, on the other hand, can be put off forever. Maybe; b) if--and this is such a bit if--sex is never a direct relation, but always directed through fantasies, memories, hopes, our constitutively false imago, &c., then sex is precisely that which someone else always undergoes for you. In that way, it's entirely unlike death, or eating, or shitting, unless we want to believe--and why not?--that there is something intimately ours about our orgasms, consumptions, or defecations, even if they're always strange to us, even if they're not entirely recognizable precisely because they are so intimate and hence beyond or below the typical networks that sustain our self-identifications.

I've started wondering what Derrida could have done had he turned his considerations on the gift to a consideration of the (singularly?) American locution "to take a shit."

Eileen, that abstract from Jessica gave me one of those "well, of course!" feelings that we get when we encounter an argument that just looks inherently right and makes jumbled, incorrectness suddenly snap into sense. SEMA's going to be so great.

I wonder, however, if we can make something of the structural analog here between the woman (on the philosopher's back) and the hole (into which the philosopher falls). In what way is a woman like a marle pit? Well, The Miller's Tale has much to say about that; so does Kristeva too, I'm sure.

Karl Steel said...

I'm sure there's a longer post in here somewhere, but I want to say just now that I've found this post's soulmate.

One guess.

That's right!

My library just bought Valerie Allen's On Farting, whereupon I checked it out, and, even though I should be reading Dinshaw, getting party prep in order for our big summer blowout, working on my piece for the Babel anthology, etc., I couldn't stop myself once I, uh, slid down into this book. A few choice quotes:

"In the midden, one finds the most unlikely bedfellows and is constantly surprised by the connections between objects rather than any coherent whole that depends on an internal connection of deductive reasoning" (4) This belongs to her anti-Introduction, which swipes at notions of presenting a package with pretensions to wholeness, to having a clear beginning and end. With this book--as we are here--we're always in the middle. Like a fart, Allen (would) say(s).

Or, for my imagining Adorno in the kitchen and perhaps elsewhere, Allen reminding me of the story of Herakleitos, who was discovered by travelers, philosophical tourists, "in the kitchen, warming himself at the stove": but kitchen, Gk ipnos, Allen points out, only primarily means oven/kitchen, and secondarily means privy/dungheap. Nice.

Or, the scatological mnemonics or schoolroom Latin?

tourde in thy tethe merda dentibus inheret
I am almost beshytten sum in articulo purgandi viscera

Now, I'm not deep enough in the shit to get dirty with the argument. For now, like any good anal scholar, I'm just hoarding details.

Highly recommended!

dtkline said...

If memory serves, we did get to see Derrida in his robe buttering his English muffin while listening to a radio report on the Palestinians, did we not?

Anonymous said...

It's such a common motif in mythology, etc, that someone could be spared from death by someone else dying in their place--at the very least spared for a while, sometimes even permanently spared (biological necessity notwithstanding). As for sex, I can't think of any examples in myth or literature where a character is able to avoid having sex because someone else does it for them. (If anything, watching someone else have an orgasm would be a way of managing to have one's own orgasm--not of avoiding it.) Nor can I think of any examples of mythological characters who don't have to eat or drink because someone else does it for them. Or sleep.

I do, however, remember a story, perhaps by Truman Capote, in which there is a mysterious man who buys people's dreams--you think at first that this is a great little way to make some easy money, but after a while you realise that he really IS getting you to dream for him and no longer for yourself (or something like that--admittedly it has been something like 40 years since I read that story).

Anyway, to explore the idea of 'things no one else can do for you', can anyone think of examples from art, literature, mythology, folklore etc, where there is some surprising bodily or mental function that someone is somehow able to do for someone else--other than dying? I would guess that dreaming would be the second most likely thing here, though I'm not sure why.

Karl Steel said...

Dan, (a late) thanks for the reminder!

at the very least spared for a while, sometimes even permanently spared

I can't think of any examples off hand of permanent sparing, but it's just that 'spared for a while' that our thanatologists--Heidegger and Patočka and (depending on how close he hews to them in this book) Derrida--focus. JD writes "I can give the other everything except immortality, except this dying for her to the extent of dying in place of her and so freeing her from her own death. I can die for the other in a situation where my death gives him a little longer to live, I can save someone by throwing myself in the water or fire in order to temporarily snatch him from the jaws of death, I can give her my heart in the literal or figurative sense in order to assure her of a certain longevity. But I cannot die in her place" (43).

Sleep is a great example. As is dreaming. Your question is excellent, and I'm hoping something will come to me soon--probably while I'm drifting off!

Anonymous said...

Of course you can't die for someone else (and thus spare them from ever dying) in real life, but I think there are mythological examples. What happened with Alcestis, for example? Did her husband end up dying after all? (Her death was supposed to mean that he never would, as I understand it, but then she got rescued out of Hades I think, I'm a bit vague on the details.) Then there's the more figurative version in Christian mythology--due to Christ's death, we don't die in the same way we would have otherwise, or at any rate, we get to enjoy our spiritual immortality a lot more than we would have in Hell; he can't release us from dying, but he can greatly improve the experience. I'd bet there are other examples.

Anyhow, I don't know of anyone eating, shitting, or having sex on someone else's behalf. But somehow I can imagine sleeping or dreaming on someone else's behalf (as well as dying) as a folkloric, literary, or mythological motif. I hope someone may come up with some examples and it would be interesting to think about why--although in reality none of these things can be done for someone else, somehow there are some of them that we'd love to think someone COULD do for us.

Anonymous said...

I did a little reading up--maybe Alcestis wasn't saving her husband from death permanently. I'm not sure now. Still, it seems more imaginable than some of the other possibilities (eating on someone else's behalf, e.g.). Anyone know of any stories where someone could gaim immortality by having a scapegoat figure die for them?