Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Guest Post: Justin Brent, "Becoming the Medieval Jongleur"

by J J Cohen

At SEMA last week, Justin Brent gave a talk at a BABEL-sponsored panel entitled "The Place of the Medieval in the Present." A continuation of a conversation instigated at Kalamazoo, the panel was rich indeed, featuring excellent presentations by Myra Seaman and Erica Carson; Betsy McCormick; and closing remarks by Anne Clark Bartlett.

Justin's paper was, I thought, one of the most moving presentations I've attended, starting with an acknowledgment of his personal investment in the project and his own embodied response to that ownership ("If I have a tremble in my voice..."). We asked Justin if he'd be willing to post his paper here at ITM, and he was gracious enough to assent.

“Becoming the Medieval Jongleur”

The other day a colleague of mine was recalling what she was doing on the morning of September 11th, 2001. Still a graduate student, buried amidst moldy books in her studio apartment, Molly sat preparing for her orals, happily oblivious to the smoke and helicopters circling the Twin Towers in New York City. It was a phone call from her mom later that afternoon that broke her studious reverie and awakened her to the horror. Molly’s a first-year professor at Presbyterian College; for her, the anecdote was a testament to the otherworldliness of graduate school, allowing one to shut out the external world and inhabit a textual reality. Her story resonated with me because of how different my own 9/11 experience was. I had just begun teaching at Presbyterian College when the Towers fell; I was, in short, where she is now, learning as no doubt all of you know that teaching requires us to be creatures of this world, of the here and now, even if our subject is remote. Within an hour of the first plane’s impact, I knew about it. At our campus-wide convocation that morning, we learned of the second crash; we began with a prayer for those involved, hastily went through the motions of the convocation, and then rushed to our television and computer screens. Had I wanted to remain oblivious to the events of 9/11, I couldn’t have. Even at my provincial liberal arts college, an hour’s drive from a major city, it was impossible to remain aloof, insulated from the threat.

Mulling over my conversation with Molly, I couldn’t help thinking about the grad student both Molly and I were, not so long ago. So focused, so blinkered. I wonder: have I ever been as medieval as I was in graduate school? My Old English, Old Norse, Old French – hold your ears everyone – my LATIN all proclaim emphatically NO! My teaching load laughs uproariously at the ridiculous question—“ha ha ha, a medievalist? With this kind of course load?” And my family life, now far more complicated than it was then, replies with genuine curiosity, “Daddy… what’s medieval?”

With the explosion of non-medieval demands on my time, I often feel as though my ability to do medieval research has stagnated. There are no blocks of time for striking out into terra incognita. Even conference papers, until recently, were rehearsals of dissertation chapters. On the other hand, the courses I teach are now terra firma, thanks to the virtues of trial and error. I’m better at playing my medievalist part, at least for the limited duration of eighty minutes, and better as well at filing the medieval away in order to take up linguistics, composition, faculty status committee, school newspaper, and various other demands. The juggling routine no longer compromises my performance. I’ve become, in short, the medieval jongleur, quite adept at playing limited roles, intensely aware of and responsive to the audience in front of me, and dismissive of the content beyond the horizon of my class notes or conference presentation. Like a good jongleur, my performance introduces anachronisms from my audience’s present—Chaucer’s Pardoner becomes Jerry Falwell; Gutenberg’s press, the World Wide Web; Welsh literature, a discourse circumscribed by Western hegemony; Charlemagne’s siege at Saragossa, the Liberation of the Iraqi People. The connections, moreover, make sense, they feel relevant, build community, and my audience typically likes them.

And yet, I don’t entirely disagree with Nancy Partner, a trailblazer of medieval feminism who more recently has grown skeptical of “theory’s” relevance to the Middle Ages. At Kalamazoo last spring, she derided a Babel panel entitled “What is the Place of the Present in Medieval Studies?” One of her more critical comments went something like this:
…[M]edievalists suffer from a collective resentment at being ignored and slighted, a fear of being considered boring by definition, and are thus pathetically susceptible to acting out in exaggerated bids for attention.
Admittedly, Partner showed little tact. Are we all, for instance, pathetically susceptible? Be that as it may, the jongleur in me acknowledges, if not resentment at being ignored and slighted, at least anxiety about being overlooked; it acknowledges as well a fear of being considered boring; and yes, most emphatically does my jongleur acknowledge exaggerated bids for attention.

On the other hand, Don’t we all? Isn’t the historicizing or new-critical curmudgeon who feigns insulation from the things of this world nevertheless offering his own bid for attention? In all honesty, I’m less worried about bids for attention, indeed even exaggerated ones, than the opposite—an exclusively hindward gaze that overtly dismisses relevance to the present. To imply an exclusively backward focus risks relegating our discipline to the dustbin of the past.

Fortunately for us, some incredibly bright people in our field are refusing to consign us to the dustbin. Partner’s position, I am convinced, would change if she read their work. At present, I’m thinking of Steve Guthrie (though I could easily add Steven Kruger, Bruce Holsinger or Kathleen Biddick, but let’s stick with Steve G). His connection between the torture policies at Abu Ghraib and 14th Century Inquisition practices is breathtaking. Guthrie makes you realize that the past does have predictive power, that those of us who study it have an obligation to make our voices heard.

Jeffrey Cohen’s sense of temporality suggests we should be doing even more. It’s not enough that the past help us “understand better the present” or “render predictable the future” (Medieval Identity Machines). For Cohen, time itself must become a problem, and the medieval “middle” a hermeneutic for understanding it. He discerns … and let me throw Eileen Joy in there with Jeffrey … They discern in good scholarship an unsettled restlessness, a joie de vivre that embraces, even loves, the past, refuting any possibility of stability or consensus. I suspect that a good deal of the jongleur I’ve uncovered for this presentation owes its formulation to the “nomadic, mobile, vagrant” scholarship that Cohen called for at Kalamazoo this past Spring. His blog, moreover, has left a stamp on the field that will endure for many years to come. Consider for instance his recent post on “Messages to an Uncertain Future,” in which he characterizes Stonehenge, the Cairn at Maeshowe, and York Minster as “time capsules” and “messages to a known-in-advance receiver,” colonizing space and time in excess of our typical historical parameters. He invites us to consider: “How do you communicate with a future to which you will have become remote history?” While he doesn’t really offer an answer, Cohen implies that we look to Stonehenge, Maeshowe and York Minster as models.

Make no mistake, these are compelling cases for the relevant restlessness of the past. They’re big, they’re exciting, they’re important, and they’re changing medieval studies. Like Nancy Partner, I’m not always comfortable with the presentist claims they make, but unlike her, I wouldn’t want a field without them! Medieval studies, like any other scholarly discipline, should be receptive to what Betsy McCormick calls “hermeneutic juxtapositions”: it must allow divisions and indeed thrive on the rifts that these juxtapositions create. Failure to give voice to them isolates us, deprives us of relevance, invites snickers and spitballs from the back row, and leaves us vulnerable to academia’s grim reaper. If we fail to bring the present to medieval studies, provosts may decide medieval studies has no place in the present.

But eternal optimist that I am, I believe those who represent the future of medieval studies are jongleurs like myself, juggling their research endeavors with a variety of institutional demands and non-medieval teaching obligations. Perhaps we remember a time somewhat fondly when we could block the present out of our lives, bury ourselves in o-stem declensions, lose our way in the tangle of medieval romance, maybe even shiver with delight at holding a fourteenth century Book of Hours. Like the Roland jongleur, we may look back with nostalgia and reverence at our past, wanting to revisit it, caress it, even love it. But if love calls us to our medieval past, it also calls us to the things of this world.

Returning to the question at the beginning of this essay – that is, have I ever been as medieval as I was in graduate school? – let me now reply with an emphatic yes! Indeed, a much better one, and better because of the demands of this world. For although they tend to shatter and refract my medieval gaze into an unsettling array of fragmentary pieces, the jongleur eventually grows adept at assembling the pieces and integrating them into the audience’s present. Recalling the aftermath of my 9/11, I remember now that following convocation most of my History of the English Language students showed up for class, eager for someone to make sense of the crisis. But I was equally stunned, so we sat there in a state of uncomfortable silence until finally I dismissed the class. My inner-grad student had little training for such a crisis and therefore stood frozen, like Chaucer, before the gates of horn and ivory. But my inner jongleur, now seasoned with hindsight and a healthy dose of presentism, knows that I missed an opportunity. I should have turned on the classroom TV and grieved with them, like Margery Kempe at Calvary.


Karl Steel said...

Justin, thanks for letting us post it. I just reread it and said, once again, "Jesus, that's good."

Given Partner's points about pathetic acting out, I feel as though this is a chance to call our attention to something that I think hasn't got the shout-outs it deserves at ITM, Fradenberg's "Becoming Medieval" (chapter 1 in Sacrifice Your Love):

"...the impasse of alteritism permits us to reiterate indefinitely the split between passion and scholarly integrity. We enjoy the rigor of discipline, but for some of us this enjoyment would be spoiled if we acknowledged it. Further: in the humanities today, academic medievalism often stands for discipline and the sacrifices it requires. Medieval studies is charged with more than its share of the ethical burden of contemporary historicism: to put aside our modernity, especially the preferences it might imply, for the sake of truth" (45).

Or "Again, the Middle Ages had many different ways of thinking about history, but despite medieval interest in the form of time we call crisis, radical alteritism was, to say the least, not hegemonic. In fact the interpenetration of times (different kinds of time, different moments in time) was unavoidable, axiomatic, and desireable in ecclesiastical understandings of salvation history as well as aristocratic understandings of genealogy. Neither liturgical nor seasonal time stressed unrepeatability: on the contrary. What respect do we show the Middle Ages when we say that responsibility involves understanding the Middle Ages exclusively in its own terms, and then insist--if effect, if not explicitly--that only postmedieval alteritist views of time and methods of knowledge production are capable of the attempt?" (65)

Now, we can say, I think with Partner, that it is a profoundly ethical act for a medievalist to have care for the Middle Ages in its own being and its own way of being (you note that I'm giving 'alteritism' a Heideggerian spin here), since the other option would seem to be assimilating another (I won't say "the other") to ourselves. But I think we MUST know that we are with the object of study in some way that renders it something more intimate than a mere object.

Then the question becomes one of how this relation--if we can call it that, for it might be more intimate still--operates. One standard answer, one Fradenberg might give (n. b. haven't finished the book, and, with Mike Smith, sometimes I just Lacan't), is that the relation is one of circling desire, one of frustration, and what we need to do, in analyzing our desire, is to admit that that frustration can never be fulfilled.

But I'm growing increasingly impatient with therapeutic models of literary scholarship. To the best of my knowledge, psychoanalysis posits a self impossibly founded on lack, driven by frustration, oriented towards an impossible future where fulfillment and completeness might be found. This orientation leads to all manner of nastiness: sacrifice, self-abnegation, rage, envy, abjection, &c &c &c. And therapy prevents this nastiness by bringing to the surface the desire that drives it.

But if we are disoriented away from the impossible dream of fulfillment, if we are disoriented away from quasi-nostalgic investments for future fulfillment (the origin to which we hope one day to arrive), if we just leave lack alone, if we think not in terms of 'traversing the fantasy' but of loving in the here and the now, then, well, we can be with Justin, and Margery, in the chapel, weeping with each other. Bless Fradenberg and her ilk, but of late I've been wanting an affective, much more affirmative scholarship, unburdened from the hermeneutics of suspicion (and the sense of superiority it grants to those who believe they can help us see the secret).

Justin's paper is just the sort of thing I want. So, thank you.

Karl Steel said...


Sheesh. Sorry.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

OK, super quick, because I have one foot out the door to teach Reeve'sT and Cook'sT: Liza Blake made the same point about affirmation and moving beyond therapeutic/psychoanalytic models in her comments to Lowell Duckert's paper at SEMA -- basically asking him what is at stake in desire, and what happens when desire is thought differently. Tony Hasler and I discovered that for both of us our favorite FRADENBURG book is City, Marriage, Tournament: it has the widest ambit, the most free ranging footnotes ... and enjoys a freedom from systematicity that the more deeply Lacanian work to follow doesn't possess (or at least not to the same degree). I'll taker the wider ranging crazier stuff, thank you.

And as to misspelling FRADENBURG's name, think of poor Kathy Biddick, who accidentally spelled it FRANDENBURG in every citation in Shock of Medievalism (and the two of them are, I believe, good friends)!

prehensel said...

Again I can only say "wow" and sit here with my mouth hanging open--and that's not even because I'm ridiculously exhausted.

This paper had me feverishly (really, sweat was actually rolling down my forehead) writing notes on the Metro-link to the airport. It was so suggestive and opened up some areas of thought that I hadn't been (or was only dimly) aware of--and I can only offer an incredibly fragmented mini-response.

I was thinking along the lines of Nicola's question throughout the panel, though I was overwhelmed and shocked to the point of not being able to clearly articulate it. Those two strands--the Foucauldian excavation of the past and the Benjaminian utilization of it--have had my head spinning for the last few months. So, of course, that's what I heard in Justin's paper.

He immediately reminded me of our short conversation here on 9/11--initiated by JJC's posting of that incredible Auden poem. That tragedy, I've realized, has sparked in me a desire (yeah, I know, you'd think in light of Karl's post I'd use a different term, but you'd be wrong) to put the past to work. I feel like I owe it to myself and my colleagues and my students to make Malory, Mandeville, or Margery do work in our present--just as they did in theirs. It's not the same work, of course. But I see it as an incredibly respectful act toward them. I feel that am reaffirming their place here.

At the same time I think doing so demands a sort of ethics: I often think that Mandeville or Margery have entrusted these texts to us, so we have a duty to use them responsibly.

Which sort of runs us into a feedback loop (like the desire loop Karl was lamenting). What's a "responsible" use of texts? Is it a recreation of the cultural, historical, religious, economic, governmental context to find out what it "really" meant? Is it reading them and using them to re-shape the present in our own image? Is it somewhere in between? Like I said, this is an incredibly fragmented response, and I don't have an answer to that. But the question has been lurking in my brain-pan for a long time; Justin's paper made me aware of it. Like Tom Stoppard's Guldenstern said: "when something nudges it into outline, it's like being ambushed by a grotesque."

Anonymous said...

Justin Brent was my professor at PC and he ROCKS!!!

(Dr. Brent--If you read this, I hope you're doing well! Love, Rossie!)

Eileen Joy said...

First, Justin, thanks so much for sharing this piece with us here. I am fortunate to have heard you deliver it in person, which was an extremely moving experience. And how appropriate, too, that Cary Howie was there to hear it since, for me, the two biggest surprises [and moments of shock--the good kind] of the conference were both Cary and you bringing us to pedagogy, and more pointedly, to the bodies [both living and dead] with whom we share the space of the classroom, and for whom, so many of our articulations [emotional, intellectual, scholarly, etc.] are offered, and even, spent.

And Karl and Marcus, thank you, also, for bringing us here in your comments to what might be the most pressing questions for us now regarding the [future] directions of our scholarship and field [and by implication, our teaching as well]. In Karl's formulation, this means grappling with the fact that, whether we believe the Middle Ages is wholly Other [and, following Fradenburg, even Other to itself--this will always be, for me, the great gift of Fradenburg's book "Sacrifice Your Love"] or is somehow assimilated *in* us [and in our present world/culture], nevertheless, it cannot be denied [as I myself have said many times] that, one way or another, concerning the objects of our study [these texts, these castles, these graves, etc.], as Karl puts it,

"we are with the object of study in some way that renders it something more intimate than a mere object."

And further,

"Then the question becomes one of how this relation--if we can call it that, for it might be more intimate still--operates."

Karl admits the frustrations attendant upon such a task [for something is always lacking, gone missing, absent, astray, buried in the past and even in our relation to it that can never be fully recovered and so, of course, the psychoanalytic mode seems most apt for tracing the relations and also the attendant melancholia], and then, in what I really believe is a daring move for Karl [and for any of us, frankly], he asserts [or hopes to believe], that

"if we just leave lack alone, if we think not in terms of 'traversing the fantasy' but of loving in the here and the now, then, well, we can be with Justin, and Margery, in the chapel, weeping with each other. Bless Fradenburg and her ilk, but of late I've been wanting an affective, much more affirmative scholarship, unburdened from the hermeneutics of suspicion (and the sense of superiority it grants to those who believe they can help us see the secret)."

Of course, an affective, more affirmative scholarship also has its perils when we consider what might be called the ethical imperative of Marcus's questions to himself, and thereby to us, regarding what I call the *proper uses* of the past in our scholarship and in our teaching. As Marcus himself puts it, while he feels it is important to make a Margery or a Mandeville do work in our *present* [which is also a practice of scholarship & teaching predicated upon a kind of respect for what we believe these authors might have *wanted* to say and do in the future to which they sent their writings, and all writing, I really believe, is future-oriented in some sense], Marcus also raises the troubling question of, let's face it, ethics. As Marcus himself puts it,

"I often think that Mandeville or Margery have entrusted these texts to us, so we have a duty to use them responsibly.

Which sort of runs us into a feedback loop (like the desire loop Karl was lamenting). What's a "responsible" use of texts? Is it a recreation of the cultural, historical, religious, economic, governmental context to find out what it "really" meant? Is it reading them and using them to re-shape the present in our own image? Is it somewhere in between?"

I imagine, Marcus, that it is somewhere in between, although it will take some really hard work to figure out what the contours of that inbetween looks like and what is the best kind of intellectual labor to undertake there [although, as always, I favor the anything goes approach so as to ensure the highest number of possibilities]. It will be no secret to say, again, how Marcus's troubling questions here regarding ethics, as well as Karl's desire [and god knows, my own] for a more affective scholarship [one that might even say, contra Edelman, fuck the lack! and everything of loss and negation that goes with it!], occupies all of my thinking these days. I have been preparing a talk for the symposium, "Touching the Past," to be held at George Washington University on Nov. 7th, titled "The Faded Silvery Imprints of the Bare Feet of Angels: Historical Poethics," in which I am going to try to finally "come clean" with regard to where I stand on both of these matters. I don't want to give too much away here except to say that I am going to mainly be arguing for a more artistic approach to our studies, one that recognizes the *generative* work we do with regard to what I am going to call the matter of the dead and the question: what do the dead want from us? Which also leads, for me, to a question, more urgent, that the dead nevertheless remind us of [and with some felt pressure, even], what do we want from each other in the here and now?

Although I am going to begin with Beowulf and his requests at the end of the poem for a memorial on a cliff that future sea-farers [us] will see and thereby always remember him, I am mainly going to be discussing the "Resurrection" paintings of Stanley Spencer [based on both the real, future Christian Resurrection as well as upon events in his own life, including World War I] as well as the love letters he continued to write to his wife every *single* day after she died for nine years [!]. There will be some stuff, too, about Bruno Schulz's artistic-historical method, from whom my title comes [from his luminous fictional family biography of sorts, "Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass"]. I want to see if it might be possible to sketch out a historical poethics with which we can wrestle and maybe even come to terms with both what the dead may need/want from us [which I am afraid we are going to have to, at least provisionally admit, is not only an ethical but also a spiritual imperative] and how we can also build/create, with the material of what the dead have left for us [which is always fragmentary, shards, broken, partial], something new that is just for us, but that yet still connects us to something more profound that always runs just under the surface of everything: what I want to call, for now, meaning. Here is how Bruno Schulz put it:

". . . in a sense, the fullness [of life] is contained wholly and integrally in each of its crippled and fragmentary incarnations. This is the phenomenon of imagination and vicarious being. An event may be small and insignificant in its origin, and yet, when drawn close to one's eye, it may open in its center an infinite and radiant perspective because a higher order of being is trying to express itself in it and irradiates it violently."

This "higher order of being," for me, is not God, but history. For Schulz, it was simply the artistic genius which a reader would somehow seize upon [or, "see," in a kind of flash]. This is how Spencer put it:

"About this illusion meaning ... the conviction I have of its existence has been the sustaining joy of my life ... This meaning did not reach me only through the visible world: I noticed it in all sorts of contingencies & circumstances. It was forming in my mind more through other means than visual ones: it was the conviction that this invisible meaning was a seeable visible thing in this world that was amazing to me. It wasn't. 'By jove this is a beautiful world, where's my brush?' It was (and with eyes almost shut), 'Where is this meaning?' & I look & the surroundings are somehow with me in this hope & longing. The unformed unrealised & only believed in meaning came first & later a certainty that something in me affected by the visible world was a key ..."

And what of those letters Spencer sent to his dead wife every day? Could anything have been more utterly useless and yet also so necessary simultaneously? This is what we do in our work every day. And it is a form of love, but also of solidarity, with the dead, and with each other, for who are we writing for? And what is it we hope to say, to irradiate? For some, admittedly, it is not a practice of love, but of, um, getting a leg up, or of accounting, of tracking, of naming the dead, and putting them in their proper places. It is burying them over and over. Because they have to stay where they are, and we . . . here.

prehensel said...

Great post, Eileen.
I was thinking that it would be in keeping with the community-creation of BABEL to start podcasting some of these addresses/ panels. What do you think of blazing that trail @ GWU? (There are very few drawbacks about living on the West coast, but missing much of what's going on in this community is one of them.)

Eileen Joy said...

Marcus: podcasting is a terrific idea. Nicola raised this same question at the Scottish Arms Saturday night and I *did* try to podcast the BABEL panels at Kalamazoo last May but ran into some issues with that. Nevertheless, Jeffrey, Lowell and I did briefly wonder if the GWU symposium could be podcast and apparently the technical capability is there but there is the matter of getting everyone to agree to it [I do!]; I think they will look into it, but will let Jeffrey speak to that himself. It is BABEL's plan to podcast all BABEL sessions from now on.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

RE: podcast, we're checking. One problem is that an unedited podcast is so full of ummms and body noises that it isn't necessarily fun to listen to, and an edited one is beyond us. But still, we'll explore it for the GW "Touching the Past" symposium.

Karl Steel said...

Seconded on the great post, Eileen, and great response Hensel. I'll have to give all this some more thought, but I can say right now that I'm very much looking forward to your November talk.

I also think this:

in a sense, the fullness [of life] is contained wholly and integrally in each of its crippled and fragmentary incarnations

might be REALLY productive is we use it to think through the CULT OF RELICS.


Karl Steel said...

And, Rossie: agreed, Justin does rock. We're all big fans.

Liza Blake said...

I'm coming to this late after a week of frantically catching up on coursework not done during SEMA ...

But can I say: WOW. Thanks so much for posting this, Justin (and I'm really sorry I missed it in person)! May we all become Jongleur.

Liza Blake said...

and, to Karl: I agree that what we need is a lack of lack. If you'd like a bibliography let me know.

Karl Steel said...

Liza: yes please!

prehensel said...

Apparently, all I'm reading lately is Marxist writing, so I may keep striking that single note over and over again. But I thought this little gem from Berger was pertinent and quite beautiful in its way.
From Ways of Seeing:
"Out of true with the present, these assumptions [beauty, truth, civilization, etc.] obscure the past. They mystify rather than clarify. The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is...The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act. Cultural mystification of the past entails a double loss. Works of art are made unnecessarily remote. And the past offers us fewer conclusions to complete in action."

Eileen Joy said...

prehensel: you have no idea how much that quotation from Berger helps me right now as I am working through my paper for the GWu symposium--thanks so much.

Karl Steel said...

Liza, although I should say that I'm not calling for a "lack of lack," but rather an abandonment, disorientation from, or at least a suspension of lack as an analytic or description tool. The difference between suspension and lack seems critical to me: one holds it, at a distance, sure, but holds lack available, while the other feels it as an absence. Basically, I can't think of the word "lack," even the "lack of lack," without thinking of longing for the to-come or not present, all the while knowing that thing to come or presence will never arrive.

But that experience of longing simply doesn't describe how I experience my body or my world (and here, in this attentiveness to my own experience, is where phenomenology offers us an alternative to psychoanalysis). So I want just to suspend lack, to find it interesting, productive, and even fun to think with. But I don't feel its not-being-used as a lack.

I wonder if this is because of years of being told that complete fulfillment is impossible, that identity is frustration, that 'authentic' relations, sexual (il n'y pas de rapport...") and otherwise, will never arrive, so much so that I finally just said, "okay, I get it. Now what?" And I think I've been primed for this since my Sophomore Year in High School when I remember writing on my Trapper Keeper "we are who we pretend to be" and believing it completely.

And this has taken me, well, to here, now quoting from what might be the final version of my Phoenix and Turtle paper:

But without Reason, confounded, another kind of truth occurs. Having fled “hence” from Reason, but still being present on their own terms, the birds experience a truth of the moment, continually emerging in different forms, pressures, and contacts, in being with, being together, or even in the absolute abandonment of being. This truth in the moment is without lack because it disorients itself from the dream of fulfillment and from the promise of a future to come when desire might cease in mutual assimilation. This truth defies the absolute; it is not to be anticipated or reasoned; it is here, now, in the crowdings of bodies in contact; and may even emerge, as in the middle stanzas of the lyric, in the ecstatic participation of watching. Defying fixed being, defying the exclusive adoption of any single mode of eros, the poem provides only one united image, that of pure constancy and pure motion, the emblematic traits of the Turtledove and Phoenix: one always wending undeterred toward the other, and one always coursing toward self-obliteration and unceasing renewal. One present in the world as an actual bird, one present only as a fable, each now is with the other in a conjunction that enacts the impossibility of the fabulous within the mundane itself. Such birds need no posterity, neither the melancholic community that coalesces around the cinders, nor children to supplant them and then to arrive in turn at their own deaths. If they have posterity, it is themselves, or this record witnessing both their passion and Reason’s attempts to reduce them to oblivion, witnessing perhaps even their refusal to witness to anything. Together, the Phoenix and Turtledove create not simply a unity, a duality, nor a form fixed in eternity, but rather an ever-shifting, a dedicated, perpetual falling—or soaring—into one another.

prehensel said...

Karl: your thoughts here on lack are really interesting. I've never thought about it that way, but it's compelling. It reminded me of Bloom's (Harold, not Allan) reading of Milton's Satan in Anxiety of Influence. I never understood why most people thought Satan was the big villain there. He falls, so what else is he supposed to do? Why, make the best of it.

He has to understand that he won't get back to Heaven [ie, we won't remedy our lack] and continue on. We can recognize it, perhaps, but not be consumed by it.

You've given me much to think about...damn you. How am I supposed to teach freshman comp. when there are such interesting conversations going on here?

prehensel said...

Oh, and Eileen: Glad to help. I never know whether to post things that pop into my head late at night. Good to know this one wasn't a mistake!