Sunday, December 07, 2008

Personals for the Fictionally Forlorn

by EILEEN JOY

[a short story written expressly for In The Middle]

for Heather Love

“I do dream about being with Foucault, but I imagine joining him in the underworld, after the moment he has turned away. I want him in that darkness—bearing the marks of power's claw. How to explain such perverse, such intransigent desires?”
—Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History

I was in the crowd on the beach when you were pouting over dog-faced Menelaus’s theft of your girlfriend. I like men who strut and storm and rage, but when you cried over Patrocles’s corpse, I was a little embarrassed for you, but you still had me, not at “hello,” but at “I have no mind to linger here disgraced, brimming your cup and piling up your plunder.” That really gets me, even now. It doesn’t bother me that you hooked up with Medea after death—finally, someone to match your ferocity. Sometimes I imagine the two of you, lying together in some crevice of the underworld, eating out each other’s hearts. But when you get tired of that, write me some time. I hear hell is nice this time of year. Of course, I’m speaking of winter. Box 45K98.

* * * * *

I first saw you walking hurriedly down the street in Yonville-l’Abbaye, on your way to the apothecary. Of course you’re beautiful; this is beyond saying, but not inconsequential. Bliss, passion, ecstasy: can it be that these are, in the end, only words? Darling, although I don’t know you, I can show you differently. I have something else to show you: a small box, filled with little pills, mood enhancers, designed just after your time—deep feelings are overrated, and if you like, we’ll just skim the surfaces of things. When you were dying and asked for a mirror, I wanted to slap you—that was me outside your window, the blind beggar, singing to you—but of course I still want you. I can only imagine your aversion to gardens, so we don’t have to meet in one, and I don’t require extravagant gifts. It doesn’t get more low maintenance than me, and I’m hoping you’re feeling the same, although granted, as my friends often tell me, I have unrealistic expectations. So if that combination of qualities interests you, give me a call some time. I won’t go “all Rodolphe” on you, but if you like love notes concealed in baskets of apricots, I’m amenable. Box 67G54.

* * * * *

I was in the crowd of virgins in the temple at Aulis when your father plunged his dagger into your heart. My therapist tells me I have a thing for sacrificial victims, but I can’t help myself. Is this so wrong? If it’s true that Artemis replaced you, at the last minute, with a doe, and somehow I missed that, then I’m hoping we might still be able to meet. There’s a rumor going around that the women in your family like a little violence with their marriages, and this can be arranged, if you like, although, technically, I’m a pacifist. It must get boring sometimes being a high priestess and for all the kisses your father refused you at your dispatch, I will give you a thousand more. As to that snow-beat glen in Phrygia and the hills of Ida you wished had never existed, let me make them disappear for you, and in their place, I’ll conjure up a continual daylight, for I’ve heard you’re afraid of the dark. If you like this sort of magic, drop me a note. Box 89D34.

* * * * *

I have a thing for men without illusions, and I already know your head was severed from your body, so that is not an issue: the head or the trunk and limbs, I can take one, or the other, or both. I’m easy. I don’t think you can really know a person until they’ve lost everything, and if that was a dagger you saw before you, I believe it, you don’t have to trouble yourself to convince me, although I do think you need to lighten up a bit. I know you have trouble sleeping and I have some good pills for that, or we can just stay awake all night and engage in a different sort of forgetting. As you can see, I try not to over-think things. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that, in the end, it was your ability to finally shed all thought of the hereafter that drew me to you: when you refused to yield to Macduff, that made me want to yield to you. The soldier’s life can be a little dull, as you know, but I like this little cemetery where they laid you to rest, buried upside down like a traitor—this position works for me, and if it also works for you, let me know some time. Box 72U63.

* * * * *

I was sitting under the willow on the riverbank, resting before continuing on my way to conquer other countries, when you drowned yourself, and I would have stopped you, but I have a thing for women in watery graves with violets in their hair. Unlike Hamlet, I have some art to reckon my groans and I can show you some of that, if you like. I won’t take your gifts, then give them back, and I won’t treat you like a child, unless you like that sort of thing, but what I have in mind, actually, is showing you the other way to heaven, the path that is neither thorny nor steep, and if I tell you the stars are on fire, by god, they are on fire. You’ll forgive me if I get a little excited sometimes, but it seems I’m always showing up after everything has happened already, and I didn’t even stop to ask, what brought you to this place? Your sadness shakes the very root of me, and yet, I would beg its explication. I’m a good listener. Box 82X34.

* * * * *

I was hiding behind a tree in the Odenwald forest when you were bent over, drinking water from the spring, and Hagen slipped up behind you and thrust his spear into you. You are so beautiful like that. I like a man whose wounds never stop weeping, and I promise not to cover them up if you agree to meet me in a hotel some time, preferably in Berlin, near the discotheque. I like to have crowds of people around me, even when I’m alone, or, all my hopes realized, with you. I understand you’re betrothed, so I won’t ask for much—perhaps we could just spend some time wrapped in that cloak of yours, invisible to the rest of the world, and you could wrestle my girdle away from me. I heard you’re good at that. I won’t ask you to play the role of Pandarus to my or others’ desires; in short, I won’t place you in harm’s way, unless that’s how you get your excitement. I’m open to negotiation, but let’s keep this temporary. Box 90F38.

* * * * *

I was one of the people who helped to roll the stone across the entrance to your cave, sealing you in, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of you. I doubt you even noticed me, as I’m one of those persons whose name or title doesn’t even warrant a mention in the personae dramatis. I have a thing for teenage girls who stand up to kings and I’m hoping this fling of yours with death is only temporary. A lot of people in my generation like to claim how fucked up they are because of their fathers and mothers, but they don’t have a thing on you. You’re the real thing, the original hopeless cause, and I have a weakness for hopeless causes. I think I know something that might help you: there is no higher law and most brothers aren’t really worth the trouble, nor are there any gods living below us, nor are the statutes of heaven unfailing. But you, Antigone, you’re a law unto yourself that I think I could really follow, or break, if that’s your preference. Drop me a note some time. Box 62V58.

14 comments:

anna klosowska said...

I am living in a dream world I have always fantasized about. Thank you, Eileen, for creating it.

Thank you, everyone, for being part of the dream, too.

Erynn said...

Those were fantastic shorts. Thank you!

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

These are wonderful. Eileen, can you say a little bit about what was behind this project?

Eileen Joy said...

What was behind this project? Several impulses--for one, I haven't written anything fictional, or worked on revisions of stories, for about three, almost four years now, and that was starting to make me feel . . . . weird, like: is the only thing I'm ever going to write from now on scholarship [and the occasional love letter/poem]? [Do people still write love letters? My feeling is that we should each write about one a week, and I try to keep up my end of things in the universe. We should write these to those we know and to those we don't know.] Also, this semester I've been teaching a kind of experimental first-year seminar course on the theme of "beholding violence" in epic, drama, and film, and reading some pretty intensely dark texts: the "Iliad," "Agamemnon," "Medea," "Titus Andronicus," "Macbeth," etc. And when I was in Philadelphia for the GEMCS conference I heard a really interesting paper on Fortinbras, which got me thinking about him [he is the one writing the personal ad to Ophelia]. Last July--and you may or may not recall this, Jeffrey--you posted a small bit on a website in the UK where people posted love messages to persons they didn't know but who they saw on the trains in the Underground, and I thought it would be lovely to construct a short story that would mimic the structure of that website and those messages and out of which some kind of longer narrative would emerge, but I'm kind of horrible at longer narratives [my one attempt at a novella, years ago, almost killed me], so I opted for this instead--I like the challenge of the really short form. I also wanted to get at some of the hopelessness of love--how we're often in the wrong place at the wrong time, as opposed to the right place at the right time, and yet, we're always longing. And the final piece, actually, which is kind of funny [but true], is that I've been bogged down for a little while now in trying to finish a review essay for GLQ on queer theory and the question of the human [reviewing four books: Judith Butler's "Precarious Life," "The Donna Haraway Reader," Luciana Parisi's "Abstract Sex," and Myra Hird's "Sex, Science, and Gender," but also visiting/re-visiting texts such as "Queering the Non/human," Edelman's "No Future," Cary Wolfe's "Animal Rites," Elizabeth Grosz's "Time Travels," etc.], and yesterday I started to feel a sense of hopelessness--not about the review, but about "being human," and about love, whatever that is supposed to mean. I don't think it helped that I've also been reading Laura Kipnis's "Against Love" [a book I'd like to set on fire some nights--yeah, I know it's smart and provocative, but . . . .], and so I just started thinking about writing a kind of queer defense of love in the most extreme, extenuating, *violent* circumstance [in the face of suicide, decapitation, abjection, murder, uncontrollable rage, self-hatred, etc.]. I actually want to add more personae [Lavinia from "Titus," the Danaides--all 50 of them, etc.], just keep adding to this. You know, you can't really talk about your own stories, because you start to feel stupid, but it felt good to just spend a day doing this instead of something more . . . academically practical.

Mike Smith said...

These are wonderful, Eileen! They're just what I needed to break the hell (as I told you earlier) of writing seminar papers. Thanks so much!

Mike Smith said...

ps. Lavinia would be a nice addition.

Eileen Joy said...

For Mike [a new addition, "Lavinia"]

You won't need your hands for what I have in mind, nor your tongue. Although, if you still have something in you that can writhe a little, with pleasure, I think we can make this work. I understand your neck is broken and that you were a willing partner in that, offering yourself to your father like a lamb, and that's why I'm writing you now. I love lambs, and the soft bleating noises they make. Do you think that's strange, or off-putting? I hope not, because, deep down, I don't think Bassianus ever stood a chance with you, and you would have figured that out eventually. Where I'm living now, shame has really lost its zing and no one would ever want to die for it, if you get my meaning. As Evan Dando sings, "I'll meet you in New York, by the drug store on First Avenue," the one where, if you meet the pharmacist out back, he can show you where the still waters of Lethe run. And then "we can lie down, with the buildings all around," and you don't have to say, or even feel, a word. It's just a thought. Box 95R31.

Eileen Joy said...

And what I didn't say, which I should have, in relation to Jeffrey's query, was that I was also largely inspired by Heather Love's book, which I really really have been moved by. Everyone should read it, and just the title of the book, "Feeling Backward," was a kind of provocation for the whole thing [can you love someone who is already dead/has already checked out? can you send them a personal?].

irina said...

can you love someone who is already dead/has already checked out? can you send them a personal?

You can, but it's a bad idea. It's taken me almost two decades to get over George Gordon, and I can't tell you what kind of messes that particular unrequited love affair has gotten me into.

You know that I decided to go to Yale because they have a lock of his hair, right?

Eileen Joy said...

Irina: you do realize this is just another reason we are soulmates, right? There is no escaping this.

Rick Godden said...

Eileen, these are wonderful. I've spent the last few days reading rough drafts, and these were wonderful to read now that I can take a breath. Perhaps a letter to Orpheus sometime

Anonymous said...

From Michael Moore
Eileen, your singles ads are very beautiful and frighteningly funny. I like to check in from time to time, to see if you have Invented Any Entirely New Poetic Forms lately. I would like to point out that most people have Not.

But you can't do things like this, you know.
Like a fool, I answered one or two of these ads, and....Egad

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Wow.

For some reason, maybe the Foucault epigraph, but really the whole space of desire created by these, this passage from Angela of Foligno comes to mind:

"Among other things, she related to me . . . that on that very day, in a state of ecstasy, she found herself in the sepulcher with Christ. She said she had firs of all kissed Christs's breast--and saw that he lay dead, with his eyes closed--then kissed his mouth, from which, she added, a delightful fragrance emanated, one impossible to describe. The moment lasted only a short while. Afterwards, she placed her cheek on Christ's own and he, in turn, placed his hand on her other cheek, pressing her closely to him. At that moment, Christ's faithful one heard him telling her: "Before I was laid in the sepulcher, I held you this tightly to me." Even though she understood that it was Christ telling her this, nonetheless she saw him lying there with eyes closed, lips motionless, exactly as he was when he lay dead in the sepulcher. Her joy was immense and indescribable."

The possibility of some affinity between the temporal structure of this event and your personals is what fascinates me. Here the ecstatic vision experience takes her back to an earlier event that is now first for her but second, a repetition of an inaccessible earlier instance, for Christ. And then the words are spoken as from the dead, without bringing the dead itself to life, even though the hand does move! So there is something similarly weirdly beautiful about the personal, all the more so in the wildly hyperhistorical way you are doing them, the communication of an earlier one-sided event that crosses its original distance but also preserves it via anonymity, the intimacy of being with the other as corpse, etc.

Karl Steel said...

First, for a reading of Judith Butler's Precarious Life with the human as question in mind, see Karen Houle, "(Making) Animal Tracks" in that recent issue of PhaenEx on animal, which discusses a critique of Butler in a paper by ChloĆ« Taylor, “The Precarious Lives of Animals: Butler, Coetzee, and Animal Ethics,” Philosophy Today, Vol. 52, Issue 1 (forthcoming 2008). See here

so I opted for this instead--I like the challenge of the really short form. I also wanted to get at some of the hopelessness of love--how we're often in the wrong place at the wrong time, as opposed to the right place at the right time, and yet, we're always longing.

Fascinating stuff, of course. Of course, none of these people are quite in the wrong place at the wrong time, since they intersect with people we ourselves desire: we desire Ophelia, Achilles, Seigfried, and so forth, rather than some anonymous schlub no ancient literateur would ever commit to writing. And we're not of course just witnessing the desire of some anonymous rock piler for Antigone. That rock piler is the witness to Antigone that we imagine ourselves to be, that in a sense we are, while we read that play. While we read, while we desire, we're always in the right place, but we're always in the wrong place with this desire--always too late, always outside the book--since we can't act on it with our objects, except in the highly mediated way that we do by being students of Antigone rather than lovers of Antigone, no italics. We might even say that our desires for others, or for our profession, are ghosts of our 'true' desires for these literary types (here I think of Irina's for GG, LB, and perhaps even Angela of Foligno's for X, if we accept, as I do, the fictionality of X: of course Angela's problem is that she doesn't know that X exists only in her desires).