by J J Cohen
First, a tremendous thank you to those who invited and coddled me in NYC (especially Hal Momma, Liza Blake, the Anglo Saxon Studies Colloquium and the NYU English Medieval Forum), and to all who attended my talk, asked me questions that ripped away its foundational assumptions, and otherwise provoked me to rethink everything I thought I knew. Subjective destitution and an existential angst hangover are a small price to pay.
Highlights: a reception before my presentation, so that I could urge attendees that I would sound a lot smarter if they would imbibe a glass or five of wine; an intimate dinner for 22 afterwards, with an excellent food and excellenter company; shenanigans and antics later that evening; hanging out in Brooklyn chez Karl; a good Indian dinner with a taste-free dessert; shenanigans and antics Friday evening at a faux British pub with red telephone booths and an upscale nautical-themed bar serving absinthe-infused "zombie" drinks in ceramic tiki head cups (where we got deep).
So I gave a presentation entitled "The Weight of the Past" at NYU on Thursday.
Of all the pieces for public performance I've composed, "Weight" is my favorite. The talk originated as my Holloway Lecture at McDaniel College, then underwent a series of radical mutations as it was adapted and refined for some other venues. NYU was its final performance: a form of the essay will soon see print, and I observe that unwritten academic rule that thoughts hardened into books don't get oral existence any more. Yet the closing night of "The Weight of the Past" has already proven to be far from its last metamorphosis. To adapt what I was attempting to argue in the presentation itself: as substantial and as fully materialized as the thing might seem, its trajectory has yet to be arrested and "The Weight of the Past" keeps becoming other things. The questions I was asked at NYU were so penetrating that they've challenged me to refine and even reconceptualize some of what I yearn to achieve -- especially as this nexus of obsessions begins to take its form as a future monograph.
This reformulation will be most evident in the closing movement of "Weight." In its current version, the coda arrives just after a conversation I restage with my daughter Katherine, one in which we think about memorializing the dead, especially in museum displays of prehistoric corpses. I posted one version on the blog quite some time ago as Who Mourns for Lindow Man?, then later reflected on the function that these vignettes perform in The Moment of Interpretation and Those Carried in Its Wake -- though spurred by a question by Carolyn Dinshaw, I want to emphasize that these are for me moments of collaboration rendered visible, rather than the use of a story, person, or object to achieve something that does not necessarily require extrinsic participation or agency. So, here is the ending to "The Weight of the Past":
To intertwine meditation upon past and future while retaining some confidence that we are doing justice to history, we must encounter the materiality of the past in a way that grants life to what might otherwise seem inert. We must keep the distant past, the present moment, and the future—near and distant—alive, capable of plenitude, heterogeneity, change. We must never cease to grieve for Lindow Man, no matter who in life he was. We must never think of Stonehenge or of Avebury as anything but a ring of stones that does not cease to dance. We must never forget that the past has a weight, but that weight is seen only in the past’s movement, in its desire ever to remain alive.And here is the provisional credo (or the credo of provisionality) that starts to move beyond such termination.
Many things about the closing paragraph do not ring true to what I had hoped to achieve in the piece: its hortative mode, its ethical high-handedness, its injunction to mourning, its funereal finality.* I realize now that what I have been attempting in "The Weight of the Past" project is not an ethics but an ethos: instead of an ethics of compulsion to remembrance, an ethos built upon the practice of wonder. I am attempting an explicitly collaborative praxis -- and by "collaborative" I actually mean "inhumanly collaborative": I'm as interested in alliances with rocks, texts, forces of nature, and corpses as I am with the living and the dead. The project offers, I hope, an invitation to coinhabit a world made strange.
I don't think I can say it better than that right now.
*Questions from Karl Steel, Glenn Burger, Carolyn Dinshaw, and many, many others made me realize these facts so essential and so close to me that I could not discern them well.