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by EILEEN JOY
Trees write their autobiographies in circles each year,
pausing briefly each spring to weep over what they have written. I guess that’s life.
—Spencer Reece, from “Ghazals for Spring”
Literature enables us not to live a circumscribed life.
—Jeffrey Cohen, commencement address, 2009 Columban College Celebration
So I’ve been thinking a lot about our recent conversation about pleasure, and especially in relation to Karl’s questions,
When we start talking about “the world,” I'm reminded of “facts,” of “the body,” or indeed of the “we”: what do we cut away in order to arrive at any of these collective words? What gets identified as “fundamentally” world, fact, we, body? Or, to put the question another way, what do we mean when we say “the world”? When we start talking about “sharing a world,” what gets occluded? On whose terms are the feelings, objects, stances, etc. that make up the world (dis)identified? And in what sense is this concept “world” useful? Or to what ends has it been put? Or, how is a stance of “wonder” and “love” a way of manufacturing a “good conscience”?There will be no way for me to fully answer Karl’s questions here, but I want to at least brook an attempt, especially in relation to wonder [which is, in my mind, one of the highest forms of love: it forms a zone of suspension and ontological passivity that allows almost anything to happen, and to be], and how the cultivation of wonder, or of what the political theorist Jane Bennett has called “sites of enchantment,” might be essential in the cultivation of an ethical life, and even an ethical medieval studies [and here, let’s also make room for the question I hear Jeffrey possibly asking, “why an ethical life at all, or an ethical medieval studies? why ethical? why not another term like capacious, or generous, or uncircumscribed, or open, or full, or saturated, or beautiful?”]. This will be a personal post—the most personal I think I have ever written—and it will not be academic, per se, or even medieval, although my thoughts here today tarry after and long for what I hope could be my, or our, medieval studies.
So, I must share with you that the recent discussion on pleasure began to trouble me more and more when I realized how much I really have been working too much these past few years [especially for about two years now], and while my work pleases me and I do enjoy it [am even thrilled by it, love writing, conspiring with others both within and outside my/our field to cultivate new spaces for our work, and for our work-as-play, even], I reflected that I inhabit my study for much longer hours than I used to. When I first arrived in Saint Louis about six years ago, I recall that I always set aside Fridays, and sometimes more days, for excursions—sometimes to the zoo, sometimes the art museum, sometimes the botanical gardens, sometimes to the movie theater [the Tivoli in the Loop], sometimes to the parks [of which there are many in Saint Louis], and often to restaurants and bars and coffee shops where I could just be among the hurly burly of other peoples’ lives. But the main point of these days was to just go anywhere at all where I might enjoy getting out of my head, so to speak, for a little while, and they were also about cultivating sites for reverence of the aesthetic, as well as for the "making possible" the arrival of what-I-don’t-know-yet. I don’t do this much any more; I go out at night plenty [believe me; I am thoroughly nocturnal], but during the day, practically seven days a week, here I am in my study, reading and writing, typically for ten or more hours a day. What happens in the world during the daytime?!!? I fear I don’t know any more, except when I’m traveling [which I admit is often enough].
I started to chastise myself yesterday, especially, about my recent neglect of the Missouri Botanical Gardens, which are considered one of the best botanical gardens in the country, and are a mere few blocks from my house! What the hell is wrong with me, I thought? After all, I used to be a garden designer and even dropped out of graduate school for 3-1/2 years to work solely as a gardener and designer of gardens, and there is no greater bliss for me, and never has been, than when I am in those sorts of gardens that are highly cultivated and can even be called extravagantly baroque works of extravagant landscape art: Kew, Longwood, Wintherthur, Versailles, the Jardin des Plantes [Paris], Dumbarton Oaks [D.C.], Powerscourt Gardens [Ireland], Giverny, Ladew Topiary Gardens [Maryland], and the like—gardens to which I used to make regular pilgrimages every year. To spend time in these sites is, for me anyway, like walking into the world of enchanted fairy tale or the very interior structure of myth, much like Ofelia’s enchanted garden in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth [which is both frightening, actually, but also a golden world, a site of possibility and the sort of magic that redeems everyone, somehow, in the end]. There is such beauty in these gardens that when I am there, I sometimes feel as if I even have to shield my eyes from it—from being pierced too deeply, and even wounded, by so many forms, and even excesses, of beauty.
But what kind of beauty is this exactly, and why do I enjoy it so much, and why I have even made of it, almost a spiritual event? [And let’s face it, some people probably hate botanical and other large-scale gardens and find them boring as hell; our tastes are always peculiar to ourselves.] Museums are filled with beauty, some houses are beautiful, there are beautiful persons, and beautiful days, and beautiful things, and beautiful places [such as, for me, especially, the Appalachian mountains, or County Wicklow in Ireland or Taos, New Mexico], and all of these create spaces of light for me and make me happy beyond measure, but none have the power, as does Kew or Longwood, to make me feel as if I have gone into outer space. So why haven’t I made of the Missouri Botanical Gardens my church and why don’t I go, walk, there every day, if even for thirty minutes, so that I can have some beauty, and some intense enjoyment of beauty, which is also a type of wonder, each day, so that I can recall to myself, through this site of enchantment, the “geometries of attention revelatory of silences in the terrifying senses that elude official grammars” [Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager]. In other words, so that I can become like a child again, if just for a little while, each day. Because that’s partly why I love these gardens so much, and why I loved designing and working in gardens, because they always offered to me the hope that what the favorite books of my childhood told me was true: that you could walk into a wardrobe and through to Narnia, or that a rabbit hole might lead to a wonderland, or that the gates of a secret garden, set in the tall yew hedge, might open into secret chambers where the crippled child can be healed or a selfish giant, who has lived in perpetual winter, can be made to love again because of a beautiful boy who, when he sits in the arms of a barren tree, the branches turn golden and cover themselves with white blossoms. And may I confess something to you? I still believe in these places, and these events: I know they are always happening, somewhere, in the secret gardens of the world, but I feel sometimes as if I’ve also lost my way from them, from their secret entrances and crooked paths and green archways.
So, this is all partly my way of saying that yesterday, I stopped all that I was doing [and it is a lot and it is all screaming at me from my desk things like, “you are 3 months behind deadline on this!” and “you are 1 week behind deadline on this!” and “you have 100 emails to answer!” and etc.], and I went to the botanical gardens and I decided to wind my way very slowly through all the different “rooms”: the Victorian rose garden, the camellia house, the Japanese friendship garden, the trial gardens, the conifer garden, the boxwood garden, etc., but always knowing where I wanted to end up and just sit for a very long while: the Chinese garden, which is the largest of all the “chambers.” As much as I love the blowsy busyness of the cottage garden [which I actually specialized in as a garden designer, along with antique roses and Mediterranean gardens], the Chinese garden is always [no matter where it is] the point of highest sublimity [again: for me]. When most people think of gardens, they think of flowers, and things blooming, and lots of color, etc., but what is so fantastic about the Chinese garden is that the whole thing is designed for contemplation, from a certain vantage point, of a particular architectural frame of trees, shrubs, water, and other landscape objects, like rocks, or small temples, or a bridge that, essentially, is going nowhere. A Chinese garden will have most of its color in late winter or early spring because that is when all of the ornamental fruit trees [cherry, apply, plum, etc.], which are essential in a Chinese garden, will be blooming, and that is lovely, but I prefer what happens afterward, when the whole point—the whole show, as it were—is about the interplay of the structure of different forms set against a horizon. Thus, the Chinese garden is best seen throughout all of the seasons. It is as beautiful in winter, perhaps even more so, as it is in spring.
Such gardens are follies in the grandest sense of the term: they involve an extraordinary amount of labor, time, and money with only one aim in mind: to inspire delight and to give pleasure. You have no idea, unless you’ve already thought of it, how much deferral also plays into this, because as the designer, you have to be able to imagine [and indeed, you plan everything based on this; Frederick Law Olmstead was sheer genius in this regard, as was Beatrix Farrand, niece of Edith Wharton, who designed the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks] what the things you plant and the landscape you are sculpting [because this is sculpture] are going to look like ten, fifteen, maybe fifty or more years down the road. What we see in Central Park today is the beautiful fruition of Olmstead’s ability to see, and to know, really, that it would one day turn out this way. And consider that, in the 1860s, he dreamed the Park we walk through today and that he could see that—so well, in fact—most people walking through Central Park today do not realize how thoroughly designed most of it is, it appears so “natural.” Talk about deferral. Can you imagine: spending one’s entire life devoted to the creation of sites of enchantment that you won’t even be around to walk through and wonder at? There are shorter-term payoffs with many gardens, but still. Let’s raise a glass to Olmstead who bequeathed to us this gift.
A good Chinese garden is so thoroughly designed and anticipated in advance that you can choose almost any spot in it and you will see something marvelous, in terms of structure and form, foreground and background, which is to say: this is an affair designed with a 360-degree angle in mind, perfectly suited for what Joan Retallack calls “the bliss of wide-angled attentiveness.” There is a great sense of peace to be gained in the commitment to choose one place to sit, and to watch, and to empty one’s mind of anything but the view. Imagine: someone expended a great deal of labor, a great deal of digging in the earth, a great deal of pruning and trimming and shaping, so that my view of the world, at a particular moment on a particular day, could be enchanted and so that I could reflect that, even in what Jack Gilbert has called “the ruthless furnace of the world,” there can be beauty, and that is something we can work at, too. And here comes the most embarrassing part of this post [so look away quickly if you like and skip to the next paragraph]: while I was sitting in the Chinese garden yesterday, leaning against an elm, having chosen my one vantage point, I began to weep. I was overcome with weeping, and I think—no, I know—that these were tears of regret, because for 3-1/2 years, I spent all my working hours on behalf of, and in, these gardens. By which I mean, for 3-1/2 years, I worked, literally, on the wide and endless outside, and on behalf of beauty, and of enchantment, and there was never a day I doubted the value of this folly [as I sometimes doubt whether or not what I am doing now is valuable], although it could be awfully punishing work, physically hard [and sometimes psychically hard, such as when a client didn’t share my vision or wanted me to do something absurd, like find a dwarf Japanese maple tree whose leaves would match the wallpaper in her dining room or pansies that would match her dinnerware: true stories]. But I had a job once, a job I left my PhD program for, when I labored to make worlds, as it were, beautiful worlds, worlds someone—those I knew and those I had not and would never meet—could enter into and be, hopefully, enchanted, where they might pause, and reflect: anything is possible in an enchanted garden, something [perhaps the world] gets bigger here, and to cadge from Jeffrey’s citing of the passage from Edward P. Jones’s heartbreaking novel The Known World in his last post, something squeezes through the bars of our heart and kisses us here. For reasons I cannot fully go into here, I left this world and returned to academia and to my dissertation, and I think what happened to me yesterday, is that I all of a sudden I realized what a loss this represents in my life, and how, perhaps, it might even be my biggest regret. The repressed trauma of it just overwhelmed me, and without warning.
So this brings me to the point, which also brings me back to Karl’s questions, which are difficult questions, but maybe also the most important ones, about what gets “occluded,” cut away, neglected, passed over, when we say “the world,” and whether or not the cultivation, through human agency, of “worlds” and/as sites of wonder could have anything to do with manufacturing “good conscience.” Because you see, a lot of occlusion and violence is involved in making beautiful gardens: a lot of pulling out, weeding, clearing, uprooting, cutting, pruning, bending, and even breaking. I recall that my proudest accomplishment as a gardener was when a client actually allowed me to build an allée-tunnel of apple trees, the cost of which was going to be close to $20,000. Essentially, this involved planting two rows of about ten trees each facing each other, with enough space to walk between, and my job, once these trees were planted, was going to involve several years of grafting the top branches of these trees together in order to make a tunnel out of them. This involved a lot of notching of branches [with a small knife], as well as binding branches together with twine, cutting away extraneous branches, and essentially contorting the remaining branches of the tree in directions they otherwise would not have grown, left to their own devices. And all of this labor and violent cutting and bending was expended so that, for about one week each Spring, you could stand at the entrance of this allée, and looking down through its tunnel of branches, covered in pink blossoms, you might imagine [and even believe] that, by walking through it, you would enter Narnia, or the many-chambered residence of your own heart. Could anything be more useless, and yet, more essential?
It is my belief that, yes, wonder, and the deliberate work to create sites of wonder, can have something vital to do with creating “good conscience,” as Karl says, especially if we believe, following Jane Bennett, that an ethical life entails affective attachments to the world. In Bennett’s view, ethical aspirations require “bodily movements in space, mobilizations of heat and energy,” and “a distinctive assemblage of affective propulsions.” Further, ethical rules, by themselves, are not sufficient to the task of nurturing “the spirit of generosity that must suffuse ethical codes if they are to be responsive to the surprises that regularly punctuate life.” It is Bennett’s argument that the contemporary world does, indeed, “retain the power to enchant humans and that humans can cultivate themselves so as to experience more of that effect.” Further, her “wager” is that, “to some small but irreducible extent, one must be enamored with existence and occasionally even enchanted in the face of it in order to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others” [The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics]. I think I could devote myself, with passion and pleasure, to a life, a career, whether in gardens or the university-as-garden, that would tilt itself toward the cultivation of “affective propulsions”—propulsions, moreover, that would move in as many directions as possible, enlarging the world as they go, and even hurrying to un-occlude the occluded, to make space for natality—as I said in our previous discussion, for things to be born.
And yet, at the same time, look at how I bent and broke the trees to my scheme of things. Here, I give an extreme example of the violence we might do when we say we want to dreams worlds, or the world, into a more full and capacious existence, and here we can also recall Julie Orlemanski asking us to also consider the possible harms of pleasure and how pleasure can sometimes be “missed, misrecognized, lost, harmed, attained at an unacceptable cost.” But there is almost no labor we can undertake—whether in our so-called research and criticism, or in our daily lives, our gathering and bearing and going and getting, as it were—that will not entail some choices of one thing over another, some uprooting and trimming, some cutting and clearing, some discarding and burying, although I would like to think we could undertake this work with as much care as possible to always undertake these actions with some notion of pressing as lightly as possible upon the world [and upon each other], and of always working to make room for everything we haven’t yet considered or didn’t even know we wanted, or could love [or, following Karl, should maybe leave alone]. I don’t know, I just—honestly, and stubbornly—believe we can do this.
Julie also recalled us to the fact, that in all of the papers presented on BABEL’s Kalamazoo “pleasure” panel, there seemed to be a sort of resistance to ideological critique, to the critical “gotcha!” game in which pleasure always has to be contained, to be referred to its “complicity and inextricability from structures of domination and oppression – structures of harm.” And I think Julie’s right, and the real question then might be something like, is this yet another something we should be worried about, or is there an opportunity here? Is there, perhaps an opportunity here to work toward a new form of criticism, or commentary-as-criticism that would also be a form of care [a giving and not a taking], and that would not leave any of its sharp and incisively cutting methodological tools behind, but which would be aimed at a non-paranoid scholarship as a kind of pleasure garden, a folly, a site of enchantment that, if we are very lucky, and paraphrasing Eve Sedgwick, might assemble and confer plenitude on the world that will then have resources to offer an inchoate self? This would be a scholarship that would seek to unfold the endless dimensions of texts and the world [as opposed to wanting to pierce through texts and world, looking for “meaning,” always for “meaning” as something the net of our epistemologies can supposedly “catch” and “hold”], and, following the thought of the queer theorist and poet Michael Snediker, this scholarship would create “epistemologies not of pain, but of pleasure; aestheticize not the abdication of personhood, but its sustenance” [from his book Queer Optimism, and thank you Anna Klosowska for introducing me to Snediker’s work]. And to paraphrase Badiou [again: thanks, Anna!], this scholarship would want "a theater of capacity, not incapacity."
We can take all of the insights ideological critique bequeaths [the world is violent, I am the subject of oppressive regimes of power, the human is predicated on the murder of animals, language only refers to other language, romantic love is the insidious lure of a certain symbolic order, etc.] and then we can ask, what else is there? In addition to the terrible surprises—of texts, as well as of our lives—what are the good surprises, the kisses that, after so many terrible hurts and deaths, manage to break through the cages of our hearts and lick us into new, beautiful being, and even, to the re-memoration of, again paraphrasing Sedgwick, all the ways the past could have happened differently than it did? We would have to loosen so many of the strictures that currently bind us: historicism, “straight” chronologies, tradition, authority, intellectual skepticism, and the like, but I really believe that what awaits us if we do loosen these bindings, will be something like the bliss of that wide-angled attentiveness Joan Retallack writes about. On the grounds that our work should be hard, and that every path to our scholarship should be thorny and steep, and that the results of our research should reflect the most pared-down bones of the most minimal things we can say are true, bliss, or happiness, is not supposed to have anything to do with what we do. But I will continue to hope otherwise.