Wednesday, February 09, 2011

up the wolves

by J J Cohen

as chimney-sweepers, come to dust

A day as cold as lucid. Cymbeline is on my mind, with its vision of an ancient island filled with poisons and potentialities. I saw a production of the play this weekend, and liked its saturated staging. A gold-limned creek of glass tanks divided the stage. Water sounds plinked as transitional noises. At the beheading of Cloten, crystal liquid was replaced by crimson. The creek ran red. During the final battle scene, a storm soaked the stage. Britain's tempestuous liquidity seems true not only to Shakespeare but to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the author from whom so many of the characters are derived. The Breton lays, strange progeny of Geoffrey, likewise imagine islands as sopping with watery flows.

In Cymbeline, as in Sir Orfeo, forests are liquid spaces. A drier version of these arboreal expanses, however, revealed itself this week in my Objects seminar. We were reading werewolf lays: Marie de France's "Bisclavret," the clerk of Troyes' misogynistic rewriting of the story as Biclarel, and the truly weird narrative Melion. These stories occasionally traverse oceans, but the woods, mountains and courtly chambers they envision are full of tense energy, flashes of electrical potential and crepitant, volatile becoming.

We used two essays by Deleuze and Guattari ("Rhizome" and "One or Several Wolves?") as our lupine entry. D&G write persuasively about the limits of allegorical readings, urging that animal-human alliances not be reduced into anthropocentric incarnations (a story about a father and a son gets enacted on the body of a horse [Little Hans] or through some wolves [the Wolf Man]). Allow the wolves their alliances, their invitations to dispersed identity, their own horde-like potentialities. "Each of us is several": the multiplicity or rhizome or Body without Organs or pack is not to be reduced into lonesome and docile subjectivity. "You can't be one wolf, you're always eight or nine, six or seven," the "wolf-multiplicity."

Yet for all the potential that might inhere in a becoming-wolf, we wondered why the medieval versions of the movement seems to inscribe the knight (it is always a knight who becomes-wolf in these stories) more deeply into a homosocial and chivalric identity -- an identity at once limned by the queer (why does the transformation back to human form happen so often in the king's bedroom, sometimes on the king's bed, sometimes culminate in the king kissing his man awake on that bed?), and at the same time steeped in misogyny (the largest difference between knight-life and wolf-life is the absence of women, who always turn out to be the characters who block and then are blocked from happy endings in these stories). Biclarel is a tale told against marriage. Melion condemns women as it comes to a close -- even though the motives of its enigmatic Irish princess are impossible to discern, and she is never punished. "Bisclavret" ends with the unfaithful wife having her nose torn off, then being put to torture, then passing her deformity along to her daughters. Becoming-wolf offers to the men who lose themselves in lupine flesh the chance to be better than the human selves they have left behind: better fighters; better servants to the king; better loved; better rewarded. Melion's life as wolf is such an improvement over his knightly existence that it is a wonder he seeks return. He was never happy as a knight, sabotaging his chances of marriage so that he could lose himself in his beloved woods. As a wolf he is able to find the companionship of a hunting pack, to indulge in the life in the wilds that brings him joy. Yet every man-wolf trades the life of the forest for life at the court, and seems the better knight for having done so.

Still, there is something about these secret spaces, guarded from all others in their life, that is attractive to the werewolves. It seems they guard from others the lives they lead amongst the trees and animals because they want or need to preserve a self not entirely given to social identities like husband or settled and courtly man. No wonder they are ashamed not to be glimpsed naked, but to be beheld placing their clothes back on. Too bad all three werewolf narratives fail to imagine that a woman might likewise desire a realm such as that in which to lose, at least from time to time, herself.

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