Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Knights on, against, and as Lobsters: a brief note before dinner

"Lobsters," said Arthur.
"What?" said Sir Kay.
"Lobsters are the only thing most people kill with their own hands," said Arthur. "In the modern world."
"Not we," said Sir Kay. "We smite the enemy."
"We are different," said Arthur. "We are professional soldiers. Most people don't even kill chickens. They buy them at the market, neatly wrapped. The encounter between man and lobster remains, in this civilization, the last direct experience of killing something. Write that down." (Donald Barthelme, The King, 72)

Kay might have looked to the Chevalier de Papegau (Knight of the Parrot), a romance in which Arthur encounters and kills an enormous knight riding an enormous horse. Usual stuff, you say; so what? Well: examining the corpse after the fight, Arthur discovers that "the knight, destrier, hauberk, helm, shield, sword, and lance were all one and the same thing" (17). The romance's author, invoking the mappamundi for support, declares that Arthur had fought one of the "Fish Knights," which are knights all of one piece. Kay might also have--and this is Barthelme, so why not?--cited Anne Berthelet, who observes that armor, on the one hand, substitutes for clothing, but it perhaps joins knights with their clothing to make them "like some kind of lobster, indistinguishable from its carapace" (18). And if Kay was feeling really frisky, he might have turned to our illustrious JJC, who once wrote,
The horse, its rider, the bridle and saddle and armor together form the Deleuzian circuit or assemblage, a network of meaning that decomposes human bodies and intercuts them with the inanimate, the inhuman. No single object or body has meaning within this assemblage without reference to the other forces, intensities, affects, and directions to which it is conjoined and within which it is always in the process of becoming something other, something new. (76)
Ideally it's in the process of becoming. The knight who never gets out of his armor has ceased to be in motion. As so often, in encountering the monster, Arthur encounters a hypotrophic version of himself, or at least, of a self frozen into its role as a master of violence.

How today's meandering gets us back to Barthelme's lobsters I don't know: but now I'm going to smite me some tofu.

Berthelet, Anne. “Merlin, ou l’homme sauvage chez les chevaliers,” in Le Nu et la Vêtu au Moyen Age (XIIe - XIII siècles) Senefiance No. 47 (2001): 17-28.
The Knight of the Parrot (Le Chevalier du Papegau). Trans. Thomas E. Vesce. Garland Library of Medieval Literature. Garland: New York, 1986.
JJC. Medieval Identity Machines.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Are fish knights suitable as food? What happens when you are stranded on an island full of these creatures that are their own armor, and they force you to battle with and against them? If you're hungry, can you still throw them in a pot?

These and similar questions are explored in the little known romance Perceforest. Sylvia Huot has a book on it coming out via the new Gallica imprint of Boydell and Brewer. Here is the catalogue description, which doesn't do it justice:

Sylvia Huot: Postcolonial Fictions in the ‘Roman de Perceforest’
Perceforest is both a masterpiece of medieval literature, and a vehicle for the transmission of medieval thought into the early modern era of global exploration and colonisation. Drawing on the insights of contemporary postcolonial theory, Sylvia Huot examines the author’s treatment of basic concepts such as ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, ‘savagery’ and ‘civilisation’. Particular attention is given to the text’s treatment of gender and sexuality as focal points of cultural identity, to its construction of the ethnic categories of ‘Greek’ and ‘Trojan’, and to its exposition of the ideological biases inherent in any historical narrative.
(ISBN 1843841045, £50/$85)

Karl Steel said...

Ah ha! I knew we'd had this conversation before.

My brain must be addled (could this adjective be a verb?).

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Yes, I knew I was repeating myself, just like I did in the comments a few days ago. Le Bérubé's recent words are haunting me:

I come to the end of 2006 feeling flabby and weary and exhausted and also weary. And also feeling like I’ve been trying to write way too much for way too long, so that my prose has been getting flabby and weary too. You know how it feels when you think you’re just repeating yourself over and over again? ... There was even a rumor going around the MLA that this here blog is in its last throes, and since I started the rumor myself it may actually be true.

I'd hate to think I've run out of stuff, but then again it may also be that my brain has emptied and atrophied.

Perhaps a Caribbean family vacation will jumpstart my intellect. The Cohens depart on Friday.

Karl Steel said...

Well, JJC (did you know about this?), if you're repeating yourself, here, it's in part because I'm repeating myself, too. I think we're all weary!

You of course have a right to be weary. If you ended your first few months as Chair without a boggy brain feeling, I'd probably think you a golem rather than a human being. Just congratulate yourself on having survived and on the seminar you just taught.

We will await daily blog updates from your island retreat.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Where did you find that, Karl? Who knew that Geoffrey Cohen could be as august a nom de plume as Luther Blisset! Were I ever flattened by a steamroller, the picture would even vaguely resemble me.

A small family anecdote about odd names and odd Cohens: Kid #2 has two baby dolls, one an old "Cabbage Patch" child and one a recent holiday gift. She likes to change their diapers and feed them bottles. She has named both of them Marty Cohen.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

And I will add: they are sitting on the coach peering out from a shared blanket, staring at me.

Karl Steel said...

Found the Geoffrey Cohen thing through the Luther Blissett thing...

Oh, that's funny. I'm reminded of 2 things:

a) my imaginary friend, when I was a kid, named 'Yehudi' (presumably after the violinist?)

b) my nephew, 4 years old, who looked at me a few weeks ago and declared, "you're batman," turned to ALK, and thought for a bit before saying, "...and you're batman's wife." Gender dynamics are deplorable here, but at least batman's wife doesn't necessarily have to get off the couch and play.

And all this conversation reminds me of Amardeep Singh's recent discussion of the return of the author-function through blogging.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Just a footnote on the gender dynamics of Marty Cohen: one of Kid #2's Marty Cohens is stamped "Xavier" and supposed to be a boy. The other came with the name "Madeline" and dresses all in pink -- clearly a girl. Nonetheless both are Marty Cohen.

If you are interested in where the name originated, look no further than this book.

Michael said...

I came across your blog, as I was interested in the NY times article on English/Irish DNA but now came across this story on assemblages.

I am trying to apply the concept to the iPod!

If one were to look at the iPod as assemblage, and thing about its nonhuman agents, the whole integrated strategy pursued by Apple from integrating its own software into its own hardware and extended that into computers and the virtual world via iTunes and the ITunes store, even creating its own white earphones seen as iconic by its users / unremovable battery is fully integrated into the hardware erc all complement each other.

This transportable iPod creates a suitable protective atmosphere. It also makes a statement to the public realm about the privatized state of its user!

Anyway, anyone think this is a value use - a Deleuzian assemblage??