Friday, October 24, 2008

Medieval Inhuman Art: Geoffrey of Monmouth and Marie de France

[illustration: the subterranean dragons of history erupt into art, Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain: Lambeth Palace Lib. MS 5 f. 43v]

by J J Cohen

Below you will find the third section of my draft for an essay on "Inhuman Art," a recent obsession of mine. Part one of the essay is here; part two here; a description of the book in which it will appear here. I've realized, in fact, that I have much of my fourth monograph sketched out, its working title something like Art from a Stone: Dreaming the Medieval Prehistoric.

Aninormality is an inhuman beauty both superfluous and intimate to that which holds and is held by it, confounding distinctions between self and other, object and milieu. This ecstatic disruption of boundary and its intermixing of what might otherwise seem discrete occurs through the opening up of sublime new worlds -- or, to foreground the activity that inheres in aninormality, broaches a possibly infinite series of worldings. Roger Caillois found such enfolded eruptions within animals and stones. Medieval art, however, is also filled with aninormality’s aesthetic dispossessions and interpenetrations.

Take, for example, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, a Latin text widely known not for its artistry, but for its contributions to history: the establishing of a new historiographical tradition, the promulgation of a potent origin myth for Britain, the bestowal to the future of Arthur and his court. Likely composed to boost Welsh ethnic pride, this rhetorically unadorned twelfth-century work could not be more time-bound. Its vision of ancient Britain is an antidote to English triumphalism, to the dominating version of the past of the island, a history previously told in England only from an Anglocentric point of view. The History of the Kings of Britain was an instant success from the moment of its first appearance (c. 1136), likely because it offered a radically reconfigured insular past in which the Welsh and Bretons played a heroic role. By offering a counter-narrative to Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History was seen in the twelfth century as the truth of early English history, Geoffrey’s History offered the possibility of a present that did not have to culminate in lasting English glory, a present in which room existed for the Norman transformation of the country into the appendage of a transmarinal empire. The popularity of Geoffrey’s text can be ascribed to the cultural needs it satisfied: Welsh and Breton patriotism, the Norman desire for a present in which their presence was something more than a baffling interruption of the island’s English destiny, a more pluralistic vision of the British archipelago.

Yet if the text were so wholly of its moment, we should expect the enthusiasm elicited at its appearance to dissipate as the exigencies it arose to address were mitigated by its success. The History of the Kings of Britain should have followed the arc of all propaganda, from spectacular ascent to rapid decline in the wake of the cultural changes it embodied and brought about, to lingering existence at some margin where it could be acknowledged the somewhat embarrassing remnant of a transcended past. Ardor for the text, however, only burgeoned over time. Copies and versions proliferated. Translations from its international Latin into the indigenous tongues of French, English, and Welsh appeared quickly. From historiography its narratives migrated into chronicle, lyric, romance, lais. Each transformation was an amplification: as the poet Wace, for example, translated Geoffrey’s unadorned Latin prose into rhymed French verse (c.1155), he added details like Arthur’s creation of a Round Table. Through his publication of the History Geoffrey created what might be called a consensual world, a time-place that may never have existed, that comes into being and is sustained only through the texts by which writers populate its envisioned landscapes, but a world which nonetheless functions as if real, inviting other authors and scholars and fans to contribute their fictions masquerading as histories, their new characters, their enlargements of the consensual world’s inherent possibility. Without Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Arthurian realm would not have come into being. Stories of the Grail, Lancelot, Morgan le Fay, the Lady of the Lake, and the Green Knight are simply the additions of later writer-fans to a universe of which the loose parameters and initial content Geoffrey of Monmouth was the primary engineer. This expansive worlding of Geoffrey’s rather sparse textual realm originates at least in part from the powerful moments he placed in his narrative when art (which we could gloss as what Caillois called an innate or objective lyricism) propels the text outside of history.

Lists of kings with regnal spans, bare accomplishments, and progeny structure long expanses of Geoffrey’s narrative, a chronicling that tends towards the laconic. The dullness of his lists of data give the History of the Kings of Britain the heft of an artifact, the substantiality of something real. Thus the brief but exciting story of a sodomite king devoured in the wilds by “ravening wolves” is tempered by the dry facticity of his son’s data-heavy vita:
After the death of Mempricius, his son Ebraucus, who was very tall and a man of remarkable strength, took over the government of Britain and held it for thirty-nine years. He was the first after Brutus to sail a fleet to the shores of Gaul. He made war upon the provinces of the Gauls, slaughtering their menfolk and sacking their cities. By the time he came back victorious he was enriched with a vast booty of gold and silver. At a later date he founded a city on the farther side of the Humber, which city he called Kaerebrauc after himself, that is to say the City of Ebraucus.
At that time King David was reigning in Judea and Silvius Latinus was king in Italy. In Israel, Gad, Nathan and Asaph were the prophets.

Ebraucus also founded the city of Alclud over in Albany; and the castle of Mount Agned …

What is more, by the twenty wives which he had, he was the father of twenty sons and of thirty daughters. For forty years he ruled over the kingdom of Britain with great firmness. The names of his sons were as follows: Brutus Greenshield, Margodud, Sisillius, Regin, Morvid, Bladud, Lagon, Bodloan, Kincar, Spaden, Gaul, Dardan, Eldad, Ivor, Cangu, Hector … (78-79)

Twenty sons are listed in total, and, having finished this catalog, Geoffrey goes on to name the thirty daughters, a weighty piling up of information that imbues this catalog of British, Roman, Greek, and invented appellations the verity of an archive. This truth effect is enhanced through reference to events happening simultaneously in Israel and Rome, giving an invented past the authority that derives from unfolding alongside biblical and classical history. Invoking Brutus, the founding father of Britain in Geoffrey’s History, builds Ebraucus’s majesty and buttresses Brutus’s own tenuous reality through self-referentiality.

The inventory of countries conquered, cities founded, and children fathered does its work, answering the preceding account of a king turned too much inward. The sodomitical copulations of Mempricius, Ebraucus’s father, express sexually his unwillingness to think about the life of his country beyond the termination of his reign (“he did away with any who he feared might succeed him in the kingship … he deserted his own wife”), of his inability to rouse himself from self-enclosure in Britain and to expand his domain into an empire. His lupine ingestion within a valley where he wanders alone and abandoned is a rebuke to the tyranny through which he has built paninsular dominion. His son’s regnum offers a complete contrast: a king whose vigorous imperialism is paralleled in his exuberant heterosexuality, whose ardor for founding cities and building castles finds biological expression in his fecundity in producing heirs. Geoffrey’s rhetorical prowess is evident in how he structures the opposition between the two monarchs. His tale of father and son allows him to buttress quietly a kind of empire-loving kingship never practiced by the Britons of whom he writes, but beloved by the Normans who had annexed England to holdings that stretched to Sicily and the Levant. Geoffrey’s History, in other words, advances a useful argument about contemporary kingship and thereby makes itself cultural necessary.

Because it is structured through such cleverly contrived historicality, the History of the Kings of Britain remains largely an unadorned chronicle, its art more evident in its deep structure than in anything that effloresces from the work itself. Yet the narrative is interrupted by moments of unexpected and superfluous beauty, smaller stories that derail the progress of the larger plot with their vividness and, at times, poignancy. Such aesthetically charged eruptions can saturate this otherwise arid text with moments of profound emotional enlargement. Think, for example, of Princess Ignoge, Greek captive on a Trojan ship, forced to marry the warrior who has ruthlessly defeated her father. In this moment when the forward movement of the History eddies backwards, in this interlude when “history itself is forgotten,” we watch with Ignoge as she stares fixedly across a widening sea towards her receding homeland. We behold with her eyes everything she knows dwindling to its vanishing point, lost as an ocean she never desired to sail propels her towards a future she cannot know. We understand why “as long as the shore lay there before her eyes, she would not turn her gaze” [Nec oculos a littore auertit dum littora oculis patuerunt, a nicely balanced bit of Latin lyricism, 8]. We comprehend why she weeps. If we are responsive to this uncharacteristically poignant effusion ebbing through the sangfroid of the text, her tears become ours as well. Geoffrey can give her weeping no answer, no conclusion: enervated by sadness, Ignoge falls asleep in her new husband’s arms.

The vessel speeds onward regardless (“Meanwhile the Trojans sailed on for two days and one night …”), British history speeds onward regardless (“Then they touched land at a certain island called Leogatia …”), but Ignoge’s stubborn gaze upon shores from which she never wished departure stays with us. By leading our eyes back towards what has been left behind, the vision keeps returning us to stories without conclusion: the narratives of those forced onto this vehicle of relentless forward motion, this ship of history on which some unwilling passengers find no waking solace. We last behold Ignoge when, “worn out with crying,” she falls into forgetful slumber. Her story literally ends with that sleep, ends with a hero’s embrace, but emotionally such closure is denied. How can we not wonder about the life towards which she is relentlessly conveyed, how can we not wonder about her future?

Other than to acknowledge that she bears Brutus three sons, Geoffrey is silent. By refusing to provide the narrative space opened by her longing with a conclusion or resolution, Geoffrey keeps Ignoge alive forever in alluring despair, like the heroine of an opera whose voice reverberates long after she has departed the stage. Meditating upon such performers, especially in operas that feature the spectacular demise of female protagonists, Carolyn Abbate writes of the “unconquerable” voice of the women seemingly silenced by opera’s murderous narratives, arguing that “this undefeated voice speaks across the crushing plot.” Abbate observes that such a woman can be “undone by plot,” yet remain “triumphant in voice.” Geoffrey of Monmouth goes farther, demonstrating how a woman can be undone by plot yet triumphant in art – traumatic art, in which grief and death are nearer to hand than survival and life. Yet Ignoge’s tears are an art of endurance that lacks neither beauty nor ethical complexity. Once voiced, her despair and her desires form a circuit of identification between reader and text-event (which is also a temporal circuit between past-as-text and the reading, imagining present) that brings the History out of history and into a new realm, a new world – and this worlding is art. This moment of art, moreover, is wholly in excess of any historical demands placed upon the text, wholly in excess of cultural needs. In its lyricism, its superfluity, its captivating aninormality, its liquid love of oceans and weeping and movement and dreams over the stability of fatherlands and promised destinations, this little work of art within the text opens a space within that narrative, one difficult to close or to forget.

The eruption of art that occurs in the Ignoge episode involves an efflorescence of emotive beauty. An aesthetically moving moment caused by unanticipated estrangement from the dominant narrative of the story, Ignoge’s vision transforms her ardor for a lost home into something that seems striking, new, capable of lifting us out of our solitary orbit (which so far has been tracing great men and their celebrated deeds) to encounter a more capacious world. This ecstatic effect depends upon Ignoge’s human, all too human longing. Yet Geoffrey is also capable of mixing the human and the inhuman in order to produce strange new kinds of art. His book is interrupted at times with moments of lyrical mystery, sometimes through effusion of what is his text’s most sublime substance, blood. Take, for example, the pluvial gore that drenches the island during the rule of the obscure king Rivallo, a soaking in crimson both awesome and gruesome to visualize: “In his time it rained blood for three days and men died from the flies which swarmed” (87). By saturating the landscape with an element alien to it [pluuia sanguinea], this vivid reddening of the island estranges place from world: a medieval version of Christo’s “Pont Neuf Wrapped” or “Surrounded Islands” hitched to a kind of charnel house art in which even death becomes an aesthetic element. The text offers a narrative precursor to T. Coraghessan Boyle’s story “Bloodfall,” in which a similar hematic rain transfigures the world into something violent, rotting, and weirdly beautiful.

A rather similar moment involving blood occurs later in the text, when the History takes a swerve into what seems like a new generic register (though just as likely this swerve is actually the invention of a new genre, romance). On the run from his Saxon enemies, the traitorous British king Vortigern is frantically attempting to bring stability back to an island he once dominated. With the lines Uocatis denique magis suis (“in the end Vortigern summoned his magicians”) the tone of the narrative is transformed: previously Geoffrey’s History has been largely empty of enchantment, its wonder confined mainly to the natural or the naturally inexplicable, such as the sudden rain of blood. Enter the magicians. These magi – the first in the text, and the first therefore in Arthurian myth -- are charged by Vortigern with imagining a way to bring durability to a fugitive life. The magicians declare that such permanence can be found only in the creation of a work of architecture, “an immensely strong tower” (166). When a suitable site is chosen at Mount Erith, however, whatever stones the masons erect one day is swallowed back into the earth the next. The magicians declare that to lay secure foundations, the mortar must be sprinkled with the blood of “a lad without a father” [iuuenem sine patre] – with blood, that is, that carries none of the kind of history that Geoffrey’s own text embodies, obsessed as it is with fathers, sons, and persistence through generations.

Such an escape from history – or at least from story -- is impossible: the lad without a father, a surly and precocious boy named Merlin, is the progeny of a nun and an incubus. In the form of a very handsome youth [in specie pulcerrimi iuuenis], the demon made frequent, secret love with the nun in her chamber’s solitude. Eventually she bore his child. Ancient books verify, according to an authority summoned by Vortigern, that incubos demones exist between moon and earth [inter lunam et terram, 72]. Possessed of a pedigree that ties them to the fallen angels of the Bible, incubi were in the Middle Ages monsters who incarnated the very spirit of Geoffrey’s own History – that is, they incarnated a kind of counter-history, stories at war with dominating traditions and mundane realities. Enter the magicians: What Vortigern’s magi have unwittingly demanded is the coming into the narrative of a living embodiment of the shattered border between the quotidian (the ordinary world where people remain in the times and places history allots to them) and the extraordinary (the space of possibility where a cloistered nun can find love in the embrace of a mysterious, handsome knight). These magicians transport the History of the Kings of Britain into a new realm, where the rules that have so far structured its narrative unfolding are suspended, remade anew.

Merlin, the boy in whose body the blood of a different kind of story pulses, has his own ideas of how Vortigern can construct an enduring structure. Merlin declares that the only true method to create a durable architecture is not to commit more violence in the present, but to acknowledge the unstable history that underdwells that artwork’s coming into being. Merlin insists that Vortigern’s tower topples at each foundation because he is constructing its base upon ground inhabited by unsettled history. Beneath Mount Erith, within an underground pool, inside two hollow rocks [duos concauos lapides] at the bottom of that water, twin dragons slumber [duos dracones dormientes, 73]. These are dragons of history: the white monster embodies the marauding Saxons, while in the red’s pugnacious body resides the story of the Welsh. Once this buried past is spoken and moved beyond (after the boy’s revelation, the dragons are dismissed from their subterranean enmity), Merlin is freed from the compulsion to yield his blood … and can endure in the story to erect on Salisbury plain the vast architecture of Stonehenge, rocks that when drenched with water heal bodily ailments. Vortigern, meanwhile, is eventually burnt to ash within his tower, his incineration a reminder of the oblivion that comes to those who reside only in history.

Stonehenge becomes Geoffrey’s shorthand for art itself, a lithic yet living structure that conjoins distant pasts (the stones journey from Africa to Ireland to Britain, and conjoin the stories of their primal architects, the giants, with those of humans) and unexpected futures (transported to Salisbury through Merlin’s engineering feats, Stonehenge stands for the futurity bestowed upon the House of Constantine, for not only will it last eternally as a memorial to the kings Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, the only great ruler from this family not interred there will be Arthur, whose absence body allows the possibility of a return to come). Merlin through this calculus becomes not so much an engineer as an author, an artist: his magical power is not the wizardry of spells, but the ability to add to that which would otherwise be merely functional or historical a beauty that enlarges the world into which it arrives, that ensures the structure it inhabits and worlds will nurture its own mobility, that guarantees the artwork will endure. Thus the Vortigern’s Tower episode concludes with some words about Merlin’s transformation from bastard child to uncanny spirit of creativity and estrangement:
[Vortigern] was more astounded [ammirabatur, “possessed by wonder”] by Merlin than he had ever been by anything. All those present were equally amazed [ammirabantur] by his knowledge, and they realized that there was something supernatural about him [existimantes numen esse in illo]. (169, 73)

Like a medieval Caillois, Merlin is expert in the writing of stones, in lapidary art – even when the stone in which this art has been enclosed has been sunken in a pool and placed within a mountain. By discerning the colored dragons within the stones’ heart, or the healing powers within Stonehenge – by discerning the inherent surplus in something as seemingly cold and inert as buried rocks and ancient monoliths – Merlin speaks the inhuman, self-dispossessing, and unhistorical truth of art.

Geoffrey of Monmouth was far from the only medieval artist to discover at the boundary between body and world, history and ecstasy the lyrical yet confounding power of inhuman art. Marie de France, a contributor to the consensual world put in place by Geoffrey, structured many of her lais are around an aesthetic object so dense in its significations that it cannot be reduced to a single meaning: the talkative, bisexual hind and the ship of dreams in Guigemar; the woven cloth that materializes a sexuality in La Cordre; the clothing that maintains and yet confuses the corporal line between human and wolf in Bisclavret. Guigemar, for example, is a knight so self-enclosed that he knows love only of solitary pleasures. While hunting he encounters a deer with antlers, a bisexual or hermaphroditic creature that also possesses human speech. His arrow rebounds from this living artwork of an animal, wounding his thigh and hurling him into erotic possibility. Guigemar’s world, like his body, has been penetrated, and will henceforth never be so circumscribed. He boards a boat that awaits him in the harbor, a ship that may be made of dreams, or it may be the bark of Solomon which worthy knights board to seek the Holy Grail, or may be a metaphor for all the beauty of poetry. The ship conveys him to a distant land, where his ardor for an imprisoned lady allows her access to a more capacious worldview. Notably, she is not allowed to sail across the sea and find him until she makes the choice to propel herself out of a familiar story in which she plays the affection-starved young wife to a dry old man. Once she makes that choice, she finds the door to the tower in which she has been enclosed has always been unlocked, and that the Ship of Poetry awaits at the harbor. Could lyricism take a less human, more beautiful form than that vessel gliding across the world’s seas, enlarging the world with every wave its prow traverses?

In closing I offer a scene that, like Rivallo and the pluvial gore, opens another world through blood; a scene enclosed, like Geoffrey’s sleeping dragons, in stone. The unnamed heroine of Yonec has been imprisoned in a tower by her jealous and elderly husband. She wastes away, losing her beauty, until one day, she wishes that the alternate worlds of which she has apparently been reading might be true, that ladies might discover lovers “so handsome, courtly, brave and valiant / that they could not be blamed, / and no one else would see them” (98-100). She wishes, in other words, that she might be like Merlin’s mother, enjoying in secret the embraces denied to her in the small space into which she has been confined. Upon its utterance her wish takes fleshly form: a hawk flies to the ledge of the tower and enters the room as “a handsome and noble knight” (115) – a man who has loved her from afar for many years, but needed her to articulate her desire for a world configured otherwise before he could fly to her chamber. Not an incubus exactly, but acting very much like one, this fantasy knight eventually impregnates the lady with a son. Her wicked husband discovers the truth of his wife’s enjoyment, and sets sharp spikes along the window ledge. When the hawk-knight attempts to enter, he is torn apart, and stains the bedclothes with his blood (316).

When her dying lover returns to his distant land, the lady decides upon an extraordinary course of action: she leaps from her window, leaps into activity and out of her prison of self-possession. She follows a glimmering trail of blood straight into a hillside, where after a subterranean journey an Other World opens in splendor: “There was no house, no hall or tower, / that didn’t seem of silver” (362-3). She enters a series of chambers, each with a slumbering knight she does not recognize: other lovers for other dream-filled ladies. On the third bed in the third room she discovers her dying knight, who speaks to her of a beautiful future yet to come. The story ends exactly where we expect: with the son taking vengeance against his wicked stepfather, the lady dying in a mixture of bliss and grief at the grave of her true love, tidy closure for this intricate little work of art. Yet to return to the lai’s middle space, to its underground chamber that in no way seems beneath the earth: here we glimpse the entrance to another world where sleeping knights without names, without narrated stories, await the cloistered dreamers who will dare to envision their own rescue from the stories that imprison them. This Other World, sealed beneath a hill but reached easily after a frightening leap of faith, through an encounter with one’s own potential obliteration, this Other World offers the possibility of infinite worlds, of spaces so strange within this earth that human imagination alone fails to capture all their potential for disrupting the seeming solidity of the ordinary worlds we inhabit.

Inhuman art: not in the culmination of the story of Yonec, which is an all too human tale of revenge, but in its dream of a hollow space within the hill, where possibilities are multiplied, where the world as we know it expands exponentially and induces the ecstasy, the vertigo, of ceasing to know one’s place.


Karl Steel said...

Much to enjoy here, Jeffrey, and much to comment on. If you'll forgive me, my VERY disjointed comments....

On other writers 'filling up Geoffrey's world,' I wonder if scholarship on Second life would be fun and/or helpful?

but a world which nonetheless functions as if real, inviting other authors and scholars and fans to contribute their fictions masquerading as histories, their new characters, their enlargements of the consensual world’s inherent possibility
I'm just thinking of the reality effect as the unmotivated excess in a text, but I also think of it in, sorry, Heideggarian terms of being awakened to purposelessness, of the world not being for us. With these 2 approaches to reality in mind, I wonder if there's a third that your "function[ing] as if real" describes?

On "exuberant heterosexuality": just an obvious caution on this, since in the 12th c. 'heterosexuality' is not the counter to sodomy. Reproductive sex is, which is the sex that reaches out to the future (*cough,* but you know where this idea goes).

We understand why “as long as the shore lay there before her eyes, she would not turn her gaze” [Nec oculos a littore auertit dum littora oculis patuerunt, a nicely balanced bit of Latin lyricism, 8]. We comprehend why she weeps. If we are responsive to this uncharacteristically poignant effusion ebbing through the sangfroid of the text, her tears become ours as well. Geoffrey can give her weeping no answer, no conclusion: enervated by sadness, Ignoge falls asleep in her new husband’s arms.
I haven't checked this, but I wonder if equal parts checking in some Dronke and Ovid's Heroides would get us a good sense of the genre and/or schoolroom exercise Geoffrey is working in when he writes this. Not that this would obviate your reading, but it'd still be good to know.

Carolyn Abbate writes of the “unconquerable” voice of the women seemingly silenced by opera’s murderous narratives, arguing that “this undefeated voice speaks across the crushing plot.” Abbate observes that such a woman can be “undone by plot,” yet remain “triumphant in voice.”
My favorite example here is Tosca (if you don't know the story, the bullets were supposed to be blanks: oops)

In re: pluuia sanguinea
I would be betraying my love of rocknroll if I didn't quote a certain Slayer song:
Trapped in purgatory
A lifeless object, alive
Awaiting reprisal
Death will be their acquittance

The sky is turning red
Return to power draws near
Fall into me, the sky's crimson tears
Abolish the rules made of stone

Pierced from below, souls of my treacherous past
Betrayed by many, now ornaments dripping above

Awaiting the hour of reprisal
Your time slips away

Raining blood
From a lacerated sky
Bleeding its horror
Creating my structure
Now I shall reign in blood!
More to the point, I wonder if you could exploit the eschatological genre (which is, above all, an attempt to give shape to the future, even if the shapes are--necessarily?--monstrous) in which Geoffrey is working here.

aesthetic object so dense in its significations that it cannot be reduced to a single meaning
Sort of a strawman, I think, since what CAN be reduced to a single meaning?

On Yonec: nice stuff, and for more, see the discussion in Claustrophilia


Read something this morning that I think you and your project will love: Gobekli Tepe, an 11,000-year-old temple:
The abundant remnants of wild game indicate that the people who lived here had not yet domesticated animals or farmed.

But, Peters and Schmidt say, Gobekli Tepe's builders were on the verge of a major change in how they lived, thanks to an environment that held the raw materials for farming. "They had wild sheep, wild grains that could be domesticated—and the people with the potential to do it," Schmidt says. In fact, research at other sites in the region has shown that within 1,000 years of Gobekli Tepe's construction, settlers had corralled sheep, cattle and pigs. And, at a prehistoric village just 20 miles away, geneticists found evidence of the world's oldest domesticated strains of wheat; radiocarbon dating indicates agriculture developed there around 10,500 years ago, or just five centuries after Gobekli Tepe's construction.

To Schmidt and others, these new findings suggest a novel theory of civilization. Scholars have long believed that only after people learned to farm and live in settled communities did they have the time, organization and resources to construct temples and support complicated social structures. But Schmidt argues it was the other way around: the extensive, coordinated effort to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies.

And, just to remind you: Manuport

dan remein said...

Jeffrey, this is a beautiful essay. I love it. Really. Great for me as a poet and as a critic, and as the one for whom being one of those means being the other. And my sense of either task involves a need to give ones self over to something inhuman, non-human, (like language), to attend to the world in such a way to mark off what a work of art might enclose/unconceal.
I hope to be back with more later--I printed this out and read it on the train this morning on the way to classes and don't have a ton of time tonight--but I am interested in the play in this whole essay (all three parts) between escaping history as a thing which seems to happen and then other times as a thing which is impossible. Art as inhuman works for me within the play of this as an impossible thing. But, very generally, why _want_ to escape history? Why not, in Marie, objects which acquire such a density not of signification, but of worldliness. Then perhaps we don't leave history, but rather, like a point of high density, the objects are of such a temporal/affective gravity, that they implode on themselves, folding/looping/worming time and space? I am adverse to the possibility imagining escapes from finititude at certain costs, and I think you are attending to this in the essay--so I'm interested in how this might further work? After all, in this way art is actively doing something to World and Worlds, and not just acting out some mimetic mirror-trick.

Might there be a difference between history and historicism, and something like historicity? That might allow us to think of a thing which escapes the economies of historicism, offers us those impossible hopes and wonders. Here, these wonders would never lose their historicity. They would always happen, in some sense, a relative sort of sense, in 'a' time. Any Being caught in the affective gravity of such a density would still be always dying. But with the hope of wonder--even if this is only a hope before (as I always want to channel Kermode) the door of disappointment if finally shut on us.

So, I feel like I am really on board with this project--does what I've said betray that really I'm missing something really big about it?

I mean--I think this essay is additionally a nice antidote to the problem of the lyric in contemporary poetry as well. American poets go on writing 'lyrics' long after things like the 'subject' and the 'I' of poetry have been contested, killed, resurrected, killed again, in theory and criticism, and many 'trained' poets don't realize how much the lyric doesn't function so simply as the self-presencing of a self-expressing speaker. This is the difference between poets I don't really think are so interesting anymore who reports narrative in well-crafted lineated verse that is--no matter how well crafted--still deeply caught up in a sense of 'art' which ignores the future and the past by supposing a rather transparent relationship to the human and a transcendance of time achieved by something so well-wrought (ie. Vendler and her cronies, Heaney and Jorie Graham et. al.--I know its odd for an OE-ish person to be hostile to Heaney, but no matter how much I sometimes enjoy his verse, I am DEEPLY troubled by its formal implications). And that is the other reason I worry about escaping from history too simply--we end up back at boring poems complicit with right wing politics and New Republic commentators [and just so I am not complaining without being productive, antidotes to this problem in contemporary amerc. poetry: Rosmarie and Kieth Waldrop, Ben Lerner, Graham Faust, Marjorie Welish, Cole Swenson, Michael Palmer, et. al.]. So, I love this essay, I love it. I wonder what we could connect to this in the contemporary--in terms of what this means for how we might write now--poets/critics and all in between. Marjorie Welish might be a good example, I was once told when I expressed my love for her work that what I loved was cold affectless cyborg poetry even though I found it full of affect, though perhaps still cyborgish.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thank you Karl and Dan for this very helpful commentary. I've just posted a slightly related line of thought here.

The cautions are very useful Karl: you know what it is like when deep in writing; sometimes you (or at least I) forget the things you know as you try to make your point. That binary of sodomy/heterosexuality has more to do with Thorpe's translation of Geoffrey than with the Latin or with the cultural moment. Thanks also for the song lyrics, and the pointing out of the aesthetic straw man, which is in fact not an especially well stuffed straw man at that. And here is a problem with the essay throughout: historicism is itself set up in straw man like terms. Dan was getting at this as well.

On the one hand I am trying to make the point that historicism endures in medieval studies because it is rigorous yet adaptive and flexible. It is an excellent mode of reading texts with context. But I also want to argue that temporality is more complicated than historicism typically allows, since historicism tends to be synchronic and moment-focused. Not always of course -- look at Strohm on the "temporal archive" -- but typically. Sometimes that moment is fully in the past; sometimes it is a later moment as determinant of the truth of a past; almost always readings proceed via careful documentation of context.

This seems to me a fundamentally human way of reading: meaning the world is as large as the human ambit allows, but no larger.

But what about if we allow inhuman temporal spans that do not necessarily negate the possibility of communication across eons? What if we posit a temporality that also allows communication across the boundary of the human? This potentially inhuman (or at least potentially nonanthropocentric) mode is something more than historicism can attain. It allows finitude, probably; but it also allows that we can never know where to draw the line that would enable finitude's limits. I've often quoted Gil Harris's phrase "temporal promiscuity." Can two vastly separate temporalities nonetheless queerly cohabitate? I love Dan's formulation: "a point of high density, the objects are of such a temporal/affective gravity, that they implode on themselves, folding/looping/worming time and space." YES. I'm not sure historicism can move us to that density, but I'm pretty sure that art can. Not as an escape from history (that'd be like an escape from body, or from air, or from any other precondition of existence), but as an intensification of history, its enfolding to make what otherwise might be estranged intimately touch.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

PS to Karl, cybertheory on possible worlds and phenomena like Second Life were behind my description of GofM's achievement as the establishing of a consensual world, as you gleaned.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

OK, I my eyes are going to pop out from reading and rereading both my essay and these excellent comments ... but poet laureate Remein I must ask: can you say a bit more about what you mean when you write "I know its odd for an OE-ish person to be hostile to Heaney, but no matter how much I sometimes enjoy his verse, I am DEEPLY troubled by its formal implications" ?

dan remein said...

Jeffrey: yes. And by tomorrow night, I promise that I will. For today, there is too much Piers Plowman in my life to do so. And, if I'm ever laureate of anything...well, I will surely let you know.

dan remein said...

"I know its odd for an OE-ish person to be hostile to Heaney, but no matter how much I sometimes enjoy his verse, I am DEEPLY troubled by its formal implications" ?

Written by me, above. I am loath to start this for two reasons. 1. I know I am going to end up on a tirade. I just know it. Poetics get me excited. I will try very hard to not say anything too hastily. 2. I want so badly to like Heaney's work.

So first of all, I need to make clear that as a poet I owe a certain debt to Heaney, who, for me, at a particular time, provided me with a model for really sharp work on the level of the sound of words, and the importance of their etymology. Additionally, poems like "Station Island," are important to me for their engagement with the problems of growing up in a 'sacred wood' and actually wanting to live 'in the upkeep of ghosts.'--and specifically for addressing Joyce as it does, following the faux terza-rima of eliot following the real terza-rima of dante, so appropriate for writing poems in the upkeep with ghosts. Additionally, he made Beowulf a best-seller. And dang, that's pretty fantastic. And yet.

I see, in the same (Station island) poem, a kind of irresponsibility in wanting the poem to be something which can transcend all that. Part of this problem emerges, I think, in (despite his deftness for etymology and sound), a problematic relation to language and the subject which seems to me one that simply ignores what has happened in the last 50 years with respect to how we might think about the subject in language, the subject of language, et al. For me, Heaney sees language as something a subject can still wield as a transparent, integrated, sovereign whole. And that subject wields this language in order to produce 'a good poem.' But why do we write poems? The following is taken from Verse Magazines Blog:

Slate's poetry editor Robert Pinsky responds to reader questions (the kinds of questions he must be insanely tired of answering as three-term Poet Laureate) with poems. Except for one response, which is also our favorite:

9. Well, I like poetry that is amusing, that maybe makes me chuckle a little. I'd rather read something reassuring and light than something complicated or gloomy. Is that bad? Does that mean I am a jerk?

Yes. [verse's editors respond]

This is a little crass, perhaps, but what underlies it is a symptom of a deep problem of america's poetry workshops: the idea that the goal is to somehow write 'good poems.' Well, what the hell is a good poem? Or better, not what is it, but what does it do? Dickinson famously felt it should take the top of your head off. Most contemporary English-language poetry seems to make an appeal to a fiction of an 'I' which can speak transparently in its plenitude, standing up to be counted among the denizens of identity politics. Such work is an attempt at expression dependent on a) the correspondence theory of truth b) a positing of the individual which, pretending that language and the social forces embedded therein do not also shape and compromise the individual, does the individual a dire dis-service (I am thinking right here of Adorno mostly).

And so, I am getting to the part about Old English and Heaney and his popularity. I have some good friends who are grad students and professors and non-academics that love the Heaney Beowulf. They usually love it because its just 'good verse' and it got people to read Beowulf. For me, good poetry is something that has a certain effect on the language itself--on language itself. Among its many functions, are to open the language, disrupting what has fallen into 'idle talk' (a la Heidegger) such that we might imagine alternatives. So, poetry should be crashing always up against its relation to language. So when Heaney introduces his translation with the claim of desiring his verse to be like that of what he perceived the OE to be, being "attractively direct," I am suspicious. What does he sacrifice to achieve "directness of utterance" as it puts it? He claims that this directness is placed in opposition to fidelity to alliteration and sound/literalness which would result in an unnatural sound in modern english. He prefers a "natural" sound and desires to avoid the production of an "artificial shape." Such an opposition betrays a basic belief in language and his speakers as potentially natural. it cannot see language as a technology which affect and effects peoples and histories. It buys into a nature/technology divide which certain of us medievalists are certainly suspect of in our own CRITICAL work, but seem to give a pass to in something simply because it is "poetic." Paul Bové, in his book Destructive Poetics (Columbia UP, 1980), following Heidegger sees all language as potentially historical, making poetic language open to the same critique as critical languages, but also opening up poetics language to the same functions as criticism and theory. What I see in Heaney's approach (his famous essay on contemporary composition anthologized in the Norton Contemporary is called 'feeling into words' which is basically a recipe for self-expression) is a very troubling attempt at producing a kind an aesthetics that are impoverished because their lack of troubled relationship to language results in a lack of historicity, and a lack of ethical concern for history.

What Heaney misses in thinking that a good poem in another language should sound 'natural' like a poem in our own, is the possiblity that what is need from a good poem now in any language is exactly what disarticulates this natural/artificial divide, [putting the technologies of translation in a particularly good place to help out!] as an effect within the language itself (this is the possibility Benjamin envisions when he speaks of the function of translation to determine first the effect of the original work on its language).

What Heaney misses is the possibility of a message from the past, in the form of traces of OE effecting Modern English and making it awkward, rescuing it from idle talk and giving it a capacity for historicity.

So many things bug me about the prizing of Heaney, by Norton and others (some in the field I respect so very very much and am friends with also). Among them is this. That we who are SO SO radical in our thought and politics, in our work, our attempts to Be together are critics, and think the past in the present and the present in the past, to engage with language across time, to mourn the dead, to love queernesses--that the poets we all too often prize that write in the present, are not the ones who, if we actually examine the political implications of their language rigorously, are entirely cool with the rest of how we operate. As a poet writing today, this seems like a large problematic blind spot, especially as we call more and more often (me included) for work in history and criticism and theory which is 'poetic' or, in fact, 'poetry.' If we are forming coalitions with poets still writing--and we should be--why are we not looking for more radical work?

prehensel said...

Dan: Here's an incredibly short, inadequate response. I wish Pound had turned his attentions to Beowulf. He hit the Seafarer and the Wanderer (I think), but I would have loved to see how he would have made Beowulf new.

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey, Karl, and Dan: I am coming very late to this thread, but since this all intersects with my own trying to work out an historical poethics, I had some thoughts and comments I wanted to share here, and no response is necessary [at this time, *here*, maybe some*where* else, in the future]; this is just food for thought and maybe for Jeffrey as he revises this essay:

1. Jeffrey, you invoke the sublime toward the beginning of this excerpt, especially in relation to the ways in which the sublime might "broach" a "possibly infinite series of worldings"--how do you define the sublime more particularly? I ask because I realized, after reading this, that the one term that runs throughout this piece yet is never mentioned or overtly discussed is *beauty*, so I wondered to: what has beauty to do with any of this? And yes, I know that's awfully tricky, and yet, your piece is all about beauty, even raving [historically] useless beauty, on some level.

2. I love what you do with Geoffrey's narration of Ignoge's weeping and then falling asleep--even before you got to the ways in which this opens up a "circuit of identification" between character and reader [bypassing Geoffrey, in a sense, or perhaps his "program"], I was thinking something like "affective synapse"--it creates a kind of "jump" between scene and reader that allows for multiple counter-narratives and even *affections*, but if this circuit/synapse, as you write, is difficult "to close or to forge," that left me wondering: what questions/feelings/desires are left hanging here?

3. Is this really an "eruption of art" that occurs in the Ignoge episode [for, after all, the entire work is art, regardless of Geoffrey's or anyone else's protests to the contrary], or rather, is it an epi-phenomenon?

4. In relation to your question, Jeffrey, within your analysis of Marie de France's "Guigemar,"

"Could lyricism take a less human, more beautiful form than that vessel gliding across the world’s seas, enlarging the world with every wave its prow traverses?"

Isn't a ship made by humans, though, for human transport? I thought, too, of the ship that steered itself in Chaucer's "Man of Law's Tale" and therefore had no human oarsmen, so to speak, and yet it exists to carry humans from history to fantasy and back to history again. A ship is thoroughly human, isn't it?

5. I loved the way that images of blood linked so many of your narrative moments here, but it got me thinking, too, about what blood, maybe, represents, in relation to the human and inhuman. A rainstorm of blood seems both inhuman/magical and human/or at least biologically animate at the same time. Is it a kind of vitalism, albeit removed from the body [*any* body]? Can it become pure art, once it is removed from its bodily containers and takes on other forms [rain], yet how is always, somehow, sacrificial and therefore, always human?

6. I love the idea, raised by Dan and then later elaborated upon by Jeffrey, of poetry as a kind of alternate history/worlding and/or "intensification" of history that is nevertheless, in my mind, still always human. Dan wrote, quite provocatively,

"Might there be a difference between history and historicism, and something like historicity? That might allow us to think of a thing which escapes the economies of historicism, offers us those impossible hopes and wonders. Here, these wonders would never lose their historicity. They would always happen, in some sense, a relative sort of sense, in 'a' time. Any Being caught in the affective gravity of such a density would still be always dying. But with the hope of wonder--even if this is only a hope before (as I always want to channel Kermode) the door of disappointment if finally shut on us."

This seems to me to be the critical question we should be asking ourselves, over and over again. This will also means asking the question, as Michael Moore posed it in a recent letter to me, whether or not culture can even be understood: "what is it, does it offer access to any truth, does it incorporate some transcendental moment or phase?" Further, can we "understand the 'historicity of events' by reference to the 'possibility of history' (J. Taubes)"? We may cringe at terms like "transcendence" and "spirituality," and prefer instead something like "the eruption of art" or "aninormality" or "de-[human]subjectivization," but what is this whole excerpt by Jeffrey, as well as Dan's comments about "temporal/affective gravity," aiming at if not some kind of, in Jeffrey's own term, *ecstasy*?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

or me, good poetry is something that has a certain effect on the language itself--on language itself. Among its many functions, are to open the language, disrupting what has fallen into 'idle talk' (a la Heidegger) such that we might imagine alternatives. So, poetry should be crashing always up against its relation to language.

I love what you wrote Dan and do not find it a tirade at all. That passage I reproduce above is now on one of my virtual sticky notes to keep in mind as a possible poetic manifesto.

I'd also add that what you wrote about Heaney's poetics also explains his incomprehension of Grendel and his mother.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Ok, I was commenting on Dan's comments and then along comes Eileen and opens the conversation even more. I have a kid to put to bed soon, but want to say two things quickly, as placemarkers to return to later: the conflation of art/beauty/the sublime isn't mine but a commonplace of Elaine Scarry derived aesthetic theory. It needs to be thought more deeply but I am not sure I can do that in this essay.

The inuhumanness of the boat for me derives from the version of it I know from the Grail legends, where (and this resonates so well with what Dan has written) its transports are to a linguistic/symbolic realm that leaves the human (and especially the humane) so far behind: think of Lancelot's exclusion from the presence of that vessel. I guess Iw as suggesting that poetry itself is not human ... but need to do something more with that ship

Eileen Joy said...

But if poetry isn't human, then maybe *access* to it is? And this reminds me of something that Dan says over and over again, here and elsewhere, that I don't think I really believe: that language is inhuman. I would love for Dan to expound upon that more.

prehensel said...

Dan and Eileen: I noticed that formulation, the language is not human. I'll admit that on first blush I didn't buy it, but then I was thinking about Lacan. If we enter into language then language is indeed separate from the human.

Maybe it's separate in the same way Frankenstein's monster is separate from human. It was created by humans, it is certainly composed of human material, but cannot be called "human" in any meaningful way.

I mean, if we do enter into language--in whatever way we imagine that happening--then it seems that language would be different.

That is probably a trite and poorly-thought-out response. Dan, can you do me one better? Please?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

That was excellent Prehensel: neither trite nor poorly-thought-out! For Lacan language is inhuman, even monstrous: it catches up the subject and renders him/her wholly self-alienated.

My favorite essay on language and the inhuman is David C Clark, on the difficult but wonderful Canadian poet bp Nichol: "Monstrosity, Illegibility, Denegation" in Monster Theory, ed. yours truly. It's a great piece (with lines like "defacing or marking the text precisely by unmasking its readability as a humane figure imposed upon a monstrously indifferent otherness"), the only problem being that the layout of the Nichols poem was totally screwed up in printing the volume.

Back to the ship of poetry. Eileen, unless you accompany me down the road that Roger Caillois (a writer indifferent to literature) has mapped, you will never believe me that the ship is inhuman (transport fashioned of human hands though it seems, I am arguing that it isn't actually a human movement machine, but the irruption into literature of what would in a rock be a city, a vision of the underworld ...). That is, Caillois' thesis of nature's "innate" or "objective" lyricism means that any art or beauty (he uses the words interchangeably) is not a human projection onto some indifferent canvas, but a mutual participation ... or better yet: a poem that leaves you reeling and the efflorescence of vivid color on a dark sea floor are two versions of the same inhuman thing. Humans did not invent art, but found art within them, like a grey geode might disclose tendrils of purple calcite. What Caillois argues -- and what I agree with -- is that just because we humans found a way to put art into language, that doesn't mean that either the language or the art are the things that make us unique or human.

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: I'm happy to follow you down the road with Roger Caillois and to accept that art is not necessarily human, although it certainly plays a central role in human culture. But I've never bought Lacan's take on language or even on his Imaginary and Symbolic realms. Language is not inhuman, although the various processes of, maybe, being indoctrinated/dragged into a symbolic realm that you did not invent can certainly be [inhumanly] violent. So, language can perform inhuman operations, but it is not, in and of itself, inhuman, at least, I don't think so. Is it just me, or isn't that obvious? This makes my head hurt sometimes. But I will admit that I don't buy into Lacan's idea on this . . . at *all*.

medievalkarl said...

I suppose I accept the (partial) inhumanity of language, ships, and especially of ships that take us inexorably away from ourselves. I accept this at least if I accept that whatever surprises us with a life of its own--and when a object, or especially an artifact, becomes art it springs to (its own) life--is at once inhuman and, if you will forgive me, in human.

This is just a fancy way of saying that the aesthetic response happens in between us and a something else that is, in that response, becomes (known as a) someone else. Experienced is perhaps a better word than known here. The response is traffic between what we already know to be in us and that which is inherent to the artifact. This is its inhuman life, immortal perhaps, perhaps waiting to surprise others in the same way, perhaps in ways we could never comprehend. It is its own life, after all.

I'm drawn to these thoughts less by the inhumanity of language in Lacan (or various other models in which our lives take form by being poured into various ominous structures) by Prehensel's nice Frankenstein analogy than I am by my recent reading of Julian Yates. "Inhumanity," whether in Lacan (et al.) or Shelley, is all too often thought to be a scary thing. Yet we are always already inhuman, not just because of the impossibility of arriving at a human identity (see me, ad nauseam), but also because of the networks, assemblages, what have you, of heterogeneous time, place, living and quasi-living things by which we are our always shifting ourselves. It's not scary, not ominous. This is an exhilarating (and I'm tempted to say, with Ignoge, exilerating) inhumanity.

Many of us will see tomorrow just what Yates can do with an inhuman object, so I'll just offer a few key moments from his "Accidental Shakespeare," Shakespeare Studies, 34 (2006): 90-122.

Here's what he says he's up against:

"Our rhetoric of description demands that we take the human as a founding category and requirement for intelligibility. We craft our histories accordingly, subordinating the lives of the nonhuman actors in our midst to chronologies we derive from human institutions (political and religious) or the genealogies of our practices (sexuality, discipline)."

But inspired--so far as I can determine, above all--by Bruno Latour, Michael Serres, and Isabelle Stengers, he wonders about oranges (among other things, but primarily oranges) and asks:

"What do oranges make of us? Can I inhabit the perspective of an item of use, and travel the world and the archive as orange, by becoming "orange"? If we (persons and oranges) are engaged in a "common becoming," what does that do to the stories we tell to legitimate or excavate our present?"

"The question of what it is an orange or oranges might "want" functions instead as the limit to what I can say--a question that should precisely not be answered but retained as an empty set that taxes our acts of making and feats of description to remind us that we are actively constituting a world by and in our writing of "oranges." One day that set may be filled--oranges may already be asking for things, but in a language I do not yet comprehend--and when that set is filled, our discourses, the conditions of production of knowledge about what we call the world will be irrevocably changed."

We might even ask, to really dislodge the (old) human, what it means to think from the perspective of our own intestinal fauna, the lifeworlds within what we too often, too obstinately, continue to think of as our own life.

prehensel said...

Karl: not really a response so much as a bibliography, I guess.

Thomas Nagel's "What is it Like to be a Bat?" in the Philosophical Review (forget the issue and year) and David Barash's recent essay in The Chronicle ( both speak to your post in different ways. And both are good reads.