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.