Wednesday, January 26, 2011

and maybe it will all come back to me

by J J Cohen

dark ecologies
Another snow day in DC, an early walk to Metro, a house still at rest. Today, though, no hush of traffic. No white transformation. Half frozen skyfall, sand mixed with salt. The sidewalks are slick with slush, but the squish of my boots is drowned by an alarm from an apartment building. Lightning pulses at the lower windows, cold residents stand in their pajamas, awaiting the firetrucks. Onto the subway, thinking about what Tim Morton calls dark ecology: the messy, melancholic, admixed and undigested slop that is as much an ethical ecology as any vital materialism. Last night in my Objects seminar we returned to the catalog-poem with which Jane Bennett instigates Vibrant Matter:
one large men's plastic work glove
one dense mat of oak pollen
one unblemished dead rat
one white plastic bottle cap
one smooth stick of wood
This refuse clinging to a storm drain could, perhaps, offer a dark ecology, the task of which is "to love the disgusting, inert and meaningless" (Ecology Without Nature 195). Yet Bennett's shimmering debris  is none of these things. Bennett's poem renders the dross of the world alluring, lively, saturated with significance -- a poetics for re-enchantment. Can we imagine a dark vibrancy? Would such an expanse constitute what Bruno Latour, in another essay we read in seminar last night, scandalously labels a kakosmos?

We began with the Breton lai Sir Orfeo, asking why all those bodies in pieces, alive even in their dying, populate the court of the Fairy King. How can kidnapped Heurodis slumber so peacefully beneath an "ympe-tree" while the dismembered, the mad, the strangled, the drowned, the burnt neighbor her dreams? These fellow sleepers have also been seized from the ordinary world; they likewise seem now to exist in a somnolence removed from time, preserved in the agony of their capture. Could the peacefulness of Heurodis arrive because she did not resist the advent of her taking? The Fairy King warned her that should she not appear at the appointed time at the ympe-tree in the courtly world, "thou worst y-fet / And totore thine limes al / That nothing help the no schall" (170-2). By surrendering to adventure, to the thing that arrives unwilled and sometimes undesired, she is transported out of time but not out of body. A future opens that otherwise could not have arrived.

She is in this way like her husband. Once Heurodis is taken by the fairies, he dons a pilgrim's cloak but seeks nothing. He wanders the wilds in a bare existence, a barren space of "snewe and frese." Nothing pleases ("seth he nothing that him liketh"). Whereas Thoreau discovered in the sunbathing of a serpent the appearance of "thing-power," the invitation that the world's materiality offers to "be surprised by what we see" (Bennett 5), Orfeo discerns only "wilde wormes," unsatisfying roots to eat, and "berien but gode lite" (berries of little worth). No vibrant materiality here. Yet through the music of his harp he allies himself with "weder ... clere and bright," with a forest yearning for resonance, with birds and wild beasts hungry for "gle" and "melody." The moment of being-together that he creates through his music seems to call forth the King of Fairy, who wanders the woods with his retinue on a hunt in which nothing is pursued. Orfeo, ten years in the forest and transformed now into an arboreal semblance ("He is y-clongen also a tre!" exclaim his subjects upon his return), has given himself over to adventure: an advent or coming that like the Fairy King's hunt moves without telos, without objective. Adventure is a surrender to a world in which the self is a non-autonomous part, an embrace of a cosmos larger than the confines of a single subjectivity.

Orfeo speaks for the first time since his exile began when he beholds the falcons that the fairies bear. These effulgent birds remind him of his abandoned life ("Ich was y-won such wrk to se!"). Once he connects Otherworld and relinquished court he finds his opening. Adventure is an active surrender: you cannot seek it, it's not an objective, but you can train yourself to perceive its arrival, to recognize the dangerous invitation it offers. Once adventure arrives or is discerned you had better depart the orbit of your ordinary life. Orfeo follows the fairy retinue into a rock and across the flattest of plains. He rescues Heurodis with his music. The King fears the two are ill-matched, but offers no impediment to their return: no warning not to look back as they depart the Fairy realm, but a benediction ("Of hir ichil thatow be blithe," I hope that you are happy with her). He is.

We wondered again about earthly messengers, sublunary angels, those who make the world's vibrancy possible, those without whom some radiant future cannot arrive, but those who are left behind even at that future's advent.

We spoke of Marie de France's Guigemar, how aventure comes in the form of a doe-stag and a ship crafted from poetry. Guigemar surrenders to the invitation that the ship offers without seeking it; he is conveyed by this most material of metaphors to another realm, one in which he is the aventure for an entrapped dreamer. He is forced to depart his lover after eighteen happy months, while she remains for two years the prisoner of an elderly husband and a stone tower. On the day on which she decides to drown herself, she finds the door to the prison unlocked and the boat that has twice conveyed Guigemar awaiting, tied to the very rock at which she would have hurled herself into the sea. Was the door always unlocked, the ship always abiding? Or did it take her leaving the small circuit of her daily life and trusting the uncertainty of that which is to come (aventure, l'avenir)? The way is difficult (she is transported to another prison), but she and Guigemar overcome every impediment and end the narrative as Orfeo and Heurodis do, in lasting companionship.

Despite the ministrations of the ship, Guigemar and the unnamed lady would never have found their aventure without the help of the lady's maid, the niece whom she loves. This girl approaches the strange ship when her mistress flees. She discovers Guigemar onboard, then brings her lady to view him. She supports the wounded knight as he makes his way to the tower, washes him, and serves as the intermediary between the two. The maid discerns that both are in love; advises them; brings them both to union. Without her, the aventure would fail: she is the essential link.

She is left behind. Her lady sails to Brittany aboard the magic ship, departs immurement in the tower for freedom and a new future, but we hear nothing of this maiden. Like all sublunary angels -- the go-betweens whose near invisibility hides their absolute necessity -- she vanishes. Love in Marie de France's lais is a kind of vibrancy: it enriches one's very existence, and fills the world with enchantment. But it also depends upon another kind of love, that given by those who carry babies to their new futures on unnecessarily beautiful, moonlit nights; those who read the unfolding narrative for what it can most fully offer and push two lovers into deserved embrace. A mediator's love is unrequited. Ask the young maiden abandoned at the tower when her lady departs upon an eager vessel. What was it like to watch that ship set sail, to witness l'avenir in its intense and vagabond unfolding, and to know that that transport will never be your own? The ship and the lady have left you on a rocky shore. Without you their story cannot arrive, but their story is not yours.


Liza Blake said...

Geez, if I had known you were going to summarize every class I would have thought twice about auditing ...

Jeffrey Cohen said...

You can see, my dear Liza, what a partial summary I offer. There's nothing, for example, about your dissing the undergrad Chaucer course you took with me. Nothing.

dan remein said...

well, I'm sure that's less Jeffrey's fault than Geoffrey's...

Karl Steel said...

Lovely stuff, Jeffrey.

Apropos of Orfeo, fwiw: I believe that when I taught it (F07), I suggested that Heurodis never comes back to life. Orfeo may return with her, but her silence (does she speak again after going to Fairy?) allows us to imagine Orfeo returning with a simulacrum, or a Heurodis irredeemably altered by her time 'over there.' Surely there's a vital and/or speculative materialistic reading of the inability of Heurodis to go back again.

The kyng that had grete plenté
Of mete and drinke withouten le,
Long he may dyge and wrote
Or he have hys fyll of the rote.
In somour he lyvys be the frute
And berys that were full suete;
In wynter may he nothing fynd
Bot levys and grasse and of the rynd.
Hys body is awey dwyned
And for grete cold al to-schend.
Hys berd was both blake and rowghe
And to hys gyrdellsted it drewghe.
He can telle of grete care
That he suffyrd ten wynter and more;
In a tre that was holow,
Ther was hys haule, evyn and morow.

The basic readings of this are obvious: it's an ubi sunt topos (where are the glories that Orfeo once enjoyed at court?); it's a penitential diet of loss (John Chrysostom the hairy saint, especially, but also Partenopeu of Blois); but, as I'm going to argue at MEMSI, the sylvan diet is also a diet of a more intimate relation to a world. It's a way of being, or recognizing oneself as thrown into, the life-substance of the world (this of the forest as silva, and silva as, in medieval neoplatonism, the nous, the substance of the world before form: this is via Bernard Silvestris, which I got from Eugene Vance). Where is Orfeo when he's in the forest? In a time of care, but also in a place of being in rather than over, or in control of, the world.

This reading doesn't allow for a sense of particular objects, sure, so it's doesn't engage with OOO; but it does frustrate the humanist paradigm (one promoted by the poem itself, to a degree) of Orfeo having lost all, or nearly all, during his time of exile.

Liza Blake said...

Karl, could you tell me what Vance I should be reading for medieval neoplatonism? Or what else?

Karl Steel said...

The what else: I don't know! here is the passage I had in mind.