Wednesday, January 19, 2011

the heart that you call home

by J J Cohen

(read about an exciting graduate seminar about to launch before I blather about mine in progress)

Last night in my Objects seminar we took as a point of departure two unrelated, almost casual asides:
(1) Pondering a Bush-era "Culture of Life" that could in one breath decry stem cell research and support war in Iraq, Jane Bennett wondered how one could be at once committed to vitalism through a love of life, and yet be committed to lethal force through a love of violence. We asked, Isn't the real challenge posed by indifference, especially to the lives of others? When certain locations become the privileged spaces of vitality, who pays a price?
(2) In the Breton lays Sir Degaré and Lay le Freine, an extraneous passage appears:
The maide toke the child hir mide
And stale oway in an eventide,
And passed over a wild heth.
Thurch feld and thurch wode hye geth
Al the winterlong night -
The weder was clere, the mone was light -
So that hye com bi a forest side (Le Freine 145-52)

The maiden tok the child here mide,
Stille awai in aven tide,
Alle the winteres longe night.
The weder was cler, the mone light;
Than warhth she war anon
Of an hermitage in a ston (Degaré 219-24)
The scenes are uncannily similar: an unnamed maiden has intervened to save an unwanted infant (in one case a girl, in the other a boy) from a terrible fate, spiriting the baby into the care of strangers. The beauty of the evening -- cloudless; crepuscular; winter lucidity of the moon -- has nothing to do with the scene of rescue. Yet aven tide intrudes, twice, as superfluous as it is lovely. Does the moon care that it illuminates an infant conveyed from peril to an unknown life? Is the setting indifferent to the benevolence of the hermit or the abbess who will ensure the child's new life? Or is there some intimacy between maiden and winter night, so that one must accompany the other, that they are part of the same vibrancy or vitality?

We turned to Thoreau's Walden, since the work is among Bennett's favorite texts (Vibrant Matter is underwritten by American and British Romanticism as well as the philosophers it examines; there's as much Whitman and Coleridge in its underworkings as Spinoza and Deleuze in its citations). We looked at the beauty of this early passage, in which Thoreau pauses in the woods while constructing his cabin by Walden pond:
The ice in the pond was not yet dissolved, though there were some open spaces, and it was all dark-colored and saturated with water. There were some slight flurries of snow during the days that I worked there; but for the most part when I came out on to the railroad, on my way home, its yellow sand heap stretched away gleaming in the hazy atmosphere, and the rails shone in the spring sun, and I heard the lark and pewee and other birds already come to commence another year with us. They were pleasant spring days, in which the winter of man's discontent was thawing as well as the earth, and the life that had lain torpid began to stretch itself. One day, when my axe had come off and I had cut a green hickory for a wedge, driving it with a stone, and had placed the whole to soak in a pond-hole in order to swell the wood, I saw a striped snake run into the water, and he lay on the bottom, apparently without inconvenience, as long as I stayed there, or more than a quarter of an hour; perhaps because he had not yet fairly come out of the torpid state. It appeared to me that for a like reason men remain in their present low and primitive condition; but if they should feel the influence of the spring of springs arousing them, they would of necessity rise to a higher and more ethereal life.
Great stuff, and almost irresistible, so stunning is the narration: just as the warming sun lifts the cold from the earth, lifts the snake into better communion with the woods that surround it, so Thoreau in his lucid solitude is lifted to empyrean life, to a perspective denied those men held by common society's chill torpor. Thoreau is proud of the retreat he constructs, and gives us every detail of its rising, even the total price. A bit later he informs us that the boards for his walls were purchased from an Irishman named James Collins, whose shanty he demolishes. Thoreau inspects Collins' house before taking possession, noting the scant but treasured possessions within -- a parasol, a gilded mirror, a coffee mill -- as well as a cat at the window and an infant "in the house where it was born." The next day he journeys to collect his purchased materials:
At six I passed him and his family on the road. One large bundle held their all -- bed, coffee-mill, looking-glass, hens -- all but the cat; she took to the woods and became a wild cat, and, as I learned afterward, trod in a trap set for woodchucks, and so became a dead cat at last.
It's an oddly dispassionate scene. We want Thoreau to have his experience of the Wild, want him to narrate to us the allure of serpents that bask in vernal sun and invite the mind to transcendence, but what about the Collins family? What about their cat? Does it matter that the material of his retreat arrives from the ruins of their life? That their pet comes to no good end? Or should we take the transaction for what it was, an economic exchange rather than a space for affect? Does Thoreau's discovery of his own vibrant materialism come at a cost, and should we hold him to account?

Spent in Fostering
Romances and lays typically ignore the economic exchanges that structure the worlds in which their authors lived and their actions unfold. Lai le Freine, a faithful English translation of Marie de France's "Le Fresne," describes how an infant girl is rescued from infanticide and delivered as a foundling to an abbey. The baby is abandoned with a rich cloth and a ring, tokens of her aristocratic origin. She is fostered with love (we know this because in the English version the Abbess's sadness at the departure of her adopted daughter is palpable, unlike in Marie), but this fostering seems to cost only emotion: that is, neither the ring nor the cloth are sold to pay for the expenses of raising the girl. Sir Degaré, however, is almost unique in its acknowledgment that the fostering of a child takes an expenditure of real, material resources. When the hermit who as an uncle raised Degaré reveals to the young man that he was discovered as a foundling, Degaré immediately leaves his functional family to find his biological one. To help him along on his quest, the benevolent hermit returns the money with which as an infant he had been conveyed into the world on that moonlit night:
He tok him his florines and his gloves
That he had kept to hise bihoves.
Ac the ten pound of starlings
Were ispended in his fostrings.
Degaré is given the coins and gloves his mother left with her abandoned baby, but the ten pounds worth of sterling that was expended in nurturing him for twenty years cannot be provided. His adoptive family (the hermit and his sister) have expended their resources upon Degaré, as well as their love. Does this passage invite us to wonder why Degaré so quickly turns his back upon them? In this lay that through potent objects strives to bring all its human relationships into a structure of belonging (a structure so tight that incest is perpetually a possibility), they are the story's loose ends, the people denied a happy ending -- or, really, any ending. They are, like the Collins family, nearly below notice. Except, perhaps, a little different, because we know that the care of Degaré cost them something, that their participation in his journey leaves them with less than they might otherwise have had. Not a loss of money, but a loss of expended regard.

The night-wandering maidens of these two Breton lays convey to safety but not to security the lives they nurture. Degaré, the Lost One, is the future knight's real name, not a temporary appellation. The nameless maiden, his guardian angel, helps Degaré to his lostness. His mistake in later life is to find himself too securely -- and thereby find himself married to his own mother, a lady whose father's love borders on incest and whose unlooked-for lover rapes her to engender Degaré. Can he live happily ever after in the wake of such relations?

We puzzled in seminar over epistemology, ontology, causality. So long as we are narrative-dependent, our ways of knowing are driven by story, our effects will find their causes through the accounts we narrate. Bennett's Vibrant Matter is more performative than argumentive: to enter the book, to enter a Breton lay, is to suspend what you know of how the world works and open both mind and body to excitation, intensification of cognition and affect. It is also to cast a wide glance. If the vibrancy of the world is to be discerned, it clearly cannot be at the cost of those reduced to mere resources -- no matter whether that reduction happens to displaced Irish families, forgotten hermits or abbesses, abandoned cats, or matter considered only as raw, inert, passive. To repeat some words differently, vibrant materiality demands a vitality in which all lives matter. It demands messengers, sublunary go-betweens, those who move from one place to another in order to change both. These are literally angels, messengers (as Michel Serres insists), perpetually conveyed, becoming and traveling without necessary destination, always mindful that a retreat into heaven leaves too many abandoned on the rubbish heaps of the earth.


dan remein said...

nice post JJC.

Just wanted to add to your comment from Serres on Angels:

Caputo has a reading of email in light of Aquinas' angelology, which displaces the tekne/physis opposition as one from which we can't get any "mileage" anymore [this was his response to a question from an analytic philosopher in the audience of this talk who pointed out at Caputo's syllogisms were faulty--Caputo said yes they were, but true or not, we won't get any more mileage out of the opposition].

The mid. eng. lays here seem to me not just to point out how humans are always already pulsed through with matter such that sentience/nonsentience doesn't hold, or that matter has agency so much as that these things are tended as such--in terms of a husserlian gesture of returning back to the 'things themselves,' as a kind of ethical stance. The world of these lays or of Marie before these English poets already unfolds a _poetics_ by which essents appear--physis as poetic relations, the condensation of matter out of relations even into irreducibly different moments of it: not One vibrant matter energy, but finite events of irreducible configurations of matter as new and unique movements of physis encounterable thus as substance. I guess I just like the word 'being' more than the word life. I hope this doesn't make me the party pooper for the discussion of things/matter/obj-orient-ontology etc. which I'm glad to be a part of. I like its energy and impulse, but I still really like certain terms that seem to be about to become unfashionable yet again. Its like, agreeing at once with Derrida's critique of presence, but demanding we pay attention to Cosmos. Or something.

Eileen Joy said...

This is beautiful. All I have to say at the moment [really? ... yes].