Wednesday, March 02, 2011

a low moon caught in your tangles

(photo by author)
by J J Cohen

inter lunam et terram habitant spiritus
From December into mid February I didn't sleep well. An inexplicably melancholic time lifted, inexplicably, on a certain, almost unremarkable day. A forlorn undercurrent flows in some of my posts from those months. Several perceptive readers noticed, and I thank them for it.

I blame lunar pull: though the moon is a good companion for early morning runs, its low winter light finds its way to my bedroom, awakening me long before I am ready to arise. Fitful slumber has ceased, though, maybe because the waning crescent now has Venus shimmering by its side early in the mornings. But I've been thinking a great deal lately about the space between the geographies we imagine and inhabit, the light within dark that stretches between us and the moon. When medieval people looked skyward, who did they dream might traverse these skies not high enough to become a divine residence?

vocatis denique magis suis
Last night in my Objects seminar we spoke of Geoffrey of Monmouth and his History of the Kings of Britain. We began with four words that change the entire text. What had been a sober chronicle of kings, wars, and heroic feats is transformed by an unexpected advent. A desperate Vortigern, hiding in Wales and certain only that his Saxons allies will now murder him when captured, is said "in the end to summon his magicians," seeking advice on how to escape his doom. The entrance of these magicians (magi) is extraordinary, for the History has been a text of little enchantment: despite its heightened state of human possibility, battles are quotidian melees, and the kings of the island die by sword, knife, or old age. Natural wonders occur from time to time: a rain of blood; a sea monster who devours a violent monarch; a king who dabbles in necromancy to no great effect. The few marvels are as quietly narrated as they are seemingly uncaused. Even Merlin, who will enter the narrative shortly after the magicians, is not a weaver of spells but a prophet and an engineer.

The advent of the magi changes the rules of the text, allowing familiar objects to be caught within and to exert forces hitherto unthinkable. They open the space in which romance and the Breton lays will be engendered; they transmute history into strange new genres. The magicians advise Vortigern to construct a tower and dwell within, safe from his enemies. The stonemasons he tasks with its construction, though, are baffled when the earth nightly swallows any foundation they erect, leaving no trace of its having been fabricated. The magicians declare that the blood of a boy with no father could, if used to baptize the rocks, enable a firmer foundation for Vortigern's desired architecture.

They find such a child in Merlin, whose mother is a cloistered nun. She explains that a handsome young man used to come to her cell, sometimes simply to converse, sometimes to make love. Maugantius, a man who enters the narrative without any explanation of who he is or why he holds such expertise, explains to a curious Vortigern that many books attest that other men have been born through similar means:
between the moon and the earth live spirits which we call incubus demons. these have partly the nature of men and partly that of angels, and when they wish they assume mortal shapes and have intercourse with women (trans. Lewis Thorpe, 168)
Notably, however, Merlin -- neither human nor angel; sublunar and extraterrestrial; a messenger from the spaces between -- announces the insufficiency of these magicians. They do not know the secrets of the earth as he does. No blood will ever make the foundations of the tower hold. He instructs Vortigern's men to excavate the building site, and then to drain the pool they uncover. He predicts correctly that two hollow stones will be revealed there. Whenopened, two dormant dragons are exposed, and immediately they fight. This battle triggers the string of prophecies that Geoffrey records as a separate book, prophecies so obscure and impenetrable that they resist all comprehension ("A Mountain Ox shall put on a Wolf's head and grind its teeth white in the Severn's workshop. The Ox will collect round itself the flocks of Albany and those of Wales; and this company will drain the Thames dry as it drinks." Um, yeah, that is crystal clear in what it portends, uh huh). Equivocation and ambivalence, we realize retrospectively, have characterized Geoffrey's text throughout, and these meanings at war with each other become more plentiful during the narrative of Arthur's ascendancy. Thus this most glorious king of the Britons is brought into the world through Merlin's assistance in ways that uncannily recall the circumstances of Merlin's own birth. Arthur's "death" is as clouded as his coming into the world.

The tower erected upon the site where these (fossil?) dragons spring to life will be the same tower in which Vortigern is incinerated. Architectures of stone are henceforth saturated with both history and futurity: Merlin is, after all, the engineer who transports Stonehenge from Ireland (to which it had been transported from Africa) as a war memorial, as a living and sensation-emitting monument that in some ways takes the place of Geoffrey's History itself. For who else is the architect Merlin, who proves that "artistry is worth much more any brute strength," than Geoffrey himself, whirring through his own story, transforming himself through the objects that his narratives enliven?

In Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth, Elizabeth Grosz writes that
Art is of the animal. It comes, not from reason, recognition, intelligence, not from a uniquely human sensibility, or from any of man's higher accomplishments, but from something excessive, unpredictable, lowly ... Art comes from the excess, in the world, in objects, in living things, that enables them to be more than they are, to give more than themselves, their material properties and qualities, their possible uses, than is self-evident. Art is the consequence of that excess, that energy or force, that puts life at risk for the sake of intensification, for the sake of sensation itself ... for what can be magnified, intensified, for what is more, through which creation, risk, innovation are undertaken for their own sake, for how and what they may intensify. (63)
Geoffrey of Monmouth suggests that Grosz is correct in everything she writes about art except for her first sentence. Art is not only of the animal: art is of the mineral, the inorganic, the inhuman as well.


Unknown said...

I think it is also significant the ritual the magicians propose to appease the rocks. Like animists seeking some anthropomorphic spirit in N/nature, they are misinterpreting their relationship to the inorganic object and trying to offer it a blood sacrifice as if it were a sapient thing. Hubristically trying to control that which they cannot, the magicians proposed solution is doomed to failure. Merlin, however, knows the language of rocks, understands the agency of the inanimate stones and is able to work within an assemblage via the language of architecture. He comprehends thing-power and thus is able to tune into the vibrancy of the mineral world and, instead of shouting at it in a language of human blood it cannot or will not understand, listens to it and learns what is causing the stones’ violence.

Clearly this observation is indebted to Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Bacchanal, VERY well said: I love that formulation.