Monday, June 20, 2011

An Abecedarium for the Elements (draft)

by J J Cohen

Here the draft of my piece for New Critical Modes, the next issue of postmedieval. Some background here. Why this form remains to me a mystery, but remember: it is Chaucerian. For all that matters.

An Abecederium for the Elements


Following the four elements in their movements suggests a method of thinking about the world that is atheological and unpredetermined, a secular and speculative vitalism in which life is possessed by the nonbiological. The essay is structured around an abecedarium, or alphabetic list, a mnemonic device with a long history.

A is for aerial, the gods’ domain.

We sense its presence at every lift of leaves, in tempests that gather, in the tremble of a transatlantic flight. We might pray when these movements perturb. Yet we also suspect that gusts, drafts and mistrals might be the world’s agency rather than divine breath, that the elements might be artists rather than emissaries.
Olympus, Asgard, the celestial vault almost touched by clay bricks at Babel: deities dwell in lofty mansions to imitate their native element and remain unseen. So long as the world’s motion is guided its tragedies are intended. Gods rule the remote earth and make heaven mundane. Theology might insist upon the inhumanity of the divine, but celestial dwelling places are unfailingly anthropomorphic, comfortable homes. But what if no aerial gods abide? This abecedarium charts a world enlivened by elements, a perturbed expanse in which humans are one actor among many. A quadrivium of earth, air, water and flame mingle to offer an invitation to nonanthropocentric worldedness, a secular mode of thought not necessarily anchored in realms where divine and aerial conflate.
Air is at last neither celestial nor invisible.

B for the brilliance of cloud, earth and rain

To each element belongs movement, intensity, vector, affect and duration, as well as ardors to combine and pull apart.

Whirling above tectonic earth but beneath swift and sidereal fire, air and water are elements of moderate duration. Yet despite bolts and rumblings, a propensity to glide disdainful above sea and land, a cloud is not so heavenly. Cumulus is heap or gathering: vapor, lightning, sky and dirt, four elements in turbid and volatile suspension, and a figure for the life of each. Clud is the Old English word for a mass of earth or rock, a clot. Though we consider earth dull, stone is a heaving and metamorphic element that inhabits a span so slow humans miss its undulations. To glimpse the elements in their proper temporalities is to see fire as slow consuming, water as ice and rift and ram. To behold earth as cloud. Rock is a restless matter, a billow of airborne shapes that having brushed heaven fall to rise again.
Cloud is a coruscation or churn of dusty water; cumuli that nuzzle the ground as fog; fire that flashes when the world is wettest; all the elements in one, an Empedoclean or Boethian tumult of love with strife.

C is causality that vertu confuses

Vertu is the most inhumanly powerful word in medieval English and French, its meanings ranging from energy, might and vitality to potential, magic, and force. Vertu does not descend from heaven (God sends miracles; vertu resides already in the substance of the world), nor rise from hell (it is a real possession of materiality and form, not the trick of a demon). Stones and leaves radiate vertu as easily as knights, horses and clerics. Humans may ally themselves with the vertu of gems or herbs to accomplish through mineral and vegetal friendship feats otherwise impossible. Vertu is life force: reproduction and vitality, affect and intellect and health, that which moves the flesh. The term can be theologized, so that sacramental efficacy and probity are among its polysemous yields. Anthropomorphized vertu also includes legal authority and chivalric valor. But vertu is at last as nonhuman as it is profane, and therefore the term that best describes the elements in their solitary powers, moving the world whether humans or gods desire. Of which vertu engendred is the flour, of which vertu engendered is the soul, even the souls of cloud-like stones.

D the desire the elemental diffuses

Ta panta rhei, everything flows. Presocratic philosophers discerned in matter an endless percolation, a combinatory mutability within inexorable flux. Sometimes, as for Heraclitus, this unrelenting current left little space for endurance. For others, though, some principle of union could bring into being objects that persist, not for eternity, but for a durable space, a pause before the creation of new objects, a space during which objects might live, might connect, might withdraw.

Quadricameral Empedocles is therefore the patron saint of this abecedarium. A minor philosopher, perhaps, and known in the Middle Ages mainly though Aristotle, this master of divided elements broke the world into four particular and autonomous movements, then recomposed the stuff of life from substance-causes that would not stay chaste. Love and strife were for Empedocles both cosmic glue and guarantors of change: desires inbuilt within materiality itself, a particle physics. Fire, water, earth, water, love, strife become six divinities to intermingle and leave a part of themselves in every material thing, ensuring intrinsic heterogeneity, becoming over being. A poet for the physical sciences, Empedocles knew that the world is larger than insentient atoms but smaller than omniscient gods.

E is an elephant, herbivore chaste

The elephant is an abstinent beast. According to the bestiaries, this lustless animal would not possess the desire necessary for copulation were it not for the agency of a root. By ingesting mandrake, the vegetal pander that enables animal union, the elephant ensures endurance of the species. Except when under the influence of an earthbound root, elephants do not desire each other’s flesh; yet they do crave a future greater than their allotted span.

Though this piece of animal lore might seems odd, elephants are not so different from iconic medieval lovers. Herbal go-betweens recur. Tristan and Isolde might never have loved without ocean thirst and a potion to bind them in flame. Marie de France writes in her lai “Les Deus Amanz” of a doctor in Salerno who knows herbes e racines (herbs and roots). When distilled into mescine, these plants can enable a would-be paramour to support an otherwise unbearable weight, that of the conjugal couple. The inamarato in question dies, though, because he will not ally his flesh with botanical potency. When the unused potion is spilled across the mountain he was attempting to ascend, the inclement slope becomes a perpetual flowerbed. A lover’s trust in human sufficiency is lethal. Desire is a hybrid thing, mixing the vegetal with the animal, the sterile durability of earth with the fertile potency of water to create a kind of fire. Elephants have long known this fact.

F for the fire that burns in the waste

According to a scurrilous legend that circulated after his death, Empedocles sensed his nearing demise and leapt into fiery Etna. He hoped to convince those left behind that he had been rendered a god. His famous bronze sandal was discovered at the crater’s edge, however, and this unintended remnant declared his mortality. The philosopher would remain terrestrial.

Empedocles argued that each of us may be a celestial daimôn in earthly exile. Fire was therefore his favorite element: most empyrean, most catalytic, the principle of life itself. Though he may have left his shoe upon the stone when he jumped, he knew what he embraced: not divinity so much as an element that combines the others and lifts them skyward, even as it sears. Although nothing itself, mere aftermath, fire is an element irresistible to allegory: alive as it consumes, extinguished only to arise elsewhere, radiant, vibrant, warm. Fire possesses everything we who dwell at the volcano’s fringe do not, our little lives bounded by blazing dreams.

G the indignity of being god

    Prospero’s mistake is to believe himself a deity of vengeance. Every detail of the play he has scripted for his island is precisely arranged. Arial, spirit of air and fire, performs the magic this dramaturge envisions, rendering words scenes. Yet Prospero forgets that air and fire are not The Tempest’s elements. This is not a drama of messengers and mechanical gods. How wrong that nuptial pageant goes, and how thankful we must be for the strange and hollow sound to scatter its staging. The Tempest is earth and ocean, a deluge to sink its occupants below the waterline, into that mucky ooze where bones are gems. When Prospero drowns his books and abdicates his magic, he walks away from his own divinity and recedes into quiet life, removed from the transformations he once loved. Full fathom five is only thirty feet. As Steve Mentz (2009, 9) observes, a good swimmer can touch that bottom.

    Chaucer thought he knew better, if we believe the clerk of Orleans. This magician in the Franklin’s Tale fills his study with a forest, deer with great horns, hounds and high falcons, dancers who invite onlookers to companionship. Like Prospero’s magic these scenes arrive from books. They are as easily dismissed: “he clapte his handes two / And farewel! Al oure revel was ago” (5.1203-4). The marvelous visions were always immured within the study “ther as his bookes be” (1207). No transport, no transformation. A clap of the hands and the filing away of the volumes and it is time for dinner and business. Magic is a mere transaction, a thousand pounds for some black rocks vanishing. Consult another book, some tables that determine tides, and those stones are underwater. But not deep enough, not even fathoms five.

The Franklin’s Tale ends generously, as men free each other from bonds. Yet any reader attentive to the narrative will hear in Dorigen’s plea against the rocks a prayer for a world where stone and water are equally metamorphic. The story was ruined when the clerk left his study. A true magician would have taken from his shelf the Book of Earth and Water. He’d discover no comfortable narrative. He’d find himself washed somewhere distant, some cloudy place of stone and sea. The clerk of Orleans and Prospero learn the indignity of being a god. Inscribe the scripts and spells in whatever books you like. Roar out directions to your players or force them into covenants that extract too high a price. You’ll sink your books that way, or you’ll shut your study door and think dinner and business preferable to blank pages and open ends. No wonder when the fable closes you are revealed a fragile thing, the one who declares he never knew you (“Ne nevere er now ne haddest knowen me”), the one whose charms are all overthrown.

H for the humors for Galen to prod

The impress of place upon body is elemental. According to the encyclopedist Bartholomaeus Anglicus, “the sonne abideth long over the Affers, men of Affrica, and brennen and wasten humours and maken ham short of body, blacke of face, with crispe here.” The fire of the south inscribes itself on bodily size, skin color, and humoral balance, leaving austral dwellers prone to cowardice. Northerners, on the other hand, are cooled to whiteness and valor. They carry place within (brave spirits due to favorable balance of the bodily humors) and without (pleasing body shape, pale skin). Bartholomaeus and his translator were, of course, boreal.

For humans and for animals the four elements that generate climate are linked intimately to the four humors that sustain bodily form, mental faculties, and spirit. In the garden of Eden all humans began as clay, but their destinies came to be shaped by air, water and fire.

Iudaizare, a small becoming

The western Middle Ages were a Christian space. That statement obscures the vastness and the heterogeneity that Christianitas contains, and yet a medieval studies that does not anchor its answers in Christian theology is not easy to envision. The temptation is to work in the ghetto, in a space that did not exist during much of the Middle Ages: to find an enclosed space in which secluded inquiries might be conducted.

The Jewry was a mixed urban area, Christians and Jews living side by side. Stone and wood houses, gardens with medicinal herbs, shared air and from time to time shared meals. Seditious or amicable neighboring and linguae francae seem to me preferable to Latin and Hebrew solitudes. Combinations, not stillness; corners, not cathedrals; history’s dreams.

L for Langho, a dragon’s undoing

According to the Book of John Mandeville, not far from Crete reside two islands ruled by Hippocrates’s daughter. She dwells in dragon’s flesh and awaits the knight brave enough to kiss her monster’s mouth. She is a solitary being, glimpsed sometimes in her maiden’s form as she regards a mirror, seeking perhaps to know her true self. Once a knight from Rhodes attempted the caress, but his horse conveyed him to death by rocks and water. Once a youth from nowhere in particular discovered her castle, agreed to be knighted to attain her beauty, but fled in fear upon beholding her draconian form. He had been warned. What did he dread? Leaving the trajectory of his small life? Living a narrative to transformative culmination? The story of Hippocrates’ daughter is a parable of the insufficiency of love. The princess yearns for escape from her monstrous form, yet can never persuasively convey to her suitors that even our bodies are constant in their change: sublime one day, terrifying the next, objects of a universe where all things withdraw, leaving us to cry for companionship at whatever shore where we’ve been abandoned.

    The rocks and lethal water in this story are not for conveyance, not for change. They are terminal, a reminder that elements are blunt, composing forlorn islands as easily as utopia.

M is magnetism, the pull to the air

1:28 and sleep gone. Coat and gloves and a keen ice night. A moment and I have it, white circle in bare trees. A crescent of darkness slides its edge.

I am thinking of oceans, lunar roil on my tongue: Mare Undarum, Mare Spumans, Mare Imbrium, Mare Ingenii, Mare Nubium, Mare Insularum, Mare Frigoris, seas of waves of foam of showers of cleverness of clouds of islands of cold. But the moon is stone not water. The Oceanus Procellarum is ceaseless storms, but consult the atlas: frigid, arid, gray dust, dead. Encyclopedic Isidore tells us that lunar light is lent.
Before I knew Latin I knew the wet life of the moon, its tidal pull on our waves, on the water in our skin. Why shouldn't it have troubled rollers of its own? Maria lunae. Rhythm of words that pace with me. I romanticize that cold thing. Panpsychism, anthropomorphism, animism. The satellite is frozen and dry.
Lunar indifference cannot hold. Winter's early mornings draw me, companion me, even when their coldness hurts. Some clouds drift the low brightness, but it is good to see it round again. The shadow of the earth has passed. I run my circuit, alone but not solitary, thinking about Mandeville and the English star and wandering, a childhood haunted by oceans, the assurance of storm and tempest and elements that churn, the promise of the moon.

N dreams of Adam, the loss of nowhere

In Luminous Debris Gustaf Sobin finds Eden in prehistory. During this golden age humans subsisted upon the gifts of the land, no need to steal domain or resources. In this community none felt individualism’s ache. Stones, rings, megaliths, pictographs, monuments are luminous in that these vestiges of lost history blaze connections whereby past and present momentarily conjoin. In this ephemeral glow we realize our diminution into cold, sterile and reclusive modernity.

For Sobin the past is truly lost: labor over every map, attempt to read the rocks and topography, but you’ll never securely know where Hannibal crossed the Rhone. The river moves. We will never discover the location of vanished Aeria, "City of the Air," resonant locution without stable location. The Greek geographer Strabo described the polis as "altogether aerial, constructed on a raised promontory of its own" and indicated proximity to Orange and Avignon. Preserving Aeria as a nowhere allows its drift into poetry:
For Aeria seems to exist free of the very floors and crypts and quarried vaults in which it was once rooted. In an age of reductive analysis and infallible detection, it continues to resist any classification whatsoever ... There's safety, we can't help thinking, in its indeterminate status ... Buoyant, suspended, eminently diffuse, the vocable alone, in eluding us, justifies our fascination. Escaping our own stultifying structures, it gives the imagination a late place in which to muse, meditate, linger, if for no more -- indeed -- than a passing moment (2000, 172-73)
Luminous Debris is filled with moments like this reverie of ethereal habitation, gorgeous passages that inhabit the locales they vanish. We turn to ancient detritus to discover some weight there, something to anchor our drifting, nonviable now. Yet Sobin is also full of quiet hope: unlocatable fords and passes, lost portals and unmappable cities of the sky offer an invitation to escape. The questions matter more than "the mean trickle of 'verifiable fact'": "Might we even begin constituting, indeed, a collection, an entire library of questions? A whole, inexhaustible archive devoted exclusively to wonder, to query, to the unlimited breadth of human speculation?" (54-55).

O is for objects and orbits they make

Little interest exists in Luminous Debris in imagining a world in which the rocks that form a fire’s ancient windbreak might have designs other than the architectural ones into which they have been arranged. Human meaning overwrites any agency objects might possess outside of the hands that fashioned them into edifice and later touch their vestige. Whereas Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter describes a lively materiality that coexists with human allies, Luminous Debris traces the sad or heroic peregrinations of homo faber, the artist who leaves ineradicable traces upon stones and landscapes, letters to future humans about how impoverished their lives will have become. In Sobin's account environment is a history book’s page on which is recorded elemental forces: water once coursing an aqueduct, a persistent winter wind, stones that linger long after arrangers vanish, traces of prehistoric flames. But landscape and humans are only fortunate and occasional allies. Earth, air, fire and water are materials that await a shaping, not amorous actants or discordant gods.

P is for purity, solitary and fake

Empedocles underreached. His cosmos in four pieces and two movements reduced compounds to singularities. Air, earth, fire, water -- four nouns that align like an incantation -- are not even themselves. Air is a war of objects, a turbulence of rising water, gliding gulls, sand in storm. Earth holds moles, worms, volcanoes, rivers of blind fish. Fire rages in sea crevices, sulfur for the abyss. Water carries acids, protozoa, skin cells, stone tablets on which are inscribed the history we lost during the flood. Though the world is larger than atoms and smaller than small gods, the elements are a brief resting point, objects for making other objects, not an end.

Q queries quondam, requests if it's queer

Graham Harman is known for his work in Object Oriented Ontology, or OOO. He is philosophically precise, full of rigid Heideggerian phrase: "a quartet of time, space, essence, and eidos, all resulting from the tension between a specific asymmetrical pair of object and quality" (2004, 104). No poet wrote that line. Yet Harman’s work swells with kinetic metaphors that quietly labor aesthetically and performatively while the analysis does its louder business. Harman envisions "a world packed full of ghostly real objects, signaling to each other from inscrutable depths, unable to touch one another fully" (2007, 187).Vicarious causation is not, he insists, "some autistic moonbeam entering the window of an asylum" (2007, 187). With its intermixing of the gravitational and the overly solid, the liberty of lunar gleam with the carceral solidity of walls, the metaphor is both elemental and unfathomable, and that is perhaps why it is so compelling. In the wake of such images, after the impossible possibility of a self enraptured lunar ray, who would want to be on the side of those dry philosophers who invoke the "dull realism of mindless atoms and billiard balls"?

Earth is Harman’s element, but as a lively substance in which its siblings also dwell. There's no transcendence in this subsurface system, "not even distance." We are "moles tunneling through wind, water and ideas no less than through speech-acts, wonder and dirt" (2007, 210). We reside in an infinite subterranean milieu, "numberless underground cavities," but it's a place of neither finitude nor negativity. And those sparks from that distant satellite do penetrate from time to time, calling us to a wide sublunary world:
an archipelago of oracles or bombs that explode from concealment only to generate new sequestered temples. The language here is metaphorical because it must be. While analytical philosophy takes pride in never suggesting more than it explicitly states, this procedure does no justice to a world where objects are always more than they literally state. Those who care to only generate arguments almost never generate objects. New objects, however, are the sole and sacred fruit of writers, thinkers, politicians, travellers, lovers, and inventors (2007, 212)
This generation or poesis happens most frequently through the conveyance that is metaphor, which might also be called allure (215). That which is transportive, wonder inducing, and prolific constitutes an ethical aesthetics, beautiful and good. That is why each element so quickly becomes an allegory, a transport device that intermixes material with conceptual objects. Allure is fashioned of earth, fire, air and water in their shared pull.

R is for refuse’s radiance clear

Jane Bennett instigates Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things with a catalogue poem in which the rubbish on a Baltimore street radiates philosophopoetic insight:

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 detritus clinging to a storm drain could offer a dark ecology, the task of which is "to love the disgusting, inert and meaningless" (Morton 2009, 195). Yet there is nothing still or repellent in Bennett's shimmering debris. The repugnant possibilities of a rat’s corpse are counteracted by its being “unblemished.” Bennett's poem renders the dross of the world alluring, lively, saturated with significance -- a poetics for re-enchantment, a Nicene creed for the secular:

I believe in one matter-energy, the maker of things seen and unseen. I believe that this pluriverse is traversed by heterogeneities that are continually doing things. I believe it is wrong to deny vitality to nonhuman bodies, forces, and forms, and that a careful course of anthropomorphization can help reveal that vitality, even though it resists full translation and exceeds my comprehensive grasp. I believe that encounters with lively matter can chasten my fantasies of human mastery, highlight the common materiality of all that is, expose a wider distribution of agency, and reshape the self and its interests. (122)
Amen. No substance is inert, no materiality uninhabited by vitality. When humans are but one force in an unbounded network, everyday elements no longer seem so quotidian. Power grids, waterways, dense metals and windstorms become enchanted: vibrant matter, radiant matter, webs of objects with agency. If this effectivity is at times aleatory, it is seldom negligible and always a challenge to anthropocentricism. Vital materialism is a kind of spiritualism without gods, a way of restoring sacrality to elemental worldliness.

S offers anima, the souls lives hold

In Reassembling the Social Bruno Latour describes actor-network theory (ANT) as a slow and patient mode of inquiry that traces the associations through which agency emerges. Through such hybridizing networks action is dislocated: "borrowed, distributed, suggested, influenced, dominated, betrayed, translated" (2005, 46). As the catch of a storm drain becomes for Bennett a catalog poem, so for Latour a failed subway system, or microbes, or a science experiment, or a rain forest are revealed as works of science and art. Reassembling the Social reads like an instructional manual, but like everything Latour composes is full of literary reference, from Frankenstein and Rimbaud to the Bible and Hamlet. Latour describes texts as laboratories (2005, 139): they deploy actors and networks, they do not critique them. Texts, like the best classrooms, are experimental spaces. They do not explain so much as enact. Such vitality renders objectivity difficult, because it prohibits simplification and reduction of the world.

Latour innovates critical modes. The middle of Reassembling the Social contains an imagined dialogue, "On the Difficulty of Being an ANT," a sort of play-within-the textbook. Aramis, or the Love of Technology erupts with a beautiful sequence in which a personal transport system intended for Paris is abandoned by its engineers ... and Aramis (as the system was christened) begins to speak, accusing its imaginers of insufficient love. Aramis adapts the words of Victor Frankentein's Creature to form his rebuke, culminating his complaint with "Burdened with my prostheses, hated, abandoned, innocent, accused, a filthy beast, a thing full of men, men full of things, I lie before you. Eloï, eloï, Lama, lama sabachthani" (1995, 158). Not exactly subtle, but if the elemental and the inhuman is ever to possess a resounding voice, hesitant utterance will not do.

T is for great tempests, tide’s force twofold

Isidore of Seville believed that the world (mundus) takes its name from innate and perpetual movement: “The world is so named, because it is always in motion (motus), for no rest is granted to any of its elements” (Etymologies 3.29). The oceans, the lands, the stars themselves are caught in an unceasing tempest of their own creation: “The sphere of heaven is said to run with a swiftness [celeritas] so great that if the stars did not run against headlong course to delay it, it would make a ruin of the universe” (3.35). The elements as an unnumbered multitude of Hermes, swiftly moving to give the earth its nature. The universe as a velocity machine that, should the stars take their rest, would spin us to oblivion.

V is velocity, speed of the spheres

Too swift? This abecedarium is the labor of a wandering year. Composed and recomposed, written down and written with, its contents bear the impress of place: Berlin, Chicago, Barcelona, Buffalo, York and New York, Cambridge. Some lines were born on a boat. Others arrived in flight (I remember the dark, the tranquil sleepers, a thought of the stormy Atlantic). Most came in a study or quiet room, the siblings of books. A few, like these, in a café. Its writing was slow.

Yet at each reading the piece moves more quickly, from a Middle Ages watched over by God to a plurality of smaller gods in love and strife to a mundane space in which the elements give to some a vocabulary for secular intellectualism. I don’t think that invitation was ever so boldly offered or accepted as this swift reading might imply. Yet to imagine the agency of matter loosed from divine motivation, to think mundane objects apart from the interests of heaven-dwelling gods: surely these are not our privilege alone. Even if in the end they return to God or gods, carry out some divine mission that they cannot know, the elements in their entelechy push somewhere indifferent to a world diminished by divine love.

Water holds W: oceans and tears

The romance Octavian opens with the promise of fire: a dream of a burning dragon, a miscarriage of justice that consigns a new mother and her twin progeny to flames. The romance quickly becomes, however, a story of flows: saturated with brine (the transportive waves of the "Grekes se," the body of water across which the characters are perpetually conveyed by ships or gryphons; the flood from every human eye in this text of endless tears); soaked by a fresh water spring that offers respite for lions and gryphons, death to thirsty sailors, reunion for sundered families; drenched with blood that soaks the bed of marriage and childbirth as well as the battle field; alive with the breast milk from a lioness who feeds a royal child when she loses her own whelps, or from a nameless nurse secured in Jerusalem when a bourgeois merchant purchases a baby there for reasons never explained; swept by the curve of the Seine, a river that only seems to separate Christians from Saracens, while blurring the difference between sandy Jerusalem and drenched Paris; saturated by the passions that course through animal, human, and perhaps inorganic bodies; soused by a circulation of capital, merchandise, florins, pounds. Manuel De Landa, poet-philosopher of matter on the move, writes that:

reality is a single matter-energy undergoing phase transitions of various kinds ... Rocks and winds, germs and words, are all different manifestations of this same dynamic material reality ... Our organic bodies are, in this sense, nothing but temporary coagulations in these flows: we capture in our bodies a certain portion of the flow at birth, then release it again when we die and microorganisms transform us into a new batch of raw materials (1997, 21, 104).
Steve Mentz finds a similarly nonanthropocentric, nonanthropomorphic and liquid restlessness in the ocean, "a sharp tang of nonhuman immensity.”  This inhospitable and unfathomable vastness is not a metaphor (even if we cannot resist aestheticizing its surge), but a materiality that disorders, transforms, remakes the human (2009). Sopping wet Octavian seems the medieval version of these philosophies of flow: the text that sometimes stops moving (young Florent in the marketplace is enraptured by his sight of a falcon and then a steed, animals that transport him out of his middle class identity into the timelessness of chivalric belonging), and yet even these moments of arrest are components of a larger movement, towards the reunion of the broken imperial family with which the narrative began. The story ends when the Emperor is reunited with the wife he wrongly banished, with the two sons who have grown to adulthood far from Rome.

And yet, the ending of the tale is unsatisfying. The characters with whom we are intimate have been bound in iron, rendered immobile, and a person we barely know (Octavian Jr., of whom the story has told us very little) saves the day, miles ex machina. The conclusion has the family return to Rome together ... but to what future? With what promise? The book does not say. Everything flows, but the elements do not lose their integrity, do not reduce themselves to actors for a human drama’s happy but premature ending.

X is ex nihilo, nothing that is not.

Nothing comes of nothing.
For a stone to rain from the heavens is not the same as to say that a rock arrives from void. The Peterborough Lapidary speaks of a projectile that might be a meteorite. Or it might be the elemental act of creation itself:
Coparius is a stone þat is bred in þe eyre & some callen it fouldre; & he falleþ with tempest to þe erþe when gret tempest of þondres and ly3tnyng fallen, & it falleþ in to þe erþe ix fote, & þe erþe reboundeþ a3ene by vertu of þe stone. (81)
The stone hides itself for nine days, and then those who seek it may earn discovery. The one who possesses coparius will be protected from lechery, storms and mysauentur (misadventure, mis-comings). Lithic child of the air, its arrival heralded by thunderclaps and bolts of lightning, this stone that plummets and rebounds and lends its virtu to its fortunate companion shows how even clouds refuse chastity, birthing rocks that rebound upon the storm-swept earth.

Y is the ympe-tree that fairies sought

The Breton lai Sir Orfeo populates the court of the Fairy King with bodies in pieces, alive in their perpetual dying. How can the kidnapped queen 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 seem 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, Orfeo 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 2010, 5), Orfeo discerns only "wilde wormes," unsatisfying roots to eat, and "berien but gode lite" (berries of little worth). No radiant 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 surrender to a world in which the self is a non-autonomous part, an embrace of an elemental cosmos larger than the dream-prison of the singular.

Z is Zephirus, enlivening the land.

According to Chaucer, the west wind’s breath is fecund. Watery April inseminates the arid passivity of March with his licour. This germinal fluid brims with a vertu through which “engendred is the flour” (General Prologue 3-4). The earth swells with blossoms, birds randy with song, pilgrims seeking saints. The changing of the seasons inscribes in miniature the normative relations between the human sexes. Even during times of vernal excess, the world is not so wide. Yet the young sun, weeks past the equinox, also witnesses “sundry londes” animated by more than anthropocentrism. If the longing “to goon on pilgrimages” (13) and the desire to seek “straunge strondes” (14) are particular manifestations of a universal impulsion that also includes the surge of flowers into fields, the swell of avian heartbeats and melodies, the reaching heavenward of shoots and new grasses, the lush vertu of rainwater, and the swirling of celestial bodies, then what we behold for a moment is not a small world organized into human-centered harmony for the eye of God, but an unbounded expanse that teems with lifeforce possessed by humans, animals, plants, unearthly objects. Vertu is elemental. It engenders more than flowers. What it offers at the beginning of the Canterbury Tales is a vision of a world in motion, its elemental dynamism the art of no particular divinity, presented to no observer beside a poet addicted to the conjunctive possibilities of an eighteen line opening sentence.

A starts us over, the infinite And.

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Anonymous said...

F is for fantastic, fabulous, favourite!

Lara Farina said...

Love this form. Elements for elements (and elephants).

Anonymous said...

... stunning! But where's 'u'?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks Sarah, Lara and Anonymous.

There are several letters missing; namely J, K and U. Can you guess why? (It is intentional!)

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Of course, W is included, because what's an abecedarium for the elements without water ... so it's not as if I have been consistent.

BLB said...

I see the logic on J, K, U. Maybe you could add in a thorn and yogh?

James Mitchell said...

Among abecadaria this is indeed a feast, uniting poetic imagination with real erudition like no other before.

I am distressed only by the entry for water, which Thomas Mann correctly called the "friendliest of elements," but here is drenched with angst and represented in terms of endless tears, the death of sailors, soused by capital, inhospitable, disordering, threatening the destruction of the individual to benefit an unknown transformation, where even a delightful moutain spring is no more than a refuge for predatory animals.

No, no, this won't do at all. Come sit with me on a cliff overlooking the Pacific coast at sunset, you'll see a path of sunlight trailing off to forever as the sun goes under, there's no danger present, only as much sublimity as the mind is capable of, (barring of course the use of psychedelics).

If you have a moment, drag-and-paste yourself off to, you'll find a more unitary, perhaps even an ecstatic contemplation of sea and sky. Created in the early ninth century, such moments of consciousness are as much *medieval* as any that followed.

Or, comparing the ninth with the fifteenth centuries, should we better ask what went wrong?

Karl Steel said...

Wow-wee, Jeffrey. You've really outdone yourself here. I love how the speed and emotion of this changes gradually through the end, inviting us to start over and do our own. If I were doing it, for example, I'd do 'Nature' instead of 'Nowhere', but this isn't a complaint!

One thing I like about the aerial gods (who persist through the Middle Ages) is their squabbling, which I see as less anthropomorphism than as a recognition that change happens. These are gods suitable for creating a moving world as Isidore understood it.

dtkline said...

A beautiful concretion delivering erudition, fertile grace; hinting irreducibly, jocularly; kinesthetically lithesome; most notably onomato-poetic, quintessentially recondite; shimmering tastfully; unlimited vicarious winsomeness; x-actly your zoetrope.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

The best response possible Dan: thanks! Love it.

Unknown said...

I get why some letters have been intentionally omitted, but I thought it would be amusing to comment in the spirit of this fantastic and inspiring essay by providing an entry for 'J'.

J is for Jeffrey Jerome Cohen

Jeffrey claims that vertu is unhuman and profane, but the very man himself belies his own argument: for what is Jeffrey but vertu engendered, the swelling and swirling together of elemental magic? Blazing with a fire inside, he lights the minds of others as he burns down the temples to anthropomorphic gods and forges the universe into a flat ontological plane. He dances with the intellect of air and with an aerial aesthetic breathes life into the Word. He knows the haunting of oceans, their womb-like abysses and overwhelming emotions. He rides the waves of feeling, the flows of elation and the ebbs of melancholy, and shares with others the wisdom of the deep. And while the rest of us are deaf to the stories of the earth beneath our feet, he speaks for the stones, voicing the mineralizing power in all living and nonliving things. Vertu is often unhuman and profane, but Jeffrey proves that vertu can be human as well.

**This makes me seem like a total sycophant, but I was really just trying to have a spot of fun!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

*Blush*, wow!!

Thanks, EVERYONE, for the encouragement. I've been very nervous about this project for a long time.