Monday, September 19, 2011


by J J Cohen

Speculative Medievalisms concluded, for some of us, with magnificent streaks of sun fingering across the Manhattan skyline. The next evening Karl's book party ended, for some of us, with a 4 AM subway ride back to the city. And now I'm in my office, answering emails and scheduling MEMSI events as if this irruption of the Otherworld had never taken place. Diminution into ordinariness and the onset of routine mix melancholy with relief.

I introduced my talk at Speculative Medievalisms as a textual laboratory, an experimental mixing of worlds that do not often touch through modern and medieval texts (a philosophical essay, a work of historiography, a Breton lay) that are about how unlike worlds touch and what happens in the aftermath of that encounter. My aim was to take Object Oriented Ontology seriously: not as a critical mode to be applied, but as an articulation of concept/tools that might reconfigure how we think about the workings of some narratives ... as well as how these narratives in their workings potentially transform these concepts when they enter their worlds. It's part of an ongoing project that may become a book, provided I someday actually get Stories of Stone written.

The talk appears below. During the Q&A, Dan Remein perceptively asked if there wasn't more going on with its angels than what OOO could account for. I answered that yes, doubly: they are partly inspired by the work of Michel Serres, who is not exactly a speculative realist (though much of what he has composed is in sympathy with SR projects). More importantly, though, these erratic and essential intermediaries carry with them a quiet meditation on how no matter how exhaustively we attempt to articulate our debts, no matter how much we insist that we have been inspired by others and that nothing we do is solitary and that any good scholarly project is a communal work, those essential to its coming to being always fade. The project breathes, and its coming into life becomes a series of enigmatic traces. That vanishing is an injustice, but I have not found a more just mode of doing work.

The passages I treat from Geoffrey of Monmouth on Merlin may be found in on the web here (Book 6 chapter 17-18; Book 8 chapter 1-19; this is obviously not the translation I use), and Sir Orfeo is available as an e-text in its entirety.


            “Between the moon and the earth there live spirits whom we call incubus-demons.”
             So declares Maugantius, summoned before the king to explain how a boy named Merlin could have been born without a father. Inter lunam et terram, between a celestial globe in ceaseless circulation and the dull earth: in this intermedial space dwell creatures at once human and angelic. Incubus-demons can assume mortal forms and descend to visit earthly women. “Many people have been born this way,” Maugantius asserts. Among the progeny of such intercourse is Merlin, destined to become our iconic wizard. This genesis narrative marks Merlin’s advent into the literary tradition. The story yields no evidence of his future as a bespectacled and senescent figure, cloaked in robes and wielding a wand. Dumbledore is a diminished and modern avatar. The primordial Merlin is much more difficult to emplace. Between moon and earth is a gap that opens because the two realms cannot touch. Merlin arrives from a kind of heavenly lacuna, a suspended and disjunctive space created because two bodies which are two worlds endlessly withdraw from each other. Aerial and moonlit, this middle realm is knowable only at second hand. Maugantius makes clear that his knowledge of what dwells between lunar possibility and the cold earth’s heft arrives vicariously, through books of history and philosophy.
            Speaking of philosophy books and strange intermediacy, Graham Harman has argued that “Objects hide from one another endlessly, and inflict their mutual blows [“physical relations”] only through some vicar or intermediary” (“On Vicarious Causation” 189-90). The Merlin episode suggests a medieval version of this statement that is just as true: “Worlds hide from one another endlessly, and enjoy their mutual embraces [“physical relations”] only through some vicar or intermediary.” Merlin’s birth is the weird result/enabler of an asymmetrical, humanly inassimilable relation. Merlin’s mother is a king’s daughter and a cloistered nun who nightly finds a handsome man in the solitude of her cell. The incubus-demon who fathers Merlin is of unknown biography and intentions. He sometimes touches the ordinary world, but just as often withdraws from terrestrial connection. His desires cannot be reduced to the merely sexual. He wants at times to kiss and hold the nun, at times to converse invisibly on unstated subjects. Merlin arrives, that is, through an abstruse relationship that unites for a while two beings from oblique realms. The angel-demon and the solitary princess never fully touch, or do so askew, in a conjoining that is textually enabled only backwards, through the strange progeny who makes possible and embodies their “shared common space” (Graham Harman’s term for the third object within which two others meet, 190) or “thalamus” (Geoffrey of Monmouth’s word for the nun’s cell, a Greek noun that also means “chamber” “bedroom” “bridal bed” and, metonymically, “marriage”: that is, the space of an unequal, complicated, potentially disastrous, possibly transformative caress). The relation between the nun and the incubus engenders a creature who if not wholly unprecedented is nonetheless unpredetermined. Though Maugentius can invoke a history for such an arrival, he cannot account for Merlin’s erratic life to come.
            The text that I am speaking about in this language that weds Object Oriented Ontology to Latin historiography is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136). Geoffrey’s history is most widely known for having bequeathed to the future the King Arthur of enduring legend. Without Geoffrey this provincial British warlord would be an obscure medieval footnote rather than the progenitor of a still vibrant world. At his first appearance in Geoffrey’s text Merlin is a precocious and quarrelsome young man. As the story unfolds he will reveal surprising abilities, demonstrating that seemingly inert rocks may contain within them bellicose dragons; foretelling grim futures that include incineration, poison, and flowing blood; enabling through his transformative potions an adultery-minded Uther Pendragon to engender Arthur. Merlin alters completely the timbre of the text in which he appears. The History of the Kings of Britain has until the moment of his entrance offered a chronicle of the island’s early days. Its sedate Latin prose describes how Britain was founded and who ruled its civil war loving kingdoms. Wonders and supernatural events before his advent are few. A tribe of giants to kill, a sudden rain of blood, a sea monster and some ravenous wolves are scant exceptions to a martial account of settlement, inheritance, dissent, and political intrigue. Merlin appears just after the first mention of magic in the narrative, in the form of incompetent magi whom the perfidious King Vortigern summons to assist him in finding a way to escape the persecutions of the Saxons. Merlin is not himself a magician; magi are figures of failure in the story. For Geoffrey of Monmouth Merlin is a prophet, a poet, a schemer, an architect and an author, a figure of singular ingenuity rather than of saintly or demonic inspiration. He cannot be domesticated into mere category.
            After his unexpected advent the rules for how the story may unfold change. Earlier in the History when an earthbound king dreamt of traveling spaces of cloud and air, his fate was to plummet with his manufactured wings to a shattering death (Bladud, who practices “nigromantium” rather than magic, 30). That stretch between earth and moon had not yet opened for narrative sojourn. Merlin, however, born of the meeting of nocturnal radiance with mundane constrictedness, conveys the wheel of Stonehenge across the sea “with incredible ease.” This transmarinal relocation is not accomplished through supernatural agency. There is nothing divine or occult about the movement. Merlin works with the earth’s givenness, its alliance-seeking materiality. The monoliths are swiftly transported via his operationibus machinandis (“feats of engineering” 128) and machinationes (“machinery,” “engines,” “contrivances”). Merlin is an engineer, a vicar of causation who knows that objects launch into motion only through the intermediary agency of other objects. The stones are disassembled, loaded onto ships and carried to their current home for repurposing as a British monument, thus proving the power of ingenuity (ingenium, the Latin word that gives us “engineer”). Significantly, we are never told of what Merlin’s machinationes consist. A materialist but not a reductionist, Merlin knows well that “inscrutable depths” intractably hold the objectal world.
            Merlin is likewise a vicar or engineer of diegesis. He moves the narrative, but cannot be absorbed back into it. He remains an essential mystery, a figure who changes everything and at a certain point simply vanishes, but even after his quiet disappearance his presence permeates what follows. Though he never meets Arthur, that king’s ambiguous destiny on Avalon is inconceivable without Merlin’s having set into motion the path of his ambivalent life. The text that Merlin creates is eccentric to what precedes: what sought to be history opens into a possibility-laden new genre, a mode to be christened in the future romance.
            Merlin embodies the strange prospects offered by that space inter lunam et terram, between earth's banal givenness and the moon's unreachable allure. This suspended geography might be called sublunary, but by that term I do not mean mundane. The sublunary designates a region neither terrestrial nor empyrean: unregulated by tedious rules about proper history, untouched by diurnal limitations, immune to the stasis that holds heaven. Sublunary means unpredestined by humans and gods, an intermedial sweep where the fixities of doctrine, custom and theology do not necessarily obtain. The wandering incubus who traces this space, celestial but not heavenly, a lover of earthly things but not bound to the small spaces of earth's human dwellers, imbues in his progeny the ability to escape constricted textual spaces as well.
            “Between the moon and the earth there live spirits whom we call incubus-demons.” The pithy declaration is sudden, breathtaking. It opens an unforeseen space and populates it with creatures who are both familiar and utterly strange. The advent of the sublunary floods the text with alien luminescence, and for me calls to mind another strange phrase about lunar glow. In his essay “On Vicarious Causation,” Graham Harman describes the solitude of reticent objects, describing how these cloisters are sometimes breached by oblique, transformative, but carefully mediated relations. He writes that “While its strangeness may lead to puzzlement more than resistance, vicarious causation is not some autistic moonbeam entering the window of an asylum” (187). The metaphor does its Merlin-like work, transforming a philosophy that might have contemplated the “dull realism of mindless atoms and billiard balls” into “an archipelago of oracles or bombs that explode from concealment ... [the] sacred fruit of writers, thinkers, politicians, travellers, lovers, and inventors” (212). Harman employs this lunar and lunatic metaphor to convey (and reject) meager, inviolable solitariness. We can see already from Geoffrey of Monmouth, though, that radiance from the sublunary sphere cannot be immured in an asylum or convent. It engenders strange and rules-changing progeny by placing into communication seemingly isolated bodies or objects. An angel-demon enters the window of a nun’s cell and enables the advent of Merlin, he who can discern in dead stone the possibilities of dormant dragons and of lithic wheels ready for conveyance across vast waters. No moonbeam is in the end solipsistic, even if some objects in this world attempt withdrawal into utter isolation. Lunar pull is incessant, drawing artists and philosophers to speculative modes, to dreaming of incongruent but at times imbricated worlds where even magic is not weird enough.
            Geoffrey of Monmouth is not the only medieval writer to have populated sublunary expanses so vibrantly. Incubus-demons in their inscrutable flights share interlunar space with voyagers who traverse the clouds in ships. Gervase of Tilbury describes a congregation who, upon leaving church, witness an anchor lowered from the clouds (Otia imperialia, c. 1214). A mariner shimmies down its rope, hand over hand. He is seized by the onlookers and drowns in the moistness of terrestrial air. Between heaven and earth sail aerial vessels of unknown design, dwell “beings neither angelic, human, nor animal” (as Robert Bartlett entitles a wonderfully miscellaneous section of England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings). This sublunary space might also open underwater, as in Ralph of Coggeshall’s report of merman caught in the nets of an English fishing boat (Bartlett 688-89), or the belligerent fish-knights of the Roman de Perceforest. Always radiating at a slanted angle to lived human reality, the intermedial realms also frequently erupts from underground. In the Breton lays that are among the literary progeny of Geoffrey’s History, the space is most often called Fairy.
            The Breton lays are short, romance themed narratives, often with Arthurian settings. Sir Orfeo, a good example of such a work, describes the lays as full of marvels (“ferli thing”), war, woe, joy, trickery, adventures, enjoyment, fairies, and love (4-12). The Breton lays are an English genre set within a "magical" Welsh or Breton past. Composed in French and English, the stories are replete with radiant objects, magic, strange beings, monsters, and music. Their worlds open repeatedly into unexpected geographies, into spaces similar to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s sublunary expanse: across the roiling sea traversed by the lovers’ ship in Marie de France’s Guigemar, for example. Or within the rock that the author of Sir Orfeo envisions as the entrance to the Fairy Realm, a seemingly underground kingdom where all normal rules for objects, agency, telos and time are suspended. A hunt proceeds without prey, bodies are caught in eternal disaggregation, captivity is a pleasant slumber, being endures without becoming. The Breton lays are a medieval version of speculative fiction, a space to think the possible without recourse to theology, to explore a terrain rich in mysterious objects without predetermined answers or even clear objective.
            Sir Orfeo is a queer story, grafting the classical myth of Orpheus and his lost Eurydice to elements of English history and romance. Its setting is Thrace, but the city has been relocated from ancient Greece to not-so-long-ago Winchester. The queen does not die, but is abducted into Fairy by its enigmatic king. His domain is accessed in two ways: at a grafted (“ympe”) tree under which Queen Heurodis falls asleep, and “in at a roche.” That Fairy should be a kind of omnipresent underworld resonates uncannily with Graham Harman’s description of the objectal world. He writes that we are "moles tunneling through wind, water and ideas no less than through speech-acts, wonder and dirt” ("Vicarious Causation" 210). A subterranean milieu, "numberless underground cavities," but a place of neither finitude nor negativity. And sparks from that distant satellite do penetrate from time to time, perpetually exploding and renewing a wide sublunary world, “an archipelago of oracles or bombs” (212).
            The Fay world obliquely and multiply touches our own. After ten years of wandering, Orfeo discovers his stolen wife in a kind of non-juridical Hades, where bodies are forever arrested in their self-undoing: headless, butchered, burnt, bound, slumbering in a fragmented nondeath, caught in the moment at which they have been taken (y-nome) by the Fairies. This is a somnolence removed from time, preservation in the agony of capture, a withdrawal into untouchable solitude. Among these grotesque sleepers Heurodis is anomalous: the kidnapped queen slumbers peacefully beneath a grafted tree ("ympe-tree") while the dismembered, the mad, the strangled and the drowned neighbor her dreams. Perhaps the peacefulness of Heurodis arrives 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 grafted 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. An ambivalent future opens that otherwise could not have arrived. The queen is the only one of these sleepers who is also glimpsed in movement outside of Fairy, where she accompanies on his aimless hunt the King who stole her from her familiar world.
            In her surrender to advent Heurodis is like her husband. Once his wife is abducted 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 Henry David Thoreau famously 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" (Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter 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 ecological conjunction that he creates through his harp seems to call forth the King of Fairy, who wanders the woods with his retinue on a chase in which no animal 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: a coming or avenir that like the Fairy King's hunt moves without aim. Adventure is surrender to an overlap of worlds, an embrace of an intermedial 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 werk to se!"). Once he conjoins Otherworld and relinquished court he finds his opening. Adventure is an act of worldly intersection, like the arrival of an incubus at a conventual cell: you cannot seek it, it's an object rather than an objective, but you can train yourself to perceive its arrival, to recognize the dangerous invitation to the sublunary that adventure offers, an allure that warps the orbit of ordinary life. Orfeo follows the fairy retinue into a rock and across the flattest of plains. He rescues Heurodis with his music. The Fairy King fears the two are ill-matched, but offers no impediment to their return: no fateful injunction not to look back as they depart the Fairy realm, only an unexpected benediction: "Of hir ichil thatow be blithe," I hope that you are happy with her. Orfeo is.
            The Breton lay abandons the grim ethos of the classical myth from which it arises: no fading of Eurydice at the threshold of the underworld, no dismembering of her grieving husband by crazed bacchants. While speculative realism seems to prefer the gloomy and the somber for its image store (heavy metal, H. P. Lovecraft, dark ecologies), the Breton lays tend to conclude with the equivalent of sunshine and rainbows, suggesting a happier but no less serious register at which objectal relations might be explored. Nor do I wish to turn Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History or the Breton lay Sir Orfeo into allegories or romans à clef for the working of object oriented ontology. While it is true that there is an uncanny intersection between Graham Harman’s work on vicarious causation and Geoffrey’s originary myth of Merlin, you won’t find the latter briskly expostulating “five kinds of objects ... and five different types of relation” (201). Geoffrey’s sublunary is too chaotic to be organized into a metaphysics, no matter how fascinated he is by causation and allure. He did not compose in 1136 an uncanny prophecy of the advent of flat ontologies in 2011. Art is tangled, sprawling and untidy compared to philosophy’s crisp distinctions. Having explored what is enabled by the conjunction of Geoffrey’s “between the moon and the earth” and Harman’s “autistic moonbeam entering the window of an asylum,” I would now like to ask what is eclipsed when that moon moves into such momentary terrestrial congruence.
            Erratic angels like the incubus-demon, the Fairy King and Merlin are the vicars or intermediaries who make possible the world's vibrancy by enabling contact and relation. They allow the emergence of transformative textualities, even while they themselves are left behind at that luminous advent. These messengers can be dangerous. In the Breton lay Sir Gowther, the same incubus who engenders Merlin impregnates another woman with a son who will become a rapist, a murderer, and his family’s undoing. Sir Orfeo oscillates between a vibrant materialism and a dark vitalism, replete with the messy, melancholic, admixed and unbeautiful stuff of the world that is as just as much an ethical ecology. Such a textual expanse is also an artistic thought experiment conducted through the objects of the everyday world, rendered marvelous through the excitation of objectal and material potency -- but it is an experiment in which not every participant is allowed a full story. As the Fairy King, the incubus-demon, the nun, and Merlin learn, a mediator's love is necessary to make the machinery (ingenuity, contrivances, art) of the text spring into action -- and a mediator’s love is unrequited. Though these figures open new worlds for and bestow unexpected futures to others within their texts, their shared fate is silent abandonment. Speculative awareness comes through the labor of those reduced to mere go-betweens, those who move from one place to another in order to change both. These mediators are literally sublunary angels, messengers who in their erratic flights refuse reduction into narrative or philosophical order. Perpetually conveyed, traveling without necessary destination, these disordered angels remind us that a retreat into tidy heaven leaves too many abandoned on the rubbish heaps of the earth.
            Speculative realism requires speculative narrative, along with its troubled and troublesome angels. We need to examine the world as it is, in its catastrophic givenness, but also to consider as well how it might be, not just in the past or in the future but in the now: a place where the inhuman has agency, narrative, the power to withdraw, but also to caress, to create sublunary realms that with or without our consent touch us, take us out of our asylums or cells, create strange new beings of futurity, menace, and promise who will vanish into our stories, our futures that are ever arriving -- futures that are narratives of the air and the lofty moon, but unfold just as easily in an asylum, a convent, or “in at a rock.”


Anonymous said...

What I am speculating about (and writing about and giving lecture somewhere) is: which way those narratives affects the interpretation of the past, or, maybe, are affected by the interpretation of the past?

Anonymous said...

Interesting as usual. What I am speculating about (and writing about and giving lecture somewhere) is: which way those narratives affects the interpretation of the past, or, maybe, are affected by the interpretation of the past?



Jeb said...

I like where the scribes placed him.

The Annales Cambriae opens British history with the terse line, 573 The Battle of Arfderydd. D. N. Dumville calls it the 'historical horizon' of British history and it is here in a 12th cen m.s of the Annales that an improving scribe will add that Merlin fled the battle mad into the woods. The place where his prophecy begins.

He is placed right at the start of our dreaming and stands looking out at the whole of the story as it unfolds, speaking of what has past,what is present and what is to come.

A most interesting figure.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know the Gervase of Tilbury reference, which is very interesting. I mean, the whole paper is full of interesting things I didn't know but that one catches at me especially because of its comparability to the mention by Bishop Agobard of Lyons in the ninth century that peasants he deals with think men come from a place called Magonia in ships in the sky and steal the peasants' crops. The ones they catch don't suffocate, but it reads as if they nearly got lynched. (Now what'd Gervase's guy suffocate from, d'you reckon...) I am guessing that you know about this reference and didn't use it here because it's near Geoffrey neither geographically nor temporally, but in case you haven't met it I have some references at the end of this post of mine.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Jonathan, thanks for the reference (which is new to me) and Paolo and Jeb: thanks for the comments!