Wednesday, October 22, 2008

As much as it is now true of many of my friends (without whom I can no longer think or write) that they inhabit cities rather far from my own, and as much as I champion and think and write a good deal about being-together, and thus DO want to be with them, I feel equally as strongly--and often at the very same time--that some of my moments of deepest communing take place in what we conventionally call solitude. This is why, of course, so many of us love reading. This is how C. Dinshaw can claim so many wonderful things touch her in the archive. This is how Cary Howie can think as he does about the present enclosing the past--and it is also how high modernists felt so out of step with time in their own way--along with less conventional (but still) modernists like C.S. Lewis who could do their appreciative criticism of medievals as if in the voice of the book review for something that just came out last week.

In this light, 2 poems in my current sphere of reading and thinking.

First, a poem from an Alice James Books Jane Kenyon Chapbook (a now unfortunately defunct award) by Alice Jones, called Isthmus (a word which names one of those wonderful middles). A good deal of the book is actually a little too 'nice' or 'tame' for me as a poet--but these lines are a little bit Rilkean and provoke a particular enigma which obsesses me: connection as the registering of a equiprimordiality of Being and Beings with World (Beings as a phenomena of particular densities of World):

Going out into the break,
in the thick of atoms--

finding what--
your being? Mine?

Are we the stuff
or the empty acres

in between? I can't place you.
Disarticulated particles

we fly and coalesce again beside
each other: one cleft,

one entering, the primal
grasp of matter: creatures

yoked here, bumped up
breathing, onto the shores

of the world's desire to reach itself.

And then, a textual moment which haunts me many of those time in which I desire so badly to touch something or someone in the midst of reading, from W.H. Auden's "Journey to Iceland" (did I mention I loved High Modernism?):

Europe is absent: this is an island and should be
a refuge, where the affections of its dead can be bought
by those whose dreams accuse them of being
spitefully alive, and the pale

from too much passion of kissing feel pure in its deserts.

Fantastic. Touching, or enclosing, or separating, as events of World desiring itself. In our dreams, certain of us scholars accuse the dead of being alive because we want them to be so. And if it 'worked,' these dreams should call the ghosts into haunting us even when this is most impossible--as part of the very isolating structure of the space of 'Island' and 'not-Europe.' I of course believe (at least I think I do--note that I did NOT write 'call them into being' but 'into haunting': an operation which operates on the condition that a thing just quite isn't) that this 'works.'

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Palimpsestic Poetics in Orfeo: What A Book Might Do to a Body

Here is the text of the paper I gave at the Southeastern Medieval Association Conference in a BABEL Working Group sponsored session with co-conspirators Liza Blake, Mary Kate Hurley (of ITM ), and Blaire Zeiders--just a couple weeks ago. The latest from a project that I previously wrote about here on wraetlic:

Palimpsestic Poetics in Orfeo: What A Book Might Do to a Body

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

why there are not "bokes ynowe": all our little laborers, toiling for revolution

Here's a short meditation of of sorts from my current coursework--specifically a course the 'Piers Plowman Tradition," dealing with all the short poems around the big one (the Symonie, Parliament of the Three Ages, etc.), both before and after, but with Langland as the centerpiece. Now, I have some good friends in the discipline of medieval studies who happen to find Piers rather dry at best, and totally unnecessary to study and a little bit just plain boring. I happen to find

The poem for me is so fun, largely, and most generally, because its structure and poetics seem to elude the workings of literary history which seem to depend so much on economies of representation (think both the history's ability to represent trends and work etc. in literature across time--breaks, shifts, etc., and also the works which form the 'object' of the history's study to need to be themselves little machines of a mimetic economy in order for a mimetic economy to account for them). This allows us to track things like a 'history of representation' across western lit. And this is surely useful and great. I love Auerbach, for instance and I mean that. But, this limits us to writing a history of tropes and trends and leads us into obsessions with continuities, etc--ie. we always end up asking about how to understand literature in terms of its relationship to its ability to represent, and what it values as worthy of representation. This whole movement in turn depends on believing very strongly in a fundamental separation between literature and criticism, poetry and serious thought. It fails to account for the possiblity that poets took up Plato's prescriptions about poetry not as a condemnation of poetry's function, but as a challenge--to prove that poetry itself could philosophize and indeed be a mode of philosophy itself. The thing about Langland's poem is that so much of it does not seem to be interested in representing an outside world or an outside truth. It is a poem obsessed with 'truthe,' but not in representing it--but in finding it. It would then seem to be a poem which is of its own agency working.

So, enter the poem itself. In the early Passus, within a little episode of personification, with the King, and a trial concerning Wrong and company, Reason reads a little thing to the King: "Ne for mede have mercy, but mekenesse it made;/ For "Nullum malum the man mette with inpunitum/ And bad Nullum bonum be irremuneratum."/ Late thi confessour, sire Kynge, construe this on Englissh,/ And if ye werchen it in wek, I wedde myne eris/ That Lawe shal ben a laborer and lede afeld donge, / And Love shal lede thi lond as the leef liketh" (Passus 4:142-148). Now we can read this passage as Reason urging the King to put the law to work, and pay wrong with justice and and good with good etc. In that way some would call it a 'conservative' passage, with its advocacy of simply, a working state legal code which 'works' in that it gets the people into the fields and enforces their injunction to 'work.' But, let's put that aside for a minute, and think about the genius of this formulation of Law as a laborer. Law has a functioning status all its own. It (and perhaps this is just the personification talking, but either way, it makes it happen) seems to be able to go on and work without a specific wielder in this little micro-exhortation. The possibility that a concept can work is truly a fantastic one, and not entirely new to 'modern' criticism, especially that with a nice Marxist bent. But I want to index as here in this little gem of a Langlandian moment, and then keep it in mind when we read a rather key passage a bit later in the work. Keep this in mind, I promise I will return to it in just a second.

Later in the poem, in the midst of a dream within a dream, Ymaginatif presents a big challenge to Wil who is sseeking after these three concepts with his poem (Dowel, Dobet, and Dobest) and to all of us who play with our own makings, be they critical or 'creative.' Ymaginatif never was idle (Passus 7:1), apparently always busy forming images in the mind and composing and dividing them so as to actively make up a part of a person's soul, and so he scorns Will's poetry, which he sees as idle. "thou medlest with makyng--and myghtest go sey this Sauter,/ And bidde for hem that yveth thee breed; for there are bokes ynowe/ to telle men what Dowel is, Dobet and Dobest bothe,/ And prechours to preve what it is, of many a peire freres" (7:16-19). For the busy and useful Imaginative, all that's needed apparently are all the books that are already out there and the preachers who can tell us what is in them. We of course might dismiss this as 'typically' medieval or whatever, a recourse to the function of books as preserving not producing knowledge, a recourse to autoritas. But Will insists on the active role of his book--implicitly assigning agency to the book itself: "Ac if ther were any wight that wolde me telle/ What were Dowel and Dobet and Dobest and the last,/ Wolde I nevere do werk, but wende to holi churche..." (7:25-27). It is not only that Wil's work is worthless according to Imaginative, but the book itself. There are bokes ynowe. All that is left is to figure them out.

It seems to me that this is an attitude we are sometimes unlucky enough to find still lingering in works of our own contemporaries--in courses, books, papers, ideas, etc. That, if we could only figure out X and/or Y then we would be doing our job. But figuring out X and Y won't necessary produce anything which does any active work, which continues to produce. Call me a Modernist, but we need to be messing around with our makings and trying to make things new, and make new things, even if these are impossible propositions.

Hearken now back to the bit about Law being a Laborer. For Wil, it seems that his poetry, his dreaming, all that's tied up in this, as a practice of the poet, the [its important to him] christian, the thinker, theologian, student, etc--that all this is itself Work, a practice. But the only way that this actually responds to the problem of there being 'books enough' already, is if this implicitly implies that the book itself if also able to Work. If there was a book that was already working to find Dowel et al., then he wouldn't need to write one.

We need books that can understand this structure, even if they aren't all in tuned with project of harmonizing orthodox belief (I would hope my books are nothing of the sort, at least). We need lots of books. We need books to be working, and working for us. Each little book we send out there, if a reader runs up (or, for that matter, rubs up) against it, is laboring in our efforts. And if those efforts be revolutionary, then, each little book, in its small way, is a kind of wind-up-toy with a secular-soul, a little soldier, actively working when in the absence of, sometimes against, our 'presence'--but as a laborer and a producer. These books aren't for producing knowledge. Such books seriously mess with--or could, if we caressed them rightly--with most literary history. They are for thinking, and looking for things. Books think, look for, pursue. Books don't contain.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Caught with your pants down--naming, being, and fetishes

EDIT: As these things were still in play when I first posted this, I didn't mention that in addition to the Amazing Anna K., others invovled in the project I discuss below are, the Not-to-be-messed-with Nicola Masciandaro, and the Ever-Evanescent Eileen Joy.

Et quant il les vit en apert
Que do bois furent descovert,
Sit vit les hauberz fremïenz
Et les hiaumes clerz et luisanz
Et vit lo vert et lo vermoil
Reluire contre lo soloit
Et l'or et l'azur et l'argent,
Si li fu molt tres bel et gent
Et dit Biaus sire Dex, merci!
Ce sont ange que je voi ci.
(Chrétien de Troyes, Perceval, La Pochotèque, 120-132)

Commant avez vos non, amis?
Et cil qui son non ne savoit
Devine et dit que il avoit
Percevaus li Gualois a non,
N ne set s'il dit voir o non,
Mais il dit voir, et si no sot.

(Perceval, 3509-3515)

It was a chainless bicycle, with a freewheel, if such a bicycle exits. Dear bicycle, I shall not call you bike, you were green, like so many of your generation, I don't know why. It is a pleasure to meet it again. To describe it at length would be a pleasure. It had a little red horn instead of the bell fashionable in your days. To blow this horn was for me a real pleasure, almost a vice. I will go further and declare that if I were obliged to record, in a roll of honour, those activities which in the course of my interminable existence have given me only a mild pain in the balls, the blowing of a rubber horn--toot!--would figure among the first. And when I had to part from bicycle I took off the horn and kept it about me. I believe I have it still, somewhere, and if i blow it no more it is because it has gone dumb. Even motor-cars have no horns nowadays, as I understand the thing, or rarely. When I see one, through the lowered window of a stationary car, I often stop and blow it. This should all be written in the pluperfect. What a rest to speak of bicycles and horns.
(Samuel Beckett, Molloy, Grove Centenary Ed. Vol II, 12)

Yes, my mind felt it surely, this tiny sediment, incomprehensibly stirring like grit at the bottom of summer weighted and the splendid summer sky. And suddenly I remembered my name, Molloy. My name is Molly, I cried, all of a sudden, now I remember. Nothing compelled me to give this information, but I gave it, hoping to please, I suppose. They let me keep my hat on, I don't know why. Is it your mother's name? said the sergeant...
(Molloy, 18)

I had a little chat with Jeffrey Cohen last weekend at SEMA. He, shall we say, encouraged me to take up the blog again. Well, maybe he was just observing that I haven't been blogging much at all for along time. But I am going to choose to interpret those words as encouraging.

I can't promise anything. NYU is keeping me on my toes. But there are so many things I want to be blogging about, and its such a fantastic way to feel like one is being read, that perhaps its just worth a shot. I will try to get my SEMA paper up also, but I need to format it for HTML with the notes and all, and I can be sorta slow with that. And I haven't given up on my little story either!

As an opening salvo, I will throw out a few very very preliminary thoughts on a current project, one I am lucky enough to be working on (the gravity that needs to fall on the word 'lucky' here cannot possibly be enough) with the wonderful Anna Klosowska. The gist of the project is best summed up at this point by a list of key nodes: Perceval, Beckett, Heidegger; language, humannesses, feelings. But that's crazy, you say? Why yes, thank you very much.

I am starting with some very obvious resonances. Beckett deals with characters that are so fully spoken by language one can read him and believe Heidegger's whole thing about language speaking Dasein and not the other way 'round. Perceval also operates, in my mind, as such a text. I have always felt that the best preparation for reading Beckett's novels was found in reading Chrétien. The idea of the Romance is so fully flowing into these novels which go on and on and on, with seemingly unmotivated plots and mysteriously opaque characters, arising magnificently and marvelously out of their worlds--. What I'm saying in part is that both can be loved (and I mean erotically), but only with a certain queer patience.

Beyond that though, there are some more specific resonances, between which I would like to touch the feeling of an affective connection betwixt how each set of texts speaks various--yes, let us say it--humans. One such moment might arise from thinking Perceval as a phenomenon, an event of Being, and thinking Molloy also as a phenomenon--an event of either Being or nonBeing but an event either way. Both have to upspring from the ground cleared by the language that speaks them. And they seem to upspring in these really silly (but, because they are so, deadly serious) cracks in the narrative and language of the work: Moments which themselves are fetishes, to be seen (as they see and arrest you) as partial nonteleological and wildly non-sequitor textual phenomena. So, part of the crux is that these humans are spoken by language, but only by a shard of language, and so their worlds are also arrested in these discrete and bounded fetish-fragments of language--and the way they must then function as Beings in a world is only ever always in partial fetishized relation to World and World and others--and thus never participating in World as we know as in a totality of relations.

In the quotes above, Perceval and Molloy are both caught with their pants down. Molloy is being questioned, for doing something apparently offensive (though in the seemingly authoritarian police state of the novel, it may have been totally arbitrary) in public with his beloved bicycle that has him so besotted [and on 'besotted,' I can only say how amazing Anna's paper at SEMA last week was], and Perceval, for not asking any questions of the marvels which had him so besotted chez fisher-king the previous night, so that this wildly mourning girl can tell him that he's pretty much ruined his and a bunch of others' lives as a result. In both scenes, both remember their names. Wild. They just don't know for sure either, but it seems to work for both of them.

Among some other things, it is this moment of naming, by language, in language, which has me in total wonder right now. As soon as Perceval divines his name, this girl tells him a whole set of other names which befit him better, and his now messed-up fate. Later in Beckett's novel, the narrator-Molloy writes "And even my sense of identity was wrapped in a namelessness often hard to penetrate, as we have just seen I think. And so on for all the other things which made merry with my senses. Yes, even then, when already all was fading, waves and particles, there could be no things but nameless things, no names but thingless names. I say that now, but after all what do i know now about then, now when the icy words hail down upon me, the icy meanings, and the world dies too, foully named. All I know is what the words know, and the dead things, and that makes a handsome little sum, with a beginning, middle and an end as in the well-built phrase and the long sonata of the dead. And truly it little matters what I say, this of that or any other thing. Saying is inventing. Wrong, very rightly wrong. You invent nothing, you think you are escaping, and all you do is stammer out of your lesson, the remnants of a pensum one day got by heart and forgotten, life without tears, as it is wept." (27).

What is hard to penetrate of what makes merry with the senses is a concept that is now hard to penetrate, but perhaps only because it is so wispy. Because what makes merry with the senses is language itself. But that is only because everything is language and language is everything. Not the prison-house of language, but--well, I don't know. Language speaks, catches hold a fragment of Being, a fragment of a wispy being catches on a fragment of a language and is spoken--here embraced as a fetish in the non-sequitor word. The the arbitrary word (where the World itself is a word and made of words and the World is always already a Language), makes for not a thing you could have yourself invented as your self, but a very silly Lesson. So, it is in speaking that you let language speak you. But, not as some high modernist empty form, or platonist perfected eidos. Waves and particles need something to move through or reflect off of. This all must move through sense--and this is the erotics of its upspringing.

I'm not sure that makes any sense to me, and I need to think through better the actual logic of all of this. Consider that an initial waxing poetical in the most profane senses of the term.