Thursday, October 30, 2008
I want to define “besotted,” because there are many kinds. Actually, the picture to your right helps to define the term, as it shows a different, though related phenomenon. To communicate, and thus increase the pleasure of ravishments performed on us by the world, a simple but the more powerful language can be spoken. Do not mistakenly take it for a counting of pleasures, or measuring of their extent--this language, emphatically, does not count or measure, it is beyond all measure. It communicates contentment and joy; here, bespeaking one of a number of pleasure forms, connected but not limited to an experience. Like the maniculum or other marks and commentaries, it acknowledges and expresses a pleasure or reflection so acute that it spills over into a new form: the need to share with others (in books, perhaps the more touching, since the others are only hoped for). Being "besotted" is not purposefully communicative in that way: the difference is that being besotted speaks without having spoken. It’s when you notice someone, and you are so oblivious to the world around you that you walk into furniture. Borrowing Bryan Reynolds’ label, we could call it “paused consciousness;” recent translators of Arthurian romance render it as “lover’s trance.” Intelligence and cultivation, the organic and cultural distinctions that transform mere zoe into bios politicos, provide no protection. That is the lesson of the Aristotle and Alexander parable (Jessica Rosenfeld’s talk). Medieval examples of being besotted are not all moralizing. Rather, they illustrate the ideal love, for instance in Lancelot Proper (one of the French prose Lancelot Continuations), where Lancelot falls into a reverie as he looks at Guinevere. The motif seems so heavy-handed that it verges on symbolism or parody—no more, though, than the use of hyperbole in love lyrics (Cercamon’s “Ai, las! tan suavet m'aucis”: Alas: she killed me so sweetly). There are a number of variants: once, Lancelot almost drowns with his horse. In another episode, he invites Guinevere to the castle of Dolorous Guard; as he waits on the battlements, daydreaming about her, she is locked out below, and thinks he’s making a fool of her. When she leaves in a huff, he realizes what happened and lets her in, but he is too afraid to face her, and leaves through a back door. In milder forms of trance, after he looks at her, he is long unable to answer when someone accosts him, leading to various provocations. Is being besotted part of a universal, ahistorical economy of love?
It’s curious that being besotted, so prominent in my love life and Lancelot’s, is absent from Roland Barthes’s 1977 Fragments of a lover’s discourse. Barthes has related entries—“the incertitude of signs,” the fall into the chasm (“je m’abîme, je succombe,” 467-69), agony (angoisse, 487), atopos, that is the perception of the extreme originality of the one being loved, an originality such that he is unclassifiable, always unpredictable, like Socrates in the Banquet, “miraculously come to answer the specialness of my desire” (493, citing Nietzsche’s Socrates and the Tragedy); “the morning song” (659-660), that is “diverse modes in which the loving subject finds himself reinvested by the preoccupation of his passion when he awakes” (647) (which in my case is, I wake up and I say, fuck, I don’t have a boyfriend”), “ravishing,” “inamoration,” the falling in love, in French a lightning strike, coup de foudre, that is the initial episode, sometimes reconstructed or fictionally constructed afterwards (633-37), “night,” that is the “affective, intellective, existential. . . obscurity” in which the loving subject either “struggles or reposes” (either one, says Barthes; 619-20); “clouds” (617-18), that is the loving subject’s tendency to cloud over for no good reason, and its acute form, “suicide” (663-64), or the loving subject’s propensity to want to kill himself, provoked by--not very much, “catastrophe” (505-6), or “a violent crisis in the course of which the subject, experiencing the love situation as a definitive impasse, a trap from which he can never escape, sees himself as destined for a total destruction of himself” (505), “the unbearable” (591-592), or the feeling of “accumulation of love suffering that explodes in the exclamation, ‘this can’t go on’” (591), “crazy” (569-70), where the “love subject is shot through by the idea that he is, or is becoming, crazy” (569), “celebration: the love subject lives through each encounter with the one being loved as if it was a high holiday” ((567), “flayed: a special sensibility of the loving subject that makes him vulnerable, with live nerves exposed to the lightest wounding” (545), “de-reality” (539-44), to be distinguished from “unreality,” a feeling that the world without the loved one is only a representation, a sham; Barthes calls it a “feeling of absence,” it’s like—this is not Barthes’s metaphor but mine--like the low tide of reality at the reality estuary, the landscape is completely transformed and the stench makes you nearly pass out, “body,” or the thought/emotion/interest that makes the lover “scrutinize” or “search” the body of the loved one in an act of “reading the cause of my desire without understanding anything” (525-26). According to Barthes (I find here an echo of my own experience) that reading tellingly focuses on what Lacan calls the partial objects or the liminal zones, the areas around the orifices of the body: eyelashes, fingernails, hairline (525). Barthes explains it as fetishism from which we snap out when the body of the loved one moves; we no longer fetishize, we love the live being, the body in action; but I think Barthes misunderstands. I am much more convinced by Lacan’s explanation that through these partial objects/orifices “it” speaks.
As you see, I have evoked almost the entire dictionary; all of these entries have something to do with mine, and yet none of them encompasses it. The entry that comes the closest is, paradoxically, “contact”—paradoxically because stumbling into things seems the opposite of contact, touching the beloved. Yet, in being besotted, the loving subject is completely taken over by the closeness of the being he loves, and there lies the parallel with “contact.” Barthes defines “contacts” as “the figure that refers to the entire internal discourse provoked by the furtive contact with the body, in particular with the skin of the desired being,” quoting in the epigraph a scene from the Suffering of Young Werther: “when my finger, by mistake, touched the finger of Charlotte” (521). Barthes’s discussion focuses not on the feeling of sensual pleasure at the touch, but rather on the pleasure that springs from meaning, a discursive pleasure. Through contact, the loving subject asks, “do you love me?” The answer is not clear, but it is not “no.” Barthes says: “it’s the paradisiacal region of subtle and clandestine signs: a celebration, not of senses, but of meaning,” a way to make the loved one speak, perhaps against his will. I want to emphasize how strongly I believe that Barthes is right in his conclusion that what gives pleasure here is not the senses, but the discourse, or more precisely the significance, the portent, the meaning of contact. However, in the end, even if it stems from discourse (the meaning of contact), it is undeniably a sensual pleasure (it is experienced as a fulfillment of the senses). Of course, every pleasure in a love relationship is fundamentally a discursive pleasure, in that it is a question and answer that always has the same content (“do you love me?”) and the same answer, The usual way to have this conversation is through as many senses as you can.
Perhaps the craziest of Barthes’s figures is being paranoid about the proper degree of pretence to cover up one’s madness. Barthes calls this figure the “sunglasses”: “to what extent to hide the ‘troubles’ . . .of one’s passion: desires, distress, in a word, the excesses:”
X. . ., gone on vacation without me, has not given a sign of life since he left: accident? Strike at the post office? Indifference? Distancing tactic? Wanting to live a little. . . or, simple innocence? I am more and more anguished, I go through the five steps of waiting. But when X. . . reappears, one way or another, because he will (a thought that should immediately make all anguish preposterous), what will I tell him? Should I hide my distress—now past (“How are you?”)? Let it explode aggressively (“that’s not fair, you could have. . .”) or passionately (“You drive me crazy with worry”)? Or make the distress known delicately, lightly, without burdening the other (“I was a little concerned”)? I am gripped by second-degree anguish: to decide on the level of disclosure of the first-degree anguish” (499).
Further on, Barthes talks about tenderness and compassion in these terms: “ Até is the goddess of being lost, but Plato talks of her delicacy: her feet are winged, they lightly touch” (514). A number of the figures in Barthes’s catalogue strive for, require, or possess this lightness of touch: “sunglasses,” tenderness, compassion. As Barthes says in the preface to the Fragments of a lover’s discourse: “dis-cursus is originally the action of running to and fro. . . ‘steps taken,’ intrigues. . . the word should not be understood in its rhetorical sense but rather in a gymnastic and choreographic sense. . . . The lover, seized by his own dance steps, gets carried away practicing this slightly crazy sport, and overachieves like an athlete” (461). A figure “is a lover at work” (461).
No poetic corpus is as focused on transparently “pretending not to be” (Barthes’s “sunglasses”) as the troubadour poetry. Arnaut Daniel’s Anc ieu non l'aic mas elha m'a (“I never had her but she has me”) devotes six stanzas and an envoi to the theme:
I say little of what’s in my heart,
Because fear makes me stay timid.
The tongue lies but the heart wants
That on which it dwells in pain
I waste away, but never complain
Because, as far around
As the sea embraces earth
There is none so sweet
As the chosen one
Whom I have coveted.
Eu dic pauc q'ins el cor m'esta
q'estar me fa temen paors;
la lenga's feing mas lo cors vol
so don dolen si sojorna:
ie'n languis, mas no s'en clama
qu'en tant a randa
cum mars terra guaranda
non a tan gen,
cum la cauzida
qu'ieu ai encobida.
I never had her, but she has me
All the time in her power. Love,
And it makes me a happy angry man, a wise fool,
Like he who does not give as well as he got,
Because man who loves well doesn’t defend himself
whom Love commands
to serve her and please her
Because I wait
For a good share
When it will befall me.
Anc ieu non l'aic mas elha m'a
totz temps en son poder Amors
e fai'm irat let, savi fol
cum selhui qu'en re nos torna,
c'om no's defend qui ben ama,
qu'om la serv'e la blanda:
per qu'ieu n'aten
quan m'er escarida.
But even as the poet says “I suffer, but I never complain,” he, the “wise fool,” is still not completely besotted. Yes, he is helpless, and love is arbitrary (Arnaut Daniel, D'autra guiz e d'autra razo: loosely translated as, “And now, for something completely different”):
Does man, then, have rights in Love? No,
But the fools would think so,
Just as someone would accuse, if he wants to,
The French of not being Gascon,
And the ship of sinking before it got to Bari:
Alas! Because of just that crime I am near death,
For otherwise, by Christ, I don’t know what I did wrong.
Donc a hom dreg en Amor? No,
mas cujarion-s'o li fol
qu'ela'us encolpara, si's vol,
quar li Frances no son Guasco
e quar la naus frai ans que fos a Bar:
las! per aital colpa sui pres de mort,
que d'als, per Crist, no sai qu'ieu tort l'agues.
In his most famous envoi, Arnaud defines himself as always already in the wrong: (Arnaut Daniel, Ab gai so cundet e leri, On a gay, pretty, and happy melody)
piegz tratz, aman, qu'om que laura,
qu'anc non amet plus d'un hueu
sel de Moncli Audierna.
Ieu sui Arnautz qu'amas l'aura
e cas la lebre ab lo bueu
e nadi contra suberna.
I pull harder, loving, than the man who ploughs,
Because no more than an egg’s worth
He from Moncli loved Audierna.
I am Arnaut who’s hoarding wind,
And chases rabbits with an ox,
And swims against the tide.
But even the wind-hoarder seems more collected as a loving subject than the besotted lover.
That’s as far as I got thinking about the particular position of being besotted, and now in just one paragraph I want to say how it fits in my book.
My interest in being besotted comes from the book I am writing on premodern subjectivity, with a provisional title Medieval Subjects. The project started a few years back when I was listening to Katherine O’Brien O’Keefe’s short presentation in a panel on post-Foucauldian theories of the Middle Ages, or in other words alternatives to the paradigm that Foucault adopts from very traditional French historiography for his groundbreaking and original work, a paradigm where the French Revolution is the epistemic turning point between Ancien Régime and the beginnings of modernity. Against that narrative of epistemic break in the late 1700, O’Brien O’Keefe argued that modern subjectivity comes to the surface in certain contexts, or in certain isolated cases. The image she used was bubbles in chapagne: a bubble in a liquid, a discrete entity that both is and isn’t “of” its surrounding substance. But then it occurred to me last May, as a result of a prior Babel encounter with those of you who are working on monstrosity and hybridization, that I don’t want to think in terms of the premodern and proto-modern, as I thought I was going to, but rather that I want to draw a typology of different subject formations, and define and label the set-up, or dispositif that produces each one of them, separately. In other words, instead of talking about premodern genealogies or analogies of post-modern subjectivity, I am going to talk about particular cases where subjectivity is formed, and give them all different labels, a little like in Deleuze and Guattari’s Mille plateaux: so, perhaps we’ll be talking about pack subjectivity (as in a wolf pack), or spiraling, or the egg, or nomadism, and so on and so forth. I’ve got to say that my readings up to this point (other than Barthes) have not been very helpful in assisting me to go that direction, including on one hand Agamben, and on the other hand, Jacques Rancière. It seems to me that both of them—Agamben who is very well known to you and Rancière who may be a bit less, so I will be slightly more explicit in evoking him—rely on a dichotomous operation in the theoretical moment that defines the subject of their work. For Agamben it is the contrast between life and political life, zoe and bios politicos. For Rancière, it is the contrast between human rights and the rights of man. “Human rights” are an interesting phrase, and some of Rancière’s discussion gets lost in translation, because in French human rights (note the collective adjective “human”) are les droits de l’homme et du citoyen, the rights of man and citizen, note the individual noun—but the issue is not so complex that it cannot be translated: it is simply the question of which democracy are we talking about. The “communal option” of democracy consists in privileging of the collective “sanctity” of the nation, the family, the Church over the rights of the individual, and its ultimate test, the privileging of the rights of the majority over the minority. There is no doubt about Rancière’s position: he warns against understanding democracy as that which protects the communal rights, as in the phrase, “human rights,” not the rights of the individual. That slippage from the concept of the subject as an individual to the concept of the subject as communal good (a subject to the king or to the rule of the majority—there seems to be not much difference) always alerts us to the shift from democracy to totalitarianism. So it seems like it’s always about human vs. animal, or community vs. individual, and that dichotomous thinking about the subject gets, to me, pretty un-illuminating at some point. Instead, I feel compelled to think along the lines of those of you in Babel who for many years now have been doing work on hybridization, monstrosity, animals, like Karl Steel, or mystics, like Nicola: I want to define the “subject” by delimiting it, catching the subject when it’s most vulnerable, the least like itself, the least capable of running its own “subject machine”: the zero degree of subjectivity, as it were. Whence the topic of my paper-“besotted."
 Different translations can lend a very different tone to this poem. Throughout this chapter, I am interpreting as much as translating.