November 30, 2010

I never thought I'd say this, but I actually miss setting type.
(Click image to enlarge)

image via Biblioklept

November 27, 2010

Milton, Derrida, and the site of hospitality


In his seminars on hospitality, Jacques Derrida sets out to distinguish conditional hospitality (which follows the ancient Greek and Judeo-Christian customs of hospitality toward to the stranger or foreigner as a legal obligation) from unconditional hospitality (which says “yes to who or what turns up, before any determination, before any anticipation, before identification, whether or not it has to do with . . . a human, animal, or divine creature,” (77)). Unconditional hospitality is transgressive, lawless, and absolutely heterogeneous to conditional hospitality; but it also depends on the limit of the law in order to break it. The scene of hospitality is therefore necessarily bound up with the religious and the emancipatory:
It is as if the stranger or foreigner held the keys. This is always the situation of the foreigner, in politics too, that of coming as a legislator to lay down the  law and liberate the people or the nation by coming from outside, by entering into the nation or the house, into the home that lets him enter after having appealed to him. . . . as if, then, the stranger could save the master and liberate the power of his host. (Derrida 123)
This post is an exercise for an upcoming paper: a preliminary attempt to explore Derrida's aporia of hospitality through the meeting of spirit and matter, divine guest and human host, in Milton's epic poem. Book V of Paradise Lost illustrates Milton’s attempt at an original, prelapsarian rule of hospitality, which inevitably involves the creation of domestic space. Adam and Eve are allowed to play host to Raphael. However, it is not humanity that first prepares for the arrival of a divine creature, but a gendered earth, who is depicted “Wantoned as in her prime, and played at will / Her virgin fancies, pouring forth more sweet, / Wild above rule or art; enormous bliss” (V.295-297). To call the earth “wanton” is to identify its essential excess, which is at once unnecessary (or gratuitous) and sexually suggestive: earth warms her “inmost womb” and it proves to be “more warmth than Adam needs” (V.302). Although female in type, the earth is constantly overstepping its domestic bounds. Perhaps this requires a rethinking of prelapsarian domesticity. In other words, the earth’s generous (potentially transgressive) hospitality prefigures, conditions Adam and Eve’s opening to the stranger from heaven. Indeed, says Adam, nature’s “fertile growth . . . instructs us not to spare” (V.319-320).

Roles are quickly established: this is one condition of hospitality. Adam is first host, while Eve is relegated to the food preparation. Adam’s directions to Eve are made in haste, for the occasion demands nothing less than their finest show of hospitality: “. . . go with speed, / And what thy stores contain, bring forth and pour / Abundance, fit to honor and receive / Our Heav’nly stranger” (V.313-316). As Derrida points out, in the act of hospitality, “Desire is waiting for what does not wait” (123). But the host’s desire also involves a certain expectation in which the host’s boundaries are breached: that “[c]rossing the threshold is entering and not only approaching or coming” and so the invited guest becomes the one who invites, “the guest becomes the host of the host” (123). Eve at once suggests that she and Adam are partly motivated by their own earthly pride. In their presentation of their home, Adam and Eve are suggesting to their superior guest that “. . . on Earth / God hath dispensed his bounties as in Heav’n” (V.329-330). In this way, their subjective importance to God lies hostage to the  potential validation of their heavenly visitor.

Milton’s description of Eve’s preparation emphasizes the place of labour in the domestic sphere. This scene of food preparation and composition is “a trope for poetry,” which orders and maintains the sensuous into rhyme and verse (333-336n). Meanwhile, Adam greets their guest, “bowing low” and praising Raphael, while attempting to articulate humanity’s giftedness, its favor in God’s eyes. That Adam and Eve “by sov’reign gift possess / This spacious ground” already puts them in receptive and submissive roles, thereby making their hospitality entirely conditional upon their status.

Raphael is a kind and hospitable guest; so hospitable in fact, that he condescends to eat earthly produce. But would Raphael have eaten earth’s harvest had Adam not invoked their mutual submission to God the father? By eating with them, Raphael fulfills the pretentious wishes of Adam and Eve. He admits, “God hath here / Varied his bounty so with new delights, / As may compare with Heaven” (V.430-433). But unlike humans, Raphael’s digestive process involves transubstantiation and secretes the food that is not absorbed by his spiritual body through his pores. Thus spiritual food differs from material food “in degree”; “. . .what God for you saw good,” says Raphael, “I refuse not, but convert, as you, to proper substance” (V.490-493). It is thus Raphael’s display of hospitality to the human pair which more closely resembles the unconditional hospitality of which Derrida speaks. Indeed, it allows for the story of Satan’s fall from heaven, it makes good on the human curiosity which later becomes transgressive, and temporarily disrupts the order of creation. Perhaps something similar takes place when Eve encounters and speaks (!) to the serpent.

Defourmantelle, Anne and Jacques Derrida. Of Hospitality. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

November 19, 2010

Delilah, PJ Harvey, and Samson Agonistes

Delilah, to be sure, has traditionally been considered a notorious woman; but as she tells us in John Milton's Samson Agonistes, “Fame if not double-faced is double-mouthed, / And with contrary blast proclaims most deeds” (971-2). Indeed, her name still appears now and again in popular music (many examples are terrible; see, most recently, "Hey There Delilah" by the Plain White T’s; as a music lover, it pains me to even bring this song up), where, she is associated with adultery, betrayal, and all-around immorality. She has become a loaded symbol, but she has also become a bit of a cliché.

Delilah’s currency popular culture isn't entirely disappointing. PJ Harvey’s 1992 debut Dry features a song called “Hair,” in which Harvey assumes the voice of Delilah. In "Hair," Delilah's initial fetish for Samson’s hair soon turns diabolical and domineering (at least in the eyes of the man): “Samson the strength that's in your arms / Oh to be your stunning bride / Samson your hair glistening like sun / Oh would that it were mine / Samson your hair that's in my hands / I'll keep it safe you're mine / He said, ‘Wait! Wait! Delilah my babe, / you lied in my face, / you cut off my hair, / you lied in my bed.’” Harvey’s main point of interest is in sexual politics: Delilah’s subversive cunning is the true source of power, while Samson’s divine potency is shown to be quite fragile. In the final lines, she dictates and redefines the terms of their relationship: “Samson you'll stay with your ’Lilah / I hold you in my hands your hairy strength. / My man, my man.” Delilah’s sexual satisfaction turns out to be her great weapon of domination; consequently, Samson has become her possession.


Milton’s poetic tragedy, Samson Agonistes, sets things up somewhat differently. Delilah emerges at the centre of this narrative, but we only meet her after the notorious betrayal has already taken place. Samson’s pathetic status as a blind prisoner makes her visit all the more troubling. In addition, Milton has twisted the story such that Delilah is not merely Samson’s mistress; rather she is his wife. Her actions are therefore even more dispicable. Recalling Satan’s epic movements in Paradise Lost, Delilah enters the poem described “Like a stately ship,” brave and richly “bedecked,” resembling the whore of Babylon (710-20). However, Delilah's infidelity has less to do with sex than it does with religion.

Delilah's final excuse for divulging Samson's secret rests on the contraints of her Philistine religion: she was “Adjured by all the bonds of civil duty / And of religion” (853-4). Again appeal to her own weakness, she asks, “what had I / To oppose against such powerful arguments” (861-2). This defense seems like it would have been especially relevant for readers in Milton’s time. One could easily see puritan Dissenters making the same excuse (that is, religious coercion) for their having participated in state-required Anglican worship: Delilah resigns herself to the fact that “to the public good / Private respects must yield” (867-8). Milton would, of course, reject such logic. Indeed, by his divinely inspired martyrdom, Samson eventually proves that “private respects” do not simply die away when they are outwardly repressed. 

Samson is guilty of having been “uxurious”: his over-love for Delilah, his wife, has resulted in his own subjection. With the sensuous rhetoric that ensues, it is not difficult to see how Samson was swayed to give up his secret. Though it may be “feigned remorse,” Delilah’s speech encourages our sympathy and Samson appears unreasonable. That is, until Delilah misogynistically reconfigures her own weakness as “incident to all our sex” and immediately suggests that Samson’s own error “show’dst me first the way” by mistakenly entrusting his secret to “woman’s frailty” (775-83). Furthermore, Delilah explains, “I saw thee mutable / Of fancy, feared lest one day thou wouldst leave me . . . No better way [to endear thee] I saw than by importuning / To learn thy secrets, get into my power / Thy key of strength and safety” (794-99). Here, it seems, PJ Harvey’s Delilah is not too far off Milton’s mark. Her reasoning resonates with Eve’s considerations just after eating the forbidden fruit: she is tempted toward sexual mastery over her partner by withholding a powerful secret.
Indeed, Delilah’s final words bring us back, once again, to her currency within contemporary popular culture, where she has become a symbol for subversive feminity, rather than a national hero:
    My name [. . .]
    To all posterity may stand defamed,
    With malediction mentioned, and the blot
    Of falsehood most unconjugal traduced.
    But in my country where I most desire,
    [. . .]I shall be named among the famousest
    Of women, sung at solemn festivals,
    Living and dead recorded, who to save
    Her country from a fierce destroyer, chose
    Above the faith of wedlock-bands [. . .] (975-986)

November 11, 2010


it's remembrance day; go read some hauerwas

Or just listen to him.

Does Remembrance Day treat war with enough ambivalence? The ritual of remembrance is ultimately a question of identity and collectivity. Is there a way of remembering war that doesn't participate in the the sort of political allegiance required by the nation state?

St. Augustine saw that war arose from disordered desires and ambitions but he understood that it could also be used, in some cases, to restrain evil and protect the innocent. Mass support for current war efforts, Christian or not, (formally) projects a similar view (though if any major military states actually followed St. Augustine's conditions for just war, our last century would have looked entirely different). For theologians like Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, Christian pacifism is not just an abstract attitude about war; rather it entails the belief that God through Jesus Christ has inaugurated a history that frees all people from the assumption that there is no alternative to war.

For Hauerwas and Yoder, the debate between positions of pacifism and just war theology is a debate between differing assumptions about history and the performance of political allegiance.  The just war view of history demands that we must compromise ideals of peace because of our sinful condition, while the Christian pacifist believes that peace is not simply an ideal destined for compromise, but is rather a present alternative within the suffering body of Christ.

For many, war is the only way to preserve our common history and properly remember the sacrifices of our forefathers. To participate in warfare and to engage in certain styles of remembrance that validate the nation is to claim for ourselves the power to determine our meaning and choose our destiny. For Hauerwas, to protect ourselves against our enemies from a position of individual sovereignty is to protect a state-sanctioned version of history that is incompatible with the manifest weakness of God in the person of Christ.

November 5, 2010

Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot (c. 1823), Henry Perronet Briggs

From The Fifth of November 
John Milton

[. . . ]

But still, Fame, you have deserved praise in our song for one good report, and there was never a rumor more truly honest. You are worthy of our song, and I shall never regret having commemorated you at such length in my verse. We English, who were plainly saved by your good offices, wandering goddess, render to you just thanks. God who tends the eternal fires in their motions, hurled down a thunderbolt and then, the earth still trembling, addressed you: "Are you silent, Fame? Is this band of impious Papists hidden from your sight, this crew that has conspired against me and my Britons, and this novel kind of murder been planned against King James?"

No more said he, but she responded at once to the Thunderer's commands, and, though swift of flight before, now she puts on creaking wings and covers her thin body with parti-coloured plumes. In her right hand she takes a sonorous Temesaean trumpet. Without delay, she beats the yielding air with her wings. And not content to outstrip the rushing clouds, she soon leaves behind her the winds and the horses of the sun. As usual she first spreads ambiguous rumours and vague rumors throughout the English towns, and then in a clear voice she makes public the plots and foul deeds of treason, unspeakably horrible; and she even names the authors of the crime. Nor does her garrulity conceal the places prepared for this ambush. Her news amazes young men, frightened girls and weak old men alike. People of all ages are suddenly struck to the heart by the sense of so great a disaster.

But meanwhile the heavenly father looked down from above with pity on his people, and thwarted the Papists' cruel attempt. They are seized and taken off to severe punishments. Sacred incense is burned and grateful honours paid to God. All the joyous crossroads smoke with genial fumes; the young people dance in crowds, for in all the year there is no day more celebrated than the fifth of November.