April 21, 2011

Failing Christ's Passion

Milton is often chided for being squeamish when it comes to the subject of the body. Nowhere is this discomfort more evident than in the fact that his only poem devoted to Christ's Passion remains unfinished. Even Paradise Regain'd, his later work on the life of Christ, can only offer several vague gestures toward the Son's impending crucifixion. The Passion was begun at Christmas 1629, when Milton was 21. Later in his 1645 Poems Milton marks the unfinished poem's impasse with a statement of explanation:
"This subject the author finding it to be above the years he had when he wrote it, and nothing satisfied with what was begun, left it unfinished." 
Thus, despite its failure, Milton still chose to include the poem in his first collection of published verse. Indeed, one does not have to look hard for poetry that fully invests itself in the suffering of Christ (Donne and Herbert are not far off); in Milton's own life and work, however, this failure to recount Christ's death shows that some of the best theological points are made in their absence.
            The Passion 
  Ere-while of Musick, and Ethereal mirth,
  Wherwith the stage of Ayr and Earth did ring,
  And joyous news of heav'nly Infants birth,
  My muse with Angels did divide to sing;
  But headlong joy is ever on the wing,
    In Wintry solstice like the shortn'd light
  Soon swallow'd up in dark and long out-living night.


  For now to sorrow must I tune my song,
  And set my Harpe to notes of saddest wo,
  Which on our dearest Lord did sease er'e long,
  Dangers, and snares, and wrongs, and worse then so,
  Which he for us did freely undergo.
    Most perfect Heroe, try'd in heaviest plight
  Of labours huge and hard, too hard for human wight.


  He sov'ran Priest stooping his regall head
  That dropt with odorous oil down his fair eyes,
  Poor fleshly Tabernacle entered,
  His starry front low-rooft beneath the skies;
  O what a Mask was there, what a disguise!
    Yet more; the stroke of death he must abide,
  Then lies him meekly down fast by his Brethrens side.


  These latter scenes confine my roving vers,
  To this Horizon is my Phoebus bound,
  His Godlike acts, and his temptations fierce,
  And former sufferings other where are found;
  Loud o're the rest Cremona's Trump doth sound;
    Me softer airs befit, and softer strings
  Of Lute, or Viol still, more apt for mournful things.


  Befriend me night best Patroness of grief,
  Over the Pole thy thickest mantle throw,
  And work my flatter'd fancy to belief,
  That Heav'n and Earth are colour'd with my wo;
  My sorrows are too dark for day to know:
    The leaves should all be black whereon I write,
  And letters where my tears have washt a wannish white.


  See see the Chariot, and those rushing wheels,
  That whirl'd the Prophet up at Chebar flood,
  My spirit som transporting Cherub feels,
  To bear me where the Towers of Salem stood,
  Once glorious Towers, now sunk in guiltles blood;
    There doth my soul in holy vision sit
  In pensive trance, and anguish, and ecstatick fit.


  Mine eye hath found that sad Sepulchral rock
  That was the Casket of Heav'ns richest store,
  And here though grief my feeble hands up-lock,
  Yet on the softned Quarry would I score
  My plaining vers as lively as before;
    For sure so well instructed are my tears,
  That they would fitly fall in order'd Characters.


  Or should I thence hurried on viewles wing,
  Take up a weeping on the Mountains wilde,
  The gentle neighbourhood of grove and spring
  Would soon unboosom all their Echoes milde,
  And I (for grief is easily beguild)
    Might think th' infection of my sorrows loud,
  Had got a race of mourners on som pregnant cloud.

  This Subject the Author finding to be above the yeers he had, when
he wrote it, and nothing satisfi'd with what was begun, left it

April 17, 2011

Walter Benjamin: Archiving as Dialectical Strategy


The Autumn of Central Paris (after Walter Benjamin) 
R. B. Kitaj

History, for Walter Benjamin, always marks a site of political struggle. In this way, his ongoing attempt to rid his own work of the “ideology of progress” cannot be separated from a commitment to revolutionary politics. As Benjamin puts it in the Arcades Project, “the object’s rescue” by way of historical materialism “carries with it an immanent critique of the concept of progress.” Indeed, the commodification of all aspects of urban life in Benjamin’s time made Marx’s analysis of capital a necessity for historical materialism; but where Marx still relied on a discourse of progress, Benjamin set forward a dialectical model that froze contradiction in the form of an image: “where thinking comes to a standstill in a constellation saturated with tensions—there the dialectical image appears.” This version of the dialectic, writes Benjamin, “refutes everything ‘gradual’ about becoming and shows seeming ‘development’ to be a dialectical reversal . . . [as] the awakening from [a] dream.” Thus the Arcades Project, Benjamin’s unfinished attempt at a dialectical intervention in the dream-life of the collective, sees him assembling the material traces of nineteenth century Paris as “talismans” in order to present a “collective history—not life as it was, nor even life remembered, but life as it has been forgotten.”

Among well-known characters like the flaneur and the gambler, the collector is a recurrent figure in Benjamin’s writing. “What is decisive in collecting,” writes Benjamin, “is that the object is detached from all its original functions in order to enter the closest conceivable relation to things of the same kind.” In the collector, therefore, we see at work the beginnings of a dialectic of “reconstruction and recuperation.” The collector preserves objects only to reinsert them into new contexts and arrangements, thus transforming a metaphorical relation (which is tied to value as a commodity) into a metonymic one. This distinction between “metaphor” and “metonym” is, for Benjamin, displayed in his early work on Baroque allegory, and is not unrelated to the death of the “aura,” which we witness later in “an age of mechanical reproduction.” This leveling of signification closely parallels the production of value in the commodity.

Following Karl Krauss, Benjamin’s practice of collection, which defines the structure of the Arcades Project, is a form of citation, which restores writing to significance by displacing it from its original context and organizing it in another. “History,” writes Benjamin, “belongs to the concept of citation, however, that the historical object is in each case torn from its context.” As Terry Eagleton explains it, citation resembles “reproduction” (which opens possibilities) rather than “repetition” (which, like the commodity form, perpetually reinstates the “aura”): “in the mosaic of quotation as in the explications of baroque emblem, discourse is released from its own reified environs into a conveniently portable kind of signifying practice . . . to weave fresh correspondences across language.” Citation, then, is not simple transmission, but rather a dialectical interruption, which, through the reactivation of historical tensions produces new situations, and consequently, moments of awakening. In contrast to the bourgeois notion of a causal, monumental historicism, Benjamin understands “tradition” as a dynamic activity of destruction and production.
The destructive character stands at the front line of the traditionalists. Some pass things down to posterity, by making them untouchable and thus conserving them, others pass on situations, by making them practicable and thus liquidating them. The latter are called destructive. . . . The destructive character sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason he sees ways everywhere.
For Benjamin, history is opposed to tradition as the ruling classes are opposed to the exploited. Tradition is not alternative history, nor is it a secret narrative that runs beneath the history of the powerful; rather, suggests Eagleton, it is “a series of spasms or crises within class history itself, a particular set of articulations of that history.” Thus rather than charting out an alternate course, the historical materialist draws such crises, such forgotten situations, into a complex “constellation” of dialectical tension with the present.

April 13, 2011

Love and Property in King Lear

Shakespeare's King Lear is often moralized into a plea for the body as a measure of equivalence between sense and speech, matter and value. The thrust of Edgar’s closing imperative, “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” has been modeled for us by Cordelia, but as the play’s first scene of property exchange among Lear's daughters demonstrates, even speech that is reconciled in the body can render the subject as property (V.iii.326). While Goneril describes her love as “beyond what can be valued, rich or rare” and Regan gestures toward a love that makes her “an enemy to all other joys” (I.i.63, 75), Cordelia articulates a love that is no more than the self-evident “bond” she has daily performed; and, against the extravagant returns of her sisters, Lear interprets Cordelia’s love as a “nothing” because she refuses to give it the illusion of totality. Rather, her pragmatism and honesty sees her dividing up her love as though it were property, like a parody of Lear’s division of his kingdom: “half my love with him, half my care and duty” (I.i.104). By articulating the status of her love (and her body) as property (rather than dealing in abstract valuations like her sisters), Cordelia shows how the resolution of speech and feeling in the body (or, in Lear’s eyes, into “nothing”) still produces a valued object for exchange. As France declares, “She is herself a dowry” (I.i.243). By her negative gesture Cordelia makes herself into a surplus value in Lear’s filial system of exchange. What was “unprized” has now been made “precious.” 
The play moves from Lear’s first mention of “nothing” (a sovereign annulment of filial bonds, which still governs the system of exchange) to a negative mode of  “incorporation.” To negate the body’s value only to reinstall it as a more “desireable” of property follows from an understanding of love that is predicated on possession; but as the play progresses we see articulated a love that simultaneously dispossesses the loving subject and recognizes its own surplus in the common. 
King Lear presents us with a handful of nobles who, as Edgar muses in Act 2 Scene 3, must become “nothing” in order to remain “something.” Before rushing to the play’s ambiguous conclusion and making that “something” into restored social capital, we might dwell on those scenes from the heath. Of course, we can read Edgar and Kent as figures that desire repatriation; figures that retain allegiance to a king who has provided them with wealth and friendship. But on the heath, Edgar recognizes the power of the negative as a kind of surplus common: “To be worst, / The lowest and most dejected thing of fortune, / Stands still in esperance, lives not in fear: / The lamentable change is from the best, / The worst turns to laughter” (IV.i.2-6). Here, Edgar expresses the surplus of his dejection: he has moved outside a debt economy and “owes nothing” to the hands that have shaped his fortune. In the same scene, the recently blinded Gloucester realizes something similar when he suggests, “Our means secure us, and our mere defects / Prove our commodities” (IV.i.20-21). Gloucester scorns the man “that will not see / Because he does not feel,” points to the “power” of the poor, and calls for “distribution to undo excess” (IV.i.70-73). Later as he prepares for suicide, Gloucester offers the rest of his “purse” to Edgar, unaware of the obvious irony that this small redistribution of wealth to the poor is, in fact, a transaction of filial obligation. 
          While “nothing” assists the exchange of property in Lear’s court and masquerades as “something” in Timon’s Athens, it takes on a different function on the heath. Here, Lear moves beyond the love-as-possession that animates his attitude towards his daughters and colours their “ingratitude” as a lost love-object (a loss that haunts the paternal bonds of love throughout the play). When Lear suggests that “Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest things superfluous” he points to a desire for surplus that is common to all.

April 6, 2011

Eagleton and Benjamin on tradition

I'm currently working on a paper that deals with the archive (as a concept, a space, an activity, etc.) and with the historical materialist method of Walter Benjamin. Among other things, this means I can finally get around to reading Terry Eagleton's extended study of Benjamin from 1981, Walter Benjamin, or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism. So far, so good, though, as always, I find Eagleton's unrestrained verbosity rather tiresome. Eagleton begins with an unexpected detour into 17th century English literature (which, to my delight, features a good discussion of Milton) and proceeds through Benjamin's study of German tragic drama to a sporadic critique of post-structuralism. As is often the case, Eagleton's criticisms of Derrida and Foucault hold little water. On the other hand, he's a fine reader of Benjamin:
"Some pass things down to posterity," writes Benjamin in The Destructive Character, "by making them untouchable and thus conserving them, others pass on situations, by making them practical and thus liquidating them." What is transmitted by tradition is not "things," and least of all "monuments," but "situations"--not solitary artifacts but the strategies that construct and mobilize them. It is not that we constantly revaluate tradition; tradition is the practice of ceaselessly excavating, safeguarding, violating, discarding, and reinscribing the past. There is no tradition other than this, no set of ideal landmarks that then suffer modification. . . . What is at stake is not merely the spoils of situations but the situations themselves, the practices of digging and discovery, sightings and oversightings, which trace through the exhumed objects so deeply as to constitute a major part of their meaning.