Eileen Joy (ejoy@coastal.edu)

Coastal Carolina University

41st International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2006

BABEL Panel: Medieval to Modern Humanisms


"And so for sorrow he might no longer behold them, but turned his horse and looked toward a fair forest: Eros, Love, Regard, and the Humanities"



"For God mingles not with man, but through Love, all the intercourse, and converse of God with man, whether awake or asleep, is carried on. The wisdom which understands this is spiritual; all other wisdom, such as that of arts and handicrafts, is mean and vulgar."--Diotima, in Plato's Symposium

"Whatever 'higher' or 'deeper' meanings there may be, they do not transcend human life, but lie immanent in it. The body, its drives, and the bodily expression of mind all lend vitality to 'higher' mental functions and to social life. It is this particular subjectivity with which we are pregnant: and it is from this that we give birth to beauty."--Jonathan Lear, Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul

I have been thinking a lot lately about whether love, in our present moment, might not represent the ultimate taboo subject for critical thought. After all, we've exhausted sex and sexuality to the point where it's almost not even sexy, and to what end? So we can “"queer" ourselves endlessly through what Elizabeth Grosz has called the "divergent resonances"” and "flows" of bodies without contours flowing into other bodies in order to enact what Jeffrey Cohen has called, following Grosz, the open-ended “"becomings" of "the plural autonomy of desire"?[1] If some of us sense the image of utopia in that description, I wouldn't disregard it. I actually believe that queer theory is our best bet right now for imparting to our intellectual studies what Cohen has called "a process of wonder" and for providing a space for utopian thinking in the academy, and I myself am queer, but I've really had it with sex and sexuality, by which I mean, as a subject for critical reflection. But don't misinterpret me, either. While sex currently bores me to death, partly because it's been exposed to death, what I can't seem to get over is eros, of which sex is just one powerful symptom. I can't get over passion. I can't get over desire. I can't get over love, and the more I think about some of the conversations we have been having about humanism, the humanities, and the supposed post-human future, the more I find myself drawn to the question of how it is that love might be crucially related to how we are going to refashion a future humanities where, if cognitive science is right, the mind is always embodied and reason is not dispassionate, but largely imaginative and emotionally engaged.[2] I want to see if we can think a little bit about how our task, as humanities teachers and scholars, might now be, not the cultivation of the supposedly rational, phenomenological intellect, but of the embodied (and largely unconscious) emotional intellect. How, moreover, might we conceptualize this task as also having to do with understanding the individual, in the words of Jonathan Lear (explaining Freud), as someone who

cannot be understood other than as a response to certain forces that permeate the social world into which he is born. . . . [and who] is a manifestation and embodiment of the very same forces to which his existence is a response. The individual . . . cannot be understood in isolation.[3]

The individual, in other words, cannot be understood apart from what Freud would have said is the "erotic relation between a person and the world in which he lives." Further, "a person is erotically bound to the world. That is a condition of there being a world for him: that is, it is a condition of his sanity," and love "is not just a feeling or discharge of energy, but an emotional orientation to the world."[4] How, finally, might the new end of the humanities be the training of this emotional orientation, which I think is also connected to what the political theorist Jane Bennett has called the experience of enchantment, without which, an ethical life is not possible?[5]

Given the nature of this session, I will have to move fast, and can only really sketch here what I would call a prolegomenon to a prolegomenon: where would we begin if we wanted to have a place to begin formulating our principles for a new humanities directed toward a particular emotional orientation to the world? I would begin with Plato's Symposium, perhaps the most famous dialogue on love in the Western tradition, but I don't want to recapitulate what is already well-known about that work. Rather, I want to look briefly at how Jonathan Lear examines, through Freud, the psychoanalytic significance of the Symposium. Lear is mainly interested, not in the various stock speeches that are made by Aristophanes, Socrates, and the others on the nature of love, but in Alcibiades' drunken disruption of the dialogue, his frustration toward Socrates' refusal to sleep with him, and his jealous and bitchy struggle with Socrates over the sexual possession of Agathon, at which point many of the party guests leave, indicating, in Lear's mind, that the Symposium "is . . . as much concerned with the symposium's undoing as it is with rendering an account of the symposium itself."[6] For Lear, it is important that we not see Alcibiades' supposedly farcical intrusion as an indirect confirmation of the Socratic account of the erotic, in which love of a particular beautiful body moves "to a love of all beautiful bodies, from a love of bodies to a love of souls, from that to a love of laws and then on to a love of wisdom."[7] According to Lear, Alcibiades can be seen "as acting out a refutation of Socrates' theory of love," in which theory

[t]he beautiful will not appear . . . in the guise of a face or hands or anything else that belongs to the body. It will not appear . . . as one idea or one kind of knowledge. It is not anywhere in another thing, as in an animal, or in earth, or in heaven, or in anything else, but itself by itself with itself, it is always one in form . . . .[8]

In this scenario, "one comes to see human flesh . . . as a pollution," a "great nonsense of mortality," and "[f]rom a divine perspective beauty is not immanent: 'it is not in another thing, as in animal, or in earth'."[9] For Lear, this conception of the divine encapsulates what he believes is the tragedy of the Symposium, where to follow Socrates' account of love is to "become disdainful of one's own mortal nature, treating it as not part of one's true self," and this is what also "accounts for Socrates' indifference" to Alcibiades "erotic suffering":

Socrates has made the journey, he has become as divine as humanly possible, and though he remains in the human realm, he is no longer part of it. He looks on the humanity of the human world with the indifference of the gods. Alcibiades is, of course, as human as they come. He is trapped in the human erotic . . . .

     . . . . insofar as Alcibiades is trapped in the human-erotic, he can, from Socrates' perspective, go fuck himself. It does not matter to Socrates what the consequences are. From the vantage of Athenian culture, this encounter between Alcibiades and Socrates must be judged a failure of inestimable cost. Nothing less is at stake than the future of one of [the] world's great civilizations. And yet, from a divine point of view, human politics is by and large a distraction. It just does not matter which particular form the distraction takes.[10]

But it matters a great deal, actually, to Lear, a psychoanalyst as well as a philosopher of classical antiquity, "which particular form the distraction takes," and our aim should be "not to leave the human realm behind, but to get deeper into it--its smells, feels, textures, and the imaginary meanings we give to them," for "it is this particular [embodied] subjectivity with which we are pregnant: and it is from this that we give birth in beauty."[11]

Lear's thinking here, heavily indebted to Freud's idea, again, that the individual "cannot be understood other than as a response to certain forces that permeate the social world," also accords well with the insight of cognitive science that, in the words of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, "[r]eason is not disembodied, as the [Western] tradition has largely held, but arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experience," and further, "reason is not, in any way, a transcendent feature of the universe or of disembodied mind. Instead, it is shaped crucially by the peculiarities of our human bodies, by the remarkable details of the neural structure of our brains, and by the specifics of our everyday functioning in the world."[12] The peculiarity of the human body is exactly what Alcibiades cannot get around in his struggle with Socrates by whom he feels "completely possessed," and while Alcibiades is clearly locked in a repetitive and neurotic "acting out" against Socrates, which does not allow him to grow or expand as a person, Socrates' indifference to him further impedes his ability to individuate. In Freudian terms, Socrates essentially refuses to confront Alcibiades' transference, which, in Lear's words, is "in essence a form of political engagement."[13] As is well known, what I would call Alcibiades' bad education had disastrous consequences: he vandalized the statues of the temple of Hermes by breaking off their genitals, profaned the Eleusinian mysteries, and ultimately decamped to Sparta where he betrayed Athens' military secrets. The undoing of Alcibiades through Socrates' indifference becomes the undoing of Athens itself, and the fault is not in Alcibiades' inability to ascend to a higher plane of awareness--to get beyond the particular body of Socrates to an idea of a higher virtue, for that, after all, is only human--but in Socrates' unwillingness to descend to Alcibiades, in other words, to love him, not sexually, but as person in need of a certain affectionate regard, a regard, moreover, grounded in an attachment to the human world and its well-being. How to cultivate this attachment is, I believe, essential to the role of the humanities in what Bill Readings has called the "post-historical” university," where the university, having lost "its privileged status as the model of [an ideal] society," becomes "one site among others where the question of being-together is raised, raised with an urgency that proceeds from the absence of the institutional forms (such as the nation-state), which have historically served to mask that question."[14]

The cultivation, through a humanities education, of an attachment, through love, to the human world and its well-being, and the reformulation of the university as "one site among others where the question of being-together is raised," is, I believe, a matter of great political urgency and is in no way simply academic, at least, not for me. I am in agreement with Jane Bennett that what she calls enchantment, or an "energetic love of the world," is absolutely essential to "the cultivation of an ethic of generosity toward others."[15] Postmodern thought has bequeathed to us a world that often seems to bear what Max Weber called "the imprint of meaninglessness," and according to Bennett, it can often be "too hard to love a disenchanted world."[16] At the same time, as Nietzsche's Zarathustra teaches us, "As long as there have been men, man has felt too little joy: that alone . . . is our original sin. And learning better to feel joy, we best unlearn how to do harm to others and to contrive harm."[17] And I would argue that, in addition to an erotic relation to, and energetic love of, the world, that unlearning how to do harm to others is also related to regard, by which I mean a particular kind of wakeful attention to particular, embodied others, and which can be located in sorrow as well as in joy. By way of illustration, I want to conclude with a singular, arresting moment in the always already enchanted world of Malory's Arthur, when Balyn, "the knight with two swords," kills another knight, Launceor, occasioning Launceor's lover, an unnamed woman, to fall into a "sorrow out of measure" and to exclaim to Balyn that he has killed "two bodyes . . . in one herte, and two hertes in one body, and two soules," after which she kills herself with her lover's sword. But the moment that has always struck me is what Malory tells us happens afterward: Balyn is so struck with wonder at the woman's will to self-destruction over her love for the dead knight, and so ashamed of himself for causing that self-destruction, that, as Malory writes, "for sorow he myght no lenger beholde them, but turned hys horse and loked toward a fayre foreste."[18]

It is only for a moment that Balyn turns away, and the sight of his brother riding out of the forest toward him quickly breaks the scene, but I consider it to be one of the most important moments in the entire Morte d'Arthur. In that singular instance of both being struck with wonder at the power of eros and also turning away from it, and also from the sight of two particular loving-destroying bodies, Balyn reveals his capacity for empathy while also refusing a fuller engagement with an erotic attachment to the human world in favor of the "fayre foreste," which, in Malory's world at least, is the classic route of escape, as well as the image of an incorruptible beauty, because it is not really a beautiful forest, but an idea of one, seen at a distance. But what if Balyn were to turn back again, and really look, once more, at the woman's body pierced by her lover's sword? It is to this question of looking again, with passionate attachment to the human world, and with regard for the person, that the humanities, I really believe, should direct itself.


1. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p. 44.

2. See George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999), pp. 3-4.

3. Jonathan Lear, Love and Its Place in Nature: A Philosophical Interpretation of Freudian Psychoanalysis (New York: Farar, Straus & Giroux, 1990), pp. 156-57.

4. Lear, Love and Its Place in Nature, pp. 155, 153.

5. See Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

6. Jonathan Lear, “Eros and Unknowing: The Psychoanalytic Significance of Plato’s Symposium,” in Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 148.

7. Lear, “Eros and Unknowing,” p. 163.

8. Plato, Symposium, trans. A. Nehamas and P. Woodruff (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989); qtd. in Lear, “Eros and Unknowing, p. 163.

9. Lear, “Eros and Unknowing,” p. 163.

10. Lear, “Eros and Unknowing,” p. 164.

11. Lear, “Eros and Knowing,” p. 166.

12. Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, p. 4.

13. Lear, “Eros and Unknowing,” p. 152.

14. Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 20.

15. Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life, p. 10.

16. Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life, pp. 8, 12.

17. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin, 1976).

18. Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur, ed. Stephen H.E. Shepherd (New York: Norton, 2004), p. 46.