Anna Klosowska (Miami University of Ohio)

44th International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2009

Western Michigan University

BABEL Panel: Are We Enjoying Ourselves? The Place of Pleasure in Medieval Scholarship

Like We Need It

Figure 1. The Pleasure Gardens at Sanssouci (after 1745)

Barthes says: “we write to be loved, but being read and being loved are not the same. It’s undoubtedly that distance that constitutes a writer” [“on écrit pour être aimé, on est lu sans pouvoir l’être. C’est sans doute cette distance qui constitue l’écrivain”]. This conceives of creativity in the mode of distance, and I want to distance myself from the myth of the tormented author. Yes, writing can be an anesthetic, but writing in its fullness comes from happiness just as it aspires to it. That brings me to pleasure, which is also conceived in the mode of distance, as I will show, but I want instead to argue for a different theory of pleasure, grounded in presence. I want to transform Barthes’s phrase to say, “we write to be loved. Being loved is being heard, the longing of both listeners to hear what they never know. The possibility of that hearing is what constitutes a writer.”

One of the interesting aspects of pleasure is that there really isn’t a good theory of cathexis. Allow me an exercise in labeling. Pleasure can be conceived through an avaricious Marxist critique along the lines of symbolic capital, or a cultural studies reading that would label pleasure’s material and imaginative parameters. We can surround pleasure with yellow tape as the crime-scene of simulacrum, or entertain a pessimistic Lacanian reading of lack, or a delighted speculative realist reading that considers the encrustations of the surface and the qualities streaming tentacle-like from the core of the alluring object. In Graham Harman’s speculative realism, allure is what explains relations, but it is a given, and its emergence itself is not explained.[1] In saying this I signal that I do not really consider Harman’s statement that allure is the severing between the inaccessible reality of the object and its accessible qualities as sensible object any more of an explanation, in essence, than Montaigne’s “because it was him, because it was me.” Montaigne’s phrase seems to confirm Harman’s definition: when we put the two together, there emerges a topical focus on distance and connection, or perhaps even difference as generating connection. It took Montaigne years to write that famous sentence into the form that we know: the first printing of his essay on friendship only has the question, why? He later adds in the margin, some time apart, because in two different colors of ink, the two sentences, “because it was him, “because it was me.” This leads me to think that the non-explanation may be a defining characteristic of pleasure. Being ungovernable and unproductive, pleasure is similar to sacrifice, likewise excessive and wasteful, but more relaxed. Following the lines of unknowability of pleasure, I will now turn to two endearing examples of foolish cathexis, not to hold them out for ridicule on account of their excess, but rather to claim them as radical cousins of my own pleasures.

One of the earliest editors of the Song of Roland, Jean-Louis Bourdillon, produced around 1840 a translation and what has been called “an extremely free edition” of the text.[2] He entitles a later book the “memories” of Roland, Souvenirs de Roland, as if sending a postcard from a fictional destination.[3] Bourdillon describes his method:

I started by learning more or less by heart the text of my manuscripts. Once this was accomplished, once I my foothold on this terrain was secure, I took the order of ideas and called forth the lines, which then, painlessly, without effort, and from themselves, lined up under my pen . . . . I had omitted no more than ten lines by the author. When I wanted to stray I found these lines . . .  so lame in meaning, measure and rhyme as if they came out of an aimlessly wandering mind.

The immersion approach to editing was derided by Bourdillon’s competitors who preferred written editing to the oral, citing 800 missing lines, but principally using Bourdillon’s confession as evidence against him.

In the first story published under his name (1939),[4] Borges conjures up a delirious writer, Menard, whose “admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide--word for word and line for line--with those of Cervantes.” Menard embarks on a philosophico-poetic project whose terminus, like God, is both common and preexisting. Like philosophy, his work “anticipate[s] the vanity” of all intellectual endeavors,” but it anticipates more radically: “philosophers publish the intermediary stages of their labor in pleasant volumes” and Menard resolves “to do away with those stages.” “This work, perhaps the most significant of our time . . . the subterranean, the interminably heroic, the peerless. And--such are the capacities of man!--the unfinished,” is both a deliberate rejection and the radical form of the commentary. “Like all men of good taste, Menard abhorred [anachronism], fit only to produce . . . plebeian pleasure . . . or (what is worse) to enthrall us with the elementary idea that all epochs are the same or are different.”[5]

I am sure you recall the many other delights of Borges’s narrative, how Menard first attempts to become Cervantes, by “recovering the Catholic faith, slaying the Turk,” etc., and then decides this was “less arduous . . . and, consequently less interesting” than writing the Quixote as Pierre Menard. Unlike Bourdillon’s almost-memorization, Menard grounds his efforts in only a cursory acquaintance with the previous Quixote, “equal to the imprecise and prior image of a book not yet written.” Like any ordinary author, he writes “in order to find out what there is in his book.” This task, facilitated by forgetting as Bourdillon’s was facilitated by memorizing, is at the same time infinitely more difficult that that of Cervantes. Cervantes could write whatever he wanted, whereas Menard can only write very specific things. He produces “thousands of manuscript pages” of drafts to arrive at an identical but “infinitely richer” text: “the contrast in style is . . . vivid. The archaic style of Menard . . . strains under a form of affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time.”

This brings me to the problem of creativity. That’s a very strange word, because it sounds clinical, while that which it represents is slippery, a series of accidents, not a health condition, an exercise, in the Foucauldian sense, a hygiene of the soul. But if we conceive of creativity not only as an external accident but as an internal function as well, we gain the responsibility of hygiene and care. I am reminded of something a French Tunisian Jewish, or as he prefers, Mediterranean writer Albert Memmi said at a colloquium on the “Powers or Terror,” that neatly rejoins Foucault’s work on the care of the self. Memmi said: ours is a strange culture that so intimately obscures the very reason of, or naturalizes the necessity of morning ablutions (shower, new clothes), no longer ritual, disconnected from the transcendent principle, and completely neglects the necessity of emotional ablution, an ablution that becomes moral when it removes our residual nastiness as we are about to face the other, in the Levinasian sense.

Opening to pleasure, seeking pleasure, giving pleasure, recognizing others’ pleasure--the desire for which may be completely closed off to us--these activities freely and intensely building up around the center of pleasure, and not immobilized in the pessimistic gravitational field of desire-as-lack, are the tutelary structures, the genius loci of my work. As Foucault who distinguishes between sexual regimes grounded in the concept of desire and lack versus care regimes in pursuit of pleasure, I use pleasure as a moral, ethical, and aesthetic touchstone or compass. That does not close me off from growth, in some sort of self-referential cell, but I reject the idea of growth when it is not a growth of pleasure. This brings me back to the idea of the powers of terror. There is a long political and aesthetic tradition of rejecting absolute terror not on high ideological grounds, but precisely on the humble and soft ground of pleasure. When we think about Robespierre’s famous assertion that terror is an emanation of virtue, we can see how pleasure refuses that alchemical economy to the point of prohibiting terror.

I want to end by saying that my finding pleasure again in what I do in the last few years has been most intimately dependent on the people who sit here. While finding them was an accident for me, this accident has been a lot of work on the part of Eileen [Joy], Nicola [Masciandaro], Dan [Remein], Cary [Howie], Karl [Steel], Jeffrey [Cohen], Carolyn Dinshaw, and others whom I have not even met: Michael Snediker, to name one. Their work, and it is a lot of work, is sometimes indirect in the words of my books, but every word is said in their imagined hearing, realized fleetingly but so memorably lived here, today, as pleasure.

1. Graham Harman, “On Vicarious Causation,” Collapse 2 (March 2007), 171-206.

2. Andrew Taylor, Textual Situations, p. 220 n12.

3. Jean-Louis Bourdillon, Corrections et Additions, variantes et texte négligé: Souvenirs de Roland, Paris: Crapelet, Tilliard, 1847 (44 pp). Le poème de Roncevaux, traduit du romain en français, Dijon: Frantin, 1840.

4. Jean Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, the Author of Quixote,” in Selected Stories and Other Writings (New York: New Directions, 1964).

5. “Those who have insinuated that Menard dedicated his life to writing a contemporary Quixote calumniate his illustrious memory. He did not want to compose another Quixote--which is easy--but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription.”