Eileen A. Joy
Department of English
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
44th International Congress on Medieval Studies
7-10 May 2009
Western Michigan University
Session 395: Sex, Theory, and Philology: Queering Anglo-Saxon Studies
Saturday, May 9th @ 10:00 a.m.
Valley I, Rm. 107
Figure 1. Pega taking leave of Guthlac and Crowland [Harleian Guthlac Roll Y.6, British Library]
The Light of Her Face Was the Voluptuous Index of a Multiplicity of Guthlacs: Desire, Friendship, and Incest in the Lives of Saint Guthlac
*special note: this paper is dedicated to my sister, who was, and remains, the first great love of my life
Was somebody asking to see the soul?
See, your own shape and countenance, persons, substance, beasts,
the trees, the running rivers, the rocks, the sands.
All hold spiritual joys and afterwards loosen them;
How can the real body ever die and be buried?
Of your real body and any man’s or woman’s real body,
Item for item it will elude the hands of the corpse-cleaners and
pass to fitting spheres,
Carrying what it has accrued from its moment of birth to the
moment of death. . . . .
Behold, the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern
and includes and is the soul;
Whoever you are, how superb and how divine is your body, or any
part of it!
—Walt Whitman, “Starting from Paumanok,” Leaves of Grass
. . . there was never any moment when we were not already in relation
. . . .
—Leo Bersani, “Genital Chastity”
Pre-prolegomenon: I Denied Myself the Light of Her Face
I want to begin with an admission that something happened to me when working on this paper that has never really happened to me before. Although I think we will all admit that we are often working on papers up until the very last minute of departure for a conference, and sometimes even during the conference, it’s never been a question for me of how I am going to conclude or end a paper. Indeed, that is often the place where I begin. When I was studying fiction writing with Lee Smith, she told us a story I have never forgotten—that when she was working on her novel Fair and Tender Ladies, the only thing she had when she started was the line, “she walked in her body like a queen.” She wrote this on a postcard and taped it to the wall above her desk and decided that she would write a novel that would end with this sentence which, of course, is also an image, a character, a posture, a body in regal motion, like a fugue, or a gliding. The task of Lee’s novel, then, was to arrive at this moving image, even though, properly speaking, she didn’t yet know what it meant. For the most part, I approach my writing—whether fictional or scholarly—in the same way and I don’t worry about beginnings, or even middles, as they always seem to arrive somehow out of the backflow of the end, or they never arrive at all, and I don’t care. But when working on this paper for this session, I found that, although I knew exactly where I wanted to begin, I had no idea where I was going.
But even to say I had a beginning is not even true. I simply had the phrase “the light of her face,” words that jumped out of the Old English Guthlac B when I read them and struck me like lightning. But you won’t understand why without some context: I am speaking of that moment in the Old English Guthlac B when, just before dying, Guthlac instructs his servant Beccel (who is also his fraternal “brother,” and we can imagine, his friend),
Haste thou . . . and say unto my sister, that dearest woman, that I have journeyed forth upon a long way, unto the radiant joy, unto my eternal home. And say thou also unto her in my words, that I denied myself the light of her face all the days of my life in the world, for that I yearned that we twain might meet again in heavenly glory, in that unending joy, before the face of the Eternal Judge, all free of sin. There shall our love abide forever; there may we enjoy bliss in the radiant city, and blessedness with angels. [adapted from Charles Kennedy's modern translation and Jane Roberts's edition of the poem]
This passage has to grab us (as I imagine it would have grabbed an Anglo-Saxon reader) for the sheer fact that the sister nowhere exists in the narrative until this moment—properly speaking, she appears here (literally, arrives to sight). Second, this passage is arresting for the way it intensifies, with the language of passion and devotion, and even ecstasy, the relationship between Guthlac and his sister, Pega, in a way that is not at all present in Felix’s 8th-century Life of Saint Guthlac, where Guthlac simply says, “After my spirit has left this poor body, go to my sister Pega and tell her that I have in this life avoided her presence so that in eternity we may see one another in the present of our Father amid eternal joys.” But in both versions we have what I am going to call the queer situation of Guthlac having prohibited and denied himself the presence of his sister in this world in order to be with her—and more importantly, to see her, in that undiscovered country of life-after-death, but in the Old English poem, we also have the light of the sister’s face and Guthlac’s yearning for their reunion and for the “our love” and the “we two” and the “we” that can abide in heaven forever before the face of God.
So, what to do with this moment? There is one obvious route (maybe even an obvious queer route), which might be to look more closely at this holy (or unholy) ménage-a-trois of brother, sister, and Father (with a capital “F”), and see where that leads us. After all, there is so much to excavate simply in Guthlac’s admission of denying himself the light of his sister’s face all the days of his life in this world, especially once you realize that in later versions of the Life, such as that found in an anonymous 13th-century poem written in Latin hexameters and also in a series of 13th-century illustrations that likely were templates for stained glass windows never actually installed anywhere, we have versions of Guthlac’s story in which his sister actually lives with him in his hermitage (one imagines, as a fellow hermit), and after the devil takes on her appearance in order to tempt Guthlac to eat food before sunset—well, let’s just say, Pega gets voted off the island. And what’s the rub, then: what’s the queer rub in all of this? Is this about incest, or the threat of incest, or maybe even something worse that the saint cannot allow himself to have: closeness with his sister, love of his sister, maybe even a great love, a wild love affair—libidinal but not necessarily sexual—with his sister?
Is this the queer moment: to love our sisters, our brothers, too much, to choose them, above all others, as our greatest, in this case, quite literally, soul mates? And what does it mean, at the same time, to invest yourself libidinally and affectively, as a modern queer, in the reading of a saint’s life—in this case, the Old English Guthlac A and B—that stays so silent on this subject, that removes the sister before she can even properly arrive in order to make room for the real queer delights of hagiography: sadomasochism, self-mutilation, starvation, the death drive, and love of nothingness because, properly speaking, God isn’t there, He was never there, and He still isn’t fucking there. As to “what does it mean”: I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
So now let me begin where I began before I knew where I was beginning or where I was going. In other words, this was the beginning of this paper, and is now the middle:
The Middle: Ascesis/Abjection
In the third volume of his History of Sexuality, devoted to the “care of the self,” Foucault explained how the term voluptas (or voluptuosity) was defined by Seneca as “a pleasure whose origin is to be placed outside us and in objects whose presence we cannot be sure of: a pleasure, therefore, which is precarious in itself, undermined by the fear of loss, and to which we are drawn by the force of a desire that may or may not find satisfaction.” In opposition to this “violent, uncertain, and conditional” pleasure, Seneca placed gaudium, or joy, which is not accompanied by any “disturbance in the body or the mind.” This is a type of serenity that comes from within—in Seneca’s words, “from your own store [de tuo]. . . . I mean your very self and the best part of you.” It is partly my aim here today to interpose another type of pleasure (and really, a queer love) that is often occluded, yet still vibrates, in certain queer “spiritual” texts (both medieval and modern): that which is neither within nor outside of us but somewhere in the middle spaces where these two realms unfold within and touch each other. Or to put this another way, there is no outside, nor is there ever only an inside, vis-à-vis the self and its pleasures, but this is not readily allowed. Certain medieval and modern discourses of sexuality, acesticism, and abjection cannot do without the notion of a self who, going very deeply inside, casts off and shatters herself as a sacrifice, or rather, as a seduction of what has already supposedly withdrawn or is always coming for us: God, death, the outside, the beyond. To this I might oppose Spencer Reece’s poem “Interlude”:
We are two men on a park bench
In Palm Beach oblivious to the two men
who start their truck with that boy
from the bar inside dragging him
in the dark to the fence strapping him
with a rope to a post in Laramie,
Wyoming, where he freezes and dies
over five days. My dear, it is late.
The Flagler Museum is shut.
Stay with me. Remain with me here.
I want to speak not of what is outside or inside the self, but what is beside it—both distant and never self-same, yet intimate and close. In the case of the Old English Guthlac poems, this will mean speaking of the sister, Pega, whom the narrative holds at a distance and even works to hide from our and Guthlac’s sight. She emerges into view most fully at the moment of Guthlac’s death, of his parting from her as a body—a parting, moreover, for which Guthlac’s heart has long burned and upon which he has founded his entire ascesis. Room—even a room—can only be made for the sister at the moment Guthlac withdraws from the narrow space of his own hermitage, and yet, in another sense, and regardless of Guthlac’s exertions to separate himself from the world, these two are never really apart from each other. They share, always, what Cary Howie has described as the “inside between.” As Cary himself writes, “we are always between bodies and times, but only because, in another way, there is nothing between us. Our dealings with the world, with difference, are ultimately fumblings, necessary and beautiful, toward an immediacy that is im-mediate, in the strongest sense: not beyond mediation but inside it.”
Allow me to return to Foucault and to the subject of ascesis, which preoccupied so much of Foucault’s final writings. Part of Foucault’s project in volume 3 of The History of Sexuality was to demonstrate the ways in which a certain aesthetics of sexual pleasure, developed in Greek antiquity, eventually gave way, in Roman moral philosophy and an emerging scientia sexualis, to a techne of ascetic self-regulation in which the sexual becomes “dangerous.” A fourth volume, never finished, was to take up the ways in which early Christian confessional modes intensified this self-regulation and also helped to “produce” sexualities as “truths” about selves that could then be disciplined and governed. At the same time, Foucault also saw something more positive in some of the discourses of early Christianity—namely, that there was “no truth about the self without a sacrifice of the self”—a “sacrifice,” moreover that “was the condition for the opening of the self as a field of indefinite interpretation.” In some of the texts of the early Church, Foucault saw a way out of the regime of disciplined sexuality and a way in to “a manner of being that is still improbable”—a manner of being, moreover, that would open onto new forms of self-knowledge, new relational modes, and new forms of love. Homosexuality, especially, would offer a strategic position for developing queer selves and pleasures as yet unthought.
Foucault’s thinking on ascesis has caused much misunderstanding and even disagreement, and I cannot do justice to that here today; suffice to say that, from my own reading of Foucault and from those whom I consider to be his most sensitive readers—especially David Halperin and Jeremy Carrette—I see several, related things happening at once in Foucault’s thinking on ascesis:
The matter of Foucault’s thinking on ascesis was raised for me with a certain urgency as I was reading through some recent scholarship on the “exuberant erotics” of ancient and medieval hagiography—hagiography, moreover, which dwells upon a severe asceticism that gives rise to sadomasochistic “counterpleasures,” “divine sexual orientation[s],” and the pleasurably “violent seduction of sacrifice.” Although it can be safely said that the “exuberant erotics” of Anglo-Saxon hagiography have barely been touched upon, much work has been afoot in other quarters. In Virginia Burrus’s The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography, Robert Mills’s Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure, and Punishment in Medieval Culture, and Karmen Mackendrick’s Counterpleasures, just to name a few studies, we find that the repression of the body that is assumed to be operative in Christian asceticism is, in fact, not the state of affairs at all. Rather, the Lives of desert hermits, militant martyrs, and self-mutilating mystics are models of sexualized forms of ascesis that are extravagantly transgressive, demonstrating what Bataille once said, “The saint is not after efficiency. He is prompted by desire and desire alone and in this resembles the erotic man.” For Bob Mills, “the tortured body of the saint is the point at which doctrine, violence, and the imagination coalesce,” such that the saintly body-in-pain is “recoded” as a sublime “site of agency and sexual liberation.”
Most important for my own concerns here is a common theme that runs primarily throughout Burrus’s and Mackendrick’s studies—that the asceticism and self-mutilations dramatized in premodern hagiography open the self to a radical form of “unwise” (because heedless) love that literally cuts across all of our “schemes of comprehension,” “break[ing] the surface of consciousness,” and abandoning us to the joy of a divine abandonment: to the unknown, the impossible, the sublime, the outside, the beyond, death, and God (entities which are “at once infinitely generous and infinitely withdrawn”). This is a “subject-breaking joy” which calls to mind Seneca’s precarious voluptuosity, and to be open to this “outside” (this “death”) in Mackendrick’s view, is “to merge neither with ‘it’ nor with one another,” for “we are fully discontinuous,” but what we can do—and here I mean, you and me, in this room together, or anyone whom we, or you, might love—what we can do is “face the vertigo of death together.”
Let me also briefly note here some recent work in queer theory that valorizes certain forms of Christian-inflected and “saintly” abjections, such as Leo Bersani’s comparison in Intimacies between barebacking (unprotected anal sex between HIV-infected men) and the “perfect passivity toward God’s will” of Le pur amour (or “pure love”) practiced by 17th-century Catholic mystics who believed in what they called the “impossible supposition”: “if God were to annihilate the souls of the just at the moment of death, or if He were to banish their souls to hell for all eternity, those whose love for God were pure would continue to serve Him with an absolute disinterested love.” I am also thinking of David Halperin’s recent proposal in his book What Do Gay Men Want? for a queerly “upbeat and sentimental” abjection that helps to “capture and make sense of the antisocial, transgressive” behavior of gay men without recourse to the language of pathology or the death drive, and which relies for some of its inspiration on medieval Christianity’s rhetoric of humiliation and martyrdom. Drawing, especially, on the work of Genet, Halperin puts forward a model of queer solidarity built upon an embrace of one’s own social humiliation and abjection as an “inverted sainthood”—a “sainthood,” moreover, that becomes an “existential survival strategy.”
The question is finally raised—for me, anyway—of what kind of “spiritual” work all of these studies are doing with regard to ascesis, saintliness, the sacred, new relational modes, queerness, and love, and whether or not, as Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon might say, “I want to go to there.” I honestly don’t know, nor is it even clear whether or not we can say that Foucault’s and, say, Halperin’s thinking on self-sacrifice and abjection is “spiritual,” but its sources certainly are, and for the moment, I just want to ask, can somebody please help me get the religion out of queer sex (?), which is not, by the way, the same thing as asking you to help me get the queer sex out of religion because, after all, that’s the best part of it.
And this, you see, is where I get stuck again, or rather, where I got stuck before I even got here, and where I am still stuck. In other words, this paper doesn’t have a conclusion or even what might be called an engaged opposition. But opposition to what? I think what I am partly trying to work out here is my own discomfort with abjection—not as a state of affairs, which is only too palpable in our world, but as the idea that everything is always already abject and that some of us, including saints, are more in touch with our abjection than others, and have even turned it into art, even a queer art, even a queer beauty. And I guess what I want is a different sort of queer beauty that would draw upon, not the limit-experiences born out of impossible suppositions about gods who have already withdrawn from the world, but upon what is already beside and at home with us in the world, where everything you could love was always there, beside and between you, where nothing is lost, and not even death can take it away from you.
In the Old English Guthlac poems, the queerest love of all that dares to speak its name is love of the sister, and this love is queer, because she’s so close, she’s at hand to Guthlac, as he is to her. There was never any lack of her before Guthlac denied himself this availability. Not in his scheme of things, but in mine, it could have been heaven.
4. In the Old English Guthlac B, at the onset of the sickness that spells his death, the poet tells us that “[his] breast burned within, hurrying to go forth” [hreþer innan born, / afysed on forðsið; ll. 938-39]. All citations of Guthlac A and B are from The Guthlac Poems of the Exeter Book, ed. Jane Roberts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979). All translations are mine.
7. Michel Foucault, “About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self,” Political Theory 21 (May 1993): 198–227; quoted in Foucault, Religion and Culture, ed. Jeremy R. Carrette (Manchester, Eng.: Manchester University Press, 1999), p. 180.
8. Michel Foucault, “Friendship as a Way of Life,” in Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961-1984, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, trans. Lysa Hochroth and John Johnson (New York: Semiotext(e): 1996), p. 310.
13. Karmen Mackendrick, Counterpleasures (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), pp. 65–86;Virginia Burrus, The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), pp. 1, 17; Jean Baudrillard, Seduction, trans. Brian Singer (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), p. 177.