Eileen A. Joy, Assoc. Professor
Department of English
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

International Medieval Congress
University of Leeds
13-16 July 2009

Session 1601 Pagans and Sexuality, II: Geographies
Weetwood: Lawnswood Room 1
Thursday, July 16th
11:15 am – 12:45 pm

Alexander Penetrated and Undone: Queer Orientations in the Old English Letter of Alexander to Aristotle

for the friend, all those met and unmet, and also to the singular friend who stands in for all friends, and more especially, for Horatio, friend to this ground and liegeman to the Dane

Part I, Polemic: Spiritually Liquefying Speech

I want to begin with a few preliminary comments regarding what has been for a long time now one of the most frequent and narrow-minded criticisms about queer theorists—that they see sex everywhere, that they believe everything is about sex (dissident sex in particular), and furthermore, if everything is about sex, and queer sex at that, then queer theory is a sort of prurient enterprise that enjoys too much its own supposed decadence at the expense of a more serious, personally detached, and dis-embodied (even bloodless) historicism. A different, yet related criticism, is that queer theory sees queerness in everything, and not just in sexuality and sex practices, and therefore, queer theory becomes potentially meaningless as it flattens itself out over the entire landscape of every possible subject and object of inquiry. It would be easy to dismiss both of these critiques as unenlightened, and I would love to mainly ignore them, except that they were brought back to me with particular force this past May at the Kalamazoo Congress when some very smart people raised these concerns, and not altogether politely, both during and after a session on “Queering Anglo-Saxon Studies” sponsored by the Society for the Study of Homosexuality in the Middle Ages, and to say that this caused me some grief is no small understatement.

Because you see, everything really is about sex, by which I mean, it is about the libido, of which sexuality and sex practices are only one powerful manifestation. We might recall here that for Freud, in the words of Jonathan Lear, “sexual energy is not at bottom sexual energy,” but is, perhaps, “a manifestation of a more fundamental force permeating nature.”[1] For Freud, the libido was not as much a sex-force as it was a life- or “love-force,” and in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, he wrote, “The nucleus of what we mean by love naturally consists . . . in sexual love with sexual union as its aim. But we do not separate from this—what in any case has a share in the name of ‘love’—on the one hand, self-love, and on the other, love for parents and children, friendship and love for humanity in general, and also devotion to concrete objects and to abstract ideas.”[2]

I suppose this would be my way of saying, again, yes, everything really is about sex, by which I mean, everything is about love—a subject about which we have much discomfort and skepticism and which remains largely under-theorized, I really believe, in the discipline of literary and historical studies and in cultural theory at large. And yet, with Leo Bersani, I would say that, although there is nothing more banal in human culture than the phrase “I love you,” we can still hold out some hope for its meaningfulness, and even for its meaningfulness within the very context of the university itself and within the freest possible circulation of every possible discourse we can imagine into conversational being. By which I mean, there should be no limits whatsoever on what we can say to each other in rooms such as these and we should never want to stop talking like this. As Bersani himself puts it in his recent writing on Plato’s Symposium,

Like all of us, he [Socrates] needs talk, not only with the liberal aim of exchanging and testing ideas, but to exercise what he alludes to as our distinctive human capacity to use and understand language as our only guide to the virtual being that continuously becomes, through speech, more like itself. The ascetic ethic Foucault was drawn to in antiquity was perhaps most expertly practiced by Socrates who, much to the exasperation of Alcibiades in his role as sexual seducer, identified a life devoted to love as a lifelong devotion to philosophical discussions—or, to put it not quite so dryly, to spiritually liquefying speech.[3]

Queer theory, I want to argue, is about this type of liquefying speech—it is about love—and therefore, yes, it is also about everything, or everything that could possibly matter to us. As Jonathan Lear has written, “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] Queer theory is about everything because it is about this orientation to the world, and the past will always matter in such a scenario—it is not anachronistic to the project of queer studies today, no matter how many say it is—because, as Sara Ahmed has written in her book Queer Phenomenology,

Looking back is what keeps open the possibility of going astray. This glance also means an openness to the future, as the imperfect translation of what is behind us. . . . We have hope because what is behind us is also what allows other ways of gathering in time and space, of making lines that do not reproduce what we follow but instead create wrinkles in the earth.

If queer theorists have been bold to make queer theory about everything, it’s because they realize the whole world is at stake in our very orientation to this world, and this orientation, historically and even now, has had need of and still needs liquefying speech, or what Deleuze and Guattari would have called de-territorialization, lest we harden into hatred, not just of the world, but ourselves.

And speaking of de-territorialization . . . .

I Wanted to See the Interior: India’s Alexander

You who never arrived
in my arms, Beloved, who were lost
from the start,
I don't even know what songs
would please you. I have given up trying
to recognize you in the surging wave of the next
moment. All the immense
images in me—the far-off, deeply-felt landscape,
cities, towers, and bridges, and unsuspected
turns in the path,
and those powerful lands that were once
pulsing with the life of the gods—
all rise within me to mean
you, who forever elude me.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, “You Who Never Arrived”

In what could pass for a wonderful description of the Old English Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, in their essay “Sex in Public,” have written that the “queer world is a space of entrances and exits, unsystematized lines of acquaintance, projecting horizons, typifying examples, alternate routes, blockages, [and] incommensurate geographies.” For Sara Ahmed, it “is important that we do not idealize [these] queer worlds or simply locate them in an alternative space,” for it is “given that the straight world is already in place and that queer moments, where things come out of line, are fleeting. Our response need not be to search for permanence . . . but to listen to the sound of ‘the what’ that flees.”[5]

One could argue that the Letter is saturated with scenes of ‘the what’ that flees, and also encloses within its vellum walls the queer world Berlant and Warner describe—one that emerges out of, or flees from, the straight world of Western classicism whose natural and other histories provided the imaginary cartographies and creatures that form the India through which Alexander both stalks his enemies and also searches for that which is most “unknown” [uncuð] and “interior” [innanwearde]. Although the Alexander of classical and medieval legend, much like the Hercules of the tenth-century Anglo-Latin Liber Monstrorum, “traveled in battles through almost the entire world, and spattered the earth with so much blood” [“paene totum orbem cum bellis peragrasset et terram tanto sanguine maculauisset”; Liber Monstrorum, sec. 12, p. 267], the Alexander of the Letter seems more intent on ‘beholding’ [sceawigað] the spectacle of ‘wondrous creatures’ [wunderlice wyhta; sec. 3, p. 226] than he is on killing them, unless they attack first. This is the case when a great multitude of Cynocephali (dog-headed men) emerge from the woods with the intent of harming Alexander and his men, to which they respond by shooting them with arrows until they “departed back into the forest” (sec. 29, p. 224).

This is not to say that the Alexander of the Letter is a somehow gentler, kinder Alexander—far from it. He mentions several battles with foreign armies (there is no kingdom he is not intent on subduing), and he often vents his violent fury at those who serve under him. After a harrowing night spent at a lake battling hordes of aggressive and deadly creatures, even though he himself had requested that the guides take him by the dangerous and not the safe paths (sec. 9, p. 228), he orders that the guides who led him to the lake be “tied up and their bones and legs broken, so that they would be swallowed in the night by the serpents” (sec. 22, p. 238). But when it comes to certain monstrous “peoples,” who are more like local tribes or sub-populations within the kingdoms Alexander is always seeking to topple and absorb as part of his world-becoming trajectory, he seems more intent on what might be called scientific observation than murder and conquest. In the case of the nine-feet-tall naked women and men who are as “shaggy and hairy as wild beasts,” and who can snatch whales out of the rivers and eat them, Alexander writes that he wanted to take a closer look and observe them, but they “immediately fled into the water and hid themselves in stony hollows” (sec. 29, p. 242). This Alexander—the explorer and seeker of marvels who desires to see the innermost parts of India and who often lets strange creatures run away without pursuing them to the death—provides a striking contrast to the Alexander of the Old English Orosius who is described there as se swelgend—according to Bosworth-Toller, ‘voracious person’ or ‘glutton,’ but also, more fittingly in this case, ‘a place which swallows up, a very deep place, an abyss, a gulf, a whirlpool.’

Given that the ostensible pretext of the letter is to provide data to a former teacher so that, as Alexander himself puts it, Aristotle’s wisdom and learning “might contribute to a certain extent to the understanding of these novelties,” it makes sense that the Alexander of this letter is more of an anthropologist than a military general, although various military campaigns are undertaken along the way. Interestingly, however, the one military campaign to which the Letter devotes the most space—Alexander’s supposed conquest of Porus, king of Fasiacen—is an extremely slippery affair, and it is not at all clear that Alexander conquers King Porus at all, although early on, Alexander claims to have “overcome and conquered” [ofercwomen 7 oferswyðon] him, and to have taken “his entire nation under control” (sec. 8, p. 229). Yet in almost the same breath he shares his desire to see the “innermost part” of India and to travel there by the “dangerous paths and ways” so that he can catch up with Porus “before he could escape into the deserted tracts of the world” (sec. 9, p. 229). And a bit later in the Letter, after Alexander has traveled further and further by these most “dangerous” routes into what feels like, not so much the interior of India, but rather, the floating islands and fogs and jagged, arctic landscapes of multiple LSD trips, Alexander mentions that he and his men “came to the land and the place where Porus the king was encamped with his army.” Porus, in this second encounter, after a ruse in which Alexander goes to his camp, pretending to be an “ordinary man” seeking wine and food, ultimately gives himself and his army freely into the hands of Alexander, who promptly repays the favor by giving Porus his kingdom back, in return for which Porus gives to Alexander all of his treasures and also erects in gold two statues of Hercules and Bacchus at “the eastern edge of the world,” to which Alexander promptly makes sacrifices. Here, the usual tropes and images of clash and battle and wholesale slaughter give way to a fluid exchange of goods and identities and nations along the edge of an East that is itself all edges and shifting frontiers.

I linger here for just a bit on Alexander’s multiple encounters with Porus merely to illustrate that one of the predominant features of the Letter is its scenes of fleeing, hiding, enclosure, and then what might be called a general giving over, even a queer giving, also a queer going over, to the Other. Over and over again Alexander expresses his desire to catch sight of what is hidden and concealed in the “stony hollows” of this hallucinatory world, and while, initially, he does spend quite a bit of time describing the creatures and peoples of this world whom he finally encounters in bodily fashion as frightening, monstrous, and worthy of destruction (such as the hordes of creatures who attack Alexander and his men by the lake, or the crocodile whom Alexander and his men subdue by beating it with “iron mallets and sledge-hammers”; sec. 27, p. 243), by the time he has passed through many of what he calls “inaccessible and impassable [ungeferenlican] earth-ways”—and how, really then, does he pass through them, anyway?—and has also shed most of his army in order to be able to pass through the more narrow ways that lead to the sacred trees of the Sun and the Moon, Alexander’s orientation has shifted from a stance of conquest, and even of discovery of knowledge, to one of wonder (a state of mind, I would argue, that necessitates a certain ontological passivity). When encountering the land where the men and women wear the skins and hides of panthers and tigers and nothing else, he concentrates his powers of observation on the pleasure of the smells of balsam and incense that “welled out from the boughs of the trees,” and he is “amazed [wundrade] at the loveliness [wynsumnesse] and beauty [fægernesse] of the land.” Here we have someone who is himself one of the great wonders of the world enraptued by the wonder of the nature through which he reels as if in a dream.

What happens to Alexander in the Old English Letter is quite similar, I want to argue, to Darius’s infamous expedition into Scythia in Book IV of Herodotus’s Histories, in which he built a bridge over the Ister River and futilely chased the Scythian army without ever laying eyes on them—in this sense, there is a “frontier,” the river itself, which can be crossed, but there is also no frontier, because there is ultimately no way to get into Scythia, such that the Scythians could be captured; as Francois Hartog puts it in his book The Mirror of Herodotus, the “aporia” of the Scythians is “unaffected” by Darius’s crossing over into their so-called “territory,” and they are everywhere and nowhere at once. Whereas Darius never even sees, never mind encounters in order to fight and therefore capture the Scythians, returning home in frustrated disgrace, the Alexander of the Letter sees, captures, releases, and is captured himself, in the process “getting lost” and “going Scythian,” which is to say, “becoming-Queer”—id est, never moving in a straight line.

Alexander finally enters the grove of the trees of the Sun and the Moon and hears there, with only three of his men beside him (because this is a narrative as well of a reduction of force and of a stripping down), that he will die the following year in Babylon, in the month of May, “from a source by which you least expect to be betrayed” (i.e., by an intimate). Most important here is the oracle’s detail that it will be poison, and not the iron sword, that will kill him—this is death, again, from the intimate inside. Therefore, on some level, for all of his seeming and mighty imperviousness, Alexander is already dead before he even gets to Babylon and he has even gone so far, with the mode of the “letter” itself, to write his own death (granted, the Alexander of this Letter is an invented persona)—which is to say, to allow himself, the supposed penetrator of India and the East, to be penetrated not only by India itself but by his own pen. But as Susan Kim writes in a forthcoming article, “If One Who Is Loved is Not Present, A Letter May Be Embraced Instead: Death and the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle,” if Alexander “writes his own death, at the same time, he ensures the ongoing presence of his narrative.” And because the author who first introduces the letter writes, “Here is the letter,” the Letter “remains, literally in its very first word, ‘HER,’ ‘here,’ emphatically present, across time, because of, and in spite of its promise of death.” What are we to make of this queer beauty, here, and now, in this other country called England?

I want to conclude by suggesting that new reading strategies and new critical modes and queer orientations will be necessary in order to better explore and make new and strange again the ‘here-ness’ of the Old English Letter and of other texts within the Old English literary corpus. This will entail, as Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit have written in Forms of Being, “a new relation to space, and especially to the spaces of nature. . . . How would nature appear if it were uninjured by” human neurosis and “the inability to see”? In Alexander’s repeated claims throughout his Letter that he wishes to have the entire world under his power, he articulates what Bersani and Dutoit have described as our “crippling expressiveness,” which blocks the light hidden behind our psychic darkness. What we may need now, is not historical realism, or even what I would call the critical conquest of texts and temporalities, but rather, historico-poetic virtualities—not a settling into one place or angle of vision, but a perpetual and restless movement across a world with which, although we do not know nor readily admit it, we share a certain light.


*Section and page numbers of the Anglo-Latin Liber monstrorum and the Old English Letter of Alexander to Aristotle refer to Andy Orchard's edition of the text, found in his book Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), pp. 254-317 and 224-53, respectively.

**My thanks to Susan Kim for sharing with me an advance copy of her article, "If One Who Is Loved is Not Present, A Letter May Be Embraced Instead: Death and the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle."

1. Love and Its Place in Nature: A Philosophical Interpretation of Freudian Psychoanalysis (New York: Farar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), p. 144.

2. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey, 24 vols. ( London: Hogarth Press, 1953–1966) 18: 90.

3. Leo Bersani, “The Power of Evil and the Power of Love,” in Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips, Intimacies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 87.

4. Lear, Love and Its Place in Nature, p. 153.

5. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), p. 106.