Eileen A. Joy
Department of English
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
Peck Hall, Room 3206
Edwardsville, IL 62026
2nd International Workshop of the Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium
Anglo-Saxon Futures: About Time 2
Kings College London
23-24 May 2008
“Queer Times, Queer Bodies, and the Erotics of a Nomadic Anglo-Saxon Studies”
Figure 1. Guthlac born/e by his demons (The Guthlac Roll, 13th century)
Headnote: before beginning, I want to mention what Sara Ahmed refers to as the “work of inhabitance,” which involves “ways of extending bodies into space that create new folds, or new contours of what we would call livable or inhabitable space.” My thinking here, and really all of my work now, owes such a debt to what I would call the inhabitable and hospitable space, or “table,” at the weblog In The Middle, around which have gathered so many friends and passionate interlocutors. Because I think it is important to name names, I must say the names here of those, without whom, thinking is no longer possible for me: Jeffrey Cohen, Mary Kate Hurley, Karl Steel, Michael O’Rourke, Nicola Masciandaro, Holly Crocker, Sarah Rees Jones, Dan Remein, Sarah Bagley, Liza Blake, Kofi Campbell, Daniel Kline, and others I am only just now beginning to know better, and those who have not yet arrived. To gather at this table is to always be gathering, and thinking, together, which is not to think alike, but to sustain each other, in separate and collective thought, in space and in time, and to also practice, together, how it is, in the words of Cary Howie, we might "speak this fragile pronoun 'we' across temporal, spatial, and ontological difference."
First, a disclaimer, or maybe it’s an avowal—I honestly don’t know the difference sometimes—but my remarks here today are partly an attempt to engage in what the poet Joan Retallack has called the “poethical,” which term she deploys to characterize an aesthetic of “making art that models how we want to live,” and for “art,” I want to substitute here today “scholarship,” or “scholarship-as-art-as-life.” For Retallack, the “poethical” essay is an “urgent and aesthetically aware thought experiment” that undertakes “a particular kind of inquiry that is neither poetry nor philosophy but a mix of logics, dislogics, intuition, revulsion, [and] wonder.” Poethical scholarship would engage in what Retallack calls “experimental adventures” that form the “inbetween-zones” of “historical residue and hope,” and its chief concern would be what she calls the “historical-contemporary”:
The present is, in fact, made out of the residue of the past. What, after all, is there materially but all that is after? Light takes time to travel to the eye across the space of a room. The speed of sound is slower still. All images are after; this is their seduction and their terror—the distance they imply and traverse, the possible betrayal of one’s senses. If the cultural future is invisible until we’ve noticed what we ourselves have fashioned out of the residue—by accident, habit, intention—the act of noticing, and its transformation (all present-tense matters), may be the most relevant focal point for an aesthetic. . . . Noticing becomes an art when, as contextualizing project, it reconfigures the geometry of attention, drawing one into conversation with what would otherwise remain silent in the figure-ground patterns of history. . . . What is the work of human culture but to make fresh sense and meaning of the reconfiguring matter at the historical-contemporary intersection we call the present?
This, then, is one such experimental adventure, which I hope you will indulge.
* * * * *
My soul has drifted too long like a cloud, so come and heal me,
bring me to the dirt, let my pores ooze with the brine of discotheques.
--Spencer Reese, “Ghazals for Spring”
Chapter XXXI in Felix’s eighth-century Life of Saint Guthlac, “How the evil spirits carried him bodily to the gates of hell,” forms the centerpiece of my thoughts here today. Intent on disturbing Guthlac while he is praying in his barrow “at the dead of night,” a multiplicity of demons (so thick that the “whole space of the skies” is darkened with their “dusky” and “cloud-like” shapes) enters shrieking through the floor-holes, crannies, doorway joints, and openings in the “wattleworks” of Guthlac’s lowly home as “terrible” forms: “great heads, long necks, thin faces, yellow complexions, filthy beards, shaggy ears, wild foreheads, fierce eyes, foul mouths, horses’ teeth, throats vomiting flames, twisted jaws,” and so on. The demons quickly bind Guthlac and “plunge” him into “the muddy waters of the black marsh.” Then they carry him “through the wildest part of the fen,” and drag him “through the dense thickets of brambles, tearing his limbs and all his body.” After pausing to beat him with “whips like iron,” they “drag him through the cloudy stretches of the freezing skies,” where even more squadrons, or thunderstorms, of demons are met, all of whom then carry Guthlac down to the “smoking caverns” and “jaws” of hell. While threatening to thrust him into hell’s maw, Bartholomew suddenly appears to call a halt to Guthlac’s demonic tormenters.
My ruminations today upon this scene are inspired by two strains of thought—one located in a poem by Sylvia Plath, “Lady Lazarus,” and the other located in Jeffrey Cohen’s essay, “The Solitude of Guthlac,” in his book Medieval Identity Machines. In “Lady Lazarus,” a poem which enunciates a brilliant performance of multiple suicide attempts and the shock of being reborn again and again as a sort of macabre drag or strip show, and in which poem the human is reduced to “trash” and a “million filaments,” Plath writes,
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
And further along, she writes, “There is a charge / For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge / For the hearing of my heart— / It really goes. / And there is a charge, a very large charge, / For a word or a touch / or a bit of blood / Or a piece of my hair or clothes.” There is a direct reference here to the bodily and other relics of saints, and in the poem as whole, to the idea of a life, celebrated in early medieval hagiography, that is committed to its own undoing and resurrection through a spectacular and sideshow-like performance of self-annihilation in which, as Plath’s narrator claims, “Soon, soon the flesh / The grave cave ate will be / At home on me.” There is, also, in Plath’s poem a frank eroticism which we can also locate in our medieval saints’ lives, when we understand that eroticism as, in the words of Georges Bataille, a “febrile unrest within us [that] asks death to wreak its havoc at our expense.”
And speaking of a febrile unrest, this brings me to Cohen’s essay on Guthlac, and the idea he posits there that Guthlac is nothing without his swarm of demons, who, as Cohen puts it, “lift him, unwilling, into their own identity machines, into their own perverse becomings.” Guthlac is a former hero of rapine and slaughter-turned monk-turned desert hermit for whom, in Felix’s account, a sunken cistern in a plundered and haunted barrow on the deserted island of Crowland in the Middle Anglian fens serves as the stony womb from which he devoutly desires to be born as a “solider of the true God” [veri Dei militem], one whose body, as Guthlac himself puts it in the Old English Guthlac A, “might have least need to make use of the joys of this world” [hu þisse worulde / wynna þorfte / mid his lichoman / læsast brucan; ll. 337-38]. But while the celibacy required of soldiers of God, as Cohen writes, “mandates the closing off of the body from both the influx and efflux of human sexuality,” nevertheless, in Guthlac’s continual struggle with his demons, “that [bodly] segregation cannot stop a molecular flow of inhuman desiring-movements.” The demons themselves, as Cohen describes them, are
[s]hape-changers defined by their alien corporality, swarming “molecules” of alterity that refuse organization into molar wholes . . . [who] persecute Guthlac with an ardor that equals the saint’s own, an intensity of desire that ties them forever to his self-definition despite the distance and difference that his celibacy seeks to maintain.
And what is Guthlac’s chief desire? To “peel off,” as Plath would write, the “napkin” of the body, to die “exceptionally well,” so much so that when he senses his death is close at hand, as the poet of Guthlac B tells us, “[his] breast burned within, hurrying to go forth” [hreþer innan born, / afysed on forðsið; ll. 938-39]. And when his body is literally “kindled by disease” [adle onæled; l. 955], that fire occasions “hope” [hyht] and “bliss in [his] heart” [blis in breostum; l. 954]. This is the true vocation and “birth” of the saint, not to live, but to die well, even to die a little every day, to literally enjoy one’s death, and to also offer one’s body as the staging ground of the specular and even camp performance of a certain kind of dismemberment of mind from body, body from soul, soul from bodily self, and spiritual subject from the world—the very site of a deluezeoguattarian “interbeing”—that made that spiritual subject possible, if also never letting it be free, as Deleuze and Guattari write, of the “transversal” movements and “intensities” of the “demonic reality of the becoming-animal of the human being.” And as a perfect emblem of this “drag” performance in which the body is both shucked and dragged along, I can’t help but think of Damien Hirst’s recent sculpture of Guthlac’s patron saint, Bartholomew, titled “Exquisite Pain,” in which a muscular but skinless Bartholomew holds aloft, draped on one arm, the blood-drenched skin that has been flayed from his body, and gripped in his raised hand is a scalpel, and in his other hand are a pair of scissors.
Well, that’s the normative, if monstrous version of the story of hagiography, the one that enacts what Judith Butler, elaborating on the thought of Adorno’s Problems of Moral Philosophy, has termed ethical or inhuman violence, where a certain abstract universality—in this case, God, but also a certain absolute love of God, forsaking all others—is “indifferen[t] to the social conditions under which a living appropriation might become possible” and “the precept can be undergone only as a deathly thing, a suffering imposed . . . at the expense of freedom and particularity.” This is also the version of the story of hagiography that helps us to see the ways in which the medieval inhabits (or is reborn) in the modern, the ways in which it figures what Jonathan Dollimore has termed the “strange dynamic which, in Western culture, binds death into desire” and which is “not the product of a marginal pathological imagination, but is crucial in the formation of that culture,” one that runs from Heraclitus to Augustine to Shakespeare to Schopenhauer to Bataille to Foucault to Edelman and beyond. But in the Anglo-Saxon Guthlac narratives as a whole (Felix’s narrative Life as well as the two Old English poems), we can also see what Dollimore has termed “the ambivalent attitudes in Western culture towards both desire and movement” that are “conjoined” in the lines of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”: “Desire itself is movement / Not in itself desirable.” As Dollimore explains further, in Western culture,
Illicit desire is especially prone to being conceptualized as aberrant movement. For example, the idea of deviation—itself the conceptual heart of the idea of perversion—is about a movement which is dangerous or subversive: to deviate = to go astray. Conversely, the good, the safe and the true are about not deviating (sticking to the straight and narrow), while related virtues like order, stability and harmony presuppose restricted, limited or controlled movement, often echoing the ultimate metaphysical ideal of fixity, predetermination or stasis: the fixed origin, fixed destiny, fixed identity, and so on. And yet . . . even as it idealizes the predetermined and the static, no culture has a more significant history of obsessive, expansive, restless movement.
How the Guthlac narratives can both identify the restless movements of the world as a “storm-tossed” mutability to be avoided while also allowing Guthlac’s sanctity to be literally born/e (in the senses, simultaneously, of both coming to birth and being carried) through the agency of that mutability is beautifully illustrated in two significant episodes, one of which only occurs in Felix’s Life and the other in both Felix and Guthlac A. First, in Felix’s account of how Guthlac makes a decision at the age of twenty-four to become a “servant of Christ,” Felix tells us that Guthlac was “being storm-tossed amid the uncertain events of passing years, amid the gloomy clouds of life’s darkness, and amid the whirling waves of the world,” while he was contemplating “the fleeting riches of the world and the contemptible glory of the temporal life.” Here we see that Guthlac’s decision, as Felix puts it, to “spurn his parents, his fatherland, and the comrades of his youth,” is partly driven by what Dollimore describes as the mutability that “connects death with desire—the sense that all is being governed by a ceaseless property of change inseparable from an inconsolable sense of loss somehow always in excess of the loss of anything in particular.” It is precisely a kind of horror at the ungraspability of world that is always changing, always tossing us from one “whirling” wave to another, that drives Guthlac to the supposedly barren fens.
But while, on the one hand, Guthlac embarks upon his sainthood with a series of renunciations of a world caught in the ceaseless flux and change of time, it is precisely in the scene which I shared at the outset of my remarks, in Guthlac’s giving over of himself (or of God’s giving over of Guthlac) to the ceaseless and restless flux of demons, that Guthlac’s sanctity is born/e, made possible, as Cohen writes, “through the creation of a middle space,” or “dynamic intermezzo,” in which “the saint becomes inextricable from the monsters who persecute him, who as swarming fragments . . . lift him skyward and against his will make him part of their turbulent throng.”
I want to pause, if I may, on Cohen’s phrase, “against his will,” for I do not believe that that this demonic transport is carried out entirely against Guthlac’s will, for although part of Guthlac’s job as a saint is certainly to hold on tightly to his body as a space of inviolate purity, the demons’ assault on that body is in direct cooperation with Guthlac’s desire and wishing for that assault, and also with the will of a God who, in Guthlac A, at least, literally “wills” Guthlac’s torments [ðeah þe dryhten his / witum wolde; ll. 516-17] and allows him to be “touched” by the demon’s “eager” arms [he ma wolde afrum onfengum earme gæstas / hrinan leton; ll. 518-20]. Further, if we reflect on the fact that Felix tells us that Guthlac was especially interested in seeing Crowland after being told that no one was able to dwell there because of “the unknown portents of the desert and its terrors of various shapes” [incognita heremi monstra et diversarum formarum terrors], and also on the fact that, once settled there, Guthlac girded himself as if for battle and “hurled himself against the terrible troops of Tartarus,” we can see that he dares his demons to come forth and try to ravish him.
Even more importantly, although Guthlac may eventually ascend, intact and inviolate, to heaven, both Felix’s and the Guthlac A poet’s accounts are careful to point out that in Guthlac’s wild frenzy of a demon-flight, bodily injury and tearing and a “laying on” of demonic hands occur again and again. Further, as Guthlac is literally dragged through muddy water and brambles and freezing skies, although he may be willing himself to remain, or to believe he remains, enclosed as a body and soul, he also gives himself to be dragged in what Cary Howie has called an act of traherence that “never quite gets free of what it ostensibly emerges from.” Further, and still following Howie’s thought, Guthlac and his demons flying together through Middle Anglian and other space form a queer ontology, “an erotic participation through which they become not identical but singularly shared and mutually, messily incompleted.”
This is a queer ontology, or maybe even a queer phenomenology, in the sense, following Sara Ahmed, that Guthlac and his demons together, in flight, form an “oblique angle in relation to that which is given” (when we understand the genre of hagiography as producing the wholly intact and pure body of the dead saint as “that which is given”). And this is even more beautifully illustrated when Bartholomew appears to command the demons to return Guthlac to his home. In Guthlac A, we are told that Bartholomew tells the demons not to break, bloody, or bruise Guthlac’s body on its return, and that further, they should “heal all his sufferings” with their “hands” [ge him sara gehwylc / hondum gehælde; ll. 704-5]. Once again, Guthlac is born/e by and through his demons who, in the words of the poet, “bore him with their hands and kept him from falling; smooth and soft . . . was their going” [Hy hine bæron 7 him bryce heoldun, / hofon hine hondum 7 him hryre burgun; / wæron hyra gongas . . . smeþe 7 gesefte; ll. 729-32]. And in Felix’s account, the demons carry Guthlac back “with the utmost gentleness and bore him up most quietly upon the oarage of their wings, so that he could not possibly have been conveyed more steadily in a chariot or a ship” [illum revehentes cum nimia suavitate, velut quietissimo alarum remigio, ita ut nec in curru nec in navi modestus duci potuisset, subvolabant].
But it may be that only the demons themselves recognize this as a love affair, an idea strikingly attested to in Felix when, after being returned home and occupied in his morning prayers, Guthlac turns and sees two of the demons standing and weeping just to his left, and when he asks them why they are weeping, they tell him that, because of his strength over them, they dare not “touch” or “draw near” to him, and then they “vanish like smoke from his presence” [velut fumus a facie eius evanuerunt], and in this vanishing, so goes the possibility of the question, on Guthlac’s part, of how, in Howie’s formulation, “to speak this fragile pronoun ‘we,’ across temporal, spatial, and ontological difference.” In short, Guthlac, having proven his saintly strength, cannot allow himself any longer this felicitous promiscuity that might otherwise have allowed him to become, to be born/e, as something other than himself.
* * * * *
For a life to count as a good life, then it must return the debt of its life by taking on the direction promised as a social good, which means imagining one’s futurity in terms of reaching certain points along a life course. A queer life might be one that fails to make such gestures of return.—Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology
I am hoping that we can see how Guthlac’s encounters with his demons tells us a disciplinary story with which we are intimately familiar in Anglo-Saxon studies, one which enacts a normative, ethical violence time and again through the dead and supposedly inviolate bodies of fathers who continue to praise, from beyond the grave, the singular over the multiple, stasis over movement, the dead hand of a certain historicism over the asynchronous movements of inter-temporal touch, and thereby deny us our promiscuous felicity, our messy incompleteness, our modes of affective contact, and our nomadic mutability. Because to read Guthlac with his demons as opposed to against them, and even to consider the significance of a demon’s desire for Guthlac, is to go against the grain of not only what the hagiography itself, but also my discipline, wants from me, and yet I can’t see this type of reading practice as anything other than absolutely necessary, even politically utopian, and I don’t think we should assume that such a reading was any less available to an Anglo-Saxon reader.
I am talking about subversive reading practices, especially as they are described in Cary Howie’s gorgeous book Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure, where he envisions a type of scholarship that would provide a way to
talk about textual proximity, and the extent to which historical moments, genres, and bodies are always dragged from their contingent others while simultaneously giving themselves to be similarly dragged. This traherence . . . never quite gets free of what it ostensibly emerges from, and furnishes the basis for a reading practice that would resist the slavish devotion to the controlled, discrete bloodlines of those patrilinear critical and literary histories that continue to haunt contemporary reading practices.
The implications of this are as follows. To touch is to experience a limit and open a connection. . . . Neither a mere idealization of aesthetic attention nor a diminishment of eros to interpretation, the metonymic, participative touch (or look, or reading) brings more fully into being the bodies, texts, and buildings it brushes against. The risk of violence remains—when does it ever go away?—but it is important to stress that, if touch is in some way entry, it is thus only inasmuch as appropriation has been thoroughly relinquished. Such an entry, such a touch, requires an ecstatic reorientation of the most basic (and finally damaging) ontological presuppositions: that this body has fundamentally nothing to do with mine; that this body cannot be touched; that this body is impenetrable or forever lost.
Anachronistic—even poethical, also metonymic—reading practices are necessary, finally, because in Howie’s terms, they speak directly to “the spaciousness within objects, and within times, that only becomes sensible when we see them as at once singular and plural, discrete and imbricated somehow in one another; and finally, when we submit ourselves to their frames by seeking to undo them, and still more crucially, by seeking ourselves, singularly in common, again and again, to come undone.” These queer readings are also, I would argue, deeply ethical, precisely because they allow a certain pleasure of interpretation, a libidinal (if also mournful) ache of “touching” (pace the work of Carolyn Dinshaw and Elizabeth Freeman) and then “coming undone” within the currents of a history that is also always coming undone, and as Anna Klosowska writes, a queer reading “is a deeply ethical approach to the text, in that it takes the text beyond itself in a necessary way. A personal pleasure in the text implies the reading is not less, but more ethically engaged.” For myself, I’m hoping for a vision of our field that allows such, frankly, libidinal and “schizoid” readings, in which, following the thought of Deleuze and Guattari, scholarly desire, when it lights out for the territories elsewhere, unleashes “schizzes-flows—forces that escape coding, scramble the codes, and flee in all directions: orphans (no daddy-mommy-me), atheists (no beliefs), and nomads (no habits, no territories).”
The utopian possibilities of these readings are urgently pressing upon us, especially if we want to escape what I would call the death-ism that haunts our studies and, more largely, Western culture. This is not to abandon history, for as Ahmed writes in the conclusion to Queer Phenonology,
in looking back we also look a different way; looking back still involves facing—it even involves an open face. 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.
That I want these readings, this facing back with an open face, these wrinkles in the earth—that is obvious and could simply be my own concern—but I want others to want them with me. That’s why I came to London, to ask you to consider throwing in your lot with the demons, and so I brought you this burning arrow, or love letter, and I’m asking you to take it from and with my hands. And if you tell me I can’t have you all at once, I want you to know that I’m willing to take you in pieces, little . . . by . . . little.
7. Colgrave notes in his edition of Felix’s Life that Guthlac’s cell “was hardly a prehistoric barrow unless it was a chance one,” but “it may well have been a Roman barrow or it may even have been a bronze age cist” (p. 183).