“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

emblems: There is a Fate beyond us

One of Tennyson’s poems describes the story of Persephone and Demeter. The beginning of the poem has that sensuous, Poussin-like beauty that was Tennyson’s greatest gift:

“Faint as a climate-changing bird that flies
All night across the darkness, and at dawn
Falls on the threshold of her native land,
And can no more, thou camest, O my child,
Led upward by the God of ghosts and dreams,
Who laid thee at Eleusis, dazed and dumb
With passing thro’ at once from state to state,
Until I brought thee hither, that the day,
When here thy hands let fall the gather’d flower,
Might break thro’ clouded memories once again
On thy lost self. A sudden nightingale
Saw thee, and flash’d into a frolic of song
And welcome; and a gleam as of the moon,
When first she peers along the tremulous deep,
Fled wavering o’er thy face, and chased away
That shadow of a likeness to the king
Of shadows, thy dark mate. Persephone!
Queen of the dead no more–my child! Thine eyes
Again were human-godlike, and the Sun
Burst from a swimming fleece of winter gray,
And robed thee in his day from head to feet–
‘Mother!’ and I was folded in thine arms.”

I put these verses here as an emblematic mark, an allegorical pattern to brood over, under which I aim to discuss the disunion of wisdom and happiness, a halving that has effects in more dimensions than the innocent householder might imagine. The path is full of emblems. The grid is full of omissions. There are zeros on the wire. The history that leads to the cultural exile of the sage is a part of the history of happiness and how the honey has soured in American mouths. In a sense, what LI is doing here is simply ripping off what Yeats’ did in the Vision – finding masks for a personal dissent, which becomes cosmic only as it merges private to public images in a single sweeping flame, and allows that flame to burn through all persona. Let the flame wear the masks.

So: if I quote this verse that begins with a migratory bird falling exhausted on the threshold, begins with the cost of the rhythms of nature, the infinite victimage, Lasalle's pendulum universe in all its parts askew, unbalanced – it is to put in place a mythical background to the disunion I’m tracing. And no, it is no father son affair. It strikes me that the decay of the sage and the triumph of an increasingly alien happiness is connected, by a multitude of subtle implications – to the disunion of Persephone and Demeter. For those of you not hip to the hop re this myth, here’s the drastic recap:


Persephone was playing with her friends, the daughters of Oceanus, gathering flowers in a Sicilian field, when she saw – as it says in the Homeric hymn to Demeter – “Earth with its wide roads gaped/and then over the Nysian field the lord and All-receiver,/the many-named son of Kronos, sprang out upon her with his immortal horses” – and that was it. She was gone in that moment, gone infinitely, in a sense – gone to the essence of gone, gone to the dead. Tennyson’s poem takes up the traditional narrative of her mother Demeter’s wandering as she roams the earth, in mourning, looking for her missing daughter. Here, Demeter comes upon the fates:

“On three gray heads beneath a gleaming rift.
‘Where’? and I heard one voice from all the three
‘We know not, for we spin the lives of men,
And not of Gods, and know not why we spin!
There is a Fate beyond us.’ Nothing knew.”

Well, the Fate beyond fate is extremely interesting to LI. We will come back to that later. Anyway, Demeter finally found out what happened to her daughter when she was sent a vision:

“… the God of dreams, who heard my cry,
Drew from thyself the likeness of thyself
Without thy knowledge, and thy shadow past
Before me, crying ‘The Bright one in the highest
Is brother of the Dark one in the lowest,
And Bright and Dark have sworn that I, the child
Of thee, the great Earth-Mother, thee, the Power
That lifts her buried life from gloom to bloom,
Should be for ever and for evermore
The Bride of Darkness.’”

In response to this rape, Demeter cursed the earth until Persephone was allowed to return to the earth for nine months of the year. The other three months are winter. Or so it goes in Tennyson's poem, a variant of that old myth.

To snap the allegory together, here: the sterility under which the earth groaned when Demeter learned of the rape of her daughter is the image of the sterility under which the Earth groans now, as a form of happiness ripped from all contexts, and especially its coupling with wisdom, reigns serenely over the highways, byways, shopping centers and fishless oceans – the fucked out world of late capitalism. While it is a mad and eccentric vector into the heart of our current disorders, LI’s obsession with the expulsion of the sage isn’t totally dimwitted.

Well, tomorrow’s post will be about the vexed problem of how to translate ‘volupté’.

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