“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

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Seeing the forest

I’m sorry for not blogging for a week, but I am overwhelmed with work and love at the moment.

However, I want to make a post continuing my forest thematic – or obsession.
In Language and Sensibility in the seventeenth century (1975), Pierre Dumonceaux points out that even as the French government rationalized its operations under Louis XIV, the texts of that rationalization were shot through with irrationality. Take, for instance, Colbert’s radical reconstruction of the system of forest maintenance. His order of 1669 not only contains prescriptions concerning the cutting and use of trees, according to a new categorization that recognized different kinds of timber trees and their biological life cycle, but it also contained this sentence: Défendons à toutes personnes de charmer our brûler les arbres, ni d’en enlever l’écorce, sous peine de punition corporelle.” Dumonceaux remarks: “In this phrase, the three terms charmer, brûler, enlever are situated on the same semantic level; each time, it is a purely natural action, punished in the same fashion, the crime being of the same nature. Besides, a commentary for water and forest masters of the 18th century makes not the least allusion to sorcery or to the memory of sorcery, it declares, simply, that it is a grave crime committed with the intent to make the tree perish, and to be able, subsequently, to appropriate it as dead wood. Basically, that use of “charmer” rejoins those which will be studied further on under the general name of invisible metaphors.”

That the invisible and the charm are linked here with the utmost rational blindness to their subliminal provinence is, well, charming – as though the Derridean demon were unloosed, here, quietly, and all unawares, to wreck the careful linearity that so confidently beckons us to what we will study ‘further on’ – plus loin. As if the charm, or witchcraft, had no economic effect or motive at all. But what if what is happening here is not just the instance of an invisible metaphor, but an instance of invisible metaphorization, a retrospective projection of rationality upon a document that carries a rather damning and to-be-explained term for an offense that, as Dumonceaux himself concedes, might have once occurred in a more superstitious era. A rationality shored up by a lacuna in a commentary from the 18th century, a charm – the charm of bureaucratic rationality – against the charm.

In a footnote, Dumonceaux refers to a certain maitre des eaux et forets, Lafontaine – but in his capacity as a poet. In Le gageur de trois commeres, a story taken from Bocaccio, a valet, who wishes to inspire in the husband the belief that a pear tree in their yard is ‘charmed’ – that is, that certain visions occur under it – in order to make love to the wife under the pear tree at his ease, with the husband looking on, thinking that he is not seeing what he is seeing.

Under the auspices of cuckoldry, the tree is disenchanted. Or, rather, there is a thematic of deceit – as though charms were the tools of scoundrels or, in the Enlightenment critique, of priests to deceive the populace – that shows its face here. With the promise that we do see what we see, every tree and branch, in the forest.

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