By Andrew Welch
Rereading Keats’s Poems of 1817, I’m struck by how many pieces belong to the noble & distinguished tradition of poetry that frets about its own inadequacy. Keats begins “To My Brother George” in accordance:
Full many a dreary hour have I past,
My brain bewilder’d, and my mind o’ercast
What’s wrong, dear Keats?
That I should never hear Apollo’s song
That still the murmur of the honey bee
Would never teach a rural song to me:
That the bright glance from beauty’s eyelids slanting
Would never make a lay of mine enchanting,
Or warm my breast with ardour to unfold
Some tale of love and arms in time of old.
He yearns to write a “lay… enchanting.” But he recognizes that this will depend upon “ardour”—an “ardour” that must come from without. My theme is this ardor. Ardor as input and output, as cause and effect, as problem and solution, as means and end of reading.
Ardor happens to be the title of Roberto Calasso’s most recent book, about the Vedas. As Calasso has it, Vedic society “arose out of the fateful and dramatic encounter between a liturgy and rapture.” This was a society of textual enchantment. From the Paris Review:
You write in The Marriage [of Cadmus and Harmony], “We enter the mythical when we enter the realm of risk, and myth is the enchantment we generate in ourselves at such moments.” What does this mean?
This comes from Plato, from the Phaedo. Socrates says that precisely. Within the realm of myth, you wander into this danger zone, and that is the zone of the unknown. What you can do there is, first of all, utter or sing a carmen, a word that is usually translated as “poem” but primarily means “enchantment.” That is the best weapon at our disposal.
It’s probably too much to ask Calasso to explain his explanation. We enter the danger zone, and we perform an enchantment or utter a poem in order to protect ourselves. Is it to protect ourselves? Or is the enchanting poem itself the source of risk?
Keats and Calasso, outré mythographers each, are both obsessed with the enchantment of reading. Sometimes they imagine a kind of eternal enchantment, over and against their awareness that enchantment depends upon transience, upon ex-stasis. Permanent enchantment would be no enchantment at all.
Enchantment is Keats’s “deep eternal theme” in “On Sitting Down To Read King Lear Once Again.” This poem dismisses “golden-tongued romance” in favor of the “bitter-sweet of this Shakespearean fruit.” But like many of his sonnets about art (Chapman’s Homer, Elgin Marbles, &c.), Shakespeare’s play never comes into focus. What remains is an elliptical series of feints, an image of the nigh-traumatic residue of an encounter. What Keats takes from Lear’s majestic dread is inextinguishable yearning. Or more precisely: an endlessly extinguishable & endlessly reborn desire.
When through the old oak forest I am gone,
Let me not wander in a barren dream,
But, when I am consumed in the fire,
Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire.
Death he grants. But let death come as an immolation that transforms the self into unceasing desire. The closing image of rebirth loops back toward the title: “Again.”
But wait. Keats hasn’t yet reread Lear, he’s just sitting down to it. His sonnet conveys what he wants from his return to that “fierce dispute, / Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay.” We can only imagine what “After Sitting Down to Read King Lear Again” might look like, but no matter how enchanting he finds Shakespeare’s lay, rereading Lear probably won’t bring about his rebirth in the form of infinite desire. No text can answer this ardor. What could Keats’s poem (wondrous as it is) possibly make of itself?
In “Bright Star,” the Lear sonnet’s image of immolation is reborn as “pure ablution,” and the evocation of ritual seeks to transfigure the stasis of the star into the movement of blood & breath. Eternal desire is again our theme:
still stedfast, still unchangeable
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest
How “sweet” would we find eternal unrest? The poem is spurred not only by the transience of the scene, but by the transience of the desire that “warm[s] my breast with ardour.” The enchantment of this lay is to induce a desire whose eternal realization would be deeply unpleasant, to say the least.
In the third volume of In Search of Lost Time, Proust’s narrator explores the end of textual enchantment. His favorite writer, Bergotte, is becoming too familiar:
In Bergotte’s books, which I constantly re-read, his sentences stood out as clearly before my eyes as my own thoughts, the furniture in my room and the carriages in the streets. All the details were easily visible, not perhaps precisely as one had always seen them, but at any rate as one was accustomed to see them now. (The Guermantes Way 375)
The narrator (as is customary, we’ll call him Marcel) can dimly recall life before Bergotte, that is to say, can dimly recall the difference Bergotte introduced into his way of seeing. But in a dismissive turn—“at any rate”—Bergotte’s sentential furniture has nonetheless become as quotidian as the objects that populate Marcel’s own parlor. But just as Bergotte begins to pall,
A new writer had recently begun to publish work in which the relations between things were so different from those that connected them for me that I could understand hardly anything of what he wrote…. Only I felt that it was not the sentence that was badly constructed but I myself that lacked the strength and agility necessary to reach the end. I would start afresh, striving tooth and nail to reach the point from which I would see the new relationships between things. And each time, after I had got about half-way through the sentence, I would fall back again…. I nevertheless felt for the new writer the admiration which an awkward boy who gets nought for gymnastics feels when he watches another more nimble. And from then onwards I felt less admiration for Bergotte, whose limpidity struck me as a deficiency. (ibid.)
The new writer moves with a “strength and agility” Marcel yet lacks, leaping from word to word with alien dexterity, leaving Marcel “striving tooth and nail” to follow his gymnastic contortions. The metaphors are revealing: inhabiting Bergotte’s world means recognizing its furniture & carriages, but the new writer imposes himself upon Marcel’s very body. Reading no longer consists in identifying the passive materials of a habitus. To “see the new relationships between things,” Marcel must remake his own readerly physique.
Yet Bergotte does not altogether disappear. He is too deeply infixed in Marcel’s thinking. Instead, we should understand that Bergotte’s thought has become the familiar background against which the new writer’s vivid exoticism comes to the fore. Ritual becomes mere habit, and that habit lays the foundation for new ritual. Or if you prefer, Marcel becomes the ritual medium in which Bergotte and the new writer meet: “I reflected that it was not so many years since a renewal of the world similar to that which I now expected his successor to produce had been wrought for me by Bergotte himself” (376). This process unfolds with more wry sophistication than priestlike ablution, but we shouldn’t be fooled. Marcel can only become disenchanted because he desperately desires enchantment.
Of this vision of reading as enchantment, Georges Poulet is the most patient and eloquent theorist. For Poulet, a book
asks nothing better than to exist outside itself, or to let you exist in it. In short, the extraordinary fact in the case of a book is the falling away of the barriers between you and it. You are inside it; it is inside you; there is no longer either outside or inside. (“Criticism” 42)
When a book opens, it generates what Calasso calls the realm of risk, and when the reading begins, enchantment arises to stoke—or mitigate—that risk. Poulet will appeal to possession, digestion, permeation, and penetration in order to point toward his end: absolute communion with the consciousness of the author. This fantasy demands recourse to a metaphor system in perpetual motion. This motion ends, impossibly, in an apocalyptic fusion of word and thing, such that “this interior universe constituted by language [no longer] seems radically opposed to the me who thinks it” (“Phenomenology” 55). His logic is elegantly preposterous: 1) word and thing are divided, 2) in the rapture of reading, the textual world takes on the experiential density of the lived world, 3) word and thing are no longer divided. But there is a caveat. For subject and object to become one, the reader must submit “without mental reservation” to the author. When I read,
I am the subject of thoughts other than my own. My consciousness behaves as though it were the consciousness of another…. For how could I explain, without such take-over of my innermost subjective being, the astonishing facility with which I not only understand but even feel what I read. When I read as I ought—that is without mental reservation, without any desire to preserve my independence of judgment, and with the total commitment required of any reader—my comprehension becomes intuitive and any feeling proposed to me is immediately assumed by me. (“Criticism” 45)
Poulet is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a great reader of Proust. Yet Poulet’s account sustains none of the delicate tension of Marcel’s textual encounters. The text here becomes a perfect conduit of authorial consciousness that, given “total commitment” from the reader, generates an “immediate” transfer of thought & feeling. This possession is the apex of literary experience for Poulet, and yet for Marcel, this same instantaneous translation from text to reader marks the exhaustion of reading, its descent into mundane familiarity. Further, Poulet confines this possession to the space of reading, enclosed within the “openness of a book,” beyond which the spell is broken. Marcel’s readerly possession is both less decisive and more prolonged. To read is to move about the author’s world while nonetheless remaining oneself, as if visiting a friend’s apartment. However, these models of reading are not incompatible. They simply prize different moments in the ritual encounter. The frisson of the exotic is set against the intimacy of the familiar. The ultimate irony may lie in the tonal, stylistic, and thematic consistency of Proust, which encourages the identification Poulet describes, yet seems to defy Marcel’s own desire for continuous novelty.
Enough of rhapsody & enchantment—“Leave melodizing on this wintry day, / Shut up thine olden pages, and be mute.” Really, most of my reading is wary or distracted, frustrated or indifferent, and sometimes, mildly bemused. Lydia Davis—translator of Proust—relays an aptly ambiguous textual encounter in “Foucault and Pencil.” Here, the narrator (let’s call her Lydia) finds herself preoccupied by a “situation fraught with conflict taking form of many heated argument.” She frets intermittently, and intermittently reads Foucault.
Found Foucault, in French, hard to understand. Short sentences easier to understand than long ones. Certain long ones understandable part by part, but so long, forgot beginning before reaching end. Went back to beginning, understood beginning, read on, and again forgot beginning before reaching end.
This sounds like Marcel on first looking into his unnamed new writer. Except for the writing, which sounds nothing like Marcel at all. Nonetheless, as we proceed, Lydia’s incomprehension comes into clearer relief.
Harder to understand when sentence was long and noun identifying subject of sentence was left back at beginning, replaced by male or female pronoun, when forgot what noun pronoun replaced and had only pronoun for company traveling through sentence. Sometimes pronoun then giving way in mid-sentence to new noun, new noun in turn replaced by new pronoun which then continued on to end of sentence.
Foucault’s famous reading of Velazquez’s Las Meninas traces in the painting “a whole complex network of uncertainties, exchanges, and feints”—a description that reflects back upon his own text (5). Here, Lydia finds Foucault playing a nominal shell game. A noun is replaced by a pronoun, which acts as a kind of transfiguring shroud out of which a new noun emerges. These mysterious transformations send Lydia back to “start afresh,” only to “again forg[e]t beginning before reaching end.” She elaborates:
Also harder to understand when subject of sentence was noun like thought, absence, law; easier to understand when subject was noun like beach, wave, sand, sanatorium, pension, door, hallway, or civil servant. Before and after sentence about sand, civil servant, or pension, however, came sentence about attraction, neglect, emptiness, absence, or law, so parts of book understood were separated by parts not understood.
Foucault’s sentences oscillate violently between the abstract and the concrete, which metamorphose into each other under pronominal cover, or are simply left in unresolved juxtaposition. Marcel, as we saw, found himself lacking the “strength and agility” to follow his writer’s connections. Lydia slowly transfers this lack from herself onto the text by isolating and tagging its perplexities. Her narrative concludes with a small victory: “Put down Foucault and pencil, took out notebook and made note of what was now at least understood about lack of understanding.”
Where Marcel is enthralled by mystification, “striving tooth and nail” to extend his own readerly dexterity, Lydia seems mildly vexed and mildly dulled by her encounter. It is one of fitful interest & sporadic attention. But Lydia is not reading in a void, or even in the study; she is riding the subway, preoccupied by a “situation fraught with conflict taking form of many heated argument.” This situation has instanced itself in a “recent argument concerning travel,” which is as much as we learn of it. Yet it spurs reflection, as travel transfigures from the object of this particular argument to a metaphor for argument itself:
Argument itself became form of travel, each sentence carrying arguers on to next sentence, next sentence on to next, and in the end, arguers were not where they had started, were also tired from traveling and spending so long face-to-face in each other’s company.
It turns out that traveling by argument is claustrophobic companionship—Lydia and her other, inescapably “face-to-face.” Argument and Foucault are inversions of each other: it is not clear where the argument has led, but only that “in the end, arguers were not where they had started,” whereas reading Foucault means losing Foucault, always “[forgetting] beginning before reaching end.” This structural crossing remains unacknowledged. Foucault and Argument run in parallel tracks, separately. They are suspended, like Foucault’s abstract and concrete referents, in unresolved proximity. “Stopped thinking and opened Foucault.”
The connection between Argument and Foucault is left suspended, to borrow Foucault’s words, in “an infinite relation” (10). Contra Foucault’s pronominal sleight of hand, Lydia’s clipped prose altogether forgoes articles and pronouns. Yet her narrative takes a different route to the similar space of incomprehension. No “I” appears in this first-person narrative to ground its observations. The narrating subject, despite her frank sobriety, remains opaque. Like Marcel encountering his new writer, and like Lydia reading Foucault, I am left struggling “to see the new relations between things.” This challenge inspires Marcel to “strive tooth and nail”; in Lydia, it evokes muffled perplexity, and for myself—I don’t know. If I have begun to explain this to myself, it remains only, as she writes, an “understanding about lack of understanding.”
Foucault, I’ve no doubt, read with ardor. The preface to The Order of Things begins,
This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. (xvi)
This seizure of laughter does not lead to communion with the consciousness of the author in Poulet’s sense. And this is no novel defamiliarization of the kind Marcel depicts. It is rapturous possession, a dissociated laughter (“the laughter”) that is only retroactively linked to the “I” that “read the passage.” This ejaculation shatters the familiar landmarks of Foucault’s thought (cf. Leo Bersani’s reading of jouissance as “self-shattering” (99-101)). Categorization becomes unmoored, unleashing “the wild profusion of things.” Foucault is led, as if possessed, to dissolve “man”—the very category that organizes his identity. Thus in the prophetic enthusiasm of the book’s conclusion, Foucault avers that if the “arrangements of knowledge” that have “made it possible for the figure of man to appear” were to crumble, “then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea” (422). The Order of Things is an extended annotation to Foucault’s burst of Borgesian laughter.
This image of man as a face in the sand calls to mind a passage from Calasso’s enchanting take on the Greek mythological corpus, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony:
The mythographer lives in a permanent state of chronological vertigo, which he pretends to want to resolve. But while on the one table he puts generations and dynasties in order, like some old butler who knows the family history better than his masters, you can be sure that on another table the muddle is getting worse and the threads ever more entangled. No mythographer has ever managed to put his material together in a consistent sequence, yet all set out to impose order. In this they have been faithful to the myth. The mythical gesture is a wave which, as it breaks, assumes a shape, the way dice form a number when we toss them. But, as the wave withdraws, the unvanquished complications swell in the undertow, and likewise the muddle and the disorder from which the next mythical gesture will be formed. (281)
Though Foucault does not style himself a mythographer, this montage is not entirely inapplicable to his project. From the shaping of objects of knowledge, to styles of knowing, to the background against which knowledge is organized, to the ordering of individual bodies, and ultimately, the management of populations—we might see a reflexively ordered progression here, or we might see a sequence of dice throws, a series of crashing waves, each inducing a shattering defamiliarization, attended by new complications that will, in turn, require a new order.
But I’ve run ahead of myself, impelled, perhaps, by the echoes of that Borgesian laughter. In the provoking passage, Borges cites a “certain Chinese encyclopaedia” that establishes an order of things in violation of every familiar sense of order:
“animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera , (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.”
Foucault, pulling us by the first-person plural into the space of his shattering epiphany, explains:
In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that. (xvi)
The enchantment of the Chinese encyclopedia launches Foucault into a great leap of shattering apprehension. The “thing we apprehend in one great leap” (a phrase that bounds over the intervening clauses to link up with its object) is the “limitation of our own” systems of thought. (btw, in the France of the late 60s, the echo of Mao’s Great Leap Forward would not be missed). What renders this limitation visible is the “stark impossibility” of adopting the encyclopedia’s system. Yet Foucault doesn’t dwell in perspectivism—his ultimate target is the medium in which such arrangements of knowledge are constructed. That medium is language itself.
What is impossible is not the propinquity of the things listed, but the very site on which their propinquity would be possible. The animals “(i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush”—where could they ever meet, except in the immaterial sound of the voice pronouncing their enumeration, or on the page transcribing it? Where else could they be juxtaposed except in the non-place of language? Yet, though language can spread them before us, it can do so only in an unthinkable space. (xviii)
This unthinkable space of language is the birthplace of that “strange figure of knowledge called man” (xxvi). Through an archaeological excavation of man’s appearance in language, Foucault will endeavor to think man’s unthinkable disappearance. His method, as glossed by Lydia, will be to prosecute a rendition of language. Categories will break apart and categorical distinctions will collapse. Things will transfigure into what they are not, and the reader, possessed by shattering laughter, will accomplish a great leap of apprehension—to see not Marcel’s “new relations between things,” but rather to grasp the structure of relationality as such, as if from above.
That was the hope, anyway. Nearly twenty years later in the introduction to The Use of Pleasure, Foucault reprises the metaphor of aerial perspective as he surveys the history of his own thought.
There is irony in those efforts one makes to alter one’s way of looking at things, to change the boundaries of what one knows and to venture out a ways from there. Did mine actually result in a different way of thinking? Perhaps at most they made it possible to go back through what I was already thinking, to think it differently, and to see what I had done from a new vantage point and in a clearer light. Sure of having traveled far, one finds that one is looking down on oneself from above. The journey rejuvenates things, and ages the relationship with oneself. (11)
In retrospect, the rapture of self-shattering laughter, of the effacement of “man,” only returns Foucault to himself “in a clearer light.” This modestly bemused Foucault, no longer possessed by laughter but surprisingly self-possessed, reminds me of the Wordsworth of Tintern Abbey, trying to convince himself that the loss of youth, with “all its aching joys” and “all its dizzy raptures,” has been repaid with “abundant recompence.”
Let’s turn to an earlier theorist of the visible and the sayable. For Edmund Burke, “obscure and imperfect” ideas are far more affecting than clear, well-delineated images. This affectivity simply is power. “I know of nothing sublime,” it follows, “which is not some modification of power.” Despotic governments, heathen temples, Druidic ceremonies, tales of ghosts and goblins: all partake of the puissance of sublime obscurity. These dynamics are profoundly gendered. “A perpendicular has more force in forming the sublime, than an inclined plane; and the effects of a rugged and broken surface seem stronger than where it is smooth and polished.” “A clear idea is another name for a little idea.” “Beauty in distress is much the most affecting beauty.” We could go on. What is crucial here is that Burke aligns masculinity, sublimity, obscurity, and poetry against femininity, beauty, clarity, and the visual. His prized poet of “the force of judicious obscurity” is Milton. And his prized example is Milton’s depiction of Death:
The other shape,
If shape it might be called that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb,
Or substance might be called that shadow seemed,
For each seemed either; black it stood as night,
Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as hell,
And shook a dreadful dart; what seemed his head
The likeness of a kingly crown had on. (Paradise Lost II.666-673)
Burke’s gloss leaves much unsaid: “In this description all is dark, uncertain, confused, terrible, and sublime to the last degree.” For what unfolds here is neither uncertain nor confused—though admittedly dark, terrible, and sublime. What Death is, is transfigurable. Death’s “shape” appears, only to flicker under the pressure of the next line’s “If” and “might,” before resolving into a paradoxical image of shape that “had none.” Yet this shapeless shape is itself revised as we push through the enjambment: Milton finally does not say that death is entirely shapeless, but rather that he—it—has no shape “distinguishable in member, joint, or limb.” The effect is to partially negate the negation of the previously line, without positively restoring anything in particular.
We are left with a shape without distinguishable sub-shapes that is nonetheless not shapeless. As we proceed, Death is attended by marked similes (as night, as ten Furies, as hell) and equipped with the regalia of sovereignty—though these too persist under the partial erasure of “likeness,” of what only “seemed” to be.
Burke finds this “gloomy pomp” “astonishing,” and his reading of Milton’s Death is a choice example of his own theory of sublimity. To wit,
The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. (§22.214.171.124)
Astonishment: etymologically: petrified, stoned. When we are struck by this stoning sublimity, our mind is “so entirely filled with its object that it cannot entertain any other.” We are fully comprehended, suffused, and penetrated by the object, such that all the motions of our soul “are suspended.” Indeed, Burkean sublimity consists of being pleasurably & painfully forced to relinquish power. “Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force.” Desire is filled beyond capacity, such that the boundaries of self momentarily collapse. Sublimity thus induces inversions: the sublime object penetrates the subject, suspends and anticipates thought, turns all movement to stillness. This vertiginous astonishment depends upon the subject’s privilege as reasoner, apprehender, penetrator. Burke likes to be safely astonished—to be touched just the way Milton touches him, and left flailing: “dark, uncertain, confused, terrible, and sublime.” Sublimity represents a kind of vacation from subjectivity, to which Burke inevitably returns. This vacation has the effect of affirming the boundaries of self. Identity is imbued with a pleasant homeliness that becomes perceptible only because we had momentarily left it behind.
The power dynamics of Burkean sublimity draws out some subtleties in Georges Poulet’s vision of reading as spectral possession. For Poulet, reading entails the total surrender of consciousness; in Burke’s terms, the mind is filled with its object. But more crucially, these models of the reading sublime are defined by their containment. There is in Poule’ts phenomenology a severe disjunction between the trance of reading, where subject & object become one, and the fallen separations that he thinks shape extratextual life. These dynamics are pushed to the limit in “The Word,” an early story by another great royalist, Vladimir Nabokov. In “The Word,” Nabokov’s narrator (call him Vlad) finds himself in a dream realm of unspeakable vividness: “I sensed the lustre, the angles, and the facets of immense mosaic cliffs, dazzling precipices, and the mirrorlike glint of multitudinous lakes lying somewhere below, behind me.” In this wondrous world, Vlad finds himself bared to sensation from all directions in all forms. The vista behind him is unaccountably visible; his eyes seem to see beyond themselves. Moreover: “My soul was seized by a sense of heavenly iridescence, freedom, and loftiness: I knew that I was in Paradise.” A paradox emerges here, not unlike the unseen sights “below, behind me”: What can it mean to be seized by freedom? Soon, as anticipated, a host of angels arrive on the scene. I won’t try to paraphrase Vlad’s astonishingly grandiloquent prose:
Wings, wings, wings! How can I describe their convolutions and their tints? They were all-powerful and soft—tawny, purple, deep blue, velvety black, with fiery dust on the rounded tips of their bowed feathers. Like precipitous clouds they stood, imperiously poised above the angels’ luminous shoulders; now and then an angel, in a kind of marvellous transport, as if unable to restrain his bliss, suddenly, for a single instant, unfurled his winged beauty, and it was like a burst of sunlight, like the sparkling of millions of eyes.
Vlad, however, finds himself unable to join the frolic. It’s not just that he remains bound by his human frame. More to the point, his “homeland” is suffering, and though he is now in heaven, he cannot let go of his earthly sympathies. He knows that one word, “one quivering shimmer,” would redeem that worldly suffering in an instant. Watching the angels’ ecstatic play, he “deliriously beseeched their indulgence,” but the lovely monstrosities remained unresponsive, “their chiselled faces turned upward.” Suddenly, miraculously, as the host begins to depart, one angel turns to meet him. In that face, “The curves, the gleaming, the charm of all the faces I had ever loved—the features of people who had long since departed from me—seemed to merge into one wondrous countenance.” Vlad begins to desperately relay his tale of woe, but can’t seem to get to the point. “I babbled about trifles… prattled of old book and old linens… but the most important thing I simply could not express.” What he means to express is “how wondrous my land was, and how horrid its black syncope.” This word syncope appears twice in the three page story. It indicates a loss of consciousness, a fainting—as the angels soar upward, their eyes evince “the syncope of flight.” It also denotes grammatical foreshortening, as when “probably” is pronounced “prolly.” These dual senses signal the convergence of consciousness and language—syncope marks the short-circuiting, or curtailment, or seizure of the mind and/or the word.
To resume: though he can’t quite explain himself to the angel, Vlad nonetheless feels understood. He ceases, begging, “Answer me, help me, tell me, what can save my land?” Here’s what follows:
Embracing my shoulders for an instant with his dovelike wings, the angel pronounced a single word, and in his voice I recognized all those beloved, those silenced voices. The word he spoke was so marvellous that, with a sigh, I closed my eyes and bowed my head still lower. The fragrance and the melody of the word spread through my veins, rose like a sun within my brain; the countless cavities within my consciousness caught up and repeated its lustrous edenic song. I was filled with it. Like a taut knot, it beat within my temple, its dampness trembled upon my lashes, its sweet chill fanned through my hair, and it poured heavenly warmth over my heart.
Like a virus, the word turns Vlad’s brain into a vessel for its own reproduction. He undergoes his own syncope, as his consciousness dissolves into the word. Centrally—crucially—“I was filled with it.” It permeates, comprehends, penetrates his “countless cavities”; it fills his mind and stops up his thought. He is, as Burke writes, “hurried on by an irresistible force”:
I shouted it, I revelled in its every syllable, I violently cast up my eyes, which were filled with the radiant rainbows of joyous tears…. (original ellipsis)
This is ardor. As Poulet writes, “the greatest advantage of literature is that I am persuaded by it that I am freed from my usual sense of incompatibility between my consciousness and its objects” (55). Literary possession frees Poulet from the disjunction between word and thing, mind and world, precisely because literature generates a world out of words. Nabokov’s paradise is the space of syncope, where world and language are coterminous, the kind of space of reading Poulet theorized, or dreamed of. Yet ardor is grim: Vlad’s syncope represents the annihilating terror at the heart of the fantasy of textual enchantment. Without mediation, alienation, disjunction—without the impassable gulf between signifier and signified—reading becomes an invasion, a seizure.
Now the narrator awakens. The angel’s word has so thoroughly comprehended him that in its withdrawal, he is left emptied and bereft. The transcendent word astonishes the consciousness that would preserve it. This word exists only, to quote Poulet, in the “openness of a book,” and the spell of this absolute reading is swallowed by our return to the world. Consciousness swoons into the word, and the word, as in syncope, drops out. In the wake of this impossible shattering, everything is as it was, only, as Shelley had it, “somewhat changed.” The story concludes:
Oh, Lord—the winter dawn glows greenish in the window, and I remember not what word it was that I shouted.
Baker, John. “‘Strange Contrarys’: Figures of Melancholy in Eighteenth-Century Poetry.” Melancholy Experience in Literature of the Long Eighteenth Century. Eds. Allan Ingram, et al. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 83-113.
Bersani, Leo. Homos. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.
Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. 1757. Ed. James T. Boulton. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, 1958.
Calasso, Roberto. Interview with Lila Azam Zanganeh. Paris Review 202 (Fall 2012).
—. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. Trans. Tim Parks. New York: Knopf, 1993.
Davis, Lydia. “Foucault and Pencil.” Almost No Memory. New York: Picador, 1997. 10-12.
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Andrew Welch is a graduate Romanticist at Loyola University Chicago.