Friday, November 20, 2009

Claustrophilia III: Eileen Joy

All At One Point

      In Italo Calvino’s short story, “All at One Point,” we have what might be, quite literally, the point of origin for claustrophilia. The story purports to tell of the time before the universe expanded, when all of matter was concentrated in a single point, and everyone and every thing, in the words of the narrator, “was packed in there like sardines.”1 But the narrator is also quick to point out that “packed like sardines” is just a literary image, and in reality, “Every point of each of us coincided with every point of each of the others in a single point, which was where we all were.”2 The narrator, once himself, like all of us, one of the many residents of this point (because this is a world in which everyone who exists now or who has ever existed was also at one time present, perhaps ‘pregnant’ is the better word, in this point)—this narrator is quick to point out that, contrary to what we might think, “it wasn’t the sort of situation that encourages sociability.”3 Indeed, because all of the material that will later serve to form the universe—astronomical, chemical, geological, etc.—is piled up with all of the human residents, a certain over-crowding occurs that leads to disputes, slanders and denigrations. Especially irritating, apparently, are the Z’zus family who, as the narrator tells us, “with the excuse that they were a large family, would begin to act as if they were the only ones in the world: they even wanted to hang lines across our point to dry their washing.”4 But there is one person, Mrs. Ph(i)Nko, who fills everyone with “a blissful, generous emotion.”5 For whatever reason, everyone in the present remembers her fondly and with great affection, and according to the narrator, her “great secret is that she never aroused any jealousy.”6 He continues:
    The fact that she went to bed with her friend, Mr. De XuaeauX, was well known. But in point, if there’s a bed, it takes up the whole point, so it isn’t a question of going to bed, but of being there, because anybody in the point is also in the bed. Consequently, it was inevitable that she should be in bed also with each of us. . . . the happiness I derived from her was the joy of being concealed, punctiform, in her, and of protecting her, punctiform, in me; it was at the same time vicious contemplation (thanks to the promiscuity of the punctiform convergence of all of us in her) and also chastity (given her punctiform impenetrability). In short: what more could I ask?7
      Calvino’s story describes the possible pleasure of finding oneself in the place where everyone is at one point, but especially with Mrs. Ph(i)Nko, because even in this cosmological origins story in which all of the matter of the universe is so infinitesimally compressed that it would be impossible to tell where one person or object begins and another ends, there has to be an attractor (call it a love object), something to which, instinctively, we want to draw near, even at the moment when everything in the universe could not be more near to, even within, each other, and yet somehow, there is still discrimination, singularity, attraction, and beside-ness. At the same time, and calling to mind Cary’s idea of the tertiary im-mediacy of reading, both enclosive and excessive in its between-ness, and where there is never just me and my book, but also a we, “separate from both, or all, of us, in which we participate, and to which, nonetheless, we are added anaphorically and not reduced,”8 in Calvino’s story, it is precisely the moment at which Mrs. Ph(i)Nko exclaims, “Oh, if I only had some room, how I’d like to make some noodles for you boys!” that the idea of expansion occurs. As the narrator explains:
    in that moment we all thought of the space that her round arms would occupy, moving backward and forward with the rolling pin over the dough . . . . we thought of the space that the flour would occupy, and the wheat for the flour, and the field to raise the wheat, and the mountains from which the water would flow to irrigate the fields, and the grazing lands for the herds of calves that would give their meat for the sauce; of the space it would take for the sun to arrive with its rays, to ripen the wheat . . . .9
Somewhat amazingly, it is the thought of space itself, inspired by Mrs. Ph(i)Nko’s “generous impulse”—what the narrator calls a “true outburst of general love”—that literally initiates “at the same moment the concept of space and, properly speaking, space itself, and time, and universal gravitation, and the gravitating universe, making possible billions and billions of suns, and of planets, and fields of wheat, and Mrs. Ph(i)Nko, scattered through the continents of the planets, kneading with floury, oil-shiny, generous arms.”10
      Here, Calvino’s story marks a moment of what Cary would call a “communal entrance”—I would call it a communal natality: the beginning of history and the gift of time as a radical spacing out initiated by a certain enclosed, hermeneutic heat and light. The time of the story is the present (our modernity, in fact), when Mrs. Ph(i)Nko is both everywhere and nowhere at once, and claustrophilia names the longing for her, to be enclosed with, within, and beside her once more, while also recognizing that she is also always lost, and this is why the story ends on a note of mourning her supposedly fugitive absence. And yet, at the same time, if not enclosed with everyone in miniature as she used to be at the dense origin of time, her former body, now infinitely expanded, literally forms all of the edges and Outside of this world such that the repeating, anaphoric contiguity of her, as well as her spontaneous gesture of a general affection, is the reason there is even a world at all. Her supernumerary Here-ness literally limns the world and makes it possible to sense and to see anything. Loving her, and also missing her, even when she is there, is love of the world and all of its teeming things in their thingness; this is also a type of joy that can be experienced when we realize, as Cary writes, that what we love “will not disappear when the door is opened, or when the body withdraws.”11
      I want to suggest that in his book, Cary offers us a provocative glimpse of literary criticism as something like the world-making that goes on in Calvino’s story, and by ‘world-making,’ I mean to denote various generous acts of natality, of making room for things to be, but also to be possible. This is, of course, a deeply erotic criticism; I would call it a re-productive criticism, one that considers the place of the affective body (human and non-human), and affective bodies enclosed together in re-productive acts of writing and reading, which bodies also embrace radical acts of anachronism as a way to slip out (even to pop out) from the “times” and places that might bind us too tightly. At the same time, as Cary himself articulates, if the act of interpretation, which is also a mediation (even, an im-mediation), is erotically participative, the space of being-between that is reproduced and intensified by a certain hermeneutic light (our lights, but also lights from elsewhere, from other persons and objects)—this space, this being-between, is “both constantly under revision, and irreducible to any given spatial situation.”12 In this sense, Cary’s erotic criticism does not necessarily grasp or overcome anything (it leaves to us and others our irreducible singularity, maybe even our secret-ness), but it does create “spatial modalities” that “establish a ‘here’ which is not ‘absolute space’ but contingent sharing”—an intensification, when we bump up against them together, of the edges of everything, which in Cary’s view, are always burning, always on fire.
      I want to conclude by asking us to tarry a bit longer, here and together, but also later, and elsewhere, over the continual evocations in Cary’s book of both the participative “Here” and the “we”—that fragile pronoun, as Cary calls it, that it may or may not be possible, in postmodernity, to speak of anymore, and yet this is one of the great gifts of Cary’s book, I really believe—that he insists on speaking it, over and over again, while also insisting that the social relation can never be finally figured, any more than the individual, or the space of interiority (human or non-human), can be traversed and mapped with any sense of finally “getting it.” For me, there is a professional question both lurking and at times explicitly raised throughout Cary’s book of what it means to imagine and bring into being a community of readers that is also a community of lovers. If we are hesitant to talk of love within our profession, both because it is theoretically suspect and historically bankrupt, we might ask instead how something like affinity—an attraction drawing us near to each other and to our objects of study—means we can never really be, as Cary argues, alone or isolated in our work, although much of our professional lives demands that we proceed as if we were somehow on or own, and in this sense, we have the burden and what Zygmunt Bauman has called the “fate” of being individuals, and we only ever succeed or fail on our own. The challenge of Cary’s book, I think, is in getting us to think more deeply about all of the ways in which the invocation of the “we” marks both a space of communal enclosure (of “drawing near” to each other and to things that we love in their non-transparent singularity and their endless plurality) as well as the site where we work collectively to make room and time for everything that, properly speaking, has not yet arrived, but which hovers, nevertheless, at the edges of our sight and touch. But how to work together at such a task? This is still an open question.

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