Friday, November 20, 2009

Claustrophilia IV: Jeffrey Masten

Is it inappropriate to say that Cary Howie is difficult to get into? That Claustrophilia is occasionally impenetrable? That it is, shall we say, sometimes a hard book to crack? I’ve been thinking about this issue as I read this book again this week. How does a book so self-conscious about its critical methods stage its own sometimes- impenetrability—putting, as it does, its discussion of “Modes of Entry” at its end?

The following passage, in which I want to insinuate my own reading, may help. Here is Howie, summarizing a reading of Iacopone’s poem describing his imprisonment, a reading, you’ll remember, in which Howie dilates upon Iacopone “licking [the ass of] the Roman court” (87). But I am going to insert myself, ourselves, into the passage, to think about this book, Claustrophilia, at this moment in our world:
Iacopone’s imprisonment [which is to say, Howie’s potential risk, as an assistant professor in today’s academy and tenure climate] is, of course, the result of explicitly refusing to lick the pope’s ass [which is to say, the disciplinary structures of the field in romance languages, or in literary studies more broadly], forsaking the worldly hole [writing the safe or safe-sex book, which might lick in more formally predictable ways the always-eager undersides of the authorities in the field] through which his peers have escaped. Yet by sending forth his text, inscribed with the declaration of enclosure [which may be to say, its potential resistance, as a text, to penetration], to the “cort’i Roma” [again, the field – call it the MLA] he insinuates his tongue, a wandering of words, in the ecclesial hole. The insinuation—which is not merely metaphorical flattery but a metonymically extensive penetration—is marked, by irony, also as a withdrawal, and thus able to participate, as polemic, in the dialectic of saying and unsaying that lies at the heart of mystical discourse [i.e., the peculiar discursive protocols of our field]. One could thus also say, inversely, that Iacopone [Howie] sends forth his asshole, the site of an offered withdrawal [the impenetrable text] and the sign of the theological absence in secular church politics [call this the resistance to the “queer” in a still heteronormative field], into the circle of papal speech [let’s call this your randomly selected French department, or a high-profile medieval- studies conference]. In either case, he inscribes a break in the discursive or physical body of the church [which is also to say, the ways we write and read, and train our graduate students to enter into such rituals]. (89)
Now I don’t mean to allegorize Howie in any intentional sense here, to say that he somehow intends his reading of Iacopone’s resistance and opening up, his ass- licking and offered aperture, as a version of his own book (though of course he may). But by putting them beside each other, myself inside/between, I do hope to ask some questions about the difficult erotics of Howie’s writing in relation to its readers, the way in which this book closes itself off from, which is also to say offers itself up for, scholarly penetration.

I’m not going to concentrate on the potential professional risks of that erotics, to which I’ve already alluded. Instead I want to think about the potentially productive relation this book opens with readers, as a “site of offered withdrawal,” as an insinuation (into readers in the field) that is an “extensive penetration.” And I say this as a reader who resists some of the book’s forms and formulations (we might return later, for example, to its relation to what it somewhat monolithically refers to as “historicism” [see, e.g., 12-14]).

But the book’s offering-up of itself, even in its occasional impenetrability (an offering-up that in a simpler style might be called its “flirtation with the reader”) is always-already an offered penetration that gets penetrated, even from the first sentence of this book: “Once inside a book, any book, it’s impossible to emerge from it absolutely intact, to be outside it in quite the same way” (1). This turns out to be a statement about St. Augustine, but (and) it is also about any book, this book, and, given the complexities of what “inside” comes to mean over the course of this text, the first sentence presents a reader, attempting to enter it, with a redoubled threat or come-on to his or her bodily integrity and discreteness. Penetrating this text, you will never get out, or (and) never get it out of you. The old questions—is the reader a top or a bottom? and the author? the text?—begin to fade away, and an old erotic/political economy of knowledge—in whose difficult-to-escape vocabularies I began and in which a text is understood to be penetrated, plumbed, the depths of its knowledge “enjoyed” (in the Renaissance sense of “fucked” but also “possessed”) and carried off to be used elsewhere—give way to different relations of reader and text.

That’s certainly a relation that Claustrophilia, following upon (reading beside, as Howie would say) Barthes’s Plaisir du texte and Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis, sees in relation to its own chosen materials. But it’s also implicitly the relation this book, as “any book,” constructs with its readers. The “boner test” Howie cites from a novel in which a woman measures the suitability of the men she dates—“’[d]oes he give you a boner?’” she asks (143)—has the function of justifying Howie’s eclectic choice of texts (“eclectic” within current disciplinary protocols). But his extension of the boner test (“Likewise, one can ask of a reader: what excites you hermeneutically, mnemonically, rhetorically? ...which texts produce that only partly willed moment of intensity...felt at once inside and at the surface of the body?”) is a come-on, a come-in, to a reader of this book, and potentially suggests to that reader a different dispensation, a different erotic-political relation of readers to their critical as well as “primary” texts (143). It seems important in this regard that the boner test is transgendered (and at least for some readers, queered)—a woman with a boner—though I also imagine that there will be women (and men) readers who will resist the idea that, yet yet-again, the model of reading is to be the strap-on of phallic response, though not penetrative pleasure and ownership as traditionally understood.
Is my imagined girl-boner for Claustrophilia’s impenetrabilities a desire for the book or for the author? Or to put this question more responsibly: is it for the text, or for the inscribed voice or style of the author? Usually, even as the model is heterosexual dating, Claustrophilia proposes this as a relation of reader to texts, not people (“which texts produce that only partly willed moment of intensity...?”). But there is at least one moment of authorial romanticism in the book that seems to frame the encounter with the author (here not necessarily eroticized, but not necessarily not, either) as the boner- producing thing itself. Howie describes his regret at “arriving [in San Francisco] too late for Bo Huston,” whose “beautiful” novels he admires, arriving after Huston’s death (120- 21).

After a reading of a moment in one of these novels, Howie writes:
When the author is dead, this is a small consolation, but it is all we have: a trace neither utterly removed from its putative source nor synecdochically making this source wholly present (as in the medieval cult of relics) but metonymically dragging someone, something, momentarily close. (121)
This is a very careful formulation, leaving open the possibility that Howie’s critical desire, and the desire of a critic, any critic, is for a “trace” dragging (through metonymy) something or (and) someone, close. Sometext, someauthor, are joined by a comma, not a conjunction. But Claustrophilia here imagines this only to be the case “when the author is dead.” In that case, Howie writes, lamenting what he calls “the limits of metonymy” (120), then this trace is all we have.
But it’s worth asking, here in a seminar where the writer seems very much alive and present to us, whether that is not all we ever have: a trace neither utterly removed from Cary Howie, its putative source (but of course itself suffused, shot through with traces similarly not utterly removed from all the putative sources he retraces) nor synechdochically making Cary Howie wholly present, but rather metonymically dragging something/Claustrophilia, someone/Cary Howie, momentarily close.    Howie’s rumination on this problem concludes with a reading of lines from Mark Doty: “You enter me and we are strangers / to ourselves but not / to each other” (121).

My girl-boner for this book is in part, I think, about that complex dragging metonymy, dragging momentarily close “someone, something,” separated by their thin comma. That “someone” may include myself, my writing self, since no doubt something of what excites me about this book is the recognition of something else’s, someone else’s, insistence on style in criticism—the book’s own evident excitement in the sheen of the sentence, the turn-on of the metonymic build-up of its layers of intricately woven and luxuriously lubricated surfaces, its delight in what I call in my own work (whatever that “own” means) a “queer philology” of words deconstructively etymologized, their unstable pasts pulled into the unstable present, repurposed, revalenced, for use later in the book. In other words: the book enters me and I am momentarily a stranger to myself but not to it.

Moving away from what might be apprehended as critical narcissicm (mine), but as the above formulation also begins to suggest, my girl-boner is also, I think, about the very metonymic linking of something-someone, an imagined, never fully present someone who can write this something (never fully present even while alive in this room), the way that this text (which, when I came to know it, I knew much better than I knew a briefly-met someone named Cary Howie) drags a seductive, withdrawing “I” along with it. What excites me, hermeneutically, rhetorically, is a text that writes, collates, summons, enters, as it does, while writing, dragging, such an “I,” such an enterable “I.”

Such a formulation, at least in relation to literary texts, as Howie acknowledges, has been around at least as long as Barthes’s Plaisir du texte, but I’ll put beside or inside it a formulation of Montaigne’s I keep re-turning to, keep dragging out for examination: Montaigne’s discussion (in John Florio’s early translation) of his friendship with Étienne de la Boétie, a placing near/in, a touching of bodies that seems to me to try to imagine, before its time, a non-hierarchized mutually penetrative intercourse:
[Friendship] is I wot not what kinde of quintessence of all this commixture, which having seized all my will, induced the same to plunge and loose it selfe in his, which likewise having seized all his will, brought it to loose and plunge it selfe in mine, with a mutuall greedinesse, and with a semblable concurrance.(1)
This is friendship, but as the essay makes clear in various ways, it is also reading, a relation of reader and text (Montaigne is editing la Boétie; Montaigne is ostensibly going to let la Boétie’s text enter here into his book). It’s perhaps worth noting as well that Montaigne’s author is dead (he writes of his relation to one not fully present), but he writes in part in the present tense: “friendship is.” Plunging the will in his plunging will, losing the self in an other self that it recognizes as the same-self (or “loosing” in Florio’s ambiguous and resonant early modern spelling); that’s what reading is for Montaigne, and, perhaps for Howie, or at least, I would argue, sticking to my relation to the text Claustrophilia, reading for this book. Or, in the words of this dragged “I,” in the book’s final line, a sentence which is, in its pun on entrance/entrance, about entering, beginning, desiring: “you can only enter me to the extent that I entrance you.” Entrance: not from the verb “enter,” though ultimately not unrelated to the transit of entering; but instead most directly, from en- plus trance, from (saith the OED) “OF. transe m. and f., passage, passage from life to death.”(2) In other words, a transgendered drag or dragging, a metonymy of apparently present and seemingly absent, a trace of the always-already dead author in the midst of the text at-hand. Leaving this text, I am dragged, passing, entered, entranced, entranced.

(1) Michel de Montaigne, “Of Friendship,” in The Essayes, trans. John Florio (London: Melch. Bradwood for Edward Blovnt, 1613), 93. For (slightly) more on this passage, see Masten, “Toward a Queer Address: The Taste of Letters and Early Modern Male Friendship,” GLQ 10.3 (2004): 377.
(2) entrance v., and trance n.1, Oxford English Dictionary online (underlining emphasis added).

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