30 March 2011

Notes on Labor and Regeneration

CJ Martin inspired me to unearth this piece on invocation, violence, and the lyric voice, first published in P-Queue #2 way back in 2005. I decided to post it here in response to a conversation last Sunday about the Song of Songs in a reading group I'm attending on allegories. The evening's conversation turned to the song's sometimes-latent, sometimes-overt (often gendered) violence ("The watchmen who went about the city found me. / They struck me, they wounded me; / The keepers of the walls / Took my veil away from me / I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, / If you find my beloved, / That you tell him I am lovesick!"), and how descriptions of beauty are often metaphorically compared to resources ("Your teeth are like a flock of shorn sheep / Which have come up from the washing, / Every one of which bears twins, / And none is barren among them"). I got to thinking about this piece again in relation. Here's the first section: 

Notes on Labor and Regeneration*

Out of the eater came forth food, and out of the strong came forth sweetness (Samson, upon discovering a swarm of bees in the corpse of a lion)


Ye deities! Who fields and plains protect
Who rule the seasons, and the year direct,
Bacchus and fostering Ceres, powers divine,
Who gave us corn for mast, for water, wine:
Ye Fauns, propitious to the rural swains,
Ye nymphs that haunt the mountains and the plains,
Join in my work, and to my numbers bring
Your needful succor; for your gifts I sing.

I sing, Maecenas, and I sing to thee

Be thou propitious, Caesar! guide my course

Great father Bacchus! To my song repair

Thy fields, propitious Pales, I rehearse;
And sing thy pastures in no vulgar verse

Maecenas, read this other part, that sings
Embattled squadrons and adventurous kings—
A mighty pomp, though made of little things.
Their arms, their arts, their manners, I disclose,
And how they war, and whence the people rose.
Slight is the subject, but the praise not small,
If Heaven assist, and Phoebus hear my call.

Invocation is the ideal enactment of language. It sings submission by yielding to the greater song of sovereignty. That is not to say, however, that invocation, as plea for permission, is mere passivity. It is a system of exchange: the muse enacts the poet’s force, sustains the duration of the song, and shelters her from error, presumption, and violence; all of this in exchange for the poet’s fidelity. The danger is in choosing one’s muse incorrectly, or worse, in singing one’s verse off-key.

Virgil, in The Georgics, recognizes the danger of these competing interests. His pastoral is comprised of four discrete sections (calling to mind the division of the seasons): the first covers plowing and weather; the second, trees and vines; the third, livestock and disease; and the fourth, bee keeping. Each is a single measure enacting both the labor of the singer (the lyric voice) and that of the swain (apotheosized hero), a kind of hymn or polyphonic chant purporting to celebrate the rustic through its submission to heterogeneous registers of power: statesmanlike Maecenas, patron and protector, who prompted Virgil to write a poem in praise of agriculture in order to stimulate the growing of wheat; Caesar Augustus, who once disposed…his farm near Mantua in order that veterans might be settled on the land; and a variety of pagan figureheads, the Pales and Bacchants primarily, the latter of whom killed…and strewed (Orpheus’) mangled limbs about the field. The Georgics, though formally a didactic work on the virtues of agriculture and labor, is a poem of force, as Simone Weil would have it. Its multiple trajectories enact an unsettling river Lethe, resituating and disintegrating bonds of loyalty through negation. And as his song is projected toward both divine and corporeal authorities, the poet reinforces the myth that the lyric voice is the source of its own articulation. This creates the false impression that song is linear and unidirectional, that in some sense the competing interests of the divine and state structures are ameliorated by the prostrations of the poet, that the poet herself enacts the gathering force of logos. But paradoxically, the subject-poet mouthpiece of the invocation occupies her own plateau “outside” power, toward an authority protean in shape and function. Which is to say, the poet produces by simultaneously recognizing and sublating secular and divine interests, reconciling servitude to both and neither. In this sense, then, the invocation is a kind of praxis through submission. The more the poet feigns ignorance of existing structures of power, the more the lyric swells with saccharine sentimentality; her supposed inability to address sociopolitical pressures only serves to make them tangible in their absence. Her cunning lies in this very silence (a kind of resistance): opacity makes physically manifest the text’s untruth.


As husbandry implies dominion and management over that which will submit, in its purely didactic form, it advocates the inevitable domination of the landscape for the good of its occupants. As such, The Georgics adopts an ecopoetic guise; it takes nature as its subject, only to argue fervently for its domination. By analogy, the reader takes the poet as substitutable for nature as both are dominated by a greater force at the periphery of the poem. The more the narrative shies away from the political real the more metaphors of hardship instantiate labor: the obdurate soil; pestilence, famine, and disease in livestock; the harsh and unpredictable patterns of weather; Bacchant intoxication unleashed upon the source of song:

Red blisters rising on their paps appear,
And flaming carbuncles, and noisome sweat,
And clammy dews, that loathsome lice begat;
Till the slow-creeping evil eats his way,
Consumes the parching limbs, & makes the life his prey.

The celebration of labor morphs into an extended jeremiad of degeneration gesturing toward the irreconcilable relationship between human and nature. If it attempts to justify the biblical doctrine of “man’s” dominion, its results are incommensurate economies, juxtaposing violence with benevolence. The multiple epyllion (tangential mini-epics) in the poem offer still shots of chaos in the face of totality, disguised as wild horses full of amorous rage, submitting the females to the lusty sire…Then serve(ing) their fury with the rushing male, indulging pleasure. The tract on apiculture in book four sings the virtues of the bees (Of all the race of animals, alone / The bees have common cities of their own, / And common sons; beneath one law they live…All is the state’s; the state provides for all ) only to suspend this thread to sing of the violent death of Orpheus:

With furies and nocturnal orgies fired,
At length against his sacred life conspired.
Whom e’en the savage beasts had spared, they killed,
And strewed the mangled limbs about the field.
Then, when his head, from his fair shoulders torn,
Washed by the waters, was on Hebrus borne,
E’en then his trembling tongue invoked his bride
With his last voice, ‘Eurydice,’ he cried
‘Eurydice,’ the rocks and river-banks replied

The poet enacts a dangerous dialectic that at once aligns the swain and her labor with the enlightened social structure of the bees, only to portray the brutal death of the poet as a product of a failed synthesis between the anthropocentric and ecological. And it is because of this tension that the poem’s didacticism ultimately fails (while the poem itself succeeds).

Ultimately, Virgil’s romanticization of the Orphic undercuts his feigned sense of nationalism, as Orpheus’ fate trumps the dogmatism of the previous pages. It is not an accident that the violent dismemberment is due, in part, to a failure of invocation. His poem does nothing (that is, in terms of instrumentality). It is illegitimate, incompetent—it fails to produce. And while his lyre tames the wild beasts, infusing nature itself with sorrow, the Bacchants remain unmoved and at length against his sacred life conspire. However, while Virgil points to the violence of the swain’s labor, he gestures toward the fact that, even beheaded, Orpheus, the Christ-poet, sustains his song (and in so doing, manages to incite a response from nature): E’en then his trembling tongue invoked his bride/With his last voice, ‘Eurydice,’ he cried, / ‘Eurydice,’ the rocks and river-banks replied. For Virgil, Orpheus’ dismemberment is the sublimation of poet into lyre-head, a pure singing that is the argument between his unified body and its strewn limbs. Michael Lieb writes of Orphic dismemberment: Although initially destructive, this is essentially a creative process, one in which the unconscious self is subjected to a kind of dismemberment in preparation for its reintegration in the world of consciousness. The moment of violence makes the structure of power, its peripheries, its multiple centers, materialize in the text. The poet cannot help but articulate the social index (even if only through negation); the duration of the song, its force against the greater force of the outside, becomes the central concern of the poem and ultimately morphs into a polyvalent expression of woe. The result: the regeneration of absent power structures through commensurable analogies of violence.

*I'm much too tired to try and reconstruct my endnotes using Blogger's weird formatting, so I've placed quotations in italics. If you're interested in following up on citations, let me know...

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