Thursday, April 26, 2007
De Quincey Beyond the Worst
De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis is an exploration of the territory beyond “trauma,” as De Quincey claims to have been awake for the experience of the intolerable (the death of his sister, Elizabeth, when she was eight and he was seven). He stresses that he felt “the sentiment which attends the sudden revelation that all is lost,” “where the ruin is understood to be absolute” (“Introductory Notice”). If we take De Quincey at his word, he understood his sister’s death, unless we want to say that “death” is never something the human mind can understand. Suspiria is meant to be a picture of what happens when the mind does understand what no one should understand.
The challenge for trauma theory is that what happens in Suspiria does not look very different from what happens when the mind suffers trauma or a message it does not understand. Its agony “cannot be remembered” (“The Affliction of Childhood”); “the voice perishes; the gestures are frozen; and the spirit of man flies back upon its own centre” (“Introductory Notice”). So the reader is put in the position of hypothesizing that De Quincey does not realize his sister’s death as fully as he writes he does, since he does not “accept” it or move on from it; or that there is a realm in which full understanding is not the same as and does not lead to metabolization and moving on—a realm in which working through is necessarily defeated.
Late in the text De Quincey suggests that we view the “human brain” as a palimpsest (“The Palimpsest”). His disquisition on the palimpsest posits a world in which no part of experience is denied, but to be before is to be beneath. He testifies to such a world in his hilarious declaration, “Rarely do things perish from my memory that are worth remembering” (“The Affliction of Childhood”). In a palimpsest the issue is not preservation but discernment and the interpretative choices that go with a background and a foreground. In the case of Elizabeth’s death, the palimpsest model implies that De Quincey has to choose what is more significant, the memory of the living sister or the no less authoritative memory of the dead sister. He doesn’t fail to recognize the event of her death; he refuses to find it more significant than the event of her life, or more precisely the event of his love for her—“the unity of my interest in her,” he calls it (“The Affliction of Childhood”)--as a living person with particular irreplacable qualities. It might seem then that De Quincey does disavow an element of reality, the experience of time, which should lead us to privilege the present over the past and the future. Yet it’s hard to tell whether the unidirectionality of time, too is something that he fails to realize or whether it’s rather another instance of an intolerability that he fully understands (reduplicating the problem): whether, even, De Quincey understands the irreversibility of time more completely than most people, since he allows himself to feel its horror. He knows that it’s by the law of time that he is separated from his sister and from his childhood self. The nightmare that begins Suspiria is of De Quincey’s being unable to retrace his steps from addiction to health:
I had not reversed my motions for many weeks, before I became profoundly aware that this was impossible.Or, in the imagery of my dreams, which translated everything into their own language, I saw through vast avenues of gloom those towering gates of ingress which hitherto had always seemed to stand open, now at last barred against my retreat, and hung with funeral crape. (“Introductory Notice”; my emphasis)
De Quincey’s inability to return to his former place is an external matter, as determined “as . . . a death already past” (“Introductory Notice”).
The question then is what happens if acceptance does not, and maybe cannot, follow a full realization of a state of affairs. The situation calls for a narrative that links De Quincey’s live sister to his dead one and considers his experience holistically, but the unidirectionality of that one-way street is itself a horror that disturbs holistic contemplation, and of which he can be “profoundly aware” without finding any comfort in his capacity for awareness. De Quincey’s text suggests that because he cannot endorse the idea that usually comes naturally with the experience of time--that his sister’s death supersedes her life, that right lies on the side of death and that in this sense, she ought to be dead because she is dead--his strategy is that the order of the world, and particularly of his own nature, ought to change. The fixity of “the unity of [his] interest in her” demands that it change. There is a direct relation between De Quincey’s rejection of the words of Paul in the case of his sister--“for here lay the sting of it, namely, in the fatal words—‘We shall be ‘changed'”—and the change in himself two pages later:
Now, however, all was changed; and for anything which regarded my sister’s memory, in one hour I received a new heart. Once in Westmoreland I saw a case resembling it. I saw a ewe suddenly put off and abjure her own nature, in a service of love, —yes, slough it as completely as ever serpent sloughed his skin. Her lamb had fallen into a deep trench, from which all escape was hopeless, without the aid of man. And to a man she advanced boldly, bleating clamorously, until he followed her and rescued her beloved. Not less was the change in myself . . . . And when I was told insultingly to cease “my girlish tears,” that word "girlish” had no sting for me. (“The Affliction of Childhood”)
De Quincey reorganizes himself to the point of abjuring his gender and species. This reorganization is only a small part of the change required to arrange a world in which his feelings for his sister do not alter even though she is dead. Like Schreber who realizes that he must become female to support a new ontological order, De Quincey opens the order of nature to rethinking. And although the idea of exception to the laws of physics, which may be involved here, is fantastic, the idea of revising character and social and natural categories is not. Like the ewe who breaks with the traditions of sheep to initiate direct address to a man, in his text De Quincey returns the gesture, including the ewe’s response as just another in a series of psychological anecdotes which remind him of himself. A new, and in a broad sense, queer, era has already begun, in which boys cry girlish tears, hearts are transplantable, and the personal experiences of sheep are routine resources for human self-understanding. Because alteration in relation to his sister is impossible, these other changes, no matter how radical, have “no sting.” De Quincey is fixated, but fixated at a single point, around which the rest of his experience fluctuates and reforms like the luxuriant parasitical plant with which he emblematizes the verbal strategy of Suspiria. The fixation of De Quincey’s mourning is the transformation in the name of his sister of everything that is not his mourning: because the worst has already happened, everything else must change.
Image: spider web, El Moro Canyon, 2007