Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Filling the Graves, or, The End of the Iliad
Abraham and Torok observe that the melancholic often imagines the lost object feeling the pain that she or he actually feels because of the loss of object: the melancholic “pretend[s] that the suffering is not an injury to the subject but instead a loss sustained by the lost object” (Abraham and Torok, “Mourning or Melancholia,” The Shell and the Kernel [U of Chicago P , 1998], 127). Maybe unexpectedly, this is one of the most intuitive, easily exemplified points in psychoanalytic literature. The lover imagines her ex to be suffering terribly, to be unable to bear the information that she has a new lover, but in keeping this secret, it’s she who shields herself from the finality of the loss of the former lover. (Dean Wareham, who’s tough on erotic illusions, may be getting at this when he suggests instead that “the lost glove is happy.”) The most spectacular example of Abraham and Torok’s ”endopsychic encryption” is Achilles in the madness of non-mourning, who insists at one point that he cannot give up Hector’s body because if he did, Patroclus would be angry. It takes a while for the magnitude of the distortion to sink in: Achilles, the paragon of outsized rage, who has been dragging Hector’s corpse around for days, claims that the problem is that Patroclus, who is dead, might get angry. Achilles comes out of it through a radically banal series of maneuvers whose main function is to get Achilles to acknowledge his, and Patroclus’s, place in an economy of substitutions in which Priam, representing outside interests, also participates. Priam quantifies Achilles’s grief and his own in the ransom of “gifts beyond number” that he is willing to pay for Hector’s body (XXIV:504), and by the way reminds Achilles that he has a dead father as well as a dead companion, so that “"Achilleus wept now for his own father, now again for Patroklos" (510-511). Achilles accepts the ransom by promising himself to "give [Patroklos his] share of the spoils" (595). Under the safe pretext of service, however, the subject being served slips from the the dead to the living body. Achilles eats again instead of being “eaten out” from within by Patroclus; and Abraham and Torok’s “false I,” able to speak only in the borrowed voice of the dead, is exchanged for one that takes up its “divine right” to live (“The Lost Object—Me,” The Shell and the Kernel 155-56). Simone Weil and Sharon Cameron in her essay on Weil comment that The Iliad treats bodies as flesh and parts subject first and last to the laws of physics. Their writings (Cameron’s essay intensifies Weil’s) point to an unspoken connection between positivism and the prosaic procedures of funerary rites: in both, necessities are separated from desires, not so that we should give up desires, but so that they could be recognized as desires, stripped from the facts in which mourners attempt to conceal them. In the interlocking structure of Book XXIV, a direct barter in losses is the only thing that interrupts the killing. The soft, suspensive ending of the poem seems to drift off in the preparations for Hector's funeral. The Trojans have a truce of a limited number of days to perform these, then it''ll be back to the business of their annihilation, but the poem never goes back. (Aesthetic suspension? There's a fantasy that as long as one is writing or reading or reciting a poem, one isn't doing something else, such as hurting or being hurt.) Mourning without end, here, though, looks less like melancholy circulation than like the infinity of desires imprisoned by melancholy and liberated by mourning, as though contact with those desires and war were incompatible.
Acknowledgment: still spring 2005 (SK, TT, JN), also winter 2006
Image: Cy Twombly, Synopsis of a Battle, 1968