Ninth Week; or, Making Connections

In term time, at Oxford, we teach or we do the coursework our teachers set us, we go to seminars and language classes, we run madly round town seeing people and doing things. Out of term is when the real reading and thinking gets done. This is true in all academic contexts, of course, but I think it’s particularly true in a university where the terms are such short bursts of energy. There is something truly glorious—and sincerely appreciated, after the chaos of term—about getting enough sleep, attending to your correspondence, and then making your way to the Upper Reading Room and spreading out a diverse array of texts in front of you, the day’s reading and writing interrupted only by the welcome arrival of lunchtime and the attendant chatter of the MCR classicists.

As a symbol of ninth week, and where my thinking is pleased to settle after term-time’s disarray, here is a little collage of some things I’ve read today. We’ll start with the theory: Eve Sedgwick’s expostulation, in her essay on “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” of Melanie Klein’s “paranoid position.” I first read this essay two years ago, doing my homework late at night in a deserted college dining hall, and memorably burst into tears because I didn’t understand it. It’s particularly delightful to revisit it and know just how much reading, thought, and particularly life experience has gone into the fact that I understand it now:

The greatest interest of Klein’s concept lies, it seems to me, in her seeing the paranoid position always in the oscillatory context of a very different possible one: the depressive position. For Klein’s infant or adult, the paranoid position—understandably marked by hatred, envy, and anxiety—is a position of terrible alertness to the dangers posed by the hateful and envious part-objects that one defensively projects into, carves out of, and ingests from the world around one. By contrast, the depressive position is an anxiety-mitigating achievement that the infant or adult only sometimes, and often only briefly, succeeds in inhabiting: this is the position from which it is possible in turn to use one’s own resources to assemble or “repair” the murderous part-objects into something like a whole—though, I would emphasize, not necessarily like any preexisting whole. Once assembled to one’s own specifications, the more satisfying object is available both to be identified with and to offer one nourishment and comfort in turn. Among Klein’s names for the reparative process is love.

Yes, I know. The language is alienatingly abstruse, the subject-matter bringing to mind all those creepy Kleinian images of disembodied breasts floating in the air (okay, maybe that’s just me). But there’s a lot to work with here—let’s start with that ringingly clear last sentence: “Among Klein’s names for the reparative process is love.” Love, Sedgwick is saying via Klein, is a condition that helps us to alleviate the anxieties that the world brings upon us, that helps us to forge connections between ourselves and others and among a greater variety of humankind, or (depending on your point of view) perhaps between the human and the divine. It involves reciprocity, and the forging of something new, something greater than itself, but it still also nourishes the self—the self isn’t lost within it. And it’s reparative, something Sedgwick uses in which to ground her call for affective relations with texts (and something that’s important to me as I consider self-consciously my own more historicist reading methodology), but which is also important for theorizing about what affective relations might do for us as people living amongst other people.

Okay, so with that in mind, let’s look at a cool blog-post rendering of Stendhal’s theory of love, helpfully deposited in my email inbox by my father. The author of the post, Maria Popova, draws our attention to the concept of “crystallization” that Stendhal advances as central to the way we idealize our beloveds. Stendhal defines it as “a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one,” and in a half-way I can’t quite put my finger on, it reminds me of that bit from Phaedrus 251 we keep coming back to here. Popova connects “crystallization” to theories of “attachment” drawn from evolutionary biology, but surely it shares at least as much in common with the Kleinian version of the metaphor, forming its own fragile solid through the clustering of molecules. The important thing to emphasize, then, is not the bond itself (between mother and child, between two lovers, etc) but the reconstitution of the world that occurs through it, of love as a prism through which a worldview is refracted.

Of course, I’m actually a historian, not a theorist, and this is all getting a bit disembodied for me. So I’ll ground it in some documents by referring next to Thomas Dixon’s weighty, handsomely-produced tome on The Invention of Altruism, which I was also reading today and which traces in intellectual and linguistic terms the evolution of “altruism” as a signifier (if you will. I promise I’m not a theorist!) in nineteenth-century thought, and its role in the philosophy of writers such as Comte, George Eliot, and Darwin. It’s a rich portrait, and one I hope to have the chance to pore over at greater length and in more detail at some point very soon. But just at the moment, I was struck by Dixon’s discussion of GE Moore’s Principia Ethica in his final chapter, and how it demonstrates a turn away from the identifiably Victorian theory and practice of altruism:

More’s main achievement in writing Principia Ethica was to produce an intellectual rationale for the way of life, and the kinds of love, favoured by a group of educated young men and women in Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But advocacy of this post-Victorian way of life could not be undertaken in Victorian language. While Max Nordau, Alfred Douglas, and the editors of The Eagle and the Serpent, were all still tied to the language of ‘egoism’ and ‘altruism’, Moore and his friends were not. Instead of understanding love as something that was given from the ‘ego’ to a separate ‘alter’, they understood it as an emotion that brought two people into a unity. In a paper read to the ‘Apostles’ in 1898, Moore put it this way: ‘To be in the right relations with the right persons is all that can here be good; and if you are so, you do not do one thing for self and another for them, but all simply for the sake of the whole that is you and them and what is between you.’

I don’t know enough about philosophy to really assess Dixon’s claims about Principia Ethica‘s merits, but I do know a bit about the kinds of love people like the Apostles valued. What’s interesting here, I think, is the way that, just as Forster’s love proposed to join humankind to to each other, and thereby to find a force for good in a world without God, Dixon represents Moore as interested in healing a rift between self-interest and other-interest. It’s not so different, perhaps, from what any philosopher or theorist thinks happens when we try to negotiate the boundaries between ourselves and others and our various needs and wants. What’s perhaps more striking is the ease with which it seems possible to fit Sedgwick and Klein and Maria Popova and Stendhal and Thomas Dixon and GE Moore—and perhaps even Plato?—all under the rubric of “love.” I am a splitter, not a lumper, and yet there’s something disconcertingly universal starting to creep in here.

One thing I am still batting about in a vague sort of way is the (dis)juncture between mind and body when we talk about love, and how historically contingent this can be. For the Victorians, love doesn’t seem to have been very bodily, and I’m still having a very difficult time wrapping my head around how this changes over time and the ways in which sex and lust do or don’t have to do with the more emotional or spiritual kind of connection I’ve been talking about here. But I’m arguing in the essay that I’m writing for my coursework that historians have to recognize that the intellect and the emotions exist on common ground, and that reading for either in texts means understanding the ways in which they go hand in hand. And so here is my most recent personally meaningful discovery, a poem by Goethe, from his Roman Elegies, that makes clearer than anything else I’ve encountered to date the strange ways in which mind and body come into contact:

Froh empfind ich mich nun auf klassischem Boden begeistert,
Vor- und Mitwelt spricht lauter und reizender mir.
Hier befolg ich den Rat, durchblättre die Werke der Alten
Mit geschäftiger Hand, täglich mit neuem Genuß.
Aber die Nächte hindurch hält Amor mich anders beschäftigt;
Werd ich auch halb nur gelehrt, bin ich doch doppelt beglückt.
Und belehr ich mich nicht, indem ich des lieblichen Busens
Formen spähe, die Hand leite die Hüften hinab?
Dann versteh ich den Marmor erst recht: ich denk und vergleiche,
Sehe mit fühlendem Aug, fühle mit sehender Hand.
Raubt die Liebste denn gleich mir einige Stunden des Tages,
Gibt sie Stunden der Nacht mir zur Entschädigung hin.
Wird doch nicht immer geküßt, es wird vernünftig gesprochen,
Überfällt sie der Schlaf, lieg ich und denke mir viel.
Oftmals hab ich auch schon in ihren Armen gedichtet
Und des Hexameters Maß leise mit fingernder Hand
Ihr auf den Rücken gezählt. Sie atmet in lieblichem Schlummer,
Und es durchglühet ihr Hauch mir bis ins Tiefste die Brust.
Amor schüret die Lamp’ indes und gedenket der Zeiten,
Da er den nämlichen Dienst seinen Triumvirn getan.

I feel I’m happily inspired now on Classical soil:
The Past and Present speak louder, more charmingly.
Here, as advised, I leaf through the works of the Ancients
With busy hands, and, each day, with fresh delight.
But at night Love keeps me busy another way:
I become half a scholar but twice as contented.
And am I not learning, studying the shape
Of her lovely breasts: her hips guiding my hand?
Then I know marble more: thinking, comparing,
See with a feeling eye: feel with a seeing hand.
If my darling is stealing the day’s hours from me,
She gives me hours of night in compensation.
We’re not always kissing: we often talk sense:
When she’s asleep, I lie there filled with thought.
Often I’ve even made poetry there in her arms,
Counted hexameters gently there on my fingers
Over her body. She breathes in sweetest sleep,
And her breath burns down to my deepest heart.
Amor trims the lamp then and thinks of the times
When he did the same for his three poets of love.

2 thoughts on “Ninth Week; or, Making Connections

  1. Thanks, Dylan! I had no doubt that there was a philosophical as well as a historical reason that Principia Ethica is significant.

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