28.2.06

On St. Ann and Bourbon

Inez says Bourbon in French (BOR-bon) while flirting with Lanette from Poplarville. “LAAAnettE, pass me a clOve, s’il vous plait.” Lanette laconically slithers one out of a white and blue cigarette box and shakes it onto Inez’s hand. “OUAI. Merci,” Inez cries in rapt glee, using the word “yes” as a sign of joy rather than positive affirmation. Lanette is smeared with cakey doughy make-up and her teeth shine with the brightness of adult braces; she’s a dishwasher at a corner hotel restaurant on Dumaine and Royal. Inez wears a grey t-shirt and jeans, her hair cropped, her face round like a kewpie doll. I had never met them before; they’re my friend’s Tony’s friends but they had graciously given me a ride from the corner of Magazine and Elenore to the Quarter. Standing at the corner, watching the défilé of cars, I felt like a street prostitute, early in the morning -- the people perched in their cars eyed me up and down, everyone, as they rode passed, following the chartered Magazine, that follows the chartered Mississippi. The mind-forged manacles I hear.

I am dressed blandly, but I figure I complement the colors with my bright yellow collared shirt adorned with Endymion and Bacchus beads and a blue blazer, looking bohemian in performance but nothing compared to Bianca Del Rio, the hostess on stage -- she wears a whole new set of eyes to look pretty and a Raggedy-Ann hair-do two shades of orange to the left. She only has three jokes in her repertoire: ‘Dam that levee with a tampon, hon’; ‘Bitch, you need to get off this stage’; or jokes that were only funny because she peppered them with, ‘fuck, whore, and mother fucker’.

The crowd is full this year. It is hilarious to see the mix of people on the street filing pass centre stage. I see an octogenarian and his octogenarian wife decorated with sequins and grinning from ear to ear. A couple from MinneSNOWta cupping their mouths in fake horror at the debauched language push through the crowd and out of sight. A Dallas football player with a Yin-Yang symbol on his abdomen grabs my ass and tells me he loves Bianca. A mealy, shirtless dude is pawing the concrete floor for fallen dollars; he claims to be a priest.

Jason, a Tulane architecture student (with a Roman-style haircut) told me about his plans to rebuild Tremé, a rotted out neighborhood plunged in depths of floodwater. There were two Adonises in greeney vines who kissed one another on the cheek every time a joke cracked on stage, holding tight to each other’s buttocks. One was younger than the other; the older like a handsome middle-aged spirit, an Oberon with his Puckish fairy in tow -- a sight to behold. One of my favorites. They looked like a Pierre and Gilles photograph. Tony took a photograph of them with his cell phone.

Lanette flames a cigarette with the quick light of a match on the back of a red pub matchbox. The balcony above us is filled with spectators and Larry, the compulsive liar in our group, claims to know the most beautiful of them all. He points to a River Phoenix god and grins. Waving. He is Capote-esque in his flair and deceit. A large, reddened scar, adorns his right cheek and I am afraid of him. He is my best friend Tony’s boyfriend. Larry, dressed in a boa lifts his beer to the Olympian skies. The sky cover is azure blue and pimpled with one-dimensional wisps of smoke. That night, in my dreams, I dream in black and white, over-stimulated from reality’s rainbow of color. Tony thrusts his canteen with gin and tonic in my face, “Drink it, you’ll need it.”

During Mardi Grass, I think of Judith Butler and Divine. Pink Flamingoes. Whew. Gender Trouble. Is that a boy or a girl in front of me? I don’t know. Although I had dressed up as a Georgia floozy once for kicks, I had never before been so unsure of sex! Are we really imposed with post-Freudian categories of sex, inscribed on our bodies? Is all this a show or is this true identity? I am getting really sick, quick, of the stupid post-structuralist categories and take another swig of a gin and tonic. Looking for something to interpret without being mired in Queer Theory, I stare at a cute boy, my mind all tabula rasa and the images infiltrate my brain unmitigated by my insane hermeneutics. Unanamuo is right, “Consciousness is a disease!” (Or is it Nietzsche?). Note to self: never think of literary criticism when you are dranking and smoking in the French Quarter on Mardi Gras, I say to myself. “I’m not drunk! I’m just dranking!!” goes the old jazz tune.

In France on Mardi Gras, Inez tells me, in her village not far from Lourdes, they wear masques and profess their love or hate to those they would never confess in the flesh. A boy kisses a girl hidden beneath a masque he would never dream of meeting during Ordinary Time. Mardi Gras is a time to be someone else, to wear a façade for the evening. Social class collapses and the streets glisten with artificial egalitarian glory. The queers, dykes, jeeves, proletariats, monks, nuns, whores, bosses, boys, nerds, punks, skaters, preps, WASPS, bible thumpers, republicans, and democrats converge on our city in harmony -- for a while. Utopia, indeed. Mardi Gras is a weird version of Passover. You get rid of all the old leaven by consuming king cake and Abita Beer. You act out your repressed desires and try something different.

At the end of the party, on Ash Wednesday, the faithful crash at the end of this blitz and drag their tired bodies into church to be smeared with cendres mortes du souvenir. We all become one body in need of salvation on Mardi Gras. Vincent, also from France, tells me, though, he isn’t getting ashes on Wednesday. "Maybe next week," he says. His red and yellow costume looks a little faded and I ask him who he is supposed to be for Mardi Gras. “This is not a costume, mon ami. I wanted to dress up but couldn’t decide what to wear.” A shirtless bear passes us by with a placard that read, “God Loves Gays. After all, why did he make so many of us?” The drag queens were thinning out and people were being forced down the street like an insane parody of the entrance into Inferno: "Abandon all hope ye who enter here"

Camouflage underwear, usually not my type, but from all the boys dancing on the bar, I choose stripper #1 to tuck a five-dollar bill underneath the slip of his pants, shortened 
 staring up, like a kid awing a parent, my mouth drops open and I motion him to squat down to my level, “what are the rules?” I ask and he replies, “Whenever I want you to.” The place is dirty and dark, the only visible lights illuminate the trash and ATM receipts on the floor. The music is too loud for intimate conversation. Raw energy invades the place. A threesome in one corner. Two high school boys in another corner dancing. A drag queen who looks like Lucy Rubble smokes a cigarette by the stairwell. A drunken kid appears by my side and gives me an orange-tinged drink; he is so drunk that he falls toward me and I have to hold him up. I walk him outside to the light and prop him up against the concrete wall of the bar; he is a tan boy about sixteen years of age. I can’t help but be paternal, and say, “Aren’t you too young to be drinking?” He mumbles something as if I have said something horrible and casts his eyes to the ground. Two women come by who claim to be his mom and aunt; “He’s a little worldly for his age and we are trying to help him out.” Oh my god, I think. The poor thing. I have no fucking clue to what they mean by “trying to help him out” but I become maternal and stray my wrist against his cheek and tell him to behave. I am stunned at how soft his skin is; the women help him along the Mardi Gras streets of New Orleans and he disappears into the din.

When I go back into the bar, stripper #1 is about to go back to work. I put my arms around his shoulder and tell him he doesn’t have to do anything for me. “You’re just beautiful. I just want to tell you that." “That’s the nicest thing somebody has told me today. Thanks.” I imagine him coming back to my hotel room but the fantasy vanishes as quickly as it comes and I feel depressed. Stripper #1 climbs back on the bar and winks at me. All he needs is a can of Pepsi and he could be an advertisement in Advocate.

Tony calls me on my cell phone, upset. Bianca Del Rio has just confessed to him that his boyfriend is a compulsive liar and that she can’t stand him. “You deserve better than that bitch,” she told him. Bianca is very talented and has become nominally famous with a fashion designer in New York. Her photograph on a poster in the bar has her looking up into heaven, her eyelashes longer than a #2 pencil. Tony has vacated Larry’s hotel room and we exit the French Quarter quicker than Bonnie Clyde out of a Kansas bank. I am still really sad about Stripper #1. I can’t keep my mind off him and half pay attention to Tony’s break-up story. “It’s over with him. I can’t stand to be lied to. He told me he loved me. Now I am never going to believe it when someone says they love me. You know? And I haven’t even seen my mom in days. Because of Larry. He buys me all kinds of shit as if that’ll make up for all the lies he has been spreading. It’s over.”

We walk underneath a sign spread out between the streets, “The Mayor of New Orleans supports GLBT issues. Go to glbtnola.com for more information. When I get home I check out the site.

22.2.06

Milton’s ‘Methought I Saw My Late Espousèd Saint’: Eros, Lust and ‘Writing a Prostitute’

Leo Spitzer, in an interesting rejoinder to a colleague’s claim that Milton is an inferior poet to Shakespeare uses “Methought I saw my late espousèd saint” to argue that Milton is universally as a good a poet as Shakespeare was.  Spitzer counters the claim that the personal, contingent nature of Milton’s best sonnets do not make him any less universal a poet than Shakespeare Because Shakespeare apparently writes a better sonnet about love because he has somehow objectified the experience of love and made it universal while Milton uses the image of a specific person, his supposed spouse, making his sonnet indecipherable outside the known events of Milton’s chronology (See Spitzer 21).  Spitzer argues that the poem can be interpreted apart from the historical facts surrounding the poem and that the spouse in Milton’s twenty-third sonnet is not necessarily, nor reduced to, a specific episode of Milton’s life but rather a type of the Platonic form, an imago of marriage akin to the ideal Donna Angelicata tradition in literature, like Dante’s Beatrice, an angelic lady to rival any of the best love sonnets of Shakespeare (Spitzer 21). This argument makes it clear that Milton’s poetry transcends the mores of Puritanism and the 17th Century and proves that Milton can be enjoyed in the 21st Century as well as the 28th  and, I may add, every generation gives another perspective on the poem that others may have missed. 
    Spitzer’s article is refreshing because most of the previous scholarly work on “Methought I saw my late espousèd saint,” especially in the past two centuries, have focused on the question of who the actual ‘late espousèd saint’ is.  Critics do agree that the subject of Milton’s last sonnet is one of his two wives (he had three), Mary Powell or Katherine Woodcock. When it comes to the identity of the saint, I prefer the argument that favors Katherine Woodcock because — to use Ockham’s razor — firstly, she is the simple and uncomplicated solution to the problem of the saint’s identity which has gone unchallenged for three hundred years according to Huntley until W.R. Parker came along and posited Mary Powell as a more likely candidate (Huntley 468-49). (1)
     And secondly, it is true that Milton never saw Katherine’s Woodcock’s face because he was already blind when he married her.  In the poem she wears a veil but the speaker still recognizes her, hinting at the known fact that when a blind people dream of a person they know but have never seen with their own eyes, they see them as veiled or faceless, so it makes sense that Milton would be referring to Katherine in the poem. (2)
     The third reason is that Katherine Woodcock died after the spot of “child-bed taint,”  mentioned in the poem, the Hebrew law prescripted in Leviticus that a woman must be ritually purified seven days after childbirth.  Where one stands on the argument of identity puts one on one side of an academic battle line, so I figure I must take a stand even though this is not the primary issue given attention in this essay.  I think there is a need to know the identity of the saint, not because it would solve an enigma in English literature, but because it reveals the desire in human eros to touch the object of our desire, to reach out with the fingers, “to reach out and touch faith,” to quote Depeche Mode.  
    Because, here, I am not interested in the historical identity of the saint, necessarily, I will tend to take the more post-Spitzerian approach to the sonnet as a piece that stands on its own two legs and is textually satisfying in its own well-tempered Petrarchan form. (3)   Anyone who studies Milton should know that the number of secondary sources on the poet is overwhelming, so the number of articles that surround the saint should come as no surprise — and this does not include mentions in biographies of Milton and criticisms on other works that may mention the sonnet in passing or as a comparison. Still, there are a surprising number of essays dedicated to the subject of who the saint is and if you sweep all those aside, you still have a healthy stack of articles that deal with Spitzer’s observations on the poem and other scholars who have approached the poem from other perspectives and vantage points, which is still surprising considering that the sonnet is 14 lines and 119 words long. (4)
     Like Spitzer and Wheeler, I think the poem is more about love and love-lost than an actual person — while, at the same time, I grant that Milton was probably thinking about one of his wives when he wrote the poem.  I think the poem — at its heart  is more about the image of eros, erotic love, the poignant pathos thorned by loss and regret, and the myriad ways — healthy and unhealthy — we attempt to recapture that lost image of love.
    Milton, unlike Shakespeare, is rarely discussed as “sexy” or “erotic” because usually, the restraints of Puritanism prevented him from openly discussing sex and sexuality.  I do agree that Shakespeare is more openly sensual in his sonnets than Milton is, and even though Shakespeare beats out Milton in the sheer number of pages of poetry that he has written, one cannot dismiss Milton as an inferior poet or as a sexy poet just because he is labeled as a Puritan writer thus ipso facto fixated on sin and Satan.  These stereotypical labels often attached to Milton preclude him from being interpreted as a sensual, erotic poet not bound up by whatever taboos we wish to impose on him.  Even though he wrote his Christian Doctrine at the same time as the sonnet he also wrote a blank verse poem about Adam and Eve that is very similar to Sonnet 23, especially in the way it ends: “She disappear’d, and left me dark, I wak’d” (Schwartz 99).  In an essay on the erotic (but not necessarily sexual) relationship between Milton and Charles Diodati, John P. Rumrich translates eros-filled passages from their letters to one another (130, 132, 134).  Milton openly wrote about sex in his treatise on divorce, talking about the burning need for a husband and wife to be stimulated by good conversation.  And “Comus” is filled with sexual metaphor and imagery, and in Paradise Lost — you get the idea. 
    Milton has no problem with sex as long as it is expressed within the bond of marriage and peppered with good conversation between a man and wife; he even posited that sex existed before the fall and that man’s disobedience, unfortunately, introduced lust, which has spoiled sex ever since (see his Doctrine on the Discipline of Divorce for more).   
    And in the Areopagitica Milton writes about the parable of the wheat and the darnel in the New Testament, where Jesus speaks about the need for the wheat to grow alongside the weeds, how good and evil are intimately bound together, and the truly human struggle to wrestle with both to come out alive, to know by experience what is the better choice.  Milton thought it was better to confront temptation rather than escape it.  For, in the end, the good always triumphs — for if we really believe in the goodness of God, then we should not be dismayed by the presence of evil.  So it is important to understand this about Milton to fully appreciate the struggle of eros, erotic love, and the loss of love (and the ways we attempt to achieve lost love) played out in the last sonnet.         
    But of course, eros in the poem is not necessarily privileged; the eroticism of his poetry is implicit and begs someone to tug at a loose string from the text and pull and pull, like a stray yarn on a sweater, to find out what is hidden beneath Milton’s Puritan desire, to uncover the struggle inherent in the text of the poem, the struggle interweaved like good and evil.  It could be said, ‘Obviously, his twenty-third sonnet is about what the Greeks called eros (eros, erotic love), no matter if you tug at a stray string or not — because the poem is about conjugal love between a man and woman, someone who has shared the beauty of intimacy in life and has born the speaker a biological child.’  However the apparent eroticism of the poem is not the physical sex life of the couple while she was alive, but the erotic yearnings in the poem that ring a hollow gong because the beloved is gone.  The saint is dead.  The question is, how has the eroticism of their life together been dissolved by her death to remain only as a dream — an image that easily escapes the poet in the last lines of the poem, at the first break of day in the morning when the saint flees, bringing back a psychological night once again?  Honigman notes the neat reversal in the poem, noting that the poem begins with an emergence from darkness and closes with a return to darkness and back to daylight (45).  The poem is very much about the consciousness of the blind dreamer enraptured by the image of his dead wife (Hall 107).  To what extent will a person go to recapture the image of the beloved?  There is a limit to how far desire can go, how fervently a person can yearn before it turns into erotic fantasy.  The eros of this poem verges on the pornographic and the artificial.  How is this so and how far does it go? 
    I reprint the poem here from Honigman’s annotated collection, Milton Sonnets, before I go into a critical discussion of the sonnet.
Methought I saw my late espousèd saint
    Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,
    whom Jove’s great Son to her glad husband gave,
    Rescu’d from death by force through pale and faint.
Mine as whom washt from spot of child-bed taint,
    Purification in the old Law did save,
    And such, as yet once more I trust to have
    Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind:
    Her face was veil’d, yet to my fancied sight,
    Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin’d
So clear, as in no face with more delight.   
    But O, as to embrace me she inclin’d,
    I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.
    What makes the poem most interesting is that the dead saint is depicted both as pure and tainted, as both rescu’d and fleeing, as both real and imaginary, as both veiled and seen.  It is not readily apparent in the poem that the goodness, sweetness, and love perceived is completely pure and lily white.  The “espousèd saint” is not exactly the Donna Angelicata of Dante nor is she the Aldonza of Quixote — although Sokol has suggested that she may be inspired by Petrarch’s Laura (142).  She is an admixture of fantasy and reality, of image and person that makes for a complicated and multilayered figure in literature composed in the tightly scripted verse of a sonnet, probably written in 1655 or 1658 (Schwartz 98).  What drew me first to a reading of the poem as erotic was, “Her face was veil’d, yet to my fancied sight ...”    
    The image of the woman is veiled, so the Miltonic speaker sees an image of the woman in his own “fancied sight” in the language of Renaissance English, that could mean either “delusive imagination” or “enlightening imagination” depending on the context ( Sokol 143).  But because she is veiled, because there is a physical barrier between the speaker and the woman, she has a mysteriousness about her that makes her at once tantalizing and unapproachable.  It is a fantasy of the woman rather than an enlightened imagination, I would argue. It is a preceived image.  The veil stands as a symbol of visible obscurity, both obscuring and revealing the deepest of desires.  It is a fabricated image in the mind of the poet as well as a fabric.  The love seen is most likely an ideal form of love, a Platonic form that can never be reached; however, it is something else as well, something not so ideal, something veiled and shielded from view.  The fantasy of the poem is the suggestion that the image of the saint will become corporeal — as reachable and touchable as it was for the speaker in life — but this is a fantasy, a chimera which we know, and the poem knows, will never come to pass.  Desire is so great that it is mistaken for reality; because he loved her, he dreams about her.  Even without a face she has a name, a history, and a past.   
    Like the bereaved man who keeps a photograph of his dead wife in his wallet, looking at it as if it will bring her back from the dead, Milton’s poem is a photograph of his “late espousèd saint” brought back like Alcestis from the grave by Hercules, “through pale and faint.”  In myth, what happens when the dead are brought back from Hades?5   Can someone be “rescu’d from death”?  In the Greek myths either they are lost forever, like Eurydice, or you do in fact bring them back with the help of a god or goddess but the question is, ‘who is the person brought back?’ — or should we ask — bought back?  The sonnet is like the wish of Admetus to buy back his Alcestis in Euripides’s play, to get Hercules to successfully wrest her from the grave.  But bought love is not the same as real love, especially when the love you want to buy has been lost.  And recall that Alcestis is brought back by force, not by her own volition, as if raped like Zeus capturing the boy-shepherd Ganymede and bringing him to Mount Olympus to be his cup-bearer.  If the poem is like the grieving husband looking at a photograph of his deceased wife, then the poem is also about the addictive search for an image to sate a desire and the costs we will pay despite the impossibility of the task.   
    Just as gods capture boys and maidens to be lovers, people pay prostitutes to love them for money; they pay for a face to replace the one they have lost.  The fantasy of the sonnet verges on a pornography of love for the image of the face is not seen on the saint, reminding us that she has become an anonymous figure, someone brought back from the dead.  The word pornography means “to write a prostitute” or to “buy a prostitute” (6).  The image he trusts to have “without restraint” is pornographic as well as prostituted because it is not real and it is not mutual but it is also very human, rooted to a real love of a real person — a pure person filled with goodness (purity is privileged) — but since she has been profoundly lost, both physically and mentally the sonnet is asking, ‘how can I write her back?’.  It is also far removed from reality, which is the feeding ground for lust, eroticism gone haywire and the stuff of pornographic imagery!  The paradox of a pure, white-veiled donna angelicata//sullied, open-faced succubus is understood in the context of loving something you cannot have, so you resort to any medium that can fulfill that gross love — even temporarily.  The woman of the sonnet is not the donna angelicata or the platonic form — absolutely, nor is she the sullied bride of child-bed taint either — she is neither of these extremes, but she is an image, shifting back and forth in the poem.  She is an image written into a poem, condensed into desire and made into a chimera.  This is not the same as interpreting the poem as intentionally pornographic, but rather, unraveling the poem to see how this has been written underneath the lines.  By referring to the poem in this way it is not implying that the poet’s desire is somehow perverted or sinful, per se, but that his desire for an image of the beloved is an empty one, unable to be fully consummated; therefore, it is rife with the irrational desire to tear away the veil and rescue the dead — which may be wishes but are far from the truth.  If every sonnet has a problem to be solved, then the problem of this sonnet is how to reconcile this paradox?  How do you reconcile the image, veiled with the corporeal, flesh and blood presence? 
    The conclusion in lines 13-14 does not give an easy solution: 
    But O, as to embrace me she inclin’d,
    I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.
George McLoone acknowledges in an article in Milton Quarterly that the last two lines are sexual as well as eschatological and ecclesial (17).  There is a desire for both the spirit and the flesh   Every encounter is bound to be fleeing away, a return to the normal bout with night that turns into day, that reality brings, like the cave dwellers in Plato’s allegory of the cave in the Republic.  The poet understands that the image is false, is not the real thing, but he returns to the image time and again, hoping, just once, that the image may be made real.  The inhabitants of Plato’s darkened cave prefer the shadows and when a prophet comes back from the light to announce the truth the cave people kill him and continue to worship the shadows.  The image of the sonnet is both the shadow world of the cave and the bright light of the external sun.  The longing of the poem, the insistent desire to have “full sight of her in Heaven without restraint” is a real desire but what is exposed is just a fake as a pornographic image, a pixelated fantasy designed to fix you.  There is nothing illusory about the desire in and of itself, but what happens to this desire that cannot have full sight?  The wish to be free when there is only restraints only brings restraint.  It is interesting the word “restraint” is used in the poem.  He wants unmitigated access to her but cannot have it save through force.  No matter what the desire, it cannot help itself but fall back to a written song of chains.  The pornography of the poem is its insistence that desire can be written at will, as if desire itself is sufficient to raise the dead, to bring back, “goodness, sweetness and love” because it is desired without restraint.  But is the sweetness the corruptible sweetness of a cherry coca-cola or a one-night stand?  Is the goodness good or only make-believe?  This makes it an image of desire.  Like any image of desire: a body of desire splayed out on a glossy page to be devoured by a raw erotic appetite can only lead to the same disappointment the turn of the sonnet concedes: “day brought back my night”.  This is true with any image touted as perfect, as amenable to the needs of the appetite or any addiction for that matter: the perfect Tom Collins, the perfect high, the perfect drag of a cigarette, the perfect orgasm.  Addiction searches for a fix better than the last.  Mere desire, mere human desire, which falls back on itself, that relentlessly pursues the image for its mere ineluctable attraction  in a post-lapsarian world  brings about the emptiness that this poem so poignantly proclaims.  In a way, the poem is a complement to sonnet CXXIX by Shakespeare, the so-called lust sonnet, “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame” where he says, “Before, a joy propos'd; behind a dream.” (7)   The moment of the dream is bliss, the moment the pure saint dressed in heavenly white appears is certainly euphoric and buzzing  one feels the excitement in the poem but one also feels the feeling akin to addictive bliss, to an empty erotic longing that comes with unfilled, unrequited love.   
    While it can be argued that Milton is not talking about unadulterated lust but rather the conjugal love of a spouse, it can be argued that the love object of Milton is a dream; therefore, it is the same as lust because the joy Milton expresses in the poem is unattainable and the speaker knows this, knows the dream as a dream when he wakes up from sleep as a sad suffering.  The poem is about the suffering felt when eros   eros how it should be felt and experienced with someone you love  is not felt and the strange human propensity to pursue this empty eros even though it is false (and we know it to be false) and bound to fail (8).  It is almost as if the love expressed in Milton’s sonnet is exactly the same as lust because the beloved in the poem is no more alive than the numbness the poem ends with, “my night”.