The wolf is entitled to the lamb.
The Mountain Wreath (1847)
You would not believe how many words there are for home and what savage music
there can be wrung from it.
Edna O’Brien (2015)
For months now, I’ve seemed to live in a crowd of stories.
The second epigraph to Edna O’Brien’s recent novel, The Little Red Chairs, takes me close to the looming character of these stories, how The Mountain Wreath argues, long before the Yugoslav Wars that burned their way through the 1990s, that the wolf and the lamb can be joined together by the human claim to entitlement, so that both become our surrogates. The human-wolf enacts what the strong do, propelled by natural law, while the human-lamb succumbs to a victimhood ordained at birth. These enchained performances, looped into a whole by the qualifying vision at which our species excels, even when misaligned, by the effort to conceive of rightfulness, justice, and their costs, will be significant for Nietzsche when he maintains, in 1887, that “the large birds of prey,” tangling “little lambs” between their beaks, show what strength exacts from the beings who must be identical with its exactions. Hearing such tales that appear to represent the family of human and non-human animals, both groups blurred by a metaphorical athletics, I pause. I’m thinking of bodies deemed actionable by the law that purports to order what can and can’t be done to them, of a cluster of southern states busily identifying those Americans who should be debarred from entering particular bathrooms, clarifying that persons who love the wrong bodies, who inhabit the wrong bodies due to a gender fluidity unworthy of the time that it takes to read them, ought to be rendered vulnerable to living outside legal protection, since they abide, anyway, in an elsewhere so distant from those who judge them. I think of bodies that cross the wrong borders to remake what home might mean, bodies fleeing from the bones and blood and dust behind them, only to meet, at best, a partial welcome. I hear Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, along with their colleague-rivals who target the White House as their aim, mistake the shout for what speech can do. And I listen to the dead, to Virginia Woolf, to Plato, as they tell a different story through the millennia dividing them about bodies and about what readers owe to the struggle to think of them.
Before turning to how Woolf adapts the antecedent of Plato’s “shock,” so important to the Philebus, I search for what textual forerunners bequeathed to the woman who read them, for what they offer to those who follow her. I recall Plato’s Socrates and his transcendent noun phrase, whether in the Philebus or the Republic, where “justice” shadows forth “the good,” and find that such coming forth shows Socrates asserting, for his interlocutors, that the latter unendingly embraces the former. All we may be said to have here below are reflections of “the good,” refractions of its breadth and depth, yet that statement must be qualified by Plato’s Socratic visions regarding our flawed humanity, from which Socrates himself cannot be excepted. If readers attend to that qualification, we come to how inductive processes concerning the concept of “the good” occur always in relation to those towards whom such processes are steered, so that we never achieve a philosophic discourse, or any discourse at all, outside the grounding of an audience and its frailties, its conditions, never gain the footing by which we could hope to scan a hoard of precepts underivable, unadulterated, absolute. If this is true, we populate an aporia, an undecidability, which nevertheless may be useful for us, its readers. Because we cannot know, finally, what the Platonic Socrates thinks concerning “the good,” for that thinking, as evidenced by the page, stands in relation with other speakers, “the good,” notwithstanding its admissible status as myth, narrative, image, or truth, escapes its incarnations. And there will be, everlastingly, a beyond to the circumstances in which we feel ourselves engrossed, even if we cannot stop there, embosomed in its clasp.
The Socrates which Plato ventilates for us respects how the transcendent concept as such must be elsewhere, in excess of our pronouncements on the subject of it, remote from the mastership of human appetites, regardless of its being myth or narrative or undertaken to accommodate to what a specific audience can just tolerate hearing–or of its potential truth-value. But, while we never inhabit “the good” itself in Platonic thinking, we can sample proximity to its avatars. Among these we should tally “correct assessment,” though that proximal relation will be burdensome enough for us to heed, considering the human desire to think equationally by means of operations tussling for a simplistic comprehension of unity. Here, I look back to the Parmenides, for if “it would be . . . absurd” to think that the things we fail to devote ourselves to participate in notions of value, the absurdity is solely ours: we will have raised so high, as if miming the seeming guidance of Plato’s characters, “abstract ideas” assorting their terrestrial “images”; we will have submerged “hair, mud, dirt” in the element appropriate to them, in the ground that must be “dirt” and that prevails merely to suffer our sovereignty over it. Conceptual union and its absence become our bestowments, produced by a falsifying vision. They repeat us. And this is one lesson that Trump enacts, daily.
Yet, even according to these texts’ apparent terms, we cannot say with certainty that Plato’s Socrates occupies or is habituated to “the good,” as that abstract noun continues comprehensively beyond the claiming of any selfhood. Indeed, that is its virtue and ours. Since we are unable to usurp it, to subjugate it, “the good” can only be inhospitable to those human activities which scheme to eat their object. In consequence, our Platonic materials advise us to reflect on, to think critically about, our desires, to position ourselves at a tangent to what they command of us, so that we might touch but not intersect with them. We need both to experience and to analyze our desiring in order to salvage ourselves from engulfment and to preserve the world from the annihilation that our hunger’s appeasement would produce. For, being in relation to them, that hunger is not the world or “the good.”
The incessant freedom from arrest, whether or not we are intended to assent to “the good” as myth, accommodation, or verity, divulges the vigilant sophistication of Plato as a writing-mind and that mind’s quadruple covenant with its readers. As his words call forth the prudent alertness essential to our study of a wisdom unrevealed by the surfaces of the said, coax our awareness that interpretive acts never take place in transparency, refocus the lights by which we read, so that the how of comprehension can neither be ready-made nor unconditioned, fashion form and content as reciprocal envoys–Plato, uncaptured, unimprisoned, unrepresented by the verbal shapes he gives us, cautions against our bewitchment by, our fascination with, messages foretokening our partnership in their reception and transference, since those messages will not decipher themselves. To entreat our participation in composing the contours of any message is to brake the latter’s implementation in the world, to portion out a lull soliciting our responsibility in the fight not to beguile others with an expression by which no person should be arrested. And, if Plato himself can bolt from the texts he circulates among us, that expertise in breaking free from detention calls on us to answer it, to remember that we must bridle up at seeing any text as a stopgap for charged contemplation or as a stopover in which, idling, we might doze.
Their forger’s refusal to be confined, rejoined by our dexterity in remarking how faraway he is from us, motions towards our discovery that Platonic texts develop from–and prompt the readerly acceptance of–those remotenesses, those gulfs, those intervals, through which we perceive the perceptible and are perceived ourselves. Rather than condemning them to mutual banishment, the standing apart of writer and reader permits their connection, so long as we acknowledge distances as the means by which we commit our eyes to sight. Yes, the range of their intermediary spaces may fluctuate: in many texts, Plato mimes, by way of supposed direction and in dialogic form, speeches whose fictiveness lies in their being authorless, while others–recounting in the present a past whose totality will not be resuscitated–offer us speakers interposed between ourselves and the urgencies they set about reviving. Nevertheless, even in fluctuation, distanced sight endures, a lens for the recognition that inclining-near is not a given, but a movement, earned.
This movement implied by any resistance to detainment, to imprisonment, appeals to Plato’s readerly imperative: for example, we must spurn equating ourselves as readers outside the Republic with the many-partnered Socrates inside it. Though we resemble that preeminent voice and its fellows to the extent that our desiring transactions, by necessity, outreach our needs and their object, mistaken for a terminal satisfaction somehow never to be forfeited, once we become the equivalents of Plato’s characters, we extinguish the text, along with our aptitude for interpreting it. Yet we can countervail such imposture by creating, by clearing, by opening up, a critical discontinuity between ourselves and what we read in order to decide how, as Socrates and his comrades watch a polis “coming into existence” in speech, the one noble lie, the “magnificent myth that would . . . carry conviction” to the city, is a residuum of conceptualizing activities closely aligned with the hazards basic to unconscious metaphoric usage. I mean: if it is the commerce of metaphors to over-naturalize their own behaviors, to betray equivalence as already accomplished, rather than as our manufacture, such commerce serves the human need to aver the wholeness of the world–without recognizing that proposed wholeness may demonstrate the fiat of our desire for it, which, in the doing, erases how (so often) many of us proceed uncritically before the integrities which we ourselves fashion.
The nobility here, the magnificence, evolves from the power of the myth to honor the mortal fragilities it speaks to. And our examination of the mythic, our regarding the circumstances that give birth to it, together with how its claim to “increase . . . loyalty” incites consent, makes it conceivable for readers outside the text to see the integral as a speculation masking itself as fact, a camouflaging we might guard against, if we were to reflect on our own need to confuse a making-method with the world. That world, or another noun in its place, capable of transcending the figurations we sling at it, remains richly other than what we do within its precincts: it will not be, in any final sense, confounded. “Amorous,” erotic, we may construe ourselves as the kin of Glaucon; in our eroticism, inflamed, we may love the part to the exclusion of the “whole,” as though love were a fire whose burning object could only be itself, intensified. Whether or not we distinguish between ourselves and his Socratic audience, the inventor of the Republic reminds us, by his very absence, that we do not live bound inside the pages of a book, that not living there permits us to picture, to visualize, to entertain, the “story” both spun on and fixed to the fibers of the page. Not living there fosters our awareness that the eros piloting our fictions, our telling of tales, cannot be the ground–but is made from our comportment in relation to the ground itself.
Preserving these distinctions, we find that the “story” fails due to the instabilities of its narration. But instabilities, because his characters seem unable to identify them, are among Plato’s gifts to us: loitering over them, naming them, we accept their fathering in another place and confess our obligation to judge the worthiness of our own paternity. And what does Socrates, the maker of “stories,” contrive in the presence of a Glaucon, whose amorousness longs to light upon itself in the things it loves? He images a creation-myth which naturalizes “loyalty” to the dialogic city, even as its manner of recounting dishonors the interdictions at play in the upbringing, the education, of those “Rulers and Soldiers” bred to administer governance. Yet their schooling, the Socratic “myth” insists, “happened to them only in a dream,” a visual tale different from the actual world, occurring within that world, but other than it. Accordingly, if “we begin by telling children stories” because childhood “is the time when they are easily moulded,” when “any impression we choose to make leaves a permanent mark”; if we “must start to educate” the psyche “before training the body”–all the strictures of that tutelage subsist in the relation of a simile, a likeness, bending towards the “reality” glinting below. In order to arrive at foundational turf, the following restrictions, once approved, must be penetrated: that prospective “Guardians,” for “fear of catching the infection in real life,” must refrain from “acting” a “disgraceful part on the stage” in view of how mimesis, when prolonged into adulthood, establishes habits which “become second nature”; that, so as to inoculate all against the virus of imitation, “if the poet never concealed his own personality,” his poetic narrative, “devoid of representation,” would liberate any audience from mimetic blight; that to misrepresent “the nature of gods and heroes” is to commit “the worst fault possible”; because anything “not harmful” cannot “do harm,” the “god” really “is good” and “must be so described,” regardless of generic concerns. Without “deceit or falsehood in action or word,” the godly “does not change himself, nor deceive others, awake or dreaming, with visions or words or special signs.”
To sum up this “dream,” soon to be absorbed into the familial essence of citizenship: we begin in plasticity, are perfectly educable and can be perfected from without, as if bodily behaviors simply reproduced those teachings which the “soul” had suckled from. In contrast to human flux, the “god” must be “good”; he does not lie, does not change, so that divinity, idealized, is in analogy with the Ideas, against whose permanence all phenomena occur. Natal oscillations may unite humankind here, though the subsequent “myth” attempts to cancel them out. Regarded “as brothers,” the city’s residents are indistinguishable from the “earth” which mothers them.
Or so the Socratic progenitor of “myth” would persuade “our whole community” to believe. Neither poets nor wholly admitting that they engage in talking/writing stories, Plato’s characters see themselves as founders of a state, whose gradual “word-picture,” however phantasmagoric, might help them to remember the necessity of pursuing “justice with wisdom” in an already founded world. As authors of an “ideal” civic structure, they should know the type of story that “the poets must produce” and, rejecting any that do not conform to that “model,” need not write tales themselves. But, fascinated by the gleam of igniting, among its citizens, fealty to “the state and to each other,” Socrates cannot quit the seduction of conjuring stories. He will not have the impulse to bewitch idealized out of him, even if a prior “education” legislated, in a “dream,” that the imitator may be surpassed by his imitations, so long as the surpassing holds to the stricture against change, against flux, something that Socrates and his figurative profligacy risk, on the page.
Yet we who read him, who keep watch over the invisible hand behind his words, ought to note how the inaugural “myth” is as doused in figuration as the pedagogy preceeding it, observe how both conflate custom and nature, nomos and physis, in order to divine the stability designed to render them connectable. Though “education” and “myth” seem in opposition, together they struggle to stay human lability by means of ordaining its representations, the former taking mimetic virulence as an almost organic given, the latter enrolling a communal brotherhood in which the “god” has added metal to the composition of every member–gold to the “Rulers,” silver to the “Auxiliaries,” iron and bronze to the “farmers and other workers,” so that the metallurgical figure will assign each his “proper value” in the place where he belongs. But all this metaphorical labor describes a materiality prophesying ruin when the state has “Guardians” outside the rule of gold.
Underlying both tales is, of course, the fear of human vulnerability to change and evanescence, a certain worry in Trump’s wrangling for the presidency. Before that fear, all of us–any “I”–are so easily the victims of our figures, so easily jeopardize the polis that professes to order us. While the conflation of nomos and physis unavoidably domesticates religion, understands religion as subsumed under culture’s shadow, if we deem such fabricated perspicuity a regulative fiction, we might vary the pattern that we make of it, since, like the real in relation to it, our fiction is never unalloyed, static, fixed. So, the failure of any metaphor to stabilize its objects is akin to inexhaustibility, a paragon of success due to that failure’s steadfastness, advancing what cannot be exhausted as a value in which we inhere–because it supports us.
Everything I discuss here presumes a distinction between Plato-the-maker and the image of Socrates in our texts. The latter themselves, born of a wakefulness to the fact of human fallibility and desire, stage our appetitive maneuverings as the breeding ground for the metaphors by which we construe what it means to live. Yet, if the customary linguistic deportment of metaphor matches two entities via the figurative representation of equivalence, it need not follow that we should discern the figure itself as a mere substitution for what it appears, with such facility, to coagulate. Instead, we can grasp that the figure, when understood analytically by its maker and by those to whom it is addressed, prizes the corporeality which is, above all, its index. As the figure represents how the twinned materialities of perceiver and perceived adhere to each other, it endures being always double in at least this sense: it describes a making-method in contact with something outside it, and its description carries the weight of that transport. For these reasons, metaphors do not replace the real with a fiction; they attest to the real being there, to the complex nature of the real itself. Regarding possible Socratic fascination with the figurative: all bewitchments are not equal; some allow us to see more rather than less, such as those metaphoric couplings through which we who read Plato’s Socrates can realize that sightedness is never incontestable, that it must be borne witness to by our deliberations over it.
The attestations I trace out seem potentially ethical acts to me, a seeing-through our skills at beguilement. The obligation–incessant, magisterial–for each of us to grant, and to give testimony to, those interdependencies whereby the real is composed directs me to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s ideas in his posthumously published The Visible and the Invisible. There, we find illuminated an “intercorporeity” in which the little private world of each thing is not juxtaposed to that of all the others but surrounded by it, levied off from it, and all together are an “intercorporeal being,” the surface of a depth, which, “inexhaustible,” we can properly term the visible–of which we, our always multiplying species, are not the owners. If we cannot lay claim to the titular ownership of this intercorporeality because we belong to it, because we survive and perish by virtue of it, each thing is bound up, opens on, is endlessly interrelated with, other things, so that the world becomes a web of the relational; so that no thing abides in isolation from other things; so that isolation, like unhampered congress, numbers among our fictions, reprehensible, unavailing, if not wakened to.
While systems thinking champions such ideas, as treated by Ludwig von Bertalanffy in General Systems Theory, by Bela H. Banathy in Deisgning Social Systems in a Changing World, in The Guided Evolution of Society, and while much of quantum theory reinforces them, I do not ask the sciences to stand surety for the power or for the truth-functions of those ideas. Rather, I propose that, from them, we might envision an ethics of the “intercorporeal,” which would argue for the virtues in comprehending that we do not stand alone, fall alone, live, die alone: we are with respect to the intertwinements of which phenomena are made. To believe otherwise is to beguile others in a darkness of our own fabrication, in an obscurity without use, to counter that we must by necessity be mistaken in our objects, even though they are not ours, since we will have breathed among them.
Having scanned some of Woolf’s Platonic ancestry, I contemplate how the woman who studied Greek with Clara Pater, with Janet Case, as Hermione Lee’s biography details, modulates a “shock” whose textual inception seems to underscore the division between “being” and “non-being,” so key to any reading of Woolf’s “A Sketch of the Past.” I begin my contemplation, however, by approaching the organism which Plato and Woolf regard according to dissimilar assumptions, to variant ends. I start with the body that “walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done,” with what cannot be dodged, with the faculty of judgment urgently considered by both thinkers. For these minds, telling “the truth about this vast mass that we call the world” implies an account of the soma whose dispositions affect the revolving of that world. But, below any recital of physicality, underneath our two writers’ discrepant viewpoints concerning its valuation, we encounter this: the body and its sensorium stop. Our experience of the corporeal is limited by its termination, a limiting whose attributes we can neither review nor report on, as the ordeal of that curb undoes us. Even our capacity for asserting that the ordeal undoes us exemplifies the manner in which our very language supposes that self and body are separable, that the former must survive, or disengage from, the concretion which hauls it along the curvature of the world, so far as syntactic logic admits the announcement that I will outlast my own undoing. The soma’s disgrace rests on its being doomed to desert us, speakers who negotiate grammars trumpeting a continuance that any grammar cannot, in fact, deliver.
Yet the foundering of that delivery, while it summarizes the body’s danger, its exposure to a decline which we may not know how to countenance, abets our endeavors to compensate for it. Perhaps from desertion, from declination, issue those displacements which, in their prevalence, Plato desires we should own to: disbanded from the body, mind, self, and “soul” become synonymous and eternal, their everlastingness a reparation for fleshly defeat. Nevertheless, the eternity promulgated here, once elevated as a measure of excellence, is as though upraised over the things of the world, over “hair, mud, dirt” and their non-human analogues, all deemed equal to “how they appear to us,” to the inertness we read in them, as Plato’s Socrates insists in the Parmenides: we who are not their kinsmen, according to this stance, and whose concept of perpetuity originates in the need to disconnect from a soma which decays, without end.
Woolf may inherit these ideas. As one of his many heirs, she may accept that Platonic indirection starts with the accidental from which ascends, over the range of the dialogues, the purposing, the planning, the schematizing which Socrates and his companions uplift by way of exhibiting how flux can be transformed into the invariant. But the method itself disappoints, uproots, any reader’s longing to halt at fascination with the invariable. In view of how the circumstantial initiates the dialogues’ sequenced thinking, given a different set of circumstances, another assortment of persons and their inclinations, everything would be otherwise. Consequently, though our Platonic texts appear to affiliate externality with “non-being,” to federate the internal, the incorporeal, with a “being” always beyond decrepitude, their structures surrender us to the extrinsic as our foundation and as our founding trouble. Woolf extends that trouble, that ambiguity lengthened between the touched and the touching, to what Merleau-Ponty espouses as “les choses,” the things we contact and are contacted by. Through such extension, Woolf prepares us for a transcendence that integrates human physicality and the things among which it lives, notwithstanding her claims to the contrary.
When she studies her habit, at “six or seven,” of looking at her face in the glass, reveals that “the looking-glass shame” has lasted all her life, that its duration uncovers how her “natural love for beauty was checked by some ancestral dread,” Woolf concedes that such shame did not interfere with her feeling “ecstasies and raptures,” provided that both were disconnected from her own body. Yet, rather than registering a discrete fact, being ashamed or afraid of the body is to despair at learning that the flesh cannot be seen by itself, solitary, anomalous, whole, just as yearning to unhitch our regarding the body from the means by which we scrutinize it, or to sever feeling from carnality, is to confirm insufficiency as our heritage. Unlike Woolf herself, I fit our “ancestral” lack of insularity to the image that she sketches a page later: if she was “looking in the glass one day when something in the background moved,” that movement, that aliveness, pertains to spatiality, to bodies, and to the mirror which donates them a piecemeal representation. Certainly, “the glass” cannot fasten to itself the things hedged in by the rigidity of its frame, since the traffic of the body, of our desiring “beauty,” of space, of things themselves, overtops all representational circumscriptions. I coordinate this legacy of spilling-over with Merleau-Ponty’s admission that we are “never at the thing itself”: the experience of disconnection from the body bespeaks the entitlement of having once been anchored there, insulated from the overspill bequeathed to flesh and to things, though both can neither be perceived nor arrived at as if they were lone, one, entire.
Even the mirror thwarts the “myth” of insulation when we move away from it, a thwarting which lies like a ground underneath the Woolfian “ecstasies and raptures” that “A Sketch of the Past” takes such care to picture. Since her narrations of ecstatic and rapturous incidents end with feeling how “it is almost impossible” that the self should be here, with an inability to describe being seized by a time and place which drum up a vibrative hum along the frets of the senses, Woolf’s first person usage airs that any “I” is never at the thing itself, never knows parity with the irresolvable by which selfhood may be characterized or with the certitude of being altogether taken. And what holds true for persons presides, in this instance, over things themselves, as the two divisions inhabit a mutual distancing: “I” am that which encroaches on things, they are those entities that seem to encroach on me, and both warrant the spaces between them to preserve the world they share.
But, while she succeeds to Plato’s inaugural “shock,” to a causality effacing bodily significance in order to elevate a “soul” fated to judge its relations with animate matter beyond the limit of a single life; while Platonic fiction struggles to save the matter of the world from the wreckage produced by our indiscriminate coveting, do Woolf’s “sudden shocks” ask us to partition off the “real thing” and “appearances,” to divide value from the body? The differential immensities of “being” and its apparent opposite need not destine both to compartmentation. Rather, their differences secure the possibility of reciprocal encroachment. To express this idea in other terms: when adducing disconnection from the body as the criterion for “ecstasy” and “rapture,” Woolf does not foreordain the nugatory status of the flesh; she cites fleshliness as a perplexity worth the neural expense of aspiring to survey it, to “explain it,” an aspiration which accepts that neurological enterprises assume the material in which they are enmeshed. Though both narratives of the body (as pulled away from itself, as taken by an outside it cannot “describe”) suppose a physicality exalted or transfixed, the following assurance predetermines their reception: even as our alignment with the corporeal, with “appearances,” with a thing identifiable as real, like any acquaintanceship with connectivity, can never be prearranged, the indirectness of our pathways to alliance invokes our aptitude for edging towards its accomplishment, despite the latter’s necessary momentariness. If we consent to considering, with Merleau-Ponty, that we ought to pass from the thing “as identity” to the thing “as difference,” as transcendence, as behind, beyond, as always faraway, we resemble the things among which we live in compliance with the multi-directionality ascribable to the human, to the inanimate, both sustained by an “intermundane” space, which confers on their many variations a more than uniparous birth. Once acceding to these considerations, we join Woolf in being carnalities inclusive of, but not assimilable to, the properties of which we are made, so that possession by right or force becomes annulled–forever imperfect, unfinished–due to our prepositional grip on the body that any language allows us to call our own.
So, since memory and forgetting are discontinuous with regard to experience, our sense of self-foundership must be remade, reclaimed, as will Woolf’s ability to “put the severed parts together” under the briefly unifying “blow.” When she wonders, however, if “things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds,” Woolf imagines that, one day, she “shall fit a plug into a wall” and, listening to “the past,” discover garden and nursery emanating from a current by which “we shall be able to live our lives through from the start,” as though to listen were to bypass the flexuosity, the bending-in, central to interpretation. Yet this deposit of feeling and prospect shows us how a woman, leaning a present ear in the direction of garden and nursery (murmurous, distant, strangely close), would heed them not alone through the technology of a mediating “plug” but thanks to contemporary attention tilting towards, bordering on, those sounds lost to a past in need of decipherment because it could never simply unravel itself. Such near sight-reading exertions, under the possible future of Woolf’s image, signal the “third voice” that we hear again as she speaks to Leonard, her husband, as “Leonard speaks” to her, both sensing a tertiary thing circulating among the said. As Woolf sketches this past that does not seem to die, as we read her, so much intervenes: “light glows”; an “apple becomes a vivid green”; an owl throws its vowels under the window, each not an aid to disconnection but to our remembrance that what appears to come between, the “vessel afloat on sensation,” the “plate exposed to invisible rays,” a voice born of other voices, produces the relations of which words, music, and “the thing itself” are made, the latter a whole other than, though proposed by, the multiplicity of its parts.
To say that we do not live “confined” to the body, to the part, is to envision a kinship with “scenes” through which floods a “reality” beyond and inclusive of evident circumscription, to invite the “shock” whose violence tells us that the body’s “sealing matter,” by definition, cracks open on to other things. And, if our Platonic texts emerge from a top-down construction which situates, at its core, the body forever constrained by a “soul” it cannot see, Woolf’s “life-writing,” her writing on behalf of life, trains itself on “presences” seen and unseen, their interdependence exceeding the limits of any sketch. We can remark, with her, that “I see myself as a fish in a stream; deflected; held in place; but cannot describe the stream,” knowing how the Heraclitean simile approaches a fluidity whose dimensions we cannot quite measure, although they grant persons and things a kind swimming, that the courage to admit the incapacity to “describe,” comprehensively, is itself a way to swim.
For my part, I belong to what Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts pictures in multiple ways, a body “non-heteronormative” because of how I dress it, bejewel it, what I do with it, with other male bodies that my own answers an impassioned yes to. Like many of my kind, I refuse to be thrown in a crowd outside the law and its vision of the right that it means to enforce–or, under pressure, to reconceive. Like all members of our species, I am neither wolf nor lamb. They are not our ghosts, our masks; they have no truck with the concepts that humans often misapply. To turn to the Heraclitus whose ideas were always there as a basis for Plato to work away from, so that he could hold up something against the time and change that would erode it, and with Woolf, I say: the stretch of rippling water that we swim in is our home. And no one should be pushed out of it. Or the swimming.
Bruce Bromley teaches writing at New York University, where he won the Golden Dozen Award for teaching excellence. His essays, fiction, and poetry have appeared in 3:AM Magazine; Out Magazine; State of Nature Magazine; Able Muse Review; and Gargoyle Magazine, among many others. His fiction was nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize. Dalkey Archive Press published his book, Making Figures, in 2014.