Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A bit of Queer Ecology in the Vita Merlini

The Vita Merlini of Geoffrey of Monmouth explores the mad years of the famed Arthurian prophet as he seeks to escape the machinations of the human world after witnessing the deaths of three brothers during political strife in Wales. He retires to the Calidonian forests and becomes a sylvan man, a wild beast searching for answers in Nature. Although he is temporarily cured by music and returns to a human kingdom, his madness returns and he escapes once more to the woods (the forest is often the site of madness in medieval literature, and the word “wod” or “wode” to describe madness therefore signals the relationship between madness and an arboreal existence). He is finally cured by a magical spring at the end of the narrative, but chooses to remain with his friends and his sister in the woods to the end of his life.

While exploring the story for instances of thing-power, for vibrant objects and for medieval attitudes about rocks and stones, I found instead a possible instance of the sort of queer ecology described by Timothy Morton. Trying to understand the source of Merlin’s madness and its relation to his search for answers in Nature, I was reminded of these lines from Morton:

Do such suicidal young men think they are disappearing into Nature when they follow this script? They might think they’re escaping civilization and its discontents, but they actually act out its death instincts. They fantasize control and order: “I can make it on my own.” The “return to Nature” acts out the myth of the self-made man, editing out love, warmth, vulnerability, and ambiguity. Queer ecology must visualize the unbeautiful, the uncold, the “lame,” and the unsplendid.”

His specific example was the film Into the Wild, but the “script” of the return to Nature aptly applies to Merlin’s self-exile here as well. Unsettled and confused by death, by structures and political forces created by man that subsume the individual and seem to eradicate any kind of control, Merlin seeks to define his individualism by escaping into a Romanticized (N)ature in which the boundaries of inside-outside are more clearly defined (The idea of capital “N” Nature and lower-case “n” nature originates with Timothy Morton and I choose to put the “N” in ellipses to emphasize his point and to reinforce that the language here is not my own). His desire is for the rugged, organic wholeness of a truly extraverted (N)ature. And yet, confronted by winter and the death of all the vibrancy he thought could sustain him, he withers and becomes despondent. Death is omnipresent, it is another structure he cannot contain or overcome. He is still aware only of boundaries, of binaries, of Man vs. Nature, of Life vs. Death. He remains mad.

During his second return to (N)ature, he learns to subsist during the cold seasons “on frozen moss, in the snow, in the rain, in the cruel blasts of the wind.” He finds life in death, but still the forces of (N)ature remain brutal, masculine, and Outside. Surviving the tortuous domain of (N)ature, “pleased him more than administering laws throughout his cities and ruling over fierce peoples.” He continues to act out the script of the “return to Nature,” and merely chooses one form of control over another: mastery of the self, the strengthening of the ego, instead of ruling over the larger social network. Little has changed. What he cannot find on the Outside, he now searches for on the Inside. The boundaries remain.

Then the text introduces Taliesin the philosopher, who teaches to Merlin a loosely Biblical creation myth that very blatantly and crucially omits the centrality and mastery granted man. Although guided by a divine hand, nature, as explicated by Taliesin, is an interwoven mesh in which all things flow, in which assemblages are formed temporarily, in which parts become whole, but then return to parts to perhaps form other assemblages with other parts. “He (God) added clouds to the sky so that they might furnish sudden showers to make the fruits of the trees and of the ground grow with their gentle sprinkling. With the help of the sun these are filled like water skins from the rivers by a hidden law, and then, rising through the upper air, they pour out the water they have taken up, driven by the force of winds.” During a cataloging of animals which would seem to reinforce boundaries between the beasts of the wild, Taliesin offers two instances of queer sexuality: “The vulture, thinking little of the commerce of the sexes, often conceives and bears (strange to say) without any seed of her spouse,” and “They say the muraenas, contrary to all laws, are all of the feminine sex, yet they copulate and reproduce and multiply their offspring from a different kind of seed. For often snakes come together along the shore where they are, and they make the sound of pleasing hissing and, calling out the muraenas, joining with them according to custom.” Heteronormative boundaries are exposed as false, and offered in their place are instances of asexuality and transpecies sexuality. For the muraenas and the snakes, sexuality is a performativity; the sexual display, the hissing of the snakes, determines the sexual behaviors, not some inviolate law of reproduction.

Eventually Merlin drinks from a magic spring and his reason is restored. The fluids “passed through the passages of bowels and stomach,” and "all his madness departed." By the queer lessons of Taliesin, Merlin has discovered the fluidity of reality, the finer workings of the mesh, (N)ature has been restored to (n)ature, and his madness is cured. The madness all along was the struggle to impose boundaries, to create an inside-outside dichotomy, to see the mesh of existence through the window of Nature; but Merlin is cured by drinking in the truth that nature is fluid and queer.

Morton, Timothy. "Queer Ecology." PMLA 125.2 (2010): 273-282.

1 comment:

Bacchanal in the Library said...

From S.C. Hickman


I like that elision and the cure through granting (N) to (n) as a limiting move and constrainment within the fluid and queer mesh of this strange assemblage we name (n)ature. Again, nice work!