Thursday, April 24, 2014

Bridging Life and Death in Parzival

I have a special fondness for bridges. Walking bridges, in particular. I do not care where they might take me; it’s not the promise of futurity, it’s not the desire for the other side, but the hovering in the middle that really delights. Bridges are records of the past, marked by traces of every foot, wheel, or paw that has crossed, as well as the invitation to step, amble, run, roll or crawl towards the unseen; yet the bridge itself lingers in the present as a pause and a duration. Bridges mark a liminal space, a middle, an amorphous potentiality of after before and not yet then, they offer the thrill of stopping somewhere in between. If bridges are the infrastructure of the State that enable the transportation of goods to the very markets that erase the labor of the crossing and the matter of the making, if the motility engendered by a bridge is movement within the Big Bad Capitalist Machine, then pausing to look over the side and wondering at the life forms and plastic bottles and monstrous thieves that make under the bridge their home are acts of resistance, practices of everyday life (1), errant wanderings away from the neoliberal subject-making machine that siphons the agency and autonomy from living (and non-living) beings.

Thus, just the other day my partner, aware that I was feeling particularly enervated, took me to a bridge in the hopes of putting a little courage back into my self-abasing animus. Together we practiced a bit of healing magic as we travelled back and forth across the bridge (pictured above), stopping and stopping and stopping to examine the peeling paint, the budding trees, the pools of tadpoles and timid painted turtles. As the weight of the past few days lifted from my chest, I suddenly felt myself transported to another bridge, the draw-bridge before Munsalvaesch in Wolfram von Eschebach’s Parzival, a bridge I had been, until that moment, unsure how to cross. Because, for all my talk of stasis and sitting in the middle, “bridge” is a verb as well as a noun, and eventually one makes his or her way to the other side. And in order to cross the bridge and approach “The Gral” offering its cornucopia of excess within the castle at Munsalvaesch, I needed to translate yet another bridge, one between a 13th century piece of Germanic Arthuriana and contemporary approaches to disability theory that take into consideration material agency and the neoliberal subject.

It’s certainly not an achievement (and it hardly takes a bridge) to locate and access a disability narrative within the Fisher King myth. King Anfortas, the appointed keeper of the grail (spelled “gral” in the German Parzival, but for the sake of conformity, I’ll maintain the traditional English spelling), suffers from a lance-wound to the groin and, consequently, cannot walk or even stand. Parzival first spots the king fishing on a lake, but comes to find out that the act of fishing is really a chance for Anfortas to let his festering wound take some air (and likely offer some olfactory respite to a court that applies inefficacious healing unguents and herbs primarily to cover the reek of bodily decay). This associative link between fish and the wounded king also gestures to the flaccid nature of the king’s (in)fertility organ, as well as positioning him with the animals in a medieval animacy hierarchy that subjects the lower order of beasts to mankind’s sovereignty (2). Thus the ichthyic Anfortas, king in name but sub-human in body, is subject to the authority of his court, of his caretakers, and of the Templars that police his every move. Anfortas even wishes to die, to release himself and his kingdom from plight, but “he was made to live against his will and not die (392).” (1) If traditional readings of the Fisher King myth insist that the king’s infertility plagues the kingdom, I argue that, in Wolfram’s Parzival, at least, Anfortas as enfeebled and piscine human is made to suffer by the will of the able-bodied kingdom.

Further, the very means by which Anfortas can be forced into prolonged existence, forced to survive without the chance to flourish, is the efficacy of the grail, for “however ill a mortal may be, from the day on which he sees the Stone he cannot die for that week” (239). Thus the members of Anfortas’s court drag him against his will before the stone, forcing their king to continue an agonizing existence he would just as soon abandon. In Wolfram’s Parzival, the grail is a precious stone, a virtuous gem that operates like a cornucopia, manifesting viands and libations, as well as life, for every body that comes before it. If the grail was delivered to earth by angels, there is nothing terribly sacred in its power to fuel gluttony, to give more, and more and more until the desire for more becomes the only possible desire of the grail’s subjects. Whereas the other agentic objects that inhabit the world of Parzival, from pain-inducing planets to magical healing herbs, evidence a trans-corporeal environment of things working through each other in richly material ways (4), the agency of the grail is more insidious as it becomes a machine that overwrites the desires of its subjects, just as the writing on the grail hails the next grail-king. Thus the wounded Anfortas, scripted as king by the grail and thus excepted from the polis by the very nature of political sovereignty (here summoning Agamben (5)), is reduced to a state of bare life when the hegemonic bloc of the grail-court preserve the king’s body in a powerless existence of impairment and decay.

The grail, then, produces a state of dis-ease that I find analogous to Lauren Berlant’s idea of slow death: “The phrase slow death refers to the physical wearing out of a population in a way that points to its deterioration as a defining condition of its experience and historical existence” (6). Of course, Berlant refers to a condition of late-stage capitalism in which unhealthy practices like overeating and drinking become episodic escapes from the exhausting production of consumer-subjectivities within an imaginary state of individual sovereignty, and it would be entirely irresponsible and ahistorical to read Parzival as a pure example of this condition of slow death. Yet the grail’s intra-action through the bodies of Munsalvaesch engenders an entire culture of sickness eerily similar to our contemporary condition in which all bodies seem to be failing the gold standard of the State apparatus in some way. For, although (as Foucault reminds us) the medieval body was sacred and not subject to biopolitical control, for although the pre-Modern market had not yet shaped the consuming body’s desire for ‘stuff’ somehow erased of its meaning and the labor of its creation, there is nevertheless something uncomfortably modern and proto-capitalistic about this tale in which a man is forced by the public to suffer his wounded existence despite his desire to die, and in which an object creates an endless supply of food and drink, creates the desire for an endless supply of food and drink, a supply that has no visible means of production. No, I do not wish to map a contemporary sociopolitical plight onto a medieval text, but the conditions of life within the castle that houses the grail in this 13th century text resonate quite audibly with the notion of a slow death culture of subordination to a capitalist hegemony. Of course, the bodies in Munsalvaesch never actually die, so perhaps un-death culture is more apropos.

What of the bodies outside this un-death kingdom of perpetual disability, what of the world of bodies that are permitted to die of their own accord? Moving back across the bridge away from Munsalvaesch, we find a crypt, a house of the dead juxtaposed against the castle of too much life. Within this crypt lies the body of a knight and the corpse of poor Sigune, a wretched, if beautiful, maiden whose life had been riddled with sorrow and loss. First encountered by the blithe young Parzival very early in the tale, she is found grieving over the body of her recently departed lover, Schionatulander, a prince unjustly slain by Orilus. Although Sigune and her dead prince are eventually avenged by Parzival, she nevertheless takes maidenhood and mourning as her vocation and builds a tomb for Schionatulander in the woods near the castle Munsalvaesch, where “above his tomb she led a life of pain” (223). The condition of her life is a perpetual state of mourning and suffering, a soul-deep despair that deprives her of any ability to flourish. Sigune wears the hair-cloth of mourning, her skin is moribund-grey, and “Her lover was Great Sorrow, who laid her Gaiety down and roused many sighs from her heart” (224). While lamentation and repentance were common practices of medieval female mystics, and although Sigune has taken up a life of prayer, her sorrow is surely not spiritual practice, and her utmost desire is for reunion with her mortal lover, not her divine maker. Thus, when we last encounter Sigune as a corpse interred in the same mausoleum she had constructed for her prince, we imagine she has found peace in death, that she is at last free from her suffering. Barred from ever crossing the bridge into Munsalvaesch, excluded from the Grail’s narrative of ceaseless vitality, Sigune has had the privilege of dying.

And death does seem a privilege in the world of Parzival. For even if the romance concludes with the restoration of Anfortas to health and beauty, with Parzival’s ascent to the throne of the grail kingdom, might we step softly on that bridge to futurity and wonder what is to come for our hero? What if Parzival should need to defend his queen and become wounded in battle (the Grail-king becomes vulnerable when distracted by love), will he be cursed as well with too much life, forced against his will to look upon the Grail and despair? The text only suggests that his son is next to take the throne, and such ambiguity invites the reader to consider what conditions might obviate the passing of the crown and begs us to imagine a grey-haired and frail Parzival, crippled by a festering wound, perpetually agonizing and begging for release. For in the Grail culture of un-death, just as in the contemporary world of slow death, might actual death be a gift, one last truly autonomous gesture, the privilege of leaping over the bridge when one is no longer willing or able to cross?

(1)Like the spatial practice of perambulating through urban spaces; see Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, esp. Chapter VII, “Walking in the City”
(2)Mel Y. Chen, in Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect, argues that when beings are ordered according to hierarchies of animacy, linkages between human and lower-ordered bodies work to mark certain humans as non-normative and inferior, especially when racialized bodies are metaphorically compared with non-human animals and minerals.
(3) All quotations from Parzival are taken from the A. T. Hatto translation, Penguin 2004
(4)See Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures...but anyone reading this blog already knows this.
(5) See Georgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Heller-Roazen – although Agamben is primarily concerned with political sovereignty and the authority to kill, the right to force a body to live is constructed along similar acts of inclusion/exclusion from the biopolitical power structure and shifting definition of “life.”
(6) Cruel Optimism, 95

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