Today I offer my essay’s introduction (first draft!) with the hope of providing the next section tomorrow or Friday. The bulk of the rest of the essay will be a discussion of “A Disputacion Betwyx þe Body and Wormes” (IMEV ref.) (text and translation), largely, I think, through a close appreciation of the poem’s three illustrations of the body’s conversation with its worms.
What follows has its most immediate origin on Feb. 4th, when I posted the following to Facebook:
Feb. aim: Pervert medieval death/worms poetry by reading it amorally/ecologically. Not memento mori, but reminder that we’re all food. 5k words and a March 1st deadline says I can do it. [next comment] My task is to write an essay on “abyss” for a special issue on ecomaterialisms. I’m thinking the word right now in terms of mise en abyme, in this case, appetites within appetites within appetites, not infinite–because nothing’s infinite–but very large, and acentric, the closest thing absolute immanence offers by way of infinity. [next comment] Here’s the cool thing about taking ABYSS as MISE EN ABYME: this is a DEPTHLESS ABYSS, not one that promises chthonic secrets or surging secrets from below but rather FLATNESS, ONTOLOGICAL EQUALITY.
Death is life for another. I don’t mean that life will conquer death, that death will come to a stop, as in Paul’s “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55). Rather, death means the flourishing of others, swallowers who are not an abstract victory but rather a material swarm of worms and other vermin, who will also be swallowed by certain birds, “wormes corrupcioun” as Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowles puts it: a meshwork of appetite in which even the agents of corruption, the supposed ultimate eaters of the grave, will themselves be food in turn. If worms are food too, there is no one victory over death, but rather as many victories–and as many defeats–as there are appetites.
The editors tasked me with writing about “the abyss.” I thought immediately of death, the “deepest pit” according to Job 17:16, where, as one twelfth-century poem has it, the dead “ceciderunt in profundum ut lapides” [fall into the depth like stones]. In this imagery, death is a deep hole, a channel leading perhaps to rebirth–as Jonah experienced when he emerged from the whale’s gullet–or to hell’s absolute darkness or hell’s mouth, a site of constant eating and cooking, most notoriously, or hilariously, in Raoul de Houdenc’s Songe d’Enfer, where “sinners are cooked in an endless array of dishes, pulverized, marinated, skewered, stuffed, larded, fried in butter and sauced with the traditional sauces of medieval cookery — green sauce, hot sauce, Parisian sauce, Poitevin sauce, and more often than not, garlic sauce” (17). This is a singular abyss, one perhaps with many entrances or, if you like, many mouths, but still finally one, dreamed up to horrify humans, or dreamed up out the horror of individual humans at the loss of their own subjectivity or foundation. This abyss is the one great mouth that will swallow us all.
A corner of Thomas de Quincey’s criticism opens up a less anthropocentric abyssal vision. In a note to an extended discussion of Dryden, de Quincey counters an inept critic’s objection to Milton’s “and in the lowest deep a lower deep / still threatening to devour me opens wide” (Paradise Lost IV.76-77). How, asked the critic, could the lowest deep have another deep beneath it? De Quincey explains:
in cases of deep imaginative feeling, no phenomenon is more natural than precisely this never-ending growth of one colossal grandeur chasing and surmounting another, or of abysses that swallowed up abysses.
De Quincy’s vision of abysses swallowing each other, without end, center, and certainly without reference to one final great abyss–death, Hell, or something even deeper–thus presents abyssal appetites as a kind of mise en abyme of appetite and vulnerability or even just availability. Here, mise en abyme, a term famously borrowed by Andre Gide from medieval heraldry, should not be understood as describing internal duplication (the “play within a play”) or infinite iteration (as with an object placed between two mirrors); it should not be understood, in a postmodern, correlationist manner, as a trope of foundationlessness or the inaccessibility of any final guarantee of meaning. Here, as much inspired by the worms of death as by de Quincey, I mean mise en abyme in a materialist, nonanthropocentric, ateleological sense, as a way of acknowledging that no one appetite has final priority, and that nothing escapes the condition of vulnerability to others, a condition Derrida so usefully called the “nonpower at the heart of power,” the “not be[ing] able” to elude being made use of by others.
I will develop this idea in more detail below, but what must be done, first, is to argue against death being life’s end….