Jan 23, 2004

Compact of Negation


Again the 13th; She's again the first
& always the only--or the only moment:
You are my queen. The first or the last?
Are you my king, are you the lone or last lover?

Love who loved you from the cradle in her tomb;
She who was my lone love loves me gingerly still:
She is death -- or dead. . . O ecstasy! O agony!
The rose she holds is the hollyhock rose.

Saint of Naples with your hands full of flame;
Purple-hearted rose; flower of Saint Gudula;
Did you find your cross in the barren sky?

Fall, white roses! You insult our gods:
Fall, white phantoms from your skies that burn:
The saint of the abyss is more holy to my eyes.

Gerard de Nerval-- (My translation)

Gerard de Nerval's "Artemis," portrays a complex relationship between the narrator of the poem and the entity to whom the poem is addressed, presumably the goddess Artemis. A paradoxical dynamic exists between the narrator's 'self' and the 'other' of the poem, as well as the relationship between the narrator and the work itself.

The choice of Artemis as the narrator's subject is extremely relevant in the light of the psychological issues at play in the work. As the brother of Apollo, Artemis can be seen as representing the feminine aspect of the Apollonian portion of the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy. She is at once feminine and authoritarian, indeed, it was said that no man could look upon her naked form. Those that did suffered various punishments; this makes her a fitting subject for a poem that operates around the notion of unrequited desire. If one regards the purpose of poetry as a kind of "hunt" for a sympathetic reader, then Artemis again is an apt choice as goddess of the hunt and sister of the patron of poetry. Artemis's role as goddess of the moon, with its associations with insanity, is also relevant.

The poem is framed at the outset by the "13th," hour, an hour outside of time which transpires when the mundane hours have run their course. Within this time Artemis ("she") is "again the first / & always the only." Nerval's use of "again" is relevant insofar as it indicates a sort of pattern or nausea associated with the events which transpire. The "she" being the "only," and the moment in question being the "only moment," offers a kind of paradox which interacts with the repetition implied by "She's again the first." The temporality of the poem can be thought of as a kind of blanket moment superimposed on normal narrative. Nerval contrasts the female goddess of the poem with the Christian God with the phrase "The first or the last?", playing upon the notion that the Christian God is "alpha and omega, the first and the last," An interesting confusion of gender occurs when the narrator asks "Are you my king, are you the lone or last lover?" Which instills a kind of hermaphroditic quality to the figure being addressed, being at once queen and king, a lover of it/herself. The "lone or last" question implies a kind of gravity manifest in the situation.

As the poem progresses, the identity of the address figure begins to become more and more ambiguous. The second stanza opens with the apparent question "Love who loved you from the cradle in her tomb;" This statement can be seen as pertaining to the hermaphroditic quality of the addressed which has been established in the first stanza, or as pertaining to the narrator of the poem himself. The "cradle in her tomb" is relevant if the act of writing or naming is thought of as a kind of death, the narrator's "love" as manifest in the desire to laud or address by way of the poem exists in a kind of birth/death state which is lifeless, but also in a sense generative, hence the "cradle in the tomb." Faced with the prospect of uttering the poem as an expression of desire and also as an archive, the narrator is at once and infant and also dead. And the addressed, as the object of desire, shares the same fate or identity of the narrator "She is death -- or dead. . . O ecstasy! O agony!"

The poem represents the synthesis of identity which occurs when the unity of desirer and desired is achieved. This state is fatal and timeless, and can be seen as being represented by the writing itself; the only space whereby such a completed compact can be achieved. It is a state of bliss and also torment and a loss of self. It is Apollonian also, as it represents a kind of stasis or order, and a kind of sinister beauty. No one may look upon it and not be changed.

The "hollyhock rose" which the Artemis figure holds is relevant insofar as the hollyhock is a plant of many buds, symbolizing the many flowerings of identity in the poem, and the many identities of the poem's subject. It also refers to the inherent inaccuracy or insufficiency of language or naming, as the hollyhock flower is not a true rose and is thus a kind of misnomer, having acquired its meaning by way of convention. The subject of the poem holds this power of naming and flowering of disparate identities in her hands. She is an Apollonian patron of poetry, a destroyer ("she is death") who is also rendered lifeless (" -- or dead...").

The third stanza further expounds upon the identity of the Artemis character, casting her as the "Saint of Naples." This is appropriate in the light of the association of Italy with the mystical or mysterious that often appears in the work of Nerval's contemporaries. Her hands are "full of flame," reinforcing her role as a destroyer. However, as with every identity in the poem, this too is fluid, as the figure is subsequently identified as "Saint Gudula," who the notes to the poem inform us is the patron saint of Brussels. Thus the addressed is the patron of the North and the South, the known and the unknown, civilization and the unknown.

The figure is then asked "Did you find your cross in the barren sky?." Again the author is playing with Christian imagery with "cross" and contrasting it with ideas of paganism, the stars or heavens being the realm of the figures of mythology by way of the names of the constellations. Also, these heavens can be seen as a place of immortality, the stars standing in for a narrative that is written in the sky for all time, referring metaphorically to writing. The figures of the heavens can only be seen from within a certain context, thus they are immortal but also dependant upon the viewer or the viewer's perception of their own narrative.

The "white roses" of the final stanza allude to the hollyhock mentioned previously in the poem, but can also be seen as referring to the stars in the heavens. The author bids them fall, and speaks of them as "white phantoms," invoking once again a state of death-in life. Having uttered his poem, the narrator seeks the absolution of silence as he knows there is no fate for the synthesized self and other. The skies "burn," the narrative itself is charged with the destructive fire that the Artemis/Saint character holds in her hands. Insofar as human utterance or narrative achieves a sort of immortality or death-in-life, this is offensive to the gods as this is a privilege theoretically granted only to the gods themselves. In uttering human desire for a deified figure, and realizing that desire by way of poetry, the narrator has doomed and lost himself, his 'self.'

The poem closes with a negation of sorts when the author states that the "The saint of the abyss is more holy to my eyes." This abyss can be thought of as silence or emptiness, and is the author's true project. But we have already learned that the subject of the author's desire is the queen of death and silence, at once the patron of poetry and the destroyer of it. The narrator is not condemning her, but rather the archiving property of the stars insofar as they metonymically represent a narrative, literature. Thus the narrator is begging for the final union with his beloved, to be made silent and dead and immortal. Thus the poem negates itself, and negates its author, becoming a kind of paradoxical "empty record," the document of an impossible synthesis. It exists only in the aforementioned "13th" hour and is thus timeless and simultaneously nonexistent, indeed a kind of "Chimera."

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