Monday, March 26, 2012

First Feast, Last Feast: The Temporal Being And Non-Being Of Language In Dan Beakey’s “The Cave”

by Jacques Derrida
(translated by Jarrod Shanahan)


In the cave, there lived a little gray ape, which lived with a little gray snake.
They ate meat when they found it in the cave.
They drank the water at the lake.
They would lay down every time it was midnight.
They went to bed late, because they hunted every night.
And they did like it when they hunted every night.
They gathered around meat every night.
They had a feast with all of the meat.
They loved all the meat.
Then, the other day, they were all full from the feast.
They had what was the first and last feast they would ever have.

-“The Cave” by Dan Beakey, age 5

Imagine, for a moment, beginning the analysis of a poem with the question: “What is a poem?”. What would this mean? Or, to be perhaps a bit more precise, what would we mean, through the iteration of this questioning act? Dare we imagine that the poem in fact means us, through us and by us in our very mediacy? And if the meaninghood of the poem as such resides rarefied in the poetic act itself... how then are we to distinguish the act which calls into question the very meaning of the poem through which we mean, from the poetic act itself as we may understand it to be or not to be? The radical meaning of this foundational act--of calling to question the question of poetry’s questionably unquestionable being or nonbeing; of this volatile vortex of meaning and non-meaning by which the two come to resemble and recognize each other as inviolable doubles without concrete referent; of this precarious poesy which can never be repeated but is rather iterated afresh in each consecutive utterance, foreclosed by the very act which opens it to our possible intervention--this generative moment of poetry’s unhinging and hinging beneath our interpretative gaze crystallizes and appears before us naked in “The Cave”, the master work of the Quincy, Massachusetts poet Dan Beakey.

“In the cave, there lived a little gray ape, which lived with a little gray snake...”


Beakey’s Cave is the dwelling-place, in time and space, of a little gray ape and a little gray snake. Of course the gray ape, that uncannily unsettling figure of humanity’s modest beginnings amidst its double--the primate--haunts the present attempts of man to supersede animality toward a more perfect state. And the gray snake, the ashen accomplice to man’s descent from divine bliss since the time of Adam, is the natural companion to the ape whose animality cannot be hidden, and may be perennially bated to manifest itself despite the most earnest attempts at feigning perfection through civilization. Though the dis-identical twin figures are separate in their somatic constitution, the chasm which cleaves them apart vanishes in the face of their inextricability from the Cave which names them and sustains their life. And the diminutive scale of these figures is telling, a reminder of the humbling experience by which man attempts to measure himself with the yardstick of his eternal ambitions. Gray ape and gray snake, two ephemeral etchings embellishing an impossible coin, mark Beakey’s cave as a site of conjunction and disjunction, where identity recognizes itself only through non-identity with the disjunctive connection of of its own constitutive conjunction. This much, at least, is obvious.

“They ate meat when they found it in the cave.
They drank the water at the lake...”


Beakey’s gray ape and gray snake do not merely inhabit the Cave. As the provider of their sustenance of choice--namely, meat, or carne--the Cave in fact inhabits them, in their very corporeality. The meat they eat--primarily, anyway, and barring that acquired by hunting, to which I will return--is that which they find in the Cave. The finding of the meat is here distinguished from the hunting of the meat. Not hunted for nor obtained deliberately, the very found-ness of this initial instance of meat is central. And we see of course here an echo of Plato which the title forbids us to ignore. Sustained passively within the Cave by that which falls ready to hand, the gray ape and gray snake are seemingly only driven out of the Cave’s nurturing maternal loins by stronger and more implacable desires--namely, we can infer, water, the hudor, which they must acquire from the lake, and even more meat, a larger share of the carne, which they acquire from hunting. And is it hudor and carne, and their combined affective weight, which lures the gray ape and gray snake out of the cave? So it would seem. However, a close reading of this text reveals that never does Beakey specify whether the lake and the scene of the hunting act are outside the Cave, or deeper still within its bowels. So we find ourselves in the unexpected position of not knowing whether the gray ape and gray snake ever exit the Cave at all. In fact, in Beakey, there is no outside to the Cave to speak of. The ape and the snake, it seems, are always within the Cave which sustains them and without which they could scarcely be conceived of at all. Or so it would seem...

“They would lay down every time it was midnight.
They went to bed late, because they hunted every night.
And they did like it when they hunted every night.
They gathered around meat every night.
They had a feast with all of the meat.
They loved all the meat.”


Beakey’s gray ape and gray snake inhabit the Cave with remarkable regularity. Not unlike life for the prisoners of chateau Selligny in Sade’s Cent vingt Journees, the most basic somatic functions of the ape and snake alike are rendered calculable and regular in the hermetic vacuum of static identity which Beakey crafts in his Cave. In fact, compared with Beakey, Sade is in a rather minor figure. Note in this passage the dramatic coupling of hunting, the act by which lives are taken so that the life of another may be sustained for a short while, and sleeping, the act by which a somatic agent acts upon itself in order to refresh its very vitality. The act which strikes down the other so that the one may live, on the one hand, and the one’s action upon itself to the same effect, on the other; this pairing, folded over onto itself and doubled backward, both detonates and renegotiates the intersection of that which kills in order to live and that which lives in order to live and kill. Here we find an iterative act on the interstice of nourishment, aggression, defecation, and most importantly, jouissance: Beakey’s gray ape and gray snake did like it when they hunted every night, suggesting a complicity with this regulation of their very soma unmatched even in Journees save perhaps for in the figure of the cunning Julie, the only daughter of the Lords to escape Selligny alive.

“Then, the other day, they were all full from the feast.
They had what was the first and last feast they would ever have.”


In this unfolding and refolding of the text onto itself, here Beakey unravels in a grand spectacle the temporality of the domain in which the disjointed subject confronts itself as its own irreducible double. Here the timeless regularity of the Cave, which reduces each instance to an anonymous episode in a vast uninterrupted chain of iterations, is made particular and fixed within time. The other day: a day unlike any other, a day of rupture and of non-identitarian identity, a day which marks the emergence of the gray ape and gray snake as isolated nomads of somatic existence, distinguishable from each other, but only as they ultimately serve as each others’ bases. In this masterful climactic scene, the gray ape and gray snake are full from the feast, satiated in their desires in a way unprecedented in Beakey’s Cave, and this effects a break in atemporality which reveals their existence in time as such. This particular feast, we learn, proves to be the first and last feast they would ever have. The first, and the last. After we have been told that there have been many. The phrasing itself does violence to language, as too it shatters ordinary time. Linear time in this formulation, once renewed by the appellative act, is abolished but once more renewed afresh; identity is disrupted by the impossibility of its pretensions, but remains ultimately intact; reconstitution and decomposition functions simultaneously upon the agents which act within its throes against their static fixation within time... What, then, is Dan Beakey’s “The Cave”, if not the profoundest of commentaries on Nietzsche’s “Eternal Return”?

***

When the dust of modernity clears, Dan Beakey’s “The Cave” will stand as a monument to our age: an age of humanity’s dissimilarity to itself and its meaning, and the manifestation of this coupled rupture in uncoupled time. Fixed and fluid, unbounded yet inextricably bound, and breathing the air of a Cave for which we can only timidly postulate an outside, Beakey’s gray ape and gray snake offer us a novel response to the questioning question at the center of the poetic act. The poetry of Dan Beakey simultaneously questions the poeticizing subject’s questioning of poetry itself, qua poetry, while fixing this questioning subject within parameters outside of which it may question at its own risk. This poet is the actor in a dramatic struggle to found a meaning which acknowledges its own double in non-meaning as coextensive in time and space. And this poetizing act will always exist in relation to the possibility of its own impossible relationality. Embodying the countermand to the demand of poetry questioning its own very questionability, Dan Beakey is a poet who has yet to be born. But imagine, for a moment, concluding the analysis of a poem with the question: “What is a poem?”

[Both pieces originally appeared in DPLD III.]