Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Kids From Yesterday, Today: Shakespeare & New Moon

"You only live forever in the lights you make
When we were young we used to say
That you only hear the music when your heart begins to break
Now we are the kids from yesterday, today"

Danger Days, MCR

Working in trans, queer, and disability theory in the field of medieval literature, I have found myself compulsively seeking what Eve Sedgwick calls "reparative readings" of rejected persons, narratives, cultures, and even time periods. I have come to firmly believe that a smart reader makes a book smarter. While Twilight has been a public success, it remains an abject or guilty pleasure for many serious academics. In many respects, however, the things that attract readers to Twilight queerly reflect much of the allure of medieval literature; including shared relations to time, conflicts and magical realisms. Pulling Twilight and Medieval-Early Modern Literature together becomes not only a queer project of appropriating from the mainline but a medieval project of messing with the archive. Enjoy!


As I continue to read forward through the Twilight Saga, I keep getting pulled backward towards childhood and beyond, to ages that I don't remember and cannot reach without the aid of another; in this case, Shakespeare. Engaging with the English playwrights sonnet sequence in the context of queer embodiments, Aranye Fradenburg has invited me, through her contribution to Shakesqueer, "Momma's Boys," into a meditation on Power, Instability and Absence, which Resonates with my reading of the second book in the Twilight Saga, New Moon.

If in the Teen and 'Tween (or Middle) Ages we are stuck between reaching to exercise our own agency and being supervised or dominated by a parental figure, then Childhood or Early/Pre-M(e) Ages may be defined by an anxiety over the loss or impending loss of the Parent/Dom/Love-Object. In New Moon, Bella receives what many of her readers may have wished for her in the first book, an escape from her Vampire-stalker, Edward. The sudden loss is however shattering to her pysche and alters her liveliness. Likewise, as Fradenburg notes, Shakespeare's sonnets are steeped in the anxiety for a lost care-giver and lover, which has in turn, become imprinted on the childish poet.

The description and marketing of Twilight has struck an ironic chord between the youth market and their "mothers." While I will abstain from defining the gender parameters of the book's readership so starkly, I will agree that the book functions within a logic of (managing/engaging) childishness. Stephenie Meyer, Twilight's author, admits to writing the book "with one kid on my knee and another at my feet." Shakespeare too freely directs his sonnets here to a "youth" and there to a "dark lady" which is simultaneously casts as both lover and mother. What comes from the loss of our vampire, our domme, our lady at a tender age?


"Many of my students" writes Fradenburg on Shakespeare's Sonnets, "find Will childish and narcissistic (he wines endlessly, he should get over it, he's a loser). We are often not comfortable when we see the infantile in the grown-up. But I argue that is exactly the view the Sonnet's permit" (F 321). Certainly Shakespeare appears very locked, compelled, out of (self) control in the Sonnets. Yet, is this so surprising? If many of them are about Love and Time/Aging, then are we not exactly situated among things which appear by definition to challenge our self-governance? Eros and Thanatos, well before Freud, are marked as checking the Will with powers outside of himself/itself.

Those that give us Life and those that give us Death, are not so easy to distinguish. Feeling with the childish Will, Fradenburg admits on one side (such as in Sonnet 110), "How could we not fall in love with those who give us life -- as we seek in turn to vivify those we love?" (325); and on the other (such as in Sonnet 35).  "Attachment happens whether or not children are well treated. Abused kids often defend their parents and fear being taken from them. Attachment may ensure survival, but... it is not designed to make us happy" (324). As those familiar with Sub/Dom or Age play, a Sub/Little may most love their Dom/Big when they are disciplining them.

Such a binding together of the self and the other, wherein the absence of one may mean the dissolution of the other, can have tragic consequences, as the Sonnets demonstrate. Shakespeare's Sonnet 143, which Fradenburg uses to introduce her essay, concludes with a desire for the absent mother to return so as to silence the desire/life of the infant: "Turn back to me, / and play the mother's part, kiss me, be kind: / So will I pray that thou mayst have thy Will / if thou turn back, and my loud crying still" (Sonnet 143). There is a desire for the absent thing which can grow into a desire for absence itself. The depart inspire an uncontrollable feeling of being "parted" oneself, and that the remains of your life are no longer sustainable. In this case, the attainment of the beloved or else destruction (or both) seem to become two overwhelming trajectories. One cannot help but hear in this resonance, the plot and words of Romeo and Juliet, which begins Meyer's second book.


"These violent delights have violent ends / and in their triumph die, like fire and powder, / which, as they kiss, consume," are the lines from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet that open New Moon (II. VI). The book itself becomes structured along the lines of the play of these foolish children that cannot seem to wait, with the exile of the beloved (Edward/Romeo), opening up an opportunity for the alternative suitor (Jacob/Paris) to come in and offer up a more sustainable lifestyle, but which in the eyes of the lover (Bella/Juliet) is such an overwhelming loss that she contemplates and even feigns suicide (via jumping off a cliff/drugging), which is mistranslated to the absent lover by an unreliable source (Balthasar/Roselie), compelling the lover to attempt to take his life (via suicide by cop/poisoning). 

While this is on one hand, perhaps, a reductive allegorical reading of New Moon, it is openly invited by the book. The play is referenced throughout the book, with Bella reading it in school and at home, as she fawns over Edward; and Bella goes as far as to call Jacob her "Paris," a point which Meyer underlines by making that the chapter title.

Beyond the obvious, however, and bringing in Fradenburg's reading of Shakespeare as childish, we might find resonance between the Sub/Child author of the Sonnets and Bella. This consuming desire for the Powerful Dom/Parent, whether present or absent, is consistently marked by tradition as "inappropriate," writes Fradenburg, "for someone thirty years older [or in Bella's case, Edward is nearly 100 years older], thirty years younger [or 100 years younger]. The kind of love that makes a fool, a pervert, a stalker out of you" (F 317). The love certainly seems to make a stalker out of Edward (who even watches her while she sleeps), and consistently makes a fool out of Bella (so much it can be hard to read).

One of the central things which propel and participate in Bella's madness/foolishness/childishness during Edward's absence and removal of domination, is that he has become so inscribed in her psyche/being that she hears a phantom of his voice speaking to her. "Sonnets are about the way others live in our minds" writes Fradenburg, and perhaps Edward's infamous Lullaby for Bella, which he sings for her and which she replays, functions in a similar way after he is gone; "if you are alive in my mind -- or, rather, if that is where I have to talk to you, you are probably not around. But this is not just about controlling the locomotions of the other by incorporating them; it is about the way representation allows us to maintain and create links with people we cannot be with" (F 325). Indeed, it is the desire for hearing Edwards phantasmal voice that propels Bella to instigate them by foolish, dangerous acts, such as the jump from the cliff which results in Edward attempting suicide.

Of course, in Bella's case, unlike Juliet's, she is able to get to her beloved in time to prevent him from destroying himself. As a result, Edward returns (or turns back) like the "dark lady" in Shakespeare's sonnets and "silences" her crying by giving her both Love and Death simultaneously: he turns her into a vampire. The exchange comes along with a promise of marriage, so that for this child, she exists in a state of UnLife: caught between perpetual desire and destruction, Submission and Domination, childishness (Edward will ever be 17 years old and Bella 18) and age (they will live forever). In a sense, she comes to occupy (through the powers of supernatural vampirism) what Juliet and Shakespeare cannot: a paradox of sustaining and culminating opposites and being a kid from yesterday, today.


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