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with essays from "Blunder (a Round-Table)"
The following is a version of a talk on FAILURE
from the International Congress on Medieval Studies
at Kalamazoo, Michigan on May 10th, 2013
Can we fail yet? Where and when does failure bring us? To answer this I ask yet another question: What fruit is this?
Experience provides me with information, sensations, instances of fruit that are like it, fruits that I have handled and tasted, but those fruits are not this fruit. Those fruits provide formal and sensual representations which may serve as a kind of utopic ideal of this fruit, but the particular reality of this fruit, let’s say its taste, resists incorporation and conflation with these expectations. These expectations are bound to fail, to be replaced by the assertion of the unexpected particulars I experience when biting into it. That is what reveals that these other fruits are utopic, because they are not topical here and now. The real presence replaces the ideal present. In this way, realism through contradicting the ideal, through failure, disturbs our sense of the potential towards material possibilities.
Failure rhetoric as of late has tended to be utopic, in Jose Munoz’s line of thought, revealing what is missing or failing in present realities and thus opens us up to change. This does not go far enough. I argue that the experience of surprise and failure in the topical reveals the reality that is missing in the imagined present --- directing us towards changes which have already occurred and towards a greater investment in the possibilities of the present, rather than the potentials of the future. Put another way, failure is an object-ion to a form of phantasmal subjectivity --- it is bound up in the very process of cognition. Expectation and thought fail, and “the reason why the thing can’t be expressed…is that it’s too definite for language” (CS Lewis, Perelandra, 30).
An imagined theoretical proof of this I draw from the speculative medievalist work of CS Lewis from the 1940s, drawing on scenes from the Great Divorce where the narrator is brought to paradise through a dream vision and from Peralandra where the protagonist is brought to paradise through angelic intervention. In both cases, Lewis’s paradises bring the reader from a present day world into an aesthetic suggesting the medieval aesthetic suggesting an unreachable elsewhere time and place in existence.
Drawing from medieval accounts of paradise, Lewis furnishes both with signature ecological pieces, giving particular attention, not surprisingly, to trees and fruit which uniquely disturb time and space. In the Great Divorce, fruits disappoint a consumer's attempt to collect, sell and make them into capital gains by asserting a distinctive space. In Peralandra, fruits disappoint a sensualist’s attempt to continually repeat a pleasure by asserting a distinctive time.
By making Utopias topical, “something happened to [the protagonists] which perhaps never happens to a man until he is out of his own world: he saw reality, and thought it was a dream;” or rather, awakened to the lack of mastery our modes our ideals hold over material realities, revealing our world to be far stranger and unknown than we would like to admit (CS Lewis, Perelandra, 40). Through this methodology, Lewis provides object lessons on transformation through experiences of fruits and failure.
A thing fails because it is not the thing we thought it was, or else this is not the time and place we thought, so the failure may exist in equal or greater part in the observer. If we find the Utopic in the here and now, rather than on the horizon, (in other words: if we realize that one of the hardest places to be present is in the here and now) we may better attend to and work with real material possibilities.
In Lewis’s speculative work, what he called his “supposal” literature, he claims to alter our experience of the now by imagining our own reality shifted in time, space or quality. The Great Divorce follows in the tradition of the medieval dream-vision, offering a sleeper who travels to paradise in real time and encounters things-in-themselves, a world where the essential being of things have flourished to such a point as to make blades of grass, leaves on trees, and fruits on the ground so definite that they resist hardily change, even in location, through a kind of ontological persistence that re-frames our relation to things:
I noticed that the grass did not bend under their feet: even the dew drops were not disturbed. Then some re-adjustment of the mind or some focusing of my eyes took place, and I saw the whole phenomenon the other way round. The men were… as all the men I had known had been…It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison…something had happened to my senses so that they were now receiving impressions which would normally exceed their capacity … after the first shock, my sensibility "took" [them], as a well-built ship takes a huge wave. (GD 490).
By bringing subjectivities into a world where objective being asserts itself, no longer allowing representations to speak for it, these intelligences become as ghosts until they learn to live with other bodies in a way which does not seek mastery through tricks of exchange: language, industry, or capital. If these visitors are willing to accept a more democratic position in relation to other things, a certain unknowingness and surrender of another's destiny and value, they will begin to harden and become things-in-themselves as well.
This develops in turn into a recoding of failure from a kind of lack, to a kind of refusal to become other than what one is at that place in their existence; affirming the premise put forth in the preface that “[A thing] does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection. Good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different… from other good” (Lewis, GD 465). This “ripening” thus defines difference and distinctiveness of every thing in existence with all its specificity in time and space.
Taking the case of such essential ripening to actual fruit, the dreamer in the tale encounters a scene where another stranger to the land discovers a tree which has just dropped a pile of these hard as diamond apples in front of him. Working towards the scheme he shared with the dreamer earlier, he attempts to pick up as many as he can to bring back home and sell as a whole new category of product. Failing to lift the pile, he attempts to just pick up one and carries it a little way until he gives up and traveler and fruit fall to the ground.
Suddenly, the water-fall beside the tree begins to speak to the traveler, saying "Fool… put it down. You cannot take it back. There is not room for it [somewhere else]. Stay here and learn to eat such apples. The very leaves and the blades of grass in the wood will delight to teach you" (Lewis, GD, 492). The dreamer then turns away from the scene as a bright spirit appears to give a lesson on haecceities and how the “this-ness” of a thing can serve an impetus for more pragmatic ontological and ethical relations to the world. Lewis, revealed as the dreamer, experiences an orgasmic vision of the manifold coincidence of time and space in the moment of the real shatters his vision and awakens him.
The majority of Lewis’s other supposal literature take the form of a there and back again narrative, where persons from the nominally real here and now travels to another world, usually imagined overtly or covertly, except for those familiar with his sources, as a kind of medieval-ish other time and place. The most familiar instance of this occurs across all the Chronicles of Narnia, but are also present, much earlier, in his Space Trilogy, of which Peralandra forms the second installment.
In this tale, Ransom is carried away from his English cottage by an angel, where CS Lewis literally watches him disappear into the heavens. From there he is carried to Venus, which he discovers has recently awakened into life as a new Paradise. It shares critical similarities to medieval visions of Eden, including one man, one woman, a tempter, and a plethora of fruiting trees and non-violent animals. Lewis however introduces key differences into this Paradise which distinguish it both from traditional visions of paradise and from the one imagined in the Great Divorce. Peralandra, rather than embodying the essential, persisting being of things, instead emphasizes the sensual, transforming becoming of things. It is an entirely aquatic planet where the only lands are floating islands
with hills and valleys, but hills and valleys which changed places every minute so that only a cinematograph could make a contour map of it… A photograph, omitting the colors and the perpetual variation of shape, would make them look deceptively like landscapes in our own world, but the reality is very different; for they, are dry and fruitful like land but their only shape is the inconstant shape of the water beneath them… furnished what would have been a dozen landscapes on Earth-now level wood with trees as vertical as towers, now a deep bottom where it was surprising not to find a stream, now a wood growing on a hillside, and now again, a hilltop. (Lewis, P., 36-37).
This instance on the “now,” always different than any other “now” is an ethical, as well as ontological, imperative for change, with Peralandra’s one and only rule that no one may live on the planet’s one fixed land-mass.
This ontology of perpetual change meets ethics for the protagonist after he discovers an orchard of trees on one of these floating islands, where he tastes his first fruit, “so different from every other taste…a totally new genus of pleasures,: something unheard of among men” which he could only ever describe as “not like that.” Such an object is a refusal of what Graham Harman calls the “undermining” and “over-mining” impulse to view it as an instrumental part of some-thing else (Harman 8-11). By disrupting the continuity between the past, present and future, the disorienting surprise functions to turn us away from trying to subsume all things together into one narrative plot line and instead attend to unexpected realities:
[As he was] about to pluck a second one…for whatever cause, it appeared to him better not to taste again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity—like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day… he stood...wondering how often in his life on Earth he had reiterated pleasures not through desire, but in the teeth of desire...as if life were a film that could be unrolled twice or even made to work backwards… of arresting the unrolling of the film. (Lewis, P., 43).
What Lewis did with the spatial particularity and hardness in the Great Divorce, he here does with temporal particularity and inconstancy in Peralandra, demonstrating that each thing in each moment is so real that trying to subsume it into a kind of ideal type which can be exchanged across the world or sustained throughout time. Having experienced this scene, Ransom turns and meets “the Green Lady” who explicates this principle:
One goes into the forest to pick food and already the thought of one fruit rather than another has grown up in one’s mind. Then, it may be, one finds a different fruit... One joy was expected and another is given… at the very moment of the finding there is. a kind of…a setting aside. The picture of the fruit you have not found is still, for a moment, before you. And if you wished/you could keep it there… after the good you had expected, instead of turning it to the good you had got. You could refuse the real good; you could make the real fruit taste insipid by thinking of the other. (Lewis, P. 53).
Failure is produced by holding on to Utopias and not allowing the topical, the things. here. and now. to speak of their own accord. Failing to hold fruits across time and space reveals a disjuncture between the ideal & failed now. Things we encounter are ever changing, never what we knew or expected; failures disturb us from a utopian present to dwell-in-the-world here and now; to taste its strangeness and surrender our mastery over the narrative of the world.
All this attests we don’t know what fruit this is, but we can learn from it. Rather than look for potentials on the utopic horizon, let us attend to the possibilities in the failure of the here and now, for utopias, that are not topical as well, may do the work of building for as Lewis writes, “Other things, other blessings, other glories...But never that. Never in all worlds, that" (Lewis, P., 65).
Harman, Graham. The Quadruple Object. Washington: Zero Books, 2011.
Lewis, C.S. “The Great Divorce.” The Complete Works of CS Lewis. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1946
Lewis, C.S. Peralandra. New York: Scribner Inc., 1943.