Skip to content

May 13, 2010

It’s Never Enough, or, On Being Fucked Up

Figure 1. Jules Dalou, detail from Triomphe du Silène (1898)

It’s Never Enough, or, On Being Fucked Up
Eileen A. Joy

45th International Congress on Medieval Studies (13-16 May 2010)
Session 57 Post-Absymal I: Exegesis, Ethics, Saturation

for Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950-2009)

Eagles of coral
adorn the ebony bed
where Nero lies fast asleep—
callous, peaceful, happy,
in the prime of his body’s strength,
in the fine vigor of youth.
But in the alabaster hall that holds
the ancient shrine of the Aenobarbi,
how restless the household gods!
They tremble, the little Lares,
and try to hide their insignificant bodies.
They’ve heard a terrible sound,
a deadly sound coming up the staircase,
iron footsteps that shake the staircase;
and now, faint with fear, the miserable Lares
scramble to the back of the shrine,
shoving each other and stumbling,
one little god falling over another,
because they know what kind of sound that is,
know by now the footsteps of the Furies.
—C.P. Cavafy, “Footsteps”[1]

I. Alcibiades’s Bitten Heart

As Jonathan Lear has written, Plato’s Symposium “is the only attempt ever made to plumb the philosophical significance of party-crashing.”[2] With Lear, I do not view Alcibiades’s interruption of the party and its speeches as either “incidental farce”[3] or merely a comic affirmation of the wisdom of Socrates’ supposedly disembodied and more “rational” enlightenment. Indeed, I view Alcibiades’s boisterous commentary as the “counter-signature”[4] of theSymposium, written in the volatile blood of its literally beating and bitten (and maybe even gorgeously fucked-up) heart, as well as the undoing of its cool logic of a distant perfection whose “beauty” could never appear, in the words of Diotima, “as a face . . . or hands or any other part of the body” (211a).[5]

It is no difficult matter to view Alcibiades negatively—after all, the Symposium is framed by a nested temporal device, a remembered and recalledconversation between Apollodorus and Glaucon about an event, the dinner party itself, that supposedly happened when they were boys, and therefore Socrates is dead already as the narrative unfolds, as is Alcibiades, which means that one can’t help but read the Symposium knowing that Alcibiades was a brilliant yet majorly fucked-up politician and military strategist who has already betrayed Athens to Sparta and then to Persia, with disastrous results, before decamping back to Athens; that he likely defaced the temples of Hermes by breaking off the genitals of the statues and also profaned the Eleusinian mysteries; that he has been assassinated in Phyrgia by his enemies, of which he had too many to mention, by fire and a storm of arrows; and that the night before dying, he dreamed he was dressed in women’s clothing and his courtesan was holding his head and painting his face with make-up, which Martha Nussbaum reads as an expression of Alcibiades’s “wish for unmixed passivity: the wish to lose the need for practical reason, to become a being who could live entirely in the flux of eros and so avoid tragedy.”[6] Interestingly, the clinical psychologist Anna Salter includes Alcibiades in her catalogue of psychopaths in her book on sexual predators.[7]

So, at the very least Alcibiades is a traitor to his own country and at the worst a psychopath, maybe also a manic-depressive (which is to say, a difficult genius), and one intention of the Symposium may have been to make an argument that would go something like this: how can you blame Socrates for leading the youth of Athens astray? He did his best with Alcibiades, but Alcibiades just wouldn’t listen to his coolly detached disquisitions on the importance of an “absolute beauty” that transcends “fair boys” and youth, and he went crazy. This is a guy who, when Socrates talks, his heart leaps within him like a “reveler” and the tears “rain” out of his eyes (215d)—although one has to wonder here, maybe Socrates is (after all) responsible for inspiring wild, fucked-up passions, and what is a guy like Alcibiades supposed to do, anyway?

But first a warning: although I might desire a more positive portrait of Alcibiades than is generally rendered in commentary on the Symposium,[8] I do not intend to turn him into a sentimentalized poster boy for some sort of heroic queer love; rather, I’m interested in asking about the relation between philosophy and madness, between thought and affect, between “having it together,” in terms of your methodologies, and being so fucked-up with and disorganized by passion—for ideas, which are never entirely detached from persons—you can’t think straight. This has something to do as well with what has been troubling Lauren Berlant of late—namely, that what we are starved for right now is not necessarily sex or romantic intimacy, “but the emotional time of being-with, time where it is possible to value floundering around with others whose attention-paying to what’s happening is generous and makes liveness possible as a good, not a threat.”[9] So, by my title, I’m also asking if it’s possible to imagine a medieval studies in which “it’s never enough,” whatever it is, and where we are willing to risk together something like sex, or like affect, a “shared disorganization” (being “fucked up” together) in what Berlant calls the “sexual impasse,” which we need to understand,

not as a stopping point, but as a holding station that doesn’t hold but opens out into anxiety, that dogpaddl[es] around a space whose contours remain obscure. An impasse is decompositional—in the unbound temporality of the lag one hopes to have been experiencing all along (otherwise it’s the end), it marks a delay.[10]

II. Are You Awake (to Me)?

I want to recall a certain moment of the “light touch,” shared in the course of Alcibiades recounting to the dinner guests the numerous times he has attempted to seduce Socrates, devising attempts to be alone with him, inviting him to wrestle, and to come to his house for dinner, all to no avail. On one of those occasions, after a long night of talking and convincing Socrates that it is too late to go home, when they are lying close together on two couches, and the lamp has been put out and the servants have been asked to leave the room, Alcibiades shares how he nudges Socrates, and asks him, “Socrates, are you asleep?” (218c)—here we have a moment of suspension (which is also a light pressing) in which we do not know what happens next, even though we will (and do) know what happens next. Precisely: nothing happens, except that Socrates gently rebuffs Alcibiades’s sexual maneuvers. Nevertheless, Alcibiades does dare to throw his own heavy coat around Socrates and to creep under Socrates’s more short cloak so that he can hold the “monster” or “divine power” in his arms (219b).[11]

What would it mean to devise a reading of the Symposium that would linger, as Alcibiades does, over a moment of a certain expectation that the body of thought—of, more properly, philosophy—has a body which can be loved, which is to say, turned around, and frankly, fucked with? Alcibiades’s hopes will be frustrated, of course, leading him to a place of bodily pain because he has been “inwardly pierced, bitten” in “the heart or soul, or whatever one should call it,” by Socrates (218a)[12]—and this is a “heart or soul,” moreover, that in Alcibiades’s mind, is like a body. This point cannot be emphasized enough: for Alcibiades, whatever this thing is that is inside the body, and that philosophy ignites, it is like more flesh, and it is vulnerable, whether to snakes, lightning, or lovers. While philosophy itself may tend, supposedly upwards, toward the abstract, its very language, in the physical form of Socrates speaking (even, his endless speaking and talking), has the power to create bodily suffering. Alcibiades has been bitten by philosophy, and in some important sense, he is trapped in what Lear calls the “human-erotic,” and

insofar as Alcibiades is trapped in the human-erotic, he can, from Socrates’ perspective, go fuck himself. It does not matter to Socrates what the consequences are. From the vantage of Athenian culture, this encounter between Alcibiades and Socrates must be judged a failure of inestimable cost. . . . And yet, from a divine point of view, human politics is by and large a distraction. It just does not matter which particular form the distraction takes.[13]

But it matters a great deal, actually, to Lear, as well as to myself, “which particular form the distraction takes,” and our aim should be “not to leave the human realm behind, but to get deeper into it—its smells, feels, textures, and the imaginary meanings we give to them. Whatever ‘higher’ or ‘deeper’ meanings there may be, they do not transcend human life, but lie immanent in it,” and “it is this particular [embodied] subjectivity with which we are pregnant: and it is from this that we give birth in beauty.”[14]

It may be, in another analysis, that Alcibiades’s complaints against Socrates illustrate what Leo Bersani has argued about love—that it is often a possessive and aggressively “narcissistic extravagance”[15]—and in Socrates’ devotion to endlessly talking he proffers to Alcibiades another way of loving that is not necessarily disembodied (after all, conversation requires bodies), but which aims at what Bersani has called a “virtual being that continuously becomes, through speech, more like itself.” According to Bersani,

The ascetic ethic Foucault was drawn to in antiquity was perhaps most expertly practiced by Socrates who, much to the exasperation of Alcibiades in his role as sexual seducer, identified a life devoted to love as a lifelong devotion to philosophical discussion—or, to put it not quite so dryly, to spiritually liquefying speech.[16]

Bersani ends his recent commentary on the Phaedrus with this somewhat enigmatic phrase about “spiritually liquefying speech” in order to figure a sort of impersonal love as “a special kind of talk unconstrained by consequences other than further talk,” a type of “conversation suspended in virtuality” that, in the psychoanalytic relation at least, treats the unconscious “not as the determinant depth of being but, instead, as de-realized being, as never more than potential being,” and here, perhaps, we have “love freed from demand.”[17] But while this may sketch out the hope of love freed from demand, it’s certainly not affect freed from objects, nor from some sort of mutual recognition, because, in Bersani’s scheme anyway, we must have our beautiful boys, if not to possess them, then at least to have someone with whom to practice a reciprocal self-recognition, or re-finding of our virtual selves, which also calls to mind Adam Phillips’s definition of desire as “like being told a secret about oneself that someone else has made up.”[18]

It is precisely because of Socrates’ “liquefying speech” that Alcibiades is seized by a vision in which Socrates’ body, like one of the Silene-satyr figurines, appears to open and reveal to Alcibiades the “utterly beautiful,” golden “statues” contained within, at which point Alcibiades claims he would do anything Socrates told him to do and Socrates has become his Siren (216e–217a). This can be compared as well to the moment when, after that night of endless talking and chaste sleeping (or perhaps, for Alcibiades, a night of restless yearning while holding the still and “godlike” body of Socrates in his arms), Alcibiades’s soul, or heart, or whatever, is wounded, “bitten more cruelly than a snake” (218a)—which is to say, if speech liquefies, it can also bite and burn. In other words, philosophy touches us, and even, wounds us. It turns us into lovers wholly dis-organized and fucked up by its touch, always wanting more. This is like a disaster—literally, the malady of a star, an ill-starred moment, a falling into or being fallen upon by stellar calamity. In other words: cosmicallyfucked up.

Nevertheless, recall again the moment before this, when Alcibiades “nudges” Socrates and asks, “Socrates, are you asleep?” (which really means, “Socrates, are you awake?” and even more so, “are you awake to me?”). This is the enunciation of the hope of conversation, of talking, as the site of the possibility of love and of the rich, utopian potentiality of singular selves who might be turned around and opened by this talking. The desire for a specific sort of company and the hope of glimpsing the shining chest of its queer little gods,[19] in this case, exceeds the love of philosophy itself that, outside of company (id est, companionship) could never voice itself. There is no philosophy, no thinking, without attachment, without affect, or without friendship. In which case, unfasten your cabinets and unfurl your queer little gods.


1. C.P. Cavafy, The Complete Poems of Cavafy, trans. Rae Dalven (New York: Harcourt, 1976), p. 15.

2. Jonathan Lear, “Eros and Unknowing: The Psychoanalytic Significance of Plato’s Symposium,” in Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 148.

3. Lear, “Eros and Unknowing,” p. 149.

4. By “counter-signature,” I am purposefully invoking Derrida’s idea, in Paper Machine, of commentary as an “active” and “interpretive inflection” that “contributes something of its own, during and beyond the passive reading of a text that precedes us but which one reinterprets, as faithfully as possible, leaving a mark behind” (Jacques Derrida, Paper Machine, trans. Rachel Bowlby [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005], p. 141.

5. All quotations from the Symposium, unless otherwise noted, are from Plato: The Symposium, ed. M.C. Howatson and Frisbee C.C. Sheffield, trans. M.C. Howatson (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

6. Martha Nussbaum, “The Speech of Alcibiades: A Reading of the Symposium,” in The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy(Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 199. The story of Alcibiades’s dream is recounted in Plutarch.

7. See Anna C. Salter, Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders (New York: Basic Books, 2003), pp. 128–35.

8. Martha Nussbaum’s characterization of Alcibiades, although beautifully nuanced (and which should also be read in full), is somewhat typical of the general assessment of Alcibiades as a character within the Symposium: “Alcibiades is appealing, gripping, and, ultimately, tragic in part because he is also the comic poet of his own disaster” (The Fragility of Goodness, p.194). More important, for Nussbaum, Alcibiades is also a figural posing of the question as to “whether personal eros can have, after all, any place in a life that is to be shaped by practical reason. . . . the nature of personal erotic passion may be such as to always be unstable, both internally and in relation to the lover’s whole plan” (p. 197), and yet, what would it means to live in the stone-world of philosophy? Ultimately, for Nussbaum, the Symposium shows us how “philosophy is not fully human [Plato],” but we are also “terrified of humanity and what it leads to [Alcibiades].” And with Alcibiades’s death, there goes our hope, also, as readers, of the possibility that “eros and philosophy could live together in the city and so save it from disaster” (pp. 198, 199).

9. Lauren Berlant, “Starved,” South Atlantic Quarterly 106.3 (Summer 2007): 440 [433–44]. Berlant’s essay is part of a special issue, “After Sex? On Writing Since Queer Theory,” edited by Janet Halley and Andrew Parker.

10. Berlant, “Starved,” p. 434.

11. The word used to describe Socrates at this moment in the text is Greek daimonios, which can denote “god,” “divine power,” “demon,” “supernatural power,” “superhuman.”

12. My translation here is from Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness, p. 192.

13. Lear, “Eros and Unknowing,” p. 164.

14. Lear, “Eros and Unknowing,” p. 166.

15. Leo Bersani, “The Power of Evil and the Power of Love,” in Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips, Intimacies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 76.

16. Bersani, “The Power of Evil and the Power of Love,” p. 87.

17. Leo Bersani, “The It in the I,” in Bersani and Phillips, Intimacies, p. 28.

18. Quoted in Bersani, “The Power of Evil and the Power of Love,” p. 84.

19. My notion of a pantheon of “queer little gods” is directly indebted to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick who, at the time of her death, was working on a project titled “Proust and the Queer Little Gods.” In an interview with Michael Snediker she explained that her sources for this idea were Proust and Cavafy, who in her mind were “really, really enabled by being able to imagine, or recollect, a whole range of ontologically intermediate figures that are somewhat superhuman—on the continuum between humans and gods they’re more like gods. But still they’re not omnipotent, not omnipresent, not universal.” Similar to Roman household gods, they’re “protective” and “tutelary” and “they might also be demonic like djinns,” and in the artistic works within which they operate “they generate this world that’s so filled with life—both internal to characters but also all around them” (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Michael Snediker, “Queer Little Gods: A Conversation,” The Massachusetts Review 49.1/2 [Spring/Summer 2008]: 209, 211).

Leave a comment

Note: HTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to comments


Skip to toolbar