- After Us
Pur sopravvivendo, in una lunga appendiceDi inesausta, inesauribile passione—che quasi in un altro tempo ha la radice——Pier Paolo Pasolini1
The need to cancel culture is the jet fuel of Keats's poetry. It is consubstantial with the need we're more used to talking about when we talk about Keats, namely the erotic appetite. In poems like "Ode to Psyche," sexual love goes hand in hand not merely with a critique of the bad aspects of civilization but also with the hope of abolishing civilization per se. In its place Keats would install the simple subsistence of the body—e.g. "the wreath'd trellis of a working brain"—freighted by a "complete emancipation of all human senses and attributes."2 I say freighted since freedom, like love, comes to this poetry as something that must be borne, especially as it approaches the unbearable.
There is a familiar thought, that poetry is a space of utopian possibility or at least of social alternative, where life appears not as it is but as it ought to be. Shelley entertained a version of it; so did Theodor Adorno. Keats is more of a skeptic, and certainly he had a better sense of humor. In The Eve of St. Agnes, poetry is subject to a glorious deflation when the ooey-gooey pile of "delicates" Porphyro lays out for Madeline is abandoned without a second glance (PJK, line 271). In a poem that holds the line between dreaming and doing, the frankly unpalatable feast—"Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd; / With jellies soother than the creamy curd, / And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon"—lampoons fantasy, artifice, and even the aesthetic as [End Page 155] expensive and indigestible (PJK, lines 265–7). To seek an emancipated sensuality, as Porphyro and Madeline do, is to leave this departmentstore window display behind.
There is another familiar thought, that under capitalism all poetry, including anti-capitalist poetry, is capitalist poetry; so in the savage feudal world of Agnes all poetry is savage and feudal, no matter how sugared. Rejecting its empty calories means rejecting Keats's poem too, for The Eve of St Agnes—with its filigree and grotesquerie, its labored archaisms and panting innuendoes—is high hokum, right up to its final stanza, which ends with the image of a social world "long benightmar'd" (PJK, line 375). The lovers "are gone," "fled away into the storm" that may kill them, too, but that cannot hide the negation for which they stand: the repeal of this world and its delicates, the annulment of cheap beauty bought at too high a price (PJK, lines 370–1).
The names anchoring this journal—Keats and Shelley—represent two arguments about culture and, therefore, about criticism. Criticism might tend to, might cultivate, culture, alternating between praise, correction, and punishment, and it might also walk away, canceling itself in the bargain. A serious criticism is always prepared to disappear into the storm and, secretly or not, would prefer it. Keats has trained us in the self-abolition of the poet. Can we make the critic next?
Anahid Nersessian is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of Keats's Odes: A Lover's Discourse (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2021).
1. "In a long appendix of unexhausted, / inexhaustible passion, which seems to / have come from another age, I'm surviving." Pier Paolo Pasolini, "Appendice alla 'Religione': Una luce," in Poems, trans. Norman MacAfee with Luciano Martinengo (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), lines 1–3.
2. John Keats, "Ode to Psyche," in The Poems of John Keats, ed. Jack Stillinger (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), line 60. Hereafter abbreviated as PJK and cited in-text by line number; Karl Marx, [Private Property and Communism. Various Stages of Development of Communist Views. Crude, Equalitarian Communism and Communism as Socialism Coinciding with Humaneness], in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, trans. Martin Milligan (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), 107.