Gee, Your Heir Smells Terrific:
Response to "Shakespeare's Perfume"

Jeffrey Masten

 

     1. I like Richard Halpern's enterprise in "Shakespeare's Perfume," and before raising some questions about the essay, I should be clear that I fully support its larger aims of attending to homoeroticism in Shakespeare's Sonnets and to some mechanisms of its long-standing critical avoidance. The essay's two central claims are significant provocations to thought about the sonnets. First, that re-thinking "sublimation" in these poems may allow us to bridge the divide between homoeroticism-as-theme and the form/practice of the poems' writing. (This mode of analysis might usefully be seen in relation to Lee Edelman's term homographesis.1) And second, that, as a discourse and mode of cultural production, sublimation in the sonnets may have helped produce a culturally and historically situated form of homoeroticism. (This might be described as a Foucauldian reading of the sonnets that brings together Joel Fineman's argument that Shakespeare invented modern subjectivity in the sonnets, and Marjorie Garber's elaboration of the ways in which Shakespeare wrote [in the broadest sense] Freud--Shakespeare, in other words, as a founder of a certain kind of discursivity.2) Halpern's essay, then, is extraordinarily helpful in asking us to think about a set of important and intersecting genealogies, post-1609: sexuality, sublimation, the sublime, the practices and forms of rhetoric and writing.

     2. But is there "not only a rhetoric but what one might go so far as to call a 'theory' of sublimation" in the sonnets (Halpern ¶6)? The essay begins this argument with sonnet 5 and its striking figure of the perfume bottle; this is a rhetoric and reading I'd like to follow out a bit in order to investigate the essay's central claims. Though the essay productively places sublimation in the context of seventeenth-century alchemy, the rhetoric in sonnet 5 seems more easily characterized as the discourse of distillation, rather than sublimation. This is a slippage or substitution that the essay relies upon at a number of key points,3 and it's worth attending to because, insofar as sublimation means "transformation" in the essay (and in the psychoanalytic tradition for which the essay provides a genealogy), distillation may be a very different process. Though I'm no expert on the alchemical literature with which the essay historicizes sublimation, I think it's likely relevant to such a genealogy that distill ("to drip or trickle down" [OED]) and sublime (to "set on high, lift vp," according to a 1604 hard-word list) are etymological opposites.4 Attending to this sonnet's figuration of reproduction and poetry-writing more precisely as "distillation" may furthermore remind us that "procreation" in these sonnets is more about "storage" than about creating something new--where "new" means either newly formed from the combination of father and mother, or a new and original aesthetic creation in the post-Romantic sense. I would thus describe the procreation sonnets as recreation sonnets: poems about men storing more men (in flesh of sons that recapitulate, print, or mirror fathers, and in words/poems).5

     3. One of my questions about the essay's sublimation argument might then be clarified by reading the sonnets through a more specifically historicized model of reproduction, one that is generally Aristotelian, roughly parthenogenic--which doesn't then make the womb as "sterile and inorganic" vessel seem quite so unlikely (¶9).6 But such a model would also attend, I think, to the ways in which reproduction as "aesthetic duty" (¶20) is not so easily separable or distinct from class-duty under the gendered rules of primogeniture.7 As an example, consider the line Halpern quotes from sonnet 1: "His tender heire might beare his memory" (1.4, qtd. ¶20).8 Tender here I take to function both as an aesthetic evaluation and as a synonym or appositive for the word that follows it: the heir is also "a tender," one who tends (and extends)--in this case, the father's legacy.9 Insofar as "tender" also means the payment or fulfillment of a debt, there is a further resonance of legal discourse here that may reference primogeniture and the "duty" of [further] reproduction.10 Moreover, the resonance of the homonym we would spell as "tender hair" makes the aesthetic evaluation of the imagined heir even less separable from these legal and reproductive meanings. Not merely close-readings, these resonances, I think, begin to hint at the difficulty of an argument that hinges on the sublimation/transformation of sex into beauty or of "desire . . . into art" (¶11, my emphasis), since reproduction in the highly classed context the sonnets set up is not separable from aesthetic evaluation.11 Put another way: thinking that these poems transform (heterosexual) procreation into the sodomitical sublime may require effacing some of the ways in which the rhetoric of the poems is already pervaded by same-sex passion, affection, (e)valuation, and related social structures.

     4. This may strike some readers as a mere disagreement over modes of reading; that is, I'm evidently less certain than the essay is that one can isolate "the direct subject matter" (¶13) of, say, sonnet 5, since I'm more inclined to regard the sonnets as a complicated nexus of discourses (especially as read through the indispensable lens of the Booth edition) that makes the distinguishing of tenor and vehicle, or of intentional poetic metaphor and cultural discourse, more complex than I think the essay may allow. This difference of perspective ends up mattering for the larger argument, though, in the following passage:

The sublimating rhetoric of the sonnets separates out an impeccably refined and aestheticized form of desire from a sodomitical discourse which is then abjected as fecal remainder. This remainder is not, however, expelled to a space outside the poems but is rather relegated to a non-space within the poems. That is to say, it abides in the half-light of wordplay, implication, and insinuation. Sodomy subsists as the speaking of the unspeakable, as the topos of the inexpressible or unnameable. Perhaps it is more correct, then, to identify Shakespearean homosexuality with both sublimate and remainder, or indeed with the very separation that produces this double product. The Shakespearean sonnet gives off a perfume which contains just the slightest hint of feces. (¶24)

It is the "non-space within the poems" that initially makes me pause here, for in the discourse of these poems (and I leave aside for the moment whether this may be a function of discourse more generally in a period before lexical standardization), knowing what has been thus relegated or only unspeakingly spoken seemingly would require a decision in advance of what has been spoken, what is sublimable. (It is perhaps relevant again to point up the difference in alchemical discourse between sublimation [the treatment of solids] and distillation [the treatment of liquids]; the essay sees a solid, sublimable text, where I would see a semiotic liquid or solution.) In the lines of the essay's central figure--"Then were not summers distillation left / A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glasse" (5.10-11)--the valences of pent (shut up), penned (in an enclosure), and penned (written in a text, which may here be like a mirror or window or picture, as in sonnet 3) are multiply present in the space of the text; they are not easily distinguished in a linguistic context lacking (though not knowing it lacks) our orthographic and aural standardizations.12

     5. These meanings make it difficult for me to accede to an argument in which "Shakespeare's image of the perfume bottle takes the commonplace but mysterious process whereby a father's sexual substance produces a baby, and puts in its place the even more mysterious process whereby the young man's sexual substance--his semen--is distilled into poetry" (¶11, my emphasis). But what is in whose place? This place is no non-space but rather the multiple, textural discourse of this language: a place "Leese" (lose) in sonnet 5's last line occupies with "lease," where "sweet" and "sweat" (also in this same line, but also in the Donne poem quoted, and in the non-regularized spelling of the period at large) are doubly situated, where "sweet" functions synaesthetically (not unlike "tender") for both a taste and a smell.13

     6. This is by no means to dispute or deny, through an injection of what I would see as historically grounded multivalency, the presence of homoeroticism in the sonnets, but rather to understand how these discourses are closely entwined with other discourses in the same space (the sonnets)--and in the world in which they were written. To take up that final example of "sweet" again, it's relevant that that word operates repeatedly (to cite only Shakespearean examples) as a term of endearment between men, as in Proteus's farewell to his friend in the first scene of Two Gentlemen of Verona ("Sweet Valentine, adieu" [1.1.11]), Antonio's letter to "Sweet Bassanio" in Merchant of Venice (3.2.315), the language of Patroclus and Achilles in Troilus and Cressida (3.3.222-234), and Horatio's final words to his "sweet prince," Hamlet (5.2.359).14 The circulation of this discourse, moreover, is used to characterize Shakespeare's own circulation and reproduction of texts, as when Meres writes that "the sweete wittie soule of Ouid liues in mellifluous & hony-tongued Shakespeare" (again, the sonnets as male-male recreation) and cites as evidence "his sugred Sonnets among his priuate friends."15 A critical reinvigoration of the homoerotic rhetoric of sweetness may suggest that the distance between Barnfield's sucking honey bee and Shakespeare's speaker is less than Halpern's essay suggests--may indeed be no distance but the same extensive space--and that "Shakespeare's sublimating rhetoric," "the division into spiritualized friendship and obscene wordplay" (¶25) on which the essay in part depends, may not be a division but a cohabitation.16

     7. As a further example, we can follow the essay and the rhetorics of distillation and sweetness from sonnet 5 to sonnet 6, where the writer urges the addressee,

. . . let not winters wragged hand deface,
In thee thy summer ere thou be distil'd:
Make sweet some viall; treasure thou some place,
With beautits17 treasure ere it be selfe kil'd . . .

As Halpern's essay notes, one of the sonnet's imperatives here is to "Make some vial sweet" (impregnate some womb). But simultaneously, there are multiple other possibilities: "sweeten someone (something?) vile," and "make, Sweet, some vial," and "make sweet some vial" (i.e., "construct some vial that is sweet"), which might also suggest "make some sweet vile(ness)." Booth calls these meanings "logically incidental" (141), but, as difficult as they are to separate out, especially aurally, the better description may be "logically coincidental," for the way in which they compound, or rather exhibit as a compound, the sweet and the vile in the (urged, potential) bodily actions of the young man. This is, one might even say, the logic of sodomy.18 The vi(a)l(e)--forgive the absurd parentheses, but there is no way to represent in modern spelling the early modern multiplicity of the quarto's wordform "viall"--may precisely represent the "vile vial," the "improper vessel" (the anus) here sweetened.19 As such, it is hard to see as characteristic of "Shakespearean homosexuality" a transitive process in which the corporeal womb must be "transform[ed]" to the aestheticized (and thus, in Halpern's argument, improper) vial (¶23), since the vi(a)l(e) is always-already a compound of (im)propriety, never crystal clear. For this reason, and though I would agree with Halpern that desire for the "dark lady" is also figured sodomitically,20 I can't agree that the sequence--or Shakespeare, in Halpern's view--unambiguously or definitively "displaces the tropes of sodomy from the young man onto the Lady" (¶45).

     8. While I thus value the essay's attempt to "answer the charges of ahistoricism" in proposing a more historically situated version of sublimation (¶6), I want to suggest that what may remain the great uncharted domain in our attempts to think about psychological processes historically is the difference of a linguistic system that both resembles and is remarkably different from our own. (Some of that difference is elided by modernized editions, which is why I quote from the 1609 Sonnets quarto above and have tried to avoid collapsing linguistic difference into our terms, the language of "pun" or "wordplay.") I don't by any means have a firm answer to this query, but I want at least to pose as a possibility that--in a context where the lines between words, and between "different" meanings of "the same" word/sound/spelling, and even between parts of speech, are much less strenuously drawn than they are post-standardization21--familiar psychological structures like "repression," "negation," or "sublimation" may exist only in very different forms. Within the unstructured structure of the early modern language,22 how (under what conditions, with what effects) does early modern "repression" operate? Can we say that "Donne, typically, expresses what Shakespeare represses" (¶17), and/or how is the border between expression and repression shifted, or less articulated?23 And, again, is that border potentially constructed or reified by our later editing and clean up/lifting up/sublimation of the text, in its (ostensible) solidity?24

     9. I want to turn, in concluding this response, to discursive circulation in a somewhat more concrete way, taking up Halpern's argument that the Sonnets transform sodomy into art (and produce a discourse about this transformation) (¶11). I want slightly to revise that formulation and, building on the critical attention to the sonnet as a circulated form,25 suggest that one thing the sonnets may do is transform (which is to say, in my view, circulate) sodomy as porn--that is, as desire that, spelled out and passed around in manuscript and print, generates more desire. I put the argument this way because I want to float a hypothesis that the modeling and circulation of sodomitic desire (call it the rhetoric of sweetness, or of the multiple possibilities of the vial/vile, or of distillation into a discursive perfume that pervades culture) is as much responsible for a poetics of "Shakespearean homosexuality" as sublimation. Under this reading, the most crucial aspect of Wilde's novella The Portrait of Mr. W.H. for a reading of the Sonnets may not be its sublimating critical argument about the poems, the safely idealized love with only the hints of dangerous carnality. Rather, the strange power of the Sonnets might seem to reside not in their homoeroticism per se, but in the transformative capabilities that homoeroticism accrues in circulation--the ability of the Sonnets' discourse to "convert"26 and attract others to each other and its cause. Cyril Graham convinces and converts Erskine, who convinces and converts the narrator, who reconvinces and reconverts Erskine. Much of the conversion in the narrative takes place through circulated letters, and the forged portrait of Willie Hughes ("of quite extraordinary personal beauty" [1151]) passes (like porn?) from Graham to Erskine to the narrator. This circuit of converted and converting desire (accompanied in Graham's and Erskine's cases by "self-killing") is somewhat diminished in Halpern's essay, since the essay represents what are strictly speaking the narrator's readings of the poems as Cyril Graham's (Halpern ¶¶ 3-5). The circuit is formulated as if continuing beyond the bounds of the novella: "This curious work of art," the last paragraph begins, "hangs now in my library, where it is very much admired by my artistic friends" (1201). Not simply one person's reading of the poems, their homoerotics (simultaneously unpent and penned) are represented as pervading the culture.

     10. If we keep in mind the tendency of rhetorics in the early modern period to cross what we think of as discrete discourses easily (for example, for a seemingly corporeal terms like "bodies" to find use as an alchemical category in the text Halpern quotes, or, as Wendy Wall notes, for a term like "distillation" to cross easily between alchemy and everyday household work, often gendered female27), we should in this context attend to the fact that "circulation" (which I have been using to talk about sonnets, portraits, and discourses) is as well a term in alchemy--a kind of distillation: "Circulate," says the OED:

1. Old Chem. . . . To subject a substance to continuous distillation in a closed vessel (CIRCULATORY n.), in which the vapour was caused to condense at the top of the apparatus and to flow back into the original liquid, the whole thus undergoing repeated vaporization and condensation. Obs.

Perhaps this is the homoerotic distillation-as-circulation put into practice in (and crucially around) Shakespeares Sonnets. "[H]is sugred sonnets among his priuate friends," Meres writes, and though he doesn't supply his readers with a more descriptive verb, he does ask them to "witnes"28/observe this implicit circulation. Perhaps then, instead: "Shakespearean homosexuality is the aesthetic [circulate] of sodomy" (¶24).

 

 

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Notes

1 Lee Edelman, "Homographesis," in Homographesis: essays in gay literary and cultural theory (New York: Routledge, 1994) 3-23.

2 Joel Fineman, Shakespeare's Perjured Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets (Berkeley: U of California P, 1986); Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality (New York: Methuen, 1987). On "founders of discursivity," see Michel Foucault, "What Is an Author?" in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1984) 113-17.

3 See for example ¶¶11, 14-15.

4 All references to the OED are to the 2nd edition on CD-ROM; Robert Cawdrey, A Table Alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the understanding of hard usuall English wordes (London: J. Roberts for E. Weaver, 1604).

5 On "store" see sonnets 11 and 14.

6 This would also mean rethinking a formulation in Halpern's reading of sonnet 20 ("Real humans originate as tiny embryos and grow into adulthood; they aren't sculpted as fully grown creatures" [¶32]), since at least some early modern anatomies depict what we would call zygote and fetus, precisely, as miniaturized adults floating in the womb.

7 My argument here echoes Valerie Traub, "Sex Without Issue: Sodomy, Reproduction, and Signification in Shakespeare's Sonnets," in James Schiffer (ed.), Shakespeare's Sonnets: Critical Essays (New York and London: Garland, 1999) 441.

8 For reasons suggested below, I'll be quoting throughout from the 1609 quarto, as reproduced in facsimile in Stephen Booth (ed.), Shakespeare's Sonnets (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1978). Parenthetical citations of Booth's commentary refer to page numbers.

9 Extends, because the etymology of the verb tender (to stretch or hold out) may be residual here.

10 Booth doesn't notate any of these meanings, but see OED, tender n.1 (1.) and n.2 (1b.). Booth's Additional Note on the line (1978 printing, 579) might further support a parthenogenic account of reproduction in the sonnets.

11 In other words, the initial poems are not urging just any young man to reproduce, as Margreta de Grazia points out; "The Scandal of Shakespeare's Sonnets," in Schiffer (ed.), Shakespeare's Sonnets, 102.

12 The OED's evidence is not entirely convincing, but "pent" may even suggest "paint(ed)," then potentially resonating with the "frame" of line 1, and the "glass" of a picture that mirrors. "Pent/penned in walls" also resonates with the Elizabethan practice of writing on walls, as Juliet Fleming has brilliantly analyzed it; see "Wounded Walls: Graffiti, Grammatology, and the Age of Shakespeare," in Criticism (1997), 39.1, 1-30.

13 This is perhaps the place to express gratitude to Stephen Booth for somewhat under-annotating this poem, and leaving some space.

14 Parenthetical line numbers reference The Riverside Shakespeare, G. Blakemore Evans, et al., (eds.), (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). On sweetness and sugar as a discourse increasingly feminized in the seventeenth century, see Kim F. Hall, "Culinary Spaces, Colonial Spaces: The Gendering of Sugar in the Seventeenth Century," in Valerie Traub, M. Lindsay Kaplan, and Dympna Callaghan (eds.), Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture: Emerging Subjects (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996) 168-190.

15 Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia (1598), as qtd. in Riverside Shakespeare (1844).

16 On the cohabitation of sweetness and (sexual) shame in the young man, see the first quatrain of sonnet 95, sonnet 99, and perhaps (evocative for my argument) the "compound sweet" of sonnet 125.

17 [Sic], usually emended to "beauty's." The word (the hypothesized word) could of course be plural possessive too.

18 I'm echoing Jonathan Goldberg, who points out that "sodometry" is in this period both a sexual positioning and a "false argument . . . a denial of those socially constructed hierarchies that are taken to be natural"; Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Early Modern Sexualities (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1992) 122.

19 In such a reading, line 4's threat of self-killing may then carry with it a resonance and reminder of the punishment for sodomy in early modern England, while simultaneously registering the killing of the self through the loss of legacy/storage in an heir.

20 On the implications of this, see Traub, "Sex without Issue."

21 For more detailed argument of what I'm only able to telegraph here, see: Margreta de Grazia, "Homonyms Before and After Lexical Standardization," Shakespeare Jahrbuch (1990) 143-156; Juliet Fleming, "Dictionary English and the Female Tongue," in Richard Burt and John Michael Archer (eds.), Enclosure Acts: Sexuality, Property, and Culture in Early Modern England, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), esp. 301-02; my "Pressing Subjects; Or, The Secret Lives of Shakespeare's Compositors," in Jeffrey Masten, Peter Stallybrass, and Nancy J. Vickers (eds.), Language Machines: Technologies of Literary and Cultural Production (New York: Routledge, 1997) 75-107; and Patricia Parker, Shakespeare from the Margins: Language, Culture, Context (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996).

22 For a fuller account of this possibility, see the conclusion of my essay "The Interpretation of Dreams, circa 1610," in Carla Mazzio and Douglas Trevor (eds.), Historicism, Psychoanalysis and Early Modern Studies (New York: Routledge, 2000). I'm indebted to Susan Zimmerman for ongoing conversations about early modern "repression" that have clarified the question for me.

23 On the retroactive insertion of a repressed scandal into the Sonnets by later criticism and editing, a critique to which Halpern's essay may be susceptible, see de Grazia, "Scandal."

24 Again, it's worth noting an area of significant agreement--Halpern and I concur that homoeroticism in the Sonnets is produced out of the rhetorical working of the language, and the instances of what we would call punning or wordplay or discursive enjambment that I would make more a characteristic of the linguistic field are precisely the aesthetic affects that (isolable and attributed to the writer) produce Shakespearean homosexuality for Halpern.

25 See for example: Arthur F. Marotti, "Shakespeare's Sonnets as Literary Property," in Elizabeth D. Harvey and Katharine Eisaman Maus (eds.), Soliciting Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seventeenth-Century English Poetry (Chicago : U of Chicago P, 1990) 143-73; Marotti, Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995); Wendy Wall, The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993); Patricia Fumerton, "Secret Arts: Elizabethan Miniatures and Sonnets," Chapter 3 of Cultural Aesthetics: Renaissance Literature and the Practice of Social Ornament (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991) 67-110.

26 For the novella's rhetoric of "conversion," see 1152, 1157, 1161, 1201, in Oscar Wilde, The Portrait of Mr. W. H., in Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, intro. Vyvyan Holland (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) 1150-1201.

27 Wendy Wall, In the Nation's Kitchen: Early Modern Domestic Work and English Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, forthcoming). These crossings or translations are of course historicizable; I was surprised, for example, to learn that, according at least to the OED, faeces doesn't seem to mean excrement until roughly 1639, a factoid that may make the "fecal remainder" Halpern finds in the alchemical literature somewhat less corporeal and sodomitical in a text from 1624 (¶12), or, by extension of argument, in one written before 1609 (¶24).

28 Meres, qtd. Riverside 1844.

 

 

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Content copyright © 2001 Jeffrey Masten.