Radical Relativism in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”

What if historical change were the result of connections rather than of new developments? That is, we’re always tempted to speak of a “new” concept, for example, those non-fiction bestsellers with titles like, “How computers have changed our minds”, or something along those lines. Which is not to say they are wrong, but —

— Incidentally, it’s okay to hate. Recently, I’ve decided people are self-centered and often out to hurt you. Even those who disavow selfishness, of course, are — well, perhaps some of the worst of the lot. People different from you never have your best interest at heart, only their own. I haven’t left the house in days, it feels like. This sounds like an interjection but it will be related, something we will return to —

So, which is not to say that they are wrong, but they are not like us and they do not have our best interest at heart. Those books, while possibly helpful to those like themselves, are geared towards our harm, even if they are faintly conscious of it.

But the idea I want to propose is something that I feel like we had been moving towards, the idea of two moments in memory becoming linked, or becoming somewhat inscrutably altered, and this link or this alteration (which I feel is really related to the simultaneity of those moments) is the historical development that we’re interested in. We had been talking for a long time, for example, about the simultaneity of guilt of bequeathal, of life and death, and so on. Well, except we phrased it as the image of history, while here we are interested in merely the link between these moments. And always, we were at least on the verge of saying — that this link is not merely conceptual, that there is something bringing these things together. And I feel like this is precisely what is so difficult for others to see, because they understand it as morality or some sort of social code.

Let’s talk about La Belle Dame Sans Merci — with the emphasis now on the sans merci. That poem is about that most mysterious of phenomena, which is guilt or displacement, the feeling that I am “intruding onto sacred ground”. Guilt itself is a temporal phenomena, well, temporal or spatial, in the sense that it is the feeling of being related to some moment in the past — either in my own memories, memories of youth perhaps, or earlier in history, something outside of my reach but which I can also sense.

… of course the question arises, especially considering my interjection, of whether La Belle Dame has the knight’s best interest at heart. The answer is certainly no, and the knight seems to be the only one who doesn’t want to aknowledge this. Not that we are proposing an absolute relativism here, I mean, we are actually “on her side” — but we are no longer so interested in questions of nihilism or various life-conduct reflections.

Guilt itself is, then, something like two moments compacted into one. We will also eventually want to talk about the other complement of this moment, which could either be the dream of the day after. The scene that’s played out is considerably more violent, however, then the knight imagines. The emphasis on sexuality, to me, seems to heighten this violence — not love, not sharing some special moment, but sex, which is something far more ambivalent.

Let me be a bit more clear about my mounting selfishness. Before, we were interested in “truth” — and I’m not saying that we deny that truth exists — but there certainly something like a “truth drive”. Truth does not help people, and this poem here is something like an encounter with truth, which is always the truth about myself, ie, the truth of my own nothingness. This is not to promote a holier than thou attitude, it’s not that one has reached some higher plane of existence with the knowledge of one’s own nothingness. Rather, it’s an elevation of this moment of dislocatedness, and this selfishness comes across as a total unconcern, or maybe even satisfaction, in what she has done. We are not, then, talking about relativism — we did use the word “truth drive” after all — it’s not a matter of one culture and another, but rather a matter of relishing this power of this dislocatedness.

We should be talking about selfishness here. As the poem emphasizes there is no future for the knight, ie, not so much that he is doomed unto death as that there is nothing for him to do with this memory, this memory does not benefit him because he is of a different sort of creature. The feeling is that one person’s sustenance is another’s poison (these are themes that occur within the poem itself). This is a sort of radical relativism that I am not usually prone to espousing, I am usually making claims that everyone is the same — but we make this poison/sustenance claim at the very same time we insist on (the absoluteness) of the truth drive. We are talking about the difference between the truth drive and (metaphorical) physiology or the biology of the life of the knight. Even if the knight were to recuperate and incorporate this memory into his experience — as he is already beginning to do ( — ie, “and sure enough in language strange she said ‘I love thee true'” –) this incoporation will have to be a forgetting (cf, “morality, social code”, above) if he is to continue living. In biological terms, this moment comes as an absolute destruction, a point that one cannot pass.

TBC: The ghosts of kings, materialism, Keats’s earlier emphasis on “life”, “promise”


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