“Absence and Apophasis”

Sunday, 11:30am-1pm

300 Wheeler

Moderator: Yosef Rosen


Joshua Levi Ian Gentzke (Stanford)

Speaking Silence: The Articulation of Inarticulacy in the Work of Jacob Böhme

The proposed paper treats the articulation of inarticulacy in the work of the German mystic, Jacob Böhme (1575-1624). Böhme remains a difficult figure to classify: born into a peasant family, he became an autodidact who challenged religious authorities and garnered the support of members of aristocracy through his writings; a pious Lutheran, he nevertheless embraced Paracelsianism and elements of magical discourse; a Biblical commentator he simultaneously touted the logocentric Protestant notion of the “plain word” of the text and subverted it by privileging image, vision, and imagination as sites of revelation. In step with this inclination to fuse contradictory tendencies, Böhme's works are at once pansophic—they account for everything from the self-creation of the Deity to the genesis of worms—and yet consistently undermine explanation in favor of evoking wonder in the reader. It is this evocation which is bound up with the articulation of inarticulacy in Böhme's work: Böhme employs the written word to construct a space of semantic silence for the reader to inhabit. Thus he utilizes the not-unfamiliar mystical trope of apophatic inarticulacy, the idea that divine truths, images, and teachings cannot be constrained by language or sign. However, understanding this as more than a just a literary practice, I draw attention to the way in which apophatic inarticulacy functioned within Böhme's milieu as a social practice. I explicate the ways in which Böhme's texts, disseminated as they were amongst dissenting protestants during the Thirty Years War, employed inarticulacy to destabilize theological interpretative claims and open up a space of resistance.

Joshua L.I. Gentzke is a PhD candidate in Western Religious Studies at Stanford University. His primary research interests include: Christian mysticism, Neoplatonism, constructions of corporeality, and hermeneutics. Currently, his work is focused on imaginal somatics in the thought of the Early Modern visionary, Jacob Böhme (1575-1624).


Maria Devlin (Harvard University)

“The Rest Was Not Perfected”: Incompleteness by Necessity or Design in Bacon’s New Atlantis

In The Great Instauration, Francis Bacon uncharacteristically admits that the sixth and crucial part of his Instauration is a thing “above my strength and beyond my hopes” to complete. Some scholars suspect, however, that Bacon did covertly write the sixth part as his utopian fiction New Atlantis—a work which, like the “Great Instauration” itself, is incomplete. According to Rawley, Bacon had intended to write “a frame of Laws” for his utopia but never did. Rawley claims this was only due to time constraints. Drawing on Bacon’s political, scientific, and philosophical writings, I argue for two alternative reasons. It is possible that Bacon intended Bensalem to be the morally ideal society it seems, but Bacon’s skepticism concerning the perfectibility of human nature meant that he could not imagine the laws that could create such a society. In this case, the work was left unfinished by necessity. But it may also have been left unfinished by design. Bensalem may be, in fact, a society as subject to corruption as the Jacobean court; Bacon, who believed that politics was a science “secret and retired”, would have been unwilling to disclose the political tactics necessary to govern this society as its scientific power advanced. Bacon’s pragmatic but problematic tactics, which often involved encouraging one vice in order to conquer another, may even be at work in New Atlantis itself, whose fictional form invites readers to amend its incompleteness by use of that faculty Bacon so often criticized—the subjective, self-serving human imagination.


Jennifer Row (Cornell University)

In the Ashes of Language: Racine's Andromaque and the Queer Time of Inarticulate Loss

In Jean Racine’s 1667 play Andromaque, set in the aftermath of the Trojan war, all is covered in ash—the ashes of families and lovers lie amongst the burnt remains of the incinerated city. In the face of such radical erasure, ashes, or “cendres” aptly figures two extremes of language’s inadequate yet unavoidable signifying power. Language can no longer sufficiently account for the trauma (it is burnt up); at the same time, the persistent ruined materiality of “cendres” (ashes) as remainder attests to the destruction wrought upon it.

“Cendres” here not only marks language's distress, but also bodies forth a type of queer desire, insofar as the trope is catachrestically made to stand for Andromaque's dead husband Hector. The “improper” metaphor (abusio) paradoxically properly points to Hector's ever-present loss or lost presence. When faced with the ultimatum either to remarry her captor Pyrrhus or to allow her son Astyanax to be executed, Andromaque refuses to engage with a hetero-reproductive future and insists, instead, on her own type of queered temporality, characterized by radical differal and delay. For characters within the play as well as for secondary scholars, this temporal drag is incomprehensible (Céphise calls her delay “criminelle”, and Barthes names it “beaucoup pour une mère,” [excessive for a mother]). However, the inarticulacies of an ungrievable life, of a queerly spectralized desire, and of love which chooses the “burial chamber over the bridal chamber” (Butler) remains preserved, in ash and as ash in the play. 

A comparative literature Ph.D candidate at Cornell University, Jennifer Row examines the ways that figure and tropes intervene in the (in)articulation and confession of queer desires in 17th century French and British drama. She has previously taught at the Université de Paris-IV Sorbonne and the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. Outside the classroom she serves as Assistant Director of the Walk-in Writing Service and a Graduate Teaching Fellow with the Center for Teaching Excellence. Her article on queer reading practices and commonplace books is forthcoming in 2012 in the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature/Revue canadienne de littérature comparée.