Astray, sub rosa

Rebecca Ariel Porte
Brooklyn Institute for Social Research

RE: Keats’s 21-22 September 1819 letter to Richard Woodhouse

i.
Rat-traps

Even letters that find their destinations sometimes go astray. (Nonetheless, Auden: “Strike for the heart and have me there.”1) In his missive to J.H. Reynolds from 3 May 1818, Keats remarks that “some kind of letters are good squares others handsome ovals, and others some orbicular, others spheroid—and why should there not be another species with two rough edges like a Rat-trap?”2 Most of Keats’s letters, particularly the longer ones, are shaped like rat-traps. They ruminate, brux, anatomize, bat around or worry their substance as a mouth does a new and interesting taste, an unfamiliar fruit, a person you are learning to speak with or else to kiss for the first time. They are full of hungers, those letters, not always savory. Baited with sugar follies and poison studies, they dwell where the teeth meet. In the case of a rat-trap, which can mean a “ramshackle building” where all manner of pests might fester or else a device for catching vermin, this dwelling place is often in living flesh.3

One way a letter can go astray is literal: the writer does not know whether the higgledy-piggledy thing will make it to the addressee (return to sender?). Another fashion of straying has to do with composition: going on like a rat-trap, avid to seize but unsure what the letter will draw to its tortuous corridors; temporizing, playing for time. A third way of straying is when a letter arrives and arrives not. It finds the right hand but remains, for whatever reason, unopened: quotidian news or an intimate confidence unreceived, the pardon that would spare your life lost to careless haste.

Messenger: My lord, here are letters for you.
Hotspur: I cannot read them now.4

A fourth way of straying is when the letter is opened and read but with cursory attention or not much in the way of understanding, the object preserved, the meaning destroyed. (Sometimes directives like “in the event of my death, burn my letters,” are redundant.) Nominally, at least, even the most resolutely singular letter is social, assumes a particular reader or set of readers who may or may not be interested in writing back. Tempting, in light of this epistolary tendre-with-teeth—the critic Janet Gurkin Altman calls it “exchange-desire”5—to ask what Keats’s rat-traps—I mean letters—capture in the way of living flesh (this is the action of a trap, capturing or wanting to capture) and what this has to do with straying. If letters are evidence of anything (often, they aren’t), it might be of an exchange-desire, weakly or strongly expressed, that understands the self-cancelling bind that Nan Z. Da names “intransitivity,” exchanges “in which nothing is exchanged” or else (I embroider in the margins) something is exchanged in the wrong degree or kind or else it’s the wrong object that changes hands or else something is exchanged and the result is the same as if nothing had been exchanged.6 Imagine a cat laying a freshly killed tribute at your feet. You are unlikely to have asked for precisely this kind of offering. The death, you observe, has not been a clean one. Still, the gift has been worked at, worked for. It is not without its charms.

Keats’s letter of 21 and 22 September 1819 to Richard Woodhouse (friend, philologist, lawyer) is doubly rat-trappist in sensibility, trawling for miscellany, restless to capture. The letter, like its peripatetic writer, goes a progress through the poet’s travel from London to Winchester (reflecting on the sight of a virile, beef-eating Coachman, “[p]erhaps I eat to persuade myself I am somebody,” says slight Keats); puns passably in Virgilian Latin; fair copies the first two stanzas of the last of his odes of 1819, “To Autumn,” newly composed after a promenade on the banks of the Itchen; leaps from a poem of the season of falling to a few fragments of The Fall of Hyperion (the Miltonic description of the Temple of Saturn, the “induction”: “Fanatics have their dreams wherewith they weave a Paradise for a Sect…”); breaks, after despairing that Keats’s “Poetry will never be fit for any thing” because it doesn’t “cover its ground well”; resumes, the next day, by remembering that letters are written to particular people and often to several people at once; asks for opinions on George Soane’s adaptation of the fairy tale “Undine” and Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (“Powerful genius—accomplish’d horrors”); troubles the material conditions of the cash-strapped poet (“I will no longer live upon hopes—”); explains, not without bitterness, why he won’t publish the “too smokeable” Isabella, or the Pot of Basil in the (laughable) belief that “[i]t is possible to write fine things which cannot be laugh’d at in any way”; ends in a whimsical fantasia on Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker and a courteous inquiry about Woodhouse’s days—;—or nearly ends—there is a brief postscript after the closure, “Your sincere friend John Keats,”: “Hav’nt heard from Taylor” (John Taylor—publisher, friend).7

ii.
Straying sub rosa

Knowing this letter would fall to me (one among many belated interceptions), I had thought I might write about the subterranean fire of the Peterloo Massacre in “To Autumn” (and the smoky poetic load-and-bless over and above the magma of event) or else about the clammy softness of an epistemological limit, about how The Fall of Hyperion’s Temple of Saturn (a kind of rat-trap, as Keats depicts it) joins the god of wealth and melancholy’s “mingled heap” of rich, ritual instruments (“[r]obes, golden tongs, censer and chafing dish”) to a monumental peripteral “ending in Mist / Of Nothing,” about what it means for Poetry to cover its ground. Being in thrall to Paradise, I had thought I might write about a “Paradise for a Sect.”

I was wrong. Or else, astray to myself, only fractionally right: what I appear to be writing about is what it means to fail to get there, even when you seem to have gone where you intended to go, when you are betrayed in arrival, when the betrayal is effective, returns something, even if that something lies quite apart from intent. Make no mistake: this kind of error might draw forth peals of rueful laughter as easily as sighs of irritation or tears; there is, on occasion, a sort of sweetness in learning yourself the butt of a joke you didn’t even know you were telling, the witting unwitting. (Freud: “The behaviour of the speaker . . . certainly speaks against the conscious intention, and thus excludes wit.”8) “Education” and “seduction” share the same speaking etymology, the Latin for “bring up, bring out, lead forth”; a seduction, a leading astray, can be a form of education, though often falling for or exercising seduction leaves nobody the wiser. It would be possible to call this rat-trappist procedure of coming into an open secret—surely seductive, ambiguously educative—something like straying sub rosa—errantry under the rose.

iii.
A grammar of whimsy

In Keats, the yields of errantry under the rose are rarely comic (in the old sense of order restored), though they are sometimes humorous. The mechanism of this humor can be hard to suss out, because it involves making a judgement about an elusive kind of tone: the degree to which the straying is sincere in excess—in which case you might, if sentiment embarrasses you, be tempted to laugh at it—and the degree to which it ironizes its earnest flash to the point of dismissal—in which case, you might, if made comfortable by the mitigating postures of mild, conspiratorial contempt—so many of us are—laugh with it.

There is a third form of tonal clockwork, a half-way measure: when the straying text should register as emotion disproportionate to its object and seems, instead, merely adequately descriptive, so that you want to say “yes, it is like that” and also “I know, I know—it’s completely unreasonable to feel so much about so little, let alone to say so.” (Yvonne Ranier: “feelings are facts.”9) You don’t deny the enormous reality of the feeling but can’t shake the knowledge that it is, when all’s said and done, merely feeling; neither position is alkahest to the other. The collision of these impulses might or might not move you to laughter (but it really might). Ontologically, it’s a little like a debased (funnier?) version of Kant’s subjective universality, in which your non-rational feeling that something is beautiful is so powerful that in the moment of judgement, you believe (absurd!) that everyone else ought to feel the same way about the something you’re encountering, even though you know there’s no logical grounds for your pleasure in the object. (Have you been seduced?) In other words, you feel what you feel, you laugh at what you feel, and you think, for a moment, that it would be impossible for anyone else to deny the substance of the feeling or the substance of its hilarity.

Call it an effect of whim, in several of the old etymological senses, which layer the skirling of “caprice” with less yielding associations of the rule-bound: “play on words” (word games operate according to rule) and “mechanical device.”10 Counterintuitively, whim is not entirely a matter of formless, free play. It reacts to constraint. Its levity resists the seriousness of laboring under a weight, though whimsy makes no promises (as irony sometimes does) of detachment, deflationary moral conditioning, or emotional catharsis.

Whimsy can be an effect of the impasses of trouble, incited by a sense of the precarious, a restless searching for some response to difficulty that’s neither the most embittered form of irony nor the spontaneous gush of cheap sentiment (though Keats was capable of both). As mild suspense (who knows where the whimsical will go next?), it can be practiced as an appeal to readerly attention. And still, it might also be a form of writing for your life. Nonetheless, I think I’d be the last to justify whimsy by arguing it’s secretly serious. (So little is justified by mere seriousness, secretly or otherwise, though I would say that, wouldn’t I?) Have I ever wanted anything so badly as to laugh with you one more time, near or far, to shock you into cachinnation, for always you resist the surprise of your broken reserve as if it were the betrayal of your human substance instead of one of its best proofs. Oh! For you are helpless against your laughter as a child! But this is by way of aside. Straying is a strategy of the whim.

This laughing grammar—would you call it Romantic whimsy (?)—is close kin to the reflexiveness of Romantic irony, in which the tenable form is a skepticism that springs from the knowledge that the absolute does not map onto the relative, that the maker is complicit in what’s made (though it’s irresponsible to generalize about Romantic irony, which comes to us from, among other places, the variousness of Schlegel’s fragments—but why be responsible now?). For Schlegel, to come into skepticism, the sustained awareness of Romantic irony, might even be equivalent to the action called “becom[ing] wise.”11 Then again, the fragment where he says so is a dialogue and characters in a dialogue, as gadflyish Socratic and Romantic ironists will tell you, whether or not you’ve asked them, are not to be trusted for truism or truth. So close kin—this Keatsian grammar of whimsy—but not the same as romantic irony; whimsy is more cowardly. It rejects the terms of the ideal and the real. It cannot even commit to the sophistication of the truly flip. Knowing yourself to be ridiculous does not necessarily put your experience into manageable perspective (manageable perspective is one form of wisdom). Many critics of romantic irony have derided it as “fundamentally unserious.” But what if “fundamentally unserious” were not a pejorative but an acknowledgement of capacity?

Another sister of Romantic whimsy is Coleridge’s fancy, always the second fiddle to the vital, creative imagination. In fancy, enfant terrible, memory willfully rebels against time and space, combining received images into eccentric ornament. Fancy “has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites.”12 Like fancy, whimsy is, in a way, impoverished: one motive for its sub rosa straying is an intuition of precarity and the need to make something useable—wondrous, even—out of that precarity, even if it’s only the idea that whim has accomplished itself or (daring greatly) that your reader, if the letter is so lucky as to find their hand, might laugh in the right places. Backed into a corner, whimsy gleans what it can from straightened resources, steals from rich garners of full ripened grain, invents Rube Goldberg machines, sets rat-traps in the air alongside castles, audaciously turns a coping-with into a flourish. It knows it has no other counters to play with. So do I, my dear, so do I.

Keats’s “La Belle Dame Merci,” for example, is laughable-withable in just this whimsical way. (It might be a lot funnier than you remember.) At close of poem, the lonely, palely loitering knight errant (literally errant) lingers on the cold hill side in the cruel optimist’s preposterous dawdling, longing for the merciless lady’s sway, knowing it leads, merely, to a place in the cortège of her starve-lipped victims. It’s a funny position to be in, that knight’s, after the fashion of Buridan’s Ass, hesitating between hay and water—or else the ever-ripe gag of Tantalus in Hades, caught below the rigged grapes and above the receding pool.

iv.
The interread

Sincere and self-satirical by turns, Keats’s letter to Woodhouse makes the most of this ridiculous position, the position of the tantalized, which is also to say a position of precarity. Its response to the Tantalus-gag—reaching towards material and affective resources that hold themselves just beyond the grasp—is to stray sub rosa, proliferate into the errant. “I see I have completely lost my direction,” says Keats, after a relentlessly orientational excerpt from The Fall of Hyperion (the north and the south and the east of the Temple of Saturn), “So I e’n make you pay double postage.” He knows his letter has lost its way even as it expands under his pen. As its contents stray into the remarkable, costly miscellany of whim, the writing reflects, more and more explicitly, Keats’s worry that his letters are going astray in other ways.

Keats and money, money and Keats—this was not the least of how his life was precarious. This errantry—the lengthening letter—will, literally, cost someone, although it will be the generous Woodhouse and not Keats. In 1819, it was the recipient of the letter—and not the writer—who paid the postage. And the further a letter had to travel and the larger it was, the more expensive it was to receive. If correspondence lingered in limbo, it was often because the recipient could not afford the weight of the message, the touch at a distance.13 Keats is also, at this moment, not half so fixed as a weathervane, fresh off his rattling journey, “embowell’d in Winchester.”14 He’s written two letters to Brown and he’s sure neither has found the mark: “Here’s the wonderful Man whose Letters wont go!” He pictures “infernal imaginary thunderstorms from the Post-office” beating down upon him, so that either “unpoeted” or “unposted” (the word in the manuscript is unclear) he writes. Surely “[s]ome curious body has detained [his] Letters!”15 He speculates that this curious body might even be intercepting and reading his mail. (He couldn’t possibly mean your curious body or mine, though we are among the curious bodies—you and I have arrived after the fact, as we so often do—we’re alike in this, if not in so many other ways.)  Again, there is a degree of tonal unclarity. Keats laughs at his own paranoia about letters dead and letters diverted, but, in a world where correspondence frequently fails its destination, waggish elaboration of the fear of misdirection doesn’t quite seem to dispel it. Whimsical he goes because in the teeth of whim. He bites as he is bitten.

But the other side of the despair of being frustrated or intercepted, overread by a curious body, is the sweet vision of being “interread.” As he writes to the sympathetic Woodhouse, John dreams of his words being received in concert by another friend, J.H. Reynolds (poet, critic, playwright), rather as he knows his sister-in-law and brother in Kentucky (George and Georgiana) share their missives from Keats. “[Y]ou two [Reynolds and Woodhouse],” John entreats, “must write me a letter apiece—for as I know you will interrread one another—I am still writing to Reynolds as well as yourself—As I say to George I am writing to you but at your Wife.”16 Keats conceives of his correspondence in a circuit of “interreading,” meant for someone besides the addressee of record, meant for Reynolds and Woodhouse as his letters to George are also meant for Georgiana, entries in conversations that go beyond a silent communion between reader and text, conversations among people to whom he is connected, conversations that take place without him. His letters make his proxy.

Keats’s correspondence frequently invents ways of being apart together (Cf. Kamran Javadizadeh on “improper time”). In some ways this is an obvious thing for a letter before the age of nearly instantaneous communication-at-a-distance (and after it?) to want to do. In other ways, Keats’s letters make of the necessities of uncertainty and distance a less apparent aesthetic possibility. If you fear your letter will go astray—literally or figuratively—envisioning interreading among your dear ones might also recuperate something from the possibility of straying, of falling out of the exchanges in which you desperately want to participate. Correspondence goes on, even if it goes on without you. Sometimes you live in the fringes of life. Sometimes even your truest and most amiable addressees misunderstand you. It might be salutary, in any case, to imagine them understanding one another over the flimsy pretext of something you’ve sent in the mail.

If you want to make your letter the kind of thing that will be read and interread in precarious conditions—if the sub rosa secret is that its probability of straying is high—you might go to some lengths (write at some length) to sustain your interreaders’ interest, you might resort to whimsy. (Rat-trap circumstance makes for ramshackle correspondence.) So this is Keats as entertainer, playing for Woodhouse “the waggan and trumpetour,” playing for time, juggling, clowning in the interests of homosocial bonding, having fun (yes, fun) though maybe a little afraid he won’t be read to the finish or read well, even as you can really only meander in the presence of a correspondent you trust.

Whimsy calibrated to its audience is whimsy at its most generous. (In this you are particularly gifted, though I doubt I’ll ever get to tell you that, watch the color flood into your face as I love to do, not that it makes a difference.) To receive the right flight of fancy, bespoke, can be like recalling rightly a lyric or a line of verse you’d known for years only as the one you could never summon up correctly, the Wittgensteinian click that wouldn’t sound—and then—mysteriously, accurately—does. (Proust: “But suddenly I remembered it, the irremediable asperities of an inhuman world vanished as if by magic; the syllables of the line at once filled up the requisite measure, and what there was in excess floated off with the ease, the dexterity of a bubble of air that rises to burst on the surface of the water. And after all, this excrescence with which I had been struggling consisted of only a single foot.”17) Whimsy as sheer self-indulgence may be, for the whimsical, a form of omphaloskeptic therapy, for the reader, a disastrous bore. Keats’s whimsy here, seems, for the most part, judged to its reader(s) inasmuch as it purposes to bring them together in its reception: it labors to gather its tutelary spirits in amity.

v.
Burn this letter

Unlike Keats’s letter, the epistolary envois (“sendings” or “send-offs”) of Jacques Derrida’s The Post Card, written in the late 1970s and designed to be interread as theoretical text, paradoxically wish for a form of pure correspondence that would only be legible for writer and addressee, encrypted against eavesdropping. The Post Card appeals to interreading in form, even as the content wards off this model of sociality. Juxtaposed, Derrida’s letters to an unnamed belovèd test out their antinomian epistolarity through practice. (What does it mean to write someone, to apostrophize, to slip a postcard into the mail, to consider it read or unread?). In this work, interreading becomes fused with overreading.

How? “I would like to write you simply, so simply, so simply,” says Derrida,

Without having anything ever catch the eye, excepting yours alone, and what is more while erasing all the traits, even the most inapparent ones, the ones that mark the tone, or the belonging to a genre (the letter for example, or the post card), so that above all the language remains self-evidently secret, as if it were burning immediately, as soon as any third party would set eyes on it (speaking of which, when will you agree that we effectively burn all this ourselves?)18

For Derrida, letters run on eros, eros flaming on the narrow band between the hand of the sender and the eye of the receiver. In The Post Card, all letters seem to be written on the model of the love letter that longs for a completely closed, dyadic circuit, even as they understand this aim to be ridiculous. The figure of private address to a loved one is a conceit: Derrida’s is a work of theory, intended for—as much as one particular recipient, crystallized by love—that odd abstraction, The Reader. (Reader, I…do not trust you as far as I can throw you. But you say such charming things…) What can be read can always be interread and overread, even if whatever the readings produce is always inequivalent. Lovers do not love in a vacuum. And yet, the envois long to invent a dialect so deeply coded that it is completely mysterious—“self-evidently secret” in its most profound substance—to any “third party,” to anyone who is not the belovèd, so that you and I, unentailed, unbelovèd readers of the envois (or are we?), effectively burn the true significance of the letter—which is to say the letter itself—as soon as we set eyes on it, merely because our eyes are not those of the apostrophized and cannot look at the letter in the same way. The jaws of the rat-trap close on air. The letter arrives and we set it astray before you can murmur (as I’m almost sure you would) “this message will self-destruct.”

The envois know this secret, perfectly transparent language is fantasy. The Post Card marks (not unwittingly) what goes missing when all letters become fetishes of a lost world of pure meaning rather than occasional, good-enough rat-traps, conveyances, in all their fraught materiality, of some unpredictable combination of significances intended and unintended, of eros, perhaps, but also of the many forms of attachment that eros, which was never the only kind of love,doesn’t comprehend. (Both the Freudian theory of sexual fetish and the Marxist concept of commodity fetish employ a logic of substitution. The former entails the exchange of the genitals as a focus of libidinal attachment for some other arbitrary object; the latter describes the trade of social relations for economic relations). In The Post Card, letters can only admit, narrowly speaking, to being love letters, regardless of how they invite the readings of those who neither love nor are belovèd in the terms of the envois. Under cover of the love letter, the gaze of others, even if secretly wanted, can only be courted by stand-in. The envois ask the reader to play the part of the interloper, looking in on the affair in progress. Their desire for you, Reader, is the will-to-interreading; their pose of ignorance (playful, sadistic?) is the will-to-overreading. They require you to be both confidante and eavesdropper, regardless of what you feel about the situation. Meanwhile, a letter designed to be interread, even if it is a love letter of a kind (Keats’s might be), is the sort that would die before admitting it. After all, the letter of interreading is happiest in motion among, not motion between—hand to hand to hand, voice to voice to voice, eye to eye to eye.

vi.
The letter that would not burn

Overreader or interreader, I am at least marginally sorry to disappoint you, Jacques, though please know it is for the sake of the fair unknown, for whom, though I cannot move the world, I will at least stop by the junk shop on the corner and set that dented tin globe a-spin in tribute so that Uranian marine warms to Persian blue in the temporary rotation and so returns earth to earth along with the shades of more distant planets. (Did you know a blue in motion enriches itself from within, like a person who has begun the heady study of some skill or language, nearly fragrant with a newfound lexicon swimming into ken? Well, it seems like that to me.). I’m sorry, but I’ll never agree that we effectively burn all this ourselves, not when you’ve called me here to eavesdrop, put me—put us—in this impossible position. (I am tired of impossible positions.) It is only your tyranny that makes of a strange little bonbon a live coal passed from mouth to mouth. What have we done to each other? I wish you would tell me. I’m sorry to have been so serious—

vii.
Trackless envoi

—god, these fleeting things. Well, they, too, have the dubious virtue of being not nothing. (Go away, Jacques, I’m no longer talking to you.) Something arrives, astray sub rosa, even when the specter intent flits off to haunt an elsewhere. We could laugh about that, I think. I would like to laugh about that with you, someday or other. There are still late plums in the open-air markets, lucent violet bubbles swaddled in their foamy trichome stoles, and some quality of September sun plumps the afternoon air with such viscous pillows of gold that it seems a betrayal of matter to lean against a tawny phantom tree, compact of rough dusts and refractions, visitor from the wood between the worlds, and tumble through it back into the given. Would you like to betray me this way? (That’s actually an invitation.) I think I would have—think I would—let you—a neat revenge for however I’ve failed you. (I’m certain I have—failed you—but what I really want to know is have I persuaded you to charge me with whimsy?) You will have your little joke. And still I send my letters without tracking if I can possibly get away with it (I like to get away with anything), perhaps because it is better to know less about how they will stray, how they will arrive and arrive not and what they will be if they do, into whose hands, sub rosa or super, they pass, who you’ll be when you hold those proxies (silver proxy) in yours, if this should be, if this should ever be.

That shadows (whatever Goethe thought) should be a single colorless color; that seasons succeed themselves, clumsy and sluggish, bewildered as people who do not know the etiquette for leaving and boarding a subway car; that bicyclists should lie against the asphalt at dawn, their necks at the dead swan angle, their elegant, fragile machines a failed origami at their sides; that social networks, luminous with dirty infrastructures, should judder with the febrile energy of those who need something, just something, just something, just anything, are always awake for you somewhere, even when you are asleep; that there should be approximately eight point seven billion species of living organisms extant and only about twenty-thousand of them bees; that the children are still in cages and life (if that’s what it is) persists in rote minuets around the jagged fact; that faces must be decked in brass circles to stop the algorithms reaping ripe names; that the trees, under stress of great, deliberate fire release long cries of smoke and day apes night in São Paulo; that the celosia—by some called coxcomb—is just come into its inflorescence and crests in paradise pink, in vermillion, in ripe, atomic tangerine and dares the lyrebird to sing its jealousy (though I wasn’t brave enough to buy any flowers today) and tame flora cannot really hurt you into anything except, perhaps, an unwillingness to turn your eye and how good that is, the dumb pleasure of it, despite everything; that all this is like that and like that at once, well, is it like that, is it really like that? And you might tell me sometime, if you think of it, if this finds you, if it finds you in time. I hope it does. I hope you will. And that is quite enough, if anything is. What hath the cat—oh, look—for he killed the Icneumon rat, very pernicious by land—and just sapped of all his electricity—oh, look—what hath—what hath the cat dragged—look—at this rat—dragged in?19

Yours—

Postscript—Dickinson: “Vesuivus don’t talk—Etna—dont— [Thy] one of them—said a syllable—a thousand years ago, and Pompeii heard it, and hid forever—She could’nt look the world in the face, afterward—I suppose—Bashfull Pompeii!”20 Partly because you’re not here—partly because ecstasy cracks you up—partly because I don’t have to tell you why—

Contributor Bio
Rebecca Ariel Porte is a member of the Core Faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. She is currently at work on a book about Paradise, Arcadia, and the Golden Age.

Endnotes