Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Resurrecting Absence: Susan Howe's A Bibliography of the King's Book or, Eikon Basilike and the Historically Unspoken

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Resurrecting Absence: Susan Howe's A Bibliography of the King's Book or, Eikon Basilike and the Historically Unspoken

Article excerpt

Perception of an object means loosing and losing it. Quests end in failure, no victory and sham questor. One answer undoes another and fiction is real. Trust absence, allegory, mystery. The setting not the rising sun is Beauty.

Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson1

The author of the Eikon Basilike believed that it was 'far better to hold to primitive and uniform Antiquity, than to comply with divided novelty'.2 Whilst such a statement was aimed towards persuading its readers to remain faithful servants to the crown during a moment of serious monarchical review, it is nevertheless an interesting contention to reconsider in the current moment, when writers across the genres are promoting innovative studies of literary history. Susan Howe is one such writer and, as we shall see in this essay, she proves such opinions contained within the Eikon Basilike to be decidedly unfashionable. Those acquainted with Howe's work will recognise not only her evocative visual and verbal landscapes composed on the canvas of her page, but furthermore, her enthusiasm for leading the reader by a thread through the forgotten, marginalised or controversial spaces where dissenting voices linger. Howe's apparent reverence for what is 'not present'-absence, allegory, mystery-is important to her historical mindset as she probes the blanks, gaps and obscurities of textual and historical representation for new mechanisms through which to construct a literary history pertaining to the contemporary moment.

This essay has been inspired not only by my ongoing fascination with Howe's writings, but also by the obvious and enduring interest in, and curiosity towards, the circumstances of King Charles the First's strange 'tyrannical martyrdom' and his evocative posthumous publication. In 2006, whilst browsing the shelves of a small Toronto bookstore, I stumbled across a newly published Broadview edition of the Eikon Basilike. This new text demonstrates that these centuries-old meditations, which so profoundly affected their readers in the wake of the King's execution, continue to arouse the interests of the modern reader. The list of 'contemporary responses' to the King's Book that this edition includes is, not surprisingly, void of a mention of Susan Howe's radical poetic response, composed almost two decades ago. In this particular work, Howe appropriates the 'bibliography' as a device through which to explore the conflicts between fiction and fact, image and text, presence and absence, which permeate contemporary theoretical conceptions of historical writing. However, departing from traditional bibliographical practices (which privilege chronology, objectivity and accuracy of documentation), Howe's radical work challenges the limits of convention both structurally and thematically, and lays the foundations for new historical methodologies. Through such experimental procedures as physically overlapping or rotating words and phrases, or combining 'borrowed' text with her own expressions, Howe's textual 'voices' compete for authority and the reader's attention as they unsettle the reader's understanding of authentic and objective writing. Through close textual and ideological analysis of Howe's work, this essay contemplates innovative methods for conceiving literary history beyond the confines of canonical narratives.

WHAT IS THE EIKΩON BAΣIΛIKH? Subtitled The Pourtraicture of His Sacred Majestic in his Solitude and Sufferings, the 'King's Book' was published shortly after Charles the First's public execution for treason in 1649. It was supposedly written by Charles as he awaited his fate in prison and contains the King's prayers and meditations, along with his justification of Royalism in the wake of the Civil War that led to his downfall. The popularity of the text reflected badly on the government that had condemned the King, and although there were attempts to quash its publication, at least thirty-five editions were produced in its first year. …

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