Wait and See: The Ignorant Fairies of Marie De France and Ferzan Ozpetek

By Howie, Cary | The Romanic Review, November 2010 | Go to article overview

Wait and See: The Ignorant Fairies of Marie De France and Ferzan Ozpetek


Howie, Cary, The Romanic Review


This essay is about things that are hard to see. It is, moreover, concerned with what it might mean to wait for them, to take time to see them; what it might mean, conversely, to take time to appear; and how taking time, in this sense, might also be to give time. What I wish to ask--or, perhaps, more precisely, to show--in these pages is how criticism might also suspend itself aesthetically, how it might not just linger in the presence of its objects but offer itself to the lingering, languorous gaze. What might it mean, critically and poetically, to wait and see? What might such waiting look like? (1)

This is a question of critical poetics, but it is also, I wager, a question of critical erotics, of how we might take and give time for the libidinal pull of those bodies into whose orbits we are drawn. These are often--in a story that goes back at least as far as Erich Auerbach's Istanbul library--bodies we find close to us, bodies we haven't precisely asked for or sought out, no matter how much retrospective rationalization we may bring, in the course of our engagements with them, to their appearing. They are often radically contingent bodies, bodies that have brushed against us in a bookshop or a library, at a party, or in the street. To linger with these bodies as they appear to us, to wait and see, might also be to acknowledge that critical poetics often goes to great lengths to forget, or to rush past, the basic moment of contiguity and juxtaposition in which it is fundamentally grounded. The figure I'll be using for these difficult-to-discern, contiguous bodies--and for the critical process they may invite and initiate--is one designed to make us look twice, or to look more slowly. It is, in other words, a little mawkish, a little fey. A critical poetics of lingering, of aesthetic and erotic attentiveness, might need something as evanescent and sentimental, as strange and sublime, as fairies.

And these are not just any fairies; they are ignorant ones. The texts I juxtapose here--texts that touched me, around the same time, and summoned me to linger in that simultaneity--are explicitly about fairies and how they resist knowledge, how their appearance defers and frustrates cognitive appropriation even as it solicits erotic response. Ferzan Ozpetek's Ignorant Fairies [Le fate ignoranti, Italy, 2001] is a recent Italian film that depicts the discovery by a widow of her dead husband's gay lover; Marie de France's Lanval is a twelfth-century Old French poem in which a knight's sudden luck in love is contingent on his ability to keep his (female) fairy lover a secret. These engagements with erotic disclosure--their secrets are, like all secrets, designed to be disclosed--have in common only a commitment to the appearing of beloved bodies and to the mode of this appearing: slow, solicitous, and saturated with expectation.

This patience and what it implies for knowledge may also, to paraphrase Martin Seel, be what characterizes aesthetic experience as such. By trying to see fairies, and learning to wait for them, to "let them be in their repleteness," (2) it may become possible to understand, in a way that finally eludes determination, the debt out knowledge of phenomena owes to what escapes knowing in the narrow sense. Aesthetic attentiveness--here, specifically attentiveness to the appearing of indeterminately sexed, desired bodies--would thus accompany and unsettle determination, while nonetheless never entirely giving it up. Or rather, while abandoning epistemological determination only in the strictest sense, that is, by making perceptible the latter's constitutive abandon, the extent to which knowledge too gives itself and, seen in a certain way, from a certain angle, loses itself in a play of appearances. The fairies with which this essay is concerned will not, in other words, have abdicated knowledge for something entirely outside epistemology. Their ignorance is, instead, the ignorance of what appears and of those to whom it appears as appearing, in what Gillian Rose calls "the sensation and the envelope of visible and invisible beauty. …

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