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Posthumanism – Analysis

As the preceding short introduction to Posthumanism attests, this critical position and possibility of radical critique, if carried out according to tenets of an unceasing, interminable contestation—of language very generally, of the ‘human’ more specifically—is less about catching a glimpse of the cyborg (the archetypal posthuman subject) than it is about identifying remains. It has, then, to be carried out as a Derridean project, and operate from the inside, be aware, for example, of internal contradictions and exclusions, the creeping hegemonies of ‘humanism’, also incorporating patriarchy with its attendant binary systems, as spectral forces swarming in the body of a text. ‘Goblin Market’ is, at first sight—but also final analysis—indefinitely poised between upholding an order of existence that insists on absolute separation opposing ‘Man’ and goblin (the non-human) and, conversely, undermining, on the sly, like a ghost, this same totally disjoining order. Already in its apparent simplicity, the poem harbours ghosts; the ending is a case in point:

Days, weeks, months, years
Afterwards, when both were wives
With children of their own;
Their mother-hearts beset with fears,
Their lives bound up in tender lives;
Laura would call the little ones
And tell them of her early prime,
Those pleasant days long gone
Of not-returning time:
Would talk about the haunted glen,
The wicked, quaint fruit-merchant men,
Their fruits like honey to the throat
But poison in the blood; [.] (ll. 543-55)

These closing stages are, on the one hand, normalizing: ‘tender’ lives reared by ‘mother-hearts beset with fears’ but also pleasure, the recollections of ‘pleasant days long gone/Of not-returning time’. ‘Bound up’ as wives, the stories ‘of […] early prime’ are nonetheless narratives of going astray; the stories of ‘not-returning time’ precisely that, namely a return, the hint of ‘revenance’ and ‘haunted men’—spectres, after all, keep coming back, residues not only of the past but also of the future, because always prefiguring (future) returns or homecomings. To return to the beginning of the poem, then, means to go or come back to the frisson of transgressions, sexual or otherwise, a revelling in a texture of sensual overload, the saturation of ‘ripe’ fruit:

Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries;–
All ripe together […] (ll. 2-15)

The abundance of ‘orchard fruits’—the pleasures of the text, here, consist in travelling across this overwhelming wealth in what is already a consumption, the fulfilment of a fantasy acted out on the level of both writing and reading—is indicative of a desire to ‘taste […] and try’ (l. 25), to ‘fill your mouth’ (l. 28) with goblin ‘gifts’ (l. 66). ‘Bound up’, too, with the eroticization of the other, itself imperial dreamwork, the poem engages—not only through Laura, blushing, all ‘tingling cheeks and finger tips’ (l. 39) but also by means of purely textual erotics, the ‘ripe’ poem—with hunger: to experience the ‘offers’ (l. 65) of the non-human other. It is clear, in a reading such as this one, that boundaries—between posthumanism and, say, postcolonial theory—are breached; but that is, in a way, the purpose of a critical awareness as process all about, to borrow Donna Haraway’s words, ‘transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities’ (154). Lizzie seals her body up; she covers her eyes/ears and, later, withstands attack ‘[l]ike a royal virgin town’ (l. 418), but Laura is receptive, open to ‘juicy’ contact:

She dropp’d a tear more rare than pearl,
Then suck’d their fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock,
Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,
Clearer than water flow’d that juice;
She never tasted such before,
How should it cloy with length of use?
She suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;
She suck’d until her lips were sore;
Then flung the emptied rinds away
But gather’d up one kernel stone,
And knew not was it night or day
As she turn’d home alone. (ll. 127-40)

This close encounter, though—Laura’s subversive ‘sucking’ that ostensibly or temporarily destabilizes the status quo embodied by Lizzie, the closed sister/system indicative of an order that operates on the basis of divisions, between men and women; purity and danger; the human and non/in-human—threatens to support, rather than ‘suck’ out and suck dry, the forces of law. Laura’s sucking, her willingness to ‘linger’ (l. 69) and ‘[stretch]’ (l. 81), to initiate contact with the ‘merchant men’, is profoundly troubling—the haunting revenant of an apparently simple allegory included in girls’ high school text books—because it is a desire that ultimately appears to seal off/return to the conservative state that, while ‘coaxed and fought’ (l. 425) holds out attack, virginal and erect, ‘with gilded dome and spire’ (l. 419). The ‘merchant men’ belong to an order that is (and remains?) set apart, their non-humanity confirmed as ‘wicked [and] quaint’ (l. 553), a conclusion implied by the descriptions of their appearance, fluctuating in and out of visibility:

One had a cat’s face,
One whisk’d a tail,
One tramp’d at a rat’s pace,
One crawl’d like a snail,
One like a wombat prowl’d obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry skurry. (ll. 71-6)

Otherness is animal, foreign burrowing creatures—‘obtuse and furry’—oozing or garbage-bound organisms that are, above all, associated with lack of borders through the trails they leave as much as chase, the abject remains of an above-ground civilization that maintains itself through isolation and denial of its own permeability. The question that persists, regarding the return to a closed order at the end is whether the ‘juicy’, troubling otherness of goblin/gobbling men—because they eat away at virginal, sealed female bodies—restores the segregation of existence between the non-human and the so-called human, defined, as it is, on the basis of exactly that abyss, or whether the poem allows, through its own secretive and secreting mystifications, to unsettle those (bodily as well as cultural, ideological) boundaries.