THE OSCHOLARS: Special Teleny issue




Body Talk:  Physical Empathy in Teleny


Robin Chamberlain


In this essay, I look at the literal embodiment of empathy in Teleny.  That is, I examine the ways in which bodies themselves produce and perform empathy, by breaking down the barriers between subjects.  This project, then, requires and develops a revitalized way of thinking about both the body and empathy.  Following Elizabeth Grosz and others, I look at the body not as static material amenable to any social inscription, but as a possible inscribing agent itself.  In its inscriptive gestures, Teleny compels us to rethink empathy. This novella provides models for a more expansive definition of empathy than is traditionally posited:  in Teleny, empathy is not only about feeling with and as the other does, but in experiencing the same sensations that produce those emotions in the other.  Perceptual, sensational empathy challenges the existence of the discrete subject, as well as the opposition between matter (the body) and meaning.  Most importantly, though, empathy as imagined in Teleny is horizontal, between equals, rather than vertical, between the privileged and those upon whom these few bestow empathy.


The theory that bodies make meaning, rather than passively absorb ideologies, guides my approach to Teleny.  Grosz articulates this approach in Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (1994), in which she refigures ‘the body so that it moves from the periphery to the center of analysis, so that it can now be understood as the very 'stuff' of subjectivity (ix).  Grosz privileges the body as an agent of subjectivity, rather than as an object of discourse.  Teleny illustrates and complicates Grosz's theories, by consistently attending to the various communications made by the body.  The novel can, indeed, be read as the narrative of Des Grieux's increasing awareness of, and concession to, the imperatives and messages of his body. 


In  Space, Time, and Perversion:  Essays on the Politics of Bodies (1995), Grosz discusses the two major ways in which the body has been theorized.  The first, used by Foucault and others, she calls ‘inscriptive'‘; the second is what Grosz calls the ‘lived body’ of psychoanalysis.  Grosz, who tends to synthesize competing theories, or at least juxtapose them, in favour of producing new ways of thinking about and being in the world, posits the body as ‘a kind of hinge or threshold’ that ‘is placed between a psychic or lived interiority and a more sociopolitical exteriority that produces interiority throught the inscription of the body's outer surface’ (33).  She goes further however, suggesting that bodies may themselves be ‘inscriptive’  ‘on the bodies of others, themselves, and the law’ (36).  Here, I want to argue that in Teleny, bodies perform as inscribing agents in the manner Grosz describes.


That bodies become the centre of meaning is perhaps a truism of pornography, but this trope is used in unique ways in Teleny.  Physicality in Teleny is not simply about sexual pleasure.  It is, rather, the site in which the relations between subjects are created and negotiated.  This does not necessarily involve sexual, or even physical, contact between two individuals.  Rather, it has to do with the bodily reactions invoked in the self by the sight or thought of the other.  These reactions are, furthermore, not necessarily libidinal.  Often, they have to do with the brain, and we have access to the ways in which Des Grieux's brain  literally responds to Teleny.  For example, Des Grieux relates how thinking about Teleny constantly affected his brain as a bodily organ:   ‘[m]y thoughts, night and day, were with him.  My brain was always aglow’  (43).  Heart, mind, and body are all equally involved in Des Grieux's response to Teleny.  Not only is the former's brain ‘always aglow,’  but, the sentence continues, ‘my blood was overheated; my body ever shivering with excitement’  (43).  Body, mind, and heart are not easily separable in Teleny; the narrative reveals a familiarity with the physicality of both mind and heart.   Des Grieux tells us:  ‘[m]y mind was a hell.  My body was on fire’  (17), and, ‘[t]here was an emptiness in me, still I could not understand if the void was in my heart or in my head’  (18).  That Des Grieux's responses to Teleny involve a fusion of mind (or brain), heart (or soul), and body matters for two reasons.  First, it refuses the dichotomies usually used to structure relations between body and mind, mind and heart, or heart and body.   Second, it reinforces the narrative's insistence on the importance of the relationship between the two men by refusing to reduce it to either sexual love or intellectual affinity.  To experience the other in multiple ways—that cannot be easily distinguished from each other—is the first step toward complete empathy. 


The body in Teleny constantly inscribes and transforming the self, or rather itself, if we follow Grosz's argument in Volatile Bodies that the body and the self have been artificially separated.  Des Grieux's body not only produces his same-sex desires, but, more specifically, produces and focalizes his desire and love for Teleny.  It is only by listening to the dictates of the body, rather than to social mores, that one can understand and realize desire.  The body's desires do not fit neatly into categories—nature, as Grosz argues, defies, after Darwin, neatly contained units or divisions.  Culture limits, rather than enables, multiplicity, particularly in the realms of gender and sexuality.  Teleny offers an alternative.  Although its characters interpret their bodies through the language and symbols of culture (to do otherwise would probably be impossible), they understand their bodies as communicative agents, whose inscriptions on them are no less important than the cultural inscriptions with which they are often at odds.  Des Grieux's narrative of his early experiences, including unsuccesful encounters and relationships with women, reveal a bodily resistance to normativity. 


Des Grieux's response to Teleny is initially a bodily one.  Although it takes the shape of a vision, this vision is exceptionally sensual, and involves bodily sensations.  His longing ‘grew more and more intense, the craving so insatiable that it was changed to pain; [. . .], and my whole body was convulsed and writhed with mad desire.  My lips were parched, I gasped for breath; my joints wre stiff, my veins were swollen, yet I sat still, like all the crown around me’ (7).  Des Grieux's physical responsiveness to Teleny underscores the holistic nature of their relationship:  ‘[t]here was an emptiness in me, still I could not understand if the void was in my heart or in my head’ (18). 


Physical connection in Teleny consistently trumps linguistic communication.  For example, Des Grieux ponders, ‘[w]as an oath needed, when we had given ourselves to one another with such a kiss?  An oath is a lip-promise which can be, and is, often forgotten.  Such a kiss follows you to the grave’ (85).  Here, the physical endures, while the linguistic fades.  Yet kisses in Teleny have such power because they are both intensely physical and intensely spiritual.  Des Grieux explains, ‘[a] kiss is something more than thee first sensual contact of two bodies; it is the breathing forth of two enamoured souls’ (85).  A kiss between two men has even more meaning than a socially-sanctioned kiss between a man and a woman:  ‘a criminal kiss long withstood and fought against, and therefore long yearned after, is beyond this; it is as luscious as forbidden fruit; it is a glowing coal set upon the lips; a fiery brand that burns deep, and changes the blood into molten lead or scalding quicksilver’ (85).  Such a kiss, then, dissolves and transforms matter, reifying the similarity that always underlies difference.  While language might be said to create difference by marking one thing as distinct from another, the physical, especially the homoerotic, reveals similarity. 


Teleny, specifically the central relationship between Teleny and Des Grieux, can be read as a narrative about embodied empathy.  The relationship between the two men begins with a shared hallucination that is not only visual but profoundly physical.  The understanding between the two men literalizes empathy by making them experience the sensations of the other.  Empathy is therefore a lateral relationship, rather than a vertical one that is about the power one has over the object of one's empathy.  In Teleny, empathy's physicality produces subjects, rather than power relations.  These subjects, however, are fluid, not in that they are fragile, but in that they can share truly intersubjective experiences, in which subjects are merged, but on equal terms, rather than in the absorption of the one by the other. 


Works Cited and Consulted


Grosz, Elizabeth.  Space, Time, and Perversion:  Essays on the Politics of Bodies.  New York: Routledge, 1995.

---.  Volatile Bodies:  Toward a Corporeal Feminism.  Bloomington and Indianapolis:  Indiana UP, 1994.

Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal.  1893.  Olympia Press, 2004.



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