May 2011

Evan McMurry

nonfiction

The Royal Remains: The People's Two Bodies and the Endgames of Sovereignty by Eric L. Santner

Eric Santnerís The Royal Remains, both a metaphorical history of the last four centuries and a history of one very specific metaphor, has, as its central issue, a twofold problem of existence. The book considers the idea of corporality within the sovereignty of the medieval King, and what happened to our conceptualization of the monarchís body when it was literally beheaded in the French Revolution; but it is also challenged to discuss such notions in concrete terms, lest they dissipate in the text as they did in history. If Santner, a Professor of Modern Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago, never quite succeeds in giving this ephemeral thesis material form, his omnidimensional command of the canon makes the attempt an enlightening, if vertiginous, read.

Once upon a time, a King was seen as two people: the human but regal being subject to the laws and vicissitudes of the land, and the second, immortal presence who invested those laws with the concept of eternal justice. As a Christ-based Kingship had once guaranteed its citizensí safety and subjecthood by a supposed deific connection, now an eternal and immaterially situated kingship did the same through its embodiment of secular ideals. A person only became a subject of the nation through this second, metaphorical being of the King, but in return received very real protection from the contingent world.

According to Santner, after revolutions dethroned monarchies across Europe, this second body, while never more than metaphorical, didnít actually disappear, but cleaved into two new ideas. One was the concept of an excess of flesh, first personified by the putrid Richard II, later by motifs of the grotesque and inhuman that personified modern paranoia. The second was the substance of personal sovereignty that was summoned up to constitute subjecthood. Absent the Kingís eternal being to secure a subjectís earthly status, new immaterialities began to appear, in painting, in writing, and, most potently, in psychology. Santner argues, though he is sometimes at pains to do so, that the Kingís second being continues to haunt us, from European Jews who were physically divested of their subjecthood after being deemed by Nazis that excess of flesh, to the insatiable feeling of material and spiritual loss that instigated, characterized, and sustained modernism.

Santnerís command of Western thought is prodigious. At its best, The Royal Remains allows Kafka and Freud, Benjamin and Zizek, Hamlet and Rilke, the Bible and the Republic, Francis Bacon the 16th-century philosopher and Francis Bacon the 20th-century painter, to coexist in the same argument, sometimes within the paragraph, as if we had ducked into some billiards hall in Philosopherís Heaven. Centuries are collapsed, German and French phrases speak to each other in translation and out, paintings comment on plays and plays on events that havenít happened yet. It takes muscle to rope all this together, and to Santnerís credit he rarely lapses into namedropping (though I would like to propose a one-Francis-Bacon-per-book rule).

Where Santner falters is in clarity of argument. If he doesnít namedrop, he perhaps discourse-drops, often initiating a line of thought and then circling back to it through other criticsí readings of other artistsí texts. To discuss Davidís Death of Marat we must first access it through T.J. Clarkís investigation of the painting, which segues into Jacques Lacanís reading of Edgar Allen Poeís ďThe Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,Ē then right-turns into Georges Batailleís examination of modernity, introduced by means of Rosalind Kraussís and Yve-Alain Boisís exhibition catalogue, and so on. Davidís painting is evocative enough of Santnerís thesis to be featured on the cover of the book, but it is hardly so revelatory as to warrant such an idiosyncratic tram ride through grad school to get there.

Unfortunately, much of Santnerís original argument, elaborated upon in the second, thicker section of his text, proceeds (or doesnít) through just such detours. Blame the incorporeality of his subject, the reemergence of an idea through paranoid visions, neurotic twitches, blank spots on the canvas. The constant references, the need for one more text and another, is Santner trying to throw a sheet over a ghost. By the last chapter, a reading of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, itís not so much that Rilkeís novel is beside the point as everything is beside the point. The ghost has flown, if it was ever here at all, and we are left with a couple hundred pages of Santner swearing he saw it everywhere.

All that being said, The Royal Remains is more flexible, and more exciting, than much contemporary literary criticism, which too often reads like itís trying to draw a circle with a ruler. Santner does a smart gloss of Arendtís Origins of Totalitarianism, and his readings of Freud are table-thumping, demanding the Austrianís return to his rightful place as the chief philosopher of the flesh. When Santner sinks his teeth into a idea -- and donít worry, his book is full of fleshy puns just like that one -- heís so animating that itís okay to forget heís talking about something that doesnít exist.

The Royal Remains: The People's Two Bodies and the Endgames of Sovereignty by Eric L. Santner
University of Chicago Press
ISBN: 0226735362
288 Pages