From Confinement, June 2020
When I first wrote these words, I struggled with a tension in what I wanted to convey. I approached contagion through the proliferation of relics whose generative qualities I figured as positive, a kind of happy story. I still love the ways that relics come alive through tender care. Holding, touching, caressing, and even the creation of new containers for these sacred shards are life giving. They produce more holy objects. But I already understood then that the initial object, the relic was itself a trace of something powerful and often painful, a body harmed, a lost martyr, a hand-made sweater that a child survivor wore as she escaped the Nazis, bedding taken from the scene of a violent crime.
Even still, I found tending to such objects life affirming. I argued that living with such artifacts allows us to carry on. Mine was a hopeful vision. In November of 2019 I was not worried about the dangers of contagion. But, I suppose, I should have already known that these longings are always double-edged. And so for this forum, returning to those reflections, I find myself coming back to Maggie Nelson whose writing had already offered me company in working through these tangled desires. This time, she returns to help me flesh out some of the contours of those dangers—the anxiety that always haunts life after trauma and loss.
This is where I began.
Part 1. Contagion: An Ambivalence
I want to recognize a deep tension in thinking about relics and contagion. There is always a creepy factor involved in the relationship between relics and their containers. The objects at the heart of these constructions are themselves often the remains of a person, a trace of a crime, some remnant of, most often, a dead person, or a harmed person’s DNA, blood, saliva, sweat, skin, bone, cartilage, or clothing. These traces are not pretty. They are often figured as dirty or taboo. And yet they have engendered great affection and cultural production. Reliquaries, the vessels that hold them, are often beautiful works of art in and of themselves. In sharp contrast to thoses tainted traces, these carefully crafted containers shift our understanding of what constitutes a relic. As contact or secondary relics, reliquaries are often beautiful, shimmering objects made animate through their contact with the shards they hold. Like a virus, here too proximity is generative. The relic shares and expands its power through contact. But unlike illness, in this case, holiness proliferates. Even the vitrines that house these sacred artifacts in museum collections become yet another form of nested reliquary.And when these cases are touched, they too pass on that holiness breathing ever new life into these traces of loss and harm.
Relics are not dead but lively. Their liveliness is itself contagious, what Merriam Webster defines as “transmissible by direct or indirect contact with an infected person.” This form of transmission echoes the dynamism of the third definition of the noun “contagion,” the “rapid communication of an influence.” The examples Merriam Webster offers here include the spread of “doctrine” or an “emotional state.”
This lively contagious quality of relics allows them to participate in the ongoing life of a person, a household, or a community.
Part 2: Maggie Nelson, the Argonauts, Living with Pain, Living with Pleasure
[Roland] Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2015), 5 (hereafter cited parenthetically in the text).
What is the forever newness of relics and their reliquaries?
Maggie Nelson began her reading at Bryn Mawr College on April 27, 2017 on page 112 of The Argonauts with her account of the pleasures and dangers of creative work, the seemingly simple, direct display of delight that often portends more ominous consequences. She focused on the example of the life and work of literary theorist Eve Sedgwick. There is, Nelson explained, seemingly little room to actually display pleasure in writing. Those of us who venture to express such joy are, like Sedgwick, often punished. And yet such work is “accretive as well as autotelic: the more it’s felt and displayed, the more proliferative, the more possible, the more habitual, it becomes” (113). There can be more pleasure.
Despite the more contained and slow movement of the accretive, I find this account of how the more something is felt and displayed, the more proliferative, the more possible, the more habitual it becomes, as promising and lively. And like the autotelic, relics seem to have their own meaning and purpose. When understood as such, they direct our engagement with them, we respond to their needs.
My own work has focused primarily on relics as holders of traumatic memory, as touchstones for what it means to live with legacies of violence and loss. And although again this sounds contradictory, the ability to live with, to live on, to inhabit lives after trauma—lives that do not erase the loss but rather hold onto it—make more pleasure possible. This feel right to me.
Life after violence and profound loss requires that we find ways to hold and contain that pain. Relics help us do this. As we wrap them in our words, craft beautiful containers, or place them in vitrines, we keep these memories alive. We acknowledge and respect their ongoing presence in our lives.
In her reading at Bryn Mawr, Nelson moved from pleasure and its proliferation to the punishing voices that tried to thwart Sedgwick and so many other writers and artists. These are the “persistent fantasies about the horrible things—or thehorrible thing— that will happen to them if and when they express themselves as they desire” (114). I cannot say how many times I have found myself battling these fears. Nelson writes: “There must be no bad surprises and You can never be paranoid enough” (116). Sometimes our trepidation is warranted and yet the challenge is how to persist.
The young Maggie Nelson wrote narratives of horrible things including a novella about a violent kidnapping as a kind of literary prophylactic that she hoped would keep the horrible thing from actually happening. She called this childhood novella, her “talismanic opus” (119).
Nelson’s mother also “lives and breathes the gospel of prophylactic anxiety” (120). As she explained, “My mother thinks that people don’t really know what they’re in for in this life—what the risks are. How could there be such a thing as an irrational peril, if anything unexpected or horrific that has ever happened could happen again?” (120) I wish I never had this thought and never believed this logic but I know it well. What Maggie Nelson’s mother wants is “an outer parameter of horror of what could happen” (121), her way of containing those fears. Love and terror, hope and despair fuel this kind of fierce anxiety. Mapping out the furthest parameters is a way of marking and claiming the spaces we inhabit especially after the worst has happened. This too, is a kind of talismanic container that can help us feel a bit more safe. This is not an easy venture since these very efforts can also raise the level of our anxiety all over again. Will there be another surge? How long must we stay in lock down? Even in the best of times, our fears can build up and become overwhelming. Those of us who have known harm in our own bodies live with an abiding and an impossible desire for control and containment when there are no guarantees. What talismans and relics offer is some tenderness.
For Nelson animate objects are figured not so much as relics but as talismans. She holds fast to the hopeful, magical, life giving qualities of texts and objects. And, despite her trepidation, her fears about the worst things that might happen, that have already happened, these objects offer comfort.
Towards the end of her reading, Nelson described a gift her lover presented to her early in their relationship, an art-weapon, a “talisman of protection—a means of keeping myself safe while you were gone…. I’ve kept it by my bedside ever since. Not because I think they’re coming for us per se. But because it makes the brutal tender” (118). Rather than a traditional weapon used in combat, this artistic creation offered a kind of magical protection. Not necessarily a prophylactic, this artistic object worked more like a relic, a reminder of those real fears whose company make “the brutal tender.” The material presence of this hand-made, carefully crafted artifact held that brokenness. It enabled Nelson to carry on. This is the power of sacred objects—relics and talismans—they allow us to experience fear and hope, magic and horror all at the same time.
According to Maggie Nelson the stuff we are made of “never leaves this world.” These particles “just keep recycling, recombining” (121). This is, of course, the strange allure of The Argonauts as well as the logic of the reliquary. Sacred objects are always, it seems, preserved and under construction. Material objects are transformed, the stuff of life morphs, it comes undone and it is remade. It becomes something else. It endures and it changes as do we. There can be more pain but there can also be more pleasure.
 See Alexander Nagel “The Afterlife of the Reliquary,” in Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe, ed. by Martina Bagnoli, Holger A. Klein, C. Griffith Mann, and James Robinson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 211–22.