Posthumous Existence: A Conversation with Anahid Nersessian

February 18, 2023   •   By Jack Skelley

Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse

Anahid Nersessian

THE NEW BOOK by Anahid Nersessian, Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse, arrived, for me, as if from an alternate-universe self. Long ago, I nursed an aspiration to be a professor of English Romanticism like the author (who teaches at UCLA), thinking I could translate that canon’s timelessness to readers and students of today. Precious few books I have read on William Blake, Percy Shelley, or John Keats have fulfilled that goal, in my view; Nersessian’s book is one. Not only do its essays on Keats’s six Great Odes speak to all those in love with the poet; they are also intimately crucial to our late-capitalist, media-saturated world. I spoke to Nersessian about her book and the implications of its readings of Keats for contemporary pop music, psychoanalysis, Marxism, and autotheory.


JACK SKELLEY: You link Keats’s evolution of the ode form to both Roland Barthes and Sigmund Freud (your title alludes to Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments from 1977). The ode describes expressions of love as, in your words, “a strange compulsion to speak to those who aren’t there.” And you trace such laments to Freud’s concept of object withdrawal: the acting-out over the loss of a parent. In these contexts, Keats’s dense compositions are love poems that are at once grand and intimate. Could you expand on how you made these connections? How does love cause us to plead for what has disappeared?

ANAHID NERSESSIAN: I go back and forth between being sort of exhausted by psychoanalytic tropes and feeling personally clarified and intellectually excited by them. That said, it’s safe to say that the defining event of Keats’s life was that his mother Frances abandoned him and his siblings when he was nine years old, after his father died. She came back now and then but was a very erratic figure, an alcoholic who was sometimes doting, sometimes destructive, and then she died when Keats was 14. This gave his emotional life an apostrophic structure — he was always trying to reach someone who wasn’t there, which is what literary critics call apostrophe, the targeting of an absent party by a spoken address (“Little Red Corvette / Baby, you’re much too fast”). Barthes talks about that structure in relation to romantic love, but also when, in Camera Lucida (1980), he’s looking at old pictures of his mother and anticipating her death: “I shudder, like Winnicott’s psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred.”

Apostrophe is a regular feature of the ode, so with his Great Odes, Keats found a form well-suited to his psychic disposition. And when he was writing them, all in the year 1819, he was in love with Fanny Brawne, and we see in his letters to her how their relationship sent his baseline anxieties about attachment completely through the roof. He often accuses Brawne of inconstancy — of being, like Frances, mysterious and unpredictable — but he would also tack between being very tender and loving toward her and then disappearing for weeks or even months at a time, unavoidably doing to her what had been done to him. At one point, he moved to Winchester, and when he happened to be in London for a few days, he wrote this incredibly sad letter postmarked September 14, 1819, to tell Brawne he couldn’t come see her in Hampstead because it wouldn’t be “paying a visit, but venturing into a fire.”

In Keats’s odes, this painful and persistent sense of unease — a mixture of longing, repulsion, fear, guilt, and an irresistible fidelity to the truth of the whole experience — is masterfully sublimated, woven into a crosshatch of opposing forces that hold the poem in perfect suspension. When it’s done especially well, as in “Ode to a Nightingale,” you hardly notice it at all; it’s more audible in the odes that aren’t as polished and that lean more heavily on cliché, like “Ode on Indolence” or “Ode on Melancholy.”

“A posthumous existence” is how Keats described his short life — doomed, as you write, by a “sense of bleakness, of having failed before he had begun.” Explicating “Ode to a Nightingale,” you explore his tragic “pantomime of vitality stretched out long past some early dissolution.” And you connect Keats’s verse with contemporary poets Alice Notley and Diane di Prima. Is there a fatalistic Keats effect in other modern writers? Ted Berrigan knew that his days were numbered. Sylvia Plath’s verse is a bell that tolls. Poet and performer Bob Flanagan wrote with recognition that cystic fibrosis would take him in his prime. Your thoughts?

In her memoir Recollections of My Life as a Woman (2001), Diane di Prima describes asking Keats whether or not she should have a baby; and, in Keats’s Odes, I describe feeling like “the John Keats in my heart,” as di Prima puts it, was pissed at me about something. So, one thing about Keats that’s worth saying is that his posthumous existence is ongoing, and a lot of people experience Keats as a living and vibrant pressure on their own lives. My students often have this response to Keats, I’ve noticed; he doesn’t seem dead to them. If there’s a Keats effect, I think that’s it. It’s true that, in the 19th century, Keats’s early death was heavily romanticized, but that’s kind of appalling, you know?

It’s also true that Keats suffered from severe bouts of depression, that he obsessively thought about and at times longed for his own death. I think what we get in the poetry is something a little bit different, namely an attempt to make sensible in language experiences that seem as though they might be close to death, as opposed to deathlike. And because Keats was, as he said, “half in love with easeful Death,” or really probably more than half in love, those experiences can be ravenous and desiring. He has a lot of very rich and dynamic fantasies about being completely annihilated.

When he was feeling a bit more optimistic, Keats could write a poem like his “Ode to Psyche,” which is about the mystery and miracle of how we can, sometimes, come through episodes of extraordinary personal suffering and find love, freedom, solidarity on the other side. The myth of Psyche that appears in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass; the Sumerian story about the descent of the goddess Inanna into the underworld; Alice Notley’s poem The Descent of Alette, which rewrites that story and gives it an explicitly political and rebellious meaning — all of them explore that mystery and recognize that miracle.

I wonder if you can also apply this idea of a “posthumous existence” to pop musicians. Kurt Cobain’s suicide note quoted Neil Young: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” Amy Winehouse predicted that she would join the 27 Club. Ian Curtis of Joy Division suffered from epilepsy and depression before he killed himself (and birthed the goth subculture). Do you sense a parallel compression in the best work of some of these artists?

It’s funny that you mention Ian Curtis. I was once asked in an interview to compare Keats to a figure from pop culture and Ian Curtis was the first person who came to mind, not necessarily because they both died so young, and so tragically, but because, I think, when you listen to Joy Division, you hear many of the same tonalities that you do in Keats’s poems: lots of unexpected collisions of major and minor chords, an irresistible velocity along with an interest in the musical possibilities of what Keats calls “silence and slow time.” For what it’s worth, I listened to the New Order song “The Village” (1983) a lot while writing Keats’s Odes, particularly to the bridge, because sometimes the book’s mood would get too heavy and I’d need to shift it, and the way I do that in my writing is by listening to music that provides a counterpoint or a gentle correction.

There are, of course, people who perennially dwell very close to the anticipation of their own deaths, but some of them live a very long time. Hölderlin, a poet in whom I think we can see that same compression you describe, lived to be 73, which is a long time if you believe, as he says in his novel Hyperion (1797, 1799), that most people’s lives are like trees that rot early and never ripen (talk about goth!). So, while it’s impossible not to listen to, for example, Nirvana now and sense that — as Barthes says — the catastrophe had already happened, I would like to try and understand that as a feature of the art and not something made inevitable by biography.

Keats is a sensualist, verbalizing, as you say, the “heady particularities of taste and touch.” But characterizations of his work as effete and flowery are quaintly out of date. His depictions (often highly musical) offer great empathy for wounded bodies and souls. Your book connects these realities to Marxist materialism. Would you care to place Keats (and other Romantics, such as Blake or Shelley) in dialectical relation with Marx or the impact of Marxism?

Sure, and I’m genuinely surprised that anyone would find that controversial. Neither Marx nor Marxism dropped out of the sky. I guess it’s reassuring for people of a certain temperament to think of the ideas expressed in The Communist Manifesto as a historical anomaly, as opposed to the continuation of an intellectual tradition that goes back … well, some would say it goes back to descriptions of apostolic community in the New Testament. But to speak only of the Romantics, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey planned to start a utopian community in the 1790s where all property was held in common; in France during the Revolutionary period, the government executed François-Noël “Gracchus” Babeuf for arguing that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen only offered people equal rights before the law, that this was insufficient, and that the human species would never be able to achieve a truly just state of existence unless private property were abolished. In Germany, Friedrich Schiller wrote that a modern social form he calls “the division of labor” reduced individual human beings to fragments even as it produced enormous wealth for some members of the population. “With the monotonous noise of the wheel he drives everlastingly in his ears,” Schiller says, “[man] never develops the harmony of his being, and instead of imprinting humanity upon his nature he becomes merely the imprint of his occupation.” And of course, we could talk about Blake and Shelley in these terms for days.

These were not fringe ideas, so it’s strange to me that people who would probably, if pressed, describe themselves as serious readers can go into fight-or-flight mode if they’re invited to think about Romantic poetry in its larger historical and philosophical context. We’re comfortable describing Mary Wollstonecraft as a feminist, a word she never heard — let alone used — in her life. But we want to ignore George Bernard Shaw when he says — and he did say this — that some of the material in Keats’s poems wouldn’t be out of place in Das Kapital? That’s just such a loss — to literature, minimally.

“Ode on a Grecian Urn” is about sexual violence. Its speaker “reads like a rapist,” you write. Does that include the Western rape of other cultures? I ask that because your layered explication of the poem includes what Fredric Jameson says about Ovid’s Metamorphoses (also a rape poem), that “the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror.”

I don’t think Keats is really thinking about imperial plunder in “Grecian Urn,” though he is thinking about it in another poem called “Isabella, or The Pot of Basil,” which describes the horror of enslaved labor in the British colonies. But Byron, Keats’s contemporary, thought about it a lot. There’s a poem he wrote in 1811 called “The Curse of Minerva” that excoriates Lord Elgin for stealing the Parthenon Marbles from Greece and taking them to Britain, where they remain — despite international outcry — to this day. And he said this in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the poem that made him famous:

Cold is the heart, fair Greece! that looks on thee,
Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they loved;
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands […]

It’s too bad Jameson mainly writes about novels, because Byron’s poetry is so smart about all the things Jameson says regarding 19th-century realist fiction, most obviously that it wants to create formal solutions to social problems — a desire Byron passionately resisted and pitilessly mocked.

Also striking in your discussion of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is your swerve into a first-person account of campus sexual harassment. What do you think of autotheory as practiced by Chris Kraus, Maggie Nelson, and others? The mixing of memoir with literary or art criticism?

There’s this wonderful passage in Vigdis Hjorth’s novel Will and Testament (2016) in which the narrator is describing a moment years earlier when she began psychoanalysis to deal with the fallout of her affair with a married man, and then she says how funny it is that now, in the present, “my feelings for the married man are history while my feelings for psychoanalysis still live within me.” I think readers are drawn to the genre of life writing we call autotheory because it assumes something true, namely that our emotional lives aren’t structured just by love affairs or having kids or our jobs but also by ideas — by the books we read and the art we like and maybe, as Hjorth says, the things we learn in therapy.

The other day, I was talking to my friend David Kurnick about how we never hear academics publicly use the words “fuck” or “fucking” to talk about sex unless they want to make it seem gross or abject, or they want to appear theatrically transgressive and cheeky, or they want to make sure you understand that they’re smart enough to recognize the contradictions inherent in intimacy in a world shattered by capital, and the obscenity of a four-letter word registers that awareness, somehow. So, one thing I do appreciate about Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015), which isn’t an academic book but has a lot of academic writing in it, is that it starts by describing great sex — had on the floor next to a copy Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy (1951) — with absolutely no condescension or archness. Good for it, you know?


Jack Skelley’s books include Monsters (Little Caesar Press, 1982), Dennis Wilson and Charlie Manson (Fred & Barney Press, 2021), Interstellar Theme Park: New and Selected Writing (BlazeVOX, 2022), and the forthcoming novel The Complete Fear of Kathy Acker (Semiotext(e), 2023). Jack’s psychedelic surf band Lawndale released a new album, Twango, with SST Records in 2022.