"What I Want Back Is What I Was": Consolation's Retrospect

Diacritics 32 (1):49-62 (2002)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Diacritics 32.1 (2002) 49-62 [Access article in PDF] "What I Want Back is What I Was" Consolation's Retrospect Denise Riley "If a horse in its elation should say 'I am beautiful' it would be bearable" [Epictetus 289]. Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, doesn't go on to say that if a human were to utter the same sentiment, it would be unbearable: only that the horse's owner shouldn't try to take credit himself for the gratuitous beauty of his animal, or try to bask in those equine good looks which, if owned by him, aren't his. The horse, though, in its jubilation can get away with boasting.There's a noticeable awkwardness in any mention of human physical beauty; its embarrassment can include a fear of lapsing into that vanity deplored alike by the Old Testament and by some feminisms. This hesitation isn't simply the wish to steer clear of laying arrogant claims to distinction; for someone can say, not boastfully but in the spirit of mentioning a contingent fact, "I used to be a strong swimmer," without the same sheepishness. But there does seem to be something especially stubborn, unmentionable, about beauty's independence. The fact that, as a lost thing, it was never owned isn't enough to characterize faded beauty's discursive peculiarities. For the same holds true, for instance, of youth. It's extremely difficult to feel yourself to be young at the actual time when you are. Certainly I was never a child.These pages skip all but one small aspect of this matter of who or what can claim beauty. They'll look only at an extremely common sentence of regret for lost physical beauty: at the strange bending of time implicit in saying inwardly, "Yes, I suppose in the past I must have been beautiful, as people used to say, although at the time I never saw it." To meditate on this very ordinary thought is by no means to despise it; and it would be foolish to tut over such retrospective self-shaping. This is how the language of self-characterization often operates backwards.1It would be vacuous to condemn our attempts at a little distraction from the approach of death with sentences like "After all, I suppose I must have been something of a beauty when I was young," or at least, where you know you can't make such a claim, the ever-reliable lament "Compared to what I am now, they should have seen me then!" (Indeed such slipping into the retrospective-fantastic mood may be positively benign in another content: for instance, a compensating refusal to treat anyone now as harshly as I was myself treated then. And there could be far riskier contents to a sentence of retrospective "realization" than mere vanity, such as revelation and enlightenment: "now I see that all along I was a favored son of God, though formerly I was blind to this shining truth.") Meanwhile timor mortis is ever at hand, and will only intensify: [End Page 49]The wrinkles which thy glass will truly showOf mouthèd graves will give thee memory.2Still, there's something of a taboo or an unnameability about the gradual erosion of whatever we feel we once had by way of beauty, a silence which, unsurprisingly, persists irrespective of the enormous new industries of repair and regeneration. This anxiety over the eclipse of your looks is exhaustively catered to (and, in the process, magnified) yet is itself a dread scarcely mentioned. How beauty's ordinary loss is silently spoken is a point at which the consolations of illusion meet and fortify the illusions of consolation. If their encounter produces a blankness liable to sink into depressive shame, arguably this adds to an unvoiced vertigo of the everyday; but what more might thinking aloud about it do? 1 The Sentence of Retrospect For the purposes of illustrating this grammar of concessive retrospect, let's imagine a puppet (for the purposes of argument here, a caricature will have to do) oddly equipped with...

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