The Impossible Object: Learning to Read the Signs of Love

Chad Pecknold
University of Cambridge

Origen, to whom Oliver Davies’ commentary also alludes, guided Christian disciples to first read Proverbs, then Ecclesiastes, and then the Song of Songs. These were supposed to correspond to Ethics, which purifies, Physics, which sends us beyond the sensory, and epoptics or Theology, ‘which leads us to union with God.’ [1] The Song of Songs, in other words, was literally the ‘holy of holies’ in the reader’s guide to spiritual progress. What I take from this is a certain ethic about what ancient thinkers thought reading these texts could do for a person. Particular texts seemed to function in a particular way, and the ‘disciples’ (obedient listeners and learners) would read these texts understanding that the transformative potential of such reading was great. In the case of the Song of Songs, the potential is particularly intense, leading us to union with God, who is the impossible object, but whose presence can be read through these signs.

I want to suggest that while talk about the text can obscure the real need to engage the text itself, our engagement with this text can also be assessed by the quality of our encounter with each ‘other.’ I am aware that this is a text which is ‘external’ to each of us, whether it ‘belongs’ to our tradition or the tradition of the other. We are not voyeurs , however. This is a generative text, which generates even our belonging within and beyond its borders. The majority of my comments, then, are oriented around the categories of generativity, those categories that find me in this text, and I think have the potential to release new life. Three categories emerge out of my reading of this text, each of which I think are significant (meaningful) for the work we do here, both on this occasion and throughout the year.

(1) Spatiality

The spaces of this text can be explored, doors can be opened (‘Listen! My beloved is knocking,’ 5.2). The contrast between two kinds of space in particular interest me. There are the garden spaces and the city spaces. Both are spaces which depend upon human cultivation, both show signs of both manipulation and enjoyment. But one roars with administrations (David, Solomon), and swords, and the sentinels who go about the city in order to protect the space of the masses, while the other seems to be a place of flowing streams, filled with the choicest fruits, with a fountain of ‘living water’ at the center (4.15). Perhaps the garden spaces are contained inside the city spaces, perhaps they are outside , beyond the city gates. Either way these are spaces that relate, both in their contrast to each other, and to the way they relate to the lovers’ search for the other. The space of the city and the space of the garden both locate the giving and receiving of love.

But the city is terribly complex. On the one hand, it is a place of danger, and warfare as well as other ‘administrations.’ On the other, it is, like the space of the garden, filled with the ‘beautiful.’ And yet, the beauty of this city space is a strategic beauty, wherein the nighttime sentinels find me, they beat me, they wound me (5.7). There is violence here, and it should not be ignored because the space is beautiful. At night especially , it is as if the space of the city has been re- placed , it has become like the space of Gethsemane (why does Ellen Davis neglect this garden in her treatment?) or Golgotha or Jerusalem or whatever name we might give to the location of suffering for love’s sake. In the daytime she rises, she goes about the city , in the streets and squares , to seek him whom her soul loves, and despite her seeking, she finds him not. (3.2) And it is only when the sentinels have found her in the daylight that she finds her love and she holds him and will not let him go. (3.4) The insecure space of the city is both about seeking and being found, but it is a destabilizing space. The way that the day turns to night, is the way the city of light, in which she is found, turns into the city of night, where she does not find love at all but is beaten and wounded by these sentinels who guard the spaces, the streets and the squares , those ordinary places that confine her search for love.

How are we to read the city then? The city of chapter three is different than the city of chapter five. The city of the night is not the city of the day. The city of darkness and the city of light, therefore, are like two cities , one of which is lost and the other is found. These are the two cities which can be only be ‘sensed’ throughout the Song: a Song of lightness and darkness (1.3-6), of waking and sleeping (8.5), of opening and closing (5.2-6), of finding and losing (6.1), of Word and Silence (5.6). Perhaps these two cities are generative of the gardens, and yet these are spaces which are secret to the city, spaces which are habitable when the city is not (‘O you who dwell in the gardens,’ 8.13). These garden spaces are a secret dwelling where love can actually be awakened and can generate new life (8.5). But the movement of love in the Song is a movement from city to garden and from garden to city. The spaces themselves are important because they are the stage. But the floodlights are on the movement of love through these spaces. This movement through space shows that love has a power which is capable of subverting the violence of political power, and will constantly find those secret spaces that are hospitable to love’s purposes.

(2) Fruit and the Source of Fruit

As I read the text I am aware of the abundance of fruit that seems to be a steady refrain in the rhythm of the text: the choicest fruits, the chief spices, the wine and the grapes. And not just grapes for the vintner but also for the Sun, and the sacrifice of wine that leaves us with plump raisins. And then there are the apples and figs and pomegranates, each ripe and ready to be enjoyed. These are sensual fruits that are themselves quite seedy. That is, these are fruits filled with seed, filled with the possibility of new life, filled with generativity. They refer back to their source: to vineyards and vines, to apple orchards and apple trees, and to ‘blossoms’, themselves signs that promise fruit. Is there really nothing about this text which would invite us to think about love as a fruit which has within its meshes the seeds of new life (the familial language of relation ), which in turn, point beyond themselves to the very source of love? The sensuality, the sexuality of this text is a sign of the possibility of new life breathing with desire for the other. And of course, all of these fruits are read onto the body of the other. For cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate (4.3) and lips, like the fruit blossoms, distill nectar (4.11). It is in this reading of the fruit onto the body that we discover that your love is better than wine (1.2, 4.10). It is in this reading that the language of fruit so penetrates the language of the body, that we who are not voyeurs are called friends and are invited to eat at this table, and drink, especially drink and be drunk with love. (5.1)

The text alludes to the impossibility that God is the object or source of this love. All the text allows us to do is to examine the fruits of love — and perhaps to read them onto the body of the earth as much as the body of the beloved (creation is itself the fruit of love, but whose love?). Our attention is never on love itself (how could it be?), but upon the signs of love, the search for love, the location of love. It is a complex method of indirection .

This reminds me of other texts about fruit. I am reminded of Jesus’ teaching: ‘No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its fruit…The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.’ (Luke 6.43-45) The fruits of the Song speak of excess, of abundance, of enrichment, of beauty beyond description. But do they not lead the sense beyond the sensory? God comes before texts, before fruits, before representations, before effects and consequences.

Whatever it is about the Song that brings us back to the Garden of Eden (Cf. Davis ), to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the Song does seem to bring us back to this garden, and to its consequences, not with regret, but somehow with the eyes of love (in 1.15, 4.1 the eyes are doves, a sign of peace). This is why I think Davis is right to see healing and restoration in the Song; though it is implicit, it does hint at the restoration of garden. It brings us to our desire for the space of the garden, to those spaces which flourish and make us to flourish, for those spaces that are hospitable to love’s purposes. But in between the lines of this text (limned between the streets and the squares of the city, and the orchards and fountains of the garden) there is still, to be honest, the pain of paradise lost. Again, I wonder why Davis has missed the garden of Gethsemane, that other garden which is also one in which the beloved waits, and suffers, for love’s sake. In the Song there is a search and a waiting which is itself a kind of fruit, not of the tree of knowledge, but the tree of love (Cf. Goshen-Gottstein ).

(3) Love

More fundamental than the category of beauty is the category of love. Though beauty is a sign of love, it is not always easily read. It can be a sign of the hunger for love as much as it can be a sign of love’s fullness. In the Song, the body is described as beautiful. And yet a whole banquet table of beautiful descriptions seem insufficient to the love that beauty would describe. Beauty is a sign of love, and finds its true source in the love that exists in the relation between lover and beloved (I and Thou).

The whole body is loved and figures in the Song, and from the opening verse, ‘Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!’ The body is described as beautiful because it is the object of love, but an impossible object, an object which defies description. The descriptions are absurd, but we are not deterred. We do not read the descriptions as absurd, but immediately shift our practice of interpretation to be able to read the signs of love. We know that love seems to transcend human description. We look to the poets to teach us about love, and we immediately recognize that we are being taught something about love in the excessive descriptions of the body which, if taken literally, would seem grotesque to us. But this is precisely why love is a more fundamental category than beauty in this Song. Even the grotesque would be beautiful if loved, because it is love which teaches us what is beautiful, indeed, gives beauty its significance (‘you are beautiful, my love,’ 1.15; ‘you are beautiful my beloved,’ 1.16).

Love of the body figures the text, and figures the spaces of the text. The reading of fruits onto bodies is part of the logic of this text. And not only reading fruit onto bodies, but reading animals, precious gems, jewels and spices onto the body. The reading of these signs in relation signify the intensity of the love that is center-stage. This logic of reading signs in relation teaches us to read the Song in an open way, reading other bodies onto these bodies. If I read Israel’s body onto the body of the beloved, is this consistent with the logic of the text? This is the extension I think the text itself warrants. It would also warrant other extensions too. But these extensions, these readings of bodies in relation depends on a coherence with this logic that makes love center-stage, and that gives the greatest possible significance to this love between lovers. It is good to read God’s love and God’s beloved onto these bodies. This is how the text intends itself to be read.

But there is the waiting for love. The suffering, even, for love. ‘Do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!’ (2.7) And there is the promise that this love will transform . ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.’ The logic of love in the text teaches us that transformation is the fruit of love. That in this relation of love, the beloved will change, and will want to change, in order to be where the lover is. Nature itself is invoked to teach this very point. ‘For now the winter is past.’ (2.11) The transformation promised however, is like the transformation of the earth from winter to spring, or from darkness to light. But the transformation can only be talked about , for there is the waiting still. But the promise is that transformation in love is something to hope for, to live for, to be open to the future when we will be found and not beaten, but loved and made different by this logic (or as Omid Safi would have it, this path of love ). Is it not significant that it is when the beloved sleeps, when she dreams , that her heart is most awake ? (5.2) It is when she dreams that she is most open to union with her lover. This is where the Song leads us, to union with the lover who has the greatest possible significance for us — we who are not voyeurs of this text.


[1] Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2002) 239-40.


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