Research continues in the vital field of descriptive poetic sociology, people, and my army of assistants labors ceaselessly in the fourth sub-basement of the secret backyard writing dojo. Below find a compilation of current research results: a provisional and partial descriptive vocabulary for life on the slopes of the American Parnassus!
Sunday, March 09, 2014
A Devil’s Dictionary of the American PoBiz
Adjunctivitis: The condition, visible on your vita, of having held so many adjunct teaching gigs for so long that tenure-track hiring committees suspect there’s something wrong with you and silently pass on to the next applicant.
Anti-Foundationalism: The belief that all evil emanates from the Poetry Foundation’s menacing, black-walled headquarters in Chicago. It was once thought that being invited to air one’s dissent in the pages of Poetry or on the Foundation’s website would ameliorate symptoms, but studies have since shown such treatment just as likely to intensify the condition.
AWP Block: (Pronounce the “AWP” to rhyme with “yawp”): An occurrence in which your attempt to schmooze with the editor of an important journal is cut off by another desperate poet who sights the editor’s name tag and swoops in between the two of you, giving the editor a big air kiss and clocking you with a tote bag.
Brooklynschmerz: The anxiety caused among poets by the very existence of Brooklyn. Those who live elsewhere (that is, in the provinces) often manifest such symptoms as: talking shit about Brooklyn, mentioning how glad they are to have left/never been sucked in by Brooklyn, or by looking around at the local landscape of strip malls and Chuck E Cheese franchises and complaining about how they should be living in Brooklyn. Those who live in Brooklyn manifest symptoms such as: talking shit about Brooklyn, mentioning how they wish it was like it was before people like those other guys in the slow-pour coffee line showed up, and looking around at the local landscape of condo redevelopments and crime scene police tape and complaining about how they should be living in Portland.
Hinternet Publication: Online publications so obscure that only the hardiest of online frontiersmen will ever come across them. Just as real-world hinterlands are often given misleading names to attract settlers (“Greenland”), hinternet publications have been known to include indicators of grandeur (the word “Review,” for example) in their titles to lure the unwary and deceive the department chair looking over one’s annual evaluation.
Mastblurbation: The writing of vague or incomprehensible blurbs, rife with terms such as “achingly,” “audacious,” “luminous,” and the name-checking of John Ashbery. Alternately: the writing of one’s own jacket copy.
Microphellatio: The widespread phenomenon of poets posting pictures of themselves with microphones dangling in front of their open mouths.
MFAphasia: The condition suffered by those who stop writing after they’ve finished their MFA theses and no longer have to come up with something for workshop every week.
Oral Phase: The point in a prominent poet’s career when he or she spends so much time criss-crossing the country giving poetry readings and talks at conferences and hob-nobbing with the local literati that the actual writing of poetry ceases.
Oronism: The religious belief, widely held to be heretical yet celebrated irregularly by congregants at secret gatherings at Orono, in the remote woods of Maine, that only those poets with a personal connection to SUNY-Buffalo exist, and that all others are illusions created by an evil demiurge named Vendler.
Poetariat: The mass of unsung poets. Adjuncts, mostly.
Profschmerz: The anxiety/defensiveness/resentment felt by American poets who are not working as professors during an era in which the most common source of a poet’s paycheck is a university English department. Symptoms are various, but the phrase “I pity you academicians” is a sure sign of an advanced stage of the disease.
Saturday, March 01, 2014
Wednesday, February 05, 2014
The shades of Oppen and Rimbaud stalk unmentioned through much of The Poet Resigns: Rimbaud, the intransigently avant-garde Communard sympathizer who abandoned poetry for gun-running; Oppen, who bailed out of the Objectivist “movement” (and poetry itself) in order to organize strikes for the American Communist Party. The two men are as it were limit-texts for the collision of poetry and active politics. But in their wake there have been whole generations of poets, in both Rimbauldian and Oppenian genealogies of influence, who have argued that making poems can be in itself a way of doing political labor. Archambeau’s subtitle, “Poetry in a Difficult World,” evokes Adrienne Rich (An Atlas of the Difficult World): where Rich’s poems aim to examine and perhaps even to intervene in a world of disquiet, cruelty, and injustice, Archambeau is interested in the place poets stake out for their art, the claims they make about the relationship of poetry and power—and the motivations for such claims.
Secondly, Scroggins nails something about how I tend to think. He notes that the essays in the book were all written for one sort of occasion or another, then adds:
And they have the advantage of the best occasional writing: immediacy, a sense of responsiveness, conversationality. But Archambeau is a “big ideas” critic: he invariably wants to spin his momentary interpretations of texts into larger insights about the place of poetry in the world. Sometimes, as in the more general essays in the first half of the book, this results in excellent and provocative meditations; sometimes individual poets, poems, and passages from poems become grist for a relentless point-making mill. There is enough to think about in The Poet Resigns to fill a shelf of books, and if Archambeau has the tendency sometimes to answer the big questions of our poetic moment a bit more rapidly than I’m comfortable with, he’s to be given abundant kudos for raising them in such a clear and thoughtful manner, and for tackling them in such lively and intelligent prose. There are many moments in The Poet Resigns when Archambeau’s affection for poetry (in all of its forms) and his sensitive critical intelligence align perfectly with his structure-making impulses. And the more personal moments of this collection, such as the delightful “My Laureates,” show that the poet-critic, whether his resignation be temporary or permanent, is by no means afraid to subject his own socio-politico-theoretical position to the same examination he has brought to bear on others.He's got my number, Scroggins has: every time I read a poem I do want to spin the interpretation out into a general discourse on the history of Western aesthetics since the Enlightenment, and a concomitant social analysis! And I do love giving an outline of an entire system of thought as a prelude to making often relatively minor observations (see, for example, the blog post preceding this one). This can certainly be a vice, even as it can, on a good day, perhaps be a virtue. Scroggins isn't the only person to have noticed this. During the recent MLA convention in Chicago I was several drinks into the evening with the writer of another, forthcoming review of The Poet Resigns, who told me "most of those essays ought to be books!" I took this as a compliment at the time, but I suppose there's a very different way of seeing it, too.
Anyway: I get what Pinsky means: its good to be seen for exactly what you are, and Scroggins sees pretty damn clearly.
The whole review can be found here.
Saturday, February 01, 2014
Let's throw some big words onto the table: speculative realism, object-oriented philosophy, the digital humanities, and conceptualist poetics. They all belong there together, I think, because they all have something to do with one possible future for literary studies. Graham Harman is the leading figure of the movement known in philosophy as speculative realism or object-oriented philosophy. While his name seems to strike fear into the hearts of the more uptight members of the Anglo-American philosophical community, he remains relatively unknown among those concerned with literary study, even in those circles where philosophically-informed critical theory holds sway. All that may change, though: in the past few years he seems to have become more focused on the interdisciplinary possibilities of his thinking, and he's begun to speculate about just what his brand of thinking could mean for the future of literary study. It's a weird prospect he presents, but an intriguing one. What is more, it's a future that could easily build on two growing developments in thinking about literature: digital humanistic study of the sort practiced by Franco Moretti at Stanford's Literary Lab; and conceptualist poetics as practiced most prominently by Kenneth Goldsmith.
Harman tells us that speculative realism is "weird realism" (he likes the phrase so much it appears as part of the title of his book Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy). While we literary types might want to think of "realism" as a nineteenth century literary movement, Harman uses it in a sense specific to philosophy: as one term in the realist/idealist debate. Realists, in this context, are those who believe in an objective, exterior world of things-in-themselves, existing independently of our minds; while idealists like Kant believe that the only world we can know is the world of things present to our mind, the world of mental phenomena. In the long history of realists vs. idealists, realists have tended to be the commonsensical bunch, those who seem least weird and most down to earth. One thinks of Boswell's anecdote about Samuel Johnson responding to Berkeley's idealist speculations, in which the rebuttal to idealism could not have been more concrete:
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus."
Vulgar empiricism! It worked for Johnson, but for Harman it just won't do. He comes by his realism from another source: Heidegger, specifically the tool theory sections of Being and Time.
Most of us in literary studies who cut our teeth on continental literary theory have absorbed, to one degree or another, the sense of reality as socially constructed, as the product of discourse or language, or as constituted in social systems of one sort or another. Whether our maître à penser was Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Bourdieu, or, if we're very hip indeed, Bruno Latour, we've tended to believe in objects as formed by human consciousness or consciousness' products (such as language or systems of prestige). Harman believes, instead, that objects necessarily exceed their relationship to humanity, and even their relationship to each other. As he put it in an interview for the Cultural Technologies podcast, his theory centers on "the notion that the objects of the world are not exhausted by their interactions, that there is some nucleus in the object that is never fully deployed in its relations." This grew out of Heidegger, especially those parts of Heidegger's thinking that rebel against the phenomenological philosophy of his mentor Husserl, who was interested in the way objects appear in human consciousness. For Husserl, objects were important in terms of their appearance to us, but Heidegger saw that things exist, for the most part, without our consciousness. We depend on them as tools or equipment, but even as we're doing this they're not something we think about, or are conscious of. Things, for Heidegger, are mostly not in our consciousness, but are unconsciously relied on and taken for granted. Things don't tend to appear in consciousness until something goes wrong with them: you don't think about your computer keyboard until the space bar sticks; you don't think about the hammer you're using until it breaks (the latter is Heidegger's famous example in Being and Time—you might recall something similar being said about shoes his "Origin of the Work of Art").
Harman goes a step further than Heidegger: for him, it's not just that objects go deeper than our consciousness because of being used without being present in the mind: the object goes deeper even than its use. The existence of the hammer exceeds both consciousness and use, and withdraws from us in ways upon which we can only speculate. It can't be summed up by how we think about it or use it. Neither can it be explained as a bundle of its components. As Harman puts it,
Just as humans do not dissolve into their parents or children but rather have a certain autonomy from both, so too a rock is neither downwardly reducible to quarks and electrons nor upwardly reducible to its role in stoning the Interior Ministry. The rock has rock properties not found in its tiny components, and also has rock properties not exhausted by its uses. The rock is not affected when a few of its protons are destroyed by cosmic rays, and by the same token it is never exhaustively deployed in its current use or in all its possible uses. The rock does not exist because it can be used, but can be used because it exists…. It is a real form outside our minds. It is what medieval philosophers called a substantial form: the reality of an individual object over and above its matter, and under and beneath its apprehension by the mind.
One might say that Harman's philosophy is concerned with essences, in that it is looking for what makes a thing itself, in excess of its uses or relations or components. "The term 'essence' gets a bad press these days," Harmon once told an interviewer for Design and Culture, "because it has come to be associated with all kinds of repressive and reactionary dogmas, but if we take 'essence' in a more minimalistic sense to mean 'what a thing is quite apart from its accidental circumstances,' then a certain essentialism is unavoidable." Moreover, we're not going to get access to those essences, or even look for them. We're going to "look instead at how individual entities… withdraw" from systems of definition or use or relation.
Essentialism and Weird Realism
Maybe the point about essentialism and its putative relation to reactionary views is worth elaborating on. Harman certainly does elaborate on it—here's a passage from his article "The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer":
According to one familiar narrative… philosophers used to be naïve realists who believed in real things outside their social or linguistic contexts; these things were ascribed timeless essences that were not politically innocent, since they subjugated various groups by pigeonholing each of them as oriental, feminine, pre-Enlightenment or some other such tag. According to this view, we have luckily come to realize that essences must be replaced with events and performances, that the notion of a reality that is not a reality for someone is dubious, that flux is prior to stasis, that things must be seen as differences rather than solid units…
The thing about this narrative, though, is that it takes one view of objects and their essences as the only possible view of them:
The problem with individual substances was never that they were autonomous or individual, but that they were wrongly conceived as eternal, unchanging, simple, or directly accessible by certain privileged observers. By contrast, the objects of object-oriented philosophy are mortal, ever-changing, built from swarms of subcomponents, and accessible only through oblique allusion. This is not the oft-lamented 'naïve realism' of oppressive and benighted patriarchs, but a weird realism in which real individual objects resist all forms of causal or cognitive mastery.
An emphasis on the question of what makes an object itself is not, then, a sure sign of reaction: this is not your father's essentialism.
Object-Oriented Literary Study
What could all of this have to do with literary study? Well, for starters, its one more nail in the coffin of one of the old dogmas of the New Criticism—that every part of the poem exerts pressure on every other part, and that no part is extractable without utterly changing the poem's meaning and effect (this is really a more of a refutation of Cleanth Brooks' "Irony as a Principle of Structure" than of New Criticism as a whole, which was wider and more various than most of its current detractors and advocates seems to believe). Here's Harman discussing the famous ending of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," with the assertion (the urn's, not Keats') that "beauty is truth, truth beauty."
If Keats' 'beauty is truth, truth beauty' can only adequately be read as the outcome of the earlier part of the poem, this is not true of the whole of the earlier portions, Cleanth Brooks notwithstanding. We can add alternate spellings or even misspellings to scattered words earlier in the text, without changing the feeling of the climax. We can change punctuations slightly, and even change the exact words of a certain number of lines before 'beauty is truth, truth beauty' begins to take on different overtones. In short, we cannot identify the literary work with the exact current form it happens to have.
What is essential to the poem remaining itself is not immediately clear, but the insistence on total integrity doesn't hold up, as far as Harman is concerned, no more than the sense that a few protons of an individual rock being destroyed would destroy its identity as a rock. What we can't do is determine the essence of the particular literary text: "the literary text," writes Harman, "runs deeper than any coherent meaning, and outruns the intentions of the author and reader alike." What, then, can we do? Here's where things get interesting—because we can try, through various methods of indirection, to allude to what makes Keats' ode itself. We won't get to the core of the thing, but we can begin to understand the nature of what makes that poem that poem, and we can understand something about what would mark the limits of the poem, when we would find that it is no longer itself. The critic of a text or set of texts would go about this sort of thing by
...attempting various modifications of these texts and seeing what happens. Instead of just writing about Moby-Dick, why not try shortening it to various degrees in order to discover the point at which it ceases to sound like Moby-Dick? Why not imagine it lengthened even further, or told by a third-person narrator rather than by Ishmael, or involving a cruise in the opposite direction around the globe? Why not consider a scenario under which Pride and Prejudice were set in upscale Parisian neighborhoods rather than rural England—could such a text plausibly still be Pride and Prejudice? Why not imagine that a letter by Shelley was actually written by Nietzsche, and consider the resulting consequences and lack of consequences? … all the preceding suggestions involve ways of decontextualizing works… showing that they are to some extent autonomous even of their own properties. Moby-Dick differs from its own exact length and its own modifiable plot details, and is a certain je ne sais quoi or substance able to survive certain modifications and not others.
It's a different world than what we normally think of as the province of the literary critic, isn't it? But it's also a world that has to some extent already come into being, independently of Harman's recommendation.
Goldsmith, Moretti, and a Future for Literary Study
We've seen decontextualizations very much along the lines suggested by Harman— but not in the main works of literary critics working in any of our conventional modes (new historicist, formalist, Marxian, feminist, poststructuralist, etc.). We've seen it much more consistently in the works of conceptualist poets like Kenneth Goldsmith. Consider Goldsmith's transcription works: his typing, verbatim, of a year's worth of weather reports in his 2005 book The Weather, or his transcription, again verbatim, of the September 1, 2000 issue of The New York Times in the 2003 book Day. These projects raise many questions (including questions about the meaning of manual transcription in the age of mechanical reproduction, about the meaning of authorship and the importance or unimportance of originality, and about whether a poem needs to be read or simply acknowledged as a concept). But Goldsmith's conceptualist projects also raise exactly the kind of question Harman raises with " Why not imagine that a letter by Shelley was actually written by Nietzsche, and consider the resulting consequences and lack of consequences?" Why not imagine that the September 1, 2000 issue of The New York Times was a book written by Kenneth Goldsmith? What are the consequences or lack of consequences? Goldsmith has undertaken other projects very much in accord with other elements of Harman's projected future for literary studies. Consider, for example, the following items from his 2002 list poem "Head Citations":
1. This is the dawning of the age of malaria.
2. Another one fights the dust.
3. Eyeing little girls with padded pants.
4. Teenage spacemen we're all spacemen.
5. A gay pair of guys put up a parking lot.
5.1. It tastes very nice, food of the parking lot.
6. One thing I can tell you is you got to eat cheese.
7. She was a gay stripper.
8. Fly like a negro to the sea.
9. Hey you, get off of my cow.
It is, as you've probably noticed, a list of misheard musical lyrics. The poem contains some 800 of them, taken from various sources. The distortion of the original text is not so great that all of the lyrics are unrecognizable, though we've clearly moved beyond the words as written by the songwriters. The question of how far is too far, of where the limits of the song are to be found, comes to the fore—and gets complicated by the fact that these mishearings are all actual instances of what people have experienced when they've heard the songs. Once again, Goldsmith's practice anticipates Harman's call for action—it's object-oriented literary criticism avant la lettre.
Goldsmith remains a controversial figure in poetry circles, and it would take a remarkably progressive English professor to consider what he does a kind of literary criticism. But what about Franco Moretti? His lit-crit bona fides are as respectable as one could wish: he's written extensively in the Marxian mode, holds the appropriate degrees, holds an endowed chair at Stanford, and has published a half-dozen books of criticism, well received in many quarters. He's also at the forefront of the movement for the digital study of the humanities, running Stanford's Literature Lab. The massive digitization projects done at Stanford under his direction have yielded all sorts of interesting results, but one of the directions Moretti has taken comes tantalizingly close to the project outlined by Harman. The most fascinating part of Moretti's recent book The Bourgeois examines what many may think of as an unpromising topic: verb forms in Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. His analysis of those verb forms leads him to notice that the most typical formation involves Crusoe narrating events in a sequence moving from the past participle to the simple past and on to an infinitive. "Having stowed my boat," says Crusoe, "I went on to shore," and then concludes with "to look about me" (I am indebted to David Winters for this particular example). This is important, says Moretti, because it embodies the bourgeois worldview of instrumental reason and deferred gratification: of doing something in order to prepare for a next step that will lead to another step in an ever-proceeding process of building and mastering. It's a far cry from the verbal structures we find in Homeric epic, where the "Having done that I did that in order to do the new thing" pattern is in relative abeyance. Gathering this kind of data is important—but monkeying with it could be even more important. Moretti has the technical resources to make massive substitutions: he could change Crusoe's verb forms around electronically, and produce exactly the kind of modified text Harman describes, allowing us to investigate the boundary at which Robinson Crusoe ceases to be recognizably itself. How important is that bourgeois verbal structure? One modification would go unnoticed by even the most committed Defoe expert. When would we meet the threshold?
One often hears that there's little happening in literary studies lately, that after the theory wars of the last decades of the twentieth century we have become complacent, or given up on innovation in literary criticism. The model propose by Harman is not as far-fetched as it may seem—in fact, it has already taken root among creative writers and those most committed to bringing technology to the study of literature. We won't know how valuable it could be until we try it in earnest. So I say we work to get Harman, Goldsmith, and Moretti installed on three adjacent bar stools. When they walk out of the joint, they might just be able to point us to where we could be going.
Thursday, January 23, 2014
“We are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive,” wrote the Qatari poet Muhammad ibn al-Dheed al-Ajami, in a poem praising the uprisings of the Arab spring. He wrote in praise of those who put their lives at risk for freedom, and must have known he was taking a great risk himself: his poem landed him in a Qatari jail, where he remains. He’s a poet who knows about the kind of risk it is hard to imagine an American poet running—protected as our poets are by freedom of speech and widespread public indifference. It’s not that American poets can’t run risks; rather, it’s a matter of much lower stakes. The most common thing our poets put at risk is the sympathy of their readers and editors, and they may do so by aiming too high or too low.
That's the opening paragraph of my contribution to a symposium on poetry & risk in the latest issue of Pleiades, now appearing in bookstores and in the mailboxes of subscribers. The essay goes on to discuss Peter O'Leary's poetry as aiming high, and Michael Robbins' poetry as aiming low—in both cases it's a matter of diction, and of alienating potential audiences.
The poetry and risk feature includes a lot of fine things, including Rae Armantrout writing on Ben Lerner; Carl Dennis writing on David Wojahn; Joan Houlihan writing on Brenda Shaughnessy, John Gallaher writing on Michael Benedikt, and much more. It's not available online, but on this strange alternative medium called "paper."
***UPDATE FEB. 4, 2014: My contribution to the symposium is now available online.
***UPDATE FEB. 4, 2014: My contribution to the symposium is now available online.
Wednesday, January 22, 2014
There's an interview with me up over at the Critical Margins site. The occasion is my book The Poet Resigns, but the discussion ranges over a lot of territory: the career of the poet-critic, the effect of academe on poetry, poetry and politics, whether "identity politics" is a pejorative term, what it means to read works by people other than ourselves, why I was bushwhacked by a pack of professors after I spoke about Harryette Mullen's poetry, and much more. Thanks to Hope Leman for patiently asking the questions!
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
"Who's the man?"—the question itself contains something like an answer, since it presupposes an overlap between authority and masculinity. I suppose that's why I chose it as the title for an essay just now out on the Poetry Foundation site. The essay reviews Peter Quartermain's collection of essays Stubborn Poetries and Among Friends, a collection of essays about women, poetry, and friendship edited by Anne Dewey and Libbie Rifkin. What unites these books is a concern with the way a poet establishes authority. Quartermain's collection has a lot to say on the issue, but it hinges on the difference between an appeal to tradition as the basis of authority (as in T.S. Eliot) and an appeal to the immediacy of experience (as in William Carlos Williams and the Objectivists, for whom Quartermain has warm feelings). The essays collected by Dewey & Rifkin take on a range of topics, but the ones I pick up on are Joanne Kyger's complex position as a woman in the boy's club of North Beach poets that assembled around Jack Spicer, and the fascinating position of Patti Smith as a woman who decides to appropriate specifically masculine forms of literary mystique. Here's a bit from that part of the essay:
Daniel Kane’s contribution to Among Friends takes on a case fascinatingly atypical: Patti Smith’s engagement with the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the East Village of the early 1970s. Community-oriented, fond of collaborative authorship and performance, the Poetry Project was deeply critical of the notion of the poet as a lone visionary genius, isolated from everyone but his muse. Frank O’Hara’s comment on Dylan Thomas’s stage (and, for that matter, barroom) persona catches the nature of the critique: “I can’t stand all that Welsh spit.” But when Patti Smith gave her first performance at St. Mark’s in February of 1971, embodied the role of the privileged poet-seer. While most poets began their readings at St. Mark’s by thanking the organizers and the community, Smith began with a grand invocation of a whole lineage of outlaw heroes, from James Dean and Mayakovski to Blaise Cendrars and Sam Shephard—and went on to add boxing, crime, and the electric guitar to her list of dedicatees. Her authority as a poet wasn’t going to come from joining a community of poets in the East Village: it was going to come through an affiliation with an imagined bloodline of rebels, from Blake to Rimbaud to Gregory Corso. That this was a very masculine pantheon was no coincidence: what Smith yearned for was status of the kind accorded to Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison. “I like people who’re bigger than me,” she claimed in an interview, “I’m not interested in meeting poets or a bunch of writers who I don’t think are bigger than life.” And being bigger than life meant claiming for herself the solitary swaggering mojo of a certain kind of masculine figure. A Village Voice reviewer from the early 1970s got it right when he wrote, “Patti Smith is the poet as macho woman.” Smith herself could be quite explicit about wanting to appropriate, rather than challenge, masculine forms of identity and authority—consider these lines from her poem “female”:
I ran around with a pack of wolves. I puked on every
pinafore. Growing breasts was a nightmare. In anger
I cut off all my hair and knelt glassy eyed before
God. I begged him to place me in my own barbaric race.
The male race. The race of my choice.
Friday, January 17, 2014
So the new semester has begun, and I find I'm teaching the Romantic poets again. I'm always struck by the strange contradictions of the group: reactionary yet revolutionary, nature-loving but with a strong contingent of city-bound cockneys, obsessed with the past yet driven to invent new forms and new ways of living. One of the more striking of these contradictions comes in the confluence of individualism and mysticism. It makes for a strange pairing because it involves both an emphasis on the self and a drive to lose the self in something larger. We see it in many places. It's there, for example, in William Blake. He was such an insistent individualist that he felt he must create his own system of religion, lest he be "enslaved" by that of another man. But he also wrote, in The Book of Thel, of how clinging to our little, temporary selfhood was a kind of failure, and that we should embrace the way we dissolve into the living universe after we cease to be. The combination of an intense preoccupation with individuality and an emphasis on a mystical loss of identity lies at the core of Wordsworth's sensibility, too. The Prelude sets out to rival the great epics of the past, but instead of dealing with the fate of civilizations (think The Iliad) or with the scheme of the cosmos (think The Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost), it will be a record of "the growth of the poet's mind" in all its individual particularity. At the same time, though, it's also a poem about the dissolving boundary between the self and the natural world, and its most powerful moments depict the loss of self-identity in a sublime and pulsating fusion of spirit and nature.
Maybe I shouldn't be surprised at the combination of individualism and mystical self-loss. They might just have something to do with one another. One certainly gets that sense when reading that greatest of proto-Romantics, Rousseau. Rousseau was certainly a believer in the individual. Although he never actually wrote of the "noble savage," he did argue, in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, that humanity in the state of nature was solitary; and his Confessions constituted a tremendous innovation in literature because of their candor and specificity in giving the details, including the unflattering and trivial details, of a life. What is more, his famous Of the Social Contract argues that the individual precedes society: collective life doesn't precede the individual and form him, but comes about when individuals agree a collective interest and a social formation. The pioneering sociologist Émile Durkheim takes issue with this kind of thinking (as embodied in the Utilitarian philosophers who emerged in the wake of Rousseau) when, in The Division of Labor in Society, he objects to “deducing society from the individual” because, in his view, “collective life is not born from individual life, but it is, on the contrary, the second which is born from the first. It is on this condition alone that one can explain how the personal individuality of social units has been able to be formed and enlarged.” It is wrong, writes Durkheim, to suppose that there ever were " “isolated and independent individuals who… could enter into relationships with one another in order to co-operate, for they had no other reason to bridge the empty gas surrounding them, and to associate together… this theory, which is so widely held, postulates a veritable creation ex nihilo. But this is the voice of the systems-obsessed late nineteenth century objecting to the Romantic individualism that came before. Rousseau is the full-throated prophet of that Romantic individualism.
With that individualism, though, there comes a certain melancholy loneliness. Consider the following passage, from Rousseau's posthumously published Reveries of the Solitary Walker. Rousseau has been wandering in the hills after harvest season has passed, gathering botanical samples. The fields, once crowded with peasants taking in the crops and reveling townsfolk, has emptied out:
The country was still green and pleasant, but it was deserted and many of the leaves had fallen; everything gave an impression of solitude and impending winter. This picture evoked mixed feelings of gentle sadness that were too closely akin to my age and experience for me not to make the comparison. I saw myself at the close of an innocent and unhappy life, with a soul still full of intense feelings and a mind still adorned with a few flowers, even if they were already blighted by sadness and withered by care. Alone and neglected, I could feel the approach of the first frosts and my failing imagination no longer filled my solitude with beings formed after the desires of my heart. Sighing I said to myself: What have I done in this world? I was created to live, and I am dying without having lived. At least I am not to blame; even if I cannot offer up to my maker the good works which I was prevented from accomplishing, I can at least pay him my tribute of frustrated good intentions, of sound sentiments that were rendered ineffectual, and of a patience which was proof against the scorn of mankind. Touched by these thoughts, I retraced the history of my soul from youth to the years of maturity and then during the long period in which I have lived cut off from the society of men, the solitude in which I shall no doubt end my days. I looked back fondly on all the affections of my heart, its loving yet blind attachments, and on the ideas which had nourished my mind for the last few years...
The lonely, dying scene seems to Rousseau like a parallel to his own wandering life as it comes to its final years—and this is important. He looks at the world and sees himself. Indeed, he's unlike most thinkers who came before him in the degree to which he obsesses over himself: he plays a kind of symphony of his own soul's journey, with that individual soul's desires and regrets and self-pity, its sense of solitude, and its consolations. This is a huge affirmation of the importance of the individual life and its little journey, and even presents a fall and redemption story of sorts: he failed to live as he ought, but discovered that this was inevitable, and came in the end to a kind of mild wisdom and gratitude. But this story doesn't start in Eden, at the dawn of history, with Adam and Eve, and end with the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ: it takes place in the individual life. We, as individuals, are where all the real action takes place. This kind of thinking makes each of us very important, but it also traps us in our own little stories, rather than uniting us in a larger story and set of symbols relevant to a whole community of faith.
Along with this deep investment in individuality, though, Rousseau tells us about a release from that individuality, one bordering upon a kind of mystical experience. After making his way back into town, he sees a Great Dane loping towards him, followed by a carriage careering around, dangerously out of control. He braces himself to leap to safety, but too late: he is struck, and lies unconscious for a time. When he wakes in the arms of townsmen, he describes the following experience:
Night was coming on. I saw the sky, , some stars, and a few leaves. This sensation was a moment of delight. I was conscious of nothing else. In this instant I was being born again, and it seemed as if all I perceived was filled with my frail existence. Entirely taken up by the present, I could remember nothing; I had no distinct notion of myself as a person, nor had I the least idea of what had just happened to me. I did not know who I was, nor where I was; I felt neither pain, fear, nor anxiety. I watched my blood flowing as I might have watched a stream, without even thinking that the blood had anything to do with me. I felt throughout my whole being such a wonderful calm, that whenever I recall this feeling I can find nothing to compare with it in all the pleasures that stir our lives.
I'm sure neuroscientists could describe what happened to Rousseau's brain after the impact, and explain his perceptions in terms of the effects of physical trauma on brain function. But what's important isn't the physiognomy, but Rousseau's experience, and his depiction of that experience. The very thing into which he'd been drawn by his reflections on nature—his selfhood, his identity—has vanished. He is born anew, without any of the particulars of the long journey of the soul he'd been recounting. For this one brief moment he has no past, and no sense of belonging to his own body: the blood could be anyone's, and is of no concern to him. He's been released from the burdens of selfhood and sees the world as if he were no one at all, as if it flowed through him without the filtering resistance of identity. It's much like the state of religious bliss and selflessness achieved by many religious mystics. But it is intimately linked to the idea of individualism, because the pleasure Rousseau feels is the bliss of release from the burdens of his lonely self. The solitary Romantic implies the mystic Romantic the way a wound implies a cure.
Thursday, January 16, 2014
Being a fan of Afro-Caribbean surrealist poetry can be a sort of lonely business: if you hang out in poetry circles, you'll sometimes run into people who admire Aimé Césaire, but otherwise you tend to be on your own with your enthusiasm. You can imagine my surprise, then, when the New York Times got in touch and asked if they could use my translation of "Sarabande," a wonderful poem by Lucie Thésée, a mid-century poet from Martinique (the translation originally appeared in Poetry, along with some other Thésée things). My reaction was something like "What? Yes! What?" Anyway, they've now paired the poem up with a little prose piece about meeting Césaire called "Beneath Martinique's Beauty, Guided by a Poet," and you can check it out at the New York Times learning network.
Thanks to the people at the Times (and, before them, at Poetry) for believing in this kind of off-the-beaten-path poetry. "Sarabande" is smoking hot stuff—erotic, political, and a good way to warm up in cold weather.