Sunday, February 24, 2013

"Where's It Coming From?": Barrett Watten, Robert Duncan, and the New Gnosticism in Poetry

Barrett Watten and Joan Retallack, in murky light at the Mayan Cafe

One of the advantages of living in a city whose airport is a major transportation hub is that there’s a good chance, when on the way to a conference, one will run into others going to the same place.  Last time I set out for the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, I ran across Rae Armantrout in the departure lounge.  This year I was nearly knocked over by Patrick Pritchett, the chair of my panel, whose route to Louisville from Harvard took him through O’Hare Airport.  When we arrived in Kentucky, we were promptly met by Mark Scroggins—another participant in our double-barreled pair of sessions on the New Gnosticism in American Poetry.  We piled into a small yellow Ford Scroggins had rented, and were off to what was, for me, one of the stronger iterations of the Louisville conference.

Much of what I love about conferences takes place outside the official venues, and, indeed, on my first day I didn’t attend a single panel, but shuffled from bar to restaurant to bar, hanging with the usual suspects (Pritchett & Scroggins, conference organizer Alan Golding, Joe Donahue, David Need, Norman Finkelstein, Barrett Watten, Aldon Nielson, Vincent Sherry), and many more, including Ed Foster and Joan Retallack, neither of whom I’ve seen in Louisville before.

All of the above were present at one or both of the New Gnosticism panels, where I also saw Ben Friedlander, Linda Kinnahan, and other Worthies of Poetry.  In fact, there was a full house when Peter O’Leary, fresh out of his car after a blizzard-hampered drive from Chicago, stepped to the lectern to deliver his manifesto, “Seven Tenets of the New Gnosticism.”  These tenets (according to the hasty notes I took during Peter’s fiery delivery) were:
1.  The New Gnosticism is incarnational, where the body is hidden knowledge.
2.  The world into which we are thrown is a broken world.
3. The New Gnosticism is incendiary.
4.  You are initiated into the New Gnosticism whenever you contribute to its incantations.
5.  The New Gnosticism is epistemologically nonplussed.
6.  The coherence of the New Gnosticism is the apocryphon of the fallen… [at this point my notes are unreadable — perhaps  I was unconsciously imitating the fragmentary nature of many surviving Gnostic texts]
7.  The missing tenant [here O’Leary gave a parable of a missing book, underlining the fallen or broken nature of the world in gnostic thought].
After O’Leary’s manifesto (which will, along with the other papers from the two Gnostic panels, be published soon), Ed Foster took the stage to discuss how Harold Bloom’s version of Gnosticism in The American Religion is a terrible misunderstanding, in which Emersonian self-reliance is mistakenly put in the place of gnosis, which relies on reliance not on oneself, but on attentiveness to the world beyond the self.  This was followed by Joe Donahue’s analysis of Gnosticism in the culture—popular and literary— of the 1980s and 1990s.  This was a follow-up on his work for a panel called “Mystics, Gnostics, and Heretics of the Reagan Years” that I organized for the National Poetry Foundation conference last year at the University of Maine, and provided the best reading I’ve yet heard of the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime” as a gnostic text.   Not that Donahue saw David Byrne and company as members of a self-consciously gnostic sect: in Donahue’s view, “Gnosticism is not an event in religious history, but a way of thinking that springs up everywhere,” particularly in times of political despair.  Mark Scroggins closed out the first panel with a revisiting of Charles Olson’s old essay “Against Wisdom as Such,” which was an attack on Robert Duncan as mystic, and occultist.  Duncan denied belonging to these categories, but Scroggins was quite convincing in showing that Duncan’s protest rings false.  He also made a case for formal innovation as linked to the uncovering of occulted knowledge, and introduced the term “The Da Vinci Code Theory of Modernism.”  The latter applies to an over-emphasis on Ezra Pound’s statement that he felt a light from Eleusis (that is, the gnosis of the Eleusinian mysteries) was preserved in the work of the troubadours and others, and through them passed into modern poetry.

In the second panel, I spoke on neologism and linguistic revivals in O’Leary’s poetry, David Need spoke of anomalous experiences and gnosis in the work of H.D., Alan Ginsberg, Philip K. Dick (the most relentlessly gnostic writer in American literature) and Alice Notley; Patrick Pritchett discussed Fanny Howe’s poetry as something that, in its gnostic complexities, “teaches us how to build a home in homelessness”; and Norman Finkelstein introduced the whole room to the virtually unknown poetry of Paul Brey, whose Terrible Woods is that rarest of things: a collection of poetry both gnostic and comic.

The papers gave rise to all manner of questions, both at the panels and elsewhere—a good sign, I think.  Here are just a few of my favorites:

From Alan Golding, who noted that all eight of the speakers on the panels were men: “what are the gender stakes of the New Gnosticism?”  The answers were various.  Many people referred to H.D., Fanny Howe, and Alice Notley as gnostic poets (and their works were discussed in the panels), and I thought of Pam Rehm.  It was also pointed out that gnostic theology does away with one of the primary pillars of Judeo-Christian misogyny: the idea of Eve as the corruptor of humanity.  In gnostic thought, Eve is a figure of salvation, and her plucking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge is the first step on our journey to release ourselves from the illusion that the material world and the world of God-the-father are the horizons of all possibility.

Also from Alan Golding (who always asks at least one of my favorite conference questions, and who, indeed, seems to make an art of them): “where is the comedy in the New Gnosticism?”  People answered variously, often with reference to Jack Spicer, who was surely both comic and gnostic.  I kept silent, but rankled a little at what I thought might be an assumption behind the question—that wit and play are the highest or most worthwhile forms of poetry.  Golding is a great fan, for instance, of Charles Bernstein, and I wondered if the question weren’t loaded a little, and didn’t seek to accuse the New Gnostics of failing to produce work that would succeed by the criteria that value Bernstein.  Was the Cathedral of Notre Dame funny, I wondered?  Was the Pietà a barrel of laughs?  And, if not, were they somehow of inferior value?  But, much as I disliked the spectacle of the panelists saying “no, our stuff is funny, too, sometimes” rather than defending the gnostic work on terms more its own, I didn’t want to start wrangling with Alan on an assumption about his question that may well have been false.

From Ben Friedlander, who cornered me in the corridors, came a question to which I really do have to give more thought: “what’s a materialist like you doing with these mystics?”  He’s got a point about my materialism.  It’s not the materialism of a guy who likes expensive watches and sailboats, but it’s real enough: my book Laureates and Heretics offered a kind of culturalist, and maybe softly materialist, explanation for the contours of American poetic history, and my new book The Poet Resigns begins with an essay that’s all about publishing conditions, economic relations, and the like as an explanation for why American poetry is the way it is.  My next book, Making Nothing Happen: Poetry, Autonomy, Society, is pretty close to dialectical materialism, at least by the standards of a bourgeois like myself.  So why am I hanging with the mystic poets?  Part of me thinks the question indicates that I’m on to something.  I mean, when I heard the question “why are you doing this” from both pro-Prynne and anti-Prynne parties when I was writing about J.H. Prynne and Cambridge poetry, I felt pretty sure I had found a way to discuss things that broke through existing paradigms.  I hope I’m at the beginning of an inquiry into gnostic poetry that will give us something new, too.  Or at the very least, something that will make the dichotomy between historical materialism and mysticism seem less firm.

It was Barrett Watten, though, who asked what was, in my opinion, the most revealing question of the conference.  A bunch of us were sitting at a big round table in the old Seelbach Bar, working our way through the Bourbon list, when Barrett cast a steely glance over at Norman Finkelstein and asked “This New Gnosticism — where’s it coming from?”  It wasn’t a question, I thought, so much as a challenge, and Norman seemed to feel that way too, choosing a beatific smile and amused, raised eyebrows rather than a more direct answer.  It took me a while to work out why Watten would put the question as he did, with more than idle curiosity to it, in fact, with a bit of steel behind it.

Here's what I think was at stake: the return of the repressed, or the revisiting of trauma.  

The best way to get at this may be to come back to a moment, now legendary in certain poetry circles, when a young Watten had a very public run-in with Robert Duncan, a kind of godfather of the New Gnosticism (and the primary subject of Peter O'Leary's study Gnostic Contagion).  The late David Bromige told the story well, maintaining, in an interview, that  Watten was “the arch villain” of poetry in Duncan's eyes, because Watten and the Language poets were, for him, “the New Criticism come again. It was everything he, Robert and his gang, had defeated… and now it was going to come back again.”  For Duncan, Watten represented “poetry written by critics, and a very buttoned down kind of poetry too...”  Matters came to a head, says Bromige, at a conference in 1979, when Watten and Duncan were going to speak about Louis Zukofsky.

It was a full house in there, and Robert appeared in his full, Romantic poet regalia, the Spanish cape, the Spanish hat…. He had his manna when he was in that garb. He could fight off evil magic…. Anyway, he spoke about Zukofsky, and of course it was Robert Duncan's Zukofsky. It was a lyrical and mystical Zukofsky, not impossible to find.… And now it was Barrett Watten's turn. And Barrett got up, and Barrett was wearing, maybe a sports coat, and maybe khaki pants, maybe sensible shoes…. He could have been a junior professor somewhere…. Barrett did almost immediately make use of the blackboard. And he diagrammed a stanza of Zukofsky's. And although I have seen Robert do equally painstaking work at other times, on this occasion, he took exception to it. It was making him impatient. He jumped up and he said, ‘Oh for Pete's sake, we might at least have a little fun.’ And Barrett, quite unphased, said, ‘but Robert, this is the way I get my fun.’ It seemed to me unanswerable. And quite unforgivable of Robert to try to swan it like that, and lord it over. And he did form a deep—maybe a shallow anti-thesis is a better phrase—to the Language Poets. He tended to reject them out of hand. 

So, for Watten, gnostic poetry comes with a dubious pedigree, or at least with a trace of a very unpleasant moment, when an old gnostic guard had sought to discredit Language poetry at the outset (I've heard, more than once, that Watten has said that the dispute with Duncan "set us [the Language poets] back ten years").  And now, at a time when Language poetry has become an academic fixture, an established part of literary history, and one of the most powerful influences on American poetry, what did Watten encounter at the Louisville conference, arguably one of the most important venues through which Language poetry entered into academic respectability?  To hijack a phrase from Bromige, it was everything he, Barrett and his gang, had defeated… and now it was going to come back again.  That's just the sort of thing that will put a little steel into your gaze.  I'm glad Barrett handled the situation with more grace than Duncan did.  But the tension did make me think that this wasn't just another pair of panels at a conference: this may have been something of an event.


Some links:

"History, Totality, Silence" a paper on John Matthias' gnostic poetry I gave at the National Poetry Foundation conference in Orono last year.

A review of Peter O'Learly's Luminous Epinoia and Norman Finkelstein's Inside the Ghost Factory I wrote for Chicago Review.

Peter O'Leary's essay "Apocalypticism: A Way Forward for Poetry," also in Chicago Review.

"The Open Word," a paper on O'Leary's poetics I gave at the Louisville conference this year.

The present humble blogger receiving gnostic wisdom from Vincent Sherry.  Rembrandt-esque photo by Mark Scroggins


  1. Great entry, Bob, thoughtful and thought-provoking as always. With my question about comedy / humor in the New Gnosticism, I didn't mean to suggest comedy as an evaluative criterion by which I would want to judge NG work. Indeed, if comedy were a central criterion by which I assessed or responded to the poetry that I read, I wouldn't be left reading a whole lot of poetry! (Though some, some.) The question was stimulated by Norman's paper and his reading aloud of Paul Bray's work, some of which I indeed found quite humorous, albeit in a dark way. That made me realize that I hadn't much of that note--comedy, satire, self-directed irony, that whole range of tonal registers--in the other work under discussion. So I just thought I'd bring it up as something to talk about: I wanted to consider whether there's a tendency in whatever we're calling NG work to take itself too seriously at times, a tendency toward over-earnestness (as of course there is in much of the work I love). But anyway, no hidden agenda at work, honest.

    1. Well -- this means my new strategy of not blurting out whatever comes to mind may be paying off! (Most people learn this when they're about six years old, but me, I'm slow on some points).



  2. Interesting, Bob - thanks. Feel some kinship with this group. I do think Watten's question is a good one, in another sense : is "gnostic" a sort of appealing brand name, allowing what is in fact "mystical, spiritual, (dare I say) religious" poetry to pass in our ironic-disenchanted poetry world?

    And I wonder about bandying around such a term (gnostic). It has a very specific and contentious history in the Hellenistic/early Christian era. Gnostics & Christians engaged in great rancorous polemics, with the Christians winning out (& in the process probably distorting Gnostic beliefs). But in our time, I would think that a poetry claiming a "gnostic" stance would be more naturally allied with Jewish & Christian mysticism, and opposed to postmodern irony and materialism. This makes the term as used by O'Leary a little confusing. Maybe it's meant to be.

    1. The question of the term 'gnostic' is like the question of the term 'surrealist,' in that it tends to give rise to answers along an axis that runs from the highly restricted to the very open. Some surrealists wanted only Breton's circle to count as part of their movement, others saw surrealism as a tendency in thought and action that manifested in many different contexts. Gnosticism can mean the early Christian mystics of the eastern mediterranean, or it can expand to include Mandeans, Cathars, the Bogomil phenomenon, and beyond. Indeed, some see it as a perennial term. I'm less inclined to the restrictive position than to a semi-expansive one, though I do think some connection with the early communities is important. And such a connection is very real in, say, O'Leary, and Donahue, and others.

    2. I should add: O'Leary is all about Christian mysticism, and I don't think he's got an ironic or materialistic bone in his gnostic body.

  3. Makes sense, Bob. But I don't think scholars generally think of Gnosticism and Gnostics as "early Christian mystics of the eastern mediterranean." There was a definite and fairly-wide chasm between Gnostic beliefs and Christian Orthodoxy, centered on arguments over the divinity of the person of Jesus, and the goodness/evil of the material world. Standard gnosticism asserted that the visible world was created by an evil Demi-urge, and that philosophical "gnosis" was the path to escape from the round of evil physical reality. This is a position which orthodox Christianity opposed very strongly.

  4. Christianity comes about before Christian orthodoxy, though -- and there's a lot of thinking and writing done in a Christian tradition before it gets narrowed down by a particular faction. If you read around in the scholarship, you'll find this. Perhaps the best way to describe historical gnosticism is as the first Christian movement to be labeled heretical by the Roman faction -- although that's a bit narrow, as there were also gnostic groups that were not Christian: Jewish gnostics, Mandeans, etc.

  5. Yes, I understand what you're saying - believe me, I've read around in the scholarship. Theologians like Origen and Clement of Alexandria can certainly be considered "gnostic" with a small "g", that is, explicators of very subtle forms of Christian gnosis. But I would say the main form of Gnosticism (with a capital "G") was a kind of anti-Jewish and anti-Christian philosophy - "anti" because rooted in this basically neo-Platonic concept of an original evil, rather than good (if fallen) Creation.

    Terminology is important in poetry. I don't mean to sound nit-picky about the "New Gnosticism", a group which I feel a close kinship with in many ways. And I would have no problem with "gnostic with a small g". But I think the contemporary trend toward promoting the original Gnosticism (say in Elaine Pagels, for example) as a liberating, oppressed alternative to "orthodoxy", tends to elide some real philosophical differences, which can't be reduced to the maneuvering of political "factions." So I think there are these perhaps peripheral repercussions to labeling a poetics as "gnostic". The terms have these implications.

    My own poetry is pretty involved with all these matters... I would say I have a strong bent toward a "spiritual-gnostic" view of reality. My recent book Lanthanum (atomic element #57, from the Greek for "secret, hidden") is tied pretty closely to the Eastern Orthodox theology of Maximus the Confessor... the poem has a numerological design, and concludes with a type of apocalyptic dream-vision uniting "America" with Russia and "Byzantium". But few people take me seriously, as I'm not in the various academic loops & poetry networks out there.

    1. Then we disagree. I'm okay with that.

  6. Pretty good overview here. Clearly a lot of unanswered questions.

  7. Despite my quibbles, this direction in poetry (apparently spearheaded by Peter O'Leary) feels right, & is important to me... just as the group around "Apex of the M" magazine did 15 years ago. Hoping to write some kind of extended response sometime soon.

    Just like to say (again) that it's possible to view the theological debates between Orthodoxy, Arianism, Gnosticism, & other trends, as about real philosophical issues, rather than as mere ideological power struggles. We tend to read history with our own contemporary biases, looking for good guys & bad guys, oppressors & oppressed. But if you read theological historians like Urs von Balthasar (his great book on Maximus the Confessor) you might find that the "orthodox" (despite their suspect "orthodoxy") had their own valid theological perspectives.

    One crux of their debates had to do with the status of Jesus as divine/human person. Gnosticism et al. have a tendency to downplay Jesus as God incarnate (as well as man). You end up with a vague kind of inward spiritualism, detached from historical reality. Because the paradoxical thing is, Orthodoxy defended BOTH the divinity of Jesus AND his full-fledged historical reality. You can get a sense of this balance - divine spirit plus gritty historical actuality - in the work of Welsh poet David Jones, for one example.

    The tendency of gnosticism to intellectualize and abstract the orthodox fusion of spirit/flesh is partly what makes me hesitate to accept fully the idea of a contemporary "new gnosticism". Back in the day, "Apex of the M" published an excerpt from a long poem of mine called "In RI" (since translated into Italian by Anny Ballardini). This is a "history poem" rooted in colonial New England & Rhode Island, but it focuses on the life & vision of Roger Williams - ultimately a "theological" vision. The pun in the title gives a sense of the historical/spiritual fusion I'm after (In RI - both "in Rhode Island" and the inscription on the cross - "Iesu Nazareum Rex Iudaorum").

    If Christ was fully divine/historical - the "Son of Man", the Everyman - then the "Spirit" still has a real historical present & future. This is the kind of "gnostic with a small g" knowledge which I'm trying to pursue in my current poetry. Wallace Stevens wrote, "The great poems of heaven and hell have been written, the poem of earth has yet to be written." If you want to read some "gnostic" material which will really blow your mind, take a look at the studies of ancient metrics, geometry, architecture, and numerology in the books of the late John Michell.

    1. I am quite sure the factions had real differences in belief.

  8. OK. & I'm just saying those differences may still have reverberations today. Look, we're already having a Byzantine theological debate!

    1. I would not deny that those differences reverberate.