4.23.2014

Venn... venn.. Ravenn...

Eric Santner, in the book I mentioned in previous post (On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life), quotes Walter Benjamin at one point : "This little man is at home in distorted life; he will disappear with the coming of the Messiah, of whom a great rabbi once said that he did not wish to change the world by force, but would only make a slight adjustment in it" (p.124).

As I try to make progress with ongoing poem work-in-supposed-progress (Ravenna Diagram), am reading an odd mix of things.  Santner's book.  A book by Mary Alexandra Watt about Dante.  Watt's book explores the "cruciform" meta-design of the Divine Comedy, how it literally maps out a medieval topography : the world's 4 directions as a cross (trace by pilgrimage & crusade), the architecture of medieval churches as microcosmic replicas of same.  She concludes by focusing on the design & iconography of the Byzantine churches of Ravenna, & their analogies in the poem.

I started working on Ravenna Diagram about 2 years ago, imagining it (in part) as a sort of "walk" or tracing of a labyrinth, a progressive series.  Now looking back I feel sort of an affinity for the Dantesque pattern outlined by Watt.  From the beginning I felt "drawn" in an obscure way toward Ravenna, and those incredible mosaics from the era of Justinian.  (Dante himself is buried there.)

How to frame a new topography in poetry?  How to design a poetic shape for something akin to Dante's vision, yet at the same time so very different?  Joyce was trying to do something like this, in Ulysses and FW.  Pound too, of course.  One feels (excruciatingly) the poverty of one's own talent & resources, the uncertainties.

A while back I wrote a short note about long poems in relation to the theological concept of kenosis : the idea of God's "emptying himself" - taking on "the form of a servant" - in order to redeem the world.  The idea was that maybe the long poems of our era - ungainly critters, unfinished, imperfect - bear some lineaments of this thing.  The poet dives into the parochial minutiae - the low, the base, the forgotten, the damaged, the unknown - in order to lift it all into some other, harmonic dimension... the wholeness, the newness, the innocence, the dignity of a chaste creation (in Nikolai Gumilev's Acmeist term)...

& maybe this sort of thinking provides me with a partial sense of direction, a locus for what I'm trying to do.  I don't know.

Kenosis... resurrection... Messiah... I feel all these things, I "know" all these things, in my own partial & probably mistaken way.

Only a "slight adjustment" in the universe... St. Paul's "renewal of your mind".  What seems to be condemned to mortality, heavy with time & death, may actually be something else entirely.  The worm in the dead cocoon may in fact be a Monarch (a good thing to recall on Nabokov's birthday).  Our little life may be rounded with a sleep... & a wakening, too (good thing to remember on Shakespeare's birthday).

4.18.2014

Breakdown, break through

Just after noon in Providence, Good Friday.  Why "good"?  Old medieval usage - like saying "Holy Friday".

Have been reading Eric Santner's interesting & concise book, On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life.  An exploration of shared territory of Freud and Franz Rosenzweig (Star of Redemption) : offers a defense of Judeo-Christianity in terms of very contemporary, postmodern psychology (by way of Emmanuel Levinas, trendy thinker Slavoj Žižek, scholar Robert A. Paul, & others).  The basic idea (greatly oversimplified here) is that this ancient monotheistic religious culture(s) is not, as some have argued, an ideological engine of exclusion and inter-cultural conflict - but rather represents a pathway to psychic liberation, working through the psycho-ideological complexes and learned/subconscious behaviors that trap us in patterns of alienation, dehumanization, objectification, etc.

(I come to this kind of study with some skepticism... often the refined and technical psychologizing seems to over-complicate matters which should resolve themselves in simplicity (how to love God, how to have faith, how to love others).  Yet again, though... Santner's arguments are cogent, and these matters are inherently complex, as well.)

The center of Santner's thinking (as it seems to be of Rosenzweig's) is this tradition's welding together of the love of God with the love of neighbor.  You can't have one without the other.  But Santner, with Freud & Rosenzweig, looks beneath the obligatory, learned patterns of social ethics (the realm of the "superego"), toward a concept of the irreducible individuality, the singularity, of the person : rooted, not in some idealization of "personality", but in the self as a solitary embodiment - singled out, specifically, by death.  Countering this condition, and its angst (the knowledge of death), Rosenzweig sketches a concept of God as intervening in the midst of present life : as bringing about a transvaluation of the terms of existence, through the force of love.  Santner's/Rosenzweig's "love" is not some vague cosmic charity, but rather a passionate demand that we love God - personally - in the same way that God calls us by name : calls us in our singularity, by our proper name.  In the same way, we encounter God personally - insofar as we encounter our neighbor in a condition of complete "soul liberty" (Roger Williams' term).  That is, the encounter involves an acceptance of the other as completely other - as free, as strange, as idiosyncratic, as driven, as eccentric, as outcast as this neighbor may be.  Santner replays Rosenzweig's sense that our relation with God and neighbor has to move beyond the "third person" formulae - the abstract systems - of traditional philosophy and theology.

The "folk tale" quality of much of the Bible lends itself, it seems to me, to a sense of God's "impersonations".  This has often been interpreted as primitivism, as childish anthropomorphizing.  We are supposed to look beneath the husk of the fairy-tale allegory of God's personal acts, for the hidden spiritual/philosophical fruit. This is one way to read the Bible, and it has its own venerable legitimacy and interest.  But another way to read is for the inherent narrative/dramatic thrill itself - as a verbal approximation of an actuality which in itself is inexpressibly real, dramatically intense.  (This, by the way, is also how I understand poetry in relation to other modes of discourse.  It is our most vivid verbal approximation of living actuality.)

Santner, clearly, is re-interpreting issues that have been debated for thousands of years, both early and late.  They are not new.  And my rehash, here, does not do him justice (I make it sound too familiar).  But as I read his summary of Rosenzweig's theology - the idea of divine "revelation" as something that breaks through (in a traumatic way) the patterns of the world and calls us personally, by name - I'm stirred by echoes of my own (traumatic) experience.  It rings true for me.

I've written many times on this blog about my "Shakespeare event" of forty years ago.  In Santner's psychoanalytic terms, it was a kind of breakdown, a surging up of unconscious forces.  It was also a pivotal experience for me, a complete and lasting change of direction and consciousness.  And it was an uncanny crisis of being called by name. (This earlier post touches on it... if you search the blog with "Shakespeare" & "sonnets" you may find more.)

Happy Easter, everyone...

3.21.2014

On demand : Menand on de Man

Louis Menand's New Yorker essay on the notorious 20th-cent. lit. scholar Paul de Man is, like most of Menand's articles, something I read before anything else (except the cartoons).  But I found it both fascinating and disappointing.  He seems to blame the vociferous critics of the Yale School and post-structural theory (deconstruction, et al.) - like Allan Bloom, of Closing of the American Mind fame - for the decline of academic humanities & literature studies.  As if "theory" gave the whole thing a bad name.  Well, it did, to some extent.  But Menand portrays the theories of Derrida, de Man, & their cohort as a sort of "deconstruction lite".  Here's one of Menand's characterizing paragraphs :

"Deconstruction is difficult to explain in a manner consistent with deconstruction. That’s what accounts for the notorious wordplay and circularity in Derrida’s prose. (Derrida’s essay in “Deconstruction and Criticism,” for example, has a hundred-page footnote.) We could say that deconstruction is an attempt to go through the looking glass, to get beyond or behind language, but a deconstructionist would have to begin by explaining that the concepts “beyond” and “behind” are themselves effects of language. Deconstruction is all about interrogating apparently unproblematic terms. It’s like digging a hole in the middle of the ocean with a shovel made of water."

In this design, deconstruction is just a subtle and critical new way to approach literature, a "good read" in its own right.  Derrida & friends are seen as deep readers and defenders of literature & the humanities.  By the same token, Menand separates de Man's scholarly work from de Man "de man" (a criminal scoundrel, by all evidence).  But this doesn't bother me so much as does his simplistic characterization of post-structuralism/deconstruction.

Derrida doesn't strike me as the open-minded reader portrayed here.  Deconstruction depends on a systematic and neo-Nietzschean dismantling of rationality itself (branded as "logocentrism").  Derrida is an anti-Plato : his supposed "free play" of signifiers depends on a very rigid ruling-out of logic itself.  Verbal circularity and the de-humanization of "language" is a necessary boundary rule within which his games take place.

What is behind Menand's affinity for this trend?  Perhaps it has something to do with his own devotion to the American philosophy of Pragmatism (following William James and John Dewey). There is an element of relativism inherent in Pragmatism.  Nothing is really "true" except in the context of its praxis, its application.  Context in this sense trumps universality.  But it seems to me that without universality, truth itself loses its meaning.  This is not to say that either truth or universality are ever simple givens - not requiring critical context, analysis, interpretation and judgement.  But if there is no universality, there is no means of judgement or measurement whatsoever.  Maybe post-structuralism and Pragmatism are joined at the hip (or by the hip, or for the theoretically hip).

3.20.2014

"Poetry : What's Next?" (postscript)

A few afterthoughts about the panel discussion on "Poetry : What's Next?", convened last week up in Cambridge, at the Grolier Bookshop.

Listening to Archambeau's & Burt's predictions (both the serious & the not-so), I was bemused to realize that, with respect to a number of their specific forecasts about future styles & concerns, I had already been there.  In fact I'd been doing those specific things in poetry for a couple decades.

Archambeau : 1) densely-patterned rhyming; 2) obscure, allusive, cryptic idioms; 3) extended serial/narrative poems...
Burt : 1) documentary/factual poems focused on local history in out-of-the-way places; 2) baroque, playfully pleasing, extravagantly stylized poems; slangy, idiomatic (quasi-slam) styles; 3) sober, restrained "thing" poems...

All these approaches are descriptive of what I've been doing since the 1990s.  "It's hard to predict the past," noted Archambeau.  Especially if "the past" is not being read, not taken seriously.

All these works of mine are easily available, in book form or for free.   In RI is a local-factual-documentary poem, full of obscure New England historical objects & events.  It was translated into Italian by Anny Ballardini & is available in a bilingual edition.  Forth of July (consisting of Stubborn Grew, The Grassblade Light, and July) is a vast, baroque, playful, epic explosion of rhyme, assonance, off-rhyme, near-rhyme, reverse-rhyme, inside-out rhyme... along with layers of Joycean networks of oblique, allusive references.  Lanthanum is a long serial poem which morphs into a dream-vision.

But the very last thing I want to do is turn this post into another pathetic example of special pleading.  I find the contemporary matrix or juncture of the poetry business, on the one hand, with the history of literature (or literary tradition), on the other, to be more strange and disorienting as the days go by.  All three of the speakers at the Grolier tried to address this jarring dissonance.  But the reality is more strange than any of us can comprehend.

When you set yourself to write long epic poems, or you fall in love with the high wild classics of the past... or when you notice the discontinuity between what is influential, what is paradigmatic, what is necessary, what lasts in literature - over the long span of time & times - and the obliterating/scattering power of time itself - the clash of cultures, the decay of material things, the overwhelming power of time & change ...  well, if you meditate on these things, if you live with them as you write... then the pathos and absurdity, the parochial narcissism, of your average would-be poet (me, for example) becomes glaringly obvious.

This is why, in the previous post on the Grolier talks, I emphasized the impossibility of saying much with certainty on this subject.  What becomes popular, what becomes great, what becomes a classic - & how it becomes such - is a real mystery.  Partly, I guess, because how it actually happens is slightly different every time : there is no fits-all method.  All I think I can say is that what becomes important to a culture at large - and what retains lasting importance - is what is somehow necessary to that people or that culture.  The work provides some kind of guidance, light, pleasure, or nourishment over time. And it does not lose that flavor (at least not completely).  & secondly, I never forget the technology of literature, of the written word.  It has the potential to outlast the Pyramids.  In fact our literature consists of the shards & fragments of ancient cultures' hero myths, sagas, folktales, laws, proverbs... the thrilling mythical tales, the parents' words to the wise & happy endings... - all those alphabetical ruins of broken peoples (Celts, Romans, Hebrews, Greeks, Chinese...) which we inherit (like Borges, the spider in his infinite library).  These epic identity claims, these tribal testimonies, in all their sublimity and beauty, bump up against the a-historical nowness of the homogenizing global hive-mind.

The social media rough beasts of the future have yet to emerge.  We've seen nothing yet.  Meanwhile the hordes of Happy Poets & Artists flood the airwaves with their twittering selfies.  Aren't we lucky to live in America & own smartphones?  Meanwhile the established institutions for the advancement of literature have their megaphones on full blast - pre-recorded, targeted drone-wise directly at your head.  Aren't we smart?  We are the coolness of now. 

I think the ur-poem - the ursus-poem - the Artorius-poem - the epic of tomorrow - will have some lineaments outlined by Walt Whitman & James Joyce.  The "song of myself" - of any self - is an epic poem.  Bloom, the Everyman of Ulysses, is like each one of us.  Every human being lives within a wonder-world, so marvelous it cannot be expressed in words : only in broken Babel-bits.  We're waiting for that Pentecost of the Ur-story... the thing that unites all people without emulsifying away each person's fingerprint... distinctive quidditas.

Shakespeare also seemed to dwell on the uncanny technology of writing in the sense outlined here.  Think of Sonnet 65...
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer's honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
   O, none, unless this miracle have might,
   That in black ink my love may still shine bright.