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...


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).


"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.


A Talk at the Grolier

The Grolier Poetry Bookshop, located a block or so from Harvard Square since 1927, reminds me of the late lamented  Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan.  It's a splendid little store, full of poetry books you can't find anywhere else.  It's also a sort of miniature poetry museum.  The walls are covered with old b-&-w photos of literary eminences & locals who visited or gave readings there.  A comfortable, welcoming place - yet there's a certain air of literate acuity, articulate awareness.  Intellectual.  Most of all there's a bookish whiff of time & history - of local knowledge, memory, tradition.  Sort of a rare thing - a remnant of old weird America, in the midst of young, amnesiac weird America.

Last Friday evening I took the train up to Cambridge for a panel discussion on a fascinating, though inherently impossible theme : "Poetry : What's Next?"  I feel for the 3 writers corralled to be saddled with this incorrigible subject.  But each of them - Robert Archambeau, Stephen Burt, & Ben Mazer - was up to the task, in his own way.  The passionate iconoclast Thomas Graves was also there, sitting next to me (mild-mannered poète maudit) in the back row, and he has issued his own report on these talks.

Archambeau's talk is replete with self-deprecating charm & Gallic wit.   It's a sort of spoof on the whole idea of a pompous lecture on a profound topic (Archambeau in person radiates jovial good humor).  His pseudo-argument is a scaffold of bold propositions to which "I know you will object" - & then, because he knows we will object, he revises them or shifts to a new dyad of different bold propositions.  It becomes a sort of refrain.  But there seems to be a common thread to the parade of assertions.  He sets poetry within the framework of cultural history, the long view ("the past is hard to predict," he propounds at one point).  And the long view is a gradual but inexorable constriction of the role of poetry in culture at large.  We go from the poet as culture hero and universal sage (Bible, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare)... to the poet as middle-class Sunday fireside companion (Tennyson, Longfellow)... to the poet as maker of difficult autotelic "art objects" (Modernism)... to the poet as merely a member of one among a near-infinite assortment of "special interest groups", subcultures, hobbyists... all of them equal, all of them equally marginal.

This is a familiar story.  Archambeau gives it a twist by describing how past, seemingly passé, modes & techniques - rhyme, allusive symbolism, etc. - have become pervasive phenomena : in rap, hip-hop and spoken word verse, and in the high-symbolist, elliptically-referential methods of commercial advertising jargon.  He does this to underline the obvious difficulty in predicting the "future of poetry" - and also to suggest that the ineluctable constriction of poetry's social sphere may have reached a tipping point... or maybe a moment of dialectical reversal, a Viconian ricorso.  But that's as far as he takes the subject.  Archambeau's underlying message, perhaps, is that there exists no simple avant-garde/Darwinian system of "progress in the arts" - no foundational/revolutionary break with the past (so dear to the hearts of manifesto-writers).  As Eliot put it, "Someone said, 'The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.' Precisely, and they are what we know."

Stephen Burt's presentation was more ambitious and serious.  Burt is a rarity in this country : a real poetry critic, and an enthusiast for the new and the little-known.  He honors the poets he discusses, by way of the sheer energy and passion he brings to "unpacking" them - tracing their lineage,  interpreting their "near-nonsense" for ordinary readers.  Burt is also something of a taxonomist.  He classifies scattered species of poets and comes up with resonant family names for the trends they represent (see his essays on "the Ellipticals", or "the New Thing").  This is also a way of foregrounding the oft-unremarked vitality of what's happening now, of the very contemporary American scene.  Burt is quite gifted and discerning in pursuit of these aims.  He can frame in a few paragraphs, for example, the philosophical viewpoints influencing the incursion of "Language Poetry" in the 70s and 80s; their effect (as models for both imitation & resistance) on the innovative poets of the 90s and the past decade; and the socio-cultural forces which impel the emergence of the very latest styles.  True to form, Burt concludes this talk with a taxonomy of four very new and distinct stylistic-technical trends among young American poets, which he reads as growing future influences - because they address, with originality and energy (as Hamlet says they should), "the form & pressure of the time" - giving to "airy nothing" a "local habitation & a name."

Ben Mazer's talk was quite different, as Thomas Graves has already pointed out.  His lecture was a species of what they used to call "poet's prose" - creative, evocative, impressionistic.  As if in light mockery of Archambeau's and Burt's enumerations and categories, Mazer proposes "eight points" which seem to dissolve into cloudy ether at the end.  Yet he issues a categorical challenge - a sort of high-Romantic toss-down of the gauntlet - to any reductive intellectualizing or sociological bracketing of the poet's exalted mission and role.   For Mazer, poetry is both spiritual vocation and craft tradition.   If you don't know and absorb the incarnate, embodied, and unitary tradition of Poetry - a mode of encompassment and renewal which only a bona fide poetic Genius can accomplish - then you have missed the essence, the quiddity, the soul of poetry - and all your pedantic critical intellectualizing about it is pettiness and vanity, is bound for the dustbin.

It is kind of refreshing and incredible to listen to Ben Mazer's resonant poet's voice proclaim such unseasonable articles of faith.  In an age of the populism of creativity - everybody is a star - such quasi-elitist views are going to meet with much scorn.  Yet there is a certain logic to Mazer's position, too.  Poetry is the in-breaking of the ecstatic and supernatural.  It is the voice of the Muse - of an inspiration which cannot be rationalized or paraphrased.  On these grounds the vatic Druid, the sage-mage-shaman, lurks just beneath the surface of the poet's incantatory charism.  There is something definitely archaic and slightly liminal about Ben Mazer's way.  Here it peeks up from beneath the shelves of ye olde Cambridge bookshoppe, like a corpse-flower, or a skunk cabbage, a lily-of-the-valley, or some other shy New England sign of spring.

My own two cents on "What's Next" - which I tried, unsuccessfully & pretty inarticulately, to formulate as a question to the panel that night - is as follows.   I think it's too soon to write off poetry as a marginal hobby or irrelevant throwback.  And I think it's a mistake to solder the Balkanization of contemporary poetic trends onto the Babel-like diversity of contemporary American culture.  This is ultimately based, I think, on a very American, yet also very parochial, attitude toward history.  America's wonderful rainbow-like infinitude of ethnic & cultural & psycho-social identifications is folded within what I believe is a more global and, and yes, universal human history.  The mother of the Muses was Mnemosyne - Memory.  The poet's vocation is to gather up the common threads of our history - what binds us to past generations - and to make sense of them.

We live in a polarized nation : the Right is possessed by a nostalgia for the certitudes of the past, combined with a fundamentalist/Puritan suspicion of the arts; the Left is suffused with an idealism and a passion for social justice as a set of abstract principles - which often unites with a petty scorn and hatred for its political "other" which exactly contradicts the very ideals so cherished.  Such is today's red/blue and very stale purple stalemate.

I think the poet is the dissatisfied one.  She cannot abide the brackets & distinctions of the minor trends in style : she sees them as more of a problem than an opportunity.  The great poetry of the past inherited the narrow trends & techniques : and transmuted them by an uncanny, irreducible process of alchemical synthesis (we call this "making poetry").

What's next?   I look toward a future for poetry without so many qualifying adjectives.  I look to a poetry which is passionately drawn to what we hold in common, as well as to that which is irradicably unique, personal, & unrepeatable.