No Surprises: On Barrett Watten
This piece is 21,700 words or about 50 printed pages long.
‘Bishop got off the trough he had been sitting on
If the above statement by Williams — whose triumph lay in a delicate marriage between the real and the imagination, a balance struck between the poem and its poetics (what would the ‘Red Wheelbarrow’ be without that strange, initial ‘so much depends / upon?’) — stands as one of the numerous calls to liberate the modern artist from ‘his’ traditional mimetic duties, then Reznikoff’s Testimony represents a specific use of narrative mimesis for ends other than those conventionally prescribed for their use (e.g., satisfying stories of deep symbolic and moral content). Watten, as we’ll see, operates via an inversion of this method: the deployment of defamiliarizing techniques in the direction of a more radical and bare mimesis. In Reznikoff, transparency — in the mode of reportage — snowballs into opacity. In Watten, opacity — in the mode of allegory — melts into the ruins of transparency.
The aim of this essay is to explore the consequences of such a poetics of defamiliarization and its indetermanicies — despite the determinacy of the theory — as exemplified by Watten’s project, which, in my opinion, offers the most consistent (and honest) attempt by a language poet to deal with social contradictions as they occur on the level of words. I want to see whether or not the use of indeterminacy and abstraction in poems makes it impossible to determine whether or not such a use has been successful, has actually worked. Do not the blanketing linguistic disruptions so enthusiastically celebrated by the language poets ironically dismantle any effort on the part of the critic or reader to determine which specific disruption has, in fact, hit its target? In this question, I believe, hides the critical fate of language poetry as an avant-garde project.
‘This dogged, obsessive plainness,’ writes Robert Pinksy of an earlier poem, ‘works its way... practically to the point of inarticulateness.... Creeley’s language [is] so chastened that it seems to aspire toward some kind of non-language.’ John Perreault, reviewing Creeley’s earlier collection, Words, declares: ‘The same subjects remain: personalized versions of love, pain, sex and death, but whittled down to “breath units” of often breathless banality.’ And the anonymous Times Literary Supplement reviewer of Poems 1950-1965 complains that ‘the effect [of Creeley’s “numb repetition of colourless words”] is that of wading interminably through some unfamiliar shorthand or of listening to a glazed monotone’ (WL 190).
Many of Creeley’s poems do create a cage-like environment almost to the point of unbearability and nearly reproduce on a formal level — in sharp contrast to the visual-verbal bombast, say, of the Italian futurists — that ‘monotony of terror’ which captures both the essence of modern warfare and huge slices of modern life. Creeley, however, doesn’t give the war — Vietnam in this instance — his ‘experience of words’ but, in the political act of excluding political statement, forges an autonomous space for such tactical acts as poems, which — to paraphrase him from another context — are what the poet turns to when, as is so often the case, no other immediate political (or personal) acts are available. On the one hand he ‘[looks] to words and nothing else, for [his] own redemption’ and on the other hand knows that ‘[w]ords will not say anything more than they do, and [his] various purposes will not understand more than what they say’ (WL both 191).
"Spread outward. Crack the round dome. Break through.
Identity and description would thus seem to be as inescapable as our love and hatred for them. This paradox multiplies when one considers the famous statement from Creeley’s essay: ‘A poetry denies its end in any descriptive [his italics] act, I mean any act which leaves the attention outside the poem’ (PAP 638). Here, he is driving at an autonomy that has no other parallel outside writing except in games (and war!) and therefore would seem to immediately forfeit its autonomy in this self-referential game of keeping attention inside the poem.
‘out of the time and language we
Answer: you can’t stop time or prevent death, even with words. If only Merwin would realize, as his river motif seems to suggest, that words themselves have their own time and contribute to time’s progression as opposed to serving as stationary sign-posts pointing to the real. (Watten, in a review on Robert Grenier’s Sentences, speaks strangely of a ‘language that is outside of time’ in which ‘words rise off the page as the mind would like — well-lit, pure, detached — in eternity’ (The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book 237, 235), an assertion that echoes the aspirations of conventional modes even as it refers to the de-narrativized, de-contextualized space of Grenier’s work.) In the end, Merwin cannot, to quote Williams again, ‘manufacture a better world than he sees’ because for him words are there to perpetuate the loss for words, to perpetuate and describe the failure of perpetuating description. He cannot write his inability to say without immediately paving it over with his own vapid speech. In other words, we’re stuck — unable to make sense of our own loss, dismay, speechlessness, except to confess that we can’t make much sense of it — in a ‘[r]omantic negativity,’ as Watten says, founded on ‘the avoidance of any conditions that compromise the subject leading to the subject’s lyrical denial of itself’ (‘The XYZ of Reading’ 153 in F).
All this transpires within a greater speechlessness that frames it, almost invisibly, but that is nonetheless awkwardly (if not downright annoyingly) signified, for instance, by the ellipses which follow every five-line stanza in Progress and every stanza in Under Erasure as well as several lines in ‘X,’ ‘Direct Address,’ and ‘Frame.’ As part of his attempt at a ‘direct perception of totality’ founded in the belief that ‘in order to write, everything must be put at risk; the whole world, in suspension, could fail’ (both quotes in ‘Notes to Poetry 17’), Watten attempts the near-impossible mimesis of speechlessness, evident in the terse announcement from ‘Complete Thought’ — ‘I am speaking in an abridged form’ (F 89) — and in this summary of his poetic logic from ‘Bad History’: ‘there occurs a moment when even I can sum up an experience — but only it cannot be communicated’ (A8 8). As a result of this shell-shocked footing, the subject of Watten’s work is so often that perpetual speech, as Spicer knew, of war: ‘When people say, “After the war”, I no longer know which war — there are three wars at least, each antedating, following, and confirming the others. It is always ’the era between two wars’ (‘Bad History’ from A8 3). Moreover, language itself, and our permanent war against it(s silence), provokes the loss for words:
If at some point language walked in the open door, we would show it some respect. Our response would be more immediate than to use it as a sign. So we respect language by not being content to operate in any one part of it. It’s greater than we are. That has implications for the form. That sense is larger than one can say. (The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, 18).
Watten follows Creeley in the high-wire act of negotiating an autonomy that may, in fact, reproduce the very structures it tries to avoid or disrupt through the direct opposition it poses in becoming too autonomous and too distant, thereby bringing about a kind of closure. Thus Watten’s theoretically-informed poetry — of which resistance to closure (writing is to be an act ‘in process’, in which the ‘[w]ords are the axis, rather than the work of art’) and absorption (‘distance rather than absorption, is the intended effect’ (In the American Tree first two 485, 612)) both happen to be core tenets — is in greater danger of falling into this trap of engendering, to cite Robin Blaser in his essay ‘The Practice of Outside,’ a ‘poetry that is a poetic discourse true only to itself and as such, simply another discourse patterned on the language system we have lived in’ (The Collected Books of Jack Spicer 227).
Zero measures the invisible future.
to Creeley’s heartbreaking simplicity as in the poem ‘Oh Mabel’ (CP 577):
Oh Mabel, we
Despite its mechanical impersonality, the obliteration of the human is not total in Watten’s poetry. As in Coolidge’s and Eigner’s poems, the minute traces of the human in his work are all the more magnified for their scarcity: ‘A large young woman sobs in a steaming hot bath’ (‘Relays’ 125 in F). There is not the gleeful pummeling of the text (and the reader) with syntactic disruptions so characteristic of most derivative experimentalism. Nor is there the flirtation with the complete, easy disposal of referential or mimetic elements as in, say, the work of P. Inman whose ‘writing in poetry’ or verse appreciation limits itself to playing with the aesthetic and sonic qualities of words. Inman’s poems reveal how the materiality of language — in the cause of a pure Cartesian cerebrality, the mind as sign freed from the body as referent — can be as spell-binding, mesmerizing, absorbing (and boring) as the expressive voice or as any other all-consuming thematic concern. Indeed, such foregrounding of linguistic materials ‘as such’ has become the criteria according to which writers are judged to be experimental and innovative and therefore ‘good’.
‘[T]he commercials interrupting war footage [of the Persian Gulf],’ Watten explains, ‘segued between sound bites [Raymond] Williams saw as guaranteeing the formal totality of mass communication create overdetermining effects whereby discontinuity just is the guarantee of narrative [my italics]. Any history of the present will have to take this paradox of interrupted, overdetermined, and undermotivated narrative into account’ (O 397). It is apparent to Watten that ‘other forms of temporal organization’ (O 398) — forms other than conventional narrative or the Olsonian epic, the latter having transformed its own slide into nonnarrative and death into a surrogate ‘account of such incommensurate events’ (O 402) of history — are needed to make history (and poetry) today, a time that could either be nothing more than the present, or everything but the present.
[Note: The ‘Readings & Responses,’ transcript, featuring papers by Steve Evans, Ron Silliman, Ann Lauterbach, Juliana Spahr, Bob Perelman, and Kate Lilley, is available in Jacket # 2.]
Perelman’s strategy has come under attack for its being written and catered to an academic audience which, because of its institutional allegiance, would not be able to tolerate the too meaningful meaninglessness posed by language writing, as argued by Silliman in ‘Readings": ‘What might this book have become had it been written for poets instead of as a strategy for professional advancement? Almost certainly it would have turned the present text inside out. It would embrace — rather than attempt contain and explain away — the question of meaninglessness’ (11–12). The book does have a brochure-like quality to it, as if it were a tourist guide for academics, so to speak, another kind of ‘wrap-up’:
The development of presses — Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba chapbook series; Geoff Young’s press, The Figures; Barrett Watten’s This Press; James Sherry’s Roof Press — established something of a complete literary environment for language writing. This development can be interpreted variously. The completeness of its self-management allowed for immediate access to publication and review, which in turn encouraged large-scale projects and formal variety. Most importantly this created a sense that writing was public: breaking open new territory and entering and changing literary history seemed synonymous.
Perelman does attempt to describe the communal process of production at the root of language writing as in his anecdote of the ‘automatic listening’ practiced by Steve Benson, Kit Robinson, and himself in San Francisco in the late 1970s: ‘[o]ne of [them] would read from whatever books were handy and two of [them] would type. These roles would rotate; occasionally, there would be two readers reading simultaneously to one typist’ (MOP 32).
The analogy here is to commodity production wherein the complex labor and temporal coordination involving disparate human and material resources that each go into the manufacturing of a specific product are erased once the product hits the market, or, in the case of the production of literary meaning, once the words hit both the page and the eyes/ears of the hybrid writer/reader in ‘the instant that language crosses over into discourse’ (Silliman in ‘Readings’ 9).
This lower-case formalism has led, beyond a defunct politics satisfied to claim that the reader is ‘empowered’ to make meaning from material texts, to a poetics of ‘possibility’ — that to say what writing wants to accomplish as politics is the same as to do it; that to describe literary possibility is to represent a form of agency, in a circular fashion, as a critique of representation. It is, thus, claims for the possibility of form rather than the specificity of form; or the possibility of language rather than a specific use of language; or the possibility of critique instead of a specific politics; or the possibility of difference rather than a specific difference, that characterizes the current aporia of our collectively dialogic, site-specific and time-valued, manifold poetics. A mediated attempt to construct polity out of representation of possibility contained within aesthetic form risks reproducing the liberal dynamic of inclusion or denial — and thus a return to a poetics of expressive subjectivity that just wants to add its difference to the mix (even if realized in a new, but still codified and restrictive, set of techniques). (BAL 3-4)
Watten presents Charles Bernstein’s recent essay, ‘Poetics of the Americas,’ from the journal Modernism/Modernity 3.3 (1996) 1-23, as an example of this flawed attempt to construct a transcendent category of the non-normative. Bernstein tries to build a politics solely ‘out of representation of possibility contained within aesthetic form’ and to ‘create an imagined community of nonstandard language users’ (BAL 6) whose language he calls ‘ideolectical,’ a language and poetry that he proposes to replace or subsume the dialect-based poetries and languages of the marginalized and oppressed members of various ethnicities and identities who inhabit the ‘New World’ if not the globe.
There is a narrative of seldom having had and coming to be which is it. Not to not to not to too alike like like alike they share like they prepare, can a letter place a letter can a letter place a tray can a letter place a letter can a letter be a way to have this arranged. Be arranged very well be arranged. Be arranged very well be arranged very well be arranged. They were not convinced that it was the same they were not convinced that it was the same they were not convinced that it was the same they were not convinced that it was the same. They accepted what they were convinced was not the same they accepted what they were convinced was not the same, they accepted what they were convinced was not the same they accepted what they were convinced was not the same they replaced with what they were convinced was not the same they replaced with what they were convinced was not the same they replaced with what they were convinced was not the same they replaced with what they were convinced was not the same it was as carefully chosen that which with they replaced what they were convinced was not the same it was as carefully chosen that which with they replaced what they were convinced was not the same it was as carefully chosen that with which they replaced that which they were convinced was not the same it was as carefully chosen that with which they replaced that which they were convinced was not the same it was as carefully chosen that with which they replaced that which they were convinced was not the same and this might be the name of ring around a rosy....(231)
The Fordist mode of production which sucks the life from the human labor sustaining it may very well have as another name, ‘Ring-a-Ring O’Roses,’ the uncanny children’s song that ends with the line ‘ashes, ashes / we all fall down’ — supposedly a reference to either the Black Death that ravaged Europe at the end of the Middle Ages or the Great Plague that arrived three centuries later.
[w]ords are being broken down from language in a process of reification that duplicates the transformation of materials into commodities and the denaturing of human beings into labor. If there is an affirmative will, here, it is as both a distance from and a participation in modernity. In an almost algebraic sense, Coolidge’s text reenacts the way Henry Ford made cars, and the way workers came to live in Detroit. Such a poetics of analogy explains how cars entered Gertrude Stein’s material texts, along with a range of other effects of the destructive power of capitalist social relations, in her politics of identity.(BAL 23-24)
While Watten goes on to argue that social reflexivity also occurs in Coolidge’s The Maintains, which uses the dictionary as its source for the writing (as ‘Made Thought’ may have based itself on the BASIC English lexicon) — an argument I don’t find very convincing — his tracing of an overall ‘poetics of analogy’ from the avant-garde ‘material texts’ of Stein to Coolidge is remarkable in both its refutation of the anti-mimetic stance assumed to be the theoretical staple of purist avant-garde experimentalism and his linking of the mimesis of assembly line production to a specific temporality: ‘the assembly line is first of all an economy of time’ that is constantly adjusting to its own ‘manifold improvisations’ (BAL both 32).
Their mimetic intention, unlike that of most mimetic art, does not depend on images in the viewer’s memory. What is being imitated is within our visual field as we look at the painting: it is the rectangular shape of the canvas itself, as well as of the room in which the painting is hung. Rothko paints that which supports his paintings; the world that the paintings represent ends in the rooms in which they are displayed. (AOI 134)
But through their death-simulating ‘arrested forms’ and a ‘suicidal narcissism [that] has been sublimated into a spectacle’ (AOI 102,144), Rothko’s paintings also approach a ‘poetics of analogy’, or allegory, as outlined by Watten. One could argue that Rothko, through the opacity of his work, produces an empty allegory of the spectacle itself, the ruins of sight, a melancholic portrait of both the expansion of and degradation of vision. By painting that which blinds us to our own historical situation in the moment of our blinding — the endlessly theorized yet unrepresentable ground of postmodernity — he confirms ‘the Beckettian claim that the artist has nothing to express or communicate’ (AOL 128) except this inescapable situation.
Art thus demystifies philosophical dichotomies between the metaphysical and the physical by making concrete the indeterminate nature of being, an indeterminacy otherwise obscured in the empirical space of realized forms. Rothko’s art takes place on the unlocatable — yet somehow concretized — threshold between being and presence. (AOI 121)
These statements remind me of Michel de Certeau’s criticism of the concepts of ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu) and ‘power’ (Foucault), concepts which, by functioning as empty centers, imaginary phalluses — a rather redundant term I must say — stabilize these critics’ systems by ironically remaining both ubiquitous and unlocatable, everywhere invisible.
As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it — be it something or nothing — begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today. (AOI 22)
This totalizing, anti-mimetic drive to ‘eliminate language,’ to arrive at a state ‘when verbal sequences can longer be totalized,’ (their italics, AOI 23), when language can no longer be taken over and exploited by discourse (and one wonders if Beckett has succeeded or failed in this endeavor given his academic acclaim), seems to me an ironic attempt to locate the mimetic nucleus of language, the very foundations of expression and relation hidden in that ‘treasure of sense’ we are supposedly being denied by the writing.
By personifying the sounds a radio listener hears (Words and Music are the characters of Words and Music), Beckett’s plots simply repeat that combination of expectation, uncertainty, control, and passivity with which we turn the knob to programs at once wholly independent of that gesture and, in a sense, nonexistent without it. Words and Music and Cascando in particular are stupefyingly literal allegories. And the allegorical here is not a dramatic mode of psychological or moral analysis; rather, it is a way of making audible the moves and relations that are the conditions of possibility of what takes place in radio. (AOI 53)
Rather than creating a kind of temporary autonomous zone insulated from the ‘culture of redemption’, Beckett’s work, in my opinion, looks this culture straight in the eye, sees how it keeps us from being whole by forcing us to search for an illusionary wholeness through ‘the unending repetition of its own origination’ (AOI 59) as diagrammed in How It Is, and, by boring holes into the sockets of language, reveals the secret truth of mimesis: that we’re all made of the same stuff. His writing parodies absurd attempts to conceal this truth via precisely that by which we are bound together as human beings — language — and, in many ways, to the universe as well.
Suddenly enough and way for remembrance. Closed again to that end the vile jelly or opened again or left as it was however that was. Till all recalled. First finally by far hanging from their skirts two black greatcoats. Followed by the first hazy outlines of what possibly a hutch when suddenly enough. Remembrance! When all worse there than when first ill seen. The pallet. The chair. The coffer. The trap. Alone the eye has changed. Alone can cause to change. In the meantime nothing wanting. Wrong. The button-hook. The nail. Wrong. There they are again. Still. Worse there than ever. Unchanged for the worse. Ope eye and at them to begin. But first the partition. It rid they too would be. It less they by as much. (Ill Seen Ill Said 52-53)
The inhospitability and anxiety of Beckett’s work is his mimetic response to an alienating society in which attempts to portray openly this society’s inhospitability are almost always seen as inhospitable and alienating. He represents the contemporary desolation (hidden under layer after layer of official mediaspeak and discourse) of not being able to represent what it means to both represent and not represent, to speak and not to speak — not merely ‘the undesirability of accurate perception and accurate representation’ nor ‘the hopelessness of [his art’s] efforts not to be’ (AOI 11, 54).
In one sense the refinement of the blank generation consists in not selling anything. No moral lesson, no message, no political outcry, no artistic slogan — nothing is insisted on and the voice is never raised. Indeed, this is a world governed by style alone and that style’s greatest conjunction is: Never say or do anything embarrassing. (PAP 602)
In contrast to the ‘iconoclastic realism’ of their modernist predecessors, the still-life fiction of this group ‘bears very close resemblance to the scenic blips on television’ whereby ‘as a rule, no one feature of the depicted experience is given emphasis over another’ (TAT 30, 31). And while Aldridge argues that these writers ‘do not indicate in their work that they are aware of the ugliness and vapidity of the contemporary urban and suburban environment’ and so ‘take no critical attitude toward it,’ (TAT both 39) he acknowledges that ‘it is difficult to imagine how one can confront or resist an environment that puts up no resistance, that is open, bland, uniform, monotonous, and at the same time smoothly functional and accomodative like that of a modern housing development or shopping mall’ (TAT 40).
There’s a young girl, nude, maybe fifteen, on a bed, her arms tied together above her head and her legs spread apart, each foot tied to a bedpost. She’s lying on what looks like newspaper.... The camera cuts quickly to a young, thin, nude, scared-looking boy, sixteen, maybe seventeen, being pushed into the room by this fat black guy, who’s also naked and who’s got a huge hardon.... The black ties the boy up on the floor, and I wonder why there’s a chainsaw in the corner of the room, in the background, and then has sex with him and then he has sex with the girl and then walks off the screen (TAT 138)
Despite the horrific (and perhaps implicitly racist) content of this episode there is no drama here. The snuff film, like the other scenes in the book, occurs with very little interference from anything or anyone else. They simply begin and stop, like the videotape itself, without commentary, almost without reaction, ‘insist[ing] that nothing is worthy of insistence’ (TAT 47). In other words, there is no sense of struggle or tragedy or real danger or suffering in the writing.
... When we consider the general colourlessness and insipidity of our latter-day life (faithfully reflected in the novels of Howells and his successors), the absence from it of profound passions and intense convictions, of any representative individuals who can be compared in spiritual force with Emerson, Thoreau, and so many of their contemporaries, its uniformity and its uniform tepidity, then the familiar saying, ‘Our age has been an age of management, not ideas or of men’, assumes indeed a very sinister import.....
Commenting on the dual tendencies of American writers to either leave their homeland for Europe — in order to find refuge in its centuries-old legacy of high culture and tradition — or reject history entirely and focus on what is solely contemporary and local, Brooks again echoes Aldridge:
To escape from provinciality is good, provided we make distinctions; but, besides provinciality of place, there is also ‘time-provinciality’, as Professor Whitehead calls it. This is the illusion that to be modern is worth all the other virtues; and the great effort of these writers is to represent the last minute, as if to keep up with the mode were more important than any of the great realities of life and death. They make much of technical questions because they have little to say otherwise, and they sneer at the great writers of the past, as Henry James used to say that Tolstoy was not worth reading, as Eliot prefers to Milton a dozen obscure metaphysical poets. To exalt the inferior over the great, in the name of their technical virtues, is a way of defending their own weakness; and Gertrude Stein has reduced their position to the last absurdity. In her theory of esthetics, neither thought nor feeling matters. Nothing counts but the word-pattern, and the greatest thing in life is a nursery-jingle. (DOI, 53)
This last comment on Stein is, of course, wrong and typifies the kind of criticism directed at her during that time. Stein passed as a ‘minimalist’ but was perhaps the most maximalist of all the modernists, at least in terms of linguistic constructions and experimentation, and did deal with a wide array of thematic and social subjects as The Making of Americans amply displays.
Ellis manages to present in a very pure form the homogeneity of the modern world and its tendency to reduce people to characterless ciphers, to passive consumers. His characters are consumed by boredom, by apathetic dissatisfaction. They are frustrated and powerless. They are unable to see that their desires can never be fulfilled because these are artificially created in response to commodity relations. (SIS 33)
But Young doubts whether Ellis’s ‘bleak vision’ can really represent the highs and lows of life as it is lived today: ‘Nevertheless it is possible to feel that the judgments about mass behaviour made by postmodern theory, and indeed by Ellis himself, have an inhumane and even snobbish aspect and that people have rather more ‘authenticity’ in their lives and emotions and are less vulnerable to hyperreal blandishments than it might appear’ (SIS 38). ‘Savagely puritanical, Ellis selects his horrors and presents them within a patina blanded-out indifference’ (SIS 40) and thus does not break with the culture he is criticizing but takes it so seriously as to copy it in a spectacle of the spectacle. Autonomy, again, seems to be forfeited for mimesis.
Young argues that Ellis’s book, in spite or because of it being boring and not thrilling like the usual murder mystery/crime novel, is a transgressive artwork: ‘The films of Andy Warhol, one of the single most important artistic influences of the century, are undoubtedly boring. It did not stop them from being dangerous in that they were incapable of being absorbed by the dominant culture’ (SIS 89). American Psycho is ‘subversive’ because it does not make violence entertaining and yet saturates itself with the signs of entertainment, an itemization similar to Reznikoff’s accumulation of the names of the dead in Testimony.
The book is written as if to be skimmed. It is written largely in brochure-speak, ad-speak, in the mindless, soporific commentary of the catwalk or the soapy soft-cell of the market-place; the sort of writing that comes up with phrases like ‘an attractive two-piece with matching accessories’, or ‘As for dining out, the Caribbean island cuisine has mixed well with the European culture’. (SIS 101)
The technical sophistication of the writing poses the question of whether or not Ellis’s mimesis of mediatization and commodification does not fall into the trap of reducing art to technique. Does he add to the spiritual poverty or reflect it enough to deflect it? Does he reinforce our powerlessness or offer us the means by which to begin to overcome it? By imitating death and passivity does he perform that ancient power of mimesis harnessed by shamans, witches, and healers who for ages have manipulated images of the enemy, copies of the other, thereby allowing healing to take place? Or by reducing mimesis to the level of the false animism of commodity fetishism does he disable our imaginations and undermine this shamanic art of mediation between the spiritual and the real, this strategy of possession whereby one gains control over repression, wards off danger by means of images that imitate that danger?
Although he recounts a life [in his memoir Close to the Knives] that is certainly more traditionally ‘self-destructive’ than anything experienced by the other New York novelists, he is simultaneously far less jaded and empty, far less interested in producing any mimesis of a spiritually etiolated society and far more concerned with confronting its appalling failures in terms of humanity, decency and honesty. In this political and confrontational stance, Wojnarowicz is closer to the work of performance artists such as Diamanda Galás or Karen Finley and closer, I believe, to a literary future when passionate engagement and humanitarian issues will no longer continually dissolve into apathy and the labyrinthine ways of language theory.(SIS 219)
Dennis Cooper, who is, like Wojnarowicz, a witness to the persecution of gays in America, unites, in Young’s view, the ‘laid-back vapidity’ of Ellis’s writing with the ‘urban nihilism of much New York fiction’ (SIS both 238). The result is a mannered, literary prose rooted firmly in the Gothic and decadent traditions. In its anti-hedonism, sado-masochism and romanticization of death Cooper’s writing ‘explicitly positions itself against the lies and distortions of such nonsensical pornographic utopias’ (SIS 240).
Barthes maintains that, ‘Criticism always deals with the texts of pleasure, never the texts of bliss’. Texts of pleasure are more orderly, less disruptive. Barthes mentions Flaubert, Proust, Stendhal and one could add Austen or Dickens; the text ‘that comes from culture and does not break with it’. Texts of bliss, he says, impose ‘a state of loss’; they ‘unsettle the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions’. In evoking the unspeakable, Cooper is dreaming the impossible dream, writing the impossible text. (SIS 241)
Barthes’s attempt to locate a ‘text of bliss’ outside of culture, or discourse, even though his discourse, like those of the other post-structuralists, permits no such outside, is inspiring but ultimately disingenuous. His brief examples of authors of ‘texts of bliss’ — de Sade, Bataille, and Poe — serve only to reveal how culture-bound his theory really is. His celebration of the ‘writerly’ text whereby the reader-consumer supposedly becomes a euphoric co-writer is an empty compensation for living in a capitalist society in which workers are regularly alienated from their work. And it is an all-too consumable, unquestioned belief of the language poets that their poems transform the reader from ‘passive consumer’ of the text to ‘active participant in the construction of its meaning’.
Men are drawn to my ass by
To paraphrase the poet Carter Revard, this is an art that may diagnose the illness (by being a symptom of it) but doesn’t enact the cure. (And this criticism is not a comment on the homosexuality or other sexual practices portrayed in Cooper’s books, but on the treatment they receive at the hands of the author). Total darkness (in art) is not only boring, it’s also fake. The subject matter is not what’s offensive, rather it’s the self-indulgent detachment, crypticality and impactlessness of the writing itself that make a joke of the subjects it renders. Cooper doesn’t succeed in making the profane and abject sublime or sacred. He only makes it bland — trendily anesthetized under cover of ‘trippiness’, sanitized of everything but the fashionably pathological and perverse.
The influence of the occultist tradition among Spanish American modernistas was no less profound than among European Romantics and Symbolists. Our critics, although aware of this fact, seem to avoid it, as though it were shameful. Although scandalous, it is true: from Blake to Yeats and Pessoa, the history of modern poetry in the West is bound to the history of hermetic and occult doctrines, from Swedenborg to Madame Blavatsky. The influence of the Abbé Constant, alias Eliphas Levi, was decisive not only on Hugo but on Rimbaud. The remarkable affinities between Fourier and Levi, according to André Breton, are to be explained because both ‘place themselves in a vast current of thought which we can trace back to the Zohar and which disperses itself in the Illuminist schools of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is a trend of thought found in the idealist systems, in Goethe and, in general, in all who refuse to posit mathematical identity as the unifying ideal of the world’ (Arcane 17). We know that the Spanish American modernistas — Darío, Lugones, Nervo, Tablada — were interested in occultist writings. Why has our criticism never pointed out the relation between Illuminism and the analogical vision, and between the latter and metrical reform? Rationalist scruples, or Christian scruples? In any case the relation is obvious. Modernismo began as a search for verbal rhythm and ended in a vision of the universe as rhythm.
The chapter entitled ‘Analogy and Irony’ should be required reading for every student of poetry. In it and the surrounding chapters Paz elucidates the dialectical struggle between analogy — the ancient ‘science of correspondences’ (COM 72) — and irony, Romanticism’s self-destructive shield against the tyranny of religion, specifically Christianity. Irony, as criticism and as a heralding of death, continually subverts the analogical belief in the wholeness of the universe and the interconnectedness of all things.
Irony and analogy are irreconcilable. The first is the child of linear, sequential, and unrepeatable time; the second is the manifestation of cyclical time: the future is in the past and both are in the present. Analogy turns irony into one more variant of the fan of similarities, but irony splits the fan in two. Irony is the wound through which analogy bleeds to death; it is the exception, the fatal accident (in the double meaning of the term: necessary and deadly). Irony shows that if the universe is a script, each translation of this script is different, and that the concert of correspondences is the gibberish of Babel. The poetic word ends in a howl or in silence: irony is not a word, nor a speech, but the reverse of the word, noncommunication. The universe, says irony, is not a script; if it were, its signs would be incomprehensible for man, because in it the word death does not appear, and man is mortal. (COM 74)
The love of irony, of contradiction and the strange, founds and haunts modern literature, beginning with the German Romantics. As Paz relates, Novalis wanted to subtitle Schlegel’s celebration of free love, Lucinda (1799), with the words ‘Cynical and Diabolical Fantasies.’ It is an example of the manner by which ‘[i]rony reveals the duality of what seemed whole, the split in what is identical, the other side of reason; it is the disruption of the principle of identity’ (COM 45). Hence ‘Romantic religiosity is irreligious, ironic; Romantic irreligion is religious, anguished’ (COM 46).
Analogy is continuously split open by irony, and verse by prose. The paradox beloved by Baudelaire reappears: behind the make-up of fashion, the grimace of the skull. Modern art knows itself to be mortal; there is its modernity. Modernismo becomes modern when it gains full awareness of its mortality, that is to say, when it ceases to take itself seriously, when it injects prose into verse and makes poetry out of the criticism of poetry. (COM 96)
Against Paz’s rich account of the cultural transformations of modern history in which the ‘[c]riticism of religion replaced Christianity,’ installing the religion of history, change, the future, ‘the criticism of eternity,’ (COM 186, 23) in its void, Adorno’s vision of modernity and art looks narrow. His notion of autonomy borders on the excruciatingly fetishistic. In it art becomes dominated by the project of preserving its autonomy and modernism becomes subordinated to the dual tasks of mourning for the death of pre-capitalist culture and despairing at its own condition (since there are no other means of opposition and resistance but autonomy and modernism).
But in addition to the conscious play-acting mimicking of the European, conducted with wit and verve, there is bodily possession — which is what makes the mimicry possible yet generally works at a less than conscious level with special, even disturbing, bodily effects: frothing at the mouth, bulging of the eyes, contorted limb movements, inability to feel pain. Strange ‘Europeans’ indeed. And surely that’s the point — they so clearly are and are not Europeans. It’s the ability to become possessed, the ability that signifies to Europeans awesome Otherness if not downright savagery, which allows them to assume the identity of the European and, at the same time, stand clearly and irrevocably eye-bulgingly apart from it. What’s being mimicked is mimickry itself — within its colonial shell. You see actors acting, as Brecht would have it, but you wonder about this mimetic capacity as much as any specific action. (his italics, MAA 241)
It is in this specific action which exposes through its mimetic excess not only the surplus of similarity denied by those enemies of life, who, in the name of power and ownership, must hide what they share with their others, but especially ‘draw[s] attention to the exuberance with which it permits the freedom to live reality as really made-up’ (MAA 255), that we should begin to see a way out of the modern ‘monotony of terror’ that condemns culture to convention and nature to domination under culture.
To live in the present is to live facing death. Man invented eternity and the future to escape death, but each of these inventions was a fatal trap. The present reconciles us with reality: we are mortal. Only facing death, life is really life. Within the now, death is not separated from life. Both are the same reality, the same fruit. (COM 171)
Or, as Nietzsche once put it:
Thinking about illness! — To calm the imagination of the invalid, so that at least he should not, as hitherto, have to suffer more from thinking about his illness than from the illness itself — that, I think, would be something! It would be a great deal! Do you now understand our task? (his italics, Daybreak 34)
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