Quality and the non-identical in J.H.Prynne’s ‘Aristeas, in seven years’
This piece is 7,200 words or about sixteen printed pages long.
... from Parataxis magazine, Cambridge
J.H.Prynne’s poetry has been comparatively little written about, and it seems likely that many readers first come across his work through Donald Davie’s Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (1973), in which Prynne makes a brief appearance as a Hardyesque poet of modest political hopes whose principal concern is to rebuke those who aspire more immoderately than himself.(1) The approach of Peter Ackroyd, though it contrasts sharply with Davie’s, appears equally tangential: in his Notes for a New Culture (1976), Ackroyd presents a proto-Derridean Prynne whose poems have a ‘completely written surface’ and eschew ‘extrinsic reference’ entirely.(2) Although there have since been other and more attentive critical accounts than these, a note to the collected edition of Prynne’s work which appeared in 1982 still felt it necessary to attempt to deflect the course which interpretation of it had previously taken: ‘Much early critical response to J.H.Prynne’s work mistakenly took its cue from the first line in this book: ‘The whole thing it is, the difficult’, failing to establish that difficulty as being the ardent ‘matter’ and the accompanying breadth of imaginative and political reference.’ Whilst this note has sometimes been read as a parodic one (as for instance by Dennis Keene writing in PN Review in 1982) (3) there are advantages in taking it seriously.
The difficulty is claimed not to be a manner of presentation supposedly separable from subject matter, but to be inherent in the matter addressed itself. Moreover, the insistence upon ‘imaginative and political reference’ gives notice that this inherent difficulty is not to be taken as an epistemological one: Prynne’s poetics is not amongst those which believe themselves to be criticising the referential shortcomings of an hypostatized ‘language’ simply by exemplifying them. The work draws on a lexicon which does not restrict itself before an imaginary ‘general reader’ of average competence; instead the breadth of vocabulary draws attention to, and asks readers to resist, the division of intellectual labour by which powerful practices of knowledge are made to serve sectional interests. The matter is difficult, that is, because although the matter which is to be engaged with is conceived of as a ‘whole thing’, the languages and knowledges which are at our disposal are cognitively and politically partial. Or rather, they are not at all at ‘our’ disposal in the covertly inclusive sense that such a pronominal adjective would claim for itself: as ‘Die a Millionaire’ notes, ‘we are the social strand/ which is already past the twist-point &/ into the furnace.’(4) That pronoun appeals as if to a community of speakers and writers, which is as yet no community but a series of markets and hierarchies, of a language, which is no common tongue.
Signs or array,
The parataxis leaves unclear whether the demonstrative ‘this’ which ‘we should take’ is to be identified with ‘Signs or array’ or not, but this failure to specify is just Prynne’s point here: what the demonstrative pronoun refers to remains unspecified since the ‘intimate surface’ faced by each reader is various and to be taken up by readers rather than prescribed by the poet. But what the passage does clearly insist upon is that ‘the in-/ fluence of terminal systems’ is not to be approached externally, so as to provide a causal narrative in which the supposedly prior determinations of such systems upon each particular are set out, but immanently, through the particularity of linguistic, conceptual, and bodily experience. Any other procedure amounts to a defeatism of reason which, on the one hand, surrenders in advance the critical purchase of the subject to determining powers which are always conceived of as being elsewhere, and yet, on the other, implicitly claims for itself a standpoint outside such systems from which they can be disinterestedly described. Such is the point of Prynne’s secularization of both the political and religious senses of the notion of ‘election’. After a political election the voice of each voter in the polity is transferred to a representative, who will speak for each voter. The salvation of an elected soul is decided upon by an external deity. In each case, election acts as a deferral of the subject’s agency to some end elsewhere. For Prynne, to regard as the ‘elect’ ‘the folds of our intimate surface’ is literally to choose to start with the particulars at hand rather than to start by disempowering or disqualifying such particulars as mere contingency, accident, or appearance, whose significance is to be redeemed elsewhere. In such circumstances ‘we’ might become a real collective rather than its representative image.
... in many different contexts I observe habits of language formation which are not only grammatically retarded; they exploit the potential for thought and feeling to which they refer by milking it of potency and in the same sweep drastically abridging its connection with the physical substrate. ‘Steel is the pacer of the will’ (p116); ‘Love is the glove of anxiety’ (p54); ‘The act lives under the lintel of time’; in each of these cases the force of the idea grabs strongly the means for its apodictic assertion. The verb is an imperious recruitment and material is suppressed in the very act of claims for its release. (9)
In the phrases of Duncan’s quoted here, the words referring to what Prynne characterizes as ‘physical substrate’ or ‘material’ — ‘the pacer’, ‘the glove’, ‘the lintel’ — are appropriated in a merely illustrative way. They offer to make more satisfyingly concrete or imaginable the supposedly abstract concepts to which they attach: ‘love’, ‘the will’, ‘the act’. But, as Prynne indicates, they in fact have a different effect. On the one hand, it is implied that ‘love’, ‘the will’, and ‘the act’ are too general or abstracted to make effective reference of any kind, since they require the help of the ‘glove’, ‘the pacer’ and the ‘lintel’ to supplement and illustrate them. On the other hand, it is implied that the ‘physical substrate’ or ‘material’ has more than accidental significance only in so far as it can be appropriated to illustrate a concept. Prynne’s criticisms take the appropriations made by the writing’s rhetorical practice as an epitome of (both analogous to and exemplifying) a political appropriation, in this case the appropriation recommended by Duncan’s instrumentalist politics: ‘The verb is an imperious recruitment and the material is suppressed in the very act of claims for its release.’
... the untruth of the immediate judgement lies in the incongruity between its form and content. To say ‘this rose is red’ involves (in virtue of the copula ‘is’) the coincidence of subject and predicate. The rose however is a concrete thing, and so is not red only: it has also an odour, and a specific form, and many other features not implied in the predicate red. The predicate on its part is an abstract universal, and does not apply to the rose alone. There are other flowers and other objects which are red too. The subject and predicate in the immediate judgement touch, as it were, only in a single point, but do not cover each other. (11)
The point of Hegel’s critique is that there is more to the word ‘is’ than predication: the copula contains the implication that it identifies subject and predicate, rather than merely asserting that the predicate belongs to the subject. The predicative judgement, therefore, may be ‘correct’ as Hegel concedes: but its ‘untruth’ lies in its one-sided abstraction of the meaning of ‘is’, which performs a similar abstraction upon the qualities of subject and predicate. T.W.Adorno’s Negative Dialectics pursues this thought and considers it not merely as a logical but also as a social problem. Adorno argues that the belief that true thinking may simply be equated with correct predicative thinking both reflects and enables the imperative to a universal exchangeability of objects within organised economic life:
The exchange principle, the reduction of human labour to the abstract universal concept of average working hours, is fundamentally akin to the principle of identification. Exchange is the social model of the principle of identification, and without the principle there would be no exchange; it is through exchange that non-identical individuals and performances become commensurable and identical. The spread of the principle imposes on the whole world an obligation to become identical, to become total. But if we denied the greater glory of the irreducibly qualitative, that parity should no longer be the ideal rule — we would be creating excuses for recidivism into ancient injustice. The exchange of equivalents has long since consisted in just this, that unequal things would be exchanged in its name, that the surplus value of labour would be appropriated. If comparability as a category of measure were simply annulled, the rationality which is inherent in the exchange principle — as rationality, of course, but also as promise — would give way to direct appropriation, to force, and nowadays to the naked privilege of monopolies and cliques. (12)
The way in the which the qualities of concept and object are suppressed in a predicative proposition reflects and assists the way in which the different qualities of commodities (including commodified human labour) are regarded as irrelevant to their expression as exchange-value. The limitations of the predicative judgement, that is, are not merely contingent limitations of this particular mode of expression, but are representative of the limitation upon thought as such within a society in which all qualitative difference is increasingly required to become commmensurable and exchangeable. The consequence is that thought experiences the difficulty of doing justice to its objects within the structure of its own most elementary identifications; but also that there is no transparent conceptual medium, set apart from identificatory thinking, which would give direct access to qualitative difference. Rather, Adorno would argue, overcoming the contradictions of identificatory thought is not the work of thought alone: critical thinking seeks to bring concealed contradictions to light, but not to pretend that their resolution is a purely cognitive problem.
[ * ] Full: 1. to cleanse and thicken (cloth) by special processes
It becomes clear on a first reading that the poem’s structure is not a straightforwardly narrative one, for several reasons. In the first place the elements of a simple past-tense narrative concerning Aristeas do not, even fragmentarily, run sequentially from the beginning to the end of the poem. Instead, the pattern of their narration is a recursive one, in which events mentioned earlier in the poem may be reverted to and amplified. Thus it is not until towards the end of the poem’s third section that the simplest narrative information in the poem, ‘Aristeas removed himself for seven years/ into the steppes ...’ is given.(15) Secondly, and more importantly, many passages of the poem are in the present tense. This combination of tenses is not the result of a wilful attempt to question the viability of a temporal framework for narrative as such, at a purely epistemological level, but reflects the necessarily fractured method of any investigation of the nature of prehistoric societies: historical accounts, by definition, give a severely limited report of prehistory, and ethnographic or anthropological evidence drawn from groups still existing separately or only recently assimilated into more extended polities is essential to any conjectural reconstruction of pre-historic social organisations. So that the present-tense geographical peripheries of the centralised polities from which the pre-historian writes coincide cognitively with the past-tense periphery of pre-history.
Gathering the heat to himself, in one thermic
Initially, the ‘he’ referred to in these lines is liable to be identified simply with Aristeas: Aristeas gathered heat to himself for his journey into the north and ‘took himself out’ of the settled civilisation of Proconessus both in the literal sense of removing himself from that city and in the metaphorical sense of staging his own death, as to take a village out in modern warfare is to destroy it. He catches up with ‘the tree, the river’ in his journey north in the literal sense that trees and rivers have already, long before humans, occupied the northward terrain left by the retreating glaciers; the rivers and trees are forms of specifically ‘alien vantage’ upon the land in the sense that they are other than human. But ‘the forms of alien vantage’ are also, for Aristeas, the purchase of alien groups of humans, of non-settled and non-Greek communities, upon the earth. Aristeas seeks to catch up with, to understand, the relation to a place and its qualities that is not determined with reference to a fixed city.
Aristeas took up it
Aristeas’ ‘Greek sufficient’ (where ‘sufficient’ is to be understood as a substantive rather than as an adjective) for the shaman’s larch-tree, the world- or clan-tree by which the shaman can move amongst the upper, middle, and lower worlds is named as ‘the singular’. Such a formulation appears opaque at first, but it becomes clearer as the poem proceeds. There ‘the singular’ carries, firstly, the sense of ‘not plural’: Aristeas takes himself out of his collective and of his collectively defined settled identity into a definition of self simply by his lone trajectory, in which, as the poem later remarks, ‘who he was took the/ collection of seven / years to thin out...’ Aristeas’ nomadic self is not, unlike the civic self, defined by a series of returns to the same place: as we’re told later, he is ‘no longer settled / but settled now into length; he wore that/ as risk.’ (21) This leads us to a further sense of ‘the singular’ as ‘that which occurs only once’: Aristeas’ departure from Marmora having apparently fallen down dead is an extraordinary or miraculous event, a ‘singular’ occurrence.
... it was
The staff of Apollo, who is not only the god of poetry but also the pastoral deity of flocks and herds, is here linked to the larch-pole which holds up the shaman’s tent and represents the central axis of the clan-world. The world in such a construction of place is taken as itself ‘errant’, as wandering past the nomads, rather than vice versa, since wherever the larch-pole of the shaman’s tent is placed is the clan’s portable and temporary location. This singularity is not reserved to the heroic class of poets and shamans: singularity, as Prynne conceives of it, is not the mastery of self-sufficient subjectivity. Rather, that the clan’s collective gatherings take place around such a temporary and portable focus allows a constellated movement in which individuality is neither subordinated to the collective nor imagining itself as independent of, as master of, the collective:
The clan is without centre but it is still a clan: as a flock or herd of birds or animals has no centre but is still a flock. Whereas the established city-centre measures all places with reference to itself, so that many of the earth’s qualities becomes accidental to it, the clan measures itself with reference to places and qualities of the earth, where light falls on its surface. Anisimov notes that amongst the series of meanings for the Evenk words buga-bua-ba are both ‘place of birth’ and also ‘weather’: in such a semantic series transient qualities of the world would appear not to have been distinguished from supposedly permanent ones.(24) Such is the point of Prynne’s insistence upon Apollo as not only the poetic but also the pastoral deity: the shaping imagination of the shaman or poet is not a ‘frenzy/ of spirit’, but is akin to and partially enables the constellated individuality within collectivity of the clan, and Apollo’s divinity is earlier referred to as ‘fixed in the movement of flock’.(25) This relationship between the clan’s pattern of movement and poetic or shamanistic imagination is more directly referred to later in the poem:
Prior to the pattern of settlement then, which
The ‘orphic metaphor’ refers to Orpheus’ supposed ability to charm animals, trees and rocks by his song: as the Evenk shaman is supposed to populate the entire clan-world with auxiliary bird-, fish- and animal- spirits which protect the clan from whatever lies outside it. Such a notion of course risks presenting us with the all too familiar figure of the poet-king, able to shackle up all accidents to the poetical polity which he makes, a figure of whom poets have been understandably fond. But the poem immediately and pointedly cuts back upon any attempt to regard the poet or shaman as effectually the maker of the polity or clan:
that they did migrate and the spirit excursion
So that whereas the ‘need and will of the flesh’ as an economic demand leads spirit to the ‘orphic metaphor’ which will organise the clan-world in whatever location it occupies, the term (or, glossing this word etymologically from Greek terma, the ‘limit’) to such metaphorical construction of a clan-world is physical death, whose remnants of bone remain irreducibly literal: ‘calcined like what/ it was: like that: as itself’. The bones of the dead represent the limit to the clan-world both in the general sense that they represent a limit to its metaphorical construction as made by the shaman and in the straightforward sense that the bones buried as the nomadic clan moves on leave a map of the clan’s literal itinerary, its limits. The excursion of spirit and the need and will of the flesh don’t get placed in a causal or historical order of priority: neither is the unquestionable base, nor is either merely superstructural. But such reminders of the material moment in the clan’s existence, critically, prevent its constellated organisation from being taken as a mere way of thinking which could be uncomplicatedly transplanted, like a set of attitudes, to settled industrial and agricultural society.
From here comes
The ‘this’, the knowledge or trust of which is in question, has multiple referents. On the one hand, this story: how did Aristeas know or trust this, the story that gold was to be found in the extreme north? How do we know or trust this, the story of Aristeas’ journey, with its fabulous elements ‘beyond belief’? On the other hand, this gold: how, in what way, did he or do we know or trust the qualities of gold, as ornament or value? Both Aristeas’ expedition, and the poet’s attempt to imagine it, are efforts at knowing or trusting what is remote which lead to a questioning of what appeared most familiar: the apparently ‘solid’ value of gold.
And looking down, then, it is no outlay
Aristeas can see ‘no outlay’: which might here have either the sense of ‘layout’, or that of ‘expenditure, investment’. The first of these senses is readily grasped: no political map of the land as colonised, as laid out, is presented, since the nomadic clan does not organise land as territory in this way. In the second sense of ‘outlay’, the clan’s geographical drift is not an economic expansionism which ‘invests’ a financial outlay in (that is, buys up) the land it occupies. This contrast between the clan’s movement and the expansion of a fixed power dominating an expanding economic territory is further pursued in the closing three lines of the passage: the place where duty-free goods like cheap cigarettes can be bought is a contrived gap between polities whose tax regulations are there suspended, a ‘free’ trade area where there is no duty paid to the state. The passage recalles Prynne’s contrast between Asiatic and Greek economic organisation in the prose piece ‘A Note on Metal’ (first published in the same pamplet as ‘Aristeas, in Seven Years’) :
On the great alluvial plains of Asia the condition was one of power rather than value; that is, substance, and not (in the first instance) transfer as exchange. Flocks and herds can be stolen, bartered, given in gift or tribute, so that wealth for the most part is the power of a technique to hold all that, again the politics of limit. Whereas the Greek traders were already middlemen with no political standing, Sardis no city but a commercial centre working on the trick of abstract distance between real supply and real demand. Lydia, as Childe again said, was ‘a frontier kingdom owing its prosperity to transit trade.’ (31)
Whereas amongst the nomadic or semi-nomadic societies of Asia wealth appears directly for the power that it is, in Greek economic organisation relations between people begin to appear as a relation between things, so that the Greek commerical centres allow for the partial appearance of a formal juridical equality concealing substantive inequity. There is ‘nothing’ ‘free of duty’ in the steppes because no sphere of trade notionally and misleadingly separated from that of political power has been established. The contrast between Greek economic life and that of the steppes is amplified in the penultimate section of ‘Aristeas, in seven years’’
Guarded by the griffins, which lived close to the
Griffins appear not only in the report of the contents of Aristeas’ lost poem given by Herodotus, but also as visual representations in the ornamental figures (often themselves made of gold) found both in the Scythian burial chambers of the South Russian steppe, and in Siberian burial chambers. E.D.Phillips, in an article cited by Prynne, compares the Scythian griffin to the heavenly gold-guarding dragon of Turkish, Mongol and Tibetan mythology and suggests that ‘gold found anywhere may have been regarded by the Scythians, as by other Asiatic nomads, as a heavenly and so a sacred metal’.(34) The poem draws attention here to what might appear as a contradiction in the ancient accounts of the griffins: the metal is dug out of the ground, but to no end other than to be guarded from those who would expropriate it. It is sacred and ornamental use-value, not the money-commodity as exchange-value. The last point of the ‘northern twist of the axis’ of which the griffins are said to be the ‘figure’ is the Hyperborean paradise: but the griffins are the utopian figure, not of a life without labour, but of a labour which would not be for sale. What restitution could there be for the golden figures removed from Scythian and Siberian burial chambers and melted down to make coinage or collected in state museums? None, of course: to pay or steal would be equally absurd when not only the griffins but any who believe in them are no longer to be located. It is not an answer that these figures or these seven years of Aristeas’ journey will provide, but a question: by which the incommensurably qualitative comes to measure what it has been measured and sold by.
1. Donald Davie, Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (London, 1973), pp.113–129
2. Peter Ackroyd, Notes for a New Culture (London, 1976), p.130
3. Dennis Keene, ‘In Extenso’, PN Review 9: 34 (1982), pp.64–5
4. J.H.Prynne, Poems (Edinburgh & London, 1982), p.16
5. ibid., p.109
6. J.H.Prynne, ‘Charles Olson, The Maximus Poems: IV,V,VI’, Io 16 (1972–73), p.91.
7. Prynne, Poems, pp. 11–12
8. Michael Grant, ‘J.H.Prynne’, in Dictionary of Literary Biography 40 (2), pp.448–453
9. J.H.Prynne, ‘A Letter to Andrew Duncan’, Grosseteste Review 15 (1984), p.104
10. David Trotter, The Making of the Reader (London, 1984), p.
11. William Wallace, N. Hegel’s Logic (Oxford, 1975), p.237
12. T.W.Adorno Negative Dialectics trans. E.B.Ashton (London, 1973), pp.146–7 (Revised with reference to Adorno Negative Dialektik (Frankfurt am Main, 1975), pp. 149–50)
13. See, in addition to the references given by Prynne, J.D.P.Bolton, Aristeas of Proconnesus (Oxford, 1962)
14. A.D.Godley, ed. and trans. Herodotus (London, 1963), pp.212–235
15. Prynne, Poems, p.91
16. ibid., p.92
17. ibid., p89
18. A.F. Anisimov, ‘The Shaman’s Tent of the Evenks and the origin of the shamanistic rite’ and ‘Cosmological concepts of the peoples of the north’ in H.N.Michael, ed. Studies in Siberian Shamanism (Toronto, 1963)
19. Prynne, Poems, p.89
20. ibid., p.91
22. ibid., pp.90–1
23. ibid., p.92
24. Anisimov, ‘Cosmological Concepts’, p.175
25. Prynne, Poems, p.89
26. ibid., p.91
28. ibid., p.82
29. ibid., pp.89–90
30. ibid., p.90
31. ibid., p.128
32. ibid., p.94
34. E.D.Phillips, ‘The Legend of Aristeas: Fact and Fancy in early Greek notions of East Russia, Siberia and Inner Asia’, Artibus Asiae 18 (1955), p.174
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