In his life of J M W Turner, Walter Thornbury narrates an incident concerning a studio visit made by the painter’s friend, William Kingsley, in 1839. Kingsley made the mistake of taking his mother along to meet the great man:
‘..as my mother knows nothing about Art, I was taking her down the gallery to look at the large ‘Richmond Park’; but, as we were passing the ‘Snow Storm’, she stopped before it, and I could hardly get her to look at any other picture; and she told me a great deal more about it than I had any notion of, though I have seen many snow-storms. She had been in such a scene on the coast of Holland during the war. When, some time afterwards, I thanked Turner for his permission for her to see the pictures, I told him that he would not guess what had (most) caught my mother’s fancy, and then named the picture; but he said —
‘I did not paint it to be understood, but I wished to show what such a scene was like. I got the sailors to lash me to the mast to observe it. I was lashed for four hours, and I did not expect to escape; but I felt bound to record it if I did. But no one had any business to like the picture’.
‘But’, said I, ‘my mother once went through just such a scene, and it brought it all back to her’.
‘Is your mother a painter?”
‘Then she ought to have been thinking of something else’.
Thornbury surtitles his account ‘Lashed to the Mast’ and justifies his anecdote by appeal to heroic precedent. The painter having undergone this experience in all its edifying absurdity reveals art as a technique of suffering and defiant survival, whose representative figure is Odysseus, as seen in Book 10 of The Odyssey, bound by his oarsmen to the mast of his ship so that he can hear the seductive song of the Sirens and live to tell the tale. It is an epic moment, but also lyrical in this sense: that the emblematic persistence of this episode into the modern era depends on some massive alteration to the bounds of personal knowledge and its relations to any collective awareness. As the Turner anecdote makes clear, the formal integrity of a modern artwork depends not merely on its subjective intensity but also its indifference to reciprocal endorsement, even the reciprocities of ‘experience’. The fact that something happens to me, not you, is paradoxically what makes its communicative potential representative of the historical condition of unsociable togetherness.
In J H Prynne’s poem Lashed to the Mast from his 1968 collection, The White Stones, the issue is sketched out with a lighter touch:
the whole need is a due thing
a light, I say this in
danger aboard our dauncing boat
hope is a stern purpose &
no play save the final lightness
the needful things are a sacral
convergence, the grove on
the hill we know too much of-
this with no name & place
is us / you, I, the whole other
image of man
Throughout this poem, metaphors of outlay and circulation abound with a density of allusiveness rarely experienced since The Cantos, and here too there is an economy of exchanges, the hyperbolic ironies of ‘stern purpose’ casting out widening circles of implication to fold within the lyric frame more epic perspectives. Many difficulties associated with the work of J H Prynne might be rooted here, but it is the moment of whole otherness that I will concentrate on. How recognisable can this moment be in fact, “with no name & place”, to the community of witnesses drawn into its pronominal range? How free from the ironies of recursive anticipation, “the grove on/ the hill we know too much of” reducing the movement of understanding to a sanctified acknowledgement of prior historical foreclosures? How open to the ‘unrecognised turn’ which, in the ‘Note on Metal’, appended to the Aristeas volume of 1968, Prynne sets out as the true wager of poetical endeavour, so that the twin movements of outgoing and return, allotropes of the division between existence and essence, may actively signal possibilities of real (that is, ethical) change, rather than a merely mechanical materialism or, even worse, a Heideggerian apophatics which would collapse the autonomy of the poem in the rush towards a negative theology of the unennhalte?
Prynne is hardly the first to have confronted the problem, and when Richard Blackmur censured Hart Crane a long time ago for attempting to ‘write the cultural epic with the lyric fragment’, it was presumably because fragmentation was the mechanism of the cultural epic in reverse, the scenario of The Waste Land, from the Grail mythos (Parsifal to Jessie Weston) and its reductio ad absurdum in Gravity’s Rainbow and Apocalypse Now. But the short-circuit between lyric and epic which Eliot’s poem instated (with some assistance from the mass slaughters of 1914–18) seemed to imply that from henceforth the hermeneutic circle of part and whole had resolved itself into a more navigable psychologism of symptom and diagnosis (with Hamlet installed as reigning emblem of ironical sequestration, the downcast king reappointed as monarch in disguise etc.). Pound was only too happy to apply himself to the task of diagnosis, but the numinous transformations of The Cantos leave the problem of totality, in all its now unfashionable implications, quite unresolved. And by the time that Prynne came into his mature voice, the epic ambition itself was itself unravelling, circa 1970, into the full irony of a ‘post-imperial outlook’, which is to say the commencement of high-force telematic brokerage and global commodification of knowledge by the media and their nominees within the universities.
What chance then, for a poetics of unfashionably imperial exigence demanding nothing less from the reader than the sort of attention formerly given to the venerably and classically premodern, just at that time when a call to self-transcendence and resistance was already in the process of transformation into the founding tropes of Cultural Studies, or else becoming routinized (we are talking of the late sixties here) through the alternative recourse to more immediately chemical means of self-displacement?
By tradition, Odysseus has always been a powerful emblem for knowledge in the form of representation, the nostos as the full close of a cyclical movement, or heimkehr. It is the fact that Ulysses returns from his voyages that validates the totalising course of epic memory, until the advent of a bourgeois epoch whose estrangements allegedly replace its inclusive topology within the fragmentary humanism of the novel. Odysseus is the archetype of knowledge as survival: the limits of representability co-extend with the boundaries of selfhood to enclose the ineradicable particularity of experience as value personally located as subjectivity.
In the circular epistemology of Romantic neoPlatonism, the course of epic’s homeward vector had always held in prospect an arc of reconciliation between the knowledge of lost objects or displaced subjects. Schelling speaks of a “poem that lies hidden in a mysterious and marvellous script. Yet if the riddle could reveal itself, we would recognise in it the Odyssey of the spirit, which, in a strange delusion, seeking itself, flees itself...” and in Hegel’s Logic the odyssey of reason is modelled Homerically as a ‘circle returned upon itself’ : “The true is its own becoming, the circle that presupposes its end as its aim and thus has it for its beginning”.
For Hegel’s great twentieth century interpreter, Gyorgy Lukacs, the Homeric world itself was a “rounded” unity, so interconnected that “even the separation between man and world, between ‘I’ and ‘You’, cannot disturb its homogeneity”. His Theory of the Novel attempts to sketch the evolution of our contemporary heterology, a ‘transcendental homelessness’ where that initial distinction between self and other becomes the founding moment of historical self-awareness through the mediation of aesthetic form:
“We have invented the creation of forms: and that is why everything that falls from our weary and despairing hands must always be incomplete. We have found the only true substance within ourselves: that is why we have to place an unbridgeable chasm between cognition and action, between soul and created, it is the novel that becomes ‘the epic of a world that has been.’ But as the objective world breaks down, so the subject, too, becomes a fragment: only the ‘I’ continues to exist, but its existence is then lost in the insubstantiality of its self-created world of ruins. Such subjectivity wants to give form to everything, and precisely for this reason succeeds only in mirroring a segment of the world.”
There is an almost Baudelairean note of ennui here and deliberately so, since Lukacs’ argument, composed in 1914 but formulated well before, sees itself at the terminus of one long phase of Romantic expansionism and offers prospectively to replace the solicitude of private irony ‘the constitutive format of contemporary society’ with the collective narration of an emancipatory politics. To Lukacs “estrangement from nature is the modern sentimental attitude to nature — a projection of man’s self-made environment as prison rather than parental home. The ‘first nature’ is nothing other than the historical philosophical objectivation of man’s alienation from his own constructs”. With this viewpoint, itself a segment of the long-term western disputation between poetry and metaphysics, Prynne has taken explicit issue, most notably in his British Academy lecture of 1988, ‘English Poetry and Emphatical Language’. But a large difficulty in charting the course of Prynne’s work, early and late, lies in understanding the extent to which he too has come to accept and even seek to deepen the extent of this ‘estrangement’ to a degree which even Lukacs would have rejected.
But Lukacs is only the ostensible target of the argument. The real object of contention in the 1988 lecture, or even in a poem of twenty years before such as For this for this, is Hegel. In both contexts Prynne explicitly confronts what in a review essay on Olson’s Maximus, IV, V, VI he calls ‘the moral structure of immediate knowledge’. Where the 1988 lecture locates in the smallest exclamatory vocables a ‘stress of feeling’ that ‘must fully admit false consciousness if the moment of stress is to locate the possibility of more true and completed forms of culmination’, the 1968 poem counterposes the singular and the epical, the lyrical and the cosmogenic within a very knowing context of allusion:
The next stave we come to is the mansion
or house, wondering about the roof and the
set, as it were, back into the silence which
is the social division, split into quietness.
The roof-canopy-manifold is a constant fixture in Prynne’s poetics of space and in this text is both the local exigency of any habitus and simultaneously a meditation on the domestic and the historical placement of ‘false consciousness’, here not so much opposed as interfused, as the title’s long range implicature already supposes. Yet as in many other poems from The White Stones, the project of a geltungslogik brooding over “the transfer of language to the human account”, extends from Kitchen Poems a critique of anthropocentrism derived in equal parts from Pauline Christianity and Nietzschean anti-humanism, through the converse mediations of Heidegger and Charles Olson. Partly at issue with both is the subjective idealism of the Hegelian system and its censure of the demonstrative singleness of ‘immediate knowledge’. The traditions meet in the anti-subjectivist broadside of Olson’s Human Universe essay (‘We have lived long in a generalising time, at least since 450BC....’) and are taken up repeatedly by Prynne. In For this, for this Olson’s distinction between ‘language as the act of the instant and language as the act of thought about the instant’ is complicated by more historically nuanced oppositions which begin to anticipate “while the amber glow of Mercury shines from the flashing shield”, the imagery and procedures of the closing strophes of Brass, three years later:
All the quick motions
as we nip upstairs, turn
to steps we take: leading
to the moral exits.
which we see enjoined. Some idea of
is wretched and what we pay for
Why are Hegelian concepts so frequently and implicitly disputed by Prynne? It is not so much the conception of dialectic itself, even in Hegel’s form, since Prynne consistently argues in favour of any ‘attempted dialectic’ over no dialectic at all. Nor, I think, would this argument centre merely on Hegel’s contempt for the singular, since, for all his admiration of Wordsworth, Prynne too is often to be found complaining that numbering the streaks on a tulip is nowhere near enough. The disagreement would rather seem to hinge on the uses of dialectical reasoning within the context of a rationalist idealism, in which the ‘return’ of the human subject to itself takes place by means of an initial separation from nature. The notion of a substantially independent and objective universe is for Hegel quite false, and lyric poetry is the primary exponent of this misapprehension,
For in lyric both form and content are provided precisely not by the external world or by individual action but by the poet himself in his own personal character.
The debate (which is no less than the contestation of poetry with philosophy) is more explicitly worked out in another poem from The White Stones, Chemin de Fer, where the ‘iron rails’ suggest Weber’s ‘iron cage’ of rationality, but also the totalising power of reason itself when struck down from its endosymbiosis with the body and diverted along a branch line, down a route familiar to readers of Adorno, leading to the concentration camp and ‘the machine gun in a Polish scenario’.
For Hegel, the lyric poet can only ever be an unhappy consciousness condemned to irony, a self-seeker simultaneously the agent of self-displacement. Each turn made in the effort to overcome this exile only tightens the spiral of vertiginous self-exposure. Thus Lukacs follows Hegel in seeing lyric subjectivity not as a moment in a dialectic, but as a symptom of the irreconcilable redemption of the person from the social body, and certainly not as the possible condition for some altered return to it. Since the nomologism of the exact sciences has separated fact from value, the form of modern subjectivity is implicitly lyrical, the enlightenment of the modern era composing not an escape from the kingdom of the blind but rather the form of an unending exile of value within subjectivity. That ‘moral structure of immediate knowledge’ becomes to Hegelian and Freudian alike a merely illusory instance, and therefore appears to substantiate the claims for an ‘end’ to the modern epoch made by Hegelians as far apart on the political spectrum as Francis Fukuyama, Frederic Jameson or T J Clark. How does any coherent defence of poetical autonomy survive that critique?
From early on, Prynne had maintained a consistent anti- anthropocentrism and anti-voluntarism, insisting on the substantial otherness of the presocial universe, conceding and even welcoming the deepest formal and contextual indirection which this knowledge might entail for a truly modern literature, armed strategically against its own unthinking modernity by a sceptical intelligence undefended, even so, against the knowing ironies of the philosopher. But far from deploying poetry as the armature of a counter-Weberian strategy designed to pit ‘institutional rationality’ against a variety of literary estrangements, the very notion of autonomy itself has in Prynne’s work become, increasingly, the site of attrition. His displacement of any singular standpoint — the fortress of ‘selfhood’, the antinomian comforts of a transgenic biologism (‘man makes himself’) — all have come under an autocritical domain which appears to see no bound or end to the amoral task of the poet. Whether viewed mythically (as shamanic) or electromagnetically (as a strange attractor, and both these are merely sentimental versions of each other), the poet in Prynne’s eye never ceases to trace the intimate relationship between autonomy and shame. To what extent though, can this movement, however ironically distanced from the ‘worldview’ of one single individual, itself resist Hegelian determinations of a conclusive ‘end’ to art, let alone prevent the practice of poetry from devolving into one self-authenticating guilt-trip, however degraded the world around it? Yet the idea of autonomy may be ineradicable, not least because the dream of its eradication is the first evidence for its continuing presence amidst the debris of self evidence. We are stuck with the world we have lost, as news of the latest Homeric disaster emerges from the battlefronts of Mesopotamia. Some minimal and undiminished conception of autonomy is necessary if human personhood, even when relegated to authorship, is to continue, and for this to be ethically possible, some notion of resistance has remained formally central to much contemporary poetics besides Prynne’s own.
Once again the representative image is Homeric: in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1948) the figure of Odysseus lashed to the mast is an emblem of Enlightenment reason, sustaining and undermining itself at the same time in the entwinements of deafness and insight which are the paradoxical foundations of human mastery:
“What Odysseus hears is without consequence for him: he is able only to nod his head as a sign to be set free of his bonds; but it is too late.... Thus the enjoyment of art and manual labour break apart as the world of prehistory is left behind. Just as the capacity of representation is the measure of domination, and domination is the most powerful thing that can be represented in most performances, so the capacity of representation is the vehicle of progress and regression at one and the same time”
Adorno later counterclaimed in 1957 that although “the solitariness of lyrical language itself is prescribed by an individualistic and ultimately atomistic society... its general cogency depends on the intensity of its individuation”, so that “the universality of the lyric’s substance is.. social in nature” And so in sharp contrast to the Hegelian odyssey of re-encirclement, Adorno counterposes a negative aesthetic, with the artwork irreconcilable with the conditions of its exile.
“Even resistance to social pressure is not something absolutely individual; the artistic forces in that resistance, which operate in and through the individual and his spontaneity, are objective forces that impel a constricted and constricting social condition to transcend itself and become worthy of human beings...”
Those ‘objective forces’ are for him subject to the same rigours of non-identity that determine the rest of his logic, the “untotalized forcefield” which both reflects and resists the reality it tries critically to analyse. Yet even this cannot evade the vicious circle of recursion, since it “is not only an advancing process but a retrograde one at the same time. To this extent, the picture of the circle describes it correctly. The concept’s unfolding is also a reaching back.”
If Hegel and his later adepts like Harold Bloom and Meyer Abrams render this dialectic as the fundamental trope in a compensatory secularism, then Adorno is closer to the Homeric tradition in seeing the full ambivalence of Homer’s protagonist. If ‘the concept of resistance is critical of thought’s claim to totality’, as Adorno avers, then surely Odysseus is the very image of the ambivalent cunning of reason, surviving and even redeemed by his very perseverance. In his gradual evolution throughout mythic history from his earliest appearance as a primitive Autolycan trickster to Homeric metis under the protection of Hermes, Odysseus becomes formally modern, not because he calculates or uses power but because he is all things to all men, a kind of confidence man, simultaneously master and slave, king and beggar. This is the truly Hegelian aspect of Odysseus, the idea that he must deny his identity in order to preserve it. In the cave of Polyphemus, his weasel words rescind his own name; he is ou-tis: no one. And it is this moment, I would argue, rather than the encounter with the Sirens, that marks out Odysseus (and not say, Prometheus, or Philoctetes) as the archetype of lyrical subjectivity, a survivor whose predicament consists precisely in not knowing how exactly to relate or dispose the experience and knowledge that he manifests and bears.
And that ‘he’ is deliberate. It is why Emannuel Levinas, foremost among modern critics of the Homeric mythos, sees in the image of the nostos or homeward journey merely an unending and constraining circularity: the totality of the epic cycle short-circuiting the possibility of a truly ethical relation with ‘the Other’. Against this, Levinas famously opposed an Hebraic poetics of exile centred only upon the figure of Abraham, who leaves his fatherland, never to return . Levinas in his turn chooses to forget that Odysseus’ re-entry into his kingdom is hardly a peaceable affair at all but a bloody rout, involving the mass slaughter of the many suitors of his wife’s affection and his kingdom. Thus Penelope redoubles Helen as pretext and cause for epic bloodshed, a motif specifically taken up and satirised in Prynne’s late work of 1998, Her Weasels Wild Returning.
Yet if a return to one’s homeland is impossible (a contention which Primo Levi debated all his life, and which Aime Cesaire made the central subject of his work) then it is only at the cost of changes of such magnitude that life — as continuity — is already in question at the outset as well as the culmination. If the Homeric encirclements are narrative models of loss, masquerade and reinstatement, they can never be exact models, since the moment of return (as Heraclitus asserted, subverting the recycling of Homeric verse as Athenian schoolbook ideology), is never to something that has stayed exactly the same. In fact the epical format viewed as the enactment of a predestinarian spiral whose end is never in doubt is indisputedly a mythical conception. We need to recall that the Odyssey begins in war (armed tribal disputes fight over seduction and property relations in re women), continues through exile and terminates in massacre. Pietro Pucci has claimed that
“In the Odyssey, the notions of nostos (return) and noos (mind) or intelligence (polytropos) become so intimately connected that they form a cluster of powerful images whose underlying metaphysical premises all bespeak survival and defiance of death. In addition the (stories) that Odysseus possesses in abundance and uses as weapons for his survival reveal that the whole conceptual frame that sustains him on his journey is constantly pre-empting the possibility of death. Odysseus cannot return to the same, for the nature of return, no less than that of recognition, excludes the possibility of sameness”.
Pucci links this awareness explicitly with the Kantian sublime, a form of resistance to intelligibility where a similar “leap towards the fascination of an endless song and a restraining prudence are graphically contrasted...”, and in which “delight is contiguous with awe ... life with death” (and it is worth recalling that a central image in the Critique of Pure Reason is explicitly anti-Homeric insofar as Kant’s prescription of the bounds of sense inscribes ‘its nihil ulterius on those pillars of Hercules which nature herself has erected in order that the voyage of our reason may be extended no further than the continuous coastline of experience... a coast we cannot leave without venturing on a shoreless ocean...’.
Of course the prohibition is ancient, and Dante takes it up again in his depiction of the final voyage of Odysseus, whose transgressions beyond the Pillars of Hercules mark the culminating escapade in a career as a betrayer of confidences, a false counsellor. That is why Dante consigns Ulysses not to mythic eternity in Heaven but to the eighth chasm of Hell, leading Piero Boitani to see the Odyssean mythos as itself the emblem of poetical ambivalence towards myth and narrative “Dante’s (Odysseus) with his supreme transformation, his repressed desire and his ineluctable dying clearly marks a crisis in historical perspective, the transformation of consciousness which marks a whole age: the epoch’s incipient doubt about the finality of its horizon and its narrowness”.
J H Prynne has brooded over the horizons of lyric form many times, critically and poetically, and his Vancouver lecture on Charles Olson notably contends that epic totality (‘home’) can never be a property of lyric per se, and therefore that a reading of Wordsworth’s ‘Lucy’ poems merely as ‘lyrics’ would diminish their inclusive significance. Yet this view leaves open the historical determinations of intention and form (choice and chance if you prefer) which underpin the framework of reading at any post-classical moment. Qua choice, the decision to read is always made within the era of epic closure itself, yet since the subject of epic is itself always closure, there could never have existed a moment when that moment was not already retrospective, or mindful of the intimate bonds between autonomy and alienation.
This would be a defensible inference from Prynne’s work over the last decade or more, where most historic reference points are folded over into the imperious necessities of a contemporary globalism both autocatalytic and self-consuming. It was not always thus. In a radio talk given in 1962, (published as ‘The Elegiac World of Victorian Poetry’) Prynne tries to offer some historical explanation of how the positive expansiveness of High Romantic poetry devolved into the characteristic tones of the later Victorian elegy, in which, so Prynne contends, the predominant mood is solipsistic and privative. Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ of 1833 is a principal exhibit in the argument, Tennyson seeming to Prynne only to endorse his hero’s self-importance, so that “the actual world is stiflement to him”. And as for her:
‘the power of meditation has so encroached on reality that fulfilment cannot break the solipsistic involvement of Penelope’s expectant dream. Meditation for her has become an activity not transitively directed towards exploring a predicament — in this case the loneliness of deprivation — but an independent and self-constituting process’...
Wallace Stevens’ ‘The World as Meditation’ is seen as a modernist metacommentary on the same predicament, that the internalisation of romance transforms epic dimension into paysage interieur. What is of interest here though is that to Prynne both principals of the myth — male and female — are conjoined by a narcissism inherent to the elegiac form. It was, for the time, a common accusation (‘Victorian poetry admits that the actual world is alien, recalcitrant and unpoetical and that no protest is worth making except the poetry of withdrawal’: F R Leavis, parroting Eliot’s critique of ‘the attempt to recreate a dream world, which alters English poetry so greatly in the C19th’). But Prynne’s more subtle conclusion brings the focus of argument right up to date: the contemporary poetry of Britain circa 1962 has made no significant advance on this state, he claims with a final slingshot, since it is incapable of recognising ‘a contingent event’ and is, in short, still a mirrorplay of solipsistic melancholia.
But if elegy is one of the constant tendencies in the trauerspiel of Western writing, then the shadow of Narcissus is there at the very commencement of secular literature, when Ventadorn inaugurates the high epoch of the trobar clus in the middle twelfth century:
Miralhs, pur me mirei ente
M’an mort li sospir de preon,
C’assi perdei com perdet se
Lo bels Narcissus en la fon
(Mirror, since I beheld myself in you,
the sighs from my depths have slain me,
and I have lost myself, as fair Narcissus
lost himself in the fountain.)
Here the poet has already half an eye on own his reflection, Ovid Moralise into a mirror pool of reflecting glints and flashes, a moment replayed in the poem ‘Love’ from The White Stones.
Noble in the sound which
marks the pale ease
of their dreams they ride
the bel canto of our
time: the patient en-
circlements of Narcissus..
So that if the concepts of elegy and mourning have come to tincture more and more of the modern era with the negative freedom of exile, both from self-understanding or from the vertigo of unending self-interpretation, the displacement of value into mere subjectivity, then that is also because the need to recall that the intervening histories that get us from there to here have become by mathematical ratio an increasing weight upon present awareness, as the total recall of unjust suffering inverts the consolations of dogmatic spirituality. But exile itself is not only a shift of individual value but a mythic alteration to the history of a group or nation, and if, as I wish to contend, a concern with the cosmic inclusiveness of epic has been a crucially positive factor in Prynne’s work all along, it has always been accompanied by its converse — a distrust of any historical theodicy predisposed by appeals to self-underwriting patterns of verbal, scriptural or even morphological predestination, in the name instead of the primacy of perception and sceptical intellection as the motor of change, biological, historical and literal.
Yet however large these Homeric perspectives loom in the foreplay of mythic or historical antecedence (Odysseus as the first European ‘figure of outward’, the founder of secular history), the first secular European poetry of exile and transformation is neither Biblical or even Homeric, but Ovidian. It is the Ovidian chiasmus between change and perduration which mediates through European poetry the great trope of Biblical exile with the pagan theme of transformation. The diaspora of value is reclaimed in redemptive change, with the Trojan war as just one topos amongst many others in a variant landscape of tragi-comic beginnings and ricorsi. Above all, it is Ovid’s picture of Orpheus which confronts the theme of exile with a human singularity against the terrible powers of the underworld deprived of Virgil’s cosmic legalism. As Charles Segal neatly puts it, “By dissolving the ordinary laws of reality, Ovid allows the weakness of the human condition to stand out all the more sharply”.
It is in this regard that Ovid’s myth of Myscelus is of especial relevance to our consideration of Prynne’s own poetics of exile. Readers will recall that Myscelus is commanded by Hercules to leave his country, yet, since the hero’s injunction is contrary to the law of men in time of war, Myscelus is brought to trial (Metamorphoses XV). When the guilty verdict is brought against him (by the dropping of black stones into a box) a divine miracle converts the stones to white, allowing Myscelus to go free and found a new city. In Golding’s version of 1556, Myscelus appeals in prayer to heaven:
For Thou are author of my crime ...
When judgement should be given it was the guyse in ancient tyme
With whyght stones to acquit the cleere, and eke with blacke to cast
The giltye. That tyme also the heavey sentence past.
The stones were cast unmerciful all blacke into the pot.
But when the stones were powred out to number, there was not
A blacke amongst them. All were whyght...
The anabasis of Myscelus is the deep drift of the 58 poems of The White Stones, but if it is indeed exile (rather than choice, consensus or any form of social contract) which Prynne has always posited as the material foundation of historical change or recommencement, even as the inaccessible non-place (utopia) of attempted reconciliation, that is hardly because it is or ever was a case identifiable solely in terms of black and white. The many images of snowlit candour, of charring or scorching which paint up the historical determinations of Prynne’s anti-teleology mingle together in myriad textures and shades, among which deliquescence, melting, sliding, slipping and falling become as important to the reactiveness of volatile substance as the more obviously fiery or chilling historical acts which keep the carbon cycle turning. The point of change with Prynne has always been the ‘unrecognised’ moment — the ‘twist point’ of wagered scepticism rather than the speculative return of investments coolly calculated in advance.
All of this argues merely for a multiplicity of forms and shapes, some of which are disguises and some of which are not, since the finite in endless variation is the interchange of person and substance through which lyrical form deploys its co-variant user-personnel across the switching points of language. For Prynne, a true romantic in this respect, the synthesis of appearance and validity is not determined by representation but experience, individual and collective, with the consequence that ethics is never entirely a matter of personal subjectivity. But the unity of poetic reason is hardly assured by appeals to difficulty as a principal guarantee of value, as Prynne’s early essay of 1961, Resistance and Difficulty would have it. Indeed, that very notion may be viewed as a substitute for the implicit heroics of Puritan stoicism, often later assailed in Prynne’s work to be reinforced as much as renounced.
I must stand off from the warm
some Danish insistence
Even here, in The Numbers, the first poem in Prynne’s 1997 Collected Poems, the protestant mechanics of abjuration, here projected through the almost comforting martyrology of Hamlet, are at war with a catholic distrust of the anthropomorphic conscience left to its own infinite self-scrutiny, just as much as a later sequence like 1999’s Pearls That Were, or even, most recently, Biting the Air (2004). Perhaps it is because the idea of difficulty stands in his work as a substitute for the sublime as a condition of exceeded understanding that everything in its wake must wrench apart the true-false distinctions, so deeply valued elsewhere in Prynne (remember those ‘more true and more completed forms of culmination’ from 1988) by leaving open to question whether something is true because it is valued or only valued because it is true. Neil Hertz some twenty years ago tried to comprehend the epic roots of the Kantian sublime when he pointed out that by the C18th the ‘notion of difficulty or recalcitrance was transformed, through a passage to the limit, into the notion of absolute blockage’. Even though the moment of blockage might have been rendered as one of utter self-loss then, it was, even before its recuperation as sublime exaltation, a confirmation of the unitary status of the self.
Yet by the time of Kitchen Poems in 1968, the matter of substantial quality had itself shifted from phenomenologial abstraction towards a more historical anthropology of value, anti-Kantian (insofar as it decisively joined cognition with morality) and anti-Hegelian (insofar as immediate knowledge is prized as the first duty of cognition, and not merely its partial starting point). The ‘Note on Metal’ which accompanies the miniature epic Aristeas in Seven Years argues that prior to any marxist distinction between use and exchange value there must firstly be a more primary shift from the idea of substance to the notion of quality. Marx famously derided classical philosophy for its endless disquisitions on the nature of substance, and here Prynne may be seen to move away from the concerns of ‘Resistance and Difficulty’ towards a more tangible poetic materialism. Where Resistance and Difficulty had argued ten years before that ‘substance’ existed prior to all change, yet was still accessible to the powers of ‘intuition’, the idea of materiality in Prynne’s work of the late 1960s itself now undergoes the transformation of its acknowledged co-ordinates, ‘Being’ and ‘Time’. For these two are no longer categories in an existential phenomenology of Attention or Tyrolean woodcraft but fully amortised within the evident detritus of the Second World War, constantly alluded to in The White Stones. The time of that book’s writing also saw the first real debates concerning Heidegger’s own guilty connivance in the manifest destiny of Germany, as well as daily fresh news of the sheer scale of American terror-bombing in South East Asia, so that the image of war comes gradually to displace even poetry (as Prynne’s 1977 News of Warring Clans reluctantly concludes) as the very type of ‘news that stays news’.
In that sense, Prynne’s oeuvre marks a continual movement away from any ontology of Parmenidean wholeness, indeed any ontology at all, as globalisation replaces the concept of one earth with a logo more compatible with the current requirements of international finance and the philosophies of existence that underwrite it. For every ‘invisible hand’ a mailed fist; for every university deconstructionist, a fellow-traveller in business class. Thus it is that Brass, Prynne’s wrenching masterpiece of 1971, inaugurates a newly mimetic savagery, considering the alchemy of transformation to be fundamentally dependent on the historical growth of money-economies. Indeed, so much has been made of the ostensible disjuncture between Prynne’s late sixties writing and what came through in the 70s that it has almost obscured the fact that their concerns are in many ways both continuous and complementary. For Brass trumpets a new and hybrid covenant, beginning with an elemental relationship with its very title, an alloy (or marriage) of copper and tin. But the marriage proposed here is not some impossible reconciliation of an alchimie du verbe inside a land of unlikeness, or even a masterful autopsy of orphic dismemberment (where, as with Jack Spicer, an avowedly groundless theatrical nihilism confers power retroactively, and then mostly on the poet), but one aspect of the Orphic project patiently continued: the histology of love recovered by historical projection inside the forms of the disjunctive lyric sequence.
In Brass, then, a new kairos is proposed, not Homer’s era of epic struggle but Hesiod’s age of brass, the epoch of lordship and theogeny. The Horatian aere perennis also rings behind the title, as a cultural movement from stone to metal (and thence to poetry) in the commemoration of the dead. The musical manoeuvres so frequently gestured at throughout the book include the trumpets of war as much as the orchestrations of popular opinion but also, countervailingly, signify a prophetic millennialism which might sweep all before it. A brass is an effigy of the dead, as well as a popular argot for a prostitute, so that the title itself is a kind of brass angel, a coin inherently double, heads and tails simultaneously (in French, face et pile). Boldness is likened to brass, but then a brass monkey is a figure of the climatic or psychic refrigeration which The White Stones frequently aligns with the present epoch of cool, distantiated brainfade. In short, brilliance is conjoined to squalor, as energy to torpor, splendour to poverty, as contraries which fuse and decompose the book.
Thus where in St Paul it is ‘though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or tinkling cymbal’, Rimbaud’s letter of 1871 counters “Car JE est un autre. Si le cuivre s’eveille clairon, il n’y a rien de sa faute’ (For I is someone else. If brass wakes up as a trumpet, it is not its fault). Here, then a clash of symbols — between the prophetic jeremiad in service of a new millennial kingdom, and the vagabond, youthful voyant, announcing a new aesthetic militancy here on earth. There is internal strife between the contending brass and its minatory overtones that recalls Urizen’s book of Iron and Brass in Blake, and a contemporary counter-millennialism is openly broached in the book’s very epigraph, taken from Beaumarchais’ preface to his revolutionary theatrework of 1784, La Folle Journee, ou Le Mariage de Figaro.
On eut crie bravo!Ouvrage bien morale! Nous etions sauves
That play was a triumphant assertion of political right against sovereign power, and was in its turn transformed by Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte two years later, as Le Nozze di Figaro. In both works the traditional droits de seigneur of the ancien regime are challenged in order to be defeated by the superior cunning of an underclass. Yet Beaumarchais’ artful Preface attempts a defense of theatre, not as the mirror to society, but as the vicariously necessary artifice by which a culture comes to comprehend itself. Beaumarchais disingenuously shields himself against charges of blasphemy by assuring readers that the arrogation of powers by the social order he depicts (in the run-up to the revolution he supported) ‘is very far from our own present custom’.
This method of ironical theatricality is developed by Prynne, using the form of habitual masquerade to satirise not only an antecedent social order (as progenitor of the present world), but what is inoperant and ossified in all social order, the mercurial heart of all exchange. And so by deploying methods in which, as Terry Castle writes of other C18th uses of the format, ‘the festive fusions of the masquerade suggest the breakdown of larger conceptual oppositions’, Prynne is able to affirm and disavow simultaneously, and with the ‘angelic nonchalance’ (White Stones: Quality in that Case as Pressure) which, in Beaumarchais’ play is represented by the servant Cherubin, whose cross-dressing antics form an important element in the disruptions and stage business of the drama at hand.
Structurally, Brass takes over from these hints an acrid scepticism concerning the very possibility of instantaneous transformation and again takes its cue from the Beaumarchais’ theme, the occurrence in a single day of a revolution/ revelation of established order, both cosmic and insurrectionary senses conjoined by the metaphor of marriage. In French a wedding ring is ‘une alliance’ and Beaumarchais’ play introduces a crucial element of Brass’s main theme — the inversion of master and servant roles pointing up the inauthenticity of any merely ‘musical’ reconciliation of love and social order. Most importantly, the failed revolutions of the European enlightenment are themselves brought into perspective by this coy historical sidestep, as the modern era ushers in a new shadow theatre of bureaucratic formality. Beaumarchais’ Figaro proposes at one stage that ‘we should all know our roles well today’, but disruptive role-playing had been central to Prynne’s poetics from much earlier (Figaro’s line, or a near version of it is frequently employed in the Turkish Karaghoz shadow theatre, figures from which are displayed on the cover of the Ferry Press edition of Aristeas three years before). Furthermore, many of the disguises exist not solely to puncture illusion but to augment it with the corrective praise of folly in its own right, a last remnant of the stultitia tradition of Erasmus and Rabelais and last glimpsed in Don Quixote (swiftly alluded to in The Bee Target on his Shoulder) as ‘the greedy mule recoils from Salamanca’ .
All this is to observe that Brass is not in any sense a ‘break’ with the past, since it is a richly historical work in its own right. What has changed in the evolving of the modern world is not that folly (in the Rabelaisian sense) is now no longer licensed, but conversely, that folly (in the Rimbaudian sense of ‘dereglement’ may well be all too ‘licensed’, as the diversionary flicker of the entertainment industry. Not for the first time Prynne reveals a Nietzschean sense of the alliance of power and signification, though with the vaticinatory pomp already distanced by anticipatory exaggeration.
Yet no sooner is the collector of footnotes nodding his head in agreement than he is shaking it in disbelief, at the holographic inscription appearing in the numbered edition of the book, where a line from the first chapter of Melville’s The Confidence Man (1857) (also, like Beaumarchais’ play, set on April 1st) depicts ‘several...chevaliers d’argent’(ie pickpockets) plying their trade amongst the crowds at the dock waiting for the paddle-steamer Fidele to take them upriver, away from the slave states.
‘As for their fingers, they were enveloped in some myth.’
The Hermetic theme of disguise is thereby transmuted into a more complex image of that underworld of open criminality whose solar catchphrase is daylight robbery. Here, though, complications set in, since Brass must have been written simultaneously with the book which followed it, the culminating and third part of Prynne’s diurnal sequence, Into the Day (1972). For in each copy of the limited edition of Brass is inscribed one of the 24 strophes which Into the Day comprises, under an epigraph (formally named ‘tagschlucht’ — ‘dayfall’: end of days as apocalypse?) and taken, once again, from The Confidence Man, this time from the final lines of the last chapter, where Melville’s comment on the criminals
‘The next moment the waning light expired, and with it the waning flames of the horned altar, and the waning halo round the robed man’s brow; while in the darkness which ensued, the cosmopolitan kindly led the old man away. Something further may follow of this Masquerade’.
In Melville’s book also, the course of one solar revolution sees a trickster board a boat and transform himself through many different disguises, and here there is another deliberate invocation of the same Pauline apothegm which conditions the tone of Brass at the outset, this time inverted into a hideously secularised counterpart of the willing suspension of disbelief that constitutes modern consumer credit:
But in contrast with the asperities of Brass, the almost Pindaric equity of Into the Day seems extraordinary, already commencing a reluctant valediction to that tradition of Orphic tageleid (constituting not merely the oldest form of European song, but also — as Arthur Hatto’s Eos strongly implies, the ur-form of all song). In Into the Day, we see and hear first an ear, then a tree.
Blood fails the ear, trips the bird’s
Fear of bright blue. Touching that
Halcyon cycle we were rested in ease
And respite from dismay: strip to
the noted bark, stop the child
The bark is a part of poetry ascendant, that ‘tall tree in the ear’ — which Rilke celebrates in the Sonetten An Orpheus and which provide Into the Day’s governing image of hearing and growth. The blurb for the book which appeared in the British Little Press Directory at the time announced that ‘here the lyric sequence is projected into a figure of cosmic harmony’ but with each citation in Prynne, from Homer to Milton to Rilke, we have constantly to recognise that the poetic act is only a temporary Adamic dawn in the face of what is, nearly always, the Eve of battle. The ring of army and money is never far away from the contention of metal with stone — and so it proves with Into the Day’s closure
The ship steadies
and the bird also; from frenzy
to darker fields we go.
What both Brass and Into the Day follow over from earlier Prynne is a concern with the alloying process in its darkfield aspect, of marrying resistant and/ or contrarious elements to rediscover, if not some homely new-age recuperation, then what is immanent in all domestication, no more so than when these possibilities resound with the defiant blazonry of those new (or ancient) genres most anxious to deny it. Kitchen Poems had faced the home front at times with almost psalmic appeals for an as yet uncreated civic conscience, which by the time of The White Stones is already fast becoming ‘the slender distraction, again this/ is the city shaken down to its weakness’, an outermost horizon of sense. In Brass, the human habitus and its fragile weapons of happiness are forged in the darkest armoury of political pressure and historical violence, but the method of contrariety here espoused (requiring as per tradition that we begin in medias res) present no scenes of high epic purpose so much as a soporific glance into an unspecified interior and a man awakening not to a sunlit world but a kind of twilight deliquescence.
Gratefully they evade the half-light
Rising for me, on the frosty abyss.
wavy boots glow
as he matches the headboard
But by taking up the theme of waking, wakefulness and the flux of its attendant precepts through the course of a day, (‘in the life’), Brass takes on implicitly the claims to inclusion made by the two great counter-epical literary monuments of the standard modernist canon in English, Joyce’s Ulysses and Eliot’s Waste Land, and glances proleptically towards the mausoleum of both, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). For Brass takes ‘place’ loosely over the course of a day only in order to confute the anomie and religiosity of Eliot, and the ambiguous reconciliations of Molly and Leopold with the more stellified arrangements of Pie and Outwash in the book’s closing poem, Of Sanguine Fire.
Thus Prynne’s book belongs to that genre which Ralph Maud has named ‘anti-wastelands’, for which Charles Olson’s The Kingfishers serves as his prime example. For where The Waste Land invokes apocalypse to purge secular horizons with a vengeful, culminating thunderclap, Brass takes the profoundly less comforting step of seeking to redeem the time which Eliot had desperately contemned, so that where the tagelied sequence closed by Into the Day takes a relatively providential view of change, (taking from Olson the image of the kingfisher ‘rested in that halcyon cycle’, and thus in passing becoming a subliminal elegy to Olson), in Brass all thought of Providence is guarded and largely held away, or hemmed in by lacerating whimsicalities which are the encamped substitutes for ‘wit’ in the no man’s land of the modern avant garde.
the step lacks time, hath not th’advantage.
And if not safe, in time.
Since much of Prynne’s later work depends on how much of the advantage can be shared or taken, by reader and writer both as surrogates for the liberties eroded by textual libertarianism or its mirror image in the market ideologies of free trade, then this line constitutes an important textual knot. Ralph Maud argued that Olson’s phrase in The Kingfishers represents a renunciation of the Greek worldview, and that it is Troilus (here glimpsed by Olson at the close of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde ascending to heaven) who lacks the perspective of modernity, a view contradicting the light-fingered redemption offered to Troilus by Chaucer, whose deceased lover is able to view all earthly shortcomings (including his own) with a mixture of amusement and forgiveness. To Maud, what has to be renounced is simply a nostalgic Hellenism, but to Olson and Prynne, the issue is both older and more recent, rooted in Heidegger’s Nietzschean antipathy to Socrates and Olson’s reliance upon Pound’s numinous cross-cultural perspectivism. Indeed, the extent to which the heroical modern is fit to outdistance or abrogate those antecedents unquestioningly would be, to Olson and Heidegger both, a refractive index of the extent to which the Prynne’s ‘whole model question’ of transformation has been misunderstood.
For even though the aim of writing, for Olson and by extension Prynne, is to produce anti-Waste Lands, neither mythic devastation nor pasteboard Wagneriana, this need not entail an uncritical endorsement of the modern over the ancient. We need also to recall that in Shakepeare’s version of the myth Ulysses, against Troilus’ own encomium of glory, gives two speeches celebrating order in the form of ‘degree’ (as the form of ‘fixed injustice’ which Prynne blankly includes as a neat mark for the triumph of expediency over intrinsic value in Into the Day), reminding us that the orthodox views of social relations Ulysses celebrates are nowhere apparent either in that play or any other version of the Trojan myth. Howard Felperin once observed that ‘in everything but his end Troilus has more in common with Don Quixote, who also tries to impose the ‘high designs’ of romance on a world too late.’ Prynne’s usage skews this sense and manages once more to swipe at Eliot and Joyce, for whom the figure of Hamlet was variously central. In particular, where The Waste Land’s ‘Hieronymo’s mad againe’, tagline from Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (the ur-form of Hamlet), is used by Eliot to conflate literary power with artistic psychology, Prynne’s tendency is to take such gestures a stage further, not merely to ask whether the power is benign or not, but whether its vengefulness has any other utility. Heironymo again:
Wise men will take their opportunity
Closely and safely fitting things to time
But in extremes advantage hath no time
And therefore all times fit not for revenge
Brass plays several games with the Jerome/ Hieronymo nameform, to make clear how even the noble condition of prophetic exile may merely be another disguise of that traditional antitype, the stage revenger. The White Stones had already played off the drama of Homeric wandering with the theme of Hebraic diaspora. What now remains, in the local perspective overshadowing enlightenment, is the collapse of the radical zeal of the 1960s, the failures of Spring in Paris, in Prague, in Ohio. Those false dawns are observed directly in L’Extase de M. Poher, where the Luxembourg gardens and the consternation of Alain Poher (Charles de Gaulle’s Interior Minister) as the youthful putschistes en herbe is literally depicted, displacing the parodic neo-Davidian image of revolution in John Ashbery’s Tennis Court Oath (1962), where ‘Europe’ is a post Eliotic theatre of operations upon a cultural lexis that can bear no more than ironic scrutiny. For Ashbery, as ever, this yields a truly filial pathos of distance, but can irony detach itself from sceptical ambivalence or inner withdrawal without self-contradiction turning to self-suffocation, biting, as it were, the air that feeds it?
In Prynne’s case we are prepared for scepticism through a more graded spectrum of satirical resources. Yet one character in this newer theatre is, once again, the ancient figure of Aristeas, last seen in The White Stones as a figure of shamanic redemption whose saffron cloak can be glimpsed in the image of Apollo on page 15 of Into the Day. But Brass is more clear in its distinctions between ‘angelic nonchalance’ and cynicism, confidence and trust, and most of all, of the sheer difference between apocalypse and revelation, between an isolated vision and the Word and the Human Abstract. ‘The great difficulty of dialectical apocalypse is that it has got to present itself as prophetic irony, in which the abyss between aspiration and institution is both anticipated and denounced’ (Bloom).
Which word, though? Hermes is the patron divinity of Odysseus, and in the form of Mercury is the presiding spirit of Brass. He is there in The Bee Target as a dream version of his namesake, the companion of Orpheus prized for his love of bees. But we have seen that Brass will permit no merely elegiac confusion of loss with absence, and often views this confusion as wellspring of abstraction and the art forms that endorse it. Quite logically, then, the pompous 1968 dogmatism of Tel Quel et cie (already satirised in the person of ‘Aunt Theoria’ in The White Stones’ ‘Price-Tag Song’) decomposes further into a surreal restaging of the tea ceremony of Alice in Wonderland, with the coercive non-solidarity of ‘party’ and ‘theory’ now reduced to a theiere, a looking glass vision of the Mad Hatter and the rabbit ‘trying to put the Dormouse into the teapot’ as in
aunt with the brown teapot jammed
into edible, macerated crumpet. So you
shrilled unwillingly I the 3rd chorus...
When language is reduced to a Theorie d’Ensemble, then speculative thought becomes a psychosexual abstraction. Also recalling what the Dormouse said, we remember a congruent moment from Joyce in the sexual byplay of the Nighttown episode:
(meaningfully dropping his voice) I confess I’m teapot with curiosity to find out whether some person’s something is a little teapot at present’.
Throughout Brass, random thoughts of sex are never far away, and other forms of jouissance also meet their ends in the theatrical cantons of ‘desire’. Even the postcoital tenderness of Royal Fern is spliced into a random thought from Othello ‘fetching’ his life from ‘men of royal siege’, as if to imply that jealous self deception may be the root of all negation, even the negation of opposites. Brief solace from this is contemplated in Sun Set 4:56 in form a kind of mumbled remembrance of Keats’ ‘To My Brothers’ (‘Small, busy flames play through the fresh-laid coals...’) while Thinking of You sets the placement of trust-in-love so dearly valued in Walt Whitman and Frank O’Hara against the grain of the lipid cycle; the endless circulation of fatty acids as the final reduction of the drives to the coming and going of various enzymes.
After these pauses Es Lebe der Konig, Prynne’s threnody for Paul Celan, only recently deceased at the time of writing, becomes no less than the most ambitious attempt since Wallace Stevens to re-imagine the terms of elegy beyond The Waste Land context of universal devastation in the full awareness of devastations that The Waste Land or Hell Cantos could imagine. Only Douglas Oliver’s Diagram Poems or Clark Coolidge’s Elegy for Kurt Cobain (also with its own allusion to Celan) come close to this ambition.
What form does the reinvention take? If lyrical subjectivity is the problem; then how is it capable of self-diagnosis, without replicating the spiral of alienated displacement between chance and necessity, the path we are always assumed to tread? Es Lebe der Konig, sees resistance to this stark option as itself divided across the ironical membrane of public and private life whose root metaphor of death and repetition (the king is dead, long live the ....) is given in the poem’s title, taken from Buchner’s play Dantons Tod (1835) and caustically reiterated by Paul Celan in 1961, when, accepting the Buchner prize for poetry in Darmstadt, he delivered his own counter-Homeric examination of the pathos of homecoming, Der Meridian. Here, Celan cites Lucile’s protestation of ‘Long live the King’ as the guards take away her lover, Camille as an exemplary transcendence of the present, a ‘gegenwort’ with the irony implicit that these selfsame words of defiance are simultaneously suicidal for the speaker, the Jewish tradition of pre-emptive self-murder implicitly contrasted with the stoically ‘noble’ Roman. For Lucille’s end is not the ordered departure lounge of Senecan resignation, but the violent cry of someone whose resistance to injustice will provoke only more. Her shout is flung out ‘in the name of the law’ — the cry of the bereft woman inevitably bringing to mind the predicament of Antigone, the essential drama of law and resistance but also of a specific relation of femininity to law.
It must have cost Celan much to utter these words, in that city in particular, recalling, as he intended us to do, the failed revolutions that seemed to lead without intermission from the Kaiser to the everlasting Romanism of the Third Reich and the Final Programme of the Shoah. But Celan (and with him, Prynne) is also is alluding to other ghosts as well; the opening lines of Hamlet and the long history of German self-imprisonment in the myths of sovereign conquest, from Freilgarth to Heiner Muller’s Hamletmaschine. Thus the revolution of 1798 is reassessed not merely in the light of the events of 1968 in France, but also through the lens of English romantic poetry contemporaneous with the revolution itself, as Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey deliberately dates the poem July 13 1798 (the day before Bastille day), or Blake’s figure of fiery Orc from the same moment may be seen, in Ronald Paulson’s words evolving ‘from the catachrestic image as transvaluation of counter-revolutionary terms to a representation of the ambiguous or paradoxical process of revolution itself..”
Orc might yawn at the New Critical ‘ambiguities and paradoxes’ as the substitutes for the real ethics that underlie their tensor fields (‘any other rubbish is mere political rhapsody’: L’extase de M. Poher) but clearly some process of ‘representation’ is at stake. The largest arena for that presently imaginable is evolutionary and neurological, but the deposition of one representational schema/ language game over another (looked at more closely in 1997’s For the Monogram) is what is often regarded as evolutionary in history itself, yet may also be a recipe for aphasia, for the evolving process of silencing otherness in the name of self or nation, even, or perhaps pre-eminently, the relentlessness of authorship itself.
The Kirghiz Disasters dramatises this process of silencing at some length by re-enacting a particular process, the historical destruction of the Kirghizian language not once but twice. A disaster is ‘star damage’ but no longer ‘at home’, since the life-world of the C20th has become the world proposed by Heraclitus as its opposite, the anticthonic ‘counter earth’. These images are displayed earlier in the book, but with the concrete example of the Kirghiz people, the destruction of earth resides precisely in that loss of collective narrative which can explain what ‘native soil’ actually means. Thus the poem proceeds as a mangled bulletin, intercutting ‘news from the Tarim Basin’ with domestic trivia from the home front.
And at that the fringes wither
With tight creedal echoes, bringing fear into the homely
Recital. Swear at the leather by the knee-joint
Shouts Jerome, crumbs ready as a favoured bribe.
The epic tales (Albert Lord’s ‘return songs’) of the Kirghizians now survive in only mangled form, the rubble of medieval and later Soviet purgations and enforced migrations. In the wasteland aftermath of Thomas Pynchon’s post-war reconstruction zone, the ‘Kirghiz light’ is an emblem of visionary absence, everything that cannot any longer be viewed or comprehended within the constraints of contemporary political domination, as the landscape is cleared for its reconstituted inheritors, IG Farben and ICI. Here Prynne’s contrast with Pynchon is especially striking. Both Gravity’s Rainbow and Brass make intermittent use of the angelology of Rilke as an ulterior guideline through the wastes, though Prynne’s text, counterposing revelation with millennium in ways that Pynchon merely confuses, takes on a wider range of spirit-doubles and his moments of self-parody are freed of the whimsical topicality of the novel. And just as ‘the darker fields’ of Into the Day, deliberately summon the last cadences of Lycidas in order to banish them, the mock-apocalypse at the close of Brass deliberately leaves open the question of how any purely ‘visionary’ process can wage itself against the evasions diagnosed by The Ideal Star Fighter. Are these swerves all part of the same psychic economy, two faces of the same coin flipped by Melville’s disappearing trickster at the close of his Confidence Man.
Throughout Brass has loomed the shadow of the failed English revolution and the restoration of monarchy, the French revolutionary venture and its imperial aftermath, the Civil wars of the C19th ‘from Mannheim to Trieste’ as republican strife secedes, in the formation of modern secular nation states, to the preconditions for global blitzkrieg. Of Sanguine Fire culminates this process of trans-historic reflection, closing a book which has also opened out many alternative portals to keep Blake’s ‘doors of perception’ ever in view. Once again the lores of astrology and alchemy figure large, though where the protagonist of Aristeas in Seven Years was the mythic shaman of pre antiquity, Of Sanguine Fire takes up his more recent appearances in the early modern era, since the Verba Aristei Patris ad Filium was a prominent and much translated alchemical poem of the seventeenth century, in which the ancient sorcerer revealed secrets of the philosopher’s stone to his adepts.
And so the leitmotiv of revolution is played off against its analytical counterpart, the idea of a change of state, political, geographical and, finally, chemical. Alchemy may function as a model simultaneously of radical change but also social upheaval, placing the ‘Patience’ of the ‘Great Work’ with its contrary, the revolutionary upsurge of the ‘Great Year’, in which attentisme is brought to term by a millennial suspension of the ethical order. (Observe how Of Sanguine Fire makes knowing use of that childish injunction, ‘wait for it’.) Alchemical theory contended that metals were anxious to improve their status but were forced into hierarchy, by way of a connected chain of correspondences, with gold as their Sun King. In Of Sanguine Fire, alchemy is contrasted with the more mundane task of bakery. “Soul is a good sodden word, of the old verbal dough” as Wyndham Lewis puts it in The Enemy of the Stars, though that deflationary comparison soon re-expands in the mind, by way of what astronomers used to call the ‘currant bun’ model of the universe (‘currant bun’ is rhyming slang for sun), in which each currant represents a galaxy and the surrounding dough is the intervening space between them, so that, when cooked, the dough expands and the currants move further apart from one another.
The main body of the poem is cast in the form of an angelic conversation between two androgynous protagonists, Pie and Outwash, whose names are more suggestive of the geomorphic processes of plate tectonics than the rootless cosmopolitans of Wenders’ Himmel uber Berlin, or Michel Serres’ Pantope and Pia in his Anges. (Not to be outread here, it is worthy of note that one of the first uses of the Π symbol in mathematics was by the Englishman, William Oughtred, in 1652.) In fact, Pie and Outwash take up the ‘foretaste of style’ predicted by the use of ‘paste’ (in The Bee Target on his Shoulder) by suggesting the hardening action of any surface, textual and geological, when sufficiently irradiated. They are the first pairing of many subsequent twinlike emanations, from Drs. Lichen and Cypress in Wound Response, to Nerve and Verve in News of Warring Clans, Irene and Pandora in Triodes and even the nictative gemini of Not You. Twins perhaps represent the harmonies underlying the chaos of materia prima by successive volatisations, just as love may entail a conjunction of opposites. But the primal twinship is the binarism of self and otherness and this double (or dubitable) aspect reminds the reader once more that complementation for Prynne is not — as it was for Douglas Oliver — a non-violent process. The reader of Of Sanguine Fire is reminded of Levinas’s insistence that it is almost impossible to found an ethics on the idea of a purely non-violent opening of one ego onto the other, because the ‘other’ can never be regarded as purely other, cannot be innocent of re-absorption as an alter ego. Because of this, absolute alterity (that ‘whole other’ we began with) is not absolute at all. “Only a face can arrest violence, since only a face can provoke it”, remarks Levinas in Totality and Infinity, and in Of Sanguine Fire it is a ‘face’ with which we begin, whether one side in the coining of identity or some different window onto the human oikos:
Swift as a face rolled away like
Pastry, turned up the stairwell oh
cough now room for two &
faced with bodily attachments :
evidence hovers like biotic soup, all
transposable, all like.
Yet whether Pie and Outwash are left at the end “stubbornly guarding the residual impurity of motive and cognition against any rejuvenating or transcendent impulse...”, as some professor once argued, depends on whether a ‘radical’ scepticism is still capable of functioning not merely as an alert-mechanism but also as a call to arms. As angels, Pie and Outwash are messengers and perform the duties of Hermes. Ramon Lull’s Treatise on the Argentum Vivum sees mercury-silver as the primal matter whose purest part forms the angels which are the forms of change. Mercury (as the beginning, middle and end of alchemic process) is itself a dualistic element, old and young, male and female: in godlike form Mercury is also the presiding divinity of commerce (merx = merchandise) and trickery (he is the first confidence man).
Alchemical lore declares that all metals seek to become gold because all things in nature seek to perfect themselves (the comic quest for some hidden divine order later becomes the theme of For the Monogram). But the alchemical wedding staged here is a parodical decomposition of Martianus Capella’s C5th Nuptials of Mercury and Philology, via Shelley’s Triumph of Life (‘Swift as a spirit hastening to his task/ of glory and good the sun sprang forth’) by way of Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, itself seen through the retrospective lenses of Hart Crane’s For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen. There, in the footsteps of his master Rimbaud, Crane explicitly parodied the alchimie du verbe as a form of bakery.
The mind has shown itself at times
Too much the baked and labelled dough
Divided by accepted multitudes....
Paramount in Prynne’s version are two key intertexts, Melville’s The Confidence Man, already noted, and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610). Both are employed to mark the divergent transits of Mercury, and of course Melville knew the play well, and possibly derived his own masquerade theme and the constant play of non-identity from Jonson’s comedy of humours (every man his own monotype) rather than Shakespeare’s more stringent naturalism. In The Alchemist each character is a gull, trying to possess the absolute, whether of love, fame or wealth. Each seeks to be changed into someone else but manages only to become more completely what they already are (vide Prynne’s remark on the ‘purity of pragmatic function’ in his Sketch for a Financial Theory of the Self of 1968:
we give the name of
our selves to our needs.
We want what we are.
The anti-heroes of The Alchemist are Subtle the alchemist and Face, his housekeeper. Jonson’s satirical parade also includes a ‘Doll’ (also put to other uses in Brass), and one Lovewit (glimpsed in various guises throughout). Prynne’s later commentary on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94 (2000) notes in passing Jonson’s ‘habitual sarcasm on the use of ‘dissembled faces’ and notes the ‘hypocritic effrontery’ of Face, but also observes that ‘as to putting face on one’s conduct, the management of more than simplistic self-performance can be perceived to require no less’. Since Jonson’s era the concept of masquerade has become common usage in the field of cultural critique to more or less include any action performed under the conditions of ironical duress or defensive necessity. But a ‘masquerade’ is not the same thing as an endless play of dissembling, since the metaphor of a theatrum mundi reduces all action to a play of artifice yet also implies the possibility of a final unmasking or revelation.
Jonson’s Alchemist is indeed a masque of human folly but it is also a comedy and, thereby, as with the ‘stultitia’ tradition, becomes a reluctant partner with it, through the restorative powers of laughter. But Jonson meant very seriously to attack the early class of modern bourgeois projector capitalists, and so has Face mock the predestinarian comforts of astrology (in the name of the more calculable percentages of crime) all too aware of its actual presence as a social fact in his own era. Indeed, well beyond it, by the middle of the C17th, the practice seemed even to prosper, in the milieu of civil war, religious sectarianism, and the collapse of official censorship, as the prophetic almanacs of William Lilly in particular sold in their thousands. Lilly it was who predicted the execution of Charles I (see once again Es Lebe der Konig), so that, through the inverted brass telescope of Prynne’s poem, prophecy is reduced from Pauline revelation to exploitative superstition and — worst of all — poetical polemic, the routinised denunciations of the jeremiad. (Jeremiah the prophet is himself shrunk down by Jonson into the figure of ‘Jeremy the Butler’ — actually Face in disguise — and is himself an anticipation of the comic frontier trickster of American literature, ‘Jeremy Diddler’, named early on in Melville’s novel).
When warned of the coming plague, Lovewit is surprised, since ‘The neighbours tell me all here that the doors have still been open’. Prynne’s cosmic microdrama concludes with the imagery of love and also purgation, possibly seen as humorous versions of each other, as
Planets stream across
The fields and in at the three doors.
At the close of their contentions, Outwash exclaims ‘Eyewash’ and ‘means love for it’, and it is a real question, at the close of Brass, how much of that primordial substance ‘love’ has been reclaimed from the allegory of process. Throughout Book 7 of Wordsworth’s Prelude the word ‘face’ is constantly employed to signify dissimulation but also primordial self-evidence, and it is an almost Wordsworthian counterpoint invoked by the italicized verses at the close of the book, extolling whatever is ‘Vigorous and Bright’. That is perhaps one reason why this book’s movement from primal slurry to geomorphic folding and back again, does not simply depict a pilgrim’s regress from redemption to mired entanglement. But it is a matter of real importance for the reader to decide how fervently that book still holds to the Wordsworthian possibility. Certainly, throughout, the capacity for love has remained separable, though inextricable, from the urge to dominate, (an idea reinforced by Prynne’s letter to Douglas Oliver concerning Oliver’s novel The Harmless Building in which ‘absolute truth’ and ‘love’ are unironically defended against the encroaching cartel of Lacan et cie...).
But if the truest connection between The White Stones and Brass had lain in the work, not the theme, of transformation, much of Prynne’s later writing has sought to play up, by satire, so as to play down, by implication, the germinal distinction between poetic reference and ethical inference. Indeed, the first news of that devaluation of ethics to politics is the subsumption of the political sphere into more generalised models of economy. Even the ambivalent valuation of prophecy, still seen in Brass as a Blakean counterblast of sacred charisma against authoritarian secularism, has become, in the palindromic epigraph from Edward Benlowes to News of Warring Clans (1976) not the Pauline ‘speculum in aenigmate’ with its complementary hope for visionary confrontation, ‘face to face’, but merely the shadowplay of voodoo economics in which ruination waits for all. And although that may democratise ruination (‘Pride cometh before a fall’) it is at the high cost of dehistoricising the vocabularies that drive its central economic machinery, alleged to be historical but felt increasingly to be trans-human.
So that, by the time of Down Where Changed (1979), just as prophecy itself is reduced to the harmless distraction of crystal gazing, the desire and pursuit of the whole is more than ever a sign of a shift into the imperial apocalypse now. If the words of mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo, the difference may no longer be accessible to the metacritical allusiveness that serves merely to point out differences. ‘There is an outside spread without and an outside spread within/ beyond the outline of identity both ways and which meet in one/ An orbed void of doubt, despair, hunger & thirst and sorrow” wrote Blake in Jerusalem, anticipating the closing lines of The Plant-Time Manifold Manuscripts from Wound Response, by which time all five-pointed stars point to the Pentagon. And by the writing of High Pink on Chrome (1975), an even more heightened sense of what that ‘outside spread might entail (for example, the mass poisoning of Iraqi farmers by grain treated with methylmercury dicyandiamide in 1971) is taken up by the languages of clinical immunology (‘not-self’ and ‘self-mediation’ being part of its classical terminology, developed by MacFarlane Burnett and Peter Medawar in the 1940s). And if Down Where Changed defends itself against recursive collusion with the mourning sickness it observes in the bright dawn of Thatcherism, it is by way of a sickening parody of those Victorian Values of elegiac musicality enshrined in a text like In Memoriam and thereby castigated twenty years before.
For the ‘elegiac world’ is more than ever self-divided, and its characteristic tones are therefore redeployed as internalised self-parody, as prophecy and elegy are married by the rituals of econometric speculation set against the political dictats of a polity geared up to the zero-sum conclusion, there is no alternative. Mere refusal to mourn would terminate reflection on the wasting of republican order, yet the sundering of reason from ethics implied by this process alienates both from any intelligible counter-narrative. For lyric does indeed come to displace narrative as the bearer of secular contradiction, and even though the form of highly compressed resistance it offers is ironical, the proleptic ‘hope’ is that this need not be terminally reductive or sentimental. And so a great deal of the later work consciously dares to assault the stable perches of synoptic overviewing by deliberately remaining ‘incapable of self support’, a process paradoxically imaged by the ruined moorland cottage on the cover of The Oval Window (1983), a standing reminder of the work of time also recalling former, equally counter-millennial reflections — in particular, The Auroras of Autumn and The Ruined Cottage.
Merely to have taken a Volneyan view of damage (the triumph of time theme, the mediaeval vanitas tradition), would have been an arrogance which the intimacy, here, of Stevens and Wordsworth does partially mitigate. Moreover, since the principal engine of cultural memory is now neither lyrical or musical but electrical, (in the form of the computer), its entirely different modes of storage are characterised by speed of operation rather than affectual intensity. In this respect, Prynne is one of the few contemporary poets to recognise the value of the masquerade as a true (that is, obligingly deceptive) image for our contemporary forms of artificial intelligence. The Oval Window takes up the challenge of Tom Raworth’s Ace, where the theme of wartime secrecy and decryption embodied in Alan Turing’s Automatic Computing Engine (1945-6: built, 1950) is pitted against the contrastive element of cold war news-management satirised in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) where Kirk Douglas plays an unscrupulous reporter hoping for the scoop of his life by drawing out, as long as possible, the drilling operation set to rescue a man truly encrypted underground by a collapsed mineshaft. The Oval Window follows on from Raworth’s theme of calculation by taking in the development in the late 1970s of window-based approaches to graphical user computer interfaces, made possible by the fairly recent development of affordable bitmapped screen imaging. But the interrelation of otic and optic modes suggested in the audible chiasmus of the title is pursued as a meditation on the domestic in its most primal sense, on what it means to have a home and to be ‘at home’ in a world in which the Difference Engine is the only difference that counts.
At which point the traditional antinomies of lyric and epic may be invoked only as skirmishers in the move from the discrete poem to the interconnected book. New of Warring Clans, by contrasting visible vanquishment with epic reparation (snatching defeat from the jaws of victory) had tried to show the limits of synthesis, as a coincidentia oppositorum. Yet The Oval Window also sees the neurological synthesis of the human frame as no abstract attempt to stabilise oppositions, but a biological given. Our ‘view’ of any object paradoxically results in our inability to find our way back to a kind of Kasparan perceptual innocence, since we are already responsible for the forms of representing it, the forms of an objectifying distance that fosters not nostalgia but the necessity of ironical self-knowledge. Yet if we are so constrained, by irony if not to nihilism, then an historical perspective through which the viewer can find some location, as a viewpoint onto the visible, becomes potentially reclaimable: historical perception is a discipline in which we are all, necessarily, apprentices, by means of the self consciousness we produce.
What can’t be helped
Is the vantage, private and inert; yet
In a twinkling mind you, to pick up
elastic replacements on the bench code.
Prynne’s hope now is that the knowledge produced is not dissipated in subject-object dyads (Pie and Outwash, the contending ‘clans’ or the spurious ricochets of party politics in Down where Changed), but more abject compulsions, which can ultimately be seen as an ironic defense of reason, by radicalising scepticism to the point where it works against itself. That is, Prynne argues, absurdly, for a sceptical return to common sense. Absurdly, yet hardly alone, since that procedure is also apparent in the later work of Wittgenstein, equally scornful by then of synoptic certainty and concerned to localise reason more sharply within a network of changeable language-forms, themselves mediated by perceptual reflexes that subsist below language-ideation (as the preconditions for semantic interchange) and above them (as the inexpressible mortal limits of our world).
Yet with Prynne, dialectic is a conflict of faculties whose ultimate image is warfare, which for Wittgenstein signified the end of all relation, in which an Hegelian aufhebung is impossible. As in Blake’s concept of ‘generation’, war cannot be a synthesis, let alone (as in the neoPlatonic tradition) a ‘fall’ from grace in which some other Utopia is regainable. The final limit of war is the reciprocal self-confirmation of victor and vanquished, and a unity formed by subordination is not a synthesis. Taking his cue again from Blake rather than Hegel, Prynne argues that contrariety is not the same thing as opposition. But given that representational forms must collectively suffer under more or less permanent conditions of Red Alert, what can be offered in place of an all consuming contrariousness that replaces intellection with gathered ‘intelligence’?
Freud once wrote to Lou-Andreas Salome in the midst of World War I:
‘I so rarely feel the need for synthesis. The unity of this world seems to me something self-understood, something unworthy of emphasis. What interests me is the separation and breaking up into its component parts what would otherwise flow into a primeval pulp. Even the assurance most clearly expressed in Grabbe’s Hannibal, that ‘We will not fall out of this world’ doesn’t seem sufficient substitute for the surrender of the co-boundaries of the Ego, which can be painful enough. In short, I am evidently an analyst and believe that synthesis offers no obstacle once analysis has been achieved.’
Prynne’s window of synthesis is neither analytical nor (as the book’s epigraph from John McTaggart implies) metaphysical, but poetical, and it might be argued with The Oval Window in mind, that poetry is inherently elegiac, in which separation (psychic or physical wounding) is intimately bound up with reparation (the work of love). Yet by contesting the second moment of the dialectic, by implying that the reality underlying the traumas he increasingly describes are no more than the ‘bare facts’ of contemporary life, Prynne often seems conversely to reaffirm an Hegelian view of separation and connectedness by treating all wounds as potential metaphors for the unrepresentable gulf between natural law and history.
His most direct attempt to confront the metaphor of cultural trauma with the issue of representation has been Word Order (1989). Here, the wounded figures of the poem recall the satirical retelling of the Oedipus legend in Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, also ‘a question of word order’. That legend is of course the formative trauma of Western myth, and Word Order seems sometimes to follow the legend at an implicit later stage, with the banishment of Oedipus and the dilemma of Antigone carrying the central weight of tragic contradiction toward, not a well-policed ‘clash of discourses’ but into a lyric cantata where the main themes of political violence are accompanied by ulterior reflections on betrayal and loyalty
They do not want
It is natural
they do not want to go
to go out is natural
they do not want to go out
want is natural
The Beckettian logic argues a non-Beckettian subject. For in Prynne evil is not privative, or merely even the gothic frisson of a dark farce before the un-nameable. Now, for the first time I think, evil is seen by Prynne as a force of positive wickedness rather than as a pathological deviation, as it mostly was for Douglas Oliver, or as a merely verbal emanation of ‘Fate’, as it always has been for Tom Raworth. Napoleon once told Goethe that classical ‘fate’ had been usurped by politics. Yet where tragic ‘fate’ classically involved the collision between freedom and necessity, modern political life in Prynne’s view replaces this clash with the more ancient conflict of shame and autonomy. Word Order makes a last plangency out of this solitary anguish, ‘never in the world’, before Not You (1993) truly opens up the dialectic of hatred and self-consciousness, entrapping symptom and diagnosis both inside tightening bands of ever more vicious circularity. The book takes its cue from Shakespeare’s 145th Sonnet:
Those lips that Love’s own hand did make,
Breathed forth the sound that said ‘I hate’,
To me that languished for her sake:
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet,
Was used in giving gentle doom:
And taught it thus anew to greet:
‘I hate’ she altered with an end,
That followed it as gentle day,
Doth follow night who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away.
‘I hate’, from hate away she threw,
And saved my life saying ‘not you’.
‘A pretty trifle’ murmurs Professor Kerrigan, and from the outset Not You intends to thwart judgemental small-talk about the appropriateness of an author’s late manner (even the exclusionary defensiveness of his social personality, as instanced by the Turner anecdote with which we began) by confounding the sources of scriptural consistency as frantically as possible. For Prynne now no longer believes that anything necessarily ‘means love for it’, but, rather, that, ‘love of semiconductors is not enough’.
The semiconductors in question are those part-selves or objects scowling round the edges of a monodrama in which ‘nothing counts more or less furtively’. Taking leave of any consolation glintingly to be won by protocols of mercy and redemptive mutuality, the verse forms themselves are now locked down into single aria-like quatrains or tercets. In contrast with the stroboscopic flicker of late Raworth, the rhythm is a shifting montage of crosstalk, the surrogate-bearers of selfhood in a neural-Darwinian survival game in which the act of reading itself is transformed into a series of recursive loops. For, since an antithetical public sphere can no longer be derived from a critical analysis of the private one, it has to be sought inside the contradictory make up of the public world and its attendant literary forms. Quite calculatedly, I would say, for Prynne, now, the epic vacuum (as the ‘proper’ discourse of totality) collapses in order for lyric poetry to take on, by default, the power of tragedy, as tragedy itself is actualised in history then effaces itself as the unspeakable.
In the next book, Her Weasels Wild Returning (1994) contrariety is flayed out through the metaphoric exposure of ‘debate’, once again seen through the lens of warfare, alluded to in the Virgilian trope (Aeneid II, 664. ‘hoc erat, alma parens’) echoed by Pope, Wordsworth, Yeats and often traced along Prynne’s echo chamber
‘Was it to reclaim this/
profile, was it in this form supplied to voice precision...’:
That question, constantly refigured in the European canon, had always set out to query the ‘pity’ of war and its attendant reconstructions.
I know that what
you set under a minded shade tree is hit by first debate
and the air locks in, at a dab rack roaming the field.
It would be comforting indeed to suppose that this action in Prynne also signalled a more pitying view of communication, as when Onora O’Neill writes of distinguishing claims imposed by arbitrary fiat, coercion etc, from those whose validity is vested in the public sphere by discussion: “The metaphor of a ‘debate’ goes beyond that of a tribunal, not because it provides ‘positive’ instruction (it does not) but because it displays the recursive character of the enterprise of the critique of reason. Debate cannot survive the adoption of principles of destroying debate. The most fundamental principle for disciplining of thought and action among any plurality is to reject principles for thought that cannot be shared. Reason’s authority is established recursively, rather than resting on secure foundations; this authority is only negative, yet it constrains thought and action”.
Perhaps the ‘weasels’ deployed by Prynne’s book are the verbal counterfeits necessarily employed by all politicians, since politics is not a moral art. Or perhaps they are the Wild Weasel elite radar killers of the US Air Force ‘kitted with sophisticated superheterodyne and interferometric receivers which sniffed the airwaves in search of hostile radars, enabling the skilled crew of two to acquire and lock-up on the target dish and then go in for the kill with CBUs and ARMS’. And certainly they bring to mind the weasel-shaped clouds in Hamlet’s familiar exchange with Polonius, where, in a parallel series of counter-questions, each actor speaks consciously outward towards an audience of concealed listeners and by so doing gives a redoubled meaning to John Stuart Mill’s idea of poetry as something overheard. For in a culture based not on reciprocity but reciprocal surveillance, the discourse of reason is deflected into antic, deadly evasiveness in the echo chamber of rumour amid strife. Yet even if one purpose of Weasels is to see the authority of reason still precariously defended, we need at once to recall that communicative action is not a transcendental process, and that part of the savagery of Milton’s own republican allegory depends on our understanding that the incrimination of Eve begins only after a lengthy ‘debate’ in the Hall of Pandemonium taking place not amidst a company of rational equals but fallen malefactors bemoaning their afflicted powers, alike consigned to the limitless privation of Hell.
Yet, if the desire and pursuit of the whole was once called love, and can be no longer, whose history is this? Prynne’s intertitles recall the epideictic tradition of Ben Jonson’s ‘Celebration of Charis’ (who, mythically and notably in this context was the wife of Vulcan). Jonson’s ten short lyric pieces variously follow the process of an amour with inscrutably wry headings, as ‘Her man described by her own dictamen’ and ‘Well enough in her riding after’. In Jonson as ever life also ‘sheds itself though the face’ and we recall again that Prynne’s earlier cerebration of Charis, Of Sanguine Fire, begins with ‘face’ as a revelation of quickness of spirit. But ‘quick-faced’ is also the term used in Kitchen Poems for the kind of versatile materialism deployed in ‘theory’only to rationalise history in millennial expectation or even moralised decorum. Indeed, the disenchanted world of bungled erotic entanglement is also recalled in the memory of Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved whose chapter titles also recall some of Prynne’s (‘She draws close and satisfies’ and ‘She becomes an inaccessible ghost’). And, since the looking-glass world is never far away from the echoes of Narcissus, Weasels directly points to the world of Alice, also to some point.
For who is the she implied in the book’s title? Where Ben Jonson could view the intertwining of reason and cunning, of wessen to wesselschaft, as a humanist commonplace of the middle style, not quite yet the object of panoramic metaphysical doubt or even the determinations of Hegel’s ‘cunning of reason’, now idealisation is covertly linked by its converse, by the sexualisation of warfare. And since afflicted power now seems exclusively American, the property of a mother country and not a fatherland, an Homeric bathos about the means of extermination seems almost ideally appropriate.
For this reason, it is apt pick up the figure of Penelope. And where Prynne once seemed to castigate her for her ‘expectant dream’, he now makes ironic reparation. For as she awaits her Ulysses wild returning, Penelope knows that what will follow will be no dream at all — not the consolidation of a new world order but a bloody new antistrophe in the history of conquest, marital and martial. When News of Warring Clans rewrites epic it is specifically within a structure of reflection that leaves space for thinking, if not breathing, as a last defence. Whereas Weasels sees the central antipathos that Prynne rehearses unremittingly: if Modernism itself was a process of perpetual parricide (interrupted by stray bursts of mutterrecht) its covert metabiology of perpetual self transcendence stands exposed as a mythic evasion of the imperial powers that propel its course. Not a provident detour then, or even storm-bound periplum, but a death drive.
In D H Lawrence’s love poem Bavarian Gentians we see how, ‘ here blue is rakened on blue’. Now though, blue on blue is just more military argot for killing men on your own side, or ‘friendly fire’, just as ‘wound response’ was Pentagon cant during the Vietnam War for a successful strike. For every epic, a mock-epic; history twice told as farce. And so the Hunting of the Snark parodies Ulysses, and The Wind in the Willows (whose final chapter, in which the weasels are purged from Toad Hall, is titled The Return of Ulysses) parodies Locksley Hall. This stunted, redoubled projection is neither fully tragic in the grand manner nor comically capable of returning the reader (as Beckett attempted) to the mundane ordinary pieta of common life, an exit now barred, since though human action can become the subject for reflection, even ‘debate’, it cannot become autonomous enough to be self-sufficient and capable of change. And in the text which followed, For the Monogram, Kantian moral autonomy is itself regarded as the mark of an individuated awareness massively overdetermined by the lyric reference that swamps narrative inference.
At a point tunes beating and striking the plate for
sylvatic break and drop there not so sunken away
as in stay-put agreement: set off put off these crowds
no free sky conversely......
Many of the older tropes are here, the proem-epical wind-up from News of Warring Clans (‘at some point...’), the children’s tea party routine from Brass to The Land of St. Martin (‘plate’, ‘stayput’). But the vantage is once more hidden behind a veiling screen — folded and refolded back from the topological Chinoiserie of the free-standing nineteenth century ornament into the more recently ‘post painterly’ work of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Indeed, Rauschenberg’s combine made between 1955-59, Monogram, depicts in three dimensions the he-goat image sacralised into an icon of kitsch self-pity by William Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat, a pictorial re-enactment of the Day of Atonement ritual described in Leviticus 16. Rauschenberg’s re-telling of the story becomes a sardonic portrait of American foreign policy, in which the imperial power claims exclusive rights to victim-status as a prelude to arrogating the right to inflict suffering on others. By tradition the goat chosen for exile had a garland of red wool between its horns, (when the goat was pushed over a precipice, red wool similarly placed on the gates of the temple was supposed to turn white). Holman Hunt’s C19th audience would also have recognised under the pre-Raphaelite pathos the cartoon image of Plato’s poet, banished from his ideal republic and similarly adorned with a woollen crown. Yet the poet here thinks himself neither the beast-victim nor avenging angel (the word ‘grace’ appears several times), but a borderline case caught ‘on the ground/ Gilead to Nablus high and dry...’) still mesmerised by the workings of religion, or its redeployment, say, in the ‘state’ of Israel, but impatient with the corresponding fantasy of the artist as mere cosmic resurrection-man, positioning ‘his best eye at the planet boy too little, in three days notice of a man too fat’.
Does Rauschenberg’s attempted substitution of an art politics for a theodicy of reconcilation and atonement serve as a model for the working of this implacable text? Rauschenberg’s Monogram bears paint smears across its face as traces of the craft it dies away from, and wears tightly round its neck an automobile tyre (a Firestone?) in memory of the racialist necklace-emblem used in both southern America and Southern Africa as an instrument of execution.
‘Never do better
at closer fit, tense type to burn attire, even so
the sensual margin now brindled up and black.’
Of course the animal stands upon a hinged screen with the paternal comforts of the ‘Dada’ logo beneath it, since that was the fatherland for art-recreation most fervently to be avoided for Rauschenberg and his generation (or so they hoped): the patriotic recuperation of the avant garde as emblematic bouc emissaire for the right to free expression, under the protective American umbrella. If that is the future viewable in Rauschenberg’s facture, then Prynne’s text is defiantly self-sacrificing in the truly prescriptive mode of Leviticus, since no longer can his exalted nihilism offer a counter-reduction to a reawakened alertness. Nor of course does Prynne wish merely to abstain from the killing which appals him, since the monogram of primordial guilt is endlessly mobile, and, as the template for all ‘westernised’ communities, partly fuels the ‘violence’ of his art. In such a schema, it is hardly surprising that the figure of Oedipus looms as the primordial scapegoat, the figure who sacrifices the external trappings of his lordship — as ‘helmsman and tyrannos’ — to the internalised form of his family romance, in order, as Longinus remarked, ‘to make the character beneath his role visible for the first time’.
Just before this text, Prynne delivered his “Discourse on Willem de Kooning’s Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point” in which great use is made of the classical distinction between pathos and ethos as complementary forms ‘which come into roused interaction in the management of the argumentative process in the public sphere. As delivered within the framework of (Aristotle’s) argument, no effective force without the imprint upon agency (ethos), and no force of character without mobilising passion’. Prynne finds in de Kooning’s canvas echoes of J M W Turner’s painting Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus, and in both ‘a similarly dialectical reference to the Homeric world’. Once again, a key figure in that world is Penelope, but this time most of the dreaming is done by her suitors, ‘interested, no doubt endlessly, in the idealised pink flesh of Penelope, which they imagine day in and day out in their erotic dreams-what is going to be done in public terms to regulate this steamy appetite, in the management of Odysseus’s non-return.’ Prynne finds the management of these tensions in de Kooning to produce ‘an autonomous painterly image, emerging like the birth of Venus from the foam — like clouds of a contested sky’.
This appears in retrospect to be a very short-lived equilibrium. Prynne’s notes to the de Kooning lecture alertly recognise in certain lines of Frank O’Hara ‘the truncated, gestural citations of a tragic destiny’ and see these to ‘conjure with the outcomes of ethic narration but subsume all into a climax of belated, post-heroic pathos’ (the Arnoldian ‘Dover Beach’ syndrome.) Prynne is no doubt consistent with his much earlier criticisms of Victorian elegy to see in Dover Beach’s concluding attestations only a kind of managed pseudo-resolution in the face of real and present dangers. But what of those ‘ignorant armies’ that haunted Arnold, and still appear to haunt Prynne: are these also to be summoned or dismissed as the merely technical pretexts for a stage-managed monodrama invoking the pathos of warfare then only to dismiss its pitiable devastations? Certainly, de Kooning was not merely alluding to the classical martial arts when he painted Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point, since I would contend that more local contexts were uppermost in his mind, such as the avowedly anti-Homeric stance of James Jones novel of 1962, The Thin Red Line. (Terrence Malick’s great film version of that novel is very careful to include a hint of Jones’ Buddhist dukkha by reinstating the ‘rhododatyklos eos’ line, now spoken by Nick Nolte’s Colonel Tall on the eve of battle, reminiscing about reading Homer, ‘in Greek, at the Point’).
For it would seem to be Prynne’s more urgent poetical strategy no longer to stage the rhetorical registers of ethos set against its occasioning pathos within a global hypersphere where such complementation may no longer be accessible, but to restore the more primordial (and primordially Homeric) relation of autonomy to shame, in the senses described by Bernard Williams in his Shame and Necessity. For Williams contends that ‘the ethical work that shame did in the ancient world was applied to some values that we do not share, and we also recognise the separate existence of guilt. But shame continues to work for us, as it worked for the Greeks, in essential ways. By giving through the emotions a sense of who one is and what one hopes for, it mediates between act, character and consequence, and also between ethical demands and the rest of life. Whatever it is working on, it requires an internalised other, who is not designated merely as a representative of an independently identified social group, and whose reactions the agent can respect’.
The avant garde gestus of negation and its wish for some altered return to the everyday, elegised some thirty years ago by Peter Burger, must necessitate some conception of shame to maintain the energy of an abreaction not merely self-stigmatised by the general effacements, as Duchamp realised. But if so, then any ‘inverted order’ — the position claimed for poetry by Prynne’s letter to Andrew Duncan published in the middle 1980s — can only imitate a world all too ensconced behind the looking glass, where ‘almost everything is exactly that’ as Questions for the Time Being from The White Stones has it, ‘the mirror of a would-be alien who doesn’t see how/ much he is at home”. For in a climate where the broadcast media confuse their reactions to events with the events themselves, the poet setting the audience one last feat of non-relation may well be the more deceived, as the self righteous euphoria of the theatrical ‘revengers’ lights up the pantomime of reciprocal scapegoating run well past its course. For the Monogram does nothing to allay this suspicion and often seems content merely to underwrite the panoptica of warlike self-transcendence with the darker sinopie of a battle fresco straight from the Day of Judgement:
patterns matching the surveillance shape in bright
shadow under wing chalking the egg yolk cartoon
With Nietzsche Prynne now appears to believe that ‘it is the very essence of the emotion of pity that it strips away from the suffering of others whatever is distinctly personal in it’:
Prior guesswork loses the things in your power by
broken reach in seeking to verify the check-out
lag at the till.
Which is the scapegoat here, the tormented reader or persecuted author? Prynne would seem to think, curtly, that ‘both’ is the answer, thereby projecting his sandstorm as the just Desert of collective disgrace. If not innocence, then, disavowal. Prynne has felt the need to enter this circle because victimage is one of the founding tropes of the civil warfare of contemporary life. All are punished and may well be, but is the analytical purport of Monogram in any sense true?
The allegorical possibilities of diagnosis as a pathological symptom are taken one stage further in Pearls That Were (1999). Here, the sea-voyage topos, once functioning as both an exaltation of human spirit and also a confirmation of its inherent limitation (geistloss) is so extended that the paralogical comforts of negative dialectics themselves must be overturned if poetic writing is not to turn into a pillar of Salt. And so Pearls, seeming at the prompt of an unsurprising title to orient expectations of a conventional, memorial kind, subtly beaches those hopes by a sideways manoeuvre, westward again, to take up the theme of ‘Puritan control ethics’ and understand them anew in the light of more recent and harsher reflection on the antinomian detours necessitated by consensual and gendered injustice.
For in Pearls that Were, the reference-frame signals towards allusions more covert, or to ironies more overtly disguised. The opening of the book appears to focus not, as the title might suggest, on the miraculous storm or enchanted island of Shakespeare’s final play, but on the less magical, and more routinely public spectacle witnessed at the opening of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter:
The scene was not without a mixture of awe, such as must always invest the spectacle of guilt and shame in a fellow-creature, before society shall have grown corrupt enough to smile, instead of shuddering at it
The spectacle of Hester cruelly exposed on the pillory to the punitive derision of the townspeople of Boston, ‘with a burning blush and flush of crimson’, can be seen at the opening of Prynne’s poem in a compressed form.
On the blush cheek making, to one
making to the one, a stealing
tear, of blushing as every age
betrays the sight, alone.
By light, ask and mellow reflected
then show to hope again
doubt yet believing, request the lost,
the blush to shine.
Concerns starting bright and oft
soft yielding, blush shining,
charm to hand, around the wound
her finest charm glowing.
So Orpheus tamed the wild beasts
for long night comes down
moving naked, over the wound,
the gem from the crown.
So exercised was D H Lawrence by Hawthorne as a ‘master of serpent subtility’ that he found in The Scarlet Letter ‘the inverse of the Eve myth, in the Book of Genesis. It contains the passional or primary account of the collapse of the human psyche in the white race...’ That image of whiteness is important, since Prynne is as ever quick to pick up the generic implications of colour forms (he continuously reflects on the ironies of pallor and candour sharing the same colour frame in the western mind, linking honesty to fear). For is not The Scarlet Letter of Hawthorne in some ways the antitype of The Tempest, with Miranda not about to encounter a strange new world at all but only its mirrored inverse, now vested in the Puritan commonwealth of C17th Cambridge and Boston and revealed, like their modern counterparts at Harvard or in the English Fenlands, as penal colonies of preening agoraphobes eager to purchase the tokens of self-gratification (Hester’s embroidery) but doubly anxious on that account not to admit the slightest hint of non-conformity or thought-crime?
Does anything positive issue from this embroidered spectacle of pain and humiliation, ending on one strange moment of concluding bathos, the surrogate for the drowning its title seems to allude to?
Much like waves upon a shore
Whose day approaches,
Her time running to meet
With joy the face it touches
And word upon word, step
By next step regaining
they’ll walk and talk, wisely
flicker some hope remaining.
What ‘hope remaining’? The book’s epigraph strongly implies that some version of Providence might be at stake, since it closely parodies Jonathan Edwards’ celebrated papers of 1723 upon the nature and significance of the Spider. Edwards viewed that creature not as a figure of original sin or even as an emblem of lyric subjectivity (as it was for Pope) but of Divine Providence (‘I know I have several times seen, in a very calm and serene day at that time of year, standing behind some opaque body that shall just hide the disk of the sun and keep off his dazzling rays from my eyes, multitudes of little shining webs and glistening strings of a great length, and at such height as that one would think they were tacked to the sky by one end, were it not that they were moving and floating...’). Eighteen years later the English parson Gilbert White saw in the same phenomenon of the dew- laden web a less allegorical but no less optimistic image of patient provision, reminding us of Prynne’s roots in the post-allegorical naturalism of the English empirical tradition. But if the ‘we’ solicited by that epigraph are first of all comforted by such thoughts, they are only to be dashed when we understand how fervently still the idea of original sin (that is, radical evil) is subtended throughout the poem, so that the preliminary ductus of the first stanzas, with their traditional invocation of Orphic powers, gives way to the transposed rehearsal of an Orphic post-history. For every Euridice, a backward glance, for each Orphic blush, a preparatory Maenadology of guilt, shame and dismemberment. Thus the spiders become webmasters of a world irreversibly counter-Orphic: not the magic of a woven spell or charm (the provident thaumaturgy of Prospero) but the snakelike fascination of Chillingworth.
Perhaps the prevalent tone of eroticised torment is partly because, through the lens of Hawthorne’s romance, Prynne is drawn to comment upon or commemorate the spectacle of other sufferings publicly recent; those, for example, of Barry MacSweeney (whose Pearl is there in the poem’s allusive fabric); of Douglas Oliver (whose The Infant and the Pearl can be seen as an attempt to recreate a possible politics of virtue herein rejected by Prynne); and of Ed Dorn, whose masterwork Gunslinger is a sustained metaphysical drama on the collision of antinomian troublemaking (slinger) and Orphic enchantment (Singer). These hints of elegiac leavetaking are central to Prynne’s counter-allegory of romance and shame and communal disillusionment then, at the heart of which is the figure of Hester’s daughter Pearl, through whom Prynne’s parallel narrative projects contrasting images of loss and separation:
‘It was wonderful, the vast variety of forms into which she threw her intellect, with no continuity, indeed, but darting up and dancing, always in a state of preternatural activity — soon sinking down, as if exhausted by so rapid and feverish a tide of life — and succeeded by other shapes of a similar wild energy ...But with the child the singularity lay in the hostile feelings with which the child regarded all these offspring of her own heart and mind. She never created a friend, but seemed always to be sowing broadcast the dragons’ teeth whence sprung a harvest of armed enemies, against whom she rushed to battle. It was inexpressibly sad.’
Here at the interchange of allegory and symbol is the speculative transfer of lyric to narrative, initially rendered as Puritan trauerspiel by Hawthorne and diffracted by Prynne into darker fields, taking up the themes of transformation in Ariel’s song from The Tempest and changing them more violently still. For those now are Pearl’s that were formerly Orphic by tradition, hers to dispose with shocking brutalism that which was once the sacred material of enchantment.
‘The spell of life went forth from her ever creative spirit, and communicated itself to a thousand objects, as a torch kindles a flame wherever it may be applied. The unlikeliest materials — a stick, a bunch of rags, a flower — were the puppets of Pearl’s witchcraft and without undergoing any outward change, became spiritually adapted to whatever drama occupied the stage of her inner world’.
That which was also the poet’s by ancient right of naming or by rites of sovereign dispossession is transformed, now, into the trash of Pearl’s avenging play. The costumes of fine-spun embroidery fashioned by Hester deliberately recall the spider webs of the wildwood beyond the Puritan township, so that the subsequent entanglements of the poem may shift the live metaphor of the web into a search engine investigating the unwitty collisions of sacred and profane, staged initially as clashes in the tonal range of the book as verdure yields to autumnal yellow and next vermilion, as another green world goes the way of all flesh.
In ages past the cover thickens
Clouds bank in the sky
The leaves go down, all in tallow
Faring well, to pass by.
The Scarlet Letter is an Anti-Tempest: Chillingworth replaces reconciliation with the vengeful brand of the marriage pact resealed in perpetual estrangement. What Prospero renounces by patriarchal dissolution, the New England Puritan homefront re-embraces, under the familial banners of an elective destiny and consolatory fundamentalism that would make even the author of Histriomastix (1632) wriggle with amusement. And so sacred meaning is seen in its full ambivalence, both as a source of divinatory comfort and as a defense against unreasoning superstition. Even so, the work marks a valediction to any strictly secular conceptions of providence enshrined by Keats’ ‘negative capability’ (which Kitchen Poems had formerly regarded as ... ‘the richest tradition / of the trust it is possible to have, to repose / in the mysteries’) or even Frank O Hara ‘s ‘grace to be born and live as variously as possible’, in favour of a hardened and more vengeful ‘materialism’ obliged to renounce all commitment to the transcendental pragmatics of ‘communicative competence’ as a measure of collective social life. The poem roots this departure, not in personal choice, but in an historical moment when the allegorical habits of Puritan hermeneutics began to value faith and the conviction of radical evil over the dialectics of innocence versus experience, as they continue to do, today, so long as the ‘evil’ is projected outside the ‘community’. ‘In the beginning’ wrote John Locke, ‘all the world was America’. And possibly in the end too, as American colonialism, the outgrowth of Puritan mercantile expansiveness, becomes the superpowered imposition of the monogram Auctore Deo on all. This conceit Prynne reinforces internally by suggesting that New World fundamentalism is responsible for one further imperium, the infinite subjectivism of modern life, whose paradigm forms of existence now are the ‘communities’ on the world wide ‘web’, itself, of course, a latterday extension of the US military Defense Early Warning Arpnet system
Chirrup in the morning up on sky
lines ahead, curling
dissident loopy taps to distraction
will take your breath away
With pear-drop lips of dew a leap
From small tense stranding...
Yet though the internet may well be packed to overcrowding with people with plenty to discuss but nothing to say, the poem can hardly remain content to function, even on its own terms, as a disdainful reminder of the obvious. Ulysses overcomes the Sirens’ song by becoming wilfully deaf to meaning. But even in the moment of sense returning to the irreducible, that quantum of selfhood which is the meanest support of Homo Sacer, surely the point would be to disclaim any hint, along the transit from defensive privacy to collective surveillance, that the author’s personal intention had any specialised priority, even if that intention were immediately self-transparent or limited only to the wish for survival? Besides which, attention here is self-divided in personification. Does Prynne identify with the illegitimate Puritan infant in a white lace ruff knocking down part-objects with a wooden stick, like the angry Kleinian child at the close of The Kirghiz Disasters, last seen as she ‘stuffs her little crown into a bag and runs daintily upstairs’. Or even the ‘cruel child’ in his ‘Friday Ballad’ of the 70s ‘elevated this morning by the prospect of careful memories’. Perhaps he was thinking of Bevis?
Or perhaps Prynne’s poem sides with the ‘firm and modestly upright’ Governor Bellingham and his fellows, prototypically Stalinian in steadfastly defending ‘order’ against the surrounding wilderness. As Christopher Hill everywhere reminds us, the Puritan C17th was the last epoch in which authority could be challenged by forces who could still maintain a belief in the sacredness of authority. Thus judge and accuser both may conjoin with victim or rebel in their compliance with the letter of the law. Yet to the easy and undialectical contention that we are thereby equal in victimage, that gaoler and scapegoat are reciprocal functions (as Baudelaire falsely believed) it is worth recalling the rejoinder from a later modernist beast fable; that some are more equal than others. For this reason I doubt that we are to construe a simple act of Prosperan renunciation at the close of Pearls, either of sacred meaning or even of ‘books’. By the 1980s, renunciation is often proposed as an historical movement of downsizing and retroconversion, where, earlier, bereavement had been the principal force. That is to imply that aesthetic decision is absolved of mere dirigisme by historical appeals, as in Pound, to what the age ‘dictates’, benignly or, mostly, not. And of courses the diktats come from both sides, as the archons and procurators of the avant garde regularly mistake musicology with instrumentalism.
Pearls tries to criticise the public spectacle of trauma as a metaphor for the ‘ages accelerated grimace’, not by counterposing a dialogue of comfort but by a series of glancing blows at the political as well as aesthetic uses of punishment, as the penal colony brands its victims in ‘salutary’ reminder of the difference between the literal and the metaphoric. Prynne needs to keep up his constant critique of literalism, not only because at one level writing is a vicarious mode of action whose ‘distance’ (at whatever relative speed) can permit critical reflection on the abyss that separates history from justice, but also because the concept of trauma is now an alibi for the Pyrrhonic delusion that competing truth-claims create a state of permanent ‘undecidability’. To the widespread arguments for a general ‘incommensurability ‘ of reality and representation, it is necessary as usual to retort that, even if trauma is a problem of representation (memorial or scriptural), that does not entail the reverse proposition, that all acts of representation inevitably partake of the traumatic. As late as 1918 Tristan Tzara still hoped that his notional ‘homme approximatif’, in all the humility and uncertainty of his vocabulary, would be led by an absolute language towards a self encounter and transformation through the ordeal of ‘fire and waiting’:
I know a kneeling number which is not at all a brush poem
playing about the mouths of a shell
Prynne may not have had these lines from Tzara in mind when he wrote Pearls, or even the sardonic parody of Gertrude Stein and her tiny advocates of ‘everybody’s autonomy’ in contemporary Amerika at the conclusion of Tzara’s ‘Manifeste de M. Antipyrine’ of 1917:
‘Art was a hazelnut game that children assembled with words that rang at the end, then wept and shouted and put on doll shoes so the stanza turned into a queen to die a bit and queen became whale-like and children ran till they panted.’
But to make a historical point and also embody it requires more than merely counterpointing the possible and the actual. Prompted initially by the scarlet letter worn by Hester, Prynne’s sequence of the same year, Red D Gypsum (1998) with the scarlet sigil ‘D’ emblazoned on its cover, sees the Augustinian redige ipsum become a vermilion Stop-Sign as the true gauge of Kulchur, and finds itself consequently jolted into a juggling display of almost virtuoso insignificance. Readers in earnest will recall that in Poe’s sadeian anti-Tempest, The Masque of the Red Death, ‘Prince Prospero’ attempts to evade the plague ravaging his lands by retreating into his fortress with a few hundred collegians to pass his time with a series of masquerades culminating in a grand ball in the rainbow-coloured chambers of his inner sanctum, inside which the costumed figure of Death appears, a reductive prevision of Melville’s cosmopolitan, ‘like a thief in the night’. Poe jokes that ‘Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made’. And so it proves, since the ‘Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all’.
Surmounted forcing whole blood parity set lichen set
ikon remit from indented bare bark detour press over
subrepted to mute, vocal folds glowing deep unwinding
did they forage out reparted sound shift, closing did
the canted ferox inter-vocalic tissue. Vivid strips
of tree bark circle the room its introit fading flood
across broken sky reflexed, repelled threads of mercuric
took bounds remontant to grasp out along its line.
As a satyr play following the punitive scattering of Pearls, Red D Gypsum cannot be beaten. It is, perhaps, the most unsparing demonstration of Prynne’s constant suspicion that poetry, like Prospero’s castle, has been little more than an ego-fortress shielding the arbitrary whims of an icy, autocratic decisionism. As his Mathews lectures of 1992 put it at their close:
‘we may, if we wish, leave arbitrariness in more or less full control of the central citadel of linguistic theory, but out in the larger semantic fields and forests its writ does not successfully prohibit a wider and more hybrid repertory of contrarious procedures’.
Readers of those lectures will also recall Prynne’s remarks on the ‘central dogma’ of modern genetics, the Darwinian determinism which presupposes that DNA is a unidirectional control system, and may also remember that current retrovirology disclaims that view in the face of prion activity, just as the widespread acceptance of Lynne Margolis’ theory of endosymbiosis points to subtler interactions between RNA and DNA than those envisaged by Crick and Watson. But Prospero’s insensibility to the nonhuman processes not merely behind and beyond the battlements, is ‘immune’ — as Prynne once wrote of the rain — ‘to all denial’.
Yet the fungibility of cultural systems in Red D Gypsum is hardly greeted with the equivalent of Nietzsche’s decathective ‘laughter’. Pathos of company and solitude at the close of Pearls, savage isolation in the heart of crowded significance in Red D Gypsum, is that the ‘return of passion upon itself’? The optimistic reflexiveness which Meyer Abrams sees in Natural Supernaturalism (1971) as the neoPlatonic current central to English Romanticism announces ‘the homeward return of the spirit towards itself’. His book in part is one long disquisition on Wordsworth’s perpetual Long Journey Home and Prynne can be heard arguing with and also endorsing some of Abram’s themes in his Vancouver lecture on Olson, and well before also, in the first poem of The White Stones where
love is always, the
But by the time of Gypsum, the epical heimkehr, already distorted into the New World imperialism of ‘home as found’ is rejected not so much on Heraclitan lines (you can’t go home again) as on Pascalian terms (we are always, permanently embarked.). At which point, the voyage-metaphor gives way to its post-epical sequel, Blumenberg’s Schiffbruch mit Zuschauer — a shipwreck + spectator. And that brings Bernard Williams’ ‘internalised other’ home with a vengeance. Once, in slapping down some amateur, Prynne contended, contra Adorno, that the idea of a ‘dialectic without a standpoint’ was unintelligible. Now, the infraction of lexemes — which the ‘Emphatical Language’ lecture of 1988 sees as a provident boundary between ‘apostrophe and exclamation, public and private modes’, wherein for example the letter O becomes ‘a marker for the boundary of one discourse where it is momentarily exceeded by another’, is marked under tones from a different spectrum and higher and lower wavelengths.
Already the invocation of Wallace Stevens at the lecture’s close reminds the reader that even Prynne’s critical writing functions not unironically, under the sovereign hallmark of the maker’s monogram, but under other more intricate letters: the letter C, for example, as in Comedian, (or Copyright), or the letters S and L, burned onto the cheeks of Puritan seditionaries in the C17th, or the authoritative A, in The Scarlet Letter, which to D H Lawrence was ‘the essence of the mystery of the sensual, primal psyche’ and also the sign of woman ‘wasted into Abstraction’.
Roberto Calasso once claimed that “the power of the abstract begins as a rejection of that epic encyclopaedism where every element, whether it be a comment on the power of the gods or instructions on how to fix the axles on a cart, has the same importance. Anaximander and Heraclitus aimed for the opposite — sentences that subsumed whole cycles of reality and almost eclipsed them... ‘The logos, when it appears, annihilates the particular’.”
Even if Prynne’s logography seeks not to annihilate the particular so much as show the processes which might do so, the structures capable of such action cannot function as a theatrical deus ex machina. To the materialist thesis that ‘we can think abstractly about the world to the extent that the world has already become abstract’ Prynne opposes the contention that abstraction has always taken place insofar as alienation in the non-coincidence of body and mind is a permanent condition of life. But, just as he once found it ‘necessary’ to smash up the statuary of the individual moral conscience as a poetic principle, Prynne seems constrained to distrust all narrative history as explanandum for a singular movement always in the process of becoming universal. That makes him a good Aristotelian, but it also sempiternalises human nature not through poetic methods alone but by recourse to a covertly Nietzschean anthropology of purity and danger. The warning signs in Red D Gypsum alert poet and reader alike that the ‘lyric interior’ is not a redoubt, or vantage, from which the all consuming Other can be viewed. Rather, Prynne appears to suggest that the experience of self-negation demands the relocation of subjectivity in a third space beyond the reflexive dyad of self and other, or more recent adoptions of the ordo inversus in the name of Bakhtinian carnival or even the two-part Junoian sobriety of discourse semantics, the graceful coupling of message and receiver.
How is this effected within the closely monological formalism of his later books? Certainly Prynne’s weak jokes, cursory asides to the reader (accusation as a kind of invert-dependency) only secure the authorial compact by an ever tightening noose, and yes, of course, the reader is always free to wander away, since attentisme is the hallmark of the true addict. But is the author equally prepared to surrender the marks of textual propriety as redoubts of the ego forever in train of self-abandonment? Finding a way beyond the representative speech-act without fetishising ‘writing’ as the pornographic ‘ecriture fatal ‘ of the academy is hardly simple, and previously Prynne has employed the dialogue form as a means to open out the monogramatic singularity of the lyric burst. Now it is as though that alternative pathway is also bricked up, to demonstrate the impotence of any pragmatics specifying the rational self understanding of the communicative act as the blueprint for cultural competence. Thus Triodes (1999) seems to readopt the dialogue form only to suggest how much human interchange is merely white noise, screened through the bursts of random locution punctuated by the hesitant codons ‘huh, uh etc”, the flexor-pathways of misunderstanding whose culminating logic is the redeployment of reason as (what else?) military strategy.
The scores read like this: word ranking
under the Sentences Act gives a choice
of tempers, arbiter’s freedom to set out
where the deepest shadows shall fall.
With blood on their hands is a terror attack
on the Jewish state, Antrim west bank,
lemon Kurds. Don’t waver, in order
to renounce the use of arms
it is necessary to have weapons to hand
and in hand, preferably
bloodied beyond a doubt. The men
who would use them must be free
credibly to do so if not to do
just that is to be a free choice.
The crime of the rational script permits a script
of crime in time to calibrate the forces
of pent-up sentence: word by word.
This is very far from the marionette exchanges of News of Warring Clans, where the base pairing of ‘Nerve’ and ‘Verve’ can be seen as a half-hearted lament for the passing of certain ancient martial virtues, (mercy, courage etc). By my reading, Triodes represent a flanking manoeuvre instead towards what was always a suppressed part in the classical theory of types. If a tragic ambience has loomed in Prynne well before now as the mediation of epic and lyric forms, then what does he have to say of the role of drama in a poetic corpus notable for its eschewal of the dramatic lyric, even ventriloquy of the Poundian sort, as too possessive of experiences more completely the product of collective, not individual, apprehension. Like many Romantics, Prynne tends to read Shakespeare as a dramatic lyricist, though he foregoes the Yeatsian immediacy of performative self-understanding of the ‘soliloquy’ type by conceiving the dramatic ‘mask’ as much involuntary as an instrument of will or calculation.
Triodes, then, is ‘dramatic’ and understands that mode in mock tragical terms, since what is lost in the collision of selves is the Eliotic dream of ‘worked self transcendence’ Prynne formerly exalted. Pandora and Irene are emblems for the paradox of formative versus normative trauma, as the three books of Triodes propose firstly the reciprocal necessities of self government, then proceed to show the impossibility of this and conclude with the construction of a compensatory realm of sexualised interiority. There is throughout more than a hint of the Joycean conceit that this process is giratory and sempiternal, even though its temporal vector may be historically irreversible.
Triodes rejects the dialogical and the dialectical both, a move of some importance, since hitherto Prynne had tended (as in his letter to McCaffery) to argue the converse. How so? Perhaps the argument would run as follows: that, where the grammar of rationality is strongly monologic, that of the reasonable is dialogic (since rationality prescribes means to ends in ways that are potentially moral and other-directed, whereas reasonableness begins with the perspective of mutual accountability, making the pubic world intelligible). This scenario would seem far too reasonable for Prynne, since the shadow of self deception is cast over almost every object, now, in this world. Therefore any reflective demonstration of the good is doomed to fail, since the logic of prescription is local and only singularly imperative. Thus Prynne’s frequent usage of the grammar of prescription in Triodes seeks only to demonstrate how context-bound and self deceiving the ethic will is:
omits, the margin includes, you dope
provoked to neither shout not sigh
(compare Tennyson’s Ulysses, and his ‘untravelled world, whose margin fades/ For ever and for ever when I move). The action of wounding constantly referred to in Prynne admits to no healing, yet the transcendental liability of warfare is only the spectacular inverse of the trauma that forms each individual psyche. But does the trauma of personal formation demonstrate liability, habitus of shame, in the way that Prynne seems keen to contend, no internalised other superintending the management of action like a ‘conscience’ but merely another spectator at the crash? In Word Order, the interweaving of ethic and trauma seems an endless Moebius strip, a ‘paper hoop as a form goes on through’.
Triodes replaces the hoop with a double knot, for now the traumatic (historical) events which disable persons are isomorphic with the psychic traumas that make individual subjectivity possible in the first place. We may argue that traumatisation is still only a metaphor for the primacy of ‘event’ over ‘representation’, but even so need to ask how it is that events decisive for psychic or collective history cannot be recognised? How indeed can we call them formative, if there is not some normative region beyond their reach? If that circular movement appears politically disturbing, I think it is meant to be, for Triodes seeks to argue simultaneously that the trauma of warfare and state terrorism is completely constitutive of the social body yet simultaneously repulsive to it.
‘The crime of the rational script permits a script
of crime in time to calibrate the forces
of pent-up sentence: word by word.
No poet’s appeal to the solicitations of ‘craft’ can bypass this impasse. John Elster once argued that Ulysses is a model of ‘imperfect rationality’, of deliberate self-binding, because he indirectly testifies, in securing himself against the sirens as an historical witness, to an innate human susceptibility to the siren call. The ‘tragedy’ of Triodes is precisely in both the absence of imperfect rationality, and its all-pervasiveness at the same time. Two imperfections fitting one bill, rather than, in the classical theorem, two wills clashing, as in the conflicts of Antigone and Creon. Nor does Prynne supply any map of misreading, for his text is assuredly not a Sophoclean meditation on blindness and insight. Instead, it follows the anthropology of Georges Dumezil one step beyond the binarisms of exile and return in Levinas by criticising ‘the mutually conforming relay system which extrudes (in Plato and elsewhere) a hesitation between soul and city as alternative starting points’.
But if those are not ‘starting points’ (because the start is just another terminus, because trauma is both constitutive and culminant) what is the result? We learn in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s masterfully coy Wonder Book (1851) that ‘it might have been better for Pandora if she had had a little work to do, or anything to employ her mind upon, so as not to be constantly thinking of this one subject... For it was really an endless employment to guess what was inside. What could it be indeed? Just imagine, my little hearers, how busy your wits would be, if there were a great box in the house, which, as you might have reason to suppose, contained something new and pretty for your Christmas or New Year’s gift. Do you think that you should be less curious than Pandora?’.
The tone of murderous whimsy will be familiar to all, as the staple of Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, or Ashbery’s Girls on the Run, the double dreams of Alice in a convex mirror. Prynne had visited this space a long time before, but Triodes is more than parody. Both Pandora and Irene serve to criticise the appeal to a logical dialectic of self and other, turning the speculative dyad of immediate and reflective judgement instead towards its social bases in the aryan sociology of sacred power, physical force or material prosperity.
Yet the appeal to tripartition as the reassertion in triangular format of dialectical possibilities otherwise self-defeating achieves little. In Hawthorne’s version of the Pandora myth the first thing Pandora and Epimetheus do is ‘to fling open the doors and windows’ in hope of ridding themselves of the sorrowful contents of the box, a gesture we have seen many times before in Prynne, whenever a newly cleansed (or freshly damaged) awareness seeks to ‘grow organs of a more theoretic cast’. But in classical myth Pandora is able to salvage Hope, whereas Prynne’s text is not so much a refusal of the tertiary aufhebung as the deracination of speculative critique itself by recourse to a negative anthropology. Andre Green once argued that “the form of negation, which ceasing to take a stand withdraws and turns away from existence even to the point of non-existence nevertheless remains within the framework of a relation where the other’s desire for affirmation is recognised. In order to increase the resistance, one robs it of its prey by doing away with oneself. But there are still more radical ways of thwarting the other as in the he who loses wins (or vice versa) here, the indifference to loss, the integration of suffering to the rank of an ordinary psychic condition, replaces the search for pleasure — the cancelling out of all hope of victory makes the subject invincible. He consents to the other person’s will to destroy him...”.
It may be that Triodes tries to discover what can be salvaged from the shipwreck of existence and in the process merely learns that this proves to be (to use terms from Hans Blumenberg’s meditation) ‘not a possession withdrawn into interiority but the self possession achievable through the process of self — discovery and self-approbation. Long before it divests itself of the world, sceptical anthropology defines as its property what it can allow as a substance and cannot be lost. To the outside that cannot be reached from the inside corresponds the inside that cannot be reached from the outside.’
Prynne’s ‘Note on Metal’ had already hinted at this, but because his later work attempts to reschedule a Weberian argument about the catalytic role of religion (as a provider of norms) into a Durkheimian format (as the historical sacralising of consensus), Prynne deprives himself of any differentiating principle beyond that of parody that might explain, for example, the divergence between the early Islamic world and that of Imperial China (observe how, when this is attempted at the close of The Oval Window, the sardonic flashing leaves the citation merely ventriloquial). As a theory of power-politics, Prynne distinguishes, as least notionally, economic, military, political and moral power — the later a bioethical integument mostly defocussing the virtual plane of ‘engagement’. The sedimented mythoi of prior language forms become available to the poet as concrete moments of technical possibility, more often than not closed off as statist subordination fixes inequality into orders periodically thrown into reverse cycle as those who suffer too much subordination move away (or are exiled) and found new cities or emplacements. This accords with the kind of analysis of, say, Wittfogel or more recently, Michael Mann, who sees cultural birth to entail a process of ‘ecological caging’ through which ‘escape routes’ (to different social orders) are gradually closed down as compulsory co-operation extracts greater economic surplus from subject peoples by way of an increase in military coercion.
The language of poetry (its epical celebrations of conquest, chansons de geste, battle hymns, Serbian return songs etc etc) furnishes one collusive strand in the process terminating with the triumphalist predations of the Occident. Too close a contrastive analysis (of, say literacy patterns under Hang Wu Ti as compared with Hadrian, the unification of Ch’in compared to Rome, though perfectly possible in Pound or Olson), would, in the regime of Prynne’s thinner and more rareified pessimism, merely shift the register away from the main argument, that present technical rationality is global first and only secondly micrological, and that any deviation from this priority would be mere antiquarianism.
Thus Triodes unwillingly reinforces the Heideggerian fallacy that mythic or metaphysical registers are directly generative of social programmes. With Prynne, history is invoked only to rule out the alternative pathways or counterfactual possibilities that history might propose, just as every motorist sanctions the pricing of petroleum in dollars each time she sits behind the wheel, or just as the suprematism of China as a counterforce to American hegemony is hamstrung by its position as net oil importer.
But the jettison of hope is an argumentative provision, not a procedural terminus. The ‘utopian negativism’ dearly beloved of the genteel avant-garde had been derided as early as The White Stones as a jam-tomorrow routine, the last supper sandwiched into a hectic reading schedule. And Word Order had already attempted to deal with catharsis as the base form of negative ethics by concluding that the incorporation of trauma (no poetry post Auschwitz etc) as a collective condition was itself an aspect of the moral paralysis it sought to explain.
In Unanswering Rational Shore (2001), this claim is almost comically rewound to implicate the reader in a staged melodrama of retroconversion. Who is abandoned, the heroic poet adrift on the high seas, battered and tossed in exile, venturing forth on uncharted waters or the unconsolable reader, temporarily buoyed up by the currents that must eventually submerge him? The image of shipwreck, taking over from Pearls the drama of turbulent conclusiveness, is even more cynically despondent than the image of the glass snowstorm at the conclusion of the The Oval Window. It is no longer the heroic craft it was for the painter Turner, onboard the Ariel attempting to render his experience of a tempestuous sea:
‘a child’s joy, a toy with a snowstorm
flakes settling in white prisms, to slide
to a stop.’
or even the sullen art of Not You. Now there is a newer and worsening sense of the gulf between persons. But what are the implications of this absolutely classical metaphor of abandonment and exile, who or what is cast adrift in the process, and how, in the wake of Beckett can some or all of this process not be seen as knowingly farcical insofar as it consorts all too willingly with the expectations that tend to prove it by circular collusion? ‘The more we move away from the short distance of fulfillable intentionality and orient ourselves towards total horizons that can no longer be traversed and fenced off in our experience, the more impressive the use of metaphors becomes’ Blumenberg comments. And since a poem is never the same thing as a history, the use of metaphor may be as grandiose as needs be to fit the case. Now the calculating mariner is cast away on the flood, and it is no longer a question of two or more points of ‘view’ in inverse relation to each other, since there is now no secure shore from which the spectator may view the distress of those ‘at sea.’
Prophetic souls at the garden party convention press
forward to the barrier for a better, look how well
it suits at every chance they get. The benchmark in
plenty, non-cycle by eager assent, leafs up unoccupied
desk frontage. Don’t even ask for dinner tickets,
too far left behind.
The point is not who is cast away so much as who is doing the asking, and who, or what is unanswered or abandoned. In Willam Cowper’s 1799 The Castaway, the drama of loss directly reverts to the intimate subjection of the poet-speaker:
But I beneath a rougher sea
And whelm’d in darker gulfs than he.
The bases of knowledge argued through a reasoned return to rational consensus after a long self estrangement are themselves unconfirmed and indeed may not be under such terms. If the poem is the traverse of an inauthentic intimate sphere defending itself against instrumental reason, (alienated public exchange) it sees that privacy itself quickly changes into its objectified and commodified opposite. Already it can no longer be regulated by the logic of contradiction, even — as Triodes demonstrates, self contradiction.
‘Fabled dyads relent early on the remission key.’
It is a kind of destination. Having condensed epic proportion within the possibility of the lyric arena, Prynne now expels drama and dialogue from tragic form to expose its fundamental necessity. Aristotle himself was not opposed to this move, since he argued that there could be a tragedy without characters, because the concept of character concerns only moral choices with regard to action and not everything pertaining to human personality. Yet, always, a Ulyssean cunning is needed, to outwit the siren music of distraction, that suspicion, latent in Homer, that Ulysses already knew the Sirens might have nothing to say. What might be tragical (that is, post epical) in these latest books is the intimation that the metis, gazing into a mirror of inhuman eloquence, realises that his inhumanity is reflection of the sirens’ own, as shadows cast across the lyric field now opened out, or orphically dismembered. Epic ambition we have already seen; now it merely remains to collapse the tragic back into the lyric, as light from a frozen star will bend and collapse back into itself. This may indeed be a violent spectacle, and certainly the neatly formatted tercets and quatrains of the recent books are framing devices that do not offset that violence but play it off, the embedding of social anxiety set against the formal necessities that secure continuation.
I wrote might be tragical. And here once more in primary form is the Hegelian dilemma; that of the ends of an art-practice as necessitated by the ulterior historical conditions that dispose it. Writers like Lynne Hejinian can twitter on about the ‘rejection of closure’ all they need to, sweetly unaware that ‘closure’ is merely relocated intact from a textual component into a mirror image of the voluntarism that pre-selects it (‘rejection’). Prynne has implicitly criticised that kind of innocence, as a decisionism in the aesthetic or political realm that cannot mark out the deeper drifts of history. From Not You to not me, and then on, towards what is transhuman in tragedy itself, as the mediation of epic incompletion and lyric wholeness through the implicate order of a suppressed dramaturgy, the ‘hope’ is, as Prynne’s blurb for Michael Haslam’s Continual Song (1988) puts it, that ‘the reader can learn not to be the captain of his little boat but rather to have patient regard for the currents which hold him up’.
The ‘Emphatical Language’ of 1988 cites Willam Hazlitt’s comment on Othello in 1818. ‘What fine return of the passion upon itself is that in Othello when he exclaims
“Oh now for ever”
Farewell the tranquil mind...’
It is this ‘return of passion upon itself’ I think, which has allowed Prynne’s recent books their full amplitude of necessary self-interrogation. But is what is ‘true’ and what is ‘culminated’ in them is not the pathos of involution itself, deflected by historical necessity away from any vision of emancipatory, collective narration towards the consolations of a ‘necessary artifice’. When Joseph Rykwert first used this term, later bowdlerized by Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Charles Bernstein into a whimsical formalism, he meant to imply the opposite of aesthetic negation of the lifeworld, a functionalist response to the sociological fact, that (using a thoroughly Prynnean metaphor): ‘the cosmopolitan population will not amalgamate into an undefined social porridge’.
But it would be excessive, or, to use the jargon, ‘nowhere near enough’, to conclude that in Prynne’s later works the sundering of reason from unreasoning ethical life have lead only to a readerly impasse of ‘unamalgamated’ singularity. For one thing, the separation of reasoning powers is by nature self-divided and will not of its own sanction the reformation of ethics (as per Bataille et al) as a mere experience of the impossible, nor revivify reason by appealing to a renewed scepticism, as Auden or Ashbery once believed. Yet the home contradiction, between the ends foreseen to any historical process and the means by which those processes secure their ends, can only engender more unremitting sameness. If one of the present guises of history is its sempiternity, its institutionalised pitilessness, then it is no answer to counterpose an eternalistic view of the human ‘predicament’ by applying to the metaphor of an aporetic language system that forcibly secludes its speakers from the ‘real’. Aiming to dramatise the systemic necrosis of daily corruption, Prynne comes by default to conjoin not the tragical with the historical, but the satirical and the epic. That view may be one of the most compelling right now but a view it remains, giving the lie to any contrastive image of redemption by representing every antidote as another potential toxin.
Love as immanent mortification, war as transcendental liability, an almost classically materialist (that is, metaphysical) viewpoint, familiar to figures as differing as Hobbes or Schopenhauer. But if Prynne seriously means to argue that poetic elements are narcotic, incapable of higher synthesis, and, in line with the logic of addiction, export themselves globally where they function as soporific meta-narratives, what normative inverse does this presupposition invite? That a world bereft of magic remains bewitched by the posthuman darkness of a self-replicating order in which the fragile civilities of everyday life are massively overshadowed by webs of predetestinarian default options?
Prynne may once have criticised a Calvinist determinism in the face of these webs, may once have argued that accelerated sardony was not the appropriate measure: these things he might argue still, with less reason, or more effect, since the bulk of what he writes flatly contradicts those contentions. Now, irony and even nihilism appear only as the tribute paid by a deracinated convention to its first and final causes. But if the exile of value exists as critique of the limits of poetic understanding just as the boundaries of art have been set for some time now by eager Hegelians, then the satirical uses of allusion in these works must function as something like meta-critique, that is, not merely as examinations of the conditions for text production within the bounds of a given corpus, but also as simultaneously examination of the unrecognised determinations that transform condition into limit (see here Prynne’s remarkable ruminations on the origins of alchemy in his Note on Metal in The White Stones) under the emblem of necessity. In that sense, Prynne’s pessimism is not merely a stylistic ‘choice’. Having once expanded lyric to the status of epic, the cycle effaces that optimal prospect with the understanding that epic itself is one of the instruments of imperial conquest rather than cosmic inclusion. From at least the time of The Oval Window onwards, the security of any primal ground is retraced, then erased, under the orders of a mocking and even hysterical self importance about what counts as illusion and what does not.
And just as The Confidence Man, that pre-eminent artificer, finally evaporates beneath the mounting disjecta of his disguises, these later works erase the cult of authorship as fiercely as they reinforce it. It is the final and founding irony, the ground beneath our feet cut away so as to reveal in precise order what Prynne, early or late, might well be happy to call the lie of the land now so mapped out, so englobed by the apparatus of human destructiveness that it can no longer be viewed as absolute ground.
In his commentary (2000) on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94, Prynne concludes:
“By what ultimate erasure of emotion, then, in a high-risk uncharted hazard, could it be that losing everything outright might still be less hurtful than merely not winning, or prudently not playing against such risks...”
Walter Whiter’s original “Specimen of a Commentary’ of 1794 was an extended consideration of As You Like It based on Lockean principles of the active association of ideas in which human understanding was yet an active factor in the shaping of the perceptual sphere. As You Like It is perhaps ideal for such treatment, since in that play the attempt to marry wilfulness and futurity is the outcome of a comic action of forced reconcilement. Whereas the almost Islamic relativism that Prynne paints up in both Shakespeare and his own more recent works is not tragic, but fatalistic, and closer in spirit to those Shakespearean protagonists whose mental associations reveal more of thought’s paler cast.
Thus, in Biting the Air, his most recent book, we find ourselves back behind the machiolations of another haunted castle. Almost the first words we hear in Hamlet are ‘Long live the King’, amidst some byplay about the freezing cold and likelihood of seeing a ghost — all in a day’s work for the English poet, one might think, and even Hamlet observes later on how the ‘air bites shrewdly’. So that if Prynne has once more decided, shrewdly or not, to walk the parapet, in preparation for another martial confrontation, ‘some muted counter-march’ (enter Fortinbras) or catharsis in the cellarage (enter Hamlet Senior) he seems to acknowledge that, immersed in immanent contradiction, we can never do as we intend, let alone mean what we say, since the action of a poem is never merely an arena for the terror around it but fully a cause of what appals it, finally at one with those impulses that seek to destroy relations even as it tries frenziedly to reconnect them.
‘Don’t you yet
notice a shimmer on bad zero, won’t you walk there
and be the shadow unendurable now calibrated’
Within this savage naturalism, that ‘other’ world once periodically glimpsed in Prynne’s writing becomes this world alone, a limitless passagenwerke of correspondences opening onto new spaces and their outer or immanent forms. The hostile critic might well maintain that the vicarious indirections displayed by Hamlet are not the forms of action but only its unwitting consequence, and that the bloody rout at the end of the play issues from the volatile accidie of a princely self-regard all too unaware of how his fixation on the indirection of spirit is a pathos-ridden evasion. And it was Northrop Frye who observed that ‘in the convention of the returning ghost, tragedy expresses something that does not in itself depend on any belief in survival after death. No event in time ever completes itself; no act of aggression fails to provoke revenge; no act of revenge fails to provoke another act of revenge. We have noticed how closely Shakespearean tragedy is linked to history, and history to the sense of the same kind of event going on without cessation.’
If Prynne has ended up in a place he did not expect to find, that would be fully in accord with the logic of the unrecognised turn he has always acknowledged. But by seeking to defend the possibility that there exists a world beyond the present one, Prynne accepts the immense responsibility of showing us a world that is nothing like the one he depicts. His principal means of attempting this has been through a series of calculated sacrifices that circle constantly around the central poetical quandary raised by Homer’s image of the Sirens: that language raises questions which language may be unable to answer.
Outside the uncompensating fortress, it may be that Prynne’s hopes for a landscape neither stoical nor tyrannously wasted are a fantastical means of ‘losing everything outright’, since stoicism in our time is not strong enough to overcome wishes, merely conceal them. But the interim result — a studied anatomy of ethical depletion, has come itself to be the precondition for a massive collapse back into certain antinomies hitherto fearlessly criticised. For the Kantian aporia of public forms and private selves, the Hegelian diremption of immediate knowledge and public moral being are now and at once both affirmed to be only vicariously contested, relics of that formerly ‘inverted order’ now upended one last time, a toy glass snowstorm. As the verbal music of a contemporary immanence seemingly immune to alteration, ‘the temporary nothing in which life goes on’, even as the distractive echo of what attention must survive if it is to continue, then Prynne’s relentlessness itself conserves action at its minimal threshold of sovereign, bare existence. His constant redeployment of allusion and mythic reference are thereby not the forms of lamentation for an unattainable pastness, but, as I have tried to suggest, the instruments of meta-critical prospect seeking to valorise the prize of understanding, even as it amortizes the process. Many have sought the same deracination, few have been so thorough as Prynne in mimicking its most intimate moves as constraining frameworks in the dialectics of self-transcendence.
It is appropriate, then, in the context of this edition of Jacket issuing out of Australia, to conclude by citing the only piece written on Prynne truly to engage with the implications of those constraining frameworks. To the Australian geographer Paul Carter, commenting on The White Stones
‘To transfer attention from the footfall to the track in-between, and to understand that track not as a line laid out across a surface, but as a surfaceless vector whose trajectory constitutes its own ground; this requires something more than the rhetorical asides, back-trackings and footnotes of literary discourse. It requires, as has been intimated earlier, a conceptualization of space that is as much auditory as visual — or which, to be more accurate, borrows from the facts of auditory perception in order to rescue seeing from the reductionist cast of ‘visualist’ thinking, reinserting it into its naturally mobile setting. But even this, while it can give back to sight its cloudily ambient indeterminacy, reiterates the dialectic already described. Linear space may be opposed rhetorically to curvilinear space, but the question remains: how to unhoop the latter, to lift it off the ground of the linear, not so that it can constitute its own ground, a mechanism of movement that is ‘groundless’ and therefore not ‘utterly lost.’
My own starting ground, with Turner’s snowstorm, sees that great painter to repeat in querulous form the exclusionary ‘not you’ remark which he understood, very well, to be the mark of a social abstraction his painted stormwaves confounded and confirmed. The trope is endlessly there in Prynne, not merely by right of traditional, incurable metaphor, but as the counter-elegiacal pressure that poetry remakes from the wrack it reassembles. Thoroughly ancient, wretchedly modern, the seastorm bearing all before it is the gale of history, singular and collective, which Petrarch dramatised in Chi e fermato, di menar sua vita (He who has decided to lead his life/ on the deceiving waves and near the rocks...). The poem was loosely translated by Prynne, once, 40 years ago, and for the first but not the last time in his work, the image of a stranger ‘with no name’, by answering Pound, is much more than the leaden echo of a mythic avatar, and recommences the poetic journey as an open, public question, the traverse of love with lostness so often figured by those archetypes which Prynne most needs and most repeatedly discards. And that the answer to that most Ulyssean of questions, Chi e? might well not arrive in the form of a reversed falsity is something that Prynne has always been finally prepared for, as, e.g.:
Walk on it, being a line, of rest
and distinction, a hope now lived up
to, a coast in awkward
thigh-bone of the
(from ‘Living in History’. (1968)
‘As brood so on
donation true to tint momentous, all is too hardly
much to clear unaided: hot justice pleading for penalty
in a rigged-up camp of love, courtship plays requited
and branded so faintly at implicit final appeal.’
( from Unanswering Rational Shore, 2001)
‘Groundless yet not utterly lost’: as slogans go, Carter’s summary is a more exact rendering of the Prynnean dialectic than Adorno’s catchphrase, ‘the whole is the false’, and also more alertly penetrative to the heart of the issue of form that Prynne’s whole oeuvre proposes. For, as prose, the work of Prynne can be seen completely to reflect the workings of a global inclusiveness actively destructive of its own dependent bases. Life continues, raised to a hideously successful excess. The gnostic pleroma he places before us is all-consuming not only because it may in some sense be needed (as the moralist’s battlefield), but also, like all good prose, because it must patiently describe and endure. Where music was once truly ‘the sound of our time’ the new prose of our epoch, often presented in the form of self-reflexive ‘poetry’, is the generic name for the discourse of total acceleration, the illusion that because mass is a function of energy, velocity is the same as condensation. Each discrete new pamphlet, nearly every new ‘book’, rephrases that equation, not to inquire whether life is possible, but merely, pathetically, whether poetry is; or whether the life that sustains it is the life that depletes it. Each self-consuming intertext is redeployed as a decoy integument, binding the tissues and fibrillations that enable us to ‘make sense’ of every new entanglement under the full illusion that there is never enough love to go around. Pathos and ethos then, but set into a tragic sphere of action and nemesis, not simply the concentric shadowplay of murdered fathers and avenging sons, but in the government of powers by reason of an action that contains the death in which all participate, in a constant movement. As prose, it is truly what the age dictates.
But Prynne’s work is not prose but poetry, its antitype. And here the concept of the masque comes into play one final time. For if it is not the case that Prynne’s mimetic order exists only to invoke and to suggest a ritual-carnival of exchanged shapes as the last form of metamorphic evasion, then to regard this work on its own avowal, as a standpoint without a dialectic, is neither merely ‘not enough’ or even too excessive. The worst news brought by these recent dioramas of savagery is that our current world is not set to end, that the worst has not happened yet, and that even the untruthfulness of poetry may be never enough to prepare us for the fullest recognition of our unfitness for survival. It is indeed an epic form of nonconsolation, patiently to argue that what may no longer be home to anyone may simply be all there is to contain us, and always has been. Yet such containment, finally, has nothing to do with the murderous poetic ecstasy that destroys relation by abolishing the distance between self and world. Contrariously, Prynne’s dialectic has sought, as high art must, always to recover the shining of this life, and has moved, consistently, avengingly, away from the underworld, towards the overview of our everlasting terra nullius. That this could not have been achieved without massive sacrifice, and that the purpose of the sacrifice is not vengefully exceeded by the arrogation of its power, is the first and final paradox of Prynne’s singularity. Chi e? If not you, then who?