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Presence as Identity
‘Dialectics is always that which has finished us, because it is always that which takes into account our rejection of it’ — Derrida
In his 2004 collection Haze: Essays, Poems, Prose, in a vignette-style prose piece titled ‘Communal Perversities’ dedicated to Nick Piombino, Mark Wallace writes ‘For many people, the shifting dynamics of blame are all they know of themselves’.
The current central organizational goal is to make each of us feel we are the fault that must be eradicated. To feel this way, one must feel that the world is not there, that nothing is there except oneself, a painful bloated sore that must become nothing also.
Yet presence is a complicated phenomenon. The physical presence of others does not necessarily dispense with the feeling that ‘nothing is there except oneself’. The evening newscast is assuredly ‘there’; yet it seems nothing preserves complacency about world events more successfully. The most ostentatious appearance can be the least substantial. In Sincerity and Authenticity Lionel Trilling argues that as it has developed in Western civilization there can be no presence beyond appearance without individual freedom. Trilling uses Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew as his starting point to describe what he considers the complexity of modern secular character. Nietzsche and Freud are also contributors. Vis-à-vis society at large, Trilling says, the quality of sincerity cannot be measured in a straightforward way.
Today the feeling that ‘nothing is there except oneself’ emanates from strongly credited narrow illusions created by politics, authority and the implosion of religious and democratic values. The U.S. government spends $200 billion (and counting) to hold elections in Iraq. In the meantime, over 200,000 (as of January 2005) people are killed in one day by an underwater earthquake in the Indian Ocean. Blame and acquittal are not guaranteed by amount. Presence is not the same as appearance. In the pieces of writing in Haze, both in their content and their forms, presence is associated more with absence. This absence is not necessarily intended or voluntary. Often it is based on exclusion, confusion, error, injury, opposition, accusation, suppression, despair, modesty, limits of understanding. Yet the point is that absence can be a more substantive presence.
The first piece in Haze is titled ‘Reasons to Write’. It begins ‘There is of course no reason to write poetry’. And it concludes, ‘I write poetry because I need to make a living’. And so it begins: this modern coyness that Trilling describes, aiming at not identity (I am a poet) but presence (what is entailed in calling oneself a poet), an elusive sincerity of self-effacement and skill. In the text of this brief introductory piece is stated:
We have been sold a world of reasons so endlessly, so thoroughly, so destructively that even poets are called upon to explain what they do, to give their reasons to justify themselves before endless courts of indifference and terror.
The more insistent the reasons the less value they have. These are courts of indifference and terror because, based on lack of faith, deference to appearance, they are corrupt and at bottom materialistic, that is, of slight meaning. The author therefore feels obliged to present his case only according to his own rules.
The second piece in Wallace’s book is a seven part poem titled ‘The Lawless Man’, a phrase that originates in the second epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians. Who is the lawless man? Henry Kissinger? Little Abner? With unscrupulousness worthy of Rameau’s nephew, Wallace accuses himself. Part one of the poem begins and ends with ‘There was no lawless man’. For the question is more: What is the Lawless Man? Part seven contains the strophes:
When we came upon
the lawless man
he asked us for any spare change.
When we came upon
the lawless man
his face was purple as if he was drowning
there on Main Street.
The lawless man is the symbol of the flawed virtue that undermines society.
A piece that stands out because of the clear puzzle it poses is ‘My Xmas Poem (Sixteen Inches of Snow and a Void)’ in which Wallace attempts to celebrate a Christmas from which religion is removed. I take the formal checkerboard skipping-around on the page of geometric groups of lines of the poem as a concrete-poetry representation of the reticence, the immense absence/presence of the occasion in which the figure of honor is patently not there. The poem contains the lines,
I light to love what falls and fades
outside proposals, is my celebrated
unheard silence, void that does not save,
that means we can be together again
when holy days have ended
Outward signs of religion obstruct holiness. Wallace is not only pointing to absence he is urging it, advocating disappearance. For him to remove religion and retain the meaning of Christmas is to remove order and retain belief.
Perhaps I have misrepresented the tone of this book. It isn’t strident. Wallace presents not only evidence for his disaffection but also its antidote. The title piece, ‘the Haze’, sets up what I take to be an Hegelian analogy to transformation in the world. The world is ‘the Discourse’. Discourses are good, but there can be bad discourses gone awry. Like the world, Discourses are always moving. There is always disagreement in discourse. ‘No social structure has ever been maintained by an absolutely shared and understood Discourse’. Haze is not antithetical to the Discourse. It is part of it and the process of change. Haze is the obstinate reality outside the Discourse. ‘… the Haze is both a lack of understanding and a vagueness of language’. What we don’t understand preserves us. And yet as a body or group we have things to learn. The Discourse is history, and Haze is the agency of what remains as civilization moves toward its completion or fulfillment.
In my view, in Haze, Wallace, who lists among his credits co-editor with Steven Marks of the excellent critical anthology, Telling It Slant, is expressing resentment toward limitations that are being placed on his imagination. He is decrying an inquisitional U.S.A. that is trying to be too many things too much of the time. In paying homage to Rimbaud, Wallace writes, ‘I am drowning in good intentions’. For Wallace the solution is to acknowledge that life, a constant part of it, is beyond control. In ‘horrifying emotions’, in bubbling unnamable things, in what is not ‘positive’, in the uncertain remainder that is the Haze, in what eludes understanding, Wallace finds what ‘constitutes the basis of an ethical life’.
What should scare us is what’s in the world — the fullness of our own disasters of which writing is the primary record. What we should celebrate is absence.
One might criticize Wallace’s book for not heeding its own warning. Written, admittedly, predominantly before 9-11, it leaves unmentioned the disasters from which we might gain ethical insight. It is little of a ‘primary record’ — of millennium, ‘terrorism’, tsunamies, earthquakes, religious controversy, bombings, politics, Palestine/Israel and surprisingly much more. Rather, it foreshadows these; the events that are the Haze that prompts and extends the Discourse of our understanding toward perfection.
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