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Tom Jones reviews

The Unconditional: A Lyric
by Simon Jarvis

(London: Barque, 2005), pp. 242, ISBN 1-903488-43-5

This review is about 10 printed pages long.

The Unconditional seems set to become the market-leader in book-length poems on the phenomenological constitution of the poetic subject through the materiality of voice and text. It is a reworking of Book III of The Prelude (‘Time in Cambridge’) as a car crash in Hertfordshire that combines pastiches of the Popeian couplet and a Cambridge-school lexicon in new and interesting ways. It is the most thorough investigation extant of the effects of twentieth-century recording technology in performances of Schubert on radical leftism. Its critique of early structuralist and later Wittgensteinian accounts of meaning guarantee its topical relevance, whilst its profession of writing entirely without irony renders its argument classic. I imagine it will have a shelf-life of well over a decade, and would sell well in a paperback print run. I recommend it to you without reservation.
       The poem is an epic-dramatic composition in which several aspects of a fractured poetic persona figure. The chief character is =x., and a helpful note tells the reader that s/he ‘may wish to give the character =x. a value equal to, or slightly smaller than, that of the name of the letter “s” (the symbol for indefinite stress) when spoken aloud. For purposes of performance, if any, the character could be rendered by so much of a gulp as can be achieved without swallowing.’ (p. 242n) The main character of the poem is a written character, a character whose name is a symbol of stress and a gulp: the poetic subject or character is made by its qualities as a written character or system of notation, but such as represents only an inarticulate sound. The main character is also infinitely stressed: poetry is that language in which stress operates to such a degree that its very character is fracture. There are other aspects to the persona: Agramant brings a Spenserian, questing tone to the poem; Jobless is both the permanently unemployed (or the vechnyi student) and also the person who is so much less than godless, that s/he is Job-less, without even despair at the absence of God; J is the academic side of the poet, something of a shambles. It is easy enough to see aspects of Simon Jarvis, scholar, poet and person of near Kierkegaardian levels of introspection and self-criticism, in the different aspects of the poetic persona. I am going to pretend in this review that to write a book-length poem (with no overt section markers) that explores philosophical questions of the constitution of subjectivity in language in part by scholarly probing of the traditions of epic, mock-epic and the egotistical sublime, and in part by exploring the relationships between poetic material and poetic spirit through a cast of characterless characters is a perfectly routine activity.
       The poem questions its own position as that which is both inside and out. Its various speakers doubt they have any interiority to express: ‘My pronoun spews to offer no inside / since none can show I have no side to me’ (p. 21). =x. is hit in a car crash and is caved ‘inwards from his outside in’ (p. 69); a cut ‘rips from the inside to the outside’ (p. 193). Vomit and stickiness are found near these transitions from inside to out: the expressive act is as organic as excretion. Scholarly consumption seems to fuel expressive excretion: scholar poets ‘lick the plate of words clean till we chuck’ (p. 177). Responding to a critic voice in the poem who has just asserted that the poem is ‘Blackmore’s Creation rewritten by / a third-class imitator of Beau Brummell!’ (p. 31), the poem describes itself as inside-out scholarship:

Traditionlessness munches its own stump
       or turns to nothing all it squats upon.
Tradition turning out tradition into
       the immiserated world unspell us quite.
                                           (pp. 32-3)

Writing without tradition squats upon other writing, and turns it to nothing. It also turns itself into nothing, squatting upon itself as excretion (Jarvis once reviewed psychoanalytical accounts of constipation as a factor in Henry James’ literary life). But tradition that turns tradition out into the world, either by turning itself inside out, or by throwing incompatible elements out of the house, will ‘unspell us’ – it will free us from a spell, but it will also, in typographical idiom, ‘detach letter from letter in a word’ (OED), dividing those letters united in ‘us’, and therefore (continuing the investigation of the constitution of personality through the physical representation of speech) dividing us, the very idea of the first person plural.
        Much of this poem is concerned with unity, what it is to be one, a question frequently connected with the relationship between inside and out. The following passage asks what it is to say ‘one’:

       When we say one we say not one-of-all.
We say not one and not the other nor
       do we say one not many or at all
oppose the one to anything at all.
       We drive the spirit to that perfect pitch
at which an absolute contingency
       is only able to stand in for it.
A thought’s best picture of it shelters in
       the aspirate on ε in the word ‘εν.
Pointing at last is all the speech I know
       without which tense and urgent matter slides
off from the conversation into air.
                                           (p. 42)

Very quickly the poetry goes beyond a political questioning of what it is to say ‘we’, what a first person plural might be, what it is not just to be me and not just to be not-me. To say ‘one’ is to ‘drive the spirit’, to direct the breath, to a ‘perfect pitch’, a correspondence with an external measure that can be nothing but ‘absolute contingency’, the contingent raised to the status of the absolute. That is, there can never be an absolute rule for the inclusion or exclusion within the unit delimited by ‘one’, and so the contingency governing the ‘one’ is absolute. Being ‘only able to stand in for it’ (i.e. the ‘one’), ‘absolute contingency’ is either the only thing that can stand in, or is merely able to stand in for ‘one’: but is the question of adequacy a sensible question when reflecting on the contingencies that make up the identity of a unit? Here the poem continues one of its main discursive themes, the possibility of representation in language. Thought is able to picture ‘one’ sheltering ‘in the aspirate on ε in the word ‘εν.’ The aspirate is the punctuation used to mark a rough breathing in Greek that distinguishes between two words en, in, and hen, one. That is, the inverted comma, an accidental (or even an absolute contingency), is that which differentiates being in from being one. And this mark is a mark of breathing, a driving of the spirit, by means of punctuation, or pointing. ‘Pointing at last is all the speech I know’: the punctuation of the passage is, paradoxically, all that makes it speech, all that gives it presence and meaning.
       But there is also the ghost of the ostensive view of speech here, that pointing at things is irreducibly the business of speech, perhaps recalling the argument of Speech and Phenomena that no matter the extent to which the expressive function of language is prioritised by Husserl the indicative function cannot be banished altogether. Derrida undermines the assertion that ‘it is already evident that this de facto necessity of entanglement, intimately associating expression and indication, must not, according to Husserl, cut off the possibility of a rigorous distinction of essence.’[1] Without pointing (punctuation or ostension) ‘tense and urgent matter’ (temporal and material aspects of language, and/or important subjects of business) disappear into mere air. This passage investigates the phenomenal basis of saying ‘one’ and writing about ‘one’ in order to integrate the physical aspects of language production, breath and type, into the philosophical discussion of the relationship between the one and the many, one of the subjects of Parmenides. Parmenides in that dialogue presses so hard on what it is to have unity that identity, unity and multiplicity seem to collapse as possible descriptions of states of being.[2] Jarvis is doing something similar. Earlier in the poem it has been asserted that

       [… ] at some point I false first person must
gutter to drop the outsided double me
       so this parenthesis will never close.
                                           (p. 30)

The role of punctuation, the point and the parenthesis, is to make the post-lapsarian nature of the ‘I’ apparent in its very exclusivity, is discretion. Adam is the first person and he falls because he is false. ‘I’ is a false first person because its delimitation is only ever contingent. Driving the spirit through breath and type determines the contingencies of whether one is ‘in’ a group that includes others, or one is ‘one’, entire and singular. Many of the parentheses of the poem never close, its idiosyncratic punctuation disturbing what readers think of as either inside or outside any particular train of thought or argumentative strand.
       The relation between inside and out is held in such constant critical attention that the various possible borders become very porous. The poem’s teeth mark one such porous border. The addressee of the passage quoted above displays ‘funded filling[s]’ gleaming in his/her mouth (opportunities to refer to the funding crisis in the NHS or other topicalities are mostly taken). From the beginning of the poem teeth are connected to wounding, another way in which the internal is externalised. The opening of the poem presents a primal scene in which =x. slips whilst running upstairs and smashes his face on glass, an action equivalent to poetry:

running upstairs to push his willing teeth
       into and through the glass and to an air
hoped sung and stammered by what broke bones there
                                          (p. 6)

The desire to express, to form an air, to sing or even stammer is presented as a fantasy of semi-accidental self-harm. Whether this glass is a pane, and the limit of the domestic space of the home, or a mirror, and the limit of the self in a Lacanian scheme of linguistic and psychological development, it is a limit broken in language. The poem’s teeth are expressions of self-hood. Agramant later removes ‘from selected large wild pigs / the top incisor’ to promote the ‘dental artifice’ of tusk growth (p. 85). These pigs, or ‘tooth-transporters’ become ‘squawking’ Cambridge dons in ‘combination rooms / of outraged modernism’ (p. 86). Jobless stares (drunkenly?) at the carpet (in his college room?) and sees

       [… ] at the edge of every nylon spear
a grin like Cadmus almost formed before
       in quasi-letterish dentition [… ]
                                          (p. 131)

connecting the teeth to questions of regeneration and reproduction taken up elsewhere in the poem, and also to the physical appearance of words. The teeth are, of course, one means of transforming air into articulate sounds and language. They mark a moment of transition where inner expressive content becomes an outer indication. The breath before articulation by the mouth is a patternless interiority, a spirit that cannot be done justice by the poem and the physical facts of its presentation:

       [… ] the tab leaves out your every breath
which cannot write itself in any book
       but whose surmise exceeds elysium [.]
                                          (p. 10)

The tab can be the bill run up on credit, but also that blank indent before the new paragraph, a space for breath. Later on the ‘first smart joke’ is caught ‘expiring’ on someone’s lips (p. 117), and a plea is made to ‘Break my voice into that million’ (p. 141). The teeth represent a moment of division at which the unpatterned spirit is shattered, with the now obsolete musical sense of division as the ‘execution [sic] of a rapid melodic passage, originally conceived as the dividing of each of a succession of long notes into several short ones’ (OED).
       The poem is scholarly, and in part its scholarship is that of Jarvis’ professional life. In the course of the same exchange between the scholar poet and the critic within the poem I referred to above the poet tells the critic ‘“Your certainty that what I write is mock / you may deliver to the mice and frogs.”‘ (p. 28) The poem wills it into reasonableness that a pp. 242 poem published in late 2005 should contain extensive passages of Popeian couplets. As in his recent article on ‘Mock as Screen and Optic’, Jarvis suggests that mock is not a simple matter, that the peculiar form of pastiche that is mock does not deal exclusively in negatives, or what poetry cannot be, what it no longer can be: heroic, mainly. Mock can be an optic as well as a screen, a device for seeing not merely a device for hiding: it is a means of disclosing as well as concealing.[3] There are many echoes of and allusions to the eighteenth-century texts that Jarvis teaches: Mary Collier is invoked in the ‘Union of Washerwomen Poets’ urged to ‘reascend’ (p. 40); Tobias Smollet’s attempt to ‘Biographize an atom’ (p. 103) is woven into a passage in something like Swift’s octosyllabics that describe the lack, a passage that goes on to hint at Wordsworth’s ‘We Are Seven’ (‘Count up to seven dead. / One two three four five six.’); ‘art after art goes out to grass’ in a pastoral re-working of Pope’s Dunciad, B, IV.640 (p. 168); and Pope’s Epistle to a Lady, ll.1-2 are in the investigation of masculinity that notes ‘All the characters are male. / Most characters have no character at all’ (p. 196). The eighteenth-century texts and manners stand in an agonised relationship to the modernity of the poem, a relationship that posits a mutual parasitism of ideas and cultural milieus as the only possible means of making a meaningful world. These are not really allusions in any familiar sense, but the establishment of a disjunction of register as a condition of writing.
       Wordsworth is present in the poem in ways other than its reworking of Prelude III. Several of the poem’s personae are gathered at a country house (Stowe or some other Opposition pile if the references to the ‘Excise Bill’ and ‘Rebel’s Grot’ [p. 202] are any hint) perhaps for some scholarly symposium. Wordsworth’s ‘Idiot Boy’ seems to be haunting =x., that cypher of a character (most characters have no character at all):

           Some yards behind him a clear imbecile
was shambling, dribbling, singing, muttering
       a flow of sounds which disconcerted =x.
by throwing up from time to time some phrase
       of greater eloquence than he had heard
for days or weeks or truthfully at all
       slobber with a fearful beauty in its call.
                                          (p. 200)

In confirmation of the allusion there is talk of ‘Arriving backwards on a donkey’ (p. 210). This person is either clearly an imbecile, or speaks clearly whilst an imbecile. The sounds this person utters are thrown up, and so indicate, in the imaginary of this poem at least, a poetic voice. There is a breath-taking pastiche of the Wordsworthian valorisation of the rural, disenfranchised voice here, a pastiche that does more even than draw out the discomforting strategy of Wordsworth’s own narrative in ‘The Idiot Boy’, a strategy that takes the disorientation of a young man with learning difficulties as an opportunity for jokes about the disjunction of poetic register and subject. It does more even than recast the echoey phrases of the ‘Preface’ to the Lyrical Ballads as throwing up and slobber. Pastiche seems to have become a condition of possibility for poetry. Jarvis’ scholarly allusions invoke a dialectic of reproducibility similar to that described by Giorgio Agamben: ‘that which is reproducible cannot become original, and that which is irreproducible cannot be reproduced. The object cannot attain presence and remains enveloped in shadow, suspended in a kind of limbo between being and nonbeing. It is precisely this inability of the object to attain presence that endows both the “ready-made” and pop art with their enigmatic meaning.’[4] But Jarvis’ poem does not lurk ironically in an enigmatic meaning: it argues directly and openly from this position of wanting impossibly to reproduce the original.
       The poem is not only a poet’s poem, it is also a theorist’s and philosopher’s poem.
       In a passage that seems to describe the state of mind of a lecturer who has taken his students to the pub to fill in their feedback questionnaires, the mental vacuity of J’s mind is presented:

       Nothing was hidden from his empty head
who first told every owner of a thought
       to keep it quiet and then told them too
(Reverse of Socrates! to who participates
       in bliss you wrench them back to canning gates)
that speaking language was like playing games
       as from the corner flag a perfect swerve
of disenchanting nominalist curve
       eluded too well schooled defenders’ heads
knocking away fans from their dull pin heads
       but only ever had those games in mind
where turns were taken as they were done too
       in disembodied Zeno-classes there
where the polite world’s last grim relics sat
       worshipped by the demystified participants
while Zico’s free kick billows in the net
       as Jobless lets a lazy foot repose –
                                          (pp. 128-9)

The thinker has told his acolytes that to speak is to participate in a language game, and so is thinking along the lines of the later Wittgenstein. The thinker thinks that games are activities in which people take turns, and as speech is taken in turn in the seminar room, this doesn’t seem a problem, but it is clear from the analogy with football that this is not so: the wonderful Brazilian Zico and his team mates dominate a game, just as one who is not so ‘well schooled’ might dominate a conversation. The curve of the ball into the net is ‘nominalist’ because it refuses to let go of the idea that words are names, it refuses to give in to a purely context driven, instrumentalist account of language such as that offered by the later Wittgenstein and followers. It insists that language is shot through with indication no matter how much its expressive function is emphasised. The strangeness of the analogy with football is a product of the contingent properties of names: there is a Brazilian football player called Socrates as well as a philosopher called Socrates. That the same proper name applies to two persons demonstrates that the indicative function is essentially characterised by peculiar disjunctions (footballer/philosopher, though maybe this is not so strange … ), not that it does not exist, or should really be thought of as a (certain kind of) game. The passage quizzes the language-game analogy, suggesting that the import of the analogy depends very much on the kinds of games people play. Perhaps Jarvis wants to suggest that acts of naming and all the other linguistic acts called games in this tradition are laden with political implications to which ‘gaming’ can never be adequate (he once told me that he thought Bourdieu was more interesting than Wittgenstein because Wittgenstein wrote about the kind of rules people are happy to acknowledge, Bourdieu about those people are not happy to acknowledge as having a role in the determination of their behaviour – and I’m sure this kind of anecdote is inappropriate to the review game, but there it is).
       A later section of the poem resurrects the worker of the opening numbers of Philosophical Investigations, who played a game in which the word ‘slab’ is called. Calling is more than part of a game: it is work, and involves kinds of unfreedom more pressing than those of being guided to make a certain more or less appropriate kind of move in a game. Practices of naming, for example, exhibit ideological motivations that are the conditions of there being games to play: the question of what is called ‘just’ being one such condition. Jarvis is sublime on this subject, and uses his more Olsonian line. There is an imperative to listen

        to whatever variable may be the condition of your ceasing to discount your experience
And named thus indefinitely not just for bathtime in Sardis
       But rather because a proper name is precisely not meaningless nor precisely
Meaningless in many different ways but instead
       Precisely in the way of what might properly be named as meaning
May so much more instantly at an occasion prompt the descent of a stomach floor
       Or may so much more durably over an epoch glint as a target for
Whatever may definitely be wished for as a star outline of visible signs
       Near which circles a shape like a man working
Just called on his knees.
                                          (p. 153)

The meaning of names here is not a matter of games, but of work, justice and the possibility of human happiness.
       Areas of linguistic thought other than the Wittgensteinian tradition are explored. Roland Barthes’ S/Z makes a couple of appearances in the poem. That which is ‘between the S and the Z’ appears in the passage on Cadmian dentistry mentioned above (p. 131), developing an earlier reference in the context of a comparison of verse with map making:

              [… ] Where there is a map it is
always incredible verse should have died.
       It is the exacting outline of a realm
which makes concretion by abridgement or
       the hard and wiry line that always cuts
zygotically between the s and z
       donates to life life, thinking to the blood.
Block in town pink your unvisitable names
       map till we wish them to a zion grid.
Folk songs, meet a last end in the team coach.
       – ““That always cuts” ah but relationally” –
relationally I declare your szenery
       powerless to think a single word against
its own however disavowed true thought
       thunk in a soddenly resisting soul – –)
and =x. felt sorry for Tarmac but what to do.
                                          (p. 15)

The line cuts between the s and z, and so is a wound. ‘Z is the letter of mutilation: … like an oblique and illicit blade, it cuts, slashes, or as we say in French zebras; … Z is … the initial of castration … [the slash] is the slash of censure, the surface of the mirror [see above], the wall of hallucination, the verge of antithesis, the abstraction of limit, the obliquity of the signifier, the index of the paradigm, hence of meaning.’[5] Yet the cut that appears to separate in fact relates the two items on either side of the line. Verse is this cut in part because this cut is the oblique that is used to indicate the break between lines of verse in a quotation (‘cuts / zygotically’ for example contains an s/z across the line break). The oblique lines of verse map differences creating a relational map that has a tendency to be taken as rigid (i.e. non-relational) conceptual form (‘a zion grid’ – a holy land of rigid designators?). The line between the s and z is therefore the ‘szenery’, the landscape made up of differences, such as the difference between English ‘scene’ and German ‘Szene’ that sponsors the pun here. There are no real oppositions in such a map, and so a word cannot be thought against true thought: language cannot negate, it can only relate. The poem is constituted by an account of its own accidental relations in coming into being, an awareness of those contingencies of language, script and print that make up the relational landscape of poetry.
       The poem is then an investigation into the contingent materiality of its own being. It makes some allusions to the leftist materialism that might be associated with this kind of project. A poem of this length and complexity hardly likely to be materialist in any doctrinaire sense, and poetic antagonism to doctrinaire materialism is sometimes evident. ‘[L]aureates bereft’ are found ‘[s]creening hope in the shrill poor’ and buying ‘the morning star’ (p. 104) – the paper of the Communist Party of Great Britain, daily more or less since 1930. Poetry can screen the shrillness of poverty, cover or deselect those unpleasantly noisy voices that even the card-carrying leftist poet finds unpleasant. It is impossible to determine by tone or context the relation of this antagonism to political allegiance. What scene is heard in the following lines? A young Jarvis duffed up in the playground for over-enthusiastic leftism?

“Wer sagt Kultur sagt auch Verwaltung mate:
       if you don’t like it why not prove it please
by living in a 2 by 2-4 box
       marked Soviet Sentiments of Comrade Jarvis,
eh?” Then fist in stomach can refute it thus.

Living in a box could never prove that culture is independent of the administrative sphere. The German is part of the opening sentence of Adorno’s ‘Culture and Administration’, which argues that culture (all that is supplementary to physical need) is such a broad and disparate concept that it requires administration, even though culture is necessarily critical of administration. The gloomy analysis that culture has been subsumed by administration is counterbalanced by the assertion that ‘the spontaneous consciousness, not yet totally in the grips of reification, is still in a position to alter the function of the institution within which this consciousness expresses itself.’[6] Is Jarvis commanded impossibly to confine his soviet sentiments to one sphere, or box, because he is interested in at least the possibility of autonomy in the cultural domain? What is being refuted? The autonomy of culture, or the impossibility of its autonomy? Either way, Samuel Johnson’s refutation of George Berkeley’s immaterialism (Boswell reports him kicking a stone and saying ‘I refute it thus’ to demonstrate that there is material substance) finds itself allied to materialist attitudes to culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But the act of blunt (and philosophically rather unconvincing) argument is for Johnson an act of self-harm. Here it is an act of aggression towards another: typically for this poem the seemingly contained philosophical action/argument spills out of the individual sphere to become a social problem.
       Allusion to the Western classical music tradition is another means by which Jarvis explores the material manifestation of spirit. The poem has two main concerns in these allusions, it seems to me: firstly to reflect on the interpretation of music from the score, the suggestion of the spirit of the music from its letter; secondly, to reflect on the way in which recording technology has changed music, to reflect on the way in which material, accidental circumstances surrounding performance alter the nature of the art object and its perception.[7] In this second concern the poem contributes to arguments about the reproducibility of works of art, and also to Barthes’ comments on the change in relation to music now that it is unlikely primarily to be known through playing.[8] The performance and recording of music is used to illustrate the movement of thought, an ‘underthought of danger’ (p. 36):

just as the pianoforte repertoire
       falls speechless in the 1820s when
it passionately blots out every pause
       in essenceless becoming circling [… ]
inflict developments upon one phrase
it rounds upon and back to ceaselessly
awaiting progress in recorded sound
       for the device of fade out it demands
incompetent to end or to begin
       and in this truly inessential glut
bawling to mummy with a tour de force
best cantus firmus of essential shells
most inexpressive in their tenderness
       still most rapacious where they most co-weep
still kindest in the dissonance they keep
       when pressed with violence to the bleeding ear
drowning the oceans in their engine roar
                                          (pp. 37-8)

I don’t know what development in piano composition or technology Jarvis is talking about in the 1820s: perhaps this is no more than an allusion to the work composed in that period, including the later sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert. Something about the pianoforte repertoire in this period is without pause, is an endless process of turning in upon itself and becoming, rather than a static process of being. The music seems to demand a kind of recording technology that does not yet exist, as, having no end nor beginning, it needs to be faded in and out. Within this endless inessentiality, there is a cantus firmus (or canto fermo, ‘the simple unadorned melody of the ancient hymns and chants of the church’, Grove), a fixed part amongst the endless circling becoming. The essential shells are paradoxically those aspects of recording technology that become essence even though they are merely the shell. Shells make a roar like the ocean when held to the ear, a roar here compared to the roar of aerial bombardment by the other kind of shell. This permanent roar is the background noise of recording, that disturbing hiss in even the most deliberately clarified digital recordings. The industrial process has been introduced as an audible element in the music, and made something essential of its endless becoming by involving it in the production technologies of the military industrial complex, as Comrade Jarvis might say if he was here.
       There is great interest in the performances of Alfred Cortot, with his tendency to play wrong notes providing an analogy for the tonal implausibility of The Unconditional:

       The comical yet also serious pathos here
finds possibly a pianistic match
       in a small passage from an early record
made of C. playing Schumann: the final
       long variation from the symphonic
studies, bar 15 (here without repeat)
       in 1929 in Small Queen’s Hall.
Only the sketchiest attempt at all
       seems to be made at rendering the notes. [… ]
Those wrong notes none the less reverse disdain
or generous negligence of the minute[.]
                                          (p. 45)

In allusions to music what is extra or additional to the essence, what is interpreted, added, found, or otherwise supplementary to the idea alone of the music, is recurrent. An ‘exercising inexplicitness’ caused by ‘every surface flaw’ in an obsolete vinyl recording of K.491 from 1948 (Mozart’s piano concerto No.24 in C, perhaps the recording onto 78s for Decca by Eduard van Beinum and Kathleen Long, now reissued) adds to the lack of uncertainty in a cadenza (p. 127). This passage concludes a discussion of the possibility of not just playing what is there, written in front of the concert pianist. There are doubts about recording practices: ‘we rub off from the session tape and paint / out with an insert from a second take.’ (p. 126) The pianist is called ‘the solo glosser to the inner text’ (p. 126). The commercial impetus that lies beneath the repeatability of performances enabled by recording is noted: breath never ‘saves one disc from turning into cash’ (p. 126).
       There seems to be an unresolved tension between the relish for the accidental, the desire to acknowledge the centrality of those apparently supplementary facts about music (expression, improvisation, mistakes, recording noise) and the strong sense that there is meaning in music that somehow survives, extends beyond or transcends the accidental:

       “Whither then art and its relation to virtue?
The answer unfortunately is nothing at all.
Just take the famous occasion on which
the camp guards wept at Schubert as they worked.”
       Whilst these extremely valuable thoughts
were syndicated over the mute earth
       a symphilosophist at once composed
(nudged by some measures of D. 959
       drifting across the kitchen into him)
inelegant retorts despite himself: [… ]
Without that tale your self-revolted ear
       would be compelled to listen to the notes
and entertain the possibility
       so well reviled beyond all other ill)
that finitely they mean and obligate
       the unlucky listener to some real path.
Anyone can listen to Schubert stupidly.
       That no more tells us what the music means
than your dumb op-ed column can endure
       the quiestest [sic] element of a human wish.
                                          (pp. 179-80)

Music of the Germano-Austrian tradition does not mean the holocaust even if it has been associated with the holocaust through the report of incidents concerning Nazis who loved Schubert. Perhaps the music, here a late Schubert sonata, does tell people how to behave; perhaps the music, if one could only get at it, would tell one how to live? Such possibilities of the spiritual live on throughout The Unconditional, even as manifestations of spirit appear to be so thoroughly conditioned by the historical and other phenomenal contingencies that the very possibility of spirit seems to recede into notionality. The poem begins and ends with the same set of lines that heavily iterate ‘o’, a cypher that contains much meaning, but its conclusion suppresses one line that was present in the opening: ‘Disintermediate the vocoders.’ (p. 5) The vocoders have been disintermediated through this poem: the technology of transforming the voice is no longer intermediate, it is substantial, and this substantial poem accords the process of disintermediation greater scrutiny than perhaps any other.


[1] Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, ed. by John Wild et al., p.20.

[2] For example: ‘Well then, said Parmenides, if there is a one, of course the one will not be many. Consequently it cannot have any parts or be a whole. For a part is part of a whole, and a whole means that from which no part is missing; so, whether you speak of it as “a whole” or as “having parts”, in either case the one would consist of parts and in that way be many and not one. But it is to be one and not many. Therefore, if the one is to be one, it will not be a whole nor have parts.
    ‘And, if it has no parts, it cannot have a beginning or an end or a middle, for such things would be parts of it. Further, the beginning and end of a thing are its limits. Therefore, if the one has neither beginning nor end, it is without limits. [… ]
    ‘Further, being such as we have described, it cannot be anywhere, for it cannot be either (a) in another, or (b) in itself.
    ‘(a) If it were in another, it would be encompassed all round by that in which it was contained, and would have many contacts with it at many points, but there cannot be contact at many points all round with a thing which is one and has no parts and is not round.
    ‘(b) On the other hand, if it were in itself, it would have, to encompass it, none other than itself, since it would actually be within itself, and nothing can be within something without being encompassed by that thing. Thus the encompassing thing would be one thing, the encompassed another, for the same thing cannot as a whole both encompass and be encompassed at the same time, and so, in that case, the one would no longer be one, but two.
    ‘Therefore, the one is not anywhere, being neither in itself nor in another.’ Parmenides, trans. by F.M. Cornford, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1963), Bollingen Series LXXI, pp. 931-2, 137c-138b. It is perhaps worth noting that Heidegger’s lectures on Parmenides deal extensively with originary and poetic language and their relationship to thinking, and, particularly given the importance of language technology to Jarvis’ poem, that Heidegger opposes the Bolshevik metaphysic he associates with mechanised writing practices. See Martin Heidegger, Parmenides, trans. by André Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992), pp. 12, 86.

[3] See Critical Quarterly 46:3 (2004), 1-19.

[4] The Man Without Content, trans. by Georgia Albert (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), Meridian Crossing Aesthetics, ed. by Werner Hamacher and David E. Wellbery, pp. 63-4.

[5] Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. by Richard Miller (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), pp. 106-7.

[6] Theodor W. Adorno, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. by J.M. Bernstein (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 113. ‘Culture and Administration’ is translated by Wes Blomster.

[7] The history of recording technology and its impact on performance is documented by Robert Philip, Performing Music in the Age of Recording (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), who describes the loss of freedom in performance style between the eras of Cortot and Argerich, pp.131-2. Colin Symes, Setting the Record Straight: A Material History of Classical Recording (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004) takes a more social than aesthetic-evaluative approach to some of the same material.

[8] Roland Barthes, ‘Musica Practica’, in Image, Music, Text, trans. by Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1977), pp. 149-54, especially pp. 149-50.

Tom Jones

Tom Jones

Tom Jones received his BA and PhD degrees from Cambridge. His main research interest is in the relationship between theories of meaning and poetry in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, with particular regard to Alexander Pope. His other interests include the history and theory of literary criticism and later eighteenth-century poetry.