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Graham Lyons

Citation as Explanation:

Walter Benjamin and Louis Zukofsky, Colporteurs

“And the soul of the lyric poet does the same [as Bacchic maidens drawing from the rivers], as they themselves say, for they tell us that they bring songs from honeyed fountains, culling them out of the gardens and Dells of the muses; they, like the bees, winging their way from flower to flower. And this is true. For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his sense, and reason is no longer in him: no man, while he retains that faculty, has the oracular gift of poetry.”
(Dialogues, “Ion” 14)

Walter Benjamin:
“At bottom, we may say, the collector lives a piece of dream life. For in the dream, too, the rhythm of perception and experience is altered in such a way that everything — even the seemingly most neutral — comes to strike us; everything concerns us. In order to understand the arcades from the ground up, we sink them into the deepest stratum of the dream; we speak of them as though they had struck us.”
(The Arcades Project, “Convolute H” 206)

Ezra Pound:
“All ages are contemporaneous”
(Spirit of Romance 8)

“[I]t is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen.”
(Poetics 55)

Louis Zukofsky:
“It is modestly unwise to presume on Shakespeare’s text the lovable image he assumes at any moment of reading his work, as any explanation — if it has art — loves itself. Spontaneity is not Aristotle’s order [. . . .] And no one may deny Shakespeare’s work spontaneity. But if explanation — which is contingent on intelligence or nature — must also have spontaneity no one may deny Shakespeare’s text the incidental effect as culture of its insistence on a proportion that worries it like the bone the dog”
(Bottom: On Shakespeare, “Part Two” 39)

Jacques Derrida:
“ virtue of its essential iterability, a written syntagm can always be detached from the chain in which it is inserted or given without causing it to lose all possibility of functioning, if not all possibility of ‘communicating,’ precisely. One can perhaps come to recognize other possibilities in it by inscribing it or grafting it onto other chains. No context can entirely enclose it”
(Limited Inc, “Signature Event Context” 9)

paragraph 1

I BEGIN with a signal moment (what Walter Benjamin might call a constellation [1]) from the texts in question. In the third section of “Convolute H” of The Arcades Project, Benjamin inserts between a meditation on the utility of orchestral music for crowd-control in the arcades an intriguing claim about the salutary role played by writers’ statements of intent:


Never trust what writers say about their own writings. [2] When Zola undertook to defend his Thérès Raquin against hostile critics, he explained that his book was a scientific study of the temperaments. His task had been to show, in an example, exactly how the sanguine and the nervous temperaments act on one another — to the detriment of each. But this explanation could satisfy no one. Nor does it explain the admixture of colportage, the bloodthirstiness, the cinematic goriness of the action. Which — by no accident — takes place in an arcade. If the book really expounds something scientifically, then it’s the death of the Paris arcades, the decay of a type of architecture. (203–4)


Compare this observation with American poet Louis Zukofsky’s reprimand for “[t]he latest criticism” — via Hermia’s lovestruck soliloquy to unrequited yet transformative love — in the “Preface” to Bottom: On Shakespeare, a reprimand which flips around the coin Benjamin lays down:


This approach must mean that the eyes of one person were fixed more on these lines than on all the others. Even a photographic eye — a lens — is placed by some human; when ‘shooting’ at Shakespeare, at best perhaps by inevitable accident. To say that his focus was this is presumptuous. All evaluations of him have been implicitly insolent. Have they not pled to sharing part of his greatness in revealing it? (10)


What both Benjamin and Zukofsky identify — one through the lens of an imperfectly enacted intentionality, one through a critique of self-serving criticism — is the problem of reading complexity, of explaining away difficulty. Benjamin’s final sentence spatializes this difficulty by offering a location (or the image of this location) for a form of understanding: to fathom the “admixture” of elements in Emile Zola’s work, he suggests, begin by thinking through the architectural space of the Paris arcades. Zukofsky, on the other hand, proffers vision (the “lens”) as a balm to self-congratulatory criticism, as the highly problematic yet potentially illuminative medium through which to “shoot” Shakespeare — even if the understanding you gain can only be termed an “accident.” What seems most important, to this reader at least, is the marginalization, by both Benjamin and Zukofsky, of explanation as a mode of reading and of critique. Direct elucidation misses the complexities of the whole and ‘presumes’ to contain the potentialities of the text — inherent in the content, the form, the contexts (of reading and of writing), in language itself.


To be explanatory for a moment, the questions pursued in the present text grow out of my particular theoretical interests, which have always angled towards the question of subjectivity and power in texts. Who is the writer? How is he or she constructing his or her written self? What sort of power is he or she taking on or giving up? Who authorizes the author? And, ultimately, who or what gives meaning to text? Leading from Zukofsky and Benjamin, the admittedly manifold possibilities that grow out of these questions call for a rethinking of criticism as a vocation better suited to showing rather than to telling — to referentiality rather than to clarification.


Indeed, the role of outside texts — and I use the term “outside” advisedly, here — and the role of “outside” subjectivities attached to those texts has been a central question in twentieth century poetics. [3] From Ezra Pound’s rewritings of Provençal verse and the poetry of Li Po to T.S. Eliot’s more or less convincing invocation of Jessie Weston’s Grail legend From Ritual to Romance in his explanatory notes for The Waste Land (n. 4, 2371), modernist poets continuously tread a line between reading a text, writing a text, and performing a critical act somewhere between the two — always with a mind to what might function as muse, and what might function as authorizer (and even guarantor of canonicity).


Expanding the time frame a little, we might ask to what extent poet Ronald Johnson trades on John Milton’s canonical status in Radi Os, [4] and to what extent his “solitary quest in the cloud-chamber” is a push for innovation rather than recognition (Johnson, “A Note and a Dedication”). In a related way, we might wonder whether Robert Duncan’s notion of derivation (articulated throughout his myriad statements on poetics) functions as an effective front for the cultural capital gained from invoking Dante or Pindar or Pound or Laura Riding in his poetry. [5]


These questions, which of course have a range of answers, seem particularly pertinent when we take up Bob Perelman’s invitation in his “Foreword” to the new Wesleyan edition of Zukofsky’s text to “sound Bottom and Arcades Project together” (xiii). Where does one place authorial identity in lengthy works almost entirely comprised of citations from other writers? How does one read these texts-within-texts? What I aim to do in this paper is offer a limited comparison of Bottom and The Arcades Project, particularly how they frame and respond to Plato’s Phaedrus, and proffer Benjamin and Zukofsky, in these texts at least, as exemplars of a certain kind of poet-critic [6] — one who uses citation as both an enablement and an undercutting of poetic (and critical) identity, one whose acute Marxism problematizes commodification (and thereby desire), one who re-conceives time through the medium of space, and one who purposively avoids clear explanation in order to re-present and to counterpose texts without closing down the potential built into such juxtaposition. [7]


I would suggest further that the productive process of unelaborated citation in which both Zukofsky and Benjamin engage — and the complex authorial identity and readerly challenge such a technique generates — has implications beyond the status of the particular texts I’m examining briefly here; in particular, the interaction and the distinction between reading and writing, the question of where one ends and the other begins, is refigured radically — calling several other comfortable distinctions into question as well (reader and writer, high and low culture, speech and writing, self and other, even life and art).


Indeed, by virtue of an iconoclastically non-explanatory poetics, Zukofsky and Benjamin invite a new approach to reading all highly-allusive texts — as a process of textual exchange premised on potentiality, mobility, and chance, wedded less to cultural cachet than to the beauty and danger of the commodity.

Prefatory Explanation, or, Questions Unanswered


Before I go further, an explanatory sketch. The Arcades Project (Das Passagen-Werk) began in 1927 as a solicited essay project about the Paris arcades: “Paris Arcades: A Dialectical Fantasyland [also translated as “Fairy Scene”].” Benjamin’s research ambitions led him to expand his thinking into a book project about Paris itself, tentatively titled Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century. Susan Buck-Morss identifies a third stage in the late 1930s — which largely involved editing and reorganizing existing research material but also included extended work with poet Charles Baudelaire’s representations of Paris and of the flâneur (49–50).


The editors of the Belknap Press edition call The Arcades Project “epic,” and they invoke the “manifest interminability of the task” — to deliver a holistic portrait of the “primal history” of nineteenth century modernity through a raft of contemporary and nineteenth century sources, particularly the “refuse” and “detritus” of cultural production (Eiland and McLaughlin, “Translators’ Foreword” x). In a letter in 1930, Benjamin describes the Arcades Project as “the theater of all my struggles and all my ideas” (qtd. in Eiland and McLaughlin x). The notes and quotations he collected and transcribed never saw the light of publication (except in minor pieces throughout the 1930s) until after his death in 1940.


Finally, Benjamin left the notes for his masterwork, his opus, with Surrealist George Bataille as he fled to Spain to escape persecution as a Jew. Of course, he never made it: convinced the Nazis would capture him before he made it across the Pyrenees, Benjamin ended his own life by ingesting handfuls of morphine pills.


Beyond the dramatics of Benjamin’s final years, the relative incompleteness of The Arcades Project that resulted leaves a complex text even further open to varied interpretation and explanation. Most critics have gone the way of poring over Benjamin’s letters and other fragments of essays partially written in the late 1930s (many of which are provided in the most recent published editions of the Project). The search seems to be for an ‘outside’ to the text, a primer that will help readers decipher the complexities and confusions inherent in the structure and evident in the extant manuscripts. [8] As a work never ‘complete,’ we are left to wonder whether this text is merely a record of research, a collection of notes and thoughts to be applied at some later point. As Buck-Morss reminds us,


it must not be forgotten that there is no Passagen-Werk. We are in a real sense confronting a void [. . . .] Yet in sheer quantity, this volume constitutes a sixth of Benjamin’s intellectual production, and its fragments of research and commentary bear on that set of concerns that guided all of his mature thinking and writing. (47)


Not only do we encounter a preponderance of citation without explanation, we need to keep in mind a massive collection of passages set in complex relation to one another and cross-reference the claims they make (often by implication and subterfuge) with prominent writing of Benjamin’s later career. [9]


In “Convolute N” — a sheaf of the Project full of (productively) contradictory statements of intention and method — Benjamin meditates on the “Method of this project” and falls on one side of the classic distinction between showing and telling:


literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse — these I will not inventory, but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them. (460)


We might call Benjamin’s approach in the Arcades Project (called “literary montage” here) critical reading or even derivation — writing drawn from sources, rather than writing that springs forth from the poet-critic. The material (“the rags, the refuse”) exists and can be made useful by an insightful reader. Since the Project presents itself as montage, we can argue that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts — in other words, this is not a piecemeal, text-by-text sort of critical practice. The relative usefulness of the textual material comes from juxtaposition, and everything works towards this “primal history”; each part works to constellate every other part.


Benjamin’s method, of course, makes for difficult reading, particularly in the realm of the total: what holistic understanding can one acquire from such a raft of text constructed in a form that might seem haphazard to an outsider (and certainly never fully explained within)? And how far can a reader understand the admixture of citation and reflection, the totality of the interrelations, if the project never reached completion, if the manuscript presents itself much more like the notes to a work-yet-to-come than a draft near completion? [10] This is not to imply that The Arcades Project has no structure; in fact Benjamin conceived a complex (some might say impossibly so) plan for the Project. [11] However, for readers, Buck-Morss argues, “[t]he documents published as the Passagen-Werk comprise no totality. Their coherence is in relation to the rest of Benjamin’s work, from which they can be only artificially demarcated” (47—8).


For readers of Benjamin, then, The Arcades Project poses a significant challenge, as a result not only of the historical and compositional context out of which it grew, and of the necessary incompleteness of its form, but also thanks to its method: totality and simultaneity combined with an avoidance of full elaboration. This challenge functions as an enactment and extension of Benjamin’s aphorism about the primacy of “showing”: telling requires of the audience keen ears; showing requires of the audience keen intellect as well.


Put another way, by virtue of its structure, The Arcades Project asks readers to simultaneously embrace incompleteness and totality, and to fill in necessary gaps between text, section, and citation. What we’re shown functions as what we’re told — a conflation that makes totalized readings in some ways beyond articulation.

Prefatory Explanation II, or, Comparing Totalities


Completion, one facet of the challenge The Arcades Project presents to readers, seems an important factor in Bottom: On Shakespeare as well (though perhaps from the other side of the fence), particularly since Zukofsky seems to ascribe a holism to Shakespeare’s work, suggesting that each play and poem is a small piece of a larger whole. [12] He begins to elaborate this thesis (and by extension, his project) in “Vol.1, Pt.1”:


All of Shakespeare’s writing embodies a definition, a continuing variant of it over so many years. It is a definition of love that the learning of the later (specifically English) Renaissance had forgotten: the definition of love as the tragic hero. (15)


For Zukofsky definition is not a device to shut down our readings of Shakespeare (as n.8 above may imply) but a call to engagement, to the pursuit of a complete if unspoken understanding of the definition, the “continuing variant.” [13] Zukofsky continues further on:


The qualities and quantities of the definition of ‘Love’s mind’ are always mixing in one retort: Shakespeare’s text. [. . . .] Falstaff exists in Hamlet and Hamlet in Falstaff; the name Adriana contains that of Adrian — it is immaterial which was thought of first; various characters — whatever the chronology of the canon — speak like the Sonnets [. . .] Each play rings tunes on all the others. And the Works say one thing: love, the seed of the writing that reveals nothing of Shakespeare but his text, moves all the leaves of his book to sound different degrees of ‘Love’s mind’ or its relative failures of judgment. (19)


Zukofsky’s definition, further expounded here, draws together several of the concerns I have foregrounded thus far and (strange for a modernist poet) strikes a single note in his reading of Shakespeare: love. The constraint this totalized reading places on Zukofsky releases somewhat by serving as a demonstration of a unique way of reading that elaborates the definition — and it reminds readers of Bottom that individualized vision can serve to move “all the leaves of his book” if pursued holistically.


A further wrinkle here is the ahistoricism of Zukofsky’s reading of Shakespeare’s Works; the temporal relation between plays and sonnets is, he avers, “immaterial” to a reading of love in these texts. To stretch the string of metaphors [14] to its breaking point, we might suggest that Zukofsky’s ‘vision’ for Shakespeare’s texts involves picking out a single instrument — love — from a symphony of semantic material singing out from the “leaves” of Shakespeare’s canon. As such, a musical arrangement is no less complete for borrowing its melodies from others, nor for testing its harmonies before the score is complete. [15]


Beyond the text, however, matters are not so simple. In a short recording called “Bottom, a Weaver” — transcribed in Prepositions, the most important collection of his critical writings outside of Bottom itself — Zukofsky claims that Bottom is


A long poem built on a theme for the variety of its recurrences. The theme is simply that Shakespeare’s text throughout favors the clear physical eye against the erring brain, and that this theme has historical implications. (159)


While we could identify this as a contradiction — or an expansion — of the recurrent chord of love Zukofosky invokes in the introductory pages of Bottom, we might think more productively of this ostensible explanation as a disavowal of “telling” and a reassertion of “showing” as primary and embodied, as a non-rational and powerful engagement with text. And Zukofsky’s claim that his totalizing reading of Shakespeare “has historical implications” links him intimately with Benjamin’s myriad interventions into the mundane material of 19th century Paris: by re-thinking more or less prominent cultural artifacts, we can begin to rethink our present moment. But neither Zukofsky nor Benjamin will tell you precisely what to think. More likely, he will offer a tissue of contradictions through which a reader must navigate.


In consideration of the priority of showing over telling, perhaps more significant than Zukofsky’s direct assertions about Shakespeare’s Works is his pervasive use of citation in Bottom — not just lines from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets but significant portions of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Aristotle’s Poetics, and Spinoza’s Ethics (among myriad others). According to Perelman in the “Foreword,”


Quotation [in Bottom] is neither modernist collage nor postmodern pastiche; rather, it is somewhat as if Eliot’s notion of tradition was turned inside out. Eliot claimed the most individual part of a living poet was where ‘the dead poets assert their immortality most vigorously’; in Bottom, conversely, the extensive quotations act as assertions made by Zukofsky. (xi)


For Perelman, Zukofsky asserts his immortality by quoting Shakespeare; it is “somewhat as if” the power relationship outlined by Eliot (and parroted by contemporary critics like Harold Bloom) is reversed — but Perelman neglects to explain how Zukofsky manages to wrest authority from Shakespeare (and Wittgenstein, Spinoza, etc.) in Bottom. Mark Scroggins, in Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge, offers one possible (though decidedly ambivalent) avenue for this reassignment of semantic and authorial power:


Again and again, passages are chosen [by Zukofsky] that contribute to the mind-eyes theme [ [16]], then carefully pruned, weeded, and shaped by elision into what at times amount to soundbites endorsing Zukofsky’s argument. Yet [. . .] time and again Zukofsky’s quotations signify beyond their immediate context and ‘radiate back’ to their originary moments. They thereby form not a unitary chorus but a tenuous, momentary consensus, always liable to be shattered by the irruption of the voices of the irreducibly other. (93)


By other means than explanation, what Zukofsky wields, in part, is creative control: each quotation is carefully chosen and placed, decontextualized (though not completely), and presented as a note in a recurrent melody line. More significant, though, is Zukofsky’s invasion into the quotations via elision — cutting passages at the level of the sentence to suit his expressive purposes — a further assertion of authorial power over his research materials. [17] But Scroggins is right to pull back somewhat from this evaluation, pointing out that unexplicated text has referential effect beyond its immediate context — a power that is doubly effective when such text is borrowed from elsewhere. At the least, readers may bring contextual knowledge to bear on the readings (knowing, for example, the dramatic context for a particular character’s assertion).


The effect of this insertion of context — and I would suggest that this is a constituent part of the productive multiplicity of Zukofsky’s text — is to trouble any final meaning for the “pruned, weeded, and shaped” (not to mention juxtaposed) citations, to open possibility and solicit readerly engagement.

Colportage and Citation: A Theoretical Expansion (not yet wide enough to enclose)


I want to offer another model for understanding what Zukofsky and Benjamin might be doing in these highly citational texts, an approach that pushes past (or perhaps subsumes) the question of canonized tradition and of the power exchange inherent in the reading and writing of text. I turn, then, to a concept, to a metaphor for the consumption of text, to a word I invoke above (both in a passage from Benjamin and in a footnote) without elaborating on it: colportage. I come by this term, and its potential utility as a model or metaphor for Bottom and The Arcades Project, through modernist scholar Jennifer Wicke — who comes to the term via German critic (and Benjamin’s contemporary) Ernst Bloch. [18]


As Wicke details, colporteurs are traveling book-hawkers, particularly prominent in the 19th century, who sold dime-novels, pamphlets, bibles, poetry, pornography, photographs, household management manuals, and so on — all on the same horse-drawn cart; seemingly haphazardly displayed, the texts in colportage represent the 19th-century market’s version of juxtaposition, of collage (396).


The notion of colportage reinvests Pound’s famous dictum, which I offer as an epigraph above: on a colporteur’s cart, all times are contemporaneous — as are all literary genres and all levels of cultural production (within the confines of market access, at the least). Romance novels sit beside pornographic monographs sit beside bowldlerized complete works of Shakespeare. The high, the low, the middle-brow, all there in force. According to Wicke, “Colportage is bricolage to the third power: no mere act of magpie borrowing and collection, colportage is materially invested, rife with judgments of value that hinge on hope and transformation” (398).


Because of the constant and constituent mobility of colportage carts, the shelves are not stocked through any hegemonic notions of market or literary value; whatever the colporteur can get his hands on, that’s what he sells. The reader — a “Collector” in Benjamin’s nomenclature, as we shall see below — arrives at the colporteur’s cart with a range of expectations, and often leaves with a stupefying range of materials.


To bring our discussion back to the writers in question, Wicke links colportage to Benjamin’s notion of “profane illumination” — the experience of the uncanniness or irrationality of everyday things through transgression, dreams, hashish, surrealism, and (in this case) juxtaposition (Benjamin “Surrealism” 209). And Wicke reminds us that, for Bloch, colportage represents and invokes what he calls the Novum, “the startlingly and unexpectedly new” (qtd. in Wicke 396). But the connection to Benjamin — which Wicke touches on momentarily before moving through a range of other metaphors for modernism — is more direct and explicit than a conceptual correspondence between illumination and colportage.


Critic Brigid Doherty recalls Benjamin’s experiments with hashish, where he writes explicitly of the “colportage phenomenon of the room” [19] — a notion that spatializes and historicizes the experience of intoxication: “we simultaneously perceive all the events that might conceivably have taken place here” (Benjamin, On Hashish 28). Tied to Benjamin’s obsession with bourgeoisie interiors, this “colportage phenomenon” is never systematically elaborated in Benjamin’s writings on hashish, nor in The Arcades Project, as Doherty points out (45). But his consistent invocation of the term (it turns up a number of times in several different “Konvoluts”) gives it credence, I would suggest, as one key to reading the Project as a whole.


For example, in his fragmentary “First Sketches” of the Project — unsorted notes that often found their way into the more systematized “Konvoluts” in later years — Benjamin invokes colportage (though not by name) as a poetics, as a guide for the juxtaposition of words, as a form of combinatory creativity on par with the play of children:


Game in which children have to form a brief sentence out of given words. This game is seemingly played by the goods on display: binoculars and flower seeds, screws and musical scores, makeup and stuffed vipers, fur coats and revolvers (828).


Is this not the poetics of The Arcades Project, if we can say that it has a poetics? Words, as objects (one might even say commodities), are put “on display” in an uncanny and strangely poetic array — a constellation of histories and backgrounds made visual, highlighted as a result of contrast and contradiction [20]; and colportage, as Benjamin presents it here, serves as a ‘seeming’ image for the “game” one plays with “given words” — a modernist poetics made commodity.


For Zukofsky’s part, Ming-Qian Ma points to his status as a reporter, moving beyond the end focus of the first generations of Anglo-American Modernists and shifting “from precision in terms of a teleologically controlled selection of quotations to precision in terms of objectively recorded contingencies of occurrences” (136). We are presented with text “objectively” — a record of experience and a constellation of “contingencies.” What a reader derives from Arcades Project and Bottom is far less a coherent interpretation of quoted material and far more an experience of Benjamin’s and Zukofsky’s own strange habits of collection.


In consideration of my own critical prejudices — authorial identity, power, sources and originations of meaning — colportage seems to function as an undecidable. Meaning seems to develop in Bottom and The Arcades Project via the mobile and moving juxtaposition of various quotations and commentaries. It is outside both the source text and the present text (and perhaps lodged in the reader), yet is paradoxically inside these texts at the same time. [21] Like the colportage cart, the text is never fixed in place; it never lays a foundation for a permanent location and, with the constant offloading of merchandise, never presents a finalized image nor secures a permanent display.


This mobility problematizes totalized meaning, but (as Bloch suggests) reinvests existing texts — objects oversaturated with meaning, Shakespeare’s Works especially — with startlingly new potentiality. Readers brings their own obsessions and foci to the colportage cart, and they take away what stands out to them, what possibilities lie in each object and in their interrelation to the rest of wares on display. The complexity of these interactions reaches its pinnacle, of course, when we consider that the colporteurs — Benjamin and Zukofsky — are readers themselves. Interpretation in this way becomes a mobile and contingent “phenomenon,” determined by the interaction between shopper and merchant, between collector and colporteur.

Kiss Me, Plato: A Short Foray into the Colporteur


Colportage, in specific, connects much more explicitly to Benjamin’s method in The Arcades Project than it does Zukofsky’s in Bottom, but I suggest that the metaphor works just as effectively in Bottom. Here, we turn to another constellation of Benjamin’s and Zukofsky’s texts: Plato’s idealism. In section “G. Greeks” [351—377] — Zukofsky attempts to trace origins for some of Shakespeare’s imagery and fascinations (love, eyes and ears, nature and art). The section includes a significant range of Greek playwrights and philosophers. Midway through the section, Zukofsky quotes Plato (through Socrates’ voice): “...but if a man ‘Sees a thing when he is alone,’ he goes about straightway until he finds some one to who he may show his discoveries, and who may confirm him in them” (372). Sharing one’s “discoveries” (Zukofsky’s heretofore overlooked reading of Shakespeare, for example) draws tight the tension between individual and collective, and between writer and reader. [22]


Though Zukofsky’s “I” persona in section “D. Definitions” would prefer to read on his own (267), Plato affirms that validation comes from the Other. This requirement, of course, implicates Plato himself, who uses the voice of Socrates and the voice of an assenting interlocutor to “confirm” his own assertions. [23] Two quotations later, Zukofsky quotes Plato again, this time from the Phaedrus: “compound or composite . . . capable, as of being compounded, so also of being dissolved; but that which is uncompounded, and that only, must be, if anything is, indissoluble” (372).


The relation Plato sets up here between structure and outcome highlights (and potentially endangers) the method of Zukofsky’s text — a “compound or composite” that can be read in multiple ways (“compounded”) yet can also be unraveled (“dissolved”; “uncompounded”), split back into its constituent parts. Again, Bottom privileges the whole, yoking together contingency and possibility, though the text may be “dissolved” by a corrosive reader — a reality built into the structure of every hybrid text.


On the facing page Zukofsky follows Shakespeare’s clever movement from “grazing” to “gazing” [24] — drawn from A Winter’s Tale — with a reflection on reader expectations:


Plato’s fault, and Shakespeare’s, is that his drama chances the unwisdom of showing and writing too much for a careless reader’s attention: as when he has Socrates demote men to censorship and shame [....] Their texts, as few see, seem to believe only their eyes — not their echoing ears, or their conciseness would be more exemplary. (373)


Besides reaffirming his own position — that Zukofsky is another who ‘gets’ the “exemplary” in Plato and Shakespeare — there is a self-reflexivity in this statement. [25] To what extent is Zukofsky “showing and writing too much” in Bottom? Is he invoking the “echoing ear” to confirm his own “drama” here? Keeping in mind Plato’s notion of ‘confirmation’ that Zukofsky presents on the facing page, I suggest that the invocation of audience (both Plato’s and Shakespeare’s “careless reader[s]”) makes Zukofsky a colporteur here. The ‘impurity’ of the composite seems to draw from the multiplicity of readerships; the “careless reader’s attention” functions just as well as the one who “confirms” what Zukofsky “sees.” The question seems to be — as the juxtaposed line from A Winter’s Tale implies — are we “of [Zukofsky’s] flock” or not?


We return, in part to the problem of overexplanation: by “writing too much” — by telling rather than showing — poets present themselves in a controlled and orderly fashion and give extra words which may be decontextualized and misappropriated by “careless reader[s].” As an alternative, the colporteur avoids explanation, relying on “conciseness” and thereby opening the text to misreading rather than overreading. In this context, when we arrive at the colportage cart, are we “grazing” or “gazing”? As readers, do we seek decomposition, analysis, grazing (a continuous, unconscious, and seemingly natural chewing of textual cud, so to speak) or do we, on the contrary — aligning ourselves with Zukofsky’s shepherding — ‘gaze’ at what we’re shown, allowing our own interpretive investments, our conscious priorities, to guide our purchases?


Shakespeare’s “grazing” metaphor — as Zukofsky’s presents it to us, especially — can be applied productively to Benjamin’s model of “The Collector” in “Convolute H” of the Arcades Project. In many ways describing the potential pitfalls of his own scholastic process, Benjamin claims,


What is decisive in collecting is that the object is detached from all its original functions in order to enter into the closest conceivable relation to things of the same kind. This relation is the diametric opposite of any utility, and falls into the peculiar category of completeness [. . . .] [F]or the true collector, every single thing in this system [“the collection”] becomes an encyclopedia of all knowledge of the epoch, the landscape, the industry, and the owner from which it comes [....] Everything remembered, everything thought, everything conscious becomes socle, frame, pedestal, seal of his possession. It must not be assumed that the collector, in particular, would find anything strange in the topos hyperouranios — that place beyond the heavens which, for Plato, shelters the unchangeable archetypes of things. (205—6)


How much does a reader (the “true collector” in Benjamin’s model here) read into an object in his collection? In another’s? For Benjamin the collector seeks purity, an idealism matched only by Plato’s heavenly forms, rather than trusting his own perception of the object in front of him. All thoughts and remembrances (and, by extension, all texts) are squeezed into a predetermined “frame,” an a priori set of categories. [26] This approach — which serves, in part, this reader in the present study, and all readers to some extent — dwells somewhere between “grazing” and “gazing.” While grazing implies a haphazard encounter with objects nearby, gazing invokes vision and sensory perception — preconception comes into play, but does not govern the reading that takes place. This mediate position, in relation to Zukofsky’s understanding of audience, suggests that Benjamin’s collector may be a productive model for readers of colportage text because it brings together chance (a surprising and unpredictable array of textual objects) and preconception (the collector seeking certain items in certain combinations).


As we read The Arcades Project, this dialectic between chance and preconception — between predestination and free will, in a sense — is enacted in the process of reading. We are far from Zukofsky’s “careless reader” here, yet the multiplicity of Benjamin’s text — and, by extrapolation, Zukofsky’s — challenges comfortable assumptions we might bring to the experience. With texts of this sort, then, Plato’s identification of the potential for all hybrid text to be “uncompounded” becomes a necessary part of the reading process, a product of the contingent relationship between the juxtaposed and contradictory texts and the biases of their various readers.

Idealizing, or A Conclusion that Explains “too much”?


Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project and Louis Zukofsky’s Bottom: On Shakespeare force readers to recalibrate their usual expectations of text. The present study offers a way to understand how these highly allusive and opaque structures might be deciphered (if only in part). If we think of these texts as colportage — as mobile, ever-changing, constitutively juxtapositional collections of commodities — do we gain traction in talking about their effect, their meaning? Because he makes direct reference to colportage, Benjamin seems more suited to the label colporteur than does Zukofsky, if only because he never completed his project (an unimpeded mobility). The Arcades Project is marked by its transitoriness, by its evident need for restructuring and revision, while Bottom strikes some readers as unusually single-minded for such a multivalent opus.


Both texts present a carefully crafted yet artfully dispersed collection of quotation that work both in-text (via juxtaposition) and beyond the text (via allusion and context), and both leave much work for readers to do — making sense, making connections, cross-referencing with texts that more clearly articulate methods and intentions.


Conversely, though, both Benjamin and Zukofsky seek ideals beyond the locality and serendipity of certain stops (and inventories) along the colportage cart’s path; aesthetic or philosophic value, for example, is not discarded in these texts, but refigured and re-presented in conversation with decidedly other contexts (historical, spatial, hierarchical, hieratical). A children’s game helps to articulate a complex poetics of combination and juxtaposition; a Platonic metaphor of metal compounds illuminates an understanding of collectivity and audience. Colportage, in other words, offers a complex image of the exchange between textual objects within Bottom and the The Arcades Project, between the writer and his research material, and between the text (and, vicariously, its writer) and the reader — each exchange governed simultaneously by chance, by the market, and by conflicting aesthetic standards and expectations.


[1] Benjamin explains his notion of the constellation in Origin of German Tragedy via correspondences:

Ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars. This means, in the first place, that they are neither their concepts nor their laws. It is the function of concepts to group phenomena together, and the division which is brought about within them thanks to the distinguishing power of the intellect is all the more significant in that it brings about two things at a single stroke: the salvation of the phenomena and the representation of ideas. (Origin 34)

To paraphrase, if provisionally, Benjamin offers an alternative way of reading or interpreting that groups “objects”—and texts-as-objects fall under this rubric—without categorizing, controlling, limiting them. The details of this alternative will, I hope, come clear below. What I pursue here, humbly, is a “constellation” of my own devising, via my own “intellect.”

[2] This fairly familiar assertion corresponds in a way to a statement Zukofsky makes about poetic identity and meaning in a 1969 interview for Contemporary Literature:

All you say about a poem is [. . .] it doesn’t even have to be me, but the person will result from the poem. That’s why I think it’s useless to try to explain one’s poetry. Better that it explain itself after the poet is gone. One way of its explaining itself is by your reading what’s there: 2 + 2=4 does not say 2 + 2=5. Now where the difficulty may come in is that sometimes you get an equation that is so condensed, it is good only for the finer mathematician. I don’t say that to compliment myself, but, you know, mathematicians have standards of fineness; the more condensed the equation, the “nicer” it is. (213)

Though beyond the scope of the present study, Zukofsky’s invocation of rationalism—and an aesthetics of ‘condensation’ attached to mathematics—calls up strange echoes for his treatment of Plato in Bottom (and Benjamin’s in The Arcades Project as well), not least the relative decipherability of the “nice” text for the “finer” reader.

[3] Of course, the same could be said for all poetics, regardless of epoch, but the space between poet and critic, between cited and citer seems to be a problematic explored ad infinitum by modernists. Stephen Collis, along another axis, proposes that the citation-heavy style of much recent criticism grows out of modernist poetics of this stripe (2). In other words, criticism tends to ape the work it purports to examine.

[4] Johnson’s 1977 text—a long poem wholly derived Paradise Lost, presenting what is left after Johnson blacks out of words and letters from the original text (nothing added or changed)—is a prominent example of a fully citational poetics that points towards more recent experiments with procedural and automatic writing.

[5] This is not to suggest that Duncan’s derivative poetics or Johnson’s poetics of corrosion can be reduced to such simplistic distinctions as canonical/non-canonical commoditization. This is especially true of Duncan, who repeatedly emphasized the obscurity and unpopularity of his varied sources. At the least, however, highly allusive works of this sort, consciously or not, are inured to systems of valuation and institutionalization. The question becomes, “how do we account ethically for this complicity?”

[6] Another caveat seems necessary here, since no one (to my knowledge) has ever identified Benjamin as a poet—and he certainly never self-identified as anything other than “critic.” While a re-categorization is beyond the scope of the present paper, I assert (and imply below) that the intermediary position implied by the hyphen in “poet-critic” troubles any simple notion of creator and consumer, oracle and interpreter. I would argue that Benjamin’s writing style continuously falls back on metaphor and analogy to articulate his theoretical insights, and it moves his work into a realm much closer to poetry than most readers have recognized. Benjamin’s imagery in the epigraphs above offers one example of this tendency (and we shall encounter several more examples below). Hannah Arendt, for one, avers that “[w]hat is so hard to understand about Benjamin is that without being a poet he thought poetically and therefore was bound to regard the metaphor as the greatest gift of language” (13). Further, Benjamin’s writing process—to which we will also return below—strikes me as a creative gathering of materials very like the research pursued by self-identified poets, among them writers like Pound and Zukofsky, and, later, Duncan, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and Susan Howe.

[7] I will suggest below we can absorb each of these aspects (to a greater or lesser extent) into one term, “colportage”—but as I articulate my thesis I don’t want to fall into the game of defining (a subject to which Zukofsky dedicates nearly eighty pages in Bottom [in “D. Definitions,” 266—341], and an activity that Benjamin identifies as a limiting and problematic strategy for reading [see n.1 above]).

[8] Or perhaps, as Buck-Morss suggests, it is difficult to decide whether reading and engaging with the text “is a process of discovering the Arcades project, or inventing it” (“Preface” ix).

[9] This list would include, at the very least, Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” “The Author as Producer,” “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” and “The Task of the Translator.”

[10] The uncertain status of the manuscript, and the sheer magnitude of the project never realized, calls to mind William Wordsworth’s Prelude — the opening lines to an opus, The Recluse, never completed in Wordsworth’s lifetime, a work whose scope (even in the introductory section) exceeded its vision.

[11] Benjamin organized his notes into “Konvoluts” with alphabetical markers (not unlike Zukofsky in Bottom) and titles such as “B: Fashion,” “J: Baudelaire,” “O: Prostitution, Gambling,” and “k: The Commune.” As Eiland and McLaughlin explain,

The manuscript is divided into 36 [Konvoluts], their titles keyed to the letters of the alphabet. In addition to Benjamin’s occasional crossreferences to the rubrics of other sheafs [. . .], 32 mysterious symbols (squares, triangles, circles, vertical and horizontal crosses, etc. in various inks and colors) also punctuate the manuscript, apparently privately coded to those portions of the Arcades that Benjamin intended to incorporate into the Baudelaire book he was planning in 19367—1938. (“Translators’ Introduction” 38)

I will draw our attention to “H: The Collector” below.

[12] This suggestion contrasts sharply with Modernism’s consistent challenge to conventional narrative—to that process which reconciles or organizes disparate parts into a cohesive narrative. Indeed, Modernism may be productively read as a multiply-invested negotiation between part and whole (and, by extension, between individual and collective, citizen and society)—most often falling on the side of the particular, the specific, the local.

[13] Zukofsky’s highly self-reflexive chapter “D. Definition” explores this dynamic through an extended exchange between “I. ” and “SON.”—the former asserting his definition of love and attempting to prove it via exemplification, the latter serving as the seemingly necessary interlocutor in a Platonic dialogue (drawing out further explanation and elaboration). A short example may demonstrate the tenor of these exchanges:

          SON. Will you quickly show me how your definition of love—after all it is yours too?—shapes a play like [Henry IV, Part I]? I know how hard it is to stop quoting Shakespeare once you start, but as a reminder of the contents of this play would you cite several passages in order to set up more or less of the synopsis.
          I. You’ll have me tire of my definition. I would rather read by myself, would rather you read for yourself. Well, this once in some detail. After this brush up on the plots. Recall the first line? (267)

A closer examination of the dynamics of this exchange are beyond the scope of the present study, but I do want to point out the dialectical nature of this back-and-forth—a process that leads inexorably to over-explanation. “I.” would prefer to read on his own, without having to justify the reality he sees; “SON.” ensures that each reading, each interpretation, proceeds with careful elaboration. Without it, how is a reader convinced? The oscillation between the ideal solipsism of “I.” and the realist collectivism of “SON.” highlights one facet of the challenge Bottom poses to readers.

[14] Zukofsky might have something to say about this, a defense of sorts: “I’m not for metaphor, unless, as Aristotle says, you bring together unlikes that have never existed before. But they’re in words; they’re in verbs: ‘the sun rises.’ My statements are often very, very clipped” (CL 211). In other words, language is inherently metaphorical, and as such, it readily absorbs apt metaphors (ones that yoke together “unlikes”). On the other hand, Zukofsky seems also to be calling for a “clipped” terseness that trusts in the inherent condensation of meaning always-already housed in language. Again, the relative preponderance of explanation seems to be the central problematic here.

[15] Bottom’s structure supports this extrapolation, since “Volume Two” features a score for Pericles composed by Zukofsky’s wife, Celia. According to Zukofsky, this musical re-purposing of Shakespeare “saves me a lot a words” (“Bottom, A Weaver” 159).

[16] Keeping in mind Benjamin’s admonition at the opening of this paper, I will mention here that Scroggins thoroughly elaborates on the “mind-eyes theme” in his chapter on Bottom—working through a number of sections of the text and identifying the connections Zukofsky continuously makes between perception, sight, and thought. Though once again beyond the purview of the present paper, the question of readerly perception seems particularly pertinent to the quest for definitions as well as the constructions of totality one might pursue in these texts.

[17] These authorial power games have a political dimension, one that grows out of a thin distinction between collage and montage. The elision and synthesis of quotation that Scroggins identifies here—a method we can tease out of The Arcades Project as well—links Zukofsky closely to the way that Pound lorded over the meaning of his Cantos (another highly allusive and mobile opus). Indeed, the poststructuralist openness (and collectivity) implied in an “irruption of the voices of the irreducibly other” points to a Marxist reversal of Pound’s rather fascist absorption of meaning under the authority of the poetic ego.

[18] This complex genealogy (how I came to this term in particular) will have implications for the applicability of colportage to the texts in question, as we shall see below.

[19] Also translated as “colportage phenomenon of space.”

[20] These multiplied histories, this conflation of past with present in a single “display,” dovetails with Benjamin’s notion of the “dialectical image”: “...image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of the Then to the Now is dialectical—not development but image leaping forth” (Arcades Project, “N” 49). By virtue of playful and uncanny juxtaposition, a non-rational (or at the least extra-rational) oscillation between ideas can develop. Benjamin situates readers here somewhere in between surrealist automatic writing and Dadaist found objects.

[21] Jacques Derrida’s notion of citationalité (another undecidable) would serve very well as a theoretical correspondence for an expanded iteration of my thesis, here—see my epigraph and Samuel Weber’s essay in the boundary 2 special issue on The Arcades Project for the beginnings of such a connection.

[22] This tension is intensified if we consider that one must show his discoveries in Plato’s formulation. Who is explaining the significance of this knowledge, positioning it among other constellations of knowledge? Can ‘showing’ traverse the gap between individual thought and collective confirmation and dissemination?

[23] This problematic implicates the present study, as well—especially when one considers the multiply-filtered source of colportage, a pivotal term in the successful articulation of my thesis. Issues of source material are compounded further by the need for an assenting reader of this text, as well.

[24] ‘Camillo. [to Perdita] I should leave grazing, were I of your flock,
And live only by gazing’ (qtd. in Zukofsky 373)

[25] Based on the proximity of this assertion to the quotation about the notion of the “uncompounded,” we can guess that Plato’s critique of impurity informs this self-reflexivity.

[26] Benjamin’s own complicity in this sort of project (he was a collector of Russian toys, for example) is an added layer for any reading of The Arcades Project. At this point, I suggest that Benjamin’s conception of the “primal history” of the 19th century very much mirrors the sort of categorization and assumptions he ascribes to the “collector” in the passage above.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. “Introduction: Walter Benjamin: 1892—1940.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1968. 1—55.

Aristotle. “Poetics.” Critical Theory Since Plato. Revised Edition. Ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Zovanovich, 1992. 50—66.

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1999.

———. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Trans. John Osborne. London: Newloft, 1977.

———. “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia.” 1929. Selected Writings: Volume 2, Part 1, 1927—1930. Ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1999.

Buck-Morss, Susan. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1989.

Collis, Stephen. “At the Bottom of Avon River: A Partial Alphabet of Objects for Louis Zukofsky and HD.” Re-Reading Louis Zukofsky’s Bottom: On Shakespeare: A Symposium for Students, Poets, and Scholars. Oct. 31-Nov. 1, 2003. University at Buffalo. 1—5.

Derrida, Jacques. “Signature Event Context.” Limited Inc. 1972. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1988. 1—23.

Doherty, Brigid. “The ‘Colportage Phenomenon of Space’ and the Place of Montage in The Arcades Project.” Germanic Review. 81.1 (Winter 2006): 37—64.

Eiland, Howard and Kevin McLaughlin. “Translators’ Foreword.” The Arcades Project. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1999. ix-xiv.

———. “Translators’ Introduction to ‘N.’” Benjamin: Philosophy, History, Aesthetics. Ed. Gary Smith. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P, 1989. 38—42.

Eliot, T.S. “The Waste Land.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Seventh Edition, Volume 2. M.H. Abrams et al., eds. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. 2369—83.

Johnson, Ronald. Radi Os. 1977. Chicago, IL: Flood, 2005.

Perelman, Bob. “Foreword.” Bottom: On Shakespeare. Middletown, CO: Wesleyan UP, 2002. vii-xiii.

Plato. “Dialogues: Ion.” Critical Theory Since Plato. Revised Edition. Ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Zovanovich, 1992. 12—18.

Pound, Ezra. The Spirit of Romance. 1910. London: P. Owen, 1952.

Scroggins, Mark. Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge. London: U of Alabama P, 1998.

Speller, T.M. “Bottom’s Elisions.” Re-Reading Louis Zukofsky’s Bottom: On Shakespeare: A Symposium for Students, Poets, and Scholars. Oct. 31-Nov. 1, 2003. University at Buffalo. 1—10.

Weber, Samuel. “‘Streets, Squares, Theaters’: A City on the Move — Walter Benjamin’s Paris.” boundary 2. 30.1 (Spring 2003): 17—30.

Wicke, Jennifer. “Appreciation, Depreciation: Modernism’s Speculative Bubble.” Modernism/Modernity. 8.3 (Sept 2001): 389—403.

Zukofsky, Louis and Celia Thaew Zukofsky. Bottom: On Shakespeare. 1963. Middletown, CO: Wesleyan UP, 2002.

———. “Bottom, A Weaver.” [1961]. Prepositions: The Collected Critical Essays of Louis Zukofsky. New York: Horizon, 1967. 159.

———. Interview with L.S. Dembo. Contemporary Literature. 10.2 (Spring 1969): 203—219.

Graham Lyons

Graham Lyons

Graham Lyons is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. His research interests wander into such areas as contemporary poetics, Modernist autobiography, literary theory, and popular culture. He is currently co-editing with Stephen Collis a collection of essays on Robert Duncan’s derivative poetics.

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