The Failure of Logos and The Fate of Spirit: Fanny Howe’s Gnostic Angel
The question of how poets take up the fate of spirit after 1945 is a complicated one. Given the catastrophic history of the 20th Century, where spirit hovers above the ashes, as Wittgenstein says, many poets working in the postmodernist or late avant-garde vein have shied away from engaging with theological matters directly. They recognize that, like language, spirit has also been damaged by disaster. Lacking recourse to an intact metaphysical tradition, they must be content with a broken discourse. The concerns with spirit that occupied a previous generation (and continue to vex those who would appeal to the government-in-exile of timeless transcendental values) migrate after the war into the question of how to redeem historical disaster and alleviate human suffering. In what follows here I will read the poetry of Fanny Howe, the most spiritually vital poet now writing, through the critical work of Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, both of whom sought, in divergent ways, to redeem spirit by redeeming history. Howe’s work rejuvenates history by staking a fragile claim, not on logos itself, the incarnated Word, but on a tenuous, yet powerful, faith in logos. She does this, I argue, through a counter-intuitive turn to the gnostic.
What Raymond Williams said of “nature” could be applied with equal justice to “spirit.” It is one of the most overdetermined words in the language, admitting to such varied usage as to be practically meaningless. Yet the one thing these usages of spirit share in common is the designation of a non-material essence or property, either transcendental, in the theological sense; belonging to an intuitive order of perception, in the poetic sense; or describing an innate attribute, drive, or feature of character or mind in the psychological sense. Spirit is a word that serves many masters. Above all, it designates an interiority that is both autopoetic and self-reflexive.
Hegel uses it to indicate the ways in which subjective intellect or feeling informs the common values of a group before articulating itself through the historical process by which the World-at-Large recognizes its own totality; a kind of pan-cultural self-reflexivity. Dialectics propels spirit along through its successive stages of identity, through ever widening spheres of self-consciousness, toward the culmination of history brought about by the tiered negational movements which alone can articulate Absolute Spirit. This is history on the grand scale, a massively self-assured teleological metaphysics.
By the time this tradition is transmitted to Theodor Adorno the necessity for standing it on its head has become clear. The rivalry for dominance between fascist, totalitarian, and capitalist systems that led to two world wars and unspeakable atrocities destroyed the elegant dream of a self-realized and unified World Spirit. Adorno’s use of spirit derives from the classic German Idealist tradition, but is dialectically turned in such a way as to oppose the idea of spirit as a vehicle for world history or unifying social totality. What spirit signifies for Adorno is “inwardness,” a category of subjective experience that has become increasingly emptied out to the degree to which the autonomous subject has lost any purchase on its own experience. This inwardness, Adorno, says, poses a problem for art since it is at once “the mirage of an inner kingdom” that has become empty of content and yet without which “art is scarcely imaginable” (AT 116). To meet this challenge, art must become enigmatic, or endarkened, says Adorno. It must “do justice to contingency,” which can be read as another word for history, “by probing in the darkness of the trajectory of its own necessity. The more truly art follows this trajectory, the less self-transparent art is. It makes itself dark” (AT 115). This endarkenement pushes back against the synthesizing propensities of spiritualization and its inevitable drift toward abstraction and totalization.
In the work of Fanny Howe, this darkening takes the form of what she calls “bewilderment,” the loss of a spiritual horizon, a disorientation that leaves one stranded. “Bewilderment,” she writes, is an “error and errancy,” “a blindness to experience,” and a “whirling … that is central to the natural way for the poet” (WD 6, 7, 18). Bewilderment might also be messianic, in the sense used by Giorgio Agamben: it’s the sudden plunge into now-time, the time of the now, which he also describes as the truer, or inner, meaning of parousia. Echoing Heidegger, for whom being was constituted by time, Agamben writes that “the time of the messiah is the time that we ourselves are, the dynamic time where, for the first time, we grasp the time that is ours, grasp that we are nothing but that time” (C 12). This insistence on the Nowness of time is, in fact, the real Second Coming, which is not an event outside of time, but the entrance into a fuller sense of being made possible only through the intervention of the now-time.
As Adorno sees it, art must embrace such bewilderment, acknowledging its own doubtful position in the spiritual wilderness. To become truly redemptive, he claims, art must act so that “the spirit in it throws itself away” (AT 118). This radical self-canceling “holds true to the shudder, but not by regression to it. Rather, art is its legacy. The spirit of artworks produces the shudder by externalizing it in objects” (AT 188). That is, art replicates the originary shudder of recognition and displacement in the work itself, which, endarkened and estranging, disrupts spirit’s recidivist move to totality. In this sense, all artworks are caesuras, ritual scissions which cut open the illusory fabric binding social relations to their ideological structures. If spirit for Hegel is rational self-consciousness coupled to a restless pursuit of self-negation and overcoming that stems from the desire for achieving an absolute self-realization, then for Adorno spirit's vitality must always remain oppositional. This opposition takes the form of failure by refuting art’s affirmational character and insisting instead on the limits of art, after Auschwitz, to any longer represent anything but its own collapse. Art must find the shards of redemption amid the rubble.
A poetry that would speak of spirit, then, must first of all speak of its own failure. This is Beckett’s stance. For Beckett, the history of the 20th Century has destroyed the power of traditional aesthetic forms. As he relates in a 1961 interview:
"It only means that there will be a new form; and that this form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else. The form and the chaos remain separate. The latter is not reduced to the former. That is why the form itself becomes a preoccupation, because it exists as a problem separate from the material it accommodates. To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now (qtd. in Bair, 523)."
A poetics of failure involves a rejection of aesthetics as such. It is built around a form of writing that incorporates the logic of failure, which is that writing can never be adequate to experience.
But if failure means recognizing the limits of the poem, it also represents a stubborn persistence in the poem’s ability to signify even after its ruination. True failure begins with the recognition that speech is always already crippled. That poetry itself is a species of disability and the struggle to pronounce its own condition from out of a deep aphasia. Failure, then, carries a kenotic value, as I will discuss in greater detail in a moment. It empties itself out not to make room, as it were, for a new meaning, but to show that meaning itself is an empty category. It is not what we thought it was. Not knowledge as such, in the positive sense of acquired information, but a negational gnosis, a not-knowing that is the occasion for the most profound unsettling. But besides a commitment to marking the insufficiency of language to forge a grammar of being, failure signifies the embrace of the broken, of the fragment. It names the desire for a redemption that is non-transcendental and non-teleological. The poem of failure commits to its own poverty, seeking the fragments that have lodged in the ruins of history.
As Walter Benjamin notes, what can saves history from the catastrophe of reification is to write in an allegorical form of transmission that exhibits the fissures within it. The failed poem is the poem that commits to those fissures. A materialist historian, he writes, or a poet, I might add:
"Stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the time of the now which is shot through with chips of Messianic time (Illum 263)."
To write the time of the now is the work which Fanny Howe’s poetry undertakes. She is singular among her contemporaries for the way she engages both with matters of spirit and the wreckage of the house theology has built for it. Her work negotiates the messy terrain between affirmation and ruin by asking what it might mean for a poet to declare herself, as she puts it, a holy atheist. Is it the same thing as being a post-metaphysical poet? One who writes to a god after the death of God? (Howe’s approach is not to be confused with the vulgar atheism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who make a fetish of rationalism, thereby proving Max Weber’s point about how “the disenchantment of the world” has led to catastrophe). One of Howe’s great achievements is that she recognizes that a failed world requires a gnostic poetics to redeem it. It is a poetics of total exposure and vulnerability in which the fate of the soul is always at stake, because the body’s fragility is equally at stake.
Despite an extraordinarily prolific output comprised, at last count, of fifteen books of poetry, elven novels, and three essay collections, her work is far less well known than it deserves to be. Though praised by her peers, Howe’s received scant critical attention. One reason for this, I’d venture, is her subject matter: the lives of the spirit, as the title of one of her books has it. Romana Huk’s terrific 2009 essay on The Wedding Dress does a lot to redress this deficiency. According to Huk, the challenge Howe’s work presents to readers of experimental poetry is that of a richly informed poetic theology that draws on “devastatingly secularized theories about language” (SL 658). Howe maps these theories onto gnostic modalities that encompass both the a-theistic and what Richard Kearney has called the ana-theistic.
In Howe’s work, gnostic, or heretical, faith, announces itself as a commitment to an open-ended process of discovery, a refusal of closure, and a willingness to undergo, or suffer, estrangement and difference for the sake of a spiritual thirst for justice that may be unquenchable. Such a knowing is not arrived at through reason, but by experience; an experience of a gnostic logos with the poem as its vehicle of transmission. To ask how logos became gnostic is to trace how the alien god of the ancient Gnostics has migrated into the alien word of postmodern poetics. Howe’s poetry works to build a home in our un-homed-ness as Adorno might put it. How to dwell in uncanniness. The alien god of the Gnostics is not the evil demiurge who imprisoned the soul in matter, but the thought that, as Derrida writes, “welcomes alterity into logos” (Anatheism, 5). For Hans Jonas, who put modern gnosis on the map, gnosis is “concerned with the secrets of salvation; knowledge is not just theoretical information about things but is itself … charged with performing a function in the bringing about of salvation” (GR 36).
The sage of New Haven Harold Bloom maintains that gnosis is “not rational knowledge but like poetic knowledge … [it] alters both knower and known without blending them into a unity” (A 4-5). Bloom is clear that gnosis is not to be confused with clarity. It is uncanny, enigmatic. “It emphasizes that transition is more real than being” (A 13). But Bloom’s vision of gnosis, rendered with more force than persuasion through his readings of Emerson, Crane, and Stevens is finally little more than an expression of a desire for poetic mastery, a kind of patralogical will to the Oversoul, rather than a surrender to the mystery of being one finds in say Simone Weil, who is an important figure for Howe. Finally, Stef Aupers reminds us that: “Epistemologically, gnostic knowledge does not arise from a reality ‘out there’… it instead relies on an ‘inner source’—on personal experience, imagination, or intuition” (RBC 688-89). What’s central to all three of these views is the privileged role granted to poetic imagination, which can bring about a radical new cognition not predicated on empirical methodologies, but arrived at by epistemological disruption, a forcible intrusion from within – a gnosis of embodied logos. This is one way to understand gnostic poetics today and it is how we need to read it in Howe’s urgent and harrowing work.
Howe’s own comments on ancient Gnosticism are instructive. In her essay “Contemporary Logos,” she revisits the argument between the Gnostic Marcion and the Platonist Philo. Marcion rejected Yahweh as a “false representation of the disappeared God,” writes Howe, looking instead to the serpent of Eden, with its promise of knowledge, as the exiled alien God, forever other and outside (WD 74). Logos may be our source, she says, but in our finitude we are alienated from it, a situation she goes on to link to the predicament shared by many of Samuel Beckett’s characters. Howe’s poem, “The Source,” from her 2003 collection, Gone, speaks to the estrangement of the logos, but rather than resigning to estrangement she finds in it a form of welcome or hospitality.
I thought was Arctic
the good Platonic
Up the pole
was soaked film
an electric elevation
onto a fishy platform
and waves on two sides greenly welcoming
The sunwater poured on holy atheism
It was light that powered out
my ego or my heart
before ending with a letter (G 46).
In this enigmatic yet inviting poem, Howe seems to be rethinking her relationship to Logos as Source. Once thought of as Arctic, Platonic – half-rhymed words that provide a sense of a higher reality’s remoteness, sealed off by hierarchical tiers – the divine now becomes electric, fishy, lit by sunwater – in a word, earthy. “The Source” traces the signature move in Howe’s work: a turn from the transcendent to the immanent. A disavowal of the heavenly and an embracing of the body. A turn away from the thought of a source that powers the heart from outside to the recognition that the poem, after all, ends with a letter, a material sign. “The Source” marks Howe as a gnostic Catholic, abandoned by The Word yet unapologetically devoted to an idea of logos, with a small “l,” not as a stabilizing force, but as a alienated posture from which to re-think and unwork orthodox systems of belief. Her poetry re-articulates the grounds of faith as a radical doubt, an uncertainty about the estranged status of the word, which is no longer to be found radiating from on high, but right here, among the ordinary things of the everyday, abject, impoverished, in crisis. Howe’s willingness to inhabit the house of alienated spirit is a poetic testing of faith not unlike George Oppen’s dedicated testing of the basis of the real. “Doubt,” she writes, “allows God to live” (WD 120). Gnostic poetics is the faith of doubt, the commitment to uncertainty and its confusions.
Howe’s work asks us to consider not only the theological value of heresy – the way it disrupts prevailing orthodoxies and calcified doctrines – but heresy as a force for progressive social change. Her gnosis is a feminist one: rooted in the experience of being a woman it challenges the gender politics that sets the agenda for both things of the spirit and things of the body. As Rachel Blau DuPlessis has recently noted: “there are no genderless subjects in any relationship structuring literary culture” (PP 3). Nor are there any in religious culture, either, I might add. So we need to think of Howe’s work as a specifically gendered form of gnosis, along the lines mapped out by both feminist and liberation theologies, which speak to the poor and the disenfranchised, whose work is to reclaim a space for the marginal and the oppressed. Space doesn’t permit me to do anything more than gesture at this, but it’s crucial for understanding how Howe’s poetics of gnostic theology is also a poetics of social justice. For Howe, life’s urgency calls from every moment: “Every experience,” she writes, “that is personal is simultaneously an experience that is supernatural” (WD 19). But this urgency is countered by the realization which she recalls in her memoir, The Winter Sun, that “the prevailing writers (Kerouac, Rexroth, Corso) were all male, leaving the women to shuffle barefoot around masculine territory” (WS 64).
Despite these struggles to find a voice, or because of them, Howe’s poetry attains the simplicity and clarity of fable or fairy tale – charged with a luminous directness whose straightforward diction retains a beguiling air of mystery, a sense that words themselves are potential sites for the miraculous, events in which grace might take form as speech. Laid out in short, clipped, yet lilting lines, and full of slanted end rhymes, they create a contrapuntal music between the declarative and the aphoristic. This is from her serial poem, “Servitude” (1988):
Torn from the language of my childhood
When I was cut to size
And it was done, I leaned down
To where the clay turns soft
Like this I splurged on liturgy
It gave me a migraine to read the word GOD
In water lights, in everything good
Instead I saw stones
Happy Ohs, the vowels and holes
Of planetary silence (V 79).
The splurge on liturgy (typical of Howe’s delicious assonance) results in piercing pain. Such a triumphalist economy of divine expenditure won’t answer to her needs. Only stones and voids and silence can provide the “oh” that is the sign and call of both spiritual distress and the surprise of astonishment and pleasure. “Oh” may be the secret core of gnosis.
This desire to be both distressed and astonished is perhaps most forcefully articulated in Howe’s manifesto, “Bewilderment” (from the 2003 collection of essays The Wedding Dress). Huk has discussed this collection with considerable insight, but I want to touch briefly on it here in order to outline just how radical Howe’s theological investments in atheism really are. As she puts it: “The atheist is no less an inquirer than a believer” (WD 10). What the atheist desires most is a language – a logos – capable of dealing with the vast confusion of experience. She names this confusion bewilderment. “Bewilderment is an enchantment that follows a complete collapse of reference and reconcilability … [it] circumnavigates … the empty but ultimate referent” (WD 15, 20). Bewilderment is a radical de-centering, a self-emptying out that exposes the self to the other. It invites in difference, rather than seeking after the identical. Huk comments that bewilderment is about “losing one’s way,” abandoning “familiar models of progress and self-expression” and “decentering the self.”
As Howe herself states: “[bewilderment] breaks open the lock of dualism … and peers out into space” (WD 15). To become bewildered is to undergo dethronement, or in Adornian terms, endarkenment. It is a negation of the aesthetic through kenosis, a forsaking of the transcendental logos for a gnostic logos residing in the body. Kenosis is the doctrine, first declared by Paul (in Phillippians 2:5), that Christ put off his divinity to become mortal, the logos made flesh, and so accomplished a second fall into history and suffering. As Graham Ward explains it, kenosis is both “a radical reading of Hegel’s notion of negativity” and “language in crisis” (RMP 235, 36). Drawing on the theological writings of Hans Urs von Baltasar, Ward outlines a radical conception of kenosis:
"Kenosis, then, is not the act of the Son, it is the disposition of love within the Trinitarian community. It is a community constituted by differences which desire the other … obedience to that desire to abandon oneself is the nature of one’s calling or mission – for the going out or the mission is always the act of love towards the other (RMP 242)."
In its spiritual nakedness, Howe’s poetry exemplifies this desire to abandon oneself for the sake of the other. The poem becomes a vehicle for evacuation, not out of one’s will, but toward a submission of the will to alterity itself.
To give just one brief example of how kenosis and embodiment are gnostically intertwined in Howe’s work I will look at a poem from The Quietist (1992):
Zero built a nest
In my navel. Incurable
Longing. Blood too –
From violent actions
It’s a nest belonging to one>br> But zero uses it
And its pleasure is its own (SP 141).
Zero performs an exemplary function here as heretical/gnostic agent, acting as the figure for both fullness and emptiness (registered moreover by the explicitly female body, its omphalos the site of parturition and evacuation). Zero is the postmodern gnostic trope par excellence. It’s promiscuous with heresy, with the “the happy Oh of vowels and ohs.” But it’s also, as Howe notes, what the Zohar calls “point Zero,” or God (WD 47). Signifying both fullness and emptiness then, zero is the “bewilderment” of opening to a profound vulnerability, a desire for redemption achieved through a commitment to uncertainty. Bewilderment in Howe performs a liturgy of emptying out in order to keep faith with the anxiety of not knowing, which finally produces a deep empathy. As the sign which evacuates itself, zero is the radiant performance of its own kenosis, the exemplary sign of weak theological power, the Pauline trope of logos tou starous – “the logos on the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18) which marks one strand of Christian theology (the other being the militant theology of glory, which focuses on the ascent of humanity into heaven). Cross theology tends to Christ’s descent from divinity into the suffering of human history and accordingly emphasizes humility and service to the poor. It has been re-framed by postmodern theologian John Caputo as “weak theology,” which he characterizes as a stripping away of God’s omnipotence, his sovereign power, which is replaced, not by the God of negative theology but by a suffering God, a God in pain, as Zizek calls him (though it’s worth noting that Caputo will have no truck with Zizek). Simone Weil describes this process beautifully:
"God wears himself out through the infinite thickness of time and space in order to reach the soul and to captivate it … we are what is furthest from God, situated at the extreme limit from which it is not absolutely possible to come back to him. In our being, God is torn. We are the crucifixion of God (GG 140-41)."
The idea of a vulnerable, suffering, abject God allows weak theology to intervene in the suffering of history, much as Benjamin conceived of a weak messianic force that was powerless to effect the future but just sufficient to redeem the past.
Howe’s notion of zero asks us to think of it cinematically, as a superimposition shot, in which “a nest belonging to one” is also used by zero. It’s a position resonant with what Richard Kearney calls anatheism: the return to God after God. Anatheism imagines a post-metaphysical turn toward the idea of a God who neither is nor is-not, but is located in a third category, that of the May-Be or the messianic. This "God Who May Be" (as the title of Kearny’s 1993 book has it) is a God who, as he reveals himself to Moses through the Burning Bush, “flares up and withdraws, promising always to return, to become again ... who resists quietism as much as zealotry… an Exodic God whose exile marks him as both outside and on the way … who obviates the extremes of atheistic and theistic dogmatism in the name of a still small voice that whispers and cries in the wilderness” (QG 170). It is God’s abjection that redeems him and us because, unlike triumphalist theology and its insistence on transcendence, abjection does not blindly refuse the horrors of history or the challenges of how to meet the suffering other. “The anatheist moment,” Kearney writes, “is one available to anyone who experiences instants of deep disorientation, doubt, or dread, when we are no longer sure who we are or where we are going” (A 5). In other words, endarkened. In other words, bewildered. The anatheist moment is that time during anyone who has suffered the failure of logos can still find the resources to bear witness to the fate of spirit after Auschwitz. This failure registers itself in the quest for a not-knowing, a knowing otherwise, a gnostic commitment to the ruins of the word that stakes it faith in the power of language through a constitutive doubt. In the post-Auschwitz era, such a commitment is imperative. The poet, like Benjamin’s historical materialist, is obligated to free history from the myths the present constructs around it. As Jacques Derrida puts it, the para-theological intervention of the messianic “mandates that we interrupt the ordinary course of things, time and history here-now; it is inseparable from an affirmation of otherness and justice” (GD 251). This is what Howe’s work achieves as well. By staging the poem as a continual agon that contests the viability of its own terms it uses failure to work out its salvation.
Howe’s work remind us that prayer, like poetry, is a peculiar form of language that stages intervention as the failure of logos. The condition of prayer is not that it should be answered, only that it be continually put forth as a question. This kind of failure is the admission of poetry’s essential poverty. Rather than seeking to legislate the world, it asks how can I start again? Kenotic prayer, like kenotic poetry, insures its survival by means of its failure. Logos becomes body, the word made flesh, not so that the body is redeemed but so that logos may experience a fall and be humbled. In the same way that Meister Eckhart prays to God to be free of God, Fanny Howe prays to the poem to be free of the poem. As she writes in one of the sections of her 2003 masterwork, “The Passion”:
I hate therefore
The word “prayer”
Since every word is one
The angel must be laughing
Crouched to examine the pink flower
Petals bending over a thorn and pen (G 83).
If each word is a prayer, then each word is messianic. A moment of speaking that is angelic, that is, an intervention into the now, a cutting into time from outside of time that leads us back to this moment. As Henri Nouwen observes, “Prayer is dying to all that we consider to be our own” (RP 21-22). In his hermetic essay from 1933, “Agesilaus Santander,” Walter Benjamin writes: “The Kabbalah relates that, at every moment, God creates a whole host of new angels, whose only task before they return to the void is to appear before His throne for a moment and sing His praises” (SW 712). Benjamin’s notion of the angelic is temporal. In his famous description of Klee’s “Angelus Novus,” his angel of history gazes on the debris of the past as it surges forward into the future. The angel’s task is not to save the future, but rather to redeem the past by making it visible as the past. This sudden moment of illumination breaks the chain of historical determinism. The term for this moment in Christian theology is grace. In my reading of Howe’s gnostic poetics, kenosis produces gnosis which in turn, gives way, perhaps, to a moment of grace. Another overdetermined, yet utterly necessary, word. Howe’s laughing angel seems to recognize that the predicament of spirit is that the wound and the record of the wound – the thorn and the pen – are co-constitutive, inextricably bound together in the condition of time we call mortality. Otherwise known as being alive.
Perhaps to acknowledge this condition of the wound is only to declare oneself outside of mainstream proscriptions for faith. Faith posits itself as the enemy of doubt, but without doubt, what is faith? Ernest Bloch remarks that “the best thing about religion is that it creates heretics … what is decisive is to transcend without transcendence” (AC n.p.). This is a faith for the faithless, in Simon Critchley’s exquisite phrase. “The faith of the faithless,” he writes, “reveals the true nature of faith: the rigorous activity of the subject that proclaims itself into being at each instant without guarantees of security, and which seeks to abide with the infinite demand of love. Faith is the enactment of the self in relation to an infinite demand that both exceeds my power and yet requires all my power” (FF 18). Such a faithless, heretical form of transcendence is what Howe’s gnostic poetics strives for. “God cannot be reduced to the word God,” she states, and yet, at the same time, she claims “we may not know if there is a God or not, but we do know that there is a word” (WD 81). Gnostic poetry’s desire is for the strange materiality of that word.
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