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"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Thinking the Messianic

Up till now, this blog -- despite its provocative title -- has remained conspicuously silent on the topic of the messianic. Partly this was out of a desire not to be limited by a single topic, which seemed dreary and confining. But it was also because I was finding my way into the form of blogging itself, rather timidly, to be sure.

The initial entry paired two thoughts on the messianic by Benjamin and Derrida as a kind of bracket or limit-set for how to think about the messianic and what it offers us. And what, exactly, is that? As directly as possible, it has to do with the recovery of a certain domain of experience, a recovery that will allow not only for the survival of the personal, but the potential redemption of history. Above all, it is deeply construed with the vigilance of the promise, of potentiality itself.

In some way I can as yet only intuit, experience and the messianic are intimately linked, conjoined, even. There is much to say on this, some of which I may return to here, but the bulk of which will be reserved for my dissertation on Oppen, Palmer, DuPlessis and the afterlives of Objectivist poetry.

For now, I reprint here an essay that originally appeared in English Language Notes 44.1. It's a belabored piece, very heavy-going, but it represents my first attempts to think through this knot about five or six years ago.

The Breaking of the Vessels: Toward a Lyric of Messianic Form

“God becomes God when all creatures speak God forth: there ‘God’ is born.”
— Meister Eckhart, German Sermon 27

“To bear witness to God is precisely not to state this extraordinary word.”
— Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being


If it is to speak at all of spirit, to what must lyric address itself? To what bear witness? Spirit falls, a catastrophe. First, in its unlooked-for coming; still more in its harrowing departure. The space that spirit opens in us is a rending. A wound. It enters us as another language, made of a strangeness we can barely begin to comprehend. Like trauma, spirit refuses to be internalized, except as the unassimilated and ongoing aftershock of its impact and wake. Thereafter, it haunts us.


The poem that speaks of spirit today must find a way to work inside this catastrophe. It must take up residence in the tension between saying and not-saying, between Eckhart’s cataphatic nomination of God through the reciprocity of human speech and Levinas’s apophatic interdiction on the word for God itself. This new lyric (it resists history even as it succumbs to it) must inhabit the crisis of form arising from the opposition between utterance and silence. For to say “spirit” is to enter an aporia in which form itself breaks open, rended by the trauma, the raptus, of that which haunts language from outside. The invasion of mysterium tremendum. In the face of such an invasion, the old franchise on the rhetoric of transcendence dissolves. The catastrophe of spirit’s onset plunges lyric into loss.

Yet lyric, which is a swing of grace, antiphonal gesture toward an empty horizon, lyric still longs to say its originary affirmation, even if it is a song of mourning. That there is no origin is no impediment. The poem speaks always already in response-to; this is the condition of its founding and its brokenness. Likewise the desire for spirit comes after we are broken. The performance of tikkun which lyric undertakes occurs as a response to the brokenness of the world. In the fissure opened up by the breaking of being, by God’s self-recusal, the absolute need to bear witness to this evacuation descends. Lyric must become messianic.

The messianic lyric rejects the thematizing of spirit, that foreclosure of being into a circumscribed category, flush with certitude, the anathema of mystics. For it, presence is an event, not a state. The swift arc of a radical disruption, not a steady continuum. The poem wishing to say spirit looks askance at the valorizing proclamation of alleluia and its unmediated invocation of presence, even as it relishes the musical play of the word itself, its pure semiosis. It longs instead for the interstices in such code words as “glory,” those spaces of a radiant-going-beyond where the desire for God empties language of the name for God.

“God becomes God when all creatures speak God forth.” In this reciprocal equation, Eckhart places the speech act – logos – at the center of an autotelic poetics of lallation: the word nominates the world and the world incarnates the word. At the same time, like Levinas, he implores: “I pray God to make me free of God.” It is only by erasing “God” from God that the messianic poet wishing to speak spirit may truly escape the overdetermination of the divine. To say by way of unsaying is crucial for the poem that longs to utter the most ruined and impossible of words. Apophasis is not simply a rhetorical inversion, but the eucharistic movement of form that responds most urgently to the trauma of spirit.

If the messianic lyric must avoid naming God as such, it does so because radical form acts as the manifestation of revelation’s mystery. The poem’s ability to show forth this mystery derives its authority from the intercession of difference, from the keeping in play of spirit’s indeterminable status as a living force and not what Jean-Luc Marion has called an “idol of being.”

In many ways, the question of saying spirit is intimately enmeshed with the question of form. Spirit’s rupture requires a radical form that can speak mystery as mystery, as the presence of the unnamable, and not as a fetish.

Yet doesn’t relinquishing what Derrida terms the “master name” of Being place a still greater strain on the poetic work of tikkun? Like the trauma inflicted by the Lurianic withdrawal of God from the world after the breaking of the vessels, différance situates the messianic poem deep within its moment of impoverishment, in the acknowledgement of the frailty and inadequacy of all our forms of address for God.

This nadir is pure gift: it offers itself as the basis for a radical spiritual economy. After différance, after the trauma of God’s caesura, the messianic lyric abandons thematization so that it may revel in the dance of spirit’s seizure and evacuation, re-enacting the wound through a poetics that will transform loss into plenitude. The fissure rent by différance offers a magnanimous breaking open, a liberation from the ossified regime of conventional sacred discourse.

The messianic lyric utters the trauma of spirit’s wounding apophatically, as a form able to say “spirit” as if for the first time. That this is an impossible saying does not deter it from saying it over and over as if each day were the Annunciation. Each moment the strait gate, as Benjamin says, through which the Messiah might enter. Messianic lyric invests the horizon of its call with the expectation of another – the impossible response that must come from outside – what Jean-Louis Chretien calls “the disruptive suddenness of the unhoped for.” That which is ever ahead of us and always coming toward us, both already within and always outside of all expectation. In this way it seeks to guard spirit from spirit, refusing to reify the experience of spirit by turning it into the spiritual as such. Rather than genuflect before an outworn rhetoric of piety, it stages the brokenness of its own speech as the necessary condition for any genuine ebullitio of what stands beyond saying.

The messianic lyric generates its apophatic structure out its own brokenness and the world’s. This brokenness obliges it to render spirit as strange: outside. As something flashing up in the gaps between a totalizing fullness and an indeterminate emptiness. In the caesura that inaugurates spirit’s presence/absence (the “pure word” Hölderlin called it), in this khoric space kenosis – the breaking and emptying out of form – blooms into parousia and the fracturing of poetic form grows radical plenitude. The strangeness of being approaches as a haunting and a hovering, a profound uncertainty. To say this strangeness the poem must develop a strangeness of form capable of acknowledging it, however inadequately. Part of the strangeness of being is that being desires to escape being. To attain to an ex-cendence, as Levinas says. The lyric that would affirm such escape must pronounce it otherwise. Like Marion’s description of the eucharistic gift, the messianic lyric “anticipates what we will be, will see, will love: figura nostra … facing the gift we cannot yet welcome.”

Facing this gift means the poem must negate the history that enmires God. The peculiar power of the negative permits the poem to speak of God in such a way that the aporia of divine presence offers consolation from the very scene of the crime, the place of wounding and withdrawal. The trauma of God’s withdrawal from the world is generative: the primary occasion for the incursion of the unexpected.

Grace – arriving violently, in the breaking of the first set of Mosaic tablets, through the shattered forms of the vessels unable to hold the divine light – grace comes as both our belatedness – that is, the gulf of our distance from God – and the very condition that enables our rescue through the unhomed strangeness of radical form. In the messianic poem, grace appears as a kind of repetition compulsion: the annunciation, over and over again, of the enigma that refuses to yield itself to us from within the chasm of God’s night.


“There will be new form, and 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 ... To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now. Being is constantly putting form in danger.”
— Samuel Beckett

Mallarme dreamt of a spiritualized book, a poem of the deeply immanent that would contain the entire world in an impossible transcendent text. Isn’t this the trans-tautological loop of Eckhartian poetics which names God to Godness through the reciprocating apostrophe of the world’s beings? That same apostrophe calls spirit to enter the poem in the doxology made possible by the rupture of form.

The poem rends spirit in order to render it as a response to the trauma of God’s silence, the kenotic departure from the world. What the divine has emptied, the poem must re-fill, wounding speech with the hope for a response whose power will carry us further into the surprise of the wound itself. Messianic poetics may be understood as an extravagant recovery of presence through the tropes for absence.

To speak of God is to speak of the original wound, the enigma of a trauma about a vanishing that whispers in fading echoes of a way to go beyond Being. Into the interstices of the Not-Yet.

In Howard Schwartz’s re-telling of the classic Talmudic tale, “The Golden Dove,” a traveling rabbi forgets to say his morning prayers before setting out on the road. Returning to the campsite, he finishes his ritual, when he sees a nub of gold peeking through the ground. Brushing the dirt away from it, he pries loose a golden dove. But the warmth of his hands transforms the statue to a living bird, which straightaway flies up to Heaven and perches on a branch outside the Messiah’s window. From time to time the dove flies back down to earth to judge if humanity is ready for the Messiah’s coming. But each time we are not and so the dove returns to its branch, where it remains silent for three days before resuming its songs of promise and deferral.

The messianic lyric also says, “Not yet.” Meaning, everything is still promised, still to come. Like the golden dove, it arrives not merely to give consolation, but to offer the promise of promise, the gift of pure potentiality, without which nothing can be accomplished. The poem is a temporal construct Inside the strictures of time completion can never become complete. Just so, the tikkun that the poem undertakes will never be finished. The reparation of Being that the poem aims for must itself be thought of as broken. It must be thought of as open, underway, in the continual act of remembering a forgotten prayer, continually in search of a new form, a new way to speak of and to being’s brokenness, to the abject condition of our spiritual poverty, so that to recognize the acute sovereignty of our being is to acknowledge at the same time how deeply estranged we are from it.

The dream of the pure word that could say spirit or being as it is, of the Adamic language which could, in Merleau-Ponty’s words, “deliver us to the thing itself,” has a long history. It is this history - the history of the downfall of the word – that the messianic lyric must work inside of even as it strives to break free of it. Writing of Benjamin’s dream of this pre-Babel idiom, Agamben observes: “What remains unsayable and unsaid in every language is therefore precisely what every language means and wants to say: pure language, the expressionless word.” The empty word. The kenotic word. The word that survives after all meaning has been drained away from the broken vessel so that all we may hear of it is a lingering tone, a resonance, an echo of distant bird song from a window outside the house of the Messiah. An impossible word. A song that is both the sign for and the body of the messianic poem as it inhabits the catastrophe of its broken prayer, not in exile, but in radical immanence. The messianic lyric is always broken, that is, never original, but continually haunted by what has preceded it, a speech without a beginning. It always asks: “when?” To which its own reply is never anything but, “yes.”

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