Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


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

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Poetics of Failure

There are two ways to view the idea of the poetics of failure. The first is in the material sense: the life and career of the poet as a disappointment of ambition or achievement, marked by a history of neglect or indifference from the reading public, critics and publishers Poets who might be thought of this way include Oppen, Bunting, and Niedecker. Yet all of them managed to acquire well-deserved second acts late in life. Failure was redeemed, and became part of their myth, encoded as a perversely positive value, part of the larger trope of poetic privation.

The second category of failure is more difficult to define. It involves a willed aesthetic of the failed poem, built around a form of writing that incorporates the logic of failure, that writing can never be adequate to itself. As Beckett puts it: “Fail again. Fail better.” This is a familiar enough trope, outlined most thoroughly by Blanchot, but in certain writers it becomes not only ascendant, but comes to stand for the kernel of the writer’s accomplishment. Kafka and Beckett are perhaps the primary examples, while Baudelaire is failure’s patron saint. Benjamin belongs to both groups, and because he recognized the poetics of failure early on in both Baudelaire, Kafka and himself, is the exemplary diagnostician of failure.

But if failure means recognizing the limits of the poem, it also represents a stubborn persistence in the ability to signify even after the hermetic mode of poetry has contaminated the Orphic.

(More on this later, after our move to Amherst).

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Kenotic Speech

The idea of kenotic speech, of a self-emptying utterance that seeks zero as the point of plenitude and negation as the space of fullness, runs through poets from Oppen and Palmer to Andrew Joron. Maurice Blanchot takes up this impulse in several of his essays on poetry in The Work of Fire. In commenting on Rene Char, for instance, he writes:

"The poem goes toward absence, but it is to reconstruct total reality with it ... the search for totality, in all its forms, is the poetic claim par excellence, a claim in which the impossibility of being accomplished is included as its condition" (Work of Fire 104).

Similarly, in his essay on Holderlin, he remarks that “the language of the poem is nothing but the retention, the transmission of its own impossibility” (WF 126). Perhaps Blanchot's most eloquent exposition of this principle of kenotic speech comes in his essay on Mallarme:

"What does writing care about? To free us from what is … this liberation is accomplished by the strange possibility we have of creating emptiness around us, putting a distance between us and things. This possibility is genuine … because it is linked to the deepest feeling of our existence—anguish, say some, boredom, says Mallarme … it corresponds exactly to the function of writing, whose role is to replaced the thing with its absence, the object with its ‘vibratory disappearance.’ Literature’s law is this movement toward something else, toward a beyond that yet escapes us because it cannot be, and of it we grasp only ‘the knowing lack,’ that ‘we have.’ It is this lack, this emptiness, this vacant space that is the purpose and true creation of language" (WF 40).

This resonates with Allan Grossman's pronouncements in The Sighted Singer: “Orphic song is the speech of the world after it has ceased to be world, and its subject is the speech of the world before it has become world” (365). This recursive relationship between speech and absence, speech and presence – the world gone and the world returned – comprises the heart of kenotic poetics.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Re-Runs: Watching Steven Spielberg

My good friend D, who's a bit younger than I am, recently expressed surprise when I turned up my nose at Jurassic Park. “You don’t like it?” he asked, incredulous. “That’s a great film!”* But even allowing for generational differences in the cultural production of taste, Jurassic Park is not a great film, not even by Spielberg’s standards. And it’s only mildly entertaining. The best thing that can be said about Jurassic Park, bits and pieces of which I watched again on AMC while taking breaks from my Oppen chapter, is that it aspires to be a theme park. Which is rather ingenious, in a way, if deeply cynical. It’s a B-movie weighted down with the hubris of an A-budget and a first-rate cast. Where it should be nimble, it lumbers about clumsily. Indeed, the most pleasurable moments are watching the reaction shots of two pros, the ineffable Laura Dern and the canny Sam O’Neill.

All the JP films are scripted with B-movie logic, but only JP-2 actually delivers the juice: as a re-make of Gorgo, it’s fast, down, and dirty. It can hold its head high alongside such classics as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Gwangi. Though in keeping with the Spielberg template, it can’t forgo shamelessly exploiting the audience with the plight of the child-in-peril. So many of Spielberg’s films are about broken families, of course, but the way he employs the spectacle of terrified children in JP is shameless. (He uses the same gambit in War of the Worlds, but despite Dakota Fanning’s glazed state of terror she can’t quite upstage the hyper-self-conscious and frenetic Tom Cruise).

Jurassic Park on one level is little more than a remake of Jaws, a kind of “Island of the Land Sharks.” But since the monsters are extinct, which is to say, dead and resurrected, then the drama becomes a battle with ghosts, with the idea of the past itself, all as a way to vindicate the triumph of the present.

JP's scale is also a perfect metaphor for the metastasis of the director’s ambition. Designed by turns to produce massive moments of shock and wonder, its whole art consists in invoking the sublime only to reduce it to the kitsch. This is one definition of populist art. It reminds me of Oppen’s disappointment with Carl Sandburg, whose initial impact in conveying the shock of the stockyards decayed into sentimentalism.

Still, there are quick pleasures to be had in JP. If the film's first half is a laborious, elephantine exercise in staging the reptilian sublime as a parable of hubris (in high hubristic fashion), with the thrills all coming from the human invading the wild, then the leaner second half gives us the tighter and spookier thrills of the wild invading the domestic. Velicoraptors in the kitchen!

But seeing it again set me to thinking of one of my favorite Spielberg films; the overlooked Catch Me If You Can. Besides being expertly constructed, with very little pleading for the audience’s affections (despite its broken family theme), the real subject of the movie is the artist as counterfeiter: the producer of his own alternative system of value. It’s hard not to read it as Spielberg’s spiritual autobiography, an allegory for the filmmaker’s art which, as Orson Welles knew better than anyone, consists alternately of deception and surprise.

Which leads me to speculate that Spielberg’s oscillation between two contrary impulses in American filmmaking – Wellsian theatricality and Fordian populism – may help to explain why nothing he has ever made, including the sincere failure of Schindler’s List, has ever really satisfied. He’s too calculating an entertainer (meaning he doesn’t trust his audience) to give pathos without sentimentality, yet too much of an ironist to trust his own extraordinary technical gifts. That’s why a slight film that is nearly all technique, Raiders of the Lost Ark, may actually be his finest. All the affect is in the style.

* Still, as Jay Cocks once sagely remarked to me, there are films that are great experiences, and then there are great films.