Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


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

Monday, February 25, 2013

The New Gnostics

N.B. – This was intended to be my introduction to the two panels on New Gnostic poetry at the recent Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture after 1900, but for reasons of time and a failure of frayed nerves – the fear that the whole thing was overdetermined and that I would end up standing in the docket, accused of neo-Catholic recidivism by my elders – I decided against reading it. Robert Archambeau has posted a wonderful and as usual very perceptive account of the panel and some of the offsite discussion it provoked and Ben Friedlander on Facebook has made some smart comments which need addressing, some time when I have the time. But for now there’s this:

Why gnosticism? Why now?

One of the most difficult things in writing about the re-emergence of a gnostic poetics is having to continually backspace to override MS Word’s (MS Logos?) auto-correct function, which insists on capitalizing – or is that historicizing? – “Gnostic.” I call it the small “g” problem. Because the new gnostic poetics I’m trying to describe has to do with dethroning the tyranny of the majuscule. Gnostic has become such an elastic term, used to describe such a wide swath of writers, often as different from one another as say, Poe and his evil double, Emerson, that it threatens to lose its usefulness as a meaningful category.

Though Gnosticism’s heretical beliefs about an alien god and the struggle to attain spiritual knowledge was quashed by the 3rd Century C.E., its perturbing legacy continues to speak to a profound yearning for alternate modes of poetic epistemology which neither the pieties of Iowa nor the heterodoxies of the Grand Piano can answer to. It has influenced modern thinkers and writers from Carl Jung to H.P. Lovecraft. For Harold Bloom, modernist gnosis includes writers as diverse as Kafka and Hart Crane, while Hans Jonas finds strong affinities between the Gnostic conception of the world as exile and Heidegger’s existential phenomenology and the thrownness or Geworfenheit, of Dasein. “Gnosis,” as religious scholar Elaine Pagels observes, “is not primarily rational knowledge … we could translate it as ‘insight,’ for gnosis involves an intuitive process of knowing oneself.”

This trend toward a contemporary gnostic poetics owes its origins to several distinct vectors: the Heideggerian/Derridean Destruktion or deconstruction of onto-theology and its weird quasi -reconstitution through dispersal, differánce, and the trace; the linguistic turn and its emphasis on the materiality of language; and the continuing commitment of poets aligned with the tradition of high modernism and the New American Poetry to an avant-garde aesthetic.

The idea of gnosis persists because it offers a powerful tool for counteracting the disenchantment and alienation of the world. It is a response to a specific historical moment that is less about reviving the tenets of an ancient and problematic heresy then about using the tropological resources of that heresy to produce a modernist gnostic horizon.

What stability the term retains, however wobbly, is still enough, I think, to address a postmodern poetry that contains both avant-garde and spiritual commitments. The idea of a new gnostic poetics derives in part from the recognition that one branch of modernism was all along deeply invested in and reliant on heterodox spiritual systems (Yeats, Pound, H.D.) which have been consciously carried forward by postmodern poets like Duncan and Mackey, and in part on the idea of a post-secular religious turn, or the return of the theological repressed. It subscribes not only to the idea that, in Marjorie Perloff’s words, language has become “the new spiritus mundi,” but to the continuity of a strong visionary mode in American poetry, as outlined by Peter O’Leary in his recent essay, “Apocalypticism: A Way Forward for Poetry.” “Apocalypse and other forms of sacred expression unbind love from material desire, freeing it to embrace the unknown and the unspeakable … apocalyptic poetry, then, is language charged with the kerygmatic power to reveal sacred reality, in history and beyond it.”

Such enthusiasm threatens violence to the Gnostic by trying to recontextualize it within the horizon of gender and the body. It's a kind of anti-Gnostic gnosticism. Or maybe I just like to have my cake and it eat it too.

What’s important here is that small “g” gnosticism strives to reverse the perverse polarities of the Gnostics by reclaiming the body’s centrality for both history and ideas about spirit. In this view, the material is not the site of exile and the soul’s imprisonment, but of messianic intervention.

The new gnostic poetics is not a system then, but revives the idea of spiritual knowledge as a way to contest system. It designates a group of fellow travelers committed to a poetic agon in which the articulation of spiritual values is rooted in the material world and therefore integral to articulating the terms of a redemption worked out solely within the ruins of history and the disjointedness of everyday life through a visionary experimental poetry.

Of course, We Serious Academic Types also enjoy fine dining. Here's two gnostic Men in Black at the Mayan Cafe (Norman Finkelstein and Yours Truly).

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Next Big Thing

I was tagged by Julia Bloch to take part in the viral meme called "The Next Big Thing." This isn't really next, since the book's already out, and it's hardly big -- but hey, it is a thing, and that's not nothing.

What is the working title of the book?
Gnostic Frequencies. Though for most of the time of its composition it was called "Doctrines of the Subtle Body," after a weird and wonderful little book by GRS Mead. Mead was Madame Blavatsky’s secretary in the Theosophical Society though he was no slouch or flake, but a serious scholar of Greek who translated many of the key Hermetic texts of antiquity. It was Mead who invited Pound to give his talk on “Psychology and Troubadours” to the Society in 1915, which is where Pound first articulates his theory of the phantastikon, a concept which provides much of the underpinning for Gnostic Frequencies.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
The pleroma, naturally. But more specifically from a perverse desire to create my own religion. To inquire into what religion in a post-secular, post-metaphysical age could still mean or better still, say. Something that could answer to a need for a poetic liturgy, though I often think of the poems as emerging from and addressing the ruins of liturgy. Gnostic frequencies speak to the poem’s way of knowing, of tuning in to the weak transmissions still emanating from theology’s ghost.

What genre does your book fall under?
Poetry, liturgy, hermeticism, heresy, theurgy, ecstasy – in that order, more or less.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
This is a silly but delicious question, because as Frank O’Hara once quipped, few poets are better than the movies – Hart Crane being one of them. Crane incidentally is one of the hidden tutelary deities of the book. The first part of Gnostic Frequencies follows an imaginary scholar of the Alexandrian library named Ariel and because she played Hypatia in a recent film I have a hard time seeing anyone else in the role but Rachel Weisz, though I think either Jean Arthur or Natascha McElhone would be equally dreamy, I mean, great. Ariel’s correspondent and lover (it’s not really clear if they are lovers but I think they are) is the 3rd Century Plotinian philosopher Iamblichus, who really ought to be played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Or Steve Buscemi. I have a hard time keeping those two apart. Part 2 features a who’s who of poets from Yeats to HD to Duncan so they must all be played by themselves. Or Robert Downey Jr. Part 3 would either feature the seraphic ghosts of logos, chanting of what’s passed, passing, and to come, or late Robert Mitchum. If he's unavailable then John Garfield from the final scenes of "Force of Evil."

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
As I write in the Afterword: “Gnostic Frequencies is a poetic essay that treats semiology as though it were a species of shamanism and shamanism as a branch of semiotics.”

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
The first garbled transmissions occurred in the spring of 2004 and the final revisions made in 2012.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
A deep longing for a wild extravagance of the word. That, and the usual suspects: high modernism, hermeticism, Robert Duncan, HD, Erza Pound.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Readers who crave clarity will go a-begging, but lovers of the mystery of logos will find welcome.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Spuyten Duyvil is my publisher.

My tagged writers for next Wednesday are:
Norman Finkelstein (maybe), Joseph Donahue (who knows with that guy?) and Paul Eluard as he is channeled by Anna Karina in Alphaville.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Theories of Lyric

At last month’s MLA conference in Boston, Stephen Burt appeared on a panel convened by Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins, the editors of the forthcoming collection of essays, The Lyric Theory Reader, which also included Rob Kaufman and my wife, Ingrid Nelson. Burt opened the panel with a dazzling account of lyric that focused on its locodescriptive properties. The examples he cited were plentiful, indeed, encyclopedic, ranging from Whitman to Housman to Larkin, Olson to Pound and C.D. Wright, and delivered at a breathless, slightly manic pace that was rich with references, but somewhat short on argument.

Burt’s straightforward, not to say, reductive, thesis was that lyric arises from the specificity of place. Because I stand in this place here, and feel this feeling, I can connect myself imaginatively to someone else who may have felt the very same feeling here a hundred or a thousand years ago.

There’s something very appealing about this. It speaks to the very real power of lyric to save the person speaking from oblivion, as Allen Grossman might put it (and indeed, Burt nodded to him): to project a human voice across time and reach out to another through what is essentially the ability to imagine that other. Lyric, by this account, becomes a kind of empathy. It’s certainly why Catullus or Tu Fu still strike us as our contemporaries. As Pound put it, in 1912, “All ages are contemporaneous.” But to say so risks collapsing those ages into the present moment, flattening out significant differences. Benjamin warns against the narcotic of historicism, by which the present doesn’t actually see the past as something distinct, but reduces it to mere heritage, yoking it to its ideology.

Among his examples, Burt argued that “The Pisan Cantos” represented the summa of Pound’s poetry precisely because of how they draw on the locodescriptive. But while their pastoral power is considerable, as fine as anything EP ever wrote, they are not notably different from say, “Canto XX,” his extraordinary evocation of Provence as the earthly paradise, modeled after the closing sections of The Purgatorio.

But the real source of pathos in “The Pisan Cantos” comes from the way Pound moves back and forth in time, contrasting his current abject state of defiant, yet humbled, incarceration to his glory days in pre-war London. It is a measuring of things lost, and a life’s work misspent. Among other things, “The Pisan Cantos” lament the unfulfilled promise of modernism. They may be named for a place, but their affective power comes from analepsis and recollection. The flashbacks to London, to Ford and Lewis and Yeats, all offer images of the poet contemplating his past with regret and asking for a kind of forgiveness that is mingled with a bitter refusal to acknowledge his greatest error – supporting Fascism. "The Pisan Cantos" are prison poetry, written with the example of one of Pound's heroes, Villon, in mind. Their subject is time and its wreckage: "dove sta memoria" runs the recurring refrain -- where is memory to be found?

An account of lyric which hinges on the locodescriptive can’t be made apart from the temporal. For the real work of the locodescriptive is not only, I think, to provide the details of place in their granular specificity, but to make those details capable of traveling across time. The horizontal axis of place must intersect with the vertical axis of time. As Sharon Cameron observes in her book, Lyric Time, lyric is also a working through of time; poems can be considered events in time, both in the sense of the time it takes to read them, which in effect causes us to experience time differently, and in the sense that they play with temporal sequence within the line, the stanza, even, I’d say, the syllable. Lyric, Cameron writes, is what arises out of “a contradiction between social and personal time…the lyric both rejects the limitation of social and objective time, those strictures that must drive hard lines between past, present and future, and must make use of them.”

The locodescrpitive lyric is nothing without either an analeptic movement toward the past or a proleptic movement into the future. As Heidegger said of Dasein, lyric poems might be thought of as constituted by and through time. A lyric poem is a kind of time machine: it gives us a concentrated form through which we might experience time, both as duration and evanescence. This is how lyric rescues the speaking voice from oblivion.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

On Poetry and Sound

Last December at Harvard, Christian Wiman, (the now departing editor of “Poetry”) gave a marvelous reading of his extraordinary translations of Mandelstam. During the course of the evening he remarked that the Russian poet “followed sounds to their meaning.” This is a typical way of ordering the labor of poetry: chaos, submitted to discipline, produces order. Noise is transformed through design into signal.

But why not the reverse? What if the work of poetry is to follow meanings back to their sounds? Or to follow the sounds inside of meaning? What if order, per se, is not the goal, but rather a kind of symmetry or patterning that performs its own cognitive and affective functions? Is meaning more original, more prior, as it were, than sound? When poetry interferes in the unidirectional flow of sound to meaning then meaning’s priority is dislodged, its reliance on sounds exposed.

This is not the same as nor should it be confused with destroying meaning in some adolescent nihilist gesture. Agamben describes rhyme as the intersection – even the co-production – of the semantic and the semiotic. Poetry that exploits the potentiality of this seam or overlap doesn’t undo meaning; instead it shows that the Orphic contract which legislates the unity between a word and a thing is always highly contingent, susceptible to unraveling at any point along its signifying chain.

And those seams in the chain is where the marvelous can break in.