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, June 28, 2010

Ride Lonesome: Oppen and Boetticher

In thinking about Oppen and his place among his contemporaries, inevitable comparisons suggest themselves between his work and that of artists like Rothko and Newman, or Samuel Beckett, all devotees of silence and absence, and each of whom treated intimately with trauma, with the ghosts of history and the unspeakability of the disaster.

But another context suggests itself as well, somewhat lower down on the distribution chain of cultural production, but one no less compelling. I’m thinking here of the remarkable series of films made in the late 50s by director Budd Boetticher, writer Burt Kennedy, and actor Randolph Scott. The so-called Ranown Westerns (named for the production company of Scott and Harry Brown), as distinctive in their mythic tropology and aesthetic minimalism (a result of the starvation budget the studio gave them) as John Ford’s are in their robust expansiveness, tell the same obsessive story over and over again. Scott plays a man of constant sorrow, a traumatized crusader seeking to avenge or regain dignity for the dead, usually his never-seen wife (the consummate ghost figure), who’s been murdered by either Indians or outlaws.

The spareness and austerity of Scott’s presence – he seems to be made of nothing but wood, sweat and leather – and the starkness of the landscape around California’s Mt. Whitney, where each of the films is set, offer an intriguing set of apposite tropes to place alongside Oppen’s stripped down poems, which themselves enact a similar drama of trauma, austerity, and painful recall. Above all, Oppen’s poems carry the weight of the pledge: the vow taken by the Good Man to right a wrong. Maybe this is just my own sentimental investment in a certain redemptive model of heroic masculinity, but it’s a reading I find highly attractive nonetheless.

It seems pretty unlikely that Oppen ever saw these films, since their initial release run coincided with his time in Mexico. I can’t imagine they ever enjoyed any retrospectives in the San Francisco theaters of the 70s (where I got my own film education at places like the Castro and the Surf), but they may have shown up on late night TV. What unites Oppen and Boetticher (I can hear Menand saying this with his tight-lipped smile of ironic bemusement) is, of course, the Cold War. What else?

But having said this – acknowledging the cultural rescue script of the imperiled feminine and the virtues of civilization she embodies – doesn’t begin to answer to the fullness of the aesthetic experience that both Oppen’s poems and Boetticher’s films provide. Really, they both seem rooted in the war. For each, the ghost is the scene of writing. In dealing with disaster, with remnants, with haunting, with promises, they show how the consequence of fulfilling a promise may require an act of violence. That is the price of culture. Boetticher, I think, endorsed this view without qualms, for that is obviously the genre convention of Western. But Oppen, who dealt with life as it is, never made peace with that. Still, he would agree with Scott's character in Ride Lonesome, when he says, "there are some things a man can't ride around."

Friday, June 25, 2010

Bad Poems by Great Poets: Oppen's "The Zulu Girl"

The bad poems by great poets seldom feature in critical discussions. I'm not sure why this is. Perhaps a reluctance to speak ill of revered figures. Or simply an inability to agree on what makes a poem bad. When bathos, for instance, is openly pursued as a desirable poetic attribute by the Flarfistas, then all bets are off. But long before Flarf, the traditional notion of what constituted aesthetic value had undergone an important sea change. Nevertheless, great poets do write bad poems. Which suggests to me a topic ripe for expansion.

Case in point: George Oppen's "The Zulu Girl." As far as I can tell, this poem has escaped commentary by the major critics. Peter Nicholls' George Oppen and The Fate of Modernism is silent on it. Likewise, Michael Davidson sees fit not to annotate it in his otherwise exemplary notes to the New Collected Poems. Apparently it did not enjoy serial publication, nor is there any reference to the photographic source Oppen used. It’s possible that Mike Heller or Rachel Blau DuPlessis have taken notice of it, or that someone mentions it in the Man and Poet volume. But it’s also understandable why none of them would. It’s an embarrassment.

The Zulu Girl

Her breasts
Naked, the soft
Small hollow in the flesh
Near the arm pit, the tendons
Presenting the gentle breasts
So boldly, tipped

With her intimate

That touched, would touch her
Deeply—she stands
In the wild grasses.

“Zulu Girl” appears in 1965’s This in Which. What interests me here, aside from the obvious thing to say, namely, that it’s a somewhat classy version of National Geographic porn, is the tone. Oppen’s gaze and his commitment to a minimalist reduction are exactly the same as any other person or object he might treat. Yet one can’t help but feel that this is a case of Objectivist sincerity being badly abused. There’s a distinct uneasiness reading about the poet as he imagines himself touching this unnamed woman’s breasts and her vivid response. The tone invites the reader to place the poem in a quasi-anthropological/"Family of Man" context – an artifact of the Cold War. But the intent seems purely salacious. You have to wonder what Mary made of this poem.

Oppen has a thing for women’s tendons. In section 32, “Of Being Numerous,” he writes:

And the beauty of women, the perfect tendons
Under the skin

When he touches on the erotic, most of the time, it is delicately, discreetly. Mary’s hips are praised in Discrete Series – “she lies, hip high” – and comes in elsewhere, here and there, for ardent, if muted, veneration. But Oppen does not permit himself to write of her naked beauty or her sexuality openly. If he ever did, we do not have those poems. And I rather suspect he did not. Instead the poem of the erotic gaze is reserved for the photograph of a semi-nude African woman. A colonial subject, the double other, subjected to the male gaze.

“In the wild grasses.” The phrase, and the whole mood of “Zulu Girl,” call to mind “Psalm, which also appears in This in Which. "Psalm" is most frequently commented on as a poem that achieves a kind of Heideggerian Gelassenheit, an opening of the field. But it can equally be read as an erotic poem – “the wild deer bedding down … the soft lips/Nuzzle.” And in that context, what to make of “The small nouns/Crying faith” – if not an erotic paroxysm? Maybe “Zulu Girl,” as awkward as it is, should really be read as “Psalm’s” companion piece: a poem in which ontology’s exterior is the erotic body?

P.S. -- This just in. Harold Schimmel's essay from "Man and Poet," "(On) Discrete Series" (makes you nostalgic for the days when parentheses in titles were all the rage, almost ...), wittily connects the Zulu breasts, if I may be permitted to refer to them that way, to the section from DS beginning:

White, From the
Under arm of T

The red globe.

In a rather Benjaminian way, by which inorganic objects modernistically and perversely teem with erotic contours and potential, Schimmel suggests we read "the red globe" as a nipple. So perhaps we can also read breast for "tendon" in GO's repressed lexicon of the erotic. I'm just saying.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

On Wallace Stevens (briefly)

Stevens’ poems are arenas for engaging in metaphysical skirmishes. The tone of these combats is often so subdued, so rarified, that it belies the ferocity and violence attending the stakes. For Stevens, the legacy of the Romantics and the French Symbolists consists most vitally as a means for pushing back against the encroachments of an instrumentalist reality, of clearing a space for the human, which is itself sustained, if not produced, by this enterprise of imagination.

Nature in Stevens is never merely the natural, nor is it a source for anything so simple as images by which to stage his oppositional agon. He is not interested in using nature as an environmental scold like Gary Snyder might, nor does he turn it into a kitsch backdrop for delicate melodramas as does Mary Oliver. Rather, nature is the metaphysical Other; the theater of dream in which we can break and re-make ourselves, not as we were (never that), but as we always longed we might be – luminous, shot through with a language of pure vocables.

Friday, June 11, 2010

On Science Fiction as Secular Theology

Frederic Jameson has notably defined science fiction as the literary field most attentive to and invested in the utopian desires of modernity. It is less concerned with dramatizing actual futures as it is with dreaming the possibility of nascent or emergent transformations in the social order and with the technological remapping of human potentiality.

In many ways the best SF (not always the most literary, though it often is) offers nothing less than a poetics of becoming. It accomplishes this through what Darko Suvin, perhaps borrowing from the Russian Formalists, calls “cognitive estrangement,” that is, it presents our own familiar customs and institutions, our habitus, through a glass darkly, as the future, or the alien, that is also the human, now radically defamiliarized.

Yet if Jameson’s approach focuses almost exclusively on SF as an engine for re-imagining and resisting late capital, as in the works of Dick, Gibson, or Robinson, the genre seems equally driven to articulate the late capital desire for radical new economies of secular theology.

With its tropes of technological transcendence, science fiction has long been the domain for representing late, or postsecular, theology as the driver of social evolution. The recent renascence of space opera by authors like Iain Banks, Dan Simmons, and Alastair Reynolds, to name a few, provides a sophisticated re-tooling or upgrade of that hoary, but deeply pleasurable, subgenre.

In Banks’ post-scarcity Culture novel, Excession, for instance, the eponymous and black-body object of the title is revealed to be a sentient probe from another dimension/parallel universe, the artifact of a society vastly more advanced than even the artificial Minds of the Culture. Its enigmatic behavior serves as kind of cosmic MacGuffin, an aporia that drives the plot purely by its negative or passive qualities. In some ways it represents the incursion of the tremendum, a visitation from outside, and, without stretching the point too far, the event or Ereignis, a kind of messianic presence which fails since no one is capable of receiving it.

Similarly, in Dan Simmon’s Hyperion/Endymion novels, the messianic figure of Aenea leads humanity outside of its bondage to both a network of parasitic AIs and a tyrannical future Catholic church by triggering a latent ability to travel through deep space by means of the Void That Binds, a kind of Buddhist/quantum device that permeates the deep structure of reality. (This metaphysical liberation is surely an homage to the conclusion of Alfred Bester's 1951 classic, The Stars My Destination, which Chip Delany once described to me as the greatest SF novel ever written. I could not agree more).

The post-secular sublime – or as Istvan Csiscery-Ronay calls it, the sf sublime – appears in the novels of Reynolds through the canny use of scale. Deep space and even deeper time – stellar distances and eons of development across millions of light-years – form a background of wonder against which the human protagonists play out their dramas and intrigues, challenging and resisting these unimaginable limit fields even as the narrative insists on how dwarfed they are by them.

Equally crucial to this sense of the sublime are the various modes of posthuman or alien transcendence which occur. Baseline humanity, as Reynolds calls it, is an antique. In the Revelation Space series, Conjoining, or the Transenlightenment -- the implantation of nanobots – allows humans to participate in a massive neural network at vastly accelerated rates of cognitive processing. In House of Suns, the Great Leap Forward occurs through cloning. Both technologies impart transcendent powers to human beings (though in HS the clones, or shatterlings, become virtually god-like: immortal, possessed of magical technologies, including near-sentient starships). Even death is circumvented by the power to download consciousness onto software that produces a total personality simulation capable of full interaction.

The catch, as in all Reynolds’ novels, is that transcendence does not obviate traditional moral and ethical dilemmas. On the contrary, it intensifies them. While all the books feature exciting space battles and chases, the main problem for the characters is always a moral one: how does an interstellar super-culture confront historical disaster?

In the uneven, but compelling, Revelation Space, the richly satisfying Redemption Ark, and the tedious and disappointing Absolution Gap, it was the crisis of extinction posed by a machine-race (The Inhibitors) seeking to safeguard an evolutionary galactic balance through surgical genocides of emergent stellar species. In House of Suns, the dilemma is reversed: humanity is compelled to come to terms with its complicity in the genocide of a machine race. Both plots play out, on a galactic stage, Benjamin’s dialectical aporia: that the foundations of civilized order are inseparable from the barbarism it overcomes and represses.

(Coming to terms with "giga-death" (a phrase from Banks' Look to Windward) -- the xenocidal destruction of trillions -- features in all three novelists. Reynolds in particular, like Greg Bear in his Forge of God diptych, explores the potentially pessimistic ethical -- and Darwinian -- implications of the Fermi paradox; namely, that EM-noisy planetary cultures bring down doom on themselves because, as Bear puts it, "the forest is full of wolves," i.e. self-replicating machines intent on preserving their hegemony. While on the one hand this impulse is laudable since it lends a compelling moral and historically engaged seriousness to SF, it also leaves them open to charges of exploiting crimes against humanity for the sake of entertainment. On the other hand, what other genre is so daring? It's tempting to call this new branch of space opera "SF after Auschwitz").

Reynolds’ universes are deeply imbued with historical skepticism, which shifts in mood from the benignly comic (as in the names of the meta-civilizations which come and go: the Perpetual Commonwealth, the High Benevolence, the Pantropic Nexus, etc.) to Spenglerian melancholy. Empire, in his novels, is a kind of pathology. It can only ever end badly, leaving traces of strangely beautiful and enigmatic ruins across the galaxy. This, too, is part of the sublime.

None of these writers are quite the alienated Gnostic modernists that say, Lovecraft is. Their universes may be dangerous, but overall they are hospitable, that is to say. anthropic. The human, or rather the posthuman (always rendered somewhat anachronistically, of course, that is, on a less adventurous imaginative register than Octavia Butler, for example), has a place in it. But that place is also occupied by a pervasive sense of mystery and awe and it is this that imparts to their work, at its best, an uncanny shiver of the sublime that is radiant with theological desire.

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.”