Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Disconcerted Critic

And again, the purely "technical" critic--the critic, that is, who writes to expound some novelty or impart some lesson to practitioners of an art--can be called a critic only in a narrow sense. He may be analysing perceptions and the means for arousing perceptions, but his aim is limited and is not the disinterested exercise of intelligence.

T. S. Eliot
"The Perfect Critic"

My aim is certainly limited and my criticism surely narrow. If I feel confident about it, it is only because my object (Flarf) reliably broadens my perceptions by its distinctly "hi technical" machinery. That is, I believe that a narrow interest in the technique of Flarf, because of the virtually ("virtually"?) physical way that it is connected to the apparatus of the language (through Google), forces us willy-nilly to apply our intelligence purely to the work we are given.

Eliot was "inclined to believe that the 'historical' and the 'philosophical' critics had better be called historians and philosophers quite simply," and I agree with him. To try to "contextualize" a poem in order to tell us what it means (or, more often, meant) is simply a way of not reading the poem at all. "As for the rest, there are merely various degrees of intelligence," which, I would add, the critic may share or not share with the reader. Critics who try to help us to "understand" a poem, rather than helping us to see how it works, will apply their scholarship to the task of uncovering the sources, the references of its symbols, for example. A good poem will normally make this exercise immediately ridiculous.

I'm sure that is what Jorge Luis Borges meant in his capsule biography of T. S. Eliot when he said,

The erudite obscurity of [The Waste Land] disconcerted (and still disconcerts) the critics, but is less important than the poem's beauty. The perception of this beauty, moreover, precedes any interpretation and does not depend on it. (The Total Library, pp. 167-8)

I think Flarf radicalizes this obscurity; or, more precisely, reverses it. Flarf is perspicuously rudimentary. (Etymological note: the words "erudite" and "rudimentary" seem to share the same root, namely, "rude", from "rudis", unwrought or, where the human material is concerned, untrained.) Flarf forces us back to basics, to the substratum of the usage, where it all begins, where it all must be done. Here the fabrications of the poet begin.

That is, Flarf makes the unpoetry that underlies all poetry perspicuous, or "├╝bersichtlich", as Wittgenstein might say. Still more disconcerting than not being able to discover the sources, or being played with by the poet in his footnotes (as Tim Peterson emphasized to me in a comment to an earlier post), is to discover that the sources of the poem are, in a word, Flarfy. That is, the poem came out of something other than poetry, out of materials the mere delineation of which do not explain the poem's poetry.

(It is this materiality that I think Tony Tost comes dangerously close to sublimating when he talks about the "original sources" of the language of the poems and the life of its language "outside the poem". But my insistence on technicalities, it should be noted, has its own danger that Tony is clearly better able to avoid, namely, it risks eliding whatever empathy we might otherwise have with the voice(s) of the poem.)

The sources are, in any case, unreliable referents. Discovering this (quickly, easily, efficiently unless he simply refuses the means he has been granted), the critic then faces the various degrees of his own intelligence and must condescend actually to read the poem. He must then try really to perceive the poem's beauty. It is because "the means for arousing" this perception in a work of Flarf tell the critic nothing, that his analysis of perception becomes so pivotal. Not only does nothing depend on erudition; everything now depends on the rudimentary order of usage.

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