Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Dantesque Simile (notes)

Philosophy and poetry have imagination in common.

The unit of imagination is the image, a particular likeness.

I've been putting together a list of what I think are synonyms for the literary correlate of this aesthetic moment.

Pound's "luminous ideograms" and Wittgenstein’s "perspicuous presentations" are the ones I feel closest to.

But their sense of detail is certainly matched in Nabokov’s "rain-sparkling crystograms" and Borges' "Dantesque essays".

It is the imagined detail that is important.

I picked up J. H. Whitfield's Dante and Virgil the other day. He emphasises the image of a flame devouring a piece of paper, which is used as a simile for the merger of a man and a serpent (p. 84; cf. Inferno, XXV, 64-66). I knew I had read about it before and found it again in the prologue to Borges' Nine Dantesque Essays. It's a textbook example, no doubt.

(If anyone knows of other critics who mention it--I was sure I had seen it also in something by Eliot--please let me know.)

Whitfield uses it as a point of departure for discussing what he calls the "dantesque simile" (p. 86). Borges calls it "comparison", as Pound does in the Spirit of Romance (in order to include both simile and metaphor in a broad sense).

All of them talk about the importance of "detail" in the Divine Comedy (all of them also use Milton for contrast).

Consulting a few dictionaries and handbooks I confirmed my suspicion that "image" and "simile" and "imitate" are etymologically related. All indicate "likeness".

I think there is a difference between a philosophical likeness and a poetic one, though both are "imaginary", and you can’t have one without the other. (An issue Eliot deals with his essay on Dante.)

I think it is the task of the philosopher and the poet to display likenesses of various orders. In what sense, for example, is a piece of paper with black marks on it "like" a human body? (Wittgenstein, PI§364)

My brother in law and his wife gave me William Gaddis' The Recognitions for Christmas. In the first chapter he recounts the dispute that was settled at the Council of Nice over whether the Trinity is composed of one substance (homoousia) or of like substances (homoiousia).

"The dantesque simile," says Whitfield, "is in the main something which establishes identity, not something which enhances it" (p. 86).

Thursday, December 29, 2005


Since finding Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave by accident in a used book store last year, I've had the vague sense that it is a foil for my poetics.

V. S. Pritchett's blurb pegs it as "a modern egotist's anthology" and Connolly himself says in the introduction that its plot turns on "the core of melancholy and guilt that works destruction on us from within." It's main strength is really to present this mood, without (convincingly) arguing for its validity.

Connolly published The Unquiet Grave under the pseudonym Palinurus. I want to say that the poetry that I'm reading these days, the poetry that pleases me, is strongly marked by anti-palinuroid tendencies (turning a phrase from Connolly's postscript). Palinurus was Aeneas' pilot; and my contact with contemporary American poetry begins precisely with Tony Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot".

A few weeks back, there was a bit of an incident about calling my aesthetic response to this poem "flarfy". I want now to suggest that it was really anti-palinurian, though it's an unhappy term (negative contrast). To show what I mean, consider a poem of Ben Lerner's from The Lichtenberg Figures, also published in Ploughshares (Winter 2002-3):

I’m going to kill the president.
I promise. I surrender. I’m sorry.
I’m gay. I’m pregnant. I’m dying.
I’m not your father. You’re fired.
Fire. I forgot your birthday.
You will have to lose the leg.
She was asking for it.
It ran right under the car.
It looked like a gun. It’s contagious.
She’s with God now.
Help me. I don’t have a problem.
I’ve swallowed a bottle of aspirin.
I’m a doctor. I’m leaving you.
I love you. Fuck you. I’ll change.

First, recall the Palinurian plot -- "the core of melancholy and guilt that works destruction on us from within" -- and recognize the sense in which this poem seems to actively engage with and deconstruct it (or just takes it apart). Second, consider the following very Palinurian sentiment:

We cannot think if we have no time to read, nor feel if we are emotionally exhausted, nor out of cheap material create what is permanent. We cannot co-ordinate what is not there. (Connolly, p. 2)

I think Ben Lerner and Tony Tost are saying (and doing) the very opposite. They refuse to lament their point of departure. More importantly, they will not allow the reader to valorize the act of simply reading a poem. The "materials" that are used in Lerner's poem are as "cheap" as anything we find in journalism, but the effect of putting them together as he does is, I would say, permanent. He co-ordinates what is there.

This application of ostensibly cheap materials to poetry, I suspect, is also what I immediately appreciate in Kasey Mohammad's Deer Head Nation.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Man and his Chisel

The mission of the poet should be to restore to the word, at least in a partial way, its primitive and now secret force.

Jorge Luis Borges
Preface to The Unending Rose

The ultimate business of philosophy is to preserve the force of the most elemental words in which Dasein expresses itself.

Martin Heidegger
Being and Time, H. 220

The immediate likeness of these these two pronouncements about poetry and philosophy is supported by closer reading. Borges' "at least in a partial way" is matched by Heidegger's caution against "uninhibited word-mysticism", which opens the just cited paragraph. Borges proposes his restorations (each poem is a partial restoration of the primitive force of words) to counteract "the usury of time" (ibid.). Heidegger's efforts at preservation are intentended "to keep the common understanding from levelling [words] off" (ibid.), which is interesting when taken together with his suggestion that "everyday common sense first takes 'Being-guilty' in the sense of 'owing', of 'having something due on account' ... "Being-guilty" as 'having debts'." (H. 281)

Usura rusteth the chisel
It rusteth the craft and the craftsman
It gnaweth the thread in the loom.

Ezra Pound, Canto XLV

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Electronic Wallpaper

The Glenn Gould Archive has radio speech online that is worth listening to. Click here and listen to tape 7283.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Teutonic Bombast

In the recent interview with Richard Polt (thanks to Enowning for the link), Ereignis identifies three "rough" meanings of Ereignis:

1. the phenomenological appropriation of phenomena
2. an ontologically determinative event
3. the universal condition that gives time and being to humans.

These strike me not as differences of meaning, but differences of emphasis, consistent with a philosophical project that had to cover a variety of issues. Polt (whose translation of the Introduction to Metaphysics has been very useful in my work) cites Thomas Sheehan for the idea that

[Heidegger] is teaching us that humans are constituted a priori (or "always already") by finitude, historicity, etc. The rest -- all the business about our fate at this unique moment in history -- is "Teutonic bombast".

He then proposes "to take the opposite tack":

I take the term das Ereignis seriously: it means "the event," that is, a unique happening that would found intelligibility.

This idea of "founding intelligibility" can be understood in terms of two questions: "what makes it possible for things to make sense to us? Or in still other words, how are we given our sense of givenness itself?"

Here's a story that Glenn Gould tells about recording the A minor Fugue in Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier:

Upon most sober reflection, it was agreed that neither the Teutonic severity of Take 6 nor the unwarranted jubilation of Take 8 could be permitted to represent our best thoughts on this fugue. At this point someone noted that, despite the vast differences in character between the two takes, they were performed at an almost identical tempo (a rather unusual circumstance, to be sure, since the prevailing tempo is almost always the result of phrase delineation) and it was decided to turn this to advantage by creating one performance to consist alternately of Takes 6 and 8. ("The Prospects of Recording")

It is worth noting that Gould is here discussing the morality of splicing. Meanwhile, I'm reading Deer Head Nation alongside The Lichtenberg Figures and Invisible Bride. I think our best thoughts on the Ereignis of Flarf will emerge also in the splicing.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Toward the New Song

In my play The Birthday Party I think I allow a whole range of options to operate in a dense forest of possibility before finally focussing on an act of subjugation.

Harold Pinter
"Art, Truth & Politics"
(The Nobel Lecture)

My song has alternated between the song of a dog tied to a post and the song of linear subordination. I'm working on a new song. It goes: "I won't hurt you, I won't hurt you, I won't hurt you."

Tony Tost
"Crossing a Bridge Sweetens the Body"
Invisible Bride, p. 43

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Membership, Authenticity, Historicity

I like this post of Tony's. The immediacy of poetry is exactly what draws me to it. I think this immediacy is what we have poetry for.

Memberships, authenticies and histories are what politics is for.

They are what poetry is against, if you will. Or, less polemically, what poetry is up against, what it faces/voices.

I don't find the political intention (or inside joke) of any poetic project illuminating when declared outside the work itself.

But I do think that the poems I read are immediately up against my own politics, i.e., membership, authenticity, historicity in regard to non-literary matters.

That is just to say that I engage with poems subjectively, i.e., from within the present state of my subjugation.

The didactic mission of the grammarian (the editor) is to improve the immediacy of language. To sharpen the edge of subjugation.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Notes on Pinter's Lecture, part 3

[In order for politicians] to maintain [power] it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.

Harold Pinter

While I do think something like an economy of knowledge and power is operative, I think politicians weave a "tapestry of lies" only to the extent that we undertake to believe them. A statement made by a politician should not be confronted with our beliefs, however; it should be confronted with our desires. One thing that the arts (philosophy and poetry) might teach us is that we are in no position to know the so-called facts that politicians refer to. We can, however, quite well decide whether or not the world they present us with (represent us in) is a desirable one.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Notes on Pinter's Lecture, part 2

In his nobel lecture, Harold Pinter proposes that art might allow "a whole range of options to operate in a dense forest of possibility before finally focussing on an act of subjugation." (He is referring specifically to his play The Birthday Party.) "Political language," by contrast, "does not venture into any of this territory since the majority of politicians ... are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power."

Now as I pointed out earlier, Pinter does not think that art is interested in truth either, certainly not the truth. For the artist, "a thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false." So, on the basis of Pinter's remark about political language, we can construct a grammatically similar statement about art.

The majority of artists are interested not in truth but in beauty and in the maintenance of that beauty.

But there's one more thing. To be fair, politicians are arguably not interested directly in power but in justice; their interest in power is only an interest in the maintenance of the means to accomplish justice. (There will, of course, be differences of opinion about what is just: these are "political" differences.) Likewise, artists are interested not in truth (nor in justice) but in beauty and in the maintenance of the intensity to achieve it.

I am not saying that Pinter's complaints about political lying are completely irrelevant. I am suggesting a different standard against which to hold them accountable.

Finally, I'm still trying to hold my ground on the idea that philosophy and poetry are the presence that stretches between our scientific and political representations. Science is objective in the (still somewhat unfamiliar) sense that it produces and transforms objects (of knowledge). Politics is subjective in the same sense: it produces and transforms subjects (of power), i.e., it "subjugates".

Politics is not about whether to subjugate or not; it is about how to subjugate. And this is how I think poetry is specifically related to politics.

I think that a good poem should do what Pinter says his play The Birthday Party does. It should present "a whole range of options" that "operate in a dense forest of possibility" and should then "focus on an act of subjugation." It should not of course actually carry out this act of subjugation.

My somewhat uncomfortable point, here, is that it should leave that to the politicians.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Two Reasons to Keep an Eye on Kate Greenstreet

1. "Dusting for Prints".

2. December 5, 2005.

Notes on Pinter's Lecture, part 1

Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize lecture is interesting in many ways. His politics are very straightforward, and it will no doubt be useful to both this and future generations to have such a stable reference for this point of view. (It is a remarkably committal account of the 'secret' history of imperial policy after the second world war.) But my concerns here are not directly political.

I found it interesting that Pinter opened his speech with a statement about the artist's free relationship to the truth, while at the same time granting the politician no such freedom.

In 1958 I wrote the following:

'There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.'

I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?

But surely a citizen must ask a good many questions and leave a good many other questions on the side.

In this blog I have been cultivating what I am starting to think of as a "modistic" approach to language. So, for example, I believe that there is scientific language and political language, philosophical language and poetical language, and that each of these have altogether different aims. Their "explorations" (investigations of linguistic experience) are different.

And here is where my concerns intersect with Pinter's. For, as I see it, truth is a concern of science and justice is a concern of politics; and I think politicians have as much reason as artists to claim that this specific concern justifies them in asserting that there is no such thing as truth or falsity in their business. We might say that they stand in a free relation to truth in their exploration of reality through politics; actually, I would say that politics explores ideality and this is why "truth" is an irrelevant category. But that last point is quibbling.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Rhubarb Variation #1

Simon DeDeo's Rhubarb is Susan is back. His tastes are not identical with mine, but I normally find the poems he picks for review interesting, and his reviews always give me something to think about.

Beyond the aesthetic uses I put poems to, my reading normally involves two more or less imaginary operations. I tend to revise poems I read and to anthologize them. Both make me a kind of armchair editor. And I propose to make this activity public [post the results of this activity] every now and then, using Simon's selections as a point of departure.

Here, then, is what I did with Karol Wojtyla's (aka Pope John Paul II) "Girl Disappointed in Love":

It is time we measure pain
as we measure the meat
of bodies to discover our limits.

You are the center of things,
you said. If you would
only get it: the center is here,

and it, too, finds love. Why
don't you see the human heart
for what it is? What it's for.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Philosophy as Linguistic Paganism

I think my (tiny) preference for Wittgenstein over Heidegger can be seen in my linguistic paganism. The problem is never that a language is too pagan for philosophy but, rather, that it is not pagan enough. The goal is always to find the illustrious in the vernacular, as Dante might say. Of course, one natural way to bring words back from their Heideggerian to their pagan uses is to translate them into American.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

On Ereignis

All right, if you know that Ereignis is its name, I'll grant you all the rest.

Philosophy drags words back and forth across the threshold of sense, from their metaphysical to their ordinary uses (Wittgenstein) and back again (Heidegger). It is therefore not advisable to introduce verbiage that is incapable of the passage.

There are two equally unadvisable ways of making such introductions when translating Heidegger. First, you can leave the word in its original German, e.g., Ereignis or Dasein; second, you can manufacture a neologism, e.g., Enowning or There-Being (capitalizing and hyphenating are simple ways of producing new words out of old ones; the structure of en-owning is quite clear in this regard.)

But how can I show why I think this is a bad idea?

Here's a passage from Being and Time (H. 253).

"Der Tod" begegnet als bekanntes innerweltlich vorkommendes Ereignis.
And here is that last sentence of "Die Kehre" I've been redoing again and again.
Dass Welt, weltend, das Nächste sei alles Nahen, das naht, indem es die Wahrheit des Seins dem Menschenwesen nähert und so den Menschen dem Ereignis vereignet.
Would you know from their translations that these both make use of the ordinary German word "event"?
"Death" is encountered as a well-known event occuring within-the-world.

May world in its worlding be the nearest of all nearing that nears, as it brings the truth of Being near to man’s essence, and so gives man to belong to the disclosing bringing-to-pass that is a bringing into its own.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Speculative Grammar

"Thomas's entire reputation derives from De modis significandi, which is the only one of his works to have been studied in any detail."

Passing Remarks

The Pangrammaticon needs a change of pace. Instead of the usual longish passages of prose, I want to try my hand at writing the blogging equivalent of scattered remarks on slips of paper--Zetteln if you will.

Project Outline

I'm waiting for a number of books to arrive. When they get here, I think I will slowly be able to construct an ideogram of my poetics. There are reasons not to call it "flarf" but an indication of the nature of this project can be made by my choice of materials.

Ben Lerner's Lichtenberg Figures
Lara Glenum's Hounds of No
Tony Tost's Invisible Bride
Drew Gardner's Petroleum Hat
Gary Sullivan's How to Proceed in the Arts
K. Silem Mohammad's Deer Head Nation
That's not a complete list of my interests, but they mark out a field. As an indication of my approach, I can offer a few simple declarations, mostly summarising earlier pronouncements.

First, beyond the immediate aesthetic bliss it provides me, my interest in contemporary poetry is related mainly to my attempt to find a model for a comparably artful or crafty way of doing philosophy.

Second, I am interested in the grammar of poetry, i.e., its use of words.

Third, the poetry that appeals to me seems to work with materials that are in some important sense unprepared for poetry.

Tim Peterson has noted my lack of humour. He suggests that I don't understand flarf because I don't get its basic joke. Much of the recent discussion suggests that this may be altogether right. I hope that isn't a serious problem, of course.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Notes on Camp X-Ray

Many things in the world have not been named; and many things take the American dream public. From the moment a prisoner arrives at X-Ray, he starts enjoying a visceral, steamy night with the head counselor of my daughter’s camp in the Adirondacks.

1. To start very generally: Most people think of sensibility or taste as One. Thus, you can pick out fags in a diner because they always provide a large amount of community culture, art and entertainment. (Images of blindfolded prisoners kneeling shackled by wire cages.) In Camp X-Ray you've only got five minutes but in Delta you walked around for 15. In Camp X-Ray it was yellow and in Delta it was black.

2. So what is the legal status of the prisoners? The US government has classified the detainees in Camp X-Ray as illegal. Care of detainees was handled by Joint Task Force 160 (JTF-160), a temporary holding facility dedicated to truth, justice and the American way. When the detainees arrive, they are told they're in Cuba and that life at Camp X-Ray emphasises artifice, frivolity, and shocking excess as the keynotes. The common use of reliable military news and military information is directed by John Pike.

3. People who love camp say that non-camp people simply put gays on the cultural map, or so the familiar story goes. It was the author's first contribution.


I've never been quite happy with this piece of Google-sculpting. In my recent attempts to understand Gary Sullivan's poetics of flarf, however, it occured to me why. I find it inappropriate. In that spirit, which I guess is pretty flarfy (along with the distinctly post-9/11 imagery), I thought I'd put it out there, in part to see how I would feel about that. I don't normally approach poetry that way, neither my own nor that of other people, but, well, in the interests of science. Here we go.