Saturday, February 25, 2012


Mailer defined it as "the emotional promiscuity of those who have no sentiments". Another definition occurred to me recently. A poem can be considered "sentimental" if it aims to make the reader feel something in particular, rather than make the reader feel more precisely. This can happen either because the poet is too aware of himself or because he is too aware of his reader. The first kind of sentimentality often consists of an attempt to make the reader (whoever she is) pity the poet. The second kind often consist of some more or less overt attempt to arouse the reader (who is the object of his affection). But there are all kinds of less "personal" forms of sentimentality (the poet may want to make the reader feel sympathy for a class of victims or may want the reader to admire his taste in music). We can often rid a poem of sentimentality by removing references to things or events that both the poet and the reader are presumably familiar with. Or by converting them into images that no longer presume such familiarity.

Friday, February 17, 2012

False Consiousness

A grammatical inversion just occurred to me, though I knew it could not be my own invention. Sure enough, it is used in a 1995 about Chinese rural development by Kate Xiao Zhou and Lynn T. White in the Journal of Developing Areas 29 (4):

Politics can be inarticulate. People can create massive governmental change, without even being fully aware what they are doing. Most social science oddly presumes that ideal ends are usually clear in the minds of actors. This premise about the lucidity of preferences aids theorists trying to reconstruct the rationality of action. But that purely analytic virtue is not empirical evidence to prove anything about consciousness. In an attempt to explain the speed of Eastern European changes during 1989, for example, Timur Kuran suggests that people reached a revolutionary threshold for collective action when the psychological costs of denying their preferences under state repression exceeded the external costs ofjoining the movement to change the state." His logic about "preference falsification" is interesting because it tries to account for motives. It does not just refer to the contextual factors about which evidence is easier to gather. But Kuran refers in effect to conscious falseness, not false consciousness. People can be discreet in politics; their external behavior in such cases need not show they lie to themselves. But also, there is a vast grey area between these two conditions. Awareness can simply be fuzzier than a strict rational-action accounting of preferences suggests. Also, people often have an interest in making sure their ideals remain ambiguous, not choosing among preferences until the net benefits of doing so are clear. To say that they "have" specific preferences that can be evidenced as separate from their actions would be to ignore these endemic aspects of rationality. ("Quiet Politics and Rural Enterprise in Reform China", p. 481-2)

This allows us to construct a cynical aphorism: An ideology converts conscious falseness into false consciousness, an intellectual, vice versa.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Pound vs. Heidegger on Being in the World

Heidegger: "World is only, if, and as long as a Dasein exists."

Pound: "The ant's a centaur in his dragon world."

They are both right, of course. But I will insist that Heidegger is giving us precisely an ontology, i.e., a philosophy, while Pound is giving us an authentic ethnography (i.e., a poetry of existence, not a science).

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Heidegger and Pound, Philosophy and Poetry

In Being and Time, Heidegger is sometimes quite diplomatic (if always resolute) about the relationship of philosophy (i.e., phenomenology) to other disciplines. For example: "Dasein's ways of behaviour, its capacities, powers, possibilities, and vicisitudes, have been studied with varying extent in philosophical psychology, in anthropology, ethics, and 'political science', in poetry, biography, and the writing of history, each in a different fashion. But the question remains whether these interpretations of Dasein have been carried through with a primordial existentiality comparable to whatever existentiell primordiality they may have possessed" (H. 16). Philosophy could presumably do the job right. In the Basic Problems of Phenomenology he makes the break with other sciences clearly: "The method of ontology, that is, of philosophy in general, is distinguished by the fact that ontology has nothing in common with any method of any of the other sciences, all of which as positive sciences deal with beings" (BP, p. 19).

I agree with Heidegger about the deficiency of other "sciences" in understanding human existence. But I'm not sure philosophy is any better. Notice first of all that Heidegger insists on calling philosophy a "science" and on attributing a "method" to it. This makes it natural to approach Dasein as a "object" (though, yes, Heidegger does his best to try to avoid misunderstandings here). In this sense, philosophy makes the same mistake as anthropology, history and "political science" (let's add sociology, "social science", too). I think Heidegger passes too quickly over poetry, at least in Being and Time. In Basic Problems he rightly says that "poetry, creative literature, is nothing but the elementary emergence into words, the becoming-uncovered, of existence as being-in-the-world" (BP, p. 171-2). And in his Introduction to Metaphysics he establishes the relationship of poetry and philosophy as follows:

Philosophy can never belong to the same order as the sciences. It belongs to a higher order, and not just "logically", as it were, or in a table of the system of the sciences. Philosophy stands in a completely different domain and rank of spiritual Dasein. Only poetry is of the same order as philosophical thinking, although thinking and poetry are not identical. (IM, p. 28 [20])

Here again I agree with Heidegger. Philosophy and poetry are of the same "order" (I don't have any need to call them "higher"). And what he says about poetry is true also of philosophy, it is an "elementary emergence into words", a making present. But I don't agree that both poetry and philosophy make the same thing present (Heidegger calls it Being or Life). I think it's quite simple. Poetry brings the subject to presence, philosophy the object. (I don't need to qualify them as "human" because objectivity and subjectivity are distinctly human experiences.)

And that's why philosophy must content itself with an "analytic of the Dasein" (an analysis of existence) that gives us only its facticity, its objectivity, its relationship to things. It can't get to our activity, our subjectivity, our relationship to people. A synthesis of the Dasein, if you will. Its becoming, not its being. Here history and biography, sociology and "political science", cover over the true "anthropology" revealed in poetry. But even poetry (like philosophy) can participate in the covering-over. And this brings us to Pound. After expressing his preference for Ovid over Virgil, he issues a challenge:

The lover of Virgil who wishes to bring a libel action against me would be well advised to begin his attack by separating the part of the Aeneid i which Virgil was directly interested (one might almost say, teh folk-lore element) for the parts he wrote chiefly because he was trying to write an epic poem. (ABC, p. 45)

And Pound's homage to Propertius was precisely focused on the renunciation of the "epic"—what Pound defined as poetry that contains history. Pound had epic ambitions (though he knew better). Heidegger likewise (and he also probably knew better).

Perhaps this is why Heidegger and Pound will always be "greater" (in the canon) than Wittgenstein and, say, Williams, though the latter more carefully "carried through with a primordial existentiality comparable to whatever existentiell primordiality they may have possessed," or something like that. They stuck to the matter at hand. They cultivated the recusatio.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

From Dante, via Google

So gentle and so pure it seems
my lady when she greets others,
That every tongue is left trembling mute,
And eyes do not see the disconnect.
She goes, praise feeling,
secured benignly in humility;
and it seems that something is coming
from heaven to earth to show miracles.
Reveals herself attractive to him who seeks,
that gives the eyes a sweetness to the core,
that those who cannot tender proof:
and it seems that from his countenance is moved
a gentle spirit full of love,
he is saying to the soul: Sigh.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012


"This defensiveness, in contrast to the defiance of Callimachus and Catullus, is due, of course, to specifically Augustan pressures." (J.P. Sullivan)

Sullivan calls it "the grand refusal". It is a theme that is found in various forms, in Callimachus, in Horace, and of course Propertius: the theme of refusing to write an epic poem full of what Pound translated as "Martian generalities" and "Roman reputations". The specific refusal, even, to write the tale of how the Emperor is a descendant of the noble Trojans.

Which should remind us of Palinurus who, under a particular "pressure of reality", refused to, let us say, participate in an epic poem.

In Sicily Æneas celebrates the arrival with elaborate games. In these—although they include various sailing contests—Palinurus himself does not join and lets the other pilots fight them out. One can imagine him brooding over the storm and his leader's conduct while the noisy sport proceeds around him. Finally, to prevent the men leaving, the women set fire to the ships and four are destroyed. (Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave, p. 130)

Later, Connolly will suggest that Palinurus's falling into the sea was not "as accidental as Æneas supposed" (p. 132). Which, finally, should remind us of Tony Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot". Whether or not it is, authentically "flarf", let's leave aside. This poem, like other Google-sculpted works, seems to be a performative refusal or a refusal performed: the refusal to even write a poem. Not under the current (ca. 2003) pressures.

Thursday, February 02, 2012


"It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd." (Alexis de Tocqueville)

Adam Gordon's strangely inconsequential life in Leaving the Atocha Station intersects with history on March 11, 2004, with the Madrid train bombings. About a year earlier, in February of 2003, Tony Tost published a poem that I have sometimes somewhat oversold as the "Howl" of my generation, namely, "I Am Not the Pilot". It didn't make as much of splash in its time as it did in my mind (at the time), but if I'm right about Leaving (i.e., that it is our The Sun Also Rises), and if Flarf turns out to be something like our Imagism, then "Pilot" may yet at least be our "Mauberley" or "Prufrock", or something like that.

I'm convinced that the subject—the focal point of an agency, if you will—that Tost and Lerner are making present for us has everything to do with our real or perceived incompetence. Not quite incidentally, a Google search for "I am not the pilot" [albeit without quotation marks] turns up a story about a pilot who announces to his passengers that he is "not qualified to land the plane". I am convinced that Lerner and Tost (and a number of other perceptive poets at this time) are feeling (whether they know it or not) that Tocqueville's warnings about "administrative despotism" have come true. Foucault, looking back on what Tocqueville saw looming up ahead, called it "governmentality". And a "governor" (L. gubernator) is simply a pilot: one who steers. We are acutely aware that we are not qualified to land this thing.

Gubernator non sum.