I am currently reading Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic, a conceptual poetry project consisting of twenty-four hours of traffic reports from New York’s 1010 WINS (available online in its entirety here), and am stunned to find myself moved nearly to tears. Goldsmith, who claims that his transcription projects make him “the most boring writer that has ever lived,” is not thought of as a particularly moving writer, and I was certainly not expecting to react this way. But as soon as I opened the book I was floored; I was transported Proust-style right back into the kitchen of the house where I grew up in suburban New Jersey:
12:01 Well, in conjunction with the big holiday weekend, we start out with the Hudson River horror show right now. Big delays in the Holland Tunnel either way with roadwork, only one lane will be getting by. You’re talking about, at least, twenty to thirty minutes worth of traffic either way, possibly even more than that. Meanwhile the Lincoln Tunnel, not great back to Jersey but still your best option. And the GW Bridge your worst possible option. Thirty to forty minute delays, and that’s just going into town. Lower level closed, upper level all you get. Then back to New Jersey every approach is fouled-up: West Side Highway from the 150′s, the Major Deegan, the Bronx approaches and the Harlem River Drive are all a disaster, the Harlem River Drive could take you an hour, no direct access to the GW Bridge with roadwork. And right now across the East River 59th Street Bridge, you’ve gotta steer clear of that one. Midtown Tunnel, Triboro Bridge, they remain in better shape. Still very slow on the eastbound Southern State Parkway here at the area of the, uh, Meadowbrook there’s a, uh, stalled car there blocking a lane and traffic very slow.
Just about every weekday morning of my life between ages six and eighteen, I listened to traffic reports exactly like this one sputtering out of my father’s battery-powered radio. And I do mean exactly: it was 1010 WINS that he had on every morning, with traffic updates every ten minutes from Pete Tauriello, who is evidently still doing the traffic reports that Goldsmith is transcribing. (Actually, now that I think about it, there was definitely a period where my dad listened to WNEW’s Bloomberg Radio instead — another AM news channel financed, of course, by the man who would eventually become mayor of New York.) But in any case, Goldsmith’s block of text activated neurons I didn’t even remember I had, and it occurred to me that his work is rarely considered in terms of the specific times, places, and communities that it evokes. Critics tend to be concerned with what it means to copy something so banal word-for-word — to be concerned, that is, with the theoretical — and miss that perhaps what he’s trying to get at is the banal itself, rather than the philosophy that leads him to reproduce the banal.
My dad listened to that little battery-powered radio while shaving, and then would bring it with him into the kitchen to make breakfast for himself, me, and my brother. My mother didn’t really eat breakfast; she seemed to subsist on instant coffee and diet Pepsi until noon. When I was very young, I would hang around in the bathroom watching my dad shave and then follow him and the radio out to the kitchen. When I was older, I would endeavor to wake up as late as possible, but I’d still find myself downstairs in the kitchen shoveling cereal or Pop Tarts into my mouth in the cold dark morning while the radio chattered away. This was a decidedly pre-internet age; my dad listened to AM radio every morning so he could get the news efficiently, which I now suddenly recognize as an antiquated practice. I doubt he listens to that radio at all anymore, now that he has an iPhone. Stations like 1010 WINS are on a very short loop — the traffic and weather recur every ten minutes (and each time are just the slightest bit different, as conditions progress) and the material between these reports varies a bit more — sometimes you’ll get financial news, sometimes political news, etc — but even so, you don’t have to listen to the radio for more than twenty or thirty minutes before you start hearing the same stories repeated exactly. So it was always a little bit of a mystery to me why my father let the radio accompany him through his whole morning ritual — he, and I by extension especially when I was young and following him around, would be subjected to not just repeated-with-a-difference content like the traffic, but actually verbatim repeated content.
In addition to being repetitive, a lot of the news on the radio didn’t really affect my dad very much, and it certainly didn’t affect me. My parents had some investments, so I guess the financial news was sort of important, and it’s also how I learned about the stock market myself. (“Dad, what’s a ‘bear market’?”) The traffic reports that came on every ten minutes meant nothing to anybody in my family, since both of my parents had “commutes” that were less than ten minutes long. But listening to the traffic reports every morning taught me a fair amount about local geography — the BQE, the Major Deegan, the Verrazano — these names were burned into my brain before they even really meant anything, and years later when I learned to drive and started navigating the highways myself, I found myself having little a-ha moments every time I crossed a bridge in real life that I had previously only known from Pete Tauriello’s traffic reports.
Now that I think about it, the reason the traffic reports are so burned into my brain is that the one thing I personally was always interested in was the weather report, and these radio stations of course do “traffic and weather together” — so when you started to hear the traffic report, you’d hush everybody up so you could catch the weather. The thing about these news stations is that they operate at a blinding pace — everybody is always speaking very quickly so they can cram as much information as possible into their minute-long slot. The rhythm and diction of the traffic reports that Goldsmith transcribes are at least as evocative for me as the names of the tunnels and bridges. Some phrases the announcer seemed to have by rote — “stalled car blocking a lane,” “only one lane getting by” — these we’d hear several times a morning. “Jackknifed tractor-trailer” was one we’d hear a lot, and I remember being somewhat enamored of the sound of the words as well as slightly alarmed by its frequency given what an enormous disaster a jackknifed tractor trailer in fact is. Sentences in this barrage of information tend to be clipped and lack verbs: “Meanwhile the Lincoln Tunnel, not great back to Jersey but still your best option. And the GW Bridge your worst possible option. Thirty to forty minute delays, and that’s just going into town.” And to make matters worse, the announcers would jump all over the map: “then back to New Jersey every approach is fouled-up.” I remember trying to hold it all in my head, to picture the places they were talking about, and I always found that it was too difficult to follow. On the rare occasions that we did need the traffic report’s wisdom, we found that we’d have to strain to pick out the relevant information from this rapid barrage. But colorful touches like “the Hudson River horror show” remind you that there’s a person and a personality on the other end of this deluge of information that is so particularly stylized. I hadn’t thought about Pete Tauriello in years — in fact, I never really thought about him; I just heard his name a lot — but when Marjorie Perloff mentioned him in her chapter on Traffic in her new book, Unoriginal Genius, I gasped aloud as the “Pete Tauriello” neurons in my brain started firing again more than ten years later.
In retrospect, I think my dad probably just liked the chatter. The radio made us all feel connected to the outside world, whether or not we were paying very close attention to it. Now, of course, we have the internet to fill our lives with chatter and connection — but I think one of the things we can learn from Goldsmith’s Traffic is that not all forms of chatter are alike. Ten years from now, will radio announcers still be clipping their diction and dropping their verbs to fit all the traffic into their one-minute report? Or will news radio wither and die from the internet’s competition? Even if it doesn’t entirely vanish, I’d wager that news radio will reach ever smaller — poorer and older — segments of the population, and that it will no longer be a mainstay of middle-class suburban houses like my parents’.
I think, then, that part of what Goldsmith is getting at in his transcription projects is the power of records of utterly banal minutia to evoke the particular places and times from which they emerge. I doubt that Traffic would have had so powerful an effect on me if I hadn’t moved across the country to southern California, where names like “the BQE” make me feel nostalgic and the very idea of straining to hear the weather report in order to choose appropriate clothing is somewhat quaint. Neither the radio nor even weather itself is much a part of my life these days. But I experience these traffic reports as microcosms of a life I once lived, reflected through something I never particularly paid attention to while I was living it. Traffic reports — and weather reports, and newspapers, subjects of some of Goldsmith’s other transcription projects — are part of the texture of the everyday; they are where we live without noticing that we live there.
First of all, this is old news to most of you who know me personally, but all of you in blog-land might be interested to know that I’ve got an article published on H.D.’s Trilogy, her WWII epic poem, and her seances in which she talked to dead RAF pilots. It’s in the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory’s most recent issue, and it’s called “‘An Unusual Way to Think’: Trilogy‘s Oracular Poetics.” You can download & read the PDF for free. Yay for the information age!
If you’ve been starved for my friendlier, less academic prose (and what follows below is not enough to slake your thirst), you can also check out the poetry reviews that I recently did for Noö Journal — mine are the first two pieces in the magazine, actually, linked there on the upper right.
Okay, on with the show. In what follows, as the title of this post promises, I will talk about Gertrude Stein for awhile and then I will make some connections to the series finale of Lost, because I am a dork. I will put that section behind the fold, for the spoiler-conscious, and I will endeavor to make the first part of the post worthwhile in and of itself. I will also try to make the section on Lost as general and thematic as possible, so that you can read it and get something out of it even if you haven’t watched the series.
Because I am an immensely unwise person, I have decided that my dissertation requires me to read Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, a 925-page-long reputedly incoherent tome which is actually blurbed with the following line from the New Yorker: “The first stunningly original disaster of modernism.” But to my great surprise, I am enjoying the hell out of it. Here is part of the section with which I am currently madly in love. I quote at some length so you can get the effect of her prose, but please do try to read this attentively, because the nuances are important:
Every one is always repeating the whole of them. Always, one having loving repeating to getting completed understanding must have in them an open feeling, a sense for all the slightest variations in repeating, must never lose themselves so in the solid steadiness of all repeating that they do not hear the slightest variation. If they get deadened by the steady pounding of repeating they will not learn from each one even though each one always is repeating the whole of them they will not learn the completed history of them, they will not know the being really in them.
As I was saying every one always is repeating the whole of them. As I was saying sometimes it takes many years of listening, seeing, living, feeling, loving the repeating there is in some before one comes to a completed understanding. This is now a description, of such a way of hearing, seeing, feeling, living, loving, repetition.
Mostly everyone loves some one’s repeating. Mostly everyone, then, comes to know then the being of some one by loving the repeating in them, the repeating coming out of them. There are some who love everybody’s repeating, this is now a description of such loving in one.
Mostly everyone loves some one’s repeating. Everyone always is repeating the whole of them. This is now a history of getting completed understanding by loving repeating in every one the repeating that always is coming out of them as a complete history of them. This is now a description of learning to listen to all repeating that every one is always making of the whole of them.
A large part of The Making of Americans is essentially a typology of characters — Stein attempts to describe different “types” of people who live in America. This concept is what she is introducing at the end of this passage; the narrator is someone “who love[s] everybody’s repeating,” and has listened sufficiently to everybody so as to piece together a “complete history” of all of them.
But let’s back up. What does it mean to say that “every one is always repeating the whole of them”? First of all, there’s the sense of verbal “repetition,” which of course this text itself enacts. We all have favorite stories about ourselves to tell, favorite topics to discuss, frequent refrains in our daily accounts of ourselves. I presently have a semi-regular non-appointment with a friend of mine for what generally turn out to be quite long conversations about our presents and pasts. He is a relatively new acquaintance, which means I get to trot out some of my “greatest hits,” and have thus had the opportunity to examine this particular(ly narcissistic) pleasure. It’s the pleasure of a well-told story as much as of a well-lived life; I admire myself for both the events and their recounting equally. Because of course for me, these stories are already repetitions, benefiting from earlier tellings. But I worry that some of these stories have stopped being “authentic” because they have been told so many times, and that I might not be giving my interlocutor as much attention as he deserves by launching into these rhapsodies as often as I do. (Speaking of favorite themes, see this post for an earlier meditation of mine on personal anecdotes and the authenticity thereof.) But Stein loves repetition. She would tell me, I think, that repetition makes my stories more authentic, in the sense that as I refine them, they become more perfect expressions of myself. Not only do they become better vehicles for conveying whatever truth about myself inheres in stories about — for example — my summer jobs in high school, but they become better entertainment for my interlocutor, and I think this latter function should not be overlooked.
So there is verbal repetition — but there is also, like, life repetition. In a mundane sense, we all have schedules. We all have approximately set times when we wake up and when we go to sleep, most of us have some kind of official work schedule we have to abide by, and many of us have more or less ritualized ways that we use our spare time: we go to the same couple of lunch places, we unwind at the end of the day with a beer and The Daily Show, whatever. In a more profound sense, most of our lives are shaped by broader patterns of repetition: the same damn relationship hang-ups playing out again and again, the same nonsense day in and day out from your mother that you thought you both would have outgrown by now, etc. Freud’s concept of Nachträglichkeit is also about repetition — according to this theory, certain traumatic events leave us numb because we are unable to process them, but then later (often much later) in life, a seemingly unrelated stimulus can set off an emotional reaction out of all proportion with the stiumulus itself, because this reaction is the result of much-belated emotions connected to the original traumatic event.
What I like about Stein’s formulation (“every one is always repeating the whole of them”) is that it levels all these senses of repetition, from the echoing effect of profound emotional trauma to your verbal tics and your morning coffee ritual, and says that in all of these repetitions you are repeating “the whole of [you].” It reminds me of fractals, geometric drawings made up of pieces that are each smaller-sized copies of the whole. We all, I think, worry about the degree to which our lives our repetitive. Most of us have escape fantasies, whether or not we have any actual desire to act on them. Maybe I read too much Jack Kerouac as a teenager, but I suspect I am not the only person who sometimes fancies that she could be living a better and freer and more authentic life if she could just summon the courage to quit her job and hit the open road. What Stein does here is show us that repetition is authenticity — we can’t escape it even if we try. If we didn’t have desires that lead us to the same perfectly-calibrated cup of coffee every morning, or habitual turns of phrase that are uniquely our own, then who would we be?
The counterpart to this is the theory of love that Stein espouses here: “Mostly everyone loves some one’s repeating.” This is, by necessity, a theory of long-term love. She reminds us that “sometimes it takes many years of listening, seeing, living, feeling, loving the repeating there is in some before one comes to a completed understanding.” If repetition is authenticity, then repetition demands attention — not boredom or disengagement, which might be our more automatic responses. Importantly, Stein recognizes that the repetition in our lives is never exact repetition, though it may look that way to outsiders. Love, for Stein, becomes paying attention to the nuances of somebody’s repetitions. Change does not always happen drastically — in fact, most change in our lives probably occurs at a gradual pace, as a matter of drift in a series of repetitions rather than as a radical break. And what is sharing your life with someone if not the process of gradually letting your repetitions overlap and shape one another?
This is the part where I’m going to start talking about the television show Lost. If you’ve been watching the show but haven’t seen the finale yet, you should probably stop reading. If you’ve never seen it and/or have only vague plans to watch it someday, you can go ahead and continue, because I will not reveal any answers to any mysteries; I’m just going to describe the kind of emotional closure that the show gives us while avoiding specifics as much as possible.
One of the things I seem to keep coming back to in this blog is the question of what can and cannot and should and should not be articulated. In my last post, I invoked the myth of Cupid and Psyche in order to argue that there is a value to keeping dark corners unlit, that certain experiences are impoverished by the telling. Today I’m going to investigate some critiques of that point of view from some experimental poets, and I’m going to connect all of this to a discussion of Burning Man, a yearly festival of art, free expression, and self-reliance in the Nevada desert that I have just returned from for the second time.
The Cult of Silence
Most mainstream US poetry, since at least the 1950s, has organized its emotional economy around a conspicuously absent center. Concrete details point to a an epiphany of resonant silence, where the emotional force of the poem is expressed through its very unexpressableness. Consider, for example, Robert Hass’ poem “Meditations at Lagunitas”. The speaker begins with a sort of critique of Platonism, arguing that concrete instances of things should not be viewed as degraded versions of their ideal forms. Then he turns to words, the bottom of Plato’s hierarchy (because they are imitations of imitations of the Forms), and argues that just “because there is in this world no one thing / to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,” we should not think that “a word is an elegy to what it signifies.” (It’s tricky, of course, because all this is stated in the positive & not the negative, but the framing of the first few lines makes this criticism apparent.)
At this point, you might think that Hass is rejecting the numinous, vague world of forms — but as the end of the poem makes clear, he is in fact holding it more sacred than anything, so sacred that it cannot be described. The mistake is not believing in something beyond words, but failing to put that thing properly beyond words. As he thinks of his beloved, the speaker is driven to a series of recollections, presented paratactically in a series of concrete details, first about his childhood and then about the woman herself. The gaps in the parataxis point to what cannot be said, and the final chant of “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry” walks a weird line between signifying everything and signifying nothing: the true essence of those afternoons and evenings is safely hidden where attempts to explain it cannot limit or contaminate it.
“Meditations at Lagunitas” is one of my favorite examples of this kind of poem, but as you might guess, the premise that the most important revelations are beyond words can lead to a lot of really dubious poetry. Ron Silliman, probably the most widely-read poetry blogger today, pejoratively calls this tendency in mainstream US poetry the “School of Quietude” — this is the sort of writing more widely known as “workshop lyric” because it’s the kind of poetry that’s generally encouraged by creative writing classes. You know these poems, even if you’ve never heard these terms — this is the poetry of quiet, serene epiphany, often taking place in nature. Poets of this school would agree with the declaration in my last post that “love suffers in the naming” — these are what you might call reticent poems, which rely on evocative concrete detail. Silliman calls this tendency a “school” to emphasize that it’s just one way of making poetry, and should not be thought of as the “normal” from which avant-garde poetry “deviates.” (He claims, furthermore, that every single US Poet Laureate has been a member of the SoQ, with the sole exception of William Carlos Williams, who declined the position due to illness and never served.)
And if running an institutional hegemony that’s been crowding out other styles of writing for the past few decades weren’t enough reason to dislike it, the “School of Quietude” also has plenty of critics of its aesthetic practice. In Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry (1984), Charles Alteri characterizes this kind of poetry as “the scenic style,” explaining that these poems “achieve closure by a leap from the narrative to the visionary levels, as if sensitive experience reached its climax in moments of resonant silence” and goes on to criticize this approach pretty sternly: “finally, the pursuit of resonant silence may not allow the poet to say enough, may not purchase enough in vision to pay for what it costs poetry in eloquence, especially when a cult of silence makes it easy to luxuriate in vague emotions” (15).
Alteri’s critique gives us an economics of style, where silence is a poverty taken on almost monastically as a prerequisite to visions that may or may not turn out to be worth the sacrifice. But he clearly sees hypocrisy in this “cult,” in which an initial vow of asceticism devolves quickly into complacency — the silence that was supposed to make us all seekers has instead dulled that impulse and made us all either converts to or heretics of a new orthodoxy.
The Heresy of Eloquence
David Antin and Jerome Rothenberg were already heretics in 1965, when they began the poetry magazine some/thing with a manifesto railing against this aesthetics of resonant silence. It’s a problem for much more than poetry, they argue; the cult of silence is diminishing our ability to understand ourselves and others:
THE MOST TERRIBLE EXPERIENCE OF THE LAST THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS HAS BEEN THE GROWING CONVICTION THAT THE MOST SIGNIFICANT ASPECTS OF REALITY HAVE BECOME UNSPEAKABLE WITH THE CONSEQUENCE THAT THEY HAVE ALSO COME TO FEEL UNREAL THEY ARE UNREAL
STATEMENT: I CAN CALL SPIRITS FROM THE VASTY DEEP
QUESTION: BUT WILL THEY COME
THE FEELING THAT SOME/THING LIES OUT THERE THAT WE CANNOT LAY HOLD OF IS THE FEELING OF THE INADEQUACY OF THE EXISTING ORDER IT IS THE DEMAND FOR A DIFFERENT ORDER THE CONDITION OF POETRY THE NEED TO GAIN GROUND
Antin and Rothenberg up the ante, then, when they say that the problem is not just the emotional economy of a particular style of poetry, but a general trend in consciousness. Once we start to treat our “most significant” experiences with reverent silence, these experiences start to feel unreal — and consequently become unreal, for what are they but feelings? The quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV in this context is not about devils, but about emotions: you can name them, but will you feel them? Antin and Rothenberg want to turn this skepticism about the connection between words and experience into a positive force: instead of passing over in silence that which we cannot speak of, we ought to be constructing new ways of speaking.
A tall order, you say. Shall we concoct a new alphabet? Put together new words out of nonsense syllables? No and no: all Antin wants is for people to listen to each other, rather than assuming that the truth of another person is out of reach or, worse, already understood. In a piece entitled “tuning,” he writes,
at this point i think its very important for us to form a new notion of human rapprochement thats not based on understanding and i would like to contribute to not understanding i would like to contribute to human not understanding i would like to slow down the fantasy and illusion of understanding so that we could inspect the way and the pace at which we are approaching or leaving other people and see how far away they are and whether there is any reason or prospect for reaching them because one thing thats been promoted endlessly in the world is the fantasy of understanding the notion that its always possible desirable and costs nothing
For Antin, subjectivity is always in motion, a state of affairs belied by our traditional metaphors for understanding, such as “getting,” “grasping,” and “finding common ground.” In “gambling,” a companion piece to “tuning,” Antin says that such metaphors “reinforce the static sense of knowing whereby it seems a kind of standing instead of going” and suggests that “there is another way of talking about all this because wherever im standing ill only be there for a while.” Antin would like to replace these static notions of understanding with the concept of “tuning,” the process whereby musicians, by alternately sounding and listening, come to a point where their notes match up. He likens it to walking side by side, where the longer-legged person shortens her stride, and the shorter-legged person speeds up a little bit, so that they can move together harmoniously. When we walk we do this more or less unconsciously, but when we talk we ought to know that we are doing it; we ought to be aware that we are coming from different places, and that my words might not mean the same thing to you that they do to me, and we ought to take turns talking and listening until we are both satisfied that we hitting the same — or nearly the same — notes.
The Price of Vision
It’s not news that the Burning Man festival costs a lot of money and time, and hence is only open to a certain, economically privileged section of the population. Problematic as that is, I want to talk about a different kind of price tag. Charles Alteri set up this economy for us earlier when he said that “the pursuit of resonant silence . . . may not purchase enough in vision to pay for what it costs poetry in eloquence.” In the “School of Quietude,” vision is purchased by giving up words, by foregoing the hope that the numinous can be made concrete, by declaring eloquence to be worthless. At Burning Man the numinous is made concrete, again and again and again. At an art installation called CheckPoint DreamYourTopia, visitors were asked to fill out lengthy, complicated forms, endure harassment from border guards, and undergo interrogation by customs agents in order to be granted passports to the “Land of Dreams.” A giant duck with a disco-ball head that shot flames roamed the desert hosting a mobile party. The temple burned, as it does every year, sending the hopes, fears, regrets, prayers, and messages of the thousands of participants who wrote on its wooden walls literally up to the heavens in smoke.
None of these artistic feats could have been accomplished under an ideology of resonant silence. Burning Man has got an ideology of riotous noise, incarnated not only in the thumping electronic music that is audible at all places at all times of the day and night, but in all of the creations, costumes, and events that the participants bring to life. The giant duck you build may not quite be the giant duck of your dreams, but it makes your dream real for thousands of other people, and allows them to live their own dreams. Over and over again, you find yourself saying “fuck it — let’s do that” — let’s climb that tower, let’s swing on those swings, let’s light those lamps, let’s talk to that guy, let’s use that giant mechanical hand to pick up and crush cars. Any possibility that you don’t seize and turn into a reality there, you will eventually regret. (I didn’t bother to wait in line for the giant mechanical hand, and will basically never forgive myself.)
Furthermore, I’ve never been to a place where Davin Antin’s notion of “tuning” was more possible — people at Burning Man are far more open to one another than most people in what burners call “the default world.” One source of this is certainly the sense of camaraderie, the sense that you all share certain fundamental beliefs and inclinations. But I think another source is a heightened sense of subjectivity as something fundamentally in motion, like Antin describes — burners come from all over the world, from all kinds of different backgrounds and walks of life, and share a single bizarre space for a brief time. Moreover, the city is so chaotic and people keep such different hours that the likelihood of you seeing any one person a second time (unless you are camping with them, or try really hard) are pretty slim. All encounters are understood to be momentary crossings of paths: you fall into step with somebody, you talk, you go your separate ways.
I didn’t write on the temple. Part of it was that I didn’t know what to write, and part of it was the pervasive influence of the cult of silence: if I did try to write something personally sacred, wouldn’t I mess it up by writing it wrong, or writing it only partially, or failing to do it justice? This afternoon, David Antin reminded me that “the weakness of representation is also its strength . . . all representations are at the expense of other representations, and the only way to deal with this is to preserve some sense of their provisionality.” This, I think, is what Burning Man does in spades: every year, the man is burned, the temple is burned, and a whole city of 50,000 people vanishes without a trace when the festival is over.
The price of vision, then, is provision. If you want to keep what you hold sacred inviolate and pure, you are going to have to keep it to yourself. But if you want to bring it into the world and share it with others, it’s not going to come out in quite the way you imagined, it’s not going to last forever, and it’s probably going to get a little dusty.
“Driving is a spectacular form of amnesia. Everything is to be discovered, everything to be obliterated.” — Jean Baudrillard, America
“Life, friends, is boring,” proclaims Henry at the beginning of Berryman’s fourteenth Dream Song. If you’ve ever been on a lengthy car trip, you know that there are few things more boring. Sometimes the road brings startling things into your path, but there are long, barren stretches in between. Sometimes you are blessed with a conversation partner, but even the chattiest of friends runs out of steam after a few hours. Sometimes there is something good on the radio, but most of the time it’s country, preaching, static, or something you’ve heard thirty thousand times before. And every few hours, you have to stop for gas, food, the bathroom.
Gabriel Gudding’s brand-new Rhode Island Notebook (Nov 23 2007, Dalkey Archive Press) is a book of poetry that was handwritten in notebooks as Gudding drove back and forth between Illinois and Rhode Island twenty-six times. It is a book that embraces boredom and transforms it, proving that the author is firmly in touch with his “Inner Resources.” It is a record of mileage, billboards, and bug splats, but it is also a record of loss, suffering, and redemption. Here’s an excerpt:
Are hot with coffee, you can’t
solve or remove or understand
suffering, you really can’t
understand anything. The best
you can do, 1:49am, while thinking is see
similarities among particularities jesus
what the shit am I talking about, best you
can do is to keep a loving heart 79000m Odo
844.7m fr Providence Tractor & trailer
in the ditch. Pee 2 AM
Newsflash: I don’t need
to get anything from the world.
I had planned for my series on the poetics of attention to proceed in an orderly manner from Frost to Stevens to Williams, etc, but Gudding’s book is such a stunning example that I felt compelled to inform you immediately. I wrote in my last entry that the demands of attention are always contradictory — we must be open to the world, but we also must perform the tasks of synthesis and analysis which require our abstraction from the world. Gudding’s text is constantly interrupting itself as he moves between these two modes. There are lengthy meditations on subjects such as literary narcissism, the importance of dung, Nancy Reagan’s life as a psychotic nightmarish eagle, and the meaning of suffering, but even these extended treatises are peppered throughout with the sort of information you see above — the odometer, the traffic conditions, the stops to pee. The very process of reading the book becomes a kind of exercise in attention; it’s tempting to treat this information as “noise,” skimming past it to get to the good stuff (Nancy Reagan’s nipples are made of nickel!), but it serves an important function — namely, it grounds the whole book in a continuous present. Even if you skip over these textual details, they’re there, as insistent and banal as the facts themselves, reminding you where Gudding is, what the weather’s like, and how long he’s been on the road. You are confronted with your desire to filter, to privilege information about Gudding’s mind over information about his body or his car.
It is a profoundly lonely book. The trips Gudding makes back and forth between Illinois and Rhode Island are undertaken in order to see his wife and daughter, who live half a continent away. Over the course of the book, the marriage falls apart and the trips become less frequent. Gudding is almost always alone in the car — very occasionally his daughter is with him — yet the book is not claustrophobic, because Gudding’s mind is always reaching outward, observing and fantasizing and reflecting. Though the divorce is the book’s main “plot” line, very few of its details are discussed. The real throughline is the gradual sea-change in Gudding’s emotional states: the narration is always heterogeneous, but at the start of the book we see him being flippant and vitriolic about a wide range of subjects (including, importantly, the start of the Iraq war and the concordant rise in patriotic bumper-stickers) more often than not. As the divorce starts to become real, he starts to report his emotional states as though they were more roadside facts, as here:
88m fr. Providence. Am
incredibly sad. blue steel
double-arch “dromedary” bridge
over Quinnipiac River 95m
The book is structured around the epic conventions of anabasis and katabasis, the descent into and march up from hell. As it progresses, and he begins to process his loss, the notebooks (which are still, as before, assiduously reporting road conditions) begin to reflect a change in focus and a change in resolve.
In the prologue, Gudding refers to a notebook as “a road through emptiness, a sea sewn to a spine.” It records your journey, but more than that, it makes your life into a journey, by giving it epochs with beginnings, middles, and ends even if they are bounded arbitrarily by the number of pages. I too am a keeper of notebooks; they are similarly full of debris, but when I start a new one or end an old one I am forced to give an account of myself, to take stock. In between, the things I scratch down furtively in train stations and coffeehouses become my definitive history. I opened one at random today, and found this on 4/13/02: “Am I really going to be doing this for the rest of my life? Putting words in sequences on a page? Shouldn’t I go do something useful, like build a bridge? But I am building a bridge, if you think about it. A bridge from me to ‘you’ even if you is just a page in a notebook or another part of myself. My tea is cold. Fuck.”
John Ashbery said in a 1981 interview that, “Most of my poems are about the experience of experience. I’m trying to set down a generalized transcript of what’s really going on in our minds all day long.” I love him deeply, but somehow my mind fails to produce transcripts like his: “The immense hope, and forbearance / Trailing out of night, to sidewalks of the day / Like air breathed into a paper city, exhaled / As night returns bringing doubts”. Gudding’s Notebook is much more like mind as I know it — full of nonsense, full of noise, easily distracted, self-obsessed, but occasionally brilliant. It is, in many ways, a relief.
I realize I’ve said “I’m back for real” a couple of different times now, but this time I think I mean it: I’m back for real. The past few months have been consumed by studying for and taking my Ph.D. qualifying exams, and now that I’ve passed them I am not only much more free to blog but I also have a large backlog of thoughts about poetry that need articulating. So, I hope you’ll welcome me back into your arms and RSS readers as I work through some of this stuff.
As you may remember, a few months ago I promised to write a post on Robert Frost. Now, my primary sympathies as a reader and a scholar are for avant-garde poetry. I had a roommate at summer camp when I was fifteen who loved Frost and read him out loud to me, and behind her back I used to cite this along with her playing the bassoon and preferring math problems to Friday night dances as evidence of her incurable boringness. But my “Twentieth Century American Poetry” exam list included both the raw and the cooked, and I’ve started to see more in the century’s more “traditional” poetry than I used to.
When I made that promise, I was thinking of a poem by Frost called “Hyla Brook” that is particularly relevant to the issues I was exploring in my previous post regarding D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love and the trip back east that I had just taken. The question at hand, to put it plainly, was: given that everything is ever-changing and that other people will never be fully known to us, must we reconcile ourselves to loving phantoms and fantasies? Here’s the poem:
by Robert Frost
By June our brook’s run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh bells in a ghost of snow) –
Or flourished and come up in jewelweed,
Weak foliage that is blown upon and bent,
Even against the way its waters went.
Its bed is left a faded paper sheet
Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat –
A brook to none but who remember long.
This as it will be seen is other far
Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.
We love the things we love for what they are.
The Hyla is a kind of tree frog, but it’s also worth noting that in Greek mythology, Hylas was the Argonaut who was lured into the water by the water nymphs and disappeared without a trace. Here, the brook itself disappears — it dries up so thoroughly that it is not even properly a brook anymore. Only those “who remember long” would refer to it that way; a newcomer would see not a brook, but simply a swath of jewelweed.
The last four lines make it clear that we are not just talking about brooks here. The poem is in fact a criticism directed against “songs” that take brooks “otherwhere” — in other words, against poetry that idealizes, romanticizes, and immortalizes. Against this kind of “song,” the speaker affirms a love that is realistic, that is in the present tense, and most importantly, that is attentive. The speaker, unlike those other songsters, loves the brook even when it’s not a brook. It’s true that he sees the past in the present (he remembers the frogs, and how even they called to mind the earlier snows), but this is not the same as portraying the brook at the height of its babbling ecstasy as though its Platonic form were the only one that mattered.
Frost is the beginning of what I’m coming to think of as an aesthetic practice of humble attention in a certain tradition of American poetry in the 20th century. Frost inherits his rural persona and natural settings from Whitman and also from the British Romantics, but he rejects their excesses as sentimental and instead crafts verse that is variously described as “stern,” “reticent,” and, well, “boring.” In the series of posts I wrote this spring on Simone Weil and Georges Bataille, I explored the ethics of attention — I claimed that for Weil, attention to others (and the associated self-emptying) was a necessary first step for ethical action, while for Bataille, attention to the realities of one’s contradictory self was that necessary step. In the series I am starting today, I plan to examine the aesthetics of attention — how is attention figured by poets, and to what ends? Why is it so often accompanied by stoicism — that is, by a suppression of affect? And why, ultimately, should we care?
One reason to care is that attention is the way out of the problem posed by the ever-changing world and its “sealed” inhabitants, to use Virginia Woolf’s word (from To the Lighthouse). In order to love the things we love for what they are, we must be outward-turning, we must be generous, we must pay attention.
The last time I wrote about Simone Weil, I talked about her drive to self-effacement in terms of an ethics of attention. In this post, which is a condensation of material from my recent paper, I will talk about self-effacement as, paradoxically, a drive for authenticity. Georges Bataille is a veritable prophet of authenticity, seeking to live the vicissitudes of his id to their fullest, whereas Weil is fiercely obedient to the commands of God. These, I will argue, are actually quite similar practices — both mystics strive to be true to impulses within themselves that are, at the same time, perceived to be in excess of those selves. What I aim to uncover here is the way in which recognizing the otherness of ourselves provides a necessary counterpoint to the ethics of attention, which requires us to recognize others as ourselves.
The basic idea behind Weil’s ethics of attention, as I explained last time, is that affliction deprives people of their humanity and attention has the power to restore it. I demonstrated this through Weil’s thoughts on the parable of the good Samaritan; before he was paid attention to, the beaten man was just a pile of flesh and rags by the side of the road. Bataille also believes that the worst thing that can happen to a person is to be reduced to “thinghood” by the pressure of outside forces — the prime example of this is slavery, but lest we think that this problem ended with abolition, Bataille reminds us that in modern capitalist society, all human beings are required to be materially productive and thus we are all reduced to thinghood (see The Accursed Share, vol. 1). The way to restore humanity is to embrace uselessness in order to remove oneself from the chain of production — in Bataille’s mystical practice, a person restores herself to humanity through an experience of the self as sovereign.
In Blue of Noon, the character Dirty (short for “Dorothea”) stands for the sovereign orgy of expenditure. When the book opens, she is “utterly” drunk in a London dive bar, “the most squalid of unlikely places,” and wearing “a sumptuous evening gown.” The implied class status makes her debauchery more complete; for a woman “so rich . . . [that] she could spit in other people’s faces” to have arrived at a condition and a place like this, she must be squandering resources in earnest. Dirty and Troppmann (the protagonist) “managed, with no respect for conventional pigeonholes, to eliminate every possible urge, in the room at the Savoy as well as in the dive, wherever [they] had to.”
The experience of sovereignty that accompanies the breaking of taboos has a double source, according to Bataille (see Erotism: Death and Sensuality). Immediately apparent is the sensation of freedom that comes from transgressing a rule; one obeys only oneself, and feels that one’s desires are no longer in check. Alexander Irwin (in Saints of the Impossible) reads in this experience the potential groundwork for a politics: “The inner experience of freedom remains the precondition of any meaningful deployment of freedom in the public, political world.” But Troppmann is profoundly conflicted; he is enthralled by Dirty but impotent in bed with her. He longs to “lose his head” and give himself over to passion, but he cannot; he admires the candor of Dirty’s utter debauch, but witnessing it makes him “distraught with anxiety” almost to the point of weeping. This reflects Bataille’s theory that transgression “suspends a taboo without suppressing it.” From the suspension of the taboo comes a dizzying rush of freedom, but the prohibition itself remains, producing an anguished state of inner conflict. This anguish is the second source of the experience of sovereignty that accompanies transgression, more hidden and more powerful than the naïve sensation of freedom. Breaking rules would be trivial if we did not feel bound by them; in doing so, one exposes oneself to a lacerating experience of self-contradiction that threatens the unity of one’s selfhood, insofar as it is a unity, with annihilation: “Man achieves his inner experience at the instant when bursting out of the chrysalis he feels that he is tearing himself, not tearing something outside that resists him.” Rather than simply reveling in the freedom to pursue his own desires and thus being inspired to work toward freeing others to do the same, the practitioner of Bataille’s philosophy is led to suffer the anguish of realizing that his own desires are deeply contradictory. What are the political possibilities of this anguish? Bataille does not pursue them in depth, but we can begin to see them by putting him in conversation with Weil.
Troppmann and Dirty strive to “lose their heads” by “eliminat[ing] every possible urge”—that is, in their debaucheries they seek to transcend their rational, unified selves by allowing their irrational, fragementary desires to take over. Troppmann’s boorishness and cruelty are at least partly the result of a deep concern for authenticity: “I would have liked to give her a real kiss, but I felt myself verging on insincerity. I left immediately.” It makes perfect sense that a Bataillean profligate would place such value on being true to himself; the experience of sovereignty seems to entail a radical trueness to self that goes beyond all fictions of unified desire.
Curiously, Weil’s self-emptying attention also entails a concern for authenticity. Born a Jew and raised an agnostic, Weil experienced a Christian awakening in 1937 following a stint of factory labor wherein she realized that “Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves” (see Waiting for God). Her conversion experience was one of being subject to a strong external force; in a chapel at Assisi, she writes, “something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.” The perceived externality of this force is what convinces her of its reality, and similar mystical experiences will continue to fuel her religious belief. However, she is adamant in refusing baptism because she has not experienced a similar kind of compulsion with regard to it. She explains, in a letter to Father Joseph Perrin, that she has resolved to stop wrestling with the question and plans to simply wait for God’s command:
It is very possible that after having passed weeks, months, or years without thinking about it all, one day I shall suddenly feel an irresistible impulse to ask suddenly and immediately for baptism and I shall run to ask for it. For the action of grace in our hearts is secret and silent. It may also be that my life will come to an end before I have ever felt this impulse.
Bataille would applaud the decision to take the promptings of “irresistible impulse” so seriously, but for him impulse originates in surging internal desire whereas Weil waits for something she can attribute to an external source. This points up what I see as the crux of the difference between Bataille’s and Weil’s thought: it’s not that she believes in God and he is an atheist (for the God that she believes in is quite absent from the world), it’s not that she advocates “good” and he advocates “evil” (for these categories are slippery, as will be discussed in more detail below), and it’s not even that she sees an orderly universe where he sees a disorderly one (though this is true). In terms of their ethical thought, all these concerns are secondary to and derive their importance from the fundamental situation of the subject: Bataille’s is profoundly isolated while Weil’s is profoundly open.
The experience of sovereignty, which Irwin reads as “the basis for an effective resistance to political tyranny,” is a self-enclosed experience, “an experience of the self as sacred.” In Erotism, Bataille explains that humans are “discontinuous” beings, which is more or less to say that we are alone in our heads:
Each being is distinct from all others. His birth, his death, the events of his life may have an interest for others, but he alone is directly concerned in them. He is born alone. He dies alone. Between one being and another, there is a gulf, a discontinuity.
This creates a profound sense of loss, Bataille theorizes, wherein we yearn for the imagined continuity that links everything outside of us; we long to “exist in the world like a wave lost among many other waves.” This sense of loss is what motivates human endeavors such as love, religion, and violence, none of which in its ordinary form can ever really heal over this imagined loss. Death is imagined as a return to continuity, but actual death does not allow its subject to continue to exist and reap the benefits — so Bataille’s mystical practice aims instead at the shattering of the subject, which is a kind of death-while-still-conscious. Eroticism is the name he gives to his mystical practice in this particular book, and he names three varieties: physical, emotional, and religious. Troppmann and Dirty engage at the physical level, wherein the transgressing of taboos and the unselfconsciousness of orgasm offer “little deaths” and the experience of sovereignty described above. The emotional level is tied to romantic love, wherein one can imagine oneself dissolving into one’s beloved. Both of these practices do involve the participation of another person, but the experience of the subject as Bataille conceives it is profoundly isolated; the importance of the encounter with the other lies in the trauma it inflicts on the self, trauma that can cause the desired shattering. In the third level, that of religious mysticism, the other is no longer necessary at all and the required trauma is internalized, imagined through meditation.
Faced with the same gulf between human beings, Weil turns not inward but outward. Bataille seems to conclude that, since inner experience is the only kind available, the best one can do is to cultivate that experience to its extremes. Weil, on the other hand, finds her inner experience boring and trivial, choosing instead to focus on the challenge presented by the unknowable outside world. In her ethical practice, this takes the form of attention to the suffering other; in her religious practice, it takes the form of attention to God.
Bataille seeks sovereignty; Weil seeks abdication. Both seek to liberate us from unexamined, fictively unified notions of self, and this has important ethical consequences. Peter Connor (in Georges Bataille and the Mysticism of Sin) calls our attention to an exchange between Bataille and Sartre that took place in March of 1944, in which Sartre points out that Bataille’s valorization of “evil” seems less like a rejection of moral systems than like an alternative moral system. Bataille responds by explaining that, in the overturning of “good” morality by “evil” morality, what is really important is the overturning itself. The process he is describing is not one of abandoning the search for morality, but rather one of an infinite search that seems to have something in common with Weil’s infinite wait for the commands of her absent God. Connor explains that for Bataille,
There is no moral of the story. Ethics does not consist in acquiring knowledge of some thing that can be communicated through a text. This was Kant’s error. Rather, it lies in the infinite inquiry into how communication is possible in general. The movement toward ethics is a movement away from knowledge.
Weil’s faculty of attention also depends crucially on the movement away from knowledge, which would lead one to draw hasty conclusions rather than waiting patiently the truth. But in a world where God is absent and other people are, at bottom, unknowable, must we wait forever?
Weil reflects that “to love a stranger as oneself implies the reverse: to love oneself as a stranger.” Her choice of the word “stranger” instead of the more common Biblical “neighbor” reflects the sense of the parable of the Good Samaritan as well as the thrust of her own ethics of attention, which involves taking on another’s suffering. But the reversal is intriguing, and this is where Bataille can help: ethics cannot be about self-denial alone. The love that motivates it must be universal, and this means that in addition to loving others, we must embrace our flawed, contradictory, selfish selves.