The Cult of Silence, the Heresy of Eloquence, and the Price of Vision

September 9, 2008 at 2:49 pm | Posted in antin, attention, burning man, contemporary, materiality, personal, poetry, reticence, the sacred, travel | 3 Comments

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:




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.

A Sea Sewn to a Spine: Gabriel Gudding’s Rhode Island Notebook

November 30, 2007 at 12:02 pm | Posted in attention, buddhism, contemporary, materiality, poetry, travel | 7 Comments

“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:

My thighs
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.

Animal Passion: Bataille, Agamben, and Grizzly Man

March 21, 2007 at 11:37 am | Posted in bataille, ethics, excess, film, materiality, mysticism, no-self, the animal, weil | 9 Comments

“And we: spectators, always, everywhere,
at everything and never from!
It floods us. We arrange it. It decays.
We arrange it again, and we decay.

Who’s turned us around like this,
so that whatever we do, we always have
the look of someone going away? Just as a man
on the last hill showing him his whole valley
one last time, turns, and stops, and lingers —
so we live, and are forever leaving.”

— Rainer Marie Rilke, from the Eighth Duino Elegy

Something has been troubling me in all this talk of ecstatic self-forgetting. In order to make Bataille and Weil play nice with each other, I had to sand off some of their rough edges. In particular, I had to paint both Bataille’s abandon and Weil’s obedience as essentially mental states; in the foregoing post, these writers resemble nothing so much as a Buddhist monk and nun who, in their quite distinct ways, are striving to quiet the chatter of conscious thought and to replace it with the profound silence of the sacred. As a Buddhist sympathizer, I respect a lot of things about Weil’s ethics of attention, but the weakest link in her chain is the way that attention translates into action — all she can say is that “the actions that follow [attention] will be automatic.” There is a troubling refusal of responsibility here that seems to have to do with Weil’s discomfort in her own embodiedness; we have already seen, in my post on Weilian self-sacrifice, the fierceness with which she deprives herself of necessities in the name of ethics, but her wish to be “decreated” is more profound than a wish for death — it is a wish, as her term suggests, to undo her own creation. She writes, “When I am in any place, I disturb the silence of heaven and earth by my breathing and the beating of my heart.” She wishes, in short, to not have a body, and this creates a problem in terms of engaging with the physical world — her efforts at ethical action, as outlined in that earlier post, are often bizarre, unsuccessful, and misunderstood. Ultimately they are fatal. (Though they retain, as I argued, a symbolic value.)

In Bataille, the disconnect between mind/soul and body is just as profound, but since he values the body and not the soul, we encounter Weil’s difficulty reversed, as in a mirror: the blind spot in his thinking is how to get from action to attention, from ecstatic bodily practice to reflective morality. Bataille is not even really interested in reflective morality; the closest he comes is to argue for the continual overthrow of moral systems in favor of a continual quest for the authentically contradictory promptings of the deepest self. My problem with this is not so much that this ‘deepest self’ disappears into the bodily (though it could be said that this is another escape from responsibility), but rather with the particular way in which Bataille mobilizes the category of the animal in order to describe the embodied aspects of personhood.

Last time, I described Bataille’s sense of humans as “discontinuous” beings, fundamentally alone in their heads. This is imagined, in Erotism and especially in Theory of Religion, in contrast to the “continuity,” the immanence and immediacy, of the animal world, for which he argues we have a deep nostalgia. We imagine that animals “exist in the world like water in water,” and we experience ourselves as lacking this feeling: “Man is the being that has lost, and even rejected, that which he obscurely is, a vague intimacy.” Bataille’s pursuit of the experience of sovereignty is the quest to “lose his head” and give himself over to the animal within.

This account of the animal world resonates with us because it does sound true, it does recall a feeling we can empathize with. Animals are frequently evoked, in literature and film, as figures of Edenic innocence or of blind necessity — and either way, we see in their unselfconsciousness a state we envy. Rilke, in the poem excerpted in the epigraph, describes this nostalgia: “All other creatures look into the Open / with their whole eyes. But our eyes, / turned inward, are set all around it like snares.” The problem, as in Bataille, is self-consciousness; if only we could rid ourselves of it, we could exist “in that pure space . . . in which flowers endlessly open,” we could reside in “Nowhere without No.”

Giorgio Agamben’s The Open: Man and Animal follows Heidegger in exposing this imagined nostalgia as an utter fabrication. Where Rilke and Bataille see the animal’s experience as one of glorious harmony with its surroundings, Agamben and Heidegger see it as one of blindness and incomprehension. Agamben cites zoologist Jakob von Uexküll on the experience of the tick, who is blind, deaf, and ultimately responsive to only three things: the smell of butyric acid, contained in the sweat of all mammals, which causes her to abandon her post and fall blindly downward; the temperature of 37 degrees centigrade, which indicates that she has in fact fallen on a mammal; and the typology of mammal skin, which she navigates in order to find the least hairy spot from which to suck her meal.

The animal is, in Heidegger’s terms, “captivated” by those few phenomena that trigger its behaviors. He explains that a stone is “worldless,” while an animal is “poor in world” — it is open to certain specific phenomena, but it cannot recognize them as such. The tick has no knowledge of the dog, or its sweat, or butyric acid; it just responds automatically to a signal. The problem is that we don’t want to think of animals as mechanisms; waterfalls obey the laws of physics, but animals behave, even if they cannot act. Heidegger calls them “poor in world” to indicate the degree to which we humans project ourselves onto them; rather than seeing, as Bataille does, humanity as constituted by a lack of animal immediacy, Heidegger reverses the terms. We can think of animals, he argues, only in terms of a subtraction from ourselves: animals lack the uniquely human understanding of beings as beings.

The temptation to romanticize this lack is great. Agamben writes, “The tick is immediately united to these three elements in an intense and passionate relationship the likes of which we might never find in the relations that bind man to his apparently much richer world. The tick is this relationship; she lives only in and for it.” But is being a relationship the same thing as having a passionate relationship? The answer is an unequivocal “no,” and this is what Bataillean romanticizations of the animal obscure. When we speak of “animal passion,” we anthropomorphize the animal; for passion to be involved, there must first be a recognition of subject and object, which puts us squarely in the realm of the human.

At times, Bataille acknowledges this. Near the beginning of Theory of Religion, he admits that there is a “sticky temptation of poetry” about the animal, because “In a sense, I know this depth: it is my own.” Annie Dillard, in an essay called “Living Like Weasels,” succumbs to precisely this temptation: she valorizes the weasel’s instinct to bite and hold, offering an image of an eagle shot out of the sky with a weasel skull attached to its neck. The weasel, attacked by the eagle, must have fought back and almost won, and its corpse must have dangled from the eagle for weeks. Dillard, of course, turns this grim scenario into a moral imperative:

I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.

This is a beautiful metaphor for passion, but it cannot be said that the weasel feels passion. The danger here is that we believe these metaphors, and they trick us into facile ways of thinking about our own relationship to the animal part of us: our bodies. Bataille seeks, in his mystical practice, to liberate himself from conscious thought and obey his animal instincts, but this is never in fact possible. Agamben puts it this way: “While mystical knowledge is essentially the experience of a nonknowledge and of a concealment as such, the animal cannot comport itself toward the not open.” In other words, an animal doesn’t know that it doesn’t know itself, whereas a human can never quite escape her self-awareness. The terms of the comparison are always ours, because the animal doesn’t have terms.

Timothy Treadwell, subject of the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, provides a vivid example of one way this mistake can be fatal. He spent thirteen summers in remotest Alaska, living with and filming grizzly bears, until inevitably he was killed and eaten by them. This is not a spoiler; it’s revealed in the first three minutes of the movie and is plastered all over the preview — in fact, Treadwell’s death is what makes this a film worth watching and not just another nature show. Treadwell loves the bears; he names them all, he pets them, he mourns their deaths, and at several different points in the film he works himself into a frenzy about trappers and poachers and the encroachment of civilization: “I’m in love with my animal friends. I’m in love with my animal friends! In love with my animal friends. I’m very, very troubled. It’s very emotional. It’s probably not cool even looking like this. I’m so in love with them, and they’re so f-ed over, which so sucks.”

He is sympathetic because of his passion. It is animal passion, in the mistaken sense evoked by the passage from Dillard — the bears are Treadwell’s one necessity, and he is holding onto them even though they might be his death. In fact, it often seems that he devotes himself to the bears because they might be his death. One of the people interviewed in the film is a woman whose house in Kodiak, Alaska was always the last place Treadwell stayed when he was on his way out into the wilderness; she reports that every year, as he would set out, he would tell her that if he didn’t come back, she shouldn’t be sad, because he had died doing what he loved.

But the bears, as director Werner Herzog reminds us, cannot love him back:

And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a savior.

The problem with romanticization of the animal is that it does not allow us to see the radical closedness of the animal. People like Treadwell, Dillard, Rilke, and Bataille fancy that they are getting in touch with something “primal,” originary, and authentic within the human when they embrace their “animal” passions, but in fact, this is a profound rejection of what is most animal-like within us. The animal is that which does not know itself; it is the truly unknowable, blindly biological forces that, terrifyingly, motivate us at the core.

The problem I have with both Weil and Bataille, then, is that whether you value the mind over the body or the body over the mind, you are still failing to deal adequately with the dual, always contradictory nature of the human. Treadwell becomes a reverse Ahab, proving that to embrace the animal is just as fatal as to reject it.

The King of Love is Dead: The Ethics of Self-Effacement in Weil, Krishna, and MLK Jr.

January 18, 2007 at 2:27 am | Posted in attention, authorial agency, buddhism, christianity, ethics, exemplarity, gender, love, materiality, mysticism, no-self, political, sacrifice, the sacred, weil, writing | 10 Comments

First of all, I’d like to welcome Oublié Sur La Carte to the blogosphere and urge you to go check him out. His inaugural post deals with Baudelaire, writing, and memory — three of our favorite themes here at uncomplicatedly — and the lyrical prose already in evidence promises that future posts will not only be interesting, but beautiful to read.

Second of all, I’d like to make an excuse for myself. This post might have come into being a few days earlier, and been a little better researched, if the US postal service did not insist on depriving me for a week longer than promised of the books that I mailed myself from my parents’ house at the end of winter break. (Next time, I’ll use W.A.S.T.E. for sure.) So what I submit for your inspection this evening is the beginning of a theory rather than a fully worked-out one, subject to revision in future postings. On with the show.

“Let’s develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Last time, I explored the idea present in both Bataille and Weil of turning one’s life into writing — both in the usual sense of writing autobiographically and in the decidedly unusual sense of making one’s life itself into a kind of message. What I would like to address today is the particular form this latter desire takes for Weil, and how understanding this desire, even if we do not share it, can help us to understand a few things about what it might mean to be ethical.

Previously I emphasized the communicative aspect of this desire, arguing that becoming a living message is a way of orienting one’s life towards others. What I glossed over, as some of you picked up in the comment thread, was the fact that Weil did not want to send her own individual message (in contrast, I would argue, to Bataille), but rather to erase herself and become simply an instrument of God. This raises a host of agency issues that date back to the Delphic Oracle and have haunted the mystical tradition ever since: If the words belong to the gods, is the oracle a poet or just a mouthpiece? Moreover, it’s a question that is profoundly gendered. It’s hard for women to rally around a figure whose fondest wish was to erase her individuality and allow the words of the patriarchal Christian God to exist in her place. Some feminist scholars reject Weil for precisely this reason, but it is my contention that to do so too hastily is to overlook important dimensions of her thought.

It’s important, first of all, to recognize the violence of Weil’s wish. It was not a feminine demurral she wanted to make, but a gruesome self-sacrifice:

Father, in the name of Christ grant me this, That I may be unable to will any bodily movement, like a total paralytic. That I may be incapable of receiving any sensation, like someone who is completely blind, deaf, and deprived of all the senses. That I may be unable to make the slightest connection between two thoughts, even the simplest, like the total idiots who not only cannot read or count but have never learned to speak. That I may be insensible to every kind of grief and joy, and incapable of any love for any being or thing, and not even for myself like old people in the last stage of decrepitude. Father, in the name of Christ grant me all this in reality.

[. . . ]

Father, since thou art Good and I am mediocrity, rend this body and soul away from me to make them into things for your use and let nothing remain of me, forever, except this rending itself, or nothingness.

Critics call this Weil’s “terrible prayer,” and it’s easy to see why. It is a wish for a kind of living death; it seems downright perverse to desire such affliction. All of us, myself included, who love life and are grateful for daily miracles such as friendship and puppies and good strong cups of tea, recoil at such a dire pronouncement. “What good,” we cry, “can come from such a naked death wish?”

Kugelmass proposed, in a recent conversation, that Weil’s desire to erase her individuality might be read as an attempt to escape the whole problem of individuality that haunts our daily ethical decisions — the problem that takes the form of the question, “But what can I do? I’m just one person.” The fantasy of making herself an instrument for God’s use, he suggested, is a fantasy of “acting sufficiently,” which no one person can ever really do.

What I would add to this formulation, then, is that the fantasy of sufficient action (that is, of actually being able to solve the world’s problems) is not simply escapist, but representative of a sincere desire to be as helpful as possible to one’s fellow human beings. In Weil’s life, this desire translated into the sort of sacrifice that nearly all of us have talked ourselves out of: she lived in bare, unheated rooms, wore shapeless black rags, and distributed nearly all her wages to the poor. By contrast, at a talk I attended once, radical ethicist Peter Singer was asked by an audience member whether he owned CDs and responded in the affirmative. Viewed in this light, Weil’s desire for self-effacement begins to seem less like a tragically misguided death wish and more like a rigorous ethics carried to the logical conclusions that most of us do not have the stomach for.

Her schoolmates called her “the categorical imperative in skirts.” But it’s important to note that Weil’s desire to become a “living metaphor” was not a desire to lead by heroic example; remember that she wanted to erase herself. She wanted “to be only an intermediary between the uncultivated ground and the plowed field, between the data of a problem and the solution, between the blank page and the poem, between the starving beggar and the beggar who has been fed.” This is extremely suggestive of the extinguishing of selfhood that one finds in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, and it’s no coincidence: Weil could read Sanskrit, and refers to the Bhagavad Gita and several Buddhist sutras frequently in her notebooks.

In eastern philosophy, the extinguishing of selfhood is associated with the shattering of delusions. Only when you overcome your desires, fears, worries, joys, etc — all of the things that make you you — can you transcend your individual perspective and see the reality of the universe. This kind of total enlightenment is extremely difficult to obtain and takes most people many lifetimes to achieve; for practical purposes, it is a distant horizon toward which one aims. What one does on a day to day basis, according many Buddhist and Hindu practices, is simply learn to sit perfectly still and quiet one’s mind. But this is not a purely negative effort; in most of these practices, what you are concentrating on is not nothing, but your own breathing. The idea is that you stop multitasking at last. You practice breathing with perfect attention, and with cultivation this attention can be turned toward more complex objects: people, problems.

This pure attention is what Weil strives for, at bottom, in her drive toward self-effacement. Her reading of the command to love thy neighbor is remarkable. She writes of the beaten man lying by the side of the road in the parable of the good Samaritan that he is “deprived of human personality . . . [he is] only a little piece of flesh, naked, inert, and bleeding beside a ditch; he is nameless; no one knows anything about him.” The priest and the Levite pass by without stopping, and what the Samaritan does is “give his attention all the same to this absent humanity.” This act of creative attention, imagining humanity where there is none, is the Samaritan’s true accomplishment; the actions which follow, Weil writes, are just the “automatic effect” of this attention, which is fundamentally “a renunciation.”

From a purely Buddhist perspective, the line connecting attention to renunciation is easy to draw. Though Weil was aware of this perspective, in the essay in question (“Forms of the Implicit Love of God,” available in the collection Waiting for God) as in all her “public” writing, she is working within the western Christian tradition and writing to a western Christian audience. This is how she formulates it:

Whatever a man may want, in cases of crime as in those of the highest virtue, in the minutest preoccupations as in the greatest designs, the essence of his desire always consists in this, that he wants above all things to be able to exercise his will freely. To wish for the existence of this free consent in another, deprived of it by affliction, is to transport oneself into him; it is to consent to affliction oneself. It is to deny oneself. In denying oneself, one becomes capable under God of establishing someone else by a creative affirmation. One gives oneself in ransom of the other. It is a redemptive act.

The implied comparison is, of course, to Christ. How did God save mankind? By coming down here and suffering among us. He’s God, he’s magic — presumably he could have just erased original sin with a wave of his hand. But the reason he doesn’t do it is the same reason it’s not sufficient just to toss a handful of change to the man by the side of the road: when we use the forces at our disposal to help somebody in need, we do not uplift or change him. In fact, we continue to deprive him of the ability to exercise his will freely — what happens to him is what we choose to have happen to him. The way Weil sees it, God chose instead to pay attention to us — and he didn’t just sit up there in paradise listening to us bitch, either; he came down here and bled and loved and lost and wept, so he could really understand what we were talking about. He gave himself up for us, gave up that which made him God (namely, his immunity to such suffering) in order to feel what we feel. We should, Weil argues, imitate Christ and strive to lose ourselves in attention to the suffering of others. The actions which follow will be automatic.

Eric O. Springsted, to whom I owe some of the insights in the above paragraph, points out in Simone Weil and the Suffering of Love that while Weil spills a great deal of ink over the crucifixtion, the resurrection does not figure very prominently in her theology. While Springsted is sure, and I am mostly sure, that she believed in Christ’s resurrection, it seems that this omission was deliberate. If one pays attention to the resurrection instead of the suffering and death of Christ, one risks modeling one’s behavior on entirely the wrong thing: the vain hope for eternal selfhood rather than the infinite compassion of sacrifice, the renunciation of that selfhood. The King of Love, as it were, must be a dead one.

This brings us to the work of another Simone: Nina. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a DJ on my local college radio station played a song written by Gene Taylor, Simone’s bassist, after receiving the news of Dr. King’s assassination. “Why? (The King of Love is Dead)” is a simple song with forthright lyrics, exactly the sort of thing you might scratch down in the throes of grief, but Simone’s voice gives it enormity. The performance on the album Nuff Said was recorded just three days after King’s death:

Turn the other cheek, he’d plead,
Love thy neighbor was his creed,
Pain, humiliation, death he did not dread

[. . .]

‘Cause he’d seen the mountain top
And he knew he could not stop
Always living with the threat of death ahead

If you were unaware of the context, for the first three verses of this song you might very well think it was a song about Christ. It’s not until verse four that you get “with his Bible at his side” whose anachronicity would cause you to question this assumption, and not until verse six that King is named explicitly. The pun in the final line, which is also the title of the song, hardly registers as such: it is a song about both men. Hearing it made me realize that King, Christ, and Weil all understood that to stand up to the forces of oppression, even if it’s just to help a man by the side of the road, is to fundamentally imperil yourself.

The epigraph to this post was taken from King’s final speech, “I See the Promised Land” (to which I was pointed by — who else? — Kugelmass, after describing to him the above song). Its major subject is, uncannily enough, the specter of King’s own death. He starts by describing the tour through famous revolutions he might make if God gave him the chance to live at any time in history, declaring that in spite of all those past victories, there is no time he would rather have lived than his own, the mid-twentieth century on the verge of a civil rights revolution. He then discusses an attempt that was made on his life earlier in his career — apparently he was stabbed just above the heart and it was rather miraculous that he lived. He declares how glad he is to have survived that attack and witnessed the victories of the early 1960s, and then he concludes the speech this way:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

While this statement contains a Weilian wish to “just” do God’s will, you might point out that King seems to be accepting death here rather than seeking it. I would reply: was what he did not suicide? The man got death threats practically every day of his life. He was not seeking death for its own sake, but for the good it could do to others — in this, Weil is no different. She cuts a grim figure, but she does so in order to remind us of the importance of real sacrifice: the squalid, all-too-real kind rather than the idealized kind that leads to a sort of immortality.

So no: I don’t think that Weil’s desire for self-effacement is morbid, and I don’t think it’s antifeminist. When she makes her life into a message, she erases her authorship in order to be pure communication, all outward-turning with no inward-turning, all love with no ego. Weil has been to a mountaintop all her own — it’s not quite King’s mountaintop, and not quite Christ’s either, but it’s definitely on the same map.

A Secular Miracle

December 26, 2006 at 6:47 am | Posted in fiction, interpretation, materiality, writing | 2 Comments

First of all, a confession: I haven’t read the new Pynchon, nor do I plan to in the near future. I am studying for my Ph.D. qualifying exams, and I just don’t have time for “outside” reading on that scale. However, Joe over at The Kugelmass Episodes recently talked me into re-reading The Crying of Lot 49 with him, and has written a very insightful post on it, to which I will now respond. I should also take a moment here to thank Joe for pushing me into the academic blogging world in the first place; I had been toying with the idea for at least a year, but had mostly been too shy.

In my last post, I began with a quote by Dillard that I never particularly explained: “There is no such thing as an artist; there is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows.” It’s an interesting line; you realize upon inspection that it doesn’t so much efface the artist as transmute her into light itself, into a force of nature. In The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon gives us a related image:

If it was really Pierce’s attempt to leave an organized something behind after his own annihilation, then it was part of her duty, wasn’t it, to bestow life on what had persisted, to try to be what Driblette was, the dark machine in the centre of the planetarium, to bring the estate into pulsing stelliferous Meaning, all in a soaring dome around her?

The novel’s protagonist, Oedipa Maas, has been named executor of her ex-boyfriend’s will, and in the process of sorting out his large southern California real estate empire has stumbled across what she believes to be a vast conspiracy involving, among other things, an underground postal service. The “Driblette” mentioned here is the director of a play that Oedipa believes has something to do with all this. Here, Pynchon positions Oedipa the executor and Driblette the director as sources of light: both of their jobs are to sort things out and illuminate them so that others can understand. Unlike Dillard’s artist, their light is artificial, mechanical. But a line of Borges’ comes to mind. In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” he describes a world wherein a forged encyclopedia from a fictional planet slowly begins to infiltrate its way through scholarly channels into legitimacy:

How could the world not fall under the sway of Tlön; how could it not yield to the vast and minutely detailed evidence of an ordered planet? It would be futile to reply that reality is also orderly. Perhaps it is, but orderly in accordance with divine laws (read: ‘inhuman laws’) that we can never quite manage to penetrate. Tlön may well be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth forged by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.

The difference, then, is that while Dillard pounds her fists against a materiality that, divinely created or not, will always be mute, Pynchon and Borges find much more compelling the endless complications that arise when we try to communicate. If the light that shines through an artist must be “natural,” it makes sense that the critic/reader/interpreter must be man-made. Perhaps this is what is meant by the designation “post-modern”: Pynchon does not start with the natural world, or even with the “natural” interactions of humans, but with pieces of communication as such. Or rather, with pieces of possible communication. Early in the novel, the layout of the streets of San Narciso remind Oedipa of an electrical circuit: “Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meanings, of an intent to communicate.” Throughout her journey, Oedipa is continually confronting texts, items, and coincidences and continually having to decide whether and what they are supposed to communicate.

Joe, in the aforementioned post, gives the following account of the novel:

So Pynchon became a Robbins for me, one who is not outgrown. What he does is certainly not the only possible function of literature. He has merely created a story about the way narrative functions — the interplay of love and curiosity, the irresistible progress forward through revelations, and backwards through meanings, the re-minting of the world by metaphor, the symbolic death of final closure. In other words, he has created a story about the very peculiar and indispensable reason for prose, for teaching, and writing, and reading it.

While all of the things he lists here are good reasons for teaching literature, I would like to add another: The Crying of Lot 49 dramatizes the eternal problem of the reader. “Am I reading too much into this?” It’s a question they generally train us professional scholars of literature not to ask; if you think it’s there, it’s there, no matter what the author may or may not have intended. Generally I accept both Derrida’s notion of the instability of the signifier and Freud’s notion of the unconscious, but discounting authorial intent entirely seems like much too glib a solution. If literature is supposed to be communication (is it?), what the author intended to say ought to matter, at least a little bit. Oedipa’s fanatical search for authorial intent strikes us as hyperbolic, but poignant; for her, there are no alternatives besides cosmic, grandly-orchestrated meaning and mute, meaningless coincidence. Oedipa can’t see her way out of this problem because she will not allow for the possibility that she, as interpreter, can be more than just a projector, throwing somebody else’s map of the cosmos onto the wall. But her frustration resonates; even though we critics have wised up to our own role in all this, who among us has not wished she could talk to Shakespeare, Melville, Woolf, and find out for sure what they were up to?

The tragedy, of course, is that even if we could have this conversation, we would not really be able to find this out. The search for an underground postal service is a search for honest communication, “a network by which X number of Americans are truly communicating whilst reserving their lies, recitations of routine, and betrayals of spiritual poverty for the official government delivery system.” Oedipa needs to believe in this, that behind the banality of everyday life, real communication is happening somewhere.

The thing is, it is. Every time somebody really listens to somebody else, stops waiting their turn and scripting their reply instead of listening and considering another person’s ideas, real communication is happening. It’s certainly not perfect, and our failures to understand each other will always haunt us as the provocative “cul-de-sacs” that Joe points out towards the end of his post.

Pynchon calls communication a “secular miracle,” and I think it’s a telling phrase. It might be the secular miracle: that humans, whose minds must always be utterly separate, can make themselves understood. God’s miracles are utterly uncommunicative, if Dillard is to be believed — the proof of a miracle is its inscrutability. Rocks and trees are miraculous to her. As Joe points out, one of Pynchon’s characters defines a miracle as “another world’s intrusion into this one;” for Dillard, the created world itself is the mute testimony to this intrusion. But what Pynchon wants us to see is that communication between people can be a miracle too — when do we feel the presence of another world more fully than when we finally understand what somebody else has been talking about?

Newborn and Salted

December 22, 2006 at 8:32 am | Posted in materiality, the sacred, writing | 4 Comments

There is no such thing as an artist; there is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows.
–Annie Dillard,
Holy the Firm

Anyone who loves to read will tell you that certain books are cathedrals. You enter them and are immediately humbled. You are the only one inside. You spend hours in there, examining the stained glass and the grain of the wood on the pew in front of you. Some of these books are ornate, some are spare, but all of them are shot through with a fierce light that seems to be breaking out between the words.

Every reader’s holy books are different. Mine include One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Trilogy by H.D., Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, and Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard. Dillard was the first essayist I fell in love with, the first person to make me realize that an essay could be a work of art, and so it seemed appropriate to begin this project with a discussion of her book. Bloggers are essentially essayists, after all, if somewhat slapdash ones.

I first got into Dillard because of a boy. Kenan was a sophomore in high school when I was a freshman; he was somebody with whom I loved to climb trees, but he was also somebody who knew The Ways Of The World. He recommended Dillard to me, and I dutifully went out and purchased Teaching a Stone to Talk, selected from among her works probably because of its title. The first sentence arrested me: “It had been like dying, sliding down that mountain pass.” I knew I had discovered an art form that would be a necessary part of life from that moment on. Essays, creative nonfiction, where had you been all those years?

It’s a stern art, grounded mercilessly in reality. It’s like photography: you take a real thing, out there in the world, and you mess around with your aperture, focus, and F-stop until you achieve the composition that communicates, through some miracle, your subjective experience of the thing. To read Dillard is to encounter the world, bright and immanent and baffling, and to realize you are not other than the world. You die, you slide down the mountain pass.

Holy the Firm is almost certainly the book I have read more times than any other. It weighs in at only 76 pages and takes only an hour to read, so every six months or so when I find myself with a particularly lovely chunk of time to kill I will pick it up again. Its opening is ten times more stunning than that of Teaching a Stone to Talk; so much so that I will refrain from quoting it here, because I want you to have the experience of opening the book and seeing for yourself. Dillard intimates in The Writing Life that in its early stages, Holy the Firm was poetry, and only later in the process did she decide to “print it as prose.”

It’s a book about suffering and beauty. Dillard wrote it while living, Thoreau-like, in a one-room cabin on the Puget Sound, one wall of which was glass and faced the ocean. This situation itself is the chief subject of the first chapter. The second chapter is about a little girl whose face gets burned off, and the third chapter is about communion wine. Dillard describes herself in some book, I forget which, as a “Christian mystic.” She is a troubled one– the beauty of the world impels her to worship, but its cruelty impels her to mutiny. Her books urgently ask “one of the few questions worth asking, to wit, What in the Sam Hill is going on here?”. If you take seriously the idea that there is a God, the existence of suffering poses an enormous problem. Theologians have been arguing about it for years, and the solutions they offer are, let’s face it, pretty thin. Suffering exists so we can appreciate the good? Suffering exists so that morality can exist? Suffering is an inevitable consequence of free will? Some of those sound good on paper, particularly the last one, but come now– God bound by the laws of logic, unable to lift the rocks he creates? That has never been a persuasive image. Job’s comforters offer answers like these, but they are futile. God’s answer to Job’s plea is the only real answer: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?”

The problem is always that God is inaccessible, and we are hopelessly material. Dillard takes her materiality seriously, and sees in it the grounds for a serious challenge against the Allmighty. But she also sees something else:

What can any artist set on fire but his world? What can any people bring to the altar but all it has ever owned in the thin towns or over the desolate plains? What can an artist use but materials, such as they are? What can he light but the short string of his gut, and when that’s burnt out, any muck ready to hand?

The idea that art arises from suffering is a cliche as old as the standard theodicies above, but to my knowledge no theologian has posited that suffering exists so that we can create art. Art is a means and not an end in most religions. Reading Christian theology, one is sometimes struck by how monstrous man seems– made of clay, and yet he speaks. In the middle ages, theologians were so baffled by the idea of how something with no material existence (the soul) could cohabit spatially with something of only material existence (the body), that they invented a third concept, the spirit, to bind the two together. God told them that man consisted only of body and soul, but Plato told them that “it isn’t possible to combine two things well all by themselves, without a third; there has to be some bond between the two that unites them” (Timaeus). To avoid heresy, St. Augustine and Aelred of Rievaulx had to declare this third thing entirely material– they identified it with the “subtler” elements of fire and air. Through manipulating these elements, they claimed, the soul was able to control the body’s grosser elements of water and earth.

For Dillard, materiality is material, the stuff of art. For Dillard, man is not a monster who needs to be explained away, but a miracle who needs to be explored and exulted. Here is her description of the mind-body problem:

It is the best joke there is, that we are here, and fools– that we are sown into time like so much corn, that we are souls sprinkled at random like salt into time and dissolved here, spread into matter, connected by cells right down to our feet, and those feet likely to fell us over a tree root or jam us on a stone. The joke part is that we forget it. Give the mind two seconds alone and it thinks it’s Pythagoras. We wake up a hundred times a day and laugh.

I resolve, then, never to be Pythagoras. This blog will be a record of wakings up.

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