Love Song to a Stranger

February 6, 2007 at 12:49 pm | Posted in love, metaphor, personal, poetry | 4 Comments

“All of your history has little to do with your face
You’re mainly a mystery with violins filling in space”
— Joan Baez

Every day as I bike home I commit the pathetic fallacy. I look up at the mountain and read it like an omen; when it’s hazy I feel bogged down and confused, when it’s standing forward clearly and boldly I feel as though I could do the same. This afternoon it was swathed in pink mist, which I’ve never seen it be before.

Kugelmass has recently written a great post over at The Valve about Pablo Neruda’s “Love Poem XIV: ‘Every day you play…'”. I’m not going to reproduce the poem here, so click to his post if you want to re-familiarize yourself with it. Joe reads the poem as an encounter between “savage, solitary souls;” he seems to see it as an attempt to take seriously the otherness of another person and to allow that otherness to be a source of (violent, natural) beauty instead of something that needs to be rejected, patched over, or denied. I think he’s right on target, and I intend to expand on these ideas by meditating first on beauty, and then on otherness, in an effort to say something hopefully a little bit useful about love.

What probably sticks out in your mind if you’ve ever read this particular Neruda poem before are its final lines: “I want / to do with you what the spring does with the cherry trees.” When I encountered this poem for the first time as a fourteen-year-old girl, I nearly perished on the spot; the beauty of those lines was more overwhelming than words had ever been before. Joe reads the flower imagery throughout the poem this way:

Blossoms are Neruda’s symbol for love at the moment when it is achieved. They are suitable because of their naïve, sufficient externality, which reminds us of the inter-subjectivity of the love affair. Flowers appear on the outside of dark branches, or cover the ground after a rain. Neruda writes, “you bring me honeysuckle,” and, in return, “I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains,” in contrast to the devastations of the “sad wind.” The implicit sunshine of the “yellow garlands” returns in the “sunned” body of the beloved, and in the blue of the bluebells. There is only a whisper of their origins in the “dark hazels,” which bring back the “whirl of dark leaves” from the storm.

In other words, if the stormy encounter with the beloved’s otherness can be weathered, the reward is the sensuous beauty of all these flowers. Implicit in Joe’s reading, signaled by his use of the word “naïve,” seems to be the idea that the sensuous joys of love depend on a forgetting of its darker, abyssal nature even though these joys depend vitally on this abyss. This is a place where I wish to explore a different angle, because I think beauty in this poem is a whole lot more than “sufficient externality.” Joe indicates in this passage that the dark origins of these flowers still “whisper” to us, but to me these whispers are extremely important. For evidence, the traditional thing to do would be to point to the language of the poem itself, but I would prefer, instead, to cite the reaction of my fourteen-year-old self.

As I mentioned a moment ago, the beauty of the final image nearly killed me. What I mean by that is: I felt a visceral pain, it was overwhelming, those words were more than I could bear. Ten years before Neruda wrote Twenty Love Songs and a Song of Despair, H.D. wrote a poem called “Orchard” which describes the humbling effects of natural beauty in terms that are eerily relevant. The first stanza goes like this:

I saw the first pear
as it fell —
the honey-seeking, golden-banded,
the yellow swarm
was not more fleet than I,
(spare us from loveliness)
and I fell prostrate
you have flayed us
with your blossoms,
spare us the beauty
of fruit-trees.

Generations of Neruda readers have perhaps cried similar things upon finishing “Love Poem XIV.” Why is it, I demand, that natural beauty “flays” us? And why do Neruda’s mere descriptions of it tear us apart?

To follow Joe’s line of thinking, one answer might have to do with the idea of radical otherness. No matter how much we might desire to merge completely with the object of our affections, that is simply not possible; no matter how well we might come to know her, she will remain utterly unknowable. It seems to me that nature imagery, and particularly the ecstatic comparisons to nature that one often finds in love poetry, emphasize this otherness rather than sublimate it or otherwise patch it over. When you compare your beloved to a tree, you deny her even a tongue to speak with; she becomes something wholly alien to you that you can only engage with by analogy and — yes — the pathetic fallacy. This is not to say that such comparisons are not often extraordinarily beautiful, nor to deny the tender generosity of Neruda’s cherry-tree wish. Rather, it is to point out that behind all this beauty is something awfully tragic, and to suggest that this tragic thing may be what we respond to when we respond to beauty.

Once upon a time, I dated a very strange boy who brought this point home to me in quite a literal way. It’s one thing to angst about the unknowability of your beloved when your beloved is a relatively normal human being, but E. was incurably obscure. At one point during our courtship, he sent me the following string of words in a letter:

where from or, when or, how knowing without you love I
pride or complexities without, straightforwardly you love I
way other no know I because you love I so

you nor, exist not does I where: this than
hand my is chest my on hand your that close so
asleep fall I as close eyes your that close so

I was always arguing with E. about how little sense he made. I would ask him a simple question such as, “how are you today?” and I would frequently receive an answer such as, “I feel like a laugh falling out of a tree.” It made me want to tear my hair out; it made me demand, unkindly, that he stop being a poet for five seconds in order to be a goddamned human being. It often made me feel as though he were deliberately shutting me out. But in moments like the above lines, quite the opposite was the case. At first, they appear to be little but suggestive nonsense. But with a little persistence, it dawned on me that they were backwards, and that furthermore they were the closing lines to Neruda’s “Sonnet XVII.”

To say, encrypted in backwards-code, “I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride,” is a pretty astounding thing to do. On his end, it might have seemed like a crossing-out, but he must have also known that on my end it would be a revelation. And even in backwards form, the sense of the last two lines comes through almost entirely. Though I railed at E. for always seeming to hold himself at a distance from me, those final lines express the very desire I thought he lacked.

The moral of this story, as I see it, is that the very words which can seem to interpose distance — be they poetic imagery or outright code — can also be a route to a new kind of immediacy. I don’t mean to repeat facilely that metaphors help us understand things; rather, I want to underline the strangeness that is metaphor’s engine. In Derrida’s “White Mythology,” an essay that begins with a consideration of flowers, he argues that every metaphor is a catachresis, an error, whether we recognize them as such or not. The ones we are least likely to recognize are what he calls “dead metaphors,” metaphors we’ve heard so many times that they have lost their power. He’s referring to phrases like “table leg” and “clock face” in which we are practically unable to hear the anatomical comparison. This is a terrible shame: if we could only see the surging chaos of comparison that underlies our language, if we could only see that all language is only comparison, we’d have a much more vital understanding of our world.

This, then, is why I valorize the “dark” hidden in Neruda’s “dark hazels.” Flowers in poetry always threaten to turn into dead metaphors, but their naïevete is only feigned. In their very externality they point to the internal chaos of love, and this is why they flay us. And a skillful writer who can surprise us with a couplet like “I want / to do with you what the spring does with the cherry trees” reminds us of the strange, wild abyss that is man’s encounter with the world and everyone in it.

The Writing Life

January 10, 2007 at 10:16 am | Posted in bataille, ethics, exemplarity, love, meta, metaphor, mysticism, political, sacrifice, the sacred, weil, writing | 14 Comments

“Possible loves — are for fools — the wise have — impossible loves.”
— Simone Weil

In my last post, I talked about “reverse graffiti” as a template for my New Year’s resolutions. The idea I was professing back there — “I should make of my life a message” — was not my own. I have been reading Alexander Irwin’s Saints of the Impossible: Bataille, Weil, and the Politics of the Sacred, and it is his central claim that the primary way in which Georges Bataille and Simone Weil, whose philosophies are enormously opposed, resemble one another is that both stage themselves as sacred beings who tried to fuse their lives with their writings, to live their messages, to be living messages, in order to destabilize the destructive political paradigms of the second World War. What I hope to explain in this post is how this idea has been helping me think about blogs, which are now — unsurprisingly — something I think about a great deal.

Like many things these days, my interest in Bataille is Kugelmass‘s fault. About two months ago I told him I was thinking of writing about Weil for my political theology class, and he wanted to know if I’d read Bataille’s Blue of Noon in which Weil appears as a central character. I hadn’t, so I did, and now I find myself down a long, dark Bataille/Weil tunnel from which this will represent the first of probably several postings.

I’ve loved Weil for a long time. She was born a German Jew in 1909, raised as an agnostic in Paris, and converted to Christianity later in life but refused baptism for complicated reasons. She preferred to be an outsider saint, sitting at the threshold and pushing people in — she couldn’t bear the thought of taking sanctuary in a community of the saved while so many people suffered outside the church. During WWII, she tried to convince the Free French movement to allow her to organize and spearhead a group of battlefield nurses, who would go out on the front lines and administer emergency first aid to the wounded right in the midst of combat. They relegated her to a desk job where she contracted tuberculosis and exacerbated it by writing furiously — 800 typed pages in the last 4 months of her life — and by refusing to eat more than the rations of her beloved Parisians in occupied France. She died in 1943 at 34 years of age. Her theology is as unique as it is shocking: “Whenever I think of Christ on the cross, I commit the sin of envy.”

Weil’s obsession with self-sacrifice is well-known, but it’s difficult to figure out what to make of it. Some suggest she was simply insane, but this is clearly dismissive. (Was Beethoven insane? Who cares?) Others point out the bizarre futility of her death, claiming that because her convictions led to such an eminently pointless demise, they must not have had much political relevance. Irwin aims to rescue her from these accusations by suggesting that Weil intended her life and her death to be a sort of text, affecting the world through the power of metaphor. Weil wrote that her goal was to “make of life itself the supreme poetry.” Furthermore, at the beginning of WWII, she wrote, “Our propaganda cannot be made of words; to be effective it would have to be composed of dazzling realities.” That these are not exactly the same thing will be dealt with a little later.

Bataille’s philosophy was about as opposed to Weil’s as you can get: she proclaimed herself on the path of good, and he proclaimed himself on the path of evil. Bataille was an atheist and a libertine, obsessed with sacrifice in the form of unproductive expenditure (orgy, carnival, etc). Weil’s sacrifices, by contrast, were always utilitarian — though her death may have looked pointless, in her mind it both set an example and exposed the horror of war. But between 1932 and 1934, the political commitments of these divergent thinkers led them both to be associated with La Critique social, a dissident leftist journal, and with Boris Souvarine’s Cercle communiste démocratique. Their writings, both public and private, respond to each other with passionate hostility during this period, and the Cercle did not hold together for long. In 1935, Bataille wrote Blue of Noon in which the character of Lazare is a clear portrait of Weil. The main character, who is quite autobiographical, finds himself both attracted to and repulsed by Lazare’s deathly demeanor which makes such a contrast with his own exuberant vice.

During the war, Bataille’s behavior was almost diametrically opposed to Weil’s. He abruptly stopped writing political treatises, declaring “I will not speak of war, but of mystical experience.” He withdrew into himself, writing extensively about his meditative exercises and the pleasures of the flesh. Irwin characterizes this vividly: “While millions died on the battlefields and in concentration camps, the bloodiest event depicted in Bataille’s confessional prose was a painful tooth extraction.” Weil, by contrast, was trying her hardest to be allowed onto the battlefield and was producing pages upon pages of political tracts and proposals for the Free French movement. Irwin’s argument is that Bataille’s public display of uselessness was ultimately a form of protest not unlike Weil’s. He objected to the war not by actively fighting it, but by refusing to engage with it — but what he shared with Weil was threefold: firstly, a conviction that the sacred could provide an alternative vocabulary with which to address the present catastrophe; secondly, a drive for self-annihilation; thirdly, his medium, which was both his writing and his life.

In this post, which is already quite long, I will concentrate mostly on this third convergence. In the future, you can count on missives addressing sacredness and self-effacement. I am not nearly as versed in Bataille as I am in Weil, so please forgive me if the following is clumsy or inaccurate.

Bataille was not a pacifist. In fact, he saw in violence a supreme opportunity for people to confront death as the ultimate truth of life. This seems to have a lot to do with quasi-Buddhist ideas of impermanence: only by accepting and truly understanding the impermanence of the world and of oneself can one properly appreciate and experience the present moment. But the problem Bataille had with war is that, while actually engaged in battle, one is not able to achieve a sufficiently reflective consciousness for the violence to be of any spiritual use. The person who can achieve this level of reflection is the writer. Writing is bound up with violence in a number of ways for Bataille, not least of which is — ironically — its inadequacy to experience. To write is to lacerate experience, to tear it to pieces and rob it of its vitality. And yet this is the only way we can really understand it.

What is needed, then, is a way for experience and writing to compliment each other and be part of the same thing. Neither by itself will do. Irwin describes Bataille’s project this way:

What Bataille sought to present was not a set of ethical propisitions or radically coordinated political theses, but rather a style of life that, considered as a (lacerated but living) whole, offered an alternative to the values and forms of existence that had found their culmination in totalitarian oppression and war. The life of mysticism and expenditure Bataille proposed could not, he claimed, be adequately described in the language of philosophical, social scientific, or political discourse. This mode of life could only be grasped in its realization (performance) in the exemplary being: the mystical writer, Bataille himself.

The alternative Bataille offered was an experience of the self as sacred. His mystical texts were often meant to be guidebooks to lead his readers to a similar experience, which according to Irwin constituted a basis of effective resistance to political tyranny. Similarly, Weil espoused the importance of a concept she called “real metaphor” (la métaphore réalle). She writes, “the story of Christ is a symbol, a metaphor. But in other times it was believed that metaphors occur as events in the world.” She advocates a return to a mindset wherein events, and not just words, are charged with complex meaning, and she wishes for her life to be such an event.

Reading all of this reminded me of an exchange I recently had with my friend _swallow on the subject of my decision to begin my “serious” blogging under a new, semi-anonymous internet identity. She wrote:

I only really care about the intellectual ideas that people share online when they’re visibly attached to such an “I”, and attached via narrative. Part of this is my hungry gossipy interest in other people’s selves, and my inability to separate personality from insight (I was stuck fawning on Cynthia Ozick’s rapturous prose, for example, while my classmates tore apart the conclusions of her essays). But gee! it seems to me that although I probably should learn to separate them a little more, narrative and philosophy– personality and intellect– art and criticism– the two are more like different glosses on the same thing than truly different things. And to privilege “one” above the “other” is therefore doubly a mistake.

Scott Eric Kaufman’s recent musings at Acephalous on academic blogging, and particularly the talk he delivered at an MLA panel on the subject, have got me thinking about what appears to be a fairly consistent crisis for bloggers, namely: how am I going to justify my online existence today? _swallow appears to be on the trail of an answer, which also might have been Weil’s and Bataille’s answer, namely: your life should justify your writing, and vice-versa. We read blogs instead of books for recreation because we are interested in people, not just ideas. In blogs, lives become texts, unfolding almost in real time.

If one impulse behind transforming one’s life into a “real metaphor” is a wish to avoid the lacerating inadequacy of language via producing propaganda composed of “dazzling realities,” we still need to consider the other side of life-writing: writing life. Weil’s desire to “make of life itself the supreme poetry” is also a desire to complicate life, to turn life into the messiness of language and, above all, to orient her life toward others.

Why does this matter? Bataille writes,

It is in [the writer] and through him that man learns how he himself remains forever elusive, being essentially unpredictable, and how knowledge must finally be resolved into the simplicity of emotion. It is in and through the writer that existence, in a general way, is what a girl is to the man who desires her, whether she love or spurn him, bring him pleasure or despair.

Well. Patriarchal paradigms aside, what is a person to another who desires him or her? A horizon, an uncharted but enticing territory. In the fusion of writing and life, things are not pinned down like dead butterflies to the page. Words and realities flutter freely, sometimes touching and sometimes floating apart. In the gaps: the sacred — vast and silent.

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