Friday, April 18, 2003

Feast of the Passover

Alienation has been a major theme in my life this week. As a secular Jew, I've felt alienated from friends and family members who ask me what I'm doing for the holiday; if I'm not going to seder am I at least doing something. What this something might be is never specified. Certainly I feel alienated from the actual religion, whose language and rituals I was not brought up with. If I do happen to attend a seder or a sabbath dinner or go to temple, I'm always confronted by the spectacle of others who have a direct, intuitive response to the words and music and rhythms of the prayers, because they said them as children, even if they didn't or no longer quite understand them. How can I recapture what I've never had? Alienation, too, from the secular world, from the American mainstream. I picked up a copy of USA Today that was lying around in the library cafe this morning and the resulting snapshot of the worldview of the vast majority of my fellow Americans left me stunned by a sense of my own overwhelming marginality. It didn't help to then leave the library (I was trying to read DuPlessis and Quartermain's The Objectivist Nexus in my carrel, but a loud marching band playing such deathless hits as "Pinball Wizard" and "Carry On My Wayward Son" was penetrating even up to the sixth floor) and be confronted with smiling, scrubbed eighteen year-olds handing out free copies of the New Testament, while just down the hill a small group of people were clustered around a woman holding a nearly lifesized black cardboard cross. All my tenuous sense of Cornell as being some kind of haven for secular and independent thinking evaporated. And I was thinking as I waited for the bus a few yards from the people celebrating their Lord's death today about the article by Burton Hatlen I'd been reading in the Objectivist book; in it he comments in passing about the peculiar relationship between Zukofsky and Pound. How is it a Jewish Marxist would choose an anti-Semitic fascist as his mentor? Hatlen then makes the commonsense observation that Pound was Zukofsky's poetical mentor, not his political one, and that there was nothing inherently fascist about Pound's methods of composition. This simple observation more than any of the other rhetoric I've heard on the subject made it clear to me how there truly is no necessary connection between radical poetics and radical politics. I still believe that one might conceive, explain, and justify one's poetics as being radical and/or oppositional, but a technique or mode by itself (even Pound's collage and the Adorno-esque force field it creates between diverse elements held in suspension) is not. (Though I'm still willing to entertain the possibility that some kind of radical politics is implied by such a technique—that is, some radical rejection of normal modes of discourse, poetic or otherwise. But the direction of this radicalness is not necessarily Leftist; Pound's violent desire to remake the existing order is the transferable component here that must manifest in some sort of extreme deviation from the status quo, be it fascism, socialism, or anarchism.)

Of course this is nothing more than what Silliman, et al are arguing in the much debated Poetry Project Newsletter (you know, I still haven't read the thing itself, just quotes and people's comments on it) in which they accused the younger generation of taking up the style of Language poetry while abandoning the politics. And they're right in the sense that younger generations, including mine, have abandoned the oppositional politics peculiar to the Language poets' 60s radical style. What remains is inchoate. But I'd like to believe that not all young poets who employ techniques of collage, disjunction, the new sentence, etc., are not simply trying to ride an increasingly academically sanctioned wave into canonization or at least a career. The desire to disrupt the surface of poetical, political, and commercial discourses is still at heart a utopian one, even if there's no one program or coherent theory that more than a handful of young poets have chosen to rally around. Do we need such a program, such a theory, such a school, for purposes beyond canonization? Maybe. Anyway, this brings me back to my general feelings of alienation, which have crystallized not least around the experience of blogging this past week—an experience which showed me that the utopian desire for some kind of fuller being in and through poetry that I believe all the blogger-poets who have links at the left share has not resulted in any kind of solidarity. And why should it have? Blogging is a new form of community, and anyway all communities are subject to infighting, factionalization, ego-mongering, etc. Maybe it's a sign of health that this should be so. What I still need to believe in, in order to recover some small sense of at-homeness, of disalienation from the political, religious, academic, and poetry worlds in which I move, is that utopian spirit that moves behind the most interesting poetries. A shared practice may not be the point.

I'm going to close with a long quote from Frederic Jameson's Marxism and Form, which I've been reading and have found surprisingly inspiring both in terms of my academic project and in thinking about the possibilities for poetry today. He's talking about Surrealism, but I think for the purposes of what I'm saying you could substitute almost any poetic practice (flar, Creepism, Ellipticism) conducted with a degree of sincerity:
It is only when [Surrealist texts] are perceived as examples of Surrealism that they once again begin to take on the stronger colors of their origin. This is to say, if you like, that the idea of Surrealism is a more liberating experience than the actual texts. [This certainly describes my reaction to most Language poetry--Ed.] Breton himself could hardly have had in mind anything else when he excluded the so-called "right-wing deviationists," those Surrealists too given over to the ultimate values of art itself and of the production of an art object. But we can go further than that: for the quasiphysical enlargement of our being produced by this idea—and analogous in that, as in its causes, to the more expansive pages of Whitman or Hart Crane—is the exact correlative of the aeration of the text by the larger figural meaning or generalization which stands behind it. Thus in Whitman's catalogues, the individual finite items are released against the background of the general, indeed the universal, for which they stand. Thus in Surrealism there is at work a hermeneutic process in which Desire is identified behind all the individual and limited desires of an individual associative system, in which Freedom is felt, instinct, behind the more limiited and contingent freedoms of image and language. We are accustomed, in our time, to make a fetish of the concrete, by which we normally understand the particular: yet the effects in question here demonstrate, on the contrary, that the particular can be an enslavement under certain conditions, and that under those conditions it is precisely the movement of abstraction that can come as liberation. Thus, whoever speaks of Surrealism as a meditation on the figures of Desire is also at the same moment describing a technique for the release of the subjectivity from the single limited desire, the desire which is "only that," which is therefore at the same time the renunciation of other desires; and for the satisfaction, through such release, of all desire, of Desire as a force.

This new satisfaction, which Schiller, looking back to the state of nature, called bliss, is most adequately conveyed, in its Surrealist version, through the word mystery.... For about the feeling of mystery there is nothing to be said: it is in itself merely a sign that the long-hoped-for enlargement of our beings, release from the repressive weight of the reality principle, has taken place, that life is suddenly once more transformed in quality, has somehow recaptured its original reasons for being. If we wish to say more about this relatively ineffable value, we must somehow shift to a more precise, or at the least more articulable terminology, and it is at this point that the Surrealists have recourse to the words for the privileged experiences in which the sense of mystery is most frequently released: love, the dream, laughter, automatic writing, childhood. They describe, however, the external conditions, the essential situations, of the pleasure principle, rather than the quality of that principle itself (101-103).
Release, aeration, freedom, mystery. The Angel of Death looks down, sees the mark of writing, and passes by.

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