Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Truth and Life of Myth

This past Saturday I made it down to the School of the Art Institute to catch the tail end of the Robert Duncan Symposium. It's apt, I think, that they called it a symposium rather than a conference, because the point seemed to be to celebrate and reflect on Duncan more than to criticize him. I was only able to attend the last pieces: Michael Palmer's poetry reading, and a conversation between Peter O'Leary, Joseph Donahue, and Nathaniel Mackey. But it was more than enough to stimulate a great deal of thought and reflection on my part.

On the back of the Symposium program was placed this quote from the essay from which it took its title, "The Truth and Life of Myth":

The surety of the myth for the poet has such force that it operates as a primary reality in itself, having volition. The mythic content comes to us, commanding the design of the poem; it calls the poet into action, and with whatever lore and craft he has prepared himself for that call, he must answer to give body in the poem to the formative will.

I have a lot of resistance to Duncan, which centers on my resistance to myth and magick and the occultist claims he and his circle were inclined to make about poetry. I'm too much a child of the Enlightenment not to be repelled by the figure Duncan cuts as a seer: he really puts the mystification into mystic. Yet I find many of his poems profoundly moving, and even appropriated "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" as an epithalamium to be read at my wedding, recentering the quest it describes for originary creative power (which necessarily brushes up against darkness and the demonic) inside that most mythic and everyday of ritual constructs, marriage. So profound ambivalence is what I carry into any encounter with Duncan as bearer of the part of the Modernist tradition that engages most profoundly with myth and hermetic knowledge, as opposed to the Modernism of cultural critique and collage which I find a far more congenial site of engagement.

Ron Silliman, an anti-Duncan if ever there was one (really, the entire Language tradition is against Duncan), once wrote perceptively if polemically about how the hermetic knowledge that Duncan and his circle used as an armature for poetry had been supplanted by Silliman's generation by Marxism and post-structuralism. And it was thinking about this, as first I listened to Palmer read and then to the conversation with Mackey, that has helped me to articulate my discomfort and fascination with the place of myth in poetry. For the poet, myth is a form of capital, and too often the Modernist engagement with myth has looked to me like a form of primitive accumulation, given that form of capital acquisition's reliance on enclosure. That is, the desire to create a hermetic circle, open only to initiates, has the effect, intentionally or not, of excluding those with no knowledge (literally, no investment) in the fate of Osiris or who Aleister Crowley was or ritual sacrifice in ancient Sumeria or whatever. It all seems impossibly remote from how life is actually lived. And, if you're at all invested in a materialist worldview, it seems less like a quest for reality than an escape from it, a shying away from the forces of social production that actually make the world.

But of course myth is not the only form of poetic capital, and the discourses of post-structuralism, as Ron observed, make a dandy sphere of hermetic knowledge penetrable only by initiates; as my colleague Bob Archambeau (who provides excellent coverage of the day I missed over at his blog) remarked this afternoon, the major difference is that abstractions like difference assume the role that myth reserves for the gods. And there are generational differences; in his conversation with Mackey, Joseph Donahue remarked that in Michael Palmer's work there's a layer of irony calling attention to the gap between the world of myth and the disclosure of reality that myth promises, whereas Duncan's writing is an irony-free zone. (This also explains my preference, when the chips are down, for Jack Spicer, and my sense that ours is a fundamentally Spicerian moment.)

Post-structuralism is the received mythic structure of poets younger than Palmer, many of whom are disturbingly uncritical about it; at least, that's how I'd describe the post-Language crowd. Frank O'Hara, on the other hand, freely mythologized his own life, offering a charismatic model for poetry's relation to myth that has similarly become encased in irony for the nth-generation of New York School practitioners (a practice that goes hand in hand with the ironic mythification of pop culture—though you can't ironize capital, and references to Hanna-Barbera cartoons from the 1980s can be just as effective and exlusionary in establishing one's cultural bona fides as Pound's use of Greek and Chinese characters).

The poets who still engage with myth qua myth are harder to assimilate into groups, which is one of their strengths: here I think of Olson-indebted poets like C.S. Giscombe and Dan Bouchard, and Duncan-inflected poets like some of those prominently featured at the symposium: Mackey of course (whose great contribution comes in reimagining and restructuring the Modernist appropriation of African myth) and also Peter O'Leary. If I had to choose a mode, I'd say Olson's archeology of morning is a more attractive model for the process of assimilating myth into poetry than Duncan's hermeticism. But there's no question in my mind that Duncan wrote better poetry.

There's no getting away from myth, then, or no evasion of allegory, to shift to the term that the conceptual writers have sent buzzing into my head for the past several months. One is always working with some felt (if often untheorized) structure of knowledge and feeling that poetic language rises from and intersects, like a net taking shape around something unseen in deep water; a thing that in its hiddenness, its occultness, is at least homeomorphic with the Real ("a primary reality in itself, having volition"). What I ask of a poet is not that he or she explain myth, but that its force be fully felt: if I can't get a theoretical discourse around it (that's what makes me most comfortable, but who wants to be comfortable?) then I want to feel, for lack of a better word, the myth's authenticity for that poet. Or as I tell my writing students, Don't write about any gods you don't actually believe in.

What follows are some less organized thoughts based on the notes I took during the reading and subsequent panel discussion:

John Tipton introduces Palmer, telling us, "A Michael Palmer poem is not received," and quotes a phrase of Gadamer's characteristic of the poetry: "the questionability of what is questioned." (I hear in this an echo of Duncan's definition of "responsibility" as "Maintaining the ability to respond.") Talks about how, like a famous photographer of industrial sites whose name I didn't catch, Palmer can arrange banal images in a way that we can "hear" and so make us think about them. Speaks of Palmer's next book, to be titled Thread.

Michael takes the stage in brown shirt and brown suit. Begins with some poems that incorporate subtle bits of rhyme, which I love. English rhyme can help retrieve his poetry from the sense it sometimes gives of having been translated from the French. Reads a poem with a personage named "the Master of Rochester." Ashbery? This intuition seems confirmed by a prose poem, "L'Agir," that addresses Ashbery directly.

Hearing Stevens in the surprising words "dudes" and "squeezebox."

A gorgeous poem "After Hölderlin."

"Madman with Broom." Drily: "A poem about the Bush years. You remember them. Great times, they're gone." The central image is of a man trying to drive away crows with a broom – "realist crows," Palmer says, a phrase from Stevens' dreadfully titled poem "Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery."

Here's "Poem against War" in its entirety: "She raises both arms / to free the clasps binding her hair"

Funny poem called "Traumgedicht" featuring a dream of Gustav Mahler in a café listening to… Gustav Mahler. Nudging the speaker: "It's so much deeper than Strauss, don't you think?" I never really noticed this preoccupation of Palmer's with masters and mastery before. Of course he himself is a master.

"lodestar, lexicon, labyrinthos"

"It is the role of the lovers to set fire to the book."

Does Palmer put air quotes around mythic images as well as banal ones? The word "pentacles."

Now Mackey, Donahue, and O'Leary take their seats. Mackey is advertised as a man who speaks in complete paragraphs. A phrase from Olson, via Mackey: "I care for a field of discourse: call me tantra."

They discuss the "high style" in poetry and how Duncan sought to reclaim it. William Carlos Williams, who did so much to speak up for the American vernacular and against the "catastrophe" of appropriating European discourses and structures, nevertheless resorts to the high style more often than you'd suspect. And Duncan, as Mackey says, sometimes recognized a need to come down from his "high hypnagogic mode."

(High style. Masters. Is it a will toward monoglossia? Is that where myth becomes capital, a form of power and domination? I think of The Education of Henry Adams and "The Virgin and the Dynamo," which I taught as the last text in my nineteenth-century American literature class. About how Adams claims that the mythic figures of the Virgin and Venus have no force for Americans, but evoke at best only an empty sentiment. A feeling to be consumed, not a force for production (thinking of his claim elsewhere that the Virgin essentially caused Chartres Cathedral to be built). By contrast the dynamo, modern technology: but Adams sense of its "moral force" is surely anachronistic, all the more so now that we don't even have mythic machines, like the dynamo or the steam engine, to confront as emblems of our own alienated majesty. As Adams says, the world of the new science is "supersensual"—not supernatural.)

Instead of narrative in poetry, the world-poem, world-making. "A better word for story as far as Duncan goes would be fate." (Does myth-based poetry engage directly in world-making, sidestepping or subsuming narrative? Foregrounding the machinery of meaning-making, turning allegory into atmosphere, that which pervades and rises, supersensually, from the ground of language?) Mackey: "Paradoxically, the world-poem is a broken poem. That guarantees its truth." "Incident" as a link to story but not itself a narrative.

Mackey on serial form, as practiced by himself and Duncan: it's a form of apocalypse, an ongoing revelation and uncovering, always incomplete.

Mackey: Poetry as "prophylactic," that which makes it possible to encounter and handle terrifying truths. Which connects obscurely back to a connection Donahue tried to make earlier between the high style and "ecstasy.

(Poem as armor? Can only be justified by the worthiness and power of one's opponent. A knight in shining armor is ridiculous and out of place with no dragons in the vicinity.)

Mackey bringing African myth into the field of American poetry, Modernist poetry. (It seems that an ethnopoetic myth has more urgent reason for being, given the leveling tendencies of a white-operated culture industry.)

(If myth is played with, as Mackey seems to be suggesting—played the way a jazzman plays his horn, in the spirit of improvisation and collaboration—that might be a way round the problem I formulated earlier: myth as capital. That is, the gift economy, or potlatch. Creative destruction.)

(But myth is always collapsing into kitsch. Which at least removes the mask. Camp and kitsch may be the best means we have of encountering capital in the cultural field and discovering/declaring that the emperor has no clothes.)

[UPDATED 5/3/10]


Norman Finkelstein said...

The genre of the blog comment prevents me from offering the full response your post deserves, but as a poet and critic who is very much an initiate in Duncan's hermetic brotherhood, I think you pose your reservations quite fairly. And as someone who also has written from a Marxist perspective, I still sometimes share your suspicions. So try this speculation: myth is just as often what escapes from the trammels of capitalism and commodification. This is an idea that Silliman & Co. would never entertain. What do you say?

Josh said...

"myth is just as often what escapes from the trammels of capitalism and commodification"

That's a little too fast for me, Norman. But I would be willing to endorse the idea that myth, like memory and, most broadly, the imagination itself, can serve as a utopian reservoir: a knowledge that things could be otherwise than they are. But the content and history of a given myth would matter enormously in this case.

I suppose the pastoral/idyllic mode that has so long fascinated me would be an example of the kind of myth you speak of. And yet what interests me most about pastoral in its modernist and postmodernist incarnations is when it demonstrates self-consciousness regarding its own mythic status--when the fantasy is made palpable as fantasy, or is in someway critiqued or undermined. And yet the truth-content of pastoral as the beyond of capitalist modernity remains.

Peter said...

Glad to have you at part of the Symposium, Josh. I like Norman's formulation of myth as the remainder that survives the equations of capital. I want to elaborate on his point, because it implies a way to get beyond the fallacious binary that opposes myth to enlightenment - or Enlightenment, as you have it in your self-description.

Myth's bad rap in the 70s and 80s might be blamed on a backlash against Jungian and Freudian conceptions of the self, or at least how poets in North America responded to a lot of bad, self-indulgent archetypal poetry (kind of the equivalent of b-tier progressive rock).

But the negative associations with myth in the Western imagination stretch well back before Plato disparaged mythical thinking in his dialogues. As Bruce Lincoln demonstrates in his book Theorizing Myth, the Hesiodic formula about the muses contains a vital clue to how myth was initially imagined. That formula, which I quoted in the conversation with Mackey and Donahue, runs: "We know how to recount many falsehoods like real things, and / We know how to proclaim truths when we wish." (Theogony, 27-8; Lincoln's translation.) The verb for "recount" here is "legein," a form of the Greek "logos." Put crudely, then, the muses are saying, "When we want to speak falsehoods, we use logos." The verb for "proclaim" is "gerusasthai," but, as Lincoln points out, a great many manuscripts of Hesiod's poem replace the verb with "mythesasthei," which means "to speak, to tell." Again, put crudely, the muses are saying, "When we want to tell the truth, we use mythos."

Mythic speech is associated early on with alethea - truth. Deceptive speech is associated early on with logos. Over the course of several centuries, these associations would be inverted. And that inversion survives into the present: ask most people what a myth is, they say, "It's a lie." Much less commonly - depending on level of education - they say, "It's Greek and Roman stories." And among specialized scholars and critics, it can be associated with archetypal stories (in the Jungian sense) or as an ideological discourse (this is how Lincoln tends to read it), for instance.

When you refer to Duncan putting the mystification into mysticism, I see you channeling a version of this first understanding of myth; namely, that it represents a lie, or an untruth. That you feel this way, I suspect, has as much to do with received knowledge (especially coming from Olson's famous down-dressing in "Against a Wisdom as Such": even if you haven't read it, that essay has shaped the way Duncan's work is received, especially the image of him as the poet of the "Ecole des Sages ou Mages") as it does with your sense impressions with the work. (Which I can tell from this piece are nuanced and thoughtful.)

To my mind, Duncan's work exhibits the most complex understanding of myth of any 20th-century American poet. By way of his oft-quoted formulation, "Myth is the story told of what cannot be told," he places myth in a zone of thought that Lévi-Strauss identified as belonging to the so-called "Savage Mind." As a result of the Platonic prejudice against mythos and the Western privileging of logos, we've operated with the assumption that myth is either primitive religion or primitive science. Enlightenment more intensively discourages us from regarding myth as anything but a warm up to real thought. That Lévi-Strauss didn't demolish that prejudice is a sign of its durability in our imaginations.

But, like Norman suggests, we're built for mythos - it will survive long after other things collapse. Logos is the interloper. Or, in Duncan's Gnostic cosmogony: it's the Demiurge.

Word verification: somnion! I like it.

Norman Finkelstein said...

I'm flattered that Peter took my little remark and ran with it; he did it much more skillfully than I ever could. In a somewhat different register, Josh, I think you're right on when you write that you "would be willing to endorse the idea that myth, like memory and, most broadly, the imagination itself, can serve as a utopian reservoir." This resembles Ernst Bloch's notion of art's utopian surplus, a concept I worked with years ago in The Utopian Moment and to which I still subscribe. In a conversation with Michael Palmer at the symposium, I related the idea in turn with those of Agamben. So I think there are parallels between what some Marxists and some of the myth critics and anthropologists posit.

Josh said...

Hey now. I like progressive rock. I once had all of Jethro Tull's albums on vinyl, and the first rock show I ever went to was a Yes concert.

Seriously, I appreciate Peter's speaking up for myth--but it seems too undialectical to just elevate that as somehow better or more authentic and truthful than logos. (Your mention of aletheia sets off my Heidegger alarm--a discourse I find seductive but can't fully trust.) The wonderful Hesiod lines that you quote here were, I thought, interpreted slightly differently in situ: not that mythos is truth and legein falsehood, but that there's no reliable way to tell the difference. Though I might allow this interpretation: that to translate the language of the muses into logos is to falsify their saying.

Isn't that why Olson came up with the term muthologos--to try and create a mindset supple enough to work with both sides of the brain, or the culture? Of course Olson himself is hardly free of the trappings of the esoteric, and he could be a bully besides.

Norman, of course you're right to mention Bloch, who I was unwittingly plagiarizing. It's utopia that for me articulates the structural principle of wishfulness that other thinkers go to religion for. A product, no doubt, of a relentlessly secular upbringing (tinged with Jewish skepticism and a superficial layer of Emerson-lite Unitarianism) combined with total immersion in the godless quasi-medieval universe that Tolkien conjured.

Kent Johnson said...

If you go to this page at Chicago Review http://humanities.uchicago.edu/orgs/review/index_53_2_3.shtml

and scroll down just a bit to the PDF link where it says this:

"The first installment of Kent Johnson's critical novella, Corroded by Symbolysme, an "anti-review" of Andrew Duncan's Savage Survivals. The new issue includes the second installment, on J.H. Prynne's To Pollen"

you will find some anti-Prynne proposals by (funny they share the same name!) the Brit poet and critic Andrew Duncan on myth as "escape-vehicle."

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