Friday, June 16, 2006

Rachel Blau du Plessis' Ronald Johnson article in Facture 1 mentions a 1960 book of "vatic criticism" by Elizabeth Sewell, The Orphic Voice: Poetry and Natural History, which proposes a biological approach to poetry and a poetical approach to biology. Of use to my dissertation because pastoral's variations on the pathetic fallacy are articulated by what Sewell identifies as the first phase of the Orpheus myth: nature's responsiveness to the poet's song. (The other two phases are the failed expedition to resuce Eurydice from the underworld and Orpheus' dismemberment by the Maenads and his subsequent incarnation as a singing prophetic head.) Du Plessis sees the Orpheus myth as central to Johnson's work, and interrogates the problematic gendering of that myth; I'm inclined to be more interested in Johnson's inclinations toward science and natural history. But Sewell wants us to see the term "myth" much more broadly, just as she wants to use "language" more broadly to mean the formal basis for any activity whatsoever, with the difference between birdsong and human song being our ability to reflect on it; as Sewell puts it, "The invention of a language entails the seeing of a distinction between the form constructed and used by the mind-body and the form as perceived in the material of experience to which the language is to correspond. This may have been a gradual process, perhaps akin to the perception of a self distinct from surroundings though remaining intimately linked with them, which is the nature of self-consciousness" (29). She's a determined monist, as the phrase "mind-body" makes clear, and she insists on the presence of the body in the most abstract mental operations, which makes me think of the passage from "A"-14 that proceeds from lower limit body to upper limit mathemata. Myth thus monistically becomes the name for meaning-making in general, its capacity for deception no greater than its necessity for speaking truth:
All formal operation is myth. Logic, under which we include all the highly developed forms of apparently purely formal mental activity in which attention is not paid to the participation of the body, which is nonetheless, tacitly, part of the process and a vital part. That mathematics, for instance, is not a detached activity may be seen from the passion with which it is pursued and the use of such terms as "elegance" or "beauty" in connection with its workings.... The only choice for the mind lies not between mythology and logic but between an exclusive mythology which chooses to overlook the body's participation and an inclusive mythology which is prepared in varying degrees to admit the body, the notion of the organism as a whole, as a partner in that very odd operation known as thought. (38)
Reminds me of another Zukofskyan moment when he recalled how as a student he observed one of his professors sit on a radiator while discoursing and then jump up again when he found it too hot; the professor's discourse did not interest him "but the preoccupied man did." Anyway, I find this distinction between "exclusive" and "inclusive" mythology, particularly as it pertains both to the body and reflecting on the body's participation in meaning-making, very useful and attractive. And Sewell follows up the above with a wonderful paragraph that helps me reflect anew on my desire to attempt fiction:
Word-language, in the course of its development, has itself acquired two modes of operation, a more exclusive and a more inclusive one. The first is prose, which does not necessarily recognize the agent's participation in the system of words and ideas under construction; the more it does so, the closer it may approach to poetry. Prose has as its aim to establsih a form of words which shall be equivalent to experience, the self participating in the construction being disregarded. To examine an inclusive mythology we must turn to language's other mode, poetry. Here the inclusion of the participating self (poet or reader, it is all one) is open, deliberate, an active ingredient in what goes on. Poetry is the most inclusive form of thought we have yet devised, a conscious call upon those resources of myth which underlie all language and all thinking. If the self is involved in any working system of thought, wheterh it is recognized or not, poetry, with its recognition of the self's cooperation, is in fact nearest to reality. Exclusive mythology, in its preoccupation with abstract form, embarks on a wholesale game of make believe by the exclusion of the self. Poetry, metaphor, mythology are highly realistic and down to earth. It is logic and mathematics which are the imaginative and fantastical exercise. (38-39)
I like this a great deal, even as it makes me wonder anew: why is "inclusive" writing, which includes the active participation not only of the body but as Sewell maeks clear, the self, so much less popular than that which "excludes" participation? Simple laziness? Or do we mostly just seek "escape" from our reading—an escape from the responsibility of participation in our own lives that daily life demands (not that those lives don't offer plentiful other means of diversion and distraction, most often in the form of addictions—to TV, alcohol, caffeine, bad relationships, what have you. Is exclusive-absorptive narrative just another addiction?). I would further extrapolate from Sewell's sketch that just as prose can tend toward poetry by tending more toward inclusiveness, so can poetry tend the other direction: the urge toward experimental dissonance in poetry might be an attempt to break away from modes of poetic discourse that we can no longer see, or are no longer using, for purposes of inclusion-participation. And Sewell's monistic foregrounding of the body's role might provide an incentive beyond the democratic for reading poetry: simply as the mode of language that invites our bodies to the scene of discourse rather than pretending they don't exist.

Most contemporary American fiction is either comfortably exclusive-absorptive or else dabbles with the participatory in superficial ways; a handful of aging or dead modernists bring us fully into the kitchen of language-making as they tell their stories (Pynchon, Gass, Gaddis), and then there are the prose stylists who are practically poets in my book whose narratives are a decidedly secondary pleasure (Lydia Davis and Carole Maso come first to mind). Where do I see myself? I'm drawn toward the latter category as being closest to poetry, and as being an approach to prose in the spirit of poetry: the desire to test the balance of sentences and paragraphs as I currently test the balance of sentences and lines (and individual words, phonemes, and fragments). But I'm interested in characters and story too—gamemastering a D&D game has awakened me to my interest in melodrama and has helped me to realize that I'm not as clueless about plotting as I once thought I was. Yet the pleasures of a page-turning plot, like pleasure in characters or even images, seems secondary, if not actually opposed, to the pleasure of sentences and paragraphs. Perhaps I'm creating problems where others don't see them, but I think that contradiction is the fundamental one to be navigated by a writer whose first allegiance is to the kitchen of language rather than the elegant dining room (or the fast-food joint for that matter). At any rate, Sewell's own limpid prose is helping me to think more rangingly around the the question, for which I'm grateful.

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