Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Change of Address

Will be blogging more or less permanently now at http://www.joshua-corey.com/blog/.

Or follow me on Twitter: @joshcorey

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Six Dimensions of Poetry


The turn, the break, "This Be the Verse." The clinamen, the swerve:

The atoms, as their own weight bears them down 
Plumb through the void, at scarce determined times,
In scarce determined places, from their course
Decline a little-- call it, so to speak,
Mere changed trend. For were it not their wont
Thuswise to swerve, down would they fall, each one,
Like drops of rain, through the unbottomed void;
And then collisions ne'er could be nor blows
Among the primal elements; and thus 
Nature would never have created aught. 

Heidegger says that only a god can save us. But Lucretius says we have no gods. Only the volta.


"is another," says Rimbaud, castigating "the false significance of Self." The pronoun in the poem is the mask. The poem is the impossible touch of the other in the mirror. And the poem works by doubling: call it rhyme, call it repetition. How many flowers? "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose."

A dimension is a question of structure.


The quality of time in the body (of the speaker, of the listener, of the line, of the poem).


Language is not identical with itself. Attentiveness to this.

Each dimension midwifes the emergence of the others.


Language is not identical with itself. Forgetfulness of this.

The rhythmic emergence and submergence of the referent. Immanent mimesis of the poem, which does not describe things, which is a thing in relation to the other things it does not describe.


What the volta admits, what the language doubles, what the cadence remarks, what silence acknowledges, what cherishes the things.

The spirituality of the Möbius strip, which is a thing any child can make with a strip of paper and some tape. 

The activeness of creatures without a creator.

What Hopkins calls "Christ." What Jews call

No home.

Hidden Leaves

A writer, PhD student, and Iraq veteran named Roy Scranton has posted an astonishing essay, "Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene," in "The Stone" blog on The New York Times website. Astonishing not only for its content, which deftly synthesizes a lot of the thinking on the anthropocene familiar to latter-day ecocritical discourse, but for being placed so prominently in a mainstream media outlet. Most astonishing to me is its juxtaposition of the warrior ethos known as Bushidō in its construction of a new ecological ethics; specifically, the ethic outlined in Hagakure ("hidden leaves"), the 18th-century samurai manual written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, which advises the samurai to gain "freedom" by living as though he were already dead. Scranton read Hagakure while deployed to Iraq, and it seems to have kept him sane:
Instead of fearing my end, I owned it. Every morning, after doing maintenance on my Humvee, I’d imagine getting blown up by an I.E.D., shot by a sniper, burned to death, run over by a tank, torn apart by dogs, captured and beheaded, and succumbing to dysentery. Then, before we rolled out through the gate, I’d tell myself that I didn’t need to worry, because I was already dead. The only thing that mattered was that I did my best to make sure everyone else came back alive. “If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead,” wrote Tsunetomo, “he gains freedom in the Way.”
In a remarkable rhetorical coup, Scranton goes on to extrapolate from his situation as a soldier in Baghdad to our situation in the Anthropocene, confronting the precarious death-in-life of modern civilization, a reality glimpsed in the form of Katrina, of Sandy, of our collective inability to put a meaningful curb on the tons of carbon pumped into the atmosphere every second. Scranton writes: "The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality."

This argument will be familiar to readers of Bill McKibben's Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. But it's the "already dead" thing that startles. The warrior ethic of Hagakure is feudal: it places the highest value on honorable service to one's lord, which depends on the vassal's subdual of the fear of death. It's a form of stoicism, of indifference to one's fate, coupled to the most lively imaginings of that fate ("shot by a sniper, burned to death, run over by a tank..."). Paradoxically, as suggested in the blockquote above, this stoic submission to fate, which is homeomorphic to submission to one's master, leads to "freedom in the Way" (Bushidō means "way of the warrior").

Now it may sound strange, but when I read Scranton's essay, I found myself wondering about the place of joy and ecstasy in an ethos appropriate to the Anthropocene. Why? Partly because the imagining of the body as dead, while the spirit is alive only to service, is a bit too Gnostic for my taste. It suggests that we must become zombies, re-enacting alien desires that we can't actually feel. It seems to me that our widespread denial of what's happening, our obsession with trivial digital glamour, our frenzied consumption, etc., is precisely a manifestation of a death-in-life characterized not by stoicism but acedia (the medieval monk's disease of indifference to his salvation).

More significant, I think, is the fact that if one truly imagines one's death, and the death of one's civilization (if not the death of humanity or the death of all life), does not life in the present take on the savor and intensity it otherwise lacks? Full presence in the here-and-now is not possible without the vivid imagination of the final boundary. I suppose I am simply reiterating what Heidegger calls "Being-toward-death" (a nice summary of which by Simon Critchley can be read here). There is a kind of ecstatic vitality that comes with confronting the reality of death, an appetite for presence and connection (with others, with one's own body, with ideas and traditions), in short, a meaningfulness that seems affectively if not substantively different from the stoicism of Hagakure.

In Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, a village is threatened with exploitation and destruction by bandits. The villagers resolve to hire masterless samurai for protection, but have nothing to offer except rice. "Find hungry samurai!" advises the village elder. "Even bears will come out of the forests when they're hungry." Most of the samurai recruited fit the Hagakure mold: the two leaders of the band seem certain that this adventure will result in their deaths, and proceed anyway. There is also a young and untried samurai named Katsushirō who at first seems more interested in flowers and the beautiful villager Shino than in thinking about death. He is in awe, however, of Kyūzō, who embodies more than any other member of the group the concept of living as though already dead. Stone-faced and laconic, he is the most terrifyingly effective of the assembled warriors, and Katsushirō crushes on him even harder than he does on Shino (who when he first meets her, is disguised as a boy; there's a lot of interesting homoeroticism in this film).

Then there's Toshiro Mifune's Kikuchiyo, whom as the viewer eventually learns is no samurai at all. He's a wild peasant dragging around an enormous sword, who identifies fully with the villagers and their precarious situation in a way the other characters do not. He is a vivid, earthy figure, full of laughter and rage, completely undisciplined, completely passionate, and in short as far from the sober ethos of Hagakure as one can imagine. But his commitment to life is large: he castigates the "real" samurai for not understanding the hardships of the farmers' lives, and he dies protecting them.

There's more than one way to be a samurai, in other words. There's more than one way to imagine death. It seems to me that more of us could stand to be like Kikuchiyo: conscious of our borrowed armor, attached to the earth, willing to die to defend the village from whose fate we do not separate ourselves. There is a fierce joy to be found in life on the precipice, not in stoicism but in something closer to a Nietzschean amor fati. We all must die; all must die. Let's be alive while we're here. Which means a commitment to the everyday, which means resisting domination and banditry with any and every means at our disposal.

I think this possibilty--this dark joy--is what's missing from Scranton's essay; and it's the resource we most need if the village is to stand any chance at all.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

A Home on the Web

After about a zillion years in Internet time, I've gone and created a permanent webpage for myself at www.joshua-corey.com. Do stop by for a visit.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

"I return to sentences as a refreshment": Ambience, Consecution, the Open

I began writing what became Beautiful Soul simply as a series of sentences. Very long sentences, as it happens, with enough comma splices to risk revocation of my license as an English professor. A poet works in phrases and above all in lines; sentences are exotic. Nearly as seductive to me are paragraphs, very long paragraphs, the sort of long paragraphs one encounters reading Proust and Adorno and Saramago. Stanzas and strophes have nothing on paragraphs for their elasticity, their infinite yet tensile capacity. "Sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are," says Gertrude Stein. But the problem with sentences and paragraphs is not that they are emotional or unemotional. It's that they say things. And saying things, as I like to remind my writing students, is not what poetry is for.

Mallarmé: "I say: a flower! and, out of the oblivion into which my voice consigns any real shape, as something other than petals known to man, there rises, harmoniously and gently, the ideal flower itself, the one that is absent from all earthly bouquets." Poetic voicing is inseparable from oblivion, from the invisible. But fictive voicing is all too mimetic, all too obliterative of oblivion. It is difficult for fiction to recapture its fundamental rhetoricity; it is difficult not to lapse completely into what John Gardner called "the fictive dream": "the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols." The reader forgets too. It's like Eliot's objective correlative, only without the objective part. It's language idealized, all spirit and no letter.

Fictive sentences don't have to work this way. There's Gordon Lish and his theory of "consecution," as explained in a valuable essay by one of his students, Gary Lutz: "a recursive procedure by which one word pursues itself into its successor by discharging something from deep within itself into what follows." The writer reacts to the material properties of constellated words and letters, and proceeds by association from one sentence to the next. In a manner somewhat akin to Ron Silliman's "new sentence," each sentence exists in its own torqued bubble, generative of and yet separate from the sentence that follows it (Lutz calls his article on consecution, "The Sentence Is a Lonely Place"). In a review of Lish's own novel, Peru, David Winters claims that for Lish, "composition cuts across ontology, not only aesthetics" (italics in original).

Winters goes on to compare the "cut" of consecution to, of all things, the clinamen of Lucretius:
"consecution may be less a methodology than a metaphysic; a miraculating agent; an instance of spirit or pneuma submerged in the world. In Lucretius, the force of composition is described as a clinamen—our world is born from a 'swerving of atoms in their fall from heaven. Such is the purpose served by Peru’s perpetual swerving, rhyming and recursion. Each consecutive swerve steps closer toward a total curvature, an arc that delimits the work as a world apart." Each Lishian sentence is its own world, its own monad, in which the universe of the story is contained without being merely represented. It's a mimesis beyond mimesis; the immanent transcendence of representation. The reader encounters the story as a sufficiency, as a world to be explored rather than as something presented. It's an essentially Modernist rather than postmodernist technique.

The Lishian "cut," the Lucretian "swerve": these are comfortably poetic concepts for me, reminiscent as they are of the volta or turn that is central to the operations of verse. The more-than-semantic, physical cut-in-language of the volta is what charges a poem with energy unsupplied by subject matter. Poems cannot completely evade subject matter; words never can. But they come much closer to such evasions, and can entangle a reader in themselves, with a more intensively minimal mimesis than can fiction. And this perhaps is why Yeats can say that poetry makes nothing happen but rather "survives, / A way of happening, a mouth."

Fiction is also a way of happening. And yet to be fiction, something has to happen. To write it, there has to be story. But there's a problem with the Lishian ontological sentence: it's too definitive and determinate. It says things.

A happening is an event. In a recent essay on "the novel as event," Cooper Levey-Baker seems to mean something less eventlike than the scene of events (way of happening): something like architecture or ambient music. Touchstones for his piece include an artwork by Anish Kapoor (creator of Chicago's beloved Bean, aka Cloud Gate) and the collaborations of filmmaker Béla Tarr and novelist László Krasznahorkai. Levey-Baker seems interested in recapturing a particular dimension of Modernism: the challenge to the reader or viewer to encounter the artwork (a film or a novel) so as to make its silence audible, often to the point of discomfort: the unpleasures of boredom. The very long shots without cuts in Tarr's film version of Krasznahorkai's Satantango are the equivalent of the novel's very long sentences, which endlessly defer answers to the audience's questions about what exactly is going on. As at a poetry reading, or leafing through one of Ashbery's longer works, one's mind wanders without ever losing the sense of being in the presence of something, an environment in which the figure-ground relation is rendered ambiguous, if not threatening.

Boredom, Levey-Baker claims, is the last refuge of the avant-garde, the one affect that cannot be recuperated by the entertainment-industrial complex. Long sentences, in their excessiveness, their accumulation and angular momentum, do not have to be boring; but they do tend to be far more open than short sentences. In their attenuated hypotaxis, the extension and interaction of dependent and independent clauses begin to overwrite each other, to introduce a dubiety, room for interpretation.

The past master of this is of course the Master himself, Henry James. Here's a sentence, chosen more or less at random, from The Golden Bowl: " He remembered to have read, as a boy, a wonderful tale by Allan Poe, his prospective wife's countryman—which was a thing to show, by the way, what imagination Americans COULD have: the story of the shipwrecked Gordon Pym, who, drifting in a small boat further toward the North Pole—or was it the South?—than anyone had ever done, found at a given moment before him a thickness of white air that was like a dazzling curtain of light, concealing as darkness conceals, yet of the colour of milk or of snow." This is not unstraightforward; and yet its dart backward toward an impugnation of the American imagination, its dart sideways into Poe, and its ambiguous image of the white mist of others' motivations (concealing the future of our hero) lend an astonishing multiplicity to the sentence's mimesis of what is supposedly happening in Prince Amerigo's mind. James is famous for his psychology, but thanks to his brother William's work we know how close psychology is to philosophy, which is to say the art of disclosing the real. Reality, as William James teaches us, is perspectival. The activity required of the reader of a Jamesian sentence sends her grasping in and through language for a meaning one cannot help but be conscious of creating.

James is also capable of Lishian sentence pairs, as in the following beautifully asymmetrical chiasmus: "He was taken seriously. Lost there in the white mist was the seriousness in them that made them so take him." The reader leaps from stone to stone. The cut is there. But it's the longer sentences that makes James James, and that suggest, for me, a possible fiction, an immanent mimesis, the paragraph-environment, story in language.

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