After-Thoughts

A silent, meditative word is a word rich in after-thoughts but which minimizes its degree of getting caught in merely discursive formations.

A unilateral understanding of the relation between silence and thought-languages* allows a use of the latter which both radically “deprioritizes” words and maximizes its potential to convey peace. The function of speech now becomes armistice; it loses all necessity of arguing in a combative sense. Rather, it “argues” affectively against the reign of argument as debate and division. Instead, there is honesty and exposure, a touch across one another that communicates, first, a shared spirit of vulnerable humanity, and second, a taste and appreciation of this as a sort of oneness or non-division, plainly put, of actual meeting: encounter.

Meditative words leave us indeed with after-thoughts, but they are not primarily cognitive, or the cognitive experiences here a halt or suspension which can be uncomfortable for it—and this often leads us to seek words to explain or understand it prematurely. This effort is not detrimental, but it does suggest that we are then feeling the force of language’s incapacity to encapsulate what the meditative word, the gentle voice, communicates to us affectively. It remains a mystery, but we have difficulty staying open to it.

Dwelling with these after-thoughts, allowing them to be absorbed underneath the discursive-cognitive level, is at any rate possible. Doing so often leads to quite surprising outcomes when one finally does speak and respond, almost as if the longer one dwells in this way the more likely one is to later replicate a similar mode. We see here how these after-thoughts, brewed in silence, can lead to a “discourse” that neutralizes discord and proliferates peace. Silence is held internal to itself by the unilational structure it obeys and by its intentional restraint from over-thinking.

In the end, we are led to an affective experience that isn’t before but rather after thought and that is therefore capable of mastering language “from above” as a tool for communication without fixating on significations produced at the semantic and hermeneutic level. The meditative word thus inspires no struggle to decipher, no quarrel over interpretations or the meanings of words, since there is no attachment to them; nothing of the affective experience of after-thinking depends or relies on the powers of the logos and its assertions per se (and it is well-recorded how any fixation there leads to the vain, unhelpful wars of religions and philosophies).

One realizes here that what matters is neither seriousness, wisdom, nor profundity, but the spirit of openness in the utterance, or more, the degree of generic listening-potential encoded or made manifest in it, including as an example. How does it listen to (its own) silence? How does it listen to the other’s words and silences? How does it give itself and why? When all these considerations are rooted in silence—in the unagitated mind, in a voice whose strength is quiet—there is no conceivable limit to the amount of “adorable” words that can be produced: Each word will remain at rest in a potentiality that already resides within the listener, who is always at its source and so can always open to its beauty, independently of erudition, skill with reason, or whichever other criteria might impose a hierarchy. It is a speech of which anyone who listens meditatively is capable.

*The unilateral relation between silence and thought-language means that, in the last instance, there is a one-directional influence or “causality” from silence to speech. In this model, silence causes speech but speech doesn’t cause silence, no more than speech wraps around to define, determine or influence silence. Silence is then left its purity, its freedom from speech, but without denying that it can be related (unilated) to it. The practical goal here would be to let this unilateral relation prevail throughout the discourse, against or despite the intentionality of any one given speaker. This is where my words are no longer mine, where I speak from the end of my speech, from where I am dead and only a silent language speaks. But we must focus on what is important here: you can kill a man, you can silence his voice, but you cannot kill silence. You cannot stop its—nearly immediate— return after all the glories and follies of humanity. To do justice by this return, this final destiny of speech in silence, is the purpose of the meditative word. It cannot help but inform an ethics of restraint.

—October 16, 2017

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Image: Samuel Bak, Time has Come to a Stop, 1965

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Creative Absurdity (Houellebecq)

[Translation of “L’absurdité créatrice”*, p. 71-81 in Michel Houellebecq, Interventions 2: traces (Paris, Flammarion: 2009), by Timothy Lavenz (2019)]

Structure of Poetic Language satisfies the criteria of seriousness for the university; this is not necessarily a criticism. John Cohen observes there that in relation to prosaic, ordinary language, which serves to transmit information, poetry allows for considerable deviations. It repeatedly employs irrelevant attributes (“blank dusks,” Mallarme; “black scents,” Rimbaud).  It does not resist the pleasure of stating the obvious (“Don’t tear it up with your two white hands,” Verlaine; the prosaic mind snickers: would she have three?). It does not back down from a certain incoherence (“Ruth wondered and Booz dreamed; the grass was black,” Hugo; two juxtaposed notations, Cohen points out, whose logical unity one perceives with difficulty). It basks with delight in redundancy, prohibited in prose under the name of repetition; an extreme case would be Garcia Lorca’s poem, “Llanto por Ignacio Sanchez Mejias,” where the words cinco de la tarde return thirty times in the first fifty-two lines.

To establish his thesis, the author engages in a comparative statistical analysis of poetic and prose texts (the pinnacle of prose being for him – and this is very important – the writings of the great scientists at the end of the 19th century: Pasteur, Claude Bernard, Marcelin Berthelot). The same method reveals to him that the breadth of poetic deviation is much stronger in the romantics than in the classics, and is augmented even further in the symbolists. Intuitively, one might expect as much; it is still nice to see it revealed with such clarity. Upon finishing the book, one is certain of one thing: the author has indeed identified some characteristic deviations of poetry; but what do all these deviations tend toward? What is their goal, if they have one?

 

A few weeks into the journey, Christopher Columbus was informed that half the supplies were used up; no sign indicated the approach of land. It is at this exact moment that his adventure tipped over into the heroic: at the moment when he decides to continue West knowing it is no longer humanly possible to return. From the introduction to Elevated Language, Jean Cohen shows his cards: on the question of the nature of poetry, he will diverge from the set of existing theories. What makes poetry, he says, is not the addition of a certain music to prose (as was believed for a long time when every poem had to be in verse); nor is it the addition of an implicit meaning to an explicit meaning (Marxist, Freudian interpretations, etc.). It is not even the multiplication of secret meanings hidden beneath the primary meaning (polysemic theory). In sum, poetry is not prose plus something else: it is not more than prose, it is other. Structure of Poetic Language ended with an observation: poetry distances itself from common language, and it distances itself from it more and more. One theory then naturally comes to mind: the goal of poetry is to introduce a maximal deviation, to break, to deconstruct all existing codes of communication. This theory Jean Cohen rejects as well; all language, he assures us, assumes a function of intersubjectivity, and poetic langauge does not escape from this rule: poetry speaks about the world otherwise, but it still does speak about the world, such as humans perceive it. It is right at this point that he takes a considerable risk: for if the deviant strategies of poetry are not their own end in themselves, if poetry is really more than an investigation or play with language, if it really aims at creating a different speech about the same reality, then we are dealing with two irreducible visions of the world.

The Marchioness went out at five seventeen; she could have gone out at six thirty-two. Water molecules are made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. The volume of financial transactions increased considerably in 1995. To get free of the terrestrial pull, a rocket must build up to a lift-off thrust directly proportional to its mass. Prose language organizes reflections, arguments, facts; at bottom, it is organized around facts. Arbitrary events, although described with great precision, crisscross each other in a neutral time and space. Every qualitative or emotional aspect disappears from our vision of the world. It is the perfect realization of Democritus’ sentence: “Sweet and bitter, hot and cold, color are only opinions; nothing is true but atoms and the void.” A text with real but limited beauty, it irresistibly recalls the famous Midnight writing, whose influence has continued for about forty tears, simply because it corresponds to a Democritean metaphysics that to a large extent has remained in the majority; so much in the majority that fit is sometimes confused with the scientific program as a whole, whereas it only reached a circumstantial alliance with it – even if this alliance lasted several centuries – designed to combat religious thinking.

“When the low and heavy sky weighs like a lid…” This terribly charged line, like so many lines in Baudelaire, aims at something completely different from the transmission of information. It is not just the sky, it is the entire world, the being of the one who speaks, the soul of the one who listens that are invested with a tone of anxiety and oppression. Poetry happens [se produit]; the pathos-laden signification overwhelms the world.

Poetry according to Jean Cohen aims at producing a fundamentally alogical discourse, in which every possibility of negation is suspended. For language that informs, what is could not be, or else it could be differently, elsewhere, or in a different time. Poetic deviations aim on the contrary at creating an “effect of limitlessness” where the field of affirmation overwhelms the whole of the world, without allowing the outside of the contradiction to continue. This brings the poem close to the most primitive expressions, such as the lamentation or the howl. The category, it is true, is considerably extensive; but words are deep down of the same nature as the cry. In poetry they are set to vibrate, they rediscover their original vibration; but this vibration is not simply musical. Through the words, the reality they designate rediscovers its power of horror or enchantment, its primary pathos. Azure is an immediate experience. Just as, when daylight wanes, objects lose their colors and contours, blend slowly into a darkening grey, man feels alone in the world. This was true since his first days on earth, this was true even before he was man; this is much more ancient than language. Poetry seeks to rediscover these deeply moving, deeply distressing perceptions; of course it uses language, the “signifier”; but language is for it only a means. Jean Cohen sums up the theory with this formula: “Poetry is the song of the signified.”

One thus understands how he comes to develop another thesis: certain modes of perceiving the world are in themselves poetic. Everything that contributes to dissolving limits, to making the world a homogeneous and poorly differentiated whole will be marked with a poetic power (this is true of mist, or of dusk). Certain objects have a poetic impact, not insofar as they are objects, but because by cracking, through their presence alone, the delimitation of space and time, they induce a particular psychological state (and it must be admitted that his analyses of the ocean, ruins, and ships are unsettling). Poetry is not just a different language; it is a different look. A way of seeing the world, all the things of the world (highways as well as serpents, parking lots as well as flowers). At this stage of the book, Jean Cohen’s poetics no longer belong to linguistics at all; it is linked directly with philosophy.

Every perception is organized along a double difference: between the object and the subject, between the object and the world. The sharpness with which these distinctions are envisioned has profound philosophical implications, and that one could allocate the existing metaphysics along these two axes is not arbitrary. Poetry according to Jean Cohen effects a general dissolution of reference points: object, subject, world merge into the same moving and lyrical ambiance. Democritus’s metaphysics, on the contrary, carries these two distinctions to their maximal level of clarity (a blinding clarity, like the sun on white stones, a mid-afternoon in August: “It is nothing but atoms and the void.”)

In principle the case seems closed, and poetry condemned – sympathetic residue of a pre-logical mentality, that of primitives or infants. The problem is that Democritus’s metaphysics is wrong. To be precise: it is no longer compatible with the advances of 20th-century physics. Indeed, quantum mechanics invalidates every possibility of a materialist metaphysics and leads to a reconsideration from top to bottom of the distinctions between the object, the subject, and the world.

Starting in 1927, Niels Bohr was led to propose what is called the “Copenhagen interpretation.” Product of a laborious and at times tragic compromise, the Copenhagen interpretation insists on the instruments, the protocols of measurement. Giving Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle its fullest meaning, it establishes the act of knowledge on new foundations: if it is impossible to simultaneously measure all the parameters of a physical system with precision, this is not simply because they are “disturbed by the measurement”; more profoundly, they do not exist outside it. To speak of their antecedent state therefore has no meaning. The Copenhagen interpretation frees the scientific act by placing the observer-observed couple in place of a hypothetically real world; it makes it possible to re-found science in all its generality as a means of communications between humans about “what we have observed, what we have learned” – to use Bohr’s terms.

On the whole, physicists of this century stayed faithful to the Copenhagen interpretation; it is not a very comfortable position to be in. Of course, in the day-to-day practice of doing research, the best way to make progress is to adhere to a hard positivist approach, which can be summarized as follows: “We are content to collect observations, human observations, and correlate them together with laws. The idea of reality is not scientific, it does not interest us.” But nonetheless it must be unpleasant, sometimes, to realize that the theory one is in the process of producing is absolutely unformulable in clear language.

It is at this point that one sees the outline of some strange comparisons. For a long time I was struck by the fact that theoretical physicists, once they get away from the spectral decompositions, the Hilbert spaces, the Hermite operators, etc., which constitute the ordinary fare of their publications, render an emphatic homage to poetic language each time they’re asked about it. Not to the detective novel, not to serial music: no, what interests and troubles them is poetry specifically. Before having read Jean Cohen, I didn’t fully understood why; in discovering his poetics, I realized that something was really going on here; and that it was not without relation to Niels Bohr’s propositions.

In the ambiance of conceptual catastrophe brought about by the first quantum discoveries, it was sometimes suggested that it would be opportune to create a new language, a new logic, or both. Clearly, the old language and logic are poorly equipped to represent the quantum universe. Nonetheless, Bohr had his reservations. Poetry, he emphasized, proves that subtle and partially contradictory use of everyday language makes it possible to go beyond its limitations. The principle of complementarity introduced by Bohr is a sort of refined handling of contradiction: complementary points of view on the world are introduced simultaneously; each of them, taken in isolation, can be expressed without ambiguity in clear language; each of them, taken in isolation, is false. Their conjoined presence creates a new situation, uncomfortable for reason; but it is uniquely through this conceptual malaise that we can access a correct representation of the world. In parallel, Jean Cohen affirms that the absurd usage poetry makes of language is not in itself its own goal. Poetry breaks the causal chain and plays constantly with the explosive power of the absurd; but it is not an absurdity. It is absurdity rendered creative; creative of a different sense, strange but immediate, limitless, emotional.

 

*[The text is preceded by the following note: Theoretician of poetry, Jean Cohen is the author of two works: Structure du langage poétique (Flammarion/Champs, 1966) and Le Haut Langage (Flammarion, 1979). The second was republished by José Corti in 1995, shortly after the author’s death. This article appeared in Les Inrockuptibles (number 13) on the occasion of its republication, and in Interventions, 1998.]

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Transitoriness (Freud)

Transitoriness (by Sigmund Freud)
Original German: Vergänglichkeit

Some time ago, in the company of a taciturn friend and an already reputable and well-known young poet, I took a stroll through a thriving summer landscape. The poet admired the natural beauty around us but without delighting in it himself. It disturbed him that all this beauty was doomed to pass away, that in winter it would wane; but likewise every human beauty, every lovely and noble thing humans have created or could create. Everything he otherwise would have loved and admired seemed to him devalued by the fate of transitoriness that defined them.

We know that from the plunge into decay of all that is beautiful and perfect two different mental impulses can arise. The one leads to the painful world-weariness of the poet, the other to a rebellion against the purported fact. No, it is impossible that all the glories of nature and art, of our sensory world and the world outside, should really dissolve into nothing. It would be too senseless, too blasphemous to believe it. They must in some way be able to persist, to bear all destructive influences.

By itself this requirement of eternity is too obviously a result of our own wishful life for it to lay claim to a reality-value. And also the painful can be true. I could neither make up my mind to challenge the transience of all things, nor force an exception for the beautiful and perfect. But I did challenge the pessimistic poet, that the transience of beautiful things brings about a loss in their value.

On the contrary, an increase in value! Transcience-value is a rareness-value in time [Der Vergänglichkeitswert ist ein Seltenheitswert in der Zeit]. Limitation in the possibility of their enjoyment elevates their preciousness. I declared it incomprehensible that the thought of the transience of beautiful things should thereby spoil our delight in them. As for the beauty of nature, it comes again after every destruction through winter into the next year, and this recurrence may in relation to our lifespan be deemed an eternal one. The beauty of the human body and face we see within our own lives forever wane, but this short-livedness adds to it an extra charm. When there is a flower that blooms for one single night only, the blossom does not for that reason appear to us less splendid. That the beauty and perfection of artworks and intellectual achievements should be devalued by their temporal constraint, I am just as little able to accept. A time may come when the pictures and statues we admire today disintegrate, or a race of men succeeds us for whom the work of our poets and thinkers is no longer understood, or even a geological epoch in which all that is living on earth has fallen silent; the value of all this beauty and perfection will be determined only by its meaning for our own emotional lives, does not need to outlive it, and is therefore independent of absolute duration.

I held these considerations to be indisputable, but I noticed that I’d made no impression on the poet and my friend. I inferred from this failure the interference of a strong affective element clouding their judgment and believed later to have found out what it was. It must have been the revolt in their minds against mourning that devalued their enjoyment of the beautiful. The idea that this beauty is fleeting gave both these sensitive souls a foretaste of mourning over its downfall, and since the mind recoils instinctively from anything painful, they felt their enjoyment of the beautiful impeded by the thought of its transitoriness.

Mourning over the loss of something we have loved or admired appears to the layperson so natural that he declares it self-evident. But to the psychologist mourning is a great riddle, one of those phenomena one does not clarify but to which other obscurities can be traced back. We submit that we possess a certain capacity for love, called libido, which at the beginnings of development had turned towards our own ego. Later, though actually very early on, it turns away from the ego and toward objects which we in this way, so to speak, take into our ego. When the objects are destroyed or become lost to us, our capacity for love (libido) again becomes free. It can then take other objects as substitutes or temporarily turn back toward the ego. But why this detachment [Ablösung] of the libido from its objects should be such a painful process, this we do not understand and cannot deduce at present from any hypothesis. We see only that the libido clings to its objects and does not want to give the lost ones up, even when a substitute lies ready. Such then is mourning.

The conversation with the poet took place the summer before the war. One year later the war broke in and robbed the world of its beauties. It destroyed not only the beautiful landscapes it tore through and the artworks it scraped up against along its way; it also broke our pride in the achievements of our culture, our respect for so many thinkers and artists, our hope in finally overcoming the disparities between nations and races. It sullied the lofty impartiality of our sciences, exposed our instinctual life in its nakedness, and unleashed evil spirits in us we thought we’d permanently tamed through centuries of upbringing by our noblest. It made our fatherland small again and the rest of earth once again far and remote. It robbed us of so much that we had loved and showed us the frailty of so many things we’d held to be enduring.

It is no surprise that our libido, thus impoverished of its objects, has with greater intensity occupied what has remained to us, and that love for the fatherland, affection for those closest to us, and pride in our common features have suddenly been reinforced. But those other, now lost goods, have they really lost all value for us because they have proven to be frail and incapable of resistance? For many among us, it seems so, but again wrongly, I think. I believe that those who think so and who seem ready for a permanent renunciation, because what is precious has not preserved itself as durable, are only in mourning over the loss. We know that grief, however painful it may be, passes spontaneously. Once it has renounced everything lost, and also spent itself, our libido is in turn free, insofar as we are still young and lively, to replace as much as possible the lost objects with ones equally or more precious. It stands to hope that it go no other way with the losses of this war. Once the initial grief has been overcome, it will be shown that our high esteem for cultural goods has not suffered under the experience of their frailty. We will rebuild everything the war had destroyed, perhaps on ground firmer and more long-lasting than before.

—Translated by Timothy Lavenz and Antonia Grousdanidou (2014)

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SEA’S WEIGHT (poems)

Please follow this link to access my poetry chapbook: Sea’s Weight by Timothy Lavenz.

All poems composed and copyrighted by Timothy Lavenz, 2018. Please share, reprint, or graffiti these poems in the world however you see fit.

My thanks go to many friends who have supported and encouraged me in my poetic efforts. The chapbook is a ‘trial run’. My intention behind distributing it is to receive as much feedback about them as I can. I am therefore open to comments, objections, problems, questions, of any sort, that anyone may have, including ‘strangers’. The comment section on this blog is a suitable place for that; or if you are in contact with me at other virtual addresses (Facebook, etc.) I am of course reachable there as well.

Thank you again for reading. May the bottle cast in sea’s weight reach heart-shore.

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On Poetry (by René Char)

ON POETRY
By René Char
Trans. Timothy Lavenz (draft)

I admit that intuition reasons and dictates orders the instant that it, carrier of keys, does not forget to make the trousseau of the embryonic forms of poetry vibrate by passing through the lofty cages where the echoes sleep, the chosen first-prodigies that, in passage, soak and fecundate them.

It befalls the poet to run aground in the course of his research on a shore where he was expected only much later, after his annihilation. Indifferent to the hostility of his entourage in the back, the poet gets organized, wears out his vigor, divides the term, fastens together the summits of wings.

The poet cannot dwell for long in the stratosphere of the Word. He must curl up in new tears and push further ahead into its order.

The poem is furious ascension; poetry, the game of dry riverbanks.

Poet custodian of the infinite faces of the living.

The poet, susceptible to exaggeration, reckons correctly in torment.

It is not worthy of the poet to mystify the lamb, to invest its wool.

Poetry is of all clear waters the one that lingers least in the reflection of its bridge.

Poetry, the future life at the interior of the requalified human. Continue reading

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Run-on Sentence

Run-On Sentence
August 9, 2018

No language can hope for anything but its own defeat. —Gregory Palamas

Everyone runs for cover in the stability of words, in their apparent capacity to define, stabilize, judge and control reality—indeed, the word’s power of ‘placing’ realities there in the first place as essences we might grasp, rendering everything in the world ‘sayable’, ‘cognizable’, ‘rational’, etc. When the latter qualities are lacking, we experience great discomfort. Words and all that comes with them—images, connotations, associations, memories, projections, assumptions, etc.—seem the remedy, mending the rips in time’s web.Words are like nature’s answer to the ‘brutal’ anxiety humans experience when they experience themselves as a question without an answer. Words seem to stretch so far, to fill so many gaps, to account for so many things, that they nearly prevent any such question from presenting itself. Yet, as everyone knows, words hardly make good on the faith we place in them, though their failure in this regard rarely leads us to lose our faith or, better yet, invent words that will be true to us. Instead, turn after turn we’re disappointed by what we can say, what we can get done through words. Often this drives us to stay within the confines of what we already know how to say; conventions that have already granted us a measure of success in the sphere of communication. This is not without consequences, however, for the reality we conceive ourselves to be living and living in.

While we would like to believe that conventions (‘ordinary language’) are just abbreviations for richer experiential realities, in reality they exert a constant framing power (‘common sense’, banal examples, lack of nuance). They exert the ‘soft power’ of ideology and conformism on our most basic understanding of life. They serve a repressive function, inducing individuals to frame their realities according to generalities, the most general categories and phrases, which are picked up socially and mimed from others with only slight variations and without any real analysis of their function or accuracy. There is comfort in that, a minimization of difference which would risk social isolation and jeopardize coherence. But in all likelihood it is also responsible for the mediocrity of most experience. What’s worse, in those rare moments when matters become crucial, elevated, rare, or of fatal importance, this more essential content feels itself forced into forms so banal and lifeless—now we become acutely aware of it, through our tears and incapacity—that it feels like it will be a betrayal to speak about it at all.

Because it is painful to not be understood, we gravitate towards words whereby we can present ourselves, our ideas, our feelings, our views on reality, with the least possible resistance to the other listener, in forms that sound ‘digestible’ to the superego in our head, the imagined listener which is, structurally, always present. These inherently ‘known’ and ‘regurgitated’ forms and contents of discourse smooth things out socially and, in the short term, grant a reprieve from tension and awkwardness amongst our fellows. But since the question is without an answer, the tension without any real equilibrium, ultimately the smoothing and soothing function of words only delays our confrontation with the unanswerable. It allows us to quickly get the desired ratiocination, conclusion, resolution, story, sense. But in the end, whether it is said out loud or held internally, something nags at us with incompleteness: the brutal anxiety of the question, dissatisfied by whatever we might have said and, moreover, conscious of the fact that perhaps no one is actually listening, or cares, or would be able to do anything even if they did care. (The drunk who, after an hour-long tirade filled with passion about some vital issue, suddenly feels overtaken with fatigue and the emptiness of the whole situation, the vanity of the moment’s rousing speech, indicates well the phenomenon at stake here.)

Even the question, ‘what is human? ‘when it aims toward knowledge, and not toward an experience of humanity at its limits—loses itself in words that aide in the evasion of the question. The formulated question masks the degree to which it relies upon words that mask the potential limitlessness of the questioning. To pursue it to the farthest limit would surely mean to experience the futility of words, the ‘final silence’ which shall engulf all of humanity, all its plans, borders, identities, histories, personalities, etc. But words, by the spell of sense they cause, protect us from their own futility which, if apprehended, could lead the mind to madness. To sense even for a moment the prospect of that abyss is to be conscripted to a lack of faith in the power of words to secure anything, to render anything finally coherent. —But what can it mean, ‘to sense even for a moment…’? Unless perhaps it is a stab of pain, our senses are already mediated by languages, learned behaviors, cultures of response, fears, the ‘sociality’ we inhabit. To sense something ‘outside’ is to sense nothing at all, save perhaps the torment of being without voice, without words, condemned to insufficiency (but how shall that express itself?). Such ‘muteness’ or impotence is what words, in daily animation, normally keep very far at bay, legitimizing in the process, as if by default, the cover-up.

Words in sum make it possible to take the ‘self’ out of play—to no longer risk it, to save it from the questioning that would consume it and drive it to the limit of its anguish. Religion, politics, opinion, banter, even interpersonal relation, are often in service of such psychological purposes: to save us from the collapse of collective and personal story, from an exposure to the nonidentical, to a world which is inherently without order, to objects which do not obey the claims words place on them. These discourses serve the mind as stop-gap measures, plugs against the on-rush of disparity and disunity. This comes long before their degree of truth can be evaluated: they satisfy a need to be ‘covered’, ‘insured’ as beings against the flux that engulfs them. Different discourses stabilize chaos differently, logic things together differently. They assert a uniformity of interpretation over the manifold; allow things to be counted for ‘what they are’ according to the language system; give us occasions to justfiy our acts in light of extant circumstances; etc. ‘Ordinary language’, of course, accomplishes this to a certain degree, through the various games we play with it. But there are language games that produce unique experiences, even if this is only achieved by the power of suggestion.

A crisis of faith in God, for example, has as much to do with the viability of a certain manner of language as it might have to do with the metaphysical question of God’s existence (which after all cannot be posed without words, though this inquiry too culimates in silence and a ‘cloud of unknowing’). Furthermore, despite its propensity to be entangled in conceptual and terminological quarrels (also attesting to language’s predominance), all great theology insists upon the primacy of prayer. And what does prayer do? It establishes, in a highly practical fashion, that a common language exists between the believer and the Absolute who is addressed by the prayer. Jesus’ instruction to pray to God like he is our ‘papa’ draws attention to this fact and means to render this relationship intimate and personal. Holiness begins and ends with prayer because it is only through prayer that a ‘dialogue’ with God is kept open, such that the ‘promptings of the spirit’ can be discerned.

No believer expects to know God in full, but without some understanding of God as a partner in prayer, belief really would be just empty words—words meant to prove to others that one is a believer, which is a much different ‘language game’ than prayer itself is. Just as one can forget how to talk to a friend with whom one has fallen out of contact, prayer is a matter of repetition and habit, indeed of ‘staying in touch’ with God through the continual address. Paul instructs the believer to ‘pray ceaselessly’ and to ‘put on the mind of Christ’ who was, after all, the Word made flesh. Anyone who rolls the dice with such a ‘linguistic practice’ knows just how quickly God begins to loom and overwhelm as an ‘interlocutor’. This does not necessitate God ‘talking back’—what’s relevant here is just prayer as a use of language and the sort of world it builds up. Noteworthy also is that, for someone who isn’t in the habit, prayer comes in moments of crisis and difficulty: when one ‘has no clue’ and ‘has no one to talk to’, yet simultaneously must ‘put words to it’, must put them to someone who will hear them. After all, that’s the guarantee of God: a listener who understands you better than you will ever understand yourself, who guides those who rely on him to the goal of religious life: to be “known as I am known.”

Rarely can a human put up with silence for long, even if it seems divine. A thought, a determination, an inclination, will always spring up from the depths of whatever repose, whatever quietude. And this is only right, according to the interrogation that we are, the reflection without which we would just be functionaries or minerals. The equivalent on our level of the addage, ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’, must be something like, ‘Sense abhors a silence’. The void wants to be stuffed full of words, sounds, colors, sensations, thoughts; sometimes all these help us articulate the question, though we should not deceive ourselves that it is a question that might be answered through such means. Otherwise, that void is embraced to the point of surrendering to one’s own nothingness, as in certain forms of jhana yoga or self-emptying prayer.

But even the yogi ‘returns to language’. The monk comes forth from his retreat and writes, teaches. Nothing impedes or condemns the words that flow here, for silence has not meant futility, but the plenitude of God who fills our silence with his own. God either guarantees purpose, thus at a minimum solving the question theoretically; or God nullifies the self so thoroughly that no space is left for a question. In either case, the self as limitless interrogation, as ungrounded desire, as disappointed futility, tends to be taken out of play, ‘saved’. (It should be asked here what purposes of ‘cover up’ *this* interpretation of silence, as expressive of a peaceful and inextinguishable infinity, may serve. For here eternal silence is a consolation, rather than the horror that it also is. Without the faith that God secures all being despite it being suspended over an abyss, consolation could only revert back—or advance to—anguish and ecstasy over the unanswerable. Matters here are not easy, since it is very often those who are in the most direct contact with divine matters who experience most acutely and painfully the abyss. As Henri de Lubac put it, faith and atheism are separated by a hairsbreadth; and Christianity takes as its model a god who dies, God abandoned by God, but I digress.)

“Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions.” “What is the truth, but a lie agreed upon.” So did Nietzsche phrase it emphatically. But it must be understood as a polemic against every form of ‘running for cover’. His intention is clear: to destroy the illusions which protect humanity from a more difficult confrontation with truth, where the measure of greatness is how much one is willing to suffer for it, and where feelings of blessedness or consolation are no guarantee. “That the destruction of an illusion does not produce truth—but only one more piece of ignorance, an extension of our ’empty space’, an increase of our ‘desert’—” This indicates not a ‘relativism’ of interpretations, which would just be one more cover-up, but rather the difficulty of the task, which necessitates having an experience of language and humanity at the limit of their collapse and futility—the running-on forever of a life sentence. Nietzsche’s hope was that from out of that experience, the conventional beliefs which produce mediocrity could be razed to the ground and new goals be set. My hope is more modest: that we put everyday a little bit more of our risked self at play in our speech.

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On Poetry [Owls at Dawn]

I sat down last month (May 2019) with the guys at the Owls at Dawn podcast (go support them here!), this time to discuss poetry and read some poems. Listen to the whole episode here: More Than Words: On Poetry w/ Tim Lavenz.

Most of my comments were improvised – some probably in need of correction – all of it probably in need of going into more depth. But the guys make a great show and I always feel like I get to say the essentials of what I wanted to say. I learn from their questions and responses.

Toward the end I read Paul Celan’s ‘So Many Constellations’ and my own poem ‘Trouble in Paradise’.

As time allows, I’ll re-listen to the show and fill in this post with corrections and elaborations. Also happy to field any questions in the comment section and incorporate them here.

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