Sparing Language II

I resume here an old preoccupation: the distinction, intersection, or border between philosophy and poetry, both of which remain passions in my life.* The specific question I will grapple with in the following is: what is specific to poetry’s vocation? How is poetry’s vocation to be rigorously distinguished from philosophy’s?

I begin with the intuition of a threat: poetry in its essence is constantly jeopardized by an over-proximity to philosophy. The poet’s own proximity to philosophy is variable and not the crucial factor here. What matters is rather how the poem is often ‘belittled’ into being the carrier for some psychological or social message, some form of philosophical ‘wisdom’ split between folk common sense and lecturing. Take for example, “Season to Season” by Clive James (The New Yorker, Jan 2018):

I have been fooled before, and just because
This summer seems so long, it might not be
My last. Winter could come again, and pause
The sky like a taped tactical descent
Of pocket paratroopers. Things to see
Could happen yet, and life prove not quite spent
But still abundant, still the main event.

The trick, I’m learning, is to stay in doubt,
Season to season, of what time might bring,
And patiently await how things turn out.
Eventually time tells you everything.
If it takes time to do so, no surprise
In that. You fold your arms, you scan the skies,
And tell yourself that life has made you wise,

If only by the way it ebbs away.
But still it takes an age, and after all,
Though nearly gone, life didn’t end today,
And you might be here when the first leaves fall
Or even when the snow begins again,
If life that cast you, when this all began,
As a small boy, still needs a dying man.

This poem poses almost no obstacles to a smooth reading. Nearly all the metaphors are general: summer is long, time is slow, arms fold, sky is scanned, life ebbs away, and so on. One easily envisions a man contemplating his chances of ever seeing snow again. It articulates an experience of growing older in a universal way and is loaded with wise sayings mixed with playful suspicions and reflections about the circularity of life in proximity to death. It narrates an ‘oversight’ of life as a totality and desires wisdom about that totality. It even teaches care for the self, an dignified way to deal with expectations, doubts, deceptions, and waiting. One could argue, then, that this poem is shaped entirely by the philosophy it expresses; its goal to philosophize about the meaning of life, time, and self. Poetry here is an tool for dwelling in the realm of practical life wisdom. The only line that pushes in a contrary direction, that does not offer itself immediately to easy comprehension, is the comparison of the sky to a “taped tactical descent/ Of pocket paratroopers.” Regardless of its quality, this is the only ‘strange’ image in the poem. It stands apart. It will be my argument in what follows that it is in such moments that the specificity of poetry can be discerned and differentiated from the otherwise philosophical message the poem offers.

Now take another example, “The Burden of Humans” by Michael Lavers (New Ohio Review, Fall 2017):

The grass just has to wave, the birds just have
to sing. The grapes don’t wonder what light is;
the light just lights them, and the grapes grape back.
The golden oaks just shed their summer dresses
on the lawn—but you? You have to read
Spinoza in the garden while the light
is good. You have to keep your focus as
the motorcycles scream out of the purple hills.
You have to sweat, and laugh, and weatherproof
the bedroom windows, and remember
names and dates, the town where your parents met—
Milk River or Swan Hills?—and when they died,
you have to sweep the kitchen floor and then
define the good, the true, the beautiful,
or try, because azaleas can’t see themselves,
the squirrels are busy, and the ferns have closed.
The frost tattoos its sermon on the rose,
but in a language only you can read;
you have to know that all things pass and perish,
and that what you’ve said is finite, but continue—
as if grand exceptions might be made—
raking the leaves, stacking the wood, hoping
the child falls asleep against your chest,
hoping the blizzard swerves, knowing the wreckage
of the present will be gathered but
not soon, and not by you, because you’re in it,
there somewhere, under the sheet of snow.

Aside from the gap this poem introduces between human nature and nature as such (“the grapes grape… but you have to read,” why? because you see yourself), the ratio of poetry to philosophy is not so different. Phenomenological description outweighs poetic utterance by a factor of about 20 to 1. The poem is carried by what it says, which is something broad and wide about life, death, and perseverance. For as any poet knows, writing a poem is very often all one can do to persevere and make sense of the “wreckage.” But one could again object that the poem is only serving the purpose of encouragement and self-steadying (exercise might do just as well), that poetry has again become only a tool to help one face life and death without breaking. Yes, isn’t poetry always that? But philosophy is also such a tool, or at least it is caught up in similar dramas. The poem’s final lines read like a philosophical bottom line. Where exactly is the poetry here?

For the sake of argument, then, let’s say that the first poem has only one poetic utterance: “[winter could] pause/ The sky like a taped tactical descent/ Of pocket paratroopers.” What constitutes it as poetic, or as attempting to be poetic, is the alliteration and the unfamiliar, unexpected, somewhat confusing image. One might have hoped that, in a poem otherwise bereft of novel visuals, this one would have served the poem like a point of strong emphasis, one that summed up or at least supported the philosophy. Alas it is not. In my view it is a throw-away line, not poetic but only ‘signalling’ poetry in a poem that is otherwise a proverb arranged in verse. One could even say it describes the intervention: the line that signals ‘this is poetry’ swoops down tactically, it is pulled out of the pocket to launch an attack on sky and winter. Predictably, the seasons are unaffected and turn over. Philosophy is enough to understand them, and poetry is little more than an ornament.

The second poem, while equally full of the philosophy of everyday life and finite keeping on, increases the count of poetic utterances but not by much. I count two (discounting the motorcycle’s scream and the blizzard’s swerve as remaining essentially descriptive): first, the golden oaks that shed their dresses (traditional metaphor), and second, by far the most interesting line:

The frost tattoos its sermon on the rose,
but in a language only you can read.

Now, unlike the other lines in both these poems, here is the first one that gives me pause, making it to me the only genuinely poetic utterance we encounter here. It is also, in my view, no accident that it is in iambic pentameter, whereas otherwise neither of these poems cares all that much about meter. My intention is not to interpret this utterance, but only to point it out as the only line that requires some manner of active interpretation at all. The rest are, in the end, obvious, and we nod our heads in agreement. But this image stands out: The frost tattoos its sermon on the rose. We can immediately imagine the crimson vibrancy of bud with snow on the ground behind it, the bud’s petals fringed with crisp, burgeoning outlines of white ice encroaching on organic life and enveloping color itself. We sense the sting of the tattoo inscribed, its promise of painful and permanent alteration. For unlike natural frost which thaws, this frost speaks, or rather sermonizes. Its soundwaves burn image on corporeal flesh. And, finally, we know that whatever design we see on this rose is a language, a sermon to hear or an image to decode, indeed both: audible and visible, inseparably, as in poetry. Not the universal language of nature, mind you, or a pattern for which a science of fractals could give the formula, but a language of singularity, a language only you can read. Poetry is: frost’s sermon tattooed on the rose.

Whereas the first poem draws nothing but oddity from its unfamiliar image, this poem uses it for a strong juxtaposition. There is a unity to the one especially poetic line in relation to the other literary and descriptive lines that surround it. Indeed, it justifies its singularity, its standing alone among the other happenings in the poem. In comparison to the tattooed sermon―put there singularly for you to read, unlike Spinoza, who only requires “good lighting”―everything from raking the leaves to the child asleep on your chest pales mundane. From the poetic perspective, all other beings and activities, from the squirrel busy with its nuts to the human who must remember dead parents, are buried under a sheet of snow, not gathered together but lacking wholeness, conquered by cold. If there is some faith that, despite being buried, the “wreckage of the present” can be gathered, one suspects this faith was awakened by the sermon on the rose that, amid all this philosophizing, alone spares language from it too being buried.

The heuristic at play here is the following: wherever a philosophical idea or reference can be clearly discerned or deduced from a poem, it ceases to be poetry. This does not prevent a genuinely poetic line from provoking us to philosophize (as the line about the rose perhaps does), but nothing immediately translates it into something graspable or commonplace. The pause is essential here and it signifies an instance of falling-silent, a silence within the stream of activity and discourse (as the emergence of frost makes no noise). Put more strongly, the poetic line, without remaining silent, refracts silence into language and throws a wrench in the gear of philosophical, worldly, practical wisdom.

Admittedly, philosophy will not cede its place so willingly. Given that its task is to integrate every form of knowing, the poetic utterance obliges philosophy to check its premises and test its understandings against it. In a sense, the frost’s sermon cancels out all the lectures, curses them to ‘mere speech’ with its icy and invisible print. What is somewhat ironic, then, is that these ‘poems’ by and large overwhelm this nascent silver of poetry with what are, in the end, philosophic generalities. But who could dream of a poetry that avoided the latter entirely? As Valery put it, a poem cannot be all poetry.

We are, perhaps, on the way to an adequate definition of poetry if we call poetry the abandonment of generality (in itself paradoxical, given that poetry’s material is common) for the sake of singularity (singular address, singular image: a language only you can read). But these examples demonstrate how difficult it is to escape philosophical generality since these are nothing less than the generalities of being human, the ideas whereby we understand self and world. Philosophy preoccupies itself with them continually. If poetry, by contrast, seems to suspend this imperative―at least for pause of a breath-turn―it does not for all that abandon the desire to know. It is only that its mode of saying what it knows becomes… unfamiliar, unnatural, strange. Better yet, it describes a pure desire to know, held on the verge of as-yet unknown universals, such that its utterance flows seamlessly back into mystery. Following Keat’s phrase, it is a negative capability, the capacity to dwell in the unknown and stay there. The ideal nature of such a discipline strikes us as impossible to maintain. This contributes to the incongruity between its result (poetic utterance) and everyday life realism, in other words, the difficulty of poetry. Thus, even by the end of this poem, human generality storms back in, not the winter storm but the storm of human reflection: you are “there somewhere,” you are “in the wreckage,” you are “buried under snow.”

What if poetry knew something so profoundly counter-intuitive that no poem could not take fright at its prospect and run for cover in a more common wisdom? If it knew that you are not there somewhere, that you are not in it―not buried? That far from the cyclical natural world, far from the animals with their duties, far from human concern and worry, there is in the universe of being: frost’s sermon tattooed on a rose?

No doubt, only philosophy would turn this poetic utterance into an ontological question. In itself it only contingently provokes such reflection, not necessarily. “The frost tattoos its sermon on the rose” is not a thesis statement. It is non-propositional, non-sensical. It does not accord with any accepted paradigm of objectivity. Accusations of poetry’s nonsense and redundancy come, predictably, from those philosophies and logics that need to dismiss such singular utterances as ‘mere poetry’ in order to restore thought and knowledge to the realm of generality. That this implies a violence and disrespect against poetry is obvious, but it does something worse still: it forecloses the possibility that the poetic utterance might be true. Unlike ‘scanning’ the sky, unlike time ‘ebbing’, unlike ‘screaming’ motorcycles, this metaphor refuses reduction to any simpler idea or to any sensory experience. It does not admit substitutions. It solves only its own formula.

We return to the basic problem. Philosophy and poetry share a territory: ideas and images; imagined ideas and ideal images; words, their connotations, and the play these allow; graphemes that are sounds and sounds that are graphemes; concepts and categories of understanding; and most importantly, the voice and its memorable vessel. For poetry is not, save metaphorically, written in ice―at least not from philosophy’s justifiably rational perspective. Nor is it illegitimate for philosophy to seek to understand the poetic utterance with its own concepts. Only we must recognize the difference in registers and, at a minimum, never take poetic utterance for a philosophical thesis. It is this rigor that, in active interpretation, is hardest to maintain, since it means bearing silence at every step of reasoning and honoring the pause that rips us from generality and explanation and carries reflection beyond the limits of propositional discourse.

Personal Addendum:

The above thoughts are more hypothesis than thesis. As stated, I am trying to isolate the specificity of poetry’s use of language as distinct from philosophy’s. Obviously, in any concrete case (any poem, any philosophy) there is a mixture of both. So already I am dealing with idealities or concepts. The reality of poems is something quite different and from that I would never wish to detract.

A philosophical idea can be dressed in poetic utterances. Early on in my reading life, I was most attracted to poems that contained philosophical insight and depth. I still am. Those lines where an epiphany or radiant declaration burst forth were my favorite. That is how I originally came to philosophy, when I realized these were my favorite parts of the poetry I was reading. And now, having come far in an understanding of philosophy, it has become difficult to see where it does not reach, where it does not overwhelm. I now return to the question of poetry to free myself from my own original attraction. For I am not content to see poetry as garment or garb, as merely an alternative to philosophical exposition that does the same thing, express ideas, differently.

Perhaps it is conflicting to approach poetry as a philosopher trying to discover where poetry has nothing to do with philosophy, where it perhaps does something philosophy simply does not do or hasn’t done yet. The idea is to register these findings for and in philosophy, to respect a poetic truth in and against philosophy’s. I have no idea what this means, but my intuition is that, at the most basic level, it entails taking language beyond the form of the proposition and propositional logic. I base myself on intuitions gathered from Celan, who defines [Dichtung] as pause, suspension, breathturn [Atemwende]. It is the specificity of that that I am after. This is largely a personal question, an attempt to understand why, in my own poetry, I feel drawn to high levels of abstraction that resist the lyrical voice and disrupt conceptuality as much as possible.

The poem argues from silence or draws us into it. Philosophy in comparison is voluble, argumentative. It explains, clarifies, deduces, defines, classifies, defends. I see the strength (even the hegemony) of these operations and so the search for what might resist them intrigues me (though this resistance itself forms an argument). As far as the poems shared above go, “The frost tattoos its sermon on the rose” seems to me the only line that is not philosophically obvious―the one whose argument is most difficult to understand. That doesn’t mean the rest of the poems aren’t poetry or aren’t poetic! Not at all. I’m not interested in analyzing literature or chopping up works of art just for the sake of it. The project is philosophical, meaning it deals in concepts necessarily delimited from others in some fashion. I accept that it is probably vexed from the get-go.

Where does poetry makes its unique intervention? When is it not merely the vessel for expressing philosophical ideas? To summarize: poetry’s invention takes place, first, at the level of language in the mode of obscurity, disruption, strangeness (regarding syntax, word choice, flow, etc.). This unsettles philosophy as it struggles to control it. And not just academic philosophy but philosophy as the basic matrix for our daily understandings of self and world. My research comes from a dissatisfaction with philosophical ways of coming at the poem that reduce it to a packet of metaphors or a vehicle for transmitting messages. Yet to honor the disruption of a poetic utterance is not so easy.

Can the poetic idea be expressed philosophically at all? If philosophy would like to express it, won’t it be obliged to be written as a form of poetry? My personal writing successes on this level are few, but my original essay, Sparing Language, tries.

*For other pieces on this website that touch on this preoccupation, see: Nontology, Joy and Justice, Poem as Place / Pictures of a Face.

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Gott sei Dank

The only relation of consciousness to happiness is gratitude: in which lies its incomparable dignity. —Theodore Adorno

Theological connotations and religious prejudices aside, let me briefly entertain the following hypothesis: the name “God” can be perceived and understood as a catch-all-and-nothing term that serves a psychological function for us, namely: it responds and corresponds to our need to express feelings of boundless thanks, where “God” names the hypothetical ‘receiver’ of this thanks. This minimal definition of God leads to the idea that “God” is thanks through and through (Gott “sei” Dank); and that perhaps what pertains most profoundly to God in our experience is and has always been gratitude approaching the limit of what is thinkable, what can be known, what is.

Max Ernst , Birth of a Galaxy, 1969.

Boundless because it is thanks not merely for this or that thing, occurrence, person, etc., but for the that it was in general: the apparent fact of it all having been, thanks for whatever has ‘hung together’ in having happened. Boundless because this ‘Zusammenhang’ surpasses logic and the scope of our vision, because it renders descriptions impotent and symbols silent, it defies computation or full account. Boundless because we can always penetrate into another vicissitude of the improbability of everything. “God” is then a weakly sufficient term, one that does not even need to be spoken as such: a label by ‘default’ (better terms are lacking) corresponding to this feeling or need to address boundless thanks to the ‘unlimited’, which nothing in our imagination can ever exhaust. God is that something or someone who might know why we give thanks, what all we give thanks for, and why thanks is appropriate; who might know this better than we do and be able to receive it better than any of us could.

The impression in question is so strong that the issue of ‘who’ exactly one addresses by this name, “God”, fades. In fact, it is almost irrelevant in comparison to the function that it or a substitute would serve as the ‘addressee’ of ultimate thankfulness. Such an addressee is only hinted at in this upsurge of feeling toward an unknown ‘thankee’—surging for having existed, for having had a history, a body, a drive, a connection to others, to nature, to the world, and so on. Issued in holistic fashion, this thanks includes all: joys and sufferings, terrors and reliefs, in contemplation of the whole mortal state, without prettying it up. This is why it cannot help but seem like a miracle, unbelievable, an impossibility: that something happened at all, light and dark. God would represent first of all the possibility of being grateful despite everything, for the happiness we’d had amidst so many damages; for any glimmer of possibility, any convalescence, any chance.

One could easily object that such thanks needn’t be addressed to “God”, a name carrying much baggage and prone to misinterpretation and misuse. Thanks could be addressed to the universe or whatever else provokes wonder at our ‘abandoned’ existence. The objection is valid. But using the name God needn’t imply what it has traditionally—a being who planned all this, wanted all this, the agent cause of all that is, including the worst. All of that could be discarded, so that God would no longer be conceived as the guarantor of order, but rather analogous to what emerges improbably out of disorder, like our lives. It may be a godless universe, dominated by entropy and death, but yet improbable moments and thankfulness for them do/did exist, however briefly. When our wonder and appreciation at the it was’ seeks something ultimate—not to explain the reason for existence, or even justify it, but merely to offer a gesture of thanks—perhaps humans stumble upon this non-religious, almost ‘natural’ function for the name “God” in human language, as that which possibilizes the improbable (and from a certain perspective everything we’ve ever observed, known, and experienced was improbable).

Oklad (cover) of the Trinity icon by Andrei RublevNonetheless, by invoking God, I do not wish to reduce the puzzle: whom to thank? Let it linger as an open question. I only insist that this desire and need to thank is profoundly human. It corresponds to the fragility of our situation; to the depth of our own receptiveness regarding everything we experience; to the feeling that all the phenomena of life are gifts we receive as if from nowhere; and to the ‘unendingness’ we sometimes feel in those subtle moments when we’re overwhelmed by the beauty of the whole in spite of it all. Such thanks is motivated by a saturation or excess of this emotion, when it overflows all the containers, aware of finitude and limited time, aware as well of the possible absurdity of addressing it to anyone at all. But hopefully it’s clear that what I’m refer to under the heading of boundless thanks in no way excludes concrete gestures of thanks to concrete, ’empirical’ actors and factors. Rather, “God” would be whom one thanked for those factors and actors: for their very improbable ensemble and consequent impact on us, acknowledging that none of them could claim total control over their having-been-there, their having-existed, that none were the unique cause of themselves. God thanked for fortuity, chance, encounter, trial, discovery, event, understanding, all together in a contingent totality of links and significances: what happened at every scale of realism and how it seemed or appeared to us epiphenomenally, which exceeded all our plans, efforts, and knowledge no matter how much these participated. It is a thanks for that which no consciousness could fully grasp. Or rather: which consciousness knows it only grasps, and grasps best, in thanks.

In the last instance, ‘reality’ may be utterly indifferent to human meaning, which is fleeting, not to last, not ‘necessary’ in any natural system. But this does not cancel the emotion we sometimes have—however absurd, contradictory, illusory, or wishful it may be—of a need to express boundless thanks for a life lived that, although it couldn’t be, somehow was. Gott sei Dank! May God be thanks, nothing more, nothing less.

—from Sept 1, 2018, Trieste airport
—published online Thanksgiving 2018
Images: Max Ernst, Birth of a Galaxy, 1969; Andrei Rubilev, cover of the Trinity icon, 1425

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Nihilism and the Absolute

Both enchanted Nature and the immanent Divinities are lost once the Absolute comes close and wants to be near us, bei uns. What is left in its proximity is the disenchanted World, without any ‘outside’, any ‘sacred’—except perhaps where the Absolute is touched and traced. This is, or would be, true life: incarnate, embody, incorporate, in sum, mediate the Absolute in the World, in the absence of any other intermediaries; instantiate the ‘touch’ of the Absolute at the limit between somewhere and ‘nowhere’.

In this arrangment, Nihilism represents awareness of the loss of intermediary steps, of gradations, of mediation. Both real and apparent World, empirical and ideal, show their artificiality, constructibility, and contingency. This applies especially to any world or worldview that is bought or sold, marketed or packaged to any degree, which tries to persuade us it holds the key, that it could successfully mediate. Eventually, however, all are shown up as dust, corruptible, lossy, not absolute—at best, ladders to be discarded after climbing to a vantage point where one can survey it and see its nonsense. Every opinion, belief, worldview, can fall to such criticism, for all are by definition ‘less than’ the Absolute, which once known by touch is not easily mistaken to be where it’s not. Nihilism is a radical skepticism guarding against such a mistake, a criticism of anything ‘less’. It is always at risk of despairing before this fact, given the lack of intermediaries and, on closest scrutiny, the absence of God. Its tendency is to deny, given its artificiality, any meaning in the World, to accept such a state as ‘absolute’. (This is where nihilism proves incomplete: when it deduces from the Absolute’s ‘inexistence’ its outright impossibility.)

What is exacerbated by this criticism is the apparent ‘fact’ that there is no escape from ‘finitude’, the circulation of goods, spectacles, bodies, languages, views, opinions, etc.—except perhaps through some procedure of keeping in ‘touch’ with the Absolute, an open possibility I must leave unclarified. For such a procedure could involve many things, liturgy, art, romance, science, service; indeed it could never be reduced to any one intelligible activity. Such pressing issues burn from within, call upon all our powers of invention and imagination, as well as our courage and perseverence in the process. At stake here is what Lacoste calls the subversion of the topological, the transgression of World-space and -priority, though this is no leave-taking of the World either. The point to stress is that, inside, one recognizes the difference between the Absolute and its substitutes, enough to decide between them. In Kierkegaard’s parlance, the difference lies between the sickness unto death (endless circulation in the market of finite possibilities) and willing to be oneself (willing one’s potentiality in the infinite). Roughly, this corresponds to Nietzsche’s own distinction between passive and active nihilism. Conscience informs when the contact is true or not, when something ‘eternal’ is near or at play. It guards against being deceived about that contact or nearness, it being unable to accept any substitute for the Absolute, just as nihilism intuits.

By the same token, since there is no substitute for it in the World, the Absolute can never be said to be ‘here’ like a given element, just waiting to be found. The Absolute is never ‘there’, but emerges, arises, opens, like a surprise, a breakaway, an ‘event’. Such words only signify its otherness to what exists, its happening quality: as a suspension or swerve from the known, determined World (though this does not transpire in some other realm or hinterworld either). In point of fact, although the difference between the Absolute and whatever is ‘less’ can be recognized, no rule is at hand. Nor any criteria for reaching it, nor any Way. Why? Because Way is World, its components World; whereas the Absolute is not component, not destination, not ‘something’, not container or circumference of what exists. The Absolute is not a cheap trick, revealing itself at a magic word. Nor is it the object of an aim per se, but more like what is constitutively missing, no matter desire’s action.

The best we can say, without overdetermining it, is that the Absolute is an intensity, an intensiveness which can charge any human activity but never becomes identical or exchangeable with anything extended (Earth and World). As such, however, it also prescribes the intensity of a possible dissatisfaction and restlessness, since ‘evidence’ for the Absolute in the World is perennially lacking and its intensities notoriously hard to grasp. What’s more, supposing such an intensity did manifest itself, was ‘reached’, it is all too easy to later doubt that very experience or forget it happened, so much so that one disbelieves its reality in one’s memory and excludes that anything like it could happen again. The intensity of the Absolute bears upon both extremes, missing and touch, makes both intense from the same longing, its same inexistence.

To formulate things this way is to take the negative road and emphasize the radical incongruity or ‘difference’ between the Absolute as intensiveness and the World as extendedness: the gap between infinite and finite. Yet there is no idea or thing to ‘absolutize’ here. Nor is there any room for belief in an Absolute, which would imply knowing what it is, that it is, where it is, how to attain it. Moreover, it would imply a language and categories to handle it, whereas the Absolute is by definition not known according to an already-existing logos. Epistemology, our access to the knowable, loses its status as intermediary, its status is ‘lowered’, largely due to the restlessness we feel in pursuit of the unknown, of what might satisfy our aptitude for truth.

This is very likely why the closeness of the Absolute—minimally: the enticement to true life—corresponds to the total disenchantment of the World (and, historically speaking, to the explosion of scientific knowledge about it). The subjective ‘mood’ of disenchantment, bereft of absolutes, is one of abandonment, a lack of divine assistance. Orientation to the Absolute here is ‘atheist’ in that sense: nothing in the world gives a foundation for it, no ‘sign’ can claim unequivocal reference to it. Faced with evil, no one can claim the World is its ‘expression’. On the contrary, it would appear that it lacks all expression of it, leading to the conclusion that there is no such thing and never was. Hence nihilism: the absence of any ‘answer’ regarding the Absolute, loss of any sure guarantee that there is anything other than World and information.

Yet ours could not be experienced as a ‘fallen’ World if there were not some memory or trace of what we’d fallen from, meaning, we retain some capacity to recognize what may be Absolute, even if at any given moment nothing fits the bill. Nihilism is a highly positive development in this critical sense: it functions as a very refined bullshit detector, forcing you, even against your will, to test the truth of everything against the stalwart powers of negation. However ostentatious, combative, and annoying the nihilist may be, a good one challenges unchallenged beliefs and forces examinations of conscience that eliminate hasty conclusions, ideological pipedreams, doctrinal commonplaces, and so on. For the worst offense to the Absolute would be an unacknowledged false belief, or false designation: that one had touched it when one hadn’t, that in lieu of genuine contact one had faked it, that one had spun a web of deceptions just to give an impression of absoluteness. But as the old saying goes, “God is not mocked.” Nihilism is coterminus with the phenomenon of never settling for less than the most truth-filled life, refusing to make a mockery of what could be true, or to compromise with the sloppy, simplicistic, uncritical, or rosy-eyed. Voraciously it devours whatever is deemed second best, even if no first best, technically speaking, can be found. If one ignores its prompt, either one lives in a bubble of happy deception, or eventually (thank God!) bitter consequences befall one, until a new choice is made and the bullshit left behind—even if this means staring into the horror of the void, answerless.

For once World and Absolute reveal such closeness, such that there’s no intermediary between them—which at the same time has made us aware of the infinite difference between them and sharpened our power of recognizing that difference—it is not obvious how to stay in touch with the Absolute, or indeed what such a phrase even points to concretely. At this point, relativism tries to step in and assuage restlessness prematurely, telling us that there is no Absolute, no Truth. As no evidence of it can be found in all the diversity of the world, best to give up on such illusions. But the nihilist’s discontent, making it difficult for to affirm anything whatsoever about the World, points in another direction, away from the good conscience of the relativists.

Whoever stares into the abyss knows that nothing ‘relatively true’ will ever satisfy our aptitude for the ultimate. If something cannot be recognized as participating in the Absolute, we know it. This knowledge haunts and hurts us. It raises within us, necessarily, the urgency of ultimate ends. It is here that many questions proliferate, many personal and profound journeys after that ‘touch’, that ‘end’, seemingly so vague and paradoxical: what activities sustain it, what keeps the lines open, such that it is not a ‘belief’, not just empty verbiage, to say, “I abide in the Mediator, the true life”?

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With Them Without Words

[This project from Fall 2009 has been revised for current publication. The essay below, “With Them Without Words,” explores the idea of a non-dual heritage stretching from Buddha to Friedrich Schlegel to the main protagonist of the research, Tristian Tzara and Dadaism, interpreted with the help of Jacques Derrida. The second text, Mr. Aa An Index, is a poetic ‘dictionary’ of quotes and poetic recombinations of lines from lots of Tzara’s poems. For a one-page chart of the overall perspective, see Dada Non-Dual. For two short appendicies to the project, see Dada Bodhisattva and Tzara Approximation. For Tzara’s own manifestos and statements about Dada, see his page at the Art History Archive.]

With Them Without Words

A word speaks— to whom? To itself:
Servir Dieu est régner,— I can
read it, I can, it grows brighter,
away from “kannitverstan.”
—Paul Celan

My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense.
    —Ludwig Wittgenstein

Both the song and the silence my beautiful country of joy
    —Tristan Tzara

To think through Tristan Tzara’s poetics requires that we enter a practice of poetry, for only with poetry can our language become essential and open space for an encounter with the real outside of ‘reality’ as it is defined. With poetry, we encounter the strangeness of language: it brings us to question our situatedness in it and to respond by re-situating ourselves in it (qua outside it), and thus to re-situate language itself, to lend it a more appropriate being-for-us. Poetry suspends the situation for the sake of re-situation. To respond with poetry is then to enter an active, living signifying process, no longer duped by the dream of set significations. What is outside of what we are, what is an exception to what is or is said to be, becomes what we are, or are in the process of becoming, without goal, without end, in a signifying process in the imago of a becoming-never-finished.

To recognize language as artifice and respond with poetry as a way to re-situate it initiates the non-dual, beginning with the recognition that all dualisms and ‘theses’ are situated in the artifice of language. In such a situation, what is called for is the poetic making of word and world, as a way to show the real beyond the deceit of dualisms and open a space for encounters between beings, events of ‘truth’. Such a non-dual heritage, more generally, is one that pays close attention to the performative aspect of language in various ways. A brief list of some points the rest of the essay will explore includes:

—an ironic stance toward any thesis statement, logic, ‘reason’, ‘philosophy’
—awareness of the transience of words and the inevitability of change
—openness to constant reformulation and rearticulation of basic truths and guiding principles
—priority of communication between spirits, not doctrines, exact meanings, debates
—focus on freedom and justice as ‘human constants’
—emphasis on the chance-like, spontaneous, process-nature of creation
—and finally, insistence that art/poetry and life must never be separated.

This non-dual recognition and response has a heritage as long as humans have dwelt in language. With the help of the Jacques Derrida and his thinking on language, the “desert in the desert,” and messianicity, I will show why Tzara’s Dada is a part of this heritage, later drawing in correspondences between his work and Friedrich Schlegel’s. Along the way, I will try to participate in it, too, articulating a human constant of freedom, life, justice, and futurality that in this essay Tzara will help us define.


Tzara’s response to the deceitful configurations of ideology, philosophy, and argument, was to unite poetry and life: to reignite the being of language. In his cultural context, this meant the harshest nihilism as a way to combat the ‘usage’ of language as a tool for ideologies and influence. He combined his rejection of large scale programs (nations, religions, aesthetic categories) with a general mistrust of words to convey anything at all. Nietzsche had already written years earlier: “That enormous structure of beams and boards of the concepts, to which the poor man clings for dear life, is for the liberated intellect just a scaffolding and plaything for his boldest artifices.” Tzara shares Nietzsche’s (‘non-dual’) recognition that all our truths are constructions built on the shifting sands of words and grammar, as well as the goal of liberating the intellect. But language as artifice can become real only by surrendering to the truth of its artificiality, playfully, for this surrender gives way to a new, utterly singular voicing of it: to give this truth a body by giving way to language-events that proceed from this awareness.

It is important to flesh out, then, what exactly we mean when we say that language is always artifice, for this is the recognition that characterizes the non-dual heritage we are attempting to trace out. Continue reading

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Creative Forgetfulness

“Blessed are the forgetful: for they get the better even of their blunders,” Nietzsche preaches, and if there is one lesson to take away from his work, perhaps it is this: creative forgetfulness conditions fullness.

Nietzsche’s critique is lodged against those who, on the contrary, are stuffed up, clogged, overfull. It’s not just that they can’t forget what they’ve done, who they have been, and what has been done to them – and so are stung constantly by bites of bad conscience, guilt, remorse and regret. They also can’t get out of their head all the different behaviors they’ve observed in others – and so they struggle to define a mode of life that would deviate in any way from the norm, from anything that could not rather easily be absorbed into the mass of insignificance. Such people are damned to a straight-jacket of memories and unbendable empirical observations, unable to sense new chances or to will another way.

To be unable to forget, for Nietzsche, amounts to forgetting that one “is.” So much in the loop of what was, clinging to bygone determinations, one acts as if existence were beyond transformation – a trap, a “life sentence,” a punishment. Whereas, in reality, so long as we are still living, it remains unfinished, open up to the end to new habits, new attitudes, new speeches. Amor fati – to see what is necessary in things, so as to make them beautiful – liberates from fatalism. It affirms our freedom to treat every circumstance as a gift, or rather, as an opportune occasion (kairos): condition of possibility for fullness.

The creative process – which merges here with life itself, in that its rule coincides perfectly with its form – is no different. To produce the new is to forget what’s been produced past. But let’s avoid a misunderstanding: this does not imply that there is no development from one stage to the next, or that what lies behind is ignored; only that, in the heat of innovation, there is no time, no room, to pay attention to what’s already been transcended. Surely, it remains; we still survey and learn from our own traces and those of all humanity. But once we set off to generate new ones, to chase down new ideas, we do not even have to choose to forget about them, suddenly they are swept into an unprecedented configuration. They have already disappeared or mutated, along with whoever in us created them. In this way, what’s past is perfected and ‘redeemed’.

For in truth we are always reproducing ourselves with a difference – a difference we can never master, a difference we never get the better of, but do undergo and can direct. It is this difference – eternal return in every instant of the ‘same’ creative forgetfulness – that lets us get the better of our blunders, to act beyond the confines of any previous stage, and so to ‘become who we are’, unknown to any former self, yet underway.

(Nov 12, 2016)

Dom Sylvester Houédard 1
Image: Dom Sylvester Houédard

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UNALONE (2016)

The exhaustion of the hero’s ego is his hatred—let him hate it too, and cry.

At the mercy of what harrows me, I become the dancing arrow of rejection’s blatancy, so that I cannot tell apart love of the future from my distaste for the present’s tepidness. To crave intensity is to bury oneself in a soil of indecency, knowing that the transgression is as ridiculous as the dilemma itself. Our chain to death made everything possible to our blindness and courage. Insignificance was our one call line: it’s what we pursued when every worldly pursuit proved done and corruptible. That drive brought us to our “solitude,” no, our awayness, our exile from the legible and thinkable. Only in this way did we deem it possible to gain trust. Our new desire was to submit ourselves to that law alone, singularly, and thereby to identify ourselves in life with god’s dust.

To be done with spitting out a bad infinity of theoretical riddles! And in the exact same commitment: to be done with the brutish buffoonery of pragmatism, realistic attitudes, democratic consensus-building, and all the other boring atheisms beholden to prevailing machinations of power. Enough with the bauble of the hour! That book lost its ritual magic eons ago.

To regiment instead a form (of forgiveness as of intensity, it amounts to the same break with presentness) is not possible: improvisation in contemplation losing itself in prayers dedicated to the indestructible oneness of the literate (human) offering was the only “option” left for the heavenly trust once exposed.

Stone of steady silence in blood, erupting with intimations that could please an exploded sun: what a “perspective” to take on the gravity of singularity, what a buzz to match the immortal fun of catching rays! How else to account for the deliberate making of ashes? (I take an infinity to decide, but once I decide, all I do is listen.) How else to abandon all glory of the one, and to destine it instead to what’s coming? (This time, this is the extra time in which I live: time of love of contact.)


What is a vision in words? For example: all that ever happens, all that we ever see, is but the ash falling off a flame which will remain forever invisible, which to that extent doesn’t “exist”?

The difference between a visionary of images and one of words is only a difference in modes of faith: the prophet means to instill it by scaring or dazzling, such that the audience holds on to the image and fears it; the writer means to obliterate it, to make the image hesitate in its definition and erase itself, to leave it forgotten in the spirit, such that the belief it teaches is radically “skeptical,” unbelievable, unmaintainable and thus demanding revisions—pure vision subtracting itself from images as praxis: as constant (abyssal) reevaluation and deliberation in the burial of every scene of vision (tragicomedy).

Articulation thus oversees the word’s progress into oblivion: it has meant this way to mean nothing, and in meaning nothing to drive the responsibility of vision to its darkest day, its bluest gaze.


How to distinguish between the obliteration of self and messianic illusion? The critic is the blind spot in his reason. The adventure’s all yours, if you can need it.


How will we ever learn to recognize each other’s injury—that we’re invalids for life, dis-abled for good? Worse than all the pain, even up to our paralysis, is misrecognition: the bullshit, that it should all keep trudging on like normal.

The trouble is always to mix the present up with the elation. “Ecstasy” exists in a vacuum of communication that is too drunk to pound out its words. (The future’s pull is contact, returning every move to its use; the present can only relate such moves in fragmented form. But there is a beyond of the fragmentary form: it is the demand of our being’s mode.)

Baseline on the outbound of the free, captivate me, “prove” to me the contact despite relation, echo me in the repetition of your touch, so trustingly other and complete.

For the treasure’s repeat, sound just again on the sword; tear in the fight onward to the eclipse of fear.

The story to end all stories is a quiet one, generated by presence in the most obscure ways.

You cannot not be seduced by a world; remember only, it is a transition: undergone eternal. (The comedy is glad to buy you time after the fact.)

Bringing “what I did” to nothingness: that was the meaning of the present in which everything I did could be lost. Deciding when the withdrawal was possible was impossible: it happened more often than being.

Ignoring the other was an evil with two sides: you’re the ignored one or you get to ignore the other one. To make a habit of both is happiness.

Sharing silence: the perfect saying. This would be a way to have everything—like praying.


This way of recoding demands all its sequels, every trace and present unequal (absolutely) to all their equals.

The minute you can leave me alone I’ll know you love me, that you’ve taken the risk of ease, oblivion, departure into the heart kept away in safety, indestructible and ever worthy of the trust we forget to give it.

Or perhaps I’m just an addict, gunning for the bottom of my pain. (You’ll forget whatever didn’t disappoint you, in other words everything.)

The other excels at reflecting back your ghost, thankfully.


Undeveloped, cut-off abruptly or after long perseveration, the trails all end in sorrows from the perspective of advancement, development, organization, establishment of truth or system or coherent fiction or even thesis statement, a most naïve basis or quick conclusion:

To put the step into thought means—with the vigilance of one fearing for their eternal soul—to restore the stepping of the step in each step, so that at no point an actual prior step can be presumed to exist, no trail whatsoever traveled: such would read an ethics of thinking as a practice of the other self.

Traveling full bore into the non-sense of a misspent life—the freely chosen trap without obligation or command, the listening gesture lost in the movement of all beings beyond all work and time—attached to them as unforgettable, as being forever only what they’re capable of: use in care of the inappropriable-irreparable-unthinkable: us.

My only one offering, my only one personal gift: to forever disappear into this (sadness, the perfected side of bless, connecting every mistaken instance to the Riß of unmissing and peace): seduction beyond belief, beyond being…

The irony of bliss would be: no one is talking to you. That would be the majesty of the other’s specter in me, living that I might again see.

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Testimonies become more and more personal over time and, for that very reason, more and more impossible to ‘defend’, ‘ground’, or ‘justify’. The highest accounts of spirit come with the disclaimer, “You must take me at my word”―at least until you’ve read, understood, and experienced what is said. But even then, don’t glance over the fact, don’t be flippant with this supreme detail, that what I say is pulled up with considerable effort from that well I call my soul, the repository or oracle of the unique end-purpose of my being. What I choke out in frustrated modes, what I embellish with rhetoric, what I labor out in slow movements of argument―all of this has its field, and each field has its relevance, but underneath was a person who never, entirely, lets itself be overlooked. Indeed, figures tower in history because they saturate their own context, meaning that they lived an ‘intuition’ for which no concept is fitting; we have only their proper name, reference to an almost limitless enigma. They underwent intimately their own ‘suchness’, the so-called singularity of an unfolding, full to the brim with a mostly invisible consciousness. The plea, “Please believe me!” (the content of what I say) is rooted in a deeper plea, “Please believe me!” (I who speak, the person addressing you). A gesture of faith must be given to the witness, a measure of credit; otherwise, their witness will never be credible, never entertained. Perhaps the cause of such disharmony in social discourse is that this ground of credit has fallen out from under us. We speak at or about each other, instead of to each other, disagreeing there is any “soul” at all. We fixate on the active articulation of our view, paying little attention to the common “trust” of language we share. Restoring that implies an ethic of listening, but we all have learned, too, how difficult this is.

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