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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On Messianity [Owls at Dawn]

Last Spring I sat down with Austin Smidt for the Owls at Dawn podcast (go support them here!) and talked about my research into Messianity. Listen to the whole episode now live on their site: Non- or post-religious messianism w/ Tim Lavenz

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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Mysticism and Trash

Trash is what can no longer be submitted to the productive process but can only be eliminated, incinerated, buried, and so on. Trash can be viewed as a metaphor for the ‘uselessness’ of religious/spiritual knowledge as it stands from the prospective of capitalism and its logic of objects and value; and as a metaphor for the devaluing of mysticism as it stands from the perspective of our scientific, ‘enlightened’ times.

In most cases trash continues materially to exist, only out of sight. This ‘invisibility’ effects in no way the consequences its continued existence may have. Such may be the case for mysticism as well, one could surmise, and perhaps even with as much ‘omnipresence’ as trash.

An interest in mysticism is then aligned with the rejection of submission to the productive process or dominant economy. It is a useless activity – whether by reinvesting the register of taboo pleasure as Bataille seems to – or if it rejects the premise of consumption and attachment to productivity, namely, desire. This includes the desire to durate, to ‘last’ in social time as an individual self with past, present, and future. The living corpse of the mystic as garbage bag.

The mystic, as one whose happiness is found in union with God alone, could be positioned as the extreme of a negation of the commerce of ‘goods’, the circulation of mundane values, and so on. Being essentially indifferent to time, the mystic is like a plastic sac blowing in the wind, or an old cigarette butt discarded in the street. Retaining the mark of having been produced by human labor, as a disposable ‘by-product’ of civilizational advance, it has arrived at an odd, almost ‘post-human’ point. Returned to nature, yet as potential contaminant of all cosmic and cosmetic order, not natural; yet also not participating, particularly, in culture and history; and so only non-consumable refuse, a stand-in perhaps for God’s refusal of all the designs of man, a mirror of eternal dust. Silence: the wasteland of a breath that won’t sell…

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Descent to Higher Ground

They allegorized you in many visions; Behold, You are one in all depictions. —13th century Hasidic liturgical poem

Artists, creative writers, and so on, have in general ‘solved’ or ‘superceded’ many of the ‘problems’ given as philosophically or institutionally intractible; it’s only that the form of expression of their new ‘solution’ does not always, if ever, accept the original given terms of the ‘problem’ (indeed, this reevaluation of the premises of contradiction is an engine for thought’s advance): thus, those who have not exerted the will or imagination to enter the new zone of expression have, in principle, great difficulty accessing the new answer or even grasping the new approach, the novel posing of the ‘problem’.

Problems are largely ‘solved’ through creative misappropriation of past intractibles. ‘Derivation’ means ‘divergence’ simultaneously. To ‘address’ an issue at its most difficult point, is to form an ‘exception’ within whatever has issued from it so far. These are misappropriations, creative betrayals that in no way spiteful or unthankful for what has preceded them. It’s just that any ‘official’ or ‘traditional’ approach to a problem will likely remain stuck in a dead-locked manner of posing it.

There is an unfortunate prioritization, via the hubris not of philosophy per se but of a certain understanding of philosophical rationality, that subsumes the creative to the ‘logical’. But the creative is simply operating at a level of ‘logic’ (in the broadest sense of developing according to an exigency ‘internal’ to the creative process or formation itself) that the extant ‘logic’ (circumscribed by a presupposed ‘law of law’, a delimitation of possible possibilities in advance) cannot comprehend, or even see, given its limitation to adherence to itself.

This is evident when innovation is called heresy. That is why the writer of the Zohar, for example, places a teacher from one millenium prior as the main beloved figure and insight-bringer, Rabbi Si’mon, the Holy Lamp. It is Moses de Leon who is largely responsible for the text, but he hides his name from it, crafting instead a book/commentary that is in stylistic imitation of commentaries coming before it (Talmud, Midrash) and also citing these rabbinic sources. So, one foot in past posings, the other of innovative misappropriation (at a minimum: running that risk). So the Zohar can claim to be “new ancient wisdom,” disclosing the secrets of the old through the revelation of the new. That process is a part of what I, following my own ‘inheritance’, call the ‘messianic’.

But it is inherent, unfortunately, to the logical to want to grasp all instances under the categorical, which ends up meaning, in the historial. That is fine, and inevitable, so long as those categories remain dialectical or in constant reflection upon what is non-identical to them, what escapes or resists the categorization. Namely, the coming of time, of new contingencies and exigencies. Dryness in insight emerges when the link to the basic novelties of existence is lost. But the further into those novelties the innovator wishes to tread, the more likely he or she will be ostracised. It is painful to press ahead, which is why, when all is said is done, one needs friends and correspondents to support and encourage the effort. One ‘does it for them’, writes ‘to them’: for they act as figures, not just of who they are, but of the listener to come, who will receive the new expression in its fullest breadth, not already circumscribed by what, historially, is given.

This is why the treatment of art is so difficult, or why literary criticism is obliged to become poem itself–not out of lack of rigorous understanding, but out of awareness that the higher ‘productivity of truth’ emerges only where creative misappropriation takes its risks. It seems that only in that way can one honor, not just truth, but the contingencies of time.

There is a mythic layer inherent in the substance of Hölderlin’s work, as in any genuine demythologization. —Adorno

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Prayer in three short takes

Prayer in three short takes:

Yes, at times there is intentional prayer: when one supplicates God to align reality with one’s needs or desires. One could say this is self-serving and thus ‘dead on arrival’, since God is not in the business of wish fulfillment. But still it often happens that one prays this way, for example when under great stress or pain or fear. In this case it might be true that prayer simply serves a psychological function of conjuring in us a feeling of strength or perseverance, or of not being alone. It is easy to attribute that to a supernatural actor but it could just be self-suggestion. Without deciding on that question here, it does seem like ‘monotheism’ means to subtract itself from the sphere of gods who are influenced as humans are.

Then there is the prayer of acceptance: when one asks to align one’s will to God’s will. The Letter of James asks: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain’; whereas really you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.’” [4:13]. And earlier: “You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend on your passions.” One can observe two logics of desire here: one that asks for itself (its own needs/desires) and one that asks for what is (and so desires whatever is given, even unto death). The controversy here is that then prayer seems to mean acceptance of the given ‘as is’; and that, consequently, it assumes God’s will and ‘what is’ are in accord, or tending toward accordance. That assumption can lead to some cruel perspectives if one takes it all the way (e.g., justification of present injustice). So, for this to work, one has to say that “God’s will” cannot simply be read off of what is. One would have to constantly recall that the will of God is radically Unknown, that God’s will is not known to us, that it ‘exists’ in a transitional space, in a movement into which one might better enter. One prays to recall the Eschaton toward which ‘what is’ drives: then prayer is not acceptance of ‘what is’ so much as a reorientation of the ‘mists of life’ toward the End, within the cosmic transition. “Faith” steps in at this point, as perseverance in this unknowing.

But there is another manifestation of prayer which is even more mysterious. I will call it prayer of receptivity. This is when the intention of God seems to flood in from the other side. Its markers are most akin to self-dissolution leading to self-giving transcendence. A shiver in the body is sometimes its signal: a moment of (seemingly un-willed) inward recollection that comes from ‘nowhere’, perhaps in the oddest places or at the oddest times. A feeling of confidence totally at odds with one’s given circumstances may arise. Or perhaps when one is weeping, one feels cleansed or forgiven far beyond one’s own capacities or dreams. A feeling like something is praying in us. There need be no words, no discourse in the mind, no supplication. Perhaps not even any reflection; or if there is, the mirror is decidedly other, reflecting back ‘nothing’. If anything, there is dissolution, accompanied by what seems to be the (unspeakable, unknowable) ‘discovery’ of a sort of invisible ground. But there is no ‘chasing’ after this state, no retaining it or claiming it. I would even be reluctant to call it an ‘experience’, if experience implies a separation from the experiencer and the object of experience, since in this mode of receptivity a sense of oneness prevails. So, if it is an experience, it’s certainly not one that can be possessed or reproduced at will through spiritual exercise; the latter can at best make one permeable, accessible to, prepared for, such a state, but it cannot will it into existence by force or demand. One can only request: ‘Spirit come’. But the essence of the reception is that God has sought you and found you – though in the moment, even such ‘clarity’ is not present or necessary, this ‘saying’ being deduced after the fact. In the moment there is neither leading nor leading astray: the growth is of the timeless, of rest in the invisible ground. And while it is a moment that is certainly filled with thanks, the intention to be thankful is only echo, consequence or response, and thus intuition received. Ego-satisfaction is ruled out on principle. Perhaps, then, one is ‘sucked’ into Eschaton: a loss of the All that gives it all back. No knowledge of God, no clarity from one’s purpose, necessarily comes from this. It is more like a revelation of the tenderness of being, or of its fragility. From such an invisible ground, it is probably impossible to not love.

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