A Curated Self (7/2/16)
It’s finally the effort to articulate the self that matters to me, but that would be a self in formation, through the experiences that, from the vantage viewed, seem most prevalent. It’s a curated self, then. As such, the experiences form a sort of syllabus or gallery, a selection that suits as objective correlative of something to which they can only attest. The writing then is the attestation, the signifying of what is otherwise mute experience. Finding the voice for this correlation, then, is the task, shaped by all one needs it to mean, to stand for (and against). Because finally what is at stake is the selection of—militia-wise—one’s “colors.” So all the list-making is only an effort to nudge one’s current self—drowsing in its indifference—back to the moments when it mattered, this self-formation, this education by one’s best lights. And in the scope of those lights everything else—what one does and becomes or fails to do or become—shines or, at least, becomes visible, vocable.
The position as “growth of the critic’s mind”—rather than poet’s or artist’s—structures the tendencies. This is not a discussion of how one becomes a writer, but how one becomes a consciousness that discerns values, that argues worth and meaning. Resisting this in the name of the worth of my own imagination—as to be shown in invented characters, situations, or verse forms/voices—has set me on and off. The point of criticism becomes simply the clarity of seeing and saying. The philosophical benefit is simply enhancement of being, which is to say consciousness, for what else is there? The chosen objects express and establish the speaking subject.
Professing and poeticizing (7/3/16)
To qualify an earlier statement, re: “professor.” One is a professor in the sense of professing certain values, in the experience and in its presentation. What one makes more of—than one might in a lecture or in a position paper—is the fact of the representation. The performance bears remarking on as it is by no means certain what its orientation should be. It’s certainly not only determined by the effort to pass on knowledge or to clarify or instruct. The intention behind those activities is more selfless, whatever their requirements and varieties may be. Who stands before an audience to articulate the self? The poet, perhaps we think, and in that sense I suspect my position to be lyrical, as in based on that intangible state of self-communing that promotes the composition of verse, or may, but the intention is again different. The composition is not a rendering at that level—or at least not at the level I pretend to when writing in verse. The critical element necessitates a different status. I suppose one could write a verse essay and achieve something like, but in such instances I would be more likely struck by artfulness or its lack, though that’s only suppositious. I could only know for certain by doing.
In any case, the purpose is not to assert by means of lyrical intensity primarily but by some element more discursive and arrived at via a process of reflection that, for me anyway, is much more mysterious in verse. The emphasis here requires fidelity to some quality other than lyricism, or music, or the value of putting into speech for the sake of speech. The quality has to be a testimonial, a statement or argument worth entertaining about what the given object means or has meant. The rendering is of the “figure”; the means is the “fiction,” and I’m only able to approximate, in advance, what such fictions might be comprised of. Certainly, as in lyric, a definite element may be the autobiographical, that sense that the speaker must let his own ideas play upon his pulses—to use Keats’ phrase—and certainly the autobiographical impulse—in me—will mean an allusiveness to whatever has left the deepest impressions in that part of life lived, as one once said without irony, inwardly. The irony is all on the side, here, of making clear what might be best left obscure. Why should it be necessary to maintain in language, outwardly, what is best apprehended inwardly? No other reason than death. Speak now, or forever hold your peace, indeed.
It’s not simply a matter of “strange things I have in head which will to hand,” but it is that, if by “strange” we accept “particular” or as one says in an older idiom, “peculiar” to the mind in which they originate. But it is also a matter of—and this is a key distinction from what I would expect from myself in either lecture or verse—following one’s thought where it leads, regardless of whether or not it prove original, poetic, or instructive. It should at least be illuminating because it illumines what otherwise is dark: the relations between distinct occasions and experiences and readings and rememberings. It is the making of the net to catch the sleek fish of one’s imaginary. Those shapes that signify by their motions and colors and rhythms.
A personal geometry (7/4/16)
“Really, universally, relations end nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.”—Henry James
So, to drop my “net” image and accept James’ figure of a personal geometry, the question is how to plot out “the relations” so as to end somewhere for, as he says, the relations don’t really end. And that—knowing that all too well—I could say has stymied me more than once when I felt “prepared” to embark on such criticism as I have in mind. One knows at the outset that much of the geometry is so personal and individual as to be a matter of indifference or unintelligibility to other minds. The eternal question I came back to again and again in writing about Finnegans Wake is: “What is the principle of selection and what is the principle of combination?” These could not be empirically determined and so analysis must ever fall short of a full account. Thus all readings are to a purpose, and that purpose shall be whatever—given “the scene”—the critic deems viable to an audience.
But in these efforts that seem more in the manner of a confession—the revealing of the “I” or the “self”—one’s audience is, as it were, the ages or the god of the ages. One’s accounting becomes a rhetorical performance, maybe even a ritual performance (as prayer and perhaps poetry are both). But also, if one allows it, playful. For the making of a personal geometry is—as I titled an early effort at a long poem—a matter of “trials and errors.” One is on trial for not trying harder and must acquit oneself as one may, mea culpa. And one must own one’s errors or never learn from them. And how often does such become the matter of “the lecture”? Still, all that rhetoric that derives from one’s “position” must be at the service of whatever one is able to draw with one’s peculiar geometry: that circle—or as I said constellation—that holds the relations together in some kind of composition, as even an abstract painting is composed.
What excites me about this prospect is the sense that I shall discover many relations as I go and that my “schema”—which I have been at pains to develop for about two decades (since grad school)—will alter as I go on. The schema, based on that tripartite division pulled from Mallarmé by way of Rancière, arrived in the winter of this year, but the elements to be impressed, to be related, have been swimming about gaily my entire lifetime with no schematic, geometrical net to ensnare them. Perhaps they’re better so. Why force these relations as reified things, as objects? We know well enough the incentive to “stand back and let it all be.” But, whether as artist or philosopher or critic or poet, one must impose this practiced geometry and make such shapes as one can. So far, in conception, I’ve been working toward an autobiographical ground, the “growth of the critic’s mind” idea, because it helps me distinguish experience from the historical chronology that comes to me not only from the form most biographies assume, but my way of ordering my books and my LPs. Remember the moment in the film Hi-Fidelity when Rob blows Dick’s mind by telling him he’s arranging his LPs not alphabetically, not chronologically, but autobiographically. The autobiographical arrangement blows my professorial mind as well. The key tension in my “take” has been between the fidelity to history that my education expects of me—the history of art and literature and ideas—and the fidelity to my personal experience. The incentive now is to admit the degree to which one’s own lights and the happenstances of one’s own experiences inflect not only the reception of art and ideas but their very meaning. The peculiar logic—or is it dream?—by which we get “from here to there, eventually.”
One thing, I think, that makes this project arrive now is something I referred to in Towards Criticism, 1, when speaking of The Ambassadors: that sense of renouncement and preemption so clear in Strether’s ultimate position. Since I’ve never been the age I am now before, I’ve never had this particular vantage—but having it now means renouncing some claims, at least privately, for the sake of what one would make of the past. From a very young age, I was provoked by Dickens’ indelible opening to David Copperfield: “If I am to emerge as the hero of my own life or if that position is to be attained by someone else, these pages must show” (or words to that effect). To be “the hero of one’s own life” is at once presumptuous but is also essential, if one finds one’s life worth recounting. But what heroism is there in simply choosing to look and read and reflect? James at least understands that our hero might be a hero because of the pains taken in developing a peculiar geometry. Thus any biography of an artist is always a rather flat affair since we never get an account of those two elements I isolated in my question about FW. We never know why and how the artist did what s/he did. We, at best, get a sense of “the scene” in which what was done was achieved, and get maybe some elements of personality to add to “the figure” that we could not get from “the fiction,” or the work. But the defining choices and the decisions made in the act of creation forever elude such scrutiny. And yet, I suppose, the hero has made those choices, from dictates of consciousness.
Since I’ve never written a—to me—convincing poem that wasn’t primarily concerned with delineating, by some peculiar geometry, the relations of the contents of my state of being at that precise instant (all my poems being very much a here and now affair), I’m reticent at trying to understand the process. Reading myself—what has been written in that manner—lets me have glimpses of how my mind works, but I find that some part of me—the lyrical “Ich,” why not?—is leading some other part of me—the critic, the reader—on a merry chase. “Hide, fox, and all after!” has been a slogan of mine for quite some time on that front. And certainly one does not spend years reading the Wake if one is not easily intrigued by all a fox might hide. Along that line of thought, I think, one easily sees the strength of my distinction between verse and essay, as I would practice each. I want to keep to the decisions made when fixed—one’s attention anyway—on an object at hand. The object shall not be, as in poems, the puzzle of my own state of mind, or emotional state, or what have you. Which is not to say that the prose won’t “blow hot and cold.” It’s still a matter of breath, after all.