Saturday, June 11, 2005

Building a Mystery 3: Mike Heller enters the Fray

A long, thoughtful email from Michael Heller, responding to my recent joust with Josh and Norman:
Norman and Eric, fascinating posts raising more issues than one can easily sort. But I'll try a short-hand take:

To rework a famous remark of Einstein's about simplicity, things should be mysterious, perhaps, but not too mysterious. The burden is always on the nature of the mysteriousness, its function.

Oppen's marvelous lines in "Five Poems About Poetry: "How does one hold something/ in the mind which he intends//to grasp and how does the salesman/Hold a bauble he intends//To sell? The question is/When will there not be a hundred//Poets who mistake that gesture//For a style." These lines have always struck me as useful critical guides, though I'll acknowledge that the act of upraising the bauble can itself be an illuminating bit of art.

Benjamin, in the Baudelaire book, critiques l'art pour l'art rather pointedly to this discussion (see my Uncertain Poetries p225): "In l'art pour l'art the poet for the first time faces language the way a buyer faces the commodity on the open market...." Such poets, he maintains, "have nothing to formulate with such urgency that it could determine the coining of their words--the choice is made only among words which have not already been coined by the object itself--that is," [and here WB is inscribing his Marxist spin] "which have not been included in the process of production."

For me, Benjamin's comment seems to strive to suspend, for the moment at least, the misunderstood elite-artist vs. philistine incomprehension struggle, or at least transpose it to another plane, where the writing that WB deems valuable is one which illuminates the struggle or tension between the two by offering glimpses into the mechanisms and catenaries of power, etc. that lie between the struggling parties or whatever.

It strikes me that something like this situation exists in the realm of (Norman, please don't blanch) "the spiritual," that a possible continuum exists (or can exist) between simpler, even naive, forms of spiritual activity and more complex forms, and that the forms ought to be considered as they function not so much to preserve "the mystery" (as though that were some sort of selling point i.e. a bauble) but as they operate to enlarge it with respect to the basic functions within a spiritual practice, to be ethical, to find God, etc.

Perhaps I'm just saying something simple--too simple--that when we look at X, Y or Z's poetry, it is not illegitimate to ask what is this poem trying to do to me and why--i.e. what, to borrow from WB, "determines the coining of its words")--that would at least open the door to its and to my (pardon again, Norman) "spirituality."
More on this after Shabbos, gentlemen! Meanwhile, can I borrow you to make a minyan?


Norman Finkelstein said...

Once more into the breach…

Eric, I knew I was on thin ice when I mentioned a spiritual elite, but I felt uncomfortable responding to the Badiou quote without having read the work it comes from—so I decided to focus on the Mallarme quote within it. Maybe you and I will have to disagree, but there was a time (pretty much the whole of the 19th century) when the tension I refer to between Romantic artist and philistine did obtain, keeping in mind that from a Marxist perspective, this dichotomy was two sides of the same dialectical coin. That means one could find “self-flattery” on both sides. In our time, we need to be careful here about both snobbery and anti-intellectualism. I like Mike’s point drawn from Benjamin about art that illuminate the tension itself, which, arguably, is what a great deal of art for art’s sake does.

But looking again at the Badiou quote and Joshua’s explanation, it seems to me that what counts is not the potential snobbery, which is always present in discussions of taste, but the ideas of enigma, seduction, aura etc. Surely you don’t have a problem with the poem’s surface (whether or not it looks enigmatic or mysterious) seducing the reader! After all, much of your critical project involves poetry in relation to erotics, pleasure and seduction. As for mystery, enigma, aura and so on, Mike’s points about the degree of mystery in a poem, again, is well taken. Besides, what’s wrong with “gnosis for agnostics”? I love that phrase! In some respects, it sums up why I read (and write) poetry.

It’s a difficult distinction to make, but I would argue that we need to look at enigmatic or obscure work and try to decide if it’s mystery—or mystification. I won’t name names, but some of the “second generation” or post-language poets seem to have fallen into this trap, and the great lines from Oppen that Mikes quotes about mistaking a gesture for a style definitely come into play.

Two more points, since I don’t want to appear longwinded. Like Michael P., I’m no fan of Forche, but it’s less a question of subtlety or mystery or the play of the signfier than of a kind of tourism or voyeurism in some of her work. I’m not convinced by the rhetoric or the ostensible urgency. The self-consciousness or questioning that one finds in Celan, in Oppen, and in some of Palmer’s own work (like Sun) strikes me as a lot smarter and more moving. As for the other poets you mention (Kooser, Oliver et al), it’s not that I dismiss the direct approach and opt all the time for enigma. I love Reznikoff, Harvey Shapiro, William Bronk. It’s simply a question of how one handles the instrument.

Finally, back to spiritual elites—and this leads us to your other blog. The best defense I have ever seen for this concept is that wonderful book you’ve told us about, From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven. Look at how Elon distinguishes between mediating and creative elites among the rabbis. He clearly aligns the latter with artistic production. I’m not sure the analogy could hold up historically, but his presentation is very suggestive in regard to many of the issues we’re confronting here.

Mark Scroggins said...

Good on ya', Norman. See the longish post on Culture Industry, which I wrote before reading this.