Saturday, 3 December 2011

a short note on Wordsworth, Benjamin, Baudelaire, from a reply on the same to the question of identifying contemporary "meanest objects"


I'm not sure I believe in poetical ways out anymore. I know I certainly used to - back in the days when every poem I could encounter might perform a newly specialized abstraction of catharsis or transcendental bliss. But I think I wanted to encounter poetry then as a means of by-passing poetry and landing somewhere else entirely, jumping into infinity via the linguistic catapult; I also think I am a much better reader of poetry than I used to be. That pivot object at the end of the Immortality Ode is complicated, for me, by the preceding two lines:

     Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
     Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
     To me the meanest flower that blows can give
     Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

So that the object is distinguished in its meanest particularity by, and only by dint of, the "human heart", or rather, the condition of being part of the human race that allows the utterance "To me" to gain a foothold amongst the innumerable joys and fears of everyone else who doesn't happen, at this point, to be me. The condition of this experience of ruling out despair is the assumed joy of absolute connection to the social body at its most abstracted level, the level of biological species; "Thanks" to the emblem of my absolute similarity I can appreciate this meanest object as the backwards reflection of the joy we started with, or if not exactly the same joy, then one which derives its depth of feeling from the same wellspring of universal song which give certain "Thoughts" their universal excellence - except that I can't, because that a priori bliss doesn't seem nearly as symbolically biological as it seemed to Wordsworth.

I think what we're no longer capable of is not distinguishing the identities of the most useful meanest objects, of which I can think of dozens - pornography, pop songs, cigarettes, the poor - but arriving at them replete with the knowledge of their power to reflect that which Wordsworth already felt deeply in the blood: that he was embedded in the universe he describes thanks to his very physiognomy as a poet. And that's a pretty bad mark in itself, or lack thereof, isn't it? I sometimes think that everything I write is a bad mark, another flagging up of the attempt to coral a diagnostic passion into a slightly less that parallel symptomology of experience (ha!), but then I also wish I didn't think so often along the binary of diagnosis in verse, versus the cultural symptoms of bad affect (I don't anymore, anyway). In Benjamin's writings on Baudelaire he distinguishes between the possible social and moral readings of his work, which I think map on to my (now abandoned) binary quite nicely; it's obviously extremely difficult to write from both perspectives at the same time, although maybe that's what's now absolutely necessary. In Baudelaire, for Benjamin, the two are fused in the speaking (not ventriloquising) empathy of the commodity. Perhaps I'm getting off-track, but since I'm at this point anyway:

"If the soul of the commodity which Marx occasionally mentions in jest existed, it would be the most empathetic ever encountered in the realm of souls, for it would have to see in everyone the buyer in whose hand and house it wants to nestle".

Leaving aside the notion for the moment as to whether or not, or at least in what sense, Marx was joking, isn't this kind of universalism more the sort of stuff [good] poets are made of? Perhaps I feel that I approach my objects, however mean, not with the full knowledge of my human and super-human powers, but rather with this knowledge implicitly circumscribed by the far more easily delineated knowledge of the bad humans I feel bound to distinguish from myself, and further to render crap and pointless by assumption. In order for mean objects to have the power to banish despair, I need a vision of "humanity" to which, right now I do not have access; or rather, which is systematically screened off from me by my inability to experience it as anything other than the mendacious .jpeg of a thousand blended hands begging for me to want to nestle. Humanity is the logo of corporate idealism.

25 comments:

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  2. 1. Given that I live in history, expostulating "then" and "now" in relation to myself, I feel justified in doing that; I was at one point a fucking transcendentalist, is all I'm saying. No doubt it would have been better if I started listening to the Germs in the womb, but it took a few years. It was a subjective option, maybe always was; is not now, cannot be, because if we are interested in the real class struggle then my little glimpse into the infinite doesn't help much; Mallarmé or International Klein Bleu might only work for little particular me once they translate the real instead of by-passing it into abstraction; otherwise we're just setting up an infinite series of reciprocally-facing trampolines.

    2. The teleology of universalism is usually marked, like time, at the end of the poem; given prosodic temporality, and given age's love-increaser, but concomitant decline of everything's celestial delight, I thought it best to concentrate on the concentrate; this is, however, only the beginning.

    3. Climate change would be an historical artefact, not an object, more akin to the French Revolution or Time.

    4. But here is the crux, and thanks for instantaneously picking that out, which I knew you would really, as the point. For me (lol), I know what I need, and that is not to know what kind of humanity is to come, but what kind of humanity posits itself qua humanity right now. I am impatient for this. My point (lol) is that poetry has spent a lot of time and effort figuring out ways to figure out humanity, but not nearly enough ways to figure out how that "humanity" is constituted in toto by the powers that would have us constantly appeal to that which is the projected image of a certain class-interest [Pound's "usura" notwithstanding]: Benjamin: "For positive law, if conscious of its roots, will certainly claim to acknowledge and promote the interest of mankind in the person of each individual. It sees this interest in the representation and presentation of an order imposed by fate". Thus (not thus, but, you know what I mean) bourgeois universalism. Those powers are, as you rightly point out, also us. But can I point to a "bad human" without thinking for at least a second that he or she looks a bit like me? Well, yes, because the language of "bad humans" has less to do with your "man-shame", which is itself an inherited description of the violence of your class, than the detriment to consciousness that is perpetuated by their hilarious despair; Sean Bonney's litmus test of "the bourgeois mind" from a talk at Sussex on Thursday night came down to this: whoever sees a video of Jeremy Clarkson announcing strikers should be shot in front of their families doesn't immediately think that Jeremy Clarkson should be shot in front of his family, is plainly not on our side. Which is not to demand that Jeremy Clarkson is to be shot in our poems, that would be hysterical. There is obviously a difference between self-castigation and the identification of social reality. Wordsworth had the advantage of having a heart, of course, whereas all we have is lethean satnav.

    5. Marx was not joking, exactly.

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