Monday, 16 December 2013

The Existentialist Poetic of Thoreau's Journal

Henry David Thoreau conceived of his writing of nature in his Journal as an experiential form of writing. As he commented in his entry of 2 July 1852, ‘Nature is reported not by him who goes forth consciously as an observer, but in the fullness of life. To such a one she rushes to make her report.’ The grounding of nature writing within one’s own personal experience is emphasized again by Thoreau on 19 April 1854: ‘I am not interested in mere phenomena, though it were the explosion of a planet, only as it may have lain in the experience of a human being.’ Such sensual experience generates the reader’s sense of the writer’s physical presence, so that we no longer feel imprisoned in our mechanized contemporary environments but instead actively there, out there, with Thoreau. ‘The forcible writer stands bodily behind his words with his experience. He does not make books out of books, but he has been there in person.’ (3 February 1852)

Thoreau drew a direct link between the plenitude and degree of illumination of a reader’s or student’s cognition, and that student’s ability to immerse himself in studies which enable him to become charged by sensual experience.

‘It is essential that a man confine himself to pursuits – a scholar, for instance, to studies – which lie next to and conduce to his life, which do not go against the grain, either of his will or his imagination. The scholar finds in his experience some studies to be most fertile and radiant with light, others dry, barren, and dark. If he is wise, he will not persevere in the last, as a plant in a cellar will strive toward the light. He will confine the observations of his mind as closely as possible to the experience or life of his senses. His thought must live with and be inspired with the life of the body. […] Dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows.’ (12 March 1853)

Here we find an affinity between the impulses underlying Thoreau’s journalizing and a central aspect of Weimar era German thought to which I have referred often on this blog. For we are reminded here of Jaspers’ early existentialism which, as Chris Thornhill writes in his study Karl Jaspers, sought to ‘deploy Kant as the basis for an existential metaphysic of possible lived unity’. Jaspers’ early existentialism, Thornhill notes elsewhere, sought precisely to overcome Kantian antinomies such as that of reason and experience, by ‘incorporating all aspects (cognitive, practical and sensory) of human life in an encompassing account of rational and experiential existence’. This existentialist project was anticipated by Thoreau’s requirement of the subjectivist researcher, ‘whether he be poet or philosopher or man of science’, that ‘His thought must live with and be inspired with the life of the body’:

‘There is no such thing as pure objective observation. Your observation, to be interesting, i.e. to be significant, must be subjective. The sum of what the writer of whatever class has to report is simply some human experience, whether he be poet or philosopher or man of science. The man of most science is the man most alive, whose life is the greatest event.’ (6 May 1854)  

In his journal entry for 14 July 1852, Thoreau had already related his concern with the ‘most alive’ to the question of a living language. Here he pointed to the emergence of the sort of artificial, manufactured-to-death language which characterizes today’s bureaucratic, public sector discourse and capitalist, private sector discourse alike. ‘A writer who does not speak out of a full experience uses torpid words, wooden or lifeless words, such words as “humanitary,” which have a paralysis in their tails.’ The deathliness of ‘humanitary’ results from its excess: from its self-aggrandizing add-on, the suffix ‘-itary’. Just as here he notes the excessive moment of particularity in ‘humanitary’, on 30 March 1853 Thoreau went on to comment on how a particularizing, analytic perspective on life diminishes our full experience, or our existential sense of ‘possible lived unity’. His references to ‘view’ and ‘the unbounded universe’ make it clear that he thinks of such full experience in terms of our visionary capacity:

‘Ah, those youthful days! are they never to return? when the walker does not too curiously observe particulars, but sees, hears, scents, tastes, and feels only himself, - the phenomena that show themselves in him, - his expanding body, his intellect and heart. No worm or insect, quadruped or bird, confined his view, but the unbounded universe was his. A bird is now become a mote in his eye.’

Crucially, for Thoreau the writing of full experience is genuine poetry, because such a writing conveys the ‘affinity’ or sympathy between the writer and whatever he has experienced – ‘the phenomena that show themselves in him’. In that way it also conveys the sympathy between the particular elements of nature which scientific observation simply separates. ‘What affinity is it brings the goldfinch to the sunflower – both yellow – to pick its seeds? Whatever things I perceive with my entire man, those let me record, and it will be poetry.’ (2 September 1851) Or again, three years later on 24 September 1854: ‘What name of a natural object is most poetic? That which he has given for convenience whose life is most nearly related to it, who has known it longest and best.’ Thoreau’s preoccupation with a unified life’s possibilities of sympathy and relationality, enabled him to describe the action of existential poetic naming which derives from imbibing a natural object’s spirito-existential ‘nutriment’: on 19 September 1854 he had written, ‘I have given myself up to nature; I have lived so many springs and summers and autumns and winters as if I had nothing else to do but live them, and imbibe whatever nutriment they had for me’.  

On 2 January 1859, Thoreau’s exposition of ‘vital and natural’ poetic language brought him to counterpose ‘artificial’, patriarchal, academic regulations of language to the free speech of mothers, brutes and animals:

‘When I hear the hypercritical quarrelling about grammar and style, the position of the particles, etc., etc., stretching or contracting every speaker to certain rules of theirs, - Mr. Webster, perhaps, not having spoken according to Mr. Kirkham’s rule, - I see that they forget that the first requisite and rule is that expression shall be vital and natural, as much as the voice of a brute or an interjection: first of all, mother tongue; and last of all, artificial or father tongue. Essentially your truest poetic sentence is as free and lawless as a lamb’s bleat.’

Thoreau’s suspicion of academic language use – of ‘literacy’ – rests on his sense that, just as natural life itself symbolizes human experience, so too, conversely, human symbolic expression is grounded in natural phenomena: ‘Talk about learning our letters and being literate! Why, the roots of letters are things. Natural objects and phenomena are the original symbols or types which express our thoughts and feelings’ (16 October 1859). It is because their language conveys the sourcing of letters in natural things that ‘We cannot spare the very lively and lifelike descriptions of some of the old naturalists’, as he writes on 17 February 1860 (for example). ‘They sympathize with the creatures which they describe.’ But for Thoreau, importantly, a vital and natural – poetic – language conveys not just nature’s facticity, but its spirit too. On the following day, his journal entry expounded his animist phenomenology and noted the inadequacy of traditional scientific description to that phenomenology:

‘Surely the most important part of an animal is its anima, its vital spirit, on which is based its character and all the peculiarities by which it most concerns us. […]
   Science in many departments of natural history does not pretend to go beyond the shell; i.e., it does not get to animated nature at all. A history of animated nature must itself be animated.’

On 15 February, Thoreau wrote of ‘the physical fact which in all language is the symbol of the spiritual’; his sense of natural phenomena as being symbols of natural anima, explains his intention – stated nine years earlier on 9 November 1851 – that lively and lifelike, poetic expression is to convey ‘animated’ phenomena on their own terms, without reducing them to mere brute facticity, as would the ‘common sense’ view of nature. For only such a form of expression can convey the sympathy between the writer’s anima and nature, or the way in which the writer has experienced and imbibed natural anima. ‘My facts shall be falsehoods to the common sense. I would so state facts that they shall be significant, shall be myths or mythologic. Facts which the mind perceived, thoughts which the body thought.’  

Thoreau opposes vital poetic language and the experience of nature which it conveys, or what he calls ‘the true growth and experience, the living speech’ (16 October 1859), to the paralyzed vitality and ‘dry technical terms’ which he associates with academic science’s specialist accounts of nature:

‘I look over the report of the doings of a scientific association and am surprised that there is so little life to be reported; I am put off with a parcel of dry technical terms. Anything living is easily and naturally expressed in popular language. I cannot help suspecting that the life of these learned professors has been almost as inhuman and wooden as a rain-gauge or self-registering magnetic machine. They communicate no fact which rises to the temperature of blood-heat. It doesn’t all amount to one rhyme.’ (6 May 1854)

On 5 September 1851 we find Thoreau praising James John Garth Wilkinson’s The Human Body and Its Connection with Man, Illustrated by the Principal Organs for its analogical method. By drawing quotidian physical analogies (such as when he describes the papillary cutis as ‘“an encampment of small conical tents coextensive with the surface of the body”’), Wilkinson, Thoreau feels, finds in popular, nonspecialist language a means of communicating unified, existential reason’s sympathetic experience of the body: this is true cognition or ‘perception of truth’.

‘The faith he puts in old and current expressions as having sprung from an instinct wiser than science, and safely to be trusted if they can be interpreted. The man of science discovers no world for the mind of man with all its faculties to inhabit. Wilkinson finds a home for the imagination, and it is no longer outcast and homeless. All perception of truth is the detection of an analogy; we reason from our hands to our head.’

Nine years later, on 13 October 1860, Thoreau’s existentialism leads him to argue that, because of their success in conveying ‘the highest quality of the plant, - its relation to man’, ‘it is commonly the old naturalists who first received American plants that describe them best’. Here Thoreau again advocates (the ‘free and lawless’ writing which can relay) singular, existential cognition over professional scientific knowledge:

‘After all, the truest description, and that by which another living man can most readily recognize a flower, is the unmeasured and eloquent one which the sight of it inspires. No scientific description will supply the want of this, though you should count and measure and analyze every atom that seems to compose it.’

Thoreau’s rejection of the language of academic science and advocacy of an existential poetic, relates to his rejection of professional, scholarly literacy in favour of popular, democratic literacy. ‘Anything living is easily and naturally expressed in popular language.’ On 6 December 1859:

‘Literary gentlemen, editors, and critics think that they know how to write because they have studied grammar and rhetoric; but the art of composition is as simple as the discharge of a bullet from a rifle, and its masterpieces imply an infinitely greater force behind it. This unlettered man’s [Irving’s] speaking and writing is standard English. Some words and phrases deemed vulgarisms and Americanisms before, he has made standard American.’

Walden Pond in 1908
We are reminded of the earlier remark that ‘the first requisite and rule is that expression shall be vital and natural, as much as the voice of a brute or an interjection’. It is as if, for Thoreau, an academic aesthetic architecture of ‘grammar and rhetoric’ is to be supplanted by a demotic aesthetic physics of verbal force and compaction. Already on 12 November 1851, he was thinking in terms of ‘interjection’ and discharge: ‘Those sentences are good and well discharged which are like so many little resiliencies from the spring floor of our life, - a distinct fruit and kernel itself, springing from terra firma.’ The ‘continent concentrated thoughts’ of which Thoreau wrote on 30 August 1856 recall these well-defined resiliencies. In order to adequately reflect the complexity of nature, Thoreau maintains on 27 October 1858, language really should be compounded – ‘ground together’ – rather like in German:

‘Who will undertake to describe in words the difference in tint between two neighbouring leaves on the same tree? or of two thousand? – for by so many the eye is addressed in a glance, In describing the richly spotted leaves, for instance, how often we find ourselves using ineffectually words which merely indicate faintly our good intentions, giving them in our despair a terminal twist toward our mark, - such as reddish, yellowish, purplish, etc. We cannot make a hue of words, for they are not to be compounded like colours, and hence we are obliged to use such ineffectual expressions as reddish brown, etc. They need to be ground together.’

A principle of compounding or compaction can also be found underlying Thoreau’s broader conception of writing as the creation of ‘a theme’, and subsequent identification of ‘one pertinent and just’ thematic ‘observation’. Thoreau’s idea of writing here would reverse today’s academic writing practice, which typically starts from a pre-set, often predatorily pre-identified theme, before exploitatively selecting the material (and only that material) which will enable one to sustain one’s forced argument. The dominative logic of subsumption, against which Theodor Adorno directed much of his thinking, continues to determine so much of what passes for intellectual life now. A commodity is to be delivered, or you will be made unemployed, your selfhood erased and then accused of mental illness, etc. On 3 February 1859 Thoreau noted:

‘The writer has much to do even to create a theme for himself. Most that is first written on any subject is a mere groping after it, mere rubble-stone and foundation. It is only when many observations of different periods have been brought together that he begins to grasp his subject and can make one pertinent and just observation.’

In his entry for 13 October 1860, Thoreau suggested that visionary affirmation of natural phenomena, by contrast with professional scientific description of nature, involves an existential, sensually delighting form of language which has its own inevitable momentum: like the interjections and discharges of which he writes elsewhere, these ‘unconsidered’ or ‘unconscious’ statements – acts of definition – are not impeded by the sort of career-sustaining guards and scruples which complicate academic language.

‘[…] unconsidered expressions of our delight which any natural object draws from us are something complete and final in themselves, since all nature is to be regarded as it concerns man; and who knows how near to absolute truth such unconscious affirmations may come? Which are the truest, the sublime conceptions of Hebrew poets and seers, or the guarded statements of modern geologists, which we must modify or unlearn so fast?’

On 1 April 1860, Thoreau’s understanding of how the action of inevitably releasing verbal statements of visionary definition accords with a principle of natural law – a ‘sympathy with the universal mind’ – is so transcendentally shocking as to negate for him the import of communication itself.

‘The fruit a thinker bears is sentences, - statements or opinions. He seeks to affirm something as true. I am surprised that my affirmations or utterances come to me ready-made, - not forethought, - so that I occasionally awake in the night simply to let fall ripe a statement which I had never consciously considered before, and as surprising and novel and agreeable to me as anything can be. As if we only thought by sympathy with the universal mind, which thought while we were asleep. There is such a necessity to make a definite statement that our minds at length do it without our consciousness, just as we carry our food to our mouths. This occurred to me last night, but I was so surprised by the fact which I have just endeavoured to report that I have entirely forgotten what the particular observation was.’

(All Thoreau quotations here are taken from: Henry David Thoreau, The Journal, 1837-1861, ed. by Damion Searls (New York: New York Review Books, 2009))          

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Heidegger, Prynne and 'Parataxis'

'in Cambridge, let's split'
-Iain Sinclair, Red Eye

In an attempt to get an initial grasp on the Heidegger-Prynne interface, I have reached for my little pile of back issues of the Cambridge journal Parataxis, most of which I bought from Drew Milne around 17 years ago. Edited largely by Milne, from 1991 to 2001, the content in Parataxis: Modernism and Modern Writing has long overpowered me with its complexity, representing as it does a benchmark for criticism of the contemporary poetries of J. H. Prynne and other representatives of what Milne, in Parataxis 3, tentatively labels ‘the Cambridge axis’. Now that, tragically, so much of this seems posthumous – Parataxis, the Cambridge axis, myself – the time is at least perhaps opportune for a less intimidated attempt on my part to understand the positions which Parataxis articulated, in particular in relation to Prynne and Heidegger. It is clear to me now, finally, after all my years of starstruck bafflement, that the Parataxis critics articulated a triad of suspicions: of a phenomenology-aligned reading of Prynne’s poetry, of aligning Prynne with Romanticist poetic tradition, and of the concern with a return to prior temporality which Prynne’s work shares with Heidegger’s. Yet Parataxis also voices Prynne’s own resistance to circularity, and it seems important that his powerful critique of totalized recursion is echoed in the pages of the journal by a particular critique (Alan Marshall’s) of Cambridge cultural Marxism’s negative dialectical approach, which usefully begins to restate the relation between Prynne’s poetry and phenomenology. You could even conjecture that Marshall's intervention in the penultimate issue of Parataxis in 1996 represented as significant a moment within the genealogy of academic Prynne reception, as the later, broader but perhaps less interesting, shift from the early-mid 1990s, cultural critique mode of Parataxis (a mode energized by the fury of 1980s anti-Thatcherism), to the depoliticized exegetical mode of Glossator 2: On the Poems of J. H. Prynne [online herein 2010

Disregarding the possibility of Heideggerian Marxism, in Parataxis 9 Milne responded to Marshall’s claims on the part of phenomenology by seeking to cordon off the diverging critical approaches of Marxism and Heideggerianism still further.

‘If any attempt is made to relate what “phenomenology” might mean for poetry, the phenomenology of experience suggested by Hegel and Marx is in sharp conflict with that developed by Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. The “experience” of capitalism may be incommensurate with a phenomenological account of experience.’

In my experience, the letter from your university informing you that you have earned £4500 this year as an hourly paid lecturer, is an equally gritty and vicious phenomenon whether you view it with your Marx or your Heidegger specs on. (As is the lack of a letter when you are then sacked without warning, after having been assured repeatedly that your contract would be renewed). But in the next number of Parataxis, in his article ‘Speculative Assertions: Reading J. H. Prynne’s Poems’, Milne’s reading of the reference in Prynne’s ‘Foot and Mouth’ to the ‘Pressure Sensitive/ Tape (also known as RUBAN ADHESIF and NASTRO ADHESIVO)’, persists in separating Heideggerian from Marxist perspectives on our experience of this world. In this reference of Prynne’s to what Milne calls ‘the trans-national language inside rolls of Scotch tape’, Milne writes, ‘The world-at hand is figured not as the transcendence of tools in the revelatory unveiling of Being, but as an implicated concern for the techniques and habits which sustain this world.’ This sort of sardonic pillorying of Heideggerian terminology is particularly depressing given Milne’s inability to stand by the Marxism to which he opposes that terminology. The response to Marshall in issue 9 comments that ‘there remains the task of showing how dialectical thinking which is critical of what is usually thought of as phenomenology could be developed, or how an account of the affinities between Adorno and Prynne could be sustained’. This comment is hardly an investment of faith in original Parataxis co-editor Simon Jarvis’ landmark Adornian reading of ‘Aristeas, in Seven Years’, which had appeared in Parataxis 1 (and which has been republished here). 

Jarvis’ article argued that Prynne’s poetic resists the presentation of phenomenological immediacy because such a presentation would be undialectical. Prynne’s poem ‘The Numbers’, Jarvis maintains, does not supply us with ‘a choice to seal off some realm of this-ness which could be seen as impervious to external determination’:

‘Attempts (such as that of Michael Grant in the Dictionary of Literary Biography) to assimilate Prynne’s wish to start from individual experiences to Husserlian phenomenology write off his acknowledgement that to understand individual experience is also to go beyond it. Prynne invokes demonstrative immediacy not phenomenologically, as a category, but dialectically, as a moment: once examined, apparent immediacy necessarily reveals its own mediatedness.’

Before I get to Marshall’s reaction to these remarks, I want to note two further attempts, other than Marshall's, to reclaim the possibility of recognizing phenomenological immediacy in Prynne. The first relates to the particular immediacy of a certain strand of Prynne’s poetic discourse which we could call his Londoner’s language. Prynne’s origins as a Londoner are rarely attended to by critics, though there are occasional references to his registering of wartime experience in his poems. But it seems to me that in his essay for Parataxis 9, ‘Counterfactual Prynne: An Approach to Not-You’, John Wilkinson unwittingly touched on precisely the arch London quality of Prynne’s language, when he wrote of the Not-You line ‘our confidence is end-up like a roller towel’, that it is ‘a characteristically Prynnian witticism which tends to make exposition sound laboured’. Academic exposition is attracted, because ‘end-up like a roller towel’ is a hermetic, difficult phrase. Why a roller towel ? But this phrase also carries a sort of difficulty which renders exposition unnecessary: because it is as if hermeneutic mediation is resisted by precisely the incisive immediacy – the sheer phenomenological baldness – of the language’s quality of underworld hermeticism. This line of Prynne’s is a slap round the face with a rolling pin, never mind a roller towel. A new semantic content has been displaced, from elsewhere, somewhere covert, and is suddenly here. This London tenor of phrasing has maintained its speakers outside the law for centuries, and it will continue to shock academic interpreters whilst holding its secrets close. 

This first attempted reclamation of phenomenological immediacy, like the second one which I want to note now, enlists an attention to Prynne’s involvement with what we could call visionary phenomenology.

                                                                            [...] This is the place

   where, deaf to meaning, the life stands
      out in extra blue. [...] [The Oval Window ]

N. H. Reeve’s extended discussion of these lines in his ‘further note’ on The Oval Window for Parataxis 6, begins by relaying his ‘suspicions’ of their communication of visionary experience. ‘Any celebration of an enhanced, heroic moment, unashamed to assert its claim to superiority, almost automatically gives rise to suspicions as to the interests it could be serving.’ However, Reeve continues, ‘in this case […] those suspicions stay secondary’. For ‘here the momentary thrill can remind us that this cynicism reflects a loss to which we are not reconciled, that there is still the ghost of something dear to us which we expect poetry to awaken’. It is precisely the phenomenological experience of visionary shock, that is – or what Reeve goes on to term ‘an apparently immediate sensation’ – which brings us to awareness of both the desacralization and disenchantment of this life, which typically is not definite enough to be ‘the’ life, and the continuing existence (however spectral it may be) of ‘a degree of intensity and radiance unavailable to our normal categories’.      

Reeve’s reference to ‘the Romantic tradition of the privileged lyric moment’, suggests the relation of Prynne’s involvement with such visionary phenomenology to the Romanticist poetic tradition from which his poetry is distanced elsewhere in Parataxis. In his ‘Speculative Assertions’ essay of 2001, for instance, Milne maintains that ‘Foot and Mouth’ ‘could be read as a satirical revision of the conflicts of ethos and pathos enjoyed in the late romanticist and quasi-philosophical readings associated with [Harold] Bloom’s Wallace Stevens or Heidegger’s Holderlin [sic]’. (In his footnote to this Milne notes that the ethos/pathos opposition was in fact later ‘deployed by Prynne’s de Kooning/ O’Hara essay’). In a significant comment in a letter to Allen Fisher of 16 September 1993, published in Parataxis 6, Milne aligned his long-standing suspicion of the poetic lineage of ‘faded romanticism’ – a romanticism far from Prynne’s own romanticism of ‘extra blue’! – to his scruple regarding phenomenological readings. One suspects here too a suspicion of the concept of poetic tradition itself; the postmodernist suspicion that anything connected, integrated or whole is universalist, coupled with a Marxist charge that poetic linguistic beauty is that which is consumed by the bourgeoisie and produced by the naïvely artisanal (those who believe themselves to be ‘originally’ related to language).

‘In the restricted notion of poetry, a phenomenology of experience and faded romanticism gesture at the tradition of poetry while implying utopian ideas about the civic possibilities of language. What makes it restricted is the assumption of a poetic relation to language, and an overdetermined sense of what constitutes formal beauty and coherence.’   

Milne offers Fisher no explanatory background for these assertions, beyond the rather inane remark that ‘I take it that one of the faultlines in contemporary poetry and poetics is the relation between a restricted notion of “poetry” and a more dispersed sense of a poetic relation to linguistic manifolds’. However, in his important article for Parataxis 9, ‘The Two Poetries and the Concept of Risk’, Marshall usefully explained how Milne’s statements invoke ‘the idea of the two traditions of modern poetry’. In relation to this schema, Milne’s ‘restricted notion’ of poetry refers to the notions of the Stevens, or ‘symbolist’, tradition. Marshall summarizes:

‘A typical formulation of the two traditions of modern poetry thesis can be found in the criticism of Marjorie Perloff, particularly in the essay “Pound/ Stevens: whose era?’, where Perloff uses these two authors and the apparently incommensurable positions of what become in effect their respective critical camp-followers to entrench a dichotomized formalism, already known perhaps from the writings of Charles Altieri as that of the objectivist versus the symbolist, but variously referred to here as: the constructionist versus the expressionist, the encyclopaedic (or epic) versus the lyric, the fragmentary versus the meditative, and so on.’

Milne’s determined opposition to aligning Prynne’s writing with the Stevens, or symbolist/Romanticist poetic tradition is clear in ‘Speculative Assertions’, when he distances Prynne from ‘humanism’ and ‘civic personhood’. Milne acknowledges (the early) Prynne’s ‘lyric sequences’, but recasts Prynnean lyric as anti-lyric, a lyric mangled by the ‘destructions of subjectivity akin to anti-humanist phenomenology’ which drive it. Such a lyric is intrinsically only a diminished Olsonian ‘epic’ anyway. (Phenomenology is seemingly now admissible, as a prop for Milne’s anti-humanist inclination).

‘Prynne’s poems eschew the vocalizations of humanism, providing neither a congealed “voice” nor an identifiable persona or civic personhood. The bardic temptations of post-humanist epic – that poetry could include everything and  history – are brought into the briefer focus of lyric sequences. Song is acknowledged as an expressive parameter, but the agencies prompting lyricism are not those of a singer, and are more easily read as destructions of subjectivity akin to anti-humanist phenomenology.’

It is the Parataxis article on Prynne most willing to engage with Heidegger's thinking which is also most sympathetic to associating Prynne’s poetry with Romanticist poetic humanism. In their essay ‘Deaf to Meaning: On J. H. Prynne’s The Oval Window ’, which appeared in Parataxis 3 (and is republished here), N. H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge read the following lines from The Oval Window :

 It is not quite a cabin, but (in local speech)
                                      a shield, in the elbow of upland water,
                                      the sod roof almost gone but just under
                                      its scar a rough opening: it is, in first
                                      sight, the oval window. […]

Reeve and Kerridge argue that this description of what they call (reflecting on the picture on the volume’s cover, and anticipating Prynne’s 2008 ‘Huts’ essay) a ‘rough shepherd’s hut’, ‘seems to touch’ on ‘various Romantic traditions of negotiating a place for the self, a place of at least provisional stability, amidst the boundless organicism of the world’. Where Milne admits lyric into Prynnean poetics only if its very constitution is warped by ‘destructions of subjectivity’, Reeve and Kerridge attend to the way in which The Oval Window rearticulates the remnants of a Romantic poetic of self-stabilization. ‘The poem’s emphasis is always on the temporary, threatened, fragmentarily glimpsed moments of “staying put”, and the barely habitable condition of such buildings as would make Heideggerean “dwelling” possible.’ In this connection, Reeve and Kerridge also quote the lines referring to the arctic tern which ‘stays put wakefully, each following suit/ by check according to rote’. They comment that the tern’s condition – of ‘patience which is not passive lethargy, repose which is alert and vigilant rather than timidly self-protective’ – represents ‘something close to what Heidegger meant by “dwelling”, a kind of reverential letting-be and letting-come of the world in which man was properly rooted’.

Such references to a form of ‘dwelling’ that stabilizes the subject are echoed in D. S. Marriott’s article in Parataxis 9, ‘Contemporary British Poetry and Resistance: Reading J. H. Prynne’, which, in its discussion of the relevance of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth to ‘Thoughts on the Esterházy Court Uniform’, relates the idea of ‘dwelling on the earth in the light of day’ to Prynne’s preoccupation with return. Marriott states that the poem ‘elliptically refers’ to Orpheus’ ‘need to return to the land of the dead to reclaim (and ultimately lose) the lost love’. Prynne’s poem’s metaphor of ‘the sun making things “worse”’, argues Marriott, ‘draws on the local-existential sense of being on earth in the Orphic myth and its explicit connection between human life and dwelling on the earth in the light of day’; the latter ‘two processes’ are ‘etymologically linked in the Latin derivation of humanus from humus’.

In his essay in the same number of Parataxis, ‘The Spirit of Poetry: Heidegger, Trakl, Derrida and Prynne’, Anthony Mellors writes of ‘Thoughts on the Esterházy Court Uniform’ that it represents Prynne’s ‘most protracted meditation on the subject of return’.  Marriott’s article quotes the following lines:

                                   […] To our unspeakable loss; we make
sacred what we cannot see without coming
                                      back to where we were.

                                Again is the sacred
          word, the profane sequence suddenly graced, by
                                     coming back. […]

The Parataxis critics suggest two distinct ways of reading such meditations on return. Marriott’s reference to the ‘semantically incomplete and referentially opaque’ nature of Prynne’s poetry, straightforwardly explains Prynne’s own references to unspeakability and ‘what we cannot see’, as well as the uncertainty (in the second cluster of lines just quoted) as to exactly what the profane has been ‘suddenly graced’ into. Marriott, moreover, encourages us to be wary of the idea that such opaque reflections on return were formulated as a conscious critique of secular, liberal-progressivist rationality: Prynne’s poetic opacity, Marriott writes, ‘cannot be construed as an oppositional hermeticism as Mellors argues [in his PhD thesis]’. But Mellors’ charge, in the pages of Parataxis, that the idea of return in Prynne is a ‘mystical’ one, is indeed instinct with his criticism of the opacity of Prynne’s poetic language, which Mellors casts in Heideggerian terms. ‘Prynne wants to get rid of “meaning” altogether, and replace it with a formal significance, which, through the indeterminate contingencies of poetic Saying, moves beyond them to reaffirm a hidden agenda of mystical return.’

Milne had already evinced a similar dislike for the idea of ‘mystical return’ when, in a letter to Prynne of 7 March 1993, which was published in Parataxis 5, he noted his poetic ‘determination’ when writing his own Satyrs and Mephitic Angels, ‘to evade a Heideggerian fetish of the etymological and pre-Socratic grounds of language and being’. A specifically Heideggerian mysticism is clearly Milne’s particular target, since here he also writes of ‘a Benjaminian dependence on a theological mystification of history which is often my own gnostic temptation in the face of defeated reason’. So late-Benjaminian mystification of history is endorsed, whilst Heideggerian mystical restoration of origins, or what Mellors calls ‘the Heideggerean project of “destruction” that attempts to clear away metaphysical abstractions from supposedly original properties’, is impugned. Quoting from Derrida’s Of Spirit, Mellors extended to Prynne his suspicion of Heideggerian return to an ‘original temporality’:

‘Heidegger constantly invokes the spiritual (especially in the essays on Hölderlin, Rilke, and Trakl) and, like Prynne, claims to undercut Christian (and Platonic) appropriations of the term by returning to a prior or original temporality: “In its most proper essence, as the poet and thinker allow it to be approached, Geist is neither Christian Geistlichkeit nor Platonic-metaphysical Geistigkeit.”’

Mellors goes on to practically accuse Prynne’s poetic of the late 1960s of Aryanism when, having noted that ‘the arcane pursuit of etymological value arises as a justification for and sublimation of crude beliefs in national, racial, and sexual superiority’, he specifically compares Heidegger’s essay on Trakl to Prynne’s ‘A Pedantic Note in Two Parts’. ‘As in Prynne’s essay, we are dealing [in Heidegger’s Trakl essay] with the cultural programme of defining and returning to our “proper home” in a neat dovetailing of Indo-European linguistic origins with the philosophy and poetics of temporality.’ This sort of alignment of Prynne with Heidegger’s Nazi Aryanism strikes me as being little more than sensationalism: when Prynne observes that the runic wynn 'was the name for "bliss"; it was a proper name, reaching right across Germania and back before the division of the Indo-European peoples', he is not advocating racial exclusivity or hegemony.

It seems to me that the critique put forward in Parataxis of Prynne’s concern with return to a prior or original temporality, needs to be tempered by an awareness of the resistance to circularity which Prynne expressed elsewhere in Parataxis. I am thinking of the attack on totalized recursion made by Prynne in a letter to Milne of 21 March 1993, published in the journal’s issue 5. ‘If swinish contentment or stoic damage control are both off the map, then the work of any manifold (poetry included) must be directed so as to minimize inclusion in the main structure of unrecognized recursive loops.’ In their Parataxis article Reeve and Kerridge had already wondered, in connection with The Oval Window, about the nature of the ‘quest’ in that poem for ‘alternative responses to the world, Heideggerean or otherwise, which are not artificially stabilized by controlling circuits and mechanisms’. But such a controlling circuit – a ‘main structure of unrecognized recursive loops’ – could itself be linguistic, recalling the ‘Infantile,/ recursive pandect’ already posited by Prynne as early as the Wound Response poem ‘An Evening Walk’. The ‘main structure’ of his letter to Milne indeed seems to refer to totalized significatory or semantic circularity: later in the letter Prynne writes of ‘the cycle of pure irony’, and it is in relation to the possibility that both Milne’s and his own poetries now are trapped within and stabilized by their hyper-vigilance, that Prynne desires a poetic irony ‘directed to forward the passage of non-circular predicates’:

‘Perhaps this is my own current look-out, indeed, and I reserved a bolt-hole at the outset here [in this letter] by referring to non-conductive irony, coyly leaving room for a version not armed against itself (I think that’s a recursive illusion anyway) so much as directed to forward the passage of non-circular predicates.’  

Prynne’s observation of the Cambridge late modernist tendency towards hyper-vigilant poetic irony echoes Out to Lunch’s insightful witness, in his review of Wilkinson’s ‘Harmolodics’ for Parataxis 4, of the ‘frozen gaze of Parataxis [sic] scruple’. Coyly concealed behind his post-punk nom de plume, Ben Watson pointed here to the recursive circuit of total scruple which characterizes the late modernist poetics propounded within Parataxis (and which was precisely what was so intimidating to a graduate student like myself, newly arrived in Cambridge and trying to find the confidence to position myself in relation to late modernist poetries – in particular to the work of Iain Sinclair, the Olsonian element of which is a special victim of Cambridge scruple). It seems to me (now) that the Parataxis scruple is frozen by nothing other than the academic prejudice of which it ultimately consists. When Milne, writing in Parataxis 4, simply asserts that ‘Adorno’s critique of Heidgger’s [sic] poetics of Hölderlin in his essay ‘Parataxis’ (recently translated in Notes to Literature vol. 2) remains pertinent’ to Martin Harrison’s use of Heidegger, but does not explain how or why it remains pertinent, the student senses a cultural Marxism whose argumentation has become paralyzed by its own arrogance.   

Marshall’s article for Parataxis 9 offers close readings of two poets, Prynne and George Oppen, ‘who are ordinarily associated with the Objectivist tradition as defined or redefined by Olson and others’. But this positioning of these poets does not lead Marshall to cordon them off within the field of ‘open’ poetry – Marshall underlines ‘the inadequacy of the idea of the two poetries, one that is open [Pound/Olson etc.] and one that is closed [Stevens etc.]’. Therefore, and whereas Milne disdains attention to ‘phenomenology of experience’ as a feature of the ‘restricted’ (closed) poetry he critiques as a Marxist, Marshall’s approach frees the potential for a phenomenological reading of Prynne whilst showing Parataxis cultural Marxism to be paralyzed within a ‘fixed opposition’:

‘I shall argue that the kinds of risk both writers [Oppen, Prynne] take cannot be properly understood with reference simply to the fixed opposition between 1. lyric ego meditating on the phenomenology of experience and, 2. unbeautiful dance [cf. Milne’s ‘improvised dance’ in P 6, 28] over the manifolds of language. I shall argue that neither writer abandons the phenomenology of experience altogether.’

Marshall’s intervention against Parataxis cultural Marxism also locates that Marxism’s paralysis in the negative dialectical approach to Prynne advanced by Jarvis’s work on ‘Aristeas, in Seven Years’. In this way, Marshall echoes Prynne’s own resistance to circularity with a critique of paralytic negative dialectical criticism of Prynne, which again restores the potential for phenomenological readings of Prynne’s poetry. Marshall identifies a ‘danger for “dialectical” criticism […] in its haste to disavow phenomenology, “as a category”’, of encouraging a lack of ‘daring the “moment”’.

‘In an early essay for Parataxis, Simon Jarvis wrote: “Prynne invokes demonstrative immediacy not phenomenologically, as a category, but dialectically, as a moment: once examined, apparent immediacy necessarily reveals its own mediateness.” A truly dialectical criticism would have nothing to fear from “apparent immediacy”. On the contrary, the danger for “dialectical” criticism is that in its haste to disavow phenomenology, “as a category”, it will turn mediation into an empty truism, without ever daring the “moment”.’

To get frozen, recursive-dialectical reading of Prynne moving by ‘daring the “moment”’ would first involve recognizing, with Marshall, that poetry is itself a contingent process of phenomenological (visionary) definition: ‘each poem is a trial, a process, an attempt to come “face to face to a fact” (as Thoreau aptly puts it) rather than a complete facing up’. Recovery of the ‘mediated immediate’ that is the phenomenology of experience within a poem, is, Marshall argues, therefore only possible through a recovery of the ‘element of process’ – both within our practice of reading and then, when our reading is un-frozen, within the poem itself:

‘[…] any language can be regarded as reified: that is, only by recovering a moment of the process (or to put it in the statutory pigeon-Hegelian, of the mediated immediate in the instance of its mediation) can language and experience reflect upon each other (in the way that Hegel says the concept of the object reflects upon the subject): this element of process is riskily evoked in the reified analogue of the reading process itself.’

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Bathos Monotone

J. H. Prynne’s poem, from his 1971 volume Brass, is titled ‘Thinking of You’, but at first sight it appears to address kitchen waste, rather than the traditional romantic object of the lyric poem. This form of bathos has its own dark comedy, a bitter comedy that is reinforced by the sheer monotone relentlessness of the repetition of the references to the 'can' or its ‘fat’ within the poem’s series of functional, prosaic statements. These functional-yet-gnomic statements are layered, or laid down, almost like a sequence of disregarding slaps. I say almost like, because in their diminished functionality the slaps are sloppy, miscast ones. In fact Prynne's use of unexpected punctuation, such as the comma inserted in line 4, can be seen to effect the breakdown of the violence of philosophical logic - that sterile argumentative fury which is so helpful for efficiently constructing a dissertation, or maintaining (and raising) one's place in the hierarchical academic 'rank' - into a species of philosophical verse which is cognition of academic violence and not its unwitting perpetuation.      

Not going forward let alone re-
turning upon itself, the old fat in the can.
The old fat rises to a reason and
seems because of its can, not going
forward but in its rank securely,
so as to be ready. Divinity rises to
no higher reason since going up alone
is returning itself to the can. You choose
if you like whether we stay in the rank
or go forward as alone we can, divinely
secured about the midriff. Older than
forward is the way we might go and
grow because we do, fat. In the can it
is the rancid power of the continuum. 

Human sublimity – such as the sublimity of romantic love, or of the visionary capacity of our imagination – is referred to here, in terms of access to the divine. Perhaps the solitary transcendental imagination – when we each, ‘alone’, are ‘divinely/ secured about the midriff’ – is privileged over sublime I-thou relations, or being as the Siamese twin of a You. But any human sublimity, solitary or otherwise, is bathetically reduced to old fat, animate spirit converted into inanimate matter. You could call this Prynne’s Marxist materialism: a critique of alienation, of the reifying commodification of the subject, which in fact holds out little hope for humanism.

But the use of the comma in the penultimate line, for example, seems to complicate this reading. ‘we do, fat.’ These words could be taken as suggesting our conversion to fat in the can, dead matter (‘we…fat’), but perhaps they simply refer to the way that, when we ‘grow’, we become fat. Hence Prynne stills holds out the possibility that, even after all the abuse under capitalism, we remain (perhaps overweight) humans with spirit. In addition, the proposal that we might ‘go forward as alone we can’ claws back the fact of human agency, our status as can-do mammals, from the very word for the inanimate lump of metal itself: ‘can’. Humans ‘can’ create works of spirit, such as this poem, and such a human cultural construction can appear unusually bloated, or ‘fat’, as a  consequence of the poet’s intention to double-space its lines (the double-spacing of ‘Thinking of You’ is unusual in Brass, though there are areas in ‘Of Sanguine Fire’ which are double-spaced too). So you could say that if ‘Thinking of You’ itself, as a poem, ‘is’ fat it is only because Prynne decided that it should be so; indeed the air between the lines which fills out the poem on the page or screen could be said to emblematize the human spirit which chose to put it there, just as Prynne chose to put spaces between the constituent words of his later title ‘Air  Gap  Song’.

But of course the poem sees us old (modern) humans, emblematized as ‘old fat’, to be in dire straits now – spirit contained within a reified can-world. ‘Not going forward let alone re-/ turning upon itself, the old fat in the can.’ As Keston Sutherland rightly suggests in his article on Brass, 'Hilarious Absolute Daybreak' (online here), the poetic performance of bathos effected in Brass entails not ‘lamentation’ of hopelessness so much as a direct statement of hopelessness. Hence the refusal of the idea of spirit’s self-critique: ‘let alone re-/ turning upon itself’. Quoting Prynne's poem ‘Crown’ from his The White Stones, Sutherland writes:

Brass does what The White Stones, Olson and Heidegger programmed themselves not to do: it recasts the Heimkehr of fortune as the paralytic transit from destiny to modern politics, and it does that by evacuating lamentation rather than by universalising it. Brass is the reversal of a reversal, “the question/ returned upon itself”.’

Floating contained as the fat in the can, the modern spirit of ‘Thinking of You’ reprises the ‘crust’ from the earlier Brass poem ‘The Ideal Star-Fighter’: the ‘slight meniscus’ which ‘floats on the moral/ pigment of these times’. In each poem the meniscus, the spirit-level – that is, the attenuated form of our spiritual life – can be seen to be an epiphenomenon of a moralizing, mass media-entwined contemporary politics. The second stanza of ‘The Ideal Star-Fighter’ begins by commenting on this particular version of an infantilizing politics of the ‘ought'.

And so we hear daily of the backward
           glance at the planet, the reaction of
                   sentiment. Exhaust washes tidal flux
        at the crust, the fierce acceleration
     of mawkish regard. To be perceived with
                         such bounty! […]

True to Sutherland's imputed explosion of 'destiny' within ‘modern politics’, this poem adds that a politics which dominates the environment whilst cosseting the population in an enforced state of eco-friendly ‘moral/ stand-by’, remains vulnerable to the inevitable, predestined revenge of nature that it is bringing upon itself:

                               […] We should
shrink from that lethal cupidity; moral
          stand-by is no substitute for 24-inch
      reinforced concrete, for the blind certain
              backlash. Yet how can we dream of
                    the hope to continue, […] 

The bad idealism represented by ‘moral/ stand-by’ has a contrary, the last lines here imply. It is just that the hopeless micro-climate of Brass stifles such a good morality at inception. ‘how can we dream of/ the hope to continue’. Likewise in ‘Thinking of You’, the old fat attains ‘a reason’ – perhaps that of Kantian moral normativism – and remains canned. Lacking the hope to continue, it is ‘not going/ forward but in its rank securely’. This is precisely ‘so as to be ready’: as if it too has been convened by the TV/Twitter news to ‘moral/ stand-by’.  

But then some lines later ‘Thinking of You’ proposes that we can still choose to ‘go forward as alone we can, divinely/ secured about the midriff’. It seems to me, however, that these lines contain a critique of reason à la moralizing progressivism: Prynne is noticing here a false, privatized progressivism, supported by religion or transcendence. Earlier in Brass, the poem ‘L’Extase de M. Poher’ had already warned against the self-insulation of an over-articulate poetic avant-garde from mass society: here carnal collision was already advocated over being ‘divinely/ secured’.
                                        […] No
poetic gabble will survive which fails
        to collide head-on with the unwitty circus:
           no history running
                     with the french horn into
         the alley-way, no
         manifest emergence
           of valued instinct, no growth
                    of meaning & stated order:

Earlier lines in ‘Thinking of You’ suggest moreover that a movement of private reason – ‘going up alone’ – itself hobbles divinity’s own civilizing action:

                                                                     […] Divinity rises to
           no higher reason since going up alone 
is returning itself to the can. […]

What might it mean for transcendental potential to rise to a ‘higher reason’? And what might it mean for a collective exercise of reason to escape return to ‘the can’? With the latter concern we are returned to Prynne’s early visionary politics of socialized language, which (as I note in my book on Iain Sinclair) he propounded in an important letter to The English Intelligencer of 14 March 1968, but also, in The White Stones, in the memorable third and fourth points of the ‘up-/ shot’ concluding ‘Questions for the Time Being’:  

                                                    […] 3. What goes on in a
                   language is the corporate & prolonged action
                   of worked self-transcendence – other minor verbal
                   delays have their uses but the scheme of such
                   motives is at best ambiguous; 4. Luminous
                   take-off shows through in language forced into any
                   compact with the historic shift, but in a given con-
                   dition such as now not even elegance will come
                   of the temporary nothing in which life goes on.

By the time of Brass  the life-world has darkened from our ‘temporary nothing’ to ‘the hate system’ and ‘the entire dark dream outside’ of ‘The Ideal Star-Fighter’: ‘the rancid power’ of the progressivist-capitalist ‘continuum’. True to Adorno and Horkheimer’s analysis in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, enlightenment has reverted to mythic barbarism in the can-world. But still in ‘Thinking of You’, arguably, self-transcending, ‘corporate’ and ‘historic’ linguistic activity is identified by Prynne with the emergence of visionary potentials. The final lines of ‘Thinking of You’ show that such ‘Luminous/ take-off’ is never abjured as a possibility for our collective exercise of reason, even in Brass.

                                                                             […] Older than
                                            forward is the way we might go and
 grow because we do, fat. In the can it
 is the rancid power of the continuum.

This last particular 'fat', referring as it does to the traveller on a ‘way’ of collective reason which is ‘Older than/ forward’, or more mythic and irrational than progressivist enlightenment reason, yet also – precisely as such a life-force or exercise of crazy vitalism – a transcendental potential which can itself ‘grow’ and rise to a ‘higher reason’, arguably looks back specifically to the ‘fanatic resin’ mentioned in the preceding poem in Brass, ‘Es Lebe der König’.

                                                                           […] the plum exudes its
fanatic resin and is at once forced in, pressed
down and by exotic motive this means the rest,
                                    the respite, we have this long.

In both poems Prynne suggests that this is now our time of decision: in ‘Thinking of You’, ‘we might go’, and in ‘Es Lebe der König’, ‘we have this long’. Given that ‘Es Lebe der König’ is dedicated to Paul Celan and that the ‘You’ of which the succeeding poem’s title is thinking could well again be Celan, it seems that ‘the rest,/ the respite’ within which reason might decide to grow is indeed our own historical moment following the reversion of enlightenment to myth in the Holocaust. ‘Es Lebe der König’ indeed has its analogue to the bad alternative, the canning of reason with ‘the rancid power of the continuum’: the moment of restriction within instrumentality when ‘the beloved enters the small house’. ‘The house becomes technical, the pool has/ copper sides, evaporating by the grassy slopes.’ Yet the very evaporation of this version of the can hints that we still have respite within which to decide whether to let our potential path of reason atrophy into academic sophistication, and ‘re-enter the small house with/ animals too delicate and cruel’. Structured by bathos, hopelessness and the recognition of technology’s restriction of spiritual horizons, Brass can still imagine its own copper sides breaking open, growing into a wider path on ‘grassy slopes’. In ‘The Five Hindrances’, Prynne writes of the way of collective reason to which Brass thus points in terms of glowing ‘air’, spirit. ‘The future history of the/ air is glowing, with amity beyond the path itself’. The present-day time of decision, when the narrow old way might vanish for good, is also the moment of ‘manifest emergence/ of valued instinct’, of ‘growth/ of meaning & stated order’. For this contemporary moment of decision, ‘The Five Hindrances’ adds, is as dazzling and bemusing as the visionary element which it holds in fruition:

                 […] Now we come through
     the air we breathe bemused by the week: the fire
                        of heaven, gentle, very light. […]

Wednesday, 31 July 2013


Whoever has lived through these times and paid attention feels in the inmost way that an hour of reckoning has now come for the German spirit. In sleepless nights of listening and waiting one senses, very close by, the hot breath of this spirit. Now that false dreams of power have been dreamed out, now that need and suffering have burst the hard shells that threatened to suffocate it, this spirit, with a monstrous display of power, struggles toward its realization. […] Nearly all of the innumerable movements that now tremble throughout Germany and shake it to its foundations testify, despite their apparently contradictory directions, to the desire and nature of this spirit. Youth groups that carry forward generalized human ideals or the ideas of the Germanic fraternities; communards whose values are linked to the communism of primitive Christianity; associations of the like-minded that have as their goal a renewal from within; interfaith religious groups; democratic-pacifist unions; and several efforts at popular education: all these seek the same thing, to emerge from abstract ideas anchored in the ego and arrive at concrete communal forms.

                                     -Siegfried Kracauer, ‘German Spirit and German Reality’ (1922)

Kracauer’s insightful definition of the stirring of collective, existential spirit-life during the early years of the Weimar Republic, is quoted by Michael Jennings in the course of his essay on Walter Benjamin for the 2012 collection edited by Leonard V. Kaplan and Rudy Koshar, The Weimar Moment: Liberalism, Political Theology, and Law. This summary of the early existentialist Zeitgeist, as involving a struggling forth of Geist out of the conceptualizing ‘ego’ and into ‘concrete communal forms’, can be read as a programme statement of The Weimar Moment itself. In his ‘Introduction’ to the volume, Koshar stresses its ambition to attend to the theological dimension of the intellectual life of the Weimar era:

‘Although scholars such as Mark Lilla have celebrated liberalism’s separation of the political and theological spheres, the cumulative effect of these essays is to show that even in its most secular and “humanist” variations, the debate for or against liberalism constantly allowed “theological” themes and gestures entry.’

On this blog [here] I have referred to Chris Thornhill’s emphasis on the way in which Jaspers’ early existentialism evolved out of his critical reaction to neo-Kantianism, in particular the variety propounded by Heinrich Rickert. The Weimar Moment shows what Jennings calls the ‘the religious revival that swept Germany in the early 1920s’, to be instinct with the emergence of meta-Kantian – for instance existentialist – thinking at this time. In his contribution, John P. McCormick notes how Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss also were both ‘deeply affected by the early-20th-century crisis of neo-Kantian thought in Germany’. In statements that bring to mind the debilitating crisis of contemporary academic rationality too, McCormick writes:

‘This crisis is perhaps best characterized as a widespread perception that Enlightenment rationality could not ground itself: that the most sophisticated system of reason required either a leap of faith to get itself off the ground or some external motivation outside the system itself.’ 

In the early 1920s Benjamin as well was becoming aware of the limitations of Kantian rationality, as Jennings stresses when he discusses Benjamin’s positive reception of Erich Unger, whose Politik und Metaphysik of 1921 Benjamin classed as the ‘most significant writing on politics of our time’. (Interestingly, Unger’s title foreshadows the sub-title of Thornhill’s 2002 book Karl Jaspers). As Jennings underlines, ‘each man’ – Unger and Benjamin – believed that philosophical thought ‘must move beyond a Kantian model that for them was based upon an inadequate understanding of human experience and knowledge’. Quoting Unger’s book, Jennings continues by noting that Politics and Metaphysics ‘thus conceives politics as an activity whose primary goal is the provision of an arena for psychophysical experience that may “correspond to a disclosure of divine reality”’. 

‘As Margarete Kohlenbach has put it, Benjamin and Unger shared the conviction that “philosophical thought is to seek to identify the conditions in which man could objectively experience, and thus know, that which in modern religiosity is at best believed, or somehow sensed, to be true.”’      

Rodrigo Chacón, in his contribution to The Weimar Moment titled ‘Hannah Arendt in Weimar: Beyond the Theological-Political Predicament?’, notes the shift in Arendt’s terminology in the course of her life, so that later ‘she would attempt to provide existential concepts for the religious notions that she had used in her dissertation’. For example, ‘human “createdness” would become human “conditionedness” (Bedingtheit)’. Yet Chacón thus suggests that Arendt’s existentialism was inseparable from the initial accent on religious experience in her thinking. In the 1920s, he writes, Arendt was ‘deeply marked by the attempts of Heidegger and [Rudolf] Bultmann to provide a philosophical account of certain Christian possibilities of existence’. Opposing Arendt’s later emphasis on existential Bedingtheit to Hermann Cohen’s neo-Kantian ‘hyper-normativism’, Chacón points to the way in which Heidegger’s and Bultmann’s attention to existential experience of the spiritual quality of our life – of Christian possibilities – modulated in Arendt’s mature thought into her existentialist attention to ‘existential sources in Christian religious experience’:

‘Like Bultmann, Barth and others, Arendt was not a moral – let alone a “normative” – thinker, […] because (human) morality – especially in the form of an ethics of the “pure will” – is essentially a rebellion against what conditions us or what is given to us. Thus [for example], again like Bultmann, Arendt problematized a fundamental ethical and religious precept – neighbourly love – from the standpoint of a more authentic understanding of its existential sources in Christian religious experience.’

The essay from Samuel Moyn and Azzan Yadin-Israel, ‘The Creaturely Limits of Knowledge: Martin Heidegger’s Theological Critique of Immanuel Kant’, focusses on Heidegger’s 1928 work Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics. Here again Bedingtheit and an awareness of human limitations seems to offer the key. Moyn and Yadin-Israel argue that ‘unlike Kant’s, Heidegger’s philosophical argument is intended to win assent for an anthropology of human abasement, neediness, and dependence’. It is in temporality, Moyn and Yadin-Israel assert, that Heidegger finds ‘the damning proof of man’s dependence and indigence – an insuperable limit to his autonomy and perfectibility’. Or alternatively they maintain that, in Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, Heidegger transfers autonomy to time. They cite the following extract, commenting that it ‘touches on precisely those capacities that for Kant mark the human subject as a citizen of the noumenal world but transposes them so that they are now attributes of time: self-activation, independence of experience, and a kind of autonomy’.

(Marketa Luskacova)
‘Time is only pure intuition to the extent that it prepares the look of succession from out of itself. […] This pure intuition activates itself with the intuited which was formed in it, i.e., which was formed without the aid of experience. According to its essence, time is pure affection of itself. [….] As pure self-affection, time […] forms the essence of something like self-activating.’        

Indeed for Heidegger, as Moyn and Yadin-Israel continue, ‘Time must be self-affecting for human being to remain consigned to a state of receptivity’, of dependence and finitude. This reference to receptivity leads into Moyn and Yadin-Israel’s discussion of Heidegger’s ideas of attunement, summoning and service. Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics : ‘In order to allow the being to be what and as it is, however, the existing being [Dasein] must already have projected that it is a being on the strength of what has been encountered. Existence means dependency upon the being’. As Moyn and Yadin-Israel put it, ‘Knowledge, Heidegger concludes, lies not in the individual’s ability to gain mastery over nature but in an ability to properly orient oneself toward receiving the revelation of the world.’ As Chacón notes too, for Heidegger ‘revelation was to be understood in terms of Dasein’s openness for meaning or sense (Sinnoffenheit)’. Moyn and Yadin-Israel see Heidegger’s location ‘squarely in the aftermath of Barth’s insistence that man’s indigent need for external revelation be recovered as the lost core of Christianity (with Heidegger obviously displacing the source of this necessary revelation)’, as determining his emphasis on ‘Readiness to be summoned to receive the external gift of revelation, presented as an offering and made available through the agency of the “wholly other”’. The Weimar Moment repeatedly returns to the link made by Weimar dialectical theology between conditionedness and revelation. Chacón quotes from Bultmann’s ‘The Eschatology of the Gospel of John’ of 1928: ‘To know him [sic; God] is to see him as really made manifest, and that means to recognize him as Creator, to submit one’s self to be determined by him.’ Ulrich Rosenhagen, in his article treating the Weimar era Jewish-Protestant encounter, summarizes Friedrich Gogarten’s Die religiöse Entscheidung (1921; The Religious Decision) as both an attempt ‘to define a new language of God and revelation beyond history’, and a rejection of religion qua ‘an arrogant human enterprise to overcome the absolute contradiction between creator and creature’.   

McCormick’s account of Schmitt’s and Strauss’ response to the crisis of neo-Kantianism is suggestive in relation to contemporary intellectual crises such as postmodern, nihilist relativism and the conversion of mass socialist politics (in the UK) into the debt-building profligacy of consumerist New Labour. But perhaps the progressivism of Blair’s ‘Things can only get better’ is morphing now into a wary stoicism, of ‘Things had better stay the same’. Recent academic phenomena such as the online journal Thinking Verse or Simon Jarvis’ ultra-formalist epic poem Night Office – which holds to an abababcc  rhyme scheme throughout all its 218 pages can be read as rebellions against today’s version of the modern rejection of limits, or as restatements of the Weimar era theorists’ insistence on the need to evolve conceptions of conditioning form:  

‘Schmitt and Strauss each insisted that Enlightenment rationality was unravelling into a way of thinking that violently rejected “form” of any kind, fixated myopically on human capabilities rather than natural limits, and lacked any conception of the structural constraints that condition the possibility of philosophy, morality, and politics. Consequently, for both authors, Enlightenment reason obfuscates “genuine” expressions of rationality and obscures the necessity of political order as such.’    

McCormick analyzes Strauss’ schema of varying atheisms, in order to underline his conception of  the religious ‘fear that is necessary for stable human interactions’ (McCormick’s words) and founds political order:

‘Strauss observed that traditional atheisms associated with Epicureanism and Averoism [sic] were fundamentally soft; they rejected the harsh rigours of religious observance and diminished the necessity of fear of the divine. On the contrary, Strauss suggests that modern atheism, as expressed by a Hobbes or a Heidegger, confronts and embraces the harshness of human existence, accentuates the necessarily and fundamentally fearful state within which human beings exist, and accentuates the inescapable fact that human beings are in need, as such, of dominion, of being ruled.’

Whether manifesting now as submission to the principle of capital accumulation à la Weber, or else to an infantilizing consumer culture à la  the Wyndham Lewis of The Art of Being Ruled (1926), such religious awe remains the human norm. Surely religious fear and the need to submit underpinned what Kracauer called the imperialistic-militaristic ‘false dreams of power’ which afflicted Germany in the years preceding the First World War. When we need to be ruled we too in turn begin to dream those dreams; but arguably in ‘German Spirit and German Reality’, Kracauer, with his association of the growing thinking of existential spirit-life with its own ‘monstrous display of power’, begins to suggest a new form of power and an alternative way of being ruled. For what was the 1920s push towards the emergence of existential spirit-life but a more progressive manifestation of ‘The Hunger for Wholeness’ which Peter Gay, in his Weimar Culture, saw to characterize the Weimar era ‘fear of modernity’?

‘Not all who, in the twenties, hungered for connection and unity were victims of regression; a few, outnumbered and not destined to succeed, sought to satisfy their needs not through escape from but mastery of the world, not through denunciation but employment of the machine, not through irrationalism but reason, not through nihilism but construction – and this quite literally, for this modern and democratic philosophy was formulated in their writings and carried out in their buildings by architects.’

Jaspers is positioned on the same axis of civility as Gay's mentor, Ernst Cassirer. Jaspers’ early existentialism was not anti-Kantian, but meta-Kantian. If it sought to supersede Kantian formalism, it remained structured by the antinomies (such as reason/experience) which it sought to overcome by, in Thornhill’s words [here], ‘incorporating all aspects (cognitive, practical and sensory) of human life in an encompassing account of rational and experiential existence’. To submit to (the project of) such an encompassing account, or to seek to absorb oneself within psycho-physical wholeness, was the early existentialist variant of the more populist 1920s trend defined by Kracauer: ‘to emerge from abstract ideas anchored in the ego and arrive at concrete communal forms’. But of course the existentialists, like the new urban constructors, were either ‘outnumbered’ or (in Heidegger's case) seduced by Nazism: Germany drifted on into submission to authoritarian leadership, and remained fatally trapped within the old forms of power.