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.’

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