Michael Zeleny (larvatus) wrote,
Michael Zeleny


― for P.N.

    I am tardy with you, because I have sought what I had forgotten, here and there, consigned to the Usenet, of your erstwhile obiter dicta. Herewith a response based on the next to nothing that I found. I shall abide by your request to withhold poetic criticism, not because I agree with your insistence that it is beyond my ken, but out of deference to your bruised sensibilities. In this regard, I also thank you for striking a pose that releases me from burdensome concerns, with a word of advice: in extolling dada, pause to attend to the thing Tristan Tzara named jem’enfoutisme.
    Your letter finds me conflicted. I am at once sorry to have given offense, and pleased to have elicited thereby the strongest of your writing that I have seen to date. Your letter also leaves me confirmed. There is nothing new in its amalgam of insecurity and condescension that I did not find in your 2003 manifesto. Still, it is an advance to move from coded insinuation to overt communication. But I will not follow your lead by drubbing you in public. Consider this forbearance a birthday present.
    My interest is in truth. I do not regard it as heroic. On the contrary, its essence is a dull divestment from the bases for qualified self-aggrandizement. Whereas a hero is always heroic at something or other, a man striving to be truthful cannot specialize in his commitment to truth. But to follow you in posing the question of this or that kind of equality to another man would give away my game. I have never done so in anyone’s regard. In approaching you with my translation, I sought to communicate a fragment of apprenticeship that you claim to value. I did so because you are a poet and I am not. I did so because my interest in rendering the French poem in English is in doing justice to its truth without offending its nature. I did so because I had recalled your heartfelt interest in truth and reluctance to offend nature. I did so because I would have liked to see you do likewise with your attempts at discussing philosophy. Most of all, I did so in the belief that as friends we were capable of balancing respect with contempt in dealing with each other. That this balance has been skewed by your resentment compounds my regret in disdaining your position.
    I have long depended on cultivated contempt. Sometimes I fancy understanding resentment. But the gap between attitudes and motives far exceeds my analytic limitations. In deference to your feelings, I keep my poetic surmises and intimations of immortality to myself. Thus I limit the following to prosaic facts and mortal values.
    As to the facts, you are pervasively wrong. It’s turtles all the way down. The most salient examples fall into two categories. As to poetry, “And can a man his own quietus make” is not a line by William Shakespeare. It belongs to D.H. Lawrence, appearing in The Ship of Death. I leave to your conscience its praise as one of the most gripping poetic lines ever written. I note that in misattributing its authorship, you come into conflict with an younger, less vulnerable version of yourself:
I believe that to understand the nature of poetry is above all to understand it’s [sic] special relationship to memory, it’s [sic] unique ability to to [sic] rescue its meaning from chaos, ― and to distinguish it from various kinds of forgettabilia.
P.N., 9 Oct 93 19:15:09
As we philosophical hacks like to say, examples can be multiplied. At this point it is helpful to retrace the original source of your unwittingly travestied allusion:
To be, or not to be; that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep―
No more, and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to―’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life,
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
―William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. III.i.58-90, edited by Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, John Jowett, and William Montgomery, in The Collected Works (CW), Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988, pp. 669-670
As Samuel Johnson observes, this soliloquy, “bursting from a man distracted with contrariety of desires, and overwhelmed with the magnitude of his own purposes, is connected rather in the speaker’s mind, than on his tongue”. I shall follow the great lexicographer in endeavoring to discover the train of Hamlet’s thought, and to show how one sentiment produces another.
Hamlet, knowing himself injured in the most enormous and atrocious degree, and seeing no means of redress, but such as must expose him to the extremity of hazard, meditates on his situation in this manner: Before I can form any rational scheme of action under this pressure of distress, it is necessary to decide, whether, after our present state, we are to be or not to be. That is the question, which, as it shall be answered, will determine, whether ‘tis nobler, and more suitable to the dignity of reason, to suffer the outrages of fortune patiently, or to take arms against them, and by opposing end them, though perhaps with the loss of life. If to die, were to sleep, no more, and by a sleep to end the miseries of our nature, such a sleep were devoutly to be wished; but if to sleep in death, be to dream, to retain our powers of sensibility, we must pause to consider, in that sleep of death what dreams may come. This consideration makes calamity so long endured; for who would bear the vexations of life which might be ended by a bare bodkin, but that he is afraid of something in unknown futurity? This fear it is that gives efficacy to conscience, which, by turning the mind upon this regard, chills the ardour of resolution, checks the vigour of enterprise, and makes the current of desire stagnate in inactivity.
Samuel Johnson’s Annotations on Hamlet III.i.56 and General Observations on Hamlet From The Works of William Shakespeare, ed. Samuel Johnson, 8 vols. (London, 1765)
Not much remains to be added beyond noting that in speaking of his bare bodkin as an instrument of his quietus, Hamlet means a mere dagger. A quietus is a receipt for a debt paid off, or an acquittal of one’s debt with a note of payment written across the ledger. Hence the bare bodkin is both the literal designate of the physical dagger with which the suicide takes his own life, and the metaphoric proxy for the moral marker with which he hopes to inscribe the settlement of his account of a lifetime. Since the pen is mightier than the sword, the dagger can be expected to fall short of fulfilling its appointed task.
And so it is in Hamlet’s case. In contradistinction to the more poetic, because more memorable, question that you extract from Lawrence, what the melancholy prince does here goes beyond posing the question of human capacity to put an end to oneself, to abut at an implication of human inability to determine the extent of this capacity, even to suggest its outright denial. To spell it out, Hamlet’s reasoning here proceeds as an enthymeme, via modus tollens:
Major Premiss: If man himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin, no man would bear the fardels of life.
Minor Premiss: Many men do bear the fardels of life. [Implied but unstated.]
Conclusion: Man himself might not his quietus make with a bare bodkin.
(I trust that you will not object to my finessing the scope of negation in the conclusion. I take it to be warranted by the epistemic modality implicit in the diminished likelihood of man’s ability expressed by the subjunctive “might”.)
    I have promised not to criticize poetry, and I shall abide by my promise. But since you have challenged me to defend philosophy and rhetoric, Lawrence deserves his turn in the spotlight. Herewith his counterpart to Hamlet’s argument:
And can a man his own quietus make
with a bare bodkin?

With daggers, bodkins, bullets, man can make
a bruise or break of exit for his life;
but is that a quietus, O tell me, is it quietus?

Surely not so! for how could murder, even self-murder
ever a quietus make?
Lawrence engages in rhetoric just as much as Shakespeare. The only way of sustaining him in your preference for non-rhetorical poetry, is by contrasting them on the level of engagement. Whereas Shakespeare latches onto the most fundamental objection to suicide, that there is no reason to suppose it to be adequate to resolving the problems at hand, Lawrence contents himself with handwaving at its conflict with some blend of moral, social, and religious prohibitions. The rhetoric of Lawrence invites objections. That people routinely get away with murder in this lifetime, warrants the surmise that they could do so in any realm that lies beyond. That not every instance of homicide qualifies to be condemned as murder, solicits the speculation that suicide could and should be excused on the grounds of reason and circumstance. It is impossible to ignore physicians violating their Hippocratic oath to administer euthanasia. It is easy to imagine lawyers arguing to justify suicide by the doctrine of proportionality in self-defense. It is plausible that a fair judge would excuse remorseful suicide as the ultimate form of contrition, and political suicide, as the most committed form of protest. Nothing of this sort is available to oppose Hamlet’s concerns. His reasoning gets to the bottom of its issue. Shakespeare’s rhetoric excels in its truth. As promised, the issue here is alethic, not poetic. I have no problem with your aesthetic judgment following your memory in favoring Lawrence posing the question at hand over Shakespeare’s hero proposing an answer thereto. As you say, rhetoric kills poetry. Hamlet’s enthymeme is a textbook example of rhetoric. Therefore, Shakespeare’s poetry is dead. Were I the Übermensch of your half-arsed vituperation, I might have capped your modus ponens with an apposite evaluation: JEDEM DAS SEINE.
But as a mediocre creature far more likely to be found confined behind the gate than consigning my betters to their lot, I can only stipulate to your superior grasp of the aesthetics of life and death.
    This brings us to your philosophical errors. You say: “You should have known, it’s been a really long while since I last postured, and I have never postured in matters poetic.” I agree. What we have here is not histrionic posturing, but its ossification into a brittle pose. Nor is it confined to matters poetic. You are traipsing on my turf. No aesthetic excuse is available for your slander of Plato inflating his disparagement of the opportunistic rhetoric of Gorgias as pandering, into a repudiation of the Socratic quest for true rhetoric, and promoting his objections to imitation as the key technique of epic poetry into animosity to poetry as such, encompassing, in addition to Homer, both your lyrical musings and epigrams wherein you recall the Philosopher himself to have “dabbled.” Having promised to avoid poetic surmises, I maintain my concern with the human value of your brash perversion of authorship and vulgar travesty of position. As Plato suggests, the mind which errs involuntarily (ἀκουσίως ἁμαρτάνουσα) is worse than that which errs voluntarily (ἑκούσιος). (Hippias Minor, 375b, the theme recapitulated by Xenophon in his Memorabilia 4.2.19 ff.) I am concerned with the way your errors betoken, not a mendacious intent to distort the truth of the matter, but a patrician unconcern with its value. Worst of all is your attempt to distinguish the salubrious poetry of talking to yourself from the specious rhetoric of swaying your listener, as if persuading yourself differed logically from persuading others. In Harry Frankfurt’s terms, as you once upon a time echoed them, you have put forth “another pathetic exercise in self-endearing bullshit.”
    Far be it from me to deny your entitlement to endear yourself. Your intellectual standards are none of my business. For all I care, you are wecome to disagree with anyone and anything you see fit. My issue arises when you elect to rub your disagreement in my face.
    Let us be clear about two things. Firstly, I have no personal interest in evaluating your, or anyone else’s writing in or about poetry. As stipulated above, I am not a poet. I am not even a consumer of poetry as such. My philistinism runs deeper yet. I am concerned with people, their ideas, and their worlds. I am interested in words as tools to be applied to their ends, not as ends in themselves. I address you as a man addresses a man, not as an obscure performance artist addresses a promising poet of a certain age. It was always so, and it will never be otherwise. We share no vocation and few common beliefs. It was not always this way, but it came to that, and I see no point and have no interest in bemoaning it. Secondly, if you want to be immune from criticism, stop making challenges. The sad story you tell of my advising you that your poems were all style and no substance came in the wake of your sending me two books. One of them had an inscription that I shall refrain from citing, lest it embarrass you in contrast with your retrojected contumely. The other contained an introduction transparently aimed at an alternative notion that you had formed of me. Witness a small sample:
Philosophy hopes to be like life, to fit itself accurately to the world. Poetry is just so much larger than life (or so it seems, except at moments when life steps on it). In poetry one’s fundamental impulse, primary purpose, unchallenged first principle, is to amaze oneself with one’s own words.
Fulcrum: an annual of poetry and aesthetics, Number Two, 2003, Editorial: Poetic Anarchy, p. 9.
This comparison finds a nice parallel in your apologetic refusal to regard me as your literary equal. I hope to live in humble submission to reason, which is the first law of life. You are just so much larger than life (or so it seems, except at moments when life steps on you). You oscillate between two extreme images of yourself. You sustain this oscillation with sophomoric provocations. As you point out, every time you say “the philosopher” in your editorial, you sort of refer to me, or some version of me. You cruise for a bruising and sulk after a slap. In conjunction with your wounded reaction to my unusually restrained response, a reaction disclosed after a seething delay of some eighteen months, the sum total of your behavior recalls an ethological example that you observed on your last visit. My neighbor’s bitch habitually yelps at Cosmo in his toothless dotage. The other day Tony invited me to dinner, insisting that my faithful dog come along to make peace with his canine companion. Venus greeted Cosmo with customary shrieks, then pissed all over herself when he growled back. And so it often happens between men.
    Get over yourself already. This is not a competitive exchange, and they never have been. The point of criticism need not be to blow up the critic’s ego nor to cut off his subject’s nut sack. When you inject your lucubrations into a public forum, they become fair game for public opinion. This goes double when your disclosure is accompanied by coyly encoded challenges directly communicated to their subject. If you are loath to suffer critical attention from your inferiors, consign your circulation to the anointed coterie. Least of all can you expect to assail your erstwhile dedicatee in his idea of vocation without steeling yourself for a payback. If you seek to offend, toughen up your skin. This is no more than common sense. Put your rhetoric to a mirror. You are neither qualified nor inclined to pose as a philosopher. So what in the world could you possibly imagine to have to say about the nature of philosophy that could be of any interest to a serious man? And why does it seem to be such a vital concern of yours to denigrate philosophy in your defenses of poetry? And how does your muchly vaunted empathy coexist with the compulsion to sneer in print at another man’s modus vivendi, worked out over a lifetime, at a great personal cost, in the privacy of his heart, and nowise imposed upon you? I will not follow you in submitting purely rhetorical questions recommended for your personal reflection. You may answer or not, as you see fit. But for now, we are done with vocational issues. In this regard, all that remains is to address two ends and five words.
    You have written off the rational consolations of philosophy. This is not a subject fit for disagreement. But a few remarks are to the point. The genre of therapeutic writing neither begins with Montaigne nor retreats from philosophical disciplines at any time. Montaigne never purports his thought to be anything but a conduit for the Stoics, and it suffices to point out the man that for better or worse belongs among the most influential philosophers of the last century, with his project “to shew the fly out of the fly bottle”, to give the lie to to your contrast with the thriving of poetic “bibliotherapy”. This is neither an antiquarian concern, nor a sociological cavil. Illness and injury are serious matters. You have a civil right to name your poison. It does not entail a warrant to destroy yourself. In my personal dissent and paucity of sentiment, in a striving to recall the fine character committed to memory, I see the expression of your refusal briefly open the door to the finest qualities that I have seen anyone manifest. In a justly famous passage of Nicomachean Ethics, 4, 1124a1-1124b23, Aristotle describes greatness of soul or magnanimity, μεγαλοψυχία, as the crowning ornament of virtues. You have within you more magnanimity than any other living being I know. In coming to me thirteen years ago, in readiness to submit your desire to the scrutiny of reason, you have shown more courage and virtue than I ever saw in any other man. But for the moment you choose to vacillate aimlessly betwixt self-aggrandizement and self-loathing. It need not be so. The sense of loss that places you beyond therapy is the most fitting complement to your soulful surfeit. Like all other objects of definition, the therapeutic life is defined by its limitations. Its cruelest limitation is set by time.
    This brings me to your disconnectedness from your keywords. Grace is neither an integral part of my personal makeup, nor an observable feature of my Lebensraum. You miss your mark at another point in dismissing certainty. I never claimed it in vital matters, and neither does any Platonist. You write “with certainty and grace” for their sound, unconcerned with their substance. In short, your unconsummated kisoff poem reveals an untruth, just as I have come to expect. Without engaging its poetic quality, I can only hope that its serves such therapeutic need as my banal cruelty might have imposed upon you.
    Here enters the voice of my disconcerting vulgarity. Long inured to motivation by smoldering contempt, I am ill equipped to cope with resentful seething and skyrocketing rage. I simply lack the capacity to hold a grudge, until and unless I convert its object into my enemy. What you take in and sneer at is my way of groping for words and deeds adequate to my predicament. Thus I turn to your aesthetic recommendation. Pursuant to your prescription, I have revisited Nabokov’s crusade against poshlust. Let us overlook the pragmatic issue with speaking of vulgarity whilst avoiding self-reference of the sort evinced in your qualifications of equality, undermining itself in the familiar fashion of calling attention to a trait that otherwise might have gone unnoticed. Here it is:
Open the first magazine at hand and you are sure to find something of the following kind: a radio set (or a car, or a refrigerator, or table silver—anything will do) has just come to the family: mother clasps her hands in dazed delight, the children crowd around, all agog, Junior and the dog strain up to the edge of the table where the Idol is enthroned; even Grandma of the beaming wrinkles peeps out somewhere in the background (forgetful, we presume, of the terrific row she has had that very morning with her daughter-in-law); and somewhat apart, his thumbs gleefully inserted in the armpits of his waistcoat, legs a-straddle and eyes a-twinkle, stands triumphant Pop, the Proud Donor. The rich poshlust emanating from advertisements of this kind is due not to their exaggerating (or inventing) the glory of this or that serviceable article but to suggesting that the acme of human happiness is purchasable and that its purchase somehow ennobles the purchaser. Of course, the world they create is pretty harmless in itself because everybody knows that it is made up by the seller with the understanding that the buyer will join in the make-believe. The amusing part is not that it is a world where nothing spiritual remains except the ecstatic smiles of people serving or eating celestial cereals or a world where the game of the senses is played according to bourgeois rules (“bourgeois” in the Flaubertian, not in the Marxist sense) but that it is a kind of satellite shadow world in the actual existence of which neither sellers nor buyers really believe in their heart of hearts—especially in this wise quiet country.
    ―Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol, New York: New Directions, 1961, pp. 66-67
This I take to be the crux of Nabokov’s philippic, if you would kindly pardon the expression, to which you refer me in connection with my putative heroics. I note two factors that countermand your recommendation to attend to this doctrine as a corrective to my vulgarity. The first is your telling it like it is in regard to the swelling of your dick, “that elegant utensil reaching for its sugar basin,” communicating fertility into the pussy of your inamorata. As a poet, you are entitled to censure your inferiors for following in your footsteps: “Aliis si licet, mihi non licet.” The second is another conflict with an earlier edition of you:
Quite apart from my doubts about there being such a thing as ‘pure aesthetics’, allow me to point out to you that Nabokov’s doctrine of ‘poshlust’ (‘kitsch’ is a far better word, but insufficiently twee by Nabokovian standards) strongly suggests that Nabokov himself had no conception of ethics as distinct from aesthetics, which circumstance makes your diatribe against ‘Big Ethical Issues’ rather meaningless.
P.N., 17 Nov 94 18:39:20
Having worked out your pure aesthetics, you are entitled to overlook such ethical quiddities. I am in no position to rebut your appeal to a mystic, indefinable category for whose detection a ‘particular shrewdness’, especially characteristic of the sensitive Russian mind, is absolutely essential. Perhaps the pleasure you now take in the hysterical overstretch reading into a banal sales pitch a clandestine suggestion that the acme of human happiness is purchasable and that its purchase somehow ennobles the purchaser, parallels the hyperbole of your attack on Plato. Still, as you know, I have no problems with refusing to play the game of the senses according to bourgeois rules, provided that we are honest about the implications of this refusal. But that is not what you do. You seek to elude rhetoric in constraining your audience to yourself. As a result, instead of distilling rhetoric through submission to truth, you succeed only in choosing an onanistic variety of pandering. The illumination that both of us have recently found in tragedy is only a foreboding of inevitable dispositions. They expose your attempted “farewell to philosophy” as an untruth of devastating proportions. To paraphrase your thought of yesteryear, the less I understand you, the more likely I am to admire you. What I do understand at any rate, what applies across the line, is that there are no alternatives to philosophy, other than native faith and complacent stupidity. As Flaubert wrote to Louise Colet, “Etre bête, égoïste, et avoir une bonne santé, voilà les trois conditions voulues pour être heureux ; mais si la première nous manque, tout est perdu.” You seem to be in good health, and the instant exchange bodes well for the prospects of egotism. But both you and I know that stupidity is not in the cards. Setting aside the happy option, I have no idea whether or not you believe yourself to have faith. But speaking from everything that I have learned with, from, and about you over the past fourteen years, let me assure you that even if you do, it is not of the sort that could preempt your need for philosophy. Kenning will not cure cancer.
    There remains the need to answer your challenge:
I have seen you argue philosophically against lying and I have seen you lie, I have seen you preach stoicism and I have seen you whine, I have seen you pronounce ponderously upon poetry and I have seen you not comprehend its basic qualities. Since you have chosen the confessional genre, why not write about all that if you want an “examined life,” “things as they are”? About the cold, narcissistic, unloving, self-pitying, superficial, cruel and banal jackass, so-so friend and minor philosopher that you often are ― then see what you can save for best. Surprise me. There is a nice passage in your prose about not wanting to be a “stone cold fucker.” It’s a good part but not sufficiently fleshed out; you must have had solid reasons for writing along those lines.
You misunderstand my intent. I am not writing in the confessional genre. This is a work of apology, constrained by want of faith and triteness of circumstance. The challenge is to make contrition in the absence of standards for evaluation. In this connection, I am happy to explain not wanting to be a stone cold fucker. These words were part of a dialogue with a man who once fathered a child in another country, renowned for its social safety nets for unmarried mothers. Disclaiming responsibility for the woman’s choice to carry her pregnancy to term, he declined to have anything to do with his son for thirty years. Being a little slow on the uptake, on the occasion of my parents’ home burning down, I entrusted him and his crew with the job of moving their belongings to my place. As a result, all their valuables vanished into thin air.
    Time to draw a contrast. Your fatherhood is a credit to your integrity. But for my part, I would rather have my friend trespass against my property, than boost his ego by insulting my sense of the self. That is the way of the stone cold careerist.
Tags: bullshit, friends, onanism, philosophy, poetry, shakespeare, vanity

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