Memories of Rome

This is a somewhat edited version of an essay that was published in the official anthology of the 2016 Seoul International Writer’s Festival, held 25.9.-1.10. in Seoul, South Korea, under the theme The Forgotten and the Unforgettable. I cannot say that I am entirely happy with it, as most of the ideas sound to me now like marginal notes requiring elaboration and the injection of actual personal context — why were these thoughts important to me while I was writing the essay? Sadly, it’s impossible to delve into those issues here, as of now…

There is a parable Freud tells in Civilization and its Discontents, where he asks us to compare the mind with Rome — that is, to consider “a psychical entity (…) in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one”. This exercise in imagination, ironically enough, quickly leads to “things that are unimaginable and even absurd”, since “where the Coliseum now stands we could at the same time admire Nero’s vanished Golden House”, and “on the Piazza of the Pantheon we should find not only the Pantheon of today (…) but, on the same site, the original edifice erected by Agrippa”.

For Freud, this “phantasy” serves as an illustration of the complex nature of our minds, “that in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish (…)” — but also, that this very truth is quite beyond our conscious conceptual capacities. Thus, it is in actuality a parable of the incomparability of the mind to the real world. Is it not strange, then, that he should have come up with it in the first place (as he himself notes, the city is “a priori unsuited for a comparison of this sort” because cities are constantly being destroyed and rebuilt)?

I suspect it happened because the metaphor of memory as a place is ubiquitous in the history of Western thought — and what a curious tradition it is! Its most developed form can be seen in the ancient arts of memory, the ars memoria, which directed centuries of pupils of rhetoric from the gymnasiums of Greece to the cathedral schools of Medieval Europe to build memory palaces in their mind, and to store there the various sententia, the wise words and arguments of the established auctores, to be used in the invention of future eloquence.

Through this schooling, literature came to be seen as a landscape of topoi, of “places” of argument, illustration, embellishment and admonition, but most of all a place to build in imitation and recognition of an ideal place, the harmonious world of true, beautiful and just ideas. Importantly, for the history of poetry, these places of memory are not words, but images: students were taught to encode teachings in the form of pictures.

My interest in the arts of memory stems from my own incapacity in the face of a very fundamental question: where do ideas come from? If I do not quite believe, with Dante, that the images of imagination land in our fantasy like a rain of self-guiding, spontaneous divine fire (as the poet describes in Canto 17 of the Purgatory) or subscribe to Plato’s theory that we somehow already know what to say — as in the dialogue Meno, where Socrates shows how an unschooled slave boy can be revealed to have knowledge of geometry — I do believe that the task of a poet is to be a kind of receptacle of anamnesis: to invent, often out of thin air, an originality that may be fictional but that is nevertheless necessary for human life.

If that sounds very lofty, let me assure you that I do not have in mind anything more spectacular than the observation which the philosopher Vilém Flusser once made, that the invention of writing was significant because it allowed for the emergence of historical consciousness, since in writing one can stop and review that which had been thought, what in oral discourse is always lost to time, and revise it.

For Flusser, it was this revisionary consciousness which facilitated the emergence of critical thought, which is another way of saying that writing something down becomes, at once, not just a matter of remembering, but of judging, and through the act of judgment, a matter of ethics, of values, of belief.

Such was, after all, the nature of anamnesis for Plato. To remember what each of us must already know — perfect knowledge — is to have access to the right kind of life and the right kind of action. From this point of view it is understandable that Plato criticized the poets. They were, after all, the guardians of the oral history of their people, the cultural knowledge that gave the Greeks of Athens of their values and identity. To put the matter more bluntly than is perhaps necessary, if these poets merely recited words that were dictated to them, copying the copies of copied words instead of intoning the truth about the real, what were they? Clearly, because they had not done the work of rational self-investigation, of having come to know oneself, they could not be trusted.

It is important to note that for Plato the Delphic dictum “to know oneself” meant, in one sense, that it was inconceivable for someone who had knowledge of ultimate virtue to act against such knowledge; this would merely show that he had not become aware of his true self. Crucially, for Plato, such knowledge can’t be or cannot have been forgotten, since each thing exists eternally and necessarily as its own idea. Therefore, the task of the true poet — the philosopher king — is to reveal what is eternal in the temporary, or infinite in the finite.

It is of course true that the history of Plato’s reception in the West (not to mention the notion that it is very hard to know what Plato “really” thought) is incredibly complex and my summary doesn’t really do any justice to it, but in the grand scheme of things it is perhaps at least somewhat safe to say that the legacy of Plato’s idealism in poetry is the story of romanticism: to see eternity in a flower, or feel the intimations of immortality in our earliest memories. In this tradition, the difference between forgetting and remembering appears to us as the difference between the mortal and the immortal, the transitory and the eternal, the accidental and the necessary, fancy and imagination. In a kind of vicious — or if you prefer, predestined — circle, the true romantic poet’s task is to always keep remembering who we are, since we, because we are mortal, always forget what is immortal within us.

But, if it is sometimes necessary to forget in order to remember, doesn’t that mean that the necessary must, for a time, appear accidental, the immortal mortal, the eternal ephemeral and fleeting — as if they could, somehow, occupy the same place at the same time, Nero’s Golden House where the Coliseum now stands? With this paradox, we come back not only to Freud’s Rome, but to my own question: is creation really a matter of producing, out of nothing, something?

To be quite honest, I don’t really know. Creation presents us with a problem which is, in essence, unsolvable, because both the matter of creation and the medium of its existence is time: the equally imaginary, though distinctly different substances of history and memory, the written and the spoken word.

For which one was first? Our memory of things or the facts themselves? The sign or the thing signified? The philosophers who tackle these problems have not helped us to live through them, nor have science or technology prepared us to face this question, which is at the root of our being, insofar as we, as human subjects, are first and foremost subjects of language, and come to be ourselves through the function of the sign which points in our direction. We are where we say “I am”, but by saying so do two completely different things: mean both ourselves and the sign we mean — history, the generality and totality of language as a system and a record of fact, and memory, the singular, particular experience of being the one to whom the facts are inflicted upon, but also the one who can, because he remembers, forget.

Indeed, if I am myself, if I recognize myself as the sum of my experiences, doesn’t that mean that I am myself only insofar as I remember myself? If that is so, how is the common experience of forgetting oneself possible? Each of us has felt it, the feeling of returning to what was most true, most original about us: “I remembered who I was”, we say. But we remember who we were only because we had been someone else first, as if the forgetting had been in some sense necessary.

The sinister aspect of this realisation is that although we have forgotten the truth, the truth does not forget about us. That is the reality of the speaking being: that we can forget the words, but the words do not forget about us; that the forgotten truth about ourselves is left operational as the compulsion to repeat the uncontrollable quirks and the inconceivable twitches, the implacable urges and the passionate gestures which govern our actions and inform our judgments as the unconscious which we do not remember, but which never forgets about us.

Now, if the unforgettable part of us is the unconscious, doesn’t that mean that the forgettable is the self, the ego, the perishable frontier of our existence? This would explain why the experience of modernity is often the painful nostalgia of a subject history or myth has failed to protect from this realization, or, as Giacomo Leopardi once noted, it is curious how nothing new can appear poetical to us, only the distant, the vague, the indefinite.

Leopardi’s nostalgia is not the longing for myth, but the nostalgia we feel toward our self — what William Wordsworth meant when he said that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity: that the art of memory and the art of invention are the same, that the self is both invented and remembered, and therefore poetics are not, for the poet, merely descriptive, but prescriptive, in the sense even of medicinal prescriptions, of dietetics, therapeutics, of a regimen for the exercising and developing of our self-creative abilities.

This task is not an easy one, as the poetry of Wordsworth, in spite of his theories, shows: his magnum opus, The Prelude, the autobiographical epic of his own growth into the poet he became, is not a masterpiece on account of the accuracy of its recollections but because of its many redactions, repressions, and revisions, the decades of difference between its versions, and the uses they had for the person we like to think was the same, but really wasn’t, just like Rome is not the Eternal City, but yet, and still: isn’t that the reason why we go there? Isn’t that the reason for our pilgrimage: to build, in the palace of our minds, out of memories which we have not made, but somehow find as given, an incomparable edifice for the restoration of the best version of ourselves? Isn’t that, in the end, why we read — to remember how to believe?

Some Notes on the Necessity of Ignorance

This is a talk I gave in Beijing, China, at the Beijing Normal University Writing Center’s International Forum for Commemorating Chinese Avantgarde Literature on the 25th of November, 2015, having been invited there as an alumni of the Iowa Writing Center’s International Fall Residency Program.

Esteemed colleagues and hosts. I would like to begin this presentation by describing what happened when I began, as someone absolutely ignorant of Chinese avantgarde literature, to read the most accessible introductory text available to me, the anthology called China’s Avantgarde Fiction, edited by Jing Wang, and published by Duke University Press in 1998.

This paperback edition presents the work of seven writers of the avantgarde fiction movement of the late 80s and early 90s: Ge Fei, Yu Hua, Su Tong, Can Xue, Bei Cun, Sun Ganlu and Ma Yuan. I had heard of none of them prior to opening this anthology.

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The State of Poetry

A speech for the 51st International Poetry Spring Festival, Vilnius, Lithuania. I was unable to attend because of an illness, but here is the address, just to have it somewhere.

The state of poetry: the concept sparks the mind to invent a fabulous fable, a possible past, where the bards Plato threw out of his rational state had, in exile, gathered on a mountain, perhaps like the one where Marsilio Ficino’s humanistic dialogues took place, a monastic mountain, after the manner of Karmel, to form their own polis, a closed cloister of monks each reciting the glory of their own, personal god. The mere image of that ivory tower sends shivers down the spine. Let prose guard us from such a possibility!

All humor aside, it is apparent that there is and can be no state of poetry, that it is, at best, a metaphor: either the timeless white page as a place of communion for the unavowable community of Blanchot or a diplomatic government of the tongue, where Ovid shakes hands with Seamus, and Zbigniew with Octavio. Continue reading

The Future of Poetry

(The following is a short essay based on my contributions to a panel of the same name, held at the Poetry Moon literary festival in Helsinki in August. The other panelists were the American poet Ron Silliman and the literary critic Maaria Ylikangas.)

At the most general level, the question – does poetry have a future – is absurd: almost like asking what the future of color will be, or the future of musical sound.

In this sense, there will undoubtedly be “poetry” in the future, and we will find the evening sky or the bend in the neck of a swan to be poetic, but as lines printed on paper in sequence, well, I don’t think that kind of poetry has had much of a future ever since the beginning of the 20th century, at least ever since Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés, other than to perpetuate its own half-life, the crisis of the line.

Ever since that fateful dice-throw, the word “poetry” has simply had too many conflicting usages. Poetry as the best of what is thought and said. Poetry as de-automatization of the senses. Poetry as an ideological value-judgment. Poetry as an absurd print convention. Poetry as code, a conceptual game. Poetry as autobiographical, confessional verse. Apples and oranges. Can we really talk about the future of “poetry” as such?

Obviously not. But then again, could we ever? One might argue that this crisis of poetry is as old as the separation between oral and written literature in the Ancient world, or the separation between sung song and written lyric in the Renaissance, and, although verse and voice lived, very briefly, in harmony on the stages of European theater, that time too has passed.

Today, performed, voiced poetry from spoken word to rap and stand-up to storytelling might at first appear to be bridging this age-old gap and bringing about a new reconciliation between voice and text, but one should seriously ask what the context of performance does, what the demands put on the text by performativity are doing to poetic texts.

The spoken word is not the written word: they exist differently in time, and they use different rhetorical methods to achieve their ends. One is dependent on the presence of a performer, one isn’t. Therefore, no matter how inclusive of genre or style or subject performance poetry may say it is, it will never be able to be inclusive enough: much of what is central to written poetry cannot be communicated in performance.

Another point of difference is that what constitutes the work in performance is not the text but the whole rhetorical staging of it, which itself achieves its different criteria of excellence by either strengthening and affirming or subverting and redrawing personal and intersubjective boundaries related to manifesting personality, racial, sexual or gender identity.

The written poem, on the other hand, works (especially in the Modernist/Avantgarde tradition) by re-coding the reading situation in order to produce something the reader has to decipher according to impersonal codes: typographical cues, generic or non-generic imagery, riddles and clues. With writing, there are always new rules we need to apply, and the success of a written poem is based on the ratio between complexity and familiarity. Too difficult, and the poem is unsolvable. Too easy, and it teaches us nothing.

A performance cannot present itself as something to decipher, though, because deciphering takes time. So, even when the text is “difficult”, a performance will only “work” if the performer’s charisma carries it through, justifies the complexity by an appearance of affability or the building of trust through other rhetorical means. Writing doesn’t work that way. Absence and presence, text and subject: the axis of contemporary poetry?

Perhaps, but while speech-based forms appear to be on the rise, the written poem is showing signs of declining, to be replaced by images and code. The tradition of Western modernism and its avantgarde movements draws attention to the material page, demanding that we read visually, alert for cues only typography can supply: reading, since the beginning of this tradition, became non-linear, hypertextual (long before the term became an early internet meme).

This non-linear visuality was itself, however, only a kind of design document, a prototype. Today, in poetic artworks utilizing and inspired by new media, the “poem” is not the text, but the code which, when run, produces an output, the readable instance. The actual written work is the program, which no one sees (or understands). This is much more than “conceptual poetry” (which itself is merely performance art masquerading as literature). This is something we have no name for, and so we fall back on the old word, and call it poetry.

This is what the word “poetry” has to bear today, this impossible load of irreconcilable meaning. And still we go on, because we need poetry: we need it to guarantee cultural distinction, to give our projects the veneer of linguistic excellence. To be poetic, to be a poet, to have written poetry, is to be a progressive, a pioneer, a vanguard of language and communication, of self-presentation: the best that has been thought and said, the best words in the best order.

Is the future of poetry then to be a kind of sign of quality, an advertising slogan? Perhaps, again, is all I can say; but such was always the case, was it not? To talk of what “our poetry” must be in order to be proper, is to talk about values, about religion, politics, beliefs: the best people in the best order, saying what is right and proper.

That is why critics, who pass judgment on poetry and either deny or affirm a work as good or bad poetry are at the same time also defining the communicative values we should uphold in our society: do we want to understand strangers, do we want to invent new ways of speaking about a changed world, or do we want everyone to agree with us, to believe in the same values, the same dogmas, the same cliches?

How can we agree in such situations, if and when the poets and the critics and the poetry in question are so wildly incommensurable as to reduce the whole discussion into farce? Is there anything to share, if we think in completely opposite ways?

We don’t usually come against such problems, because like-minded people group together and hardly mix with people of a different degree. We keep a friendly face, uphold social consensus by saying that diversity is great and all, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel that some poets are completely rubbish and others just fantastic.

Some might feel that we need a new revolution, a communal and aesthetic upheaval. But from the point of view of history, only failed revolutions are successful: only by integrating themselves with traditional institutions (or becoming institutions of their own) have rebels ever been able to change taste or thought. Revolutions, when they do succeed, lead to Terror and gulags.

Even from a more practical viewpoint, the problem with institutional reform today is that our institutions aren’t going to be around for much longer. The next ten years, I imagine, will still be spent adjusting to what has been called (by the futurologist and science fiction writer Bruce Sterling) the paradigm of atemporality, as our linear interfaces with recorded history continue to be replaced by the networked archive’s non-linear ones.

But some time in the near future, as material conditions change, minds will change. Signs of that change are already everywhere. For instance, since the nature of the archive is undifferentiated surface – uncategorized data – this abundance of information coupled with the scarcity of available time produces, in many of us, decision and valuation fatigue. Therefore, the recent trend of “curators”: critics without opinions or interpretations usurping authors by providing their readers with feeds of interestingness; headlines to skim instead of deep reading.

As minds change, reading habits – or the cognitive styles employed by readers – change, or have already changed, as many recent studies show. In place of the long read (and I don’t mean the “long read” of hip data journalism, but focused, interpretative reading of difficult texts, deep reading), there’s increased demand for “street food”: twitter weird, meme-bait, snapshot-alt-lit.

As reading changes, the work of writing will change. I suspect that in the near future a kind of precarious decanonization of literature and authorship will take place, mostly through forms of crowdfunded self-publishing. A new form of patronism (e.g. demanding a new kind of engagement between the author and the reader, where certain donors are eligible for extra content. The reader becomes a customer, the author provides a service.

At the same time, an increasing disintermediation will either destroy traditional publishers or force them to grow into behemoths: information wants to be free, and traditional institutions that used to thrive by holding information hostage and demanding a premium for access will no longer be able to do so. Legacy media will either die off or breed with new species.

This evolutionary future will probably belong to the impossibly large and quickly evolved (Amazon, Google) but also the ineffably small (bedroom web-publishing). There are going to be huge vertical differences but not much horizontal variety. At least, that is what it will look like from the point of view of the giants: the larger the outlet, the fewer its available points of view, entry or access will be, and the paradoxical thing is that this dwindling of viewpoints will not be because of a lack of resources but because of the fear of a lack of exposure. If you have to drive traffic, you don’t invest in byzantine labyrinths, unless you can tag them as a form of “alternative” click-bait. On the ground, under the canopy, mixing with the rotting litter, weird flora and fauna will exist, but who knows how they will survive?

Perhaps there will be no future at all: the media philosopher Vilem Flusser in his essay “Does Writing Have a Future” said, quite famously, no. Linear writing will be replaced by images and code. I don’t believe that, necessarily. But the truth is that poetry in verse is no longer commensurable at all with whatever else is called poetry out there. Therefore, like all the good little segregated communities of Western society, we, different sisters and brothers of the same mother, will shed these historical vestiges of social-democratic new-deal familiality and retreat inside the limits of our subcultures, there to inbreed our future mutants, whoever or whatever they will be.