By Keston Sutherland
27th August 2004
Of all the letters I might be fortunate enough hardly to know how to begin, I can’t presently imagine one more fortunate and formidable than this letter. I’m sitting in my new home in a cold morning spent warming up for the task, but how to do that, Mozart’s vesperae solennes de confessore in the front room not yet quite an inner lounge, some frantic and newly bewildered recourse to Whitman (more about this later), last night having lived through The Unconditional to its breathtaking and unended last page. There is so much more to say even of what I do know about this poem than I can think myself yet capable of saying, and infinitely more besides; this will be only my first attempt, and I make it in the passionate hope that it will throw me still further and more tightly into the knot of my desire to speak it. Anyone who will know your poem will know that it could never permit anything less to be asked of him by it.
Upfront and everywhere else too I will say what you must already be convinced of, though in light of the unconditional radicalism of your self-doubt there is possibly room to suspect that you aren’t: this is a unique poem that I believe no-one else could ever have written. With the word ‘unique’ I risk resembling a mere blurbist. Let me try to qualify it, first of all in a rather general way. It is a poem not only unique in its accomplishment of thinking, into which it earns its way with the most strenuous imaginable commitment, truly a philosophic song like no other; it is unique also and perhaps more profoundly in its immense, anannihilative fidelity to the living need for uniqueness, for the one particularity of uniqueness itself not to be shaded off somewhere into the pastel reserves of a generalisable concepthood but to be here and now, if that’s the only place and time where heaven is though not itself at least myself.
Let me try to figure out if I understand what I mean by that. When I say ‘uniqueness’ I think I really mean something like ‘the absolute.’ The absolute, in your sense, I take to be defined partly by the absolute malignity of certain kinds of thinking which occlude or prevent it. The formalistic reduction of truth to adequation and its implied ethics of getting-just-enough-to-get-by; the subdual of all possible thinking by dialectics, on the slide from dialexis to dialele, Kant’s and then Henry’s “miserable circle;” the satiable lust for gameplay on a plateau or a platter of thousands of them; the tinny revolt of revaluators against a “supersensible” world of “superior” values (truth, the good etc) said not to belong to life but with total and instant efficacity to “depreciate” it; the embedded report on “ideology” that won’t get out of bed since after all a world where “everything” “is” ideological is a great spot for intellectual recumbency; best practice; positivism in the infinite amazonian classmark of philological work-to-do (or, My Halcyon Life in the Index with John Armstrong); taking a load off, Aufforderung-zum-Tanz-style, half-rationalising in the next whiskey (or rather, beer) bar, O not asking why etc; and crosswise above all, the mock-up golgotha kept under the counter for whoever sees the deep equivalence in all these semi-colons and the life they divide up.
That could be a start. But ‘absolute’ in your poem is not defined only by the array of what can be identified as its preventions. And here I think is another claim for its uniqueness. Can a life be so possessed of its own defeat, knowing the full, terrible intimacy of that defeat right up to the least press of its foot against the earth, that it knows finally how to realise the conceivability of indefeasible life, precisely through the perpetual affliction of owning defeat itself? Would this be dialele again, a mere dalliance with the toggle key? The second question has to be admitted but only as a condition of rendering the first question capable of getting a positive answer—which of course is never yet to say that it gets one. But could it get one. And, or rather, but, is this the only way for life to know the absolute other than by a negative vinculum: to become through total ownership of defeat, finally indefeasible? What could that mean anyhow, to be indefeasible surely would never mean never to be defeated, unless some part of life laurelised as a core is claimed to stand beyond the “accidents” which Aesthetics from Schiller to O’Hara and everywhere else too delegates to something which life does but which it isn’t, a Jobless in the wing of himself; and you will not have that, and you uniquely will not, there is no exit from defeat for the ankles and throat unless the thumb and the cock and the clitoris have it too. This is the problem of immanence, or at least to me it is a problem since I find it increasingly difficult to trust in the hermeneutica sacra of my life that would tell me how much more I need to be wholly in it than even partly out of it, as if any extrusion of myself from the dignity of self-knowledge amounted instantly to an abrogation of the whole crux. Might the concept of immanence not itself be the deepest abrogation? Might it not even be this concept (and not the myriad rebukes to its pure conceivability and liveability) which is at root the psycho-historical both-Quell-and-Zwang of the conditionality of all thinking? I take it that you would not go along with this question; certainly you are fore-armed against it.
And here I could add another kind of thinking to the great grille of kinds divided up by semi-colons earlier on: psychoanalytic thinking seems to get abbreviated shrift. I say this for a few particular reasons. The largest, maybe, is that I think two of the heroes of The Unconditional are Augustine and Adorno, and that this (together with your own original thinking) means that the axis of cognitive and spiritual disrepair runs so fixedly from stupefaction to rationality that it deletes its diagonal intersect, again from rationality but this time not downward into stupefaction but crosswise into irrational life, vagueness and disorder, in which I believe can be discovered not only unhappiness but also a bliss in surrender to instinct that may discord with but does not need to be made subordinate to the bliss of knowledge. It doesn’t need to be made subordinate because it cannot be, without implicit reversion to the problem of immanence taken on the terms that aesthetics has always claimed to be its own, i.e. inside-life is more beautiful than outside-life with the qualification drawn off from phenomenology that all life is inside-life once we get our heads straight. But I know that my head is bent: and I believe that I want it to be. I have a taste for blurring thought, often more propitious for my poetry than longing for it (Unc. p.127).
I think psychoanalytic thinking is unjustly incarcerated in the semi-colons for another reason, not this time much to do with epistemology or what a life is, but more simply (in one sense) to do with unhappiness and its obduracy in real experience. I can only speak here from precisely where I most want to speak, from my personal experience of depression and the now lifelong attempt to keep it out of my life. For me, the way out of the most perilous dialectics as a miserable circle is not to be had by legislating for the sake of cognition a limit to what dialectics can rightly address or handle, and then by defending cognition against the false encroachment of dialectics out of its proper place. That sounds more reductive than I mean it to be, but I do mean it, ever since falling in every sense flat on my face in a hurricane of efforts not merely to understand Augustine but somehow in full possession of my life to conjure his door and way, efforts more desperately self-destructive in my case than the simply annihilative self-destruction of feeling unable to care whether I was destroyed or not. Dialectics was the only way out of itself I was able to discover, and that not through thinking made so infinitely contortible that the exits could proliferate as if spontaneously, but rather through a trial by fire that I had to know was a hoop to be jumped through but which was at least one, unrepeatable hoop: what was it. For me, it was the conviction (I will hesitate to call it knowledge) that my nearest intimacy with the absolute was neither asymptotic (I too despise the metaphor revealed on the scratch-card under the symbol for calculus) nor in the usual sense temporary and fleeting, but precisely a unique moment of transition: nearness to the absolute was itself the transition, it was not a transition into or even some way toward the absolute but irreversibly through what I could see of it from my own distance, and out the other side, and out the other side was not steadfastness but again dialectics, though a dialectics at least potentially and sometimes actually blissful and no longer a dialectics whose burden of negation would in every instance of thinking fall ultimately on who I am or even on my life. That may sound like dialectics for evangelicals, or not like dialectics at all. If its criticality were no longer tightly intimate and reflexive but merely pointed outward and flapping about in the breezes of unending disputation I would concede immediately that I’d lost it or traded it in; but it doesn’t feel that way, I am hurt as well as blissful with this head, endlessly extruded from it and rifled through, and not less critical of “my complicity” in negation just because I refuse any longer to believe that the burden of negation is either collaterally or ultimately ontological in every case by default. I don’t believe it because I don’t find it believable, not because I think it is an option either to be believed or not believed.
I’m attempting with this letter to clarify these thoughts for the first time, so please forgive any mess superfluous to the mess intended. Or rather don’t for a minute forgive any of it, but please write back and challenge the whole lot. I veer into personal testimony in part because The Unconditional commands the introspect of its reader with an unrelentingly minute drama of attention to the whole spectrum of your own life in and out; and though the life I’m here calling “your own” is evidently not set up as a specimen, the exhibition of whose climacteric is intended didactically to rouse up “readers” into a performance of the same, the poem does, for me at least, generously and irresistibly compel a kind of emulation of its labour of self-doubt—an emulation whose compulsoriness feels especially generous since it is to some extent freed of the otherwise instinctive routines of catechistical self-mockery by the poem’s pre-emptive dramatization of those routines. This makes it a work of the sort you talk about in your paralipomena ‘Mock as screen and optic:’ thinking which anticipates the objections that might be made against it, not in order to be “right” (as the poem itself tells me), but, I assume, so that the necessary mediation of its arguments by and in the lives of other people is not unnecessarily intermediate but is instead compelled quickly toward the uttermost possible response. I admire this and I think that for the most part it is done rigorously and powerfully. But here and there I wonder if the self-aimed reproach doesn’t shade out of optic and into screen, or if maybe the predictableness of the reproach doesn’t arouse a flit of suspicion that the game is rigged, albeit perhaps inevitably, since many of the real reproaches flung at us are after all nothing but acid and gossamer—but for the sake of making the point, I’d pick out (e.g.) the screensaver “Tsk” on p.179 and its improbable “sire,” and maybe the malicious laughter and its long espousal on p.113. Perhaps what feels rigged about these cavils and condemnations is precisely that they are invariably malicious. Here again I wonder if the challenge of psychoanalytic thinking has been met head-on, where it might have been. Within the intermittent, disrupted mock–Spenserian (and at times almost Beckettian) narrative of the workings of wofull ruth, it would be arresting to hear a reproachful interpolation that resisted the intense confessions of incapacity not with a sneer, nor with a fashionable denial of pathos, nor by recourse to some sophisticated theory with a rising stock on the market of reality principles, but with disinterested and patient concern that nonetheless doesn’t stint on disagreement. The absence of this (shorthand: parental) voice I almost read as a resistance to dialectics rather than (only) as a full-on pursuit of negation—a resistance in particular to the very intimate dialectic of being at once myself denied by and myself the denial of that voice and its contradictorily unique authority for what I forever want to be and want not to be. In suggesting that this voice is absent I’m less interested in finding fault with a poem deliberately defined, in part, by its absence, than in asking you whether you agree that it could possibly not have been absent? Do you know the voice I mean?
My sense now is that even the most obdurate dialectical thinking in pursuit even of the most telescopic or consummate negation finds in this voice its counterbalance, and that “cognition,” insofar as I feel any need to define it, is the crux of (1) dialectics and (2) an internalised, contradictorily authoritative voice that swings in effect between benevolence toward “me” and enmity, depending on my luck, how much I’m drinking, who meets me, what’s in the news etc. They are a crux, and neither identical nor strictly non-identical. I suppose I can distinguish them but I can’t ever bracket out one or the other, though either one might seem momentarily to be suspended or in the grip of the other, and I think the knowledge of that switching reciprocal grip is something like the knowledge of ageing. As a writer of polemical and interrogative poems I find myself mimicking that switch of grips; and though dialectics apparently tends to the sublation of their difference and would itself captivate that difference, there is always a new increment of difference that offsets the dialectical captivation and feels like “time.” The new increment of difference is always the same: it is not new. It may partly be this very abstract idea of a crux sustained over an unending run of dialectical captivations and increments of difference (“cognition” complete with two axes of disrepair) that lies somewhere behind my claim earlier on that the only way out of dialectics is back into it, though first a way has to be found through to intimacy with the absolute voice of benevolence known not merely as a voice but as a total and unabrogable suffusion of myself by the one voice of uttermost trust; the other, daily voice, the contradictorily authoritative one, is then the often trustworthy but sometimes untrustworthy echo of that one voice.
I feel both as if I’ve strayed from your poem and moved more tightly into it with all these paragraphs. It does all this to me, it works all this thinking into life. But I want to talk also in a more technical or obviously literary way, before I’m carried off nowhere into myself once and for all. One great argument of the poem is with the steady obliviation of prosody, by which I mean both the loss of technical and intuitive understanding of verse forms manifest in the mass of current poetry and criticism, and also—a more difficult but crucial idea—the desuetude of the full agility of prosodic thinking manifest not only in literature and culture of all kinds, but also in the lives of millions of people reduced to counting off their workdays like the predictable thuds they most certainly are. I think I understand this, though I’m sure that your book on prosody will tell me a great deal I don’t know, and I’m with you 100%. I may even harbour a little more millenarianism in my venules, in this regard, than I think you do, since I go on thinking that a thorough storm in the prosodic capillaries might jerk people into something tending to socialist animation, maybe even what Marx thought of as intellectual self-proletarianisation, if other conditions are favourable; though perhaps despite a few withering passages in your poem (especially pp.197-198) you’re not all that far from thinking something similar. The extremely difficult question I had to face over and over again throughout The Unconditional is whether your genuinely masterful reownership of the “pentameter,” for want of a better name, could be the right means to achieve this. I use the word “means” without really meaning it, again for the sake of keeping the argument moving; obviously the versification is not simply a “means” to do anything. I see that there’s a compelling lateral argument about tradition in your commitment to that reownership, and if I’m hesitant to agree immediately with your choice of the pentameter I suspect it may be because I’m hesitant to accept that even the “tradition” I think you’re interested in is something which we truly need to imagine that we can remain connected with or even immersed in. I guess you would say that we are either immersed in it or we opt by default to be alienated from it; and I feel the strength of that objection, but I’m not yet sure that immersion and alienation are genuine contraries, let alone opposites. Or perhaps I feel, to put it more clearly, that our relation to that tradition need not be defined by the idea that we are still in it but that we might or sometimes do fall out of it. My issue with immanence again: I really need to get that cleared up. In practical terms that would mean that we don’t need to keep writing pentameters in order to know them. I do write them in my own work, but always with the intention that they should be conspicuous and somehow interruptive. Your commitment is far more strenuous here, I admire how you don’t want to accept that a verse form “is archaic” merely because some people we call Modernists have declared that it is, and how you force back into the line a tremendous suppleness and detailed power of articulation. Still, the part of the poem that had me shuddering, and even crying (I wonder if this will be strange to you), is the late passage, pp.219-226. And it is what I felt to be the intensity of frustration that overwhelmed me, the sense of an almost catastrophic because almost irreversible loss of constraint after so much effort decisively to abnegate that possibility through relegating all its means of expression to a subordinate mock-status—but in this passage I don’t see a subordinated mock (e.g. of the putative freedoms of free verse) but a terrible and beautiful pressure, a rip through the heart of the poem’s fabric of self-dissociation. It seemed to be the most unstable part of the poem, perhaps in one sense the most seriously risky. And the difficult question about the pentameter ends for me, so far, in this form: is the pressure of that late passage possible only because it comes after the great tract of pentameters, or could an even more intense pressure be sustained in another passage of the same kind but more punishingly extended and standing alone, stuck just with itself and where it is, without the counterimbalance of relative prosodic regularity to act as its imprecation?
That question need not be taken up very urgently if what you are now thinking about is whether or not you should publish this work. You absolutely must publish it, no matter how vulnerable it may leave you to reactionary sneering of the kind your poem understands and anticipates better than any other; and I suspect there may be a few people in Cambridge who would be only too pleased to count another of their colleagues among the ranks of poets to be smirked at and discouraged. There will also be a number of people in the left corner of the poetry world, such as it is, who will disregard a work like this with the transparent venom of would-be culture-makers who refuse to understand their own ignorance otherwise than as a disinheritance of privilege etc. Those people will want to laugh at a long poem in pentameters (a fact by which I have not allowed myself to be prejudiced in your favour, in writing this letter: I have stuck strictly to my own thinking). You know that none of this matters, I hope you know too that you must publish this poem. If I can help in any way, and if you want me to, I will. If anything is a testament to your absolute uniqueness and the vivid particularity of your life in the spirit that this book demands, it is this book.
Posted September 1, 2006