To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
.......................................again
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Monday, July 21, 2008

Reconfiguring Romanticism (6): Poe's Eureka, with commentary

for Hanon Reznikov

From EUREKA, A PROSE POEM

… the poetical essence of the Universe

[1] PREFACE

To the few who love me and whom I love -- to those who feel rather than to those who think -- to the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as in the only realities -- I offer this Book of Truths, not in its character of Truth-Teller, but for the Beauty that abounds in its Truth; constituting it true. To these I present the composition as an Art-Product alone: -- let us say as a Romance; or, if I be not urging too lofty a claim, as a Poem.

What I here propound is true: -- therefore it cannot die: -- or if by any means it be now trodden down so that it die, it will “rise again to the Life Everlasting.”

Nevertheless it is as a Poem only that I wish this work to be judged after I am dead.

[2] AN EXCERPT

If the propositions of this Discourse are tenable, the "state of progressive collapse" is precisely that state in which alone we are warranted in considering All Things; and, with due humility, let me here confess that, for my part, I am at a loss to conceive how any other understanding of the existing condition of affairs, could ever have made its way into the human brain. "The tendency to collapse" and "the attraction of gravitation" are convertible phrases. In using either, we speak of the reaction of the First Act. Never was necessity less obvious than that of supposing Matter imbued with an ineradicable quality forming part of its material nature -–a quality, or instinct, forever inseparable from it, and by dint of which inalienable principle every atom is perpetually impelled to seek its fellow-atom. Never was necessity less obvious than that of entertaining this unphilosophical idea. Going boldly behind the vulgar thought, we have to conceive, metaphysically, that the gravitating principle appertains to Matter temporarily -–only while diffused -- only while existing as Many instead of as One -–appertains to it by virtue of its state of irradiation alone -–appertains, in a word, altogether to its Condition, and not in the slightest degree to itself. In this view, when the irradiation shall have returned into its source -–when the reaction shall be completed -–the gravitating principle will no longer exist. And, in fact, astronomers, without at any time reaching the idea here suggested, seem to have been approximating it, in the assertion that "if there were but one body in the Universe, it would be impossible to understand how the principle, Gravity, could obtain": -–that is to say, from a consideration of Matter as they find it, they reach a conclusion at which I deductively arrive. That so pregnant a suggestion as the one quoted should have been permitted to remain so long unfruitful, is, nevertheless, a mystery which I find it difficult to fathom.

It is, perhaps, in no little degree, however, our propensity for the continuous -–for the analogical – in the present case more particularly for the symmetrical which has been leading us astray. And, in fact, the sense of the symmetrical is an instinct which may be depended upon with an almost blindfold reliance. It is the poetical essence of the Universe – which, in the supremeness of its symmetry, is but the most sublime of poems. Now symmetry and consistency are convertible terms: – thus Poetry and Truth are one. A thing is consistent in the ratio of its truth – true in the ratio of its consistency. A Perfect consistency, I repeat, can be nothing but a absolute truth. We may take it for granted, then, that Man cannot long or widely err, if he suffer himself to be guided by his poetical, which I have maintained to be his truthful, in being his symmetrical, instinct. He must have a care, however, lest, in pursuing too heedlessly the superficial symmetry of forms and motions, he leave out of sight the really essential symmetry of the principles which determine and control them.

That the stellar bodies would finally be merged in one – that, at last, all would be drawn into the substance of one stupendous central orb already existing – is an idea which, for some time past, seems, vaguely and indeterminately, to have held possession of the fancy of mankind. It is an idea, in fact, which belongs to the class of the excessively obvious. It springs, instantly, from a superficial observation of the cyclic and seemingly gyrating, or vorticial movements of those individual portions of the Universe which come most immediately and most closely under our observation. There is not, perhaps, a human being, of ordinary education and of average reflective capacity, to whom, at some period, the fancy inquestion has not occurred, as if spontaneously, or intuitively, and wearing all the character of a very profound and very original conception. This conception, however, so commonly entertained, has never, within my knowledge, arisen out of any abstract considerations. Being, on the contrary, always suggested, as I say, by the vorticial movements about centres, a reason for it, also, – a cause for the ingathering of all the orbs into one, imagined to be already existing, was naturally sought in the same direction -–among these cyclic movements themselves.

Thus it happened that, on announcement of the gradual and perfectly regular decrease observed in the orbit of Enck's comet, at every successive revolution about our Sun, astronomers were nearly unanimous in the opinion that the cause in question was found – that a principle was discovered sufficient to account, physically, for that final, universal agglomeration which, I repeat, the analogical, symmetrical or poetical instinct of Man had predetermined to understand as something more than a simple hypothesis.

This cause – this sufficient reason for the final ingathering – was declared to exist in an exceedingly rare but still material medium pervading space; which medium, by retarding, in some degree, the progress of the comet, perpetually weakened its tangential force; thus giving a predominance to the centripetal; which, of course, drew the comet nearer and nearer at each revolution, and would eventually precipitate it upon the Sun.

COMMENTARY
with Jeffrey C. Robinson

The highest order of the imaginative intellect is always preeminently mathematical; and the converse. (E.A.P.)

The reception of Poe on the French side was, as we know, far greater than on native grounds, & whether they got it right or wrong, there is no doubt but that they got it. For there is with him, far more than with most of his postromantic contemporaries, the sense of a new opening & of possibilities imbedded in language & mind that he or others will make it their business to explore, whether achieved or not. Placing him in the penultimate spot in his radical study of poets & others thinking & writing “in the American grain,” William Carlos Williams wrote as an isolated act of rehabilitation: “On him is FOUNDED A LITERATURE – typical, an anger to sweep out the unoriginal, that became ill-tempered, a monomaniacal driving to destroy, to annihilate the copied, the slavish, the FALSE literature about him: this is the major impulse in his notes.” And Baudelaire, who devoted himself to extensive translations from Poe, both the verse & fiction, & to a number of biographical & critical assessments, described him as “the man … who throughout a life that resembled a tempest with no calm, had invented new forms, unknown avenues to astonish the imagination, to captivate all minds desiring beauty.” To which he added: “Diderot, to choose one example in a hundred, is a red-blooded author; Poe was a writer of nerves, and of much more – and the best writer I know.”

Poe’s advocacy of a poetics based on near mathematical precision & absolute verbal condensation – or so he hoped – was accompanied by a devotion to the fantastic (often too to what Jean Paul called the humoristic) & by a life & temperment that prefigured the poéte maudit & the “decadent” & symboliste writings of the later nineteenth century, where his poetic stature outside the U.S. remained strong. (See, for example, Mallarmé’s memorial sonnet (tombeau) & André Breton’s assessment of Poe as a Surrealist forunner [“a surrealist in adventure”] & as a master of what Breton elsewhere named “black humor.”)

(2) Working between genres, Poe was quick to realize that the boundaries of poetry didn’t stop at the border with prose, & while his sense of the “lyric” drew him toward the intense single moment (the meaning-charged fragment as a carry-over from Romanticism) & to a rejection of the “long poem,” his own long prose work Eureka (1848) – devoid of any resemblance to “poetic” diction – was for him not only an extended essay on cosmology & his excursus into scientific speculation, but, as he specifically named it, “a prose poem.” In one of the more daring/dazzling moves of the nineteenth century he effectively erased, beyond the work of other or earlier practitioners, the longstanding boundaries between poetry & prose.

AN ADDENDUM. The extract, above, from Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3, is newly dedicated to Hanon Reznikov (1950-2008). Following the death of Julian Beck in 1985, Hanon was for many years the co-director with Judith Malina of The Living Theater & a powerful creative force in his own right. His last projected work, Eureka: On the Origin of the Cosmos is based on Poe’s prose poem & will open on October 1 at the Living Theater’s new space on the Lower East Side. In his “redefinition” of the Theater Hanon wrote:

To call into question / who we are to each other / in the social environment of the theater, // to undo the knots that lead to misery, // to spread ourselves across the public's table / like platters at a banquet, // to set ourselves in motion / like a vortex that pulls the spectator into action, // to fire the body's secret engines, // to pass through the prism / and come out a rainbow, // to insist that what happens in the jails matters, // to cry "Not in my name!" at the hour of execution, // to move from the theater to the street / and from the street to the theater. // This is what The Living Theatre does today. / It is what it has always done.
Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3: The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, is scheduled for publication in January 2009. Further excerpts have appeared here on June 11, June 18, June 24, July 6, & July 13.