To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
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

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Reconfiguring Romanticism (7): Prologue to A Book of Origins

with Jeffrey C. Robinson


Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves,
Voices of the diseas’d and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and of the father-stuff,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the deform’d, trivial, flat, foolish, despised,
Fog in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung

-- Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself

If it was the century after that finally produced a fullblown ethnopoetics – & the fullness even now is far from complete – the earlier nineteenth-century openings coincided with the Romantics’ search for new origins, an inheritance in turn from the generations that immediately preceded theirs. Something had happened – Enlightenment or Revolution or, on its more doubtful side, Imperium – that brought other worlds into view & put the inherited past into question. It was a measure of the new liberty & the new science that what had long been lost or repressed or concealed now came to surface. The first openings here were to ancient European & Mediterranean worlds & then to traditional worlds, both ancient & contemporaneous, outside the European orbit. (At the same time Europe in its old & new guises was impacting the worlds of the others.) In an age filled like all ages with contradictions, the search once begun was twofold: on native grounds toward sources for a new national literature, and in the larger world an awakening to a transhuman inheritance that put the narrow nationalisms into question. Alongside the official ideologies that shoved European man to the apex of the human pyramid, there were some artists & thinkers who found ways of doing & knowing among other peoples as complex as any in Europe & often virtually erased from European consciousness. As the nineteenth century progressed, cultures described as “primitive” & “savage” – a stage below “barbarian” – were simultaneously the models for political & social experiments, religious & visionary revivals, & forms of art & poetry so different from European norms as to seem revolutionary from a later Western perspective. It was almost, looking back at it, as if every radical innovation in the West were revealing a counterpart – or series of counterparts – somewhere in the traditional worlds the West was savaging. In this way originality – often taken as a marker of Romanticism – returned to a sense of origins from which the word derived.

What follows, then, is a selection of what could be taken as old, originary – whether in an actual past or in a fictive present disguised & (mis)interpreted as timeless. The unsealing of languages (ancient, occulted) moved apace: Sanskrit, Egyptian, Sumerian, Mayan, came to light along with their attendant literatures. In a line with these were new recoveries from the Western foundational languages – Greek, Latin, Hebrew – & first translations from classical literatures outside the West as such. The result was not only literary shock for those who sought it, but the raising of heretical & gnostic ghosts, banished for centuries, & the translation & dissemination of sacred texts – Hindu, Buddhist. Islamic, etc. – on an unprecedented & rapidly expanding scale. And at the same time poets & others continued an engagement with unwritten poetries & with folk & dialect traditions closer to home.

On the level of science a new anthropology arose, still closely linked to a poetics; dreamworks before Freud & the Surrealists laid the groundwork for the construction of an originary energy toward a full imaginative life; & biological/ecological breakthroughs by Charles Darwin & others that brought the totality of the living world into a dance of origins. In the pages that follow, then, some prominence is given to the translators and compilers of the originary works (Sir William Jones for Sanskrit, E.A. Wallis Budge for Egyptian, Edward Fitzgerald for Persian, Daniel G. Brinton for Aztec, & so on), with a recognition of the force of their constructions & retellings, but with no intention to diminish the independence & power of the works themselves.

[From Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3:The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, which Jeffrey Robinson & I have co-edited for the University of California Press. The book itself is scheduled for publication in January 2009 with an expectation of advance copies in November or December. “A Book of Origins” is one of its principal sections, with over twenty separate entries. For further information check the following URL: Earlier excerpts from Volume 3 appeared on June 11, June 18, June 24, July 6, July 13, & July 21.]


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All the best,

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