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

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Bruce Stater: [On Clare and Artaud and Related Matters]

How Do Fools Fall in Love and Why Can’t They Do things with Words?

I. "Then Their Existance"

“... what a fool must I be to preach so profoundly knowing about things that I know nothing more of then their existance.” -- John Clare

Already we discover ourselves in a world rift by gaps. Gaps constituted by the transposition of vowels, by the indeterminacy of the sincere & the ingenuous, by indecidability between direct & indirect discourse. Nothing has quite yet been said; the rhemes are poor, the phemes destitute, making the locutions ill. We expected nothing more or less. To have expected something different might have shed doubt on the legitimacy of our own speech, on the immanent power of language to describe & alter the conditions of world. After all, isn’t it reassuring to know that when the president declares war it is so, that our legitimated couplings are authorized by states, clergy, & ships’ captains? That our madmen are properly recognized by institutions capable of marking difference between the one & the other? That our sturdy symbolic is discreet from our curious imaginary & our unfathomable real? That our sentences present themselves in rows. Our nouns play the parts of nouns, our verbs act as verbs, & our articles agree with this, that, or the other.

We ordinary citizens of language are satisfied with our performative capacities to name those objects which constitute our property, to make promises & swear oaths, to accuse others of crimes we are fairly certain we have not committed ourselves. To constitute meaning in a sane & sensible manner, according to the customs of our syntaxes & grammars. & since differences between things are necessary to make them so, we are most grateful for our fools. Those who speak backwards & at slant angles remind us of who we are & ensure the standard of our truths. It’s impossible to imagine a world in which our humanity could continue to exist without the possession of its sanity, without such a conceptualization. It was therefore our first categorical imperative to create the condition of madness in order to authorize the necessary separation. For this purpose, we invented the performative speech act, which has proved to be useful in other dimensions as well (see above.) So, once again, we are grateful for our fools, those whose speech we have made meaningless with the power our words have to name what we do not understand & cannot accept as hollow, empty, & nonsensical. With the power our words have to rob others of their own power with words.

II. Repeating, Remembering, Hearing the Fool
“Is there repetition or is there insistence. I am inclined to believe there is no such thing as repetition.” -- Gertrude Stein

It is precisely because the fool’s language was regarded as meaningless that the king’s fool, the jester, could be allowed utterances none other could make with impunity. Thus, nonsense, which was never singularly nonsensical, the linguistic domain of the socially disenfranchised, could reemerge as a force to be reckoned with. Because who other than the fool could announce the nakedness of the king? Certainly not his councilors, whose positions of power always placed them in jeopardy. Foolishness could become the only truly significant vessel for social transformation, however marginal it might appear. In fact, such liminality is essential to its function-- a liminality sharing the indeterminacy of quarks possessed with strangeness & charm, essentially elusive & calculatedly deceptive. The fool’s performance constitutes a complex exchange of knowing & unknowing, masking & unmasking, lying through truths & truth-telling through the fabrication of lies.

The story of the fool opens our understanding to the fact that, already within the order of the system of language, in fact at the very heart of the king’s domain, the whisperings of the fool, the language of nonsense, plays not a peripheral but an essential role in the lightning flashes of insight, transformation, & discovery or revelation. Lear’s fool accompanies him through the storm on the heath. All third acts reside in such storms: even Aristotle realized this.

Gertrude Stein’s observation, which questions the possibility of repetition, entails the necessity of opening ontological certainty, order, & stasis to the alterity of doubt & discrepancy. From a radical perspective, it hints at the imperative for discovering difference within the same. Identity is not one with itself. The king (symbolic archetype of authority & control) is always already accompanied by his fool. Stands upon his back & shoulders, encysted by him from within. His identity is the product of an internal, not an external, rift...probably more than one since he & the fool are both already many others. To ignore or dismiss this rift at the core of being is to become the proponent of repetition in each of its myriad forms: our casual repetition of incompletely understood words, our solicitous repetition of conventional forms & structures, our comforting repetition of favorite anecdotes, recipes, & jokes, & our more serious repetitions of cycles of despair & eternal return, of traumas & endlessly repeated attempts to elude or fulfill our manufactured desires.

What does it mean that the most famous example of “nonsense” verse in the English language begins & ends with the self-same stanza? Stasis, closure, eternal return (either in the philosophical or the Eliadean sense)? What Alice makes of the poem on her own, without future assistance from Humpty Dumpty (obviously a fool, & arguably the figure of a king), is simply that “somebody killed something.” But what exactly? Precision escapes us here. Do we trust the reliability of the first quoted witness-- a nameless & disembodied voice which most probably chimes again in our hero’s recall in that instant in which decisions are made which cannot be undone? Or must we look elsewhere-- within the tangled woulds of the creature’s name? In jabber & woce, onomatopoiesis, hiss & skri, squark, neologlossia, & glug-glug? One wonders, seriously, if the Jabberwock might have had something important to say.

In my own poetry I recognize this entity as that sort of guide Virgil constitutes for Dante. Monomythos turning to polymythos through the surge & noise which issues from within. One has to listen carefully to begin to comprehend such “speech.” But if, indeed, the stakes are as significant as those perceived by the author of the Comedy, which I believe that they are, this is the work that must be done, the invitation to voyage which one cannot refuse. The great epics of our madmen have never looked anything much like epics at all. & typically we have looked for them in all of the wrong places-- looked for masterpieces & successes in the two failed theaters of Artaud, looked for grand schemas & examples of poetic genius in the Shepherd’s Calendar of John Clare-- when the real brilliance & heroism (if one can use such a term seriously today) of each lay not in the artifacts resulting from their production, but in the enduring performance of an alchemy of words in which one’s life, one’s meaning, the possibility of retaining thought itself as one’s own were all at stake. Denied access to the inner sense, robbed of the innocence of language de jure, such madmen reenact the quest for this missing fleece, for this doublietful & dubius existance de facto, in lives lived literally (litterally, litorally) within letters & the sense which escapes from them. So for Artaud, the great performance takes place across the pages of his handwritten notebooks, in the curious formation of magical spellings, &-- even more incomprehensible-- the transcription of glossolalia-- that language so outsider to writing that it must also be stranger to language itself. For Clare, or so I would like to attempt to argue here, this performance takes place in the letters (as well as the threaded connections & the disjunctive gaps between them) sent to family & friends across the span of years which constitute his time (if not career) as a writer.

III. Third Act Problems.
"The square of the orbital period of a planet is directly proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit." -- Johannes Kepler

I want to return to the first part of the question presented as the title of this “meditation” as a means for moving toward an explanation of three coded letters written by John Clare. It will perhaps seem somewhat outside the concerns of what has already been said, but I think really that it is not only relevant to Clare’s particular speech-acts, but to a larger theater of those performances of struggle within language that I have attempted to comprehend, describe, imagine, & engage with here.

Within the philosophy & psychology of Erich Fromm, one discovers a very simple & wonderfully compelling definition of sanity-- sanity is that truly human capacity to love. At the outset of The Art of Loving, however, he is careful to distinguish what he means by love-- the care, respect, understanding (knowledge), & responsibility demonstrated toward another-- from perhaps more familiar conceptions of need, desire, & “pleasant sensation.” For those of us who have been “touched by madness” this definition poses both a bitter & difficult necessity of self-examination, & the prospect of potentiality still alien & unfamiliar to the current medical model of mental illness. & if love is indeed an art, a practice, a discipline, in the sense in which Fromm defines it, then is it not possible for those who have felt the void of its absence so powerfully within our madness (folie), to recover that belonging to both language & world? & again, if this is so, then is not the practice of love the essential telos which must replace our desires for the rewards & recognitions awarded to the attainment of such golden fleeces?

From the outset of his career Artaud engages in this struggle in reverse. What he asks from Jacques Riviere, an assurance of absolute acceptability of his literary existence, cannot be given. He will not find it in the approval of another. Neither will he bring it into existence through that rage addressed to the conditions which have robbed him of the right to speak. Artaud’s dilemma, & that of Clare as well, the unsolvable problem which impedes & confounds both of their struggles toward sanity & survival, is that the condition of madness is, by social definition & design, so absolutely unacceptable, that it cannot find a place inside the circle drawn to discriminate those to whom love can be given from those to whom it cannot be.

In both Artaud & Clare (perhaps in Nerval as well?) we find an obsessive longing for approval & reassurance which spills outwards & over from the literary into almost every other aspect of their lives. It is possible to interpret Artaud’s disturbingly sexualized delusions concerning his “six daughters” as a means of engendering from his own existence, that unsatisfiable hunger to be loved, that essential void which he so desperately sought to fill with yet more & more substance created from the stuff of void. Artaud himself writes that he “thought a lot about love at the asylum of Rodez,” & that it was there that he first intially dreamed about these relationships.” It is almost difficult to imagine a more confused & tormented misdirection of love as Artaud presents it, & it is remarkable that he reveals it so matter of factly in a letter to Gilbert Lely, himself a literary biographer.

Throughout his letters, John Clare expresses similar concerns regarding the “absolute acceptability” of his literary existence. From a letter to John Taylor in which he expresses some great distress concerning the fact that a published work seems to share ideas of his own design, he writes: “I will write out the verses for your opinion-- the coincidences as such things are called might be construed into imitations by many & as mine was first published I like to be correct on that point tho in trifles-- for Mr Southey seems to hold uneducated poets in very little estimation & talks about the march of mind in a sneering way...” Elsewhere, however, in letters to his wife Patty & his son Charles, to family & friends, he seems quite capable of the practice of love, concerning himself with the welfare & happiness of others & regretting his inability to participate more fully in their lives. & yet still, as the examples which follow demonstrate, the delusions & confusions persist, with Clare performing amorous solicitations most certainly unfounded, uninvited, & undesired. In a letter to Mary Collingwood, Clare writes:

Drst Mr r fthfll r d thnk f m knw wht w sd tgthr-- dd vst m n hll sm tm bck bt dnt cm hr gn fr t s nts bd plc wrs nd w r ll trnd Frnchmn flsh ppl tll m hv gt n hm n ths wrld nd s dnt believe n th thr nrt t mk mslf hvn wth m drst Mr nd sbscrb mslf rs

Elsewhere, to Mary Ludgate, Clare expresses: “& thsnd thr lv whsprs f th n th scrlt & grn Gwn whl l lstng & grtfd t hr thm sngng th prs’s” From the last of these letters we have:M drst Hlln Mr hw lng t pt m rm rnd r btfl nck nd r chk nd lps-- ‘Thn drst Hlln ll lv n mr’-- M dr hlln hw shld lk t wlk wth n th bnks f th rvr & gthr wld flwrs nd hnt brds Nsts-- bt hv bn tn rs n prsn-- nd cnnt s n thng f plsr r pstm

The fact that these three letters, all curious expressions of amorous love to women doubtfully receptive to such, are written in code suggests that on some level Clare himself is aware of the social impropriety of his expressions. Yet the fact that this “code” simply involves the removal of vowels from these words, the fact that Clare assumes their addressees to be capable of deciphering them without the device of a key, equally suggests that Clare, incapable of constraining such desire, also wishes to reveal & perhaps confess to it-- to pay the price for his folly, his madness, his inability to honor the duties of love.

& again, perhaps ironically as in the case of Artaud, here is where we discover the awesome tragedy of Clare’s humanity-- in that very place in which it fails him so completely-- not in the passages themselves, in the words, or here even in these letters from which the words are formed-- but in the gaps between them-- in those vowels we ourselves must supply to the page-- there we discover our capacity to believe in the sincerity of his epic.


Artaud quotes from Stephen Barber, Blows and Bombs (Faber and Faber, 1993), p. 116; as cited in Clayton Eshleman, Watchfiends & Rack Screams (Exact Change, 1995).

Clare letters quoted from Mark Storey, ed., John Clare: Selected Letters (Oxford, 1990).

[Previous postings from Bruce Stater appeared in Poems & Poetics on February 15, 2009, February 17, 2009, and November 20, 2009.]

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