Monday, June 17, 2013

My Life in Letters by August Kleinzahler

There you are,
looking like the Khan’s most favored concubine,
but in a London doorway,
cigarette and beige Aquascutum, smiling,
at me, it would seem,
all ardor, woundedness and hope.
How would I not have adored you?
And you . .  and you . . .
“Dear August .  .  .” Oh, no I can’t, please .  .  .
The carnage .  .  . 

Drifts of blue aerogrammes:
I tried phoning last night .   .  .

If I could somehow make a single balloon payment
to rid myself of all this,
or with a click, like Adobe Reader download;
Clear List

Worse still the weight of kindness –
tumuli, drumlins, lava heaps of kindness,
everywhere, choking the landscape .  .  .

Must I just now be reminded
how much, how often, how many, and unprompted?

Dare I pretend to be worthy?
I would be a monster.
Monster? you say.
Please, I am too inconsequential .  .  .

I’m sorry, I’m sorry .  .  .

No, no, I have disappointed everyone.
Even those of you who might have believed otherwise,
trust me, you were mistaken.
40 years, 20 marbled letter files of proof:
I stand here before you, the accused.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Milwaukee Ave. by Sam Pink

     I stared out the window watching
 things happen on Milwaukee Avenue,
 eating pie with my girlfriend.
    What happened to me.
    Outside, someone walked up to the
 pie store and tried to come in.
    When he noticed it was locked he
 looked at the store hours.
    Saw it was closed and made a face, 
looking downward at the sidewalk.
    Then he looked up.
    We made eye contact.
    Maintaining eye contact, I picked up
my plate and took a big bite of the pie 
and made a face like the pie was too good
to endure – leaning back a little as I 
chewed, closing my eyes and touching at
my throat and face like a woman nearing 
    He laughed and gave me the middle 
finger before walking away – hands in
 pockets, looking down at the sidewalk.

We waited for the bus out front.
   My girlfriend called her sister,
leaning against the bus sign.
    I paced.
    The first thing I heard was, “Hey,
how’re things!”
    And I thought about how I’d answer.
    I’d answer that things weren’t
working for me.
    That there were only things.
    And I couldn’t get them to work
    Other things would indicate, “No
we’re not going to work with these things.”
    I’d make like, two or three things
work then realize those two or three
things were attached to everything else,
which never worked, which stopped referencing each other and became just
    And I’d be helpless again –standing
there with things in front of me.
      A pile of things, piling more but only
ever making one pile.
    A life.
    Born with it, though felt like
something that never happened.
    Not a phase.
    Not something to get over.
    But something to overlook, to forget
    Something that’s there.
    I stood sweating on the street with
vague and unguided thoughts about
being an architect who knows nothing,
but tried, learning what not to do the
next time – each time having less
and less energy to produce anything.

      A series of accidents creating exactly
the same thing, resulting in the same sad
person, everything connected to time as
it happens, without any ability to turn
around and stop even for a second to
Say “what is happening” because that is
     And eventually your body just learns
to operate so slowly it looks like you stop
moving and decay – looks like you
die – but you don’t.
    Everything else around you just
speeds up and learns to look different
until you look dead by comparison.
    But it always makes sense.
    Never any errors.
    Of course.
    Of course this is what’s
happening -  I thought, standing on Milwaukee Avenue waiting for the bus.
    And it felt like things were going to
have meaning again maybe.
    Also felt like I couldn’t imagine
anything that would make me feel better.  .  .

Saturday, June 8, 2013

A Killer Text by Avital Ronell

The Sorrows of Young Werther was a text that assisted in the birth of modern literature: it set off a form of hysterical mimicry as soon as it appeared. It was not only fashionable to dress like Werther; it was also fashionable to commit suicide. Well, not entirely .  .  . Goethe backed off on implementing his own destruction, after all!  Moreover, the question comes up over and over, from Kleist to Blanchot; how did Goethe survive his own suicidal drive?  Werther was a text that programmed suicides, even right here in the Seine.  Shortly after Werther’s arrival in 1774, several drowning victims were found with Goethe’s text in their pockets.  This was a scenography of suicide by insemination, with the book as the program.

Thematically, Werther gave Goethe the means to invent the idea of Krankheit zum Toda, sickness unto death, which interested Kierkegaard and others.  It was the first time in modernity, I think, that someone had conceptualized the sovereignty of the subject to the last outpost of self-determination as including the right to kill oneself.  In the process, Goethe took the question of suicide away from the precincts of morality and religion.

Werther was originally published anonymously. Denounced and forbidden from the outset, it was already trafficked as an illicit, clandestine drug.  Not only were there discursive moments in the book that supported one’s right to put an end to one’s life, but Werther was in a sense the first stealth bomber: the book really caused a lot of damage in its wake, and this result was to a large degree calculated, programmed. The effects of “killer texts” aren’t limited to the field of literary or philosophical criticism; they’re infinitely more corrosive.

Did Werther have a real posterity? Or was this book rather just a moment in history that announced a new era, a different relation to the world?

It seems to me that the book functioned like a virus, that is, by poisoning and programming disasters that continued to mimic the text. Napoleon is said to have read it six to eight times! He had taken it with him to the campaign in Egypt; later, when he met Goethe, he made the famous remark: “Voila un homme” (here’s a true man).  Goethe complained to Eckermann that Napoleon had reproached him for Werther’s exaltation of suicide and held him responsible for mass deaths.  Napoleon thought his own impact on history was less catastrophic than Goethe’s! He even indicated that there was a sort of militerary strategy in the text that acted along subterranean pathways, whereas he himself, Napoleon, as a “killer text,” was more or less readable! Perhaps Werther worked like a vaccine, poisoning first so as to “cure” afterwards.

Then things calmed down. As I see it Goethe created a poison that has had its moments of latency and its moments of uncontrollable emergence.  As a text, The Sorrows of Young Werther (and, semantically, Werther means “value,” even “surplus value”) is really a machine for producing and destroying values; this no doubt enchanted Nietzsche, even though Werther falls on the side of sickness. Still, the work was anti-or un-Christian on many of its points, especially the ending, so it my have evaded the charge of pessimism, fatigue, or general creepiness – qualities to which Nietzsche was sensitive.

Let us not forget that for Nietzsche there are also good illnesses and the matter or promise of convalescence, which he underscores for instance at the conclusion of Zarathustra. We need to think the Nietzschean promise from the perspective he opens on the ailing being.  Goethe, for his part, wielded spiritual illness in a decisive way.  As text and machine, Goethe sowed the seeds of a virus against Enlightenment notions of progress. Of course, we would have to try to answer the question “Was ist Aufklarung?” – what is enlightenment? – to see what this unique meeting between literature and philosophy signifies.

 With Werther, Goethe was able to insinuate a critique into  blockbuster Enlightenment tenets despite the absolutely nonreciprocal coupling of literature and philosophy.  By way of Werther, though by other routes as well, his work scattered obstacles along the path of that meeting, obstacles to which the philosophers have tried to respond, positively or negatively, explicitly or covertly. We can understand why Freud was swayed and even subjugated by Goethe, for Goethe is one of the few who maintained that there is a weakness, a fissure in the psyche and particularly in the possibility of mourning that cannot be resolved, not even by the bright lights of the Enlightenment. In Werther there is something like a mourning disorder played out and an inclination toward what is called melancholy. Goethe did not restrict the motif of illness to a theoretically manageable condition or to a recognizable set of consequences.  Something that Goethe calls a “sickness” operates like a pathology, something beyond all pleasure that, during the Enlightenment, navigates among the mores, the historical movements and the question of Bildung –of education and upbringing.  A spot of incurable melancholy that cannot be educated out of you, a path or pathology that already points beyond the pleasure principle.

It was a psychic sickness that spread against the current and was not embraced by philosophy.  In Kant’s storehouse one found lists of illnesses, intoxications, aberrations, but here we are talking about something else.  Because what interested Goethe was not only some ort of speculative malady. Goethe launched Werther right in the middle of the Enlightenment. He gave the floor to someone who could not be saved, a hopeless case par excellence, and that existential impossibility of being saved shocked and also satisfied the world.  Werther attracted a world of unbearably close readers.  We really have to raise the question of close reading, texts “closely read” as one would say “closely guarded” –or those that trigger a “close call.”

Heidegger put it differently when he said that certain texts or statements can destroy you or undermine you for years, or for centuries. I would love to see someone armed by Werther and by Goethe address Kant, the Enlightenment, the complex and still latent itineraries of rationalism, and call all this into question, cause it some more trouble.  There’s something here that has not found an echo in our works of philosophy.