Date: Sun, 18 Nov 2001 19:13:49 -0500 (EST)
From: Kevin Magee firstname.lastname@example.org
Each poet, of such and such city.
Every poet, or any poet. Poetry.
Writing poetry, are poets. Poetry,
where is the nonsense rhyme.
“The fifteenth century was extremely harsh on individuals.” (Mandelstam, 56). Concrete space and historical time. The city, Paris. The date of birth of a poet named Villon, 1431. By 1381, Langland has written the B-Text. “A” 23:
“in a summer season when
soft was the sun Unholy
of Works went wide in
this world wonders to hear
swayed so merry field full
of folk the mean and
the rich bidders and beggars
gone high to bed: the
common contrived locked up a
lunatic a lean thing winkle
allays, cried then hot pies
hot good grease and geese.”
“A perfect pleasure [fin'amors, joi] outside any measurable duration.” (Agamben, 104). Fresh bread, such as a roll crowned with a pinch of sugar. To write is to occupy space. The white arrow in the forehead stabs the eye, relieving it of its emptiness.
(“‘is the thing existing
which is not when it is,
and is when it is not’”)
[Hegel] “this negative
being which ‘is what is
not and is not what is’”
“‘is the thing existing
which is not when it is,
and is when it is not’”
Why does Agamben repeat this quotation on the same page, the point in time, page 98, the engine of the dialectic, the point in the thought (“Western thought”), or stutter, does the thought stutter, repeat itself, the image in its turn, turning, turbulent. The essays collected in Infancy and History conclude imperatively: “Critical mythology is the legacy left by philology, in the form of a vocabulary of Indo-European words, like a new infancy for Western culture. It must now pass into the hands of poetry.” (Agamben, 150). The perception that leads to silence, away from exegesis? “
The passing moment can thus endure the pressure of centuries and preserve itself intact, remaining forever the same ‘here and now.’” (Mandelstam, 58). “If therefore precisely those works turn out to endure whose truth is most deeply embedded in their subject matter, the beholder who contemplates them long after their own time finds the realia all the more striking in the work as they have faded away in the world.” (Benjamin, quoted in Agamben, 121). The separation of the subject matter from the truth content in the work of art. The passing moment, and regalia of language.
Trappings. In the addendum to Villon, as in the essay on Chenier, the young Mandelstam writes that French poetry takes place in the variability in the line of verse of length and stress. “The distribution of time along the grooves of verb, noun, and epithet comprises the autonomous inner life of the Alexandrian line, regulates its breathing, its tension and its degree of saturation. As a result a sort of ‘struggle for time’ takes place among the elements of the line and each one, like a sponge, tries to absorb into itself the claims of the others.” (Mandelstam, 76). Poetry takes place, it happens somewhere, an event in time and against a history never commensurate with biography, though poetry goes by the names of those who dedicate their lives to the practice of it.
“If man finds his humanity in praxis, this is not because, in addition to carrying out productive work, he also transposes and develops these activities within a superstructure (by thinking, writing poetry, etc.); if man is human - his humanity and his species-being must be integrally present within the way in which he produces his material life - that is, within praxis.” (Agamben, 119). “Perhaps he has not one but several in different periods or, rather, moments of poetic consciousness?” (Mandelstam, 79).
October 20-30, 1938. The date of Osip Mandelstam's last letter to Nadezhda Yakovlevna and Alexander Emilievich, from Vladivostok, USVITL, barracks No. 11. New York, 10 November 1938, Adorno to Benjamin. December 9, 1938, Benjamin's response. There is no method of history in these dates and their documents. Only the arbitrary conjunction, and banality of the coincidence. “The transport left Butyrki Prison in Moscow on the 9th of September and we arrived on the 12th of October. I'm in very poor health, utterly exhausted, emaciated, and almost beyond recognition.” (Mandelstam, 572). “That these lines may reach their destination, perhaps hundreds of years are necessary, as many as a planet needs to send its light to another planet.” (Mandelstam, 73).
“The fact is that Chaadaev's conception of history excludes the possibility of any access to the historical path. In keeping with this conception, one could be on the historical path only prior to any beginning. History was Jacob's ladder, down which angels descended from heaven to earth. It must be called sacred due to the continuity of the spirit of grace that inhabits it. Therefore Chaadaev did not utter a word about ‘Moscow, the Third Rome.’ In this idea he could see only a sickly fantasy of Kievan monks. Neither the will alone nor good intentions are sufficient to ‘begin’ history anew. Indeed, the idea is unthinkable: to begin it. There is not enough continuity, unity. Unity cannot be created, invented, or learned. In its absence one has, at best, not history but ‘progress’ - the mechanical movement of a clock hand and not the sacred bond and succession of events.” (Mandelstam, 84).
“What looks upon us from the monuments and the rubble of the past and seems in them to refer, almost allegorically, to a hidden meaning, is not, then, a relic of the ideological superstructure, which, in order to be understood, has to be traced back, by a painstaking work of mediation, to the historical structure which determines it . . . In becoming the nature of history, it splits (just as subject matter and truth content are separated in the work) and is enigmatically present as nature, as a petrified landscape which is to be brought back to life. The task of the critic is to recognize in the amazed facticity of the work, which is there as a philological exhibit, the direct and fundamental unity of subject matter and truth content, of structure and superstructure embedded in it.” (Agamben, 122-23) Does the demand in Infancy and History for a conception of time adequate to the conception of history in historical materialism posit a unity altogether different from the “unity” enjambed against “continuity” in Mandelstam's gloss of Chaadaev's Philosophical Letters?
“The Western experience of time is split between eternity and continuous linear time. The dividing point through which the two relate is the instant as a discrete, elusive point. Against this conception, which dooms any attempt to master time, there must be opposed one whereby the true site of pleasure, as man's primary dimension, is neither precise, continuous time nor eternity, but history.” (Agamben, 104).
“A parallel to this external colonization can be seen in the great endeavor to populate the outer world with ideas, values, and images, an endeavor which, for centuries, has been the agony and the ecstasy of the West, which has plunged its peoples into the labyrinth of history where they wander to this day.” (Mandelstam, 87).
“The messianic time of Judaism, in which every second was the ‘strait gate through which the Messiah might enter,’ thus becomes the model for a conception of history ‘that avoids any complicity with the thinking to which politicians continue to adhere.’ [. . .] It is this time which is experienced in authentic revolutions, which, as Benjamin remembers, have always been lived as a halting of time and an interruption of chronology.” (Agamben, 102-05).
“Oh, legacy of a thinker! Precious scraps! Fragments that end precisely where continuity is most wanted, grandiose beginnings of what we do not know - what is this: the outline of a plan or its fulfillment? In vain the conscientious researcher sighs over what is lost, over missing links: they too, never existed, they were never lost - the fragmentary form of the Philosophical Letters is internally substantiated, as is their essential character of an extended introduction.” (Mandelstam, 85-6).
Authentic time in Infancy and History is called stopping, arresting, bringing the illusion of continuum to a halt, “Jetzt-Zeit”: “construed as a messianic cessation of happening, which ‘comprises the entire history of mankind in an enormous abridgement.’” (Agamben, 102). The fragment of Holderlin and Dickinson appears in the history of poetry in the Germanic, Anglo-American and Romance languages in the same century as such totalities, mythic structures, as Doctor Faustus, Prometheus Unbound, Don Juan, and Eugene Onegin. French surrealism viewed Victor Hugo as a totality, apotheosis of the Pleiade.
Between the moment and the monument, the narration of historical structures the mature Mandelstam calls culture, and which Agamben calls the Marxist concept of history, exists the explosion, the rupture, the break with the past that overcomes the illusion of the continuum and its timepoints, causalities, laws, as though history behaved like a language, whose transformations are imperceptible and which occur across an expanse of time historical materialism interprets as widely as the rise and fall of civilizations and as narrowly as the objective struggles for political power at specific conjunctures within an organized framework of practical and theoretical activity.
“The original cohesion of poetry and politics in our culture was sanctioned from the very start by the fact that Aristotle's treatment of music is contained in the Politics, and that Plato's themes of poetry and art are to be found in the Republic; it is therefore a matter beyond dispute. The question is not so much whether poetry has any bearing on politics, but whether politics remains equal to its original cohesion with poetry. If criticism wishes to restore politics to its true dimension, it must first and foremost situate itself in antithesis to ideology, which has usurped this cohesion through its dissolution. ‘False consciousness,’ whose dark clarity everywhere impedes access to the problems of our time, must be hurled into the very abyss whose gaping width it seeks to preserve.” (Agamben, 148-49).
“What is an image? An instrument in the metamorphosis of hybridized poetic discourse. We can comprehend this concept with Dante's help. However, Dante does not teach us about instruments: he has already turned and vanished. He is the actual instrument in the metamorphosis of literary time, in the withholding and unfolding of literary time which we have ceased to hear but which we are taught, both here and in the West, is the narration of so-called ‘cultural structures.”
“This is a good place to talk a bit about the concept of so-called culture and to inquire whether it is really an incontrovertible fact that poetic discourse is completely tied into the context of culture, culture being no more than the correlative proper behavior of historical structures suspended in their development and concentrated in a passive conception. Proponents of the concept of culture are drawn willy-nilly into the circle, so to speak, of ‘improper proper behavior.’ It is precisely this context of culture worship which overwhelmed the schools and universities of Europe during the nineteenth century, which poisoned the blood of the authentic builders of normally recurring historical structures, and, most offensive of all, nearly always imparted a cast of consummate ignorance over what might have been alive, concrete, brilliant and knowledge-bearing in both the past and the future.” (Mandelstam, 444-45).
The Theses on the Philosophy of History are not a “lucid critique of the causes behind the European Left's disastrous failure after the First World War.” (Agamben, 102). When I read this sentence my mind types in the word “ludic” for “lucid.” As in the repetition of the quotation from Hegel on page 98, re-enacting in a single stutter the power of the negative and its hold on this thought, in Infancy and History attention to what might have been alive is neglected for the sake of the expectation, waiting for the event to arrive, citing for support a passage in Benjamin that is far from being as transparent as the quotation makes it appear: “he puts forward the revolutionaries' ‘awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode.’” (Agamben, 102).
The absence of attention to what is knowledge-bearing in the concrete facticity of an archive document like the Moscow Diary may contribute to this error that is not a mental error, like a stutter, or slip, or omission, in speech, but far more seriously an intellectual error restating as knowledge-bearing Benjamin's consummate ignorance of the workers' movement in Germany or France. He is always viewing it from outside and far away, as sensitive as are his notations, when in Moscow, such as the interview with Radek about the Goethe essay, or the remark that the proletarian writers have been recognized as such, despite Trotsky. The productivity of this distance may be a subject for research, as it is impossible to imagine the Arcades being written from anywhere within the Third or Fourth International, just as it is impossible to imagine the Arcades being written from within the legitimating procedures of a university, referred to by Agamben as a museum of ghosts. “Thus there is a truth, without the possibility of transmitting it; there are modes of transmission, without anything being either transmitted or taught.” (Agamben, 144). The acoustics in the social architecture. What is the space where the spoken sounds rise and fall with the breathing voice? “(I am speaking: this means people are listening to me for a reason, not out of politeness, but because they are committed to hear me out).” (Mandelstam, 67-8). The pressure of the weighed generations deads like a brain on the living.
“In our century estrangement and the ready-made, appropriation and quotation, have represented the last attempts to reconstruct this relationship (at its moments of commitment, the avant-garde has never turned to the future, but represents an extreme effort to relate to the past).” (Agamben, 144).
“A quotation is not an excerpt. A quotation is a cicada. Its natural state is that of unceasing sound. Having once seized hold of the air, it will not let it go. Erudition is far from being the equivalent to a keyboard of references for the latter comprises the very essence of education.” (Mandelstam, 401).
“For it is certainly not an index of health when a culture is so obsessed with the signifiers of its own past that it prefers to exorcise them, and when it is so afraid of the unstable signfiers of the present that it cannot see them as anything other than the bearers of disorder and subversion.” (Agamben, 85-6). This is followed by a passing reference to “true historical continuity,” and even if it is only a lyrical gesture in that direction - revolutionary continuity - the phrase is not an empty one. “The real subject of history is the State.” (Agamben, 99). This is the gloss on Hegel's Reason in History which makes Agamben's quotation repeat itself on the preceding page.
Against Agamben's Benjamin, Mandelstam's Chaadaev: There is too little continuity, not too much. This is the work of philology (“can the work be touched, or perhaps even shaken, by interpretation” - Benjamin to Adorno), as against calling for the destruction of an interpretive method which preserves chronological perspective among multifold approaches to the complexity of the subjective experience of duration, the linguistic durability of the marker, and the objective necessity of theoretical work for the recognition of the conjuncture, and the construction of the true site, whether this site is conceived as the making of a work of art, or class struggle, and as anyone who has read the book in question should know, these are neither equivalent nor antithetical spheres of social production. The Arcades conjoins art and politics in their condition of separation from one another and from philosophy.
Alongside Agamben's Benjamin, Mandelstam's Chaadaev? To repeat, “Chaadaev's conception of history excludes the possibility of any access to the historical path. In keeping with this conception, one could be on the historical path only prior to any beginning.” (Mandelstam, 84). “Nothing here has reached its end, because nothing has yet begun: there is no beginning because everything starts from the end.” (Agamben, 144). “Peter Yakovlevich Chaadaev (1794-1856). Western-oriented Russian philosopher. His major work, The Philosophical Letters, began to circulate in manuscript when Chaadaev was in his later twenties. While the original was written in French, the First Letter appeared in a Russian translation in The Telescope in 1836. Public outrage and the censorship under the regime of Nicholas I caused Chaadaev to be declared officially insane and placed under house arrest for a year and a half; it caused the permanent suspension of The Telescope and the exile of the editor, N.I. Nadezhdin. Four Letters and the “Apology of a Madman” (1837, Chaadaev's last philosophical essay [Chaadaev was freed in 1838 on the condition that he not write again]) finally appeared in a bilingual Russian-French edition in Russia in 1913-14: M.O. Gershenzon (ed.), Sochineniia i pis'ma P.Ia. Chaadaev (Moscow, 1913-14). This was undoubtedly Mandelstam's text. Only in the early 1930s did D. Shakhovskoy (a distant relative of Chaadaev's) discover the remainder of Chaadaev's Letters and publish them in a Russian translation in Literaturnoe Nasledstvo, Vols. 22-24, 1935. For more information and an English text of the Letters and the “Apology,” see Mary-Barbara Zeldin, Peter Yakovlevich Chaadaev (Knoxville, 1969).”
To the extent that a culture can be said to be obsessed with the signifiers of its own past, might it also be said that this obsession extends to the problem of transmission, represented here by the meeting of two books, Agamben's Infancy and History, published in 1978 in Italian and in 1993 in English, and Mandelstam's The Complete Critical Prose and Letters, translated into English in 1979 (the translator's preface is written from the University of Pittsburgh, June 1978) from writings in Russian that span the same period of time as those by Walter Benjamin.
What is it that Western culture doesn't want to know about its past, and is it possible that this is where the fascination with destruction draws its force, “like the architectural skeleton of a house in flames.” (Agamben, 145). This simile, an application of the “arsenal of devices, commonly known as tropes” (Mandelstam, 387) where poetry enters, and makes its home, terminates a sentence defining the ‘destruction of destruction’ as the making visible of the “categorical structures of Italian culture,” in which the “destruction of the mode of transmission, which marks our culture fundamentally, is dialectically brought to light.” (Agamben, 145). In the absence of true historical continuity, the site of culture as negative determination must be burned by fire to illuminate the historical structures whose narration the dialectical image immobilizes.
“Dante's thinking in images, as is the case in all genuine poetry, exists with the aid of a peculiarity of poetic material which I propose to call its convertibility or transmutability. Only in accord with convention is the development of an image called its development. And indeed, just imagine an airplane (ignoring the technical impossibility) which in full flight constructs and launches another machine. Furthermore, in the same way, this flying machine, while fully absorbed in its own flight, still manages to assemble and launch yet a third machine. To make my proposed comparison more precise and helpful, I will add that the production and launching of these technically unthinkable new machines which are tossed off in mid-flight are not secondary or extraneous functions of the plane which is in motion, but rather comprise a most essential attribute and safety to no less a degree than its properly operating rudder or the regular functioning of its engine.” (Mandelstam, 414).
For the philosopher who stutters before the ghost of Hegel - the butcher's block, historical time, not the owl of Minerva, time and desire, or being - “for a Marxian exegesis truly freed from Hegelianism, if it is true - and it is true - that it is contradictory to proclaim the abolition of the Hegelian subject (consciousness) while retaining its essential structure and content through the dialectic” (Agamben, 34) - the bringing within the frame of poetry where Infancy and History concludes,
“Mandelstam wound up
on the dump to even
enunciate it is to be
thrown into an
“We have in mind not only authors such as Benjamin or Poliziano, Callimachus or Valery - who are so difficult to classify in any precise category - but also those poets - like Dante and the author of the Zohar, Holderlin and Kafka - who, in culturally diverse situations, made of the margin between truth and its transmission their central experience.” (Agamben, 147).
“If the halls of the Hermitage were suddenly to go mad, if the paintings of all the schools and great masters were suddenly to break loose from their nails, and merge with one another, intermingle and fill the air of the rooms with a Futurist roar and an agitated frenzy of color, we would then have something resembling Dante's Commedia.” (Mandelstam, 440).