Friday, July 28, 2006

The Iowa Fringe; The Political Fringe

I won’t get back to The Fatalist until the upcoming Minneapolis Fringe Festival is over.
Here’s a brief report on our trip to the Iowa Fringe in Des Moines:

The reasons for the mess that was the festival became apparent over the weekend, and I certainly find them adequate. One person, John Busbee, seemed to do almost all the work, communicating with the performers, renting the spaces (including one that had to be arranged three days before the festival, when one of the venues was shut down), sitting at the ticket/check-in table when he wasn’t running last-minute errands for people, and also doing tech for our performances (this hadn’t been the plan), as well as constantly taking phone calls from performers and ticket buyers. He did all this with a slipped disc and a calm, gentle, good-humored demeanor. Really a lovely guy. Pretty amazing, especially since he’d only been asked to organize the festival a few months before.

Attendance was low, which I’d expected (we were doing a weird, 90-minute play in a thoroughly unknown city). I hadn’t expected a truly inadequate performance space: we’d asked for a quiet room that got pitch black with the lights out, and for stereo CD playback, and we got a “gallery” with all the air compressors for the building making a loud thrumming noise overhead, and that even with the black plastic we taped up on the entire wall of windows twenty minutes before the first performance (other ensembles were doing the same in other spaces), never got dark enough for some scenes to work. There was only one speaker (luckily, we’d brought along our own ad-hoc sound system), and we had to project a lot to make this rather quiet and delicate play heard.

I’m writing all this not to make the festival look bad—John Busbee is amazing, and this is only the second year they’ve tried to do this—but to warn anyone who might be considering going to one of these: if the needs of what you’re performing are highly particular, and it doesn’t seem pretty certain that everything is taken care of, write endless emails and make endless phone calls, until you’re sure you’re getting what you need.

One problem might be that, for much of what went on at the festival (and I expect this is often the case in Fringes), the performing situation isn’t nearly as sensitive. Lame comedy improv and hysterical trauma-drama about landmark interpersonal crises can basically be heard and seen over any kind of audiovisual noise. In a way, I don’t care that the standards for theater are so low, so TV-based, in this country; I just consider it to be a different art form… but it can lead to the assumption that all portable theater is energetic fluff that can survive a really adverse setup.

All in all, though, we had a good time. I enjoy performing the piece a great deal. Des Moines is one of those rather interesting cities that’s caught between decline, gentrification, and grassroots reconstruction, as far as I can tell. Plenty of beautiful, empty old warehouse and factory buildings (any of which might have made for better performance venues than the new glass-and-metal cultural spaces that were used, and which stood starkly next to the collapsing buildings). The best part of the trip was staying in the large attic room of the Des Moines Catholic Worker house. Everyone I’ve met from CW has been amazing, and these folks were no exception: extremely generous, compassionate, funny, and often potty-mouthed, undogmatic, unprejudiced, and committed to the ethic of voluntary poverty and social justice. Having lunch every day with the large number of people who came around to get a free meal and talk was great—some fabulous talkers and generally fascinating humans of all kinds are destitute in Des Moines.


On another note, what’s up with the inability of most progressives to include queer issues among the causes they work on and discuss? Somebody named Ishaq sent a fascinating set of articles to the Buffalo poetics list on GLBTQI organizations in the Middle East and their responses to the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon, and all the subscribers can do is have the same (thoroughly relevant and crucial) arguments about the status of Israel that socially concerned people always have, over and over and over. It’s so rare that anti-assimilationist, activist queers get any publicity (I’m always delighted at CA Conrad’s blogging in this regard), and when they do, too may lefties just go on having the same conversation they were having before. The rift between largely straight, white, middle-class peace activists and intellectuals (and people like myself, a pretty safe bisexual, white, shit-broke antiwar activist and intellectual from a just-below-the-very-middle-class background) and everybody else (people who have to deal, on a daily basis, with race- and sex-based prejudice) is a real problem, not just ideologically but for the sake of ending any of these forms of oppression, and it’s stupid to ignore it. Thanks, though, to Ishaq, for pointing to Palestinian queers who consider their struggle as GLBT people to be quite interwoven with the movement for a free Palestine in general.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

It's been too damn hot, even in Wisconsin, to work on The Fatalist. Now I'm off to Iowa. "See you"
back "here" "soon."

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Fatalist (no.2)

Here’s a stanza and part of another from The Fatalist that should help illustrate some of the points below, and those to come. If they don’t… get the book! A lot of what I’ll write won’t make sense anyway if you haven’t read it, and anyway I don’t want to get sued by Omindawn for overquoting here. I’m numbering the stanzas in my own copy, and will often refer to stanza numbers as well as page numbers.

Some days have gone by that were “good”
as blindly as the justice that a tightrope walker parodies
in her act. The gulf that usually separates one
from all else, the gulf that isolates one and keeps one conscious
of one’s self, disappeared. Not once did I say “I”
but I know that the only “inviolable” privacy lies in dreams
where things are experienced without thought to their having been
“permitted.” Constant change figures the waking time we sense
passing on its effect, surpassing things we’ve known
before making the case that memory of many things
is called experience, and that’s what we call nature
without pictures. Whether or not what we call life
is a valid criterion for these meditations
in time and narrations out of time in which we invent
and criticize too remains to be seen. “I feel right
with myself,” said Diderot, “only when I do what I ought to do.”
What about that for a nickname
nicknamed Annie pronounced Sam and Carl?
I too eagerly await news of gender. I’ll never keep up!
What is an anchor? An anchor is that which keeps one from drifting
     from the subject.
What is a battery? A single battery is seldom sufficient to produce
     energy. The more batteries there are (as in “batteries of
     observers” (unless the observers are critical)) the greater the
     energy produced.
What is cooking? The best cook knows ingredients rather than recipes.
     She also knows whom she is cooking for. The best cook with s
     can of anchovies and three children to feed will leave the
     anchovies on the shelf and go to the grocery store for
     macaroni, milk, and cheese.
What are darts? In an article of clothing, darts (created by gathering
     small portions of the fabric and stitching the folds together)
     provide shape. A game of darts takes place when a number of
     people are sewing.
And everyone? No credible comments can be made about everyone.
                              The Fatalist, pp. 20-21

Autobiography (the ghost (inadvertently
I first wrote goose) of modernity)
always involves social commentary, which is great
except that it puts pressure on me (to get things
right) and you (to be pleased even if, for some reason, things
disgust you) and becomes
either an emblem of love or a site for love’s contestation. What
will save the project? Why didn’t they call an electrician instead
of three cop cars and a fire truck? The detective
whose name incidentally is Askari Nate Martin
will make unexpected appearances the way clowns do in a real circus
and I suppose they do and maybe I should too.
[…] The numerous persons she has been
have each died until here is one listening
but I won’t bug you by playing them
while you are asleep. […]
[…] Their shouts go round
and round in virtual space and even if legitimate never get to where
they will do any good and also be good in relation to things
that come later and will appear in some index as traces
in an alphabetical structure, always a possibility, that we can talk about
at a moment which is merely rhetorical and indicative
only of frustration that we can’t simply reprint the whole wondrous thing.
I want also to be sure to wander around the city. Experience
doesn’t reveal one’s own reality but the reality of things
alien to one, the sea lost in the sky, the sky lost in a sequence of paragraphs
and the wind blows—do I have that
right? the only thing to offer posterity is life?

                              (pp. 22-23)  

Some things to consider in going through the poem (each of these probably deserves an independent post, and so they’re here presented as often fragmented notes):

1) PHRASE PARATAXIS: Where sentence-by-sentence parataxis refers us to a higher level of synthetic activity, making us conscious of combinatorial activity in a “trans-temporal” way, Hejinian’s sentences emphasize movement within the sentence. We reach a word like “them” (in the fourth sentence from #8 quoted above) that doesn’t clearly refer to anything in the previous clauses, and have to retrace our steps, to “go back in time,” rereading the past from the perspective of its future. The “them” is an event; until that point the sentence seems to work, at least in the sense that one can trace references, and though any given sentence may be structured on digression. This is a characteristic of Hejinian’s writing here: the sentences are almost right, and their “bumps” are carefully placed so that that “almost” becomes glaringly apparent—rejection of closure. The kind of thought here is concerned with motion, process—travel of various kinds as themes. Itinerary as “where I’ll go” or “where I’ve been,” an order of paths and pauses, locations and transitions, moments and their turning into one another, not quite fluidly.
     Also kind of motion: speed, way of circling back, how far one goes…
     The “them” of a sentence as a viewpoint from which where you’ve been can be seen differently?
     The fact that few sentences end where the line ends (there are actually more than the usual number in the examples above). The interaction of phrase, line and sentence… ways of keeping us in motion, in transit.

2) STANZAIC UNITY: Various kinds. Often they start & end with similar concerns, often as “different views” of them (as in #8). Within a stanza, clusters of concepts, in counterpoint to the sharing or repetition of concepts or syntactic forms or kinds of motion of thought between stanzas.
     Or there’s a formal unity: alternation of short sentences with long, complex ones (relation to point #3). Or, for example, the series of definitions in #6, which form occurs nowhere else so far in the poem, but which may refer to the definitional quality of the whole project (“what might it mean to be ‘a fatalist’?”.    

3) GENERAL AND PARTICULAR: Funny that there’s a concept of the particular.
     … we usually think of the general concept as providing the context for the particulars. Here the concrete detail, in a short sentences, contextualizes and specifies what’s more general. This happens in the transitions through the first four sentences in #8.
     Though it’s not that the concepts are exclusively generated by the details; she is investigating concepts, but they’re concepts that relate to particularized experience.
     Also see Hejinian’s statement, in the essay “The Rejection of Closure,” about the open text as one that can never be reduced to the arguments that get brought into it, but doesn’t abandon them either. This points toward an answer to one of my initial questions about poetry and philosophy.
     The “cooking” part of #6 as an example: the general definition of “cooking” becomes the definition of “a cook” (recall “fate” vs. “a fatalist”), and the good cook is one who takes into account the particulars: the ingredients, the given situation.

4) STATUS OF “I” AND OTHER PRONOUNS: “I” as nexus of experience and as interlocutor. Same with “we,” people represented by their initials, “you.” These are always present in Hejinian’s sentences, at least by implication.  Experience includes the experiencer and the experienced, which is ALIEN, strange. Encounters with things. Expand on the difference between this and the lyric “I.” And various narrative “I”s; this one is quite involved in what’s narrated.  

5) and more…

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It's just post-o-rama tonight. Coffee at 10 p.m. will do this, I guess.
Peter Berryman (with his musical partner, Lou) is one of the best songwriters who's ever lived, and the only one I know of who should be elected to the Oulipo for his constant exploration of new formal strategies. I've just read the 100th installment of "Whither Zither," the online column he writes for the Madison Folk Society. I don't think I've ever read a text that's more reminiscent of Ron Silliman's work (I'll refer Ron to it when he's back from vacation). I need to buy Peter a copy of Tjanting. Read the column. It's hilarious.
For that matter, if you can deal with incredibly brilliant, usually funny, melodically meticulous folk music sung by people with odd voices with a definite Wisconsin bent that probably seems provincial to some, buy all their albums.

Genuinely Shameless Self-Promotion

If you or anyone you know will be in Des Moines between July 20th and 23rd, or in Minneapolis/St. Paul between August 3rd and 7th, we’re well worth the trouble of coming to see our performances in the Iowa and Minneapolis Fringe Festivals. And we need you there! Though the Fringe setup is ideal for out-of-town ensembles (since the whole festival and its program are well-advertised), we’re still going to perform in cities where almost nobody has ever heard of us.

The Nonsense Company, the theater and avant-garde music group of which I make up one-third, will be performing three works by our main composer/playwright, Rick Burkhardt—one of my favorite artists. In Des Moines, we’ll do The Climb Up Mount Chimborazo, a 90-minute play centered around the relationship between Simon Bolivar (who led the campaign that freed South America from Spain before being brought down by local aristocracies) and his tutor, Don Simon Rodriguez/Robinson. This summary doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the wide variety of topics, historical periods (including the present), and theatrical modes that make up the substance of the play. You can find out more about it by clicking the link above (the whole script is online), and also by reading my review of it in an earlier post.

In Minneapolis, we’ll perform two pieces. The first is Great Hymn of Thanksgiving for three speaking percussionists. Seated around a dinner table setup (with additional cymbals, bowed autoharp, toy piano and steel drum), the players perform an intricate score that negotiates between a rich array of odd noises and a battery of intriguing speech techniques, all in shifting and precise coordinations and in the context of the war in Iraq. No-one I've talked to who's heard this piece thinks there's anything like it.

Conversation Storm is more like a play. Three old high school classmates have an argument about torture, in the course of which they’re drawn into acting out absurd scenarios that raise the question of whether the argument itself represents a horrifying complicity with the current administration’s absolute disregard for human life. Slipping in and out of character, their repeated rehearsals and retakes of their own performance form a troubling counterpoint to the staged argument.

I think these are standout pieces that really need to be seen. Also, my compatriots are damn fine actors.

A warning: Chimborazo contains dimly lit nudity and “explicit language.” Great Hymn features a number of noises (like forks screeching on plates) that may cause you to cringe. Conversation Storm is deeply troubling and often genuinely revolting.

P.S. I'm rehearsing constantly for these performances, so please forgive me if I take an inexcusable amount of time to comment on your recent long narrative poem, or fail to leave sufficiently witty comments on your blog, or start quoting Jay Bybee's "torture memo."

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Digression on "fate" (2 of 2)

If the consequences of an “objective” view of fate lead to insignificance, then any meaningful consideration of the idea must be based somewhere else—for example, in experienced time. Not only does what we think of as objective time fail to match up with theories like that of spacetime; it’s also not something we truly experience. The common objective theory of time says, more or less, that only the present “exists,” and that time is a continuous replacement of one present by another; the past and future only “exist” in their relations to the present. What we experience, though, is never the present moment, but rather a movement in which the immediate future is always becoming the immediate past, with a threshold somewhere beyond which anticipation and memory undergo a qualitative change in relation to the more distant past and future. Continuities of various shapes, sizes and qualities structure our temporal experience.

That temporal experience is the relevant frame in The Fatalist is clear from its title; the book isn’t called Fate. I’d also suggest that the article in the title isn’t meant to specify a single character or person. As with her The Beginner, the point of Hejinian’s investigation is partly to ask, “what is it to be a fatalist? or what might that mean? what does the fatalist do?”—the way one might speak of “the habits of the midwestern chipmunk.”

(A brief tangential note: experience happens. This bugs some neurophilosophers who, having figured out to some extent the physical causes of experience, desperately want the phenomenal realm itself to vanish, to be resolved in practice into physics in the same way it is in theory. Too bad, folks. You don’t have to be a substance dualist—and I hope nobody is—to see experience as an effectively autonomous sphere, an ongoing occurrence whose world-forming activity is in some ways the whole point of those little electrical events in the brain, and which features its own kinds of events and relations).

Part of experience is not knowing what will happen. This is obvious. Even if one does think of the future as already, in a sense, existent, uncertainty and indeterminacy persist, since one never knows the future. (From here on out, I’d urge us to utterly drop the framework of the previous post, or the right sense of what’s said here, and in The Fatalist, will be lost). If fate is what will be the past, rather than what has been or what will be, then chance is built into fate; Hejinian explicitly equates them, in fact, just as she equates fate and indeterminacy. (Or chance is fate seen only in terms of the future). She’s making explicit a quite old connection between fate and chance that’s there at least as early as Sophocles; the absurdity of Oedipus’ fate, the fact that it doesn’t stem from an iron causal nexus but that it’s by pure chance that the man he kills is his father, etc., is essential to it being fate.

But being a fatalist is different from having ones life determined by the gods. It’s a chosen way of living in relation to time, one that’s structured by the future anterior tense, by the fact that fate is always beginning right now (see p.59). This temporal structure also makes choice and responsibility essential; the fatalist doesn’t resign herself by saying “whatever will be, will be.” If fate and chance are identical, then the fatalist is one who rejects closure in her life by opening it up to an ongoing dance with the unknown. Some angles on this:
1) To decide, “it’s going to be this way, no matter what happens” is a resolve based on the lust for closure—a final structure or meaning or role in one’s life. Since this dooms the inevitable to be a certain way (since what will become the unchangeable past will always do so in the same way, regardless of what might arise), the fatalist can’t accept it.
2) The only sense in which the past can be changed is by changing what it has turned out to lead up to. Openness to chance therefore means choice in interaction with chance, an ongoing composition with what comes into one’s purview. (This is kind of a Nietzschean idea, from the period of Zarathustra—the idea of “justifying” the entire past with one’s great new actions—though there are countless reasons not to simply map Nietzsche onto Hejinian).
3) Given point (2), one’s ongoing life is always becoming that with which posterity will have to deal (“leaving one’s life to posterity” is a theme of The Fatalist). What’s now becoming that-which-can’t-be-changed will be the basis on or against which future lives will have to develop. So one’s relation to the past, and to the becoming-past of the future, is one of enormous responsibility to whatever futures there will be.

The fatalist is in motion, on her toes, eyes open, in love with particulars, recontextualizing and being recontextualized by them. Concepts are changed by what comes under them. Not a composed person, not an improvisation but the center of activity of an ongoing composition whose material is what will always have been and what’s coming. A kind of cheer, a brand of serious lightness, is necessary. And an acceptance of risk, of danger, a sense of the absolute sufficiency of the undeniable fact that all this might not turn out well—that a positive relation to chance always means taking a chance.

In her Kelly Writer’s House talk, Hejinian says that the need for closure, trumping all else, is one of the great political disasters of our time. Given that the lust for revenge after 9/11/01 still utterly stultifies reason and ethical thought five years later, given that this desire for ultimate security, safety, “justice” and balance is not only utterly futile (e.g., literally impossible) but ravenous and globally destructive, I’d say she’s right. The ethics of her kind of “fatalism” are worth serious consideration, at the very least as an antidote to this terror. That careful thoughtfulness about one’s relation to time can lead to this says something about the persistent crucial nature of emphatic thinking.

Enough about fate for now. I’ll be back soon with more on the actual writing in Hejinian’s fantastic book.

P.S. For some other notes on fate, see Ian Keenan's blog.
P.P.S. I composed this post in MSWord. When I closed the document, it asked, "do you want to save changes to fate?"
P.P.S.S. Farewell to Syd Barrett.

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Monday, July 10, 2006

Digression on "fate" (1 of 2)

I haven’t had much chance to delve into the intricacies of The Fatalist since my last post, so I’ll use this one to record more reflections in response to the idea of fate Hejinian’s book sketches out. This is partly a response to D.R. Israel, who doesn’t buy the idea that the poem (as I’ve described it so far) solves the problems arising from a consideration of “fate.”

Last time I mentioned some views of fate one might find ethically problematic; here I’ll begin by outlining one that is, I think, ultimately insignificant.

Fate is usually conceived in an “objective” way—as the “law of fate” that dictates all that will happen. Whether philosophical/religious or scientific, the idea here is that everything is set out in advance. Fate exists in this view, and it exists as something outside of us, outside time, as time’s ultimate organizing principle. It’s the book in which all events are written, or it’s the total chain of causation from the beginning of the universe to its end. Since I’ve thought about this more in the context of the modern problem of “freedom and determinism,” I’ll address it in that sense. The problem, which comes up especially in Anglo-American ethical philosophy dealing with human agency, runs something like this: Physical science suggests that all events in time and space are determined by the interactions of strict causal laws (and maybe some statistical ones, though many would claim that the causal laws are fundamental, and the statistical laws are based on these, or that the phenomena covered by the latter are “second-order;” there are thought to be statistical laws governing social phenomena—no-one’s been able to get anywhere near proving this—but humans are ultimately a bunch of atomic particles, and so it all boils down to physics). If one knew enough about the “initial conditions,” one could, in accordance with these laws, predict every event. This means that everything is set out in advance. There are no violations of the laws of physics, so there is no chance that anything could happen that isn’t already causally determined by what’s gone before. Therefore, though we may feel like free human agents who make choices that affect our lives and the world around us, this is an illusion. This is thought to be a serious problem for ethics and the philosophy of action for at least two reasons. First, it means that all our choices and our attempts at affecting reality are futile, and that a resigned going-along-with whatever happens is the only fully rational way to act. Second, it takes away the very substance of ethics, the idea that we are responsible for our actions. In this view, we can’t be responsible for anything, since everything results from some initial events and conditions in the distant past. Morality is empty, false.

But I don’t think it’s a serious problem at all. If absolutely everything is predestined, then the experience of choice, of freedom, of consequences following from our actions, of wishing that things had been different and thinking that they could have, is also fully determined. My thought and acceptance of the consequences of physical determinism would also be fated. If I decided to become resigned in the face of these consequences, that would be determined as well. This problem was basically solved ages ago in debates over the idea of predestination in Christianity:
“If the names of the elect are already written, why should I be virtuous, since it won’t determine whether I’m saved or punished eternally?” “If you’re among the elect, you will act virtuously; otherwise you wouldn’t be among the elect.” In a substantial sense, fate thought of this way has absolutely no consequences. Nothing changes. The problem that remains for a person who has these thoughts is the problem of the “falsehood” of experienced freedom. But even this doesn’t stand up when the matter is fully thought through. In an absolutely determined universe, “freedom” becomes the name for something that happens, is experienced, and is fully real. My choices have exactly the same relation to other events as they did when I “believed” in freedom. These relations can simply no longer be rationally described in terms of causality as it’s usually understood. I still make a choice, and it still has the character of “could have been different.”

It does take away some of the “magic” of fate, of course. If somebody says, “it was fated that we meet,” one can reply, “well, everything is fated, so what’s so special about that?” (I once had a love affair—a brief one—with somebody who said things like, “I was trying to decide whether to move to New York next year, when I passed New York Avenue, and knew it was a sign that I should go.” I replied that driving on any street with STOP signs must be lethal for her self-confidence).

Incidentally, the idea (in some theories of physics) of a “spacetime” in which all events already exist in some sense leads to the same conclusions as the “physical determinism” thesis.

Well, even this post—intended already as a tangent to the main job—will come in two parts; I want to get something up, so I’ll return shortly with the “positive” side of this: a description of a way of viewing fate that bases itself not on the “objective” view of time and fate examined above, but on analysis of temporal experience.

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

On Hejiniian's THE FATALIST (part 1)

Dear reader, please forgive the scattered nature of my initial notes on The Fatalist; it is indeed self-indulgent, since I’m studying this work largely for my own benefit as a writer. These little essays will, to be sure, feature more extended threads as I get farther into the work.


1) The work is in long stanzas (averaging somewhere around a page each), and one frequent mark of a stanza’s identity is the readdressing or recycling of motifs or kinds of sentence structure from an earlier stanza.

The book is written in sentences, but its basic unit is the phrase (it’s interesting that, in the avant-garde tradition, the sentence and the word are the objects of a lot of discourse while the phrase seems comparatively neglected). Hejinian often uses phrase-by-phrase parataxis, and discovering the various results of this is one of my goals. Here’s an example—the first two-thirds of the first stanza of the book:

Everything that works does so in time and testifies
to time’s inability to stop life. I can make the “pathetic leap” and go
from one moment to another that bears
no emotional relationship to it, obscured
by shadows cast by light one can lend oneself to
in the cozy enclosure provided by surroundings produced again
and again by the rain, the one
that you both very generously came to one
evening laughing and shouting “Whoa!” while I was writing
this letter. There were three women and a man, all markedly given
to eagerness, the three women admirably composed, gripping
the monitor. It didn’t last, at least not long ago. Now
in the pleasure of knowing that distracted restlessness
—their composition an arena for enthusiasms that remain
seemingly irrelevant to their apparent undertakings—
there are too many options, dithered and frittered
away buying groceries in which a lot (and I mean, really
a lot) of money gets spent on travel.

                    The Fatalist, p.15

The first sentence introduces time as the central concern of the poem, here time as a unity that contains all events. The second addresses time as “moments” and then illustrates this through its progression of phrases that all “work” in the syntactic contexts around them but don’t relate to each other in a way that adds up (what is the referent of “one” in the seventh line, for example)? Each of the next three sentences has its own way of deploying this technique: “gripping the monitor” doesn’t fit with “the three women admirably composed;” the next sentence starts in the past tense but then implies that “it” could now “have lasted;” “there are too many options” seems to refer to the increasing number of people in each sentence, to the cause of the “irrelevance” mentioned, and to the diverse possible referents of the word “their.”

This hints at one possible relation between the philosophical matter with which the book is concerned and the method of writing: different ways of thinking and experiencing time taken as parallel to ways of using and experiencing language.

(I do know how the book was written in a general sense: Hejinian saved all her correspondence with others for a year in a single text file, and then went through and “sculpted” the work from the block of text with nothing added (and, I believe, in order of composition)—though she also says (in a talk at the Kelly Writer’s House at UPenn archived here) that she would frequently insert a  phrase from one correspondence into the sentence she was working with from another). In any case, another characteristic: ADDRESS. The work is in dialogue, though we only get one participant’s side of it.

2) Most sentences start near the end of a line. Except at the beginning of a stanza (no sentence runs over from one stanza to the next), it’s unusual for a sentence to begin where a line does.

3) Here are some motifs in the first six stanzas of the book (pp.15-21):
     a) LIGHT AND SHADOW: Light shows things, which cast shadows, which themselves are shown and are a way of showing things (the things of which they’re shadows), and also, of course, hide things. At one point she writes, “the light that’s tale-telling/ flickers, slowing thrown shadows and the lives/ they carry” (p.17). This suggests a relation between “unrelated moments” and “shadows.”
     b) ARISING AND/FROM SUBMERGEDNESS: Waking up, remembering, and the flip side of these, what’s unconscious, dreamt, hidden—the great underwater force of seemingly delicate waves… a lot of these references are instances of
     c) BORDER-CROSSING or BEING IN THE BORDER ZONE, a great theme of Hejinian’s since before her A Border Comedy. The border is to be thought of as “between” rather than “at the margin,” as a place of exchanges, of currency, customs, language.
     d) TRAVEL and ADVENTURE: exploration, visitors arriving, going out for groceries, returning home. Relation to
     e) RISK: the promise and danger of what’s unknown, the future, in a life without closure.
     f) PICTURES: as instances of the past; more than once recurring pictures: “a frequently painted long-limbed muzzled white dog” (p.15) and “the frequently painted rowboat” (p.17).
     g) SCALE and COSMOS: in particular, considerations of the gigantic border space between the scale of one’s life and that of the cosmos—this is taken as an area to investigate in its own right.
     h) Repeating types of sentences: “I recite an epigraph” (p.16) and “I invent aphorisms” (p.17) is a very crisp type. “Type” might be too blurry a category to work with, though, since it runs over into the other kinds of motifs pretty easily (is “advice to a writer on their writing” a sentence type or a motif in the way (a)-(g) are?).

4) Ok, FATE is obviously the big one. Hejinian is pretty explicit about her concept of fate, though:
“One’s fate is/ what has happened to one, not what is going to happen. Think/ of the future anterior: think of what will have been. It begins/ (is beginning) right now.” (p.58)

“[…] fate/ which is not all that will happen/ except in retrospect, determined/ and determining “to produce this” as you put it.” (p. 63)
Or, as Hejinian puts it in her Writer’s House talk, “what happened will always have happened.”  There, she points to the double-edged nature of irreversibility: a deceased friend will always have lived, and this is a comfort; on the other hand, the event of a murder will always have been, and this is terrifying.

I know (from references in The Fatalist and A Border Comedy) that Hejinian has been reading Nietzsche for awhile now. In his late philosophy, Nietzsche repeatedly states his prime ethical imperative as “amor fati,” “love of fate.” I’ve always uncomfortable with this; the idea that whatever happens is fated and should be accepted can be one of the most horrifying notions of all. Read in a conventional biographical manner, it’s merely Nietzsche’s way of dealing with his drastic switching from elation, overwhelming energy and delight to deep depression and intense, thought-consuming physical agony, a bipolarity he credits, perhaps rightly, as being a source of many of his most unique philosophical insights. When juxtaposed with his contemptuous remarks about “the weak” in his last books, this attitude of acceptance is frightening. But it’s also important to remember that Nietzsche’s philosophy stages the dissolution of the substantial self, representing it as the phenomenal manifestation of interactions of forces, which can and “want” to be fluid. And the idea of “eternal recurrence” is usually treated in a simplistic fashion (“everything has already happened an infinite number of times and will do so again”), without consideration of the relation of Nietzsche’s notion to his repeated emphases on becoming, change, motion. This isn’t the place for an extended look at Nietzsche, though I have been thinking for years about these problems. And Nietzsche obviously isn’t the only source; Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist and His Master was a major source for Hejinian’s work, one that has more to do with the status of storytelling and that (in the ten pages of the novel I’ve read so far), has a considerably more comic stance than Nietzsche’s work (even Ecce Homo, which is as hilarious as it is frightening and sad).

In any case, I imagine that Hejinian found the notion of fate highly problematic and wanted to address the problem.

The Fatalist’s concept of fate isn’t quite as simple as the above quotations might imply, though. Here are some statements that problematize it:

We regard uncertainty (fate)/ as potentially a purveyor of pain […] (p.55)

To accept/ one’s fate one has to find each moment sufficient. Each awful thing/ is unique. (p.62)

There are many more. The idea that fate and uncertainty are somehow synonymous is obviously worthy of father consideration (it seems to have profound consequences for the role of time). However, it seems like Hejinian basically gives us what we need in order to think through her concept of fate. This makes me realize that, if I’m to learn from the book as poetry, I certainly can’t be satisfied to extract its main philosophical theses (though I do intend to keep thinking and writing about fate).  In terms of the initial questions of my previous post, The Fatalist is a work in which a main philosophical idea seems to predate the activity of the text. The challenge is eventually going to be to consider the aspects of the book that seem the least like philosophical statements or examples of concepts, as well as the specific ordering of the work (i.e., the fact that it’s not a series of philosophical propositions followed by a series of descriptions and so forth, but rather an interweaving of all kinds of more-or-less ordinary—though highly sophisticated and articulate—language through phrasal strategies and others yet to be discovered). Enough for tonight. Time to go sing folk music to the drunks on State Street.  

all citations are from Lyn Hejinian, The Fatalist (Omnidawn, 2003), except for quotations from Hejinian’s talk at the Kelly Writer’s House (see link above).



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