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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  • At July 2, 2006 at 2:25 PM, Blogger david raphael israel said…

    am glad you're doing this. Although I've not yet gotten a copy of the book, let alone read it through, it seems I'll perhaps need to do that to keep fully abreast of the analysis and (perhaps) argument as it unfolds. What we see here so far interests me partly because I feel both a sense of the problem of fate, as Lyn evidently is engaging with it, while at the same time I rather question, and perhaps I can say am somewhat dubious about, her evident solution (as you tersely allude to it) in the form of a formulation about fate that seemingly places it as applicable to the past but not to the future. This seems to me a kind of defanging strategy, perhaps. At any rate, as of now -- that is, with my so far sketchy picture of how Lyn is thinking about the fate issue (which, of course, is simply one way of casting what otherwise we could call the time issue -- or, the problem of how one is to understand [and emotionally accept / not accept / etc.] the fact of the unfolding of events in time -- that which results in both general and personal history) -- as of now, I view her solution [or minimally, her concept and definition of fate] as inadequate, or perhaps disingenuous, or anyway, as remarkably incongruant with how I myself view and approcch the fate idea. But this makes a good, or an interesting, ground for reading and thinking. A different stance, or way of thinking, or sense of possible solution, will present a different landscape of thought. At any rate, I may have (as I suggest) my own ideas about these things, but how clear are they, how really cogent? So those are questions that might also find some focus as a consequence of following along with Lyn's thought (in her book, and too in your exposition of it). So, it seems a nice course to opt in on.

    For the moment, I've one little quibble or point to contend. Where you write:

    << 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)? >>

    The answer is, the "one" is one moment. So: I think in fact -- at least for this example in your parentheses -- it does add up. Lyn's line reads:
    << I can make the “pathetic leap” and go / from one moment to another that bears / no emotional relationship to it ... >> --
    so when she then writes (after an extended digressive clause within commas) << ... the one / that you both very generously came to ... >>

    this "one" (which means "one moment") syntactically, exactly, it corresponds or points to (an example of) "another" [moment] in her phrase "from one moment to another". See? Agree?

    My real quibble -- or maybe, simply, question -- though is not with your misreading of this "one" (as I here claim to read it aright, and to correct your reading by pointing to what I see as the intended refereant); my larger issue is with Lyn's claim that she can make this "pathetic leap" from one moment to another. But first would be a small question -- what is one to make of her use of quotation marks, I wonder? I think it's for emphasis, rather than being a case of quoting some standard or recognized or pre-existant phrase. But I'm not sure about this. So I'd be curious to have your view of it, Andy.

    But more crucially, this claim of being able to make such a leap -- the question is, what does she mean? How can she leap from one moment to another?

    I think the answer is simply, it's a leap of thought or understanding -- a leap of thought in the process of recollection. The idea of thinking first of one moment, and then of another moment -- and of finding no emotional connection between those two moments -- the author calls this "a pathetic leap," perhaps because the fact of two moments of time, from one's own experience (one's own life), seemingly having not discernable emotional relationship, one with the other -- perhaps this seems inherently a pathetic (or pitiable) situation. Presumaably it's pathetic because the natural desire of the mind, casting its view over the field of retrospection, is to desire a coherent and emotionally connected sense of unity encompassing the whole field, drawing all the moments together in some emotionally meaningful weave -- a cloth comprised of all the moments.

    The equation of a moment of recollection with a moment of "time" (that abstract thing) per se, is another interesting thing to notice here.

    So I've really paused to look at those first two lines -- or something in them -- a bit further. I'll expect my comments NOT to exceed in detail your primary posts. ;-) Hopefully the above musings may hold some elements of interest. As noted, I'm new to the text (and not as yet a very detailed student of Lyn H.'s work overall).


  • At July 2, 2006 at 2:35 PM, Blogger david raphael israel said…

    ps: on further reflection, a translation of this:
    > I can make the “pathetic leap”
    could be:
    > I can make [what we might term] "the pathetic leap"

    -- simply putting the quotation marks suffices to imply what I have shown in brackets. This seems a sensible and not so uncommon way of employing quotation marks. I myself have used them that way from time to time. The above is a "discovery and explication of the meaning of quotaion marks that signify something other than a quote" (so to speak).

    I'm also reminded incidentally -- though this is really tangential -- of how Alice Notley frequently puts every line of her poetry within quotation marks. It's a very ideosyncratic practice, seemingly a kind of distancing technique. I read far too little critical writing -- and too little primary writing too; so I've no idea if this Notley practice is commonly remarked upon. [Anyway, it is really dissimilar to Lyn's more particular use of quotes here, I'd say, and merits mention simply as a differing instance of the creative use of quotation marks in avant-garde writing generally. ;-) ]

  • At July 6, 2006 at 1:54 AM, Blogger andy gricevich said…


    Good stuff.
    Some initial responses:
    1) You're right about the referent of "one," I think... though there are plenty of other examples of what I claimed was going on there, and even this example shows a particular formal strategy based on the phrase, and maybe on an implied parallel between phrases and "moments."

    2) I think "pathetic" in "pathetic leap" refers to "pathos" in the classic sense, where "pathetic" doesn't mean "inadequate" or "pitiful" in our modern sense, but rather refers to strong, and usually sudden, upsurges of emotion (generally in the realm of compassion, pity, etc., which leads to the modern usage with its different tenor). I see the suddenness of pathos as the essential part of the "leap"--it's a (too?) quick transition between emotional states.

    3) I think it basically amounts to the same thing whether LH is quoting someone else or coining a phrase herself; I hadn't ever thought of it as dismissive sarcasm, actually. In any case, I'm rather obsessed with punctuation; in my own poetry there's often an attempt to set up cross-rhythms between the rhythm of the language, that of the line breaks, and that of the punctuation, which is often "unnatural" (hyphens and parentheses where they don't "belong," etc.).

    4) My initial (and rather quickly arrived-at) thesis is that LH's writing method (I'm thinking here of phrase-by-phrase parataxis) is a way of "leaping," and that she doesn't leap by means of stark emotional contrast, but by other means (shifts in level, degree of abstraction, grammatical referent, etc.). But I haven't lingered on this that much.

    5) My next post will elaborate on the notion of fate I get from the book, so I'll save responses to your understandable skepticism for that. For the moment, though, remember that it's not that fate has to do with what "has been," but with what "will have been." Not merely a relation to the past, but to what will have become the past in the future. This implies a special relation to time that I think is central to The Fatalist.

    More on all this soon.



  • At July 6, 2006 at 1:51 PM, Blogger david raphael israel said…

    Fine points Andy. Particularly like the key distinction you draw between "what has been" versus "what will have been." Indeed, I might even find myself able (we'll see) to sidle up to some acceptance of an idea of fate involving "that which will have been." I'm sure there'll be more to think on here.

  • At July 16, 2006 at 10:17 PM, Blogger Ian Keenan said…

    I'm having a hard time believing that all this came from correspondence... I'm not saying I don't believe it, I'm saying I have a hard time...

    Also unclear is to what extent she deliberately wrote her correspondence with the work in mind..


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