POETRY AND THE FATE OF THE SENSES
POETRY AND THE FATE OF THE SENSES. By Susan Stewart. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.447p.
When Susan Stewart’s essay “Lyric Possession” appeared in Critical Inquiry in 1995, il seemed-these things are impressionistic-as though everyone I knew who worked oil lyric was intrigued by it. At the time, lyric was somewhat neglected. English and American studies, especially, seemed to be focusing on narrative and drama in ways that excluded from study bizarre and interesting phenomena such as obsessive rhythm and catachresis. We suspected that lyric itself was being imagined responsible for its largely humanist Anglo-American reception-an attitude that would actually subscribe to the mystification of lyric. Stewart’s essay suggested a way of thinking about lyric that could analyze its oddities without assigning them roles in a unifying operation. “Lyric Possession” zeroed in on the characteristics that estrange lyric from people who prefer to think narratively: its weird simultaneous emphasis on and evacuation of the first person and its dreamlike, substantivizing negations. And it explained these qualities in terms both empirical and nonsubjectively psychological, arguing, through a poignant interpretation of late poems by Thomas Hardy, that lyric encrypts and transmits aural allusions in much the same way that patients, in the work of Abraham and Torok, bear conflicts that are not their own.1 In Stewart’s essay, meters are mnemic structures perpetuating associations that remain partly unacknowledged and unacknowledgable, even in the forms in which lyric shelters them. Without defining “lyric,” by connecting musical echo to the first person pronoun Stewart’s argument nonetheless comes as close as any to gathering its most significant elements into a common frame.
“Lyric Possession” and Stewart’s other valuable articles from the mid- and late 1990s are now incorporated in Poetry and the Fate of the Senses. Sweeping and learned, citing 39 pages of primary and secondary works from all kinds of disciplines, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses is both a sui generis artistic work and a clarification of Stewart’s aesthetics. To the interpretations of Hardy, Keats, and Traherne, ballad and song in the previously published pieces, chapter sections here add reflections on Hopkins, Crashaw, Finch, Brooks, and Walcott, the Baroque and the ubi sunt traditions, among others. Often enough, the new interpretations do mesh with former ones. Stewart’s interpretation of Hopkins, for example, finds in his “hysterical mixture of sounds” (p. 100) an anxiety about the capacity to be heard. Hopkins’s metrical theories and tortured erotic life converge in his self-portrait of “a self ‘pitched past pitch’ by the anxiety of his own capacity for self-reference” (p. 103). Exercising her accustomed attention to reception, Stewart makes of Robert Bridges, the aptly named addressee of Hopkins’s poetic writings, a figure of the lyric reader-poet, whose work translates the script of Hopkins’s utterances of pain into barely intelligible speech.
Many passages of Poetry and the Fate of the Senses strongly resist paraphrase. More purely than her other works, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses lives on the reiteration of Stewart’s signature style-clusters of fleeting arcane facts, metrical observations, and fetishistic details delivered in grandly rhythmic formal sentences. Her method is a challenge to the genre conventions of criticism; characteristically, the narrative tries to recreate or arrange for sensory experiences, and often turns the reader with the directive “Consider” rather than fitting one phase of argument to another. Closer here to Susan Howe or W.G. Sebald than to any conventionally academic scholar, Stewart is presenting or rewriting poetry rather than writing about it.
This is particularly true of her long section on Anne Finch’s 1713 “Nocturnal Reverie.” Literally, this is what takes place: Stewart cites the poem; gives a thumbnail biography of Finch’s career at court and her life in rural retirement as Countess of Winchelsea; notes that the opening lines echo The Merchant of Venice, and conjures up the nocturnal fifth act of the play, emphasizing its archaic Orphic and demonic chiasms; repeats the process for Milton’s Il Penseroso; returns to Finch, and for thirteen pages animates the wandering path of Finch’s loco-descriptive narrator, identifying what is physically human about the phenomenology it purports to represent and comparing the experience that it inspires her to imagine to other similar and different nocturnal sensory experiences that one might have:
Wandering in “A Nocturnal Reverie” is linked at every point with the facts of firsthand experience. Like other animals who journey in the night, human beings must make the best use of diminished vision and align themselves by kinesthetic sense, following in familiar territory their own motor movements. This is the sense by which we steer ourselves toward a keyhole in a dark room or balance our steps by aligning our spines along a trajectory we keep in mind even without visual clues. The night marks a great shift in animal movement: birds of the open fields come into the forests to be sheltered; deer, red foxes, striped skunks, banded raccoons, porcupines, otters, beavers, bears, weasels, and muskrats are night drinkers; searching for roots, hunting, or building dams, such animals are active in the dark. [Here there is a footnote to two works of natural history, The World of Nigh.t and Ecology and Behaviour of Nocturnal Pnmates.] Significantly, these are not the animals Finch considers; her nocturnal world is a domestic and Orphic one where wild beasts have been tamed. And the absence of such animal life gives us another indication that the opening of the poem takes place in the park at Eastwell. (pp. 266-67)
A metacritical passage, from Chapter 6 like the Finch reading, elucidates what Stewart is doing in such a paragraph: reaching for “an internal textual history that goes far deeper than any ‘period’ reading, however rich, can provide and … an external history as extensive as the human relation to the night. The history of the poem begins in all the poet knew or thought and ends when there is no longer a reader” (p. 259). The poem’s main role is to have participated in the universal history of night. Stewart’s reader is as likely Io stop at a natural as at a literary fact. In the passage above, the reader is not learning about literary history as much as enjoying the startling appearance (I choose my own detail) of the night-drinking muskrats who aren’t in the poem. Tracking Finch’s reference to The Merchant of Venice, similarly, does not lead back to the poem and does not become part of an argument about allusion. It leads outward, into a poem about the night: “Lorenzo and Jessica’s teasing antiphon in the moonlit grove traverses time and space to give an overview of all those who have worried in the night: Troilus, sighing on the walls of Troy; Thisbe, frightened by the lion’s shadow; Dido, holding a willow on the wild sea banks; Medea gathering herbs in the full moon’s light” (p. 262).
Stewart’s unusual procedure is connected ideationally to her enterprise. Her “Preface to a Lyric History,” also from 1995, and now part of Chapter 5, may serve as a manifesto for the project. Here Stewart celebrates Vico and Croce for casting poesis as coextensive with the constitution of a world. Poesis means language, or, even more basically, patterned intervals, systole and diastole. Lyric is to be seen as the privileged instance of poesis, “exemplary creativity” (p. 328). Its more or less tragically vulnerable task requires “the repetition of an ontological moment and the ongoing process or work of enunciation by which that moment is recursively known and carried forward” (p. 15). Thus she adduces “Augustine’s thoughts … on the parallels among the progress of a hymn, of an individual’s life, and ‘the whole history of mankind'” (p. 247). This is the (recurrent) moment at which Stewart’s interpretations, for instance of Hopkins, which might be compatible with various philosophic systems, are fit into a particular system of her choosing, one that stacks and cross-sections hymn, life, and universal history.2 It is a system that says like, as, Stewart writes, Diotima claims in the Symposium that “the ways in which poetic forms are immortal is in truth very much like the continuance of human life by physical and social means” (p. 331). So what kind of system is this? What beliefs does it entail? Stewart emphasizes its dependence on material manifestation, and therefore on ever-changing cultural reception: “what might seem at first glance to be rule-governed behavior is in fad constantly in tension with the vital and ultimately inarticulate forces of pain and emotion that compel such expression . . . aesthetic form constantly is put under pressure to change and renew itself in order to accommodate what time and experience have brought to it” (p. 328). Yet her materialist scheme is pervasively metaphysical; the value of material manifestations and temporal contingencies is precisely that they evoke or “promise” something that Stewart takes to be other than them, even if immanent to them: “human consciousness beyond the individuation of speakers and occasions enabling the individualion of speakers and occasions” (p. 332). Manifestations of form in her view shift over time and feed back into the apprehension of form without thereby being less connected at the roots; the form we have at any moment adheres by rule to coordinates that link the particular moment to every other. Moreover, this scheme is backed up, as for systemic redundancy, by Orphic myth, which Stewart claims “underlies every poem” (p. 256). The framework in which Stewart places her reading is, in critical terms, close to the one that dominates American criticism from the postwar period to the beginning of its struggle with poststructuralism: a mid-twentieth-century reading of what romantic poetics might mean, in which the point of reading poems is to actualize the promise of transhistorical communication.
Stewart always practices criticism from within her own scheme, like Heidegger writing about Hölderlin’s “dichterisch wohnet der Mensch” (“poetically man dwells”), rather than bracketing her philosophy when she turns to individual poems. She describes the implication of her metaphysics for critical practice in this way:
As we survey the current methods for imagining poetry’s history, at least among English-speaking critics, positions ranging from formalism to contextually based historicism yet fall within the range of what Croce would call “special histories” and are not dialectically sufficient to bring forward as practices of a general history. Contextual hisloricism has made the error of assuming the coincidence of subjectivity and the somatic and hence has confounded its own basis in sensation for a universal interest. If the body is the least common denominator of human history, it has been the task of lyric to move the subjective forward toward more complex structures of agency and engagement. In addition, functional models are fixed on the attribution of simple cause and so have little cognitive utility. The merit of a general history is its capacity for a critique of ideology and a refusal of rcification regarding language and subjectivity. This point might sound like a hidden agenda of emancipation. But I would suggest that emancipation is precisely what is promised falsely by the formalist method in its claim of literary transcendence and by any historicist method claiming contextual explanation. The special history of literary transcendence is ultimately unintelligible and idiosyncratic; its meticulous particularity, a refusal of judgment. (p. 253)
What would we need to do in order to consider each lyric in light of a “general history” that opens onto nature? First we would have to believe that lyric is more connected to the general than everything else. For Stewart, lyrics foreground the question of interval a little more than everything else: “poetry is not made of language as we know it in its ordinary forms: the language of poetry is ‘concerned with music and meter’. . . . By means of the incantatory, the poet acknowledges in the work’s very being this inevitable paradox of human life: that we actively pursue an ados or fixed image of the human and at the same time passively long for its dissolution” (pp. 328, 329). Supposing that the claims of this formal approach are valid, there is still the question of how to connect them to lyrics. The thrust of this question is not simply to point out the practical problem that it’s difficult to create narratives about poems on the basis of a general theory of poetry, although that’s true: as we find in reading Heidegger on poetry (and de Man on Heidegger on poetry3), it’s difficult to make lyric speak what it supposedly already speaks by the work’s very being without making commentary disappear, and thus asserting the privilege of lyric through the subordination of criticism. But the deeper problem is that it may not be possible even to conceive of formal properties without thematics and allegorization.4 If lyric is a little more connected to the connection of everything, closer to the center of connectedness, what of particular lyrics? Can particular lyrics be still more exemplary, or is there a ceiling? Regardless of how we answer that question, presumably particular lyrics will be differently connected to connection, and the critic would choose among them while organizing their differences. That is what raises the question of how to conceive lyric thematics and allegorization. The moment the critic thinks of a lyric, she is thinking not only about how it is immersed in conditions for thought but also how it allegorizes them. To think of it as distinctive, i.e., to have thought, of it at all, is to think of the allegorization that makes it distinct from other cultural forms that also allegorize conditions of thinking. One can’t evidence a lyric’s being part of lyric except by turning to what about it belongs to the realm of contextualization and contingent rhetoric, that which for Stewart isn’t lyrical. For Stewart, this is not a problem, but an example of the kind of conflict from which lyrics arise; for me, her sublation of the conflict back into the lyric project is contentiotisly circular, and the mark of the contentiousness-what makes me feel that there is not a balance but a bias-is her stated metacritical program that insists that the history of the part be written from the perspective of the whole.
Once more, then: how might the critic go about doing this, this time given the dilemma of evidencing the universal? Enter the senses, modes of “the least common denominator of human history” (p. 253). To write about all five senses-and meditate on abstract efforts of apprehension as well-is to write about everything; that’s Stewart’s reason for doing it. She is constructing an analogy: as our senses, including and especially the inner, are our means of access to the world (indirect, scarred by resistance as our knowledge may be), lyric is “a bridge between human thought and nature” (p. 253). Sight and hearing, she writes, are “the media of poetry” (p. 252). If lyric is the means and end of aesthetic experience at its most general, “lyric” would also be the name for the sixth and greatest sense, the one that binds the other senses. Although Stewart never puts it this pretentiously, tying the senses together in lyric is her way of contributing to the completion of the Kantian project. Poetry and the Fate of the Senses proceeds metonymically and synchronically with this task, according to its radial metaphysics; Stewart uses the topos of the senses to make horizontal transitions between very diverse modes and subgenres that compel her attention. She begins by considering invocations of figures from darkness and ends, with an echo of Hegel, by setting the critic at the momentary end of lyric civilization, writing in longhand as darkness falls. Individual chapters discuss sound, voice, face and touch, counting and numbers, navigation through darkness in the “nocturne tradition,” and lyric resistance to the martial exigencies celebrated by epic. The sense Stewart downplays is vision, which she gathers among “other face-to-face forms” such as sculpture (p. 146). The notion of appearance is too superficial for the project’s notion of lyric; Stewart calls the “relation between invisibility and visibility. . . the most profound aspect of poetry’s relation to vision” (p. 146). Hence her stress on night, the most significant subtopic of the book.
Let me return one more time to “Lyric Possession” as a standard of comparison. The book differs from the article now within it both ideationally and modally. “Lyric Possession” identifies melodies in Hardy, proposes that certain moments in Hardy’s lyrics are remembering songs that Stewart knows he heard, comes up with motives for the echoes and burials, and suggests that the whole complex provides a model for literary transmission. The enterprise is both empirical and speculative, and the psychoanalytic underpinning in the work of Abraham and Torok is not particular to lyric. The larger work is fundamentally not argumentative, either empirically or speculatively; the book values experiences that we may talk about, or have through talking about them, but essentially must have, that is, actualize within ourselves. If lyrics are what Stewart wants them to be, they must work in us. So Poetry and the Fate of the Senses is a kind of anthology of specimens whose roots are supposed to go all the way through into nature, however tenuously. As such, it is a one-of-a-kind artifact that is likely to make a critical audience uneasy about what it is supposed to be understanding. In a lot of criticism, by contrast, it’s all too clear what we’re supposed to do-skip to what we can use. Complementarily, by the logic of Poetry and the Fate of the Senses any perception of the book’s intelligibility on the part of the reader matters not as agreement or disagreement, bill as participation-whether or not the reader herself sees it this way.
Stewart’s stylistic challenge to the poetry/scholarship distinction is thorough enough and eccentric enough probably to have dominated almost any intellectual agenda, but it dominates the experience of Poetry and the FaIe of the Senses the more because the book’s philosophical blueprint is so traditional in the value it places on scope. For Stewart, the account holds interest precisely because it is so ancient and pervasive. It enables her to engage Tlingit shaman songs, Counter-Reformation ritual processions, and Sidney’s Apology for Poetry. It is interesting and unusual to watch Stewart “living” her metaphysics, but if you are a nonbeliever, so to speak, you will probably feel that your concerns are not fully engaged. For me, “Lyric Possession” promises more than Poetry and the Fate of the Senses delivers because Abraham and Torok, dotty as they are, dwell in the very contingency of verbal artifacts-sympathizing with their absurdity, if you will-while formalist aestheticians like Croce only value them because they seem to substantiate transcendent forms.
1 Nicholas Abraham, “Notes on the Phantom: A Complement to Freud’s Metapsychology,” trans. Nicholas Rand, Critical Inquiry 13 (1987), 287-92; Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok, The Shell and the Kernel: Renewals of Psychoanalysis,Vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).
2 A similar moment occurs in Lacoue-Labarthe’s and Nancy’s L’Absolu littéraire (Paris: Seuil, 1978). For the German romantic fragments on which they wish to model the theory of poetry, they claim, systematisation is natural, social, and aesthetic at the same time, “ou plus précisément encore, qu’étant tout cela à la fois (et selon le ‘à la fois’ de la fragmentation et de la symphilosophic), il ne puisse finalement l’être que comme oeuvre d’art)” (67).
3 Paul de Man, “Heidegger’s Exegeses of Hölderlin,” in Blindness and Insight, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 246-66.
4 On the priority of thematics to poetics, see Eyal Amiran, “Against Narrative Poetics: Postmodern Narrative Returns,” Substance 81 (1996), 90-109.
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Copyright Comparative Literature Summer 2004
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