At the MSA – Levinas, Poetry, and Criticism

The Mods. Not the RAFs.This past weekend I was in Brighton, UK, attending the Modernist Studies Association annual conference. I was there mainly to participate in a round-table discussion on “Modernist Poetry Criticism and the New Ethics”. The abstract said, in part:

…in the wake of the interdisciplinary debate between literature and/as moral philosophy, and the critical reception of Emmanuel Levinas’s “ethics as first philosophy,” there has emerged over the course of the last decade a “New Ethics,” after Levinas, which is distinctive to the developments in modernist poetry criticism. Indeed, between 2002 and 2010, a series of studies may now be seen together to constitute a burgeoning critical concern at the nexus of ideas between modernist poetry through the twentieth century and ethics.

My book Defending Poetry (I presume, as well as my article on Joseph Brodsky and Levinas in Poetics Today – see pubs), were thought to be participating in this burgeoning critical concern. And so, I was invited to respond in five minutes to the following question:

To what extent does experimental poetry through the 20th century enact a politics and ethics at the intersection of autonomy and community?

And here is where I got to:

As a way of making a start towards a position on this question, I want dwell on a few of what I take to be its pivotal terms, or turns. I’ll come back to the word experimental near the end of this short exploration. To begin, then, the pairs politics and ethics; and autonomy and community:

One rough way (by no means the only rough way) of differentiating politics and ethics is precisely in terms of autonomy and community. That is, one might say that politics involves questions of how to act in the context of a community of people and its laws; whereas ethics puts one more directly into relation with one’s own autonomy, or self-law.

Two very familiar and controversial statements by Eliot I think may be cited here to bring the discussion quickly around to our topic of modern poetry. One, that poetry involves “not an expression of personality, but an escape from personality”; and another, that “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects … which shall be the formula of that particular emotion.”

These formulations centre on a relation between the authoring poet [a psychological entity possessing a particular and  multifarious identity] and the subjective voice of the poem. They are worried about the following problems: How is the poem to be both self and not-self? Which parts of my subjective experience can be shared, and which are (philosophically, or epistemologically — not psychologically) private?

This is how I gather Geoffrey Hill would read those lines; Hill who writes “From the depths of the self we rise to a concurrence with that which is not-self.” And who has described his own Modernism as a search for “an objective relation to one’s own subjectivity.”

To me these seem to be essentially ethical problems, and not (or not mainly) political problems, chiefly because they are supremely anxious about their own autonomy. That is, a political question might be something like, “what are reasonable constraints on my autonomy, given the existence of other autonomous beings?” Or, “what are the elements of my or others’ autonomy that I am bound to fight for, defend, and preserve?” An ethical question might begin with a deep suspicion, even scepticism, regarding self-law.

Of course lurking somewhere here is the shade of Emmanuel Levinas. I should start by saying that I am in principle very suspicious about the rise of Levinas in literary criticism, for all the reasons usually adduced in preamble when such criticism wants to use him. Namely, Levinas’s own suspicions about literary art, and more deeply about said language.

More basically though, I’m wary of a certain ease with which Levinas’s ethical Autrui can come to resemble a kind of political other; that is, a person (or other entity) in possession of an identity that is thought to belong to a politically and historically marginal group. This inevitably leads to a sort of thematizing of alterity, or worse the presentation of the self as other, which is killing, from a Levinasian perspective.

If there is to be something like a Levinasian “New” ethics of literature, I think it must avoid thematizing, and even perhaps the very question of theme. It would have to attend instead to what is usually called form, but which really is more generally about language itself. Not the problem of representation, but the problem of communication, the gap between what is intended to say and what is said; which is also the gap between the self and the spoken-to other.

The question of form brings us around to the word experimental, since experimental poetry is usually thought of as something which bucks form, or (more positively) which tears down calcified formal structures.

One can see fairly readily why, especially in the context of Levinasian unsaying, formal experimentalism has been an attractive topic for ethical criticism.

However, I want to say that I think the bias towards the experimental is misdirecting. For one, it may promise too much, in supposing that unsaying in language is in fact an empirical possibility. Second, it miscalculates in supposing that the problem lies in the fact of particular formal or even linguistic conventions.

I want to say, more basically, that the formal abstraction never survives the creative act of the artist’s writing. In that moment the abstract is concretized in language, just as language is “elevated” towards an unnatural non-language. Simultaneously the idea becomes embodied in a linguistic form, while the language rises up above its natural habits to embody an idea which has never previously assumed a form in language.

And there, right there, is a gap. Within every form we recognize this gap, often at the most arresting moments of the poem. I mean the gap between meter and rhythm, audible in syncopation or variation, or at the place of enjambment, or between the thing being compared and the thing it is compared to and indeed the comparison itself, between an emotion and an objective correlative, between the idea and the linguistic shape the idea is taking.

This gap, I believe, entails a kind of mise en question, both of the linguistic form and of the idea embodied in it, and also of the relation between linguistic form and idea.

GM Hopkins described a similar gap, in terms of a meeting of bidding and monumentality. By bidding, he says:

“I mean the art or virtue of saying everything right to or at the hearer, interesting him, holding him in the attitude of correspondent or addressed or at least concerned, making it everywhere an act of intercourse—and of discarding everything that does not bid, does not tell. It is most difficult to combine this bidding, such a fugitive thing, with a monumental style. … But it can be done: witness Greek plays—and Shakspere’s, but those are more monumental and less in bidding, his more bidding and less monumental.”

Now we might call Hopkins an experimentalist, but we might also call him a traditionalist in some ways. Certainly he was a poet who adopted and explored recognizable formal structures.

So I think for ethical criticism the gap I’m interested in may be all the more important to recognize and attend to away from the limits of artistic experiment, as idea tries to come to some concurrence with form in language, bidding to a concurrence with monumentality.

Otherwise poets may go on labouring under the misconception that what they have been writing is actually iambic pentameter, and that mashing that up into something unrecognisable is a sufficient linguistic disturbance, and may thereby be validating, ironically, their own autonomy or spontaneity, as they seek to differentiate themselves from some community (of writers, or citizens, etc.) or ally themselves with another.


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