Saturday, 25 May 2013
Harry Gilonis: Remarks on Poetry and Violence
It is for some reason always assumed that poets are powerless. Not merely because of the minuscule leverage we can command in any marketplace, even the most quote-successful-unquote of us; but because "Words, words, words" in whomsoever's mouths (in any context not in Austin's sense "performative") are so often held to be impotent. Yet this is scarcely the case; and the reasons have much to do with the intricate inter-relations of the state, language, and violence.
As the American jurist Robert Cover pointed out, in a 1986 article "Violence and the Word" [Yale Law Journal Vol. 95 no, 8, July 1986; usefully reprinted in Lawrence and Karim, On Violence: A Reader (Durham, NC, and London, 2007)] "Judge[s] articulate [their] understanding of a text, and as a result somebody loses [their] freedom, [their] property, [their] children, even [their] life" [On Violence: A Reader, p. 293]. Cover goes on to say that "the 'interpretations' or 'conversations' that are the preconditions for violent incarceration are themselves acts of violence" [On Violence: A Reader, p. 296], which I see as being enacted in a language which is performative, but in a manner which is deferred. This deferral matters immensely. It is shared consensus that makes those present in a church concur that the protagonists are now 'wife' and 'man'; a language-game become social, requiring people to be sociable. A serious affray would make a wedding impossible to transact; but legal judgements can be made in an empty, cleared, court, in similar instances. The issue is that - in Cover's words - "[a] judicial word is a mandate for the deeds of others [On Violence: A Reader, p. 298]; even if, as he makes explicit, the judge be physically too feeble to compel anyone to anything.
Cover explicitly differentiates this from metaphorical violence: "[i]t will not do to insist on the violence of strong poetry and strong poets [...]. [...] The violence of judges [...] differs from the violence that exists in literature or in metaphorical characterizations of literary critics and philosophers." [On Violence: A Reader, p. 298]. This is because, although Sean Bonney may urge his readers, should they meet a Tory in the street, to cut its throat, because it will bring out the best in them [Happiness: Poems After Rimbaud (London, 2011)], his readers, perhaps unfortunately, have neither seen that verbal injunction as an authorisation for that action, nor as an order. As the critic David Nowell Smith interprets the implications of Bonney's work, "poets have only shut out the world in various ways – the point, however, is to change it" [unpublished talk given on February 6th, 2013, at Birkbeck, "'An interrupter, a collective': Sean Bonney's poète maudite"; thanks to DNS for supplying his text]. Whereas - Cover once more - "Legal interpretion [...] depends upon the social practice of violence for its efficacy" [On Violence: A Reader, p. 300]. That is to say, in the beginning, the words; at the end, the deed: intricately, inextricably imbricated.
I'm aware that in some radical-poetic circles it is chic to dislike Raymond Williams, and of course reaching for a tatty copy of his Keywords can seem as hackneyed a gesture as citing the OED. However, their shared etymological method can allow for the separating out of unhelpful tangles; and Keywords helps distinguish between Violence (sense [i]), "the general exercise of physical force so as to inflict injury [...] or cause damage [...]" [OED sense 1. a.], and sense [ii], to do this in a manner which is "unauthorized" [Raymond Williams, Keywords , rev. & expanded edn , (London, 1990, p. 329]. Some people in this room will now be reaching for the canon, or the canonical quote: Max Weber, in 1919, in the early days of the German Revolution, defining the state as that entity which can uphold a claim to the sole legitimate use of physical force [in his lecture Politics as a Vocation (Munich, 1919)]. This all looks very like the old saw "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy", and the use of dialect, of 'unauthorised' force, are both seem as subaltern, as anomalous, as undesirable. Williams makes good use of an OED citation of a 1696 English Dictionary which says Violence is usable "figuratively [for] Human Passions and Designs, when unruly, and not to be govern'd" [OED sense 5.; Keywords, p. 330]. That usage is extensible from the individual in a 'violent mood' to social groups, and explains why the striking miners at Orgreave were an "unruly" mob, whereas the mounted police who attacked them in an unprovoked manner were in the most literal sense 'ruly', swinging batons at the end of the long arm of the law. This is implicit in the fact of law, says Robert Cover: "[p]ersons who act within social organizations that exercise authority act violently without experiencing the normal [internal] inhibitions or the normal degree of [external] inhibition which regulates the behaviour of those who act autonomously" [On Violence: A Reader, pp. 301-302]. I'm not interested in getting embroiled in legal theory here (I don't think I want to read Carl Schmitt all that much); but it seems evident – at the risk of sounding horribly like Rousseau – that, given laws, violence is inherent in the use of language.
(At this point someone better suited than I would perhaps bang on about Lacan and the Master Discourse, and the way in which framing models become framing models because they say that's what they are; or, to save time and a lot of head-scratching, we could recall this informative exchange:
"The question is", said Alice, "whether you can make words mean different things".
"The question is", said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be Master – that's all."
Which then leads out into the tendentious matter of redemptive violence; and its employment within language. I am not crazy enough to try and summarise Benjamin's "Critique of Violence" at this point; insofar as I understand that hair-raisingly dense text, I am not entirely in sympathy with the notions of the 'divine' that surface therein. But obviously this is a text that needs to be wrestled with; and perhaps read in conjunction with that radical piece of linguistic theory, "The Task of the Translator". I might just close by offering two obvious pointers to language with "its own specific violence". Here's a metrically-accurate translation of an Ode by the Roman poet Horace, the one that begins "Persicos odi, puer..." (it's addressed to a young slave in Horace's household):
Persicos odi, puer, apparatus,
displicent nexae philyra coronae;
mitte sectari, rosa quo locorum
Simplici myrto nihil allabores
sedulus curo: neque te ministrum
dedecet myrtus neque me sub arta
Persian ostentation I disdain, lad,
garlands bound with lime-bark do not please me,
put aside the search to find what places
the late rose lingers.
To plain myrtle I prefer that you not
add a thing: not unbecoming is the
myrtle to you serving or to me
beneath dark vines drinking.
[tr. Jeffrey Kaimowitz]
[The Odes of Horace, tr. Jeffrey H. Kaimowitz (Baltimore, MD, 2008)]
The rejection of 'Persian' luxury was proverbially desirable centuries before Horace, who is simply adding a veneer of Greek sophistication to his desire for the plain, simple life. But it is a plain, simple life in which someone else pours your drink out for you; and they have no choice in the matter, and will get no recompense. The historian G.E.M. de Ste-Croix tells the pertinent story of what happened when the Prefect of the City Pedanius Secundus, a notoriously bad master, was killed by one of his 400 house-slaves in AD 61. A legal judgement, framed in words, was executed; and so were all 400 slaves. (That law was still on the statute-books in the reign of Justinian, five centuries later.)
Here is another piece of 'pure', apolitical poetry, three lines by Georg Trakl, written and published just before the First World War which was going to kill him:
Braunen Perlen rinnen durch die erstorbenen Finger.
In der Stille
Tun such eines Engels blaue Mohnaugen auf. [from "Amen", in Gedichte (1913)]
Brown pearls trickle through deadened fingers.
In the hush
An angel's blue poppy-eyes pop open. [my translation]
I've used this radical foregrounding of the things that are not to stand for a wealth of more recent writing; our tradition, if you will. Is it possible to extract the radium of the word and employ the power, the force, the violence therein?
Or is that 'unruly' reading?