RESEARCH IN PHENOMENOLOGY 46 (2016) 117-134
David Pollard and Philosophy
Jason Martin Wirth
This essay attends to both the critical and poetic work of David Pollard. In so doing, it not only engages the works themselves, but also allows the contours of such an engagement to manifest themselves, both with regards to the works at hand and more broadly. What does reading and thinking with Pollard give us to experience about reading and thinking as such?
David Pollard – John Keats – Friedrich Nietzsche – the poetic word – relationship between poetry and philosophy
What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet.
[Keats to Woodhouse]
After his watershed work on the English poet John Keats (1795–1821), The Poetry of Keats: Language and Experience, and a beautiful novel of sorts—somewhere between the poetic and the critical voice—on the misbegotten legacy of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (Nietzsche’s Footfalls), David Pollard has been writing conspicuously and unapologetically thoughtful poetry—as if thought as such were at stake in the poetic word. His poetry resonates with other “philosophical poets” (whatever either term will turn out to name) like Keats, Blake, Hölderlin, Celan, Jabès, Mallarmé, and the American poet George Oppen, as well as “critics” and “readers” like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Blanchot; it is resolutely a poetry of thought.
What does it mean to think as a practice of reading as well as critical-poetic writing in the work of David Pollard? In what manner is his work philosophical, even if that manner emerges at the edge of what we have been habituated to consider as virtuously philosophical? If Pollard’s work is in some manner philosophical, in what manner does it preserve the gap between philosophical and poetic production? That is, if “the nearness of poetry and poetical thinking”—works of poetic thinking themselves and philosophical-critical attention to them—“must be respected, not bridged” (PK 136), what is the manner of thinking that attends to this proximity that in its proximity also exposes a concurrent and recalcitrant fissure?
The Preservation of Texts
In his profoundly illuminating study of Keats, Pollard is candid about his appreciation of Heidegger: “The presiding genius throughout these essays is Martin Heidegger” (PK x), especially his works on the German poets (Hölderlin, Rilke, Mörike, etc.). Yet this volume is not a Heideggerian reading of Keats if by that one means that one simply interprets everything through a Heideggerian lens, using some kind of purported Heideggerian paradigm to frame and thereby access Keats. Pollard does not apply Heidegger to Keats, a move that would absorb Keats into the terms of Heidegger’s own thinking. It would assault Keats and his texts would become “from the very first, that which the critical process ends up making it. It becomes a phantom” (PK 124). Pollard’s study eschews such an approach as antithetical to the originality and singularity of Keats’ own thinking and writing. One begins with the fact that Keats was neither Heidegger nor Hölderlin.
Although the application of a theoretical paradigm does not allow us to see the text except in the terms by which we approach it, this practice nonetheless remains a prominent part of the arsenal of our institutionalized academic relationship to writing. Pollard nonetheless regards this as an “assertive thinking” (PK 132–133), an assaultive imposition on the text. “Military cartographers sometimes use an overlay—a sketch on transparent plastic of some specific feature such as the deployment of forces—which is placed over the ordinary map and keyed to it. The only way that the real map can be read is through the overlay, and the region is then seen as a battlefield or as a problem of logistics. The region itself has been overpowered. In the same way, the text, in serving the critic, is forced to submit itself to him and to his terms of reference, terms which have been set up in advance in both time and logic” (PK 125–126).
Pollard’s concern is well taken. It is not always clear that academics are grateful for the global history of works that, despite their many inevitable pitfalls, harbor some of the rare glimpses of wisdom in the history of our species. The Franco-Czech writer Milan Kundera lamented the rise of what he called misomusy—a hatred of the muses. “Now that historiography and literary theory are becoming ever more ‘misomusistic,’ writers are the only people who can say anything interesting about Rabelais.” [i] The study of works is increasingly prosecutorial: the examination of ideas as a literary police interrogation. “Europe was moving into the age of the prosecutors . . . professors and connoisseurs were no longer interested in either paintings or books, only in the people that made them; in their lives.” [ii]
Pollard calls such “questioning assault”—having one’s way with the text, subjecting the text to oneself—“con-servative” (PK 125). That is, one brings the text forward through the addition of “alien elements” thereby reproducing it “only in terms of those categories in which the questioning is framed” (PK 125). Reading becomes another aspect of our total administration of the earth.
The non-violence of reading, to the contrary, calls for “pre-servation,” that is, attentiveness to the text as something that precedes the act of reading (PK 125). As Gadamer and Derrida have also shown decisively, this does not mean that in our desire to shield the text from harm we do not inadvertently harm it. Non-violence is not the fantasy that we can read without any addition whatsoever. Reading rather attempts to minimize harm, to exert as little damage as it can, but in the end “the critic is not the poet, and his reading of the text must accept the loss that this implies” (PK 127). There is no pristine original, only the text itself, bereft of its original context, and hence the critic demands “continual renunciation” before the “dimensions of the text which underlie what he can grasp” (PK 127).
Although the gesture toward critical preservation requires humility, humility—an abiding sense of one’s limits—is not only a resignation to the finitude at the heart of reading. Humility originates in the diminishment of the self that would lord itself over the text; it is an opening to a more expansive generosity: if poetic creativity demands the death of the author, then reading demands the death of the critic. Only with such deaths can we speak of either authors or critics.
Keats realized that the movement of the imagination cannot be directed in advance. We must let go of ourselves—what Keats called “Self-annihilation” (PK 83–84)—and let the imagination give birth to the world and us anew. “The poet’s renunciation is not a renunciation of the word but a renunciation of himself to the word; that is to say, an annihilation of identity in favor of the word, a letting the word withhold itself, for ‘that which is creative must create itself’ ” (PK 60). Pollard and Keats, each in their own way, also discover what Zen practice has called the Great Death, that is, the awakening to a mode of attentiveness that breaks through the unrelenting projects of a subject that does not become a question to itself. The cracking of the shell of subjectivity as a fixed, permanent, and ultimate point of reference, is what the Kyoto School philosopher Nishitani Keiji cherished, following the great Hakuin and others, as the cultivation of the Great Doubt and the Great Death. Not to be confused with the Cartesian Doubt, which doubts everything but itself (the most dubitable and pernicious delusion of all), the Great Doubt occasions the Great Death, which is not the termination of our mortal coils, but the death of the self as a fixed point of reference. “It is like the bean whose seed and shell break apart as it ripens: the shell is the tiny ego, and the seed the infinity of the Great Doubt that encompasses the whole world. It is the moment in which the self is at the same time the nothingness of self.” And hence Zen pronounces: “In the Great Death heaven and earth become new.” [iii]
When Keats, wanting to make enough money to get married, attempted to submit the imagination to his will (the cleverness and self-discipline that both Keats and William Blake came to associate with Milton’s Paradise Lost), his poetic voice waned, becoming strained and pretentious. Both Blake and Keats would have to overcome the model of heroic poetic effort exemplified by Milton—Blake by turning to the figure of Jesus and Keats to Shakespeare. Keats renounced being a man of power and became capable of submission (PK 22), that is, “receptive and self-less (PK 25) because “effort, a striving after poetical language, destroys poetry” (PK 75).
Poetry is an experience of language coming to itself from itself. At the heart of such an experience is an elemental silence that comes to word without relinquishing its silence. “The poet is he who is able to accept the secret behind appearances and let it remain what it is, veiled from view and secret” (PK 88).
Writing poetry is not therefore, strictly speaking, something to accomplish because some of the self-certainties that render intelligible what it is that we are seeking to accomplish also obscure the event of the coming into word. Poetry is therefore also not the concentrated effort of inventing poetic applications of philosophical positions. It requires that one not only go to the edge of oneself, but also that one go to the edge of language, to the liminal space that holds together the silence at the ground of the spoken word and the coming into language of the word. In this light Keats wrote Bailey that the poet awakes and finds the reveries of the imagination to be truth, “whether it existed before or not” and hence “what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth” (PK 77). One can still detect Keats’ edgy sensibility in contemporary poets like Gary Snyder:
How Poetry Comes to Me
It comes blundering over the
Boulders at night, it stays
Frightened outside the
Range of my campfire
go to meet it at the
Edge of the light. [iv]
And it should not be surprising that one finds Pollard’s own variation of this sensibility in his own breathtaking poetry. We can see this already in his first collection, patricides (p 17):
neither any that go down into silence
stars blind bright
pinned and winking
stitched into each
on thousands for a thousand
darkened by sight
this passage moonless
between death and nothing is
Calling forth this moonless passage between death and nothing evokes in one respect the confession of Lenz to the priest Oberlin at the end of Georg Büchner’s Lenz (1879): “Do you hear nothing? Do you not hear that horrible voice that screams across the entire horizon, the one that one usually calls silence? Since I am in the silent valley, I always hear it, it does not let me sleep.” [v] It is a wordless passage that is not trivially silent, but a deafening silence— a silence at the heart of the death, ruins and genocide that haunt much of patricides, but also at the heart of the coming into word. It is a silence that elementally permeates the audible as such and speaks to the imagination’s awakened mode of attunement. We can hear this in a short poem by the late Steve Sanfield called “A Poem for Those of You Who Are Sometimes Troubled by Barking Dogs and Low Flying Jets”:
Reaching for the silence
every single sound. [vi]
The deafening (yet awakening) silence that the poet enacts in the coming forth of the poetic word, a silence which resists the very words that it bequeaths, is a silence that deafens precisely when the reader and critic-philosopher hearkens to the poetic word. This silence—terrible and wondrous—demands not only the Great Death of the poet, but the becoming silent of critical and philosophic reading, a hearkening to the poetic word and a submitting to the silence that animates it. The successful critic does not distill artistic work to its philosophical essence, as if the poetic word were simply philosophy by other means. The successful critique is as successful as its capacity to become unnecessary. If the critic channels the poetic force of the work, allowing it to come forth, then the critic fades in proportion to the coming forth of the poetic word. The more the latter manifests, the more the former vanishes. Anything else for Pollard is an assault, a confusion of the text with one’s own stubborn agendas. Conservation of the text “tends to ‘put it to rights’ and act as its replacement” but preservation “must each time destroy itself in its own effort, must each time retreat in the face of the poetic revelation of the poem . . . It must absent itself as, at the same time, it reveals absence in the poem” (PK 136).
Legacies of Speaking not with but for the Dead
Pollard’s next major work is a “novel” of sorts, although it calls itself a triptych, a term derived from painting and its use of the τρίπτυχον, literally, the three- fold, as in the altar pieces whose two external panels were hinged onto the center panel so that they could be opened and closed. In the central panel is a portrait of Nietzsche, along with Heinrich Heine, but the side panels do not so much illuminate Nietzsche as obscure him, much in the way that the con-servative and bellicose overlay transforms the earth into a battlefield. The side panels speak for Nietzsche, not with him. On one side is a portrait of Richard Wagner (1813–1883), the composer whose all-absorbing music captivated the early, Schopenhauer-influenced Nietzsche, but to which the latter eventually sobered up, reevaluating it as an illness. “Wagner increases sickness and that is why he is attractive to those who want to be sick, who want to put their lives into the hands of this anti-doctor who holds out in his hand a drug which is almost as much a poison as a cure . . . It is calculated not to produce an artistic effect but an effect upon the nerves in general. Wagner excites the world-weary and weather-beaten who seek shelter and want to be easily convinced” (NF 78). Wagner’s megalomania produces a musical narcotic in which Wagner grows larger and larger as everyone comes under his spell. “After all it is easier to be gigantic than to be beautiful and easier, much much easier, to be persuaded than to think” (NF 79). The legacy of Wagner’s mass hypnotic music, eccentric version of vegetarianism, and virulent anti-Semitism—what are the Jews before a self so gigantic, so persuasive?—re-emerges as another part of the portrait: that great lover of the Wagnerian gesture, Adolf Hitler.
Hitler was introduced to Nietzsche by the center of the second external panel, Nietzsche’s unscrupulous and self-serving sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who blatantly and shamelessly hijacked the legacy of Nietzsche and delivered it to the megalomaniacal forces of empire and Anti-Semitism that Nietzsche so reviled in people like Wagner. What are her brother and his writings to the wife of the man who was going to change history by founding an Aryan paradise (Nueva Germania in Paraguay), free from the contamination of Jews? Elisabeth staved off her despair at the catastrophe of Nueva Germania and the consequent suicide of her husband by usurping her brother’s suddenly successful voice (successful precisely and horrifyingly at the moment when it could no longer speak directly for itself). After over three decades of commandeering her brother’s writings and voice, Elisabeth promoted them to Hitler, who, although he was not interested in reading Nietzsche in any serious manner, made him, along with, irony of ironies, Wagner, part of the mass narcotic that was National Socialism.
So successful was her usurpation of her brother’s voice that she was granted the opportunity to underwrite a special field edition of Thus Spoke Zarathustra that became part of every Nazi soldier’s knapsack (NF 156). I must confess that perhaps the most curious and unsettling item in my personal library is a copy of this so-called Kriegsausgabe with a staggering announced print run of 141–150 thousand exemplars. Turning to the introduction, I read the words (in Fraktur of course): “Field-Dispensary of the soul—What is the strongest medicine?— Victory.” [vii] Steven Aschheim recounts the Nazi argument that held that the posthumous existence of Nietzsche only came to clarity with the advent of the Nazi horizon of intelligibility: “If Nietzsche had enunciated Nazi ideas, he himself had become comprehensible only because of a particular unfolding of historical events and the creation of a new social reality.” Indeed, as an “authorized spokesman [Heinrich Härtle in Nietzsche und der Nationalsozialismus]” put it: “only a conscious National Socialist can fully comprehend Nietzsche.” [viii]
Pollard wryly retorts to the promoters of the field edition of Zarathustra: “Closer reading of Nietzsche would have found, ‘Germans have no idea how vile they are’ ” (NF 156). Nonetheless, and despite spirited contemporary efforts to wrest Nietzsche away from the twin clutches of Elisabeth and National Socialism (e.g., Georges Bataille, Karl Jaspers and to some extent Martin Heidegger), Nietzsche, in death, remained in a death grip. By the time of the Nuremberg Trials, one of the prosecutors explained the odium of Nazi ideology by invoking Nietzsche who allegedly taught “the destruction of conventional morality to be the highest duty of man” (NF 209). This reading remained pervasive enough that in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Nietzsche’s prescription for a philosophy beyond good and evil served as a pretext for the two aesthetes’ experiment in a Raskolnikov-like sport murder. “Good and evil and right and wrong were invented for the ordinary, average man—the inferior man— because they need them.” [ix] Nietzsche became the new Thrasymachus, both a bold Nazi that would not be held down by the small minded moralists and an avatar of the rise of Ayn Rand (a “gigantic” writer through and through) as the champion of the American Right.
But we are not done. When the Nietzsche Archive that Elisabeth had moved to Weimar in 1896 and which eventually became affiliated with the Nazi Nietzsche cult, was finally opened to the public, the spirit of preservation did not suddenly replace the spirit of conservation. Although Colli and Montinari were among the first to make use of the archive, resulting in a much needed critical edition of Nietzsche’s text, the posthumous remains (texts) were “waiting for another death, this time at the hand of academics living beyond the outstretched fingers of Nazi ideology” (NF 179). For conservation, every border- line is a battle line.
In the middle panel is Nietzsche himself, but the portrait of Nietzsche is not a philosophical disquisition on Nietzsche’s philosophy. In a typical religious triptych, the complementary side panels illustrate and amplify the truth of the central panel, but in Pollard’s triptych, the side panels not only silence the voice of the central panel, but they speak only for themselves even as they claim to speak for Nietzsche. Their voices conserve Nietzsche’s voice, rendering it inaudible, but Pollard, through his painstaking discernment of the side panels, also allows Nietzsche’s voice to begin to be heard from beyond the grave—where it had been con-served (entombed) by the architects of his legacy. Yes, “posthumous existences will always be ours” (NF 182), but, as Gerald Stern wrote in his own Nietzsche poem, “there is so much to say about him I want to / live again so I have time to study him, / for intervening is the only mercy left now.” [x]The side panels fail to silence Nietzsche completely. The very depth of their deafness allows a new mode of disclosure to emerge. The deafening silence of Nietzsche’s ghostly footfalls becomes audible.
Pollard’s portrait of Nietzsche, both through his delineation of how he had been portrayed and how Nietzsche still speaks posthumously, hearkens to Nietzsche’s voice, and to the ceaseless—and ceaselessly creative—silence from which it issues. In so doing, a portrait, in hearkening to its source, in straining hear well amid the din of egomaniacal conservation, does not tell us who someone really is. Not only would this be to betray the carefully guarded and preserved silence at play in the texts of both Keats and Nietzsche, it would also betray the silence at the heart of portraiture as such. “He was always the exception, the friend who lived in loneliness behind a thousand masks. He wore a different one for each occasion. No two portraits of him are alike and the portraits which he paints of himself are also mirages which wave and disperse and re-appear transformed” (NF 184). Nietzsche’s portrait, including the side panels, does not reveal who he finally is—“He who hides well has lived well” as Nietzsche recuperated Descartes’ epitaph (NF 193). It does, however, tell us both who he has been made to be and how, again and again, he resists conservative portraiture. This resistance emerges as part of the portrait of Nietzsche’s inexhaustible creativity and the fecundity of his Wirkungsgeschichte. In so doing, Pollard also teaches us something about the art of poetic portraiture as such.
We see Pollard’s remarkable art of poetic portraiture in its full force in Pollard’s recent and quite remarkable collection of poems, Self-Portraits, in which he writes poetically of an historically vast series of painters’ self portraits. Pollard’s portraits in words preserve both the singularity of the original works and the silence of their ground The self-portrait is not the eye of the painter recognizing itself for “it is the eye / beyond / the work of concentration on the other that is both I and not.” Poetry speaks, but it is, as Leonardo da Vinci claimed, “blind painting.” It speaks without seeing, just as painting sees without speaking, allowing poetry to speak to the silence that painting sees and “shows as the moment / between the center and the real’s transparency, / between dumb art and all the ways it speaks” (SP 1). For example, speaking for the silence it cannot see in speaking for Caspar David Friedrich’s self-portrait, we hear: “but dark against the glory is the tale / of my uncertainties and doom, / an anxious weariness to blot / away the I into its art” (SP 79).
Self-Portraits is a patient work that both preserves the proximity and respects the gap between philosophy and the poetic word as well as the plurality of the muses, that is, the different modes or arts (in the sense of τέχνη) of access whose difference disappears in generalizations about art as such. As Jean-Luc Nancy has argued, there is no such thing as poetry as such, but rather poetry, in negating itself, “denies that the access may be equated with any given mode of expression or figuration.” Poetry is a mode of access always on the way to itself and always effacing itself. At the same time, however,[xi] poetry i s not painting, the ear is not the eye. As Pollard poetically attunes himself to each self-portrait—an attunement born also of much background critical-philosophical activity—it is as if the ear nonetheless attunes to the eye and the eye attunes to the ear; poetry allows painting to speak and painting allows poetry to show itself. Moreover, as this mutual illumination is enacted, it does not drown the history of art and the singularity of artists into a general experience of art as such. In Pollard’s poetic portrayal, the self-portrait of each painter speaks for itself. Hence, Keats’ colleague, the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, now more of a footnote in the history of art and who eventually committed suicide, visually introspects: “And yet / are little more than portraits held / into a canvas of events greater than their portrayal / and now and here just mine / alone among the words scratched in between / the acts and struggles and the art, / glimpsed in the language of the little future / of my fading time and fame . . .” (SP 83).
In the Nietzsche novel, the poetic word allows philosophy itself to speak for itself amid a world in which everything and everyone is already spoken for. His triptych begins and ends and is haunted throughout by Nietzsche’s grave, hearkening beyond the conservative din, hearing both the event that was Nietzsche’s voice and the silence of the grave, a silence that was also at the heart of Nietzsche’s voice. “Footfalls are heard padding across the floor of the room above while the sister struggles on with her task of editing and rewriting, struggles on into the night” (NF 153). Beyond the projects and tasks and agendas that dedicate themselves to their own self-aggrandizement and not Nietzsche’s writing, beyond a kind of homicidal assault on Nietzsche’s thinking, is Nietzsche’s own self-proclaimed “posthumous” thinking, a thinking that speaks beyond the grave but against its assault. It comes again and again, eternally recurring, from what has past—from the absolute past of the grave—in order to speak again. “The moment of creation is nothing other than the dive into the future, a making the future present and a creating, not a recreating, of the past. Eternal recurrence denies consequitive reason which ticks away in the discrete moments of clock time” (NF 181). Posthumous life is born again and again.
Although Pollard allows us to hear the footfalls of Nietzsche anew, his triptych also portrays a murder scene, one whose gradually deafening violence invokes, as does patricides, the Shoah. In a final indignity that serves as a metaphor for the ongoing murder of the dead, Pollard tells us that there “is a rumor to the effect that she [Elisabeth] was forced to shift her brother’s headstone a meter or more to the left to make enough space for her own” (NF 217). The Gigantic is omnivorous, assimilating everything, including the very ground of the dead.
This speaks not only to a pervasive deafness to the footfalls of the dead, but to an inability to hear the wordless but deafening passage between death and nothing. Although the conservators of his legacy are killers, in another way, Nietzsche has never been granted a dignified death. I have long admired the passage in Götzen-Dämmerung where Nietzsche defends a natural death, which has nothing to do with the hoax of natural law according to which we are not permitted to choose our own deaths—we should die only when nature somehow decides that we should, no matter how thoroughly vegetal we have become. To insist on dying with dignity is regarded as an unnatural death, suicide, and Nietzsche concludes that, for all its affronts, it was most unforgivable that Christianity abused the “weakness of the dying.” To insist on the manner and time of one’s own death could not be more natural because it emerges out “of a love of living [aus Liebe zum Leben].” [xii]
Instead Nietzsche was left to the clutches of his family as well as the burgeoning mental health industrial complex. Overbeck, who first “rescued” Nietzsche after his collapse in Turin in early 1889, was, from Nietzsche’s own textual testimony, right when he wrote to Gast that “it would have been a far more genuine act of real friendship to have taken his life. Now, I have no other wish than that he should have his life taken from him and feel no hesitation in saying so . . . Judge of this yourself by one point only. Friedrich cannot even hate me now for the one thing of which I am most guilty, the sin of robbing him of his freedom” (NF 140). Gast did not deny this. “I believe that Nietzsche would be about as grateful to his rescuers as somebody who has just jumped into the water to drown himself and has been pulled out by some idiot of a lifesaver” (NF 189).
This was the paradox of Nietzsche’s final years: in conservatively making him live, he was already in another sense being killed. Overbeck and Gast sensed that they really should have killed Nietzsche, not delivered him to the slow death of conservation. Pollard laments: “So many deaths which are not really deaths, of men who go on living even though the clocks have stopped” (NF 152). Attention to the works of Nietzsche, attention to the power of his many masks, none of which were attached to the delusion of permanence, would have been attentive to his love of living and therefore to his love of a genuinely natural death. “There are so many different types of murder and the quick knife to the heart may be the kindest. But a murder of ten years!” (NF 153).
In reading Pollard we experience that respect for mortality is a clue to what makes for good art and criticism. His poetry, especially Risk of Skin, employs the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. This respect also permeates Pollard’s complex poetic saying of what makes the poetic word poetic in his new collection, Finis-terre. The title evokes both the liminality of the “end of the world”— a complex border where ends are beginnings and beginnings are ends—and Finisterre in Galicia, the autonomous region in the far northwestern corner of Spain where Pollard has a second home. For example:
Thus does the poet write
not with the pen
but with mortality between his fingertips,
prey to the doubts that skin commands
at each long draft of breath;
against the dead of nothing doing
can he place with terrible care each word
against forgetfulness. (F 34)
And to cite another powerful example:
And so the poet, lacking the music to do other
but gently close his eyes and kiss the void,
knowing the skin is eggshell to his bones’
owned whiteness, weeps
and his lament, wordless,
always at the edge of the wide waters’ flaying,
catches the tang of harshness and its peril
and cannot turn,
—for blindness is the secret here—
and cannot turn
to see what he has done
and left undone
but in that failure answers
into the silence here
—and always ever here—
among the broken rocks
and breaking seas at finis-terre. (F 37)
This attentiveness to mortality becomes explosively and poignantly evident in his cycle of poems bedbound, which bear witness to the death of another without mendacity and the need for conservative amplification to make it palatable. What makes them so moving, however, is their pervading sense of compassion and the generosity of their witness and therefore their refusal to shield themselves either from the singular and inexplicable loss of another (the one bedbound, dying) or our own being before death (resonant of Heidegger’s Sein zum Tode) as our ultimate, non-supersedable, and non-relational possibility. We are all in our own ways bedbound: bound for the metaphorical deathbed.
Although death is the most general (we all die), it is also the most paradoxically singular: no one dies my death and the death of another is non-substitutable. “In the pulse between you and you” are the “dark pools currents that / still wander in the gap” (b 8). In proximity to the return to the elemental humus of our birth—“this long and slow circle” (b 8)—we find the dying in an intermediary time and place:
near the cliff edge we can sense
broken dark of their fragility
as the tree leans
its weak trunk into the colour of its chosen rocks
and leaves the slow autumnal yellow
in a crack of humus
new shoots attempt the air (b 10)
The singular you—(“the fury of your years / that kept you / going/ still mothering” (b 11)—is the fury of one whose years kept her mothering. It is also the you, as the mother is on the liminal precipice of the moonless passage between death and nothing, that still mothers a body that is somewhere between living and dying, with new shoots and new life emerging precisely as one is “broken dark.”
But then, the liminality begins to recede, “clocks reverse denials” (b 14), and “you are no longer / you” (b 15).
o after all
a person dies
not when she should
but when she can (b 18)
And so now “the cliff / comes close and there is no / protecting hand and the great silence / is out there close” (b 20). Before the final poem, right after “your eye / is closed to the souls / weak thread” (b 21), there is a blank page. Pollard spends much time working on the spatial placement of his words, using negative space to endow his words with rhythm while unleashing a force that exceeds their syntax.
The blank page is deafening in its silence, and then she is
cast off into
along the filigree of dust
that life has owed her
and we trust” (b 23).
Deafening indeed, rising above the din of the deafening impulses of countless Elisabeths, Hitlers, and Wagners!
Negative Capability in Reading and Writing
In his famous October 27, 1818 letter to Woodhouse, Keats wrote:
As to the poetical Character itself (I mean that sort of which, if I am any thing, I am a Member; that sort distinguished from the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone) it is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated—It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation. A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity. . . .[xiii]
The development of good and reliable habits of character is everything to a virtuous philosopher, especially if by virtue one means the Aristotelian tradition of ἀρετή. The exigencies of action rarely afford much or any time to deliberate on right action and human flourishing (εὐδαιμονία) therefore depends not only on practical judgment (φρόνησις), but on the inculcation of a stable and good character that is disposed to act well in variable situations. A virtuous life, so to speak, predisposes itself to hold its own through the vicissitudes of chance (τύχη). Even more broadly, one could surmise that if one wants to be a philosopher, whatever that may be, one should make a great effort to be whatever it is that a philosopher is. The poet, on the other hand, “has no character” and, much like water in the Mahāyāna Buddhist tradition, can take any position precisely because one does not insist on its own position. (Water is hence likened to emptiness, sunyata, which, having no form of its own, is at play in all forms. It, like the poet, is “everything and nothing.”) In a very specific way, one cannot discipline one’s effort and set out to be a poet because a “Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence.”
In a very specific respect the self-overcoming poet is beyond good and evil (“as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen”) and is hence a camelion, an obsolete variant spelling of the more familiar chameleon. Whether it is a lizard that camouflages itself by copying the color of its immediate environment, or a mercurial person who, like Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983), takes on the personality of their immediate company, or the hypothetical scalar particle whose variable mass is contingent upon ambient energy, the chameleon, having no form to call its own, is able to take on the forms of others.
It would be wrong to say that this is mere amorality. In the Mahayana tradition, emptiness, sunyata, is compassion (karuna). For Keats this was the cultivation of what he memorably dubbed negative capability, which is “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (PK 32). The poetic is neither deductive nor inductive. It is not a poetic embellishment of what are more straightforwardly facts or positions or arguments. The poetic does what only the poetic can do— it is not philosophy or criticism or politics by other means. In a poetic imagination of a letter from Woodhouse to the impoverished painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, Pollard writes:
He knows the trivium
of magic, silence and the veil
that sing across the study that he makes of them
around the music of his gaps and lapses,
for as we know, the night even in darkest gales
has moons and afterglows and lightnings
that haunt its magic margins
and condemn it to be seen. (RS 68)
In the Medieval University, the trivium was the lower third of the seven liberal arts. The three roads, logic, rhetoric, and grammar, are the mechanics of truth production and their proper conjunction—all three operating in harmony— is the capability to utter the truth. Keats operates not from the mechanics of truth production and virtuous philosophy, but rather from the trivium of negative capability (magic, silence, and the veil). Correct statements do not issue from their conjunction but rather from lightning strikes that expose the dark field of the sky and from words that expose the vast elemental field of silence. As Pollard forcefully expresses it in Finis-terre:
Midnight, almost lightless, has its colours also,
all the furnishings of each eye’s
myriad prisms held back into the deep
and shadows speaking and denying
words and all their worlds and other truths
we can be freed from, turn from,
come to us upon that sharp rivet of silence.
Thus the enormous act of immobility enshrouds us
othered, chamfered into being,
which is the miracle that words can help perform. (F 34)
If philosophy or criticism approaches the poetic conservatively, it absorbs it into itself by assimilating it into an ideology or by translating it into supposedly objectively true utterances and propositions. To be attentive to the text, to preserve it, philosophy must renounce its virtue. It approaches the text in the terms that creation demanded of the poet: the renunciation of the self and its virtues. Reading and creating reciprocally demand negative capability but at the heart of this capability is an awakening to what is mysterious, even monstrous, at the heart of sense. Poetic thought is to risk one’s skin and to embrace the risk of skin itself.
To approach with due attentiveness the work of David Pollard is not to attempt to explain it or even to comment on each poem, as if breadth of commentary somehow magically became depth of commentary. It is rather to hold onto some of his precious words as an attempt, however modest, to find ways into what makes the experience of his work so rewarding. In holding onto these words, the aim of criticism is, as it always is in Pollard’s own criticism, “to make themselves superfluous, to renounce themselves in favor of the text which set them on their way” (PK xi). One sees this also in the paradox of Pollard’s own critical-poetic productivity: his poetic meditations on the works of others are selfless enough to allow these works to speak for themselves anew.
Negative capability enables the pleasure of reading Pollard’s critical – poetic self-portraits that give voice to the silent skin of the painter’s canvas (Self-Portraits: Poems Based on Artists’ Self-Portraits) without sacrificing its silence. It also allows Pollard once again to return fruitfully to Nietzsche, the brutally silenced one, the one too often spoken over, but the one whose footfalls still echo, expressing the silence of the death of god and at the heart of what still haunts us in the very thought of god. We hear this echo, a silence reverberating through a having been silenced, in this excerpt from wer wischt dies blut von uns ab (who will wipe this blood off us?—a question posed by the madman who announces the death of God in section 125 of Die fröhliche Wissenschaft:
only madmen see the death of gods
in their creation
and can mouth
can mother it
speaking final words
for each new god must learn
for we must learn
the burden of creation
for that gods kaddish
is inverted loss
for that one shadowed son
was once demanded
in those other night
petalled in loss (p 43)
References to Works by David Pollard
b bedbound (Enfield, Middlesex: Perdika Press, 2011)
F Finis-terre (Mayfield, East Sussex: Agenda Editions, 2015)
NF Nietzsche’s Footfalls: A Triptych (Hove, East Sussex: Geraldson Imprints, 2001)
p patricides (Hove, East Sussex: Waterloo Press, 2006)
PK The Poetry of Keats: Language and Experience (Brighton, Sussex: The Harvester Press and Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes and Noble Books, 1984)
RS Risk of Skin (Hove, East Sussex: Waterloo Press, 2011)
SP Self-Portraits: Poems Based on Artists’ Self-Portraits (Hove, East Sussex: Waterloo Press, 2013)
[i] Milan Kundera, Encounter, trans. Linda Asher (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 67. 2 Ibid., 149.
[ii] Ibid., 149
[iii] Keiji Nishitani, Religion and Nothingness, trans. Jan van Bragt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 21. research in phenomenology 46 (2016) 117–134
[iv] Gary Snyder, No Nature: New and Selected Poems (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992), 361. research in phenomenology 46 (2016) 117–134
[v] “Hören Sie denn nichts? hören Sie denn nicht die entsetzliche Stimme, die um den ganzen Horizont schreit und die man gewöhnlich die Stille heißt? Seit ich in dem stillen Tal bin, hör ich’s immer, es läßt mich nicht schlafen.” Georg Büchner, Lenz, in Werke und Briefe, volume one, ed. Fritz Bergemann (Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1982), 110. Translation is my own.
[vi] Steve Sanfield, American Zen by a Guy Who Tried It (Monterey, Kentucky: Larkspur Press, 1994), 29.
[vii] Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra (Kriegsausgabe) (Leipzig: Alfred Kröner Verlag, no date listed), v. “Feld-Apotheke der Seele.—Welches ist das stärkste Heilmittel?—Der Sieg.”
[viii] Steven E. Aschheim, The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany: 1890–1990 (Berkeley: University of California Press: 1992), 237.
[ix] Rope (1948) directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Hume Cronyn after the play Rope’s End by Patrick Hamilton.
[x] Gerald Stern, “Nietzsche,” The New Yorker, February 13, 2012.
[xi] Jean-Luc Nancy, Multiple Arts: The Muses II, ed. Simon Sparks (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2006), 4.
[xii] Friedrich Nietzsche, Kritische Studienausgabe, vol. 6, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Munich and Berlin: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag and Walter de Gruyter, 1980), 135.
[xiii] Letters of John Keats, ed. Frederick Page (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), 172. See also PK 32, 47.