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Further Reflections on Oblivion

 

by

 

 

Jake Berry

 

 

What follows is a series of notes originating from the final two lines of my book Brambu Drezi – Book Two (Pantograph Press, 1998), “out of nothing/ a fire” ­– and from that beginning a consideration of the idea of oblivion as I have used it in that book and elsewhere. 

 

[(As if tracking an angel and forcing him to speak,

   by way of struggle, to surrender a name, and thereby

   receiving a wound, a mark to bear)

 

(continuing from “out of nothing –

                                                       a fire)]

 

aphasia – loss of, or impairment of, the power to use or comprehend words

 

Does Holderlin’s madness, his aphasia, prefigure the contemporary condition, the end of Modern idealism, and its collapse into late 20th century philosophy following after Nietzsche, Heidegger, Blanchot, et al?

 

running through the Greek roots:

 

phanai (fanai) - to speak

phatos (fatos) -

phasis  (fasis) -   utterance

 

but also:

 

phainein – to show (as in phenomenon, fantasy, phantom)

phasis – appear, to show

            from pha-, phos-, phaos – light

 

What is the connection between phasis – utterance and phasis – to appear? Does something appear because we speak it (invocation), or do we speak it because it appears, or are the two one and the same, or impossibly different (i.e. Derrida)?

 

Heidegger from An Introduction to Metaphysics:

 

“The original emergence and standing of energies, the phainesthai, or appearance in the great sense of world epiphany….”

 

This moves toward the written language because we can simultaneously speak and see it. But we spoke and saw before we ever wrote, and even so, do these connections grant language an oracular capacity?

 

So then, does a-phasia (also considering the Greek concepts around physis) mean someone who can no longer speak and therefore no longer see? Is such a person conceptually blind? Aspects of Hölderlin’s behavior would suggest that this is the case. And yet, he continued to speak, though what he said (even if only his “Pallaksch”) was considered by those around him to be nonsense.

 

Here is Nietzsche from a letter to a friend,

 

Ideas have arisen on my horizon the like of which I have never seen before….

The intensity of my feelings make me shudder and laugh – a couple of times

I couldn’t leave my room for the ludicrous reason that my eyes were inflamed….

Each time I had been weeping too much on my walks the day before, not

sentimental tears but tears of rejoicing; and as I wept I sang and talked nonsense,

 filled with a new vision

 

“Ideas,” “seen,” “intensity of,” “feelings,” “shudder and laugh,” “wept,” “sang,” “talked nonsense, filled with a new vision.”

 

Nietzsche, whose madness is perhaps more legendary than Hölderlin’s, here is clearly not mad since he was in the midst of writing his greatest works and obviously able to speak and write sensibly, seems to be experiencing joyful epiphany and responding like a “madman” with symptoms similar to Hölderlin’s when he was considered quite insane.

But look at Heidegger again, “phainethai, or appearance, in the great sense of world ephiphany.” A world epiphany was precisely what Nietzsche was experiencing. “Ideas” like he had never “seen” before.

 

So what is it that Hölderlin was saying in his madness? What “nonsense” did Nietzsche utter during his walks? They are both taking walks in the throes of madness/epiphany. Nietzsche felt compelled to walk and Hölderlin walked with a companion for hours, until the companion was exhausted. And Hölderlin would continue walking around in his room all night – all the while talking to himself, occasionally pausing to declare some great discovery then resuming his walking babble. (One also thinks of the great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk pacing back and forth in the studio and on stage). At this late stage Hölderlin kept repeating, “Nothing is happening to me. Nothing is happening to me.” Was he merely trying to convince himself that he was not ill, that actually nothing bad was happening to him? This is a reasonable assumption. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe in his book Poetry as Experience uses a phrase, discussing Hölderlin’s poetry, and his experience, describing a suspension of “the being-present of the present.” This arrest is a “tipping suddenly into strangeness,” what he calls the experience of the “nothing of being (ne-ens).” As Hölderlin tipped “suddenly into strangeness,” as he slipped out of being-present in the present, wouldn’t it have been reasonable for him to assert, to reassure himself, that nothing was happening to him? Yet, it was a double affirmation that may have leapt across his intellect like a bolt of lightning running across the sky, a splendor that was twice the overflow of experience that Nietzsche felt because Hölderlin was affirming for himself that he was not ill and perhaps simultaneously knowing that he was present in the “nothing of being”? In Hölderlin’s poem “Der Ister”, the poet’s awareness is most acute as he observes noon in the river valley:

 

            At noon, when you can hear the growing

            Of the resinous trees of the Ister

 

            Which almost seems

            To run backwards and

            Strikes me must come

            From the East.

 

Lacoue-Labarthe uses this poem (part of the same quote as above) to make the point that poetry is overcome by eloquence, or more specifically, excess – as “Der Ister” says, “Not for nothing rivers flow/ Through dry land. But how?”  We are confronting an overabundance in a place where it seems strange. “…rivers flow/ Through dry land. But how?” How indeed? How does nothing happen? Lacoue-Labarthe quotes Heidegger, “[between] the ‘no more’ of gods who have fled and the ‘not yet’ of the god to come,” Lacoue-Labarthe continues, “the possibility of poetry, and with it that of a world, is ecstasy.” Ecstasy. This is the noise, the spark, the lightning flash, splendor in the abyss. The gate. A nameless place voided by its own appearance. The appearing and the void are one and the same. They cannot be without each other. Is there an otherwise when there is no I? Are I and otherwise synonymous with their interlocutor the abyss? Does dialog dissolve in the reality of difference? And is difference provisional, a tool of the false construct of dialog? Lacoue-Labarthe says, “not from the subject’s exaltation, as the reductive interpolation of lyricism always maintains, but from its loss, or rather from the ‘forgetting of the self.’” The self is so much forgotten that it might appear hazily, like a stranger in the fog, but in complete ecstasy, the stranger is dissolved, disappears along with the fog. There is no self at all. This links us to the Zen koan and the Diamond Sutra with its paradoxical crucible that annihilates the self:

 

            Who sees Me by form,

            Who seeks Me in sound,

            Perverted are his footsteps upon The Way;

            For he cannot perceive the Tathagata

 

Or from the Heart Sutra, “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form”, to which the Diamond Sutra is quick to add that these are only words and not the “experience.” There is no need to dissolve the self because there is no self to dissolve. What exists is an idea in the mind called “self” and that idea must be destroyed, as well as the conceptualizing mind, for the dead abstractions that they are. Poetry is certainly up to the task. “Nothing is happening to me.” Madness perhaps, but not a madness of the unreal, a madness of the ek-static terror of reality.

 

We have uttered a word, an utterance of madness, and granted an appearance and its difference and possess nothing more than an abstraction, which is the body of the dissolution of Oblivion. It is its own summons and dissolution and by summoning it we dissolve it, the self is dissolved. “out of nothing/ a fire” – a consuming fire. This is the beginning of poetry, its centerless center. We have only the poetry itself, which does nothing and liberates by doing nothing. But nothing is proven but the strong persistence of failure.

 

Blanchot addresses Hölderlin’s madness at length in his essay, “Madness par excellence.” He diagnoses the poet as a schizophrenic, but a schizophrenic of extraordinary capabilities. Van Gogh plays into this as well because he too persevered for a time despite his illness. The significance of their experience is revealed in an account of Karl Jasper’s meeting with Van Gogh:

 

                        On confronting Van Gogh he [Jaspers] felt, more clearly although no

            doubt less physically, what he had felt when coming face to face with certain

            schizophrenics. It is as if an ultimate source of existence made itself momentarily

            visible, as if hidden reasons for our being were here immediately and fully in

            force…. It is overwhelming beyond all measure, but it is not our world: a call

            arises from it, calling into question, calling into existence, acting upon us

            productively by pressing us to transform ourselves in the vicinity of what is

            still the inaccessible. (my emphasis)

 

Perhaps what Van Gogh achieved is the result of the shock of the illness and artistic genius. (A qualification of the word ‘genius.’ I use it to indicate not high intellectual aptitude, though it may obviously include that, but a kind of possession, which Blanchot describes as, “Demonic existence, this tendency of existence to surpass itself eternally” (as in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra)). Jaspers, considering the case of Hölderlin says,

 

during this period (the early part of his illness) Hölderlin speaks of the divine

according to the experience of it which was visited upon him and the shock which

he received from it….it is what Heidegger calls ‘the shock of chaos which affords

nothing to lean on or brace oneself against, the power of the immediate which

checks every first grasp.’” (my emphasis)

 

Here again we must consider the sutras and similar works. They too indicate, centuries earlier, experience of “the immediate which checks every direct grasp.” As Blanchot writes, “What Hölderlin says in these works is not an allegorical manner of speaking but must be understood as the truth, the meaning – gathered up and entrusted to poetic creation – of an immediate experience.” (my emphasis) The immediate experience beyond the self (now broken) of poetic meaning. An overwhelming, similar no doubt to Maya Deren’s “white darkness” as she was possessed by the loa in Haiti; similar to Rilké’s  seizures of different “angelic” perspective. Blanchot again:

 

                In such works the creator perishes; not of exertion, not from excessive creative

            expenditure; but the subjective experiences and emotions, in relation with the

            upheaval of the soul…comprise at the same time the development which leads

            to collapse.

 

Something, we do not know what, since it is beyond the self, overwhelms the self “to such an extent that it is displaced, at least temporarily.” Yet, and this is fundamental to the work, the mind remains active and continues to function according to its nature, it continues its cognitive function. The mind shudders as the persona/self/individual is scattered by the experience. For a dangerous instant the mind is in the grasp of a very real death. It undergoes the death of transformation toward its poetic utility, and it runs the risk of collapsing along with the persona because it is so intertwined with it. This may explain the great number of schizophrenics who suffer from religious delusion. Robinson Jeffers believed that all founders of religions suffered from delusion. Jesus, for instance, suffered from the delusion that God was his father because he could not bear the reality that his mother conceived him out of wedlock. Perhaps we should not be surprised that so many artists are perceived as madmen. They were socialized in a culture whose very foundation lies in some part of madness and which, at its extremes, recognizes madness as religious experience and vice versa. No matter which side of the argument you take, madness is a component. The doctrine of hyper-rationality has left its corpses. Experience or behavior that does not fall within the proscribed rational framework is dismissed, often as some category of dementia. We have “enlightened” ourselves into a very tight corner. We put our madmen in strait jackets. Presumably to keep them as straight, chastised, and “civilized” as the rest of us. Though none of us are any of these in practice.

 

The difference for Hölderlin and Van Gogh, Jaspers contends, and Blanchot after him, is that even in schizophrenia they persisted with their art and produced great art because they persisted even in the reality of collapse. Blanchot says they were:

 

able to raise to the supreme meaning – which is that of poetry – the experience of

illness, to link them completely to the whole of [their] spiritual experience and to

master them for and through poetic truth.

 

Mind and body continued to function well enough to execute the work of art even though no subject, no persona, no self remained. We follow the trail of matter and light to the brink of a black hole until it reaches the event horizon beyond which nothing can be known, at least this is the point at which the physics breaks down. But poetry is the tongue of that unknown, the breakdown, and though we may find the language difficult, it is there, and asks us to take the leap of its origin – in the vehicle of its sound, its vision, and meaning. Out of nothing – a fire. Prometheus stole the fire and paid the price.

 

Moses noticed that the burning bush was not consumed. Why not? Because the bush is the locale, not the source. True, the fire needed a locale, otherwise how could it appear? But the fuel of the fire remained unseen except in the voice that spoke from it. To separate the fire from the voice would be to separate the fire from the fire. The voice was the fire. In response to Moses’ asking for the name of the speaker, the voice said, “I am who I am.” God had already identified himself as the “God of your father, the God of Abraham….” But Moses wanted a name and got, “I am who I am.” This is the redundancy of a mirror. That is, the first “I am” is the voice and the second “I am” is the voice in Moses’ ears. There is the word and the word we hear and the distance and difference between the two. And the whole is “holy ground.” This interpolation is the self, the subject that imposes itself in the transmission. Moses hears very well what the fiery voice says, but he hears it as a subject, as Moses, who is a man and knows that he is a man and defines himself by that knowledge. So although Moses can participate in the “I am” it is at the distance of his own self-consciousness. 

 

Here lies the mystery of the art. Moses is the representative of the voice that calls him; he is in intimate proximity to the voice, the fire, and stands barefoot (that is, not separated by human device) on the holy ground of its locale, but still he experiences this intimacy as a voice not his own, as other. I and thou, I and I. This is the nature of the subjective condition and it is the nature of “civilization.” There is always a distance, and distance upon distance. Moses is “slow of speech” so his voice is passed on to Aaron who now, twice removed, is the body of religion. From Aaron it is disseminated among the people by way of an organization of priests. Distortion is inevitable. And the crux of the whole dilemma lies in the imposition of the self. This is no fault of Moses. He was “slow of speech”, he was not a poet, he was not a singer, he was a writer, by tradition the writer of the Torah – the directions or instructions. Aaron was not a poet either, though he could “hear” the “song” from Moses and could sing it. Homer has his singer of songs, who, as Jack Foley has pointed out in his essays, may or may not have been the originator of those songs. Yet Homer was not a writer, Foley reminds us, he was blind and therefore illiterate. Does this position Homer one step closer to the fire? Was there a distance between Homer and the voice? 

 

We are not sure. He was of a tradition of epic poets that passed the stories down through the generations. He likely sang the stories from sources that had sung in his ears. But this may be a vital distinction. Homer did not write, he sang. And he had to sing with his own voice. As Foley says, it did not seem to matter if the bard in the Odyssey originated the poem he was singing or not. This was a tradition not of writers, but of singers. As Albert Lord following upon the work of Milman Parry discovered while studying, recording and documenting the epic songs of Yugoslavian bards in the 1930s and 1950s, the bard was required to remember the song, but remembering is quite different for a singer who does not read, and therefore remembers what he heard, than it is to remember a text one reads. The singer remembers sounds flowing in song, not discreet units on a page. Further, the singer remembers age old themes and formulaic construction upon which he composes (we might even say improvises) his song at the moment of singing.  The nature of memory changes with medium. Did Moses write the Torah for Aaron to read, or did he tell it to him? Either way, Moses, or his text, would have been on hand to make sure Aaron got it right. Except of course when Moses was away on the mountain receiving the written law. And here is probably the point at which Moses becomes a writer. At least this is the point in the story where what is written begins to supercede what is said. The point is that Aaron had a handy reference, an indisputable word, while the Homeric singer relied on memory of unwritten song. Writing suspends the issue of improvisation in memory, but it also increases the distance between the original hearer and speaker. We rely upon the writer’s memory and his ability to transcribe those memories. Memory may fail, but writing fails twice; thus the errors of religion and philosophy and their crippled offspring, politics. We are destroyed by the failures of our devices – and we are hopelessly addicted to those devices. 

 

There are so many layers between us and holy ground that we desecrate it despite ourselves. How are we to understand nature at all when we have so much dividing us from it? And if someone managed to strip away the layers and put feet on holy ground would we be able to recognize the person as such? If this person was not as trepidatious as Moses, who after all was the prophetic archetype as seen through the eyes of the priestly redactors, and traverse the distance between “I am” as heard and “I am” as spoken and place his hand, his entire being, into the full force of that fire, what would happen? Poetry? Art? A particular kind of poetry and art? Odysseus did not weep because of the singers’ words, or because of his hearing of them, though these were the tools. He wept because of what the song stirred in him. It restored in him something he knew, something he had experienced. It placed the flame in his ear and he wept. He wept because he knew, and knew profoundly. We cannot receive the poem by hearing alone, or by being in the presence of a great singer of the poem. We only receive the poem when we are truly present, when we are the poem’s substance, its story. Repeating Blanchot, “In such works the creator perishes… [from the] upheaval of the soul.” Odysseus the man was overcome, he vanished, and the strain of it brought tears. He was no longer a self, but a work, a fire sung out, the knowledge itself, pure noise, nature to nature.

 

Here is Jeffers from “Roan Stallion”:

 

       Humanity is

            the start of the race: I say

  Humanity is the mold to break away from, the crust to

     break through, the coal to break into fire,

The atom to be split.

 

What is the sound of that breaking? Of the atom splitting? Or rather, how do we go beyond the delivery of the message and enter the fire? It is impossible, but it is the only authentic call. The moment in all it’s glare gives the call an urgency because it is so unspectacular. It has no seduction and no charm. It would seem, relative to the chatter and electronic noise in which we live, to the intensity of our collective delusion, to be nothing at all. Hölderlin is walking around in his tower still, chanting, “Nothing is happening to me. Nothing is happening to me.” Yet, somehow, his behavior seems a little less mad. We have grown steadily more accustomed to strangeness. We have found that it is marketable when veneered with the romance of fashion. Jeffers from “The Coast Road”:

 

                     …a rich and vulgar and bewildered

                                 civilization dying at the core.

A world that is feverishly preparing new wars, peculiarly vicious

                                ones, and heavier tyrannies, a strangely

Missionary world, road-builder, wind-rider, educator, printer and

                                picture-maker and broad-caster,

So eager, like an old drunken whore, pathetically eager to impose

                                the seduction of her fled charms

On all that through ignorance or isolation might have escaped them.

 

The media, the life we are consuming, explodes with charming chaos. But it is the echo of an old whore’s spectacular devises; clever enough to distort all sound into the deepening, desperate seduction of an auto-erotic suicide. What lurks in this suicide? What voice in back of our great conflagration is trying to speak? If anything is certain, it is nothing of ourselves. We cannot possibly know its language. It is deeper even than our long unnatural forgetting. How glorious is the young artist’s death. How sweetly we swoon and mourn him. How delicious is our sorrow and wailing. He dies so that we might experience a catharsis, but the catharsis is just another fashion, another advertisement. It is consumed like any other product. Further, the knowledge that this is happening is a product for “savvy” intellectuals. How do we reach beyond such self-obsessive, suicide-clever, entertainment? We cannot deliver the message because it too is a product. The fiery maelstrom calls, compels, and names its victims. The pit deepens and even the wise cannot be deaf enough, blind enough to dispel the contracting force. Thesis and anti-thesis. A hand reaches from the ground and the crowd shrieks and shudders. But this is a gimmick and everyone knows it, always have, so the catharsis remains virtual for all concerned. Moses did not have this comfort, even at his remove from the fire. The crowd in the theater is not on holy ground they are in Plato’s cave, and very safely there. To walk on holy ground is, as it should be, dangerous. It should involve enormous risks – a confrontation with the flame.

 

When Hölderlin left for Bordeaux at the end of 1801, abandoning native soil for a land he would equate with ancient Greece, his primary concept of Other, of the sacred past come present, he wrote that he was prepared to “lay himself open to the lightning.” Was this a commitment out of madness or had the lightning already done enough of its work to inspire careless courage? That is, how much of Hölderlin the man, the persona, remained? Certainly enough to assert its will, to take the action and take positions of employment. The mind remained, but increasingly over the next five months the self disappeared so that he arrived back in Germany in May 1802 “pale as a corpse, emaciated, with hollow wild eyes, long hair and beard, and dressed like a beggar.” Almost unrecognizable; he had gone to discover Apollo and found Dionysos instead. He had gone to stand on holy ground and had become the locale of the fire. The mind remained. He wrote brilliantly for several more years, but, according to Jaspers and Blanchot there was “a change in the feeling of poetic vocation.” A change “which tends toward always greater freedom of rhythm, outside traditional and regulated forms.” Regardless whether the trip to Bordeaux had any influence, the poet had undergone a shift, gradually more obvious, away from the man and toward something outside himself, toward a world that is nature’s aspect:

 

            His work is concerned less with historical time…for he dwells now in the world

                which he creates… where an immediate experience of the sacred reaches fulfillment

                and is expressed.

 

There is mind enough for him to create, to compose poetry, but it is the “immediate experience” that is expressed. We are reminded again of the insistence of the Chinese and Japanese Taoist and Zen poets on immediate experience, that which precedes the self before the persona interjects its ideas and qualifications. What results is the rare beauty of a poetry that is no longer engaged with the “world”, with what these poets call the “red dust.” The self, which is a product of dust then, because it is the face turned toward the world, society, social exchange, consumable product, is burned away in the flame of immediate experience. Or as Jeffers says in “The Double Axe”: “a shifting of emphasis from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence.” Blanchot reminds us that “the Greeks recognized in Dionysos the ‘mad god’.” Not the god that drives one mad, but “presence itself in its revelatory suddenness.” Not man, but the mad god, the god whose self is removed by madness. Not man, not god, but “presence itself in its revelatory suddenness.” This madness feeds on its own transparency. It displays itself in the stone face of final dementia, fundamental experience. Death solves nothing. Instead, it intensifies the transparency. What waits? Who is listening? The open wound seethes and rushes forward, and then…a silence falls. This is not the silence that follows absolute catastrophe. Nor is it the silence of the white page at the end of the writing, or the silence after the song. It is not the silence beyond death. It is perfectly audible. The long wait is over.

 

 

 

 

copyright © Jake Berry

 

 

 

Jake Berry is a poet, musician and visual artist. The author of Brambu Drezi, Species of Abandoned Light, Drafts of the Sorcery, and numerous other books. He has been an active member of the global arts and literary community for more than 25 years. His poems, fiction, essays, reviews and other writings have been published widely in both print and electronic mediums. In 2010, Lavender Ink released a collaborative book, Cyclones In High Northern Latitudes, with poet Jeffrey Side and drawings by Rich Curtis; and Outside Voices: An Email  Correspondence (with Jeffrey Side) was released by Otoliths also in that year.


Berry's solo musical albums include, Liminal Blue, Strange Parlors, Naked as Rain and the Animal Beneath, Shadow Resolve and many others. With Bare Knuckles he has recorded four albums, Trouble In Your House, Alabama Dust, Doppelganger Blues and Root Bound. With the ambient experimental group Ascension Brothers he has recorded numerous albums including All Souls Banquet, The Wedding Ball and Pillar of Fire (which served as soundtrack for a series of plays by Ray Bradbury) and most recently Transfigurations Blues.

Ongoing projects include book four of Brambu Drezi (which will include a video for each section - the opening sections are available now at YouTube and Vimeo.com), a collection of short poems, an online and print biography of the poet and critic Jack Foley, an album of experimental ambient music with Chris Mansel under the name Impermanence, an album of acoustic songs in collaboration with Jeff Berry and Van Eaton under the name The Cahoots, and an album of alternative rock songs in collaboration with Jeff Berry, Ben Tanner, Max and Kirk Russell.
 

 

 


 

Sources

 

An Introduction to Metaphysics by Martin Heidegger, translated by Ralph Manheim, (Yale University Press, 1959).

 

Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Freidrich Nietzsche, translated by R. J. Hollingdale, and also Hollingdale’s introduction, (Penguin Books, 1969)

 

Poetry As Experience by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, translated by Andrea Tarnowski (Stanford University Press, 1999)

 

The Holy Bible – New International Version, (International Bible Society, 1984)

 

The Singer of Tales by Albert B. Lord, (Harvard University Press, 1960 and 1988)

 

“Friedrich Hölderlin’s Life, Poetry and Madness”, an essay written in 1830 by Wilhelm Waiblinger, translated by Scott J. Thompson

 

The Diamond Sutra, translated by A.F.Price and Wong Mou-Lam (Shambala, 1969)

 

The Blanchot Reader by Maurice Blanchot, edited by Michael Holland (Blackwell Publishers, Ltd 1995)

 

O Powerful Western Star by Jack Foley (Pantograph Press, 2000)

 

The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, edited by Tim Hunt (Stanford University Press, 2001)

 

Robinson Jeffers – Poet of California by James Karman (Story Line Press, 2001)