Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Millenarian Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde

A generation or so ago, the Cloud House poets of San Francisco used to read their poetry on the streets, surprising unwary morning commuters with unexpected juxtapositions of words. In these public performances they thought of themselves as following the lead of Jack Micheline (or perhaps Vachel Lindsay), but they really looked like nothing so much as street evangelists. And, indeed, the struggles of the avant-garde have typically been spiritual struggles, clothed in the highly-colored Salvation Army rhetoric of millennial expectation, familiar from the rants of “holy barbarians” for several thousands of years.

This should not be surprising, since millenarianism is essentially decentering. In denying the permanence or reality of the phenomenal universe and substituting a vision of the imagination, the prophet may then reorder reality with absolute freedom, enjoying license given otherwise only to the godhead at the outset of things, the garret revolutionary, or the performer at the coffeehouse open mike poetry night.

Millennial time-schemes are never cyclic. Meaning collects about transformative, novel events rather than in recurring patterns. In art post-Romantic insistence on innovation such as Gertrude Stein’s use of the “bizarre” and “strange” to “bring back vitality to language” has almost come to be accepted as inevitable, though tradition and convention were dominant through thousands of years of oral literature and imitation of prior models remained the standard through the neo-classicists of the eighteenth century.

Before Rimbaud’s claim that the true artist must create “de nouveau,” the Lord of Revelations crowed “I make all things new” (21:5), and in our own day Jerome Rothenburg asserts Talmudic authority for Pound’s very phrase “Make it new!” (3) The abolition of the future is a topos in Isaiah’s New Jerusalem which “shall not be remembered, not come into mind” (66:17) as well as in Tristan Tzara (13, 45) not to mention the Sex Pistols (Marcus, 11).

The rhetoric occupied by millenarian religionists is linked not only to the language of the artistic avant-garde. Much of the same semiotic territory is occupied in political discourse by utopians, anarchists, and far-left adventurists, and, indeed, there have been close links between artistic innovators and subversives since the British sent Leeson to spy on Percy Shelley. A few citations should be sufficient reminder of the vehemence and aggression of the language of this tradition in recent poetry. Rimbaud’s “Que’est-ce pour nous, mon Coeur, que les nappes de sang” with its wild cry “Perish! Power, justice, history, down! . . .Blood, blood . . . All to war, to vengeance, to terror” is a locus classicus. The poet claims no antecedents; his own creation is altogether “de nouveau”; one must be “absolutely modern.” The Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck said “to make literature with a gun in my hand [was] my dream” and the Communist surrealist Breton cried “Revolution Now and Forever!” (318) Major trends in the avant-garde, including dada, surrealism, Marxism, Theater of Cruelty, situationism, etc. have shared this language as have popular music forms such as punk, heavy metal, and rap. Thus Tzara calls for “the abolition of the future” (13), “NO MORE WORDS” (24, and declares “Let’s start again” (62), and Amiri Baraka defines “the Black Artist’s role in America” as “destruction of America as he knows it.” (382)

Just as Judeo-Christian hermeneutic tradition has provided models for the more advanced trends in the theory of criticism, Judeo-Christian apocalyptic eschatology anticipated the excited rhetoric of the modern literary avant-garde. In fact litterateurs adapted their own use of rhetoric in many cases directly from religious discourse. The motives of this rhetoric have not changed since the days of Daniel who dealt in secret, night visions, and decoding the unintelligible mural text. The millenarian imagination tend s toward idealism, since the visionary’s ultimate reality often reverses the polarities of mundane received patterns: “the last shall be first,” etc. In the domain of political practice this may take the form of the revolutionary aspirations of the oppressed and marginalized. Perhaps the most radical aspect of this extraordinary challenge to the cognitive status quo is the millenarians’ skepticism of their own vocation, necessarily constituted wholly of fallen words. Christians no less than Jews are, in Rothenburg’s phrase, “exiled in the word.”

Of course, through most of human history the roles of poet and priest have been conflated. The vates likely does, teach and delight, to use the Horatian phrase, though his practice of these functions is markedly heightened, if not different in kind. The norm in oral cultures, this poetic claim to deliver truth from a higher realm is familiar, too, as part of a literate European tradition through the writings of early Jews and Christians, as well as through later Christian poets such as Caedmon, whose words were delivered direct from above. Poetic pretension to prophecy enjoyed a renaissance with Romantic theory and has flourished for the last century and a half or more in the rhetoric of the avant-garde. The very measures of the ancient Hebrew authors are exemplary for Smart, Whitman, a good share of the performers at the Nuyorican Poets Café, and Allen Ginsberg for whom “the only poetic tradition is the voice out of the burning bush.” Through hijinks and posturing, the dadaists as well sought what Tzara called “the central essence of things.” (2)

The didactic function of literature is twofold and its two elements are often opposed in a contradictory or complementary relation: a text will inevitably articulate the central beliefs of a dominant ideology while at the same time highlighting tensions and contradictions within that system. In a symmetrical way, national prophets are considered to be uncelebrated in their own land (Matthew 13:57. (Official hostility to seers is frequently expressed – see Zech. 13:3, Is. 2:6 and 8:19, Mic. 3:7, I Sam. 28:3 ff., Ex. 22:18, etc.). Established religions continue to proclaim the illusory nature of “this vale of tears” from the very seats of power. Apocalyptic rhetoric here asserts that the appearance of the world is contingent on a dualism that vanishes before the illuminated eye like a disappearing knot. Thus the divine voice proclaims, “I Alpha and Omega, the first and the last.” (Revelations 1:11), and “I am he that lieth, and was dead.” (Revelations 1:18) Elijah travels the vertical continuum onto heaven. As Isaiah had done before him (see Ch. 2 for example), Christ catalogues these explosive challenges: lucky are the unlucky, enemies are to be loved, the pious are hypocritical, to die is to love, the father is not the Father. Such paradox characterizes the prophetic voice. According to the gospel text such rhetoric is sublime because inspired: “he taught them having one authority, and not as the scribes.” (Matthew 7:29)

In the modern aesthetic realm this is paralleled in theory by Duncan’s prophetic voice “full of contradictions” (Waldman 3) or by Tzara’s claim that “if anyone says the opposite, it’s because he’s right.” (16) Here the voice from the underground, the bohemian counterculture has the same function as the ancient seer: to point to the unsuspected possibility, to imaginatively overturn idées reçues. Much religious discourse, and particularly the literature of prophecy and mysticism exploits the suggestive power of simple reversal (indeed, for the average theater-goer the charm of Wilde’s witticisms is that they do hold up upon second thought). This is indeed a particular tic of language to which Derrida refers as “hinge,” “fissure,” “turn,” “différance,” “the presence/absence of the trace” which constitutes its “play.” (71)

The political appeal of millennialism naturally arises as a version of this “world upside-down.” If terrorism is the atom bomb of the poor, symbolic manipulation is its heavy artillery. Revolutionary expectations are subdues in the more affluent and respectable Christian sects of our own age and even less apparent among Jews with the exception of the Lubavitchers whose billboards you may pass on New York’s Route 17, but early Christianity and the Essenes as well, expected imminent upheaval. Those whose world-view has been shaken by defeat and whose lives are oppressed by daily drudgery and degradation have always been attracted to the wish-fulfillment of individual personal salvation and the parallel social fantasy of a just world after the messiah’s second coming. In this they resemble the more recent adherents of the Ghost Dance, the Cargo Cults, and such Zulu messiahs as Isaiah Sembe. “The messianic movement,” according to Lanternari, “emerges from a crisis, to offer a spiritual redemption.” (309) Still today the millenarians are centered among the poor, the dissatisfied, their church groups meeting in storefronts, apartments, and rented rooms in the basement of the Holiday Inn.

There is no doubt that early Christianity appealed mainly to the underclass and to marginalized groups (such as women), and indeed any new cult is literally counter-cultural in its distinctness from the state-sponsored religious observances which even in Classical times, long before the divinization of the Roman emperors, constituted a ritual of political conformity. Immediate apocalyptic expectations that had been usual in the early church became les acceptable as Christianity became institutionalized with its own vested interest in the status quo. Already in the second century Montanus and his followers were suppressed in Phrygia, and the conversion of Constantine rendered the church established, making any sort of millenarianism a suddenly hostile party. Though early Christian writers such as Lanctantius and Commodianus encouraged fantasies of quite physical revenge (“torrents of blood shall flow” Cohn 28), Origen moved to suppress the collective vision of salvation, and Augustine insisted that the truths of Revelation were wholly symbolic and that the Kingdom of God already existed in the form of the Christian Church. Many of the scriptures relating to the apocalypse were declared non-canonical, though the supposed apostolic authorship of Revelation preserved its authority. The Christian eschatology of the last days was, however, too deeply root in Jewish messianic hopes and in gospel to be expunged, and its revolutionary potential survives in liberation theology and in the lyrics of Bob Marley, now played over most of the globe.

In spite of the fact that the aesthete is not the common man, poets may be radicalized no less than the working class when they are excluded from the centers of power. The displacement of writers from the courts and cathedrals since the rise of industrialism and the creation of a commodified mass culture in the twentieth century has made the revolutionary poet a figure so familiar as to be almost reassuring. Worldly impotence is expressed by super-grandiose words. The poet’s language on its surface makes extraordinary gestures: utter rejection of the present system, anger at being ignored, and the hum the reader always hears of the powerful dynamo of that aesthetic-religious tremendum for which they claim to speak.

However, the same rhetoric is equally susceptible to the opposite reading in which the very strength of the voice is a lament for the marginalization of true art or true religion, and where the writer’s apparently megalomaniacal arrogance masks a gripe over lack of audience. The manifestos of such writers, while they call for upheaval (as in Breton: “social coercion has had its day” [316]) may be read as complaints that, to use the phrases of two centuries in a single period, the literary “legislators of the human race” are so very “unacknowledged,” and the “bayonets of art” are, after all, “inconsequential.”
Language, as well as society, may be forced to the breaking point. Attic tragedy crests in inarticulate cries of agony, and the Hebrew prophets, too, found that words fail in the end to bear the burden of truth. The poet can only gesture dumbly toward ultimate reality: Daniel falls silent (10:15), the prophets utters unintelligible stammering (Isaiah 28:11), Ezekiel’s tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth (3:26), Zacharias is speechless after his vision (Luke 1:22). Those who witnessed Saul’s conversion were likewise silent (Acts 9:7) and the insufficiency of language is the most regular topos of mysticism from the nonsense syllables of the Delphic Pythia and the pseudo-Dionysian Divine Names through the Cloud of Unknowing. Speaking in tongues persists as the trance language of today’s Pentecostal churches.

In secular discourse, too, glossolalia dances in the singing of Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway, in Little Richard’s ecstatic screams which seems always poised between holiness and decadence. In modern poetry, of course, the unintelligible and the semi-intelligible lead the reader into realms inaccessible through ordinary discourse. The pure nonsense syllables of Hugo Ball’s Lautdichtung, Artaud’s wild cries in Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu, the beast noises of Michael McClure, even the cooler incommunicativeness of Kostelanetz all testify to the same fatal weakness of words. Just as poetry itself is distinguished by its figurativeness and ambiguity, the most ambitious language can only admit defeat and commit a dramatic act of suicide insisting upon its inadequacy.

I have little space to document or discuss the verbal strategies that were developed to sinify this poetic truth, but they range from the techniques of all poetry (intertextuality and allegory in the broad old sense, saying other than what one means, the lie that is the truth of art) to the repertory of modernism (abstract language celebrated today by the so-called language poets, spontaneity such as aleatory work and automatic writing), and quasi-ritualistic performance art. The practices of Andre Breton, John Cage, and Jackson MacLow parallel archaic shamanic possession as well as Christ’s advice that his followers speak not with cunning, but indeed altogether without “premeditation” (Mark 13:11) for “it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost.” When Jeremiah protests his inability, he is told to speak regardless with the expectation that divine words will be placed in his mouth. (Jeremiah 1:6-7)

Thus Christ says that symbolic, spontaneous language, what both the King James version and modern argot call “signifying,” allows him to communicate with his followers while remaining inscrutable to outsiders. (Matthew 13) But the “mysteries of heaven” will one day be known even to the impious, though not until a cataclysm so great that not one stone of civilization will be left atop another (Mark 13:2) He explicitly assures them that this apocalypse will come within the generation then alive. (Mark 13:30) This sense of immediacy was repeated also by the author of Revelation whose rich and wholly underdetermined visions also invite open-ended hermeneutic play.

Quite often the modernists explicitly invite spiritual values. Kandinsky’s classic text is, after all, Über das Geistige in der Kunst. Huelsenbeck’s Phantastische Gebete are, in fact, prayers for all their errant pyrotechnic eruption of images, and Kerouac insisted that “the beat generation is basically a religious generation.” There is a structural equivalence even in Satanic posturing like that of de Sade, Baudelaire, or Marilyn Manson. Recent poets have claimed not only to be seers of the future, but many have practiced the magical arts of automatic writing (Yeats, Breton, Tzara, William Burroughs while Jack Spicer argues for intuitive translation) and even numerology (MacLow, Cage).

The voice out of the burning bush which is constantly consumed though it marvelously persists is in fact an image of the word whose own instability threatens its disappearance even as it is constantly renewed in human use, and at the heart of every phrase is the enigmatic affirmation “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14) and the collective repsonse: the people “would not obey, but thrust him from them.” (Acts 7:39)

Motives for the claims are similar in religious and artistic discourse: social marginalization, rising grandiosity as actual influence diminishes, a dream of freedom no less real for its oneiric quality. But more significant is the actual cry of the apocalyptic against the unsatisfying character of the world as it is and the savior’s mysterious redemption, and the corresponding poet’s song about the failure of the word and its paradoxical liberation in poetry.

Just as the teaching of the redemptive power of Christ’s blood is at once a lament for the fallen nature of the world and an assertion of the availability of a private or future solution, so the poet’s claim to a unique access to sublime knowledge simultaneously notes the inadequacy of language, even of the most artful words, and insists on the imminence of a radical reordering in which signification will be again immediate and whole. No language can support such significance. That which had always been seen “through a glass darkly” will be revealed. Islamic tradition maintains that, with the arrival of the eschaton all copies of the Koran will become blank and its words will vanish from memory. The world will then be perfect, all previous writing only provisional, discarded as superfluous in the face of Truth.

Millennial time-schemes are never cyclic. They seek in events not Nietzsche’s “eternal return” but rather the novum, that which has never before occurred, the coming of which will transform the post Edenic world. Just as history is the story of suffering since things happen only after the fall, literature consists of inadequate fallen words struggling to catch up with meaning. The wish-fulfillment of an end to suffering is analogous to the longing for a perfectly expressive verbal instrument. The fact that satisfaction lies just beyond the grasp animates desire in the verbal as well as in the carnal realm. Both the fallen world and the limits of language are expressed in a cry of pain, whether the new-born’s first sound, the prophetic gibberish by which Plato discerned the true prophet (Timaeus 71c) or the dadaists’ “hojohojo-lodomodoho.” (Huelsenbeck) Even with the giuft oid great grace, from our cleft in the rock, the poets, like Moses, have been able to glimpse only the “back parts” of God.

Breton, Andre. What is Surrealism: Selected Writings. Ed. Franklin Rosemont. New York: Monad, 1978.

Cohn, Norman. Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come. New Haven: Yale, 1993.

Huelsenbeck, Richard. “Tree,” tr. William Seaton. Chelsea (59), 1996.

Lanternari, Vittorio. The Religions of the Oppressed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963.

Marcus, Greil. Lipstick Traces. Cambridge: Harvard, 1990.

McGinn, Barnard. Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Traditions in the Middle Ages. New York: Columbia, 1979.

Rothenburg, Jerome and Harris Lenowitz (ed.). Exiled in the Word: Poems and Other Visions of the Jews from Tribal Times to the Present. Port Townsend (Washington): Copper Canyon, 1989.

Rothenburg, Jerome (ed.). Technicians of the Sacred. Garden City (NY): Doubbleday, 1968.

Stein, Gertrude. Writings and Lectures 1909-1945. ed. Patricia Meyerowitz. Baltimore: Penguin, 1971.

Walman, Anne and Marilyn Webb. Talking Poetics from the Naropa Institute. Boulder (Colorado): Shambhala, 1978.

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