Tuesday, February 15, 2005
The differences between Robert Duncan’s A Selected Prose, edited after his death by Robert Bertholf, published in 1995, &
The twenty essays included in A Selected Prose are focused not just on the literary, but on a particular aspect of the literary. It is primarily a record of
The thirteen pieces
Since I have argued that the “structure” of Duncan’s great prose poem sequence, The Structure of Rime, is in fact the same term we find first in structuralism – the intellectual tendency that can be traced back through Roland Barthes, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, linguist Roman Jacobson & others ultimately to the Russian Formalists, the piece on Barthes is worth examining a little more closely. Like any
The difficulties start right away, with the title, Kopóltuš. It’s not a word you have ever heard before. You can’t find it in the OED, indeed, according to Google, there is no mention of it anywhere on the internet, with or without diacritical marks.¹ It would appear to be a neologism.
This is followed with an epigram from Barthes’ essay:
“images, gestures, musical sounds, objects, and the complex associations of all these, which form the content of ritual, convention or public entertainment . . . [as] systems of signification”
At which moment
Individualizing (naming) a group of three objects in a certain light, involving red, yellow and cerulean, the equilibration of the members of the group having a certain feel (this arrangement feels "in key") reveals that other elements we do not admit to seeing are present in what we see. We call the complex association of all these (an it) – we call it a kopóltuš (“it is a kopóltuš”), or we may say of the group “it is significant.” (Jess asks if kopóltuš made me think of “poultice” or “cold poultice.”)
Indeed, naming – the rightness or inherent nature of names – is precisely “Kopóltuš’” subject. It’s an intriguing question have been invoked by somebody who was born as Edward Howard Duncan & then raised by adoptive parents as Edward Howard Symmes, taking the name Robert & joining it to Duncan only after he was discharged from the army in 1941.²
How do names mean? Especially complex or abstract ones:
This is a work of art, we say. This is not a work of art. This is a kopóltuš. “Does your key feeling agree with my feeling” does not mean “Is your feeling like mine” but “Does your feel that this is a kopóltuš agree with mine?” No, it is not a Picasso. We agree that we like Picasso, but he is referring to a Picasso I don’t much like; I am referring with praise to a Picasso which he thinks is poor. I am sure this is a Picasso (we can check it out as to whether Picasso actually painted it); he is sure it is not a Picasso (but does it look like a Picasso to him, where he has some knowledge that it was forged; or does he recognize that it is a Braque?). Was this forged Picasso forged by X or Y? This is a Y pseudo-Picasso. This pseudo-Picasso is a genuine Y, who is so skillful at imitating that you cannot tell it from a Picasso. I can’t tell it from a Picasso but it might be Braque. It isn’t a kopóltuš tho, tho it looks like one, it doesn’t feel right. A kopóltuš is not a look but the feel of a look.
We no longer dealing with Barthes here, at least not directly. Instead
The problem for
It is true that objects, images and patterns of behavior can signify, and do so on a large scale, but never autonomously; every semiological system has its linguistic admixture.³
But if things – including names – are not autonomous, if they mean only differentially, if meaning itself is inherently differential, the way the phoneme p differs from the phoneme b, then the whole of the magical world – the world at the heart of all religions, including that secret religion of all religions, theosophy – disappears.
The artist of the kopóltuš said, “It spoke to me.” A theory and practice of magical art may enter into this event, or, not having existed before, may follow in its wake. The artist assembling and arranging objects towards some aesthetic satisfaction happens upon a set that “speaks to him,” a telling arrangement. What does it say? In the Book we read a Burning Bush spoke to him and said, “I AM,” and we read also that Yahweh, also called “God,” spoke out of the Burning Bush. The Bush did not then, autonomously, announce its own being. The “I” was some One else.
Only those who have never read Rimbaud will not hear the allusion in that last sentence. This is the moment that
The figure of the jig-saw
that is of picture,
the representation of a world as ours
in a complex patterning of color in light and shadows,
masses with hints of densities and distances,
cut across by a second, discrete pattern
in which we perceive on qualities of fitting and not fitting
and suggestions of rime
in ways of fitting and not fitting –
this jig-saw conformation of patterns
of different orders,
of a pattern of apparent reality
in which the picture we are working to bring out appears
and of a pattern of loss and of finding
that so compels us that we are entirely engrosst in working it out,
this picture that must be put together
takes over mere seeing.
The master verb phrase – takes over – does not occur until the 117th & 118th words of this serpentine sentence. Here the image
The moment itself seems to click into place, the lines of it so perfectly joining present contributing to but overwhelmed by the unalterable establishment of a locality in the context of the whole puzzle yet to be workt out into its picture.
This moment of taking over, of clicking into place might, in some other narrative, be presented precisely by the act of faith itself, the term leap understood quite literally.
Even if Barthes is not the best writer on which to focus these issues – one can imagine Duncan tackling Derrida as well as Wittgenstein had he but the chance & Jacobson & Saussure might have been better choices through which to have attacked the concept of difference in language – Barthes is a particularly apt choice, being the one major structuralist thinker – Elements of Semiology is a text from late in that period of his work – to have become a significant post-structural thinker as well.
And therein lies the rub. Robert Duncan’s critical project not only turns on the thinnest of premises – that H.D.’s brief analysis with Freud makes her an initiate of his – but that the union Duncan seeks between the mystical and critical theory is made ever so much harder by the fact that the latter proves to be a moving target. By the time that
But by the time that Duncan is coming into the realization of this, the unfinished – indeed, now unfinishable – H.D. Book has already served its other primary purpose, the one that is figured in its early title, The Day Book, a means through which for Robert to test, to formulate, to articulate a critical vision that might then serve as underpinning to his own mature writing, indeed, even the imagined (if never precisely written) elder epic. Which is why, ultimately, The H.D. Book works more – and better – not thought of as the lost or mystery critical masterpiece of the New American Poetry so much as it does as the Ur-blog of its time.
¹ Something I have just changed.
² Something not discussed in “Kopóltuš”
³ I am reminded of George Lakoff’s definition of semiotics as failed linguistics. This passage & indeed