Tuesday, June 06, 2006

I was asked to come & teach this summer at Naropa, specifically to talk about “dialectical materialism” as part of a weeklong unit on philosophy & poetry, an interesting proposition, and this is what took me back to Charles Olson. Years before, at a time when I’d been part of a study group in San Francisco on the general topic of Marxism & modernism, I had been reading Henri Lefebvre’s great Dialectical Materialism, a work written right on the cusp of the Second World War – the first publication was by Presses Universitaires de France in 1940 – and, quite by chance, happened to be reading Proprioception at the same time. At some point during those readings, it occurred to me that I was not reading two books nearly so much as I reading two instances of the same argument. "Proprioception," the title piece, is (or at least can be read as) dialectics for poetry. So when I got the invitation to go to Naropa this year – I’m there the last week of this month & first couple of days of July – my immediate instinct was to turn back to Proprioception & see how it stood up now, roughly two decades after I’d had that initial reaction.

The relationship of Proprioception – and Olson’s project on an even broader scale – to the question of dialectics makes an intuitive sense. First, the Lefebvre volume, written decades before the French philosopher became the critic of everyday life who inspired the students on the barricades of 1968, was published in English translation by Cape/Grossman in the very same series edited by Nathaniel Tarn that included the republication of Olson’s Call Me Ishmael & the initial release of The Mayan Letters. Indeed, it’s worth noting that the first four volumes in that series overall were Claude Lévi-Strauss’ The Scope of Anthropology, Call Me Ishmael, and two volumes by Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero and Elements of Semiology, followed immediately with volumes by William Carlos Williams, Václav Havel & Nazim Hikmet (at a time when the latter two were almost entirely unknown in the West).

The Cape/Grossman series itself was as erratic as it was inventive – as I understand it, Cape Editions published in the U.K. volumes chosen by Tarn & those that were not already being marketed in the U.S. (like the Barthes’ volumes) got the “/Grossman” slip jacket added for import here, at least until, at some point after 1970, Viking Compass took over that side of the operation (which is how Viking came to publish Zukofsky’s “A” 22-23). Dialectical Materialism, no. 27 in the series, comes roughly midway between Mayan Letters (no. 17) and Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems (no. 38). Some of the other volumes that occurred during that particular stretch included Julian Huxley’s The Courtship Habits of the Great Crested Grebe & Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Francis Ponge’s Soap & Fidel Castro’s History Will Absolve Me, plus volumes by Alfred Jarry, Nicanor Parra, Louis Zukofsky, André Breton, Yves Bonnefoy, Georg Trakl, a volume by Lucien Goldmann, another volume by Lévi-Strauss, A Critique of Pure Tolerance by Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore Jr & Herbert Marcuse, and a second volume by Václav Havel. Nor was it any accident that when Harvey Brown published the Frontier Press edition of Williams’ Spring & All, the book was designed to mimic the pocket-sized Cape volumes. More important that who or what got published in the series is the degree to which it reflects one of the most important features of the decade, which is the miscegenation of ideas from different – often conflicting – discursive & professional fields. Just as both Marxism & Freudian analysis proved far more pervasive throughout a wide range of disciplines because neither had a “home church” in any given college department – Freudian analysis evaded the psych department by training its practitioners outside of the university system altogether – the range of possible codes that could be brought to bear on any given subject seemed at least potentially limitless.

One can hear the degree to which Olson himself internalizes this in how he describes the nominal subject of his epic poem. Far from being Russell Crowe in Gladiator, the historic Maximus of Tyre was, to use Olson’s own term for it, “a 2nd Century dialectician.” In a talk that he gave at Goddard College right at the end-point of composing Proprioception, Olson describes Maximus this way:

I mean this creature Maximus addresses himself to, to a city, which in the instance is, is Gloucester, which, then in turn, happens to be Massachusetts. That is Gloucester, Massachusetts. I’m not at all under the impression that it is necessarily more to Gloucester, Massachusetts, in any more meaningful sense than the creature is, either me, or whom he originally was intended as, which was a, was Maximus of Tyre, a 2nd Century, uh, dialectician. At least on the record, what he wrote, was Dialethae which I guess we have in the word “dialectic” meaning intellectual essence, or essays on an intellectual subject, and uh, he mostly wandered around the Mediterranean world from the center, from the, from the old capital of Tyre, talking about one thing — Homer’s Odyssey. I don’t have much more of an impression of him than that. I’ve tried to read his, dialethae and found them not as interesting as I expected. But he represents to me some sort of a figure, that centers, much more than, much more than the 2nd Century A.D. In fact, as far as I feel it like, he’s like the neighbor of the world, and uh, in saying that I’m not being poetic or loose, uh. We come from a whole line of life which makes Delphi that center. I guess, I guess I, can say that amongst you and still be heard. And this I think must be the kind of a theory that can at least be disturbed.

So Maximus means – or at least conveys at some level – dialectics, although as one wades through Proprioception, it is worth keeping in mind Olson’s other, rather off-the-cuff definition of dialectics: intellectual essence, or essays on an intellectual subject.

I’m not at all sure just how he might have dealt with the vagaries & limitations of HTML, but I am certain of this. Olson himself would have been a great blogger.