Issue 5: Adam Piette on Keston Sutherland, Jean-Jacques Lecercle, Günter Eich, Mervyn Peake
Keston Sutherland, The Stats of Infinity (Brighton: Crater Press, 2010).
Jean-Jacques Lecercle, Badiou and Deleuze Read Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010).
Günter Eich, Angina Days: Selected Poems, translated by Michael Hofmann (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).
G. Peter Winnington, The Voice of the Heart: The Workings of Mervyn Peake’s Imagination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006).
A poem by Keston Sutherland is an event, as defined by Alain Badiou. Badiou’s events, in Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s paraphrase, are ‘rare and instantaneous supplements to the situation, introducing the radically new and originating procedures of truth’ (32) – they cannot occur in ordinary language communications. They read as traces of offsite catastrophes that have already disappeared beneath clouds of obfuscation, seas of bullshit propaganda, Lethean state apparatus protocol. The supplements are not derivative, neither are they fabricated by the enemy operations structuring the catastrophes. But they do originate counter-procedures of radical satire; intimations of revolutionary language events which wish havoc on the military-industrial machines, statistical systems and global-capital fictions that obscure the suffering of subject peoples in the war zones.
The chapbook, The Stats of Infinity, is an ingeniously crafted object, a broadside sumptuously printed by Richard Parker and John Packer at Crater Press. Sutherland’s epigraphs quote a fridge door patent and Henry Vaughan (‘That from the murd’ring world’s false love / Thy death may keep my soul alive’). The pairing gives notice of the treacherous events the collection introduces: a secularizing of the holy lyric’s imagining of Christ’s torture in Jerusalem through strategic compassion for the victims of contemporary wars in the Middle East; a voicing of Kapital’s discourses to display the sinister dreams, erotic, sado-military, corporate-reifying, written into technologies. The two projects do not come together in easy dialectic, as in some facile ABC to political postmodernism. They draw into constellation Badiou’s four zones of potentia: science, politics, love and art. Science is staged, in the chapbook’s major poem, ‘The Proxy Inhumanity of Forklifts’, as a freak Forklift, issuing from the 2003 story of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers pictures showing them stringing up Iraqi prisoners of war from a fork-lift truck, forcing them to simulate sex acts. The forklifts also allude, arguably, to the bulldozing destruction of Gaza, shifting the human pallets out of the goddam way. The forklift is invasive of the poem as grotesque fetish-object, a techno-punctum of nasty clearances: ‘The forklift shifts on instinct forward just / as much later you reverse into it, // acting the pallet minus sex lags of autocorrelations included, / the unincreasable isoreal pallet plunged in loss’. Love is there too, obviously, with the fucking of the pallet by the machine (pointing back to the Iraq sex games), and the inscription of the deaths caused as fake elegy. Politics is implicated through the evental logic of the situation: the West’s machines, their surplus and use values, their modes of production, are stripped of their peacetime jargon and recognized as the warzone juggernaut technology they are also designed for. Art, in the form of the poem itself, is a language machine that judges the military-machinic, excoriates and strips bare the lyric aesthetics of all capital projects, and politicizes the anaemic languages of English.
But all this is too easy: writing this about Sutherland’s poem only rebounds back on this smooth critical prose. ‘Proxy Inhumanity’ turns its anger on the kind of glib liberal prose a ‘review’ might pretend to confect. A review sets up signposts, sits in judgement, aestheticizes, runs as middle-messenger-errand-boy between art-object and public. One of the truths the poem-as-event establishes is that smooth technically adroit prose is one of the faces of the forklift, not only in the military-scientific language of patent jumped up by affect-bloating desire (‘my surplus of gut feeling, / exoatmospheric reentry-vehicle interception / clone the next life on the line, the charges reversed’), but also as the language of high art itself, or high art criticism. The poem has a startling section which parodies Beckett’s How It Is:
thirty three point nothing nothing nothing four I do a tin melting or good at yet more than dreaming thirty four point nothing nothing nothing nothing five I do with a melting tin the one holding your forever more lost face in my hands with your forever more lost mouth forever open if held open forever thirty five point nothing nothing nothing nothing six do I it and gasping
The torturing I-voice of How It Is, wading through the shit with his tin-opener in search of a victim to scar his writing and interrogations upon, is revised by Sutherland’s saeva indignatio to become a rare event, structured round the melting metals of desert warfare, the tin ration-boxes in lethal prison environments. Beckett in interview talked about being as having only abandoned proxy form: ‘Being has a form. Someone will find it someday. Perhaps I won't but someone will. It is a form that has been abandoned, left behind, a proxy in its place.’ The abandoned proxy form becomes material in Sutherland’s rewrite, the proxy inhumanity of tools as weapons of pain. The technical discourses of the patent mimic the philosopher’s theses but underwrite nothing but the forklift dream of victimhood, a ‘nothing nothing nothing nothing’ of Lear-like nihilism at the heart of military late capital. Victimhood is revised from art’s dream of the lost object, Vaughan’s absent Lord, the vanished loved one of the erotic lyric: into the dead of the wars of democracy and their various forms of prose representation. The victim is the subject of all prose meditation, but it is a victim high-art prose will fashion as allegory, to kill again without charges. S/he haunts the (militarized) review as the ‘it’/Id I do, gasping. Keston Sutherland is the non-presiding enemy of the murd’ring world, and has generated an event in the languages we speak, of searching, revolutionary energy, dark contradiction on the tongue, caustic and inventive counter-puissance. You have been warned.
Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s book on Badiou and Deleuze’s theory of literature also features How It Is, praised by both philosophers as marking a turning point in 20th century poetics, where the voices of art turn upon themselves in radical subtraction, revealing the event-trace logic of all post- and pre-revolutionary moments for Badiou, and staging the ‘larval subject’ as ‘domain of passive syntheses [...] of modifications, tropisms and little peculiarities’ for Deleuze. Beckett’s importance for the two French theorists, Lecercle argues, has not just been as the writer of a series of texts capable of being distorted into exercise yards for their own hobby-horses (though he is wittily aware of the moments this is indeed the case). It is as a proof of two shocking truths for both Badiou, the master of the Maoist matheme, and Deleuze, the engineer of the desiring machine. Beckett’s work convinced both, firstly, that their celebrated attacks on the linguistic turn could have gone too far: Beckett’s own reflections on language bring both extremists to their senses, demonstrating the care and materiality of words in the radical abstract journeys of the postwar novels. Secondly, they proved, definitively for both philosophers, that art can think, can release the power of a revolutionary event, through the rhizomic stuttering of style of Beckett’s works in Deleuze’s analysis, through their subtractive, attentive and violent naming operations for Badiou. And for both philosophers, it is the poem hidden in the prose that signals the emergence of the event, the poem defined by Deleuze as the liberating rhizomic energy flows of desire spreading out from the middle of the sentence; as a Mallarméan staging of the deleted/vanished absences structuring all paradigm shifts for Badiou. Lecercle has written a wonderfully clear and trenchant, readable and merry ‘disjunctive synthesis’ of the two philosophers – and, in so doing, has incidentally also helped construct a mongrel theory of post-Beckettian prose poetry or prosaics: as the stuttering rhizomic-collective exfoliation of event-horizon sentences, a practice of radical jouissance, a naming of the infinite energies folded in within all phenomena, a broken language of abtract spaces, violences, images, ill seen ill said.
If Sutherland aims his contemporary How It Is as phantom firepower against the powers at work in the desert wars, and Badiou and Deleuze imagine How It Is as a powerfully disuptive satire on the violence of naming in a pre-revolutionary moment, Günter Eich’s own role as satirist of postwar Germany, from his Gruppe 47 work on, has caused very real disruptions too. Michael Hofmann has translated a fine selection of the mostly very late work, arguing that it is here that one finds the best examples of the ‘eerie power of Eich’, power which conditioned Hofmann’s choice of a peculiar diction when translating:
words are like stray, chance, isolated survivals after some catastrophe of unpredictable utility and beauty, most likely misapplied and unhelpful in any given context, like the “sodden ruches” of a waitress’s blouse. Eich was after all, a great admirer and appreciator of Beckett’s.
This eerie Beckettian quality chimes with Badiou and Deleuze’s sense that Beckett’s language harbours intimations of some catastrophe as event. The words Hofmann chooses in his translations, like ‘crimped’, ‘mulish’, ‘humans’, ‘tippling’, are not, he writes:
exactly showy or difficult, much less obscure words, but words that have a quality of relict or disject, a certain melancholy residue of boisterousness, that imply perhaps a more systematic and thoroughgoing vocabulary and a more powerful grammatical current to wash them ashore, words that have a quality of having been beached.
This is discerning and colourful, an example, in prose, of the very qualities being described. The beached quality of Eich’s poems intimates a catastrophe, an absent power, a vanished and untraceable energy field which renders all sinister, bright with a Sebaldian glow, and, yes, a Beckettian dark humour and virtù, as in this finely tuned Englishing of Eich’s ‘Stadtrand’:
New buildings, unborn
rooms, no more noise please
in your coffins after ten p.m.
The German runs like this:
Zimmer, nach zehn
bitte Stille im Sarg.
The change in word order brings an extra line-ending surprise into the lines and manages to give voice in English to the lugubrious brio of the satire of the new postwar Germany. In the ‘single occupancy’ flats, the tenants eat bread and salt – and give some ‘to the roaches', the poem goes on, who ‘don’t mind waiting and / will whisper condolences / into your white sliced’. This is so simple, yet staggering in its implicature. The new poor in the new buildings have come close to the roaches that Kafka dreamed of as the Jewish populations of Mitteleuropa. Or rather they share their bread with the roaches, who are now strange and uncanny cohabitants of the marginal spaces of the new world. They don’t mind waiting, not as scavengers, but as the dead that feed sympathetically on the suffering falling like crumbs upon the floors of the dream rooms. But they are closer than that – their whispers are there in your sliced bread. Germany feeds these past ghosts out of penance, as avatars almost in the domestic things in the ‘unborn’ living rooms, and also in supplication for ‘condolences’, a dream of companionship as a living-with the catastrophic dolences of the war.
Michael Hofmann does not say anything of this, but Eich has come under attack for his Nazi-era radio work, which though not culpable in terms of content, was undeniably complicit in simply having been written for and broadcast from radio stations created by the Third Reich. Hofmann’s choice of very late work, and featuring the meditation on old age from the last years, might seem to dodge the issue; and the introduction is a little mealy-mouthed when it reproduces Eich’s statement that he was happy that an Allied bomb destroyed all his early work. The critiques of Eich have come from Germanists who have become impatient of his Gruppe 47 profile as irascible curmudgeon satirist, especially questioning the stance adopted by Eich in his most famous non serviam poem, ‘Dreams’, a poem which voiced a passionate warning to Germans not to stand by whilst evil was done in the nation’s name:
No, don’t sleep while the governors of the worlds are busy!
Be suspicious of the power they claim to have to acquire on your behalf!
Critics, like Glenn R. Cuomo, question the call to vigilance here given the complicity of the radio work before the war. Yet, surely (and this is Hofmann’s quiet point in his selection, I think), it was Eich’s terrible knowledge of that complicity that precisely energizes and informs the plea to the next generation. Don’t sleep, as I did. Be suspicious, not compliant as we were. The defining event-as-catastrophe for Eich was that terrible knowledge, a knowledge no amount of supplication of consolatory ghosts can assuage. The dark comedy of Eich’s short persona-poems are founded on that event. It is the catastrophe that gives such eerie Sebaldian low-key lighting to the lines:
I don’t hear much:
silence full of screams.
I have always loved nettles,
and only now learned
of their usefulness.
The poem these lines are extracted from is entitled ‘Tips from the Posthumous Papers’. The ‘Nachlass’ are Beckettian because of this radical belatedness, a post-evental predicament that envisages only a traumatized, unhearing, autistic retreat to isolated utterance and solitary melancholia. The ‘nettles’ have uncanny power, like the roaches, as figures for the survival of the catastrophe as symptom: roaches because they famously will survive all bombs; nettles because they reanimate ruins (in German they are ‘Brennesseln’, burning nettles). The event shaping Eich’s weird dramatic lyrics may indeed help with Beckett – Badiou and Deleuze were being provocative when they defined the shaping event as the future in Beckett. Beckett went through the burning wars too.
Peter Winnington has written a sharp and scholarly labour of love with Voices of the Heart. The book charts key themes in Mervyn Peake’s work in a brightly old-fashioned way, and it bears good fruit. He looks at motifs like the heart, islands, birds, the theatre in the writing and artwork, and discovers a range of consonances and threads which will be of real value to Peake readers. What struck me was the section on ‘Evil’. Here Winnington does sterling work zeroing in, as he does everywhere in the book, on the best instance, the true quotation, as with this passage on Steerpike’s discovery, in Gormenghast, of what a hell might feel like:
The air was chill and unhealthy; a smell of rotten wood, of dank masonry filled his lungs. He moved in a climate as of decay – of a decay rank with its own evil authority, a richer, more inexorable quality than freshness; it smothered and drained all vibrancy. all hope.
Where another would have shuddered, the young man merely ran his tongue across his lips. ‘This is a place, he said to himself. ‘Without any doubt, this is somewhere.’
As Winnington says, this whole passage is based on Milton’s Satan and his Pandemonium. And it crosses Dante with Hamlet’s disgust at rankness and Tennyson’s doubly decaying wood to suggest a place of suicide, transgression, undeserved punishment and incarceration. Peake’s prose plays up the melodramatic Gothic here: there is a heavy clumsiness to the phrase ‘a richer, more inexorable quality than freshness’. But this is the point: the laboured English is Steerpike’s, a diseased mind relishing the language as decayed by the hell it dreams.
Steerpike licking his lips inaugurates a critique of sado-military punishment spaces which we find in Sutherland’s corruscating satire, and in the ethical analysis of the brutal relish of the torturer in How It Is. Gormenghast was published in 1950, but is rank with the evil authority summoned by the war. It especially responds to the Nazified potential for an establishment brutality within British state structures, for Steerpike discovers the hell he relishes as really somewhere only in the darker zones of the castle — the castle that represents the architectonics of the British Empire in its late days. That place is Gothic not because this is a strictly fictional tale, but because it suggests the fiction-making indulged in by the ‘evil authority’ of the secret state.
If Badiou and Deleuze are right, maybe only poetry and prosaics (a poetry capable of judging the prose of this world) are capable of summoning the comminative energy capable of analyzing, abstracting, condemning and countermanding the evil authority of the secret states that deform the languages of love, politics, art and science. That really would be a slender variety of hope, if so. But their faith in the rival authority of art is potentially a way forward, nevertheless: not for making things happen; but for changing minds, rethinking and reforming the ways seductions take place when the secret state inhabits what may once have been our own cultures. That, of course, it is true, goes beyond the form and etiquette of the (forklifting) review.