Timely Timelessness: a response to Rachel Zucker
If you’re going to be a hack these days, you’ve got to do a lot of hacking. This is timely work that, hopefully, I’ll be paid for in timely fashion.
Besides doing the final edit of a book I translated on the rise of nationalism in northwestern Iberia (anthropology) due out with Berghahn Press (London) shortly, and finishing the translation of an anthology for the Faculdade de Direito [Faculty of Law] at Coimbra, containing a series of thirty or so lectures on all aspects of legal theory and practice, the first published in 1856 (in Latin no less) and the last in 2005, I am writing a series of city guides, for a startup company here in Coimbra. These involve what I’ve dubbed “accelerated research” into 2000 years of historical contexts, essential when writing about European cities, and slightly more relaxed background reading: Ackroyd, Tuchman, Pepys, Blair, Anonymous, etc. The writing process is your standard one: hack, hack, hack, against very timely deadlines. At the moment, lost somewhere in Medieval England, everything seems timeless. The last essay I translated, a couple of weeks ago, was about the founding of Alexandria, its street plan laid out with flour on the black earth of the Nile Delta. I had a map of the ancient city stuck to my wall above my computer, visual representation always playing an important part in my time-travel.
In the midst of all this I keep dwelling on Rachel Zucker’s April 1st blog about timeliness and timelessness. Her question, you’ll recall, is whether we would like our poems to be timely or timeless. I confess, initially I didn’t really get the distinction. No wonder, at the time, I was worrying about a wooden drain that had survived from Roman London six meters beneath Bucklersbury Road and Pancas Lane, thanks to the fact that the basements of 19th century London buildings were so shallow.
Poems, as compared to my professional work, are, by default, attempts, written in time, at timelessness. One measure of a poem’s success (mine and others) is to what extent it can be read over a lifetime and seem timely with each new reading. How, in practice, was one to separate Rachel’s terms? They were part and parcel of the same temporality, symbiotic, like a single action and a broader sense of morality. Why, anyway, would anyone want to write a timely poem, rather than one that would be readable “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see…”?
In fact, the symbiosis between the timely and the timeless is patent in the Shakespearean sonnet, poetry that today we would call “occasional” without doubting its timeless value. At any rate, do poets ask themselves before they write a poem, do I want to do something timely or timeless today, something London or Londinium?
There is another question in Rachel’s short blog that I think is more to the point, or perhaps it is same question, just dressed differently. How can I write more overtly political poems, more socially meaningful poems? The implicit assumption in this question is that political poems are by definition timely. If Bertolt Brecht could write them and get away with it, why can’t I? The glib response (though not as glib as it sounds): because you’re American. You live in a country were there are politics, but where there is no political life, per se; politics in North America is a construct, a campus phenomenon, a business rather than a language and a birthright. Too often, Americans confuse causes with politics, and their obsession with celebrity tends to blur the two. Actors are not activists. Like everything else American, the political is out there beyond the inviolable boundaries of that particularity we all claim that delimits individual identity. In Europe, which, in societal terms, has never been based on the inviolability of the individual, where life is far more grounded in the communal and in the family, the political is part of an individual’s DNA, one of the reasons Brecht, once he got to American, and the reality of the place failed to coincide with the younger Brecht’s idealization of the States, hated it so much, and, frankly, was hated in return. America cannot and never will produce a poet like Hikmet, or his mentor, Mayakovsky.
An awkwardness with politics (and by extension, history, which is politics run its course) was brought home by one blogger’s attempt to answer to Rachel’s question. In a parenthetical aside, he says: “(One result of 9/11 is that it rendered the last of the timeless poets obsolete.),” which, to my ear, consciously mimics Adorno’s constantly trotted out conclusion about poetry. The oxymoronic phrase: “…rendered the last of the timeless poets obsolete” is indication enough that this is a poet who is still wondering about what a poet is and what role she must play. Hardly blameworthy – we’re all involved in the same question. It’s rather the implicit lumping together of two unspeakable historical events that is more striking. An attempt to reenact Adorno’s early dictum about writing poetry after Auschwitz, the terms of the analogy couldn’t be more woefully drawn. Both events provide us with an historical before and after, but, frankly, they have nothing in common and could never be proportionate.
It does pay however to look at Adorno and his ever evolving notion of the use of poetry, since it takes up directly the timely/timeless issue and falls firmly on the side of the timeless. What most people forget is that after making his famous statement directly following World War II he spent the rest of his life backtracking from it, attempting to save poetry and philosophy from becoming merely incidental. Yet, Adorno’s statement has been so often cited that it has become like a Ché Guevara t-shirt, both of them bits of 20th century iconography that work via a logic of forgetting and decontextualization. In Guevara’s case, the image gives us permission to unremember his responsibility, with the help of agents of the Soviet GRU Rezidentura, for organizing Castro’s secret police, and prison system, which had carried out 14,000 executions of politically suspect Cubans, homosexuals and artists by the end of the 1960s. Guevara once bragged about the necessity of summary execution before the UN Assembly. Adorno’s statement, read out of context, sounds like Plato banning poets from the Republic, a statement, likewise more than not read out of context.
Adorno’s original statement comes from a 1949 festschrift in a piece entitled “An Essay on Cultural Criticism and Society.” The essay opens as follows:
To anyone in the habit of thinking with his ears, the words ‘cultural criticism” (Kulturkritik) must have an offensive ring, not merely because, like automobile, they are pieced together from Latin and Greek. The words recall a flagrant contradiction. The cultural critic is not happy with civilization, to which alone he owed his discontent. He speaks as if he represents unadulterated nature or a higher historical stage. Yet he is necessarily of the same essence as that to which he fancies himself superior.
This, in the wake of The Second World War, gives short shrift to both Marx and Freud, slightly mocking of Freud’s last title, as well as Marx’s of historical stages. But its real target is the viability of culture itself and the presumption of anyone who would pronounce upon it. And yet the fairly meaningless aside about Greek and Latin masks a certain hesitancy and discomfort with his own position, as though he were speaking without sufficient critical distance, in a manner too timely for the subject at hand.
The famous statement itself comes from the conclusion and reads differently in the context of the sentences that surround it than it does as a stand-alone.
The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.
In other words, the act of writing poetry relieves us of the knowledge of why it can’t be written, which leads us back to the title of the essay: the interpretation of society, whether poetically or critically, calls for a knew knowledge. Adorno, even at this early stage in his famous dictum’s life, is holding out for the possibility of a new praxis based on a new knowledge.
This is confirmed around twenty years later with the publication in 1966 of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics. Rolf Tiedemann, in his introduction to Can one live after Auschwitz?: a philosophical reader, compares Adorno’s change of heart to Voltaire’s after the Lisbon earthquake of 1775 “as an instance when philosophy was forced by history to change its axiomatic beliefs: a natural catastrophe “cured” Voltaire of Leibniz’s theodicy.”
And yet, according to Tiedemann, Adorno calls philosophical experience itself into question. Adorno: “It is uncertain…whether philosophy, as an activity of the comprehending spirit, has any part to play at the present time…It seems too late for contemplation. What we find before us in all of its absurdity resists comprehension.” But Teidemann goes on to suggest that Adorno still
clung to the paradoxical hope that philosophy might not be entirely closed to the idea of practice…Adorno did not wish to forbid any poet to write poetry, innocent as such activity is, particularly when it is compared to the atrocities committed by others; he insisted merely that writing poetry before Auschwitz and writing poetry after were separated by an unbridgeable gulf. His contributions to aesthetic theory are a series of attempts to create a “theodicy” for art in a situation in which it no longer seems permissible. The authentic poet may well discover an apologia for writing poetry in Adorno’s aesthetics.
In Negative Dialectics Adorno says “The concept of resurrection of culture after Auschwitz is illusory and senseless, and for that reason every work of art that comes into being is forced to a pay a bitter price, but because the world has outlived its own demise it needs art as its unconscious chronicle.”
“Partly,” Teidemann concludes, “because there seemed no end to the misunderstandings, when he came to write Negative Dialectics and to discuss the pragmatic activity of writing poems, Adorno retracted the sentence he had formulated almost twenty years previously: ‘A perennial suffering has just as much right to find expression as a victim of torture has to scream. For this reason it many have been wrong to write that after Auschwitz poetry could no longer be written.’”
In May of 2007, Reginald Shepherd wrote in his blog, under the title of “Adorno, Celan, and the Possibility of Poetry,” the following:
Theodor Adorno and Paul Celan appear almost as mirror images. Adorno’s work might be said to be the theory of which Celan’s poetry is the practice. Or, not to prioritize theory over praxis, it might equally be said that Celan’s poetry, addressing and enacting what Michael Hamburger in The Truth of Poetry calls “the question of what can still be said or no longer said in poetry” (290), is the practice of which Adorno’s work is the theory. Celan and Samuel Beckett are the only two contemporary writers Adorno discusses in his posthumously published Aesthetic Theory.
Shepherd’s comment is to the point. These are undoubtedly two of the writers that helped Adorno to change his mind. Teidmann’s notion that “The authentic poet may well discover an apologia for writing in Adorno’s aesthetics” puts the cart before the ox. I think it is more likely that Adorno quickly discovered that his postwar statement was made before the evidence of what poetry (writing) – and, more specifically, two writers in particular – would do in “a world that had outlived its own demise.” In a letter to Elisabeth Lenk he wrote of Beckett, whom he had come to know, that he “was someone who embodied with a truly indescribably advanced consciousness and at the same time he strictly rejected every interpretation of his works, including mine. In this respect he seems quite exemplary.’ … ‘Exemplary’ of the fact that it was not possible ‘simply to pump ideas into the works and then to imagine that this was their substantial meaning’ (Andorno and Lenk, Breifweschsel, p. 39).
“Authentic poets,” as Teidemann calls them, do not write to apologize for writing, or to authenticate the aesthetics of philosophers, they write because it is their only means of survival. Adorno, himself, came to realize this: “A perennial suffering has just as much right to find expression as a victim of torture has to scream.” This realization led to the retraction of his earlier dictum. Carefully scrutinized, his statements also direct themselves toward the nature of time and the poet’s relationship to the temporal. They make themselves necessary because, in the Shelleyan sense of poetic legislation, “a world that has outlived its own demise needs art as its unconscious chronicle.” Oddly enough, the obvious echo – whether Adorno heard it or not – is with Shelley’s ultra-Romantic Defense of Poetry, and specifically in the way Shelley explains an earlier definition of poets as legislators or prophets, combining the two functions: “a poet essentially comprises or unites both these characters” and finds himself in the position to create what Adorno calls necessary to the survival of a world “that has outlived it’s own demise;” that is “its unconscious chronicle.” This is because, according to Shelley, the poet “not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but beholds the future in the present.” Unconsciously, for it would have to be, his “chronicle” is a melding of the timely with the timeless. The poet’s “perennial suffering” is born of both an acute awareness of the present (the “advanced consciousness” that Adorno attributed to Beckett) and a sense of being outside the present, of being able to discern “the future in the present” – which is to participate “in the eternal, the infinite and the one.” More curious than anything else, is to see Adorno, faced with the example of two writers, Becket and Celan, reforming himself by moving beyond a dialectic (between culture and barbarism) towards a metaphysics of survival, one that is both timely (in that it works in a practical and social way) and timeless (in that it creates a new knowledge which does not simply “pump ideas into works” and then “imagine that that this was their substantial meaning”).
Martin Earl lives in Coimbra, in central Portugal. From 1986 until 2001 he lectured in English, translation, and American culture at the University of Coimbra. For the last ten years he has worked as a translator and a journalist. Earl has blogged on Harriet, and his translation of Antonio Medeiros’s...