Prose from Poetry Magazine

Rocket and Lightship

Meditations on life and letters.

Nor rescue, only rocket and lightship, shone
G.M. Hopkins, “The Wreck of the Deutschland”

The only copy of Catullus’s poems to survive from antiquity was discovered in the Middle Ages, plugging a hole in a wine barrel. One of two morals can be drawn from this fact. Either pure chance determines what survives, from which it follows that eventually every work will lose its gamble and be forgotten; or else every worthy work is registered in the eye of God, the way books are registered for copyright, so that its material fate is irrelevant. The first conclusion, which is rationally inevitable, would in time lead anyone to stop writing; anyone who continues to write somehow believes a version of the second. But surely a God who was able to preserve all human works could also preserve all human intentions—indeed, He could deduce the work from its intention far more perfectly than the writer can produce it. Thus a writer with perfect trust would not have to do any work, but simply confide his intentions and aspirations to God. His effort, the pains he takes, are the precise measure of his lack of trust.

Writers are necessarily ambivalent about any kind of recognition—honors, prizes, simple praise—because they are ambivalent about their relationship to the present. The first audience that a writer wants to please is the past—the dead writers who led him to want to write in the first place. Forced to admit that this is impossible, he displaces his hope onto the future, the posterity whose judgment he will never know. That leaves the present as the only audible judge of his work; but the present is made up of precisely the people whom the writer cannot live among, which is why he subtracts himself from the actual world in order to deposit a version of himself in his writing. The approbation of the living is thus meaningful to a writer only insofar as he can convince himself that it is a proxy for the approbation of the past or the future—insofar as it becomes metaphorical.

How little of ourselves we give even to the writers we love best, compared to what they asked and expected of us. Genuine admiration and gratitude for a writer’s work is very intermittent; usually, we think only about ourselves and how we can use what we’re reading. But this must be considered a legitimate technique of self-defense, since if we opened ourselves to all the just demands for attention made by the dead, we would be totally overwhelmed, placed permanently in the wrong. For dead writers are like gods who are always hungry, no matter how many sacrifices they inhale.

The ninteenth-century Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick declared that he would rather see the music of Bach and Palestrina lost forever than Brahms’s German Requiem. This is naturally scoffed at today—but isn’t that because we have lost the experience of having the artists of our own time speak to us and for us so perfectly? To be equally appreciative of the art of every era, we must be equidistant from every era, including the present: this means being estranged from our own works, and so in a way from ourselves. It would be only fair, then, if the artworks of our time fail to reach posterity. If even the artist’s contemporaries don’t feel fiercely protective of him, why should the future?

Writing generates more writing—not in any metaphysical sense, but empirically. The writing a writer produces will inspire more writing in scholars, biographers, critics; over time, more and more of the writer’s acquaintances and surroundings will eventually be illuminated by being written about. We know more about Franz Kafka’s coworkers or Virginia Woolf’s servants than about thousands of people who, during their lifetimes, would have sneered at clerks and servants; illustriousness does not light people up for posterity nearly as much as proximity to a writer. And this is not because of the inherent interest of the people surrounding a writer, or even of the writer herself, but simply because it is so much easier to write about someone who has already been written about. When you introduce a grain of salt into a beaker of supersaturated fluid, it crystallizes instantly in all directions, revealing structures that were hidden before. So with lives in history: they are invisible because there are too many of them, and it’s impossible to pick any one place to start recording them, until the presence of a writer sets the process arbitrarily in motion.

Just as a musical tone contains all its own overtones, resonating even on frequencies far removed from it in the scale, so every kind of mind contains every other, though in muted, attenuated form. Literature would be impossible otherwise.

At the Metropolitan Museum, there is a recreation of the Gubbio Studiolo, the workspace where Federico da Montefeltro, the fifteenth-century general and quasi-gangster, pursued his intellectual studies. Seeing the great beauty, seriousness, and lavishness of this room is painful, because it is a reminder that Montefeltro really did exist, that such honor really was paid to the intellect, that the “Renaissance type” is not just a fiction but once flourished. It drives home the immense contrast with the present, when it is certain that no such space would be created by a rich or powerful man for the same purpose.

This kind of pain is what we sublimate and forget when we read about Montefeltro in Pound’s Cantos—or, similarly, about any great historical figure. To write about the great, to turn them into literature, is to make them subordinate to the reader: the reader can complacently regard himself as the heir to all the ages, because he preserves in imagination what no longer exists in fact. From there, it is a short step to convincing oneself that human perfection never really exists in fact, that all greatness is ultimately for the sake of the reader, who possesses it in imagination. What this implies is that the historical passion is rooted in resentment: reading is a way of gaining mastery over people and things that would be too painful to confront in reality, because they are so unmistakably superior to us.

One can actually get angry at the writers of the past for being so secretive about basic, intimate parts of human life. Jane Austen menstruated—why not Elizabeth Bennet? Think of all the writers who fussed with chamber pots, and not a single character does. Omitting this side of life is a betrayal of us, their posterity, by falsifying the record of themselves that writers undertake to leave; they create the illusion that they were bodiless, angelic. We know the past from literature only the way astronomers know distant galaxies: not directly, but by correcting for what we know to be distortions.

Stefan Zweig writes in his memoirs that when he published a feuilleton on the front page of the Neue Freie Presse, as a teenager, he felt that he had conquered the world. Nothing is more enviable than a literary culture small and integrated enough to offer that kind of success—the Augustan poets in their clubs writing to and about one another, or the New York intellectuals battling in Partisan Review. Yet there is also something contemptible about a literary ambition that admits of being satisfied so readily, or at all. Real greatness is defined, for us, by its unappeasability—as with Kafka, who loved literature so much that he wanted to destroy all his writing.

Every writer needs a fireplace. On publication day, an author should burn a copy of his book, to acknowledge that what he accomplished is negligible compared to what he imagined and intended. Only this kind of burnt offering might be acceptable to the Muse he has let down.

Literature claims to be a record of human existence through time; it is the only way we have to understand what people used to be like. But this is a basic mistake, if not a fraud, since in fact it only reflects the experience of writers—and writers are innately unrepresentative, precisely because they see life through and for writing. Literature tells us nothing really about what most people’s lives are like or have ever been like. If it has a memorial purpose, it is more like that of an altar at which priests continue to light a fire, generation after generation, even though it gives no heat and very little light.

Pound’s goal was to “write nothing that we might not say actually in life.” But this is backwards, for nothing memorable is ever said, it is always written; only sometimes it is not written down, but written in the mind so quickly that it can be produced as speech. In speech, the mind is on the moment, the subject, the interlocutor; in writing, the mind is on these and also always on the self, and the appearance the self and its language are making. Speech is an action, writing an act (as in “putting on an act”) whose audience is always primarily oneself. To become memorable or brilliant, language needs to be fertilized by egotism.

All forms of writing are only valid, maybe only comprehensible, as forms of self-expression. Even philosophy, even history, never says anything true about the world, only about the writer’s experience of being in the world. Some sensibilities require the illusion of objectivity in order to get their version of the truth spoken: if the metaphysician realized he was only talking about himself, not about reality, he would be unable to say what he needs to say.

Literature presents itself to us today as a museum of perished affects. Belief in God, courtly love, honor, and so forth: we can recognize that people once felt these things, but we can’t feel them ourselves. Perhaps this anesthesia will be what future ages see as characteristic of our literature.

In Memoriam R.W. Most suicides are a refusal of communication, or else a communication made in a language we protect ourselves against by declining to understand it. But for the suicide we know as a writer, her death becomes a continuation of the self-expression in her work, and may even be her most successful act of communication: we know exactly what she means by it.

Writerly vanity is like a vicious dog chained up outside the house. You try to starve and neglect the dog into silence, but sometimes he becomes so clamorous that he must be fed if you’re going to be able to ignore him again.

Literature operates on the premise that humanity can be transcendent; but it now looks increasingly likely that humanity can only be transcended, that is, left behind. Like all culture, literature is a matter of directing the will inward, to create an inner life; this was a necessity for most of human history, when the conditions of outer life could not be changed. But the future will be defined by the ever more successful direction of the will outward, in the form of technology and power, which is now genuinely able to transform the conditions of life. In this sense, culture is an obsolete technology, a sunk cost that we keep adding to only because we lack the courage to write it off.

Our understanding of history is distorted by the universal tendency to identify only with the protagonists of the past—kings, heroes, nobles, the rich, or the exceptionally gifted or fated. When we read history or novels, we always imagine ourselves in the position of the protagonist, the position of agency; not remembering that we ourselves, had we lived then, would not have had the remotest chance of being protagonists, but would have lived in the outer darkness into which the light of narrative never penetrates.

The unadmitted reason why traditional readers are hostile to e-books is that we still hold the superstitious idea that a book is like a soul, and that every soul should have its own body. The condensation of millions of books on a single device, or their evaporation in a data cloud, seems to presage what is destined to happen to our souls, to the coming end of selfhood, even of embodiment. If this sounds fanciful, imagine what a lover of hand-written codices might have thought in 1450 about the rise of print. Manuscripts, he would protest, were once rare, precious, hard to create, dedicated to holy or venerable subjects; print would make them cheap, derivative, profane, and easily disposable. And didn’t exactly this happen to human beings in the age of print, which is the modern age?

One begins writing, in adolescence, as a detour away from life that is supposed to return one to the main road of life further on, at a better stage. Writing is seen as a shortcut, through isolation, to the communication and connection that are unavailable in reality. Only gradually does it become clear that the detour is really a fork in the road: as one continues to write, one moves farther away from life, from the communion with other people that writing was meant to provide. Eventually the main road can no longer be seen, but one keeps on writing: because of spite, because one is unfit for anything else and can’t go back, and because of the unbanishable hope that maybe the next turn in the road will bring one back to life.

Bentham: “Pushpin is as good as poetry.” In fact, pushpin is better, because it confesses its insignificance from the start. The pushpin player will never know the shame of realizing that he has built his life on the delusion that he is better than the poet.

Today, finding a good used bookstore is like finding Friday’s footprint—evidence of a fellowship that is ordinarily invisible.

The crisis of literature, in contrast with the confidence of the sciences, is essentially a crisis of memory and transmission. The creation of works of art is only a valid way to spend a life if those works are preserved—if they are made exceptions to the general oblivion that nature designed for us. But the sciences do not require this kind of exceptional preservation. They make use of intellect in a way that imitates nature, because the progress of science both incorporates and obliterates each contributor, in the same way that the progenitor is both incorporated and forgotten in his descendants. For the artist, the creation of a work of genius is an alternative to parenthood; for the scientist, it is an imitation of parenthood. This helps to explain the shame of the artist in the face of the scientist, which is that of the celibate in the face of the progenitor, the unnatural in the face of nature.

Writers used to write for posterity—that is, for people essentially like us in the future. Now the only future we can imagine, the only plausible alternative to extinction, will be made up of beings that will understand us wholly differently, and much better, than we can understand ourselves. The readers of the future will be anthropologists in the sense that we are ornithologists, studying creatures of a different and lesser species. Today, the writer’s aspiration is not to communicate with such readers, the way past writers communicate with us, but to leave a body of evidence for the future to interpret.

The hallmark of a writer’s late style—for instance, in Philip Roth’s now annual production of short, indifferently written novels—is the abandonment of the attempt to triumph over death objectively by creating a work whose nature is essentially superior to death. No longer believing in this possibility, the aging artist is left to triumph over death subjectively, by writing perpetually in order to keep the thought of oblivion out of his mind. In retrospect, then, even his greatest works take on this air of subjectivity: art begins to look like a method of whistling past the graveyard.

Writing, not philosophy, is the true practice of death—it translates the self into print as a rehearsal for the time when the self disappears and print is all that remains. A writer has succeeded if, when we read his obituary, we are surprised to learn that he was still alive.

The line of nihilism and despair in modern literature, from Leopardi to Beckett, asks to be taken as a true diagnosis of humanity during this period. But it is no coincidence that this was also the time when the writer lost his connection with humanity, thanks to the increasing restriction and specialization of literature. Perhaps the sense we find in such writers that all human activity is cosmically pointless is simply the symptom of this isolation—as when an animal kept in a cage, far from its kind, pines away and languishes. To be immersed in the human world so deeply that one can’t see outside it, so as to question the validity or purpose of the whole—that is the natural state of man. The miserable doubts that occur to the writer withdrawn from the world are not to be answered, but dealt with as symptoms, requiring the therapy of reimmersion.

No true universal statements can safely be made about human beings or human nature; it is only permissible to make such assertions hypothetically, or metaphorically. This realization is what gives birth to literature, a realm where anything can be expressed because it is essentially without consequence. But we can never stop imagining the secret mastery we would gain if this artistic power could be surreptitiously reintroduced to the actual world: the combination of imaginative freedom and actual power would be a kind of magic. This helps to explain the special mystique that attaches to artists of the real like Marx and Freud. By stating their metaphors about humankind as if they were scientific laws, they seem to gain magical powers, and promise them to their adherents. Such intellectual mages lose their authority only once we remember that power can only be gained over the physical, and over man insofar as he is physical; the truth about the spirit can only be demonstrated in works of the spirit.

An axiom of the novel is that people whose lives are devoted to the competition for status—the bourgeois, the philistines—are inferior to those who devote themselves to the realization of an aesthetic or ethical ideal. The very fact of being a novel reader is the badge of this distinction: to be a reader, in this sense, is really to be a writer of one’s life, to try to shape one’s life in the image of the values promoted by what one reads. Yet the proud reader should remember that the pursuit of outward status and the pursuit of inward perfection can both be understood as ways of imposing direction, and therefore narrative, on a life. Both status and goodness are useful for this purpose because both are fundamentally unachievable: it will always be possible, and therefore necessary, to become “higher” or “better” than one is. These ways of imposing meaning on life are more similar to each other than either one is to the horrible vacancy of the vast majority of lives, which are composed simply of endless repetition. Compared to the peasant, the bourgeois is a kind of artist—and the artist is a kind of bourgeois.

People used to wish that life could be as it is in books—that it could have the beauty, drama, and shapeliness that writers gave it. Today, by contrast, we hope desperately that life is not really like our writers portray it; in other words, we hope that writers are not representative men and women, but unfit beings whose perceptions are filtered through their unhealth. It is necessary to hope this, because if life were as it appears in our literature it would be unlivable. Thus Flaubert’s pious sigh, “Ils sont dans le vrai”—because if the writer’s life were the true one, life would be unworthy of being continued. Biographies of writers who went mad or committed suicide are popular because they offer reassurance on this point.

The statesman always has contempt for the historian, and understandably so: how can you compare a professor to a president? But with the passage of only a few decades, it becomes clear that the great man acted and suffered only for the sake of the historians; the writer is superior to the man of action as the owner of a toy is superior to the one who made it.

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” On the contrary: it is what we cannot speak of in the sense Wittgenstein means, what we cannot point to and scientifically describe, that we speak about most and best, and always have. What can be wholly comprehended and demonstrated is “trivial” in the sense that mathematicians use the word: even if it is very hard to understand, once understood it does not provoke further discourse, does not point anywhere. But authentic speech and writing are always productive of more speech and writing—indeed, that is the point of discourse, not to describe reality but to avoid silence.

Originally Published: November 1st, 2012

Poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch was born in Los Angeles and earned his BA from Harvard. He is the author of three collections of poetry: The Thousand Wells (2002), selected for the New Criterion Poetry Prize; Invasions (2008); and Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August...

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  1. November 17, 2012
     George Balanchine

    No comments? Strange...
    Anyway, you've misread Wittgenstein a little, in my opinion.
    If you find it more meaningful to speak of the things that "can't be talked about", then I hope you enjoy that. But, for example, philosophical discussions of art, say painting, are entirely pointless, since art says nothing about the world.

  2. November 17, 2012

    That was tough to read through- trying to sound like Nietzsche but
    you're overwhelmingly precious

  3. November 18, 2012
     Bobby Aldesco

    Writing in the style of decadence, Kirsch's egotistic rants would please legions of dead writers as diverse as Benjamin, Cioran, Nietzsche and the great French aphorists. Seductive and brilliant, Kirsch's meditations on the writerly life and the modern condition show off his erudition and portray the artist as an exile from the present whose tragic nostalgia for meaning and transcendence constitutes the sum total of culture that's worth a damn. This one's a keeper. Thank you, Mr. Kirsch!

  4. November 18, 2012
     Shalom Freedman

    Adam Kirsch is one of the finest literary critics working today. His thoughts here though they really form no consecutive line of argument are richly suggestive and raise major questions about the meaning of Writing.
    I found myself objecting more frequently than agreeing. But I do not intend to take this rich work on paragraph by paragraph.
    I will however point out a few points of disagreement. I think the potshot at Philip Roth's last decade of writing truly misses the mark. There were clinkers among the short novels but at least three 'Everyman' 'Exit Ghost' and 'Nemesis' are works of very great quality.
    Another point of disagreement. I do not know if 'post- humans' will take great interest in human literature and history. But so long as there are thinking and feeling humans I believe Literature and its capacity to inspire, elevate, inform , and recreate the soul of the human reader will be of supreme importance.
    I too do not believe that great writers of the past are vultures demanding more and more admiration but rather creators who have gifted to future generations ways of understanding and enriching themselves.
    On the whole I was surprised in reading this piece of a critic who I so admire , surprised to find his whole way of thinking about Literature so different from mine.

  5. November 18, 2012
     Sandra Ragsdale

    My first comment is that I'm amazed that there have been no
    comments so far.
    Secondly, I need to revisit the Met to see the Renaissance study.
    Lastly, I agree that we have what I'll call an emotional need to write in
    order to avoid silence. Perhaps Wittgenstein recognized this
    impulsion but was able to suppress it, preferring ascetic silence to the
    display of psychic outpourings.

  6. November 19, 2012
     Ramesh Raghuvanshi

    I think genuine write wrote to know thyself.This urge constantly tormenting increased his guilty feeling and he remain restless and this restlessness urge him to write.Just study the life of Nietzsche he was permanently restless and compulsion to write a sign perhaps his art emerged from this guilt feeling. He rightly wrote ''that all his philosophy was unconscious autobiography." Again I think no writer fully know thyself so his search never stop that why Nietzsche constantly wrote book after book up to his collapsed.Same is true about Dostoevsky want to wrote second part of Brother Karmazao before his sudden death.

  7. November 19, 2012
     George Balanchine

    As the resident Wittgenstein expert, I feel I should respond.

    @Sandra Ragsdale
    Nobody talked more than Wittgenstein, so what "silence" are you referring to?
    I don't believe that Wittgenstein was against talking about art or ethics for example, his view, it is not possible to decide which is the correct philosophy of painting, or the correct ethics in an objective way, that is, by comparing propositions about these topics to the facts of the world.



  8. November 20, 2012

    I suggest that this work be read as a piece of surrealist literature. It describes a dream rather than anything else. As such, its scenes (the paragraphs) are epigrams that are highly irrational but present as highly rational. Trying to read it through a rational lens, I found it completely unsatisfying. Read as surrealistic, I find it fairly enjoyable, if ultimately soggily dreary.

  9. November 21, 2012

    I don't feel angry or betrayed when details about chamber pot usage are omitted.

  10. November 24, 2012
     George T. Karnezis

    I consider myself a patient and open-mined reader. I gave this piece a chance, then another chance, and still found it unfinishable: pompous, precious, fatuous. One wonders, finally, why it deserved publication.

    As for the question of Wittgenstein, I suggest a reading of the notes, taken by his students, on aesthetics, as well as a marvelous essay by John Wisdom entitled "Gods." The latter in particular will help to clarify how we "reason" with one another about the arts.

  11. November 24, 2012
     Sharon Pelphrey

    This little Wittgenstein discussion is novel to a newcomer. After all, the
    late Wittgenstein was quite a muser and quite amusing. Autumn leaves.
    So, chill, commenters. Dialogue is the way forward.

    I'm interested in the God doesn't leave literature in the litter barrel
    remarks. That's my experience, too. Things pop out as we study them in
    different shadows and light, so the seers see what no one else can.
    What else is light for?

  12. November 26, 2012

    Much to like here; much to disagree with: "...print would make
    them cheap, derivative, profane, and easily disposable. And didn’t
    exactly this happen to human beings in the age of print, which is
    the modern age?" Is Kirsch actually saying that for all of human
    history, human lives weren't heretofore cheap, derivative, profane,
    or disposable? For a woman of the "modern age," there is no
    better age in which to live (or have the ability and time to write)
    than this one. There are hopefully better ages to come.

  13. November 26, 2012

    Adam Kirsch is a narrow minded dick head.

  14. November 26, 2012

    "Literature claims to be a record of human existence
    through time..."

    No it doesn't.

  15. November 26, 2012
     Baltimore Poet

    I agree with the poster that said this is a surrealist piece at heart with a facade of rationality. In that way, it is quite unlike Nietzsche who--right or wrong--builds his propositions on very solid emotional, logical, historical, and evidence grounds. E.g., Geneology of Morals & Ecce Homo. For instance in the first paragraph: Just because a famous poet's surviving manuscript was rescued from plugging a wine barrel does not mean, logically, that all art is meant to be lost to practical use. In fact, the story shows it was not lost. Further the story equally could mean that many crappy poets probably were left plugging wine barrels. Thus, history as a fine critic. In fact, the story really leads to other questions like, why and when do cultures fall apart so that their artifacts become discarded. What would a new "Middle Ages" look like? Television? HA!
    History tells me that if something is worth saving, people try to save it. I think that is the more inevitable conclusion based on the current state of museums and literature than the two possibilities offered in paragraph 1.

  16. November 26, 2012

    So funny. Just a quibble in my mind, and I discover the previous poster got there first. A synchronistic joke on me. Ha, ha! Anyway: I don't think 'Literature' claims anything either. People do, though.

  17. November 26, 2012

    I was drawn by the opening paragraph, which I thought was a pretty strong start related to being "remembered" and what the ultimate point really is for putting stuff down "for eternity," as it were. But I have to say that I agree with many of the comments so far: (1) There is no substantive logical line here; (2) it reads better in a dreary, surreal sort of way; (3) and my own take is that it assumes WAY too much of who "the writer" is. The generalizations are broad without any clear attempt at definition.

  18. November 27, 2012
     Baltimore Poet

    I have to write a second comment, first echoing the earlier commenter who notes how worthwhile it is to read something with which one disagrees. I must add that someone with Kirsch's learning should just write simply. T.S. Eliot's criticism, which I am sure Kirsch admires, is conversational prose, funny, bright, and only difficult due to its depth and breath. Like Crane quoted here, this piece is difficult because of its surface form and probably quick composition.

    Anyway, the first paragraph again and the choice it highlights says it all about this essay's perspective. It's Mathew Arnold, "Dover Beach," and that "world sorrow" rejected in the movie (LOL) A ROOM WITH A VIEW. Really, do you think the higher being needs to read our poetry? I don't. We are its poetry. What arrogance really. The choice presented also lacks logical necessity, and so means little but a mood.

    I say reject world sorrow as in ROOM WITH A VIEW and re-read Song of Myself (1855). To make this more contemporary, this essay is also influenced by Harold Bloom and his ilk. Bloom, a smart man, talks a lot about literature without having produced any. He knows little about the creative impulse, from my experience, and much about fighting for academic kudos, from his experience.

    So, rocket and lightship. It's meaningless to me. It's the kind of "difficult" poetry that makes high school kids hate poetry. Its Shelley, not Wordsworth. To point this out, or point out some other difference, is the purpose of criticism. Critics today need to be clear. Risk being redundant, or insightful. That's the real prize and the real choice.

  19. January 22, 2013

    Thank you for this reminder of what a sad and
    unrealizable project it is to claim yourself a writer--
    especially the description of the adolescent’s mistaken
    view of writing “as a shortcut, through isolation, to
    the communication and connection that are unavailable in
    reality.” As a teenager from a poor and unsupportive
    family, I decided I wanted to write fiction after
    reading John Cheever’s “The Children,” a story that
    memorialized the feeling of being unfairly excluded from
    the kind of life I felt I had earned. Though I wanted
    nothing more than to find my tribe, a lifetime of
    isolation was the hefty price I paid for the luxury of
    validation. I think this is what Frost meant by “the
    only way out is through.”