Commentaries

Naomi Schor:

Viewed as congenitally (rather than culturally) particularistic, the woman artist is doubly condemned to produce inferior works of art: because of her close association with nature, she cannot but replicate it. (11)

Wouldn't her time be better spent replicating human life? is the suggestion implicit in the ideology Schor is describing here.1

In my last post—over two weeks ago now, since the EU referendum decimated, among other things, my ability to write—I pointed to Barbara Johnson's speculation about the antagonism between female art and maternity. "It is as though male writing were by nature procreative, while female writing is somehow by nature infanticidal" (38). Not, obviously, that mothers don't write, or that maternity is not indeed the condition of writing for some. (It is.) Rather, the prevailing ideology that men produce, women reproduce imposes this suggestion on works of art by women regardless of the actual conditions of their production.

In the ongoing saga of confusion and despair that is British politics, there was a bright spot of clarity when Andrea Leadsom, the underdog Tory MP standing for Prime Minister, intimated that the frontrunner (and now, apparently, our new PM as of Wednesday) might not really care about the future because she didn't have children.

Those of us who were questioning everything, as we first felt unhappy that David Cameron was resigning (??) and then somehow wanted Theresa May to replace him (???), at least knew what to think about that. Copies of Lee Edelman's No Future were waved. (Granted, that book is pretty much some 70's feminist witch stuff with all the women mysteriously removed, but it's still a stylistic delight, among other things.) The irony of it all is that May and Leadsom were actually equally committed to crushing the young with economic inequality and debt.

I'm not a poet, and this has come to be important to me. I had a conversation with Anne Boyer about this, how a woman can be forgiven for being a critic, but not for being a poet. As a critic, "you can be Hermione Granger," is how she put it—a grind, that slightly irritated copyist of others' words that Ngai describes in her chapter on "Irritation." Even Hermione Granger is a potentially infanticidal witch, but you see where this is going. Being a critic means you might stay under the radar, working a kind of "unconscious fastidiousness," as Moore puts it in "Critics and Connoisseurs," the care an animal takes with details, not because he is an artist but because he is of nature. (She is talking about a swan that is pretending not to care about snacks, but totally cares).

Rather outrageously, Moore often does speak of her own writing as a kind of naturalness: "My own fondness for the unaccented rhyme derives, I think, from an instinctive effort to ensure naturalness," she claims ("Feeling and Precision," 398). Instinct? Naturalness? In Marianne Moore? Again, as D. A. Miller writes of Austen (another spinster), the disingenuous deflection of style is a disavowal of any need for a queer refuge, a disavowal of any tendency to be unnatural and thus somehow a license to be precisely that.

It's no accident that style's opposite is "nature." To be "woman" is to be "of nature" (as Schor, among so many others, points out), but to be a stylist is, as Joseph Litvak observes, to be against nature, the sexual sin contra naturam (Litvak 4, Daston and Vidal 235).

Where does the female scrivener sit, perched on the boundary between copyist and artist? Almost aggressively posing as a copyist, and taking time out, too, to be a critic (as Moore did when she edited the Dial from 1925 to 1929), sometimes pretending to be an animal, fastidious but unconsciously so, Moore nearly pulls off the balance, "creepy to behold."

But that note of irritation gives things away, I think—admits to gender's violence.

The final two poems in Mia You's sequence "Harvard Wives" do something similar, though in much different ways. "After-Dinner Games" recounts the history of the college-educated Harvard wives who, at low pay, processed the astronomical data at the Harvard College Observatory at the turn of the twentieth century, and later, in the 1960s, staffed its photo reduction lab.(Naomi Oreskes points out how scientific desiderata like objectivity, when performed by a woman, simply led to her disappearance from the record: an "objective" woman could be made out to be a mere copyist of nature, a technician or instrument or indeed "computer.")

The succeeding poem takes the form of a thank-you note, veering between form letter and confession. The note thanks the husband's colleague for a dinner party, opening with the formulaic warmth that typically marks these missives ("We are so moved you included us," but only I the wife am writing this obligatory note about how moved we are).

Soon we get down to brass tacks:

The question is: Do I thank you? I mean, do I appreciate your company? ... After all, we paid a babysitter $16/hr so that we could attend your dinner party , and I don't spend that kind of time and money on enjoyment anymore. (43)

That "$16/hr" opens up the layers of irony in this act of emotional labor. It's not a vast sum as wages go, but it's paid for work that the letter-writer usually does for free, and only so that the letter-writer can do another kind of unpaid work, act the part of "wife" at a husband's colleague's home while thinking about the mortgage.

The two poems point to the "Harvard wives" as copyists, whether working as scientists reduced to underpaid and unrecognized "computers" or as professional wives who, when not engaged in the direct reproductive labor of minding the children, are wheeled out as props for a husband's career. Whether "processing" data or performing the script of being so moved by a husband's colleague's invitation, it's another's words and another's selfhood being circulated by a woman's body and moving lips.

That demurral: I didn't enjoy it. It moves us not.

Is it the demurral, the irritation, that seems witchy? Contra naturam? Or can we pay it off with some younger or poorer woman's labor at $16 an hour?2

-----

Notes.

1 I take "woman" here as a social category into which one is conscripted, not as an essence or identity. "Woman" as a category is the reproductive class, and must respond to questions of reproduction broadly conceived, whether or not a body so gendered is physically able to bear children (regarding which we might note how reproduction became an election issue for Theresa May long before Andrea Leadsom even brought it up).

2 Silvia Federici points out how idle it is to try to answer these questions by policing women's "feminist choices," as long as the realm of reproductive labor remains the responsibility of women (73).

-----

References.

Daston, Lorraine, and Fernando Vidal. The Moral Authority of Nature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

Federici, Silvia. “Reproduction and Feminist Struggle in the New International Division of Labor.” In Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle, 65–75. Oakland: PM Press, 2012.

Gilbert, Sandra M. “Marianne Moore as Female Female Impersonator.” In Marianne Moore: The Art of a Modernist, edited by Joseph Parisi, 27–46. Studies in Modern Literature, no. 109. Ann Arbor, Mich: UMI Research Press, 1990.

Johnson, Barbara. “Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion.” Diacritics 16, no. 1 (April 1, 1986): 29–47.

Litvak, Joseph. Strange Gourmets: Sophistication, Theory, and the Novel. Series Q. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.

Moore, Marianne. Becoming Marianne Moore: The Early Poems, 1907-1924. Edited by Robin G. Schulze. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Moore, Marianne. “Feeling and Precision.” Sewanee Review 52, no. 4 (December 1944): 477–507. Rpt. in The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore, edited by Patricia C. Willis, 396-402. New York: Viking, 1986.

Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Oreskes, Naomi. “Objectivity or Heroism? On the Invisibility of Women in Science.” Osiris, 2nd Series, 11 (January 1, 1996): 87–113.

Schor, Naomi. Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine. New York: Routledge, 2007.

You, Mia. I, Too, Dislike It. California: 1913 Press, 2016.

Posted 11 July 2016.

A BOOK OF SHADOWS

History is over.
In another world
you find another
young as you,
your shadow
over his, the two
together, sharing
hidden sorrows,
thoughts of                                         (G. de Nerval)
expiation. The world
does not forgive.

*

Allotments.
Shut.
The neighbors cross the boulevard
in pairs.
The door adjacent to
our thoughts shut also.
Therefore they shift
their legs between
short bursts,
the cadence of a march,
old world, old
fashioned melodies
unheard. A single hand
can sweep the board.
A single eye can glimpse
a shadow of the cosmos
through a pin hole.

*

She is a princess,
fresh as soap
she meets you at the gare,
French dolls like ghosts
step forth at midday.
Everyone is sportif
geared for speed
never to turn a shoulder,
to name a game for love.
Their aim is circular,
it follows where you lead them,
down a secret path,
into a basement
shadowed by
your childhood dream,
a lurking hole,
then up the backstairs
lost to sleep,
concealments of a borrowed life
outside the circle.

*

The cavern of the universe
widens each morning.
My head fills up with dew,
the father writes,
having no home but where
his shadow leads him.
In greasy shirtsleeves, heavy
lids, blotched faces,
the men pursue
a trail of tears,
unbuttoned captive
to a dream,
a starless galaxy,
the deeper sky
a field of images
measureless & mindless,
absent their god.

*

It was always dark.
The red hole’s
wetness threatened
the lost sheep.
Sharp exchanges
were not clearly heard.
Rivers did
not flow.
You did not defend
your brother.
We ascend
toward progress.
I scratch fire &
remove it from your throat.
I run out of
distant shadows
now that no one
tries to stop
the passage from a city
that is drowning.

*

I look for lights
under my fingers.
I will take them & will make
foolish minds wise.
Then when I flick my half closed eyes
your mouth will open wide
& I will sail by with my flags.
You will applaud me
when I scratch for cash
under your shadows.
I who am geared to tear down
what you build
your houses like your ashes
swept away.

*

Poetry is made in bed
for some for me
the call of life is stronger.
I walk & see my shadow
hanging upside down
with yours. The way
your mouth says I
is just like mine.
I multiply
the little portion
that your fingers
spill.
I cannot comprehend
the way men kill
or laugh. I will not
vouch for them.
There is a space to burrow in
under the covers.
The way he wants to kiss
while vomiting
is part of life. The way
he calls on death
trumpets his own.

*

I is an other gaunt
& somewhat turned
into the light.
I threatens to return,
is hungry now
for power
as for love.
He is my own, becomes
my shadow
dog.
I reach a hand to him
& freeze.
I cannot speak
without him
though we try.

*

I run from shadows
to avoid old people
maddened by God.
I follow animals
whose eyes at night
mirror my face.
Seeing myself asleep
I touch my arm.
I celebrate
new forms of sex.
I am frantic
knowing that nobody
has a way out
or a face
more marked than
mine.
I was not
born live
.                                                 (J. Holzer)

*

It is a shame to watch
my face to see it
running through your hands
like jelly.
I am my own
dark friend
a shadow set against
a darker shadow.
I hear a sound
like pianos
buried in the earth.
The pressure of my feet
against the pedals
opens a flood.
A carrousel is bobbing
up & down.
The happy singer
enters paradise
with seven others.

*

There are some who shadow us
for what we love.
Nightly the passengers
still blind me
while I bind their wounds.
I feel their final jabs
between the covers & the sea
no time for preening.
I watch my feet move
among the stars.
Everything we offer
to the world
is what the world gives back
without a thought
or breath.

*

Coda to A Book of Shadows

What is remembered
of the dead is how
they tottered, little more
to write, & less
to pass a test
at understanding.
How discreet
to dance here in a hall
of shadows,
or to sit this moment,
dozing in the fast train,
while the clouds
take shape, even
as they leave
their shadows, like the dead
across the fields.
I am more alive
for thinking of them,
knowing that the time
draws nigh,
the outline disappears,
& dark as Monday
I am marching
with the fathers, ready
to mark my presence
in their ranks.

11.iv.08
Paris

2.vii.16                                                                                                                                                                            Encinitas

[The preceding poems were commissioned as a suite, with photos by the author, in a series of artists’ books published by Tita Reut under the imprint of Les Editions de l’Ariane. The poems themselves, all but the closing coda, are fragments from the author’s A Book of Witness (Un livre de temoignage), a part of which was translated into French by Tita Reut & Joseph Guglielmi & published with illustrations by Arman in 2002.  For reasons beyond our control the suite itself was never published, but the future possibility, as far as I can tell, stays open. (J.R.)]

http://www.null-entropy.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/tumblr_lvfheqvRlr1qkkcodo
Shaker Gift Song

What is a fou? Or, whose work counts in the non-cannon?

Despite the catalogues and encyclopedias, almost by definition there can be no fou cannon. Not only is the study in its infancy, basic criteria are hard to establish. On the surface the Victorian Nonsense of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll might be considered, but for reasons that will become clear later, though related, Nonsense is not generally included. Another candidate might be the private anagrammatic investigations of the esteemed linguist Ferdinand de Saussure who, during the same years–1906-1910–that he worked on his influential (some would now say pernicious) "science" of signs, he also spent copious time searching for anagrams in a variety of texts, from the Rig Veda to the Niebelungen. These special poetic words, Saussure believed, were the explanatory keys, or pre-texts accounting for each work's origin, and at least part of its meaning, (see Philosophy Through the Looking Glass, Jean-Jacques Lecercle, 1985). The problem with this method, as every practitioner knows, is that virtually any pre-text can be found in any text. It is therefore functionally useless, even if, or especially when pursued obsessively. Though Saussure himself was obsessed, he was also far too much the scientist to let his private compulsions become public statements.

A more promising line might then be sought amongst the speakers of tongues, or glossolalialists. Glossolalia "is the fluid vocalizing of speech-like syllables that lack any readily comprehended meaning, in some cases as part of religious practice in which it is believed to be a divine language unknown to the speaker," (A Dictionary of Psychology, Oxford University Press, 2009).  The practice has been discussed since biblical times, when St. Paul sought to circumscribe the conditions for its use. St. Patrick of Ireland is said to have heard strange languages spoken in his dreams, and Hildergard of Bingen is reputed to have spoken and sung in tongues. Over the centuries many Christians groups like the Camisards and Quakers also practiced speaking in tongues as an experience of "Spirit baptism," (see The great mystery of the great whore unfolded; and Antichrist's kingdom revealed unto destruction. The Works of George Fox, 1831). During the 20th century, glossolalia became associated with Pentecostalism and the later charismatic movement, founded by the African American preacher William Seymour and the white Evangelist Charles Parham. In 1900 Parham opened a bible college in Topeka Kansas, where a student named Agnes Ozman experienced glossolalia in the first hours of the 20th century. In 1906 Seymour moved to Los Angeles where his words ignited the Azusa Street Revival, considered the birth of the global Pentecostal movement, in which glossolalia played an important part until its demise in 1915, (see The Charismatic Movement, Michael Pollock Hamilton, 1975).

                                

None of this of course was written down, let alone published, one reason for its non-inclusion in fou bibliographies.

Not so however the work of the 19th century medium Hélene Smith, or that of the Gift Songs produced by young Shaker women in the 1840s. In both cases young women transcribed onto paper messages they received from beyond; Smith, from spirits she encountered in trances at séances, the Shakers, from God. Smith's spirits spoke to her in a bewildering variety of tongues, from ancient Sanskrit to Martian, and the even more esoteric Ultra-Martian. Shaker women received God's songs as visions, which were sometimes communicated to one girl, who described them to another who wrote/drew them down in pen and colored ink to form delicate tableaux that mix the highest geometrical abstraction with the sensibilities of the primer and the sampler, (see "Speaking Martian," Daniel Rosenberg, Cabinet No. 1; and Heavenly Visions: Shaker Gift Drawings and Gift Songs, Uni. Minnesota Press, 2001).

               

             Helene Smith, Martian Script                                  Shaker Gift Song-Drawing

Neither of these however is included in the non-cannon of the fou. Why? Jean-Jacques Lecercle, an expert who has written numerous books on the topic–the only overall introductions to the subject in English–believes that Smith's work lacks a real interest in language, and that the fact that she produced her writings in trance, where she became the incarnation of a Martian lady or the wife of an ancient Indian Prince, somehow renders it less interesting, or at least less compelling to the eccentricologist. Given the mental states under which many recognized fou produce their work–Schreber believed he channeled God's rays, and Brisset was the sometime mouthpiece of the Seventh Angel–it is hard, aside from prejudice, to see why this work should be dismissed. The true fous may not be a mere medium, but mediumship is often an essential component of their methods. We are reminded again of Susannah Wilson's observation about the perception of femininity in this regard. It is as though work by women cannot be seen as "outsiderish," precisely because femininity itself is already a form of outsidership or otherness; and as we know, there is no other of the other.

For now, we shall bracket this question and look at a few examples of recognized fous.

 

 

 

 

[image: jar of plant submerged in water]

In some ways, all language is errant translation. Language wanders from its intended assignments, language is slippery, and what makes the desire to communicate so beautiful is its desperation and inevitable failure; it revels in something basic and intrinsic to humanity, a primal longing, like Sisyphus and his round boulder, Wu Gang and his moon tree. In some ways this is every writer’s and artist’s ongoing work: to continuously rename the world anew, and in this renaming we attempt to grasp it while also giving it up to the ether. 

Tell all the truth but tell it slant is the famous dictate from Emily Dickinson, and whether intrinsically or in aesthetic pursuit, language as a project of translation becomes refraction: never a perfect transference of concepts but instead a mediated articulation of the world. The color, shape, and texture of meaning travels along wavering, unstable trajectories. Poets and artists navigate by way of this refraction, intentionally turning their glances askew. 

It is this notion of refraction that I would like to explore in particular relation to the work of artists who engage in “translating” a specific concept, experience, or form—moving from an exterior location to an interior one—and in doing so take a normative baseline of meaning/-making and then distort it.

Refraction: as if new light cast into the folds between viewer and object.

Refraction: an angle of approach, a transmission medium, and suddenly wavelengths metamorphose, change direction.

Refraction: we are momentarily entrusted to an unfamiliar axis of this spinning earth, shifting the boundaries and shapes by which we live.

Refraction: the experience of looking from a peripheral location.

Refraction: [O/o]ther ways of seeing.

As they engage in translating the world, why, rather than resisting refraction, do poets and artists move toward it, compelled by its disparate angles and bending lines? How are certain truths and beauties revealed in such blurry distortions? Moreover, what is at stake in this moment of refraction for poets and artists who identify in some way with the margins?

Rather than strictly literary art, I have lately been drawn to visual and mixed media—artwork that function as poems in miraculous ways—and I am interested in examining Dickinson’s maxim though this lens with the belief that these works of art shed light on the poetics of refraction by manifesting it viscerally and tangibly. Indeed, they incorporate the notion of translation/refraction in vibrant and moving ways, challenging dominant spaces of meaning and the boundaries of their realities. Each artwork I examine is one that has permeated and riveted my body like water, and in giving language to their underlying refractive motions, I hope also to immerse in their evocative vocabularies.

http://bernardroukhomovsky.com/enseignement/
Anonyme, Le Monde dans une tête de fou (vers 1590). BNF, Département des cartes et plans.

 

Literary Madmen is the English translation of Fou Littéraire, a term invented in the mid 19th century to cover a branch of writing not previously given serious consideration. Today, googling the French phrase produces hundreds of references, yet it does not even translate into a properly searchable term in English.  When I recently searched the English version I was offered “about 590,000” results in 0.30 seconds. But did I mean" literary madmen or literary mad men?" No matter how many times I corrected the google-bot’s rewriting of my phrase, it kept returning to its own version, yielding the following results:

Mad Men: the most literary show on TV - Telegraph

12 Works of Literature That Were Featured on 'Mad Men' | Mental Floss

The "Mad Men" Reading List | The New York Public Library

9 Books Featured In 'Mad Men' You Should Read After Watching The ...

Unpacking the Literary References Informing 'Mad Men' Season 6 ...

And yet the whole of idea of the fou littéraire grew out of a 19th century French fascination for all things Anglais, especially that country's conception of eccentricity, which had then no parallel in France, (see The Sunday of Fiction: The Modern French Eccentric, Peter Schulman).

To the French, the eccentric was a half-mad, often aristocratic individual whose life was filled with unusual events. In November 1835, the writer Charles Nodier published a catalogue of these types entitled, “Bibliographie des fous: De quelques livres excentriques,” (Bibliography of the Mad: Of Some Eccentric Books), where he coined the term fou littéraire to denote madmen who wrote, and published–otherwise, one would be simply a maniac. Nodier himself was no slouch in this matter, publishing copious volumes of quasi-fantastic stories and novels, and collections of his own "dream writings," as well as such non-fiction tomes as "A Dissertation on the Use of Antennae in Insects," and the Reasoned Dictionary of French Onomatopoeia. However, his bibliography of eccentric books was to have the most lasting value, filling a gap in literary studies and spawning a new tradition. Immediately, other "eccentricologists" took up the theme, producing their own catalogues of fou, which "document a vast nomenclature of personalities that the rest of the world has overlooked, undertaken not with the aim of ultimately finding cures, but out of pure affection," (Schulman). Here the idea of eccentricity shifts, "no longer connoting frivolous nobility or stylized dress, but a kind of romantic heroism...the undeniablity of the unknown that attracts and stimulates," (ibid.).

 

                

                               The Sunday of Fiction: The Modern French Eccentric, Peter Schulman, p. vii.

Despite this extensive lineage, today the term is sometimes taken "in the strict sense" to refer to authors who were the subject of research by Raymond Queneau and André Blavier in the 1930s. Whilst Queneau ultimately abandoned work on the fou, incorporating his research into a novel, The Children of Silt  (1938), his accomplice André Blavier took the matter more seriously, eventually producing a fully-fledged encyclopedia, entitled Literary Fools, listing more than 3000 authorsunfortunately not published until 1982. Writers indexed there include Alexis Vincent Charles Berbiguier Newfoundland Thyme, Jean-Pierre Brisset, Nicolas Cirier, Natalis Flaugergues, Xavier Forneret, Paulin Gagne, Alfred Moquin-Tandon, Claude-Charles Pierquin Gembloux, Jean Prat, Raymond Roussel, Tapon-ax Fougas and Paul Tisseyre-Ananké, (http://www.universalis.fr/encyclopedie/fous-litteraires). Blavier too provides a nomencalture, dividing fou into various categories, including, "prophets, seers & Messiahs," the "squarers," "Inventors & DIY", the "philanthropists, Sociologists & Pest," not to mention scholars, novelists and poets. Whilst some are looking for an Ur language (a Lingua Adamica), and others seek to square the circle, all present theories radically different from the commmon epistemes and orthodoxies of their time, and all produce singular objects in which sense and nonsense spectacularly collide. Today, numerous websites and institutions are devoted to research on this heterodox "canon." Of these we may briefly note the Institut International et d'Explorations sur les Fous Littéraires (IIREFL), online at iirefl@orange.fr. The IIREFL has an annual day of fou studies at the Biblioteque Nationale, and its founders include Marc Decimo, regent of the College of Pataphysics, and editor of the collected works of Jean-Pierre Brisset, probably the most beloved of all fou.

Unfortunately, the current state of fou research is confined mainly to men. Perhaps, as scholar Susannah Wilson notes, this is because the perceived "distance between sickness and cultural femininity is not so great," (Voices from the Asylum: Four French Women Writers, 1850-1920, p. 37). Recognized fou are also mostly white, possibly for similar reasons. And it is for this reason that I shall, in the final section of this commentary, look at the relations between the concept of fou littéraire and Alexander Weheliye's notion of habeas viscus. In the meantime, we are entitled to ask, what exactly characterizes such work, and just what, if any, is the relationship between "literary" madness and madness per se?

 Addendum: A partial bibliography

http://biblioweb.hypotheses.org/8125

- Presentation by Henri-Joris Jespers in five articles dated May 16 to 18, 2009  and 24 May 2010 on the site of the Institute International RESEARCH and Explorations on Fou Littéraires

- About literary madmen interview with Stéphane Fleury, ed. decorated with a collage of André Stas. Paris, Ed. Ash, 2001, p. 59. 

- "Books that were composed by fools," Mixtures from a small library, or literary and philosophical varieties, Charles Nodier, Paris, Crapelet, 1829, p. 243-248. Available on Archives.org and Google books .

- "Bibliography crazy," From some quirky books. Paris, Techener, 1835. 2 installment. Bibliophile Supplement to the Bulletin, No. 21 [and 23] .

- On the Edge of Darkness: Literary Madmen Nineteenth Century, Raymond Queneau, ed. presented and annotated by Madeleine Velguth. [Paris]: Gallimard, 2002. 428 p. (The notebooks NRF).

- The Violence of Language, Jean-Jacques Lecercle, trans. English by Michèle Garlati, revised by the author .... Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1996 VIII-285 p. (Theoretical Practices)

 - The eccentric, Champfleury, Paris, Mr. Levy brothers, 1852, p. 375.

- Anthology of Black Humor, André Breton, Paris, Editions of Sagittarius, 1940, p. 263.

- "Louis Neuf Germain motley poet," Christmas Arnaud, Bizarre, special issue The Heteroclites and literary Fools April, 1956 No. IV

 - International and Exploration Institute Fools Literary iirefl@orange.fr

- http://fous-litteraires.over-blog.com/article-sacres-fous-litteraires-pa...