Movements in 'The Unconditional' wasteland
An adventure in thinking
Simon Jarvis’s The Unconditional: A Lyric, a single poem spanning 242 pages, might very well be the Waste Land of our times — only unsung, and way longer. Any number of light-hearted parallels can be drawn between Jarvis’s venture and The Waste Land as its modernist predecessor as a cartography of urban/consumerist experience, but a closer look and such comparisons collapse to differences and distances. While Eliot’s was a (now typical) modernist impulse, a celebration of “fragments shored against my ruins,” erudition, and the Dickensian city in its throes, Jarvis’s work is heavily ironic, self-reflexive, and like the characters it harbors, it never stops unreeling itself to no end — not just a fragmented consciousness, but a Romantic core sustaining itself through and in-between a continuous argument with dramatis personae derived from a range of intensities, with background shades of Hegel (starting with “The highway blacked out like comparison” ), Adorno, Husserl, Bourdieu, Barthes, Hobbes, Adam Smith, and Paul de Man, to name a few (I did not know death had redone so many) and with its constant grappling with phenomenology, being in all its shades and cases and the body, ideology, virtuality, and reality (or at least a reality where “As ‘lack of cash’ returns to ‘face I smash’ / then to the bosom of that after church / I cannot bear, yet cannot bear to leave” ), not to mention its revisionings of literary theory and its critique of science (“Sir Richard Dawkins Baronet of Slush”  is lampooned in the poem, one thinks, less for his ideology than for behaving like the rock kicked by Johnson), The Unconditional seems bent on giving the philosophy back to poetry’s P.
At first blush The Unconditional seems pretentious/pedantic in its tenor and the ground it covers. (The poem has the dramatis personae QNUXMUXKYL [poetic junk DNA], Agramant [very much a man of the world], =x [the hero on his Inquest], and Jobless [in search of an answer or failing that a job offer from Agramant], who trace and retrace their paths in J’s neurons where he sits writing, always already slightly hysterical versions of themselves, caught up in half-finished conversations, but always coming back with a remainder, a left-over or by some accounts, epiphenomenon, that refuses to die [“The gap I am, that absence in the brain” (129)].) From what I experience, though, the poem’s concern is not erudition, nor obscurity. As a lay reader, I have, time and again, stammered while reading The Unconditional out in my head, not because of the references/memes ceaselessly segueing into each other, but because of the original force of the verse/thinking itself which refuses to be a meme. A love duet from Alien (176) sidles up to D. 959. Jarvis’s is not the sort of verse that ideologically resists either closure or interpretation. The lyric’s concerns are more complex, and one can say with almost a straight face, a brush with the sublime, or to use Jarvis’s own phrase, “poetic thinking as a materialism of the beautiful.” The programmable desert in which it sings is also one where voices are heard in the decimals of the rocks and sky.
In the preface to a book of essays, Adorno cites in detail a letter from the composer Schoenberg to Rudolph Kolisch:
You worked out the row for my string quartet (except for one small matter: the second consequent is: 6th note C sharp, 7th G sharp) correctly. It must have taken a great deal of effort, and I doubt I would have had the patience. Do you really think it is of any use to know that? […] it can act as a stimulus for a composer who is still inexperienced in the use of rows, suggesting one way to approach a piece — a purely technical indication of the possibility to draw on rows. But this is not where we discover aesthetic qualities. […] I have attempted to make this clear to Wiesengrund on several occasions, and also to Berg and Webern. But they don’t believe me. I cannot say it often enough: My works are twelve-note compositions, not twelve-notecompositions.
Also Jarvis himself — “That passage of the record is as though / the pianist should not play but invoke / the score before our eyes — ‘you know the rest’” (45).
The poem has as its daimon, its prime mover, William Wordsworth, or at least the Wordsworth who appears in Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song. At one point in that book, Jarvis quotes a reviewer, a contemporary of Wordsworth who had written “[t]he division of labour is not rightly kept up between the picture gallery of his imagination, and the logical workshop of his brain” (23). Jarvis goes on to discuss why this is rightly so. That such is the nature of “philosophic song.” From what he says one can gather that poetic thinking for Jarvis is somehow not just a matter of hyperlinking philosophical “topics” but allowing the philosophic song to trace the contours of thinking qua thinking. As he puts it, “The reliance on the proper names of the philosophers or of the star theorists creates a situation in which their thoughts are ‘always already read,’ in the sense that as soon as we see those names a pre-interpreted series of ‘positions’ tends to be marshalled. In these circumstances, readers’ eyes readily slip from the words quoted to the proper name taken to be in possession of them. The name is read instead of the thoughts” (7). Jarvis traces (in the same book) two overlapping movements in the final lines of the Prelude.From what I gather of Jarvis’s thoughts on this, Wordsworth, while underscoring the importance of an original perception, does not claim this to be a movement back to a past/childhood where things were clearer, not a genetic but more of a static account speaking to the ever-renewed and ever-decaying process of creation. Or to quote Wordsworth via Jarvis, “Uneasiness must be driven away by fresh uneasiness” (147).
Jarvis also highlights Crabb Robinson’s take (23–24) on Wordsworth’s poem as a transmutation of the philosophic (derived by blasting the “accidental individual dress” off like a true philosopher and then reclothing this idea in an individual dress; setting up “a poetic exhibition”). Add to this Jarvis’s complex give and take with the voice of the scriptures.
optatively by repetition I
break open from its smooth erasure there
a dry skin on my skin and killing it
break my bone open to the speaking wind
becoming utterly incapable
of not receiving broken life as life (49)
The “optatively” in the first line hovers like a prayer over the rest of the lines. Much of the poem has to do with peeling off layers to get to the meat and bones inside. Here, “smooth erasure” talks to that loss of affect, codified responses to art and society where errors are rounded off/explained away just like the small gap that “I am.” Jarvis wants to use repetition against repetition and come up with, if not a solution, a temporary glade. There is a sense of surrender/hope here, the body left as a device for whatever Idea or deity would have it. Broken life as life. Being as a becoming. Still later, “=x ran from his body” (116).
Ostensibly a novel written in metrical verse, with the main protagonist “=x” (as Jarvis points out in a characteristically playful footnote to the poem, “Readers may wish to give the character =x a value equal to, or slightly smaller than, that of the letter ‘s’” ), The Unconditional traces the journey of =x and several minor characters including a character named Jobless (a nod to the class consciousness of the poet or/and perhaps the biblical Job) as they move through a series of thought experiments/experiences and settings that disappear as soon as they arise. (It all starts on the polished counter of a bar). Jarvis makes no secret of this instability in the poetic surroundings, pastoral or otherwise. There’s a sense of “comedy” even when the presiding deity in some of the sections is a car crash (described in detail, the sensations of weightlessness, the snapping back of the head, what goes on in there) or suicide or lecture (pages 54–55, where the professor, a self-professed liberal humanist, drones on about the staying power [or the lack of it] of Ideas, continues losing his audience till only =x and a few others are left of which young Wiesengrund is possibly the more well known). “The ‘spirit’ which is at last arrived at is at first only this surplus by which beings are somehow, as it were, more than what they are. The model is not one of chiasmic exchange, but of an original proliferating excess.”3 It is this original excess that is the guiding spirit of The Unconditional.
To quote Kant, “The pure concept of the transcendental object (which is actually always the same, =x, in all our cognitions) is what is able to provide all our empirical concepts in general with reference to an object, i.e. with objective reality.” Jarvis seems to have taken this Kantian lesson to heart. The poem begins “Data float down; the own rote load doles out / a doubt-loud flow into the overload” (5). This emphasis on data brings out the tension between a theological impulse in Jarvis and the view of the economic man as a site of continuous construction. The next two lines take this further with “Facts, moping at their blindless diurm, tread / the light to dumb muck for cash in one line. / Hush dim glut making you a linear red. / Hush now to a mindless lucky smash. / Infinitesimally aperture” (5) or again later in the book, “Money mourn Person from its metal tree / My long discolouration is well known” (111). The poem uses Light with all its theological and purifying force. Only the Light in this materialistic simulation has a touch of violence, forcing its way through the infinitesimal apertures of spirits/minds/brains beset by data. “‘[T]here is always something more to see’ […] as ‘continually’ or ‘yet’ is repeated, the more the motionlessness of all this infinite striving beneath it.”
This usage of Light seems to have become something of a trend amongst many British poets. including J. H. Prynne, John Wilkinson, and other “Cambridge” poets like John Regan who seem to be working on a model of transcendence gone wrong in the modern world. Jarvis, to his credit, takes this one step further, superimposing a discarded Romanticism on the subject who is little more than the summum bona of his purchases, whether Ideas or particulars glowing in LCD. So we find =x torn between suicidal impulses “running upstairs to push his willing teeth / into and through the glass and to an air / hoped sung and stammered by what broke bones there / suspended in brown vacancies of shade / crowding their varnish to a wooden glade / of former trees whose long surrendered height observed no alterations in the light / as =x first climbed the stairs and then climbed down / backwards from Eden with no smile nor frown / breaking the clench of composited teeth” (6). It is interesting how everything comes alive, however miserable their present condition may be, in the poem. The trees with their long-surrendered height seem to be a meditation on the Fall which =x, that human condition, is doomed to repeat and play out through endless retakes/replays. “Endless wanderings” of the spirit along a conveyor belt branded Jacob’s Ladder or a Supermarket of Earthly Delights. (As for the teeth and how they play out in the poem, and for a synopsis of the poem’s concerns, see this excellent review by Tom Jones.)
It is interesting to see how Jarvis injects this sort of thinking into his poetics. Negations multiply into positive assertions or what could potentially be convictions. Possibly Jarvis’s verse can be branded as “a phenomenology of hope” or “a despairing of present-at-hand philosophy.”
ONly immiserable life can tell
why copia copies out at all a truth
ONly the precrescendal mind in hell
knows why the copyist copies any truth:
an old mutation of the modern mind
gives to the singular every poorest best;
a new-old reinvention of the kind
returns to copiousness its lack of test:
as frozen wastes are warmer in the zone
where heating makes them partially at home
so when a falsest rigor comes to rest
its worser impulses begin to home.
From colons semicolons multiply.
Logic at length in lists must surely die. (48)
The first line features the word “immiserable,” one of the poet’s many neologisms. The im- prefix can possibly be read in two ways (aside from the obvious pun on immeasurable): as an immersion in misery, or a life without misery, touched by grace. Now the copia transcribing truth, etc., and the quick analogy with frozen food from the supermarket continue to describe a virulent spread of logic arriving out of nothing and leading us into the rigor mortis of a nothingness, of a lack of Spirit that we try to beat at its own game. Thinking becomes a program at length in lists. The volume of discourse, the lists, seemingly cover up for the solipsism. Jarvis’s attitude to language is refreshing, and thus on page 130 we have Jobless upsetting his beer can and “its glop / refuting thus all languaged theory’s map” as Jobless continues to “listlessly” look at a “lit mass of illumined cloud” on his screen. Later on Jarvis claims “Only part of language is like chess.” He seems to believe in the redemptive power of language, not just the materiality of the signifier or Wittgenstein’s language game. “[T]he more material song becomes our skin” (163) but in The Unconditional we have a level of belief that seems to assert there’s a way out. Jarvis flatly states, “Language without life is its business suit” (205).
This IS the broken lighted triple word
lighting whose daylight audible as sound
redoubles irredundantly its force
donating not a penny to the thing
and not a penny either to the thought
where wordlessly evacuated space
resubstantiates its nothings there (49)
Tom Jones writes, “Samuel Johnson’s refutation of George Berkeley’s immaterialism (Boswell reports him kicking a stone and saying ‘I refute it thus’ to demonstrate that there is material substance) finds itself allied to materialist attitudes to culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But the act of blunt (and philosophically rather unconvincing) argument is for Johnson an act of self-harm. Here it is an act of aggression towards another: typically for this poem the seemingly contained philosophical action/argument spills out of the individual sphere to become a social problem.”
Later on in the poem this comes back, true to the poem’s commitment to repetition and distributed thinking.
Total transcendence furs its desert good,
Only inhuman rock may now resist
ideal billows that would first prefer
to rot the soulless soul-piece stuck inside
and paint its values in the desert sky. (206)
Boswell’s account of Samuel Johnson, in the middle of a conversation after coming out of church, “striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it” eerily mirrors the energetics of the characters here. The search for meaning that is not always “sealing discomfort with a stony eye” (73). For example we are told of
Where the repulsive gold most thickly flows
or where most sparsely does find its repose
its thin tails cannot but spell contours which
reweb excreted nets of thinking glitch
eating away at basiliskal state
bring on the cruxial imperfection where
some meaning particle enjoins the next
to blurt out meaning quite outside the text.
I.e. Agramant was terrified (137)
Literary theory or otherwise, the focus of The Unconditional is on the excess of things. Here cash and the entangled “meaning particles” of the Internet conspire, for all their apparent negativity, to blurt out meaning outside the text. Jarvis’s poem is itself a model of this variety of original thinking. But Agramant of course only wants his “bills to be paid.”
The typography of the poem, with its quickly-multiplying parentheses that sometimes open and continue unerringly through pages only to close with a finality that does not really give any closure, is recursive, caught in an infinite loop without seeming repetitive. (Though the end of the poem is a repetition of the initial invocation. The cycle completed, the program executed. One can take a leaf out of Jarvis’s book on Wordsworth as he writes “The ‘endless way’ is thus bracketed, both in the facts of the narrative and in reader’s minds, as a seeming endlessness.”) The fact that the poem is written entirely in iambic pentameter and that it self-consciously employs a poeticized idiom or even purple (bruised?) prose, does not take away from this programmatic feel of it.
Time and again, while reading The Unconditional, I have wondered over how someone like me, from outside the verdant grounds of academia, can derive so much pleasure from a poem this unabashedly complex, and derive so much delight not just from connecting the dots (which I do unthinkingly every time I open the book again) but from the quality of endless thinking that goes on in there. Perhaps the age of the hypertext has prepared the ground for a work like The Unconditional. Where knowledge is not a limiting factor, Ideas hover between memes and actuality, there being no inner continuously talking down to an outer, but there also being no unreal love of the outer stripping down the inner. Thinking, to Jarvis, is as intimate as a refrain as tinnitus and just as real/troubling.
Perhaps on some level Jarvis’s venture speaks to Deleuze’s characterization of individuation as “it operates beneath all forms, is inseparable from a pure ground that brings it to the surface and trails with it. It is difficult to describe this ground or the terror and attraction it excites. Turning over the ground is the most dangerous occupation, but also the most tempting in the stupefied moments of an obtuse will … For this ground, along with the individual, rises to the surface yet assumes neither form nor figure … It is the indeterminate, but the indeterminate in so far as it continues to embrace determination.”
Or perhaps the only thing worth remembering while reading this book is Schoenberg’s admonition — “My works are twelve-note compositions, not twelve-note compositions.” And so they are, and so it IS.
6. Tom Jones, review of The Unconditional: A Lyric, Jacket 31(2006).
7. Douglas Lane Patey, “Johnson’s Refutation of Berkeley: Kicking the Stone Again,” Journal of the History of Ideas 47, no. 1 (January–March 1986): 139.