Jeffrey C. Robinson: 'Poems for the Millennium, Volume Four,' as 'Subversive Orientalism'

Pierre Joris & Habib Tengour, co-editors of 'Poems for the Millennium, volume 4'
Pierre Joris & Habib Tengour, co-editors of 'Poems for the Millennium, volume 4'

From Robinson’s  introduction to a reading by Pierre Joris at Glasgow's Centre for Contemporary Arts on 22 May 2013: a consideration of Poems for the Millennium, volume 4, The University of California Press Book of North African Literature.

 As one of the co-editors of the third volume of Poems for the Millennium, the book of Romantic and Postromantic poetry, I confess that when the sparkling image of PM4 appeared in an email, it confused me: on the one hand I knew that Pierre had been working on a massive anthology of Maghrebian poetry but didn’t know it would follow in the Poems for the Millennium series: I was thrilled by the idea of it but also a bit jealous of what almost felt like an intruder into what was a revisionist gathering and account of primarily Western poetry since the mid-18th century.  But then I thought of the first entry in Volume Three’s “Manifestoes and Poetics” section, by Goethe: “If a world literature develops in the near future—as appears inevitable with the ever-increasing ease of communication—we must expect no more and no less than what it can and in fact will accomplish.”   Or, among the pages of Poems for the Millennium, Three called “Some Orientalisms” we find such an accomplishment envisioned by Walt Whitman: 

            Passage to India!
Lo, soul, seest thou not God’s purpose from the first? The earth to be  spann’d, connected by network,
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage, The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,
The lands to be welded together. 

A vision of a Weltliteratur informs all three previously published volumes of Poems for the Millennium; but this vision begins with Romanticism near the end of the 18th century, which therefore could be said to prepare the path naturally for the fourth volume that like lightening leaps out to a totally different centrism, a recognition that, parenthetically, jolted me completely out of my jealousy.  By way of introducing this volume and the rest of the evening, I will characterize for just a few minutes this path that links particularly Volumes Three and Four as an expression of a subversive orientalism.

In the 19th century, “Orientalism” had a double inflection: control over non-European peoples mostly from the Middle East, North Africa, India, China & the Far East, meant the objectivizing of the exotic Other. Yet as the extraordinary late-19th-century French writer and cultural explorer of Asia Victor Segalen said in his brilliant “Essay on Exoticism: An Aesthetics of Diversity”: “Exoticism’s power is nothing other than the ability to conceive otherwise.”

At the end of the eighteenth century the plethora of new information about the East “put into doubt the basic legitimacy of the Christian state and cut to the heart of anxieties about European power and identity” (Nigel Leask). If governments thought of the outcome of colonialism as appropriation of other cultures & economies, poets, often inventing or emulating the Other’s voice, would typically seize the “orientalist” occasion as the horizon beyond the familiar, in Dickinson’s phrase the “unreportable place.”

In the hands of Sir William Jones, Gottfried Herder, Friedrich & August Schlegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, & others writing in roughly the 25 years before and after the French Revolution— the East, so-called, not only represented diversity, but also contained “the sources” of religion & language in the West. This turn toward origins fed the Romantic drive for the recovery of basic human energies, the sources of life made inaccessible through centuries of kings along with the growth of modern bourgeois society.  Drawing on Indian religion, Friedrich Schlegel sketched a visionary Romantic poetics. The Indian “doctrine of Emanation” Schlegel wrote, includes “the eternal progressive development of the Divinity, and of universal spiritual animation.”  “True [modern] poetry [emerges] when art has annexed so much to the original germ, becomes so only when it breathes a kindred spirit with those old heathen fictions, or because it springs from them.”

            In other words, we can actually describe the visionary side of Romanticism in terms of its Orientalism as Segalen understood and promoted it, but only as a politically adversarial position: “Diversity is in decline. Therein lies the great earthly threat.”  PM3 instantiates Romantic Weltliteratur across the 19th century, but in fact the entire Poems for the Millennium series is driven by a thirst to account for the most vital thematic and formal strains of poetry written over the last 250 years, with its politically aggressive assertions of inclusivity, diversity, and experimentalism challenging hegemonic accounts of literary history. 

All four volumes act to lift a repression.  At the beginning of Volume I, and anticipating its late-20th-century sequel Volume II, co-editors Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris compare the pinched view of modernism in poetry still rampant in schools and main-stream publishing to an imagined account of modernist painting that omitted futurism, surrealism, and cubism.  Volume Three presents not only a radical expansion of the standard account of what constitutes “the Romantic” across poetry from many countries and classes, but also the articulation of a poetry of extremities of mind, voice, and body that emerge in experimental poetic forms. The present gathering of millennia of North African poetry and prose, heretofore uncollected to this extent, spectacularly redresses the editors’ observation that “The longtime neglect of such a major cultural area is part of a wider, now well-documented Eurocentrism.”

            In conclusion, it is satisfying to imagine the following instance of trans-lation, or carrying across languages and ages as a sign of the connection between a 19th-century Western orientalist poetics and the full-scale realization of Maghrebian writing that is PM4.   PM3 presents an “Arabian Ballad” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  This poem registers the mid-nineteenth century American orientalist enthusiasm and is in fact a translation of an early-nineteenth-century poem by Goethe which in turn translates or derives from what German scholars have named a “Lied der Vergeltung” or Song of Revenge by one Taabbata Scharran writing “in the time of Mohammed.” Collected possibly by Sir William Jones in the late 18th century but, more likely, by a German Orientalist Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Freytag in 1814, this song appeared to Goethe during the great early 19th-century Romantic upsurge in the discovery of the poetry of the east.  Here are the first four out of 28 stanzas of this Song of Revenge, in Goethe’s German and Emerson’s English:

            Unter dem Felsen am Wege
            Erschlagen liegt er,
            In dessen Blut
            Kein Thau herabträuft.
             Grosse Last legt’ er mir auf
            Und schied;
            Fürwahr diese Last
            Will ich tragen. 

            “Erbe meiner Rache
            Ist der Schwestersohn,
            Der Streitbare,
            Der Unversöhnliche. 

            Stumm schwitz er Gift aus,
            Wie die Otter Schweight,
            Wie die Schlange Gift haucht
            Gegen die kein Zauber gilt.” 

            Under the rock         on the trail
            He lies slain
            Into whose blood
            No dew falls 

            A great load laid he on me
            And died;
            God knows, this load
            Will I lift. 

            Heir of my revenge
            Is my sister’s son,
            The warlike,
            The irreconcilable. 

            Mute sweats he poison,
            As the otter sweats;
            As the snake breathes venom
            Against which no enchantment avails

After many stanzas recounting the brave comraderie between friends, his companion’s death, and the unremitting vengeance he takes upon their enemies, the poem ends in the spirit of Goethe’s notes about his protagonist--darkly glowing, lusting for and sated with revenge: 

            Die edelsten Geyer flogen daher,
            Sie schritten von Leiche zu Leiche,
            Und von dem reichlich bereiteten Mahle
            Nicht in die Höhe konnten sie steigen.
            The noblest vultures flew thither
            They stepped from corpse to corpse
            And from the richly prepared feast
            They could not rise into the air.
Hardly an instance of Jones’s idealized Orient as an “Arabia felix,” this poem bears within it, in its several manifestations, migrations, or trans-creations, the vitality and extremity of what will eventually become Poems for the Millennium, Volume Four.

 [EDITOR'S NOTE.  It has long seemed to me that one of the unfortunate consequences of Edward Said’s otherwise justified & well documented attack on nineteenth & twentieth-century orientalism has been a failure by later writers to draw distinctions between what Said was singling out & the opening to non-western & subterranean traditions that pushed in a clearly opposing direction.  Jeffrey Robinson, who co-edited Poems for the Millennium, volume 3, with me, here uses the occasion of a talk & reading by Pierre Joris from volume 4 (The University of California Press Book of North African Literature) to consider these vital distinctions & to introduce the concept of a “subversive orientalism” into the mix.  Information concerning volume 4, co-edited by Joris & Habib Tengour, can be found at, & continues the work of expansion & transformation announced by Joris and me in the first two volumes of the project.  (J.R.)]