Lyn Hejinian: Turbulent thinking

Every work of art attests to lived experience and reminds us that another human has been here. Echoes aren’t inherently empty. The emotional encounter — the felt awareness of something other that is essentially a memory, but one emitted, as it were, by another — is crucial for our consciousness of history and a key to the good life. But it is in this way, too, that Death makes its appearance in a work of art. I’ll get to the quandary of the good life later. Inadequately, but that may be for the best. In Goya’s great painting ‘The Third of May 1808,’ we see before us a moment just before an execution. Already three lifeless bodies are lying in pools of blood on the ground, and now, kneeling beside them but with his hands held high (some critics say ‘like Christ,’ but I don’t think so — why is ‘like Christ’ an enhancement of who he is?), is the next victim — a powerful man, with a mustache and thick curly hair, wearing a startlingly white blouse and trousers as yellow as sunlight. The sky is black; this is happening at night, or in Hell. With a look as much of sorrow as of fear or anger, the powerful man glares at the men, factota of the firing squad. There are at least five of them, left foot forward and right foot back, faces hidden (they are wearing shakos and turned slightly away from us), the long barrels of their rifles raised and thrust forward, jabbing inhumanity, or dishumanity, into the middle of the painting. On the ground, at the center of the scene, and casting luminous light on the man who is about to be shot, is a large square lantern — it must be at least two feet tall and equally wide. It’s a yellow lantern, the color of the condemned man’s pants. Its light casts forth the white of the condemned man’s shirt. Picasso is reported to have said, ‘The lantern is Death. Why? We don’t know.’ Reconciling the good life (whatever we might mean by that) with mortality is one of humanity’s many failed undertakings. Slaughter, assassination, war, injustice — or sheer immiseration — are the most prevalent forms that overtake this reconciliation.


I am writing this at home, three doors down from the corner of College Avenue and Russell Street. In my home state currently (California), there are 727 individuals on death row, awaiting execution. In Florida, which has the next largest population of condemned men and women, there are 413. Life shudders at the edges of imagination, its aperture, perhaps its exit. The sun is taking up another of its innumerable positions. A few healthy clouds seem immobile below it, but in fact they are simply being pulled along as the earth rolls slowly clockwise. If it went any faster I would never get this paragraph finished. Some of the persons on death row must regard themselves as all but dead; they can’t easily regard themselves as living life. Their situation is one of acute tension, but it’s devoid of enlivening intensity. Facing execution, some acquiesce, some resist, some feel contrition and apologize, some deny wrong-doing. All have a gray, limited space to stare into. Most have a lawyer. Some of those lawyers long to be acknowledged as the spiritual source of a prisoner’s repentance — which the lawyers imagine as the threshold of freedom (of which immortality is the ultimate condition); they are not lacking in imagination, but the prisoner is at their mercy. By offering repentance while rejecting his or her lawyer, the death row prisoner exercises what in many cases is the only power he or she has left. To shift context requires context-consciousness, to recuperate experience from the condition of postness in its abject manifestation as, paradoxically, pastless. Living presences — bodies (human, rock, pine, pigeon, desk, delphinium) — together broaden the shadow in which life is possible. What’s needed, then, is an unbordering. Something including but beyond the evaluative or juridical, and something more than aesthetic, certainly, and more than nocturnal (obscure and dreamy), and something beyond synthesis, and perhaps slightly paranormal — but if that, then why not also paranoid? Well, because paranoia evaporates, or becomes unthinkable, in the processes of an outspread, when it’s impossible to affix motives and orient them to oneself, narcissistically, as it were. Paranoid subjectivity is as abyssal as fear, swallowing everything up. I experienced something that seems to me to have demonstrated a reversal of narcissism. It was in a recent dream — and just before dawn of a Monday morning. I’d fallen asleep to the looping through my thoughts of the phrase ‘I aspired to something blasphemous’ — I, who am not even capable of brutal honesty! I can’t forgive humanity its physical monstrosity, but mostly because I can’t bring myself to openly acknowledge it. A stocky black dog comes around the corner in front of Lululemon Athletica, trotting beside a man who says its name is Snake, ‘because it is blatantly phallic.’ The woman with him contradicts him blandly: ‘her name is Buttercup.’ The dog shrinks, condenses, becoming a frog. It leaps at me, scattering water, and becomes an armadillo. In this form, it evokes the word peccadillo. Then it explodes, in a burst of multi-colored floral fireworks — a pyrotechnic peony. Tolstoy, on May 12 1856, after years of using his diary principally to castigate himself and draft rules for self-improvement, writes ‘the best way to true happiness in life is to have no rules, but to throw out from yourself in all directions like a spider a prehensile web of love and catch in it everything that comes along — an old lady, a child, a woman, or a policeman.’ In this sudden effusion he deploys a metaphor that is both predatory and radiant to express a burst of charitable feeling. His purpose is not predation, however, but embrace. To connect is to accept, and to remember, but with centrifugal force. Tolstoy’s moment of love, insofar as it casts all of itself outward, resembles a moment of dying. It is the opposite of encyclopedic; it’s discyclopedic. It’s a moment in which time — even temporality itself — loses its coherence. We could liken it to the sound of a piano chord, its sun-blasted sphericity and experimental off-rhyming, whose effects pulse and oscillate as if to remind us that espousal of art for art’s sake doesn’t tell us what art’s sake is. Aestheticism at this level brings with it a kind of madness, dazzling as an ornament. It adds something allegorical to what it produces. And that allegory’s value lies in its vitality, not in its beauty; it plays out socially, introducing new comparisons and thus new conditions, new criteria, new ways of seeing one thing as another. And, as T.J. Clark reminds us, ‘[W]ildness and otherness are always just there in the world […] — part of our ordinary nonidentity, part of everyday life.’ There’s no real need for us to supplement our perceptions, they receive our additions in an instant. Living things can arrange themselves into pictures as much as pictures can depict living things. Or, to put it another way, living things may serve as signs, and — in protest actions, for example — as signs for pictures, arrayed in an indexical spin.


Alphabet, use of apple in
Barrel, rotten apple in
Code, alpha for apple in
Dapple, apple rhymes with
Eden, apple not really the fruit in
Fall, apple falsely figures in man’s
Gloss, apple red lip
Horse, apple a treat for a
Index, apples an early fruit in
Jelly, mint apple
Kitsch, apple pie as American
Lore, apple in folk
Meter, apple in trochaic
Nostril, apple-like tip of the
Oranges, apples and
Pie, apple
Quality, Red Delicious apples of uneven
Ready, apples in autumn are
Seed, Johnny Apple
Tomato, love apple another name for
Unctuousness, apples misused to express
Vigor, apples said to increase
Witch, apple used to poison Snow White by
Xanadu, incense of apples not unlikely in
Ylang-ylang, fragrant custard-apple tree called the
Zarathustra, eagle brings a sweet-scented rosy apple to


A cold wind pushes against the northward progress of the occasional pedestrian, a plastic wrapper slips past a parking meter and disappears under a red car. In Minima Moralia, Adorno remarks, ‘To happiness the same applies as to truth: one does not have it, but is in it.’ But what if the truth one is in — the truth of one’s situation or of one’s entire epoch — is an untruth (a lie, a fabrication, a myth, or a lack of truth altogether; not just a figment of false consciousness but the very condition that produces it? Certainly such a truth-of-one’s-time would be an unhappiness. Adorno’s aphorism, then, with a slight adjustment (and added poignancy) would assert that to unhappiness the same applies as to untruth: one does not have it, but is in it. It’s not the wind but the sun that expands the neighborhood through which vehicles, pedestrians, pets, children, residents, bugs, birds, visitors, bacteria, move in their efforts at perfection. The dark of night expands the neighborhood, too. ‘It was dark, the sidewalk was going fast, then it turned into a bunch of kids, and everything exploded,’ says a fictional detective (let’s call him Connie Donegan), and his friend (Nate) looks at Connie’s profile. ‘That’s what the witness says,’ Connie continues. ‘Her words. Bunny Victoria Zander, age 17, white. She was bicycling home from a party.’ In the background, like markings on the face of a boulder but more fleetingly interpretable, are the sounds of a speeding motorcycle, a jackhammer, a crow, a pedestrian’s laughter, a day laborer tugging open a bag of tortilla chips. At times the human world can barely hold together, but small patterns of interrelated events circulate through it. E orders another beer, L pats his arm, D goes to pee. As Michael Fried notes, ‘[I]n the mode of everydayness not only is the whole not greater than the sum of the parts, it is also not exactly what we tend to think of as a whole (or indeed as a sum […]).’Art historians generally seem to be better at seeing the quiddities of everyday life than literary critics, who read into depictions of it coherences that are essentially irrelevant to the everyday. Apertures expand, sprawl over the edges of a frame. Thinking generates turmoil, something entirely different from entropy, it doesn’t settle and it doesn’t resolve, unless briefly, so the thinker can take a breather. Meanwhile, in the thinking, tension builds. An excess of spirit suffuses the body, it contorts the face, which is seen to convulse, either in laughter or in grief. Some human feels it in the stomach — a tightening, reflux, pain in the solar plexus. Some cat wakes suddenly. The cat launches its mouth at its haunch, licking, nibbling (affectionately, it seems). A horse shies, bucks, veers, and drops its head to graze. Deer, reclining in a meadow, leap to their feet and flee. How do I release tension? Not very well. A glass of wine. Currently, despite my sympathy for Tolstoy’s charitable impulse, I could not readily include a policeman in any ‘prehensile web of love’ I might cast. Though we feel liberated at the conventional end of a fairy tale (‘and they lived happily ever after’), we are aware of anxiety lurking along the fraying edges of ‘ever after,’ where existence continues beyond the scope of what’s told, and perhaps beyond the scope of what can be told. Goethe’s last words were, so they say, ‘More light.’ I could imagine a variant of these: ‘More sleep.’ But those are mere words, and a translation, at that, and not even last words, as more words have followed since, including those that proclaim them ‘last.’ Mercilessly.


Goya’s painting ‘The Third of May 1808′ has a detailed exegesis at its Wikipedia page at

Artist: Francisco Goya; Year: 1814; Type: Oil on canvas; Dimensions: 268 cm × 347 cm (106 in × 137 in); Location: Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Copies of the artwork may be found on the Internet.


Published originally in Journal of Poetics Research