Metaphor is the return of the repressed 4

Howling holy hell


“… that which is sacrificed (the lamb, the deer, the ram, the boy, the girl, the body) and that to which it is sacrificed (the prima causa, but of course if it needs sacrifice to function then isn’t the sacrifice itself the prima causa?) call out to each other with images of flora and fauna…”

When I initiated this little series of meditations on whatever (metaphor/ materialism, text/textile), I asked for response on my Facebook page, as the Jacket2 site, reasonably, does not entertain comments on its Commentaries.  I got some twinklings of interest in the passage reposted above.  People were either interested in the Song of Songs or in the question of origins, the chicken-and-egg nature of a deity that requires sacrifice.

A few years ago while creating a PDF for my students of “Footnote to Howl” (“Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! …”) I noticed what, perhaps, others have observed for decades: the word “holy”’s proximity to the word “howl;” they are almost anagrams. This was electrifying, as I had long written about the Beat writers as trying to embody a “marriage of heaven and hell,” holiness and bestiality, the angelic ether and the sordid street, purity and squalor, etc., all the while retaining the shock of the perceived distance between the two.  And here it was, in all its starkness, encapsulated in four letters.  It wasn’t long, a matter of seconds, maybe, before the poem’s anaphoric hinge-word “who” got folded into the perception. “Who,” in serially describing Ginsberg’s friends, the angel-headed down-and-outers, was the bridge between the howl and the holy, beast and angel.  Howl becomes who becomes holy. A linear progression across the pages is also a simultaneity rather than a temporal/spatial journey –these “best minds of [a] generation destroyed by madness” have always been both abject and exalted. Then, with a bit of extra-textual homonymic and etymological liberty, the homonymous antonyms “hole” (etymologically related to “hell”) and “whole” (etymologically related to “holy”) joined the posse of monosyllabic keywords.  The marriage of Heaven and Hell can be collapsed into grunts and animal cries, and conversely a beast-scream can be an epic poem.  

 On a hunch, amid this weltering web of connections, intuitions and etymologies both false and true (whatever that can mean, in a science whose bedrock theory, Proto-Indo-European, is a speculative back-formation), I thought to consult the etymology of the word “God.” Of course I turned to the internet!

 Germanic etymology

The Proto-Germanic meaning of *ǥuđán and its etymology is uncertain. It is generally agreed that it derives from a Proto-Indo-European neuter passive perfect participle *ǵʰu-tó-m. This form within (late) Proto-Indo-European itself was possibly ambiguous, and thought to derive from a root *ǵʰeu̯- "to pour, libate" (Sanskrit huta, see hotṛ), or from a root *ǵʰau̯- (*ǵʰeu̯h2-) "to call, to invoke" (Sanskrit hūta). Sanskrit hutá = "having been sacrificed", from the verb root hu = "sacrifice", but a slight shift in translation gives the meaning "one to whom sacrifices are made."

 Thus the sacrifice (the lamb, the deer, the ram, the boy, the girl, the body), with a “slight shift in translation,” becomes the prima causa to whom sacrifice is made. Ginsberg’s asylum of human detritus becomes a pantheon of demiurges. And so it is for metaphor: the vehicle (the dispensable beast of burden, laden with materiality in its heavy body) and tenor (diva rockstar, apotheosized and ethereal) are forever implicated in each other; their simultaneity and ipseity are inscribed in the history of Western (Indo-European) language, indeed in a single syllable. 

 Add to this the considerable mythology around the syllable HU, including its status as deified “first word” in Egypt’s origin myth, a grunted exhale upon ejaculation that creates the first generation of deities; as well as H as the emblem of prayer and breath (the Hebrew letter “HE” or the vowel “e” –basically an exhale) whose glyph is a man in prayer (speech, breath) and the howl becomes a expression of the entire cosmos through the performance of speech/writing/song. Language itself is both abject bodily fluid and ethereal ejaculate. And to make the stew even richer, a recent (8/12/16) op-ed from Rabbi Mark Sameth to the New York Times, on the subject of God’s dual gender, offers this questionable but tantalizing gloss on the Tetragrammaton:

 The four-Hebrew-letter name of God, which scholars refer to as the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, was probably not pronounced ‘Jehovah’ or ‘Yahweh,’ as some have guessed. The Israelite priests would have read the letters in reverse as Hu/Hi — in other words, the hidden name of God was Hebrew for ‘He/She.’

 Who? He? He who … does all this fucked up stuff in the name of transcendence. Ginsberg distributes the monotheistic being he has criticized across his many anonymous, demimondaine compadres, and endows these sexually ambiguous angels (though in some sense unequivocally masculine, like “Jehovah,” they are simultaneously “queer,” in 1940s-50s vernacular) with beatific qualities. They are the vehicle and the tenor, the signified and the signifier.  One brilliant student from long ago observed that the Beat pathos rests in those writers’ attempts to force an ultimately impossible ipseity on the “self,” to have an unmediated relationship with one’s deepest identity. Perhaps the recognition of this impossibility is what led Lacan to modify his original claim from the signifier as the return of the repressed signified/referent, to the more slippery and open solution that the repressed can only be another signifier in its turn, rather than any originary referent. Which revision calls to mind, of course, Freud’s revision of his seduction theory away from actual incest toward the more intellectually interesting assertion of the role of wish-fulfillment in these now-fantasies-not-memories.

 One more sidebar-ish observations about “Who,” “hu,” and their homonyms:

 Rachel Blau DuPlessis has written at length, and persuasively, of the syllable “hoo” and its racist history in modern American (US) poetry. Vachel Lindsay (famously, in “Congo”), T.S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens use the vocable to epitomize the animal-like and otherworldly (frightening, invocational, howl-like) nature of non-white culture (meaning-making through ritual, or simply incomprehensible and unmeaning vocalizing; one might even suppose that these writers wished to make no distinction between the two modes).  Her reading is brilliant, as is her model of “social philology,” a kind of marriage of New Critical close reading with all of a text’s contextual historical and social surround. I wonder what, if anything, could be made of these poets invocation of this sound in light of the “who” of both Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Amiri Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America,” with its insistently accusatory “Who? Who? Who?” Aside from semantic content, the successful drafting of this syllable into repeated poetic use might refer back to its over-determined nature as exhalation, exertion-heavy utterance, and rallying-cry-cum-prayer. I imagine one could observe that Ginsberg and Baraka are both poets that Eliot, at least, might have recoiled from as falling on the “lower” end of the continuum of “hu” from beast to deity.  And that's all right with me. 

 Next up:

 An investigation into the dangers of fetishizing a syllable or a linguistic “insight,” and more broadly, the exhilarating but over-rated hubristic certainty of the hermeneutical “breakthrough.”