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Rob Halpern [Draft of Talk] Conference on EcoPoetics UC Berkeley, February 23, 2013
For a stone represents an obvious achievement, yet one arrived at without invention, skill, industry, or anything else that would make it a work in the human sense of the word, much less a work of art. Roger Caillois, The Writing of Stones At times, stone itself seems agitated. Francis Ponge, “The Pebble” Can one say of the stone that it is has a soul and that is what has the pain? What has a soul, or pain, to do with a stone? Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations I had seen the town rubble: they were bulldozing paths through the rubble. And of course the rubble was not just stone, you know, there were bodies in it. George Oppen, letter to Linda, 1961
At the heart of the ontological obsessions haunting George Oppen’s middle period there is a stone. “The universe is a stone but we are not,” he writes in an astonishing letter to his friend Julian Zimet in 1959 shortly after returning to the US as well as to writing poetry again in earnest. The letter reads like a virtual ars poetica and includes an catalog of the metaphysical concerns that will dominate Oppen’s practice throughout the 1960s:
“The universe is a stone but we are not. The universe’s time is some kind of elapsed time, whatever that may be, but our time is historical time, and the difference between one generation and a next, and we make that time. [And then referring to the poem “Time of the Missile”…] The poem is a poem of hatred of the ‘Stone universe’ and of love for ourselves and Linda – and all we have made of the universe by looking at it. I’m afraid that goes to the real metaphysics in the Missile. Says among other things that we didn’t make the atom we are made of, but all the rest is subjective. I believe it – and it matters to me. Have to say it. That’s why it opens with the lyric of praise for vision—about which you write so beautifully in appreciation. […] You suggest it isn’t really the missile—that it could have been said at any time that ‘This is the way the world ends’ etc. Sure, you’re right. I didn’t really mean to disguise it as a political or topical poem—I just meant that I thought these things must be in everyone’s mind with the threat of the missile right there. [ I did go on to say that we can never be free of this immediate fear—Suppose we do make an agreement on atomic weapons----do we really then feel assured that it ‘will never be broken?’ […] I will cry havoc in a small voice. […] ] I don’t understand; you really think it unmanly to admit Or braver to pretend that it doesn’t exist—the stone universe and its own stone reaction that might really ----(and come to think of it, that’s why I have to keep the name of the missile---the poem describes something like despair because destruction by the missile would indeed be total defeat and meaninglessness in the future perfect.) I’m protesting at length because all of the poems are about this same thing. As whose are not? The
shorter lyrics are simply what the opening of the Missile is---‘The eye sees’ Poems about human vision which creates the human universe and the blue eyes, and Man’s Time and the living historical rowboat on the sea, and all the rest of it. And the opening of the Missile—about the ship at the pier (you like it, and acknowledge it as accurate evocation) but it is ---O, I do blush, me da pena ---talking about ‘being’. […] I said the rest of it is just stone, and the enemy. And death, which is a victory of stone. And the mud, the terrible ground. The half-life ground.”
In what follows, I want to tease out the terms of Oppen’s geological imagination at midcentury while he was preparing the poems that would see the light of day as The Materials in 1962.
The poems of The Materials bear the impress of a radical transformation. From the materialism of Discrete Series where Nothing can equal in polish and obscured / origin that dark instrument / A car (NCP 8), we arrive at the realism of Oppen’s middle period where the poems are less interested in the commodity as an emblem of obscurity—be it a generic car or a more properly named “Frigidaire”—and more concerned with a species of geological obscurity that will eventually find its apotheosis in “Of Being Numerous” in the obdurate matter of the “mineral fact” whose impenetrability, for Oppen, alone guarantees its intelligibility. “If the world is matter, it is impenetrable absolutely,” he writes in a daybook, and continues, “The recognition of impenetrability houses the hope of intelligibility.” Unlike the commodity where
social relations manifest as obscure relations between things, the stone marks the figural site of a withdrawal of all relation. In other words, there is no stone relation.
Oppen’s geological imaginary is characterized by a consequential shift from the obscurity of the commodity to the impenetrability of the stone, a shift from ideology to ontology, and from materialism to realism, whose speculative form may anticipate the speculative turn to realism today in the work of Quentin Meillassoux (Beyond Finitude) and so-called object oriented ontology. For Oppen, this is a move from what one might believe about things to what things are beyond what Meillassoux refers to as a persistent “correlationsim” whereby subjects and objects can’t be thought outside their entanglement with a language that has enclosed the world, or at least our perception of it. Insofar as this enclosure of sense is coextensive with both modernity and aesthetic modernism, Oppen’s insistence on the stone points beyond the terms of modernity itself. And this move underscores Oppen’s speculative realism. “There is,” he writes in a letter to his sister in 1963, “the simple intuition of existence. Of one’s own existence, and in the same instant the intuition, the pure intuition of the existence of things, absolutely independent of oneself, and, in some form, permanent” (SL 88).
“It is true,” he write in a letter from 1966, “I speak of a realist poetry: Realist in that it is concerned with a fact which it did not create” (SL, 140). Oppen’s realism emerges from his insistence, as he writes in 1959 to his sister, that the poet has “to write one’s perceptions, not argue one’s beliefs” (SL 22 , to June 2/9/59)—hence poetics
becomes Oppen’s avenue of egress from a world of ideology, dominated at midcentury by the HUAC. “I cannot cannot write […] about ‘a world I never made’ as every young poet that I know of is. I suspect I identify myself to them as the enemy the moment I accept some responsibility for the way things are---’ (SL 26, 1959, the repetition of ‘cannot’ is Oppen’s). Oppen believed in poetry’s potential to register an encounter with “the real,”—something that’s still here even when we stop believing in it, “something we didn’t make” “by looking at it”, something “out there where i have never been and can never be” (SP 173), perhaps so far out there as to be outside history at a time when the world he had inherited as “history” was, for Oppen, nothing but history’s failure to make a humane world, a failure that had ensnared language and perception alike. Having been exiled from the world he failed to make— the world that was the promise of the Popular Front in 1930s — Oppen turns to encounter something we didn’t make —“we didn’t make the atom we are made of,” he writes to Zimet, “but all the rest is subjective.” And the atom we didn’t make will find its allegorical figuration, in Oppen’s natural history of the 1960s, the impenetrable world, “the mineral fact,” which arrives first in the guise of “the stone.” Contrary to the modernist’s insistence on the finite of entanglement of being and thought—contrary, that is, to the correlationist insistence that it is impossible to consider subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another—Oppen’s figure of the stone points to a speculative place outside this imperative, a nonsite of autonomy, related to what Meillassoux refers to allegorically in After Finitude as “the great outdoors,” and the equivalent of what Oppen himself refers to in the same letter to Zimet as “the
nothing place [that] reclaims our atomic structure.” In short, the stone is the asymptotic limit of Oppen’s poetics, the thing-place with which he wants his poems to coincide.1
In other words, for Oppen, a poem’s ontological status (what the poem is in its essence, a linguistic trace of an encounter with what will still here when we stop believing in it, or what will have been here, echoing Oppen’s own call to the future anterior) emerges in opposition to the poem’s ideological status (what the poem represents or communicates). Hence Oppen’s notorious insistence on clarity can be thought of as a transparency through which a more fundamental opacity of the stone will appear. The aim of the poem, then, is to rescue perception (the promise of an encounter with the stone) from the ideological contaminations of a language one can only otherwise use in bad faith.
For Oppen, the primary encounter is with “the-thing-before-the-words” (SL 329), in a “place without words, the wordless sphere in the mind” (SL 236). “It is that intuition first of all which is assuredly a thought and which does not occur in words” (SL 88). In her Oppen Memorial Lecture (2009) and in response to Oppen’s insistence on some species of pre-discursive truth, Rosemary Waldrop argued that Oppen protests too much, as if he were afraid it were not the case, afraid that that thing—whose
But what exactly is the atom’s relation to the stone in Oppen’s imaginary? Is the
stone a metonymic extension of the atom’s zero-degree materiality, or is it an allegorization and humanization of it? Where does one end and the other begin? This is an important question insofar as it sheds some light on “all the rest,” the subjective.
placeholder is the emblematic stone—weren’t there except in his head. And while I agree w/ Waldrop that the consequences of this would be as grave as eternal homelessness, I would counter that it’s not the fear of the stone’s not being there that inspires Oppen’s metaphysical vertigo, but rather his unflagging certainty that it is.
In contrast to the autonomy privileged by an aesthetic ideology associated with modernism, for Oppen, what’s at stake is the autonomy of a withdrawn object world, (echoing here Timothy Morton’s Ecology without Nature) the autonomy of something that exists independently of human cognition, independently of humanity’s idea of nature. This autonomy becomes clear in Oppen’s poem “Time of the Missile”, whose concluding lines invoke atomic fission and nuclear fusion “which can destroy us /rearrange itself, assert / its own stone cold reaction.”
Oppen’s letter to Zimet offers a sustained response to his friend’s reading of a sequence of poems that includes ““Time of the Missile” and “Blood for the Stone,” both included in The Materials (1962). At stake in Oppen’s comments, as well as in the poems themselves, is the status of history and time, more precisely, the difference between a geological time whose scale is beyond our grasp and historical time, which is something we make, albeit unwittingly. “The universe’s time is some kind of elapsed time,” he writes, “whatever that may be, but our time is historical time, and the difference between one generation and a next, and we make that time.” These distinctions are salient, and just as history is something we make, what we’ve made
appears in place of what we’ve failed to make. And in 1958, the thing that occupies the place of all we failed to make is the missile.
At stake in these poems, as well as in Oppen’s move from materialism to realism, from ideology to ontology, is, for him, nothing less than the fate of the world poised on the edge of disaster, and this is something Oppen perhaps shares with the speculative turn in contemporary philosophy—so-called “object oriented ontology,” or speculative realism.
In After Finitude, for example, Meillassoux writes that “everything could actually collapse: from trees to stars, from stars to laws,” which leads to his startling vision of dis-aster—or the necessity of there being no necessity:
If we look through the aperture which we have opened up onto the absolute what we see there is a rather menacing power—something [senseless] and capable of destroying things and worlds.” (AF 64)
For Meillassoux, that menacing power dovetails with his re-invention of the absolute in the form of the absolute contingency of the world, or the necessity of no necessity, a thesis that might have found its cinematic expression in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, which is among other things, about the movement from a melancholic attachment with the loss of life as one knows it to a form of mourning requiring the acceptance of an evermore fundamental detachment. What will have been here after the total
destruction of life as we know it is in fact here with us now, and haunts the heart of things, just as that figure of nothingness cohabitates with the present.
After having been abandoned by history—or, after the abandonment of historical thought—the so-called “end of history”—it’s often been said that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to think the world without capitalism. In both the cultural and historical imagination, the specter of contemporary catastrophe migrates from ideological collision (the missile) to ecological or interplanetary disaster, which is perhaps more appealing in its imaginative power than thinking through the logic of financial collapse.
(Like Meillassoux, Timothy Morton, suggests a certain historical timeliness to OOO insofar as its emergence is contemporaneous with eco-events like oil spills and extreme weather—never mind the fact that such events are epiphenomena of neoliberal trade agreements & global capitalism. “We are getting used to how oil spills and strange weather really do ‘speak’ to us—OOO is timely in giving us concepts with which to address the feedback we are receiving from Earth” (166).2 So too is Oppen’s protospeculative realism, his “guerilla metaphysics”—to borrow Graham Harman’s language—is historically motivated if not ideologically informed despite his persistent disavowal and the pursuit of the stone’s seeming transcendence, and this may be the
Timothy Morton,“Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology” in Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol 19, Number 2, Spring/Summer 2011, pp. 163-190.
much needed prophylactic that Oppen offers to the seductions of reading object oriented ontology ahistorically.)
And if Melancholia offers the acme of an object oriented ontology, than the cinematic analogue for Oppen’s own turn toward the metaphysics of things would have to be Robert Aldrich’s 1958 Kiss Me Deadly, where the fatal stone emits “the bright light that illumines all.” collide, a portent of the deadly time of the missile’s threat. (There is something gratifying about referring to a film like Kiss Me Deadly in a talk on George Oppen if only because the film stands contrary to everything Oppen’s poetry is about, especially the ending, which Bruce Boone has called “wonderful for its ludicrous gratuity” (Boone, “Narrative Like A Punk Picture”).
“Time of the Missile,” Oppen tells us, “is a poem of hatred of the ‘stone universe,’” Oppen writes to Zimet, “and of love for ourselves and Linda—and all we have made of the universe by looking at it. I’m afraid that goes to the real metaphysics in the Missile.” This is a poem about vision, about looking, and the complicated relation between seeing and destroying. The poem’s two parts hang on a fragment: “Become the realm of nations,” whose curious grammar is followed by:
My love, my love, We are endangered Totally, at last. Look
Anywhere to the sight’s limit: space Which is viviparous:
Place of the mind And eye. Which can destroy us, Re-arrange itself, assert Its own stone chain reaction.
The wonder and perplexity of the poem hangs, of course, on Oppen’s prosody and on the uncertain antecedent attaching itself syntactically to “which.” The second “which” could share the first’s antecedent: “space / which is viviparous,” whose syntax suggests that space, which contains & encloses us, is a mammal contains her young can also destroy us. But between the two possibilities, another noun phrase intervenes: “Place of the mind / and eye,” which in their potential autonomy share the capacity to destroy.
Punning on the poem’s earlier “eye,” the first person singular “I” of Oppen’s lyricism becomes complicit as an agent of disaster (echoing the “responsibility” Oppen writes about in the letter cited above): “all we have made of the universe by looking at it.” The eye, like the “I”, can destroy. But Oppen’s syntax is notoriously labile—exceeding the clarity of propositional statement; indeed, Oppen’s syntax performs affectively and gesturally the disorientation and instability of an encounter with the nothing place as it
converges with the place of the mind, and it activates a number of possible readings here.
Oppen’s prosody posits the eye’s autonomous agency as the antecedent of “which” in the subordinate clause “which can destroy us” (recalling “the world we created by looking at it”). But when read as part of a larger, more comprehensive movement of thought, the eye, like the first person singular it homophonically courts, becomes conjoined with “place of the mind,” which itself can be read as an appositive phrase modifying “space”, or sight’s limit. And so the “I” that sees is at the same time a horizon of finitude.
But here, in “Time of the Missile,” the autonomy of the singular severs its relation and becomes kin to “the mind’s own place,” the figure that John Milton attributes to Satan in Paradise Lost and that Oppen uses as the title of his 1963 essay. “The mind’s own place” harbors danger and destruction. “A mind not to be changed by place or time. / The mind is its own place and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell or a Hell of Heaven.” Milton’s enjambed line makes clear the mind’s deadly claim of radical autonomy that can’t admit its own containment. “The mind is its own place and in itself.”
“We’re not self-contained like a stone,” Oppen writes in a letter to June in 1959, “we want to be contained---against empty space.” Only the external, mineral fact, what Oppen elsewhere calls the fatal rock of the world, a figure for the literal, or death—
only this exists entirely independent of us—a kind of absolute contingency—whereas we, by contrast, want to be contained—an atavistic reminder of our viviparous origins.
Space is viviparous—like a mammal that carries its young inside itself, space harbors potentially autonomous—self-contained—beings and worlds. But space can also destroy us like the place of the mind in itself, or the eye, whose delusion of autonomy in relation to things seen is responsible for precisely the kind of alienated distance upon which the technology of the missile depends: “place of the mind / And eye” thus becoming a concrete effect of human vision “all we have made of the universe by looking at it,” as Oppen writes in the same letter to Zimmet.” And this vision, too, possesses the potential to assert a devastating autonomy, that of “the mind’s own place”—and the poem’s grammar allows for this place to “assert / Its own stone chain reaction”.
“We are totally endangered” for having asserted our delusion of mastery over this, the radically contingent: the atom, which is also in us: “the idiot stone”, “the mineral fact”, “the naked rock,” a trace of something outside historical time, harnessed by historical time: for Oppen, at once enemy and ideal. The only thing not subject to the subject’s vision: and what will destroy us not by seeing, but by NOT seeing that we are seen by this. We who have harnessed nature and drawn it into history as if we could see it without being seen by it, have only brought the radicality of its contingency in to deadly contact with ourselves whereby it will “Re-arrange itself, assert / Its own stone chain reaction.”
The autonomy at stake in the poem—the radical autonomy of the atom despite its having been harnessed by the missile which can destroy—also extends to the status of the poem itself. This is so because for Oppen, as he writes in one of his daybooks, “the poem replaces the thing, the poem destroys------ its meaning—I would like the poem to be transparent, to be inaudible, not to be” (undated mss. qtd in Nicholls 56).
Oppen’s desire would be for the poem to achieve the quality of a thing, or at least of something substitutable for a real object, something by way of which that object would subsume the being of the poem. And it’s arguably the fact that the poem is something other than a thing, something other than an object, that causes Oppen such metaphysical anguish.
“the poem replaces the thing…the poem destroys”.
But for Oppen it’s only by replacing the thing that the poem stands a chance at achieving an autonomy no longer informed by the protocols of aesthetic ideology. Instead, the poem bears the impress of a profound distance—one might even say auratic distance—afforded by the stone, which is not even natural, if by that word we mean a scene of human domination—but it is something that resists and withdraws not only from domination, but from relation itself.
But Oppen’s desire to see the poem replace the thing at the asymptotic limit of his poetics—as if a poem could BE a stone—can only end in contradiction. The poem can only replace a thing the poet never made—the mineral fact—with a thing he himself did make. This is Oppen’s limit case, where his aim for some sort of reconciliation with socalled nature by way of the poem, some reconciliation between human subjectivity and the object world, meets its limit in this impasse, cause of Oppen’s ontological anguish.
Oppen’s effort to mourn the loss of a world he failed to make—the world promised by the Popular Front of the 1930s—registers a loss of historical agency, whose logic Oppen accepts and this results in his refusal to privlege action, perhaps even a refusal to think of the poet as a maker, for it is precisely human, intentional action that Oppen seems eager to negate when he writes in that startling note that he wants to poem “to be inaudible, not to be.”
And only by “not being” might the poem achieve the quality of the idiot stone, the ontology of which is of an other order altogether, whose being there does not depend on my being there with it, and whose writerly effects would resemble Roger Caillois description in his exquisite monograph, The Writing of Stones (1970): “To decipher such writing, if writing it is, would not mean trying to unravel an inextricable mass of lines and loops, but rather endeavoring to interpret anew some oft-repeated signs so
turned inward upon themselves that they refer only to their own form […] and which fill an unfathomable mineral grief” (70).
Oppen’s ontological obsession resembles nothing like the sort of “left melancholy” one might expect of a communist activist whose vision is betrayed by history; in fact, one could argue—as I’d like to—that Oppen’s intuition of autonomy in the stone is part of a larger strategy to mourn the loss of a world.
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