Grace / to be born and live as variously as possible
- Frank O’Hara
The philosophy of representation—of the original, the first time, resemblance, imitation, faithfulness—is dissolving; and the arrow of the simulacrum released by the Epicureans is headed in our direction. It gives birth—rebirth—to a ‘phantasmaphysics.’
— Foucault, from “Theatrum Philosophicum”
I’ve just finished reading Kent Johnson’s controversial book A Question Mark Above the Sun, and I’ve also been rereading some Beckett plays for a paper I’m writing for a conference, and though Beckett and Johnson are worlds away from one another in just about everything, they do have one thing in common: both are obsessed with making “voice” an unnatural manifestation, a spectral effusion. Both undermine certain basic principles of “authentic” creativity.
Often, the idea of the writing hinges on various notions of “the private”: I shape my experience, I tell my story, I find my voice, I am part of a community of other people finding their voices.
As well-meaning as this rhetoric might be, it is also short-sighted and exclusionary. Experience becomes another type of private property. The “I” becomes singular and substantial, and the Subject must be fenced off in order for self-coherence to remain in place.
Writing becomes not an act of invention, but an investigation into roots and origins. Writing becomes not a search for new ways of thinking and experiencing, but a search for foundations, for psychological certitudes.
It has been argued that this vision of writing, of Art in general, dates back to the rise of the Humanist tradition. Here, the human becomes central and controlling. And the inhuman (phantoms, the irrational, all that falls outside of common sense) becomes something we fear and place on trial within the court of human reason.
Both Foucault and Artaud made the argument that something was lost with the rise of Humanism. If one of our standard historical narratives describes the rise of Humanism as a development that has freed us from religious dogma and superstition, Foucault in particular argued that a certain notion of self was consolidated: a self that spoke with his or her own voice, a self that was substance and amplitude.
And it put into place a worldview that would become increasingly positivistic. Fiction would be fully separated from truth. Being would be separated out from non-being, and extra-being.
In other words, Foucault saw Humanism as a form of exorcism. And we fall into the error of thinking that our latest truth has become free of metaphysics, whereas really all that has happened is that our metaphysics is now based on the division between fiction and truth, the corporeal and incorporeal, etc.
Yet Foucault also believed the age of Humanism (thanks to Nietzsche, Blanchot, Artaud, etc.) was coming to an end. He wrote, “As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end.”
Then there’s Beckett’s Not I, a play that is literally a mouth speaking. In fact, the stage notes call the mouth “Mouth,” as if the character were not a character at all but a mouth that has simply appeared in the dark.
And it’s not a universal mouth, a mouth that speaks some substantial human truth. Rather, it is an anonymous mouth. A person who speaks but who does not know where her voice is coming from. A mouth possessed by a voice, or a series of voices.
The mouth says at one point in the play: first thought was . . . oh long after . . . sudden flash . . . she was being punished . . . for her sins . . . a number of which then . . . further proof if proof were needed . . . flashed through her mind . . . one after another . . . then dismissed as foolish . . . oh long after . . . this thought dismissed . . . as she suddenly realized . . . gradually realized . . . she was not suffering . . . imagine! . . not suffering! . . indeed could not remember . . . off-hand . . . when she had suffered less . . . unless of course she was . . . meant to be suffering . . . ha! . . thought to be suffering . . . just as the odd time . . . in her life . .
“First thought” instead of “my first thought.” And not “I was being punished” but “she was being punished.” Memory becomes so saturated by the world that the self brims over and becomes an element of the world.
Beckett even uses a certain positivistic language, but only to make fun of positivism’s certitudes: “further proof if proof were needed…flashed through her mind…one after another…” The proof is not controlled by an analytical self. Instead, it’s a flash, one following another.
Anonymity, voices from out of the dark that could be our own, our own voice already out there, in the dark, thoughts that flash at us, logic no more rational than the language of delirium and mysticism, no more human than a flash of lightning.
Which brings me to Kent Johnson’s A Question Mark Above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery of the Famous Poem “by” Frank O’Hara. While reading it, I was struck by the idea of literary possession in the book. Johnson argues that Kenneth Koch might have written the poem “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” himself, as a last tribute to his late friend.
Johnson brings out several pieces of evidence. No one had seen the poem before Koch read it at a memorial, though O’Hara was known for sharing his poems with his friends and acquaintances. And even Joe LeSueur, in his wonderfully free-associative book Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, wonders about the origin of the poem. He makes no suggestion that Koch wrote it, but he does wonder why no one (not even himself, who was O’Hara’s roommate for nine years) had come across it.
As many readers of Montevidayo know, the book has set off quite a bit of debate, some of it fairly acrimonious. I wonder how many of the book’s detractors have actually read it, though. Johnson begins by calling his project a thought-experiment, and there is an entire middle section that reads like a comic version of a spy novel. (It turns out a few British poets have formed a secret society that is meant to keep the truth of Koch’s authorship from public view.) The book is hardly a die-hard polemic insisting we must now all read “A True Account…” as a Kenneth Koch poem.
Nor is Koch the villain. In fact, his act of writing the poem (if we go along with Johnson’s thought-experiment) would be an act of incredible generosity. As Johnson writes: As scandalous as such measure in the abstract may seem, it would hardly have been an inconsistent or unethical one, were Koch’s intent to perpetually gift such “dictated” homage to his poetic companion, to have the poem truly and forever belong to him. Possibly replacing, that is—to assert the anomalous but circumstantially possible scenario—‘A True Account…’ for another, no doubt less extraordinary text, one still extant in the O’Hara oeuvre but now unmoored from its occasion.
And the book is very moving. O’Hara either wrote a poem that is truly creepy in its foreknowledge -– in fact, Brad Gooch in his book City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara called the poem “almost too neatly prophetic” –- or the poem is a work of possession, of a literary haunting in the most extreme sense. Koch would allow O’Hara’s voice to “speak” one last time.
Which isn’t to say I believe Koch did write it. If forced to come to an opinion, I would say the evidence is still in O’Hara’s favor. (Johnson at one point in the book says much the same thing.) But thought-experiments can have an aesthetic dimension. Just because the experiment might not be true, it can still produce powerful effects.
There’s a famous Borges story called “Three Versions of Judas” that in an odd, roundabout way reminds me of Johnson’s book. In the story, which Borges writes as an essay, the narrator (or rather the fictitious scholar the narrator is talking about) begins to wonder if Judas was not actually the son of God. If the Messiah was meant to redeem humanity through his suffering, wouldn’t Judas, one of the most despised figures in history, be a figure of almost incomprehensible misery? As Borges writes, “God became a man completely, a man to the point of infamy, a man to the point of being reprehensible – all the way to the abyss.”
Of course, Borges is not writing a theological tract here. And it’s clear he doesn’t expect the reader to believe the arguments being made. But as a thought-experiment, it’s an amazing meditation of suffering, sacrifice, Messianic thought, and historical memory. In a similar way, you do not have to accept Johnson’s claims to find Sun to be a powerful book about voices we hear in the dark that might or might not be our own…