Poetry as Extorreor Monolothe: Finnegans Wake on Bakhtin

By | 1 February 2013

But to put it in such ego-bound terms also underlines the fact that a lot of scholarship is monologic in the worst sense of the word, ‘a sort of irreducibly conformist, retarded, academic recursion’ (Lacan 71). Ayer refuses to formalise the infinite methods giving rise to the ‘right to be sure’ across infinite different fields, on the grounds that what unites them is not their logical form – some are totally illogical – but rather that a politics of inclusion and exclusion plays out around them. And indeed, there is no innate reason, not even in a university, why sounding the same as everyone else should not amount to a valid method giving one the ‘right to be sure’. It is certainly a good way to sound the same as yourself.

Either way – individually, or as one of a horde – scholarly writing has as a key premise the consistency of the speaker’s ego. That was my first claim.

(I can of course nuance it by admitting that certain scholars eschew this I-cracy, this I have followed a valid method and therefore have the right to say x, and who better to focus on in this regard than Foucault, who famously refused to be personally accountable for the assertions in his scholarly writing:

Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write. (Foucault 17)

The limitation in Lacan’s ‘I-cracy’ analysis of university discourse is surely his failure to point to the fact that at certain extremes – the post-structuralist Pantheon provides a whole archive of them – the scholarly author’s requirement to provide a personal demonstration of how he or she obtained the ‘right to be sure’ can quite fully disappear. Contrary to the tendency to ally such texts to poetry or creative writing, I would characterise them as those in which we raise cogent questions, and in the process shift the burden of proof from our own observance of valid method, and indeed self, onto our readers’ responses to the intransigent but nonetheless compelling nexus of facts we put before them (see further Magee 2012). The point is not to provide a grounded claim, but rather a striking impetus to one (or to any number of other possible uptakes, none knowable in advance). In this regard, it was unfair of me to imply that Foucault was a Foucalldian, that Lacan was his own follower, at the start of this paper. Where is the consistent, accountable I in Foucault’s discourse? On the spine of his books, I would suggest, and there alone. Foucault, Lacan, Derrida et al., might well have enjoyed the narcissistic joys of such intellectual property, but the words within those spines are radically demanding of readerly input to make their case, and as such are much more like the irresponsible lyrics I will track, by way of one of Kevin Brophy’s, below. In many ways Mikhail (I will no longer call him Mikeall) Bakhtin’s writing belongs in this other camp too. Recall his refusal to repudiate these outrageous anti-poetic essays, their reception as troubling question much more than legitimately supported, responsible claims. Again, to categorise the above authors’ works in terms of poetry or creative writing (at least until we find a very different way to comprehend these latters’ relation to knowledge, and more specifically to fact) will only take us so far: for one might describe Foucault, Lacan and Derrida as ‘radical stylists’ and even ‘avant-garde’, but Bakhtin’s at times repetitious at times ponderous prose hardly merits these, or any related (e.g. ‘futurist’) aesthetic labels, unless we are to call him ‘poet’ in some very diffuse sense of the word; ditto Judith Butler’s turgid but also exhilarating prose. Is it not rather that what all these have in common is the tendency of their texts, even when propounding theses about the world, to be experienced as a series of compelling, and in that sense factually-charged, questions? These authors are really scientists, scientists interested in one specific moment of method alone, the one preceding it, calling it into play in others. Statistically speaking, Lacan is probably right to ignore this trend, which includes his own publications, when making pronouncements on scholarship, and it would be hard to say that an e.g. Lacanian style is institutionally encouraged among new players. Then again, Foucault has been proclaimed the most cited author in the humanities globally (Times Higher Education 2009)) and Derrida, Butler, and Lacan follow in that same list (coming 3rd, 9th, and 34th respectively). From that perspective, it is hard to imagine the stable, accountable I of the humanities monograph not placing itself in a contra-puntal, dependent relationship upon such radically other ways of voicing. But I leave that symptom, and with it the whole question of citation, for another writing…)

4. Credo

The other fact that emerges from these considerations has a bearing on my second claim. It is not the same thing as that claim, but it has a bearing, and amounts to the following: when we characterise scholarship’s autobiographical reference in the above fashion (I know this and I have the right to know it because I have followed a valid method. I am the same as myself), we realise that the lyric I, in contrast, does not claim to be identical to any other I in the poet’s life. The I-cratic regime linking the writer or speaker to his or her observation of institutionally validated practices simply does not hold in art. There is no such guarantee. There might be ephemeral associations of text and self, as with Lord Byron, but Don Juan and even Childe Harold have far outlived his appearances in the gossip magazines, which were useful for sales, but never necessarily make or break for the poems themselves, in the way that an academic’s having done the research in his or her own biographical existence quite definitely is make or break, and remains so even after death: news of faked research can still emerge posthumously to discredit an article. Whereas even if it emerged that Byron had never been in love, not once in his life, we could still read the first Canto of Don Juan breathlessly. The fact of the matter is that scholarship has an infinitely closer link to autobiography than literature does. Further, the absence of any such necessary links between text and biographical self in poetry has a decided impact upon the range of voices that can resonate through the I who appears on the literary page. This last observation will take me to my second claim, which was that poetic composition draws on something like slips of the tongue to achieve its distinct polyphony.

Again, my way in will be contra Bakhtin. Bakhtin, as we have seen, holds that the lyric poet aspires to treat language as ‘an obedient organ’; the poet ‘makes use of each form, each word, each expression according to its unmediated power to assign meaning’ – once he or she has mastered it, over years of nutting out one single adjective if need be. Each such word can then stand – exegi monumentum – as ‘a pure and direct expression of his intention’ (1981c 286).

Let us see how the following lyric, by Australian poet Kevin Brophy, bears out these claims.

What I believe

I believe the world is round like a ball and spins through space.
This belief helps me get along with neighbours and work colleagues.
Without it I would be mad or sick, I believe.
I believe there are human footprints on the moon.
This belief helps me to bear watching television news.
I believe that money is the shadow of infinity,
that I will die and know nothing about it.
I believe you are like me.
This belief,  I believe, makes me a fool or an optimist.
I believe most of us mistake the present for the past,
and that the future is the past;
that what is right is nearly always obvious;
that belief works best as a necessity or a distraction.
I believe the universe is a dangerous place.
I believe that God is an elaborate and mediocre idea;
that panic is our companion,
and travelling through space will be the last of our tasks.
I believe the purpose of all this is the creation of memory.
I believe most beliefs are yet to be discovered.
I believe in what is most fragile and uncertain,
the paragraph, for instance, or clouds; rain; leaves.
I believe death makes love possible,
and that if you do not train them at once your beliefs
will bark all night.
			(Brophy 2002 54)1

I will start with the first three lines, all of which are in the first person singular; all of which seem to state, in an obedient and unmediated manner, just what their author thinks:

I believe the world is round like a ball and spins through space.
This belief helps me get along with neighbours and work colleagues.
Without it I would be mad or sick, I believe.

The impression that we are reading the direct expression of someone’s thoughts starts to waver around the third of these lines. After the statement of a commonsensical notion in the first line, and the whimsical uptake of it in the second, this third line has something decidedly odd about it. The least one can say about it is that it does not constitute a ‘pure and direct expression’ (286) of authorial intentions: to the contrary, it causes one to pause, to try to work it out. Now one can certainly ‘assign meaning’ (286) to this third line and one can imagine that meaning to be what the poet intended as well: he is indicating that only the insane or sick doubt collective beliefs like the roundness and motion of the Earth. Let us presume that this is Brophy’s meaning, and leave the line at that:

Without it I would be mad or sick

When you clip the line in this fashion what becomes clear is that the ‘, I believe’ does not represent an instance of the poet’s ‘unmediated power to assign meaning’ (286). Meaning has already been assigned, in the phrase that precedes it (‘Without it I would be mad or sick’), a proposition that could indeed stand on its own, in line with the fact that every statement, as American logician Charles Saunders Peirce puts it in his solution to the liar’s paradox, ‘asserts its own truth’ (Peirce, ctd in Delledale 1990 76 fn14). So what’s the point of adding ‘, I believe’? To add ‘, I believe’ in this context actually opens up the possibility that the statement might be wrong.

This amibguation has to do with the nature of belief. As Ayer points out, ‘it is possible to believe what one is not completely sure of’ (16). Note, in demonstration of this, the sort of thoughts that come to mind as you dwell on the full, published version of the line, and start to consider the possibilities its qualification as a belief opens up: maybe you don’t have to believe in reality to be sane. Isn’t that idea just another belief, something the speaker of this poem won’t even vouch for as ultimately true? That would be one implication. Whether one’s thoughts head in this exact direction or another, my point is that ‘I believe’, in this context, really functions as a statement of – or rather, a spur to – doubt.2 For Brophy’s third line does not involve the direct ‘assignation of meaning’ that Bakhtin believes characterises lyric, not at all. To the contrary, it allows a series of doubt-inducing ideas to proliferate in the reader, such as: is it not a bit insane to suggest that you can get by without believing in the facts of the universe, as if that were simply optional? Or, is this actually quite a clear-eyed position? Surely it is valid to open up the question of whether we really all hold to the same set of basic facts? There are, after all, a lot of them. Does any one person even know them all?

The other thing to note is the way such an ambiguation opens up the question of the I speaking: Who is this person anyway, where does he come from? Yet unlike in the case of Brophy’s scholarship (he is a professor at Melbourne University, with noted publications on the theory of literary composition), there is no invitation in this poem for the reader to seek methodological validation for any of its statements in either Brophy’s work practice, or his other lives. We have seen Bakhtin suggest otherwise: ‘Each word must express the poet’s meaning directly and without mediation; there must be no distance between the poet and his word’ (1981c 297). Surely it is rather that the irrelevance of any link between the I in the poem and the poet’s own life is the very thing that drives us (trying to answer the biographical questions these enigmatic utterances beg: Who is this person anyway, where does he come from?) to engage in the dramatic, imaginative process of conjuring up the sort of subjectivity to which such utterances might be attributed. Pace Bakhtin, it’s actually the reader who takes responsibility for the poet’s ‘I’ here, largely – as we will see below – in terms of whatever suddenly comes to that reader’s mind as the right way to voice it. To cut to the chase I would say that the answer to that Who is this person anyway? question is ultimately, though the poem must be good enough to inspire such an interlocution, and the reader must want it too, the reader, its revelation of new voices within her or him.3

  1. The poem is cited by kind permission of the author.
  2. I note in passing that this ‘I believe’ phrase is thus fundamentally akin to the ‘double-voiced word’ exemplified in Elaine’s narration from Cat’s Eye above, situations where the narrative voice conveys a way of looking at the world, and it also conveys doubt in it, in one and the same utterance. This ironising device is celebrated in Bakhtin scholarship (Emerson 2002 618 discusses its near-cliché status) as both the apogee of novelistic technique and the mark of that genre’s liberating relation to hegemonic discourses, along the anti-totalising lines I sketched above. But of course lyric does the ‘double-voiced word’ as well.
  3. Here I would like to acknowledge William Batstone’s complementary idea that ‘(b)y virtue of being outside the voice of the poem, readers participate in a form of surplus with regard to the poet’s I at the same time that they speak his words. This surplus allows the reader to finalize and complete a picture of the speaker, but one that is always open to change, in part because, as an act of creative understanding, it necessarily involves a dialogue between the reader in the fullness of his context (which can and will change) and the text. … What I am claiming is that this principle must be built into the construction of the poet’s saying I, it must be part of the work’s intention, if the I is not to pretend to monologic finalization and exist in the contradiction of a “monologically sealed-off utterance” (Bakhtin 1981c 297)’ (Batstone 106). I agree, and would simply add that the dialogic poems Batstone thus describes are not the exceptions to lyric that he, like Scanlon, Shemtov, Eskin, Hirschkop et al, believes them to be. Rather the above quote from Batstone is a scintillating formulation of just one of the various criteria the best critics draw upon to distinguish between poetic work that deserves to survive, and the rest. Hirschkop makes the case that Bakhtin’s theory of the novel in fact offers rigorous criteria for practical criticism (4-5 in relation to 1981c 327) and I fully concord; yet no one seems to have realised that Bakhtin’s strictures on lyric can, mutatis mutandis, serve the same function. In other words, Bakhtin’s attack on poetry is really an attack on bad poetry and might be usefully salvaged to this effect.
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