Poetry as Extorreor Monolothe: Finnegans Wake on Bakhtin

By | 1 February 2013

The next two lines seem rather more straightforward:

I believe there are human footprints on the moon.
This belief helps me to bear watching television news.

The first of these again seems quite straightforward and commonsensical. I have just argued that it would be wrong to take any of Brophy’s lines as a ‘pure and direct expression of his intention’ (Bakhtin 1981c 279). Nonetheless, it would still seem possible to grant that we have here something like a pure and direct expression of the intentions of Brophy’s persona, that same ‘I’ we have spent the last few lines trying to imagine. As for how to understand what this straightforward, somewhat fictional speaker is telling us over the next line, it seems at first blush to mean something quite commonplace: the fact that we have achieved such great progress allows us to bear the coexistence of human atrocity. Only at this point another reading suggests itself to me: could it be that the speaker is saying that what makes the news bearable is simply the fact that when you turn the TV on you will believe that the events recounted, whatever they are, however disgusting, are true? Hegel’s famous remark about the newspaper being modern man’s way of saying his daily prayers is apposite (Hegel, ctd in Anderson 35). The belief in reality, the fact that we can name it, that we all share a collective ‘you know what I mean’ sense of its solidity, that delusion itself is what keeps us sane … Scholarship keeps us sane … I-cracy.

These are just suggestions that come to mind. But insofar as I am having such readerly thoughts I’m violating Bakhtin’s understanding of (or is it just his teasing of the proponents of?) the lyric:

Everywhere there is only one face – the linguistic face of the author, answering for every word as if it were his own. No matter how multiple and varied these semantic and accentual threads, associations, pointers, hints, correlations that emerge from every poetic word, one language, one conceptual horizon is sufficient to them all; there is no need of heteroglot social contexts. (1981c 297)

Of course this ‘[e]verywhere there is only one face’ formulation is, like so many things in Bakhtin’s theory of poetry, extreme and indeed, quite simply wrong.

If, however, we consider a more attenuated form of the idea, along the lines emerging above, we will have something to work with: ‘Each word must express the persona’s meaning directly, and without mediation; there must be no distance between the persona and his word’ (1981c 297, amended where bolded). What I have begun to suggest above is that when we read such thoroughly ambiguated passages as the following –

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;

– what we do is not merely try to discern the persona’s meaning, but also, and reciprocally, to imagine where that kind of persona is coming from. Indeed, I think these two activities are one and the same. So, of the first two lines just quoted, one tries to imagine the sort of world view, or perspective, from which it is possible to say ‘most of us mistake the present for the past’. Is the speaker conjuring up a theory of the world that holds that we are all really automata, living out desires and intentions that predate us, a view not without a certain paranoid feel to it? Or is the speaker addressing us from the point of view that holds, as Hegel suggests, that everything that ever happened in the past took place in what was then the present, and everything that will ever happen will take place in the present too? We never actually experience any other tense. You will only ever be in the present (1942 10), which would carry a certain eye-opening charge as well? In other words, and in short, some such desire drives us not only to find meanings in these poetic utterances, but voices as well.

Are they heteroglot? The response to this seems quite obvious: where in Brophy’s poem do we find any necessary link to Peirce, Hegel, Bakhtin, Ayer or even, to say it outright, to me? At this point I will confess that I first typed that phrase ‘to say it outight’. The real way to address this question of lyric heteroglossia is to see that the reader is constantly called upon to add his or her own voice to the poet’s incomplete utterance. But does it really feel like the reader’s own voice? Encountering lines of this level of paradox and internal contradiction, and pondering them, seems to involve some quite randomly generated and often strange thoughts. Mary Kinzie comments on how enjambment can give rise to a similar effect:

the radical splitting apart of phrases [by line] creates provisional meanings in the orphaned lines. These momentary meanings may counteract or clash with the meaning of the sentence – once the sentence has been pieced back together.

(Kinzie cited in Scanlon 2007 19 fn16)

It strikes me that there is something strangely akin to the slip of the tongue in the lived experience of finding oneself the channel for such ‘momentary meanings’.

Where indeed do we get the voices that emerge in such readings, often bearing fully-fledged (indeed, to bring Bakhtin back in, ‘socio-ideologically’ marked) ontologies with them? Peirce’s critique of Descartes is interesting to adduce at this point: Peirce rejects the idea that one might found a philosophical system through doubting everything about our world. The reason is simple: ‘there are things that it does not occur to us can be questioned’ (Peirce 1955 228). It is in this light that we can grasp how counter-intuitive Peirce’s own definition of belief is: ‘We believe the proposition we are ready to act upon’ (1992 112). What is counter-intuitive about this is that there is no need for beliefs, thus defined, to be conscious. They simply need to motivate us to act. They might reside in our habits and be otherwise (and again, however ‘socio-ideologically marked) unthought. Brophy seems to be taking us to a similar place in the final lines of the poem:

I believe death makes love possible,
and that if you do not train them at once your beliefs
will bark all night.

I see those suddenly emergent readings, whether through an enjambment or otherwise, as akin to the untrained animals here described, using our voices and bodies suddenly to speak.

I have started to flesh out my paper’s second claim – contra Bakhtin – that the voicing of contemporary lyric poetry bears marked similarity to the slip of the tongue. So far I have only brushed the surface of this claim, inasmuch as I have suggested that the reading of poetry involves making oneself vulnerable to the random ideas, voiced as each individually is, that come to mind when trying to think through why travelling through space might be the last of our tasks:

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 imagine the movement of a coffin, in others’ hands. He didn’t realise he was dead. I think that is a quote.

And then I ask myself: what did you really mean when suggesting that

2. Poetic composition draws upon something akin to slips of the tongue to achieve its distinctly polyvocal character?

It is perhaps clever to get away with such wild claims by suggesting – turning readers’ expectations on their heads – that the lyric draws upon some such process in its readers. But this is not enough, is it? What are you really saying about the process of writing? Is it just one careening parapraxis, caught on the page and there framed? I have to confess, to say it outight, I have no idea. I think I often write poetry with more than one head. So I suspect that second claim is true. But actually, it simply emerged from my pen as I was writing this. And I cannot for the life of me think of a way to prove it.

This entry was posted in ESSAYS, SCHOLARLY and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work: