How does a project begin? I've been going through old notebooks trying to catch the moment in which my fascination with the relationship between Nazi phenomenologist Martin Heidegger and Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt caught fire and began generating the poems and narrative fragments that would eventually comprise Hannah and the Master, my next book of poetry, scheduled to be published by Ahsahta Press in the fall of 2019. The book is a kind of speculative Singspiel, an inside-out historical novel, a lyric assemblage lateral to the time I lived its writing and the time it tries to recover from the lives of some of the twentieth century's most charismatic messiahs manqué: Simone Weil, Walter Benjamin, Paul Celan, Gershom Scholem, and of course most importantly and crucially, Arendt herself.
I can trace the project's beginnings to the fall of 2011, when I spent the better part of a month living in Berlin, trying to finish my first novel while caught up emotionally in the historical whirlwind centering on that most fateful of cities. I had long been an avid reader of Arendt's work, and had passed through a period of near-obsession with Heidegger while in grad school. Now I found myself returning to them both, following in the footsteps of their macabre and tantalizing waltz through the twentieth century as philosopher and political thinker, metaphysician and refugee, Nazi and Jew.
Two years later, while studying with Jane Bennett at the School of Criticism and Theory, the intuition at the book's center took hold of me: we in the early 21st century are reliving the 1930s; that the lack of a meaningful response to climate change was akin to lack of meaningful resistance to the rise of Hitler; that the political climate of our time was likely to lead to new forms of fascism. And the idea that the agonistic love affair between Heidegger and Arendt was somehow paradigmatic of the struggle we face today to create a politics and poetics of "the world" as Arendt conceived it. To recover the realm of action in the face of an ever more tumultuous, dynamic, unconcealed, and ungrounding "earth."
My task is Benjaminian; Hannah and the Masters is like a little Arcades Project, but whereas Benjamin sought the destiny of the twentieth century in the tea leaves of nineteenth-century Paris, I seek a strategy for the twenty-first century in revisiting if not redeeming this twentieth-century love story. The book is a kind of chrestomathy, a bricolage of pieces that insist on their pieceness (pieces here and here and here), yet not entirely lacking in narrative. I take the risk of reading Arendt against the grain, finding the remnants of Romanticism in her thought, taking her Greeks as literally as Heidegger took his. I wanted to engage history as something living--fragments of narrative that transmit by means of their telling IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN OTHERWISE.
Arendt's thought has taken on new urgency and relevance since the election; The Origins of Totalitarianism climbed the bestseller lists of 2017. She was very far from being on the political right, but she didn't easily align with the Left of her time, either. But what drew me and still draws me to her work are her qualities as a writer: the elasticity and tensile strength of her sentences which have in themselves an unmistakably moral force.
Then of course there is the phrase that she made notorious in the subtitle of her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Which the daily degradation of our environment, and of the countless human beings sacrificed at the altar of things-as-they-are, reverses and reveals as: the evil of banality. As she so hauntingly put it in her direct address to Eichmann at the book's end, "What you meant to say was that where all, or almost all, are guilty, nobody is."
What follows are a series of notes and reconstructions of the substance of the book as it came together over the course of the last five years.
Jan. 18, 2013
The inability to believe in the reality of the world beyond us (which includes us) seems the great predicament of our age. As is the possibility that Marcella Durand raises so brilliantly: the wilderness, the image of nature red in tooth and claw, has been wholly internalized, anthropomorphized: we are the storm, global warming is us, we are the extreme weather we (and countless other species) suffer. Yet this strange identity seems to contain the seeds of its own alienation--consciousness of the conditions of the Anthropocene paradoxically increases the sense of helplessness. I am really struck right now by the childlike, fatalistic tone that has infected our politics on every level. We can't even seem to stop insane people from acquiring guns and shooting schoolchildren, so how can we take on global warming? Or is this pessimism really a backdoor assertion of our true desire--freedom--freedom to own guns, freedom to buy plastic, freedom to drive cars, freedom to import cheap goods from elsewhere at the cost of exploitation. One longs for an outside (Spicer's "practice of Outside"?). An ontological pastoral (the ontological is pastoral): spiritual refuge in the concept of something beyond the human, the World Without Us (and before us, and after us). The imagination of outside--the outside is the imagination. How can this become meaningful--how can the Outside, rediscovered, pressure a response from the inside? Break through to the cogito, break it open? Bust up the solitude in the skull, in the city, in the elevator, in the automobile? Breaking toward the real?
Feb. 22nd, 2013 (Berkeley)
The Shelleyan gap between the things we “know” and the things we’ve internalized (I.e., the age of the Earth).
The writings of Alain Badiou have been a spur and an irritant to me since I first encountered them. The Century (2005) is a kind of historico-philosophical recovery project, in quite a different idiom than Benjamin's, which nevertheless seeks to recover the lost revolutionary potential of the twentieth century, defined for Badiou by its "passion for the real." The Century becomes one of the characters or gods of the book, appearing in two guises, "clockwise" and "counterclockwise." "Clockwise" narrates things as they happened; "counterclockwise" as they might have happened or as they reoccur, but in a new guise.
Clockwise: in the mid-1920s a very young Hannah Arendt becomes the student and then the lover of Martin Heidegger, her professor at the University of Marburg. After the war they re-establish their love, albeit on a largely one-sided and Platonic basis. Poetry intervenes at both moments: poems Arendt wrote as a very young woman, some of them touching on the affair with Heidegger; poems that Heidegger wrote for Arendt in the early 1950s.
Counterclockwise: my conception of Arendt and Heidegger as replicants, facsimiles of themselves, re-enacting their doomed and agonistic love in the 21st-century context of the WAVE, my figure for the oncoming trauma of climate change--or more precisely, the fascistic, exterministic politics likely to accompany or precede such change.
The poems are homophonic translations, countertranslations. By rendering the poetry of Arendt and Heidegger in a purely ear-English I open between the lines the calamitous gap between their styles of thought and their differing ethical failures.
"The poem is the thin blade between trace and completion" (Badiou 25).
May 14, 2013
What would a genuinely utopian work be, now? An elaborate Fourierist master plan? Or something fragmented yet corrosive of the limits the Spectacle has set on our imagination of what it is to live together?
Apparent inseparability of utopian and apocalyptic thought.
Marjorie Perloff finds few traces of Yiddish in Celan’s German.
Arendt-Heidegger. It’s possible I have only one subject as a fiction writer: the collision between masculine romanticism and feminist skepticism, or between the vision of personhood and actual persons.
I want a prose. Not a novel. Hannah and the Master. Allegorical love affair in the face of apocalypse. Short chapters. Collage. To write narrative as if it were poetry, poetry as if it were narrative.
[What follows this notebook entry are the poems or pieces that comprise the first section of the book, COUNTERCLOCKWISE \ THE WAVE.]
The Master is Celan's deathly Meister aus Deutschland; he is the pathetic lover-Master of Dickinson's letters who denies to her his vulnerability if not their shared humanity ("Have you the little chest—to put the alive—in?"); he is a manifestation of the Demiurge; he is Eldon Tyrell and Immortan Joe and every toxic patriarch who would subjugate and control life. He is Daddy and he will not do.
As for my Hannah, she both is and is not Hannah Arendt: she is the Master's creature, his beloved, his destroyer. In his thrall she is Hannah R., Hannah R(eplicant), who like Isaac Asimov's R. Daneel Olivaw must revise and reconstruct the code with which she's been programmed. Breaking free she is the one-armed warrior Hannah Furiosa, a manifestation of the rebellious Imperator Furiosa who is the secret hero of George Miller's 2015 film Mad Max: Fury Road, the title of which conceals her name in plain sight. The Zeroth Law of Hannah Furiosa is: Love the world. Love it ruined.
Return to the human citadel, reject the poisoned "green place." Reject the fantasy of the Archimedean "point in space." The world is what juts through.
Eileen Myles: “Poems are not made out of words. They’re made out of emotional absences, rips and tears. That’s the incomplete true fabric of the text.
An Arendtian ecopolitics demands that we save the world, not the earth: If we focus on saving the earth we bring human freedom to an end. The world must not be reconfigured qua world-dependent-on-the-earth via political means.
We must extend personhood not to the nonhuman but to the extrahuman. How to make posterity a zone of living concern? Do we even care enough for our grandchildren? It is the next generation plus one that will find itself in extremis. [In the West. For the poorest in the Global South the calamity is here. The WAVE is indistinguishable from the human drive for development in the face of its manifest deadliness.]
Arendt distinguishes between the public and the political; only in the latter do people meet as peers, neither dominant nor dominated. There is pleasure for Arendt in political action, political appearing. Her elan, her joie de politique. Political eros.
Terror and despair of the local’s foreclosure by the global. Think global, don’t act at all.
May 18, 2013
I seek analogies, historical morphologies. The struggle for the self-determination of a polity that doesn’t yet exist. The earth battles us with our own strength: Antaeus in reverse. We must world. [I.H. Finlay: Not all gardens are retreats; some are attacks.]
First assemble your army and the enemy will present itself in due course.
When survival of the species comes to be at stake, money will be no object: formula for communism.
We must break the bunker mentality. Monsters, not masters.
Arendt never wavers in her devotion to Enlightenment values—unlike the Frankfurt School, very unlike her teacher Heidegger with his ahistorical atavism. Arendt believes in freedom; it is the human task to build a world capable of sustaining the realm of political action in which and only in which freedom is possible.
June 20, 2013 (Ithaca)
The past is a virtuality in the present, a potentiality of the future. When Marcel tastes his madeleine or stumbles on the paving stone the past comes alive to the point of overwhelming the now. The dialectical image in action. Messianic residue of the possible.
The world of the Titans is prior to the law—outside it, before it. The Law was put into place to restrain them and to put at Bay their terrible creative power. (Thoreau: “What is this Titan that has possession of me?”) But they are still at work. In a world without gods, the Titanic becomes a live possibility, a dialectical incipience.
Whitman’s “adhesiveness” as counter to the devouring embrace of Titanic matter.
May 15, 2014
Alice Notley offers a doorway into epic via noir: "I dream I'm a detective a man / trying to catch a woman... / She is the soul." "No I want real and dreamed to be fused with the real / rip off this shroud of division of my poem from my life." Carrying dead fathers like Aeneas. Disobedience is freedom and the price paid. My Hannahiad too might dissolve boundaries between fact and fiction, biography and autobiography, reality and dream.
The Master is Will. The Master is like Notley's Hardwood, her Mitch-ham. Hannah is like Alice, caught between being and being-with-others. "'I love my Pocahontas but not my Us.'"
Or: the Master is the will to universalize the provincial, the "inner truth and greatness" of one people, or even one segment of people. And then there are spirits like Simone Weil, "citizens of transcendence" in Fellini's phrase: Saints. And Hannah, replicant and Jew, is caught in the middle, in the rapid diminishment of public space.
"We have come," the spirits told Yeats via the mediumship of his wife, George, "to bring you metaphors for your poetry."
Hannah is a nekyia, the other end of the telescope from elegy, the journey to the underworld. Hang it all, Robert Browning....
Reading The Cantos wrecked me, for I can never un-read them!
The most open, ragged, dialogic, philosophical, and self-aware mode of narrative is SF, engaged critically and productively with its own virtuality; in that sense it is very close to poetry. Vision. Analogy. Allegory.
The apotheosis of the Master is achieved via his slave.
June 27, 2014. Ithaca.
McKenzie Wark: "But really, up against the lithosphere, politics may be as uselessly superstructural as fine art, or as imaginary as the Gods of the religious." The lithosphere!
Politics as Arendt imagined them may be no more adequate to the Anthropocene than Heidegger's thought was to Nazism. Yet the pattern of implication is there.
Heidegger's "world" is indistinguishable from what Arendt designates the realm of work: that which creates the real world, the world-that-matters, the world of action.
Karl Jaspers said, "How is such an uncultured man like Hitler supposed to govern Germany?" And Heidegger replied "Cultivation has nothing to do with it. Just look at his marvelous hands!"
[His marvelous, tiny hands.]
And this sits oddly by another remark Heidegger made in a 1936 letter to Jaspers: "At times, one would like to have several heads and hands."
In a letter after the war, in a letter that either Jaspers never sent or that Heidegger never received, Jaspers wrote: "I greet you from a distant past, from beyond an abyss of the times, holding steadfast to something that was and that cannot be nothing."
Possibly the closest Heidegger ever came to an apology for his conduct: "Coming to terms with the German disaster and its entanglement in world history and modernity will take the rest of our lives!" Arendt's dismissal, almost a form of forgiveness, speaking in her essay "The Image of Hell" of "Heidegger, whose enthusiasm for the Third Reich was matched only by his glaring ignorance of what he was talking about."
"In Auschwitz," Arendt writes, "the factual territory opened up an abyss into which everyone is drawn who attempts after the fact to stand on that territory." Or as Vallejo seems to put it: "Don't we rise in fact downward?"
Arend'ts life traveled inconceivable distances: from the German student of the 1920s to the Jewish refugee of the 1930s to the political activist of the 1940s, life after life, until by 1970 she's gossiping with Mary McCarthy about the antics of Robert Lowell while turning down marriage proposals from W.H. Auden!
The growing sense of my project as theatrical (Mary Ruefle quotes Ralph Angel: "The poem is an interpretation of weird theatrical shit"). A masque.
Homophonic translations of poems by Heidegger, the German title for which is Wurf der Flamme, "Fling of Flame" in Jack Hirschman's translation.
- Worser Flame
- Worser Fame
- Worser Frame
- Unto Flame
- Worse Her F(l)ame
The earth is an archive of potentiality.