Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Fatalist, by Lyn Hejinian.


The older I get the more I’m (quite unintentionally) getting in the habit of pronouncing the word “coincidence” differently than everyone else. I’ve caught my self, whether reading or speaking, shifting the emphasis from the second to the third syllable: coincidence. It’s weird because until I stated doing this frequently enough to catch myself, I never noticed that “to coincide” and “coincidence” are two different uses of a single concept. This is particularly strange because of the value that we typically impose on the word “coincidence,” that is, the anticipation and understanding that any coincidence is random and arbitrary and just as likely to take place under very different circumstances. Whereas “to coincide” is much more neutral; the point is that two independent agents become aligned with each other. This may or may not be accidental or arbitrary.

I bring this up because it’s a word that Hejinian uses several times in The Fatalist and in relatively loaded ways. Unfortunately, I cannot find these uses, which is frustrating to me because I noted a number of passages throughout, and these two or three evidently slipped through. I don’t think I need a quote to go on, however. Partly because coincidence is written all over this piece. If, as the rumors say, it was edited from a collection of Hejinian’s emails, then the argument practically makes itself. Unless she was deliberately writing the emails with the intention of culling from them words from a poetry book, there is at the very least a veneer of arbitrarity and at the most a level of premeditation in these letters that would be difficult for a reader to gauge. It is possible to observe the confluence of themes and images, I counted about ten, the most interesting and pervasive of which was her problematic (and itself “coincidental”) exploration of “fate.” Many of the other coincidences, however, were as pedestrian as bicycles, geese, and twins.

Moreover, Hejinian resorts to most of the tricks that she describes in her interview. It was useful to have her own explication of this as a way to creating art that would bring language itself into a field of critical (and political, and philosophical) inquiry. Most drastically these techniques had the effect of rupturing one sort of logic (eg. The nonsensical causal progression in most pieces: “I encourage poems narrated by vegetables but hope that he moves on to grains that rhyme,” (31)) while establishing another (eg. The sonic systems and busts of rhyme and assonance throughout: “… all who’ve sought it fought it and then caught it / in the end – I paused.” (18)). I personally thought that these techniques were at their most effective when they were the least subtle, which is not intended as a criticism. On the whole, I didn’t find the visceral punch as dramatic as Anne Carson, nor the images as haunting and dangerous as the Brock-Broido. That said, there was a rhythmic indulgence in The Fatalist which seemed, to me at least, strikingly similar to the best moments of a good pop song; a combination of riffs, words, and voices that are so sensuously pleasurable that repetition isn’t a burden, but it the best way to enjoy the whole practice. It was ironic, then, to me that this piece which was evidently developed very intellectually (and which followed an unorthodox but almost gimmicky conceit) became most compelling in the least analytical or semiotically distressing ways. Again, this is not a criticism, though I cannot help but feel that Hejinian’s goal was to provoke more thought. Ultimately, the contrast is a fairly distinct boundary for me between writing I admire and theory that drives me up the wall.

It was interesting to have the most visceral opposite reactions to the reading we’ve done by one author in one week.

On the one hand, if there is one body artistic thought that I particularly chafe against, it is postmodernism, and Hajinian’s explication of her own techniques in her essay just about put me over the edge. While she didn’t fall into the more lamentable extremes, there was the nonessential plugging of the progressive baby-boomers (who were certainly culpable in more ways than failing to synthesize their various projects), and the quite essential calling into question the possibility of precision in some of the most imprecise terms possible. I don’t want to go on an extended rant about this (were I to do so, this paper would probably double in length), but in college I encountered in two different sources (first, a Calculus class, as a Physics major, and second, a Literary Crtiticism class, as a Humanities major) what seems to me to be an ideal postulate on which to base any inquiry. That is that it is necessary for any valid theory to allow for and provide the semantic possibility of being wrong. Any theory that exclusive justifies itself through circular logic, and does not allow a contesting argument, is more accurately compared to abstract modeling than a coherent hedging toward reality. Not only are the pillars of postmodernism (along the lines of Marxist and Freudian literary criticism (and I’m a big fat socialist myself)) guilty of this in spectacular fashion, but this is the one flaw which the postmodernist argument, by virtue of its own mistrust of “conventional” logic, ought to view with deep suspicion. In short, the essay made me very angry.

On the other hand, I cannot ignore:

though admittedly it can get pretty funny. I think
that macaroni is the answer now that the sky is crowing
and the rising sun is illuminating a few clouds
drifting across the mountains over a barn down a hill
keeping the pace of our correspondence to that
of real mail so the passage of a month last only an hour
while we add verbs to all the additions that occur
spontaneously slowly while the young eat cold peas. (60)

The music and even the rhetorical force are so coincident – so fated in a way – that there is no way to be unconvinced.

So that’s that. I am more ambivalent about Hejinian than anyone else we have read.



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