Friday, 1 November 2013

William Rowe: Commentary on the exchange between Jennifer and Jacob and Tom (Poetry &/or Revolution)

As I see it, what we find in this exchange is external suffering and violence, including the old violence of gender, transferred into the relations between our statements; into our rhetoric and our ways of addressing each other. We should not be surprised, or dwell on shame; the point is to carry it across into the struggle for a classless society and into the solidarity between ourselves necessary for such a struggle. Of course, revolutionary solidarity doesn’t exclude abrasive relations between ideas; on the other hand it doesn’t exclude patiently explaining. I suggest that we should seek to grasp the different modes of transferal of that pain (of violence to women, of the dead of the Commune . . . ) to the ways in which we address others, both inside and outside the revolutionary movement.

Jennifer cites Keston Sutherland’s conception of revolutionary poetry (in his paper at the Poetry and Revolution Conference, Birkbeck, 2012) as what ‘must hurt and thrill a reader with an irresistible premonition of the feeling of being more fully and really alive than ever before, the feeling that is the true, unmistakable and inalienable basis of revolutionary subjective universality.’ She counterposes her own sense that poetry can respond to the ‘wish to sustain the solidarity we first feel’ (in acts of collective protest), in a situation in which, she adds, ‘Poetry’s representation of solidarity does not, I think, recreate or replicate the experience I have been describing, but it may remind us of it, keep it under our eyes, provide a place to recall the bodily sensations and emotions of protest.’

The word that needs taking further is ‘true’. I am not sure that it’s enough to say that the truth of poetry in the context of revolution consists of ‘the emotions of protest’ or of ‘being [. . . ] really alive’ as ‘subjective universality.’ Keston states very well the context of suffering, of being reduced to almost nothing in the vast expanse of capital, which gives force to the revolutionary sense of being alive like never before. Yet the sense of expansion – an absolute feature of proletarian uprising – is limited by both Jennifer and Keston to the subjective sphere. What about the fissures that uprising sends shooting through the social fabric, not to speak of the fabric of time? (Spreading terror through the bourgeoisie). It seems to me that both Jennifer and Keston stay within the limits of protest.

I suggest considering whether the Rimbaud poem that Jacob and Tom cite (‘What does it matter for us, my heart’) goes beyond those limits. Doesn’t it, at the end, include a passage through death, i.e. a revolutionary ecstasy, driven by revenge, the burning of the old order, generating brotherhood and sisterhood in that situation, the heart unable to rest? Couldn’t it be said that the truth of this poem is a metaphysical truth, in the sense of a truth that takes the place of the old metaphysics, including Kant’s subjective forms of time and space, and that this truth seizes hold of the destruction of capitalist space and grasps its replacement by epochal change?

I will finish, if I may, with a few brief notes (requiring further work!) on what might be the relation between poetry and truth in a revolutionary epoch like our own.

   1. The truth of poetry seizes history at the same point as Benjamin’s angel, at the abyss between the pain and suffering of the oppressed and the classless society that’s possible.
   2. Poetry translates the Real into an absolute language, which is not natural language. The gap between poetry and natural language is insurrection, the ‘waves of fire’ invoked by Rimbaud after the defeat of the Paris Commune, absolute negativity.
   3. ‘The True is [ . . . ] the Bacchanalian revel in which no member is not drunk’ (Hegel).
   4. The truth of poetry has passed through death, the second death: the symbolic, not the physiological one.
   5. It will break down the walls of literature as it currently exists, and will seize hold of the means of production of sense and place it at the disposal of the proletariat to come.