Maria Damon

Beginning with the End

As usual with millennial topics there seems to be an impulse to
defer, so that I am always pushing the moment of arrival at the topic of
discussion further and further away.  This essay, though it begins with a
disclaimer about the conceit of millennium, appears to be no exception, for
that disclaimer will be followed by another, then a disclaimer to that
latter disclaimer, then two axiomatic "ostinati," and a warning.  It then
moves on to investigate the prefaces and introductions of several of
Weiner's books.  Dwelling endlessly in beginnings, it compulsively
postpones not its own end (it's really a rather short essay), but the
head-on engagement with its subject that would mark, in the intensity of
that engagement, the "end of time,"  or at least something that would be
experienced by this writer as such.  Why this fear, not only of beginnings
or endings, but primarily of the actual stuff of argument, of
demonstration, exemplification, and persuasion, what we might call the
"matter" of the essay and why it matters?  And how is this fear part of
what one engages when one engages questions of the avant-garde, the
millennium, and writing "avant-garde" poetry in the years between 1945 and
2000?  The fear is not, as I say, of the impending year 2000, but of the
realization that, as Theodor Adorno and others have already asserted, the
turning point in human culture has already happened: after Auschwitz there
can be no (lyric) poetry.  In other words, we are already writing in a
post-apocalyptic condition.   The possibility that we are writing out of a
post-traumatic, or even ongoingly traumatic, state (for what would the real
historical shakedown represented by the millennium be, if not traumatic)
raises somewhat different questions from those posed by this Special
Issue's description, but they are, none the less, pertinent to the issue,
and sympathetic to the underlying concerns implicit in that description.

Let me, however, qualify the convenient cultural fiction of 2000
C.E. as fin-de-siècle and/or -millennium as governing rubric; in its literal
meaning, it is not an especially apt framework for investigating the traces
of expressive cultures who have already sustained major blows to their
systems at mid-century (1939-45 C.E.), mid-millennium (1492 C.E.), or over
protracted "centuries" whose formulation itself (centurions in formation on
the march of time) is an imperial legacy.  Let me engage, rather, the
broader and more versatile concept of historical trauma in turning to a
discussion of postwar "clairvoyant" poet Hannah Weiner's strange,
disoriented writing.  In so doing, let us not be afraid to invoke some of
the more obvious categories of "identity politics" and social location.
Hannah Weiner: gender (female), ethnicity and national affiliation
(Jewish-American), generation (1926-1997), class (at least middle), level
of education: B.A. Radcliffe College, location: New England (Providence,
Cambridge) and New York City.  One of the assumptions underlying trauma
theory is that there is a subjectivity, an entity, with some understanding
or experience of normativity, which is then traumatized --by undergoing
something that deeply threatens or transgresses its entity-ness, its
understanding of itself as subject.  Though the categories I have
enumerated above are among the most general demographic categories from
which to start deducing some parameters of subjectivity, they indicate --in
broad strokes --some of the ways in which "Hannah Weiner" can be
distinguished as a subject with a set of experiences along a continuum
interrupted by something called, by virtue of its interruptive function,
trauma.  Some chroniclers or critics of Weiner's life and work would point
to mental illness as that interruption.  Without denying the significance
of such an experience (which Weiner refers to as "becoming extremely
psychic") I would propose the historical trauma of World War II as a
"millennial moment" beyond which experience has to be reconfigured in
unrecognizable terms.  (This is hardly a unique formulation; the
"postmodern" era, as it has come to be known as a chronological as well as
philosophical designator, is by general consensus dated from 1945.)

Nor am I overly concerned with policing an "avant-garde" turf.  As
I have argued elsewhere, vanguardism is almost purely contextual, and often
very staid-looking work unlocks a vanguard potential when positioned
between the proper interpretive cross-hairs.  Thus to base an "avant garde"
"legacy" on either purely aesthetic criteria or historical genealogy (the
"circle" or coterie and its relations with other coteries across time and
space) is rigid, precious, and analytically counterproductive.  Moreover
such a judgment appeals to a naive and claustrophobic universality as
illusory as it is tautological: a self-anointed "avant-garde" reinforces
the distance between itself and its rearguard colleagues, in a position of
embattled, solipsistic ressentiment which then offers the consolation of
"specialness." This dynamic can become viciously cyclical.   I have argued
elsewhere that one can usefully consider, as a working definition of
"avant-garde," the work of those writing subjects who are socially
marginalized.  As Miekal And has recently noted, and as the current
interest in "border" cultures (located largely but not exclusively in
Chicano studies) indicates, it is at the limits or interfaces of genres,
cultures or eco-systems that the most interesting life-forms are produced.
People at these borders, on these edges, are in a particularly apt position
for experimenting with new social and poetic forms and new consciousnesses,
as their survivalist bricolages are living testimony to the inadequacy of
mainstream formulations and structures (comprising everything from
sentences to housing).

With these two caveats let me then acknowledge that no matter how
you approach her work Hannah Weiner fits tamely into anybody's most
rarified avant-garde roster, even her own, tho' hers is specific enough to
warrant notice.  In an interview with Charles Bernstein on the latter's
"Line Break" radio program, Bernstein asks Weiner if she considers herself a
"part of the avant-garde."  How can you not, she responds, referring to
herself, when you're the only person in the world who sees words?  In other
words, she rejects the concept of an avant-garde "tradition" and translates
the term as meaning "on the edge, out on a limb, along with your
experience" --as far-out in the wilderness as Poesia after "her" Platonic
exile --no one "understands" (as in the trauma victim's self-perceived
predicament).  Well, counters Bernstein, don't we all, in a sense, see
words.  No, Weiner insists: this is different, seeing (for example) "OBEY
CHARLEMAGNE" in twenty-foot-tall letters on a wall.  She is at pains to
convey, to insist upon, the strangeness of her experience, rather than to
trace a literary lineage.  This poignant insistence underscores the "after
shock" nature of her writing, in that she clearly understands that she is
different from other people --different, in fact, from how she herself used
to be before she became, in her words, "extremely psychic."  She does not
want her experience recuperated into a mere extension of "everyone else's"
reality, and finds no comfort in Bernstein's offer to normalize her
experience.  Further, her insistence underscores the seamlessness with
which she conceives of the relationship between experience (seeing,
reading, being written upon) and writing.   I've found it quite difficult
to teach Weiner's writing because there is even less narrative scaffolding
or theoretically-informed teleological intent than one finds in other
"avant-garde" writing, but one admonition on my part seems consistently to
mark the beginning of my students' willingness to take her seriously: that
it is a privilege to be brought into such close contact with the working of
someone's mind; that the exhausting labor Weiner puts in to convey that
everyday experience of disorientation --writing after it is too late,
writing in the face of isolation, psychic annihilation and the certainty of
not being understood is a feat of bravery, and one we can match in our
willingness to read and engage with that wondrously shaky, luminous mind.
Conversely, I've found that when showing Weiner's writing to friends
outside of academic settings, where it is more permissible to marvel at
things one doesn't "understand," the reaction is far more favorable.
People are impressed with how "personal" the writing is compared to other
experimental writing they've seen, feel liberated and inspired by the
permission they perceive the writer giving herself, or are simply
captivated by its strangeness and its resonance with other types of writing
they've seen elsewhere.

In a sense, Weiner's work marks the border of literary and post-literary 
poetry; it is both "avant-garde" and "brut."  It is contextually literary in the 
sense that she most certainly participates in self-conscious writerly activity.  
She is not a naive, "found" artist though she is certainly an "outsider" artist in 
many respects, as an unmarried woman, a Jew, and a mentally ill person.  However, 
she is also an "insider" artist in that she moves in the rarified circles of the
currently- practicing American avant garde; she is well-read in their
texts, she participates in their activities, she counts them among her
friends --some of them are, she claims, among her "silent teachers," though
they themselves do not make such claims.  At the same time, her writing
evinces none of the aesthetic control, intentionality, or concern over
reception that characterizes the literary; indeed, it can be seen as a kind
of graphomaniacal excrescence --in short, symptomatic in its effect if not
in its intent.  One could consider it a kind of heroic autoethnography if
the culture under scrutiny were the culture of her own verbal imagination;
her participant/ observant status puts her both outside herself (beside
herself) and inside, fully committed to taking seriously her paranormal
visionary experience.

To engage a discussion of Hannah Weiner's work as an instance of
traumatic utterance/writing, then, is admittedly and primarily an intuitive
move, rather than an a posteriori reading based on biographical revelation.
After The Fast (written in 1970 but published in 1992), which details a
stage in her breakdown during which she became hyperallergic to metal and
certain colors, her books do not concern personal trauma or experiences
others would consider harrowing, though her clairvoyance itself could
certainly be characterized as an "extreme" condition.  The material that
explicitly addresses public traumas such as ethnocide and genocide includes
a consistent preoccupation with indigenous American political issues such
as treaty rights struggles, Leonard Peltier's imprisonment, and the
persecution of Latin American indigenous people, as well as, in WEEKS
(1990), media-processed "current events;" nor does her work refer
explicitly to other forms of trauma that comprise the contents of those
overdetermined-in-their-gender-specificity "case-studies" used to
legitimate the field of "trauma theory" --that is, child sexual abuse or
battle-induced stress-syndromes.   Nor does trauma as conventionally
understood (child sexual or physical abuse, dramatic loss at an early age,
wartime conditions, and so forth) permeate the biographical details of her
life as suggested either by the content of the poems or by the overtly
knowable content contours of her life narrated in her author's bio blurbs.
Nonetheless, these share with her poetry the decentered modality that make
her work interesting in the context of trauma theory.  (See Appendix I, the
author-bio for silent teachers/ remembered sequel.)

So, to present Hannah Weiner's poetry in the context of European
post-Holocaust discourse may seem trivial, bathetic, "stretching it."
Nonetheless, Weiner presents the interesting challenge of identifying
characteristics of a "trauma-text" --which I believe these are --without
knowing if the author was traumatized in conventional ways or considers
herself to have been so.  Those characteristics include the extremely flat
affect of the way many of the pieces read, like tickertape-readout,
automated effects of a malfunctioning language-making machine caught in
some kind of repetitive but random loop (in general, flat affect and its
counterpart, hysteria, signal to me textual cues to the trauma of
postmodernity), and the clairvoyance that has come to dominate all of
Weiner's explanations of her writing, and of course, that writing itself.
Clairvoyance, flatness and trauma: what links them is, partially, the
concept of dissociated states of being.  Psychologists describe
dissociation as symptomatic of trauma; anthropologists and spiritualists
describe it as being possessed, as in a shamanic or pocomaniacal trance.
In both cases, the utterances that ensue seem to come from some source
other than the speaker --and are sometimes delivered in flat otherworldly
tones.  However, to assert that the books are trauma-texts is not to take
away from the humor or the reader's delighted surprise, both of which also
characterize texts in which the language is highly defamiliarized.

In a recent discussion about Sexton and Plath and their use/abuse
of holocaust imagery to describe their own psychic realities, members of
the Poetics e-mail discussion group were divided about the legitimacy of
this imagery; is the use of such imagery hyperbolically bathetic?  Are
comfortable upper-middle class housewives of the American 50s being
disingenuous in comparing their experience of child sexual abuse and adult
gender oppression and suburban claustrophobia to the abuse, oppression and
claustrophobia of the Nazi death camps?  Is the use of such imagery to be
judged by its aesthetic authenticity, that is, whether it "works" or
doesn't "work" "within the poem"?  This essay risks inviting some of the
same questions (except for the latter, since the poetry simply cannot be
judged by New Critical standards of artistic autonomy), since one cannot
prove biographically that Weiner was or considered herself to be
traumatized --at least not by the Holocaust, though one could certainly
argue that the onset of mental illness constitutes a comparable breaking
point with normative experience and, as I will argue below (and have
intimated in the prolegomenon), her being an American Jew  raises as well
the converse question: How could she not  have been traumatized by the
Holocaust, despite its narrative or thematic absence in her work?   In some
ways, the questions that have arisen in the course of gender-based and
sexuality-based literary historiography and "difference criticism" --about
authenticity, essentialism and performativity --are germane here, since
Weiner's life story and writing experiments resonate with but are not
identical to either non-Jewish American women who write about the Holocaust
metaphorically, Jewish American poets who did not directly experience the
full horrors of the Holocaust themselves but who write directly about the
Holocaust (Barbara Helfgott Heyet, Irving Felman, Lyn Lifshin), or Jewish
Holocaust survivors who testify to their own experiences either directly
(like Eli Wiesel or Ray Federman) or indirectly (like Georges Perec).
Like "écriture feminine" (which some critics insist includes Jean Genet) or
"queer writing" (which some critics insist includes Kathy Acker), can
"trauma writing" be detached from documentary evidence of the
characteristic for which it is named?    Nowhere does Weiner use Holocaust
imagery, or imagery of sexual violence.  Rather, acknowledgment of
political or social disaster mostly occurs through a narrative about
American Indians refract(ur)ed through tv/radio discourse.  I would
suggest, with Jonathan Boyarin (Boyarin, 1992), that this is not an
arbitrary displacement; as an American, Weiner partakes of national myths
about Indians and about the role of Indians in the national imagination,
that bear a family resemblance to, if not an absolutely analogical
relationship to, European myths about Jews and their disappearance from
postmodern Europe.

Though a middle-class and American woman, Hannah Weiner is
nonetheless a Jew born in 1928; her youth and young womanhood was
contemporaneous with the genocide of her extended European family and
ethnic group, and with the destruction of their culture.  In cases of
individually experienced trauma, the victim often describes a splitting of
consciousness; for example, she "leaves her body" and hovers in the upper
corner of the room, looking down on the scene of incest that is taking
place (the healing process involves first integrating the witness-self and
the victim-self).  If Jewry was the traumatized collective subject, the
American Jew was the consciousness hovering in the corner, both a victim
and a witness of the events of mid-century and after, for, as Shoshana
Felman and Dori Laub point out, the Holocaust as source of trauma is not
over (Felman and Laub, xiv).  I might in fact go so far as to suggest that,
in its "unreadability" according to modernist methods of reading (textual
"interpretation" in which systematic explication of the content of the text
takes precedent over contextualizing or materialist concerns), Hannah
Weiner's work represents in the extreme the "crisis of literature" that has
resulted from the "crisis of history" that is the Holocaust in the
Euro-American imagination (Felman and Laub, xviii, emphases in original).
Inasmuch as the "avant-garde" can be said to attempt a "crisis in
literature" as ongoing telos, in Weiner's work this "crisis" as aesthetic
strategy both collides and resonates with "crisis" as global and personal

Furthermore, the historical era under question here coincides with
the rise of the "testimonial" genre, which Elie Weisel has claimed as his
own generation's (Weiner's, too) major contribution to literary history
(Felman and Laub, 5-6).  While it is not commonsensical among scholars of
poetry to attribute to the avant-garde the seemingly retrograde job of
witnessing (even at the graduate level, I find students denying insistently
that writing such as Gertrude Stein's and Hannah Weiner's "communicates"
anything); and while it is not commonsensical among materialist critics and
cultural studies scholars to concede to the avant-garde such an important
task as historical witnessing --it seems pretty clear from the writings of
Weiner, Barrett Watten, Nathaniel Mackey, Aime Cesaire, Amiri Baraka,
Walter Lew, and others, that this standoff is illusory, serving primarily
(it seems to me) a dead model of institutional disciplinarity rather than
furthering a vibrant poetics that can move in the present.

As ghostly infrastructure to this essay, two questions and an advisory
axiom can serve as ostinati subtending it.  One:  what would a (not "the,"
as there must be several) specifically modern Jewish ecstatic utterance
(glossolalia) look like? Answer, tentative, ruminiscent and reminascent:
it would look like Hannah Weiner's work.  With its genesis in trauma as
much as anything approaching ecstasy, Hannah Weiner's writing, Franz
Kafka's writing, Walter Benjamin's writing, Kathy Acker's writing, Gertrude
Stein's writing speak to the disorienting but irrefutable and transpersonal
compulsion to utterance --in Jean Genet's words, the "nervousness [that]
makes [one] permeable to what --for want of better words --I shall call
poetry."  Note that "writing" is the talisman word in the foregoing
sentence, the chanted refrain that gives rhythmic coherence to the
invocation of ancestral guiding spirits.  For writing and utterance, letter
and spirit, reading and speech are not so easily parsed out into a
dichotomous arrangement in Jewish cultural traditions: ecstatic or
possessed speech cannot be separated from and privileged over writing or
interpretation, which in dominant configurations of ecstatic or possessed
utterance are relegated to at best supporting roles and at worst
detractive, parasitic activities that dilute the unmediated power of raw
contact with the Divine --or --the unspeakable.
Two: Bearing in mind Theodor Adorno's cry of survivor guilt --that
there can be no poetry after Auschwitz --by which I believe he meant lyric
poetry, that Enlightenment legacy, here's another question: why does this
Jewish writer, Hannah Weiner, speak her trauma/ecstasy through non-Jewish
experience, especially the Native American genocide (as well as Yogic
transcendental and Confucian divinatory traditions and so on), while a
number of her more prominent non-Jewish American contemporaries, notably
Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, address their gender-traumas through Jewish
experience, specifically the Holocaust?  Does it have some relation to what
Susan Stewart has remarked on brilliantly as the "ventriloquism" or
dissociated quality of "lyric possession"? (Stewart, 38)  One possible
avenue of connection is that, because trauma by definition plunges its
victims into the realm of unspeakability, it tends to be approached, in
retroactive narrative, through analogy, indirectly.  This is also, of
course, through the metaphoric imperative, a poetic mandate, as in "tell
all the truth but tell it slant/ success in circuit lies," and Eliot's
objective correlative, which has been theorized as a displaced expression
of homoerotic closetedness.
Finally, the advisory: the fact of the proximity of trauma and
ecstatic utterance --the speeches of demonic, poetic and/or divine
possession --must be laid gently over the foregoing interrogative
structures, as, in fact, it has undergirded them.  By way of illustration,
and because the essay in which it appears has been so helpful to these
formulations, I offer Susan Stewart's example of historical haunting in the
context of poetic possession/inspiration.  In her discussion of
dissociation, where she wants to examine the "relation between seeing and
hearing," or as I would paraphrase it analogously with respect to Hannah
Weiner, writing and reading, she cites psychoanalyst Nicolas Abraham's
article on "intergenerational haunting" and "conflicted --rather than
unified --subjectivity."  One of Abraham's clients, an amateur geologist,
spends his weekends breaking rocks, acting out the fate of his mother's beloved.  
The loved one had been denounced by the grandmother (an unspeakable and secret 
fact), and, having been sent to 'break rocks' (casser les cailloux --do forced labor) 
he died in the gas chamber.  A lover of geology [the client] breaks rocks, then
catches butterflies which he proceed to kill in a can of cyanide (Stewart, 37).

This clearly (post-)traumatic compulsion is cited by Stewart as key to
understanding the way history is encoded in poetic form (specifically,
words, meter, rhythm --the physical and semantic mnemonics) and transmitted
in the experience of poetic "inspiration."  There can be no accident about
the specifically Jewish content of this anecdote, as well as the
psychoanalytic context that overdetermines and saturates it with Jewish
cultural meaning, though the remainder of Stewart's essay comprises close
readings of poems by John Keats, Thomas Hardy and Elizabeth Bishop.  It is,
moreover, hardly accidental that the specific Jewish content here is the
"Holocaust," the shock after which, or more properly beside which,
fantasies of on-the-dot calendrical millennial apocalypses seem frivolously
fairy-talish.  The acting out, or transcription, of utterance and meaning
beyond oneself both ecstatically and traumatically, is exactly what is so
compelling, so disorienting, so poetic (and, incidentally, so non-lyrical)
about Hannah Weiner's work.  Paul Celan wrote that "all poets are Jews."
Could the terms be reversed?  Are all Jews poets?

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