Saturday, January 07, 2006

SJC: Some New Perspectives

Still mulling over this sacred / secular business. I hope I'm not boring you!

Some of my new thoughts are sparked by Mike Heller's lovely essay "Remains of the Diaspora: a Personal Meditation": the piece he's written for the upcoming Secular Jewish Culture and Radical Poetics volume, or whatever the book will be called.

Mike starts by framing the relationship between the sacred and secular in spatial terms:
the poet who is in touch—allied in some fashion--with Judaism's speculations on language has as his animating creative goad primarily his awareness of the "between," of the space of the diaspora.

This "between" is, in a sense, foundational. It exists in the relational sphere between the law of religious observance and secular life. Robert Alter, commenting on Walter Benjamin's reading of Kafka, sees it as operative in the decay of "traditional" tradition (if I may use an oxymoron), the loss of Halakic Judaism to Aggadic Judaism. What is left, according to Alter, is "lore in quest of Law, yet so painfully estranged from what it seeks that the pursuit can end in a pounce of destruction, the fictional rending the doctrinal" (H 53). Alter could as well be speaking of the poetic, for Kafka's 'graven' images are imagistic and allegorical constructs, already caught in the "between" of Law and lore, and demanding to be read across the two genres.
A page later, using terms from Ari Elon--was that lead from my blog, Mike? What fun!--the essay gives us again a spatial image of the ribboni [freethinking, self-mastering] poet's task:
The ribboni's mission, Elon implies, is to "turn the Torah of Israel from a source for authority to a source for inspiration" (35). "Law" into "lore." The ribboni must take a walk into or over the void, at which point he or she is suspended between the religious and the secular worlds, but there, according to Elon, the ribboni must try to hang in suspension. The "Shabbat" boundary signifies not only the limits of the theocratic dispensation but is also the edge beyond which labor must continue. If "shabbat" poetics sanctify rules, strategies, even moments where labor is no longer governed by thought (in the sense that it is rule- and precedent- driven), the poetics of the space beyond the Sabbath's broken string boundaries, requires endless questioning and testing. Nothing is established as final. No clean break, no new totalizing embrace. The ribboni is not a new person; rather, he must live with Shabbat memory, the time and space of sanctity that, like a mother's embrace, offered answers and comfort. He is governed by this history, by his textual origins. For the poet of the diaspora, then, all yearnings, even those seeking to recover a lostness, involve, even if only sub rosa, a sense of felt opposition, of yearning against as well as for.
Notice how Mike has carved out a space between the sacred--the realm of "theocratic dispensation"--and a realm so fully secular that the theocratic realm is simply unimagined, neither remembered nor rejected anymore.

At times, later in the essay, this fully secular realm seems equivalent to the realm of "experimental" poetry, at least as this is understood to be poetry that remains "in the realm of 'art,' in the realm of a 'consumerist' culture of planned obsolescence and inflated political claims"--an argument fleshed out at length in Mike's essay "Avant-Garde Propellants of the Machine Made of Words," in Uncertain Poetries. At other points it seems equivalent to the "husks" of language deployed in more perfunctory circumstances. At one point, the fully secular turns out to have (perhaps, at times) a sanctity all its own. Mike quotes Scholem here, and Whitman. I suspect this means a secularity pushed farther than the realm of art or of husks could contain. (Remember Blake's "If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise"?) As you might expect, George Oppen's work turns out to serve as an example of this last; indeed, he remains an exemplary figure for Mike, and oneI need to know better.

I had planned to post more on the social circumstances of this whole SJC discussion: that is, on the actual, practical issues that seem to me at stake, which have not been addressed as directly in the essays I've read (for the volume) or the thoughts I have posted here as yet. Too tired, though, to go on with this now--and too vexed by one last question. Why is it that writers and poets always want to find some way to claim that the secular has a spark of the sacred somewhere within in, and no one ever wants to claim that the sacred has a spark of secularity?

Maybe I'm just too much the Reconstructionist, maybe I've just read too much Richard Poirier (and Wallace Stevens, maybe, and William James), maybe I just live too deeply inside the eruv here in Skokie, on a mostly Orthodox block, but I get a little tired of ceding the rhetorical high ground to the Unnamable. Surely most of this talk of "the sacred" really stands for (or masks?) a set of emotional states, social contexts, communal ties, and other secularly definable moods and activities, for which "the sacred" is our too-reverential shorthand. A little Tom Paine chutzpah, please!

More soon,

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