Saturday, February 03, 2007

Memory deux

Josh Corey on Whitman:

"Rereading Song of Myself, I was freshly conscious of the poem as the document of a mystical experience, and the tension between such consummately individual experience and the radically democratic absorption and embodiment of the American polis attempted by the poem: a dialectic of enlightenment in the spiritual sense. Many of the other students were primarily impressed by Whitman's fantastic egotism, but I want to make a case for his radical humility, stemming from an intuition I have that spiritual enlightenment is born of the experience and embracement of one's own thoroughly ordinary and thoroughly mortal life. It's possible to mistake the speaker of Whitman's poem for some kind of superman, but when he claims, "And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier," I think the immortality he claims comes from accepting his share in the multitude, and not from some superior self-founded power (though he flirts with this only to find himself "on a verge of the usual mistake"). At least I suspect that's his drift."

Interesting that this resonates so with Wordsworth's The Prelude, which I've been reading for a class on Memory. I wouldn't say that Wordsworth is a "fantastic egoist" or "radically humble," but the relation between immortality and democratic multiplicity is certainly there. That Whitman can impress us with a sense of "radical humility" because he embraces ordinary, mortal life seems right to me. But there's a bit of a paradox or perhaps a difficulty here. What I wonder in terms of how memory functions is whether individual memory, the sense of the self in the past, is itself a "democratic" or democratizing impulse. Memory, as the recollection and re-experience of incidents that accumulate in the interior resources of our consciousness and may be retrieved by our interaction with the contingent world around us that in some way contains them, only has meaning if that individual experience can be "translated" as essentially recognizable by another. Thus the shock of pleasure and recognition when reading Proust. Thus the dual pleasure of reading--the idea that reading someone else's memories are not only comparable or resonant with our own but that, in fact, we experience them as our own in the moment of reading. Wordsworth's Kantian idealism seems crucial here--which I take to be more a result of Coleridge's influence than anything else. The sense that the artistic genius, even as he is a law unto himself, a unique measure of the capacity of nature and the human mind to be in harmony with one another is, in fact, a universal capacity, or potential. Genius is something we can experience, something we feel something about in relation to our own lives.

So what, exactly, does one experience by reading Wordsworth's attempt to immortalize his memories, to engage with the "genius" of and within the work? Is it just a confirmation of experience? Or rather, is it an easy confirmation? The leaps and juxtapositions of Wordsworth's lyric seem to belie any seamless relation between writer and reader. The pleasure of a text that focuses so primarily on memory, alongside of which we are confronted with Wordsworth's questioning of Enlightenment reason (at the same time that he relies on it), and the particularity of the historical and cultural moments that he writes of and within push this idea of democratic idealism to the limit. This is the "memory crisis" that Richard Terdiman writes of as the condition of modernity, which thus demands a writing style and form that engages this tension-- a tension produced by the desire to communicate for and to all at the same time that this is precluded by the opacity of the radical individualism upon which theories of modern democracy are built. The modern subject writing for and to the world (or at least for and to someone) may, in the end, merely confirm the radical particularity of experience as the only possible universal. (and how is that a universal?) The demands of universality cannot be met, they can only be experienced as a desire, at least within the liberal-democratic imaginary. Writing and memory intertwine as a longing to unite past, present, and future beyond the individual. Wordsworth's writing anxiety and his memory crisis are one and the same, yet he writes through (not beyond) them as they are the condition upon which both the failure and the success of the work are built. If he confirms the difficulty of memory and writing, and the impossible desire for a democratic idealism and universality, this series of negatives paradoxically brings great pleasure (to both Wordsworth as the narrator within the poem as well as the reader). It is, to paraphrase Geoffrey Hartman, a shift from a hope in Revolution to the belief in the revolutionary possibilities of hope.

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