Guest post by PRASANTA CHAKRAVARTY
“Then is Now. The star you steer by is gone, its tremulous thread spun in the hurricane spider floss on my cheek.”
~ Basil Bunting, Briggflatts
“He who writes the work is set aside; he who has written it is dismissed. He who is dismissed, moreover, doesn’t know it. This ignorance preserves him.”
~Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature
“Blanchot is even greater waste of time than Proust,” Georges Poulet had famously remarked. Poulet was hinting at the grandeur of wasted time. A ruthless negativity, a rigorous retreat must take on all forms of reparation and facile optimism of human agency. Unconcern must be at the front and centre of our concern. The work of art is. Nothing more. The very idea of elucidation—to dwell upon the actual object that a writer has to offer us—is aesthetically vulgar and politically reactionary. A deep futility marks all perfection. A creation, like Eurydice when Orpheus looks at her, must disappear. The work is remote from itself. It is the incapacity to stop feeling what is not there to be felt.
All quests are echoes. Foreign to presence. Any presence. Quests grasp us rather. But they exclude the writer. He is stupefied. He is idled out of his own work—hence he must go back to work, tirelessly. The lucidity of his insomniac regression keeps on emerging infernally in what we call art. Write he must. But only and solely by being on the verge of his ruinous look back.
The work is without any proof. It cannot be verified. A monotonous repetition appears—a stuttering indecisiveness to start all over again with each pronouncement, each turn of the phrase which is redundant. Silence is pervasive—a dull thud. When everything has been said, the mason-writer takes the chisel, not his pen. Language does not speak anymore. It is. One makes silence perceptible—a plenitude that is voided as soon as the mason-writer picks up his chisel. The confessional romantic is the perfect obverse to such a mason of echo. The writer is not anyone anymore.
Centering Down: Elements of Quaker Aesthetics
“Be still and know that I am God,” says Psalm 46.10. Silence means another perspective of yourself to emerge, out of the process of slow, distracted attention. Like singing in unison and in tune—you pay attention, combining body, spirit and mind—but you are unaware of the throb that pulsates.
Among the various sectaries during the English Civil War, the Quakers were the ones who would physically shake and tremble, which overcame the members as they wrestled with their calling “under the Light.” The term Friends were used by the sect’s founder George Fox in order to designate the members—hence they constitute the Society of Friends. Following restoration of monarchy and the Church of England in 1660, the sect was banned and members were ruthlessly persecuted widely—killed, imprisoned and maimed. Following persecution, and in search of religious freedom, many of the Quakers fled to New England but death sentences accompanied them to the new world as well. Finally, the majority settled in Pennsylvania. Today, after various evolutionary mechanisms, vastly different branches of Quakers exist on both sides of the Atlantic. The Quakers, like a few other radical Protestant sects believe in direct and unmediated individual experience of God. They have no priests or clergy, no central creed or no set doctrine. No ritual sacraments that are followed by all Friends. Apart from seeking truth and peace, the pivotal tenets constitute turning toward the inner light of Godhead and cultivating a radical sense of equality among all humans. Until today, much of Hicksite descendents of Friends in America and British Quakers follow these fundamentals. But the most important test that marks the Quaker—in her life, religion and literary pursuits, is the holding of silence.
The early Quakers were particularly aware of the power and economy of the written or spoken word in order to promote their prophetic vision and unorthodox beliefs. As the fundamental heretic possibilities of their core beliefs travelled through testimonies, prophecies, poetry and fragments, detractors were alarmed not just because the ‘sinful libertie that the Friends took in printed bookes,’ but more because they preached and practiced silence—a trait that directly took on the idea of sociability itself.
The direct experience of waiting for the Spirit in silent worship is likened to the creative process by which a certain Quaker aesthetic works among writers, artists and musicians. Fiction and creation are ways to first achieve within and then share a point of shorn intimacy. An aesthetic of plainness and directness that bears testimony to all things material that lie around us, means that the form, accessibility, length and texture of artistic creations need to be directed towards that end—which is the beginning of artistic fidelity and which would eventually lead to equitability.
It would be germane here to distinguish between two kinds of temperaments in radical literary sensibility: that of the fanatic and the enthusiast. The fanatic is a social being whose identity emerge in and through a collective and populist frenzied process (closer to ‘zeal’ or ‘bigotry’) whereas the enthusiast is essentially an isolated figure whose material-experiential motions are inward and unsituated. Fanatics could be dangerously gregarious and extroverted, but enthusiasts are solitary and inbound. It is akin to a distinction that Joseph Addison draws between enthusiasm and superstition respectively: “…an Enthusiast in Religion is like an obstinate Clown; a Superstitious man is like a Courtier. Enthusiasm has something in it of Madness, Superstition of Folly.” The Clown is an insufficiently socialized figure while the Courtier is an overly socialized one. For Addison, the Clown’s madness was the unhinging of the isolated mind whereas the Courtier’s folly was the heteronomic vacuity of the mind incapable of independence. An enthusiast will neither be over-ceremonial nor over-cerebrate. As Benjamin Whichcote, the Cambridge Platonist had said—“they do not advance religion, who embody it.” Such an embodiment of the heterodox enthusiast is registered as silent, retreating labour in the Quaker sensibility.
“Quaker writing functions as a kind of mirror,” Nigel Smith reminds us, “in which the possibilities of praxis or action are elaborated.” Discourse must not only show the workings of inner light but embody it. This Smith evocatively calls writing degree zero in the radical spectrum. In the radically refracted world of the Quakers, the trinity was discarded, the Bible was read hermeneutically and allegorically, the Catholic idea of purgatory was redefined with a form of meditative self-denial and language was shorn of all extravagances. At the heart of the practice was of course silent meetings and then discussion in which singular views would be reached intuitively, waiting upon the lord, without indulging in dispute or disputations. Consequently the most striking aspect of their literary sensibility lies in reading the Scripture as an interior allegory (and draw power from such readings in order to stand up to the sociable and tyrannical world), as a record to the workings of inner light within individuals. Indeed, the body would undergo a change (hence the quaking) when it is inhabited by inner light, that is, the substance of Christ. The regenerate, perfected body of the Quaker is therefore textualized and fragmented many times until dispersed all over the elements—and within the chalice of shorn linguistic and sonic forms. The minimal form of Quaker language is in a manner, the anatomy of artistic and enthusiastic regeneration. All political and social persecution and their periodic return were replaced by a complete transformation of language one owned: into scriptura redeviva.
Something infinitely larger is at stake here: namely, how does one define form of life (forma vitae) and the way of living (forma vivendi), a novum vitae genus, a life that they call “apostolic,” through our artistic and living endeavours? Georgio Agamben has been systematically recording the implications. Such sentences like “they walked barefoot, they did not accept money, nor did they carry a wallet or shoes or two tunics” does not represent an ascetic or mortifying practice to obtain salvation as it did in the monastic tradition, but among the enthusiasts such moves are an inseparable and constitutive part of the “apostolic” life, which they profess to practice in perfect joy. Silence is a way of reclaiming life, outside of the rules of monastery or society. The prototype is of course the Son of God himself: since Christ contains in himself the form of all acting and thinking he might hand down a form of life to humans by living. A rigorous practice of shorn silence is an exercise in paradigm, an exemplum. Miracles can be wrought only in oblivious retreat which is also highest form of poverty.
Shearing oneself of one’s moorings, language and being—centering down— is a punctilious exercise in alighting matter all around us. Quakers carry forward the attempt to realize human life and practice absolutely outside of the determinations of law. It is an unconscious and enduring step against the threshold of indifference, practiced by social institutions; the distinction that such institutions draw between life and norm & between being and practice, between life and liturgy & between individual and function.
This formal question of withdrawal is a deeply historical one too. For use of private language like property is an abuse. Gradual shearing off of all excess affirms this: what does not exist cannot be had. Matter and sign turn coterminous. Silence cannot at all be had. By radically opposing use and consumption, Quakers through an unconscious prophecy, furnishes the paradigm of an impossibility of using that was to find its full realization many centuries later in consumer society. With no possibility of any use, all art are like shells abandoned on the seashore or wild animals.
At this stage we are poised to delve into poetry, a form that by definition constitutes silence as the highest form of poverty. Uncelebrated, the obverse side of literary modernism carries forward this very spirit.
Chthonic Power: Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts
Brigflatts Meeting House (spelled with one “g” in Quaker circles) is a Quaker Friends Meeting House near Sedbergh in Cumbria, England. Basil Bunting visited Brigflatts as a schoolboy when the family of one of his school-friends lived there, and it was at this time that he developed a strong attachment to his friend’s sister, Peggy Greenbank, to whom the poem is dedicated. Bunting went to a Quaker school. The poem was first read in public on 22 December 1965 at the Morden Tower and published in 1966 by Fulcrum Press. Much later Bunting would follow up with a short sequel titled ‘At Briggflatts Meetinghouse’ (1975).
Briggflatts is a poem about love that is murdered and discarded. The poem’s arc hides an eternal travel, overlaying his adventurous life with the journeys of the likes of Alexander the Great and King Eric Bloodaxe, as if to indicate that ambition of love-sick teenagers and conquerors can be equally elemental, ambitious and ephemeral. It is a quest narrative of a monumental permanence which must elude human beings. The poem takes us through a journey in which “if you follow the clue patiently…and you will understand nothing.”
Much of the poem is in North-East dialect. The poem has a five-part structure. The first part has a regular structure of 12 stanzas each containing 13 lines. In the following four parts the stanzas vary in length from couplets to quatrains to stanzas of more than 20 lines. The bulk of the text appears in free verse while there are instances of scattered rhyming patterns. Most significantly, Bunting’s integration of myth, musicality and oral rhythms come to the fore in and through a scathing sense minimalism which has made him a deeply neglected and forgotten poet.
In The Poet’s Point of View Bunting had to say this: “Poetry, like music, is to be heard. It deals in sound—long sounds and short sounds, heavy beats and light beats, the tone relations of the vowels, the relations of consonants to one another which are like instrumental colour in music. Poetry lies dead on the page until some voice brings it to life, just as music on the stave, is no more than instructions to the player. A skilled musician can imagine the sound, more or less, and a skilled reader can try to hear, mentally, what his eyes see in print: but nothing will satisfy either of them till his hears hear it as real sound in the air. Poetry must be read aloud.” Poetry does not consist only of sound. But the essential thing is the sound. True to this creed, he writes in Briggflatts, “The mason stirs: Words! / Pens are too light. / Take a chisel to write.” Or “Brief words are hard to find, / shapes to carve and discard …”
The relative effacement of Bunting from our cultural firmament means an effacement of the provincial and the tentative. The power and vulnerability of such tentativeness angers the sociable, the teeming and the thronged.
W.S. Merwin has referred to the resounding splendor of Milton’s language, its Chthonic power—meaning, the messy realism in the fictive—freighted with outrage, striving and rebellion. But throbbing with an inbound, direct and ‘answerable style.’ In this manner, the poem-thing happens. A scintillating exaltation shoots through us as we encounter a total rhythm. Thom Gunn in somewhat similar terms, in ‘What the Slowworm Said’, which is one of the early and rare appraisals of Briggflatts, highlights how Bunting lies low and pays attention “through the senses to the natural physical world.” This is what Chthonic power is—to cleanly and wholeheartedly grasp the nature of things. Consequently, Bunting not only recaptures a past, but prolongs its repetitive-differential gong. Our surroundings stutter with another kind of inward-certainty, steady and even. For instance, here is Northumberland of the 1960s in Briggflatts—
Shepherds follow the links
Sweet turf studded with thrift
Fellborn men of precise instep
Leading demure dogs
From Tweed and Till and Teviotdale
From hair combed back from the muzzle
Dogs from Redesdale and Coquetdale
Taught by Wilson or Telfer
Their teeth are white as birch
Slow under black fringe
Of slow accurate lips.
The ewes are heavy with lamb
Snow lies bright on Hedgehope
And tacky mud about Till
Where the fells have stepped aside
And the river praises itself
Silence by silence sits
And Then is diffused in Now.
Gunn perceptively would bring our attention to the exactness of familiar recurrence in such a passage—“the turf studded with the herb thrift, men of precise instep, dogs with accurate lips.” Spontaneity is a serial reenactment of difference and repetition. Transience is marked by a sort of reconciliation—of whatever is. And the representative man has become the specific man of the autobiography. Common noun and proper noun conjoin. The inward looks out to the world—but world is life itself and vice versa. All dualism vanishes. The thinnest osmotic membrane of silence connects life with world. A montage of places has thus become one place in Bunting. Then is diffused in Now. This idea of diffusion, osmosis and refraction is determining to the aesthetics of silence. You saturate sensing. And attempt a certain summation. You attempt. Success is not a factor. Shearing off is. Whatever is unpracticed—through a trust that is source of both strength and vulnerability is hammered within. One is impaled by a situation that stops us, until real change emerges out of that immobility, all on its own. Thus goes an initiation, silently, and one knows not how. Great poetic craft is therefore both invention and revelation, with a great Chthonic staying power. Bunting was deeply aware of such a poetic debt—which he collectively called overdrafts—taken on the literary treasury of his predecessors.
About the non-legacy of Bunting, John Challis has to say this: “Genius one always thought, cannot exist without acclaim, yet Basil Bunting soldiers grittily on in near solitude, like some veteran bandit who cannot retire.” Yet we know that Bunting served his time in several prisons during the First World War for being a conscientious objector; he dined with Yeats; he encountered most figures in the London modernist scene including the Bloomsbury Group; he met Franco when he was military governor of the Canaries just prior to conflict in the Spanish Civil War; he visited most of the political hotspots of Europe prior to the Second World War during which he served as an officer in military intelligence in Persia (becoming Squadron Leader Bunting); and knew, among others, Pound, Eliot, Zukofsky, Ford Madox Ford and William Carlos Williams. Dante, Wordsworth and Whitman (the latter cultivated conspicuous affiliation with Quakers— with their theology, values, heritage, and their many social reforms, as well as with their distinctive dress and speech.) would be of abiding influence. In this context, Eric Mottram observes, “In retrospect Bunting’s work moves toward the abundance of the 1965 poem in which a lifetime’s experience of travel and employment is shaped under the energies of a craft which itself contains not only the practice of four decades but a theoretical consideration of how writing is actually committed.” But those frenetic moves, a lifetime of experience and his poetry are now relinquished, erased—a silence against the silence of a difficult voice.
An anachronistic incongruity, Bunting is not bankable.
In terms of forgetfulness, with its condition of failing and incompleteness, the unavoidable starting point is poignant since to be known is a condition that necessarily precedes subsequently being forgotten, especially within the public sphere of which the aesthetic written form might circulate. To forget an author is a public act that concerns multiple activities for a public readership, academia, the publishing field, and the process, once initiated is accelerated by factors such as public access to records and the currency of cultural norms and fashions. Roy Bhaskar says of the human agent in Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom “She is always treading on pre-trodden ground. Wherever she goes ‘metaphorically’ there has always been someone else before. She is always – from birth to death – living in a pre-constituted world. She is always living in the past.” Hence, in a certain dialectical sense, to forget is to resist elements of the very creative fabric of ourselves as identities, and thereby claim an originary quality for ourselves in the aesthetic act that resists the collectivity of a teleological constitution of selfhood. Forgetting is to neglect aspects of that shared ground that call upon the possibilities of a broader ontological awareness, sieving from the sedimentation of our constitutive historical presence.
What the Quaker-enthusiast sensibility of Bunting refuses is the internal reading of the cultural order of the modern academe—to run and pay obeisance to an autonomous and transcendent system. Hence a warning:
It looks well on the page, but never
well enough. Something is lost
when wind, sun, sea upbraid
justly an unconvinced deserter.
World is as objective form to him. But there also persists a anti-romantic undercurrent often noted when accounting for the lyrical aspects and creative lineage of his work. Music is a claim to meaninglessness, the vulnerability of solitude—a formal question that is historicized only through a careful, anteriorized manner. Besides, it is tactile and sonic and not visual, which is also playful and detached:
to sing, not paint; sing, sing,
laying the tune on the air,
nimble and easy as a lizard,
still and sudden as a gecko
He is negating poetic aspiration itself. There is nothing to authenticate:
poet appointed dare not decline
to walk among the bogus, nothing to authenticate
the mission imposed, despised
by toadies, confidence men, kept boys.
For Peter Makin “Bunting is a naive poet. He believes that sound communicates emotion, and that emotion is of interest. There is no gap between him and the word, or between his words and his world.” In the fifth section of Briggflatts all meanings turn trans-sensory—
drip – icicle’s gone.
slur, ratio, tone,
chime dilute what’s done
as a flute clarifies song,
trembling phrase fading to pause
then glow. solstice past,
years end crescendo
Meaning is permeated in terms of tone and by the sonic quality of poetry. A constant “dialogue” is created between animals, plants and stones. The poet-mason, who is said to be “listening,” who “times his mallet / to a lark’s twitter” therefore disdains language that has become unanchored from the world and left to float adrift. A parallel musicality in nature and its aesthetic reflection render all experience fulsome, chthonic— a clarification rather than something desolate or bleak. Eliot, not unlike Arnold, can talk of seeking to lift language out of the realm of the verifiable—the world we call ‘mere’ –but does so by talking of the use of poetry and the use of critics. Such hectic living for Bunting would be a world of “Stillborn fecundities / frostbound applause.” As a Quaker-dissenter Bunter never has taken this route. There is no oracular pomposity about him. Incandescent verifiability of objects is the fulcrum of silence in all art that is enthusiastic. There is only one literary way of debunking: lucidly. Lucid is the moment when enunciations shimmer and die in a swift bloom. The words present themselves as is—that is the lightning moment.
Indeed, Briggflatts is a quest in both form and content, it relates a past quest (the poet’s life, his search for a style to equal the mason’s craft), while itself taking the form of a quest. Writing itself, the poetic line, begins to tell its own story. It is this mode of the literary that the poem commemorates. Notice the plaited lines:
take no notice of tears:
letter the stone to stand
over love laid aside lest
insufferable happiness impede
flight to Stainmore,
and axe knocks
Tracing buffers us from insufferable happiness. At a stupefied distance objects turn into signs—mallet and axe beckon us. Therefore Blanchot: “What fascinates us robs us of our power to give sense. It abandons its “sensory” nature, abandons the world, draws back from the world, and draws us along.” It is a set of neutralizing images, suspending nor arresting it, but on the contrary preventing it from ever finishing, cutting it off from any beginning, turning them into a directionless gleam which will not go out, yet does not clarify. The gaze turned back upon itself and closed in a circle. Busy happiness reversed is the essence of solitude. Fascination is solitude’s gaze. It is the gaze of the incessant and interminable. Fascination perceives a milieu that Bunting is presenting before us, not discrete images. Figures coalesce in their imperceptible sharp twang. There are no real figures. The gaze coagulates into light. In this milieu of fascination, faceless someone draws you. That is the flight. It is a terrifying, tantalizing possibility. One that keeps all optimism and agency at a distance.
It is important to point out that Bunting’s investment in the act of literary fencing is not some sort of bioregionalism. Sometimes Bunting has been placed alongside Hugh MacDiarmid, David Jones, Seamus Heaney and Geoffrey Hill as a group of poets who have tried to draw a link between romanticism and modernism by positing an eco-poetical alternative to avant-garde ventures. That is the most banal of Heideggerian readings that harp on poetry’s transformational power. Gathering has nothing to do with silence. Silence of forms is not responding to the question of Heraclites’ unity of contraries. That mode takes the route of romantic recovery, not attentive enough to the vulnerabilities of form and the trajectories of the literary space. Bunting is also not indulging in any kind of idealized alienating act through his disappearance—the way Adorno likes to think about aesthetics and the political. To harp on alienation is another form of sentimentalizing existence.
When you delve headlong into whatever is, you also have a premonition of redundancy, which is the only aspiration that a poet can have: critical eclipse, into and within the cosmos of poetic work. Bunting has gone through this phase:
The sheets are gathered and bound
the volume indexed and shelved,
dust on the marbled shelves.
Work—those bound sheets, will be silent, gathering irrelevancy day by day, year after year: silence while we ask nothing/ but silence/ Look how clouds dance/ under the wind’s wing, and leaves/ delight in transience. The Quaker sensibility, its language and its commitment to life are beholden to an immediacy which common language communicates to us only at a veiled distance, the absolutely foreign passing for the habitual and the sociable. Instead, the immediate is made so sharply familiar by its sparseness that it imposes upon us a native habitat. Fictive illusion becomes a liberation that predates all action. All silent movements affirm the partakers’ decision not to be, to separate themselves from being, and, by making this separation real, to create the world. “This silence is the production and the expression of signification itself…at our risk and peril, we reject—with fire and iron and with silent refusal—being’s permanence and protection.”
In the world of the highest poverty, the world recedes and aims cease; the world falls silent; beings with their preoccupations, their projects, their activity no longer make any impression. Poetry expresses the fact that living is hushed. But the word alone proclaims itself. Then enunciation takes on all of its significance. It turns essential. Language speaks as the essential, and that is why the word entrusted to the poet can be called the essential word.
Such an errant essentiality, constituted by loss of the world and ourselves, lies at the heart of the heterodox enthusiastic sensibility.
Prasanta Chakravarty teaches at the Department of English, University of Delhi
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