Poethics of the Improbable
Rosmarie Waldrop and the Uses of Form
The future is in the swerve.
Back in a medium of German, my mother's Northern variety, not the softer "Fränkisch" I had grown up with, memories flooded. I started a novel, The Hanky of Pippin's Daughter. It began with portraits of my parents, but quickly became a way of trying to understand, to explore, at least obliquely, the Nazi period, the shadow of the past—and the blurred borders of fact, fabrication, tradition, experience, memory.Rosmarie Waldrop, Contemporary
Authors Autobiographical Series
I don't even have thoughts, I say, I have methods that make language think, take over and me by the hand. Into sense or offense, syntax stretched across rules, relations of force, fluid the dip of the plumb line, the pull of eyes. What if the mother didn't censor the child's looking? Didn't wipe the slate clean? Would the child know from the start that there are no white pages, that we always write over a text already there? No beginnings. All unrepentant middle.Rosmarie Waldrop, A Form of Taking It All
Rosmarie Waldrop, whose reputation in this country and in Europe is primarily that of poet and translator, has written two novels that are gravely, playfully situated in that "unrepentant middle." They are works of compound attention, permeability, and generous humor—the kind of humor that renovates medieval notions of temperamental fluidities into piquant conceptual shifts. The Hanky of Pippin's Daughter
Waldrop composes the cultural flotsam and jetsam out of which we fabricate memory into shifting mosaics whose energy derives from interactions of textual particles (captions, lists, anecdotal fragments, descriptive glimpses … "data" of various, humorous sorts) and narrative/speculative waves that raise questions about our relation to art, science, politics, history. The moving principle in both her novels is transgeneric, a textual graphics of prose and poetic intersections—cultural invention in intercourse with historical crime. The effect is photoelectric, illuminating a contemporary poethics of the formally investigative novel with, given the urgent matters addressed, an improbable lightness of form.
As "twentieth-century" writers and thinkers we have continued to live in the shadow of a nineteenth-century narrative dictum: affix one unit of prose to the next with the uberglue of interpretive transition. That this rule has been so spectacularly transgressed—Stein, Dorothy Richardson, Woolf, Joyce, Beckett, Calvino, Queneau, Sorrentino, Perec … —may mislead us into thinking that novels experimenting with other logics—associative, collage, paratactic, recursive, procedural, permutative … —are numerous. In fact, the scene of the novel is dominated by hundreds of thousands of securely coupled units (sentences, paragraphs, chapters) hurtling like locomotives toward the metaengineered marvels that configure the architectonics of romantic profundity—psychologically and philosophically penetrating tunnels, epiphanic climaxes, mirror-image vanishing points.
Nineteenth-century mechanics, in philosophy and literature as well as in science and technology, exploited the power of continuous, contiguous piston-driven momentum toward the transfer of godlike qualities (overarching wisdom and judgment, omnipotence, omniscience) to "man" as author. Twentieth-century, "feminine," gaps and collisions and sensible uncertainties set off alarms, ruptured the nineteenth-century illusion of controlled historical continuity. The intellectual tragicomedy
Complexity—the network of indeterminacies it spawns—is the condition of our freedom. That freedom, insofar as it is exercised as imaginative agency, thrives in long-term projects, like Waldrop's novels, that reconfigure patterns of thought and imagination. (I wonder if human agency—in contrast to human rights—can at this point in our self-conscious cultural undertakings be usefully modeled by isolated instances of "free choice.") This is why, with all the disruptions and anxieties of an age of uncertainty, we are seeing a renaissance of literary and scientific invention brought about by the peculiar twenty-first-century dialogue of questions and forms. Things are much more interesting than warmed-over narratives of decline and fall would have it. Where once we thought exclusively in terms of linear developments, with very few first-class tickets or window seats available for the ride, we now notice proliferating opportunities in fractal surfaces—the extraordinary number of detailed contact points that compose the cultural coastline. Draining the "profound depths" of symbolist metaphysics has presented us with the infinite potential of recombinatory, chance-determined play. On the historical surface, whose geometries are more about topological stretches and folds and global networks than developmental chains, it is not surprising that Waldrop's work with the form of the novel resembles Tristram Shandy more than The Magic Mountain or Buddenbrooks. Most important, her novels are imaginative, material inquiries into our contemporary conditions. On this matter of timeliness Gertrude Stein set, many times over, both the modernist and postmodernist scenes: "The whole business of writing is the question of living [one's] contemporariness.… The thing that is important is that nobody knows what the contemporariness is. In other words, they don't know where they are going, but they are on their way" ("How Writing Is Written," 151).
If logical systems are, as Gödel tells us, inherently incomplete;if mass is energy, particle is wave, space is time, and vice versa; if natural and cultural histories are chaotic; if complex surfaces are fractal (allowing infinite detail to exist within finite space-time delineations)—then the question arises, What is implied about the forms with which we attempt to make meaning of our experience? The answer has not detached itself
I had inferred from pictures that the world was real and therefore paused, for who knows what will happen if we talk truth while climbing the stairs. In fact, I was afraid of following the picture to where it reaches right out into reality, laid against it like a ruler. I thought I would die if my name didn't touch me, or only with its very end, leaving the inside open to so many feelers like chance rain pouring down from the clouds. You laughed and told everybody that I had mistaken the Tower of Babel for Noah in his Drunkenness. ("Facts," 5)
In the perverse annals of recapitulation one could say that childhood has always foreshadowed the way in which we lost our (purported) grip on things in the twentieth century. Childhood, in the calmest of eras, is a scintillating scene of absurd and terrifying disproportions. Alice in Wonderland or any random selection of fairy tales can be read as instruction manuals for negotiating the speed and glare of associative light as it obliterates the boundary between stable figure and quaking ground. Does the dangerous passage into the dotted-line equilibrium we call adulthood ever end on a personal or historical level? A major source of the practice of storytelling seems to come from the need, first as children, to hear stories that contain the terror, that seduce one in as night tourist only to skillfully deliver us into the daylight on the other side of a door clearly marked THE END. (Yes, dear, don't worry, the nightmare does stop. Mommy/Daddy/your author will see to that.) There is as well the crucial impulse to tell one's own story, to exercise for oneself the power to fashion a version of reality that can be exited intact.
Now we think we know that the stories we tell tell us as well. This dialogic rhythm forms whole cultures. The panoptical novel reflects and abets a culture of docile bodies, hierarchical power, politically conscripted detail. The romantic and brutal and precise folktales collected by the Brothers Grimm cannot be without some connection to the romantic
Rosmarie Waldrop spent her childhood and adolescence in Nazi and postwar Germany. She was not a designated victim. Her family was not Jewish, gypsy, communist. As far as I know, no one close to her circle was homosexual. Nonetheless, as a child growing into a sense of her world, she had to contend with the pervasive effects of rampant paranoia, systematic deceit, unjustifiable certainties, rumor, betrayal that formed the atmosphere of Hitler's Germany, as well as with the logical schisms, absences, and terrors associated with any war zone. Bombing raids on the Bavarian town where she lived, Kitzingen-am-Main, brought one's ultimate vulnerability home. Waldrop is the first to say that amid the bizarre tensions of a family with its own peculiar psychodramas attempting normal life in the context of a major entry into the catalog of human-constructed hells, there were consolations: her piano, recordings of her favorite music, books, friendship.
The Hanky of Pippin's Daughter was the product of a long-standing "impossible" desire to transform the disequilibrium of ordinary life patterns and Nazi nightmare into a novel. What this finally meant in practical terms was eight years of struggling to find a form, an agon between the vanishing points of irredeemably nasty memories and the complex necessity for what I can only see as poethical courage—the nerve to resist packaging unruly materials in the nineteenth-century conventions of novel as written by God in possession of a world that makes sense.
Waldrop's own statement about Hanky is revealing: "The drive to know our own story moves us to see through it and touch the violence inherent in the mechanism itself." That violence is, in part, the refusal of the material to conform to the palliative gestures of an existing decorum. The contemporary paradox of storytelling is that the disturbance that becomes the "drive to know our own story" must enter the form itself thereby making the desired knowledge impossible. Samuel Beckett is interesting on the story as form:
What am I doing, talking, having my figments talk, it can only be me. Spells of silence too, when I listen, and hear the local sounds, the world sounds, see what an effort I make, to be reasonable. There's my life, why not, it is one, if you like, if you must, I don't say no, this evening. There has to be one, it seems, once there is speech, no need of a story, a story is not compulsory, just a life, that's the mistake I made, one of the mistakes, to have wanted a story for myself, whereas life alone is enough. ("Texts for Nothing 4")
Oddly or not, this may constitute a functional either/or—"story or life" rather than "story of life." If one chooses story of/over life, one chooses the consolation prize of an understanding that removes one from uncertainties and disruptions of extratextual worlds; one is put at rest. The objective is a kind of "moment of inertia," a parameter useful in describing the rotational motion of rigid (inorganic) bodies. The urgent knowledge that erupts onto the page and into the form sends one into the swerving, turbulent patterns of life principles—the messiness and loveliness of ecological interdependence, synergy, exchange, chance. This is what John Cage meant by art that imitates not nature but her processes—processes that render us cheerfully and tragically inconsolable. I suspect it is precisely Beckett's refusal to be consoled (a rejection of sentimentality) that allowed him to "go on." When Waldrop says she doesn't have thoughts but that she has methods that make language think, she is referring to a similar movement away from grammars of inertia. Waldrop turns her own restlessness and anxiety of insufficiency into a navigational project, a poetics of formal choices that throw text into motion as life processes themselves. This has to do with material energies of language—vocabularies, syntaxes, juxtapositional dynamics, interpretive coordinates. Since their first publication by Station Hill Press in 1986 and 1990, respectively, both The Hanky of Pippin's Daughter and A Form of Taking It All have more or less fallen off the edge of a generically flat literary world, in which anything venturing outside certain well-defined conventions tends to remain all but invisible. (They have recently been reprinted in one volume by Northwestern University Press.)
In his 1958 essay "History of Experimental Music in the United States" John Cage wrote that in the midst of "all those interpenetrations which seem at first glance to be hellish—history, for instance … one does not then make just any experiment but does what must be done" (Silence, 68). Of course, we all must decide for ourselves "what must be done." The urgency of a perceived necessity, even in a universe so brilliantly perforated by chance, is what connects experiment with passion. A passion of working through, transfiguring, the materials of one's times can involve all that the word passion implies—"suffering" (undergoing, enduring) but also the way in which the register of emotions, from anguish to dread to humor and joy, turns our intellectual and imaginative inventions into richly suggestive humanist prisms. What distinguishes this from sentimentality is the realism and courage involved in a gamut of feelings that makes us permeable to dire intercourse with our world, with others, in the form of love, anger, desire, lust, competitiveness, friendship, the rushing
Rosmarie Waldrop humorously illuminates the emotionally charged character of experiment in her 1990 essay "Alarms and Excursions":
In the early stages of my writing all the poems were about my mother and my relation to her. Rereading them a bit later, I decided I had to get out of this obsession. This is when I started to make collages. I would take a novel and decide to take one or two words from every page. The poems were still about my mother. So I realized that you don't have to worry about the contents: your preoccupations will get into the poem no matter what. Tzara ends his recipe for making a chance poem by cutting out words from the newspapers and tossing them in a hat: "The poem will resemble you." (55)
The remarkable coincidence of experimental results with what one most cares about happens only when the active consciousness of the experimenter precipitates an urgency of choice, one that cannot help but affect the shape of the indeterminate elements. The moral is that in the hands of the poethically innovative artist we need not fear dissociative or denatured or depersonalized forms. Waldrop began an autobiographical statement for a literary reference book with John Cage's credo: poetry is having nothing to say and saying it; we possess nothing. What this can mean is bringing disparate linguistic units into a patterned synergy that will unavoidably emanate from the writer's being in the world, that has tangible sources but also honors the active intelligence of the reader precisely to the extent that it eschews ownership or authority over the way in which it is construed. The text is sent out into the world in reciprocal dialogue with its other.
In Hanky there is a captioned framing, a paratactic pace that serially interweaves the personal anecdotal, the journalistic documentary, the epistolary, the philosophical, the helplessly humorous with a quest for meaning that is neither pretentious nor falsely modest given Waldrop's acknowledged remove from the worst horrors of Nazism. She arrives at this strategic nexus, one could say, in order to depart from it not as victim but as composer of a novel that, under the pressure of the grotesque horror of Nazism, transmogrifies into a kind of linguistic comic strip. This book could in fact be fruitfully read together with Art Spiegelman's Maus, volume 1 of which was also published in 1986. It does with language some of what Spiegelman does with the visual conventions of cartooning. Waldrop and Spiegelman are writing about their parents' relation
Waldrop's "strip" has features of Möbius as it traces the process (not necessarily progress) of moving from personal narrative to narrative persona. In discarding the self-justifying strategies and sentimentalities of certain kinds of novelistic prose—prose that never undermines the power of the narrator even within the conventions of "unreliability," she has literally turned the uses of her language inside out and in again. This leaves us with that paradox of all consciously postmodern fictions—that of the acknowledged lie of acknowledging the lie that is the sinister engine of selectivity in all forms. Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale begins with the humor of its own title and the problematic of its first caption, My Father Bleeds History. The first caption in Waldrop's humorously titled Hanky is "LAST SEASON'S BESTSELLER WAS GREED." Both novels sort through dubious legacies of parents who are simultaneously trapped/free agents in/of their cultures. Humor is located in conceptual shifts between "trapped/free" playing out in Hanky as "Jewish/Aryan" in linked "Franz/Josef" figures of the mother's "Lover/Father."
To Theodor Adorno's despairing sense that after Auschwitz it would no longer be possible to write poetry, Waldrop says Edmond Jabès replied, "I saw that we must write. But we cannot write like before." Waldrop, close friend as well as translator of Jabès, has enacted this realization in her own work. Adorno himself attempted to moderate his poetic pessimism (at one point saying it is only lyric poetry that is barbaric after Auschwitz) to the very end of his life. The challenging means to a reinvention of possibility was already apparent in his Minima Moralia, written during and immediately after World War II: "There is no longer beauty or consolation except in the gaze falling on horror, withstanding it, and in unalleviated consciousness of negativity, holding fast to the possibility of what is better."
This raises—in a manner both stark and energetic—the life and death urgency of questions of literary form as we navigate through the range of joys and catastrophes and commonplaces and shades of anomie of our violent times—the unexpurgatable mess of lived history. Imaginative structures orient and initiate our intuitions as we confront the congealed
We are always writing through the impossibility of after. This chronic, dispiriting condition can grind imagination to a halt or send it tooling in nostalgic circles. The most vital of our new writing addresses our need to stay in motion via the disparate and humorous logics of inventing and reinventing our contemporaneity. Such a process must always take place in acknowledgment of the fact that the materials of invention are nothing other than historical detritus. All the more reason to affirm a poethics of the improbable—our perennial challenge, the heart of an engaged optimism.