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Pivotal Studies in the Global American Literary Imagination

Series Editors Daniel T. O Hara Temple University Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Donald E. Pease Dartmouth College Hanover, New Hampshire, USA

This series will present new critical perspectives on the histories and legacies shaping the divergent visions of America in the world within literary texts. Texts that re-envision America and its relationship to the larger world, in ways other than exceptionalist, will provide a point of critical focus for these cutting edge scholarly studies. Using the unique format of Palgrave Pivot to make an incisive intervention into current scholarship, the stress in these books will be on how American literary texts have and continue to contribute to the reformation of the vision of America in the world from roughly the antebellum period to the present. As transnationalapproaches to scholarly production have become mainstream, Pivotal Studies in the Global American Literary Imagination considers the complexities of such an appropriation and, instead, develop alternative global perspectives. All American genealo- gies from the New England preeminence through the mid-century modern cold war consensus to post-modern dissensus, transatlantic, global/transna- tional turns (and counter-turns) would be tapped and the word Americanin the title will include all of North America. All critical perspectives would also be welcome, so long as the focus is on the question of how the texts and subjects discussed bear on the question of the global American literary imagination. Finally, the authors will demonstrate how to read their chosen texts, revealing the ways these new interpretations foster informed critique and revised critical methods.

More information about this series at


William V. Spanos

On the Ethical Imperatives of the Interregnum

Essays in Loving Strife from Soren Kierkegaard to Cornel West

V. Spanos On the Ethical Imperatives of the Interregnum Essays in Loving Strife from Soren Kierkegaard

William V. Spanos English Department Binghamton University Binghamton, New York, USA

Pivotal Studies in the Global American Literary Imagination

ISBN 978-3-319-47870-8 DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-47871-5

ISBN 978-3-319-47871-5 (eBook)

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© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2016 This book was advertised with a copyright holder in the name of the publisher in error, whereas the author holds the copyright. This work is subject to copyright. All rights are solely and exclusively licensed by the Publisher, whether the whole or part of the material is concerned, speci cally the rights of translation, reprinting, reuse of illustrations, recitation, broadcasting, reproduction on micro lms or in any other physical way, and transmission or information storage and retrieval, electronic adaptation, computer software, or by similar or dissimilar methodology now known or hereafter developed. The use of general descriptive names, registered names, trademarks, service marks, etc. in this publication does not imply, even in the absence of a specic statement, that such names are exempt from the relevant protective laws and regulations and therefore free for general use. The publisher, the authors and the editors are safe to assume that the advice and information in this book are believed to be true and accurate at the date of publication. Neither the publisher nor the authors or the editors give a warranty, express or implied, with respect to the material contained herein or for any errors or omissions that may have been made.

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To the coming community

In Loving Strife, Spanos writes something like an intellectual autobiography in a series of essays, each of which revisits predecessors and contemporaries whose work has mattered in his life and career. All the more remarkable for the circumstances of their composition, these essays align an important intellectuals sense of his engaged and creative inheritance with the modern minds that mattered most to his life and work.’ — Paul A. Bové, Distinguished Professor, University of Pittsburgh, USA

The history of ideas is sometimes viewed as an innite conversation. In this book, William V. Spanos discloses the ways in which his own thinking has emerged from spirited conversations with others via a process he calls a loving strife.Reecting on his encounters with ten inauguralgures-from Søren Kierkegaard to Hannah Arendt, Edward Said, and Cornel WestSpanos provides a genealogy both of his own critical theory and the postnational world in which we live.’ — Robert T. Tally Jr., Associate Professor of English, Texas State University, USA


This volume of meditations on thinkers and poets whose works have, from the beginning of my career, in uenced my criticism in a fundamental way had its origin in my dear friend Daniel OHara s invitation to contribute an autobiographical essay on Søren Kierkegaard for the series he is editing in behalf of the journal Symploké on earlier voices that instigated the revolutionary postmodern cultural initiative. The revelatory pleasure I experienced in the process of this welcomed genealogical endeavor was so great that I decided to extend the project to include nine other thinkers and poets who were crucial to the formation of my intellectual vocation:

Martin Heidegger, T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Hannah Arendt, Edward Said, Robert Kroetsch, John Gardner, Robert Creeley, and Cornel West. In each case, the genealogical effort of retrieval (Wiederholung, repetition,in Heideggers terminology) reminded me not only of much about those inaugural origins that I had forgotten or come to take for granted over time. Far more important, it disclosed aspects of the meaning I had attributed to these enabling guresinuence that, unrecognized then, pointed proleptically to the theoretical local/global perspective I developed in my intellectual maturity, particularly during the tumultuous period between the Vietnam War and September 11th, 2001. This will become clear to anyone who is even minimally familiar with my criticism. Here in these brief prefatorial remarks I will simply point to a few of these proleptic insights into the interregnum, the liminal in-between world we inhabit, by which I mean specically the waning of authority of the nation-state and the birth of a globally oriented coming community.


In the case of Søren Kierkegaard, what compelled my profound interest was his revolutionary rejection of the transcendentalism of the traditional Christian Church the panoptic perspective that rendered its faithfulsubjects servants of a Higher Cause in favor of a vocation that assigned the individual to his/her existential, that is, radically nite self. Equally important, it was the recognition that such an existential perspective was dependent on the need for a constant awareness of that easier transcen- dental domain that one had to give up to accept such an agonizing assignment to oneself. In the case of Martin Heidegger, who, not incidentally, was a sympa- thetic reader of Kierkegaard, it was the revolutionary insight of this politi- cally conservativethinker into the vocational imperatives of the modern Western version of democracythe humanist secularism that was in fact a naturalized supernaturalismthat drew my explorative interest. To me, Heideggers Being and Time , as the binary of the title itself suggests, showed that since the Romanscolonization of the errancy of Greek thinking, particularly in the last, anthropological (modern) phase of this

Roman hegemony, thinking (and poiesis) has been a metaphysical think- ing that sees time panoptically, from after or above (meta ) things as they are (physis ). That is, it is a perspective that spatializes or structures temporality and the differences it disseminates for the purpose of rendering their errancy stable, a condition that would enable modern man to reduce them to standing or disposable reserveincluding himself, paradoxically. In this, I discovered, Heidegger anticipated the now pervasive contempor- ary theoretical insight that reads the modern world as one that has reduced politics to biopolitics and, in so doing, threatens to reduce human life to bare life, life, as Giorgio Agamben has more recently put it, that can be killed with impunity in the name of national security. As for the poet, T.S. Eliot, another conservative,it was, like Kierkegaards thought, the dialogue between the transcendental and the nite domains, a dialogue that rendered these traditionally binary terms productively inoperative, that drew my attention to his writing. Eliot,

I found, was not the Eliot of the New Critics, who read his poetry as the

epitome of the worldless autotelism they espoused against the banality of modernity, but an Eliot who put his Christianity in an Auseinandersetzung ,

a loving strife, with the nite world that renders the prior binaries inop-

erative. That is to say, he was a writer whose poetry needs to be retrieved from the oblivion to which it has been relegated by the demise of the worldless New Criticism.


Similarly, I found in W. B. Yeats, another modern poet celebrated by the New Critics as an exponent of the worldless autotelic poem, a profound commitment to this nite world and to the related cause of Irish inde- pendence from British colonial rule. This was not only the case with Yeatss late poems, where the celebration of the profane world is more apparent than in the earlier poetry; it is also the case with the poems emanating from his System, the Phases of the Moon, which, in reading them contra- puntallyin terms of what they apparently suppressedI found to be a device intended paradoxically to undermine the Modernist obsession with myth by rendering its violence against time inoperative. That is to say, Yeats invoked myth to celebrate humanitys irreparable nite life. This, I found by way of a closer reading than the close reading of the New Critics, was even true of Sailing to Byzantium, the alleged autotelic poem par excellence , where the poet, in the very act of begging to be taken into the arti ce of eternity, celebrates the dying body to which he is inexorably attached. The next chapter constitutes the curious but decisive genealogy of my af liation with the thought of Hannah Arendt. It traces the origins of that af liation back to the early 1980s, when, having given a series of lectures at some German universities on Heidegger arranged by the Nietszchean/ Heideggerian philosopher David Farrell Krell, we had driven down to Todtnauberg in the Black Forest to visit the cabin where Heidegger did his late writing. There, as we talked about the play of shadow and light of the forest path so crucial to Heideggers understanding of truth as a-letheia (unconcealment), Krell informed me of Heidegger s love affair with his young Jewish student Hannah Arendt, and that he had been allowed by Heideggers wife to read the letters between the two that had been seques- tered for a several generations. On that basis, David told me, in condenti- ality, that the Heidegger who emerged in that longtime exchange would be other than the anti-Semitic Nazi he was then being portrayed to be. The knowledge of this intimate paradoxical relationship between a Jew and an alleged German Nazi instigated a powerful desire to know more about this Jewish woman. On returning to the US, therefore, I plunged into her writing and that of the scholars who were then analyzing it. By that time, Arendt had become an international gure thanks to some American scholars who, under the in uence of Jȕrgen Habermas, were reading her as a universal political philosopher who focused on the Habermasian ques- tion of the polis as a matter of rational communicability. In reading these analytical accounts of Arendts writing, I found, to my dismay, little


reference to her life as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany nor to her relationship to her mentor; this, despite the fact that she wrote a lot about the plight of the Jews, the question of their post-war status (Palestine), the bankruptcy of the Western nation-state system, and, not least, as exempli- ed by her controversial book on the trial of the Nazi functionary, Adolph Eichmann, in Jerusalem, the banality of evilthat has come increasingly to characterize the thinking and language of Western modernity and its nation-state system. It was this scholarly suppression of Arendts fraught personal life, including her paradoxical afliation with an ostensible Nazi, as this chapter points out, that instigated my will to put back into play contrapuntally, as it werethese suppressed aspects of the life and works of Hannah Arendt. I came to know the grace-lled work of Edward W. Said long before I came to know Hannah Arendts. It was in the early 1970s, when, following Robert Kroetschs and my founding of boundary 2, I invited him to con- tribute an essay to the rst issue of the journal on the question of the postmodern. In the process, he informed me that he was a Palestinian student at Mount Hermon Preparatory School in Northeld, Massachusetts during the time, from 1951 to 1953, when I was teaching there; that though he had not taken a course with me, he, an alien Arab in a New England Puritan environment, admired me, a Greek-American, for my reputation among students as a rebel against the Mount Hermon Puritan work ethic. After that conversation, we became friends, a turn that led me to read his work avidly. What I found profoundly attractive about Saids sensibility was the centrality of the exilic consciousness and the contrapuntal critical perspective that in-betweenness enabled: the impulse to put back into play the storythe Palestinians, for examplethat the dominant Western truth discourse repressed in order to articulate its own commanding narrative. Saids exilic contrapuntal criticism, so much like that of Hannah Arendts conscious pariahdom,had a powerful and lasting effect on me. By way of its disclosive power I eventually became more a disciple of Said than of the Heidegger with whom I have been identied. Unlike the preceding chapters, the next three constitute efforts to think the inuence that two North American postmodern poets and a postmo- dern novelist had on my intellectual vocation: the late Robert Creeley; the late Robert Kroetsch, my coeditor of boundary 2; and John Gardner. It was Creeley, the quintessentially American poet, who introduced me to the term occasion. Though he was not conversant with the etymology (ultimately from cadere : to die), he deliberately used the word in the


dislocating sense that Wallace Stevens used it in the resonant line Poetry is the cry of its occasion : Poetry, he wrote, is the measure of its occa- sion,a poetry that emanates, not from above, but from below, from humanitys existential encounter with the profane phenomena of the nite world. Only later, when I suddenly became conscious of the fact that I was using this resonant word consistently both in my teaching and writing, did I undertake a search into its etymological history. What I found, to my delight, was that occidere ,the setting of the sun, an extension of cadere , is the Latin word from which the English word Occident (German Abendland, evening land) derives. Henceforth, this resonant ancient word became an indispensable term of my critical and theoretical vocabu- lary because it expresses so succinctly and resonantly the onto-political ground the essenceof Western civilization, not least, its Orientalism, from its origins: when, that is, the West identi ed itself in a binary opposi- tion to the Orient. As for Bob Kroetsch, my Canadian SUNY-Binghamton colleague since 1967 and co-founding editor of boundary 2, the rst journal to use the word postmodern in its title, he was my antithesis. He became a postmodern poet and novelist under my tutelage; I was a postmodern theoretician. He was responsive to the imperative of unending play inhering in an ontology grounded in the nothingness of being, or to put it alternatively, to the primacy of potential over the Act. I, despite my theoretical commitment to errancy, tended at the time to minimize that play in favor of conveying an urgent message. His poetry and ction minimized the political implications of the postmodern or post-metaphysical turn. I overdetermined the political. In the process of our coeditorship of boundary 2, however, and in keeping with the genealogical meaning of occasionand the liminal interregnum in which we lived, we developed a unique form of dialogue. It was, again, a loving strifeAuseinandersetzung, in Heideggers vocabularyin which the traditional meanings of the opposing binarist identitarian terms lost their dominance (the imperative of war to the end) and were transformed into an intimate relationality—“afliation,in Saids languagethat enhanced rather than effaced their now identityless identities. This loving strife, I would like to think, became the hallmark of the journal we founded and co-edited until Kroetsch repatriated to Alberta, the prairie homeland from which he had departed a decade or so before. The next to the last chapter attempts to provide some semblance of my complex and often volatile relation to the great American novelist John Gardner, who became my Binghamton English Department colleague for


two all too brief years between 1980 and 1982. At rst John and I kept our distance. This was because I had found his criticism of American postmodern ction in On Moral Fiction perverseApollonian, I called itand he had found my commitment to postmodernism equally perverse. But because our young wives, Liz Rosenberg and Susan Strehle, became close friends, we were thrown together whether we liked it or not. This took the form of weekend visits to their haunted farmhouse in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, immediately south of the New York State border. It was during those visits that the initial distance between us collapsed into a close friendship, one characterized by a loving strife in which the previous binarist labelsApollo/Dionysus, Modernist/Postmodernistno longer applied. What was especially revelatory to me was, in fact, how deep I found that ambi- guitythat spectral haunting by the Dionysian element of his Apollonian bentto lie in Johns very being. It came as a pleasant surprise to nd, on reading Mickelssons Ghosts after his horric death in a motorcycle accident between Susquehanna and Binghamton, that this Dionysian haunting of the Apollonian, epitomized by the transition from the enlightenment world of Binghamton University to the dark and foreboding world of Susquehanna, had become the supreme theme of that last, and to me greatest, of his novels. Last but not least, I write about my long-standing friendship with the great Black American philosopher activist, Cornel West, whom I met at a conference on the hermeneutic crisis he organized in 1979 when he was teaching at Union Theological Seminary. That occasionparticularly our discussion about the viability of a relationship between Unions revolu- tionary liberation theology and the postmodernist editorial policy of boundary 2 led to my inviting Cornel to join the editorial board of the journal, which, in turn, provided us relatively frequent opportunities to continue the dialogue that began at that conference. What I found deeply attractive about Cornel West was his deliberate rejection of the neutral academic persona in favor of an engaged interestedwriting and teach- ing that emanated from his Black American heart and the abhorrent con- ditions the people he represented suffered. His insistent refusal to separate America s war in Vietnam and the plight of Black Americans was, for example, to me, always a reenergizing reminder of my own commitment to the idea that the being of Being (Sein) constituted a continuum from the ontological to the more worldly cultural and political sites: a commitment I often forgot in overdetermining the Heideggerian critique of metaphysics in my discussion of the contemporary occasion. I also loved Cornel s appeal to popular Black American culture, particularly to Jazz and Soul. These


were not appendages; they were integrally related to his sense of human being. Indeed, this last chapter focuses on an occasion in which I and a few other boundary 2 editors bore raptto me, epiphanicwitness to Brother Corn ssinging along with Marvin Gaye s unforgettable song about the Black-Americansresponse to the Vietnam War. It was that occasion, as I say in this opening concluding chapter, that compelled me to think that he, unlike so many American intellectuals and artists, was gifted with grace. All these inaugural gures, with the exception of Cornel West, are now dead. But my purpose in the following genealogical meditations, as I think it will be realized, has not been to monumentalize them. Such a xing of their being would indeed be the kiss of death. Rather, it is to remind the world that the revolutionary kind of thinking and poiesis in which these inaugural thinkers and literary artists were engaged was, insofar as it was grounded in the nothingness of being and the beginning which had no end always already new. In other words, my purpose is to remind the reader that these intellectuals and artists inau- gurated an indissoluble relay of de-structuring gestures epitomized by the ve key phrases that, not accidentally, have emerged incrementally but in a decisive way in the process of these errant meditations as the harbingers of an urgently needed ne w language to replace that modern positivist language that ends in the banality of evil : (1) the occasion that (2) renders the measure of the b inary logic of the Occidental tradi- tion inoperative, and thus (3) calls for a comportment to the secular world that revokes every vocation to a Transcendental Cause; and (4) a dialogic af liation between all humans, now acknowledged as identity- less identities (non-human humans), who dwell on this irreparable earth in loving strife , and, as such, (5) exist as the ontological precursors the ground zero ”— of the coming polis that will replace the war to the end intrinsic to the Western nation-state.

Coda: A Note on the Genealogy of My Style:

The complexity of my writing style has often been noted by commentators on my scholarly and critical work. That complexityis no accident. It has been fundamental to my way of thinking from the beginning of my career. It had its origins, as I suggest in this book, when I was an undergraduate, in my encounter with Martin Heideggers inaugural destructive hermeneutics (Destruktion) in Being and Time, which revealed the hegemonic truth dis- course of the Western (ontotheological) tradition, particularly of its modern anthropological phase, to be a lie. I mean, to put it positively, his dis-closure


of a different and more original understanding of truth from that which, in privileging the Answer over the question, the Act over potential, renders thinking thinking about,that is, calculative: an apparatus of capture that coerces the complex differential phenomena of temporal being into simple usable structures and ultimately into standing or disposable reserve. Still dislocated by the horric Allied rebombing of Dresden I experienced a few years earlier as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, my rst encounter with Heideggers Being and Time was a shock of recognition. I realized that the Truth I was being inscribed by in my schooling was an end-oriented mode of thinking, the imperative of simplicity of which was utterly inadequate to the worldly conditions of the interregnum: that post-war liminal occasion that had disclosed the violence endemic to the benigndisinterested logic of the West. Heidegger called the alternative truth he was intuiting by way of retrieving temporality from the oblivion to which the dominant spatializing mode had relegated it the truth of dis-closure(Greek a-letheia) and the mode of thinking/language that was its imperative destructive-projective.At rst, I referred to my verbal enactment of this alternative destructive- projective complex as poetic.But it was not long before I realized that even Western poetry had been infected by the virus of closure. As a resultand to underscore the revolutionary character of the rupture (Nietzsche called it doing philosophy with a hammer)I came eventuallyand increasinglyas it will be observed in the chapters that follow, to call it errancy: an explorative, de-structive-projective mode of thinking and saying that released potentiality from its centuries-old bondage to the Act, the question to the Answer, beginning to End, time to Space. All of which, to repeat, is to say that the errancy of my writing style is no accident, the consequence of indifference. (I am aware of the paradox of this assertion.) It is, at its best, the linguistic imperative of a deliberate way of thinking that had its origins in the liminal ashes of Dresden —“the Florence of the Elbe ”—and its articulation of its potential in the interrogation of the discourse of Western modernity inaugurated by Nietzsche and Heidegger and Arendt and by the post-modernist theoreticians who radicalized their revolutionary retrieval of the forgotten question of the being of Being. The difference between the writing in this latest book and that of my earlier ones is a matter of the degree of my consciousness of the complex ethical and linguistic imperatives of my destructive hermeneutics. In the earlier works I took the complexity o f my writing for granted. Here, at the terminal point of my intellectual life, I have, in the spirit of the late Edward W. Said s last writings, honed it into my late style.


I am grateful to Daniel OHara and Donald Pease for encouraging me to

undertake this small book on ten thinkers, poets, and novelists who contributed to the making of my intellectual vocation. Their invitation not only enabled me at this late date in my life to return to my beginning, but also, in T.S. Eliot s resonant words, to know it for the rst time.

I hope my genealogical explorations contribute in a signicant way to the pivotal series they are editing for Palgrave Macmillan. On a more personal register, I wish once again to express my abiding

gratitude to Susan Strehle for her inexhaustible care at a time when I need

it most; to our son Adam, who has constantly reminded me of what I have

forgotten in the pursuit of a dimming past; and to my other three children from a previous marriage, Maria, Stephania, and Aristides, for their abid- ing presence in my life. Not least, I want to thank my recent students, Guy Risko, Mahmoud Zidan, James Fitz Gerald, and Robert Wilson, who have labored in my behalf above and beyond the call of duty. They are the precursors of the coming community that the following erratic meditation struggles to imagine.



Retrieving Kierkegaard for the Post-9/11 Occasion



Heidegger and Das Nichts



The Enigma of T.S. Eliot



On the Place on Excrement



Hannah Arendt, Non-Jewish Jew



Edward W. Said and William V. Spanos



Robert Kroetsch, Play, and the Specter



A Mad Generosity



Robert Creeley, Quintessential Postmodern American Poet



Cornel West








Retrieving Kierkegaard for the Post-9/11 Occasion

A Late Meditation on the Secular

Abstract In the case of Søren Kierkegaard, what compelled my profound interest was his revolutionary rejection of the panoptic perspective of the Christian Church that rendered its faithful subjects servants of a Higher Cause in favor of a vocation that assigned the individual to his/her radically nite self. Equally important, it was the recognition that such an existential perspective was dependent on the need for a constant awareness of that easier transcendental domain that one had to give up to accept such an agonizing assignment to oneself.

Keywords Recollection Repetition Dread (angest) Interest (interesse ) Mastered irony Christian existentialism Revocation

Reection is the possibility of relationship. This can be stated thus:

Reection is disinterested. Consciousness is relationship, and it brings with it interest or concern; a quality which is perfectly expressed with pregnant double meaning by the word interest (Latin interesse, meaning (i) to be between, (ii) to be a matter of concern ).

Søren Kierkegaard, Johannes Climacus or De Omnibus Dubitandum Est



As anyone familiar with my scholarship and criticism is aware, the idea of the secular has been, increasingly, its supreme theme from virtually the beginning of my intellectual life. The questions my work have insistently posed and struggled to articulate have invariably been as follows: (1) What does being a secular intellectual entail for his/her interpretation of being? (2) What does being secular imply about his/ her subjectivity? And, not least, (3 ) what does it demand about his/her interpretation of and cultural, soci al, economic, and political comport- ment toward the world? In this, I h ave been in solidarity with the worldly initiative inaugurated by Edward W. Said s uncompromising commitment to the secular world and to the worldly criticism that commitment entails. As a consequence, no doubt, of time s winged chariot and the imperatives of this lateness to resist all transcendental props, however, I have come, at this late point of my intellectual life, to realize with Said, if not his worldly followers that commitment to the secular or worldly as such is inadequate to our liminal occasion (what I have been calling the interregnum ) insofar as the real mean- ing of the secular depends on the tra nscendental (the p aradisiacal) it opposes; that, in other words, in th is world, eternity and time belong together in unending strife. The secular as such, devoid of its antithesis, tends, in its appeal to the laws of nature, to reproduce the world in the teleological image of the orderly Creation: the world in this secular dispensation, as Max Weber made decisively clear, becomes the object of mastery, and the calling of human beings their vocation the rationalization of the earth accord ing to the imperial dictates of the capitalist spirit. The worldliness of these late worldly intellectuals their human condition, which calls for unending engagement with the transience of time becomes an unworldly worldliness. My late realiza- tion of the inadequacy of the term secular to characterize the limin- ality of the interregnum has precipitated a retrieval ( Wiederholung , in Heidegger s term) of a major early in uence in my intellectual life that, in the process of my inte llectual career, I had virtually forgotten, but which has haunted my thinking about the secular from the beginning. I am referring to the great Christian e xistentialist Søren Kierkegaard, whose works I began reading as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University in 1948, soon after returning to the world from dislocat- ing captivity in Germany during World War II.



Opened by my degrading experience as a prisoner of war and, not least, by bearing witness to the horrendous Allied re-bombing of Dresden, which killed over a hundred thousand civilians in one night and day raid, to this rst self-de-struction of moder n Western civilization, I was deeply receptive to its severe criticism by the humanist existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simon De Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and others, wh o attributed its ultimate justi cation of violence to the metaphy sical principle that essence precedes [is onto- logically prior to] existence. And in the throes of that trauma, I read these radically revisiononist thinkers, particularly Sartre s novels, avidly. And, in the process, I, as a student, disrupted many of the highly popular classes in the humanities I took at Wesleyan, which at that time were being taught by and large under the aegis of the traditional humanism, on the one hand, and the (antihumanist) New Criticism, on the other. But it was not until my sophomore year that I was enabled to feel/think the full impact of this intellectual retrieval of existence from the dominance of essence: temporality from its dependence on univers- ality, be- ing on Being. That was, paradoxically, when, out of the clear blue, a fellow maverick student friend from Missouri, David Mize, attuned to my fraught intellectual confusions, offered me his copy of The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard , a selection edited by Alexander Dru published by Oxford University Press under the auspices of the Christian novelist/editor, C harles Williams, in 1939, the rst transla- tion of the Danish thinker s works into English. As I recall, I was profoundly struck by the rst words of these journal entries: something like, We think backwards, but live forward,an exis- tential assertion pointing in a shockingly irreversible way to the Western separation of mind and body, essence and existence and the urgent need to reunify this debilitating separation by way of understanding human life as a form of being that is simultaneously outside (a limited consciousness) and inside nature an ex-sistent in-sistent being unlike stones and animals. In another even more startling formulation of this same memorable insight, I encountered the following statement (quoted as the epigraph for this chapter) in Kierkegaard s pseudonymous novel Johannes Climacus, or De Omnibus Dubitanduim Est shortly after my introduction to The



Journals. It was a statement categorically rejecting disinterested inquiry and its (objective) Truth as a lie:

This can also be stated thus: Reection is disinterested. Consciousness [human life ] is relationship, and it brings with it interest or concern; a duality which is perfectly expressed with pregnant double meaning by the word interest (Latin interesse, meaning (i) to be between,(ii) to be a matter of concern.) (Søren Kierkegaard, Johannes Climacus, [Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press,] pp. 151 152)

As I noted a long time ago, interestis the difference that being-in-the midst- of-time makes and the differences it always already disseminates. It was only when I encountered this Kierkegaardian Christian existentialist characteriza- tion of the human condition that I realized the full scope and depththe ontological and political meaningof Heideggers central but undeveloped assertion that care (Sorge) is the foundational element of Dasein, human being as being-in-the-world. It did not simply mean a burdened sense of responsi- bility for the rest of the being of being, one devoid of transcendental guidance. It also meant the dread incumbent on this fundamental conditionthe absence of a God on which to rely for difcult decisions about being in the world. It meant freedom in the radical sense of word, as in Sartres memorable Kierkegaardian phrase Man is condemned to be free.This paradoxical meaning of Kierkegaards interesttook on seismic proportions when, in the process of reading the Journals, I came across the entry recalling a day in his early life in the company of his aging father. They are walking in the overcast mountainous moors of Denmark toward some unknown destination, the father, silent, dour, self-absorbed, leading the way, and the boy struggling to keep up with him. Suddenly, the father halts, looks up, and, in an astonish- ing gesture of deance, raises his clenched st and shakes it against the skies. Kierkegaard, as I recall, does not say anything more about this apocalyptic moment, but clearly it was life-transforming for the young boy. On this occasion, his familiar, everyday world is suddenly shattered, and he is prema- turely unhomed, as it werethrown into the realm of the in-between. And, to me, his experience was something analogous to the night and day in Dresden when, as a young prisoner of war, I experienced an event that shattered whatever previous certainties about life I had derived from above, as it were. In that brief but terrible moment of unimaginable violence I was plunged, like it or not, into what I then identied as the zero zoneand later, because of its historically resonant etymology, as my occasion: from the Latin cadere, to


die,” “to perish,from which occidere: to go down, to set,as in the setting of the sun,derives, to become the origin of the word Occident(German Abendland, evening land) that the West coined to distinguish it from the Orient (from oriens, participle of oriri; rising,” “rising sun,” “east). By this term I meant pretty much what Kierkegaard, no doubt recalling that time with his father in the Danish moors, by interesse,the realm of the in- between, where all the reference points fell away and he, having previously taken his vocation from the dictates of a Higher Cause, was henceforth assigned to himself.To put this apocalyptic beginning alternatively, that intense moment in the moors with his father initiated Søren to the dread (Danish, angest) that, as he put it in The Concept of Dread, reveals the nothingthat is ontologically prior to Being. It was, above all, this Jobian occasionthis sudden disclosure of the belongingness in strife of heaven and earthin the process of my encounter with Kierkegaard as an undergraduate at Wesleyan and as a graduate student at Columbia, that suddenly and irrevocably infused my memory of the Allied rebombing of Dresden with the affectiveand politicalresonance that I was to bring to my reading of Heideggers more abstract ontological appropriation of Kierkegaards concept of dread. (It was no accident that throughout the years between 1958, when I began writing my Ph. D. dissertation, The Christian Tradition Modern British Verse Drama: The Poetics of Sacramental Time, to 1993, when I published Heidegger and Criticism: Retrieving the Cultural Politics of Destruction, I was always uneasy about having to use the far less affective English translation of the German word Angstanxietyrather than dread,which the English translators of Kierkegaard invariably use to render his Danish angest). But the immediacy with Kierkegaard to which David Mize introduced me at Wesleyan did not terminate at that point. After a year of graduate study at Columbia, I took a teaching position at Mount Hermon, a college prepara- tory school in Northeld, Massachusetts, founded by prominent Protestant evangelists in the nineteenth century, with close ties to Union Theological Seminary, where under the inuence of the Christian existentialist move- ment, particularly the German expatriate from Nazi Germany Paul Tillich and the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Kierkegaards thought had become central to a curriculum that was oriented by the radical anti-author- itative political initiatives of that time, not least the civil rights movements. It was not long after arriving at Mount Hermon that I met three recent graduates of Union, David Jewell, John Angevin, and the schools chaplain James Whyte, all of whom in some degree or another were deeply inuenced



by Kierkegaards existentialist thought, not least, that engagement in the world that was the difcult imperative of being assigned to oneself. As I have recalled elsewhere, I, like Edward Said, who was a student at Mount Hermon during my two-year stay there, found the school s insti- tutionalization of the Protestant work ethic difcult to tolerate. But unlike Said, my two years were redeemed by friendship with the extraordinary Union seminarians. And that was precisely because they were extending Kierkegaardian Christian existentialism into the sites of the ethical and the political, an extension that in the next decade was to render their unique kind of passive active Christian existentialism one of the primary agents of resisting Americas paranoid intervention in Vietnam in the name of its exceptionalistGod s or History s ordained —“errand.This Kierkegaardian phase of my early intellectual lifethis intense sense of having been assigned irrevocably to myself to confront the either/or of the in-between in the wake of the rebombing of Dresdencontinued beyond my two years at Mount Hermon, when I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. There, under the inuence of Kierkegaard, I became profoundly interested in T.S. Eliots poetry, particularly its patent indebtedness to the so-called Metaphysical Poets,John Donne and Andrew Marvell, who, in their agonized obsession with the paradoxical tension between the transcendental and the niteI think of Donnes meditation on lying in a cofnstruck me as being remarkably proleptic of Kierkegaards Christian existentialism. My initial proposal to my academic advisor, Paul Wiley, was to write a dissertation on Eliots poetry from this Kierkegaardian perspective. But Professor Wiley, a scholar of modern Irish literature with little knowledge of the emergent existentialist initiative and resistant to another dissertation on T.S. Eliot and the Metaphysical poets, strongly advised me against pursuing that overdone project. So, in the end, following my abiding interest in Kierkegaard, I decided, as the next best option, to write on the modern British Christian verse drama, focusing, against the prevailing New Critical/Modernist approach, primarily on the Kierkegaardian existential element (inected by Erich Auerbachs parallel emphasis on the earthly perspective of early Christianity: the gural or typological (as opposed to allegorical) interpretation of history) of these remarkably earth-oriented, if not political, Christian verse plays. The result was a book, mainly on the plays of T.S. Eliot, that, in taking its interpretive directives from Kierkegaards radical reorientation of the Christian perspec- tive from the transcendental to earthly temporality, reversed the New Critical perspective that represented Eliots poetry and verse drama as unworldly


formal constructs. The dissertation, to my surprise, was eventually published as The Christian Tradition in Modern British Verse Drama: The Poetics of Sacramental Time and was awarded a prize as the best book on Christian literature of that year for its radical worlding of the Christian world. In the meantime, and by way of both Christian and humanist existenti- alism, I had embarked on my life-long reading of Heidegger. What was distinctiveand paradoxicalabout that initiative from the prevailing inter- pretations of Heidegger is that it was my Kierkegaardian existentialist per- spective that, from the beginning, enabled me to radicalize Heideggers overdetermination of the ontological site on the continuum of being at the expense of the more political sitesto perceive the indissolubly related connection between his destruction of the Western ontotheological tradi- tionhis disclosure of the will to power intrinsic to the metaphysical think- ing privileged by the Westand the possible de-struction (Destruktion) of the hierarchical binarist logic of belonging of the modern Western nation- state system and its imperial imperatives.


For a long time after this turn to Heideggers de-struction of the Western philosophical traditionfrom the Romansreduction of the Greek a-lethéia (truth as unconcealment) to adequaetio intellecttus et rei (the adequation on mind and thing, i.e. truth as correctness) to the triumph of empiricism in modernityand pursuing its worldly political implications, I felt that I had achieved a comportment toward being that satised the imperatives of being-in-the-world. It was during the early stages of this Heideggerian period that I discovered what seemed to me the parallel work of Michel Foucault and of Edward W. Said, particularly the latters insistent commit- ment to the secular. Along the way, however, I began to feel uneasy about the way the secular was being represented by all too many of those worldlycritics whom Said inuenced. More specically, I was troubled by the bland abstractness of their worldlycriticism. It seemed to me that this word (and, not incidentally, its correlate, humanism), which Said had deliber- ately chosen because of it subjective and historical resonanceits afliation with its transcendental antithesishad become routinized. It was, that is, lacking in the very existential force that led Said to adopt the term against the systematization intrinsic to religiouscriticism in the rst place. Indeed, one got the impression from its usage by these worldly critics that the word had been divested of its original intensive belongingness with the



transcendental, and in the process, as Said warned against in Orientalism, was rendered as naturalized supernaturalism.In order to forestall this possible reading of the secular, in fact, Aamir Mufti, one of Saids most able and articulate students, points out the recuperative theological implica- tions of the normal reduction:

Secular criticism in Saids reckoning is, rst of all, a practice of unbelief; it is directed, however, not simply at the objects of religious piety but at secular beliefsas well, and, at its most ambitious, at all those moments at which thought and culture become frozen, congealed, thing-like, and self-enclosedhence the signicance for him of Lukácss notion of reication. At no point is secular used in his work in simple opposition to the religious per se. Above all, his concern has been with domination through the classication and management of cultures, and of human collectivities, into mutually distinct and immutable entities, be they nations, properly speaking, or civilizations or ethnicities. To the great modern system for the classication of cultures Said gave the name Orientalism and viewed the hierarchies of this system as marking the presence of a reconstructed religious impulse, a naturalized supernaturalism.

Committed to maintaining its affective force, Mufti then pointedly goes on to modify his mentors normal usage, secular criticism,by way of substituting the catachrestic phrase critical secularism:

Secular criticism thus struggles above all with the imposition of national (or civilizational) molds over social and cultural life, against all unmediated and absolute claims of membership in a national (or civilizational) community. This catachrestic use of the term secular carries the implication that the energies of nationalism in its very broadest sense are thoroughly religious in nature, in a sense that has nothing whatever to do with whether or not an organized religion or a certain canonized popular religious life plays any role, symbolic or organizing, in this or that nationalism.

In other words, according to Mufti, the catachresis renders the traditional (Enlightenment) meaning of secular criticism,which invariably natur-

alized the supernatural, questionable. Saids secularism, he writes, is a

a constant unsettling and an ongoing and never-

ending effort at critique, rather than a once-and-for-all declaration of the overcoming of the religious, theological, or transcendental impulse. It implies a critical engagement with secularism itself, a scrupulous effort at

critical secularism


recognizing the reemergence of that impulse in the midst of secular culture. To be critically secular is also to take on board an understanding of the tainted history of secularism and Enlightenment as icons of the superiority of the West and thus of the legitimacy of its civilizing mission. (Mufti 2004: 2 3; emphasis in the original). In a more current theoretical language, to which I will return, the implicit binary opposition between secular and religiousbecomes inoperative.The terms remain, but the war to the end of the traditional binary transmutes into a loving strife in which each pole is enriched rather than one diminishing the other. The uneasiness I felt about the term secularwas exacerbated when, in the late 1980s, I began to work on American literature and to think the ontological, cultural, and political implications of its foundational and deter- mining secular perspective, the American exceptionalist ethos. It was at this stage, beginning with my rst book on Herman Melville, The Errant Art of Moby-Dick: The Canon, the Cold War, and the Struggle for American Literature (1993), when I was struggling with these ambiguities of the secular as a teacher and scholar, that the thinking of the contemporary Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, began to impact on my comportment toward the question of the being of being. Because he was an avowed Heideggerian,who had studied with Heidegger, I had read and admired his radicalized version of Heideggers de-struction of the ontotheological tradition and his representation of humanity as the primordial condition of thrownness (Geworfenheit) in such works as The Coming Community and Homo Sacer. But the particular character of this radicalizationand its effect on my Saidian version of the seculardid not register until I read the essays collected in Profanations (2007), particularly the piece provocatively entitled In Praise of Profanation,where I came across the following reference to the all too common word secularof those who, after Said, called themselves worldly critics: Play as an organ of profanation is in decline everywhere. [T]hey [modern media] secularize an unconsciously religious intention. To return to play its profane vocation is a political task. In this sense, we must distinguish between secularization and profanation. Secularization is a form of repression. It leaves intact the forces it deals with by simply moving them from one place to another. Thus the political secularization of theological concepts (the transcendence of God as a paradigm of sovereign power) does nothing but displace the heavenly monarchy onto an earthly monarchy, leaving its power intact.(Agamben 2007, p. 7677) For Agamben, however, profanation is more radical. [It] neutralizes what it profanes. Once profaned, that which was unavailable and separate



loses its aura and is returned to use. Both are political operations: the rst guarantees the exercise of power by carrying it back to a sacred model; the second deactivates the apparatuses of power and returns to common use the spaces that power had seized. ( Profanations , p. 77) In its emphasis on the distinction between the unending play of the profane and the end-oriented imperative of the secular, this passage not only went far to corroborate my growing dissatisfaction with the word secu- lar”—its radicalization by the substitution of the word profane”—which implies a sense of a softening of the abyssal earthly life to which it referred:

the Being assigned to the irreparable be-ing of being. Its counter-emphasis on unending play also pointed me to a key term of Agambens onto- political discourse that I had hitherto overlooked, even though it resonated with a meaning that was remarkably similar to that intrinsic to the Puritan calling, the concept that, as I was then discovering by way of Louis Althussers critique of interpellation, constitutes the genealogical origins of the American exceptionalist ethos and the comportment toward tem- poral being that was its ethicalimperative. I am referring to the word vocation,which, as Agamben pointedly notes in The Coming Community, implies an unerring servitude to a Higher (Sacred) Cause:

The fact that must constitute the point of departure for any discourse on ethics is that there is no essence, no historical or spiritual vocation, no biological destiny that humans must enact or realize. This is the only reason why something like an ethics can exist, because it is clear that if humans were or had to be this or that substance, this or that destiny, no ethical experience would be possiblethere would be only tasks to be done.(Agamben 1993, p. 43) But it was not until reading Agamben s radicalizing commentary on Saint Pauls Letter to the Romans, in The Time that Remains (2000), in which, following the directives of Walter Benjamin s messianic commun- ism ”—and, no doubt, Kierkegaards Christian existentialismhe refers to the messianic calling (klesis ) of this (alleged) founder of Christianity on the road to Damascus, that the full impactthe ontological and political polyvalencyof the word vocation seized my thinking about the thrownness of the human condition in a decisive way. That Agambenian commentary is, in essence, an interpretation of the following passage from Pauls Letter the Corinthians (I. 7, 29 32):

But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all communities [ekklēsias, another word from


the same family as kaleō]. Is any man called being circumcised [Jew]? let him not remove the mark of circumcision. Is any called with a foreskin [Greek]? let him not be circumcised! Circumcision is nothing, and the foreskin is noth- Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. Art thou called being a slave? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather. For he that is called in the Lord, being a slave, is the Lords freeman:

likewise also he that is called, being free, is slave of the Messiah.

In Agamben s commentary on the Letter to the Romans, it is Paul s revolutionary and proleptic indifference to the identitarian terms that determined the idea of belongingness in that age Jew/Greek, the Law/Philosophical Wisdom that he overdetermines. From Paul s inclusive perspective, according to Agamben, the binarist (Friend/foe) identitarian logic of belonging is rendered inoperative ( inoperatisa , the Italian translation of Paul s ubiquitous kataergo ). I will quote Agamben at length to underscore not simply the ontological but also political revolution (a non-identitarian communism) that Paul is envisioning:

According to the apostle, this movement is, above all, a nullication:

Circumcision is nothing, and the foreskin is nothing.That which, accord- ing to the law, made one man a Jew and the other a goy, one a slave and another a free man, is now annulled by the vocation. Why remain in this nothing? Once again, menet ō (remaining) does not convey indifference, it signies the immobile anaphoric gesture of the messianic calling, its being essentially and foremost a calling of the calling. For this reason, it may apply to any condition; but for this same reason, it revokes a condition and radically puts it into question in the very act of adhering to it. This is what Paul says just a bit further on, in a remarkable passage that may be his most rigorous de nition of messianic life (I Cor . 7:2932): But this I say, brethren, time contracted itself, the rest is, that even those having wives may be as not [h ōs m ē] having, and those weeping as not weeping, and those rejoicing as not rejoicing, and those buying as not possessing, and those using the world as not using it up. For passing away is the gure of this world. But I wish you to be without care. H ōs mē, as not: this is the formula concerning messianic life and is the ultimate meaning of kl ēsis . Vocation calls for nothing and to no place. For this reason it may coincide with the factical condition in which each person nds himself called, but for this very reason, it also revokes the condition from top to bottom. The messianic vocation is the revocation of every vocation. (Agamben 2000, p. 23)



On encountering Agambens interpretation of the messianic calling as this revocation of every vocation,it suddenly struck me, as something like a ash of recognition, that I had encountered this resonantly estranging phrase or its equivalent long before. And, after thinking about its prove- nance, I remembered that it was when, under the inuence of Kierkegaards enabling distinction between recollection and repetitionthinking back- ward and living forwardI was attempting to fathom the meaning of Heideggers de-struction of the ontotheological tradition. Returning to the chapter of Heidegger and Criticism entitled Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and the Hermeneutic Circle,I found that it was, indeed, Kierkegaard (in his appropriately named Concluding Unscientic Postscript) who rst used the term to demonstrate that the recollective vocationthinking aeterno modo (disinterestedly) in his languagewhether institutional Christian, Hegelian, or empirically scientic, was a calling that produced subjected subjects. It was, that is, an apparatus of capture and thus in need of being de-structured in the name of radical human freedom (of being irrevocably assigned to ones self):

The creative process in Kierkegaards pseudonymous texts [in radical oppo- sition to the inclusiveand hovering ”—irony that prevailed under the aegis of New Critical aestheticism] is energized by a mastered ironythat masters irony. It takes the anti-Hegelian form of a dialectic of revocation. In the Heideggerian terms of this essay, it becomes an icon-oclastic, a de- structive act, in which an existential movement collides irreconcilably with the aesthetic frame of the book. This collision ruptures the referential surface[Heidegger] of the spatial formrecollected from the super-visory perspective of aesthetic vision; that is, it destructures its objectiveand inclusive/conclusive (ironic) structure. (Spanos 1993, p. 72)

Thus, according to Agambens revolutionary rereading of Pauls Epistle to the Romans, the temporal imperative of the revocation of every vocation is to abandon reliance on the received teleological concept of time in favor of acknowledging the profane time of the now(ho nyn kairos, in Pauline Greek) and its interested, that is, care-ful, existential imperative. This, it occurred to me, was clearly an alternative formulation of Kierkegaards account of his estrangement from the transcendental as being assigned to one s self in the realm of interesse. But what was especially provocative to me was that Agambens Pauline imperative to immerse oneself into the destructive time of the now did not


mean simply the adoption of an existential subjectivity. As his overdetermina- tion of the political site in the apostles opposition between Jew and Greek (the Law and Philosophy), or, rather, his rendering of this political opposi- tion inoperative, suggests, the more important worldly imperative of the paradoxically profane time of the nowthis differential in-between time that makes a difference in the worldhas also to do with the coming community. For, in thus rendering inoperative the identitarian logic of belonging that produced the nation-state system and assigning us to our- selves, this retrieval of the profane time of the now also enables envisioning a polis in which the original deadly operations of the Friend/foe logic are rendered inoperative: Jew is nothing. Greek is nothing.Indeed, that hierarchized binary logic is transformed, as in the metaphor of the Möbius strip or Klein bottle, into one in which the old rigid boundaries of the binary logic of belonging in-determine each other.That is to say, they are transgured into a never-ending play or, better, a loving strife (Auseinandersetzung) that enriches rather than, as in the old nation-state dispensation, degrades each pole of the binary. In the chapter entitled Beyond Human Rightsof Means without End, Agamben, like Hannah Arendt and Edward Said, invokes the fraught contemporary example of Palestine to think the question of this coming community. One of the options taken into consideration for solving the problem of Jerusalem,he writes,

is that it become simultaneously and without territorial partition the capital of two different states. The paradoxical condition of reciprocal extraterritoriality (or, better, aterritoriality) that would thus be implied could be generalized as a model of new international relations. Instead of two national states separated by uncertain and threatening boundaries, it might be possible to imagine two political communities insisting on the same region and in a condition of exodus from each other communities that would articulate each other via a series of reciprocal extraterritorialities in which the guiding concept would no longer be the ius (right) of the citizen but rather the refugium (refuge) of the singular. (Agamben 2000 , p. 24.4)

Having been led to render the boundaries of the old nation-state system inoperative by way of the liminal example of Palestine, Agamben goes on to suggest the applicability of this disoperating initiative to the world at large:



In an analogous way, we could conceive of Europe not as an impossible Europe of the nations,whose catastrophe one can already foresee in the

short run, but rather as an aterritorial or extraterritorial space in which all the (citizen and noncitizen) residents of the European states would be in a position of exodus or refuge; the status of European would then mean the

being-in-exodus of the

irreducible difference between birth [ nascita] and nation in which the old concept of people (which, as is well known, is always a minority) could again nd a political meaning, thus decidedly opposing itself to the concept of nation (which has so far unduly usurped it). This space would coincide neither with any of the homogenous national territories nor with their topographical sum, but would rather act on them by articulating and perforating them topologically as in the Klein bottle or in the Möbius strip, where exterior and interior in-determine each other. In this new space, European cities would rediscover their ancient vocation of cities of the world by entering into a relation of reciprocal exraterritoriality. (Agamben, Means without End, p. 24 5)

European space would thus mark an


The foregoing is the paradoxical genealogy of my late turn to a more radical version of worldly criticism than that sponsored by the worldly critics who have followed Edward Saids urgent call for the retrieval of the secular. Without the example of Kierkegaards agonized Christian existentialismhis insistence on the interestedness of, that is, that belongs to, its oppositeit is unlikely that I could have eventually achieved, at this late occasion of my intellectual life, such a profane, ek-sistent in-sistent onto-political perspective on the catastrophic post-9/11 globalized world that has been the legacy of the Western vocation. But the enabling experience I have retrieved from my past is, I think, neither accidental nor unique. As the inuential example of Agambens turn to the profane suggests, this awareness of the urgent need to radicalize ones ontological comportment toward the secular world is a growing tendency of leftist thinking in the post-9/11 era. Besides Agamben, there is also the inuential example of the radical post-poststruc- turalist Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou, who, in a quite similar way, appeals to Saint Pauls epistles (in Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism [2003]) to underscore both the profaneness of the coming community and its non-identitarian communal essence he envisages. In that text, I cannot help but realize the abiding presence in the post-9/11 era of, if not Kierkegaards Christian existentialism as such, then of the belongingness


of the transcendental and the irreparable nite that radically distinguished Kierkegaards existential thought from the dialectical essentialism of Hegel and the exceptionalist Western tradition he brought to fulllment; or, in the equivalent language Heidegger uses to refer to the interested thrownnessthe ontological not-at-homeness (the exilic nature)of the human condi- tion, the inescapable relationship of ek-sistence and in-sistence. I mean especially the Western recollective thought, aeterno modo, which Hegel and his followers pursued in theory to its liminalself-de-structivepoint, and which, in the name of its exceptionalist vocation, the political class of the United States, heedless of the catastrophic consequences of nation-state history from World War I and World War II, has repeated in practice in the wake of 9/11 by way of announcing its paranoid War on [Islamic] Terror.We worldlycritics on the Left will not bring this urgent global change into being as long as we fail to attend to the inordinate power of the ontological Truth of Western civilization and the indissolubly related role this hegemo- nic lie has perennially played in forwarding the Wests global imperial project. Let us, like Kierkegaard in his fraught Hegelian age, courageously call the things of this administered world by their right name. That revolu- tionary imperative, at least, is what I learned in returning in the end to my beginning.


Heidegger and Das Nichts

An Autobiographical Meditation on the Question of the Nothing

Abstract In the case of Martin Heidegger, it was the insight of this politically conservativethinker into the vocational imperatives of modern Western humanist secularism, which was in fact a naturalized supernaturalism, that drew my interest. His Being and Time showed that, since the Romanscolonization of the errancy of the Greek of concept truth (a-letheia), thinking has been a metaphysical thinking that sees time from after or above (meta) things as they are (physis). It is a panoptic perspective that structures tempor- ality for the purpose of rendering its errancy stable, a condition that would enable modern man to reduce its phenomena (including himself) to dispo- sable reserve. Heidegger thus anticipated the pervasive insight that reads the modern world as one that has reduced politics to a biopolitics that threatens to reduce human life to bare life.

Keywords Anxiety (Angst) Repetition Destruction Disclosure (a-letheia ) Truth (veritas: adequation of mind and thing) Letting be (Gelassenheit) Care (Sorge)

What about this nothing? Martin Heidegger, What Is Metaphysics?Suddenly, without premeditation, I picked the dead girl up in my arms in a wild protective gesture, and then, awakened by the utter futility of my impulsive act, felt at a loss about what to do with my lifeless burden.



I looked around at my comrades, at our guards, at the smoldering waste of the city in a state of turbulent confusion. Then I looked at the girls face. Its featuresfair, delicate, oval shaped, high cheek bones, catlike eyes, and petite bore an uncanny resemblance to Kathryn. For an instance all the borders that separated and distinguished Us from them were down. It seemed like the end of something, the reduction of Everything to nothing, the All to a zero zone,but also, in a way it was so faint an impulse that I could not fathom then, a beginning. And without warning I began to sob uncontrollably as I rocked the dead girl cradled in my arms in the midst of those ruins.

William V. Spanos, In the Neighborhood of Zero

I have been called more or less universally a Heideggerian criticfrom the beginning of my career, when I wrote the essay on Heidegger s meditation on the hermeneutic circle in the early 1970s, to the present moment. Thus, for example, the Wikipedia entry reads:

Spanos is a distinguished professor of literature and comparative literature at Binghamton University, New York; he is the founder and editor of the journal boundary 2 . His work draws heavily on the philosophical legacy of Martin Heidegger and while it does show the in uence of the deconstruc- tion of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, Spanoss vocabulary and concepts remain closer to Heideggers Destruktion (destruction) of metaphysics than to its philosophical successor.

While there is some truth to this assertion, it is essentially misleading in its adjectival form. It implies a relation of servitude to a Master and a ventriloquized discourse. On the contrary, my work from the beginning has constituted a dialogue with Heidegger or, in his appropriate language, an Auseinandersetzunga loving strife that could be called, in Edward Said s later vocabulary, a contrapuntal gesture that brings to light that which the author has had to suppress in order to ful ll the narrative imperatives of his/her structure of feeling. And this is because, prior to encountering Heidegger s work as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, I, as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, had undergone a mind-shattering experience: the allied re- bombing of Dresden in February 1945, which killed approximately 100,000 civilians in a one-night-and-day air raid. It was, to me, in Alain Badiou s term, an event that disintegrated the Truth as I had


learned it and disclosed the zero that precedes this Truth s af rmations. That is to say, I came to Heidegger s austere philosophical discourse fraught with the existential question provoked by the reduction of a venerable Western city —“ the Florence of the Elbe ”— to nothing by democratic Western nation-states , the very reduction and disclosure that, according to Heidegger, was a central practical effect of the Western (onto-theo-logical) tradition. It was an experience the effort to fathom which became, with the help of Heidegger, the supreme theme of my thinking in its aftermath. Three indissolubly related aspects of Heideggers thought, not especially prominent in the discourse on Heidegger in the late 1940s, were especially attractive to my utterly alienated condition from the beginning: (1) his de- struction of the metaphysical thinking of the Western tradition, which, in thinking meta ta physikafrom after or above the phenomena of being (panoptically), spatializes (reies) their radicalerranttemporality; (2) his retrieval of the question of the being of being (ontology) understood as an indissoluble continuum ranging from being as such to the other more worldly sites: the subject, language, gender, race, culture, economics, and politics; and, above all, (3) his revolutionary retrieval of the specter of the nothing (das Nichts) from its suppression by the discourse of the West, especially in the modern (anthropological) era, which has had as its funda- mental purpose the reduction of the phenomena of being to quantiable things. My concern in this autobiographical meditation is primarily with Heideggers revolutionary treatment of the nothing that has perennially haunted Western civilization. But to suggest how important this retrieved category of being has been for my radicalization of Heidegger, it will be necessary to comment briey on the other two indissolubly related motifs.


As I have observed, (Western) metaphysical thinking, particularly in its modern allotrope, has had as its fundamental purpose the spatialization enframing, Heidegger appropriately calls it in The Question Concerning Technology”—of the errant temporality of nite being, that is, its meta- physical reduction of the be-ing of being to a totalized and thus manip- ulatable object. The purpose of this reduction has been to transform the recalcitrant, indeed, menacing, uselessness, its errancy, as it were, to a manageable and useful entity, the be-ing of being to a totalized Being. After Being and Time, Heidegger radicalized the phenomenon of



temporality to das Nichtsthe nothingto underscore the paranoid obsession of Western modernity to negate the nothingness of the noth- ing a revolutionary revisionary import of this retrieval. In the essay What Is Metaphysics?, where the critique of modernity is stronger than in Being and Time, he writes:

The nothing is rejected precisely by science [modernity], given up as a nullity. But when we give up the nothing in such a way do we not concede it? Can we, however, speak of concession when we concede nothing? But perhaps our confused talk already degenerates into an empty squabble over words. Against it science must now reassert its seriousness and soberness of mind, insisting that it is concerned solely with beings. The nothing what else can it be for science but an outrage and a phantasm? If science is right, then only one thing is sure: science wishes to know nothing of the nothing. Ultimately this is the scientically rigorous conception of the nothing. We know it, the nothing, in that we wish to know nothing about it. Science wants to know nothing of the nothing. But even so it is certain that when science tries to express its proper essence it calls upon the nothing for help. It has recourse to what it rejects. What incongruous state of affairs reveals itself here? (Heidegger 1993 , pp. 95 96)

I will return to Heidegger s retrieval of the nothing later. Here, for the sake of demonstrating the indissoluble relationality of the three ontologi- cal categories I introduced earlier, and also to suggest Heideggers positive perspective on the nothing the be-ing of being as an indissoluble con- tinuum from being as such to the more obviously worldly sites in its continuum, I turn to the question, as Heidegger provocatively observed at the beginning of Being and Time, modernity has forgotten. Though the interpretive gesture that revealed ontology and politics as a continuum is minimized by Heidegger, it is articulated in Parmenides, a genealogical series of lectures delivered during World War II and pointing to the indissoluble afliation between being and time that modernity had for- gotten with a force that struck me as eminently worth pursuing for its implications for, if not for its vision of, a coming polity consonant with my epiphany amidst the ashes of Dresden (Not incidentally, Eliane Escoubar refers to the lectures as the texte charnière of Heidegger s explication avec”— his reciprocal rejoinder to ”—German National Socialism). I quote at length, despite Heideggers refusal to think its positive political implications, to demonstrate the revolutionary persuasiveness for me of this provocative genealogical equation of ontology and politics:


The domination of the Romans [in the history of Western civilization] and

their transformation of Hellenism are in no way limited

institutions of the Greek world or to single attitudes and modes of expres- sionof Greek humanity. Nor does the Latinization of the Greek world by the Romans amount simply to the sum of everything they have appro- priated. What is decisive is that the Latinization occurs as a transformation of the essence of truth and Being [translation modied] within the essence of the Greco-Roman domain of history. This transformation is distinctive in that it remains concealed but nevertheless determines everything in advance. This transformation of the essence of truth and Being is the genuine event of history. The imperial as the mode of Being of a historical humanity is nevertheless not the basis of the essential transformation of aletheia [uncon- cealment] into veritas [the adequation of mind and thing; i.e. correctness], as rectitudo, but is its consequence, and as this consequence it is in turn a possible cause and occasion for the development of the true in the sense of the correct. To speak of the transformation of the essence of truth is admittedly only an expedient; for it is still to speak of truth in an objectifying way over and against the way it itself comes to presence and history is. The transformation of the essence of truth likewise supports that domain in which the historically observable nexuses of Western history are grounded. (Heidegger 1992 , p. 42)

to individual

Following this startling genealogy of Western modernity, which locates its origins in Rome, not Greecein the Roman reduction of aletheia to veritas, truth as disclosure to the adequation of mind and thingHeidegger goes on, however tentatively, to point to the implication of this genealogy that engaged me most: the indissoluble relation between the Roman concept of truth and imperial politics:

That is why the historical state of the world we call the modern age, following historiographical chronology, is also founded on the event of the Romanizing of Greece. [Note Heideggers Badiou-like use of the word event.] The Renaissanceof the ancient world accompanying the outset of the modern period is unequivocal proof of this. A more remote, but by no means indiffer- ent, consequence of the Romanizing of Greece and of the Roman rebirth of antiquity is the fact that we today still see the Greek world with Roman eyesand indeed not solely within historiographical research into ancient Greece but also, and this is the only decisive thing, within the historical metaphysical dialogue of the modern world with that of the Similarly, we still think the Greek polis and the political in a totally un-Greek fashion. We think the politicalas Romans, i.e., imperially. The



essence of the Greek polis will never be grasped within the horizon of the political as understood in the Roman way. As soon as we consider the simple unavoid- able essential domains, which are for a historiographer naturally of no consequence, since they are inconspicuous and noiseless, then, but only then, do we see that our usual basic ideas, i.e., Roman, Christian, modern ones, miserably fail to grasp the primordial essence of ancient Greece. (Parmenides , p. 43; my emphasis)

Though Heidegger drew back from it, the implication, for me, of this geneal- ogy of modernity was that the errant Greek polis, grounded as it was in the truth as aletheia, was also groundedin the nothing that is prior to the truth of veritas, the adequation of mind and thing. This is why, despite Heideggers reluctance to pursue the matter, the relatively unknown Parmenides lectures assumed a very great importance for me, as my repeated references to them over the years testify. They compelled me to think Heideggers version of the nothing contrapuntally, that is, to think what Heidegger had left unsaid. Thus, after encountering the Parmenides lectures, particularly Heideggers drawing of his listenersattention to the indissoluble relationship between the nothing- ness of being and the human city, I was forced to return to his account of the nothing in What Is Metaphysics?particularly to his famous, though still to be understood, phenomenological analysis of the unhoming mood of anxiety (Angst), which, unlike fear, he pointedly observes, has no thing as its object:

In anxiety,he writes,

we say, one feels ill at ease [es ist einem unheimlich]. What is itthat makes one feel ill at ease? We cannot say what it is before which one feels ill at ease. As a whole it is so for one. All things and we ourselves sink into indifference. This, however, not in the sense of mere disappearance. Rather, in this very receding things turn toward us. The receding of beings as a whole that closes in on us in anxiety oppresses us. We can get no hold on things. In the slipping away of beings only this no hold on things comes over us and remains.

And in a separate paragraph he adds, Anxiety reveals the nothing.(Heidegger 1993, p. 101) Retrospectively, it was, in part, this anxiety in the face of the nothing this no hold on things”—that I felt as I searched for bodies in the midst of the smoldering ashes of Dresden. After experiencing the uncanny resemblance between Heideggers revolutionary phenomenological account of the nothingness of being and my emptied state of mind in


the wake of the rebombing of the Florence of the Elbe, as Dresden was called, I was now prepared to go beyond the critique of modernitys paranoia concerning the nothing, where Heidegger restricted his thinking, to the positive potential inhering in its openness.


Heidegger, to be sure, refused to pursue the question of the nothing precipitated by his phenomenological retrieval of the mood of anxiety from fear (Furcht). This is probably because, as in the case of his withdrawal

from the political implications intrinsic to his theoretical articulation of the indissoluble continuum of being, he was a theoretician to the core. Be that as it may, he did, by way of the extraordinary force of his analysis of the nothing, prepare the way for this radical development for those thinkers who refused to succumb to his categorical vilication by the liberal (and humanist) exponents of a self-destructured modernity and the binary logic of its identitarian nation-state system. Henceforth, the exploration of the relationship between the nothingness of being (or its radical temporality) and the worldly sites on the continuum of being became the supreme theme of my intellectual life. This is not to say that the anti-vocational vocational itinerary I adopted was

a solitary enterprise. On the contrary, its uncertaintythe ontological primacy of the question over the privileged answereventually led me into a commu- nal alliance with a loose contingency of contemporary theoreticians, often referred to as left Heideggerians”—Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Rancière, Etienne Balibar, Judith Butler, Edward Said, among otherswhom I came to call post-poststructuralists to distinguish their over- determination of the political site on the continuum of being from the pronounced disabling tendency, rightly pointed out by Edward Said, of their poststructuralist predecessors to avoid the worldliness of the textuality they grossly emphasized. Like Heidegger, these revolutionary theoreticians perceive the nothing as an indissoluble, however historically uneven, continuum and the diverse entities marginalized by the dominant culture specically, the nation- state system as nothings or nobodies on the analogy of the ontological continuum of the nothing. Heideggers most telling example of this reductive momentum of modern life under the aegis of technology occurs in The Question Concerning Technology. In this essay, Heidegger, in

a remarkably proleptic way, diagnoses modernity under the aegis of the



enframing of technology as an irresistible momentum that, in reducing the temporal phenomena of being to things, also reduces themincluding, paradoxically, man, their master ”—to disposable reserve(Bestand:

translation modi ed):

Yet when destining reigns in the mode of enframing, it is the supreme danger. This danger attests itself to us in two ways. As soon as what is unconcealed no longer concerns man even as object, but exclusively as standing-reserve, and man in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of the standing-reserve, then he comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall; that is, he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve. Meanwhile, man, precisely as the one so threatened, exalts himself and postures as lord of the earth. In this way the illusion comes to prevail that everything man encounters exists only insofar as it is his construct. This illusion gives rise in turn to one nal delusion: it seems as though man everywhere and always encounters only himself. Heisenberg has with complete correctness pointed out that the actual must present itself to contemporary man in this way. In truth, however, precisely nowhere does man today any longer encounter himself, i.e., his essence . Man stands so decisively in subservience to on the challenging-forth of enframing that he does not grasp enframing as a claim, that he fails to see himself as the one spoken to, and hence also fails in every way to hear in what respect he ek-sists, in terms of his essence, in a realm where he is addressed, so that he can never encounter only himself. (Heidegger 1993 , p. 332)

Following Heidegger, Giorgio Agamben radicalizes his mentor s diagno- sis of modernity as the domain of disposable reserve by way of Hannah Arendts and particularly Michel Foucault s appropriation of biopolitics, the apparatus of capture endemic to modernity. Deriving his evidence from the similarities between the Nazi death camps and so much of the organization of modern life (e.g., the medical profession, including its ubiquitous but hidden rehabilitationfacilities), Agamben diagnoses the late (liminal) post-World War II occasion to conclude that the essential momentum of modernity involves the reduction of human life (bios) to bare life,life that can be killed without its being called murder, a biopoliticsto a thanatopolitics.” “ Along with the emergence of bio- politics,he writes,

we can observe a displacement and gradual expansion beyond the limits of the decision on bare life, in the state of exception, in which sovereignty


consisted. If there is a line in every modern state marking the point at which the decision on life becomes a decision on death, and biopolitics can turn into thanatopolitics, this line no longer appears today as a stable border dividing two clearly distinct zones. This line is now in motion and gradually moving into areas other than that of political life, areas in which the sovereign is entering into an ever more intimate symbiosis not only with the jurist but also with the doctor, the scientist, the expert, and the priest.

What follows in Agamben s persuasive genealogical study of homo sacer is intended to show

that certain events that are fundamental for the political history of modernity (such as the declaration of rights), as well as others that seem instead to represent an incomprehensible intrusion of biologico-scientic principles into the political order (such as National Socialist eugenics and its elimina- tion of life that is unworthy of being lived,or the contemporary debate on the normative determination of death criteria), acquire their true sense only if they are brought back to the common biopolitical (or thanatopolitical) context to which they belong.

Understood in this biopolitical context, Agamben concludes, the camp as the pure, absolute, and impassable biopolitical space (inso- far as it is founded solely on the state of exception) will appear as the hidden paradigm of the political space of modernity, whose metamorphoses and disguises we will have to learn to recognize. (Agamben 1993 , pp. 122 123) Similarly, for example, Jacques Rancière calls the nobodies of Western modernity the part of no part (Rancière 1990, p. 36); Alain Badiou, the inexistentor, better, the separating name :

The state can virtually be de ned as an institution with the means for imposing norms on a whole population that prescribe what pertains to this state, the duties it imposes and the rights it confers. In the context of this de nition the state ctionalizes an identitarian object (for example, the French person ) that individuals and groups have a duty to resemble as closely as possible, if they are to merit positive attention from the state. Anyone declared unduly dissimilar from the identitarian object will also be entitled to the attention of the state, but in a negative sense (suspicion, police checks, internment, expulsion, and so on). A separating name refers to a particular way of not resembling the ctive identitarian object . It enables



the state to separate certain groups from the collectivity, who therefore call for particular repressive measures. These can range from immigrant, ” “Islamist, ” “Muslim and Romato youth from the banlieues.(Badiou 2012 , p. 92)

And, perhaps most tellingly, Judith Butler calls the alienated human beings the ungrievable :

Such frames [note the spatializing imageand the parallel with Heidegger s enframing ] are operative in imprisonment and torture, but also in the pol- itics of immigration, according to which certain lives are perceived as lives while others, though apparently living, fail to assume perceptual form as such. Forms of racism instituted and active at the level of perception tend to produce iconic versions of populations who are eminently grievable, and others whose loss is no loss, and who remain ungrievable. The differential distribution of grievability across populations has implications for why and when we feel politically consequential affective dispositions such as horror, guilt, righteous sadism, loss, and indifference. Why, in particular, has there been within the US a righteous response to certain forms of violence inicted at the same time that violence suffered by the US is either loudly mourned (the iconography of the dead from 9/11) or considered inassimil- able (the assertion of masculine impermeability within state rhetoric)? If we take the precariousness of life as a point of departure, then there is no life without the need for shelter and food, no life without dependency on wider networks of sociality and labor, no life that transcends injurability and mortality. We might then analyze some of the cultural tributaries of military power during these times as attempting to maximize precariousness for others while minimizing precariousness for the power in question. This differential distribution of precarity is at once a material and a perceptual issue, since those whose lives are not regardedas potentially grievable, and hence valuable, are made to bear the burden of starvation, underemploy- ment, legal disenfranchisement, and differential exposure to violence and death. (Butler 2009 , pp. 2425)

But this revolutionary insight into the dehumanizing functioning of the spectral nothing vis á vis human life (bios) under the aegis of technological enframing is not the end of this post-postructuralist contrapuntal initiative. Unlike Heidegger, these contemporary theorists go on, each in his/her way, to think the positive (communal) political possibilities Heidegger avoided precisely in terms of the negative to which the spectacular positivist language of the modern Western nation-state has consigned them. They are paradoxical


possibilities, not incidentally, that are uncannily analogous to my epiphanic naming of the dead and living denizens of Dresden, the utterly devastated world far below the Allied bombers, a neighborhood of zero.Though this contrapuntal extension of the nothing to include the political realm could be articulated way beyond the few words I devote to it, for the sake of economyand the imperatives of this brief autobiographical essayI will restrict my commentary by quoting two resonant passages, both from Giorgio Agamben, who, perhaps more than any other theorists I have invoked, has pursued this worldly potential of the nothing the farthest thus far. The rst, from the aptly entitled The Coming Community, touches reso- nantly on the identitilessness of the members of the coming community:

The Whatever in question here relates to singularity not in its indifference with respect to a common property (to a concept, for example: being red, being French, being Muslim), but only in its being such as it is. Singularity is thus freed from the false dilemma that obliges knowledge to choose between the ineffability of the individual and the intelligibility of the universal. The intel- ligible, according to a beautiful expression of Levi ben Gershon (Gersonides), is neither a universal nor an individual included in a series, but rather singu- larity insofar as it is whatever singularity.In this conception, such-and-such being is reclaimed from its having this or that property, which identies it as belonging to this or that set, to this or that class (the reds, the French, the Muslims)and it is reclaimed not for another class nor for the simple generic absence of any belonging, but for its being-such, for belonging itself. Thus being-such, which remains constantly hidden in the condition of belonging (there is an x such that it belongs to y) and which is in no way a real predicate, comes to light itself: The singularity exposed as such is whatever you want, that is, lovable. (Agamben 1993, pp. 12)

The second quotation from Agamben is from an essay on the relevance of Guy Debords devastating critique of the spectacle that has triumphed in capitalist modernityits annulment of the play of languagefor the con- temporary post-nation state (including the orthodox Marxist version of the communist state). It hints, in a language adequate to the Bartlebyan impera- tives of the nothing, at the revolutionary communal essence of a polis composed precisely of the nobodies Agamben calls whatever beings:

How can thought collect Debords inheritance today, in the age of the com- plete triumph of the spectacle [the complete spatialization of time]? It is evident, after all, that the spectacle is language, the very communicativity



and linguistic being of humans. This means that an integrated Marxian analysis should take into consideration the fact that capitalism (or whatever other name we might want to give to the process dominating world history today) not only aimed at the expropriation of productive activity, but also, and above all, at the alienation of language itself, of the linguistic and communicative nature of human beings, of that logos in which Heraclitus identies the Common. The extreme form of the expropriation of the Common is the spectacle, in other words, the politics in which we live. But this also means that what we encounter in the spectacle is our very lin- guistic nature inverted. For this reason (precisely because what is being expropriated is the possibility itself of a common good), the spectacles violence is so destructive; but, for the same reason, the spectacle still contains something like a positive possibility and it is our task to use this possibility against it. (Agamben 2000 , p. 82 83)

In referring to the paradoxical political potential inhering in the spectacle, Agamben, not accidentally, returns us to the late modern occasionthat liminal point in the development of the binary identitarian logic of the modern nation-state, where the nothing and its positive political potential manifest themselves for positive thought. It is in this sense that I eventually came to consciously identify our liminal occasion with the neighborhood of zero I bore witness to in the rubble of Dresden as a prisoner of war.


In sum, it turns out, it was the radically dislocating rebombing of Dresdenthat event I bore existential witness to that rendered me an exile in the world that was secretively operative in the process of my early quest for an intellectual vocation. It was also this alienating event”—this utter de-struction of all the props I had inherited from the ontotheological traditionthat both led me inexorably to Heidegger and away from him to a more existential and political comportment towards the question of being. What strikes me as I reexamine my work from the late 1960s, when I was beginning to read Heidegger seriously (Being and Time), to the liminal post-9/11 occasion, is how manifestly present that neighborhood of zerothat strange and estranging community of nobodieswas in the founding of my intellectual vocation: both my profound attraction to Heideggers de-structive thinking and my will to go where he refused to go: to willingly enter the zero zone, where, as Jean Paul Sartre put it after reading Heidegger, we are condemned to be free.


The Enigma of T.S. Eliot

An Autobiographical Es say on the Contradiction Between His Prose and His Poetry

Abstract As for the poet, T.S. Eliot, another conservative,it was, like Kierkegaards thought, the dialogue between the transcendental and the nite domains, a dialogue that rendered these traditionally binary terms productively inoperative, that drew my attention to his writing. Eliot, I found, was not the Eliot of the New Critics, who read his poetry as the epitome of the worldless autotelism they espoused against the banality of modernity, but an Eliot who put his Christianity in an Auseinandersetzung, a loving strife, with the nite world that renders the prior binaries inoperative.

Keywords Tradition Christian existentialism Conservative radicalism Exploration Counterpoint Beginning-end Kierkegaard

What we call the beginning is often the end And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. And every phrase And sentence that is right (where every word is at home, Taking its place to support the others, The word neither difdent nor ostentatious, An easy commerce of the old and the new, The common word exact without vulgarity, The formal word precise but not pedantic, The complete consort dancing together) T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding, Four Quartets



I have often been accused by liberal intellectuals that the primary sources

of my literary criticism have been political conservatives: Martin Heidegger, William Butler Yeats, and, not least, T.S. Eliot. I cannot, of course, dispute this accusation. But what needs to be said by way of clarication is that, though I have also been called a political radical, my work from the beginning has been informed by an onto-political perspec-

tive that has avoided conventional, that is, modern Western political labels such as liberal, conservative, moderate, etc. Indeed, it has existed, in part, to de-structure them in the name of a groundless ontologyan ontology of the nothingand an analogous identityless politics. More specically,

I have found these particular conservatives suggestive because, whatever

their positive politics, the critical perspective of their conservatism exposes the dehumanizing ontological basisthe concept of identity (naming) and its indissolubly related worldly manifestations (particularly the nation-state system) of the liberal democracies that have prevailed throughout modernity. The particular case of T.S. Eliot, I came eventually to nd, represents a complex version of this contrapuntal gesture. What I found especially unique about Eliot s conservatismpolitical, social, linguistic, culturalis, in fact, its remarkable resemblance to that gesture in Martin Heideggers discourse he called Auseinandersetzung , a loving dialogical strife between Eliot s prose, where his conservatism is apparently extreme, and his poetry, where his openness to potential is marked, that renders the inaugural positions of the protagonists (in Giorgio Agambens term) inoperative,that is, enables the identityless identities that will produce the coming polis .


I began reading T.S. Eliot s poetry in high school during the early stages

of World War II. (It was his early poetry prior to his conversion to Anglo- Catholicism). In part, my interest in Eliot was a matter of fashion. Like so many other young men at that fraught time, I found such dark lines as the following appealing to my adolescent jadedness: This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world

ends / Not with a bang but a whimper(T.S. Eliot 1958, p. 59). Or,

Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky



Like a patient etherised upon a table; Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, The muttering retreats Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:

Streets that follow like a tedious argument Of insidious intent To lead you to an overwhelming question Oh, do not ask, What is it? Let us go and make our visit.

(Eliot 1958 , p. 3)


April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. Winter kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow, feeding A little life with dry tubers. (Eliot 1958 , p. 37)

But even then I felt way down deep, despite his Anglo-American heritage, that Eliot s critique of Western modernity, particularly its liberal capitalist ethos, which was given existential force by his self-imposed exile from America, spoke in some mysterious way to my alienation from a homeland. Later, as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, when I began studyingEliot, I was compelled to read his prose and to confront the Christianpoetry. I was, to put it mildly, dismayed by the seemingly systematic conservatism of his pronouncements on the Western tradi- tion(religion, culture, language, poetry, politics, international affairs), pronouncements epitomized by his highly publicized statement: [My] general point of view may be described as classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion(T.S. Eliot 1932, p. 289). Indeed, I thought that his exemplary celebration of Virgil over Homer and the Greeks of antiquity in What Is a Classic? was perverse:

I should like rst to rehearse the characteristics which I have already attrib- uted to the classic, with special application to Virgil, to his language, his



civilization, and the particular moment in the history of that language and civilization at which he arrived. Maturity of mind: this needs history, and the consciousness of history. Consciousness of history cannot be fully awake, except where there is other history than the history of the poet s own people: we need this in order to see our own place in history. There must be the knowledge of the history of at least one other highly civilized people, and of a people whose civilization is suf ciently cognate to have inuenced and entered into our own. This is a consciousness which the Romans had, and which the Greeks, however much more highly we may estimate their achievementand indeed, we may respect it all the more on this account could not possess. It was a consciousness, certainly, which Virgil himself did much to develop. From the beginning, Virgil, like his contemporaries and immediate predecessors, was constantly adapting and using the discoveries,

traditions and inventions of Greek

literature, or one civilization, in relation to another, which gives a peculiar

It is this development of one

signicance to the subject of Virgil s epic. In Homer, the conict between the Greeks and the Trojans is hardly larger in scope than a feud between one Greek city-state and a coalition of other city-states: behind the story of Aeneas is the consciousness of a more radical distinction, a distinction, which is at the same time a statement of relatedness, between two great cultures, and, nally, of their reconciliation under an all-embracing destiny. (T.S. Eliot 1957, pp. 61 62)

Going against the grain of a literary modernism that prevailed at that time, I found it difcult to understand how a poet with such striking individual talent”—capable of infusing such suggestive uniqueness and originality into a scene and the rhythms from modern life could, despite the pre- vailing romanticism that T.E. Hulme rightly referred to as circumambi- ent gas, proselytize so insistently for the recuperation of the traditionand re-collectivization of modern humanity. This, enhanced by the patent humility of Eliot s poetic voice, was the question I confronted all through the years when the meaning of Eliot s poetry was being determined by the worldless New Critics and their concept of the autotelic poem the poem that was defused of temporality, history, and place and transformed by the panoptic eye of the New Critic into an object of distanced contemplation:

the poem must not mean but be.This dilemma was further compounded by Eliot s turn to Christian poetry, a turn that culminated in his masterpiece, Four Quartets, written during and in response to the turbulent and liminal years of World War II. My immediate reaction, against a visceral admiration, on sampling this



Christian poetry was to conclude that Eliot had abandoned poetry for religious propaganda. Then, at the same time that I was discovering Martin Heidegger, I was alerted to the Journals of Søren Kierkegaard , the Christian existentialist thinker Martin Heidegger introduced to a European audience, not incidentally, by my friend and fellow classmate, David Mize. This was a revelation: a different, far more tolerable, though more dif- cult, Christianity than I had ever encountered, one that, paradoxically, retrieved and put back into play in human affairs temporality and choicethe existential elementfrom its degradation by the transcendental impera- tives of traditional Christianity. We think backward and live forward,I read in the opening page of his journals, and later, Kierkegaards distinction between a new (we might say postmodern) understanding of temporality from the traditional mode associated with memory, which Kierkegaard tell- ingly calls recollectionto indicate its function as a means of recuperating the errancy, the scatter, of the nite world into a Whole. The dialectic of repetition is easy, he writes in Repetition ,

for what is repeated has been, otherwise it could not be repeated, but precisely the fact that it has been gives to repetition the character of novelty [my emphasis]. When the Greeks [the reference is to Plato] said that all knowledge is recollection they af rmed that all that is has been; when one says that life is a repetition one afrms that existence which has been now becomes. When one does not possess the categories of recollection or of repetition the whole of life is resolved into a void and empty noise. Recollection is the pagan [Platonic/Hegelian] life-view, repetition is the modern life-view; repetition is the interest of metaphysics, and at the same time the interest upon which metaphysics founders; repetition is the solu- tion contained in every ethical view, repetition is a conditio sine qua non of every dogmatic problem. (Kierkegaard 1964, pp. 53 54)

Recollection calls the human being to his/her duty to a transcendental caller, whether God or a secular version such as the Modernism espoused by the New Critics. Against the essential servitude of this sense of voca- tion, repetition, on the other hand, assigns the individual to him/her self. He/she is compelled not only to choose but also to rely on an imperfect errant language as the fundamental way of historical life. For Kierkegaard, as I understood him, even Christ, who had been appro- priated by the Church, was a (difcult) choice.



In reading Kierkegaard, it struck me with a shock of recognition that this inverted vocationthis call to retrieve the open-endedness of languagethe revocation of the Western vocation, in Giorgio Agambens provocative phraseconveyed, in fact, the essential import of Eliots Christian poetry, above all, that of the Four Quartets. I heard this compelling humility in Eliots repeated meditations on language, particularly in East Coker:

That was a way of putting itnot very satisfactory:

A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,

Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.

It was not (to start again) what one had expected.

What was to be the value of the long looked forward to, Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders, Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit? The serenity only a deliberate hebetude, The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets Useless in the darkness into which they peered Or from which they turned their eyes. There is, it seems to us, At best, only a limited value In the knowledge derived from experience. The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsies, For the pattern is new in every moment And every moment is a new and shocking Valuation of all we have been.

Do not let me hear Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly, Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession, Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God. The only wisdom we can hope to acquire

Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless. (Eliot 1958 , p. 125)


I have been obsessed by Eliot s Four Quartets since the mid-1950s when

I read it in a graduate class with the Americanist, Professor Fred Hoffman

at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. At that time (the mid-1950s) the study of American literature, it is worth mentioning, was ostracized



by the Wisconsin English Department mainstream. Rumor had it that the main exponent of American studies used a separate stairwell to get to his class on nineteenth-century American literature. My intention was, in fact, to write a dissertation on Eliot s poetry from the perspective of his alienation from America. But my advisor, Paul Wiley, an expert in Irish literature with a New Critical bias, would not permit me to undertake that project because he felt that ther e were too many dissertations being written on Eliot s poetry in the American academy. Instead, he sug- gested, in keeping with my interest, that I write about his English- oriented verse plays. In the end, I decided, with Kierkegaard s Christian existentialism in mind, to work on the modern Christian British verse drama associated with the Canterbury Festival, which Eliot s Murder in the Cathedral had largely instigated. This project enabled me not only to read Kierkegaard in depth, but also continental thinkers like Heidegger and the humanist existentialists he inuencedJean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Bouvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among others. One of the most lasting impressions this reading made on me was the intensity of the Christian existentialist writerssense of their relationship to the nite world they chose to dwell in, an intensity far greater than that of most secular humanists. And that, I even- tually realized, was because the transcendental they had chosen to give up was always a spectral presence, a haunting absence in the world in which they lived. That absence that haunted the nite presence and charged even its least signicant worldly facet and his sense of the larger world is what I invariably found in Eliots paradoxical Christianpoetry. In the early 1960s, while teaching at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, I was given the opportunity to articulate my radical interpretation of Four Quartets when Joe Riddel, my graduate school classmate at Wisconsin, invited me to contribute an essay on a modernpoem from what was then coming to be called a postmodern perspective. I obliged but, paradoxically, in keeping with my Kierkegaardian perspective. This essay, Hermeneutics and Memory: Destroying T.S. Eliot s Four Quartets, was a major gesture in my effort to contribute to an inaugural literary critical initiative that was intended to overthrow the stultifying worldless world of the American New Criticism in favor of a poetry that, in the language of a still infant existentialism, was engaged,which is to say, tethered to this world, in which the question is ontologically prior to the answer. This, I tried to show in that essay against the American New Critical ironists, was, despite the Christian context of the poem,



fundamentally what Four Quartets was about: a series of unresolved med- itations on the question of the relationship between the transcendent and the nite, in the process of which the terms at stake Transcendent/ nite; End/beginning; Directionality/errancy; One/many, etc.lose their initial (traditional) meaning to become something hitherto unthought. As Eliot puts this dislocating paradox at the disclosing close of Four Quartets, We shall not cease from exploration /And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started /And know the place for the rst time. (Eliot 1958, p. 145) My essay on Four Quartets did not receive much attention, as is the fate of most journal essays, though a few friends (mostly on the boundary 2 editorial board) responded positively to its suggestive paradox. As a result I decided to collect a number of my essays on Elioton The Waste Land,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Wanna Go Home, Baby?(the verse play), and Four Quartetsinto a book format. On the advice of my boundary 2 colleague, Dan OHara, I sent the manuscript to the Wisconsin University Press, where, at the time, Frank Lentricchia, Dans friend, was on the masthead, and which was publishing some important ground-breaking books on American literature (such as Sacvan Bercovitchs American Jeremiad). About six months later, the editor returned the rejected manu- script with a copy of the readers report by the popular traditionalist critic William H. Pritchard, who atly rejected the manuscript, calling it (parti- cularly the chapters on Prufrockand the Four Quartets) the ravings of a madman.Needless to say, I was appalled by the reviewers reactionary crudeness, though I realized that my radical revision of the New CriticsEliot was ahead of its time. That manuscript, alas, was never published. When in the early 1990s I tried again (at Cambridge University Press), an unidentied reviewer wrote, strangely, that my postmodern Eliot was by then a commonplace, when, in fact, he was, along with the New Critics who sponsored him, more or less forgotten. It was not until 1994 that I returned to Eliots Four Quartets. This was when I read Edward Saids Culture and Imperialism and came across the not quite tangential brief but immensely suggestive passage, which, invoking a line from Four Quartets, displaces by violence Eliot from his Modernist/ New Critical homeland on the basis of his appeal to counterpoint. I quote Saids diagnosis of the post-war occasion (the liminal stage of Western modernity), in which the reference to Eliots poem (quoted as the epigraph of this chapter) is imbedded, at some length to point to both the strange paradox of an exiled anti-imperialist Palestinian invoking an alleged



imperialist to suggest the structureless structure of the revolutionary coming community in the wake of the imminent self-destruction of Western mod- ernity and to prepare for my commentary on the paradoxical relationship between Eliots conservative prose and his open-ended poetry:

[I]t is no exaggeration to say that liberation as an intellectual mission, born in the resistance and opposition to the con nements and ravages of imperi- alism, has now shifted from the settled, established, and domesticated dynamics of culture to its unhoused, decentered, and exilic energies, ener- gies whose incarnation today is the migrant, and whose consciousness is that of the intellectual and artist in exile, the political gure between domains, between forms, between homes, and between languages. From this perspec- tive then all things are indeed counter, original, spare, strange. From this perspective also, one can see the complete consort dancing together contra- puntally. (Said 1994 , p. 332; my emphasis)

Said, unfortunately, did not expand on this brief but highly suggestive equation of Eliot s appeal in Four Quartets to the language of musical counterpoint and the radical coming communitythe “‘ complete concert dancing together contrapuntally. But what he does say in this complex paradoxical locution is remarkably similar to, indeed, I suggest, proleptic of, the speculations of the most recent radical theoreticiansAlain Badiou, Slavoj Ž i žek, Judith Butler, and, above all perhaps, Giorgio Agamben who are attempting to think the liminality of contemporary modernity in terms of a coming global community, which, unlike the bankrupt modern (Western) nation-state, consists of identityless identities existing together in a contrapuntal relationship:

The coming being is whatever being

relates to singularity not in its indifference with respect to a common property (to a concept, for example: being red, being French, being Muslim), but only in its being such as it is. Singularity is thus freed from the false dilemma that obliges knowledge to choose between the ineffability of the individual and the intelligibility of the universal. The intelligible, according to a beautiful expres- sion of Levi ben Gershon (Gersonides), is neither a universal nor an individual included in a series, but rather singularity insofar as it is whatever singular- ity.In this conception, such-and-such being is reclaimed from its having this or that property, which identies it as belonging to this or that set, to this or that class (the reds, the French, the Muslims)and it is reclaimed not for another class nor for the simple generic absence of any belonging, but for its

The Whatever in question here



being -such, which remains constantly hidden in the condition of belonging (there is an x such that it belongs to y) and which is in no way a real predicate, comes to light itself: The singularity exposed as such is whatever you want, that is, lovable. (Agamben 1993b, pp. 12)

To put it all too briey, the old binary identities become, in Agambens apt term, inoperative: they, like the identities of Eliot s complete consort,remain but under the new global dispensation they dance together con- trapuntally : in a loving strife that, instead of promoting the violence endemic to the binary logic of the nation-state system, enhances the lives of both by giving them back the language that modernity, in the form of the triumphant spectacle (the complete spatialization of time and the totalization of the disciplinary panoptic perspective), has denied them. I quote from Agamben s essay meditating on the legacy of Guy Debord s diagnosis of the liminal condition of modernity as the society of the spectacle ”—the complete spatialization of time and its bereavement of humanitys linguistic essenceto point to the remarkable similarity between Eliot s projected community in Four Quartets and this contem- porary worldly onto-political initiative of the theorists that, to emphasize their worldly de-structuring project, I have called post-poststructuralists. In the liminal age of the spectacle, Agamben writes:

[L]anguage (the linguistic nature of human beings) remains once again hidden and separated. Language thus acquires, for the last time, the unspoken power to claim a historical age and a state for itself: the age of the spectacle, or the state of fully realized nihilism. This is why today power founded on a presupposed foundation is vacillating all around the planet: the kingdoms of the Earth are setting out, one after the other, for the spectacular-democratic regime that constitutes the completion of state-form. Even more than economic necessities and technological development, what drives the nations of the Earth toward a single common destiny is the alienation of linguistic being, the uprooting of all peoples from their vital dwelling in language. But exactly for this reason, the age in which we live is also that in which for the rst time it becomes possible for human beings to experience their own linguistic essenceto experience, that is, not some language content or some true proposition, but language itself, as well as the very fact of speaking. Contemporary politics is precisely this devastating experimentum linguae that disarticulates and empties, all over the planet, tradi- tions and beliefs, ideologies and religions, identities and communities. Only those who will be able to carry it to completionwithout allowing that which reveals to be veiled in the nothingness it reveals, but bringing



language itself to languagewill become the rst citizens of a community with neither presuppositions nor a state. (Agamben 2000a, pp. 84 85)


To return, nally, to the contradictory tension between Eliot s conserva- tive prose and his errant poetry, I was now able to understand, after having realized how fundamental the open-ended contrapuntal impulse was in his unconventional psyche from the beginning, that they, in fact, existed in a disoperating counterpoint a loving strife, in which the original terms of the binary, though they remained names, no longer had the authoritative meaningand the justi cation for violence they had under the aegis of modernity and its nation-state system. In Eliot s paradoxical practice, the poetry disclosed, contrapuntally, what his con- servative prose necessarily concealed in order to produce its narrative, and the conservative prose reminded me that its binary oppositeliberalism had been responsible for the annulment of the play of human language and the consequent catastrophic condition of the modern (World War II) world in which Eliot was writing. In so doing, this proleptic contrapuntal practice this loving strife (Auseinandersetzung , in Heidegger s appro- priate term) also projected, as Edward Said was the rst to observe, the coming polis : “‘the complete consort dancing togethercontrapuntally. It is no accident, I came to realize in the long process of coming to terms with the contradiction between the prose and the poetry, that Eliot, from the beginning of his life as a poet, militantly modeled his poems on the disoperating phrase, discordia concors,which Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth-century exponent of modernist rationality, invoked to condemn the disconcerting paradoxical poetic practice—“ the yoking [of extremes] by violence”—of John Donne and the mislabeled Metaphysical Poets,and that the New Critics, in the name of T.S. Eliot s authority, misread a century later as a historical call for a poetic vocation that, in the name of irony—“unmastered ironyKierkegaard would call itunworlded the world. As I. A. Richards famously put this worldless form of ironic contemplation:

There are two ways in which impulses may be organized: by exclusion and by inclusion, by synthesis and by elimination. Although every coherent state of mind depends on both, it is permissible to contrast experiences which win stability and order through a narrowing of response with those



] The structures of these two kinds of experiences are

different, and the difference is not one of subject but of the relations inter

se of the several impulses active in the experience. A poem of the rst group is built out of sets of impulses which run parallel, which have the same direction. In a poem of the second group the most obvious feature is the extraordinary heterogeneity of the distinguishable impulses. But they are more than heterogeneous, they are opposed. They are such that in ordin- ary, non-poetic, non-imaginative experience, one or other set would be suppressed to give as it might appear freer development to the others. The difference comes out clearly if we consider how comparatively unstable poems of the rst kind are. They will not bear an ironical con- templation. (I. A. Richards 1924, pp. 249 250)

which widen it. [

This, at any rate, is the un-concluding conclusion I reached in the decades-long process of addressing the question, mooted by the Anglo-American New Critics, Who is T.S. Eliot? Read in this contrapuntal way, he thus, as Edward Said intuited two decades ago, speaks suggestively to our benightedand liminal (post-modern, post-9/11)occasion.


On the Place on Excrement

My Relationship to the Poetry of William Butler Yeats

Abstract Similarly I found W. B. Yeats, another modern poet celebrated by the New Critics as an exponent of the worldless autotelic poem, to be profoundly committed to this nite world and to the related cause of Irish independence from British colonial rule. This was not only the case with Yeatss late poems, where it is apparent; it is also the case with the poems emanating from his Phases of the Moon,system, which, in reading them contrapuntally, I found to be a device intended paradoxically to undermine the Modernist obsession with myth by rendering it inop- erative. A closer reading than that of the New Critics was even true of Sailing to Byzantium, the autotelic poempar excellence, where the poet, in the very act of begging to be taken into the arti ce of eternity, celebrates the dying body to which he is inexorably attached.

Keywords Profane Postcolonialism Demythologizing Conservative radicalism Anti-systemic system Temporality Human body

Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement.

W. B. Yeats, Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop

As in the cases of Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, and T.S. Eliot, I began reading William Butler Yeatss poetry in high school under the



inuence of my equally alienated buddy, the very Irish Bill (Kike) Kennedy. Even though it was unlikely that Bill had delved deeply into Yeatss poetry, he took great pride in his Irish heritage, which in New England at that time was represented by the Anglos as a travesty of the Anglo-Saxon race, indeed, as barbaric as that of the southern Greeks. His parents, like most immigrants, worked in the Dorr s Woolen Mill in Guild, New Hampshire, on the outskirts of Newport, our hometown. Unlike most of the Irish in New Hampshire, indeed, in New England (especially the mill town, Manchester, N.H.), where the Irish and Greek emigrants, succumbing to the divide-and-conquer strategy of the mill owners, were constantly at war with each other, the Kennedys saw through that ploy and befriended my family, particularly my mother, Marigoula. As a result of this unusual parental care, Bill, my classmate from the rst grade on, developed a ferocious pride in his Irishness, and one of the justica- tions for Bill s pride was the hard to believe fact that the modern Irish poet W. B. Yeats was being taught in our Towle High School. At that time, it was the early poetry of Yeats, which celebrated the very rich Gaelic culture and its mythic heroes, that I read and responded posi- tively toCuchulain, Conchubar, Fergus, Aengus, and so on. Unlike my Anglo-American classmates, I, like Bill, saw these Gaelic-oriented poems, from my perspective as an alien in my homeland, as, in Edward Saids appropriate later term, a contrapuntal gesture that retrieved the rich and immensely complex Irish heritage that the British colonial narrative effaced. To me, a Greek-American with a vague awareness of the glories of ancient Greek mythology, these amazing tales of the lives of mythical Irish heroes were, however unjustied, indeed, more interesting than the mythic heroes of the English traditionthe authors of Magna Carta, King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawain, the Knights of the Round Tableif only because they spoke more immediately in their brazen assertion of their highly sophisti- cated and complex cultural heritage and, implicitly, to the burning issue of Irish independence from British imperial rule:

While day its burden on to the evening bore, With head bowed on his knees Cuchulain stayed; Then Conchubar sent that sweet-throated maid, And she, to win him, his grey hair caressed; In vain her arms, in vain her soft white breast. Then Conchubar, the subtlest of all men, Ranking his Druids round him ten by ten,



Spake thus: Cuchulain will dwell there and brood For three days more in dreadful quietude, And then arise, and raving slay us all. Chaunt in his ear delusions magical, That he may ght the horses of the sea. The Druids took them to their mystery, And chaunted for three days. Cuchulain stirred, Stared on the horses of the sea, and heard The cars of battle and his own name cried; And fought with the invulnerable tide.

(W.B. Yeats 1956 , pp. 35 36)

Later, however, after the war, when I was in college, I had the opportunity of reading Yeatss late, more contemporary and this-worldly poetry. At that time, I was engaged in coming to terms with my having borne witness to the horric rebombing of Dresden and, as a consequence, my having been stripped of the last vestiges of faith in the order of the modern Western world. I had been thrown into the world (Geworfenheit) in Heideggers apt word, or, to invoke the phrase that I couldn t shake, into the zero zone, where, like it or not, I was compelled to attend to its irreparable nite imperatives. In Yeatss post-Gaelic poetry, I not only found a more complex and immediate encounter with the Irish struggle for independence from colo- nial rule. It was, as in the case of September 1913, one that was more satisfying than his earlier mythic version in that it was direct and also critical of the actual, contemporary Irish revolutionaries who led the revolt in terms of an adherence to the traditional nation-state binaries, that is, of an Irish leadership that, whatever its appeal to Gaelic myth, in fact restricted its revolutionary project to the site of politics as usual:

Was it for this the wild geese spread The grey wing upon every tide; For this that all that blood was shed, For this Edward Fitzgerald died, And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone, All that delirium of the brave? Romantic Ireland s dead and gone, It s with O Leary in the grave.

(Yeats 1956 , p. 106)



What, under the inuence of Kierkegaard and Heidegger, I found deeply attractive in Yeatss turn to contemporary Irish life was his perception of being as an indissolubly related continuum that included ontology, culture, and politics: the imperative to overthrow not simply the traditionalWestern/Britishpolitical system, but also the realization that there could be no revolution without also a revolution against thinking meta ta physika. Most critics and commentators of Yeatss poetry interpreted (and con- tinue to interpret) his notorious mythical system, The Phases of the Moon,as his appeal to mythan overarching and transcendent (panoptic) system, replacing the outmoded Christian and secularized Christian myths, that would enable him to write poetry in a shattered age. Under the inuence of the de-mythologizing initiative of Kierkegaard and Heidegger, I, on the other hand, focused on Yeatss overdetermination of the temporal world in the amazing poetry emanating from this System.I read this poetic initia- tive early on, however tentatively, as a subversive one intended to mock the Modernist nostalgia for a mythologythe spatializing impulse, that, as of old, would recuperate the ground for a viable modern poiesis. In the more recent language of the post-poststructuralists, above all that of Giorgio Agamben whose thinking, we must not forget, exists to radicalize Heidegger, his mentorYeatss intent was to render the highly prized mythology of the Modernists inoperative. I quote from Leland de Durantayes excellent study of Agambens thought for the sake of brevity and convenience:

Agambens own inoperativenessor désoeuvrement

refusal to do the work of a coercive society, but also to something quite differentan ontological reection on the modalities of being. In Homo Sacer Agamben writes that the only coherent way to understand inopera- tiveness is to think of it as a generic mode of potentiality that is not

in a transitus de potentia ad actum.Inoperativeness thus

refers not only to a


represents something not exhausted but inexhaustible because it does not pass from the possible to the actual . This is an idea Agamben is

intrigued to nd in Bataille but that he traces farther back and to an unexpected place. Agamben claims that Bataille s désoeuvrement as well as

were elements of a post historic gure

corresponding to an absence of a truly human work

traces the idea back to Aristotle s considerations of happiness and of man-

kinds collective vocation. What the term inoperative stresses is the other side of potentiality: the possibility that a thing might not come to pass. For Agamben, as for

those of other, similar gures

In so doing he



Aristotle, potentiality conceived of as merely the potential-to-be is but half the story. An idea of potentiality worthy of the name must also include a potentiality that does not pass into act, that is truly potential in the sense

that it contains the possibility of not actualizing

Agamben nds that politics is that which corresponds to the essential inoperatveness of mankind…” (Durantaye 2009, pp. 19 20)

For this reason

In short, inoperativeness means leaving the old binariesAct/potential, Answer/question, Us/them of the logic of belonging intact, but strip- ping them of their violent end-oriented vocational imperatives in the name of potentiality as suchand of the common for use. In the poetry of the System, that is, Yeats employs the myth of the Phases of the Moon (which, according to him, was at the time of writing in its last phase, the dark of the moon) to celebrate the earths and humanitys radical niteness and the errant poetry that is its imperative. A passage such as the following from the poetry of the System,” “ A Dialogue of Self and Soul,goes far to verify this intuition:

I am content to live it all again

And yet again, if it be life to pitch

Into the frog-spawn of a blind mans ditch,

A blind man battering blind men;

Or into that most fecund ditch of all, The folly that man does

Or must suffer, if he woos

A proud woman not kindred of his soul.

I am content to follow to its source

Every event in action or in thought; Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot! When such as I cast out remorse So great a sweetness ows into the breast We must laugh and we must sing, We are blessed by everything, Everything we look upon is blest.

(Yeats 1956 , p. 232)

Yeatss acknowledgement in the late years of his life of this inescapable aspect of the human condition found its, in my mind, most articulate and nal expression in his great poem The Circus Animals Desertion, particularly in the last unforgettable anti-Platonic stanza:



These masterful images because complete Grew in pure mind, but out of what began? A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street, Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can, Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut Who keeps the till. Now that my ladders gone, I must lie down where all the ladders start, In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart. (Yeats 1956 , p. 336)

However, it was not until I was in graduate school at Cornell, after taking my Masters degree from Columbia and teaching for two years at Mount Herman Prep School (Edward Saids alma mater, not incidentally, and the residence of three brilliant Union Theological Seminary graduates who were committed Kierkegaardians), that the impact of this intuition about the intensity of Yeatss revolutionary anti-Modernist commitment to this nite world made its nal evolved mark. It was in a graduate class on Modernist poetry taught by Arthur Mizener, the very popular biographer of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In that seminar of around 15 students, Professor Mizener, to cover all the facets of Yeatss poetry, asked us to choose the phase of his poetry we, as individuals, were most attracted by to report on. I chose Yeatss late poetrythe so-called Crazy Jane Poems,which I had not read but which the word crazyin the title attracted me. Reading these late poems with Kierkegaard and Heidegger in mind, was, for me, a transformative experience. They were what many years later, under the inuence of Giorgio Agambens critique of the conventional term secular,I came to call profane,a verication in modern poetry of the necessity of ground- ingthe coming revolution in the nothingness of being. Agamben distin- guishes between the secular and the profane. Secularization, he writes,

is a form of repression. It leaves intact the forces it deals with by simply moving them from one place to another. Thus the political secularization of theologi- cal concepts (the transcendence of God as a paradigm of sovereign power) does nothing but displace the heavenly monarchy onto an earthly monarchy, leaving its power intact.

Profanation, according to Agamben, is radically different:

[It] neutralizes what it profanes. Once profaned, that which was unavailable and separate loses its aura and is returned to use. Both are political



operations: the rst guarantees the exercise of power by carrying it back to a sacred model; the second deactivates the apparatuses of power and returns to common use the spaces that power had seized. (Agamben 2007 , p. 77)

With this profane perspective in mind, I quote two of the most powerful of these late lyrical poems to underscore the inordinate intensity not only of Yeats s de ance of the Church and its vocational imperatives that rendered the hailed individual, not least the female, the servile adherent of a sovereign Higher Cause, but also the earthly (ontological and linguis- tic) profanations that Yeats, I inferred, felt were crucial to the political revolution the Irish were waging against British colonial rule and in behalf of the formation of the coming community:

Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop

I met the Bishop on the road And much said he and I. Those breasts are at and fallen now, Those veins must soon be dry; Live in a heavenly mansion, Not in some foul sty.

Fair and foul are near of kin, And fair needs foul,I cried. My friends are gone, but that s a truth Nor grave nor bed denied, Learned in bodily loneliness And in the heart s pride.

A woman can be proud and stiff When on love intent; But Love has pitched his mansion in The place of excrement; For nothing can be sole or whole That has not been rent.

(Yeats 1956 , pp. 254 255)

Crazy Jane and the Bishop

Bring me to the blasted oak That I, midnight upon the stroke, ( All nd safety in the tomb .)



May call down curses on his head Because of my dear Jack that s dead. Coxcomb was the least he said:

The solid man and the coxcomb.

Nor was he Bishop when his ban Banished Jack the Journeyman, ( All nd safety in the tomb .) Nor so much as parish priest, Yet he, an old book in his st, Cried that we lived like beast and beast:

The solid man and the coxcomb.

The Bishop has a skin, God knows, Wrinkled like the foot of a goose, ( All nd safety in the tomb .) Nor can he hide in holy black The heron s hunch upon his back, But a birch-tree stood my Jack:

The solid man and the coxcomb.

Jack had my virginity, And bids me to the oak, for he ( All nd safety in the tomb .) Wanders out into the night And there is shelter under it, But should that other come, I spit:

The solid man and the coxcomb.

(Yeats 1956 , pp. 251 252)

That turn to the simple but aggressively forceful earth-bound language of Irish villagers like Crazy Jane,who had no patience with the inated rotundity of the language of the Church, was not only characteristic of the Crazy Janepoems; it turned out to be fundamental to virtually all of Yeatss late poetry. Indeed, it could be now said in an illuminating way that all of Yeatss late poems were written in what Edward Said, following Theodor Adorno, called the late style,a style that, as in the case of An Acre of Grass,rejects the conventional representations of old age as a time of reconciliation with the powers that be and the repose that recon- ciling peace brings, in favor of calling the things of the earth by their right name:



Picture and book remain, An acre of green grass For air and exercise, Now strength of body goes; Midnight, an old house Where nothing stirs but a mouse.

My temptation is quiet. Here at life s end Neither loose imagination, Nor the mill of the mind Consuming its rag and bone, Can make the truth known.

Grant me an old mans frenzy, Myself must I remake Till I am Timon and Lear Or that William Blake Who beat upon the wall Till Truth obeyed his call;

A mind Michael Angelo knew That can pierce the clouds, Or inspired by frenzy Shake the dead in their shrouds; Forgotten else by mankind, An old mans eagle mind. (Yeats 1956 , p. 299)

The report on the Crazy Janepoems I prepared for this graduate class attempted to underscore these profanations. Despite my awareness that Professor Mizener and most of the graduate students in the seminar were

Modernists, which is to say, ephebes of the worldlessness of the New Critics,

I wrote enthusiastically in praise of these late poems not only for celebrating

the profane nite life of man, but also for their implications for the polyvalent Irish revolutionary cause. And to emphasize these implications, I entitled my report Yeats on the Place of Excrement.Prior to the beginning of the class,

I proudly showed my title to my friend Larry Dembo (the future founding

editor of the prestigious journal at the University of Wisconsin, Contemporary Literature), who, on reading it, burst out laughing and said



in a whisper, Bill, do you realize what youre saying?I looked again at the title I was so proud of, using the word onin the scholarly senseas in On the Sublime(Peri Hupsous) or, in Jacques Derridas version, Of Grammatology”—and I was embarrassed for missing that obvious second meaning. To my everlasting shame I crossed out the title and wrote instead simply, W. B. Yeatss Late Poems.Only much later, when I adopted a late style,did I realize that the original title was exactly the right one in its mockery of the august authoritywith which the New Critics had endowed Yeatss poetry, though, like Larry Dembo and the graduate students he represented, it would, indeed, have been interpreted as the profanation of one of modernitys greatest poets. As in the cases of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Eliot, what I found profoundly attractive in Yeatss late poetry, including that of the System,was his rendering inoperative of the traditional onto-political terms by which he was represented and assessed by the Modernist critics. This latter initiative, as in the case of Eliot, resulted in the unworlding of Yeatss poetry in the name of the Modernist autotelic paradigm, a representation that entirely overlooked the onto-politics of Yeatss poetry and its poten- tial for the coming community in a volatile but still traditional (Catholic) Ireland. In the fall of 1977 or 1978, my former student, Paul Bové, who was then teaching at Columbia, invited me to drive down to New York from Binghamton to give a talk to his class on what I was currently thinking about modern and postmodern literature. That semester I was teaching a course on Modernist poetry from a postmodern perspective, and it was Yeats who was on our agenda at the time. I was not at rst certain as to what aspect of Yeatss poetry I would talk about. But on the drive down, responding to the destructive impulse that had become, however tenta- tive, fundamental to my teaching, I decided to risk the viability of this perspective, which, in opposition to the deconstruction of the poststruc- turalist critics, was oriented toward the poem s worldliness, by choosing to talk about a not very promising Sailing to Byzantium, the poem that, more than any other, the New Critics invoked as the epitome of the worldless world of the autotelic poem. I cannot remember the exact words I used to articulate this heretical reading of Sailing to Byzantiumon that memorable occasion (it was, I always remember, an early manifestation of what Edward Said called his late style), but the gist of it was as follows: Even Yeatss signature poem from his mature periodand for the New Critics, the epitome of the



Modernist autotelic poemwas susceptible to a reading that makes the mythic terms he invokes apparently to live by in old age to mean the antithesis of what they normally meant in commentaries on the poem. You will realize this, Im pretty sure, when you attend to the intensity of the poets love ofnot the contempt for, as the New Critics invariably put itthe nite human world he has reluctantly to give up. This paradox, when Yeatss underscoring of the glorious nitude of The young / In one anothers arms, birds in the trees / Those dying generationsat their songis registered, becomes especially evident in the third stanza, where the poet, so deeply attached to his decaying body, has to resort to praying to the saints depicted in Byzantine icons above him to come down to where he stands and drag him Into the artice of eternity:


sages standing in God s holy re


in the gold mosaic of a wall,

Come from the holy re, perne in a gyre, And be the singing-masters of my soul. Consume my heart away; sick with desire And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artice of eternity.

(Yeats 1956 , p. 191)

If it is remembered that it was in the decade of the 1970s that deconstruc- tion, a continental philosophical/critical initiative that was anathema to a still dominant American New Criticism, was beginning to penetrate America s cultural borders, it will be understood when I say that my talk generated a vociferous controversy among the students of Pauls class. Most of them, despite Pauls tutelage, thought my reading of Yeatss Sailing to Byzantium was perverse, even though I reminded them that my reading was a more close readingthan the highly touted close readings of the New Critics. A few students in the class, obviously engaged by my interpretation, were thrown into a healthy uncertainty. A couple became Spanosians, as Paul put it later when he told me that they were his best students. I was immensely gratied by the classs response, not because it veried my reading but because it opened up a question where there wasn