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James Joyce

These heavy sands are language tide and wind have silted here.

–James Joyce, Ulysses [2176]

Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, a translator and poetry scholar, has a beautiful essay accompanied by a selection of translations of the Belgian poet Jean Daive in issue 2.2 of continent. The sampling of work that Oei addresses all derive from his translation of Daive’s Narration d’équilibre: Antériorité du scandale, ‘Sllt’, Vingt-quatre images seconde (Paris: Hachette/P.O.L, 1982) and Oei is quick to mention that his annotations are not intended to present a “…meticulous overview of the different themes, lines, and figures traversing such a voluminous oeuvre. Rather, they form a set of comments that found their way to the margins of the word processing document while translating the work.”

Similarly, this note is being written to track a number of comments — ad-ornaments — lining the margins of the print-out of Oei’s essay that I have been reading for the past few weeks while in Berlin working on the preparation of a new issue of continent. This note is written as a divergent hearkening — a kind of hypertranscription of Oei’s essay — though, one that remains entirely convergent with the aims of Oei’s essay. Broadly, my interest in mapping differing readings of poetic texts in relation to earlier readings in the genealogical wake generated by those texts is meant to aim at a concept of divergence itself; certainly one of the notions at stake in the careful unraveling of the Sausserean sign Oei undertakes through readings of Lacan and Derrida, up to Daive’s subsequent work at the level of polysemy and meaning-making in his poetics. The moment we’ve decided that poetic language is one of the questions at play in our analyses, we’ve already ventured into the thickets: the divergent, unofficial matrices of semblance and association that we, in our listening, rely upon as orienting devices. The language of the unofficial is here meant to recall the orienting premise that Oei invokes to structure his investigations. Following in the footsteps of poetry scholar Judith Balso, Oei remarks his investigations as “depart[ing] from Wallace Stevens’ idea that if it is the case that philosophy represents the ‘official view of being,’ poetry can be defined as its ‘unofficial view.’” Just further on, and now approaching Daive, Oei begins his work by asking us to listen to three particular resonances of an odd term in Daive’s title, stating that, “[t]his unofficial being of poetry finds its materialization in “Sllt” (listen to slat, the suppressed ssst of the nocturnal visitor, but also the salut of poetry itself).”

In a sense my reflections will have not moved beyond these three resonances, however over-coded they become, as I aspire to listen to Daive by redoubling them, attempting to think the slat in the middle of translation, and trace three more associations out of profligate possibilities (listen to the curt sult, the double dashes // dividing and intertwining another couple, slit and silt).

1.) Sult (Norwegian hunger, as in Knut Hamsun), itself perhaps a starved and strained attempt to utter salt (with its etymological twin wit as evidenced in the Latin sal). Recall when Daive tells us that “eating is the phrase of here or speaking.” As interpretive maxims go, to keep your wits about you and take it with a grain of salt are both welcome, if not synonymous, reminders.

Already, keen readers may pause to wonder at a kind of metacommentary on a methodology that takes so many witty turns-of-phrase and novel fluctuations in meaning so seriously. Can a method of approaching texts that relies so lasciviously (a sultry, if not slutty way of cruising texts) upon their sonic textures be worth its salt? To what extent? Curious moments like Daive’s phoneme sllt, that we readers want to treat as a word, are, it’s possible, grains of salt in the cryptographer’s sense of the word– randomly chosen bytes inserted into messages prior to decoding to render certain forms of decryption much more difficult. Hard, indigestible bits meaninglessly resisting meaning and, just as obstinately, refusing to be brushed off so easily. To the notions of grains, specks, and motes, to which I am deeply attracted, I return at the end of this note.

2.) Now, with a non-verbal resonance, look at the Roman two-count graphic “II”, that slat that Oei comments upon and implicitly draws into its visual rhyme with the forward slash used to indicate a line break in poetry that has been transcribed without breaks / as well as the cut inaugurated by the image that the poetic text creates. If we follow Stevens’ designation of the unofficial view, it isn’t so hard to translate the language into Dickinsonian, as when she famously implores her readers to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”. An analogy: Stevens’ unofficial view is to being as Dickinson’s slant telling is to truth. (And what of these italics, then? Perhaps a deeper, Dickensonian return to Derrida’s Faith and Knowledge is in order…).

Slant (divergence): We can also stay with the graphic slats and, recalling how Dickinson’s poem continues that “Success in circuit lies”, observe how easily they could be circuited into conversation with that most elementary grapheme of online societies and hypertext protocol: “://”, about which theoreticians of technology and poetics much more capable than I would doubtless have much to say.

3.) Lastly, the slit-silt couple that mirrors plays on the signe-singe couple that forms one of the strong bases of Oei’s text and out of which it’s analyses develop. For Oei’s reading of Daive, the simian (singe) that appears in the course of Daive’s poetry “dwells in the spot previously occupied by the Aristotelian sign (signe)”. Throughout history, sign-making has seemed to signify a certain distinction between humanness and animality, even while definitions of the former have retained an insoluble closeness to the latter (as we hear from old etymological stories about the letter A and Phoenician pictograms for oxen). Indeed, the notion persists into modernity. Says Oei again, “[w]hereas Stéphane Mallarmé imagined the sign as swan (cygne), caught on the white page, Daive focuses on the ‘unofficial,’ mischievous character of the sign, its nearly being human.” As Oei moves from the casting of the ape and the swan, through his cataloging of Daive’s signs – signs that are always “overloaded”, “ambiguous”, “polyvalent”, and “excessive” – it becomes abundantly clear the extent to which every term abounds in it’s resonances and in its role within poetry’s (pa)role to “say everything”. Indeed, every sign is an alloy — a mixture of others (allos-) — and this is perhaps an alternate answer to Daive’s question, “Why this transversal of the others like—”. With an understanding of language itself as alloy (or creole) and the utterance of the similitic like, the dam bursts loosing unfettered slippages; the metamorphoses that so easily displace the solidity of a Sausserean distinction between signifier and signified become dizzying.


Indeed, each irruption or fibrilation of the foil of poetic texts is a potential lime-twig (one of the myriad branches of Saussere’s tree, under which we find Mallarme’s swan and Daive’s ape) upon which otherwise unseen readings catch. A sensual assault (asllt?) or, if that term seems to hyperbolic, at least a snare, or a little spur (eperon), as in Derrida’s analysis of Nietzsche’s Styles (Eperons).

Shifting the metaphor slightly, we can easily imagine every sign as a slit in a garment that proposes to seduce us, marks a slit in desire, calls us to respond, and in doing so changes the course of our becoming. Daive notes the imperative nature of response itself when he writes that, “[…] we need to respond now. Responding, that is / continuing / and waiting, that is the return of the event. / In fact, it is like a lady, but it is different”. In terms that will be familiar to readers of Badiou, the seduction of encounters opens a path towards fidelity, through which the original encounter can be understood as a true event and the subject of the encounter can become constituted as a subject. Fidelity itself can be comported towards individuals, styles (or dispositions) of things as much as toward texts, ideas, or interpretations thereof.

But, I am taking this path to get caught on another spur, to hesitate not at the signe or singe, but at the tree that stands between them and which plays a central role in Oei’s excursus. It’s the tree, which I will remark here not only to cast again in its role as a genealogical symbol (“We will have children, trees. We will grow up / we will climb.”, writes Daives) and thus remember the genealogical readings that Foucault and Nietzsche insisted upon, but to cast a divergent ending in my reading of Oei’s reading. Through its nuanced and astute annotations, Oei’s text culminates in a meditation on the materials he has inventoried in Daive’s work and a reference to a sculpture by the German artist Joseph Beuys (FOND VII/2 [1967/84]). In the interest of repeating this movement anew and with a focus on the centrality of the, now thoroughly over-determined, figure of the tree I would like to recall another work by Beuys, 7000 Eichen (7000 Oaks) – a work consisting of the planting of 7’000 trees, each paired with a basalt column.



Quoting Beuys,

“My point with these seven thousand trees was that each would be a monument, consisting of a living part, the live tree, changing all the time, and a crystalline mass, maintaining its shape, size, and weight. This stone can be transformed only by taking from it, when a piece splinters off, say, never by growing. By placing these two objects side by side, the proportionality of the monument’s two parts will never be the same.”

Now, in the interest of closing and moving hopefully not too far from Daive and his poems, I would like to suggest that this work by Beuys forms a compelling allegory for the kind of plasticity remarked upon by the philosopher Catherine Malabou as essential not only to the form of the subject in Hegel (where Malabou originally draws her analysis) or neurobiology (where Malabou’s work leads her), but to language itself (poetic language standing not for an instance of language but as a thoroughly recursive denomination for language and the plastic element within language itself, without which it could not be).

For Malabou the concept of plasticity designates a two-fold capacity; in the first instance it stands for the capacity of a material to change and explosively generate new form (as the discipline repeatedly remarked by Daive and Oei, neurology, believes neural pathways to be plastic). Deleuzian reading might think find themselves inclined to conjure the rhizomatic aspen as being a somewhat better suited oak for visualizing this kind of plasticity. In the second instance plasticity designates, in an affinity with the concept as it appears in the plastic arts, the vulnerability of a material to yield to irreversible forming (as Beuys’ stones can be changed solely through the subtractive forces of weather and carving). The simians are not only swinging from branch-to-branch generating new connections and arbitrary combinations in language, as Oei suggests. For Daive, and the materiality of my illustration, “The simians are sitting on stones / at the level of terrestrial / existence.” There is a degree of fundament, subject to being irremediably affected by sudden traumatic injury, degenerative disorders, aphasia.

Amidst so much talk about the plastic arts, plastic wrap, and plastic explosives we can, at the level of our texts also hear the philosopher Avital Ronell reminding us of something akin to destructive plasticity when she notes the confraternity between missives and missiles and remarks upon the small ideas that are planted in texts and go unnoticed for centuries before revealing themselves to be timebombs, detonating registers of meaning, relevance, and decisions once considered as infrangible (Meillassoux). Positions and perceptions are revised if not reversed and, in the interest of closing, I will turn once more to the image of the tree, now as an aid in visualizing what is at stake in these reversals, disruptions, and shifts of focus between myriad signs and significations. Overarching and attendant upon these concerns is the interplay between philosophy’s authorial edifices and what Oei, again quoting the poetry scholar Judith Balso names the “cracks and fissures of the metaphysical framework”, towards which poetic invention must be trained if it is to have political valence. Here, and in the interest of wrapping up, I listen to the Tibetan poet Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche when he writes, commenting on a photograph of a tree:

“Branches. We could view the trees as cracks in the sky, like cracks in glasses. We could adopt that change in perspective. The space that exists around you could be solid—and you could be only a hollow in the middle of that solid space.”

I find it hard to imagine a better description of the kind of perspectival shifts with regard to being that poetry seems so well-suited at facilitating.

But what has any of this to do with silt that last resonance of my original list? Silt- the material below the grain, where speaking of grains or kernels begins to lack any scalar sense (there is always a smaller element to prioritize), that forms the riverbeds for the rivers from which our simians, swans, and philosophers alike undoubtedly drink, will deserve to have much more said about it than I am able to say in this little postscript. As Oei remarks via Lacan and Freud on anagrams, there are unconscious repercussions for our couples such as signe-singe, slit-silt, or Lacan’s originary and slightly more complex arbre-barre. We choose our terms and they are thus consequent. If the Sausserean sign is always split by a (permeable) bar, then any procession of signs or slats is likewise riven by bars and slits. What I call silt is perhaps cognate with Oei’s slat, though in a direction distinctly it’s own. Whereas Daive’s slat (sommier) “contributes to the summation (sommer) of the phrases, series, and seconds—secundus— sequences and persecutions, marching and marking are separated and thus form names, words, albeit in a disowned way: aping”, silt would seem to point to what is visible between (and beneath) the slats; not a plank (like the one that we are perhaps walking) or that Tibetan sutras are traditionally inscribed upon, but still a support (as in a riverbed). Instead of contributing additively to summation, silt would seem to signify the end of a process of wearing down of phrases, series, seconds, and sequences into finer and less distinguishable grit – what is perhaps glimpsed when one’s perception of a tree is hollowed out through the kind of procedure that Trungpa Rinpoche seeks to effect.

In essence, and with continued attention paid to Malabou’s notion of destructive plasticity, silt names that composition of little elements, little dangers, at the level of marks “below” that of the letter, which persist within the sanctioned space of the poem and threaten always to overturn the meaning of that sanctioned space. Take, in closing, the example of the single, unremarked upon, apostrophe before the word ‘Cause in the first line that Oei takes as a starting point for his note keeping. What being does this initial apostrophe abbreviate? What word does it rend itself from? The obvious answer is that Daive’s text actually takes its first step with the slang version of “because”. “Be-”, of course, an abbreviation and hiatus of being in the apostrophe. While the philosophical freight of such a suggestion may not turn out to be extraordinary, to risk such a revision– to cast Daive’s text in the league of those that begin, „Because…“, that is, in the register of those that commence as responses to another– is to wonder whether there was actually a cause — a causa or Aristotelian aition — in the first instance, as Oei has assumed, or always just a partially effaced glyph (rendered indecipherable and disproportionate by the destructive plasticity of time itself) which we struggle, in our diligence and our care, to preserve?

Psychoanalysis is a good system for those of us that like structure. Even the unconscious, that vast cauldron of libidinal dreams and desires, is structured like a language as Lacan reminds us. After all, there are but three psychical structures in psychoanalysis: the pervert, the psychotic, and the neurotic. I must admit that I find the psychotic the most interesting when considering the artist. It was after all James Joyce, the psychotic artist par excellence that gave Lacan the material to discover that, “the unconscious is the real”, an insight that foregrounded the symptom as both the source of knowledge and ultimately as that which defies interpretation, as it is always caught within the real.[1]

But I don’t wish to look at Joyce. I’m interested in first looking more generally at the idea of the psychotic artist. If we take these structures seriously, we should pause to situate them as a part of all psychical reality. It is only by varying quantity that we experience their structures. Freud makes this claim as early as his work on Dora, the hysteric whom he and Breuer diagnosed in the late nineteenth century.

As Foucault developed towards the end of his great work, Madness and Civilization, following the enlightenment, madness represents a privileged source of truth. To break with the regime of rationality became the source of creative activity, and truth always involves accessing the inverted side of the rational social order. But we ought to be careful not to fetishize the “artist as madman”, wandering adrift yet in touch with the invisible forces of nature, in touch with some form of truth that is inaccessible. After all, truth has “the structure of fiction” for Lacan, and as such, any interpretation must ultimately be a construction out of the repressed core of the subject’s symptom, which is the source of all knowledge. Of course the mad artist has had their day (Artaud, Andre Gide, Jack Kerouac, Nietzsche).

At the outset, it’s important to distinguish the neurotic artist from the psychotic artist. At some point, I want to generate a list of psychotic and neurotic artists. Of course to statically situate an artist as either psychotic or neurotic is misleading: many exhibit both structures, but I’d assume that it’s fair to suggest that individual poets experience these two structures, not poetic or artistic movements. I want to suggest that the distinction is helpful as it enables us to operationalize some deeper structural tendencies for all artistic production and aesthetic truth, and subjectivity.

The Psychotic and the Neurotic: What’s the Difference?

The neurotic seeks a harmony that does not exclude dissonance, while the neurotic is able to approach dissonance through analytic procedures and discern the disorder in nature, metaphysics, etc. One always writes for the other under neurotic complexes, but under psychoses, one writes for oneself.

The goal of the psychotic artist is to develop an absence of the morbid state, while the neurotic artist approaches their problems psychoanalytically, constantly trying to figure their problems out through others, by creating characters, for example that represent elaborate problems and the solving of those problems in their art. For the psychotic, the subject is usually a closing, not an opening, as we find in the neurotic. The psychotic artist reproduces an inner universe, which is why the surrealists referred to psychotic art as realist. Yet as Lacan comments, the psychotic is unable to produce poetry. We find with one of the most famous and well-studied cases of psychoses, that of the early twentieth century German Judge Daniel Paul Schreber. Schreber’s Memoirs of My Mental Illness was the basis of Freud’s formulation of psychosis as a repressed homosexual desire, and for Lacan, psychosis became a result of strained Oedipal relations.

Hölderlin and Psychosis: Filing the Empty Center

Friederich Hölderlin’s psychosis should be read universally. As the psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche comments in his authoritative text on Hölderlin, Hölderlin and the Question of the Father: “the question whether he is schizophrenic because he is a poet or a poet because he is schizophrenic loses its meaning, if it ever had one”.[2]

Hölderlin emerges as a young poet and novelist in Germany during a period (1790 – 1796) of ripe intellectual and poetic collaboration, entering as he did on the heels of the Sturm und Drang movement. This late Romantic Movement consisted of poets and philosophers in Germany who placed intense emotions and a focus on inner states at the center of their art.

Key to understanding their rejection of the enlightenment’s rationalism was the concept of Bildung, or the desire for an education rooted in experience, beauty, and artistic maturity. Bildung is the tendency to give form, to ripen oneself. Like all German idealists, bildung is a central goal of the artist, and as Hölderlin comments in his novel the Hyperion, it also presents a dialectic that is traceable in individuals and civilizations. Hölderlin’s obsession with this idea of conflating the inner self with society, revealed the way that his schizophrenia would prevent him from completing this dialectic, it would prevent him from completing the fully formed subject of romantic education and maturity.

By looking closely at Hölderlin’s Oedipal object relations, we see that he suffered from a strained libido because of intense pressure he developed through two figures in his young artistic life: Friederich Schiller and Johann Gottlieb Fichte. In Oedipal terms, Fichte came to represent the law with his mastery over a perfect metaphysical system, which was the pinnacle of philosophical achievement for the German idealists in pre-French revolution Europe. Hölderlin attended his lectures with great admiration at the precision of his totalizing system of thought. Schiller represents the father for Hölderlin, with his unmatched greatness, poetic achievements, and his ability to go beyond what Fichte was able to achieve in what Hölderlin perceived as an overly rational system of thought.

But Hölderlin placed the law not in Fichte, but in Schiller. Eventually the law (symbolized by Fichte’s metaphysical system) broke down, and Hölderlin fell into what psychobiographer’s refer to as his “Jena depression”. This anxiety of influence built up so intense that he was forced to flee Jena and live with his mother. Jena is a university where he and these figures lived in central Germany. Even though the Jena period gave him access to minds and spirits such as Hegel, Goethe, Schiller, and Fichte, his life was filled with utter despair. This hole in his psychical composition is what Laplanche has referred to as Hölderlin’s “center” – the place of the dead father.

Fleeing Jena and his depression, Hölderlin would fill this empty center in his psychical life in his penetrating novel, Hyperion. This lack of a center is filled over at times in a completely imaginary relation, which is precisely what ends up leading to his schizophrenic outbursts. At other times, Hölderlin was reliant on a dual system between the law and the father (Fichte and Schiller), what we might refer to as good and bad object relations, using Melanie Klein’s concepts. The lack in his center (distance from Schiller) that Hölderlin continually sought to fill over, became the basis of his concept of proximity.

It is this proximity that Hölderlin would develop towards the center that led his artistic creation following his post Jena period, and it enabled Hölderlin to persist without Schiller’s proximity. As he writes his most famous novel, the Hyperion, his schizophrenia developed rapidly. The psychoanalyst Paul Matussek, the space of the empty center involves the absence of any space between the object of anxiety (in this case Schiller) and the imaginary object. Once Hölderlin escapes the proximity to Schiller, his paternal object collapses and he no longer requires the same degree of proximity. Without Schiller, Hölderlin would have to sublimate the absence of the lack.

We can generalize this specific tendency to fill over the lack of the psychical center to the idea, which we find in Harold Bloom, of the anxiety of influence. Once the psychotic artist is able to develop a certain proximity to the absent center, I would argue that a pride of influence replaces the anxiety of influence. The pride of influence refers to the way in which you can enlarge yourself by admitting others into your own conversation in imaginary ways, even though you have distanced yourself from your source of influence, i.e. even though you have distanced yourself from your anxiety.

Hölderlin, lacking an object to fill his center after fleeing Jena and developing distance from Schiller, sought to fill the center with his mother, which eventually grew to replace the position of the father. In his published correspondence with his mother, it’s clear that Hölderlin sought to fill the empty place with the love from his mother, a love that would expand to represent nature, totality, and salvation in the Hyperion. The obsession to fill the center, yet being at peace with the reality that the center can never be filled opens up Hölderlin’s conception of infinity and the unlimited. This desire to fill the center into a totality was of course embodied by Diotima, who becomes the figure in the Hyperion that Hölderlin would use to cover over the lack of the center.

What we find occurring in the proximity to the center is also highly significant for Hölderlin’s work on the Gods. The Gods as they have come to be understood by humanity are, according to Hölderlin, “another humanity by which humanity devotes itself”, and as such, Gods are invented in order to escape from what is too difficult for man to think – its own contingency in the universe. This inability to think contingency is, one might suggest, the inability for humanity writ large to think the center.

Yet, it was also the twilight and darkness that nature (the mother) aroused in Hölderlin, a darkness that he refused to walk away from in his writing. This passage from the “Thalia Fragment” is telling of the proximity that Hölderlin suffered from in his writing:

Then, one day recently, I saw a boy lying by the roadside. His mother, who was watching, had carefully spread a covering over him, so that he should sleep in soft shadow and not be dazzled by the sun, But the boy did not want to stay there and tore off the covering, and I saw how he tried to look at the friendly light and tried again and again, until his eyes smarted and, weeping, he turned his face to the earth. Poor boy, I thought, others fare no better; I myself almost resolved to desist from this audacious curiosity. But I cannot, I must not! It must out, the great secret that will give me life or death.

This passage shows the conflict of the empty center and the merging of the symbol of the mother enveloping it with that of nature, and the casting of the night all the while refusing to succumb to the tragedy of what it portends.


[1] Thurston, Luke. Re-inventing the Symptom. In the Wake of Interpretation: “The Letter! The Litter!”  Other Press, New York, 2002.

[2] Laplanche, Jean. Hölderlin and the Question of the Father. ELs Editions Publishing, 2007 Pg. 118.

Before I post my regularly scheduled post, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I give you an excerpt from James Joyce’s “The Dead.”

Gabriel had not gone to the door with the others.  He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase.  A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also.  He could not see her face but he could see the terracotta and the salmonpink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white.  It was his wife.  She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something.  Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also.  But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man’s voice singing.

He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife.  There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something.  He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of.  If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude.  Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones.
Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.