Julia Fiedorczuk - A Home of Words
Laura (Riding) Jackson's The Telling
I must thank Greg Garrard for attracting my attention to Bill McKibben's The Age of Missing Information, a book which grew out of a simple experiment whose aim was to demonstrate the extent to which human existence has been dominated not by what we like to think of as information, but by what ought to be properly referred to as noise. As Garrard put it, McKibben's work brings into contrast two versions of a single day (May 3, 1990). The first version is the author's own outdoor experience of walking in the countryside of upstate New York. The second one is “the thousands of hours of cable TV recorded for him in Fairfax, Virginia, that day: drama, sports, infomercials, Christian programming, soaps, adverts, nature documentaries, everything.” Having returned from the trip, Mc Kibben watched all of the materials recorded during his stay in the wild: the task took him about a year. He then compared the two experiences and concluded:
We believe we live in the “age of information,” that there has been an information “explosion,” an information “revolution.” While in a certain narrow sense this is the case, in many important ways just the opposite is true. We also live at moment of deep ignorance, when vital knowledge that humans have always possessed about who we are and where we live seems out of reach. An Unenlightenment. An age of missing information.”
The focus of both Garrard's and McKibben's research is the relationship between human beings and their natural environments. Both authors examine the condition of human consciousness in late modernity and the ecological consequences of modern habits of thought. Both are interested in what it means to exist in the world as a human being, and McKibben's work demonstrates that, in fact, we might be further than ever from a genuine understanding of our condition because, contrary to the popular conviction, postmodernity is “the age of missing information”. We do not understand, nor are we able to reflect upon, our own place in the world: the awareness of the fact that we are living beings among other living beings is something that our culture has lost. That is precisely the most vital piece of “information” that we miss - vital in the etymological sense of of the word which derives from the Latin adjective vitalis, that is, belonging to life.
McKibben's 1990 experiment has been rightly appreciated by what has since come to be referred to as the ecocritical movement. Many authors have understood the urgency of the questions posed by his work, and by the work of many other ecological thinkers who came into prominence in 1980's and 1990's. However, it is interesting to notice that similar insights had been formulated long before the onset of ecocriticism – and perhaps in a more fundamental way – in the writings of Laura (Riding) Jackson, and primarily in the work which she referred to as her “personal evangel,” The Telling.
The starting point of (Riding) Jackson's reflections in that work is the intuition that human beings have not yet told their “story,” while the telling of the human story is of fundamental importance, perhaps not only for humans. As (Riding) Jackson puts it in the second paragraph of the main body of The Telling,“in the missing story of ourselves can be found all other missing stories” (9). It is only through the understanding of ourselves and our place in the world that we can understand anything at all, and only through a careful understanding, and a careful telling, can we begin to transform the world so that it becomes more hospitable, and governed by love, not by violence. Like McKibben, (Riding) Jackson is convinced that the human story is not to be found in the chatter of contemporary media-world. In McKibben's view, it is in the silence of a natural setting that the meaning of who we are can be given back to us. (Riding) Jackson expresses a different opinion: she believes that it is in language that we have to look for our shared spiritual being – in language used “to [one's] truest” (The Telling, 50). The two authors' standpoints, though different, are not incompatible. For (Riding) Jackson speaking truly means, in the first place, not falling victim to the attraction of the multiple “discourses” available to modern humans, such as the discourse of science, religion, or even the decorous phrase-making of poetry. Truth is thus intimately linked to a fundamental silence, a silence which allows the carefully chosen words to mean exactly and fully. To the contrary, the “discourses” mentioned above can be described as “stealing the name of [truth] for their inventions” (55). They introduce noise as a result of which the natural meanings of words become distorted.
The intuition that language is humankind's proper and natural dwelling connects (Riding) Jackson's work with some of the most important strains in modern philosophical thinking while simultaneously marking her crucial difference from them. Philosophy as such was considered by the author of The Telling as one of the “truth-telling professions” (11) to be rejected or transcended. At the same time, however, (Riding) Jackson expressed profound respect for the old-time philosophers whose desire was “to use words well” and “to think to the mind's best” (12-13). Knowing that I would be risking (Riding) Jackson's disapproval could she reply to me in person, I am nevertheless going to attempt to place her “telling” in conversation with the thoughts of two philosophers whose love of language was as great as hers, even if their conclusions were sometimes very different from, or downright incompatible, with hers. I trust that such a juxtaposition may be an important first step towards the understanding of (Riding) Jackson's demanding work on language which found its culmination in The Telling. My aim is to demonstrate that, though seemingly an outsider, (Riding) Jackson is fully immersed in the intellectual life of her time while at the same time she manages to speak with a voice distinctly her own.
The two philosophers I would like to consider in the context of The Telling are Friedrich Nietzsche, whose headstrong thought corresponds to the critical (or: negative) elements (Riding) Jackson's work, and Jacques Derrida, whose late writings, focused on ethics, the importance of the feminine, and the fundamental (because: pre-ontological) status of friendship and of love make him, perhaps a bit unexpectedly, a sort of a kindred spirit even where positive solutions are at stake.
It must be stated clearly that the existential position and the overall spiritual orientation of Nietzsche's markedly masculine writings are at variance with the import of Laura (Riding) Jackson work. Nevertheless, some of the two thinkers' intuitions concerning modernity (which they both criticize) and language (whose condition at the times of their respective presences they both criticize) are strikingly analogous. Crucially, both writers are very skeptical of the truth-claims of modern science. Nietzsche believes science only serves consolation, whereas truth, in his view, should not be a matter of solace. (Riding) Jackson, while not rejecting the “operational” usefulness of science, remains very skeptical towards the “critical” function it assumes “in the consciousness of its operational success” (2). Both authors single out language as that which differentiates humans from the non-human world, and both consider this difference as moral in nature. Both reject the facility and the superficial lucidity of the dominant languages and go in search of more demanding forms of expression which would reflect more closely the natural rhythms of the human thought. Moreover, both oppose the compartmentalization of the human spirit and appreciate intuition. One important difference is that Nietzsche is always a poet, whereas Laura (Riding) Jackson has moved beyond what she came to consider as “a sleep-maker for that which sits up late in us listening for the footfall of the future on to-day's doorstep” (The Telling 11). Nietzsche thinks that if truth belongs to language it is because both are, in the end, anthropomorphic and artificial, while (Riding) Jackson trusts that it is because both of them share a common origin in what she repeatedly refers to as the human “Whole.”
What was provisionally labeled as the “critical” elements of (Riding) Jackson's thought on language are more characteristic of her early work, a crucial example of which is her great book of avant-garde criticism titled Anarchism is not enough first published in 1928. The book opens with a short piece titled “The Myth”, which summarizes, in the form of an allegory, all of the important themes of the book. (Riding) Jackson, at that time still a poet named Laura Riding, attacks and demystifies (one is tempted to say: deconstructs) the eponymous “Myth” which she characterizes as “an alter to ephemerality” . This altar is set up every time a new human being is born, in order to serve as a “temporary scaffolding” (9) for the child: in order to produce a soothing effect of permanence. This illusion of permanence gives the individual a sense of happiness: but it is a false happiness, and it is quickly discovered as such. However, the individual
continues to support the Myth for others' sake, and others continue to support it for his. The stronger grows the inward conviction of the futility of the Myth, the stronger grows the outward unity and form of the Myth. It becomes the universal form of duty, the ethics of abstract neighborliness. (10)
“Abstract neighborliness” thus consists in sustaining the illusion of a fixed and familiar order, a system, no matter what sort of a system as long as it has a form. All human activities are subordinated to the abstract rigidity of the Myth. The cost is, of course, the loss of one's individual being. The intuition here is very similar to that expressed in a well-known aphorism by Nietzsche: “the will to a system is a lack of integrity”.
The Myth, which is “the art of living” (10), is opposed by (Riding) Jackson to “the art of not living” (10), or what she will later call (in the essay titled “Jocasta”), the experience of the “individual-unreal”. In the realm of that (more than) anarchic unreality one is “not ephemerally permanent but permanently ephemeral” (11). Poetry, being not “of the Myth”, is the (more than) anarchic activity which allows to take words through all layers of meaning and force them to “a death of sense” (12) where they are saved from the totalizing, though perhaps the right word is totalitarian, rule of “abstract neighborliness” in which nobody is their true, individual self. More than anarchism is necessary to reach that aim, because anarchism still belongs to the Myth (consisting in a rebellion that is always directed against something, it repeats the logic of the Myth).
In a manner which seems to foreshadow some of Laura Riding's formulations, in an early piece titled “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense” Nietzsche described the human being as “a genius of construction” , somewhat similar to a bee. The difference between the busy insect and the human being is that “whereas the bee builds with wax that he gathers from nature, man builds with the far more delicate conceptual material which he first has to manufacture from himself” (113). The tendency might be admirable, but the use made of it by the human intellect is not. Nietzsche contrasted the human intellect's “continuous fluttering around the solitary flame of vanity” with “an honest and pure drive for truth” (110). In order to survive within what Nietzsche condescendingly called “the herd” - and what (Riding) Jackson refers to, in The Telling, as “the human aggregate” (6) - humans lie “according to a fixed convention”. Because they quickly forget that that is the case, they go on lying “in a manner indicated, unconsciously and in accordance with habits which are centuries' old'” (112). Like Riding's “contrary” practitioner of poetry (Anarchism, 11), Nietzsche's man (sic!) is “an artistically creating subject” (113, emphasis in the original). But this subject chooses to repress his own artistic nature so that habit and mediocrity can triumph.
Laura Riding's uncompromising more-than-anarchism was a starting point for her life-long engagement in the examination of language and its relation to the essence of humanness. Friedrich Nietzsche's critique of western metaphysics started a powerful tradition in twentieth century thought, culminating in the radical skepticism of some versions of post-structuralism (early Derrida, Paul de Man) which is now gradually fading away. It is perhaps not entirely surprising that at a point where continental philosophy is searching for some new, non-metaphysical foundations, (Riding) Jackson's voice is beginning to sound less and less eccentric; and at a time where more and more people express their dissatisfaction with our “age of missing information”, the urgency of her project can be perceived with a greater clarity. It is in the later work of Jacques Derrida – and for the sake of this presentation I will focus on “The Politics of Friendship” - that one can find a helpful (friendly) companion in the task of becoming familiar with the “radical simplicity” of The Telling.
The most fundamental affinity between (Riding) Jackson and Derrida is that they both adopt an ethical perspective: to speak is not merely to express oneself. To speak is to partake in a human community of speakers: there is no way to bypass this intersubjective dimension of speech. What follows from language's supra-individual character is responsibility (as in: to respond to someone). We are responsible for what we say but also for the very fact of saying it - even when we quote somebody else's words. The responsibility that is always ours when we decide to speak bestows a momentary freedom on us – a freedom, so to speak, heteronomously imposed. As such it cannot be made our own, it is there only as a condition for an act of speech and for a “sort of friendship” which is always there whenever speech occurs. Following the thought of Emmanuel Levinas Derrida writes:
You have already shown me this minimal friendship, this preliminary consent without which you would not understand me, would not listen to my appeal, or be sensitive to what is hopeful in my cry. Without this absolute past, I could not, for my part, have addressed myself to you […] We would not be together in a sort of minimal community – but one which is also incommensurable with any other – speaking the same language of praying for translation within the horizon of the same language, even were it so as to manifest a disagreement, if a sort of friendship had not already been sealed before any other contract: a friendship prior to friendships, an ineffaceable, fundamental and bottomless friendship, the one that draws its breath in the sharing of a language (past or to come) and in the being- together that any allocution supposes, including a declaration of war”
This minimal friendship is prior to philosophy. It is pre-ontological, because it is only within the horizon of that friendship that one can ask questions about being (and it is the eroticizition of this questioning that turns it into philosophy). Friendship has the structure of a prayer: I never have a friend but am always asking to have one. He or she is not mine to own.
The old understanding of friendship (and of politics) must be re-thought, Derrida claims, not least because traditionally both domains were reserved for men. Can there be a politics of friendship, the philosopher asks? Or would it be something else than politics? Would the radical singularity of a friend change the nature of politics? Open up new possibilities for men and for women to be – to be in the world, which is also the material world (our natural environment)? Laura (Riding) Jackson's “telling”, Like Derrida's friendship-in-speech, is an intersubjective process. Unlike in Anarchism is not enough, The Telling no longer considers individualism as something unquestionably positive. On the contrary, it is crucial that we perceive the limits of individualism: “We must learn what we are in the whole” (The Telling, 24). Overcoming our aggressive narcissism , we must become sensitive to the potential fact of “the One we may be” (41). The frequent recurrence of “the One” (or the Whole) on the pages of The Telling produces an association with the writings of American Transcendentalists, especially of Emerson. In Nature Emerson wrote:
Man is conscious of a universal soul within or behind his individual life, wherein, as in a firmament, the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine. This universal soul, he calls Reason: it is not mine, or thine, or his, but we are its.
But (Riding) Jackson's “universal soul” is not merely an effect of introspection, it dwells in language, in the very fact that we speak to one another. Of course “the One” is lost when we speak badly. The greatest risk occurs if one fails to recognize what she designates as “entirety”, and what can be compared to the irreducible dimension of intersubjectivity, or Derrida's “minimal friendship,” and decides to try “the total subject”. If one is “a creature swollen with [one]self, overfed with dreams of prevailing in the art of catching the ears of others, and set about to tell differently for the triumph of difference” (55) then the project of “telling” is lost, it becomes appropriated to one's selfish ends. It is then swallowed by the Myth and its truth gets stolen.
Throughout her life (Riding) Jackson was convinced that the marginalization of femininity was one of the gravest mistakes of humankind. In The Telling she returns to that thought, assigning women a privileged place as the silent bearers of truth – the hostesses of being. She writes: “Most mute, as rememberers of First Things and perceivers of Last Things, and knowers of ourselves as that in which First and Last are bound together, are women” (47). The sexual difference is considered by the author as the primary antagonism, the emergence of which the poet Laura Riding depicted, for instance, in a story titled “Eve's Side of It.” It is the “man-part of ourselves” who is “the harborer of the force” of this antagonism (The Telling 49). That is (Riding) Jackson's description of misogyny, embraced by the philosophers from Plato to Nietzsche, but rejected by Derrida. In (Riding) Jackson's view an alternative to patriarchy is not feminism which would emphasize the feminine difference and simply reverse the direction of violence because that would be mere anarchism, whereas more-than-anarchism is needed. What has to be uncovered is, once again, the sense of the Whole. (Riding) Jackson writes:
Foresense of Being-made-whole-in-us sits secret in women, in the mute mind of their kinship; and they listen for the call within this, and with this will they hear it – even above the clatter that rises from their garrulity of heart (which is but a cheerful defiance of free souls offered to their confinement). And they will respond to the call from another world, go to another world, to speak, that will be whole, because of their responding, and because of the calling. They will have risked the other world's not being whole, not anything – and the half-world lost. Thus shall the woman-part and the man-part make each other free; thus shall we, men and women, locked in the intricacy of being men and women, free ourselves to be ourselves. (50)
Laura (Riding) Jackson's project may sound utopian to some of her readers. If that is so, it is because her thought is grounded in a faith that few of us share today: the faith in natural “language-wisdom” as she put it in Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words written in collaboration with her husband Schuyler Jackson. In that posthumously published work , the authors expressed the conviction that people “innately posses” what they describe as “a recognition of the existence of a relationship between them and their words, and a comprehension of its being governed by certain principles – simple, fact-like principles” This conviction is what most significantly differs (Riding) Jackson's work discussed here from the philosophical tradition I evoked in order to initiate a friendly conversation. While sharing in this faith is perhaps a precondition for an unquestioning acceptance of the entirety of (Riding) Jackson's work, much it will ring vitally true even to non-believers, such as the author of the present text. Moreover, at a time when not only our spiritual, but also our material home is beginning to crumble, we can hardly afford to reject utopias. After all, is not any suggestion of a possibility of a fundamental change in the human condition utopian? And yet, changes do occur. It is not brutal, revolutionary changes that are required but rather something in the order of good housekeeping. The Telling teaches us precisely that: it is an invitation to share in the responsibility of looking after our human dwelling.
Laura (Riding) Jackson writes: “In the very telling of our story to one another is the crux of salvation: as we speak it true, we have new being, and are in the new time...” (The Telling 37). Our story is still missing, it is still waiting to be told. That it be told is of fundamental importance: it is our first responsibility to each other. The missing story is nothing less than the “home of our thought” (The Telling 21): our home. Nobody is allowed to usurp this home for their own egoistic purposes. To quote Emerson again: “it is not mine, or thine, or his, but we are its.” Few thinkers have expressed it as uncompromisingly as Laura (Riding) Jackson.