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What Does Literature Feel Like?

Distance without Remoteness: The Objectivist Poetics of Nonmimetic Pain

Xavier Kalck


Cet article débute par un bref examen de l’histoire de la lecture sous l’angle privilégié de la relation entre l’esprit et le corps, dans le but de dépasser toute opposition simple entre ces deux notions. Le temps d’un rapide retour aux racines occidentales de la lecture et à quelques techniques méditatives aujourd’hui oubliées, on rappelle le rôle thérapeutique qui fut celui de la lecture pour un esprit incarné dans un corps. On propose ensuite un exercice comparatif à partir de trois textes, tous écrits après 1945, tirés des œuvres de trois poètes américains (George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff et Louis Zukofsky) qui tous les trois évoquent l’expérience traumatique de la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Ce faisant, l’article démontre combien ces trois poètes se sont efforcés de produire des récits et de répondre à ces événements d’une façon qui interdirait toute forme d’esthétisation, c’est-à-dire en faisant montre d’une précaution extrême devant les moyens d’engager la sensibilité de leurs lecteurs. L’article conclut que si de tels choix semblent situer leurs écritures fort loin de la volonté contemporaine de faire de la lecture une expérience sensorielle, voire somatique, il n’en demeure pas moins que les pratiques de mise à distance et le soin apporté aux souffrances endurées contiennent encore de précieux enseignements quant à ce que la littérature peut ou doit nous faire ressentir.

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1When one thinks of reading in terms of the relationship between mind and body, it seems that conventional generalizations retain much of their potential to provide a regrettable degree of obfuscation. For instance, the idea that when reading the mind remains aloft and disconnected from the body no longer enjoys much currency, and yet the opposite view—that reading should be viewed primarily as a bodily act—has done much to revive it, lest it be deprived of a suitable, polemical antagonist. The reason why the old divide between making sense and the making of sensations remains operational in reader-response studies lies precisely in the fact that, from a rhetorical standpoint, it is remarkably effective in providing legitimating rationales for the work to be done. The critical narrative that today sustains much of the thinking on the topic relies indeed on the kind of stump speeches that would let the scales fall from our eyes and allow us to contemplate for the first time “what contemporary literary theories of reading have systematically marginalized, excluded or ignored: the body of the reader” (Littau 11). It is worth noticing, however, that if we choose not to engage in the politicization of material studies as a means of repeatedly urgent emancipation, interesting complexities begin to emerge. First, it must be clearly stated that literacy studies worldwide have already considered the materiality of reading in great detail: literacy studies and their specific focus on the human technology of reading and writing, from skill and competence to social practices and cultural configurations, had been busy well before a “material turn” developed within literary studies themselves. The kind of schooling that literacy enforces, both literally and figuratively, is indeed not without political or physical consequences on the bodies of readers, as many now classic studies in literacy have shown, from Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working Class Life (1957) or Jack Goody’s The Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977) to Jennifer E. Monnagan’s Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America (2005). More recently, Matthew Rubery’s illuminating Reader’s Block: A History of Reading Differences (2022) has studied literacy from the perspective of a variety of neurological conditions, thus challenging the definition of a typical reader’s phenomenological experience. A methodological question arises therefore instantly which should take precedence over all else: how can literary studies articulate, not simply borrow from, or appropriate, the labor of literacy studies? How does one avoid merely paying tribute to the work of literacy studies in the form of a polite yet ultimately dismissive contextual nod? Background material about the historical shift from scroll to codex, from audible, communal reading to silent and private perusal, together with the expected acknowledgement of the important role of the printing industry and the promise of a now digital future—all these will be readily provided, along with an overview of neuroscience’s brand-new contributions to the helpful mapping out of our reading brains. The question of knowing how any of these findings might carry over into the critical work of literary studies remains, on the other hand, a most pressing concern despite a large consensus about the notion that reading is indubitably and all at once a physiologically, socially, culturally and historically situated activity.

2Arguably, some of the difficulty lies in the very vastness of the subject itself. As Jens Brockmeier and David R. Olson have warned in their careful assessment of what literacy episteme might encompass, “there is no such thing as a clear and bound definition or empirically based concept of literacy simply because the range of activities encompassed by the concept of literacy has expanded and continues to expand enormously” (Olson and Torrance 4-5). Allowing for “the social, intellectual, and cultural implications of writing [to] become epistemic objects” (5) is certainly no easy task, yet the relatively novel take on these matters offered by literary critics might well make it even more arduous. Materiality, for all the success this concept has enjoyed, has entered a delicate new phase in recent years which places it somewhat at the crossroads. To put it ever so briefly, laudable efforts to try and reconcile the well-established materiality of writing with that of reading practices, instead of opening texts to their less acknowledged contexts, have often had the opposite effect of setting up the materiality of the reader, and of the reader’s body, as an independent topic. More concerning still is the fact that, as a result, reading practices, though derived out of the shared materiality of books and our varied uses for them, have become something that is too often to be opposed to texts.

3Thus, Thomas Mc Laughlin’s central claim, in Reading and the Body: The Physical Practice of Reading (2015), “is not that the mind of the reader is embodied, but that the body reads—the whole body, muscle and bone, nerves and brain—and that the operations of mind, socially constructed, historically conditioned, in all their subtle interactions with the complexity of texts, are the works of the body” (Mc Laughlin 13). It seems almost as if literary criticism’s answer to the demands for a proper literacy episteme had consisted in substituting the materiality of reading practices with another, allegedly superior materiality—that of the reader’s body. Operating as a kind of specular image of literacy practices, the concept of the reader’s body does encompass much of the original field of literacy. It does so, however, from a decidedly metaphorical standpoint, since the sensory body soon becomes itself an image for a number of particular subject positions situated in a definite social space. Speaking of embodied consciousness, one may well aim at achieving “a more general understanding of the habitus of reading—the values, beliefs, cognitive procedures, and emotional dispositions of the community of readers, and the social and historical contexts in which they operate” (Mc Laughlin 14), yet it is self-evident from such a list that the physical body of the reader is being examined here for what it represents. In the name of the discursive body, the theoretical interpretive privileges of literary criticism are therefore surreptitiously reasserted, if not fully reinstated, over the empirical methodologies of literacy studies. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought thus returns to a form of Cratylus-inspired standpoint that looks to the body as the near-mimetic source of language and of the mind’s metaphorical capabilities.

4Whereas the focus on textuality had once been seen as a cure against prioritizing speech over writing, the body’s newfound materiality goes one step further and definitively dislodges the concept of logos from texts altogether in favor of the body as being itself capable of signifying, so much so that even the editors of The Cambridge Companion to the Body in Literature felt they must begin by making the following admission:

The fact is that there are no bodies in literature. Not only there is no obvious way for the concrete materiality of the body to be fully present in or on the written page; even more profoundly, there would seem on the face of it to be an apparent mutual exclusivity of the body and language—the one all brute facticity, the other presupposing precisely the absence of matter. And yet, over the last three or four decades, critics and theorists have found myriad ways of addressing the representation of the body and embodied experience in literature. (Hillman and Maude 3)

5Whatever specific position one may wish to adopt, the unquestionable truth being laid out here is that of the mediated materiality of the body. Metaphorical or figurative uses of the body, we are told, either through representation or the prism of an embodied consciousness, place the body well within the scope of literature, yet outside of its literal reach. To resolve this dilemma without simply bemoaning the body’s metaphorical character as an inevitable after-effect of language’s own facticity, or worse, wishing to do without the boundary between matters of language and matters of fact, we would do well to stop looking to locate materiality as one would a separate site, and to attempt instead to account for its importance within a much wider interconnected landscape. For, as it has been observed of John Dewey’s theory of an embodied mind,

If we want to understand humans qua humans, we cannot limit the scope of our inquiry to the brain, or the nervous system, or the body, or the world. Instead, we need an explanatory framework that is capable of taking the continuous, dynamic interactions among these systems as the basic unit of analysis. (Skorburg 73)

Such a proposition resonates with the work being conducted within the field of literacy studies, which has repeatedly shown it could consider these many potentialities together.

Meditative Reading as Mind-Body Technique

  • 1 For a discussion of this issue in particular, and how literary analysis may benefit from literacy-o (...)

6In this respect, one particularly relevant notion among scholars working on the history of literacy has been that of meditative reading. Why it holds such appeal is presumably because meditative reading does not oppose mind and body but rather seeks to improve the self’s capacity to navigate from one to the other to therapeutic ends. The importance of Brian Stock’s work in this field cannot be understated, though it would be foolish to attempt to do it justice within the limits of this article.1 Suffice it to say that, as Stock pointed out, “unlike some Eastern societies, the West has no direct cultural link with its own earlier history of mind-body therapy. Yet this history doubtless exists, and it would be a worthwhile task to reconstruct it” (Stock 500). Very briefly, one might retrace this history by looking at its evolution through three types of meditative reading: lectio divina, lectio spiritualis, and lectio saecularis. To compare these methods, and at the risk of oversimplification, here is a rapid summary of what they entailed, starting with the first:

Lectio divina was a combination of physical and mental exercise. For ancient authors, clara lectio (reading aloud) was a type of physical exertion, like walking or running, which was recommended as a treatment for illnesses by Cornelius Celsus as early as 30 CE. (Stock 508)

  • 2 In terms of periodization, lectio divina, “was practiced without interruption from the patristic pe (...)
  • 3 On the other hand, “early stages of lectio spiritualis are found in Augustine, Evagrius Ponticus, a (...)

7As Stock further exemplifies, lectio divina2 practice should be understood within the context of a monastic rule that recommended oral reading be a prelude to quiet meditation, “comparable in some respects to the Buddhist control of breathing, in concert with a philosophical orientation, in which the silence between periods of reading was not defined by the absence of sound but by the assumed presence of divine being” (508). The shift that later occurred and which caused the practice of lectio spiritualis3 to evolve into a different phenomenon can be summarized by a redirection from the biblical text to the meditative subject as the chief source of the contemplation. Perhaps yet another way of looking at this transition would be to consider it as a move from reading to the reader as the hinge upon which the meditative practice might rely. Although such a choice of words may seem to make the distinction rather tenuous, “[t]his was a new style of meditation—a true union of reading and writing, since the writing that emerged was the by-product of devotional reading with which it was inseparably conjoined in the subject’s mind” (509), most remarkably exemplified in Augustine’s invention of the writing reader as the epitome of the meditative self. Lectio saecularis, on the other hand, “is primarily an ancient and early modern phenomenon” (507). The term itself was coined by Stock “to describe writings on the subject composed by laypersons, even though they may deal with religious topics, as well as those concerning nonreligious contemplative practices accompanying the premodern reflective study of literature” (507), the most notorious practitioners of which would be Seneca or Marcus Aurelius.

8My reason for this perhaps surprising medieval detour is that the past is often the best wedge at one’s disposal to drive through the preconceptions of our time. To put it differently, what these three different reading techniques all point to—ancient spiritual exercises, reading-induced mediation, and reading as a meditative technique—is a rich heritage of “thinking about the mind and body by means of one technique embedded in the reading process, namely meditation” (Stock 512). Upon closer examination, it appears however that these traditions go against one of our most basic assumptions: that there exists a kind of continuum from the meaning of words to the meaning of our lives, to which literacy, both as a sensory and cognitive skill, somehow holds the key. In thinking so, we forget that “[a]ncient and medieval meditative reading had the potential for getting at ethical issues because it situated them outside the reading process” (512). We behave, instead, as oblivious descendants of “the early modern reader, who was committed to finding ethical values within the autonomous world of reading and interpretation” (512). Such a reader knew that by entrusting texts with autonomous powers the reading experience would be profoundly altered. Prior to such an evolution, the following dichotomy would have been upheld:

If the reader’s goal is meditation, then reading is only a means to an end. If ethical questions arise, the answers are to be sought during the period of meditation, not during the sensory process of reading. On the other hand, if the goal is the understanding of the text, then reading is an end in itself. If ethical questions arise, the answers have to grow out of this initial acquaintance with the text: they are meaning-based, and this meaning arises from a correct philological understanding. (Stock 512)

9By contrast, the contemporary notion of embodiment tends to blur the distinction between texts and the reading practices they elicit by offering a truncated version of a complex dialectic. One’s sense of connection with literary works is no doubt heightened by the suggestion that reading, as a sensory process, may also yield results in terms of ethical understanding. Still, that connection, and the implied representations that uphold it, need not go unquestioned, especially when the idea of this kind of continuum from life to language or vice-versa becomes embodied in the concept of the reader’s body as a central point of reference.

10With this in mind, I propose to consider three texts which all explicitly refrain from mimetic embodiment, and which do so with the purpose of separating the reader from the text to the point that the reader becomes aware that this distance itself is made into the real subject matter of the text. All three texts address the aftermath of World War II, the extermination of European Jews as well as the general destruction caused by the war, events which point to a well-documented historical chasm that has yet to be fully investigated in terms of its consequences for the evolution of western readers’ minds and practices. Medieval Europe’s invention of the reading subject as the model of the integrated self stands therefore as the point of origin, according to this preliminary sketch, in a trajectory that ended in 1945 with its disintegration. The first text is Charles Reznikoff’s 1975 collection entitled Holocaust, the second is the twelfth section, written in 1951, from Louis Zukofsky’s “A” (1928-1974), and the third is George Oppen’s poem “Route,” from his 1968 collection, Of Being Numerous. If all three poets have been involved in the “objectivist” moment in American poetry of the early 1930s, their later work still testifies, some twenty or thirty years later, to a most attentive delineation of the borders of subjectivity and hence, of the reader’s capacity to feel.

Charles Reznikoff’s Unreconciled Mediation

  • 4 For an interesting and refreshingly heterodox account of Reznikoff’s Holocaust that explores Reznik (...)

11Reznikoff’s Holocaust consists in a relatively tight collection of documentary poems—only a little over 100 pages, much shorter than his previous work from judicial sources, Testimony (1934-1968), based on transcripts from the Eichmann and Nuremberg trials. Survivor and witness testimonies are rearranged to compose brief narratives in the third person that are simply juxtaposed inside the book’s 12-sections, whose titles, from “Deportation” to “Escapes,” provide the only and mostly chronological guidelines available to the reader, along with the odd contextual footnote. As critics have noted, these testimonies are “retold in a flat, neutral tone with only minimal changes to the prosaic language of the original transcript” (Carmody 88). Reznikoff’s text has been interpreted in various ways by critics working in Holocaust studies, trauma studies, modernist and postmodernist studies, documentary poetics or objectivist poetics, but the main question that has repeatedly been asked, if rarely answered, is a surprisingly blunt one. In short: how is the reader meant to feel about this text? Two types of answers have been provided, although I would argue they rely on a common assumption. One suggests that the text’s sparseness really functions as a means of intensification, with some considering that Reznikoff’s work on the original transcripts indicates that his intention was “to give the historical details emotional depth” (Franciosi 262), as occasional stage adaptations have attempted to demonstrate and some critics have come to claim.4 The other points to Reznikoff’s expunctions as preparation for the practice of conceptual recycling of found textual objects that prioritizes selection over expression, and therefore stresses its apparent dispassionateness (McCaffery 150). Whether detailed accounts of those events need to be made more emotional or whether, in Reznikoff’s dispassionate tone, “feeling is not absent but mediated, and manifests in the process of selection” (McCaffery 153), what seems obvious from the start is how these two critical responses to Reznikoff’s work converge around the centrality of emotion in one’s reaction to the collection. More specifically, the main concern in each case appears to be with the purification of emotion, either through heightened condensation or by means of abstraction when the mise-en-scène of documents takes center stage—to the detriment of those actual documents themselves.

  • 5 During an interview about documentary poetics, Marjorie Perloff recently noted dismissively that, r (...)

12The reason for this critical impatience to assign emotion to the text—and to locate it within its pages—lies in the poet’s key decision to present these testimonies without attributing them, thereby blocking any means of identification in the literal and more crucially still, in the figurative sense of the word. Todd Carmody has proposed that Reznikoff’s collection could be read entirely from that perspective, in the context of the controversy between Hannah Arendt and journalist Marie Syrkin, who was Reznikoff’s wife, at the time of Eichmann’s trial, regarding the politically instrumental use of emotion. Interestingly, Carmody connects the instrumental nature of one’s identification with a witness’s testimony to problematic theories in trauma studies that rely on a similar empathetic logic, namely in Shoshana Felman’s work. It should however be noted that Reznikoff’s aim is not to remove these lived experiences into the aestheticized realm of the unknowable or the unsayable. By dint of “jolting us back to our own subject-positions without warning,” Reznikoff rather “reminds us of the space between the audience and the witness on the stand, just when that space begins to seem insignificant” (Carmody 108). If we may thus better understand the text’s claims upon its readers, it remains unclear how these unsettling procedures are meant to affect the way one is meant to feel while reading Reznikoff’s Holocaust—although some might argue that they already know how to feel about the events to which the poet is making a reference.5 Carmody alludes to this dilemma by saying, in conclusion, that “Holocaust remains at the level of the word, demonstrating the danger and ultimately impossibility of moving beyond to emotion” (Carmody 108). One might nonetheless try to further qualify this danger and impossibility, while also accounting for what is in fact made possible by the text.

13A central issue in the study of Holocaust narratives has been the fact that, “[i]n terms of dealing with survivor testimony (and not, I stress, of attempting to relieve the pain of survivors), it seems mistaken to fuse the suffering with its representation” (Eaglestone 33). More precisely, this means that one must bear in mind and address the key matter of “the epistemological impossibility of, and ethical probation against, identification with a textual and so mediated narrative, against the ineluctable desire to identify with it, as if it were neither textual nor mediated” (Eaglestone 37). What Reznikoff’s technique seeks to prevent are indeed those redemptive readings based on forms of vicariousness that would cause the text to be absorbed through various kinds of surrogate mimetic embrace. He is not alone in this: as Stephen Fredman has shown, comparing Reznikoff’s work and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, it becomes possible to “speculate that there is a Jewish form of witnessing, whose early models might be Lamentations and Job, that eschews a narrative of redemption” (46). Others have argued that “Reznikoff’s pervasive concern with testimony […] aligns him, however obliquely, with the traditions of Jewish prophecy and psalm” (Finkelstein 40-41) that foreground the possibility of redemption from a messianic perspective. If such debates are beyond the scope of this article, a provisional answer might be provided by calling upon a well-known and actual witness. For if one looks more closely at Reznikoff’s collection, many of his choices seem to be modelled after Primo Levi’s own stance, which critics, and Eaglestone in particular, have argued constitutes a crucial point of reference in this respect.

14The nature of emotions in this particular context points in two directions. One is part of a fundamental retrospective interrogation for the survivor attempting to comprehend and convey a personal experience, but these emotions also serve as reminders of an initial and immediate reaction. As Levi writes in the first pages of his landmark account, If This is a Man (1947), he did not understand at first the apparent emotionlessness of his tormentors, asking as he did, “how can one hit a man without anger?” (Levi, 1979 7). There lies the paradox, for the ways in which the cruelty of indifference may be expressed rely on, or at least produce, the very opposite response.

15Cruel indifference is exactly what Reznikoff seeks to convey through a process of emphatically contrastive accumulation. This is true on a structural level—the section entitled “Children” is followed by the no less unbearable section disturbingly called “Entertainment”—while the paratactic composition within each section constructs a sense of routine horror, a strategy itself complemented by sudden shifts of the poetic voice when, for instance, the first piece from the “Work Camps” section echoes Nazi propaganda and even concludes on a resounding “Heil Hitler!” while the second piece starts with the story of a 20-year-old man and his mother’s arrival at Treblinka. This is also apparent in the effect of recursive lines in the context of Reznikoff’s rewriting. Far from any sense of poeticization, this simple poetic convention induces readers to fear the cruel contents of each new line while at the same time it succeeds in numbing the reader’s tolerance by dint of those very recurrences. The intolerable character of direct presentation thus foregrounds matter-of-factness as impossible indifference. In doing so, Reznikoff’s collection may well amount to one of the most sustained efforts to take up Levi’s admonition in his poem “Shema,” which asks the readers of If This is a Man, who live safely away from harm, to consider their distance from the events depicted in it. Levi’s poem commands that his words be taken to heart and remembered by insisting on two modes of reception: that the reader “[m]editate that this came about” and that the reader, in turn, impart these words “to your children” (Levi, 1988 9). Not only does this dual emphasis on meditation and transmission clearly locate meaning twice beyond the text, but its Hebrew title, adapted from Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord,” also places the reader in the position of a listener asked to acknowledge a truth beyond oneself. Levi’s gesture of placing his question—acknowledging that this is a human being who stands here before you outside the text—on the same level, by virtue of an implicit analogy, as the Jewish confession of faith—acknowledging the divinity—further exemplifies the complicated dialectics of remembrance if it is not to be limited to commemorative identification. Reznikoff’s comparable uncoupling of emotionality from language calls attention to the ambivalent disembodied quality of words as sound and as inscription. As sounds, they are spoken by frighteningly disembodied voices whose physical source is no more, or whose physical integrity has been irretrievably harmed, while as inscriptions these same words testify to the intangible character of the experience at hand.

Louis Zukofsky’s Mournful Pun

  • 6 See Scroggins for a rare take on the subject. As this article hopes to show, it is inaccurate to sa (...)

16Louis Zukofsky on the other hand, another Jewish American poet, a close contemporary of Reznikoff and early champion of his work, is often said not to have ever explicitly addressed the topic of genocide. The closest he comes to evoking the 1940s is in the tenth and twelfth sections of his long poem of a lifetime, and specifically in the second movement of “A”-12, composed in the early 1950s, which mainly consists of an elegy to the poet’s late father, an Eastern European Jew who came to the United States in 1898 and who passed away in 1950, one year before Zukofsky started working on “A”-12. Because of the explicit presence of Jewish themes and materials—namely excerpts from the first English translation of Martin Buber’s Ten Rungs: Collected Hassidic Sayings (1947)—along with specific references to Zukofsky’s family history and personal relationship with Jewish traditions, languages, and rituals, it has generally been assumed that, since Zukofsky did not otherwise approach the subject of genocide,6 his meditations on the general topic of Judaism in “A”-12 were the closest thing to it.

17It is undeniable that Zukofsky’s concern, repeatedly stated throughout “A”-12, is the transmutation of all and any linguistic material into poetry, in an effort to infuse life back into language or, more accurately, to reveal the lifeforce already contained within the words themselves. Such a perspective would seem decidedly inadequate for an evocation of pain and suffering, emotions whose transmutation could easily be branded as wrongheaded aestheticizing. Speaking of looking back at his own notes, Zukofsky confesses, “not much in it interests me now / If it can’t be turned into poetry” (252). Taking up his initial objective, stated in the first two lines from “A”-11, a short section modelled after a ballad by thirteenth-century poet Guido Cavalcanti which Ezra Pound had translated, Zukofsky’s poetics seems unambiguously celebratory, writing, “River that must full after I stop dying / Song, my song, raise grief to music” (124). As the striking line-break that separates the “dying” and the “song” seems to suggest, the full flow of the poet’s language, be it elegiac, is also synonymous with eternity, as the song comes and redeems the dying. Zukofsky insists further on the “order that rules music” (128) which he seeks to emulate by bringing language to the condition of music—a creative emphasis that would seem to leave little room for mourning. Zukofsky’s evocation of his father is indeed largely contrapuntal. “My father died in the spring” (138), he writes, illustrating this pattern of paradoxical renewal, before speaking of his father’s name, Pinchos, being passed on, in English, to Zukofsky’s own son Paul. However, one soon notices a perceptible, insisting, disharmony that comes into play as well, when the reader seems to hear Zukofsky’s father asking,

Where are my dead breathing friends?
Must one spread his tongue as a doormat
              for a friend to step on?

Good Friday – that’s a pun.

Don’t learn for revenge,
Question and question, do not be ashamed.
So that all misery may go up into the air with smoke,
As Paracelsus railed
A David in him:
As smoke is driven away, so drive them away.

Schoolmen –
Singers go before,
Players on instruments

              Chenaniah for song
              (Grace) instructed in song
              Because he was skillful
              (Zukofsky 145)

  • 7 Psalm 68:2: “As smoke is driven away, so drive them away: as wax melteth before the fire, so let th (...)

18Part of the reader’s disorientation here, as almost always with “A, is due to Zukofsky’s habit of composing from unattributed quotations. Reworked into his own lines, the original segments retain a strangeness that begs for elucidation. Retracing their origin stories, however, could mean going against the movement of the text as it weaves forward, not backward. Barry Ahearn, for instance, has established that in these lines, Zukofsky was sampling the writings of Paracelsus alongside more easily recognizable quotations from Psalms 68:2 and 68:25.7 Yet the initial image, “my dead breathing friends,” is open to different interpretations. The direct reference seems to be to Zukofsky’s father’s contemporaries who did not emigrate, and who are also present in the refrain, taken up a few pages below, that asks, “New York’s skyline’s a mist of Egypt? / Where, my son, are my dead / breathing friends” (148). The idea of “breathing through,” on another level, qualifies as no less of a direct image of Zukofsky’s recycling procedures that allow others’ words to breathe through his own. As for the mention of competing tongues and the importance of education, those are essential elements in the poet’s upbringing from a Yiddish to an English-speaking community, which appears oddly paralleled in the translation here from speech to song as an image of one’s improved command over the language. Whether or not the reader is meant to understand that these dead European voices now live in the music made by a second-generation American is not an easy question to answer. Zukofsky’s meaning, however, is far more accessible than usually acknowledged.

19It seems, upon first reading, that Zukofsky is pointing to a trajectory from the loss of life, language, and tradition, to the perpetuation of life, language, and tradition—the skillful, educated singer having come to redeem the uprooted, humiliated friendless voice with which the passage begins. This trajectory is exemplified by the use of the name Chenaniah, Zukofsky’s son’s Hebrew name, which signals a possible reconciliation or genealogic harmony through a continuous celebration of musical talent from biblical times to the present. However, the pivot of the entire passage—between the two italicized phrases—projects strength and resilience only as far as an unquestioning reading will allow. The text itself asks the reader to keep questioning it, and as the “pun” on the phrase “Good Friday” indicates, not only is Zukofsky playfully asking what is “good” about the crucifixion of Christ, but potentially also calling attention to much deeper and unsettling ironies. In short, it seems unlikely that Zukofsky’s quoting from Psalm 68, a triumphant expression of God’s power, rich with military undertones, should be taken at face value. His choice of singling out God’s scattering of the enemies of his people like smoke alongside the singer’s procession carries with it other associations. The fact that the initial quotation from Psalm 68 is in italic as well may also call into question its celebratory nature, much as the use of the adjective “good” was mocked earlier on. The underlying image of death camps and death camp orchestras is indeed disturbingly present underneath the reference to God’s mighty glory, as the term “Schoolmen” may well enclose another pun. As a possible mock-equivalent for the Yiddish “shul,” meaning both school and synagogue (i.e., “shul men”), the word encapsulates Jewish people’s studying for assimilation yet also perpetuates the very notion of Torah study at the heart of Judaism. Although this kind of hesitation is central to Zukofsky’s “A” as a poem that from the beginning relies on notions of passing—passing as and passing down—starting with the connection between Easter and Passover, in this specific instance the substratum underlying Zukofsky’s dialectics of reinvention seems to constitute a potential obstacle to it.

20It could be argued, however, that instead of a dualistic opposition between harmony and disharmony, or between music and silence, Zukofsky’s semantics involves a contextualized transmutation of meaning into sound that does not find refuge in abstraction as a means of disembodied sublimation. Zukofsky’s further punning a little later in “A”-12 makes this strategy eminently obvious. In the movement that begins with the line “I grow sick hearing myself / Unable to stop. / False words helped the affliction” (197), and evokes the uprising of the Warsaw ghetto, Zukofsky presents his readers with a dilemma which seems surprisingly close to the reasoning behind Adorno’s dictum about the challenge to western aesthetics represented by the barbarity of Auschwitz:

To become stiff as boards
With no chance of ever being thawed out
To lie with frozen snow-spattered
Horses for nothing
Icicles two inches long
Hanging from spectacles
In front of dead eyes,
Not fear to look
Like death warmed over,
To wolf crumbs
From a flying roll
Eat raw cabbages
Nothing human in common
After being lashed in common.
– Whoever speaks
Is ready
To help forward the affliction.
(Zukofsky 198)

21If speech is false and only adds to the suffering, then it is best to remain silent—a nonetheless impossible position for the poet. What these lines offer is not such a simple choice, however. The brief, direct depiction of life in a concentration camp does imply that one is to read these concluding lines as an invitation to remain silent out of caution, but they also sound as if they were spoken from within the camps by prisoners who would be aware that speaking at all would mean punishment and likely death. These lines therefore function as a warning to readers who are invited to show an almost parallel caution when touching on the topic, which itself mimetically echoes a literal, terrorized and mandatory silence. Based on this one example, Zukofsky’s position appears comparable to Reznikoff’s several decades later, in the sense that witness testimony can only be taken up by the poet within a poetic design that secures its outsideness. The way in which Zukofsky proceeds may seem less salient than Reznikoff’s, but it is based on a similar effort to maintain a distance that goes against one’s initial emotional response to the text. Take the play on the different meanings of the verb “lash,” from beating or striking down to being fastened together, displayed in the repetition of the phrase “in common.” The point appears to be that the beating constitutes the commonality of that experience, one meaning reinforcing the other. But not unlike what happened with the previous “pun” above, Zukofsky helps derail our reading in the following pages when he mentions one of his son’s early mispronunciations, writing, “Lasheyes, says Paul / Meaning eyelashes –” (201). The poet and his readers find themselves at a loss, having moved so quickly from utter desolation to intimate and loving recollections. Our partial view is made up of such glimpses as only the fluctuations of the meaning of words will allow, lashed together as we are with language.

22As with the previous excerpt, polysemy comes across as a reminder of mediacy, that is as a function of the reading process and of the materiality of texts that precludes one from experiencing the affective component of reading without immediately distancing oneself from that same experience. The fact that Zukofsky chooses to play with the word “lash” exemplifies this even further, should one bear in mind the poet’s constant association of seeing and reading or reading as a form of seeing. As with Reznikoff’s collection, this does not imply that mediacy stands in the way of an affective response to the text which more immediacy would otherwise improve. It means that one’s sensory connection to the page becomes a matter of temporary fluctuations, that allow for singing but will also sometimes suspend the song, which would otherwise become false and in that case, would “forward the affliction.”

George Oppen’s Heartless Circumstances

23George Oppen’s poem “Route,” with its 12 sections running over about ten pages, may seem to operate essentially as an addendum to the long title poem from Of Being Numerous (1968). “Of Being Numerous” offers a long questioning of American selfhood based on a sliding scale from the singular to the collective, in which both the nation and the individual are said to be shipwrecked, while the central image in “Route” is one of a car wreck that would allow one to overturn one’s vision. Beyond the obvious parallel, however, while the scope of “Of Being Numerous” implies a sense of hesitancy as the reader’s perspective is made to shift from one contradiction to the next with a view to expanding it towards a greater realization, in “Route” Oppen uses a much simpler conceit as well as a denser form. Working as a leitmotif, the title allows Oppen to move quickly from section to section by encompassing all aspects of the trajectory at hand, thereby redirecting what might look like a journey forward and revealing it to be an inward exploration. This does not imply that Oppen is substituting outsideness for the self, but that his concern for the most elemental aspects of human experience requires an analytic viewpoint.

  • 8 See my own George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace.

24Consequently, if the expected tropes are present, they are promptly decomposed. Space does feature and play an important role in the poem, yet the route taken prohibits the reader from joining the poet in any mimetic sense of travel. Oppen touches on such contemporary clichés as the speed of car travel only to break away from them, offering instead glimpses of the immobile world of things, either suspended in time or quickly disintegrating into nothingness, writing for instance, “Not the symbol but the scene this pavement leads / To roadsides—the finite // Losing its purpose / Is estranged” (199). In similar fashion, specific references pointing to such historical routes as the Spanish conquest of America, echoed in the many innuendoes about the war in Vietnam, all dissolve under the incommensurate pressure of intimate time, from a personal awareness of the poet’s age to the absolute beginning of creation. This poem therefore presents a remarkable example of Oppen’s paradoxical dialectic of particularized genericity. In other words, what he repeatedly calls “reportage” in this poem, in the sense of reporting on the things of the world, or “the real // That we confront” (202), often refers to reality as a generic, to the point that it eventually also opens onto the real understood, figuratively, as “the incalculable” (201). Because of such ambiguities, some have offered metaphysical readings of Oppen’s poetry that make this incalculable a sign of the infinite, to be grasped when “thought becomes present to itself as ‘being’” (Nicholls 72). I have argued elsewhere8 that such claims overlook a tangible progression in Oppen’s work—and indeed throughout objectivist poetry—from the finite to a sense of finitude, vulnerability and precariousness, that pleads for a new definition of the real and of objecthood as modernist categories—an evolution which the concept of being or of the infinite risks erasing. Here, the balance between the virtues of “A limited, limiting clarity” (Oppen 193) and the vision of an unstable picture, a “moving picture, unlimited drift” (197), outlines the poet’s difficult task, which is to be true to “The purity of the materials” (194). The phrase itself suggests as much: this could imply first-hand, direct access to those materials as well as indicate purification in the sense of extraction, of a breakdown of those same materials.

25What materials there are in “Route” are explicitly contained in the long fifth section—in prose—and continued in the sixth. The previous section promises to present “the circumstances” (194), while the sixth ends with a renewed opening onto “The circumstances” (197). If the latter takes the reader back into present time, through a mock-prolepsis when the poet imagines himself “at 80” (197), but possibly rushing at 80 miles per hour into a crash, as Oppen himself experienced as a youth, the former consists in a long and detailed account of one of Oppen’s most disturbing encounters during his time as an infantryman in World War II. Oppen tells the story of a man he met during the Battle of the Bulge, a mason, living with his wife and children in a farmhouse on a hill near a position where Oppen and his men had dug in. Reporting from what this man, archetypically named “Pierre Adam,” had told him, Oppen evokes the events that took place in Alsace, a disputed region where men could be drafted into the German army. Those who sought to escape the draft would hide in the forest and dig a hole—much as Oppen and his men had—while at times “a friend could come to the hole with food and other help” (195). As the story unfolds, we learn of the dire reprisals inflicted by the Germans in such cases, and of the fate of a man who chose death—driving into a tree, further cementing the central image of the crash in the poem—instead of being drafted. While this brief narrative should also be read in the context of the draft in progress at the time of the Vietnam War, the element which crystallizes the circumstances endured by Pierre pertains to his own dilemma upon being drafted, “shortly before the Americans arrived” (196), and the threat he faced of his children being taken away if he fled. Oppen reports:

He and his wife discussed the children. They thought of tattooing the children’s names and addresses on their chests so that perhaps they could be found after the war. But they thought that perhaps the tattooing would be cut out of the children . . . (Oppen 196)

26The only comment Oppen offers, “what a conversation between a man and his wife” (196), emphasizes the reader’s remoteness from these words. Such plainness conveys an impression of distant directness which places the reader in a position that recalls Reznikoff’s and Zukofsky’s texts as discussed above. In Oppen’s poem, however, the effect of parallax induced becomes the very topic at hand and achieves a relevance of its own. Oppen explains this phenomenon in surprising fashion. Stating, then asking, “We are brothers, we are brothers?” Oppen takes the reader’s immediate sympathy and likely horror at the conversation he has just retold, and calls this brotherly love into question, not simply by repeating the same phrase and adding a question mark, but by prefacing this with the question, “will you or will you not want to kill a German” (196). Oppen comments on the matter-of-factness of the question, meant to answer a larger one in the poem about the definition of a just war, by saying, “If / these things are true they are perfectly simple, perfectly / impenetrable, those primary elements which can only be / named” (197). Such impenetrability may seem akin to wordlessness, yet it decidedly is not. The possibilities of language, on the other hand, and the reader’s capacity to access them, are severely restricted, while our responsibilities towards language increase immensely.

  • 9 For a polemical reading of Oppen as distant and remote, see Wilkinson and also Perloff.

27Oppen details this a little further by noting how he often felt misunderstood for “saying simple things” to the point that “nothing was being said” (197). The examples he uses to illustrate his point are deceitfully elemental, as he simply observes, “I was saying: there is a mountain, there is a lake” (197). Yet the line also refers to the story of Pierre Adam and his children, as well as, by extension, to Oppen’s many poems about the war in “Of Being Numerous” or in “Survival: Infantry” (81) in which he addresses the tragic fates of his “brothers in arms” with a similar elemental focus on roads, mud, earth and the ground. The world in its entirety, from geography to history, suddenly comes through as a single physical reality, to which the poet may but bear witness. However, here as in “Of Being Numerous,” the case can be made that Oppen’s “dominant sense of alienation, or disconnection, compels the poem’s exploratory movement toward a sense of communal participation, or connection, however tentative or limited” (Lowney 201) that requalifies that witnessing as something more, and something other, than remoteness.9

28By dramatizing the use of language, epitomized in the pointedly Adamic gesture of naming, through the distressing image of the tattooing of their own names onto the children’s chests, and the prospect of such an inscription being cut out of their bodies, Oppen speaks to the loss of humanity, selfhood, ancestry, and of language, that that period has come to represent. I would argue that he also offers a striking recontextualization of poetry, or indeed any literature, as material inscription, through a literalizing of context as brute materiality. Because we have now become accustomed to materiality as a growingly transparent occurrence—what is embodied in it being readily decodable—it seems most relevant that we should also be reminded, at times, of that other, less palatable kind of materiality that resists readability. Oppen’s notion of primary things that may only be named illustrates such a stubborn sense of actuality that does not challenge the reader through the kind of resistance associated with difficulty, but by virtue of self-evidence. In the previous section of “Route,” Oppen had warned that, “Words cannot be wholly transparent, and that is the / ‘heartlessness’ of words” (194). Whether the heartlessness of the circumstances depicted has come to contaminate the depiction, or if indeed it should, is a question which has been asked before. Outside of such distance as I have described, one would need to invent a new language to express ourselves and our world, as Primo Levi, among other survivors, has argued (Eaglestone 17). Levi’s exact wording suggests that if the camps had been allowed to go on, a new, “harsher” language would have developed to account for these new realities (Levi, 1979 129).

29What Oppen, Zukofsky, and Reznikoff appear to share then, in the limited context of this comparative hypothesis, is a willingness to place the burden of history on language, and more precisely on language’s abilities to make us feel for one another, thereby questioning our sense of commonality or community in the aftermath of World War II. Either through decisively mediated distance, mournful ambiguities or by virtue of near silent actuality, each of them argues against mimetic suffering, against any translation from the materiality of literary texts to the materiality of the body or vice-versa—both the reader’s body and the body of a historically situated subject. Theirs is certainly not a disengaged, much less disembodied, poetry, but one that shows extreme caution regarding the representational powers of language, which are almost always tainted in their eyes with the promise of manipulative behavior. Only by breaking down language’s representational prowess can one hope to restore its meaning, they seem to argue, and what better way to achieve this but to suspend the reader’s emotional response, on which those representational powers so fundamentally rely, be it at the cost of seeming impassive.

30If we now go back to the question of premodern reading practices, we can better understand the relevance of such largely forgotten distinctions as the proposition that reading may be a sensory and an epistemic process, yet it need not be both at once all the time. As illustrated in the few meditative instances evoked earlier, a reader’s use of texts may vary greatly, along with the degree to which a text can function as a means of theatricalization of the self. Whether they are recited, remembered, heard, or indeed read, such medieval habits as were briefly sketched above point to texts as ambiguous loci where one finds the idea of the reader as an image of the self still in the works. Not only is such a matrix historically located at the basis of western literacy and therefore deserving of ongoing investigation, but I would argue it stands today as a helpful way to rethink the mimetic nexus revealed in Auerbach’s classic study, according to which the purpose of interpretation is the recovery of lived experience. By bearing in mind the original prevalence of vastly different interpretive behaviors, that do not necessarily rely on mimetic appeal to bring about the kind of sensory and epistemic synthesis inferred in the notion of embodied meaning, but rather distinguish between the experience of reading and that of living, we can look for ways out of that nexus and its near tautological implications. The renowned philologist’s concept does seem as though it had been designed to illuminate the paradox of his own situation—a German Jew in exile writing a history of The Representation of Reality in Western Literature in wartime Istanbul, precisely when his own Lebenswelt was being shattered. Such a circle does not disqualify Auerbach’s findings yet it begs the question, which Reznikoff, Zukofsky and Oppen all address in their unique ways, of knowing what to do when the lived experience itself forbids the intended recovery, or at the very least makes that goal highly problematic.

31If at the root of western literature’s modes of representing reality lies the image of the reader as a version of the self, questioning those representations, especially when historical realities involve a collapse of representation, requires that image to be challenged as well. Thus beginning again, is there a path that leads to being reconciled with how incommensurate with the scale of human history and suffering any of our books truly are? If there is, taking that path may involve our looking back at the initial crossroads when western subjectivity and literacy became entwined.

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1 For a discussion of this issue in particular, and how literary analysis may benefit from literacy-oriented thinking, see Kalck 2021.

2 In terms of periodization, lectio divina, “was practiced without interruption from the patristic period to the seventeenth century” (Stock 507).

3 On the other hand, “early stages of lectio spiritualis are found in Augustine, Evagrius Ponticus, and John Cassian, but most practitioners appear after the twelfth century,” bearing in mind that “it is not until the fourteenth that a distinction is made between lectio divina and lectio spiritualis” (Stock 507).

4 For an interesting and refreshingly heterodox account of Reznikoff’s Holocaust that explores Reznikoff’s own emotional response, see Aimee L. Pozorski.

5 During an interview about documentary poetics, Marjorie Perloff recently noted dismissively that, regarding Reznikoff’s Testimony or Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, “we know just how to feel about these tales” (Toth and Perloff).

6 See Scroggins for a rare take on the subject. As this article hopes to show, it is inaccurate to say Zukofsky remained silent.

7 Psalm 68:2: “As smoke is driven away, so drive them away: as wax melteth before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.” Psalm 68:25: “The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after; among them were the damsels playing with timbrels.”

8 See my own George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace.

9 For a polemical reading of Oppen as distant and remote, see Wilkinson and also Perloff.

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Xavier Kalck, « Distance without Remoteness: The Objectivist Poetics of Nonmimetic Pain »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Xavier Kalck

Université de Lille

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