Laura Riding Jackson, Anarchism Is Not Enough

Lisa Samuels’s introduction notes that Laura Riding’s and Robert Graves’s Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927) “provided William Empson with some of the close-reading tools he developed in his highly successful Seven Types of Ambiguity” (xiii).

Riding is interesting in developing a “generative indeterminacy” outside of schema, and her work “combines Surrealist unknowability (though it doesn’t mention the Surrealists) with modernist authority (though not in order to establish a system of thought)” (xvii).

Anarchism “is not enough because anarchism operates in reaction to the structures of (social and political) reality and so remains within their systematizing orbits… She resists common modernist binaries (classicism/romanticism, abstraction/experience) in favor of this “unreal,” which is a kind of synthetic shadow an invisible syllogistic avatar, of those binaries” (xviii).

Poetry is for Riding a “vaccuum, a ‘nothing,’ the closest we can come in language, our keenest intellectual medium, to Anarchism‘s ideal. Since ‘vaccuum’ and ‘nothing’ are not destinations, this ideal is unreachable, as Riding readily admits” (xxi).

“Emersonian self-reliance was not her only ideal; Whitmanesque contrariness was every bit as important” (xxxix).

Riding “wants to set up what we might call subjective correlatives, matrices of words that evoke for each person– writer and reader–an experience of the individual-unreal, the shared but never duplicable sense of a languaged self” (xli).

“Riding’s famous difficulty stems partly from the fact that her ‘correlatives’ are not ‘objective’ in Eliot’s sense. Her poems, and much of Anarchism‘s prose, are instead constructs for entering into events that are linguistically and epistemologically unstable. They cannot feel the same to all readers precisely because their language and syntax refuse fixed meaning-ratios… They make the reader experience that instability rather than indulging int he comfort of an ‘objective’ human representation” (xlii).

If Riding’s work sounds like a set up for logical failure, that’s because it makes no attempt to succeed at logic. She writes that “we are all in an impossible position; which you handle by making less, myself more impossible (xlvii).

Riding says in First Awakenings, “if this voyage reveals a futility, it is a futility worth facing” (lx).

She starts her chapter about “The Myth” with a confused reproductive scenario: “When the baby is born there is no place to put it: it is born, it will in time die, therefore there is no sense in enlarging the world by so many miles and minutes for its accommodation” (9).

“Words have three historical levels. They may be true words, that is, of an intrinsic sense; they may be logical words, that is, of an applied sense; or they may be poetical words, of a misapplied sense, untrue and illogical in themselves, but of supposed suggestive power” (12).

“Language is a form of laziness; the word is a compromise between what it is possible to express and what it is not possible to express” (13).

“Poetry is an attempt to make language do more than express; to make it work; to redistribute intelligence by means o the word… Poetry always faces, and generally meets with, failure. But even if it fails, it is at least at the heart of the difficulty…” (14).

“What is a poem? A poem is nothing” (16). (AD: later, she says “nothing is enough”) Not only is the poem nothing to see, but it refuses to serve as a mirror

“The only productive design is designed waste” (18). Creation results in nothing “but the destruction of the designer” (18).

There is designed happiness, undesigned unhappiness, and designed unhappiness. Poetry is “anticipated unhappiness, which, because it has design, foreknowledge, is the nearest approach to happiness” (19). (AD: we suppose undesigned happiness is ridiculous?)

“The Corpus” (feminine body, maternal body, literary body, corpse) 27

“The first condition was chaos. The logical consequence of chaos was order… order yielded to the individual by allowing him to call it a universe, but triumphed over him since, by naming it, the individual made the universe his society and therefore his religion. Order is the natural enemy of the individual mind” (27). (AD: order masters the human because he becomes a slave to it, re Hegel)

“We live on the circumference of a hollow circle. We draw the circumference, like spiders out of ourselves: it is all criticism of criticism” (31).

“The making of poems, dreams and children is difficult to explain because they all somehow happen and go on until the poem comes to an end and the sleeper wakes up and the child comes out into the air. As for children, there are so many other ways of looking at the matter that poetry is generally not asked to provide a creative parallel” (39).

Hierarchy: Poetry (“canniest intelligence”) –> awakeness/mediocrity –> sleep/dream “canniest imbecility” (40)

society is “historical romance” and nature is “nonhistorical romance” (43)

“The Collective-real is man in touch with man. The individual-real is man in touch with the natural in him… the individual-unreal” (44).

“The right (the unreal) remains (as it should) categorically non-existent” (54).

Things become real by symbolization (59), which leads to bad art.

“The only position relevant to the individual is the unreal, and it is relevant because it is not a position but the individual himself… To put it simply, the unreal to me is poetry. The individual-real is a sensuous enactment of the unreal, opposing a sort of personally cultivated physical collectivity to the metaphysical mass-cultivated collectivity of the collective-real. So the individual-real is a plagiarizing of the unreal which makes the opposition between itself and the collective-real seem that of poetic to realistic instead of (as it really is) that of superior to inferior realistic” (69).

“Poetry is a stolen word, and in using it one must remain conscious of its perverted sense in the service of realism, or one suddenly finds oneself discussing not poetry but realism; and this is equally painful. But if poetry is a stolen word, so is reality: reality is stolen from the self, which is thus in its integrity forced to call itself unreal” (80).

“Reason is socialized reality” (86).

She calls Eliot “a poetical yogi” (89)

“Words in their pure use, which I assume to be their poetic use, are denials rather than affirmations of reality. The word hat, say, does not create a real hat: it isolates some element in the real hat which is not hat, which is unreal, the hat’s self” (99).

Poetry needs to be non-purposive (116)

“The end of poetry is to leave everything as pure and bare as possible after its operation. It is therefore important that its tools of destruction should be as frugal, economical as possible… they are the pure residue, and the meaning if there is any…” (117).

“What is enough? Nothing is enough” (132).

“I am not discussing creation. Personally, I do not believe in creation. Creation is stealing one thing to turn it into another. What i am discussing is existence, uncorrupted by art” (133)


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