"Anarchism and the 'unreal self': Laura (Riding) Jackson and Kathy Acker" an excerpt,
by Jeanne HeuvingFrom The Violence of Negation or 'Love's Infolding'
Laura (Riding) Jackson's most stunning work of pastiche is Anarchism Is Not Enough (1928), made up of mock poetic manifestoes, critical and theoretical exegesis, and fictional extravaganzas. Central to this volume and to understanding (Riding) Jackson's entire career is her concept of the "individual-unreal" or "unreal self," developed in her essay "Jocasta," named for the erased and contaminated mother of the Oedipus myth. (Riding) Jackson, who felt that existing social orders belied the self, postulated through her concept of an "unreal self," an entity apart from these orders. Indeed, the "individual-unreal" or the "unreal self" might be seen as the rejecting substratum of the self that would change the terms of its existence. (Riding) Jackson writes, "In every person there is the possibility of a small, pure, new, unreal portion which is, without reference to personality in the popular, social sense, self. I use 'self' in no romantic connotation, but only because it is the most vivid word I can find for this particular purefaction." As (Riding) Jackson put it, the "unreal is to me poetry." (Jackson, Anarchism, 96, 99)
From (Riding) Jackson's perspective, most twentieth-century writing was an art of the "individual-real" and was compelled by "the nostalgic desire to reconstitute an illusory whole that has no integrity but the integrity of accident" (Anarchism, 104). Such an art was hopelessly "synthetic": "imitative, communicative, provocative of association." In contrast a poetry of the "individual-unreal" was "analytic" "original, dissociative and provocative of dissociation" (Anarchism, 115). (Riding) Jackson comments:
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. When the destruction or analysis is accomplished they shall have to account for their necessity; they are the survivors, the result as well as the means of elimination...The greater the clutter attacked and the smaller, the purer, the residue to which it is reduced (the more destructive the tools), the better the poem. (Anarchism, 117)
Perhaps more than any other poet of the twentieth century (Riding) Jackson works to negate the narcissistic and idealizing psychic economies and the signifying practices that underwrite them, so critical for most literature, especially poetry. The last two pieces in Anarchism Is Not Enough, "The Damned Thing" and "Letter of Abdication," show both the range of (Riding) Jackson's pastiche and the force of her social critique. In "The Damned Thing," (Riding) Jackson analyzes the production of sexuality within civilization, dismissing literary sensibilities as deeply implicated in such a production. As she saw it, man's "phallus proud-works-of art" amount to little more than man's "private play with [woman] in public" (Anarchism, 208, 205). Indeed, sexuality has been overwritten by a civilization uncomfortable with it. The king pin of this system is women's "sexual impersonality" that "if not philosophized, would wreck the solemn masculine machine" (Anarchism, 196). Importantly her target for attack is neither men nor sexuality, but the ways sexual desire has been produced through an "insidious, civilized traffic." In its civilized version, sexuality is produced as a kind of rare brew of bodily impulses, scientific phrases, and literary sentiments, which all conspire to keep women in a passive state. (Riding) Jackson parodies "the diffusion which modern society calls love," revealing how a man's "I love you" speech is constituted:
My sexual glands by the ingrowing enlargement of my sex instinct since childhood and its insidious, civilized traffic with every part of my mental and physical being, are unfortunately in a state of continual excitement. I have very good control of myself, but my awareness of your sexual physique and its radiations was so acute that I could not resist the temptation to desire to lie with you. Please do not think this ignoble of me, for I shall perform this act, if you permit it, with the greatest respect and tenderness and attempt to make up for the indignity it of course fundamentally will be to you (however pleasurable) by serving you in every possible way and by sexually flattering manifestations of your personality which are not strictly sexual.
In the concluding piece of Anarchism Is Not Enough, "Letter of Abdication," an autocratic "I" or "Queen" abdicates her authority, impugning a "you," her audience. The fictional extravaganza is a virtual extinguishing of narcissistic and idealizing psychological relations that might animate relations between such a Queen and her entourage. She upbraids her audience, "You are sticky instead of rubbery. You represent yourself with priggish sincerity instead of mimicking yourself with grotesque accuracy" (Anarchism, 209). She further condemns, "You know only how to be either heroes or cowards. But you do not know how to outwit yourselves by being neither, though seeming to be both. 'What,' you say indignantly, 'would you have us be nothing?' Ah, my dear people, if you could you would all shortly become Queens" (Anarchism, 224). In the conclusion of the piece, the autocratic "I" flounces out, "Good-bye. I am going back to my mirror, where I came from" (Anarchism, 224). In this perverse writing, it is fitting that the Queen should exit with such finality into a mirror, as she has so thoroughly denounced all mirroring relations.
While (Riding) Jackson's early writing is importantly excessive in its modes of over- statement, her poetry is decidedly spare and economical. Valuing at this time her poetry more highly than any of her other writing, (Riding) Jackson equates its intellectual shaping with the very existence of a "real":
There is a sense of life so real that it becomes the sense of something more real than life...It introduces a principle of selection into the undifferentiating quantitative appetite and thus changes accidental emotional forms into deliberate intellectual forms...It is the meaning at work in what has no meaning; it is, at its clearest, poetry. (Jackson, Contemporaries, 9)
In the poem "Be Grave, Woman," the speaker in search of a new "real" negates existing love scenarios. Invoking a doubly directed pun of a "grave" demeanor and a "grave" as a place of death, the speaker ends any errant yearnings for love in the "grave" woman herself:
Be grave, woman
Be not wild to
flesh to phantom
Be grave, woman,
And thyself the
death in whom
The poem would end loves impoverished bewitching and "unprosperous" idolizing of beauty. Negating love's corrupt craftiness, born of what (Riding) Jackson calls in another poem "the patriarchal leer," the speaker imagines a different love (Poems, 267). Only by passing through a "grave" woman and her "stark mind" will this changed love be possible. While some critics have mistakenly seen (Riding) Jackson's emphasis on the mind throughout her work as making her a "philosophical poet," an epithet that (Riding) Jackson herself abjured, importantly her emphasis on the mind is rather on what the mind enacts, its intellectual judgments, and negations.
Few, if any writers, can equal the extreme ferocity and spare bleakness of (Riding) Jackson's early writings. However, Kathy Acker comes to mind, albeit differently. If (Riding) Jackson aims to negate existing love economies of idealism and narcissism, Acker explores these ad nauseam. At once evoking and deflating these economies through disclosure of their sado-masochistic dimensions, Acker combines mytho-poetic modes with flattened non-sequiturs. Lyrical effusions amplify the rationalized languages of an industrialized society and the sound bite logics of newspeak. Acker begins Don Quixote with an overview of its heroic quest:
When she was finally crazy because she was about to have an abortion, she conceived of the most insane idea that any woman can think of. Which is to love. How can a woman love? By loving someone other than herself. She would love another person. By loving another person, she would right every manner of political, social, and individual wrong; she would put herself in those situations so perilous the glory of her name would resound. The abortion was about to take place. (Acker, 9)
Initially undertaking a line of feminine reasoning, love will save the world and bring honor to the woman, the narrational tone abruptly shifts as a kind of deus ex machina comes down: "The abortion was about to take place."
Throughout the opening pages of Don Quixote, an abortion, technically the demise of love-making, functions as the mock heroic event by which this knight can gain her "knighthood / nighthood." The term 'abortion,' a particularly ugly denomination for a 'woman's right to choose,' introduces the possibility of complex psychological and linguistic operations, such as castration and negation, which are, in turn, negated through the flattened naming of the event. Modern day hospital technologies shift into memories of Don Quixote's sixteenth century misfortunes and other epochal landscapes of despair:
They told her they were going to take her from the operating chair to her own bed in a wheeling chair. The wheeling chair would be her transportation. She went out to look at it. It was dying. It had once been a hack, the same as all the hacks on grub street; now, as all the hacks, was a full-time drunk, mumbled all the time about sex but now no longer not even never did it but didn't have the wherewithal or equipment to do it, and hung around with the other bums. That is, women who're having abortions. (Acker, 9)
Acker engages more punning, turning the mythic abortion into multiple indignities and impossibilities:
As we've said, her wheeling bed's name was 'Hack-kneed' or 'Hackneyed', meaning once a hack' or always a hack' or 'a writer' or 'an attempt to have an identity that always fails.' Just as 'Hackneyed' is the glorification or change from non-existence into existence of Hack-kneed,' so, she decided, 'catheter' is the glorification of 'Kathy.' By taking on such a name which, being long, is male, she would be able to become a female-male or a night-knight. (Acker, 10)
Unlike (Riding) Jackson, who, at least in her poetry, would turn her negations into dignified rearticulations, Acker hungers around the economies of love's "despite." In the section titled, "Heterosexuality," Acker explores what for Don Quixote is the most intense experience of passionate love, "rejection." She calls attention to the mirroring economies of narcissistic and idealizing love relations by staging two androgynous figures, De Franville and Villebranche, whose multiplied negated sexual identities work to make them the most alluring sexual objects around:
Both men and women adored this creature who, by his/her sexual void, like a magnet, attracted most those whose sexual desires were the fiercest. He/She seemed to be magnificently sexual. (Acker, 129)
While here the representation of sexuality spins out into mirrors of non-identity, at other times in the text, brutally physical sado-masochistic relations prevail. In one incident, a student returns to a teacher whose love for the student is most evident in his brutal whipping of him.
In the conclusion of Don Quixote, several affirmative statements emerge born of the terrible negations of this text. In one, Don Quixote rejoices in a desire "restored," through complete "neediness" and "desparation," which is equated with "the desperation of a baby who must suck [her mother's] nipple" (Acker, 192). In another, a "female pirate" travels over "crumbling European waters" in a new "mo[u]rning," "totally strong in [her] helplessness," listening to the "violent sex between sun and water" (Acker, 200).
Acker, Kathy. Don Quixote. (New York: Grove Press, 1986).
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. The Pink Guitar. (New York: Routledge, 1990).
Heuving, Jeanne. "Laura (Riding) Jackson's 'Really New' Poem, in Gendered Modernisms: American Women Poets and their Readers, ed. Margaret Dickie and Thomas Travisano. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996).
(Riding) Jackson, Laura. Anarchism Is Not Enough (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1928).
(Riding) Jackson, Laura. Contemporaries and Snobs (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran ad Co, 1928).
(Riding) Jackson, Laura. The Poems of Laura Riding (New York: Persea Books, 1938, 1980).
Author's Note: The excerpt is taken from my article, "The Violence of Negation or 'Love's Infolding'" written for The World in Time and Space: Towards a History of Innovative American Poetry 1970-2000, edited by Joseph Donahue and Ed Foster, forthcoming later this year; and it appears in HOW2 with the permission of Talisman House, Publishers.
"Be Grave, Woman" is from The Poems of Laura Riding, by Laura (Riding) Jackson. Copyright © 1938, 1980. Reprinted by permission of Carcanet Press, Manchester, Persea Books, New York, and the author's Board of Literary Management.
In conformity with the late author's wish, her Board of Literary Management asks us to record that, in 1941, Laura (Riding) Jackson renounced, on grounds of linguistic principle, the writing of poetry: she had come to hold that "poetry obstructs general attainment to something better in our linguistic way-of-life than we have".
BIO: Jeanne Heuving has written multiple critical articles on avant garde women poets and poetics and the book, Omissions Are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore. She is currently at work on a book project, "Devastating Poetry," which explores the writing of love and sexuality in modernist and contemporary women poets, for which she has received grants from the NEH and Walter J. Simpson Humanities Center at the University of Washington. She is on the faculty of the University of Washington, Bothell and the Graduate School of the University of Washington. She is a member of the Subtext Collective, a community writers group which puts on a reading series of innovative writers in Seattle.