by Lynn Hejinian
The Post-Apollo Press, 2000
by Ramez Qureshi
"My words have an ancestor." These weighty lines do not occur in Lyn Hejinian's provocative new book Happily, though they easily could; rather, they turn up in section 70 of Lao Tzu's Tao Teh Ching, source book of Taoism and Buddhism, a text which influenced the way of life of the east and attracted the interests of modernists such as Pound, who obsessed over "The Way" in his Cantos. The words of the Tao are very much ancestral to those of Hejinian's Happily, a text which seems to rub off all the mystifying dross and ornament of theory and reveal the glitter of the true nature of the lozenge of art, whose value she neither demeans nor exaggerates.
Happily is very much a continuation of Hejinian's earlier works, fusing the concerns of what "Writing" and "Aid to Memory" is to her in her "Life." "Constantly I write this happily," begins Hejinian. Beginning self-reflexively, beginning with self-consciousness of her own activity, beginning with a note of permanence, beginning with description of a state: she writes "happily." But what is it to work at her text "happily"? "Is happiness the name for our (involuntary) complicity with chance?" she will soon query. "Complicity" is a very Taoist idea, the acceptance of the dealings of necessity: "'Welcome disgrace as a pleasant surprise. Prize calamities as your own body....' Because our body is the very source of our calamaties. If we have no body, what calamities can we have?" (13) Calamity is a reminder, for Lao Tzu, of the consciousness of the body; this is not the Christian acceptance of suffering but rather its opposite—a radical acceptance of bodily consciousness as opposed to its abnegation—not a recommendation of suffering, but an acknowledgement of its existence. "To be one with Loss is to be a welcome accession to Loss" (23), Tzu writes, not celebrating loss, but advocating being "one" with it, organic wholeness with nature's patterns.
Harmony with nature's patterns is very much a part of Hejinian's work, not new to Happily, and is revealed by her resourcefulness of imagery, a resort to nature indicating an acceptance of the ways of the world, a realism which is not one, limited by art. As she writes in The Cold of Poetry, "Realism is an unimaginable ballad: direct speech/across the trajectory of nature in its tress/ Which word in an object of imitation?" It is the disjunction between sign and referent of which all Language Poets are aware that prevents Hejinian from calling herself a realist, so her realism is a formal one, defamiliarized in the world of signs in which Hejinian reports to be so happy:
I write with inexact straightness but into a place in place
As Hejinian writes she writes with reference to an imagery of a nature evolving "optimistically," without pathetic fallacy imposing a tragic sense of "melancholy" projected unto history.
is a slip of the tongue in quickening tempo over itself the
wonders Hejinian. What is writing when it encounters the justified world of nature, be it wind or onion, two recurrent images of Hejinian's career?
What is writing but an activity for Hejinian? "There is activity in life, ie. conduct asserts the power of deliberating without knowing how a state of being is thought into existence so often." This "conduct" is writing.
"Activity" has always been a concern for Hejinian: "It can't want an inactive life," she declares of "The Person" in The Cold of Poetry. Aristotle remains the philosopher par excellence of activity, or energeia. For Aristotle, "Nature [is] ... 'the principle of motion and energeia'." (Physics, III, 1). Necessity, with which Hejinian must comply in her energeia of writing fits into nature's scheme as a factor whose "actuality is in nature" as Aristotle writes in On Interpretation. Writes Hejinian in The Cold of Poetry, "Put tongue to foot and say necessity." For Aristotle, time is indespensible to nature; if nature involves "motion," "Time is the measure of motion" (Physics, IV, 12).
Hejinian understands the need to meditate on time in her activity of writing:
might look at the clock and see hands turning in the air in
Writing, the "trope,"satisfies in harmony with the image of the natural image of the "iceberg" as an ersatz for time, a parallel nature which is horizontal not vertical. Of course "It is hard to explain time" but it is "the sense of senses" essential to the activity of writing, and Hejinian quite bluntly suggests, "Perhaps it is the role of art to put us in complicity with things as they happen."
And that would be happiness for Hejinian. Is this right-wing? A conservative acceptance of things as they are rather than the oppositional possibilities of art, possibilities embodied in Language Poetry origins in its resistance to the Vietnam War? This is the sort of scenario that leads Adorno to ponder art's "right to exist" in Aesthetic Theory. "[T]he whole of modern art can be understood as the perpetual intervention of the subject," writes Adorno—Hejinian's reminder that she is constantly writing happily, but "the permanent interventions of the ego are matched by a tendency of the ego to abdicate" for Adorno, in Hejinian's case to become a universal subject writing for all writers in harmony with nature and exhorting art's purposes for happiness. Hejinian understands that art is not really autnomous to society, as Adorno would have it, "a bourgeois consciousness of freedom that was itself bound up in the social structure;" its modern "autonomy" is moot as Hejinian understands it; for her, it is the work of a producing single (in the case of writing; the same would not apply to say, cinema) social subject, hence the real aporia would not be between whether art could "negate society" as Adorno famously stated it always does, but how the individual subject represents the universal and particular, a political concern expressed in such L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E essays as Brian Fawcett's "Agent of Language," in which Fawcett wonders from which class writing comes. For Hejinian, the universal and particular are synthesized in the promise of happiness that writing brings to her, and to anyone who writes: " 'unhappiness through art'/ its own irreducible deformation" she declares in the Cold of Poetry.
For her politics we will not have to turn to the debates of opposition through say form versus content represented by Adorno and Lukacs. Hejinian is not about an oppositional nature of art but understanding that "works of art normally replicate simply by virtue of their own existence... the inadequacy of the aesthetic itself," as Adorno said in his centennial lecture on Mahler. But in Hejinian's replication, in the felicitous rearrangement of signs, there is a progressive utopian vision, and this can only be reminiscent of Bloch. Bloch looks at art with "the most important concern of Marxism, namely, the changing of the world" in mind, in his essay "Art and Society." For Bloch, the "pure aesthetics of contemplation" whose locus is Kant's third Critique is an acceptance of the debased real, an acceptance of the world as it is which is not the world as it should be, and what is needed is "the landscape of hope," a utopian impulse, an "anticipatory illumination." Herein lies the progressiveness of Hejinian's happiness, for hers is a complicity with "anticipatory illumination." Her first line may be "Constantly I write happily," but her second is "Hazards that hope may break open my lips:" it is hope, "the dream forward," as Bloch puts it, that causes Hejinian's lips to open, that causes her to utter so happily. Hence when Hejinian can write
ourselves under a gray sky shining so brightly our
we sense, as Bloch puts it in "Art and Utopia," "a world that would be totally unchangeable without the enormous future, the real possibilities within it," the "possibilities" represented in the "anticipatory illumination" of a gray sky which shines so brightly, a defiance of a gloomy world, a defiance where it is possible to imagine a future where even gray skies shine bright, suggesting the possibilities of progress, that can begin to tease us out of thought, accomplished through a social construction: language.
Which is why Hejinian's art happiness is not one of mere complicity with whatever might be going wrong with the world, be it social injustice or ecological destruction. It is the wisdom of the Lao Tzu synthesized with the hope of Bloch. Art, for Hejinian, brings us into harmony with nature without abandoning a utopian social impulse. Near the end of Happily, Hejinian employs her title word one last time: "No, happily I'm feeling the wind in its own right rather than as of particular pertinence to us at a windy moment." In this dissent from Hegel, whose phenomonological project could only be solved with the world existed for us, Hejinian recognizes nature on "its own right." Through Art, the wind itself, necessity, which need not include the injustices of our world, and which for Marx included revolution, is acknowledged.
BIO: Ramez Qureshi is currently working toward an MFA at Otis College of Arts and Design, where he also teaches critical analysis and semiotics. His poetry and criticism has recently appeared in journals including Jacket, Read Me and Tripwire.