Figuring Out

Lyn Hejinian

     “Don’t you hear that terrible screaming all around us, that screaming that men call ‘silence’?” (Werner Herzog, epigraph to Every Man for Himself and God Against All, or The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser)

In her Secret Autobiography (a very recent and as yet unpublished manuscript, 42), Leslie Scalapino describes Deer Night as a “physiological-conceptual tracking (of) that is reoccurrence” and as “a particular schism/gyration of ‘the inside of the inside’ being ‘the outside of the outside’ (at once).”

“The text,” Scalapino says, “is syntax of split or shape, a schism / gyration (experienced by me as a kid at age fourteen, it has a particular past) as only itself, ‘denoted’ as that split per se. It no longer exists as event or that emotion. It is reoccurrence of that particular earlier conceptual configuration but—in Deer Night as text-configuration, not transcriptions of events of that time (rather, events as ‘interiorized’ then, not ‘known’)—is for one the inside of the outside...It’s a spatial motion, not a ‘memory.’ No event as that is reproduced or articulated” (42-43).

This text is a physiological-conceptual figure precisely as motion is in cinema. The inside of the inside of a movie is its moving, and that moving is what produces the phenomenological creation of the outside of the outside. In just this way, the text of Deer Night is a motion-figure. Its action occurs on the inside, as action in a film occurs between frames, and what we read is not something becoming something else but change (described as a schism / gyration) itself.

Though it would have been more salient, perhaps, to talk about Scalapino’s writings in conjunction with The Invasion of the Body-Snatchers (discussion of which takes up a long section of the Secret Autobiography, it being, as Scalapino has told me, one of her favorite films [the remake, with Donald Sutherland]), I am instead going to point to Werner Herzog’s 1974 film, The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, or, as it is more properly titled [when the German title is translated literally], Every Man for Himself and God Against All. Though very different art works coming from very different sensibilities, both Herzog’s Kaspar Hauser film and Scalapino’s Deer Night are expressive of certain similar views regarding the state of things, among them that so-called civilization (culture, the social) is full of pitfalls, and that landscape is not mere background but is itself the shape / gyration of what happens in it. And in both Herzog’s and Scalapino’s view, it is extraordinarily difficult, perhaps even impossible, for a person either to find his or her place in the landscape or to separate from it. In this regard, Scalapino’s view is particularly radical. Existing occurs simultaneously both as what’s identifiable, distinct and separate, and as what is, by definition, non-separate (here Scalapino follows Nagarjuna’s precept that nothing has inherent existence, there is no distinct independence). “People are everywhere but are part of the existing calm endless terrain.” [1]

If I had time, I would want to make the move between Deer Night and The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser via the epic theater of Bertolt Brecht and the operas—Parsifal, in particular—of Richard Wagner, an odd pair, I know, and the Wagner, especially, must seem an unlikely context for understanding something about Scalapino’s work, but I believe that there is something to be said within the context it provides. In Parsifal the plot, the drama, is entirely interior, and the sole site of real motion is in the music. The shape of the movements of the characters is driven from within, as a manifestation of radical inner conflict rooted in a past that has become the inner shape of the outer present, its wound.

To an only slightly less noticeable degree, the drama of Herzog’s hero, Kaspar (whose innocence parallels that of Wagner’s Parsifal) is also an interior one, the drama of existential wonder (astonishment at the not-necessary but possible character of all that appears) and of social suffering (Kaspar’s wounded state is social and all evidence indicates that it was the result of social force—a dynastic battle over competing heirs to the house of Baden, one the rightful heir who was said to have died as a very young child and the other his cousin, who became the heir after the death of the child and in fact became prince of Baden).

Suffering has been a persistent concern in Leslie Scalapino’s work. She can quite accurately be said to be at work on the problem of suffering, a problem that is always under scrutiny by Buddhist philosophy, which originates in pondering the causes, interior (in the mind) and exterior (in the world), of suffering and the possibility for freedom from it.

Buddhist philosophy, which Scalapino has studied for many years in great depth and detail [2] , makes two observations of particular relevance: first, that pain and suffering are ubiquitous and that living as we do in their midst we cannot help but be in a state of terror; and second, that empirical reality is solely phenomenal—a matter of appearances—and we can never see anything as it is (per se, to use Scalapino’s term, or as a thing-in-itself, to use Kant’s), first because it doesn’t show itself as it is and second because, after a space of time no greater, according to Nagarjuna, than 1/65th of a finger snap, our perceptions are immediately taken over by our intellect, a constructed (or, in Nagarjuna’s terminology, karmic) formation, the result of and force for conditioning (and thus also taking over) by the force of previous experience, including, perniciously, social conditioning.

In several respects, the conflict faced by someone in quest of clear seeing but trapped within karmic formation is related to the familiar conflict between individual and society that was the central preoccupation of the nineteenth-century novel and of crucial concern to the Protestant, capitalist, middle-class. This middle-class was heir to the imperialism that was an intrinsic part of the Enlightenment, whose values seemed to justify colonialism and which in turn made the rise of the middle class possible. But to the degree that Scalapino’s Deer Night participates in the tradition of this conflict, it does so in a particularly radical way. It carries out a challenge both to individuation and to the social, attacking the assumptions on which both sides of the conflict were premised.

It is in this context that, in Deer Night, Scalapino has rewritten The Tempest, which she views as a drama of imperialism.

Her rewriting of The Tempest is extreme—it is absolute. Scarcely a trace of The Tempest remains. It is, she has said, “a total rewriting—that is, without using the plots, characters or language of Shakespeare. The writing is not a ‘lyrical’ ‘meditation’ on Caliban’s colonized state...It is perspective that is rearrangement...It’s rearrangement of one’s thought, by demonstrating its rearrangement.” [3]

With the stakes as great as they are (and it is because so much is at stake that Scalapino’s writings have such emotional intensity), such a rearrangement must be total—it must rupture as well as shift. It involves wrecking the mind. As Scalapino says “I just want to wreck your mind.” [4]

Wrecking mind—or “continual conceptual rebellion,” as Scalapino terms it—is not something to be undertaken casually; this is not gestural, it involves no glib theatricality, and the syntactic layering and the conceptual difficulties—the mind-wrecking devices—are not mere avant-garde gestures; Scalapino’s work is not about surface aesthetics.

Scalapino feels that it is her obligation to wreck mind: one’s own mind, since in exercising its powers of interpretation, it obscures experience under clouds of illusion, nullifying empirical haeceity and blinding us to reality; and the mind of others’, since in interpreting us, others perform acts of deformation and even, potentially, of destruction.

“Continual conceptual rebellion,” she has said (in conversation with Dee [Adalaide] Morris [5] and me), is a means of outrunning the forces that would re-form (conventionalize) one. If you stay in one place too long you’ll be taken over—either by your own fixating ideas or by those of others, either of which can immobilize and re-form you. To survive (the body snatchers) one must always be outrunning the destruction of the world. It is for this reason that travel is such an important motif in Scalapino’s work [6] . Travel does the urgent work of changing everything at once. It undoes the world and it undoes the traveler.

Travel is a motif, not a theme; it is a motif in the Russian Formalist sense—an integral part of the dynamic that structures the work by propelling it. Likewise, and for similar reasons, surgery (and related procedures—such as the scan requiring that the body, one, be injected with dye) appear as a motif—as the site of the non-separation of physical and psychic suffering (pain is terror, terror pain) while also bringing about an undoing, not in the form of a demise but in the form of transformation, metamorphosis, outracing. “Seeing the blue dye within myself (and therefore seeing not on my eyes) I was running at dawn.” (92)

“The writing being ‘on’ an early split in one’s psyche is not ‘about’ one’s psychology. It’s a way of there being no difference between occurrence in the outside and as the inside. So that one is not separate from occurrence. As: All Occurrence in Structure, Unseen is reenactment of political discourse as it’s being also a form of silence: people’s expression that is not recognized or comprehensible as ‘discourse.’ It is expression that is excluded.

“The refusal to be defined, by the action of out-racing ‘one being defined’—and not ‘being’ that action either (of out-racing), though that’s all that occurs—‘to be’ out racing (as a form of silence that ‘isn’t’ ‘inarticulateness’). Writing ‘could be’ leaping outside the ‘round’ of being interiorly/culturally defined (at all) (by oneself or outside)...” [7]

The full title of Deer Night is As: All Occurrence in Structure, Unseen (Deer Night) and if we take all that follows the colon as a subtitle of sorts, we are left with a title consisting of the single term “as,” a word that withstands a great deal of scrutiny, a word that, according to the linguist Ann Banfield [8] , isn’t even, properly speaking, a word at all. It has function but no meaning. It is what is known as a hyperfunctional element, operating variously and, as one book on grammar puts it, “often ambiguously,” which is to say that its functions are not always mutually exclusive. It can serve as an adverb (Webster’s offers “as deaf as a post” as an example) or as a conjunction (and Webster’s offers the phrase “as deaf as a post” for this, too, though with the emphasis on a different “as,” as well as “spilled the milk as she stood up” and “she stayed home as she had no car”); it can serve as a preposition (“works as an editor,” “appeared as Hamlet” ), as a pronoun (“she is a foreigner, as is evident from her accent),” as an intensifier (for example, adverbially, as in “I came as quickly as I could”), and as a complement (“Fury is smart as horses go”). It can register temporal relativity (“as the doorbell rang, I put on my coat”) and causative relativity (“as it was cold, I put on my coat”) and often there is ambiguity as to which it is doing; the difference between sequence and consequence is blurred. As is a site of relationship—it is neither one thing nor another but, in Scalapino’s sense, it is “occurrence in structure, unseen.” It is prevalent in metaphors, and by virtue of its presence it produces metamorphoses. It is “syntactically impermanence,” cinematic motion, the shift / gyration of semantic transmutation.

“Yes,” Scalapino wrote in a fax to me (June 5, 2000)—“Yes, complete metamorphosis—the urgency of necessity for that utter change literary (so that ‘one does not = one’ at all nor is ‘one inside social construction’ ‘while being that’) is in all of the works I find, including over and over in ‘Deer Night’—such as pages: bottom 31-32, p 90 and 91, p. 94.” I’ll quote from page 94: “The black butterflies as the worms on the red wheat fields—irreducible as the black butterfly/which is the man flying being that. On a hot vast terrain of fields per se, there are no people. I could only repeat that. It’s its relation.”

This relation is the result of what I would like to term the “as effect.” In order better to explain what I mean by the “as effect,” I want to turn for a minute to a grammatical unit in Russian: what is known (in English) as the instrumental case. Like the particle “as,” the Russian instrumental case has an array of functions. And it often is optional whether one uses it or some other grammatical construction—to use it, in other words, is intentionally to evoke a subtlety that is inherent in virtually every one of its usages—the “as effect.” Thus, one can say, “she sings like a nightingale” in two ways. The first simply uses “kak” (like)—poyot’ kak solovei; the second uses the instrumental: poyot solovyom. The first says solely that she sings like a nightingale, the second says that but in the sense that she sings as a nightingale—in singing, she becomes nightingale. A slightly more radical example is this: one can say “they were walking along the shore” simply, using the preposition vdol (along) (oni shli vdol berega) or dropping the preposition and using the instrumental (oni shli berogom), the latter intimating that in walking along the shore one is that shore—one, as it were, shores the body of water beside which one walks. And my final example is a line from a poem by Boris Pasternak, whose English translations says: “Through the snow I walked, followed by fading footsteps,” which is accurate as far as it goes but misses what is most powerful in the Russian, where “fading footsteps” is in the instrumental case—suggesting that his walk in the woods exists in and as the fading footsteps that follow him. He is, in the language of the poem, the walker becoming his tracks, walker in his tracks, walker as his tracks.

What I am calling the as effect is not a trope but an “occurrence structure.” Within its realm, everything is what it isn’t and isn’t what it is.

In contemporary Western philosophy, one might look to the work of the most radical of the deconstructivists to find an analytic method capable of disclosing the prominence of “as” occurrences. But it is to ancient Eastern philosophy that one should look for the account of it that most closely corresponds to that of Scalapino, and in particular to that of the highly sceptical Madhyamika school of Mahayana Buddhism, known as the Middle Way.

The notion of the Middle Way of Madhyamika as developed by the second century (AD) philosopher, Nagarjuna, is not to be confused with the notion that Aristotle termed the Golden Mean. It is not about moderation. It is, rather, an extreme and relentless mode of analysis that discloses the impossibility of characterizing the nature of anything because it denies the possibility of anything’s being something per se, that is, on its own, independent of everything else. “The content of the world is not an established order or form, but a process of ordering and form-giving, and [...] every order must make way for another order, every form for another form.” [9] Or as it says in Deer Night:

Because all belonging—in the contemporary society—is the creation of actions that are the society—any is to violate actions
Violating one’s own actions in oneself—inner—dawn—as volatile rim, only, then.
Present as disjunct per se only—that space / time cannot be ‘their’ narrative—or one’s. Event is between. (132)

Since nothing can have independent, self-contained existence, nothing can exist as the terminus of analysis and nothing definitive can be said about anything. Things only exist as what they are. It is in this sense that the Middle Way of Nagarjuna can be said to lead neither here nor there and be seen to be about neither this nor that. It has the formal properties of emptiness—it is as emptiness.

These properties in Deer Night appear as images in order that they have particularity and be given substance as thought, since it is substance and substance alone that bears sensuousness. They appear as images because the work is addressed to the world of appearances, the world of becoming, the world in which things arise, endure, and decay, the world that excites our longing and eludes our grasp.

The poetry does not split itself off from that (this) world, and in fact it can’t—it’s in language, and language is entirely of this world. The only things for which we have words are appearances.

But even while being restricted, bound, to the world of appearances, the poetry can (and does) allude to thought between the words—thought which is still “in” the poem but not worded just as motion is “in” a movie but not in any of its frames.

This thought lies between the images—at points of metamorphosis. These are the most obvious “as” points, where the copula “is” has been transmuted into “as,” itself now functioning as a copula, revealing the inseparability of everything and, I should add, using that inseparability as a means of outracing closure.

It is in this context that I would like to propose that Leslie Scalapino’s work is a study in the problem of freedom. She says as much in a Note that follows the text of Deer Night: “Deer Night was instigated by the idea of a complete transformation of The Tempest, a construct of Western and Asian conceptions as the motions of the mind, only the mind being action or phenomena as writing. The intention was for the work to be a state of freedom (eventually), subverting capitalism’s ‘imperialism’ from the inside.” [10]

It would be erroneous to say that Deer Night is The Tempest; Deer Night outraces The Tempest.

The as effect is performative: Geilgud as Hamlet, man as brown indigo butterfly, woman as ibex. This is acting; from it, actions occur. But the performance is of “as”—a performance of minimal overt stagey drama but of maximal complexity. It takes superior acting skills—to be “as”—namely to be being. And yet it is accomplished by everything that is. One may respond with wonder, but also with terror. Acts are being put on everywhere, that’s all there is, that’s reality—a non-reality—the confusion is awful. We are each and all in numerous casts of mind. Furthermore, not everyone gets to choose her/his/its role. Some of us get cast: for example, as a girl sold into a brothel.

Or as a toddler who, when somewhere between 3 and 4 years old, is imprisoned in the windowless cellar of a stable, where he will remain for 12 years, the rest of his childhood.

This is what happened to the youth known as Kaspar Hauser.

Werner Herzog’s film very closely follows the text of a small book called Kaspar Hauser written by Anselm Ritter von Feuerbach, a famed jurist (he was responsible for banning the use of torture in Bavarian prisons) who was responsible for the disposition of Kaspar Hauser after his sudden appearance on May 26, 1828, in a small square in Nuremberg, unable to talk and barely able to walk. Feuerbach’s book was completed not long before his sudden death, probably from poison, in May, 1832. Kaspar Hauser was murdered in December, 1833.

Neither crime has ever been solved, but there is ample reason to believe that the princely house of Baden had reasons for wanting Kaspar Hauser out of the way and that Philip Henry, Earl of Stanhope was complicit in bringing this about. Jeffrey Masson gives a rather spirited account of the affair in his introduction and commentary to the English translation of Feuerbach’s book, published under the title Lost Prince: The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser. [11]

The film version of Kaspar Hauser’s life begins in the landscapeless and all but lightless dungeon, where we can barely see Kaspar; he wiggles his toes and rolls a wooden horse back and forth on the floor. The area is small, everything is within reach; Kaspar neither walks nor stands. (This dungeon was discovered in 1924 at Schloss Pilsach during renovations just after it was purchased by the novelist Klara Hofer; the wooden horse was still there.)

He is visited, usually when he is asleep, by his keeper, “the unknown man,” who leaves bread and a jug of water and carries out the pot of waste to empty it. The man also brings Kaspar paper and pencil, and guiding his hand, the man has Kaspar write a name: Kaspar Hauser. He teaches him the word horse. He teaches him to say, “I want to be a gallant rider as my father was before me.”

Without explanation at dusk one day, the keeper carries Kaspar Hauser from his dungeon. The landscape is verdant, birds are singing, waves are breaking along the shore. It is spring (May, 1828). Landscapes proliferate as Kaspar is carried into Nuremberg, beautiful in the film but terrifying for Kaspar, for whom the light and motion are excruciating. (For all of his life, bright light brought terrible pain and Kaspar preferred the dark, night, in which he had developed neurologically so that he could see in the dark as well as a cat).

Kaspar is abandoned, standing in a small square, facing a clock tower; its face is blue, the lower half is obscured, as if in mist.

He is found, and various events occur and are chronicled. He learns to talk but only marginally to remember. He is moved by music; listening to a blind pianist, he comments, “I feel strong in my heart, I feel old.”

He learns to play the piano, and he learns to draw and paint—his subjects are almost always from the natural world; he is especially adept at rendering images of flowers.

Georg Friedrich Daumer becomes his teacher. Kaspar never learns to walk except awkwardly, but he goes out with Daumer. He encounters the enigma of space. Daumer points to the tower at whose top is Kaspar’s room. But that’s impossible. When in the room, Kaspar sees it everywhere around him. When standing below the tower which is said to contain the room, he can turn his back and it is gone; Therefore, the room is bigger than the tower.

Kaspar is interrogated by clerics who test his faith. He gestures all around at the things they can all see. “How can God have created everything out of nothing?” he asks the clerics.

He dreams—of the Caucasus. He sees it clearly: “a strange village on a mountainside, with white houses and steps rather than streets, and on the steps there was water running.” [12] He says this has dreamed in him from the Caucasus.

He is interrogated by a logician, who poses the following problem: there are two men, one comes from a village of liars, the other from a village of truthtellers; with what one question can one tell them apart?

Kaspar Hauser answers immediately: “Are you a tree-frog?”

“Nothing lies inside of me except my life,” Kaspar says.

Kaspar is invited into the garden at Daumer’s house by a stranger who says he has information about Kaspar’s mother. Kaspar is stabbed.

He is discovered, bleeding to death, and carried in to his bed. As he lies dying, he comments sadly that he knows only the beginning of the story, not how it continues. Berbers are proceeding across a desert:

Now the caravan stops
because some believe they are lost
and because they see mountains ahead of them.
They look at their compass but it’s no use.
Then their blind leader picks up a handful of sand
And tastes it as though it were food.
My sons, the blind man says, you are wrong.
Those are not mountains you see
It is only your imagination.
You must continue northwards.
And they follow the old man’s advice
And finally reach the city in the north.
And that’s where the story begins.
But how the story goes after they reach the city, I don’t know.

The results of an autopsy carried out after Kaspar Hauser’s death are chronicled: “Deformities discovered in Kaspar Hauser’s brain and liver.” The chronicler announces: “Finally we have got an explanation for this strange man.”

The chronicler, of course, is wrong. We have no explanation.

Deer Night has its origin in a specific gyration/configuration that Leslie Scalapino felt in the course of an experience involving something she witnessed, she says, when she was 14 (approximately the same age as Kaspar Hauser when he was removed from his dungeon). To know what it was would explain nothing, and Scalapino does not name or describe it. In Deer Night she attempts to replicate that shape exactly, the shape not of her psychology but of the occurrence. The gyration/configuration is, in fact, to some extent the shape of unknowing. Like Kaspar Hauser, Scalapino employs gesture, music, and logic as a means of developing this figure. And in her work, as in Kaspar Hauser’s dream, the gyration involves voyaging as an inner, as well as outward, undertaking, an outracing which leaves the end behind. This voyaging is, as she terms it, “physiological-conceptual”; she has described it as being like learning a motion in dance—the body learns a motion, not an idea, but the motion is an idea-shape. It is interiorized in the course of being produced outward, performed.

What I’ve called outracing or voyaging without end might aptly also be termed learning without end or, better, outlearning. As Scalapino sees it, one must (constantly and relentlessly) outlearn what one has been (and is being) taught. One inhabits a culture and is taught that it is the universe and one’s own. To go to and then return from a different culture drives a wedge into that universe. The sensation that Scalapino’s writing is wedged into the contemporary American version of the universe is accurate; she wants us to outlearn it, to outrace it.


[1] Leslie Scalapino, The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1999) 33; LS on Peter Hutton’s silent films).

[2] She states emphatically, however, “I am not writing a scheme (not writing ‘according to’ any philosophy, there’s just the writing).” Letter to Lyn Hejinian, October 26, 2000.

[3] From “Silence and Sound/Text” in the  “Demonstration/Commentary” section of The Public World, which precedes the trilogy of works that constitute the second half of the volume, called “As: All Occurrence in Structure, Unseen,” 31.

[4]   Quoting a remark of Philip Whalen’s in her essay “The Radical Nature of Experience” (also in The Public World) 5.

[5] The entirety of this paper is deeply indebted to extensive conversation with Adalaide Morris.

[6] And, I should add, in her life, which is, in certain ways, inseparable from her writing. Scalapino told me an anecdote which seems salient. She and her husband Tom White were traveling with Scalapino’s parents in Mongolia. They were in two jeeps crossing the Gobi Desert, which is largely without roads. Leslie was seated (among pillows, because of her damaged spine) with her notebook and a pen, intending to write as they went along, but whenever she began to write the driver of the jeep, a Mongolian man from the area, would bring the jeep to a stop. “I realized that we’d never get anywhere, and that was a problem” she said, referring not only to their literal journey but also to the writing, since she is adamant that her writing not function as a snatcher, that it not immobilize anything. It must participate in the outrunning.

[7] The Public World, 31-32

[8] Brief conversation, April 2000.

[9] Herman Oldenberg, quoted in Jaspers at 116.

[10] “As: All Occurrence in Structure, Unseen (Deer Night)” in The Public World, footnote 133.

[11] Anselm Ritter von Feuerbach, Lost Prince: The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser trans. Jeffrey Masson (NY: Free Press, 1996).

[12] Werner Herzog, Screenplays (NY: Tanam Press, 1980) 144.

Bio: Lyn Hejinian is the author of numerous collections of writing including Writing is an Aid to Memory, My Life, The Cold of Poetry, The Cell, and Oxota: A Short Russian Novel.  Recent publications include a collection of essays entitled The Language of Inquiry (University of California Press, 2001) and A Border Comedy (Granary Books, 2001).

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