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‘what history teaches,’ part 7

The survivor’s testimony, then, is a matter of response and responsibility.  In “Some Haunting,” the phantom address elicits, by way of response on Shurin’s part, a question – “How do I serve this dead young man?” – that again summons the text of the past, estranging and reconstituting Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:  “I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men / and women.”  When, as in this instance, reading and writing “the process of history itself disappearing” demand that we translate the hints, the fleeting fragments afforded by the past, poetics and historiography prove inseparable.

Unbound puts “Song of Myself” in quotation marks once more in its final chapter, dated 1996 and entitled “Generation.”  It recounts the aftermath, or more properly the wake, of a windstorm that raged through San Francisco “late in the night of December 12, 1995”:  “The wind tore deep at the earth as if it wanted to get in:  a thousand trees uprooted or broken in Golden Gate Park, hundreds elsewhere pulled out by their hair….  The city whose trees are reaching maturity together woke to a loss that was generational:  not once in a lifetime, but a unified swath of lifetime lost” (85).

Confronted with this violation of life expectancy, Shurin has recourse, again, to Whitman:  “It was grass growing on top of the dying trunk that originally drew my pen, preposterous and fertile like Whitman saw it:  ‘And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves. / Tenderly will I use you curling grass, / It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men'” (88).  Resituated in their context in “Song of Myself” (whose several versions are also variously dated, in the ten editions of Leaves of Grass published from 1855 to 1897), the lines resonate further:

A child said What is the grass?  Fetching it to me with full hands;

How could I answer the child?  I do not know what it is, any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,

Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,

And it means….

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,

It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,

It may be if I had known them I would have loved them.

With the confession that “I do not know what it is,” the tentative reiteration of “I guess” and “it may be,” the “I” in “Song of Myself” speculates from before or beyond certain knowledge, and considers a range of possible responses to the child’s question about the grass.  But Unbound‘s first person, writing and citing in a time of crisis, seizes on Whitman’s “now” – “And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves” – recognizes and reads it, allegorically, as part of an effort to make sense of the devastating windstorm and what it figures.  As in Whitman’s “Calamus,” the body is here “metaphorized as leaves, roots, blossoms, scented herbage, live oak, moss, vines and buds” – so much windfall in the wake of the savage weather.  [In the final paragraph of “Generation,” Shurin writes:  “A reminiscent wind has whipped up, strewing the gleaming street with papers and leaves, anything that rises.  I imagine a series of substitutions which stand for flight:  black crow, broomstick, milkweed, vapor trail, pterodactyl, red balloon, oak pollen, helicopter, luna moth, dust mote, box kite, June bug, rocket man, gazelle.  The wind takes them all” (89).]  “I pushed the ruin of the storm to mean the ruin I needed.  What constitutes a memorial, a legacy?  Where do the bodies go I don’t see go – no graves, no burning ghats – and how do they reseed a city lost to loss?” (88).

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‘what history teaches,’ part 6

The epigraph to the essay “Some Haunting,” dated 1994, cites the Joyce of Ulysses alluding to the Shakespeare of Hamlet:  “He is a ghost, a shadow now, the wind by Elsinore’s rocks or what you will, the sea’s voice, a voice heard only in the heart of him who is the substance of his shadow” (66).  The quotation opens Shurin’s evocation of his own ghosts (if they are his):

I’m no longer afraid these AIDS apparitions might be real (they’ve lost the advantage of surprise), but my subsequent clench at the gut or failing of the knees shows a terror more truculent than fear of the Impossible.  (The Impossible?  What, anymore, is that?)  These particular visitations – these “voices heard in the heart of him” – pursue.  They know my name, and my whole shaken body responds to their address….  The ghosts who walk in my city (my ghostly city) are cast as vividly as any childhood stored in a dipped madeleine – with that fleeting precision memory affords, and the rubbed-out edges it requires.  And they rise just as suddenly….  They flash and seize….  These visions are gone in the next shift of wind, of course….  Too late for me, who have been stuck by recognition, a madeleine-rush of memory that comes, alas, too frequently to be savored, but whose measure is too steady to be ignored.

I am haunted.  [66-67]**

The ghost, the shadow, the wind, the sea’s voice – always just gone – that pursue Shurin and address him by name again figure a demand made by the past on the present:  pay attention as if your life depended on it, recognize as your own concern what threatens to disappear irretrievably.  The sheer force of this demand disrupts the complacency of memory and amnesia alike.  As William Haver observes in the context of his own consideration of Unbound, “The ghost is the figure of what we can never quite forget altogether, but also of that which memory can never satisfactorily recover:  the figure of the impossibility of forgetting what we have forgotten.  The ghost is the figure of what disrupts every attempt at historiographical pacification” (unpublished ms., 12).  And the same claim might be made for citation:  for example, the citation of the past readable in a photograph of the author and his friends at the Gay Freedom Day celebration in Golden Gate Park in 1975.  Contemplating an image of the past twenty years later under the title “Shifting Paradise,” Shurin writes:

…one no longer knows the actual from the iconic – the icon becomes the actual!  Where physical distance blurs temporal distance refines.  This much has not shifted:  on a shelf a lucite frame encodes the past in a photo – unregenerate – as a paradise of pure loss.

But something has shifted:  the resonant image, gingerly holding its chemical colors against the fading power of sunlight, remains the same, but the very nature of paradise has changed.  Even while – eyes dewy – focused back on primal beauty, the unforeseen – HIV – transfigures sight, beholder and beheld.  “This sceptered isle,” Shakespeare’s Gaunt has said, “This fortress built by Nature for herself / Against infection.”  The magic island is flooded in a breakaway recursive tide; what did not hold – infected – returns to the image of origin.  (78)***

What follows this reflection on the fading photograph that cites a paradise now irretrievably lost is a parenthetical quotation from Gertrude Stein, the concluding lines of a remarkable poem with the hypothetical title “If I Told Him” (and the more assured subtitle “A Completed Portrait of Picasso”):  “Let me recite what history teaches.  History teaches” (78).  This history lesson, in the form of a citation that itself inscribes, or performs, citation, quoting itself as it unfolds, delivers not meaning, but what Unbound elsewhere terms “enactment” (35), demarcating the properly ethical dimension of its poetics and its historiography.

__________

** The haunting of the survivor is powerfully figured by John Greyson in “Overtaken,” Alphabet City 7 (“Social Insecurity”), 2000, 68-79.

*** In In the Event:  Reading Journalism, Reading Theory, I propose that “the photographic image takes place in the mode of a pledge:  Everything may be preserved for history.  But if what is preserved is in the process of disappearing, perhaps what is kept is only the promise”  (Stanford UP, 1999, 3).

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‘what history teaches,’ part 5

If City of Men takes citation to a provocative extreme, audaciously rewriting Whitman in his own words (Whitman was of course continually rewriting himself, for example in his ongoing revisions to Leaves of Grass), the citational gesture and its allegorical structure are also crucial to reading Unbound as a poetics and a historiography of AIDS.  In Shurin’s formulation of his project in “Inscribing AIDS:  A Reflexive Poetics” (1995), he proposes to

estrange and reconstitute Whitman’s Civil War vocabulary, pushing images of battle and comradely witness to a newly disoriented wailing point.  In “Human Immune” [1993], the speaking subject inhabits experience from simultaneous locations as if all persons of voice (first, second, and third) are equally at risk.  The poem proceeds formally via an epidemiological model:  each “stanza” inexorably increases in length by one line, an expanding vortex.  Hell is round, the motif…may bear Dante’s centripetal impasse, but also dimensionalizes AIDS from the personal to the historical:  the curve one rounds is also around one, surrounding, a world.  For the gay community, this circumnavigate descent can be read as the process of history itself disappearing.  [74]

In these terms, the history summoned in the culling and grafting, the estranging and reconstituting of citation is itself in the process of disappearing, prematurely, perhaps irrevocably.  “Inscribing AIDS” thus recalls the threat to historiography identified in Walter Benjamin’s fifth thesis On the Concept of History:  “The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again…. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.”  If the witness who reads the process of history itself disappearing is haunted by images of the past (and ghosts abound in Unbound), the text of his testimony is likewise haunted by prior texts that are themselves commemorated even as they are enlisted in a work of commemoration.

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‘what history teaches,’ part 3

If Unbound is “weighted toward witness,” this attribute of the text attests to its author’s “cursed rare privilege” – his chance to have been the intimate observer of, and at times actor in, or party to, the experiences he commemorates, and further to have survived them.  For by definition, one testifies only when one has (so far) outlived what has come to pass.  The work’s status as the testament of a survivor opens its reflexive poetics onto, turns it into, historiography.  But this history-writing itself takes specific forms in language that make their own non-negotiable demand on writer as well as reader:  “to pay attention – poetics – as if one’s life depended on it.”  As we read in “Notes from Under,” “So, a cloud of attendant issues and their griefs.  Among friends – dead, dying, or scared, the sorrowful healthy – testimony:  what I have seen that you must now know, see, for I have been surrounded and among my friends in adversity creating a life, their rising and falling beauties, death and tests and imagined fulfilled acts that have unleashed instructions upon us, the uninitiated” (14-15).  The address that inscribes a prior address, bearing the word allegorically for, to and from the other (“I let them speak” [35]), delivers in the first instance not meaning, but the force of a testimony whose I/thou structure Shurin locates in the ubiquitous obituaries of the time (“and it’s hard to be impersonal when people are calling each other sweetie across that gulf” [15]), and that is for him the “only proper usage; what signifies is that the form functions while including the dead” (15).  And that testimony’s imperative mode – “what I have seen that you must now know, see” – recalls the pivotal demand, or command, addressed by the I to the you in the second line of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:  “And what I assume you shall assume.”

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Parenthesis (Keats’ “This living hand, now warm and capable”)

“This living hand, now warm and capable”

by John Keats

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is–
I hold it towards you.

 

  John  Keats

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‘what history teaches,’ part 2

Unbound‘s project, however, is not strictly bound by the laws and limits that the designation “reflexive poetics” would appear to institute.  For one thing, as “a book of AIDS,” with all the force of the partative, it does not simply thematize; it also refers.  Its language lays claim to factual and undeniable referents in countless human bodies (it is of course in and on these bodies that HIV/AIDS first offers itself for reading, and first demands to be read), and to a host of others in the material events that constitute the history of the epidemic-turned-pandemic.

But it is not only the all too obvious referential function of Shurin’s language that opens his “reflexive poetics” onto a historiographical dimension.  It is also the rhetorical function of a text that, again in its own terms, is “weighted toward witness” – structured, that is, as testimony addressed out of and as of a certain date.  And it derives what authority it may claim from prior testimony:  “Authority? – not mine, but an urge toward the integration of fear and immutable fact, and a heart for consequence.  Who could have moved me to this end but the men whose names are mentioned here, who were my informants and guides, and whose natural affectional alliances made an epidemic based on love and desire possible?  It soon became clear that for me writing about AIDS was weighted toward witness.  Such participation’s cursed rare privilege is offered to you” (8).  Here as elsewhere, Unbound apostrophizes the reader, willing or unwilling recipient of its uncompromising address (an address on the order of the paradigmatic apostrophe in the chilling final line of Keats’ “This living hand, now warm and capable”:  “See, here it is, I hold it towards you”).  More fundamentally, the grammar here signals that this testimony is offered, delivered, or at any rate promised to one who remains indeterminate, unnamed in the text:  it is perhaps the lover, perhaps the stranger, for with the other, as with AIDS, it comes to the same.  [Cf. Jacques Derrida, “Shibboleth” in Midrash and Literature, ed. Hartman and Budick, 344].

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‘what history teaches,’ part 1

[‘what history teaches’ is a series of posts drawing on and reworking material originally published under that title in Alphabet City 8 (“Lost in the Archive”), ed. Rebecca Comay.  Fall 2002, pp. 357-65.]

‘Now to date now to date.  Now and now and date and the date.’

— Gertrude Stein, “If I Told Him:  A Completed Portrait of Picasso” 

Starkly subtitled A Book of AIDS, Aaron Shurin’s Unbound collects writings dating from 1988 to 1996, their individual provenance indicated at the end of each chapter.  It is a chronicle, then, of the unfolding of the epidemic during those years in San Francisco, the author’s home and one North American epicenter of the crisis.  But it is a chronicle that Shurin repeatedly and emphatically characterizes as a poetics, and more precisely a “reflexive poetics.”  What might appear as incompatible, even mutually exclusive projects – historiography and poetics – prove inextricable in the instance of Unbound.  Because this text, and indeed Shurin’s entire corpus, deserves a greater readership than it has yet attained, it warrants citation at some length, beginning with the preface, dated 1996.

The range of information AIDS presents keeps one at full attention.  Who knew, to begin with, what dimensions the replicate virus would come to occupy?  The various works collected here are the stations of an enlarging question….  I’ve dated the texts here, and let facts and figures remain as they were originally, to mark the developing way.  But the numbers, their aggregate lines (their additions, multiplications and subtractions) were not my story.  For that reason call this small but incremental book a poetics:  Its way was made with both hands stretched, investigative, crossing and recrossing.  The process – poetic, even lyric – tests the threads as it leads them – as it’s led by them – and coaxes their meeting, otherwise statistical, toward meaning(s).  [Unbound:  A Book of AIDS.  Los Angeles, 1997, 7-8]

Poetics, according to one late twentieth-century definition, is a “descriptive or prescriptive discipline that lays claim to scientific consistency.  It pertains to the formal analysis of linguistic entities as such, independently of signification,” and “it deals with theoretical models prior to their historical realization”  (Paul de Man, The Resistance to Theory, 1986, 56).  To judge by the language of its preface, Unbound‘s poetics has hermeneutic aspirations, seeking to coax its findings toward sense.  As Shurin had already written in 1995, however, in the chapter here entitled “Inscribing AIDS:  A Reflexive Poetics,”  “But one may neither make meaning, as I’d thought, nor find it, after pursuit.  Meaning may be delivered – bouquet or bomb – head on.  For a writer, this is experienced as a demand.  How to write AIDS named me” (72).

Before meaning or meanings may be delivered, before a hermeneutics or a historiography of HIV/AIDS, the epidemic-turned-pandemic makes a certain demand on writer and reader alike:  “The pure rampage of facts unleashed by the disease demanded scrutiny, the heartbreaking lure of incessant efflorescing information – to turn mortal details beneath the scoping light of sentences, to penetrate them, to release them, to be released from them.  [Whitman:  ‘As they emit themselves facts are showered over with light’]” (73).  In these terms, “how to write AIDS” and how to read AIDS entail an ongoing negotiation with language as the vehicle of meaning’s delivery.  For, as Shurin records in his “Notes from Under,” dated 1988, “It is alphabetical from the start, as if the full name were too terrible to be spoken, or because we don’t want to know the elaboration that would cause a true and necessary engagement with its nature; prefer a modest, even pleasant-sounding acronym to keep it hidden:  AIDS” (14).  Unbound‘s “reflexive poetics” here engages the epidemic as alphabetical, elliptical acronym, and goes on to elaborate what amounts to a linguistics of HIV/AIDS, comprising lexicon, syntax, semantics, semiotics, grammar, dialect.

I’m infected by a vocabulary, a prisoner of its over-specified agenda.  I know OK-T4 helper cells, macrophages, lymphadenopathy, hairy leukoplakia; I know the syntax – the route of congregation – more than the definitions.  By how they appear in the sentence I can pretty much tell what the end is going to be.  I read their appearance on the body of a text and get its message.  I see a sign which means one of these words is going to insist on being used….

Am I in or out of control?  I’m learning this alien vocabulary by sight – it’s symbolic – but I don’t understand the grammar.  I can’t apply it to any other situation; it’s a purely local dialect.  Desperate, I use these medical words as markers, to chart the distance between my body and absolute fear, or my body and the hope of health – represented as control by the command of scientific terminology and its promise. [16]

Yet another of the author’s “Notes from Under” takes account of speech-acts and literary structures:  “For this, reading the world, new language events by which we measure grief and fear; how the virus has made us talk about it – forms of disclosure, witness, vocabularies, stories.  A new literary structure I feared becoming master of:  the obituary” (15).

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