Essay Against Consolation: On the Voyant and Occultism in Contemporary Poetry (3/3)

Part 3: Worsening

Coming back to the question implicit at the outset of this essay, we could ask: how does any of this help us understand the cause behind the identification of the poet with the voyant (or seer or shaman)? This is a question that is never posed, yet the answer to which is always assumed. Any paean to the ancient and venerable history of the poet-seer stretching from contemporary poetry to the Celtic vates or muse-inspired Hellenes or Vedic hymnists is at best a speculative construction. Contemporary poetry in American globalized late-capital has only the most superficial resemblances to these disparate forms. The artifice of such a constructed identity cries out to be interpreted. What does such a lineage make possible for those who claim it? What desire does it satisfy? 

If we consider the shaman in terms similar to, say, how the figure of the noble savage functioned in the eighteenth-century European imaginary as the bearer of universal human values, closer supposedly to the place and time of humanity’s birth, then the return to a more “primitive” poetics might signal a desire for certain categorical assurances. The shaman-seer-voyant comes thus to signify a form of truth that is not the disenchanted truth of science nor the ineffectual, relative truth of culture. Still, why poetry? To put forward a tentative answer, poetry may be the only mode of speaking that doesn’t make space for certainty and is thus always a source of anxiety for those who desire certainty. By operating outside the constraints of logical validity and argument from evidence, poetry equally allows for baseless claims to certitude as well as undermines certainty altogether. Let’s look at the following passage from Nora Chadwick’s 1942 book Poetry and Prophecy:

Everywhere the gift of poetry is inseparable from divine inspiration. Everywhere this inspiration carries with it knowledge . . . Invariably we find that the poet and seer attributes his inspiration to contact with supernatural powers, and his mood during prophetic utterance is exalted and remote from that of his normal existence. Generally we find that a recognized process is in vogue by which the prophetic mood can be induced at will. The lofty claims of the poet and seer are universally admitted, and he himself holds a high status wherever he is found. 

In addition to being a succinct statement of this equation of the poet with the seer, Chadwick’s pronouncement intimates an anxiety about knowledge and about the source of the authority for speaking about anything at all. Each statement in this passage makes a universal claim; each has its universal qualifier: “everywhere,” “invariably,” “generally,” “universally.” The overemphasis on the categorical seems telling. It might mean that in the analogy between poetry and divine inspiration, there is a real nostalgia for a time when one might be possessed by a god and used as a vessel for divine communication. In such a case, one’s speech would be authorized by the deity and thus unquestionable. Such oracular speech is certainly interpretable (indeed can’t not be interpreted), but it is so only because its significance is not explicit but withheld. William James said of such oracular speech that its function is “to awaken wonder as an enigma of the second order, veiling rather than revealing what its profundities are supposed to contain.” This irony, that divinely inspired speech is chronically ambiguous, seems baked in to the concept itself and thus should give us pause enough to question the assumptions underpinning the poetry-shaman equation.

One explanation for the belief in ecstatic possession could be that it is really a wish for language to be sufficient, for it not to need qualifications that might trigger an infinite regress of causal attestation, a fear that language says too little, a desire that the meaning received be identical to the meaning intended, though such a desire can only be satisfied by speech that is utterly cryptic and mystifying, existing only to obscure its emptiness. And also, a fear that language might, as Wilde put it, “deliver a message far other than that which was put into its lips to say,” that one might be betrayed by the words, and thus a wish that one’s language give nothing away, a fear that one won’t be able to stand behind and support their own speech (or be supported by it), that language will undermine their authority. In this way, the ecstatic speech of the shaman, authorized by the deity and received through divination or possession, serves to mark for us, in the way a mark covers up what it brings to attention, the irremediable noncoincidence of language with itself.

Our conception of the poet as seer is not ancient but is, rather, peculiar to Romanticism and French Symbolism, when Baudelaire injected the magical element into poetry, who called writing “evocatory sorcery,” whose concept of "universal analogy" became a paradoxical orthodoxy, and who, according to Kermode, "affirmed that the imagination was the faculty which grasped the analogies and rendered them as symbols. Symbols are, simply, images with this essential magical power.” It was to this period, he argues, that Yeats and Arthur Symons returned in order to affirm the poetic image as a technique for accessing the riches of the unseen, immaterial realm of the universal analogy. Magic and the occult take the place of a degraded monotheism and secure the mystery of existence from scientific disenchantment. The major difference between the Romantic-Modernist occult and the contemporary instantiation is the negation of the barrier between poetic-shamanic vocation and ethical and political obligation.

Where Baudelairean occultism, as Kermode argues, is the intellectual foundation of autonomous art, separate from social existence, current poets' co-optation of the supernatural evinces only half of what Baudelaire claimed are “two fundamental literary qualities,” the neglected half being that of irony. It believes more fervently because its fervor is the sole evidence of the truth of its impossible promises. The magic of the contemporary voyant is the mark of a utter domestication by the culture industry. The contemporary voyant is vaguely anti-capitalist, pro-communist and anti-work only insofar as Airbnb and Instagram allow. What has changed since the time of Baudelaire and even Pater, Yeats, and Symons—as Adorno would argue—is that reification and the division of labor have become total social forms, converting even the simplest of opinions expressed on social media into capital, forcing us all to become the unwitting managers of our social portfolios, transforming the sincerity of intentions, despite our best intentions, into the calculation of interests.

If we were, then, to venture a diagnosis of the role of the poet-seer in our time, we might say that in general it’s a fear of the unconscious and a rejection of the incongruities of language, and thus of the self, which make poetry possible and certain self-possession impossible, giving way to (or perhaps conditioned on) a desire for total control and a disavowed recognition of essential powerlessness. (One could say as much of the self-styled “conceptual poets,” whose predilection for the procedural functions to preempt the vagaries and vicissitudes of language.) This would explain the interest in esoteric forms of prediction of the future and of personality (both one’s own and of the others one encounters).

What’s ironic, then, is, to the extent that desire is an opening onto the uncertainty of the future, this desire for control is a desire for as little desire as possible. Instead of the unknown possibilities of the self in the encounter with others insofar as they are unpredictable and uncontrollable, divination offers only a reduction of other people to a crude formula, and the self to an instrument of success, that is, to attack the very mysteries it claims to protect. It is an anxiety made insidious by its daffy smiles and the expressions of wonder they painfully extort from themselves. The capital-T Truth that the voyant can see promises to rectify the vagaries of desire and to stabilize the capriciousness of pleasure.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, I would guess that most poets don’t like unconscious work, because one can’t take credit for what is produced there (all poets worth their salt can speak to the experience of someone reading a better meaning into their poem then they intended), and what is produced there is indifferent to the battle lines that give definition to our identities. We could say of poetry, as Emerson said of the soul’s mutability, that it “confounds the saint with the rogue, shoves Jesus and Judas equally aside.” Poetry abstains, or if it gets at all involved in affairs, it plays both sides against the middle—its interests being at odds with dominance and muscling after victory. The general correlation of New Age atavism and leftist utopianism in contemporary poetry is a flight into magical thinking that signifies a real despair about the future (political, social, economic, ecological) and about the possibilities for collective action. “Our interest in religious metaphysics arises,” as William James suggested, “in the fact that our empirical future feels to us unsafe, and needs some higher guarantee.” Adorno, of course, had a more damning and pessimistic take. In his estimation, this “regression” to occultism is “a reflex-action to the subjectification of all meaning,  the complement of reification,” by which he meant, now that the commodity form is total and social relations are fully mediated by infinitely exchangeable objects, freedom and pleasure become extremely rare goods, enough so that the empty advertising of one’s possession of them on social media is often enough of a substitute for the real thing. 

James and Adorno may both be correct but just talking about different things: James about the tendency of humans to seek out guarantors to give meaning to their actions and Adorno about the historical character of those guarantors, but Adorno is enough of a Freudian that his diagnosis still leans on ideas of immutable human characteristics not unlike James’s human fact. According to him, oracular truth is a systemic delusion, one that comes about like this: the irrepressible element of wish-fulfillment runs up against the total commodification of thought and thus becomes a form emptied of content, a dream conjured not to protect us from a “damaged life,” to use his phrase, but as a direct result of the extent of that damage. The infinite permutations of simulacra are met by a desire that is structurally unsatisfiable, such that we hallucinate a true satisfaction that, if it exists, must needs lie beyond the total system of the commodity but which, in reality, is only a glimpse of the “asocial twilight phenomena in the margins of the system.” This gives occultist political culture its sometime paranoiac and conspiratorial tinge.

Adorno’s argument is that mid-century occultism was a response to the bomb (think, shaman-poet Anne Waldman’s 1982 song “Uh-Oh Plutonium!”), to the ascendance of the scientific management of everyday life, and to the worry that all that stood between civilization and its extinction were craven ideologues. “Panic breaks,” Adorno writes, “over a humanity whose control of nature as control of men far exceeds in horror anything men ever had to fear from nature.” Occultism breaks up the perception of the totality of our inurement in capital’s social forms, creating a dazzling kaleidoscopic effect that tempers the horror. “In vein they hope in its fragmented blatancy to look their total doom in the eye and withstand it.” Occultism is thus an aesthetic phenomenon, structured to deliver ameliorative balms at the cost of what it strives to save. And where, according to James, we simply can’t get on without belief, for Adorno, this need has been thoroughly co-opted by capitalism and is a disaster. Still, we keep in mind, as does James, that the need to believe is not predicated on the reality of a noble truth but precisely in the absence of one. We believe so that truth may be possible, and only then are we seduced into believing in something, whether it be God or progress or the zodiac or that another world is possible.

That the recent recurrence of occultism should find a home in poetry speaks perhaps to a similar despair regarding poetry’s inherent incapacity to adhere to principles, an incapacity, I would argue, that is the condition for the possibility of poetry. Principia are exactly what poetry upends; so poetry, as the space of language’s amoral absentmindedness, becomes the place where language might regain its magical powers or at least suppress its characteristic ambivalence. If we were to define poetry in terms of this essential incompleteness of language, and we can do so here only cursorily, then poetry names what in language authorizes unprovable statements, those that rely to some extent on a form of faith, and at the same time, forces such statements to be unreadable by engaging its tendency to say too much. This supposition would suggest that the poetic dimension in language is responsible equally for the creativity and breadth of rhetoric and for the extortive logic of demagogy, and thus a fertile ground for the pretend omniscience of the voyant. That is to say, language in its poetic dimensionbetrays even irs own principle. “Poetry” would in that case be the name of the ineluctable ambivalence of language, which is itself part of “the great machine of life,” that Wilde described in “The Critic as Artist,” which has the potential to “grind our virtues to powder and make then worthless, or transform our sins into elements of a new civilization, more marvellous and more splendid than any that has gone before.” And for that reason, poetry could not be put to use in moral judgment but would be to some degree the ruin of morality.

The finality of redemption, and the role of poetry in that redemption, requires a spurious omniscience that only the voyant is able to provide. If we give up on the voyant, we might lose redemption altogether, along with any assurances as to poetry’s inherent radical or liberatory potential. In that case, ‘redemption’ could no longer mean rehabilitation for the wrongdoer and the reestablishment of moral order but would instead become a voluntary worsening of the person who would, however illegitimately, offer forgiveness, useless as a stranger’s absolution might be. A ‘redeemer’ would then be some who willingly degraded themselves to the same status as the one to be pardoned, by claiming that such a status is part of the universal human condition. It would mean matching abjection with abjection, to bring one’s own fundamental worthlessness to bear on another’s actual affront. This is how the lost are “irreparably lost,” not by abandoning them but by joining them. No one can take sole responsibility for failing to have caused intentional harm. We are kind because someone was once kind to us. We are thoughtful only because someone thought of us. We are capable of love because we’ve experienced what it is to be loved. And if the love we received was conditional and manipulative, then likely we will also only recognize love in that form. To paraphrase the Christian saint Paul, it is only by the grace of another that I am what I am. And grace is by its own definition unconditional—it cannot be earned, it is never deserved, and it isn’t ennobling.

The problem with the impossibility of redemption is that nothing can be done with it—no community can be established in accordance with it, no churches built on top of it, no healing balm distilled from it, no militancy shored up by it, no career made by it, and no competitive edge squeezed out of it. The truth it speaks dies as each word that articulates it dies on the air. It cannot be said once and for all, and for that reason, it must be said over and over again in an infinite number of ways. And at this point where necessity meets impossibility, poetry may find its place, since it is both poetry’s power and danger to be able to say anything whatever.

The voyant is a seductive figure because it promises to raise one’s ignorance to the level of truth. But in doing so it betrays the irreducible desire that it explains away as inexplicable, that it naturalizes as supernatural, and to which it responds by obscuring it in obscurantism. In this way, trauma, as the impotence of meaning as such, becomes its own utterly nefarious meaning, the meaning of nonmeaning. Even the murderous dissector is afforded the opportunity to admit that their knowledge has its limits, that they can only speculate about the object in vivo. What is worse is that poetry may be the very thing that is lost in the ascendance of the voyant, insofar as poetry is the opportunity to say things provisionally, to allow imprecise meanings and leaps in logic their chance to ring out in themselves and, more importantly, to die out. 

The defensive delusion of the voyant is a creative solution to the question of how to keep going in the face of not knowing. We all rely on similar forms of self-deception—fantasies about who we are and who we must become, seductive destinies (some grander than others) assuring us of what the future holds, practical delusions about our true selves, our inner spirits—just to get from one day to the next. The question that nags me is whether or not poetry encourages such a delusion by its very form: the voyant as conspiratorial ideologue, the poet as authoritarian. It’s not surprising then that Adorno links occultism to fascism. The poet is subject to visions because the poem is subject to revisions. The inherent slipperiness of poetic language lends itself easily to some creative accounting. It is, as Sir Philip Sidney noted in his Defense of Poesy, a sword that cuts both ways. Only if Wordsworth’s idea of the poet’s self-authorizing truth is the truth of their unspecialness, poetry might avoid its worst tendencies.

It is certainly a feature of the Romantic image as Kermode has it. The truth functions because it is inaccessible—except for those elected few. “These two beliefs,” Kermode writes, “in the Image as a radiant truth out of space and time, and in the necessary isolation or estrangement of men who can perceive it—are inextricably associated.” The insistence on self-authorizing truth, whether that of the scientist or the shaman, has always functioned in order to allow for the discrimination between those who have the right to speak and discourse on said truth and those who must quietly acquiesce. However, never truly able to get our hands on the truth (how would we know what that would look like?), we could at least do our best not to be deluded into ever thinking we have it.

So, instead of offering too-good-to-be-true solutions or elevating the poet to the level of one who has something to say, poetry could be the much-needed repetition of, or return to, the acknowledgement of our communal homelessness, the reminder that no salvation is forthcoming and no word will release us from the discomfort of suffering through uncertainty. If my going on and on about fundamental abjection sounds like I’m trying to convince myself, it’s because to some degree I am, because I have to, because there’s never a moment where I would even know that I know nothing, where I could take consolation in the certainty of my unsalvageability. And while there can be no consolation in not knowing (it can’t be turned into a negative theology), there is relief from the frenzy of having continually to prove that what one has to say is vitally necessary or divinely inspired—to the point of being being occulted—and continually to assure oneself and others that one is not another ideological dupe. Nietzsche said it best when he said that all poets are liars, though it’s only ever true if a poet says it.