Robert Duncan: [The Symposium of the Whole and What May Follow]

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:42 AM
[An excerpt from “The H.D. Book,” soon to be published in its entirety as volume one in The Collected Writings of Robert Duncan, University of California Press, forthcoming. The impact of this work in its unpublished form is a crucial part of our history. -- J.R.]

The drama of our time is the coming of all men into one fate, "the dream of everyone, everywhere." The fate or dream is the fate of more than mankind. Our secret Adam is written now in the script of the primal cell. We have gone beyond the reality of the incomparable nation or race, the incomparable Jehovah in the shape of a man, the incomparable Book or Vision, the incomparable species, in which identity might hold & defend its boundaries against an alien territory. All things have come now into their comparisons. But these comparisons are the correspondences that haunted Paracelsus, who saw also that the key to man’s nature was hidden in the larger nature.

In space this has meant the extension of our "where" into a world ecology. The O.E.D. gives 1873 as the earliest English use of the word in the translation of Haeckel’s History of Creation—"the great series of phenomena of comparative anatomy and ontogeny . . . oecology." The very form of man has no longer the isolation of a superior paradigm but is involved in its morphology in the cooperative design of all living things, in the life of everything, everywhere. We go now to the once-called primitive—to the bush man, the child, or the ape—not to read what we were but what we are. In the psychoanalysis of the outcast and vagabond, the neurotic and psychotic, we slowly discover the hidden features of our own emotional and mental processes. We hunt for the key to language itself in the dance of the bees or in the chemical code of the chromosomes.

The inspiration of Marx bringing economies into comparison and imagining a world commune, of Darwin bringing species into comparison and imagining a world family of the living in evolution, of Frazer bringing magic, rituals and gods into comparison and imagining a world cult — the inspiration growing in the nineteenth century of imperialist expansions was towards a larger community of man. In time, this has meant our "when" involves and is involved in an empire that extends into the past and future beyond times and eras, beyond the demarcations of history. Not only the boundaries of states or civilizations but also the boundaries of historical periods are inadequate to define the vital figure in which we are involved. "For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other," Diotima tells Socrates in Plato’s Symposium, "does not appear to be the desire of lovers’ intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment."

The Symposium of Plato was restricted to a community of Athenians, gathered in the common creation of an arete, an aristocracy of spirit, inspired by the homo Eros, taking its stand against lower or foreign orders, not only of men but of nature itself. The intense yearning, the desire for something else, of which we too have only a dark and doubtful presentiment, remains, but our areté, our ideal of vital being, rises not in our identification in a hierarchy of higher forms but in our identification with the universe. To compose such a symposium of the whole, such a totality, all the old excluded orders must be included. The female, the proletariat, the foreign; the animal and vegetative; the unconscious and the unknown; the criminal and failure — all that has been outcast and vagabond must return to be admitted in the creation of what we consider we are.

The dissolving of boundaries of time, as in H. D.’s Palimpsest, so that Egyptian or Hellenistic ways invade the contemporary scene—The reorganization of identity to extend the burden of consciousness—this change of mind has been at work in many fields. The thought of primitives, dreamers, children, or the mad—once excluded by the provincial claims of common sense from the domain of the meaningful or significant— has been reclaimed by the comparative psychologies of William James, Freud, Levy- Bruhl, Piaget, by the comparative linguistics of Sapir or Whorf, brought into the community of a new epistemology.

"Past the danger point, past the point of any logic and of any meaning, and everything has meaning," H.D. writes in Bid Me To Live: "Start superimposing, you get odd composites, nation on nation." So, Malraux in his Psychology of Art hears "a furtive colloquy in progress between the statuary of the Royal Portals of Chartres and the great fetishes" beginning in museums of the mind where all the arts of man have been brought into the complex of a new idea of art and Man in their being superimposed. "Our art world is one," he writes in The Metamorphosis of the Gods, "in which a Romanesque crucifix and an Egyptian statue of a dead man can both be living presences." "In our imaginary museum the great art of Europe is but one great art among others, just as the history of Europe has come to mean one history among others." "Each civilization had its ‘high places’," he concludes in the introduction: "All mankind is now discovering its own. And these are not (as the nineteenth century took for granted) regarded as successive landmarks of art’s long pilgrimage through time. Just as Cezanne did not see Poussin as Tintoretto’s successor, Chartres does not mark an ‘advance’ on Angkor, or Borobudur, or the Aztec temples, any more than its Kings are an ‘advance’ on the Kwannon at Nara, on the Plumed Serpents, or on Pheidias’ Horsemen."

If, as Pound began to see in The Spirit of Romance, "All ages are contemporaneous", our time has always been, and the statement that the great drama of our time is the coming of all men into one fate is the statement of a crisis we may see as everpresent in Man wherever and whenever a man has awakened to the desire for wholeness in being. "The continuous present," Gertrude Stein called this sense of time and history, and she saw the great drama as man’s engagement in a composition of the contemporary. Man is always in the process of this composition. "The composition is the thing seen by every one living in the living they are doing," she writes in Composition As Explanation: "they are the composing of the composition that at the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living. It is that that makes living a thing they are doing."

"Nothing changes from generation to generation," she writes later in her lecture Portraits and Repetition, "except the composition in which we live and the composition in which we live makes the art which we see and hear." "Once started expressing this thing, expressing any thing there can be no repetition because the essence of that expression is insistence." "Each civilization insisted in its own way before it went away." To enter Into "our time", she saw as "a thing that is very troublesome", for life itself was a disturbance of all composition— "a fear a doubt and a judgement and a conviction", troubling the waters toward some needed "quality of distribution and equilibration."


The first person plural—the "we", "our", "us." is a communal consciousness in which the "I" has entered into the company of imagined like minds, a dramatic voice in which the readers and the man writing are gathered into one composition, in which we may find kindred thought and feeling, an insistence, in Plutarch or Dante, Plato or D.H. Lawrence, closer to our inner insistence than the thought and feeling of parents or neighbors. The discovery of self, time and world, is an entering into or tuning to possibilities of self, time and world, that are given.
"The single experience lodges in an individual consciousness and is, strictly speaking, incommunicable," Sapir writes in Language: "To be communicated it needs to be referred to a class which is tacitly accepted by the community as an identity. Thus, the single impression which I have of a particular house must be identified with all my other impressions of it. Further, my generalized memory or my ‘notion’ of this house must be merged with the notions that all other individuals who have seen the house have formed of it. The particular experience that we started with has now been widened so as to embrace all possible impressions or images that sentient beings have formed or may form of the house in question. In other words, the speech element ‘house’ is the symbol, first and foremost, not of a single perception, nor even of the notion of a particular object but of a ‘concept’, in other words, of a convenient capsule of thought that embraces thousands of distant experiences and that is ready to take in thousands more. If the single significant elements of speech are the symbols of concepts, the actual flow of speech may be interpreted as a record of the setting of these concepts into mutual relations."

There is no isolate experience of anything then, for to come into "house" or "dog", bread" or "wine", is to come into a company. Eros and Logos are inextricably mixed, daemons of an initiation in each of our lives into a new being. Every baby is surrounded by elders of a mystery. The first words, the "da-da" and "ma-ma", are keys given in a repeated ritual by parental priest and priestess to a locus for the child in his chaotic babbling, whereby from the oceanic and elemental psychic medium—warmth and cold, calm and storm, the moodiness previous to being—persons, Daddy and Mama, appear. But these very persons are not individual personalities but communal fictions of the family cultus, vicars of Father and Mother, as the Pope is a Vicar of Christ. The Child, the word "child", is himself such a persona, inaccessible to the personality of the individual, as the language of adult personal affairs is inaccessible to the child. To have a child is always a threat to the would-be autonomous personality, for the parent must take leave of himself in order to enter an other impersonation, evoking the powers of Fatherhood or Motherhood, so that the infant may be brought up from the dark of his individuality into a new light, into his Childhood. For the transition to be made at all, to come into the life of the spirit, in which this Kindergarten is a recreated stage set of the mythic Garden, means a poetry then, the making up of an imaginary realm in which the individual parents and infant participate in a community that exists in a time larger than any individual life-time, in a language. For "Father", "Mother", "Child", are living words, deriving their meaning from thousands of distinct experiences, and the actual flow of family life, like the actual flow of speech, "may be interpreted as the setting of these concepts into mutual relations." The toys of the nursery are not trivia but first given instruments of an extension in consciousness, our creative life. There is a travesty made of sacred objects when the building blocks that are also alphabet blocks, the animal and human dolls, the picture books, are rendered cute or babyish.

"The maturity of man— " Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil: "that means, to have reacquired the seriousness that one had as a child at play." In The Zohar of Moses of Leon, God Himself appears as Child-Creator-of-the-World: "When the Holy One, blessed be He, was about to make the world, all the letters of the Alphabet were still embryonic, and or two thousand years the Holy One blessed be He, had contemplated them and toyed with them. When He came to create the world, all the letters presented themselves before Him in, reversed order. The letter Tau advanced in front and pleaded: May it please Thee, O Lord of the world, to place me first in the creation of the world, seeing that I am the concluding letter of EMeTh (Truth) which is engraved upon Thy seal." One by one the letters present themselves. At the last, "the Beth then entered and said: O Lord of the world, may it please Thee to put me first in the creation of the world, since I represent the benedictions (Berakhoth) offered to Thee on high and below. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to her: Assuredly, with thee I will create the world, and thou shalt form the beginning in the creation of the world. The letter Aleph remained in her place without presenting herself. Said the Holy one, blessed be His name: Aleph, Aleph, wherefore comest thou not before Me like the rest of the letters? She answered: Because I saw all the other letters leaving Thy presence without any success. What, then, could I achieve there? And further, since Thou hast already bestowed on the letter Beth this great gift, it is not meet for the Supreme King to take away the gift which He has made to His servant and give it to another. The Lord said to her: Aleph, Aleph, although I will begin the creation of the world with the beth, thou wilt remain the first of letters. My unity shall not be expressed except through thee, on thee shall be based all calculations and operations of the world, and unity shall not be expressed save by the letter Aleph. Then the Holy One, blessed be His name, made higher-world letters of a large pattern and lower-world letters of a small pattern. It is therefore that we have here two words beginning with beth (Bereshith bara) "in-thebeginning He-created." and then two words beginning with aleph (Elohim eth) "God the."

In this primal scene, before the beginning of the world that is also here before the beginning of a writing, the Self contemplates and toys in a rite of play until the letters present themselves and speak; as in another primal scene, in a drama or play of the family, the child contemplates and plays with the sounds of a language in order to enter a world in which Father and Mother present themselves and speak. So too in the fullness of the imagination, blocks and even made-up playmates present themselves. The teddy bear was once in the shaman world of the great northern forests Grandfather or Folk-Father. The figures we play with, the members of our play world, given as they are, like the Katchina dolls of the Zuni child, are spirit figures. "My unity shall not be expressed except through thee," the Child-Creator promises. It is the first promise of love, "on thee shall be based all calculations and operations of the world."

These powers, the ambience in which all things of our world speak to us and in which we in turn answer, the secret allegiances of the world of play, the psychic depth of time transformed into eternity in which the conceptual persons of Father and Mother, Child and Play-Thing, exist—these are pre-rational. Brother and Sister have such an existence in the unreal that, where actual brother and sister do not exist or are unwilling to play the part, imaginary brother and sister may appear.

For men who declare themselves partisans of the rational mind at war with all other possibilities of being, the pre-rational or the irrational appears as an enemy within. It was not only the Poet, but Mother and Father also, that Plato would exclude from his Republic. In the extreme of the rationalist presumption, the nursery is not the nursery of an eternal child but of a grown-up, a rational man. Common sense and good sense exist in an armed citadel surrounded by the threatening countryside of phantasy, childishness, madness, irrationality. irresponsibility—an exile and despised humanity. In that city where Reason has preserved itself by retreating from the totality of the self, infants must play not with the things of the imagination nor entertain the lies of the poets but play house, government, business, philosophy or war. Before the guardians of this state the voices and persons of the Child-Creator stand condemned as auditory and visual hallucinations a dangerous non-sense.

In the world of the Zohar, dolls were not permitted. The Child plays with the letters of an alphabet and Logos is the creator of the world. Man is to take his reality from, to express his unity in, the letter. But this letter is, like the doll, alive to the mind. Tau presents herself and speaks, just as the bear in our nursery does. To the extent that once for us too alphabet blocks were animate, all future architectures and worlds are populated, and we are prepared to understand the world-experience of the Kabbalist.

In this world-experience rationality does not exist apart from the whole, but the understanding searches ever to picture the self in the ununderstandable. The human spirit draws its life from a tree larger and more various than knowing, and reason stands in need of a gift, "the gift of the queen to them that wander with her in exile."

There is a return in the imagination to the real, an ascent of the soul to its "root", that Hayyim Vital describes in his life work, The Tree of Life: "The imaginative faculty will turn a man’s thoughts to imagine, and picture as if it ascended in the higher worlds up to the roots of his soul . . . until the imagined image reaches its highest source and there the images of the supernal lights are imprinted on his mind as if he imagined and saw them in the same way in which his imaginative faculty normally pictures in his mind mental contents deriving from the world." We seem to be in the description of the process of a poem, for here too the mind imagines, but then enters a real it had not imagined, where the image becomes informed, from above or below, and takes over as an entity in itself, a messenger from a higher real. In his ascent the mystic is irradiated by the light of the tree and in his descent the light finds a medium through which to flow back into the daily world: "The thought of the prophet expands and rises from one level to another . . . until he arrives at the point where the root of his soul is. Next he concentrates on raising the light of the sefirah to En Sof and from there he draws the light down, from on high down to his rational soul, and from there, by means of the imaginative faculty, down to his animal soul, and there all things are pictured either by the inner senses of the imaginative faculty or by the outer senses."

[A version of the foregoing was published as "Rites of Participation" in Clayton Eshleman's Caterpillar 1 & Caterpillar 2 in 1967 & 1968.]

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