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On Difficulty

Author(s): George Steiner

Source: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 36, No. 3, Critical Interpretation
(Spring, 1978), pp. 263-276
Published by: Wiley on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/430437
Accessed: 06-09-2018 15:10 UTC

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On Difficulty

WHAT DO WE MEAN when we of continuities between linguis-
say: "this
tic poem
poem, or this passage in this intentionis
and utterance. The individ-
ual readermost
difficult?" How can the language-act or a group of readers find that
they cannot understand this or that pas-
charged with the intent of communication,
of reaching out to touch thesage in a poem,
listener or or indeed the poem as a
reader in his inmost, be opaque, How canto
resistant such a situation arise?
immediacy and comprehension,
Evenif this isreflection suggests that when
a cursory
what we mean by "difficulty?" we say "this
There text is difficult" we mean, o
is one
obvious, crucial level at which this is a intend to mean, a number of very differ
question about language itself. Whatent is things. The rubric "difficulty" covers
signified by the pragmatic experience thata considerable diversity of material and
a lexically constituted and grammatically methods. These vary significantly in regar
organized semantic system can generate to im-literary genre and history. Thus it may
be of some preliminary use to attempt
penetrability and undecidabilities of sense?
No coherent answer could be given outside classification, a typology, of some of the
a complete model, such as we do not have, principal modes of difficulty as one meet
of the relations between "thought" them and in poetry, notably in western poetry
since the renaissance. From such classifica-
speech, and outside a total epistemology,
which again we (do not have, of the con-
tion could derive a "theory of difficulty"
which remains one of the desiderata, made
gruence or non-congruence of speech-forms
urgent by twentieth-century practice, in
with a "precedent" body of intention, per-
the amore general aesthetics of executive
ception, and vocative impulse. In such
model "difficulty" would, presumably,forms. be
an interference-effect between underlying Very often, probably in the great ma-
clarity and obstructed formulation. This, jority of instances, what we mean when we
roughly, is the classical and Cartesian read- say that a line of verse or stanza or entire
ing of opaqueness, a reading whose infer- poem is "difficult" does not relate to con-
ence is necessarily negative. But all ceptual the difficulty. This is to say that our
relevant terms-"inside"/"outside," "inten- observation does not carry the same weight,
tionality"/"verbalization," and the crucial that it does not have the same bearing,
"between" with its innocent postulate of a as it would if we said "this argument in
kind of mental space-are notoriously elu- Immanuel Kant, or this theorem in alge-
sive. They activate a metaphor of separa- bra is difficult." (Though it is not alto-
tion and transfer about which neither logic gether clear, epistemologically at least, just
nor psychology are in any agreement. what it is that we mean in these cases. If
Our initial question is narrower; or, algebra is the rigorous unfolding of pre-
more precisely, it presumes a common sense viously-axiomatized definitions, if it is a
dynamic tautology, what do we mean by
GEORGE STEINER is fellow of Churchill College, Cam- saying that one or another step is "diffi-
bridge University and professor of English and com- cult?") But plainly enough, there is a differ-
parative literature at the University of Geneva. ence. We may be aiming at something far

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less inherent or "substantive"-a slippery

famous plyx, one of the indispensable, sover-
term where language iseign concerned-than
rhymes in the sonnet on ix, appears
concept. neither in the Littre nor in the Nouveau
Far more often than not we
Larousse (butsignify by
it can be unmasked, via
"a difficulty" something Greekthat
and via"we need
liturgical art and to
this, as we
look up." In what must shallbe,
see, is statistically,
a key point). The below-ground
the overwhelming plurality ofand
vocabularies cases,
syntax of it will
slang, of argot,
be a single word or a phrase which
of taboo-usage, are not
are sometimes almost as ex-
at once intelligible to us. Our
tensive and resort
polysemic asto thosethe
of mundane
authority of the dictionary
discourse. Ifis precisely
a monaker was a guinea to
analogous to that whichthewe perform
Victorian underworld,when
it was a proud
translating from a foreign tongue.
ten-oared boat in the EtonThe
College songs
word may be archaic: when
and odes ofVenus
the day. Tolaughs
Thackeray an
on every wight in "The Merchant's
ass was Tale"
a nmoke. Villon's idiom is, to a
or we meet with mighty dints in "The
large measure, the rhyming cant and hiero-
Knight's Tale," we may no
glyph longer know
of thieves.
what Chaucer is tellingPoetry
us. is The obstacle
knit of words compacted with
may be one of dialect: that Warwickshire
every conceivable mode of operative force.
mobled which elicits Polonius's
These words are,approval,
in Coleridge's simile,
or the Northumbrian dingle in which "hooked atoms," so construed as to mesh
Auden finds darkness. The expressionand
can crossmesh with the greatest possible
be arcane and technical: it might not be of other words in the reticulations
immediately apparent to the readerof just
the total body of language. The poet
what "bliss" T. S. Eliot promises when he
attempts to anchor the particular word in
qualifies it as pneumatic (the finesse
dynamic mold of its own history, en-
in the Attic and theological antecedents to
riching the core of its present definition
the epithet). Frequently, the poet with
is a the echo and alloy of previous use.
neologist, a recombinant wordsmith:Hejust
is an etymologist, often violent and
what suave instrument had Mandelstam arbitrary as was Holderlin, who attempts to
in mind when he invoked the music of the break open the eroded or frozen shell of
tormenvox? Writers are passionate resus- speech in order to compel to daylight and
citators of buried or spectral words: to release
dis- the dynamics, the primal crystalliza-
tions of perception that may lie at the
edge fades after the early seventeenth cen-
roots. The poet's discourse can be com-
tury, but proves to be exactly what Tenny-
son requires to blunt "The sharpnesspared
of to the track of a charged particle
that pain." From Theocritus to the Ed-
through a cloud-chamber. An energized
wardians, the manifold of exact denomina- field of association and connotation, of
tions of fauna and flora is the cipher ofovertones and undertones, of rebus and
western lyric poetry. It is now largely lost homophone, surround its motion, and
to our everyday awareness. WVas Matthewbreak from it in the context of collision
Arnold quite certain whether he meant the (words speak not only to the ear, but to th
plant of the genus Fritillaria or the species eye and even to the touch). Multiplicity
of butterfly, the silver-washed fritillary orof meaning, "enclosedness," are the rule
the Queen of Spain, when he hailed the rather than the exception. We are mean
"white and purple fritillaries by Enshamto hear both solid and sullied, both toil and
and down by Sandford?" Many of us, atcoil in the famous Shakespearean cruces.
least, will turn to the Oxford English Dic- Lexical resistance is the armature of mean-
tionary or the Royal Horticultural Society'sing, guarding the poem from the necessary
invaluable Dictionary of Gardening. At commonalties of prose.
certain moments in the history of poetry, The poem, in turn, is custodian of "the
le mot rare becomes the object of explicit holiness of minute particulars" (Blake's
pursuit and delight: to this day, Mallarme's phrase). However abstruse the argument

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On Difficulty 265

or universal the inference, the poet gives pardodistic epic whose essential tropes are
local habitation and name. Immediately those of inventory, private journal and al-
past the obstacle of word or phrase, it is manac. At the close of XXXVIII:
these we must look up: Mythologies, the Opposite the Palace of the Schneiders
names of stars, topography, the unnum- Arose the monument of Herr Henri
bered furnishings of reality through which Chantier de la Gironde, Bank of the Palis Union,
the poem incarnates and makes concrete. The franco-japanese bank
Francois dte Wtendel, Robert Protot
Because it is ontologically economical-an- To friends and enemies of tomorroiw
other difference from prose-the language "the most powerful union is doubtless
of the poem implicates a surrounding and that of the Comite des Forges,"
highly active context, a corpus, possibly an "And God take your living" said Hawkwood
entire world of supporting, echoing, val- 15 million: Journal des D6bars
idating, or qualifying material whose com- 30 million paid to Le ITemps
Eleven for the Echo (le Paris..
pass underwrites its own concision. The
implication is effected by virtue of allusion, And granted that one's homework is done
of reference to. The many-branched an--that the ephemeral scandals of high fi-
tennae which literally bristle outward fromnance in the steel and armaments industry,
a line of Milton or Keats or Rilke to clas-
that the collusions between rotten repub-
sical mythology are the precise contrarylic to and fascist empire, between bourse, bank,
dispersion. They make possible the com- and press, have been unravelled: what then
pact largesse of the text; they embody the of "Hawkwood," not one suspects a for-
fully declared but unsaid codes and pres-
tuitous shard of private allusion, but a
ences from which the poem draws its local
pointing to, a "tuning towards" the char-
generality. This is notably the caseacteristic
in dialectic of "debate," of "time"
western poetry, so much of whose chargedand of "echo" in the lines following? To
substance is previous poetry: Chaucer lives
be looked up. As are the Greek tag and
in Spenser who lives in Dryden who livesthe high name of battle in one of the rapt
in Keats. The life inside these lives, un-
sequences in XXI:
broken to the art of T. S. Eliot and of Rob-
And after that hour, dry darkness
ert Lowell is that of specific "elementals"Floating flame in the air, gonads in orgaiidv,
and guarantors of felt meaning, namely
Dry flamelet, a petal borne in the wind.
Virgil, Horace, and Ovid, without whom Gignetei kalon.
Impenetrable as the ignorance of old women.
the entire climate of recognitions on which
our sense of poetic meaning is grounded In the dawn, as the fleet coming in after Actium
Shore to the castward an(d altere ....
would be hollow. But if other poetry is
often the primary agent of context, so And
is, the looking up lies at the heart of
the music; the one falls mute without the
potentially at least, "everything that is the
case." A poet can crowd his idiom, his other. This is the point. Witness what is
landscape of motion, with the minutiae of perhaps the epiphany, the leap to annun-
history, of locale, of technical process (a ciation in the whole ramshackle majesty of
key passage in Hamlet turns on the arcane Pound's design: the climax to the famous
technicalities of dyeing). He can cram adjurations in Canto LXXXI:
Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise with gossip
But to have done instead of not (loitg this is
so private that elucidation hinges on an not vanity
almost street-by-street intimacy with thir- To have, with decency, knocked
teenth-century Florence. The occult node That a Blunt should open
of vision may be just that: an esoteric, a sys- To have gathered from the air a live tradition
tem of hermetic nomination and rites as in or from a fine old eye the unconqucred flame
the poetry of Yeats. These several orders This is not vanity.
of difficulty, of that which needs to be Fair enough: but why "a Blunt," and who
looked up, constitute almost the entireis he? That proud old crank, Wilfred
fabric of Pound's Cantos, a meta-epic or
Scawen Blunt, and if so, what was there in

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his life and work to account for this lumi- speare concordance to the study of the very
nous insertion? most dense, central topics in Elizabethan
This entire genus of difficulty and its
thought. It would lead to a study of the
main species conjoin in a fairly typical doctrine and metaphor of fortuna with its
passage in the later style of Shakespeare: intricate background in antiquity and the
Timon of Athens, IV,3: Latin middle ages; to an investigation of
O blessed breeding Sun, draw% from the earth the tight-meshed skein of abstract and
Rotten humidity: below thy Sisters Orbe imaged meanings around the concept of
natura; to an analysis of the crucial but
Infect the ayre. Twin'd Brothers of one wombe,
Whose procreation, resi(Idence, and birth, problematic notion of "honor," an ambigu-
Scarse is dividant; touch them with severall for-
ous notion in the light of Christian values,
and one made even more many-valued here
The greaterl scorlnes the lesser. Not Nature
(To whom all sores lay siege) canl beare great by Shakespeare's addition of Native. Man-
Fortune hood pivots on the whole renaissance para-
But by conitempt of Nature. digm of virtil, and one suspects that the
Raise me this Begger, an(l deny't that Lord, Golden Foole has behind him those prece-
The Senator shall bear conttempt Hereditary,
dents of parable, of allegory, of archetypal
The Begger Native Honor.
It is the Pasture Lards the rothers sides, figuration which provide the economy of
The want that makes him lean: who (lares? Shakespeare's late manner with its reso-
who (lares nance. And surrounding all these incar-
In puritie of Manhoo(l stand upright nate topics is the literal sphere of the
And say, this mans a Flatterer. If one be,Aristotelian-Boethian firmament with its
So are they all; f)r every grize of Fortune
"Sister Orbes," its pharmacology of noxious
Is smooth'd by that below. The Learned pate
Duckes to the Golden Foole. All's oblique .... exhalations, and its vehemently direct influ-
ence on the cosmic mysteries of "procrea-
"Grasp" in such a case is a concentriction, residence, and birth"- a sphere, whose
process, rippling outward from an imme-decipherment requires a fine understand-
diate, almost instinctive, blurred apprehen-
ing of medieval and renaissance systems of
sion ("I do know what this is about, in aastronomy and astrology, together with
sort of general way; the dramatic situationsome notion of the medical theory of
"humours." Indeed, the invocation of the
and certain key markers and emblematic
sign-posts tells me"), to successive levels ofbreeding Sun may point to more hermetic
decoding. Of these, the first is purely lexi- considerations, to those filaments of Gnos-
cal: depending on the degree of relevant and alchemical belief which so often
literacy or familiarity with seventeenth- brush the far edges of Elizabethan and
century diction, we find ourselves lookingShakespearean cosmology.
up, say, orbe, dividant, rothers (or should Homework: mountainous, and becoming
it be, as many editors emend, wethers or,more so as our twentieth-century brands of
as I suspect, an "undecidable" active be-literacy recede from the vocabulary, from
tween both possibilities as they congrue in the grammars, from the grid of classical
"brothers?"), grize, pate. But "purely" lexi-and Biblical reference which have mapped
cal is, of course, wrong. The truly ardu-the contours of western poetry from Cax-
ous terms, those which Empson would citeton and Chaucer to the archival gathering
in his studies of "complex words," are Na- or museum-catalogue in "The Waste Land"
ture, Fortune, Native Honor, Manhood and the Cantos. Homework which is, in a
and, possibly, Golden Foole (leaving aside real sense, interminable, as there is always
the intriguing question as to whether itmore is "to look up" (what reticulations are
by Shakespeare's design that the First Folio dynamic in the possibility that grize, the
alternates between upper and lower case single step or stair in a flight, chimes with
with respect to "Fortune" and "Nature"). "graze" as on a "Pasture," and is a var-
iant on grece with its evident pointers to
In rigorous turn, the probing of these words
would lead from the dictionary and Shake- "Lards" and to "smooth'd" in the line fol-

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On Difficulty 267

lowing?). The "looking things up" does culties (statistically by far the most com-
not stop because the context pertinent to pendious class) as "epiphenomenal" or,
a major poem or poetic text is that of the more plainly, as contingent difficulties. In
whole ambient ctllture, of the whole his- the overwhelming majority of cases, what
tory of and in the language, of the mental we mean by saying "this is difficult" sig-
sets and idiosyncracies in contemporary nilfies "this is a word, a phrase, or a refer-
sensibility. (The issue is philosophically ence which I will have to look up." In the
vital: a language-act is inexhaustible to in-
total library, in the collectanea and sum-
terpretation precisely because its context ma
is summarum of all things, I can do just
the world.) Moreover, there is an inevitablethat. And find that a ptyx is a conch.
feed-back: with every particular clarifica- Contingent difficulties are the most vis-
tion, comes a motion of return to the poem. ible, they stick like burrs to the fabric of
What we have looked up of Elizabethan the text. Yet we may find ourselves saying
teachings on astral influence works back "this is a difficult poem" or "I find it diffi-
on our reading of Timon's monologue. It cult to grasp, to place this poem" (the shift
makes that monologue richer, which is to into a first-person register of experience is,
say that it raises new questions: what, for here, significant) even where the lexical-
example, was Shakespeare's own addendum grammatical components are pellucid. We
to or variation on the prevalent picture of have looked up what there is to look up,
the origins and kinship, literal and alle- we have confidently parsed the elements of
goric, of sun and moon? phrase-and still there is opaqueness. In
In practice, the homework of elucidation some way, the center, the rationale of the
may be unending. No individual talent or poem's being, holds against us. The sensa-
life-span, no collective industry, can com- tion is almost tactile. There is, at empiri-
plete the task. But not in theory, not for- cal levels, "understanding"-of the rough
mally. This is my point. Theoretically, and ready order represented by paraphrase
there is somewhere a lexicon, a concor- -but no genuine "comprehension," no in-
dane, a manual of stais, a florilegium, a gathering in the range of senses inseparable
pandect of medicine, which will resolve thefrom the archaic legein (to "assemble," to
difficulty. In the "infinite library" (Bor- "enfold in meaningful shape"). The ex-
ges's "Library that is the Universe") the perience of obstruction is at once banal and
necessary reference can be found. Walter elusive. A move in American slang, though
Benjamin suggests that there are cruces and already somewhat dated, may pinpoint the
talismanic deeps in poetry which cannot cardinal distinction: we "get the text" but
be elucidated now or at all times; they were we don't "dig it" (and the suggestion of
understood formerly, they may be rightly active penetration is exactly apposite). The
glossed "tomorrow." No matter: in some poem in front of us articulates a stance to-
time, at some place, the difficulty can be wards human conditions which we find
resolved. Conceivably, the distance be- essentially inaccessible or alien. The tone,
tween a culture and certain texts can grow the manifest subject of the poem are such
so drastic that everything has to he looked that we fail to see a justification for poetic
up (this is almost the case when a twen-
form, that the root-occasion of the poem's
tieth-century student tries to read Pindar, composition eludes or repels our internal-
say, or Dante or certain stretches of ized sense of what poetry should or should
Milton). In practice this may make the not be about, of what are the intelligible,
given text inaccessible; it slips over the morally, and aesthetically acceptable mo-
horizon of pragmatic perception as do the ments and motives for poetry. The poem
retreating galaxies. But the point is prag- enacts language in modes we find illicit;
matic, not ideal or theoretical. Granted there is radical impropriety between its
time and explicative means, even every-performative means and what we take to
thing can be looked up. I suggest, there- be the spirit, the native pulse, the con-
fore, that we label this first class of diffi- straints of the relevant tongue or idiom.

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268 STE I N ER

Here the notoriously abbreviated whose white-sattin upper coat of skin,
Cuts upon
fore elusive Aristotelian notion of Velvet
"pro- rich Incarnadin,
Ha's vet a Body (and of Flesh within).
priety," of that which is proper to a given
poetic genre, would be pertinent.
Sure it is meant good Husbandry in men,
Again, to be sure, there is one do incorporate
at with Airy leane,
T' repair their sides, and get their Ribb agen.
least, in which this type of difficulty is
referential. The poet may have left
Hard hap an
unto that Huntsman that Decrees
explanatory statement telling Fat
usjoys for all
what he his swet, when as he sees,
is about, what his intentions and formal After his 'Say, nought but his Keepers Fees.

co-ordinates were. There may be a docu-

Then Love I beg, wIhen next thou tak'st thy Bow,
ment which will clarify the occasion or
Thy angry shafts, and dost Heart-chasing go,
Passe Rascall De,ie, s:rike me the largest doe.
anti-occasion of the poem's composition.
But even then, we may find that the region
Contingent difficulties swarm; but they are
of difficulty has only been displaced or bet-
tractable. Once we know that a bella bona
ter defined. The process of "looking it up"
does not lead to an unambiguous solution;roba is Caroline argot, very likely of Vene-
or, more precisely, it falls to one sidetian
of provenance, for a "whore," much falls
into place. Marmoset is tricky, but the
the operative distinction between surface-
various senses and intonations center on
understanding or paraphrase on the one
hand, and penetrative comprehensionsomething
on like a small monkey or emblem
the other. The objection would now be atic grotesque known for lechery. The
this: "are you not confusing what you whole lyric pivots on the dual meaning of
"venery" as sexual chase and the hunt o
call genuine insight with merely aesthetic
judgment? Are you not muddling ques- animals-a twinning as old as the myth of
tions of difficulty with those of taste?" Meleager
The and heavily routine in European
overlap is undoubtedly there, and the nu- love-poetry and erotic satire from the
ances are blurred. Nevertheless, there is a twelfth century on. Hence the twofold
agency of Huntsman, of Say (for "assay")
real discrimination to be made: as between
of the Keepers Fees (referring simultane-
our pleasure in or displeasure at something
that we have thoroughly apprehended, ously
and to the brothel and to the huntsman'
our reaction to, our atrophy of response tract of woodland or moor), of Bow (hunte
towards a text whose autonomous force of Cupid), of the angry shafts, with are bot
"arrows" and, to this day, "phallus," an
life, whose raison d'etre in the strict sense
of the phrase, escapes us. We have donethe obvious play on Heartchasing and o
our homework, the sinews of the poem areRascall Deare-a technical term signifyin
manifest to us; but we do not feel "called a particularly lean animal. Another routin
upon," or "answerable to," in both of turn is that on Husbandry in the senses of
which tags the primary bonds of interac- economy and conjugality. This line of
tion between the poem and its listener or duality is taken up in the allusion to
Adam's rib, whose excision has left men
reader are active. And it is just because
this failure of summoning and response bereft. Quite evidently, the text energizes
can lie wholly outside the categories of and elaborates on a richly-available stock
"liking" or "disliking" that it is not, or not of verbal-emotive congruencies between
only, a question of taste. The difficulty eros and the slaying of game. Thus a naked-
which we are up against is of a class which ness, the white-sattin upper coat of skin,
I propose to call modal. I can instance it the velvety carmine beneath it, and the
with regards to Lovelace's fifteen-line lyric, motif of gauntness in boan, boan, in Aery
La Bella Bona Roba: leane, the contrastive Fat joys and the
Rascall Deare, meld the woman's bone and
I cannot tell who loves the Skeleton flesh with that of the slain quarry. But
Of a poor Marmoset, nought but boan,these
boanelements, all of which are subject to
Give me a nakedness with her cloath's on. "being looked up" and verified by analogy

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On Difficulty 269

with a host of Petrarchan and contempo- cation of woman's flesh with the deer's car-
rary verse, do not take us very far. There cass, one that is still in reach of our feel-
is something palpably unsettling, even re- ings? But even as we pose these questions,
pellent, about the movement and lunge their inadequacy shows itself to be crass.
of the whole poem. The order of difficultySo much more is going on in the text. The
is not removed by clarilfication of word and rhetorical acrobatics are so evidently out
phrase. It functions centrally. of tune with an underlying current of con-
Another circuit of reference seems to be centrated, possibly clandestine association.
vital in Lovelace's text, at a covert, "in- Is it theological? One is not certain. And
group" level-a set of intimations that lies if it is, at what remove (lo we post our-
behind the tried and public carapace of and our reading from a style of lan-
sexual connoisseurship. If I am "hearing" guage and a climate of consciousness in
rightly, and one is obviously on very tenta- which venery and transubstantiation mesh?
tive ground, there is some sort of witty, Here, there are no answers to be "looked
marginally blasphemous dialectic being up." Which is, precisely, what distinguishes
sparked off around the two poles of Adamic a contingent from a modal difficulty.
and New Testament incarnation. The Current man seeks to efface this distinc-
mystery of the flesh and of its waxing tion. Heir
andto Rousseau, our culture pro-
waning is vividly present: in Skeleton, fesses to in
know less but to feel more than
boan, boan, in nakednesee, in Incarnadin any before it. We may have to look up
(which, of course, contains the radical for even the most elementary of scriptural,
"flesh"), in the open proposition on a Body mythological, historical, literary, or scien-
(and of Flesh) within. But also, and with tific terms and reference; but we claim con-
what may be a glance at the paradox offident empathy with Benin bronzes, the
transubstantiation, in incorporate. "Car- shadow-dramas of Indonesia, the ragas of
nality," with its liturgical over- and under- India, and every genre and epoch in west-
tones, is insistent. If Adam and Eve are ern art. Ours is now Malraux's musee im-
present in the structure so, one begins to in which collage and reproduction
suspect, is Christ, whose carnal self-revela-
make possible the juxtaposed intimacy of
tion and self-sacrifice is so explicitly a
the archaic and the romanesque, the primi-
counter to Adam's fall, andt the spear-
tive and the surreal. We are ashamed to
thrust in whose ribs is so manifestly
concedea any modal inhibition, to confess
counter-figura to Adam's loss from ourselves which closed to any expressive act how-
all evils sprang. It is these awesome changes
ever remote from our own time and place.
that would appear to be rung on Butthat
this ecumenism of receptivity is spuri-
haunting phrase: Who do incorporate with
ous. It deliberately confounds the recon-
Aery leane. In short: what we have before structive acquaintance achieved by virtue
us is a brilliantly-turned, burnishedof Cava-
knowledge and archaeology of feeling
lier lyric, whose ostensible matter is with one of authentic apprehension, with pene-
sexual prescription: "do not lose your swet inscape. Learning, the suspension
and Keepers Fees on a bony whore; pick of reflex,
a can make us understand at the
girl in the Rubens vein." The generalizing cerebral level, the dynamics of judgment
title may well refer to a particular woman which made of Rosa Bonheur a painter far
or erotic contre-lemps in Lovelace's circle. more highly valued than Cezanne or which
Already, we may be sensing difficulties of induced
a Balzac to set the novels of Mrs.
modal sort: is this piece of gamy advice,Radcliffe above those of Stendhal (whom
this roue's tip, the kind of occasion andhe was one of the first to praise). But we
locus for poetry with which we can engagecannot coerce our own sensibility into the
at any but the cerebral level? Is this the relevant frame of perception. Large, some-
class of experience and concern which time radiant, bodies of literature have re-
poetry is naturally about? Is the substrat- ceded from our present-day grasp. Who
um of sensibility, the nonchalant identifi- now reads, who experiences at any ade-

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quate depth of response, and the tragedies

often decisively, of
an entire poetic of
Voltaire, which once dominated the Euro-
tactical difficulty. It is the poet's aim to
pean canon of tragic drama from Madridcharge with supreme intensity and genuine-
to St. Petersburg, or the high dramas ness
of of feeling a body of language, to "make
Alfieri that come after? A substantial meas- new" his text in the most durable sense of
ure of European literature from theilluminative,
six- penetrative insight. But the
teenth to the later nineteenth centuries language at his disposal is, by definition,
drew constantly and with intimategeneral, recog-common in use. Its similes are
nition on the epic poetry of Boiardo, stock, its metaphors worn down to cliche.
Ariosto, and Tasso. It was in this poetry How can this soiled organon serve the most
that writers as diverse as Goethe, Keats, individual and innovative of needs? There
and Byron found a primary body of refer- have, throughout literary history, been logi-
ence and instigation. European art and cal terrorists who have taken the implicit
music are ubiquitous with the presence paradox
of to its stark conclusion. The au-
Rinaldo and Angelica, of the distracted thentic poet cannot make do with the in-
Orlano and Armida's garden. To mid-twen- finitely shop-worn inventory of speech, with
tieth-century literacy this entire syllabus the
of necessarily devalued or counterfeit cur-
sentiment and allusion is either a closed rency of the every-day. He must literally
book or the terrain of academic research. create new words and syntactic modes: this
Now it is only the scholar who knows was thatthe argument and practice of the first
Ariosto is one of the two or three acutest Dada, of Surrealists, of the Russian "Fu-
witnesses of the nature of war in the whole turo-Cubist" Khlebnikov and his "star-
of moral history, that he stands with Homerspeech." If the reader would follow the
and Tolstoy among the few who have as- poet into the terra incognita of revelation,
sessed the ambiguous profits of combat in he must learn the language. In effect, to
the economy of human affairs. But his be sure, this logic of the occult is autistic.
idiom and orders of apprehension are no A secret tongue will not communicate out-
ward, and if it loses its mystery, if it is
longer natural to us. The difficulty is modal
and it is real. acquired by many, it will no longer con-
Contingent difficulties arise from thetainob- the purities of the unprecedented.
vious plurality and individuation which The position of the radical but working
characterize world and word. Modal diffi- poet is, therefore, a compromise. He will
culties lie with the beholder. A third class not forge a new tongue but will attempt
to re-vitalize, to cleanse "the words of the
of difficulty has its source in the writer's
tribe" (Mallarme's famous formula gives
will or in the failure of adequacy between
pointed summation to what is, in fact, a
his intention and his performative means.
I propose to designate this class as tactical.
constant compulsion in poetry and poetics).
The poet may choose to be obscure in He will re-animate lexical and grammatical
resources that have fallen out of use. He
to achieve certain specific stylistic effects.
He may find himself compelled towards will melt and inflect words into neological
shapes. He will labor to undermine,
obliquity and cloture by political circum-
stances: there is a very long history of distortion, through hyperbolic aug-
Aesopian language, of "encoding" and al- through elision and displacement,
legoric indirection in poetry written the banal and constricting determinations
of ordinary, public syntax. The effects
pressure of totalitarian censorship (oppres-
which he aims at can vary widely: they ex-
sion, says Borges, is the mother of meta-
tend from the subtlest of momentary
phor). The constraints may be of a purely
personal nature. The lover will conceal
shocks, that unsettling of expectation which
the identity of the beloved or the true con-with a conceit in Metaphysical verse,
dition of his passion. The epigram,tobetheit bewildering obscurity of Mallarme
Martial's or Mandelstam's, will be couched and the modernists. The underlying ma-
neuver is one of rallentando. We are not
in terms translucent to the few, but initially
meant to understand easily and quickly.
closed to the public eye. But there is also,

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On Difficulty 271

Immediate purchase is denied us. The text closing triplet in which the poet, now made
yields its force and singularity of being only smoke and ash (fatto fummo e polve), sees
gradually. In certain fascinating cases, our himself as ever-enduring (etterno ben saro),
understanding, however strenuously won, precisely because of his reduced, impalpa-
is to remain provisional. There is to be ble state, but then, in a closing line which
an undecidability at the heart, at what remains unclear, images himself as ham-
Coleridge called the inner penetralium of mered not by iron but by gold (da tale
the poem (there is a concrete sense in whichoro e non ferro son percosso). The counter-
point of matter and spirit, of flame and
the great allegories of ingress, of pilgrimage
to the center, such as the Roman de la rose ash, together with the implicit "plot" which
and the Commedia, compel the reader torecounts the lover's fiery reduction by the
re-enact, in the stages of his reading, the desired brilliance of the beloved, are the
adventure of gradual unfolding told by stale props of the Petrarchan idiom. Michel-
the poet). There is a dialectical strange- angelo injects into them the tactile vehem-
ness in the will of the poet to be under- ence of his own incomparable intimacy
stood only step-wise and up to a point. with stone and hammer, and the kindred
The retention of innermost meaning is, in- presence of Dante whose Commedia is a
evitably, subverted, and ironized by the persistent referential touchstone in Michel-
mere fact that the poet has chosen to make angelo's Rime. The tactical difficulties
his text public. Yet the impulse is an hon- spring from, are intended to make mani-
est and crucial one, arising from the inter- fest, the fact that Michelangelo's feelings
mediate status of all language between the for Cavalieri are of such intensity and gen-
individual and the general. The contradic- uineness that they can make use of the
tion is insoluble. It finds creative expres- most banal counters of expression. Like
sion in tactical difficulties. others in the garland, this sonnet enacts its
own central motif: it consumes and scat-
When Michelangelo addresses Cavalieri,
he pounds the rubble of Petrarchan phrases
ters to rubble (I'arda e spezzi) the material
and conceits into fantastic shapes: of which it is constituted-the Petrarchan
Si amico al freddo sasso e '1 foco interno diction-in order to give to that material
che, di quel tratto, se lo circumscrive, the mystery of fresh and lasting life.
che l'arda e spezzi, in qualche modo vive, Already, Gongora seems to prefigure
legando con se gli altri in loco etterno. Mallarme, by his subversion of the com-
E se 'n fornace dura, istate e verno
mon linearity of syntax, by his nominali-
vince, e 'n piu pregio che prima s'ascrive,
come purgata infra l'altre alte e dive
zation of adjectival and adverbial forms.
alma nel ciel tornasse da l'inferno. In the sonnet which he addresses to the
Flemish painter of his portrait (the painter
The initial crux is that of ardent flame
is unknown, the picture has disappeared),
somehow vital inside cold stone, then
G6ngora is poised midway, as it were, be-
blazing out of the stone and circling it with
tween the Neo-Platonic and Petrarchan
fire (se lo circumscrive); thus makingtoposof of identity and image, a topos routine
the rock or marble what is literally ato
Michelangelo, and Mallarme's paradox-
ash or mortar (in qualche modo vive) byon the "presentness" to the spirit, to
virtue of which other stones can be knit
the "sensoriness of the spirit," of that which
(legando con se gli altri) into a form isthat
will endure everlasting (in loco etterno).
If it can resist the furnace's heat, stone Hurtas
will mi bulto, y cuanto mas le debe
a tu pincel, dos veces peregrino,
the more readily vanquish summer de andespiritu vivaz el breve lino
winter (istate e verno vince). Doing so, it colores que sediento bebe,
en las
will acquire a worth beyond its own first
vanas cenizas temo al lino breve,
nature (piui pregio che prima), as does que
theemulo del barro le imagino,
a quien (ya etereo fuese, ya divino)
soul that has returned purified, burnt clean
vida le fi6 muda esplendor leve.
(purgata) from a sojourn in hell and heaven
(alte e dive). The trope unfolds in
the Michelangelo text, everything is

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The wilderness
harshly palpable, even the flame iose has up edge.
to it,
And sprawled
Here all is diaphanous and mobile.arou:ld,Again,
no longer iwild.
the secret scandal is that of art which can The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
confer on the most ephemeral of substances
(el brevo lino) by means of esplendor leve,It took (lominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
a nearly unrecapturable phrase in which the
It did not give of bird or bush,
sumptuousness and the extreme lightnessLike nothing else in Tennessee.
of the painter's touch is rendered, the espi-
ritu vivaz of being. This intangible being
The aesthetic proposition is unambiguous:
takes on the needs of carnal life: the can- however simple ("gray and bare"), the
vass drinks the colors (las colores que se- of art re-organizes, sets ordinance
diento bebe) as men cdrink water or-surely upon the surrounding chaos of the organic.
the allusion is active if deep-buried-as theThe ministration is as antique and impera-
shades of the departed drink ritual liba-tive as was Orpheus' song: like the forest
tions of life-blood in order to become pres-and beasts crouching to hear the singer,
ent to us. But thought intense, the "sub- the wilderness gathers around the jar "no
stantive image" on the canvass stays mute:longer wild." The mildly ceremonious,
vida le fio muda. Which condition makes archaic "port in air" confirms the classic
of a painter's portraiture of a poet a pecu-note. In turn, the motif of a central circle
liarly peremptory seizure (hurto). Dos and of a verticality within it, plays on sub-
veces preregrino is tantalizing: why is theliminal, possibly archetypal recognitions
painter's brush "twice peregrine." what isof order, on intimations patent in art and
its twofold pilgrimage? Is G6ngora invok-dreams of how the inchoate world is given
ing the Platonic paradigm of the twofold sense. It is the last two lines that obstruct
remove of ait from the archetypal Forms,and unsettle. The immediate obtrusion is
its double descent, via mimesis, into coun- that of syntax: "give of" and "like nothing
terfeit? We are meant to hesitate, to have else" are either a regional idiom or un-
only gradual, earned access to the crown- grammatical. There is deflection within de-
ing paradox of the sonnet, that that whichflection as "to give of" seems to call natu-
sees, which hears, lasts less (quien mds ve,rally for "like anything else." Yet the
quien mds oye, renor dura), a paradox in"nothing" is so obviously purposed. So far
which the living poet salutes the scanda-as I am aware, no reading of the text has
lous survival of his own mute image andcome up with a coherent parsing or equiv-
conjoins the Platonic with the Scripturalalent transposition into normal syntax.
meditation on the ephemeral nature of sen-To transpose, to paraphrase into correct-
sory existence. But observe the paradoxness, is to relinquish both the motion and
within the paradox: the salute to the en-the meaning of the poem's meaning. At
duringness of the impalpable is spoken to one level, and not trivially, we do know,
a painting, itself a wholly perishable, ma-we do "make out" what Wallace Stevens is
terial genre. The painting itself will only saying. The artifact transmutes the organic
last if it can steal the "bodily spirit" of theinto the organized, but is not of it. It works
sitter. And thus the spiral of equivocationvia detached centrality. It is itself sterile-
begins again. "it does not give" as does the vegetable or
It may be no accident that tactical diffi-the animal presence of "bird or bush." It
culties crop up where poets consider theirhas no affinity with them-if one reads "to
metier. "Contingently" and "modally," give of" as analogous to such normal forms
Wallace Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar" isas "to smell of," "to sound like." In this
transparent: solipsistic integrity, the jar is unlike any-
thing else in Tennessee. All else in "the
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And rouiid it was upon a hill. slovenly wilderness" is meshed and partakes
It made the slovenly wilderness of a shared providence ("to provide" sig-
Surround that hill. nifying to "give of itself"). The jar dom-

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On Difficulty 273

inates uniquely but is, by definition, empty known it, I propose to call it ontological.
("bare" enforces this implication of lofty Difficulties of this category cannot be
vacancy). "Anything else" would vulgarize looked up; they cannot be resolved by
the crux of singularity. The "nothing," genuine re-adjustment or artifice of sensi-
with its arrest of rhythm, enacts the requi- bility; they are not an intentional tech-
site twofold motion of extreme differentia- nique of retardation and creative uncer-
tion-"nothing is like the jar"-and of tainty (though these may be their imme-
inherent "nothingness." But Wallace Ste- diate effect). Ontological difficulties con-
front us with blank questions about the
ven's allegory is a iadical critique of the
proposition abundant in King Lear that nature of human speech, about the status of
"nothing shall come of nothing." Thesignificance, about the necessity and pur-
charged "nullity" of art centers and culti- pose of the construct which we have, with
vates reality. more or less rough and ready consensus,
We can arrive at this reading by a sort come to perceive as a poem.
of semantic approximation. We cannot Ontological difficulties, certainly in the
demonstrate or paraphrase it grammati- modern vein, seem to have their history:
cally. As we move with and against the they are the object of theoretical argument
anti-grammar of the two lines, the effect onand stylistic manipulation in the hermetic
us is that of moire, of the meaningful but movement that relates certain elements in
unstable and reticulating patterns in shot Rimbaud, the poetics of Mallarme, the
silk. There is a distinct sense in which we esoteric programme of Stefan George, Rus-
know and do not know, at the same time. sian formalism and futurism, and the de-
This rich undecidability is exactly what
pendent impulses which have come after.
poet aims at. It can be made a hollow To ask why ontological difficulties should
come to be seen as a desideratum or ines-
trick (as it often is with the syntactic
stabilities in Dylan Thomas). Or it cancapable fatality in European literatures of
serve as a true tactical difficulty, forcing usthe late nineteenth and early twentieth
to reach out towards more delicate order-
centuries, is to ask an absolutely funda-
ings of perception. It is, simultaneously,
mental question about the crises of idiom
a subversion and energizing of rhetoric,
and values in the entilety of modern west-
drawing attention, as poets such as Michel-
ern culture. A summary reply would be
angelo, G6ngora, and Wallace Stevensfatuous.
do The aetiologies of this inspired
persistently, to the inertias in the common
movement towards darkness are as various
routine of discourse. as the individual talents and social cir-
Contingent difficulties aim to be looked
cumstances involved. Certain broad con-
tours do stand out. The transformation of
up; modal difficulties challenge the inevit-
able parochialism of honest empathy; tac-the visionary elements in the Enlighten-
tical difficulties endeavor to deepen our
ment and French Revolution into the
apprehension by dislocating and goading to philistine positivism of the industrial and
new life the supine energies of word andmercantile structure of the nineteenth cen-
grammar. Each of these three classes of tury, brought on a drastic mutual disen-
difficulty is a part of the contract of ulti-chantment of artist and society. Severed
mate or preponderant intelligibility be-from concrete revolutionary possibilities,
tween poet and reader, between text and later romanticism cultivated the posture of
meaning. There is a fourth order of diffi-inward exile, of the poet's isolation in a
culty which occurs where this contract is prosaic society. This stance entailed an
itself wholly or in part broken. Becauseessentially private ideal of communication.
this type of difficulty implicates the func-At the same time, the rapid proliferation
tions of language and of the poem as aof journalistic and popular media of com-
communicative performance, because itmunication-the press, the feuilleton, the
puts in question the existential supposi-cheap book-while beneficial to prose fic-
tions that lie behind poetry as we havetion, accentuated the minority status of the

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poem. With this industrialization the art of Homer and his of lan-
guage and of the means is toofsay dissemination
of the near-totality of western lit-
of language came the semi-literacies erature-had lost or char- betrayed the primal
acteristic of a technocratic and mass-con- mystery of magic. Mallarme's exemplar of
sumer society. To certain poets-andthis it ismagic is Orpheus who, like the jar in
at this node that Poe occupies a position Tennessee, casts the net of order over the
much in excess of his intrinsic merits-the organic world, and who descends to the
ancient trope of inadequate discourse, heart the of death via the spiralling staircase of
conceit whereby words fall short ofhis thesong. These are the crucial trials of
unique immediacies of individual experi- poetry, an(I they lie outside Homer's "real-
ence, became a more general issue. Now istic"
it and informational purpose. In the
was language as a whole that was being late 1920s, Heidegger gave historical-philo-
cheapened, brutalized, emptied of numi- sophic vogue to a precisely parallel reading
nous and exact force, by mass usage. This of the western condition. In the riddling
view is implicit in Baudelaire, in Gautier'sfragments of Parmenides, of Heraclitus, of
quest for the rare, unsullied word, in Ver- Anaximander, thought and saying are a
laine's ideal of musicalization. It becomes perfect unity. The logos stands "in the
programmatic in Mallarme's resolve to of being," gathering to itself the
cleanse the vocabulary and syntax of "hidden com- presentness of Being in beings,"
mon speech, to carve out and preserve thefor
quiddity of autonomous existence and
poetry an arcane realm of uncompromising meaning towards which Gerard Manley
significance. Hopkins had bent his vision. What Homer
But behind these motives, complex isand to poetry in Mallarme's model, Plato and
multiple as they are, two even deeper Aristotle
in- are to the Heideggerian diagnosis
stincts or conjectures seem at work. of The
the "amnesia of true Being" in western
first is that of an almost sub-conscious in- rationalism. If it is the task of the true
surgence against the mountainous authoritypoet to force his way upstream to the
of the classical past, against the hectoringOrphic sources of his art-and where there
traditionalism which informed high lit-is compulsion there will be difficulty-it is
eracy since the renaissance. In the hermet- the task of the thinker, of man in his es-
icism of poetry after Mallarme there is ansence, to return to the illuminations of
attempt, not untinged with irony, to shakeauthentic existence reflected in the pre-
off the constraints of influence and of pub-Socratics. In Heidegger's view, it is the
lic-academic expectation based on the ca-poet-thinker Holderlin who has, until now,
nonic (much in Mallarme is a revolt, come nearest to communicating to us the
only partly successful, against Victor Hugo, nature of this homeward turn. Radical
and against the fanfares of eloquence in modernism in European poetry is, I believe
which Victor Hugo proclaimed his own largely derived from Mallarme's practic
kinship with the eternal accomplishments and from Heidegger's theoretic metaphor
of the Prophets, of Dante, of Shakespeare). and from the image of Holderlin in Heideg
To become esoteric was to break the chain ger. In ontological difficulty, the poetics
of exemplary inheritance. The second im- of Mallarme and Heidegger, of the Orphic
pulse is, on the contrary, one of reversion, and the pre-Socratic, express their sense o
the inauthentic situation of man in an
of an attempted return to an archaic past
in which language and thought had, some- environment of eroded speech.
how, been open to the truth of being, to These attitudes coalesce in the mature
poetry of Paul Celan-to which fact must
the hidden sources of all meaning. This
motion is explicit in Mallarme's dictum beofadded the specific discomforts of a sur-
vivor of the holocaust writing poetry com-
1894 that all poetry has "gone wrong" since
parable in stature to Holderlin's and
the magisterial, but ultimately erroneous,
achievement of Homer. By becomingRilke's, lin- and poetry of the utmost personal
compulsion, in the butchers' tongue.
ear, narrative, realistic, publicly-focused,

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On Difficulty 275

"Largo," from the volume Schneepart, is not, as in the case of tactical difficulties,
by no means uncharacteristic: that we are meant to understand slowly or
Gleichsinnige (lu, heideglingerische Nahe;
to stand poised between alternatives of sig-
iiber- nification. At certain levels, we are not
sterbens- meant to understand at all, and our inter-
gross liegen pretation, indeed our reading itself, is an
wir beieinandetr, die Zeit-
lose wimmelt
intrusion (Celan himself often expressed a
dir unter (leni atniLitden Lidern, sense of violation in respect of the exegetic
industry which began to gather around his
das Amselpaar hiingt poems). But again we ask: for whom, then,
neben uns, utiter
unsern gemeinsam droben mit-
is the poet writing, let alone publishing?
ziehenden weissen This paradox is inseparable from onto-
logical difficulty, and was already the ob-
ject of incensed argument around Mal-
larme. For whom was the Master com-
There are, to be sure, difficulties here of thehis cryptograms? If one leaves to
kind we have looked at before (and it
at the strategies of historical circum-
these that any attempt at translation, such
stance-Mallarme's campaign for a puri-
as Michael Hamburger's, will takefication,
a stab). for an "aristocratization" of poetic
Heidegdngerisch seems to play, as Celan'sPaul Celan's anguish at writing
later verse frequently will, on the poetry,
name of at having to write poetry "after
the philosopher and on the Heideggerian
Auschwitz" and in the language of the de-
concept of the Feldweg, the peregrination
visers of Auschwitz-ontological difficulty
through, the traverse of open country;
seems to point to a hypostasis of language
Amsel, signifying "blackbird" (as does the
such as we find, precisely, in the philosophy
name of Kafka who is a perennial titulary
of Heidegger. It is not so much the poet
presence) closely echoes the actual who
name of
speaks, but language itself: die Sprache
the poet, for which "Celan" was an ana- The authentic, immensely rare,
gram; the title "Largo" invites the
is one in which "the Being of lan-
jecture that the Meta-stasen, the "attend-
guage" finds unimpeded lodging, in which
antly passing white clouds" may imply
the some
poet is not a persona, a subjectivity
mode of musical rest and (?) the"ruling
great over language," but an "openness
librettist Metastasio. There is a profound
to," a supreme listener to, the genius of
but intelligible twist in iiber-sterbens-gross
speech. The result of such openness is not
so much a text, but an "act," an eventua-
which plays on the normal iiberlebensgross:
side by side, the lovers are "larger-than-
tion of Being and literal "coming into be-
death," literally "transcendent" ining."
the At
a naive level, this image yields the
most-repose" and immobility, at once erotic
suspect expressionistic tag that "a poem
and suggestive of sepulchral effigy, in not mean but be." At the more
stasis." P. H. Neumann's Wort-Konkor- sophisticated but equally existential level,
danz zur Lyrik Paul Celans bis 1967 shows it generates the poetics of "dissemination"
that die Zeit-lose and the use of Lidern to
of "de-constructive" and "momentary" read-
crystallize the presence of the beloved, are
ing that we find in Derrida and the cur-
rent school of semiotics. WAe do not "read"
recurrent and talismanic in the poet's work.
But no concordance can give access to the the poem in the traditional framework of
private net which Celan spins around Zeit,the author's auctoritas and of an agreed
in which strands of annihilation and sur- sense, however gradually and gropingly ar-
vival are equally and simultaneously rived at. We bear witness to its precarious
meshed, or to the map of meaning implicit possibility of existence in an "open" space
in the identification between clouds and of collisions, of momentary fusions between
Meta-stasen. There is, therefore, and cen-
word and referent. The operative meta-
trally, an action of semantic privacy. It is may be that crucial to Mallarme's

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famous L'absente de tons bouquets, to thequestions in the wliole of aesthetics and of

modern physicist's (letermination of "thethe modern attempts at a philosophy of
unperceived event" in the cloud-chamber,meaning.
and to Heidegger's equivocation on the The subject of difficulty in poetry, in art,
"absence in presence" (the play on Ab- and
is as large as are the performative means of
language and of visual and aural expres-
Anwesen). In each case the observable phe-
nomenon-the text-is the inevitable be- sion. It has moved to the very center of
trayal, in both senses of the term, aesthetic
of anexperience since the late nine-
invisible logic. Yet we do know teenth that century.
the Neither aesthetic theory
Mallarme envoi or the Celan lyric is norpoetry,
general public feeling have coped with
and often major poetry. We do know it satisfactorily. It is, as yet, impossible to
that we are not looking at non-sense or at say whether the lhermeticism of so much in
planned obfuscation, as in the case of cer- the modernistic movements is a transient
tain Dada and surrealist collages. "Largo" phenomenon or represents some ultimate
is a profoundly moving statement, though break in the classic contract between word
we cannot say confidently or paraphrastically andt world. The classification into contin-
"of what." How do we have this assurance, gent, modal, tactical and ontological diffi-
what allows us to discriminate, even within culties put forward in this paper is, ob-
the class of ontological difficulties, as be- viously, rough, and preliminary. But it
tween the necessary and the factitious, andwould be unusual if any of the difficulties
even between "the real" and the "more real" actually met with in poetry, and in literary
(a differentiation which might bear on the texts as a whole, were irreducible to one of
distinctions to be made between, say, Rilke's these four types or to the manifold com-
difficulties in the Duino Elegies and Celan's)? between them.
This seems to me one of the most difficult

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