Tom Hibbard reviews
Murder, by Michael Rothenberg
Paper Press, 54 pp., 2013
Existence and Terror: The Global Road to the Unpaved Future: Michael Rothenberg’s Murder
‘Differance becomes the condition (the element, the environment, the ecosphere) for the possibility and impossibility of conceptualization, idealization, comprehension.’
— Gayle L. Ormiston
Paragraph 1 follows:
Modern thought has realized considerable progress by reducing the existent to the series of appearances which manifest it.
This first sentence (in translation) of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, published in 1943, might give a sense of the change that Sartre would bring to the philosophical idea of existence.The chapter subheading is ‘The Phenomenon,’ and from it we are able to discern that Sartre’s conceptualizing of existence (‘the existent’) as a phenomenon or using phenomenology is the insight that so beautifully advances the austere temporality of French Existentialism. Sartre writes that ‘the monism of the phenomenon’ eliminates the dualism of interior and exterior. This dualism is one that Sartre especially believed had long held philosophy back and that he disliked because it carried with it an antiquated sense of appearance, that is, exterior as superficial, linear attributes dissociated from the more essential interior aspect of Being.
With the elimination of this awkward dualism, Being becomes a slight,nuclear movement and energy, that perhaps goes in and out of corporeality, against the bleak Surrealist backdrop that we associate with such modern existential literary classics as Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter or Sartre’s Nausea. For Sartre, ‘reality’ and Being do not, as yet, mean the same thing.Reality, for Sartre, means cups and saucers, ornate furniture, lamps, mundane activities, extraneous baubles — the representative surfaces of an era that is dying away.
In eliminating or clarifying the dualism of interior and exterior, Sartre feels that philosophy takes a step toward a deeper reality, the reality of undisguised Being and that, with it, appearance has ‘reached full positivity,’has become not separate from Being but a part of Being and ‘the measure of it… For the Being of an existent is exactly what it appears.’Interior and exterior are united as one.
In solving what he considered a false dualism, Sartre uncovers another dualism that is more basic:
Does this mean that by reducing the existent to its manifestations we have succeeded in overcoming all dualisms? It seems rather that we have converted them all into a new dualism: that of finite and infinite.
Sartre believes this to be a ‘transcendent’ dualism, one that replaces many dualisms, a mysterious paradoxical dualism that is an organic element of the endless phenomenon of Being. Unlikely and insignificant as they seem, these types of ‘elements’ are undeniable and important aspects of reality, the very characterizations of it in terms of form and logos, and the battle to include them — or keep them from being omitted — is definitely a battle that is taking place today.
Sartre’s new dualism, as an inherent quality of the nature of Being, gives rise to many defining aspects of his philosophy, from his various notions of ‘nothingness’ to his concept of reflexivity and ‘the consciousness of consciousness’ and from his alienation from society and disgust with the body itself — the self — to the meaning and circumstances of the existential act, the ‘acte gratuit’ (Andre Gide’s phrase).
In truth, what Sartre does is place his thought entirely on the level of ontology where we are able to glimpse it in its metaphysical consistency. With this heroic notion of Being — the Being of Care, the Being-in-question, the Being in-itself — there are many types of relationships vis-à-vis totalities and the Other that we begin to consider in Existentialism, including alienation, anxiety, criminality, accursedness, sensitivity, consolation and acceptance, choice and criticism. Conceived during the most outrageous and brutal years of fascist dominance in Europe, Sartre’s Existentialism is the undaunted affirmation of a landscape of death and immortality.It is the landscape of absence, from the depths of silence, transformed, out of alienation and an impossible dualism, into the landscape of enduring presence.
This philosophical sketch informs us in our sense of Michael Rothenberg’s 2013 poetry chapbook from Paper Press titled Murder.In Sartre’s universe, the idea of murder poses a complex central ethical dilemma.To be sure, we know for certain that Sartre adamantly disapproved of murder.He explicitly condemns its use in the novels of some other writers of his time, especially Gide’s Lafcadio’s Adventures.
Of course, in Albert Camus’ highly influential existential novel The Stranger, first published in 1942, the protagonist, Meursault, in the relentless sunlight and burning sands of a highly sensuous and disorienting disintegrating world, commits the crime of murder.Sartre, an engage humanist, argued that Gide’s protagonist is aristocratic and that his actions reflect a cynicism and irresponsibility of a frivolous bourgeois type. On the other hand, there is a sense in Sartre in which the Cartesian criteria for existence, mere thought, doesn’t suffice. In facing the prospect of nothingness, a pervasive war-torn surface nothingnessand a moral nothingness also, that is an indictment of society as a whole or at least mid-twentieth century European society as a whole, Mankind makes a fateful and difficult decision based on a solitary sense of meaning, namely the decision to persevere.
Sartre calls for a deeper commitment, one characterized by involvement and action, one that is defiant to a degree of at least near criminality: ‘I am fashioning a certain image of man as I choose him to be.’ ‘Our responsibility is thus much greater than we might have supposed, because it concerns all Mankind.’ In Sartre’s decision of accepting and embracing life there is an emphasis on it’s having only slight rational basis, only an absurd disposition toward subjective care and virtuous love. Remember that, in Sartre, nothingness included not merely the rubble of war but many social conventions and institutions generally considered of the utmost importance, so that Sartre’s ‘choice’ is as much a renunciation as it is an embrace.
As the title of Rothenberg’s chapbook, written as it is at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century and the beginning of a new millennium, the word ‘murder,’ following the existential context, suggests several things.We know from some of his previous and contemporary works, full-length poetry collections Choose (2009, Big Bridge) and Indefinite Detention:A Dog Story (2013, Ekstasis), that Rothenberg is often a critic of the obfuscating and destructive commercial pollution — and the moral pollution that goes with it — of contemporary U.S. society.
Jets & 7,000 reruns of suicide
Anthrax in Florida
India hijack hoax
Russian plane downed
320 million dollars of U.S. aid
goes to the Afghanis
Ten killed in Palestinian-Israel clash
A bus driver’s throat is slashed
Black slippery rot of fallen walnuts
On the step
He is critical of it to the point of feeling that its basic influence on society is pernicious, incongruous, debilitating, in essence equivalent to murder. It is the phenomenology of murder. The image of Mankind, suggests Rothenberg, as it is found in the economies and social settings of today, is a kind of annihilating arbitrary preemptive dismissal, a vicious, dishonest opposition — more so than an heroic self-sacrificing substantive affirmation. But, in facing nothingness, in Sartre’s words, Mankind ‘makes’ or creates himself.
It’s a perilous now-or-never process with few guideposts and little assistance, an ethical labyrinth. Especially in light of the surprising tenuous logical justification all around, it’s likely that Rothenberg, in his criticism, is also applying the word ‘murder’ in some senses to his own actions and shortcomings, as he attempts to decipher the nothingness of his worldly endeavors. He is frustrated with himself, his lack of progress. He feels he has lost his bearings — and with it his vigilance — in self-indulgence and allowing himself to become dismayed. He feels he has become wrapped up in this ‘murder’ in the tenuous deserts of Iraq, with their prisons, and in the Middle East, with its inflamed categorical borders, and in the rocky demoralizing remote Afghan foothills. Murder expresses his reality. The first page in his chapbook, written in the form of a journal, contains this entry.
Murderous drug movie blood work blooming crest,
convulsive quest of stars clot and spangle the fist, sleep,
wheeze, creased rubber sheet, blue lung of boozy seraphim,
white squid and scrambled sweet bread, acid sputum brain
pan, pearls, grains, rains, verse, we give you our poems, our
songs, movies and comics and when it’s time to pay for the
tears you want to sneak out the back door.
There are many writers and artists—in truth, all of them—that feel this way about contemporary society, about their own entanglement in it, that are searching the fabric of its workings and life-styles for ways of interacting that lead away from conflict and toward more fulfilling interrelationships, writers such a Noam Chomsky, Bill McKibben, Thomas Berry, Gary Snyder, Naomi Klein, Felix Guattari who writes
In words similar to Guattari’s and to his own earlier works, Rothenberg in this chapbook seems to be reminding us that the problems he protests haven’t gone away but have gotten worse.Here is the second entry in his fictional, poetic chapbook/journal:
Invisible trombone combo, hippodrome, stone palindrome,
homonym, anomaly, family tree.
Leaf blown off the deck into the moon.
Bloom, bone, rune, sewn, scar, fume star, tune, serial
Mariachis on the wall of the many living waters.
Corridors of censure. Closure. Soldiers. Blood and oil wars.
Boulders and skin, sloughed. Mechanisms of cacophony.
Towers of rabble. Drivel, rubble, ruffle, dibble, dabble, rifle,
riffle. Riff raff. Corn dogs and pollywogs.
A thrilling roller coaster ride breaks from its rolling tracks.
Dives, leaps, towards an astral attraction, across the zenith.
Of the living room.
Silver spoon. Destiny and coincidence.
You make the worst and most of your wayward dreams.
Gleaners, DNA, ecology, cataclysmic chaos and birth.
Evolutionary dental floss, apology, string theory, calliope
Love goes around the corner for a Margarita.
Is this an exhaustive litany of condemnation? No. Mostly the condemnation is found in the idea of ‘Mariachis’ as a sort of mask and in the phrase ‘Corridors of censure.’ Rather these lines are somewhat Impressionistic and cryptic. They contain a variety of tones, from ironic despair to delicate belief. The lines themselves are somewhat contradictory, as if contradiction were an accepted milieu of thought and life. ‘Silver spoon. Destiny and coincidence’ suggests a criticism, but it’s more a thoughtful statement, saying that the accident of birth doesn’t tell us anything about what a person is or needs to be, doesn’t give us the understanding upon which to base our choices and fashion a more peaceful and productivesociety.
Further, ‘destiny and coincidence’ gloss the surface of reality in a way that precludes perceiving the topographies that might aid us in fashioning our lives in accordance with Being. This is what a new generation of writers seeks, continuing the work of the generation of Gide, Sartre, Camus and the Modernists, in attempting to discover a new, higher order based on perception, a globalism that frees its denizens and citizens from the destructiveness of its own insufficient knowledge, categorizing and valuations.
This globalism is the doctrine that will enable us to preserve our environment and our identities and at the same time admire and interact with others without stealing or rivalry or oppression or vengefulness or domination or murder — a globalism based on infinite difference. Beyond the numbing humdrum of lists of popular words that have no separation or importance, apart from the closed ostentatious towers of ‘rolling tracks,’ there is a ray of light: Escape is possible; someday we will view the wide spaces of the future.
Sartre’s philosophy began with the idea that ‘essence precedes existence.’ Sartre arrived at his minimalistic picture of the human condition with the thought that Mankind was the only part of creation for which this saying didn’t hold true, for whom existence preceded essence. It’s ironic that the idea of God would be part of this discussion, because for that reason it occurs to us that from a purely logical standpoint it’s obvious that the only part of creation for which existence precedes essence would indeed be God rather than humankind. A Creation cannot precede its Creator. Sartre, however, was an atheist.
For this reason his conceptualizations contain this sense of human autonomy, this sense of the arbitrariness of existence. One thing, in that case, which might confirm the existence of God, is the number of troubles humankind suffers. If essence precedes existence, then existence would be troubled from a wider unknown—namely the unknown essence that precedes it. At one point in Murder, Rothenberg brings in the Japanese disaster that occurred at Fukushima nuclear power plant, caused by the tsunami of an earthquake. Part of the disaster included radiation leaks, and people in the area of the reactor died from radiation, while many more died from the tidal wave that spread inland for miles engulfing towns, bridges, fields, waterways. Do we view this as God’s wrath?
I hear there’s a leak in the reactor core at Fukushima.
It seems I’ve heard that before. Radiation clouds as far away
as Sweden and United States of America.
Despite the fact that Rothenberg probably wrote this part of his prose piece at the time that the event occurred (March 2011), we know from the publishing date and from the style of the entries that reference to this disaster is somewhat symbolic.The entry following is
Plutonium in the tunnel. It’s the 28th. What does that mean?
Nothing. Come hell or high water. The two headed dolphin
with electronic squeakers goes to warn the settlers. Lysistrata.
She bounces a basketball down the street, followed by a
disobedient chain saw. Foul! The basket is suspended from
Bilbao. A bouquet of bananas. Only two of them are real.
The other one is Ezra Pound.
Toothpick. Pink gums. Sea serpents. Poppy seeds. Lime
The writing in this entry is like nuclear fission. It tests coherence. It rejects it. There is something of Creation quintessentially disjointed in radioactivity. It’s as though the planet itself were literally falling to pieces in the most unfathomable and irreparable manner. The powers that hold atoms together have stopped working. Gravitation is shut off. Matter itself is threatened. In the brief time since Rothenberg’s chapbook appeared there’s no question that the problem of murder has drastically increased — both qualitatively and quantitatively — worldwide and in the U.S. Every day the headlines contain at least one report of a shooting at a school, restaurant, office, home, movie theater, mosque, church, war zone generally with innocent people killed or family members or fellow workers and the shooter killing him or her- self in the end.
It seems as though our societies are falling apart at their nuclear seams. Since August 2014 we’ve viewed a steady stream of executions of the most admirable people by the ‘Islamic State’ that world leaders, including President Obama, have condemned in the strongest possible language. We’ve seen constant terrorist attacks on clinics, classrooms and gathering places, culminating with the November 2015 attack on Paris, France, killing one-hundred and thirty people, the second such attack on that city. We’ve seen killings of Jews in Kansas City. We’ve seen Islamic killings of Americans in San Bernardino, California. We’ve seen killings of black people in churches. We’ve read about killings of children, executions of Christians, medical workers, elected politicians, teachers, journalists, soldiers, infants, spouses, workers of every sort. Alongside of this, in Baltimore, Ferguson, Missouri, Cleveland, Milwaukee and way too many other places, we’ve seen black people horrifically shot and killed by white law enforcement agents that clearly reveals emotional problems and biases that flaw our society and government.
In a way, these crimes, these killings represent a new type of social division. Though one might argue that they are committed simply by extremely deranged people, with the volumes of political ideas and rhetoric and religious mottos, new technological accessories that accompany their frequency, they have a deeply alarming effect different from armed robberies, brawls and car thefts. They constitute an attack on society and democratic forms of government, on political and religious beliefs, on equality, on faith and abilities, on truth, and, in some cases, on the basic idea of justice and rule of law.
They are, in the modern phrase, crimes against humanity, an attack on substantiveness. This is partly what prompts the social criticisms of poets such as Rothenberg, writers such as Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, environmentalists, radical thinkers, economists, political crusaders, artists, linguists, scientists. As is always the case with fascist bullying, the ‘murder’ of which we are the witnesses is a direct indictment of our way of life, an attack on the relevance and forthrightness of our principles, our strength, our commitment to living together. It is in fact an indictment of our existence.
In some degree, our legacy hangs on our response. Though as far as I know no one is attempting to alter the basic tenets of Sartre’s Existentialism, writers today tend to agree that there is something a priori of humankind:the logos. Illegible, somewhatpictorial but never absolute or complete, the logos remains as autonomous and mysteriously daunting as Sartre’s atheistic nothingness. Because it presents itself as an infinite totality, it still requires choices that are self-defining and posits a responsibility that is enormous. With the logos, though there is never one right choice there is any number of wrong choices.
In 1940, about the same time as the publication of Being and Nothingness, a book titled Dialectical Materialism by Henri Lefebvre was published in French.Untranslated into English until 1968, it is basically a philosophical text, for all practical purposes without political leanings, that begins with a comparison of ‘formal logic’ with what Lefebvre and probably others consider ‘dialectical logic.’ The distinction might be described in this way: with formal logic the steps are formal ones in which the conclusion reached is A equals A. But with dialectical logic the steps are ‘real steps’ along a problematized path in which the conclusion reached is A equals B. With formal logic, writes Lefebvre, ‘The form therefore is not criticized in terms of the content or derived from making the latter explicit.’ However, with dialectical logic, ‘Thought is thus the secret source of the content.’ Dialectical logic permits Modernist contradiction, which is incompleteness, duality, multiplicity.
Dialectical logic goes further and asserts: ‘If we consider the content, if there is a content, an isolated proposition is neither true nor false; every isolated proposition must be transcended: every proposition with a real content is both true and false; true if it is transcended; false if it is asserted as absolute.’ Formal logic limits itself to classifying abstract types of syllogistic inference. Dialectical logic, because it determines the content, has quite different implications. The simpler determinations are found again in the more complex ones.
I compare this to Modernism because, in much simpler, down-to-earth terms, Ernest Hemingway says the same thing:In a 1925 letter he writes,
From out of the trouble, from out of the phenomenological murder, the injustice, the obstruction, a new society is brought into being. In Lefebvre, this is what is meant in the word ‘materialism’: the increased content, the new society.
Probably because of his Marxism, Lefebvre’s writings are relatively unknown in the U.S. His three-volume work Critique of Everyday Life is a philosophical examination similar to Existentialism. His long bibliography includes many interesting titles and many untranslated titles. Like other writers, Lefebvre discusses anxiety, alienation, realism, romanticism, stability, structure, space, ambiguity, praxis, language, society, humanity, moments. Like those same other writers, Lefebvre is searching in these topics for a better world, a global world, a globalism. The dialectic never ceases. Globalism is the dialectic. The murder finds its mark in the report of criticism and protest. As earthquakes take place, as vast corrupt systems collapse, as falseness is uncovered and truth is revealed, as ‘the human man rejects all complicity with death,’ the terrorism, deception and the murder become new life and new beauty.