Notes on November 6
Kim Benston


I beg your indulgence in the following ramble of questions that were left lingering for me after our Friday session. I shouldn't imagine that we'll actually discuss them, given all else we have to do; however, I did want to exploit you as audience for some continuing reflection on matters that might help form some thematic continuities of unknown future value:

1. Michael brought to our attention the connection between Augustine's double-edged account of sexuality's 'secret' impulses (licit in our prelapsarian state; lustful in our fallen condition; possibly redeemed in our salvation ... though there we might well ask what becomes of the body, the variously anatomized 'tongues of flesh,' in the eschatology of Augustinian Vision) and later European struggles between repressive and celebratory idioms of desire. Endangered as we are by manichean constructs of flesh/filth and essence/purity, can memory as conceived within the Augustinian framework of temporality or within the lyric mode examined by Menocal provide a way of apprehending experience free of destructive dualistic habits (then-now, now-later, etc.)? Put differently--from the other side of this accommodation, as it were--does the violence ever-ready to erupt in the 'present' as a means of abjecting otherness in various projects of cultural 'cleansing' involve a notion of the past, of inheritance and (dis)continuity, that requires radical fixity of 'truth,' an 'archive' of positions and values that can be quickly affixed to otherwise fluid, hybrid, evolving persons and conditions? By contrast--and here's my real question--is the ghazal's obsessive reworking of phantom, trace, abandoned campsite, ruin, reenactment, recreation, impossible substitution, etc. a refusal of this manichean construction of memory and experience: i.e., beyond or within its specific sensual rites and revelries, what are the poetics and politics of its representational strategies, and how are its thematics of exile part of those strategies?

2. Michael also drew our attention to certain thematic links between Augustine and the lyric tradition discussed by Menocal; by extension, I'm interested if anyone saw any formal or conceptual affinities between the two writers. E.G., it struck me that just as Augustine takes pains to argue that time is coextensive with Creation, that there was no world before time, that the world was created with, not within, time--the consequence of which is to recognize the double necessity of time as subjective and as objective--so Menocal looks at an historical landscape in which time is both plastic and empirical, susceptible to 'outrageous' juxtapositions that are at once serendipitous and intentional. Thus, too, Menocal's revisionary history seems to me essentially Augustinian in its 'redemptive' urge, in that her polemical move from diachronicity to synchronicity (e.g., pp. 18,112,115f.) is designed to organize historiographical knowledge vis. the imperatives of a transtemporal, translocational desire: on her view, our memories enter the present via a synchronous carnival of unruly expressivity--a kind of hip-hop kairos in which contradiction is immanent in a present alive with the past's performative possibilities.

Or, less ridiculously, is Menocal's vision of lyric's capacity to 'absorb' narrative rather like the confessional anamnesis accomplished by Augustine's dialectical (perpetually self-transgressive, perpetually conversional) autobiography (I'm thinking of Steve's luminous description of the text's tri-partite structure of reading-writing-lyricized identity)?

Or, then again, as per David's caveats regarding ahistorical appropriation, are Augustine's theistic aims resistant to such critical parallelisms--ought we to fall silent when contemplating such syncretic associations?

3. And, in any case, what are the consequences of Menocal's argument that we need to deliver Western culture from its inveterate narrativizing tendencies into the liberating praxis of lyric consciousness? What prevents this injunction from operating as a kinder, gentler manicheanism? Does lyric pose alternatives to narrative reminiscent of those demanded by trauma--or is this a different mode of interruption? Or should we rather say, in any case, that 'narrative' not replaced but somehow reimagined or transformed when the interiority of its lyric constitution, the presence of lyric to its own habits of thought and expression, are acknowledged? (Would a trite, but accurate, reduction of Menocal's supple argument be something like narrative:lyric=Western cultural hegemony:indeterminate gumbo of intersecting sources & resources?)

4. If, as Menocal insists, exile is the mother of poetry, then lyric is not merely an embrace of pleasure but it is always (also?) confrontation with loss. Is loss itself a mode of pleasure? What are the joys of elegiac substitution; and, on the other hand, whence the refusal of such compensations? (Cf. Debra) Do different conventions, different figurative lineages, provide similar and/or different views of such problems (cf. Ghazal and the British rumination on ruins)?

5. One of Menocal's slicker moves is the appropriation of De Rougement's polemic against 'eros' as evidence for the presence of a raucous, Eastern, disruptive, alternative expressive voice in the 'original' moment of 'Western' self-production. Is this method of excavating memory as a trace of otherness otherwise applicable in our project?

Relatedly, can cultural production ever be utterly 'cleansed' or erased? Is there always a trace? (Or is this just a tautology of 'the survivors,' which does inadvertent violence to the genuine possibility of annihilation?)

[Even if there is always a trace, I still have a question: contra Menocal, I thought that Lee Atwater, with all due respect to his memory, was just displaying the capacity of 'Power' to absorb, through reductive parody, the icons of resistance, turning them to minstrelized emblems of a mock-mosaic cultural polyglot: Carnival cutting the other way, etc. But, hey, maybe after consuming a 1000 pints of lite, it begins to sound like B.B. King after all?!]

Thanks, all. See you Friday.--Kim