Sensorium of the World

A friend sends me an email to ask if I know the poems of American poet Jorie Graham. I am aware of Graham’s work, thanks to an interview with Helen Vendler who talked of a trend in Graham’s work to return to a perceptual aspect of life:

Who are we when we are living in the sensorium of the world? . . . Any slight shift in the [perceptual] field will cause any entire shift in vocabulary to accommodate it; the sense of the vocabulary is not what you want to get said in a philosophical sense or propositional way, but rather that the world is feeling like at this moment.

Graham’s poetry has this dense, archaeological quality that feels like an initiation into hidden mysteries. I take the time to write out entire stanzas to enjoy wallowing in her range and discursiveness. I often return to these lines from Covenant in Never:

At peak: the mesmerisation of here, this me here, this me
passing now.
So as to leave what behind?
. . . .
And to have it come so close and yet not know it:
. . . .
how the instant is very wide and bright and we cannot
ever
get away with it-the instant-what holds the “know”

Of course these lines draw me back to Beckett’s-as everything returns to Beckett-“expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express”. The insufficiency of selfhood.

One of my favourite London pastimes is to visit the National Gallery and spend a few hours with a single painting. Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus is a very old friend which speaks to me of hospitality and comradeship. There is a “real time” effect in the painting which I couldn’t quite name until Graham’s Paris Review interview (the whole interview is excellent):

Maybe not so strange . . . I often teach a painting of Caravaggio’s, Supper at Emmaus. Christ is sitting before us in an alcove against the “back wall” of the painting. We face into a dinner table covered with things for the meal. We are quite sure that the edge of this table is identical with the absolute front of the canvas. But then one undergoes a troubling sensation. The basket of fruit, the edge of the wicker basket, sticks out into our “actual” space, our here and now. The host suddenly recognizes the stranger at his table as Christ and throws open his arms, like this. [Gestures.] His left hand comes out, beyond the border—further than the sacramental grapes in their wicker—out here into the same air that you (and I) are breathing in the National Gallery. At the same time, his right hand penetrates the crucial illusionistic space, the alcove in which Christ sits. What he does, by going like this, is enact what it is to be “taken” by surprise, to be, suddenly, in that spiritual place where the otherness of the world, of possibility, “turns” one’s soul—taking one off the path of mere “ongoingness” onto the other path of “journey.” At any rate, the host’s gesture connects that immortal-because-imaginary space Christ occupies, with the mortal one of the gallery in which I am standing breathing my minutes—and you suddenly realize Caravaggio has activated what I call the “sensation of real time”: the time of the painting’s represented action has crossed over into the time in which my only days are taking place. So you cannot read the painting without being inside the terms of the painting, which are these graduating degrees of temporality: mortal time, immortal time, represented time, actual time, the “time” of process. The activity of the painting is to do that. The host is crucified in this position—a position the artist is also in—saying, You reader and you subject (God, Christ), I have put you two together. It’s my job. That’s what the meal is. That’s what we eat.

4 thoughts on “Sensorium of the World

  1. Strange, I come out of reading those fragments from Graham with a difference than your “insufficiency of selfhood”. She’s not concerned with expression or its lack at all. In the poem she is onto the epistemic divide of me, know, it. She’s questioning the notion of substantive form, whether there is anything of substance in “me” or “it”, while the third term “know” dangles between the two, wavering like a white flag in the midst of a battle.

    At peak: the mesmerisation of here, this me here, this me
    passing now.

    The very use of memerisation, to be enthralled to the still point of time, knowing that it is in some sense a ‘self’ “me here, the me passing”, and to acknowledge that that instant is fleeing, always fleeing. This invokes both a sense of being stuck in time, yet knowing that the body that houses the self has moved on, and that the mind that “knows” is retroactively searching not that actual moment but its memoriam, its fleeting traces in memory. Which brings us to:

    So as to leave what behind?

    Is there every anything that remains? Any substantive trace element registered in time? Does time exist eternally: is each instant like Whitehead cut off from before and after in its own eternal now. Do we go with McTaggart and say “time doesn’t exist”, or as in F.H. Bradley: “Time, like space, has most evidently proved not to be real, but a contradictory appearance….The problem of change defies solution.” A paradox that will never be resolved?

    Or Platon: “Time is the moving image of eternity immobile” A time that is both substantive and holds all things in an image (form) that nothing escapes: like wandering a gallery of fine art works that seem to repeat every instant of time as one walks along the marble floors?

    Or Aristotle: “time is the measure of change”? A mathematical time of change laid out on a flat plane between now and past and future?

    Or Descartes notion of res extensa: that a material body has the property of spatial extension but no inherent capacity for temporal endurance, and that God by his continual action sustains (or re-creates) the body at each successive instant. Time is a kind of sustenance or re-creation (“Third Meditation” in Meditations on First Philosophy). Harkening back to Malbranche and the Occasionalists? Is time substantive? Is it like a clay where we deposit memories, emotions, etc.?

    Or do we follow Leibniz who offered time as event (those like Badiou and Zizek following), a time that is relational and non-substantive?

    Or Kant for whom time is a lens (form) in the mind that forces us to apprehend phenomena in an ordered sequence (birth of the arrow of time notion)?

    And, that doesn’t even bring in physical and scientific notions…

    Which all leads to:
    . . . .
    And to have it come so close and yet not know it:

    But what is it that comes so close? And, of course it is not a substance that one can hold, it is non-substantive and is always changing or in metamorphosis. She seems to side with Leibniz and those after that time is a relation, but a relation to what: me, knowing, or it?

    Which leads on to her movement into Pater and Wilde:

    . . . .
    how the instant is very wide and bright and we cannot
    ever
    get away with it-the instant-what holds the “know”

    This is definitely a Paterian expansion of the instant as in The Renaissance: “For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time.” Which instead of Leibniz brings us back to Plato for whom time was a vessel that held all things. But of course she ends in the irony of the paradox: “what holds the “know”? And, of course, the answer: nothing, nothing at all. For knowing is an event itself, what the Greeks termed kairos, which for Heidegger among others was this movement between Chronos and Kairos of continuity and order: there is the kairos of ‘initiating’ (anfängliche) time, the action-oriented moment of vision (Augenblick) that irrupts into temporal constitution and inspires our expectations and decisions anew.

    This is the notion of Event that Althusser, Badiou, and Zizek follow in their praxis of rupture and time, etc.

    Hopefully this sheds some light on the poem from a different perspective.

    • Thank you for adding those thoughts.

      I like your reading of Graham’s poem, at least what I can untangle (your philosophical exploration is much deeper and broader than my autodidactic wandering). If I understand your perspective correctly, it is that Graham is using this poem, to deconstruct the notion of unmediated consciousness, Beckett’s rejection of the ego as a stable entity, but the necessity of using the language of the self in order to dispel the self.

      • I think for Graham the very act of “knowing” is an event in the life of the subject, yet the subject does not pre-exist this knowing – it is a blank, a void, an interminable process and ongoing project that cannot be separated out like we would study a sculpture on a table: this knowing is “kairos” and event as process in its own making; yet, it is a making without telos, open ended and continuous. The paradox is that the subject is not some substantial entity, but this never ending de-substantialized positing within the nexus of signifiers: the process of the world in the act of constituting itself.

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