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Design and Infinity in W.S. Merwin’s Poetry

Author: FengDong
Tutor: YangJinCai
School: Nanjing University
Course: English Language and Literature
Keywords: W. S. Merwin Lacan Levinas Desire Infinity
Type: PhD thesis
Year: 2011
Downloads: 115
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Among the major postwar American poets, W. S. Merwin (1927-) claims a unique status for his surrealistic and spiritual writings. He has gone further than most of his contemporaries in seeking heterogeneous existences. Despite his involvements in social issues and historical moments, Merwin’s writings open up a spiritual dimension above immediate US realities. Through poetry Merwin evokes an infinite world that withdraws incessantly from the poet’s perceptual apparatuses, leading him to the unnamed realms outside historical and social normality and thus inducing traumatic desire and jouissance.The previous criticisms on Merwin include deconstructionist readings which emphasize the negative aesthetics such as void, silence, and ellipsis, and ecocriticism which explores the "harmonious" relationship between man and nature in Merwin’s later poetry. These criticisms have not penetrated into the essential dynamics of desire and infinity which constitutes the peculiar spirituality of Merwin’s poetry. This study presents the dialectical movement of desire and infinity from a dialogue between Lacanian psychoanalysis and post-Heideggerian philosophy. According to Jacques Lacan, the object of human’s desire and drive is primarily the traumatic Thing which obtains an absent presence by drawing signifiers around it. The Thing compels the subject to approach it with resultant symptoms such as anxiety, amnesia, melancholia, obsession, euphoria, and hallucination. The subject-object relationship in psychoanalysis shares affinity with what French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas terms "the infinite." For Levinas, infinity is produced in a separated self but cannot be contained by that self; it overflows the self and echoes with the heterogeneous, absolute, and capitalized Other outside the self. The desired remains invisible; the unsatisfiable, metaphysical desire provides a measure for infinity itself. Both the infinite Other and the Thing qua the real Other are constitutive of subjectivity by being the alien cause of the subject and the subversive force within self-identity.Seen from this double perspective, Merwin’s poetry evokes a kind of fleeting holiness, not only in religious but also in existential spheres, that prompts the self to follow the traces of the holy Other. Merwin’s poetry from A Mask for Janus (1952) up to The Shadows of Sirius (2008), for all its metamorphoses of poetic style, voice and motif, originates from a desire that does not call for fulfillment but circles around the idea of infinity. Merwin’s poetry evinces a devotional piety towards the traumatic Thing and a drive to surpass the Name-of-the-Father and its corollaries such as the system of signification, language, and intersubjective network-what Lacan designates as "the Symbolic." The poetic signifiers point to a central void, a nondiscursive field in human subjectivity, the field of "the Real," where the poet can only capture the pleasurable associations of the Thing but not the Thing-in-itself. Evoking the fleeting and flashing appearance-as-disappearance of the traces of the Real, Merwin’s poems generate jouissance and surprise for both the poet and his readers. In his obsessional wishing and waiting for the phantasmal object, Merwin attempts to subjectivize the traces of the absolute, inaccessible Other through poetic fantasies in order to become the authentic cause of his own existence. The spirituality, as well as spectrality, of Merwin’s poetry corresponds to the poet-speaker’s infinite proximity (infinitely diminishing but still remaining distance) to the posited sublime object rather than attainment.This dissertation elucidates the sublimity in Merwin’s poetry from four modes: myth, religion, Eros and memory. Rather than being parallel, the four aspects interpenetrate and illuminate each other. The first chapter points out Merwin’s early fixation of libido on water qua fluidity. The poet’s encounter with the powerful water image during his infanthood constitutes the first psychological trauma and becomes a nodal point to which he would return. Merwin’s fascination with fluidity, amorphousness, and phantasmagoria develops into a sustained urge to break through the socio-symbolic order towards the non-thematizable/non-subjectivizable Other. The poetic ecstasy brought by the sublime Other is implicit in ballads, sea poems and creature poems of the 1950s. Merwin frequently assumes a psychotic ballad-tone that pronounces an insistent urge to transgress the limitations of the Symbolic. In his sea poems Merwin’s imagination is directed towards the sublime, traumatic nonentities which are horribly fascinating, such as icebergs, sea monsters, and dead sailors. Merwin also portrays mythic animals to elicit their spectral presences that precede and escape the chain of signifiers.The second chapter explores the substituting procedure of the Judeo-Christian Other and the anonymous Other in Merwin’s poetry. After the Vietnam War broke out in the 1960s, Merwin abandoned the univocal salvation theme in Christian theology, envisioning redemptions in the vast wilderness. The feeling of apocalypse causes a decision to open new existential and ethical grounds outside the existing social order. The poet’s spirit disavows the predominate Symbolic for an exodus into the wilderness. This spirit is not only Hegelian/negative but also Levinasian/alternative; in abolishing the existing social order it opens a heterogeneous dimension of posthumanity. The ardent human spirit yearns for a rebirth through the closure of human history, and the hope for humanity lies in a completely heterogeneous and holy origin, which is more metaphysical than theological. Although the dark, sparse poems from that period were partly the products of historical moments, they pursued an alterity outside the totality of historical process. The ascetic, elliptic, and spontaneous style disrupts the smooth functioning of language, revealing Merwin’s anxious desire to follow the object of divinity which eludes thematization.Corresponding to the mythic and spiritual modes, Merwin also employs the erotic-naturalistic mode to seek the "commonly transcendent" in the female other, which will be explored in the third chapter. Merwin’s love poems can be read as transference of libidinal fixation to the early primal scene of fluid alterity; the poet feels attached to the other traumatic subject whom he fails to subjectivize. Merwin’s love poems follow the tradition of the troubadours in the Middle Ages in its conventional portrait of the female other as elusive and enigmatic. Occasionally the male speaker seems able to enjoy union with the woman, while in most cases she appears distant and heterogeneous, sublimated as the Lacanian object or the Levinasian Other. Merwin fantasizes about nature and women, confusing them so as to diffuse Eros into infinite cosmos. For Merwin, nature offers a prototype of femininity:sensuous, fluid, and mythic. Nature/woman maintains an asymmetric, nondialogic, and diachronic relationship with man, becoming the cause of subjectivity in man. Intermixing the sensual, the natural, and the spiritual, Merwin’s love poems conjure up Other jouissance outside the paternal function and thus open up a possibility of auratic writing in the age of mechanical reproduction.Merwin’s obsessions with spirituality and Other jouissance are closely related to his father-complex. After the death of his father in the 1970s, Merwin began to evoke memory traces to mourn him. The forth chapter examines the intricate psychological, emotional, and mnemonic elements from a reading of sunlight imagery in Merwin’s later poetry. To overcome the sense of guilt for breaking away from the paternal authority and the socio-symbolic order it introduces, Merwin repeatedly resorts to earlier ancestral origins and matutinal beginnings, anticipating the prehistoric, originary time as his final redemption. Merwin’s desire/drive for the (re)contact with the traumatic alterity, which cannot be integrated into language, knowledge, and reason, and for the infinite Other standing outside totality of rationalized history, provides an impetus to breach the highly institutionalized modern society.Merwin’s works are so diversified that any single approach would seem reductive. Listening to poetry essentially precedes expositions and analyses of poetry, and Merwin’s poems, due to their inwardness, resist conceptualization and thematization all the more. This study can be considered as the initial bridging of poetry, philosophy and psychoanalysis in order to bring out the issue of spirituality in contemporary poetry. In an increasingly capitalistic and administered society, poetry too seems to fall into the logic of sameness and the territory of power, forfeiting its transcendence. Merwin’s poems begin on the edge of quotidian realities and then develop towards the infinite exterior. This way of writing suggests an alternative to the depthless scenes of postmodern poetry.

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