15 April 2011

Some Preliminary Thoughts on William Fuller's Hallucinations

I remember having a conversation with Thom Donovan back in graduate school about Louis Zukofsky's notion of the "literal hallucination" from Bottom: On Shakespeare. For a split second in our conversation I genuinely believed I understood what Zukofsky meant (a product, no doubt, of Thom's characteristic generosity), but I completely lost my footing the moment we stopped talking.

I got to thinking about the phrase again while ruminating on William Fuller's Hallucination, and I still don't think I understand what it means. I suppose it doesn't help that Zukofsky begins his analysis with a long and complicated reading of Spinoza's notion of the autonomy of the imagination ("free" because the "thing...exists by the mere necessity of its own nature"). And then there's a digression on Ovid's Metamorphoses and Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (which features one of my favorite Zukofsky lines: "...an American child of four, not knowing a word of French, may sit through most of the film before he asks, 'When will the beast become fancy?'"). The gist, I think, is a brief statement from Spinoza's Ethics: "For if the mind while it imagined things not existing as present itself knew at the same time that those things did not in truth exist, we must attribute this power of imagination to an advantage of its nature not a defect." Zukofsky claims that Shakespeare's plays, in contradistinction to Ovid's "true stories," "are evoked without apparent external stimulus as a dream of midsummer, an aberration of ghosts, an intangible wandering over seas, and sometimes, after much sufferance, as a resurrection that Love's eyes may see." He concludes, "When adequate in the imagination these actions exist, but unless they are appreciated as such or as drama, they are mysteries..."

Since rereading this passage, I've been pondering whether William Fuller's hallucinations are "literal" hallucinations—whether they are "adequate in the imagination." I sent him an email the other day asking about his source material, and he responded by directing me to a great interview with Eirik Steinhoff (reprinted at Flood's website here) where he basically claims that asking about source material is barking up the wrong tree! Here's a sample:

"Steinhoff: At lunch you were telling me about a reading you’d given at a college recently, and about how you sensed some resistance to your technique during the q. and a. afterwards.

Fuller: I’m not very comfortable in that situation talking about poems that I’ve written. I mean, I can talk about materials that were employed in the making of the poem; the actual object that came out of it is beyond what I can talk about. And I think there was the sense that the material ought to hold a key for them. And while they are an element of it, the piece for me has to take on a life that stands apart from the materials; despite the apparently private nature of the references, it has to earn its independence, to go abroad as Plato said (negatively) of writing, unsupported by the uttering presence, but open to all the contingent effects of minds and time."

That the poems stand apart from the conditions that "produced" them brings to mind Spinoza, of course, in that the poem is "free" from its object: that the actual, physical conditions that somehow informed the writing do not correspond to the "hallucinations" they produce in any direct ratio. For Zukofsky, speculating about whether Hamlet is feigning madness is beside the point; in fact, such an inquiry is actually an offense to what he calls "the appreciation of his special intelligence." The key is that by "furthering the same theme over and over and multiplying reflecting hallucinations" Shakespeare somehow makes them "literal" by detaching them from the data of "real life" occurence and amplifying them as a new kind of information—the sensory data of the writing itself. In other words, the hallucinations are "adequate" and "free" because they exist in the landscape of the page.

Take Fuller's poem "Hallucination":



This (historical) object has decided to exist obliquely and by virtue of its existence to become correlated with the approaches taken to it by diverse groups of object-beholdersconstituentswho appear motivated in their actions by a hunger for possession, or by the opposite impulse to escape from themselves into what they see. Dredging up strange but deeply felt emotions, they apply them directly to the screenwhich is gray and framed by burnt plastic. One pushes it aside like a shadow. Austere but fragrant (redolent) the object branches down stairways, through hallways, out doorways, along streets and rivers until, carried away by birds, it is allocated over numberless empty landscapes. Out of its dispersion new objects are confected, to be placed side by side, on a mountain meadow, while a backward-looking daylight wanes, and the hand recedes that grasps the string stretching away to the great dead images of the past. I reach toward them from the present. How is it thinking of them, transparent or ashen, implausible then and now, arranged in the casual order of assumed routines, unconsciously shuffling through the days that bore them and that they came to represent as signs conceived to recoup an intensity and splendor that defined some prior synthesishow is it by occult operation ordinary things occur? Whose present with its 'here' is here? Who drinks nectar through a nail?


Perhaps poems are hallucinations precisely because they resist correspondence to the logic of their context? Follow the thought of the poem as it undoes the logic of operativity from the inside out: an historical object (the poem?) "decides" to "exists obliquely," and by virtue of being is thus linked with its reception: it links the beholden to "object-beholders" who hunger to possess or literally become the object. The object (the poem?), however, resists being "contained" by desire and "branches down stairways, through hallways, out doorways, along streets and rivers until, carried away by birds, it is allocated over numberless empty landscapes." The reader's imagination follows the object as it spreads—down the hallway, out the door, to a mountain meadow—until her attention is gently shifted away from its movement to the waning daylight—to a hand pulling a string attached to the images of the past. And then an "I" reaches toward them, shattering the distance achieved by the reader's wandering imagination, in order for the speaker to pose a simple, pointed question: "how is it by occult operation ordinary things occur?"

These objects attain a kind of autonomy from their originating context through an occult operation of imagination. They exist in the mind's tension as literal hallucinations, because, as Spinoza has it, "the mind does not err from that which it imagines, but only in so far as it is considered as wanting the idea which cuts off the existence of those things which it imagines as present to itself."

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