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Charles Bernstein Interview  


Eric Denut interviews Charles Bernstein about the libretto he wrote for the English composer Brian Ferneyhough for an opera on the life and work of Walter Benjamin called Shadowtime. This premiered at the Munich Biennale in May 2004 and was presented at the Festival d'automne in Paris, and in  July 2005 it was performed at the Lincoln Center Festival. The libretto has been published by Green Integer. This interview (which deals with the opera in the second half) was published, in French translation, as part of a dossier on Shadowtime in the Paris music journal Musica Falsa. Until now the English version has not been published.  


Charles Bernstein is Regan Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, and is the author of 22 books of poetry, including With Strings, Republics of Reality: 1975-1995, Content's Dream: Essays 1975, A Poetics, Shadowtime, and his most recent Girly Man.

He was one of the foremost theorists of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group; and his two collections of essays (Content's Dream: Essays 1975 and A Poetics) expand a position on poetry established on his close reading of the philosophy of Marx and Wittgenstein, and the writings of Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, William Carlos Williams and others.  


Eric Denut is lecturer at the University of Marne-the-Valley and the I.U.F.M. of Créteil. He has written widely on contemporary music.  





ED: What does it mean to be a poet in our time–in the North American society?

CB: I’ve answered this question a lot in my life. I’m interested in the social context for poetry, what poetry becomes within the process of “doing” poetry. In the 1970s, a number of us were engaged in an activist, indeed interventionist, approach to poetry, both through our poems, of course, but also through essays (which were often non-, and even anti-, expository), and, moreover, through small press publishing, organizing events, giving “talks” ... through all this insisting on poetry as a social activity, and not simply as a formal, ludic, exercise. We were very focused on the ideological dimension of language, as a direct result of anti-war activities of and around “1968” and we were especially concerned about the abuse of language that was involved in the state politics of this time (unfortunately not so different than the present time), but also in the official organs of “truth,” whether on TV or in the newspapers; how the control of language led to a very effective administration of everyday life. In sum, we saw poetry as addressing, or perhaps better to say redressing, the relationship of consciousness to language. Which is to say – we imagined the role of poetry as thinking in, around, and about the premises of (verbal) language: to explore, indeed to demonstrate, the formal dimensions of language, without the necessity of creating a rational, expository, or directly expressive presentation about language or poetics or ideology.

Poetry’s social function is to imagine how language works within its culture, while pursuing a critique of the culture; this suggests that poetry can be a countermeasure to the reinforcement of cultural values at the heart of both popular entertainment and consumer politics. At the same time, poetry’s aesthetic function is to refuse even this “value” in the pursuit of what Louis Zukofsky calls the pleasures of sight, sound, and intellect.

ED: Does it mean that poetry has to be correlated to theory?

CB: I’ve had different responses to that over time. I remember an aphorism in an essay that I wrote for the Paris journal Change in 1981: “Theory is never more than an extension of practice.” When we—the poets around L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E—were first centering on non-narrative and non-voice-centered paradigms, we were often accused of being too intellectual, that is to say, not emotional enough—too difficult, too complex, and also too theoretical. Now all those epithets are OK by me; I think it’s best to take on their negativity, to wear such stigmas as badges of honor. Indeed, they suggest the problem with the kind of poetic practice that was dominant, and still is, in the United States. In the 1970s, to be directly expressive, lyric as they like to call it, in free verse, was the sine qua non of poetry. That remains the dominant theory of poetry and it is far too complacent, too dogmatic, a theory for my taste. It’s not that “theory” prescribes the alternative but rather poetry and poetics both emerge out of a conflict with a given state of affairs. Poetry and poetics, theory and practice, are interrelated. Poetics is an extension of the practice of poetry, and poetry is an extension of thinking with the poem and also the reflection of poetics.

Let me introduce Walter Benjamin here, as a good example of multipolar, rather than linear, thinking. Benjamin’s form of reflective writing suggests a poetics of multiple layers or figures. A line of thought may seem to go off into one direction then drops back to follow another trajectory, only this new direction is not a non sequitur but rather echoes or refracts both the antecedent motifs and—this is the uncanny part—the eventual ones. I mean this as a way of rethinking what is often called fragmentation or disjunction. Think of fragments not as discontinuous but as overlays, pleats, folds: a chordal poetics in which synchronic notes meld into diachronic tones. You find this in the Arcade Project as well as in Benjamin’s early essays: an openness to the multiplicity of connection that exhibits not discontinuity but a verbal and paraverbal echoing between interrelated motifs that, on a rational level, do not, at first, seem related. Yet, as you go into details, as you begin to listen to the essay as would a piece of music, you begin to register how intricately everything is connected.

Theory is as theory does. If I prefer to write poems that are exploratory and intuitive, still there is always a great deal of conceptualizing that leads up to any intuition. Intuition can be informed and it can also be practiced (ars de faire). Then again, in writing poetry and poetics, I resist what I understand or what I can formulate too well. So theories are a little bit like crutches, to be tossed off the moment you are able to walk, and yet a comfort in times of stress. I’m trying to go through a process of connections as I’m moving along in a poem (or even in answer to your questions): it’s much messier than if it were the product of a theory (thinking of theory as a rationalized outcome of reflection and research). At the same time, I’m interested in talking about the process; it seems to me important for poetry not to be just on an emotional sleeve (“I’m a poet, I’m emotional, I’m writing about my feelings.”). The art of poetry is just as much the navigation as the boat. Which is why it’s important not to valorize one side or the other, poetry or poetics. I leave theory to those far more confident than we who stumble from point to point, finding ourselves in the blank spaces in between.

One medium of culture, one genre of writing, cannot, in and of itself, be secondary to any other. Journalism, for example, is not secondary to literature. As social forms, both have their limitations and possibilities. But in our time, the point that needs making is that a good poem is just as good as a popular movie. Since the mass scale of journalism and movies and pop music undermine the criteria of evaluation in our culture, it’s important to emphasize that a singular value of poetry is the freedom, complexity, and depth that derives from its small scale, the fact that it has few readers, that it is difficult to access, that it’s not a mass art form. The Library of Congress just announced that our new U.S. Poet Laureate “writes of universal themes in an accessible manner.” That sounds like an ad for soap. I’d rather our poet laureate wrote of particular themes in a complex manner; but then we have a President, selected by a minority of the voters with the help of a anti-democratic Supreme Court, that impugns the value of “nuance” in foreign policy. Within our culture we need, desperately need, small, difficult, rebarbative art forms. Poetry can do many things with language that can’t be done with conventional story-telling. And, as William Carlos Williams says, people die, every day, for the lack of what is found there.

ED: Could you describe the economic apparatus of poetry in the United States?

CB: The economy of poetry is antipathetic to profit, it’s a “negative” economy. As James Sherry once remarked, if you take a sheet of plain white paper, perhaps it’s worth a penny, but if you write a poem on it, it’s worth nothing. It can no longer be sold. But, then again, that nothing is worth quite a lot. You’ve created negative value. Put a different way, that just shows that there are different kinds of economies and that poetry is an exchange economy.

Many people imagine, because the motivation of poets and their publishers is not to maximize cash profit, that poetry is a utopian space, without hierarchies, without power relationships. But, happily for poetry, this is a grand illusion: the values and judgments, the networks and interconnections, are formidable. And the infrastructure is very resilient, going far back, sometimes a hundred years, from person to person, magazine to magazine, exchange to exchange. The symbolic exchange that takes place in the poetry polis is immensely valuable for the people involved. Then again, the attitudes within the field also can be very belligerent and irrational, arrogant and destructive. It’s not a world that is free of any of the problems of the rest of the culture. However, the aesthetic stakes are high – higher than in many more commercial endeavors, where aesthetics are always a means to an end – and these values are measured by work produced and the value that it has for the exchange. Given the particular economy of poetry, the exchange often takes place with the cheapest possible means of reproduction, from the Xerox to a reading in a bar to a web site or MP3 file). In an economy in which direct profit is not the aim, losses from the cost of reproduction are minimized in an effort of maximize exchange value.

The exchanges that result are models of “democratic social space,” and so very American in one sense, but also deeply foreign to a culture, in the U.S., for which monetary profit or prescribed religious principals are the main sources of value. You might say the value is in intercultural—or even intra-cultural—relationship. The very distance that separates poetry from the dominant forms of the macro economy of accumulation give poetry a social, political, and aesthetic power, because—at least potentially—poetry’s realizations of, and reflection on, its “host” culture are not only trenchant but otherwise unobtainable. A culture that despises its artists may need them even more than one that embraces them.

ED: Is poetry, in this sense a model, an utopia, for another world?

CB: Yes, but that other world is always, anyway, this world; the utopian is just a momentary pattern of disorientation before the real work of re-inhabitation begins. That is, poetry—some poetry!—may help to uncover hidden aspects of our everyday world. I say hidden not in a mystical, but in a social and psychoanalytic, sense: repressed, forgotten, denied, obliterated. Let’s take a concept like “weapons of mass destruction.” How do these words operate to create delusion, mass hysteria, to create, indeed, an imaginary world that replaces the real world through the colonized consciousness of a dystopia? Brain-washing can’t be reversed by reflection, by commentary, by critique, by poetry alone. But, still, all these are necessary. At the same time, poetry exists in the face of the fact—harrowing as this may be—be the world isn’t changing, at least not the way we might like. The world (inevitably!) always remains just as it is. I can imagine another world, and do hour by hour; but I’m not interested in the delusion that this other world replaces the “real world.” That imaginary world exists in the spaces between the real and unreal. Let’s call it the shadows.

ED: How would you describe your work on Shadowtime?

CB: One of the themes that I focused on in the libretto is “translation.” There are several levels of translations going on in Shadowtime. For one thing, even if my text exists by itself, what is more interesting is that it becomes absorbed, subsumed into the music of the opera—the Shadowtime of Brian Ferneyhough. That subsuming is a process of translation. Another level: I love Heine and Schubert’s setting of his poems, but I was also aware that Benjamin, who was a distant relative of Heine, would have been less enthusiastic; and I presume Brian would not imagine his vocal work to have any connection to Schubert’s Heine. Keeping in mind the setting of a poem is always also a translation of the poem, I was interested to see what Brian would be able to do with my distressed translations of two of Heine most famous poems—“Die Lorelei” and “Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht.” In effect, I was asking him to make a second setting. How would Brian confront the problem of lieder and song? In the end, what he did in Scene VI, “Seven Tableaux Vivant,” was not to set the text as songs but to push back in the other direction, poetry scored for recitation and musical accompaniment, not exactly sprachstimme and not exactly jazz or “performance” poetry, and not sound poetry either, but something that exists in a remarkably articulated space that pushes the vocal recitation into a shaped soundscape, complete with a marked distinctness (in terms of tempo and pitch) of voicing.

Other translation motifs in Shadowtime are directly related to Benjamin. For example, I say “Benjamin,” pronouncing the hard “j,” and not “Ben-ia-min,” as I should if I were speaking in German or, in an academic context, about the historical person. The “Benjamin” in this opera is a product of our imagination. We translate the historical figure into different social and aesthetic contexts. I’m thinking of Benjamin from the point of view of an American after-life for him (and maybe for the secular European Jews whose world ended with his). Shadowtime opens up with the apparent historical figure of “Benjamin,” dying. After that opening scene, the historical figure becomes an avatar, enters the underworld or shadow world (through a portal in Las Vegas, no less). By the way, I don’t necessarily think Benjamin committed suicide. No one knows, there is no absolute proof, we only know that he died. In the opera, we suspend that question. In fact—in life—he was killed by the Nazis, in one way or another; for me, the word “suicide” does not capture what happened to him. In a sense, Shadowtime offers an alternative “hearing” on what happens to Benjamin. Brian Ferneyhough opens our ears to that interrogation, since we have after this first scene twenty-two minutes without a word, only music. That’s wonderful, because it leaves space for thought and for questions: What happened? What should happen? Why should narrative be any kind of action at all? Why, because we set up the frame of an opera, can’t we have a sustained section of music alone, without any plot-driven stage action? Ferneyhough’s choice is appealing, charming, powerful. What interests me here also is the relation of song to speech and of speech to poetry. Think of the final act of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, which Schoenberg never set to music, implicitly resisting the reification of song in a way that connects song (not sprachstimme) to Aron and the Golden Calf. The refusal—or inability—to set the text to music marks also the refusal to allow the ethical discourse of Moses to be reified as song. If Schoenberg necessarily left the final act of Moses und Aron unset, then Ferneyhough reverses this dynamic by placing a long un-texted movement at the beginning of the opera, the guitar suggesting unworded song, the reverse of Schoenberg's un-songed word.

After this scene, the opera envisions a journey for “our” imagined Benjamin, as told, largely, through a chorus of angels, a chorus of the angels of history (invoking, as it does, Benjamin’s possibly final essay, “The Concept of History”). The whole secular Jewish culture in Europe was completely wiped out between 1937 and 1945, along with the rest of European Jewish culture. What would have become of all these intellectuals? We have to imagine our character “Benjamin” living in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where we are now. It is interesting that two people living in America created an opera in English, commissioned and premiered in Munich, on this character. Our “Benjamin” is born in the space of contemporary American thought. The historical person leaves the face of the earth, but not our imagination. How do we “hear” him? How do we hear the wings of history? That’s also a translation: how is “Beniamin” is translated into “Benjamin”?

ED: Which parts of the opera have surprised you in the musical setting?

CB: “The Doctrine of Similarity,” Scene III, is the first section I heard performed. In the libretto, Scene III has very little in the way of mise-en-scene, or imagined action, or voiced characters. It is a set of 13 texts (canons as we call them) of various lengths, connected through thematic and numeric associations. It’s close to a serial poem, and is as far from the text of a dramatic opera as is Brian’s wordless Scene II. My approach was to leave things wide open, and very various, for Brian. The texts could be set in many different ways. I remember once asking Brian what the relation of my own performance of the libretto of Shadowtime—I had sent him a tape of a reading I gave from the libretto—would be to that of the text as performed in the opera. He answered: none. I loved that response because it meant that what he wanted to do would not be possible within the confines of a solo voice recitation, which I am well able to do on my own. This was going to go somewhere else, something I could not imagine. I was not disappointed. For one thing, and I find this one of the most remarkable aspects of the vocal setting in Shadowtime, Brian has sometimes overlaid the text: different parts of the libretto are sung simultaneously. So the verbal matter becomes part of the acoustic layering of the sound composition. Eventually, if you know the words, it might be possible to hear the distinct verbal strands, but in composite one hears not the singular threads but their composite: so here is an example of what I mentioned before, “a chordal poetics in which synchronic notes meld into diachronic tones.”

“The Doctrine of Similarity,” like the last scene, “Stelae for Failed Time,” is performed entirely by the chorus of the angels of history. The chorus in Shadowtime has the role of the chorus in Greek drama: they take on the burden of the telling. The last part is a “solo” for the angels. Why a “solo” sung by a chorus? It’s a solo because if you are outside of time, the multiplicity is understood as a single voice. In the actual time of performance, it is heard as multiple voices, a cacophony. It’s another way of figuring multiplicity and fragmentation, though, ultimately it’s not fragmentation. In the libretto, I have the angel of history say the opposite of what Benjamin writes in “The Concept of History.” Benjamin writes that “the angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.” Our angels, in contrast, ask that we “imagine no wholes from all that has been smashed.” Because for me, to answer again your question about “utopia,” it’s very important not to imagine a totality, but rather a multiplicity, the shards, and the sparks around the edges. We don’t live in a Messianic moment, the scales have not fallen from our eyes, our seeing is double and triple, not unitary. The Benjaminian “now time” (jetzeit) lets us hear the cathected material moment amidst the multiplicity of omnivalent vectors. By intermittently stopping the development of music tonalities and progressions, Ferneyhough creates the sensation of hearing individual notes released from their tune, sounded, that is, in a series of nows, moment by moment.

I hope that you hear that also as a way of figuring what people call the “complexity” of Ferneyhough’s music. “Extreme polyphony” would be a better category to explain what Brian does, combining several layers at the same time. If my words are not immediately intelligible at the level of hearing, there is a higher level of intelligibility available. Having vocal text and musical motifs superimposed creates something that cannot be heard in a real time but is, let’s just say, polyphony at an advanced level. It’s an example of an allegorical working of music and text on Benjaminian themes.

The last scene of Shadowtime ends with an insistence on negative economy: “The best picture of a picture / is not a picture / but the negative” [“La meilleure image / d’une image / n’est pas une image / mais le négatif ”]. This applies to the genre of opera itself: the relation of verbal language to representation, information to poetry, narrative to music, discourse to song.


 copyright © Charles Bernstein & Eric Denut