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Benjamin Noys (Chichester), “The Cosmogony of Revolution: Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters and Anti-Neurosis” (Neurosis, Poetry, and the Present, 18 March 2017)

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The following text was first presented at Neurosis, Poetry, and the Present, a workshop organized by Daniel Katz and Benjamin Noys at CPCT on 18 March 2017.  

The Cosmogony of Revolution: Diane de Prima’s Revolutionary Letters

Benjamin Noys (Chichester)

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Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters are exhortations, instructions, reflections, analyses, provocations, meditations and speculations that are all directed towards revolution. [1] ‘Direction’ might be taken in a double sense: directed towards making the revolution happen and directed towards guiding us in a revolutionary process. In this the Letters remain somewhere in between the performative – exhorting the revolution, or what Robespierre called ‘the particular duty of hastening its pace’ [2] – and the constative, describing the revolution that is happening and providing knowledge of the revolution. Primarily written from the 1960s to the early 1970s, although they extend to 2003, these poems were also performances as well as texts and provide a rich and dense conceptualization of revolution. In brief, di Prima’s anarchist vision of revolution is one guided by immediacy and transparency. All that separates us must be destroyed: money, the media, synthetic foods, schools, and the ‘plastic constructs’ (#22; p.35) of our selves under capitalism. The letters are a close examination of the process and course of the revolution. They are the poems of revolution and, of course, the poems of revolution that did not or has not taken place.

What interests me is that the Revolutionary Letters are defiantly anti-neurotic texts, incarnating what Dale Smith calls a ‘heavy optimism’. [3] While written ‘in the gathering madness’ (p.5) these poems celebrate the possibilities of health (‘the map: first goal is health’, #43; p.56) and dismiss ‘shrinks / pimps for this decadence’ (#19; p.32). Neurosis would be the disease or discontent of a civilization that must be destroyed so we can ‘reach / instinctive man’ (#15; p.27). In this the Letters belong to those currents of the 1960s that reject normative conceptions of psychopathology, although unlike many of those currents they also reject any celebration of ‘extreme’ states of ‘pathology’, notably psychosis, as evidence of superior insight or superior ‘health’. The Letters have, at least on my reading, no place for neurosis. This exclusion seems to me important for grasping the Letters and their resonance in the present moment.

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In order to explore the Letters I want to read them in an impersonal way; this is ironically Deleuzian (ironic due to Deleuze’s tendency to reject neurosis and ironic due to my tendency to reject Deleuze). It is also faithful to a certain reading di Prima proposes: ‘Archetypes have their own drama: a vast uncharted cycle of Comedia dell’Arte, which they play out through us, without our informed consent. And with, ultimately, no concerns for human purpose’. [4] This also suggests di Prima’s Jungianism, which might be supposed as one source of her rejection of the Freudian category of neurosis. [5] It should be added, however, that in Loba, her later exploration of female deities and archetypes, di Prima does refer to the authority of an ‘imaginary Jungian scholar’ on several occasions, suggesting some dissatisfaction with Jungian analysis. [6] My reading is concerned with this lack of concern, this playing out of the archetypes, of revolution and of the poems themselves. [7] While I will refer to di Prima for convenience and to avoid arch formulations like ‘the text says’ or ‘the poem expresses’, I am aiming at an impersonal reading in which di Prima is something like the conceptual persona of the revolution. [8]

The Cosmogony of Revolution

In a late letter, number #75, written in the early 1980s and subtitled ‘RANT’, di Prima suggests:

You cannot write a single line w/out a cosmology

a cosmogony

laid out, before all eyes (#75; p. 103)

Poetry cannot be written without a theory of the origin of the universe. I also want to suggest that the Revolutionary Letters are a ‘cosmology’ or ‘cosmogony’ of revolution: a thinking of revolution as origin, as birth of the universe (returning also, as we will see, to the older meaning of revolution as the revolving of astral bodies). In fact, I would suggest that there is an identification of poetry and revolution, so not much the old dichotomy of ‘poetry at the service of the revolution’ or the ‘revolution in the service of poetry’, but poetry = revolution. In di Prima’s formulation: ‘IF THE WORD HAS POWER YOU SHALL NOT STAND / AMERICA’ (#40; p.53). Both poetry and revolution are works of imagination, both are a ‘whole’, as di Prima puts in, in the context of what she calls the war on the imagination. We all have a ‘poetics’, we are all involved in the war on the imagination, and the work is part of this war. Therefore, when unpacking di Prima’s Letters we are unpacking a cosmogony. This use of the term might be considered a retrospective imposition on the urgency of the early Letters, which are often practically oriented. [9] The early Letters do, however, still embody a cosmogony, even as that poetic thinking shifts and turns, as we will see, with the flowing and ebbing of revolution.

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The ‘negative’ element of this cosmogony is, as I have suggested, the destruction of all the separations imposed upon us by capitalist society. The Letters range across the destruction of these separations. So, in Letter #9, we are called to ‘destroy the concept of money / as we know it, get rid of interest, / savings, inheritance / (Pound’s money, as dated coupons that come in the mail / to everyone, and are void in 30 days / is still a good idea)’ (#9; p.18). Di Prima also targets other forms of mediation, notably schools and the media: SMASH THE MEDIA, I said / AND BURN THE SCHOOLS’ (#11, p.22). Following this logic to its end point Di Prima argues the revolutionary ‘himself’ is perhaps the last and final mediation to be destroyed by the revolution: ‘for every revolutionary must at last will his own destruction / rooted as he is in the past he sets out to destroy’ (#12; p.23). This anti-separation logic is in keeping with the insurrectional forms of anarchism, which aim at immediate combat and are transmitted to Di Prima via her Italian ‘Grandpa’ (pp.5-6). It also converges with a range of 60s tropes of revolution that critique the ‘spectacle’ as general form of capitalist dominance through the separation of life from its activity (the Situationists), and general critiques of technology as force of separation and violence (from Marcuse to Norman Mailer).

Second, the poems engage with revolution as total also in the sense of engaging with the abuse of nature as well as human beings. Di Prima shows an awareness of the ecological, as a political matter, that has become insistent in the present moment. So, Di Prima suggests a concept of revolution in which ‘we will all feel the pinch’ and ‘of the ‘necessities’, luxuries / will have to go by the board’ (#17, p.29; see also #34, p.47). While I think true, this is hardly a popular sentiment in our time in which ‘fully automated luxury communism’ is lauded. [10] In fact, Di Prima offers a defiant rebuff to accelerationists. She suggests that we repudiate cybernetic and futurist visions of revolution, as a ‘cybernetic civilization’ will be unable to ‘show us our root / our original face’ (#33, p.46). We have to ‘turn off the power, turn on the /stars at night’ (#34, p.47). Those who premise revolution on ‘science fiction utopia’ are ‘the enemy’ who are willing ‘to sacrifice the planet’ (#19; p.31).

Third, the revolution is natural, in both the sense of a return to nature and in the older sense of the notion of revolution as cyclical, particularly in regard to astral bodies. [11] Letter #41 is a key statement: ‘Revolution: a turning, as the earth / turns, among planets’ (p.54). This turning is also a turning from the dark to the light, to a dawn, and so revolution turns and returns. The turn us also a turn to the beginning, to the root, as it is not ‘western civilization, but civilization itself / is the disease which is eating us’ (#32, p.45). We have to ask ‘how far back / are we willing to go?’ (#33, p.46) The future revolution will result in a new tribal society in which our ‘great-grandchildren’ will be new ‘American aborigines’ (#24, p.37). Revolution cycles to the fact that ‘MAN IS INNOCENT & BEAUTIFUL’ (#36, p.49) and that ‘left to themselves’ people will return to the ‘touch of love’ (#4, p.11). The origin of the universe is in question in the process of writing revolution. The return is one to a cosmic order of birth and death, of return and revolution. This is the final ‘whole’ to which Di Prima’s work speaks; a defence of the power of imagination as the core of the revolution.

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These conceptualizations, which I have extracted and separated, of course run together. The attack on separation involves a search for the moment of non-separation and a desire to return to that moment. Hence this is a logical process, which we can also see in how primitivist and anti-civ logics emerged out of critiques of the spectacle and Adornonian critiques of society as absolute untruth, pushing back to find a moment before separation and the fall: from when the Russian revolution went bad to when the Neolithic revolution went bad. [12] Beneath the cobblestones, the beach; or beneath capitalist mediations or the mediations of civilization, nature; such conceptualizations are familiar enough objects of critique. [13] The Letters, however, motivate this notion of return as the form of integrity and the whole violently disrupted by civilization and capitalism. [14]

The completion of the cosmogony of revolution is one of return, of revolution as a return to other forms and logics oppressed by ‘reason’ and ‘science’; ‘to seek help in realms we have been taught to think of / as ‘mythological’ (#45, p.58). We must: ‘Seek out / the ancient texts : alchemy / homeopathy, secret charts / or early Rosicrucians (Giordanisti)’ and ‘LOOK TO THE ‘HERESIES’ OF EUROPE FOR / BLOODROOTS’ (#59; p.76).[15] These heretical forms of knowledge posit another tradition: one which rediscovers the ‘whole’ and which grounds the current revolution (of the 1960s) in a longer process of heresy and revolution as a series of struggles for totality and wholeness. Cosmogony is the birth of a new universe that is the return of the old universe. We must ‘Rewrite the calendar’ (#59; p.76) to discover and recover a new sense of history and time.

The Course of Revolution

What, then, is the course of the revolution? In one obvious sense the Letters trace the course of revolution as return, as I have said, but also, due to circumstance, the course of revolution as waning or ebbing. In fact, the Letters offer a complex temporality of revolution, not least because di Prima concertedly questioned logics of the revolution as unfolding, as another step within the modern, a temporality that we might characterize as the one of bourgeois revolutions, according to Marx, [16] and which di Prima links to science:

As soon as we submit

to a system based on causality, linear time

we submit, again, to the old value, plunge again

into slavery. … (#51; p.66)

Linear causality is rejected to open up the problem of revolution to alternative temporal modes. This is the refusal of a scientific cosmogony, which only has the point ‘to drain / hope of contact or change’ (#63; p.80).

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Certainly, return and revolution as revolving of astral bodies is one of the primary forms of this alternative temporality. This cyclical temporality, of the turning earth, is a return that is also a disruption. It has to differentiate itself from the cyclical form of capital and the cyclical form of defeat: ‘History repeats itself / only if we let it.’ (#62; p.79) In the Letters most explicit statement of the return to an aboriginal state di Prima contrasts ‘the American aborigines’ with ‘the affluent / highly civilized Africans’ who will now be trading for American artifacts (#24; p.37). The reversal and return is a specific one: a return to repeal the long history of American violence, to overcome and obliterate the particular settler-colonial logic of the United States.

The Letters also attend to the course of revolution as one that is explicitly transitional. In Letter #10 di Prima suggests that:

These are transitional years and the dues

will be heavy.

Change is quick but revolution

will take a while,

America has not even begun as yet.

This continent is seed. (p.20)

The revolution will not be immediate, but ‘will take a while’ and the process of the germination of revolution, its growth, is one that will require a long transition. Payment will have to be made, ‘dues / will be heavy’, to this long process. In that sense the Letters are a paying of these dues to this process. ‘Immediacy’ as a form should not be seen as speed, ‘Change is quick’, as a kind of ‘reverse accelerationism’ in which we speed into the past.

The Letters are didactic, they are lessons in revolution. Certainly they reject various errors that would put the revolution off course, from cybernetic utopias to the rejection of violence. At the same time di Prima also notes that:

NO ONE WAY WORKS, it will take all of us

shoving at the thing from all sides

to bring it down. (#8; p.17)

The course of revolution retains this unpredictable element, veers off course and requires multiple courses. The return is not simple. In Letter #45 di Prima notes:

Best not to place bodies in the line of fire

but to seek other means: study the Sioux

learn not to fuck up as they did–another ghost dance

started on Haight Street in 1967

We ain’t seen the end of it yet (#45; p.58)

We are not to repeat previous failures of revolution, but to make a true revolution.

It is worth remembering di Prima’s words from a text considering the work of the alchemist Paracelsus: ‘The whole of modern criticism has as its aim the softening of the statements of poets, alchemists, philosophers, into something symbolical and therefore twice removed and digestible without effort and without faith.’ [17] Letter #46 reads:

And as you learn the magic, learn to believe it

Don’t be ‘surprised’ when it works, you undercut

your power. (p.59)

This must be remembered. My work as critic is displacing this belief, which I don’t share, [18] and is vital to the work of the Letters. This is why, again, the Letters are, literally, a cosmogony of birth for us and for nature, undivided.

Revolution Redux

Di Prima’s Letters have been influential on contemporary poets. [19] For Joshua Clover di Prima’s Letters ‘comprise the great modern georgic’ and a ‘simple lesson’ in the practicalities of revolution. [20] Here what is important are those Letters of instruction, which tell us the lessons of revolution (‘hoard matches, we aren’t good / at rubbing sticks together any more’, #3, p.10). While I will over-generalise, and not pursue the multiple paths of influence of the Letters, I want to suggest this practicality and immediacy is one form in which the Letters themselves return. The convergence is under the sign of immediate revolt, anarchist and insurrectional for di Prima, today conceived in terms of the ‘riot form’. [21] Here process is conceived of in the mode of surviving such insurrectional moments and so di Prima’s Letters return again as the handbook to uprising. In the case of Sean Bonney’s Letters against the Firmament, this return is also cosmological and not simply one of immediacy and process; although, as the title suggests, the cosmological is now under the sign of antagonism as well as harmony.

I want to be critical, however, in suggesting this return of revolution in the return of the Revolutionary Letters is also the return of a simplification. Against neurosis, with its tendency to delay, prevarication, and sexual pathology, we have a return to texts of anti-neurosis. While this is certainly a vital act of recovery I suggest that this recovery is limited in the invocation of immediacy and simplicity. The Letters attest, if anything, to the complex course of revolution and to this complexity as a problem of transition. [22] They may do so in a mode of simplicity, in a direct and didactic form, but this does not resolve the problem. Also, this return is itself mediated, in the form of a rewriting or reworking of the Letters and, obviously, a selective one at that. In this selection and inheriting a certain image of the Letters is constructed, which conforms to a different cosmogony of revolution.

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To simplify dramatically, di Prima’s cosmogony is one of a return to a moment or form of life before abstraction. In contrast, I would suggest that the current adoption of the Letters is premised on a construction of revolution as a form after abstraction. While di Prima rejects a linear conception of revolution, the current forms of immediacy, while also chary of claims to linearity and necessity, suggest an exit from abstractions after the revolution. There is convergence here, but the tones of return and rejection of ‘civilization’, except perhaps in the not insignificant form of ‘capitalist civilization’, are much less present. This could be taken as a corrective to di Prima’s ‘primitivism’, but I’d also suggest a tendency to leave behind the complexity of the Letters and their ambiguities, tensions, and re-formulations in the process of (failed) revolution.

The return of revolution that occurs in the Letters, the return of revolution as return, suggests that returning to the Letters as the simple statement of revolution will already involve a misapprehension. Yet this gesture of return to a ‘simpler’ more ‘hopeful’ moment, which we could trace across a number of theoretical and critical contemporary projects, appears to be one that is difficult to resist. In the desire to avoid the neurotic entanglement with abstraction, which is part of the path that revolution takes, a sudden anti-neurotic break appears. While that simplification may be pushed into the past text or moment, this is our simplification and, ironically, licensed by this work of abstraction. Now is the time, it is claimed, when the course of revolution can run smooth. While I risk on insisting on complexity for the sake of it, something I regard as ideological, it seems to me that we have to more fully grasp the moment of simplicity as moment of negation and affirmation, as a certain work of production. This is I have returned, again, to the Letters. This is why, again, we have to return.

Notes

[1] Diane di Prima, Revolutionary Letters (San Francisco: Last Gasp, 2007). Further page references in text by letter number and page number. A less complete edition can be found online: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/diane-di-prima-revolutionary-letters

[2] Qtd. in Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. and intro. Keith Tribe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p.12.

[3] Dale Smith, ‘Giving Everything: On Diane di Prima’, Los Angeles Review of Books, 26 January 2013: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/giving-everything-on-diane-di-prima/https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/giving-everything-on-diane-di-prima/

[4] Ibid.

[5] I owe this point to Daniel Katz. This ‘Jungianism’ also overlaps with Gilles Deleuze, which perhaps accounts for this consonance of impersonality and persona, see Christian Kerslake, ‘Rebirth through Incest: On Deleuze’s Early Jungianism’, Angelaki 9.1 (2004): 135–157.

[6] See Diane di Prima, Loba (New York: Penguin, 1998), p.83, p.94, and p.165.

[7] This is akin to the method of reading poetry proposed by Judith Balso, Affirmation of Poetry, trans. Drew S. Burk (Minneapolis: Univocal, 2014), especially pp.97-101. Balso remarks ‘the thought of the poem is wholly within the poem itself’ (p.98).

[8] This might be linked to what Balso calls ‘impersonal lyricism’ (p.78).

[9] See Letters #3, #5, #7, #8, #14, #15, #18

[10] https://www.vice.com/en_au/article/luxury-communism-933

[11] ‘Revolution, at first derived from the natural movement of the stars and thus introduced into the natural rhythm of history as a cyclical metaphor, henceforth attained an irreversible direction’, Koselleck, Futures Past, p.23.

[12] Deleuze and Guattari remarked sarcastically that ‘Psychoanalysis is like the Russian Revolution; we don’t know when it started going bad. We have to keep going back further’ (55), Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), although it might be said they fell victim to the same search.

[13] For those of you interested, the anarchist/communist magazine Wildcat used Derrida’s deconstruction of Rousseau, from Of Grammatology, as a means to critique anti-civ/primitivism.

[14] For a ‘savage’ critique that uses the state of nature against biopolitical and philosophical imaginations of this state see Federico Luisetti, ‘Notes on the Biopolitical State of Nature’, Paragraph 39.1 (2016): 108–121.

[15] See also Diane di Prima, ‘Paracelsus: An Appreciation’, in The Alchemical Tradition in the Late Twentieth Century, ed. Richard Grossinger (Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1991), pp.26–33.

[16] https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm

[17] di Prima, ‘Paracelsus: An Appreciation’, p.30.

[18] As Danowski and Viveiros de Castro remark, I share some premises with the accelerationists and, by implication, too many. Deborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Ends of the World, trans. Rodrigo Nunes (Cambridge: Polity, 2017), p.51.

[19] For example: Joshua Clover’s ‘Haecceity’, is a rewriting of Revolutionary Letter #19, see Joshua Clover, Red Epic (Oakland, CA: Commune Editions, 2015), p.18; Sean Bonney uses di Prima as an epigraph for his Lamentations, see Sean Bonney, Letters against the Firmament (London: Enitharmon Press, 2015), p.15; Verity Spott ‘Getting out of Hell – after Sappho & Diane di Prima & Arlen Riley Wilson & C. S. Lewis, Two Torn Halves Blog, 28 November 2016: http://twotornhalves.blogspot.co.uk/2016/11/getting-out-of-hell-after-sappho-diane.html

[20] Joshua Clover, ‘Five Book Plan: Radical Poetry’, Verso Blog, 24 May 2016: http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2654-five-book-plan-radical-poetry

[21] Joshua Clover, Riot Strike Riot (London: Verso, 2016); Bonney, Letters, especially pp.113-117.

[22] di Prima remarks, in her text on Paracelsus, that: ‘The world into which Paracelsus was born was at least as complicated as our own’, ‘Paracelsus: An Appreciation’, p.26.

One thought on “Benjamin Noys (Chichester), “The Cosmogony of Revolution: Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters and Anti-Neurosis” (Neurosis, Poetry, and the Present, 18 March 2017)

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