progress report

I thought I’d give a progress report and some backstory on my current book project, Unheard Melodies: Apophatic Poetics in English Literature.

I was an experimental poet before I was a scholar of premodern England. In this book, for the first time in my scholarly career, I am paying critical attention to the contemporary American lyric poetry that I have been reading, teaching, and writing for years. The point of connection is what I call apophatic poetics: literature’s invitation to apprehend the inapprehensible, as in John Keats’s “On a Grecian Urn”: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.”

I argue that apophaticism entered English poetic practice in premodernity via apophatic (or ‘negative’) theological discourse (on which see Turner). However, I’ve organized the book conceptually rather than historically, and it’s not important for my argument that any particular author have theology in mind. In fact, it’s more interesting when they don’t. When Lerner writes a verse essay theorizing “the negative lyric” (59-67), I think he is thinking of Adorno and Hegel, but his use of negation has more in common with pseudo-Dionysius.

I’ve come to see Keats as the crucial hinge between premodern and contemporary apophatic poetics. His famous term negative capability names a disposition that lies behind many of the works I discuss in the book. Keats’s sweet unheard melodies sound an awful lot like the heavenly/mental music described in the Prick of Conscience, Pearl, Margery Kempe’s Book of Margery Kempe, and William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Centuries later, Dickinson echoes Keats (Miller 198, 684):

This World is not conclusion.
A Species stands beyond—
Invisible, as Music—
But positive, as Sound—
It beckons, and it baffles—
Philosophy, don’t know—
And through a Riddle, at the last—
Sagacity, must go—


The words the happy say
Are paltry melody
But those the silent feel
Are beautiful—

Dickinson’s “through a Riddle” refers to 1 Corinthians 13:12, “Now we see through a glass darkly [per speculum in enigmate],” which has emerged for me as a key scriptural reference-point for apophatic poetics. Speculum and enigma are the names of early literary genres, mirror for princes and riddle. The works I consider in the book all, in different ways, understand themselves to be inadequate, reflecting the world (like a mirror) but with mysterious distortions (like a riddle).

This is also my Piers Plowman book. I consider William Langland the grandmaster of apophatic poetics. Ejecting his poem into the undefined negative space surrounding familiar languages, literary forms, genres, motifs, texts, doctrines, devotional practices, and historical persons and events, he weaves a text almost entirely out of what I call apophatic effects. I read Piers Plowman in enigmate, following Gruenler and other modern commentators but also echoing the English rebels of 1381, who discerned under the surface of the poem an incitement to insurrection, and John Bale, who says he found in Piers Plowman both prophetic grandeur and an abundance of figurative language (Bale’s word is similitudines ‘analogies,’ another keyword of my book).

Part I of the book, now drafted, is a survey of forms of apophatic effects: unpronounceable syllables, metrical duck-rabbits, unreadable novels, and more. Authors and texts considered in part I include Anne Carson, Beowulf, Edmund Spenser, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wallace Stevens, Victoria Chang, and Vladimir Nabokov. Part II, yet to be written, will discuss the careers of six poets, three from the fourteenth century and three US-based poets born in the middle of the twentieth: Geoffrey Chaucer, Bob Dylan, Langland, Claudia Rankine, Elizabeth Willis, and the poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I’m going to have fun comparing and contrasting across the six-hundred-year gulf.

further reading

Dickinson, Emily, and Cristanne Miller, ed. Poems: As She Preserved Them. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Gruenler, Curtis. “Piers Plowman” and the Poetics of Enigma: Riddles, Rhetoric, and Theology. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017.

Lerner, Ben. Angle of Yaw. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2006.

Turner, Denys. The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

how art shapes time

In 1962, the American art historian George Kubler published The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, a deceptively slim and mostly forgotten volume of philosophical reflection on his field of study. In it, Kubler expressed the idea that art shapes time. Specifically, he argued that the history of art is made up of many simultaneous, unsynchronized historical sequences. Although the title would seem to indicate that art-historical time has a single shape, Kubler spoke of “the manifold shapes of time” (12), and the book culminates in a long section entitled “The Shapes of Time” (96-122). Kubler, whose area of specialty was Pre-Columbian American material culture, draws examples from across European and American art traditions, as well as human-made objects not normally categorized as art, such as tools, recipes, and buttons.

Kubler’s book cut against the grain of an academic field that was, and still is, organized by time period. Periodization, the splitting up of history into discrete chunks—a characteristic organizational feature of several humanities disciplines—originated in art history, in which words like baroque, gothic,and renaissance acquired technical meanings, and so became proper nouns, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Whereas periodization conveys that cultural products share a decade- or century-specific sameness, a period style, Kubler stressed difference. And whereas periodization signals discontinuity over the long term, self-enclosed worlds replacing one another in a mysterious exchange, Kubler stressed continuity. For example, he countenanced art-historical series that stretched back to prehistory. As against the monologic view of culture that he conceptualized as a lens with a center radiating outward, Kubler urged the metaphor of a cross-section. He perceived (switching metaphors) “a mosaic of pieces of different developmental states, and of different ages” (28) in any given moment in the continuous history of human culture.

The Shape of Time spoke for a place and moment in intellectual history. Kubler, a Yale B.A. and Ph.D., was a professor at Yale at the time of its publication. Yale University Press brought out the book, which numbers a modest 136 pages. The striking orange-red cover depicts a grid-like array of pottery figurine fragments from ancient Teotihuacán, near present-day Mexico City. Kubler was in college and graduate school during the heyday of the Annales school of history, named after a journal founded by the French medievalist Marc Bloch. Kubler was contemporary with the second generation of French historians associated with the Annales school, including the medievalists Georges Duby and Jacques Le Goff. The Annales historians emphasized the long-term continuity of economic, political, and social history. Instead of a litany of the deeds of important men, European history was now to be written in the form of a vast, tensile assemblage, too massive to be comprehended within the frame of a human lifetime, or even a century.

Kubler’s ideas about art-historical time have a comparable vastness to them, inspired in his case not by the stability of European political institutions but by the vertiginous scale of American antiquity. “The universe,” he wrote in The Shape of Time, “has a finite velocity which limits not only the spread of its events, but also the speed of our perceptions. The moment of actuality slips too fast by the slow, coarse net of our senses” (18). Kubler’s prize-winning book The Art and Architecture of Ancient America: The Mexican, Maya and Andean Peoples appeared in the same year as The Shape of Time. Also published in 1962 was Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, like The Shape of Time a work of philosophy that sets out to articulate a theory of change adequate to the history of actually existing human culture, and its possible futures. Further toward the background of Kubler’s thinking lie Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity and Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, two distinctively early twentieth-century formulations of embodied time.

The thesis of The Shape of Time was not always welcome to its academic readers, particularly in its own discipline. The book could not be called field-defining, though its ambition to be that is apparent. In this respect, The Shape of Time strikes a contrast with one of its principal influences, medievalist Focillon’s celebrated Vie des formes, which Kubler had translated as The Life of Forms in Art in 1942. Focillon was Kubler’s teacher at Yale. The Shape of Time could find a less enthusiastic reception. In a retrospective essay published in 1982, Kubler reported “a division into two groups” among readers of the book. “One group is eager to say that they don’t understand a word of it. . . Those of the other group declare that they understand it all on first reading, without difficulty” (“Shape of Time Reconsidered” 112). “Of course,” he continued with the urbane self-assurance of a Sterling Professor, a distinguished post he had by then held for seven years, “I believe them both.”

The reasons that The Shape of Time did not spawn a school of thought are not far to seek. It is a short book with sparse footnotes, always a risk when it comes to satisfying scholarly audiences. It develops an idiosyncratic terminology that hovers, sometimes uncomfortably, between shorthand and system. (The book can be interpreted as a conflicted response to the then-new methodology called structuralism.) It draws inspiration from the sciences. It is partly about art and partly about culture in general; informed by expertise in American and European art, the book nonetheless speaks in universals. Kubler is unafraid to mix philosophizing with curiously specific pronouncements, as when he discloses that “certain classes of technical developments in the history of art require about 60 years for their formulation” (102). It is in the nature of such pronouncements that one will either find them useful, or not. The Shape of Time belongs to the traditions of American pragmatism and minimalism (among its admirers: Donald Judd, Ad Reinhardt, and Robert Smithson); but it issued in a field dominated by European positivist historiography, which places a premium on the accumulation of evidence and the documentation of sources. In his retrospective essay, first delivered as a lecture in 1981, Kubler took the opportunity to blast art historians’ “dangerously desiccated procedures” (121).

Yet Kubler’s arguments about how art shapes time remain compelling. In fact, we are now better prepared to hear them. Since 1962, periodization has become more perfectly the sole governing principle of disciplinary study in art history, English, music, and, to a lesser extent, history and the Romance languages. Therefore, Kubler’s un-periodized theory of time is all the more challenging. (Classics, the oldest humanities department, effectively functions as one giant period, while philosophy and religious studies are not organized historically, for better or worse.) Beyond addressing the structural limitations of academia, Kubler teaches us how to be alive to a world saturated with the products of human hands. He was ahead of the so-called cultural turn in counting everyday items among those products: not art, but things were the proper objects of interest for the cultural historian.

Rather than cataloguing objective details of style, Kubler theorized historical action. His account of time is exhilaratingly dynamic. An art-historical sequence was “a linked succession of prime works with replications, all being distributed in time as recognizably early and late versions of the same kind of action” (130). And Kubler attended to the effects of space and distance, anticipating the sociological theory of “the field of cultural production” advanced by Bourdieu in the 1980s and 1990s. Just as Bourdieu was to identify the city as the locus of literary experimentation, Kubler explored the art-historical “fast happening” (84-96) that was likeliest to occur, he said, in medieval courts and modern cities. Today, global interchange facilitated by air travel and the internet masks the regionalism that still shapes the development of art, politics, and intellectual life. Kubler’s remarks on placement and geography are an important corrective to our sense of the irretrievability of that which is local.

Is spacetime one, or many—singular, or fragmentary? Joining an intellectual lineage that connects St. Augustine and Margaret Cavendish to Husserl and Einstein, Kubler declared for multiplicity. In rejecting the familiar arc of the “growth,” “maturity,” and “decay” of aesthetic styles, Kubler instructs us in a certain mode of attunement to the complexity of the world. Because the “action” that is the work of art is iterative and enmeshed in the process of living, art leaves its imprint on time itself. George Kubler’s work reminds us that time has no shape at all until there are human beings, with their minds and in their generations, to create it.

further reading

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Randal Johnson, ed. The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Focillon, Henri. Vie des formes. Paris: Leroux, 1934.

Kubler, George. The Art and Architecture of Ancient America: The Mexican, Maya and Andean Peoples. New York: Penguin, 1962.

Kubler, George. The Shape of Time. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962.

Kubler, George. “The Shape of Time Reconsidered.” The Shape of Time Reconsidered.” Perspecta 19 (1982): 112-21.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

history doesn’t bargain

“Do you know what happened after the Black Plague ended?” sci-fi writer Wesley Chu tweeted yesterday (then deleted). “The Renaissance!”

I won’t get into the issues with this tweet as history. I don’t need to, because Eleanor Janega has it covered (1; 2; 3). In a way, historical accuracy is beside the point. Chu’s tweet irritated me more for its rhetoric. It suggests that history bargains. Debit: one plague. Credit: one renaissance. It is comforting to construct a redemptive moral framework to absorb a catastrophe.

The alternative perspective is terrifying but, I think, important to try to conceive: history doesn’t bargain. No one is keeping a ledger. There are no IOUs. The violence of today isn’t redeemed by great expectations for the future. (Corollary: the violence of the past wasn’t redeemed by anything that followed.) History does not unfold according to a moral logic–or any knowable logic. A better metaphor than the interval-and-rebirth metaphor built into the terms medieval and renaissance is the metaphor of drift. History drifts. It enacts “a movement toward a future that is ultimately inapprehensible” (Davis 127). That’s Kathleen Davis summarizing Bede’s conception of history. Her point, in context, is that this is not an attitude we were led to expect from a European monk writing deep in ‘medieval’ time, when faith in God supposedly precluded a sense of expansive possibility for human action. But there it is anyway, latent in Bede’s writings. An enigmatic (or apophatic) conception of history is compatible with faith. And, conversely, believers aren’t the only ones who moralize history today.

Do you know what happened after the COVID-19 pandemic ended? No, you do not.

further reading

Davis, Kathleen. Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.