Astonishments for Our Time

By Lowry PresslyApril 4, 2019

Astonishments for Our Time

The Condition of Secrecy by Inger Christensen

IF YOU TAKE a few hours to read through one of Inger Christensen’s book-length masterpieces, there will come a point when you too feel as though you are standing inside a poem, even if you happen to be sitting. Maybe you feel this way because the poem in your hand has persuaded you that it is somehow both a precise and infinitely suggestive microcosm of existence, and a palimpsest of how it all hangs together, and this has left you uneasy. A little exalted, maybe, a little dissolved. Whatever it is, the feeling stays with you long after you close the book, even after you cannot remember a single line. Lines, for instance, like these from the opening of alphabet:

apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist

bracken exists; and blackberries, blackberries;
bromine exists; and hydrogen, hydrogen

cicadas exist; chicory, chromium,
citrus trees; cicadas exist;
cicadas, cedars, cypresses, the cerebellum

doves exist, dreamers, and dolls;
killers exist, and doves, and doves;
haze, dioxin, and days; days
exist, days and death; and poems
exist; poems, days, death

At some point in alphabet’s long, self-complicating litany it may occur to you that the poet is conveying a stunningly complex and philosophically worked-through picture of the world seen through its fragments. When the poem ends with the 14th letter, the reader is left with a sense that it nevertheless continues beyond the page, like the Fibonacci sequence on which it is structured, ad infinitum. That it is like the world because it is of the world. And if a reader has reached this conclusion it can only be because she has begun to see not just poems differently, but also the world. What sets Christensen above other poets, moralists, mystics, and scientists who aim to reeducate our vision in such a way is that she rarely instructs by telling how to see, but instead gets readers to experience an alternate way of seeing through the reading of her verse.

Christensen’s major works — it, alphabet, Letter in April — bring their readers to know many things, or one very large and complex thing, even if it is so big and complex that the only way any of us may ever hope to know it as a whole is in the sense of acquaintance, intimacy, and acknowledgment. This is how the world speaks to the visionary, though it takes a poet of great talent and intuition to share this sort of experience with an audience. Thankfully we now have The Condition of Secrecy, the first collection of Inger Christensen’s essays to appear in English, so that we may benefit from the author’s own attempts to come to grips with this experience, with the many ethical and aesthetic implications of her poetic vision, and so much else.

The collection begins with a nostalgic paean to organized labor and collective well-being that is also the memoir of a child’s first summer vacations, and it ends with the book’s only poem. In between, we find Inger Christensen expanding on the perennial preoccupations of her life’s work: the enormity and complexity of the natural world and its systems; the world-systems of human language, climate, agriculture, chemistry, and poetry, just to name a few; leftist politics; mathematics; and ars poetica. As in the poems, the result is an overriding sense that they are all connected, somehow, and that some connections worth seeking nevertheless remain beyond the boundaries of language.

Take that first essay, “Freedom, Equality, and Fraternity in the Summer Cottage.” Christensen recalls the time in childhood when the word summer first became meaningful for her. This also happened to be the time when the Nazis were in Denmark, yet the occupation remains an element of the grown-up world: a sharpness around the edges of vacation and routine maintenance. Early on, Christensen presents us with the “string of glimpses, images, moments of awareness when summer became apparent and instilled itself in us.” The images that follow are a harmony of precision and evocation, and achieve a deft, almost musical balance between nostalgia, melancholy, and “a random, passing humanness, overcome by love and made mute.” Yellow slugs “moving like slow flames” on coke slag behind a gas works, boys and girls scraping the cracked dry earth with shards of porcelain, wide meadow, silent sea. And here is how Christensen ends that section, before moving on to the role that trade unions played in the evolution of her sensibility:

They’re three banal experiences, nothing out of the ordinary; many people must have seen and done the same things, but for me they stand out. They were for many years almost supernatural, are still nearly indescribable, and I know by now that I have to let them stay beyond words, because they’re about a child’s — a human being’s — in this case, my own — first aesthetic experiences. Even back when they first happened, these three images were already what I can now call them: three images — open, endless beauty; pointless energy; and the security of not being alone.

The next thing you know, she is describing a child’s impression of solidarity among the tradesmen who volunteered around the cottage, which was owned by the tailor’s union and opened to its members in turn. Another set of images, now of collective, collectivized effort, striking for Christensen precisely because of their naturalness in a world where they were under mortal threat: “[W]orking together, pruning trees, making steps out of railroad ties, picking apples, painting garden furniture, spreading gravel…”

Since this is the first essay in the collection, it would be reasonable to suppose that reminiscence has carried the poet first to one set of images from her childhood, now to another. But as you read on, you begin to understand that those images of happiness have already involved you in Christensen’s interwoven vision of the world both as it is and as it should be. Subsequent essays, ostensibly about poetry, language, art, and nature, reveal a vision of the natural world that is inseparable from a broadly leftist politics, a poet’s metaphysical commitments, and a challenging, deeply considered theory of language. From one essay to the next, it all begins to hang together in luminous prose (conveyed in graceful, intimate English by her longtime translator Susanna Nied) confirming what was already evident in the poems: that Christensen was one of the eminent visionaries of the 20th century.

(The universe with nature with the social system with humans with me with my feelings, my work, my language, and more — all these and their mutual interrelationships are incorporated into my concept of the world, which is in constant flux, but on which I base everything anyway, as if it were what we call a philosophy of life — one that’s a process, where seeing can’t be separated from a life that both sees and can be seen, and that, when it expresses what it sees, demonstrates its innate inexpressibility.) (“The Miracle Play of Reality”)

Christensen’s deep commitment to naturalism makes classing her among European literature’s modernists or postmodernists (or both) such an uncomfortable exercise in taxonomy. Hers is an idiosyncratic, philosophical sort of naturalism, no doubt, and one of the joys of these essays is the insight they give English readers into how she understood her poetics, like her ethics and theory of language, as emerging from a vision of the overwhelming interrelatedness of being. “[L]anguage and the world express themselves with the help of each other,” she writes in the characteristically titled essay “Silk, the Universe, Language, and the Heart.” And just as language isn’t strictly representational on her view, neither is her mode of naturalism. For example, the mathematical complexity of her poems doesn’t aim to reproduce forms found in nature, but rather is itself one of those forms. Even these essays, as she understands them, are in the first instance more like ferns than they are about anything, though they are also that.

If Christensen’s work doesn’t look to us like straightforward naturalism, she suggests, it reflects only the poverty of our conception of the natural world. (So calling her a “formalist,” as Eliot Weinberger does, would surely be correct as far as it goes, though it’s a bit like calling Gregor Mendel a gardener.) And that we don’t typically consider it realistic or naturalistic that a picture of the world as it is contains a vision of the world as it should be, reflects the poverty of our moral vision, which for Christensen is also our physical vision and the ability to see each nested within the other like a duck-rabbit.

It is exciting and refreshing to see a poet meditate on the experience of the sublime majesty of nature, whether in the prevalence of Fibonacci numbers or the sheer chance that she was born a human and not a mackerel, and not conclude with the Romantic elevation of the individual as seer or the poet as one with “the best words” and “a very good brain,” but with exactly the opposite: a radical leveling that comes from the experience of unity. For Christensen, it is zero steps from here to an ethics and political theory.

Christensen finds this sort of unity in the experience of reading, of course: the poet’s and the reader’s minds are “intermingled in the poem, as if the poem were our minds’ common ground.” But she finds it also between readers and anemones, anemones and slag, slag and the slow flames of slugs. Christensen thinks that this transitiveness of things is a product of language, but only because language is itself an expression of life, like weather, vines, and human nature. (This is the “condition of secrecy” of the book’s title, or something like it.) And this means that the difference between inner and outer, mind and world, self and other, is false, ideological, and contrary to honest relations and human flourishing. All words, like all wounds, are ordinary, and therefore held in common.

Yet from this vision Christensen draws conclusions that are neither cynical nor quietist, but radical. Christensen writes of Michelangelo as “a ripple on the surface of art” in hopes of getting us to see that such an understanding shouldn’t be embarrassing either for Michelangelo or for a conception of art as the independent force of nature she believes it to be. Whatever elides the distinction between an individual and the world, as art can do for both artists and readers, ought to be cause for exaltation even as it dissolves the boundaries by which the individual recognizes herself. Here we are getting back to the vertigo we feel when reading Christensen’s long poems, but which now begins to shape itself into the ethical and political aspects of her vision — in particular her rejection of the centrality, even the metaphysical reality, of the individual.

Christensen extends her blurring logic to everything conceived in language, not least the individual herself. The summer cottage “belonged to us only because it belonged to others” — so too summer, so too language and thought, so too self, so too all life human and nonhuman alike. So, she concludes:

[T]here’s also no reason to cultivate individual experience, individual psychology. It’s a fiction, because it suggests that there’s a kind of freedom beyond the purely physical freedom that we own only in our interplay with the world and with each other. For that reason I consider it more important to posit an incorrect explanation of the world than to present an explanation of an individual self that may be correct. (“Interplay”)

Christensen understands that her challenge may not appeal to many of her readers. But another of her aims is to posit an explanation of the world that is at the same time an intimation of how we might respond, and thrive, in response to that challenge. “Through this writing, I’ve been trying to get to the heart of my relationship with my readers. […] I want them to see what they don’t see. […] I want them to do what they don’t do. What we want to do anyway, if we ever could become helpless enough to do it.” (“To Talk, To See, To Do”) This isn’t to invoke a Kantian morality of universality and duty, a Rawlsian bedrock of risk-aversion, or even the radical absurdity of the existentialists, but to suggest a wholly new starting place by rejecting the mirage of individual personhood and, lest she be confused with the totalizing collectivist programs of the 20th century, also by rejecting the division between humans and the wide rest of being.

But who will lay the first stone in the foundation of helplessness? Though she did not live to see today’s battles over literary practices, with their jeremiads over the use of pronouns other than the first-person singular, she knew that poets had a role to play, if only because of their intimacy with loneliness, isolation, and expression:

[Gunnar Ekelöf] said that he was afraid, and he told us that at last he was no longer afraid of being afraid, because he had figured out that he wasn’t anyone special and had accepted it — “in reality, you are no one” — and he found a kind of comfort in that. The important thing is that he had the courage to keep telling it to others, to say it again and again: I’m afraid. I’m no one. Isn’t that the way it is for you, too? … How else can we put aside the lust for power in all of us? (“To Talk, to See, to Do”)

Readers hungry for an alternative form of literary politics will be stimulated by Christensen’s democratic alchemy of ars poetica and ethics, especially in contrast to dominant practices of subordinating one to the other. And there is much in this volume to spur the thinking of left-leaning writers and readers uncomfortable with the ways that appropriation discourse sometimes seems eager to erect a regime of coercive property relations in the realm of culture — precisely where human freedom may best discover itself and develop into ethical consciousness — yet who are equally unwilling to start declaring zones of human life off limits to politics. Those in search of a different sense of “belonging” than the proprietary one that seems to dominate in this weird country will be pleased to find that Christensen offers an alternate vision of uncommon philosophical depth and poetic richness of how speaking animals might understand their place in the disordered order of things, and how that might change how we decide to live and act together.

Although Christensen’s essays are immensely rewarding along these lines, I will leave the rest to the reader’s discovery, since I don’t want to give the impression that The Condition of Secrecy is a political polemic. The essays here are also about poetry, the self, fate, geometry, dreams, shame, painting, prepositions, history, anonymity, truth, geometry, agriculture, generative grammar, metaphysics, Giordano Bruno, the necessity of art, Lu Chi, the baroque, the atom bomb, trees, diaspora, a trans-species mercy “somewhere between wonder and forgiveness,” silk, the universe, and, well, so on. Among this wealth of astonishments, what most amazes is how it hangs together in Christensen’s unified vision, even if all the connections aren’t exactly displayed or laid bare by argument. She quotes two lines by Lu Chi: “In a single meter of silk, the infinite universe exists; language is a Great Flood from a small corner of the heart.” As Lu Chi left it up to his readers to discover the logic connecting the two halves of that sentence — to stare into the weird sense of that semicolon, as it were, particular but also identical to all the others — so Christensen guides the reader but ultimately leaves it up to her to make sense, and to get a firsthand sense of sense’s limits.

At the limits of language, Christensen finds herself constrained in her ability to convey her interconnected vision to the reader. She explains, in her way: if we find a person attractive, it is not because of any particular feature or set of features, but the “internal interplay among” them, which of course is invisible. It is invisible because it is a mental construction of aesthetic experience. But just because it is invisible and constructed doesn’t mean that it’s not real or natural. To give her readers a view of the world’s grand invisible connectedness, a writer needs to give an intimation of it by the form of her words, but also leave space for the reader to look past them. And since Christensen’s interrelatedness is probably ineffable to boot, knowledge of what it is like is going to end up being more like an experience, or a feeling, than a set of propositions. Over and again, Christensen draws the reader into her world, and then beyond it.

It. That’s It. That started it. It is. Goes on. Moves. Beyond. Becomes. Becomes it and it and it. Goes further than that. Becomes something else. Becomes more. Combines something else with more to keep becoming something else and more. Goes further than that. Becomes something besides something else and more. Something. Something New. Newer Still. […] Already much more difference between life and life than between death and life. (“Prologos” from it)

Inger Christensen is very often called an “experimental poet,” but since no one ever explains what they mean by that phrase, I assume it is meant to refer to the complicated formal structures of her later works. Nothing she wrote is especially difficult, which is often what is implied by “experimental.” Yet one after another these essays remind us that experiments by themselves reveal nothing, but instead provide a method for confirming or rejecting a hypothesis, a wild intuition, a vision or dream. So maybe what critics mean is that she uses the form to work out the vision, to see what will result. But who ever knew how a poem was going to turn out before they wrote it? It is true that Christensen’s starting place is a wild vision, though she is at pains here to remind us that the form is likewise part of the vision, and not the sort of thing that can stand outside it as a test or a working out.

And what about the possibility of failure that ought to be essential to any experimentation? To be sure, the possibility is always there in Christensen’s poems, but if the experiment fails, the vision fails, and so too fails the poet, all the way down to her most basic convictions and understanding of the world. Failure would say little about the experiment itself and less about the world, but everything about the poet. It would mean that she was wrong about the way the world is, what is valuable in it, and by extension that she was wrong about the way she chose to live her life. If the vision turns out to be mistaken, it would be not only an artistic catastrophe, but a personal, ethical, epistemological, and metaphysical one as well — more like kidney failure than a debunked hypothesis. This is why Christensen’s approach to her verse, at least, might be better characterized by the visionary’s stance of commitment than by the neutral attitude of experimentation, where the experimenter may hope to walk away unscathed when the experiment falls apart.

If it can be said that Christensen was an experimental writer, I think the description best fits the drifting, darting, spiraling movements of her mind in this volume. The 18 works collected here are in Montaigne’s tradition, explorations written with such elegance, humility, and inquisitiveness that it is impossible not to wish to write like her, which after reading The Condition of Secrecy you know can only mean to be like her. And there is a vision of unity here so seductive that we might not be able to shake it, even if we don’t find ourselves convinced or committed in the end. Maybe we will at least come to understand how helpless we are. Then we might even find the courage to say to ourselves and to others, again and again: I’m afraid. I’m no one. Isn’t that the way it is for you, too?


Lowry Pressly is a writer of essays, fiction, and cultural criticism. He is a PhD candidate at Harvard University.

LARB Contributor

Lowry Pressly is a writer of essays, fiction, and cultural criticism. He is a PhD candidate at Harvard University.


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