Lyric Poetry and Subjectivity


It is a commonplace of the criticism and history of lyric poetry to associate this genre with subjectivity—from Wordsworth's "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" (1800/1802 Preface, Lyrical Ballads, 246) to Nietzsche's comments on Archilocus (48-56) to Easthope's materialist history of English lyric metrical genres as expressions of the rise and later teetering of bourgeois subjectivity (30-47). In his excellent "lyric" entry in his Glossary of Literary Terms, even the sober M. H. Abrams finds at the core of the modern sense of the term "a speaker who expresses a state of mind or a process of thought and feeling" (97-98). The notion of "lyric subjectivity" is crucial to Theodor Adorno's account of the power and attractiveness of lyric in his essay, "On Lyric Poetry and Society," and the simultaneous "reflection" and "production" of subjectivity—i.e., bourgeois subjectivity—is the primary function of literature in general according to Marxist critics Pierre Macherey and Étienne Balibar. In this essay, however, I shall argue against the idea of "lyric subjectivity" as a useful concept, especially in its Marxist version, and shall urge, instead, a concept of lyric that maintains an allusive connection to its etymological origins in song. Insofar as lyric poetry is a kind of game involving the recognition of the semblance of a speaking subject and at the same time the unreality of that semblance, lyric poetry works to the contrary of subjectivity, enabling the listener or reader momentarily to step outside the sincere—and transparent—realm of subjectivity, contemplating and enjoying its paradoxes as aesthetic structures of wit rather than as psychological or social problems. In order to define and understand this game of imitation and recognition in greater detail, I shall draw upon one of the first and still one of the greatest thinkers on this matter, Aristotle. Accordingly, my discussion of the nature of imitation and verbal art will necessarily stray at times from the path of lyric subjectivity, as I develop my critique of this concept by way of its contrary, the game of lyric poetry.

Wit, play, and paradox and are by no means restricted to lyric poetry, but inhere in everything we call art. We find a comparable wit, for instance, in representational painting, insofar as the mere shapes and gradations of pigment on a surface manage to look like something else. The traits that make lyric poetry distinctive among the arts include, first, that it is a verbal art, the imitation of a communicative utterance, and hence a kind of fiction (see my "Literariness, Markedness, and Surprise in Poetry"). What we call poetry or verse, then, is that kind of fiction designed to draw attention simultaneously in the contrary directions of sense and sound. What we sometimes call the content—that is, what the words would mean if they occurred in an actual communicative utterance rather than a fiction—demands our focus, but the mere physical features of those same words and how they are arranged playfully distract us, sometimes by means of the additional game of the sound (or visual appearance) somehow pretending to mimic the sense, even though such a thing is impossible according to the real logic of signs and meaning (see my Telling Rhythm, 43-57). It is this tension between sound and sense that helps alert the listener or reader to the very fact that the text at hand is a work of fiction, to be enjoyed rather than questioned, answered, or obeyed. The phonemes, rhythmic contours, words, and syntactic structures of the poem are thus comparable to those shapes of paint on the canvas that somehow "become" flowers—and yet remain mere paint. This divided attention between sound and sense defines poetry or verse in general. What sets lyric poetry off from other kinds of verse, then, is the placement of focus, relatively speaking, primarily on qualities of song—that is, precisely, on the game of tension and paradox between the sense and the sound that both expresses that sense and distracts us from it. Whereas the "spoken" verse of epic and dramatic poetry allow us, in distinct ways, to pay relatively more attention to the events of the story, lyric poetry keeps its focus, relatively speaking, on the musical game it plays, not only in its metrical rhythms, but in its orderings, forms, and arrangements. It is for this reason that we commonly associate lyric poetry with imagery, emotion, or a certain mood: we can wonder at such effects precisely because we are aware that they are effects of words with charming sounds.

Play, moreover, engenders more play, and imitation begets imitation, giving rise to the ongoing evolution of lyric poetry. While the materials imitated—the particulars of language, manner of speech, etc.—may reflect the specificity of time and place of their provenance, the fractal quality of the game of imitation—how it is always an imitation of imitations of what has come before—also points up qualities of lyric poetry that frankly transcend history in its usual sense, since they extend as far back in time as play, mimicry, and language itself. Accordingly, Marxist-inspired efforts to historicize "lyric subjectivity," such as those of Adorno and Easthope, are doomed to miss the point of the game of lyric. Ironically but perhaps predictably, such histories—my example will be Adorno's—will ground the definition of lyric in a particular, late, historical moment, coming millenia after the term lyric is established—or rather, even worse, he grounds his definition on a misreading of that moment—thus undoing the very project of historicizing the lyric and its supposed subjectivity from the start.

A more congenial contradiction haunts thinking about the lyric and its subjectivity outside of the materialist-historicist tradition. This contradiction tends to take the form of a recognition of the musical essence of the lyric's origin, opposing itself to an idea of expressing or creating a subject through a speaking voice. For Nietzsche, for instance, the lyric subject is not really personal but universal, an expression of the Dionysian soul of music itself—which, insofar as it opposes the Apollinian veil of illusion that individuates things and especially people, actually stands for the undoing of subjectivity. Even Wordsworth, whose phrase about "spontaneous outpouring" is usually quoted out of context, in fact places this definition of lyric poetry within a larger argument about the importance and function of metrical verse, in effect, to foreground the artifice of this supposed "overflow": "But the emotion ... is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, ... the mind will upon the whole be in a state of enjoyment" (266). Earlier, Wordsworth is even clearer: "Shakespeare's writings, in the most pathetic scenes, never act upon us as pathetic beyond the bounds of pleasure—an effect which is in a great degree to be ascribed to small, but continual and regular impulses of pleasurable surprise from the metrical arrangement" (264-65). Wordsworth's objections to poeticisms of style in diction, figures of speech, and syntax—those departures from the "language of the common man"—seem to arise from a desire to distinguish the more clearly between the poet's own person and the persona of the speaker. Affectations that threaten the illusion of realism in language appear as intrusions of the poet into the represented scene. Wordsworth's goal, then, is to have a completely artificial, imaginary speaker, whose artificiality, ironically, is the more clearly demarcated by virtue of the clean opposition between realistic speech patterns and the regularity of a metrical beat. This opposition, in turn, is a version of the experience of difference in similitude or similitude in difference that grounds the aesthetic moment itself.

Nietzsche's and Wordsworth's comments reveal a more general pattern within the concept of the lyric. For what we call "lyric poetry" today contains a certain tension between one model, historically earlier and associated directly with song and music, and another, later model, associated with speech, emotion, and—hence—subjectivity [ 1 ]. Indeed, despite this shift in the meaning of the term, even today, we still speak of song lyrics as words, either transcribed or not, which are normally sung and are only somewhat artificially removed from their normal musical performance. (CD liners give us printed lyrics so that we can read the words we would otherwise strain to hear.) But when we speak of lyric poetry, we usually mean poems not originally composed as elements of songs, but rather as texts to be spoken, in a kind of allusion to song or an imitation of it, by means of audible meter or mere focus on the sound of the voice or in some other way.

Allen Miller, in his Lyric Texts and Lyric Consciousness, articulates this tension in terms of the difference between oral and written poetry, between the Archaic Greek models such as Archilocus, Sappho, and Pindar and the neoteric, Alexandrian and post-Alexandrian, literate poets who imitated those earlier, primarily oral models. We might also question an assumption that oral, even sung, verses represent a product of naïve and uncalculating "continuity" (Northrop Frye, quoted in Miller, 2), without self-conscious reflection. Miller basese his historical theory of the origin of literate lyric poetry, in part, on the assumption that the previous "oral verse" had as its primary task "to record and preserve the information necessary for the culture's survival" (Miller, 79). This view of ancient poetry, though widely shared today, seems to me to have less to do with the historical truth of oral poetry than with the disciplinary prejudices inherent within the anthropology from which it is borrowed. Moreover, it seems to me still not altogether proven that Sappho, Alcman, Pindar, and others did not indeed compose their verses prior to their performance, whether by memorizing them or by writing them down.

The main point here is that lyric poetry is from its inception an instance of imitation—miming or mimicry, always adding a surprise of difference—on the level of form as well as content: the spoken lyric poem imitates the song, which, in turn, imitates artistically an imaginary speech that might occur in a real-life context and be answered by real people in that situation. It makes sense to distinguish between sung and spoken verse. The difference between the oral and the written may also be important, but not determinative. Rather, what we usually call lyric poetry—the spoken imitation of song—points up the game of imitation involved in poetry in general by means of producing second- and higher-order imitations of imitations, even if the "model," song, is itself already a game of imitation. If it were otherwise, the listener to a love song at a concert performance would feel that the singers loved him or her personally. We deem such a response inappropriate, and, if the ancients would have thought otherwise, they were so different from ourselves that it is hard to know what we might have in common.

1. Aristotle's Poetics and the Imitation of Speech.

In referring to miming or mimicry, I am obviously alluding to Aristotle. The Poetics concerns the nature and uses of poíe:sis, the activity of "making something up" in the medium used to report perceptions and events—language. Thus a good translation of poíe:sis is not "poetry" but fiction, with poetry considered a subcategory of fiction—verse fiction, we might say. Fiction, in turn, is an instance of a larger category of activity, míme:sis, "mimicry," and an artwork, whether verbal or otherwise, is thus a míme:ma, an "imitation." Aristotle presents imitation as only half of the activity of fiction or art, always going hand-in-hand with recognition. Aristotle's discussion of "recognition" (anagnó:risis) comes well into the Poetics, in Chapter 11 (beginning 1452a29), where it has the narrow sense of the spectacle of one character recognizing another on stage. But the broader concept of matching what one encounters with what one already knows from a previous encounter comes into play early and is directly linked to the play of imitation. "For it is for this reason," Aristotle explains, "that people enjoy viewing images: that, observing them, they get the chance to find out and to figure out what each thing is, such as that this [figure] is that [person]; since, if one does not happen to have seen [the original] beforehand, [the image] would give pleasure not qua imitation (míme:ma), but because of its construction or its color or some other such cause" (1448b15-19; my translation).

Such recognition, in the case of fiction, refers specifically to discourse. Contrary to much of the tradition of reading Aristotle, I take the object of imitation in Aristotle's view of fiction to be, primarily, not things and people but discourses about things and people—the utterances that people exchange with each other in real life in order to communicate about the real world. It is crucial to understand the object of imitation in Aristotle's Poetics as discourse, not things-that imitation is, precisely, mimicry and not representation. For if fiction were a kind of representation of reality, it could communicate and inform us of things we did not already know, and, as we have seen, that is not the case with imitation, as Aristotle explicitly points out.

This reading then makes sense of Chapter 9 (1451a36-1052a10), on the subject matter of tragedy, which begins by contrasting fiction ("this maker-upper's work": ) with history. This contrast stands to reason: history is a verbal narrative reporting real events; fiction, a verbal narrative of probable events —events of the sort that could appear in an imaginary history. The events of the imitation of an imaginary history are arranged into a plot (mûthos), which is the subject matter of the two chapters intervening between the definition of tragedy in chapter 4 and the current contrast between fiction and history. The events of the plot must be probable, or "likely"—katà tò eikós (1450a38). Eikó, in fact, is the active participle of the perfect-with-present-meaning éoika, "be or look like," from the same root as eíko:n, "image," the word Aristotle uses in in chapter 4 (1448b11, 15) to refer to the "likenesses" that provide for the viewer's intellectual pleasure in the act of recognition. The events of the plot of narrative fiction (including dramatic fiction) must be "likely" because they must be such as to elicit the audience's recognition of them as the sort of events they might expect to find in history, the well-arranged narrative of real events. Hence, the fictional narrative is not an "imitation" of events, i.e., a representation, but an imitation of the telling of events: narrative fiction is an imitation of history. Likewise, a fictional narrative can be told directly, as in a fable; it can be both narrated and acted out through direct quotation of imaginary characters, as in epic; or it can be acted out in drama, embodied, in a second order of imaginary construction, so that the story, which imitates history, is then presented by actors as if they were the imaginary characters themselves, taking the actions that constitute the events of the narrative, yet serving the narrative, not simply imitating "life." In every case, the audience's task is to perceive or recognize the shape and drift of the narrative discourse that the fiction imitates, that is, the plot or múthos.

The plot is the télos ("end," "goal," "purpose") of drama (1450a22), since, as the object of the audience's eventual recognition, it affords the audience's shift from the apprehension of actions as if they were real to the apprehension of the totality of a narrative story, which, in the case of tragedy, is the "imitation of a momentous and complete action" (or "complete doing," complete event"): míme:sis práxeo:s spoudaías kaì teleías (1449b24-25). What dominates the characters, in their imaginary world, as their "fate," turns out to be, from the point of view of the spectator in the real world, the necessity that guides a good narrative for the purpose of its completeness and the realism of its cause-and-effect relations. Before this shift, pity and fear predominate, as opposite versions of the same degree of emotive engagement—pity as sympathy for the other—"Oh, poor Oedipus!"—and fear as identification and a struggle against it—"God forbid that such a thing should happen to me!" In either case, the emotion would be appropriate if the character were real and there were no division between the world of the spectator and the imitation of the telling of a a sequence of events in that world in the form of drama. I believe that this shift in experience from the literalizing emotional involvement of fear and pity to the aesthetic apprehension of the totality of the plot as a complete and purposive pattern, is ultimately what Aristotle meant by the very vexed term kátharsis: "Tragedy, then, is the imitation of a momentous and complete action that has grandeur, in language made pleasing, [and] in each of the kinds [thereof] separately in the various sections, acting [the event] out and not through reportage, completing, through pity and fear, the release of such feelings" (di' eléou kaì phóbou peraínousa tè:n tô:n toioûto:n pathe:máto:n kátharsin; 1449b24-28). Catharsis, then, is the "release," in an almost biological, orgasmic sense, of emotions stirred up by the drama, at the moment when the spectator can grasp the intellectual pleasure of recognition of the plot, the point at which the "Oh, no!" becomes the "Aha!—This is where it was all headed, and it had to be this way.[ 2 ] In tragedy, then, what, to the characters, is their inescapable fate is, to us in the audience, the completion of a pattern of plot that, retrospectively, seems designed so that every moment in it is a necessary contribution to its totality. The audience can dwell in the moment of dual recognition between the hardness of fate, on the one hand, and the wonder of aesthetic perfection, on the other. In this way, then, the pity and terror that attend the fulfillment of the character's fate simultaneously afford the audience's recognition of the plot pattern, and thus to the "release of such emotions." Because the story, which is, itself, the imitation of the narrative of events in language, is presented by being acted out, so that the story itself must be a matter of the spectator's inference, and because the imaginary events are terrible, the spectator must feel the shift from naive emotional involvement to the aesthetic pleasure of recognition with special keenness. This is the oikeîa he:dóne: (1459a21), the "proper pleasure," of tragedy.

2. Aesthetics and Play.

My notion of aesthetic pleasure arising at the moment of the shift in attention from naïve emotional engagement in the suffering of the characters to the more distant—in a sense disinterested—cognition of the pattern of the whole as something that is "the way it must and should be" borrows, of course, from Kant's analytic of the beautiful, as the disinterested apprehension of the totality with a sense of how everything in it belongs there as if it had an indefinable purpose—a "purposiveness without a purpose"—in the Critique of Judgment (10-11 and elsewhere). Nor is Kant's view altogether alone in the history of ideas. For Thomas Aquinas, for instance, the object of beauty is typified by integritas, consonantia, et claritas ("wholeness, harmony, and brightness"; Summa Theologica I, 39, 8c, ad primum; see also Umberto Eco's and Armand Maurer's studies). Here, the first two terms, wholeness and harmony, refer to the sense that all the parts belong together to make up a single totality. The third term, I think, draws attention to what we in more recent times would call the markedness of the pattern, its capability of getting our attention to notice that it is a pattern, by virtue of its being set up in the foreground against something else that remains in the background as the negative space or non-pattern.

Beyond the matter of the parts forming a whole, there is another important element to what we call the aesthetic experience: a kind of divided attention, a pull in opposing directions with regard to the same object of perception or apprehension. Insofar as the pattern is a whole made out of parts, the attention must be divided in a sustained way between the parts and the whole, so that the viewer beholds their continual movement into unity. This, I think, is the deeper sense of the claritas Thomas has in mind—the brightness of the whole derived from its continually becoming a whole, as it were, before one's eyes. Likewise, in Kant, the pattern must give a sense of purposiveness, as if all the parts belong together for a purpose, but we cannot actually know what that purpose is—for if we did, the pattern would no longer unify the parts but, instead, become a mere singular object, presumably an object of use: "Oh, it's just a flower. It's how the plant reproduces sexually. That is its purpose." The term disinterest contains a parallel pair of opposed forces on another level, since, insofar as the aesthetic experience gives pleasure, it serves an interest—a disinterested interest. We are at once engaged in the experience and removed from it. Again, the divided attention between proximity and distance is what makes possible the stretching out of the moment of apprehension so that it can become a reflective experience rather than a vanishing moment, as we continually feel the pull of interest and, resisting this, we witness how the parts come together into focus to make up the whole once we step back far enough to be as if disengaged—a pleasure which will then, again, draw us in. Wordsworth's idea of aesthetic pleasure arising from difference in similitude and vice versa suggests a play between one kind of cognition—a particularizing kind—and another that focuses more on the whole: the parts are "the same" because they belong to the same totality, though they differ from each other individually, and the belonging of the different within the same, or vice versa, reinforces the sense of purposiveness about the relation. More recently, the anthropologist Eric Gans presents an interesting version of the cognitive model of aesthetic pleasure in semiotic terms, as the oscillation of attention back and forth between the material substance of the sign and its meaning (or between signifier and signified), where the functional status of the object as sign confers upon it a distinctiveness and completeness (i.e., a sort of claritas and integritas) that make it an object of aesthetic fascination (Originary Thinking, ??; Signs of Paradox, 36).

This account comes rather close to my present reading of Aristotle as a matter of shifting attention from one mode of perception to another. The naïve emotional engagement would answer to the signified—what the actors "mean," the persons that they represent—while the apprehension of the plot is like the focus upon the material signifier as a distinctive object. I have been presenting this shift in temporal terms—moving from one kind of apprehension to another—because, indeed, the apprehension of the plot does tend to come on at some point—the moment of the audience's recognition (anagnó:risis). But once the audience has apprehended the shape of the plot, the earlier, emotive engagement does not disappear. Rather, it continues on as one of the alternative modes of attention. These two modes of apprehension then correspond, respectively, to a view of actions as free and of individuals as morally responsible—this is the engaged feeling of pity and fear toward the characters as if they were people—and a view of actions as fated, insofar as they are "already" inscribed as elements necessary to the totality of the plot.

The aesthetic experience, then, involves a tension between two modes of apprehension. One mode gives us the parts; the other, the whole. One mode finds communicative sense in the language of fiction; the other, forms of arrangement and imitations of recognizable discourses. One mode sympathizes (pity) or identifies (fear) with characters as if they were real people; the other recognizes characters as agents contributing to the fulfillment of the plot. One mode experiences the actions of characters as the expressions of their wills; the other, as the advancement of the plot. One mode dwells with the tragic figure in his belated recognition of how all his previous choices, which he had thought were free, merely fulfilled his fate, often the object of an initial prophecy, so that even the efforts he had freely undertaken to thwart the fate foretold have been the very causes of his foreseen destiny. The other mode recognizes that what for the characters is fate is, for the playwright and the audience, a narrative structure, organized to provide a sense of completeness and closure.

The two views of the tragedy—as real people and as a plot pattern—and then of any kind of narrative fiction, or indeed, any verbal fiction, or any work of art at all, point up the dual temporality of works of art, and especially of narrative and other kinds of fiction. On the one hand, the work of fiction, as a sequence of words and of events, has a beginning, a middle to which it leads, and, issuing in turn from the middle, an end. And yet, as a complete unity, the work of fiction "already" contains the end even when we are only reading or hearing the beginning. We know this without even knowing precisely what the end will be—or already is. This duality of time is a built-in paradox in the nature of fiction and one of the qualities that distinguishes it from conversation, in which one cannot properly say that the end is "already there" when people begin speaking with each other. It is in the very paradoxical nature of fiction's dual temporality, moreoever, that we do not really think first the one thing and then the other—first deceived into thinking that there is no foreordained end and then realizing retrospectively that everything we had read had been leading up to it all along. Nor can we properly say, conversely, that reading a work of fiction should or even can only involve attention to the spatial-like pattern of the totality as it unfolds. Rather, each side of this temporal binary—-the sequence and the totality, the running on of time and its stillness as if it were space—must call to mind the other side, and depends upon its contrary to have any meaning at all. The elements of the total pattern, for instance, are not just "events," but "the events from earlier in the story" and "the consequences later," etc. Likewise, the sequence is only comprehensible at all because its elements cohere in some way, and their principle of coherence amounts to the synchronic (or atemporal) pattern of sense.

It is this sort of mutual dependence and inseparability of the contraries in binary paradoxes that, I think, has tended to elude otherwise powerful aesthetic theorists. For instance, in his account of catharsis, Hans Robert Jauss argues forcefully against its interpretation as a matter of distance, disinterest, or disengagement, a view which he finds both in "classical" accounts and in the Negative Dialectics of Theodor Adorno (92-111). For the latter, for instance, mere identification with the hero is a kind of philistinism. For Jauss, catharsis is the "communicative" function of a work of art or literature, wherein the reader or viewer identifies with the hero (or other figure) and thus escapes his or her own identity, acquiring a degree of moral freedom in the process. In my view, however, Jauss shares with those thinkers he criticizes the desire to see only one side of the cathartic moment in the aesthetic experience, whereas the very thing that qualifies this experience as aesthetic, I think, is, precisely, the tension in the mind of the beholder between these two attitudes, both of which share an equal claim to validity. Understanding the aesthetic experience as a matter of tension, of paradox, can help, not only to resolve the conflict among accounts, but to explain why the accounts should differ so widely: they are merely partial accounts of a paradoxical whole.

The tension between irresolvable and yet inseparable contraries that I find central to the aesthetic experience is also, I think, a way of defining what we generally mean by play. Play is activity, but, in our common usage, it is activity that is not "serious" and not "work." And yet basketball players, chess players, chamber music players, and dramatic players on the stage all need to take what they do seriously, and even need to put work into it—whether practice or even mere concentration—in order to play well. People wish to play well in order to serve the ends of pleasure in play. Playing music well, for instance, affords full enjoyment in the music. Yet some sense of freedom seems to belong to play and not to serious work, which is bound up with compulsion, freedom's contrary. Now freedom is a quality of the experience of making a choice; once we have made the choice and must endure the consequences, freedom seems to fade from view. A game of chess feels most like play when one agrees with a friend to play a game. In the middle of it, it starts to feel like work. Music feels like play when one chooses a piece to perform, but practicing and rehearsing tends to feel more like work. Yet once the musicians master the piece, its performance becomes play once again, renewing in the continual present the feeling of freedom in the recreation of the piece. At that point, the musician's engagement is split—between concentration on precise and careful execution, on the one hand, and the aesthetic delight of hearing the piece as if for the first time, on the other—between the roles of performer and listener. This dual role recalls the dual temporality of the music itself, both as an already-unified entity and as a sequence of events unfolding in time, as the former is played out or put into play in the form of the latter. The earnest hard work of the musician-as-producer engages in the temporal unfolding of the piece. The musician's enjoyment as listener assimilates the fleeting moments into a building whole whose shape he or she recalls in the process of renewing it.

Play, then, is the dynamism of the uninhabitable space between two contraries, each of which leads to its opposite so as to prevent anyone from resting on either side. Hence, when one is "only playing"—that is, only joking —one uses language in such a way that the attention is divided between the sense that the words should normally carry and the supposition that they are not to be taken in that sense. A "play on words" is an occasion for dividing the attention between two or more meanings of a word, and, in addition, between all of those senses, on the one hand, and the mere fact that a word is made to carry more than one sense in a given context. And in very much the same way, the beholder of a pattern that seems to have a purpose but not to allow the purpose to be identified engages in what Kant calls a free, harmonious play of our cognitive powers of imagination and understanding (see, for instance, Critique of Judgment, 62). The beholder of the aesthetic object thus divides his or her attention. On the one hand, the beholder perceives the sense of purpose that goes with the idea that all the elements "belong there" and belong together. On the other hand, the beholder feels the impossibility of identifying that purpose, precisely because of his or her disinterest, as he or she, at least momentarily, forbears to reduce the object to its use value by identifying its purpose. Finally, the tension of contraries demanding the split gaze of the beholder affords the paradox of a repeatable or sustainable surprise, insofar as one continually or repeatedly confronts the one contrary from the point of view, as it were, of the other. Thus the quasi-spatial simultaneity of the plot pattern always comes as a surprise to the reader tracing the sequence of events as told, even if that reader has already read the text many times before and could easily recount the plot. In sum, understanding play as the paradoxical tension of contraries links together the major elements of the aesthetic experience: the renewable moment of apprehension, with its surprising "aha!"; the mutual necessity of simultaneous engagement and disinterest, and the paradox of the interest invested in disinterest; and the freedom with which we submit to the yoke of compulsion, of work, and of rules in order to have the pleasure we consider distinctively aesthetic.

That play characterizes both art and sports has, I think, misled Clifford Geertz and his followers into considering sports and art to be the same thing, so that the Balinese cockfight becomes a communal "work of art" ("Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight"). A game of sport such as cockfighting or basketball is not a work of art because the outcome is not part of its design. In fact, on the contrary, the whole point of a game of sport is that the outcome is left open at the start. It is only retrospectively that it can be understood as the foreseeable result of prior causes—a fact that is true of retrospective reflections upon life in general. By contrast, a work of art derives an essential part of its effect from the sense that the conclusion is the completion of an already-accomplished design, and this sense is linked to the effect of repeatability of the work of art, despite surface differences in the circumstances of performance. The purposiveness of sport conceived as a thing of beauty cannot be ascribed to a pattern of intention, whereas the design unfolded in a work of art has, as one of its essential attributes, a sense of intention, regardless of what we think we know or do not know about the artist's or author's explicit statements of supposed intention. For a consideration of the complex issue of intention that otherwise lies beyond our present scope, we have Paul de Man's "Form and Intent in the American New Criticism" There, he presents a subtle and powerful argument for the necessity of the concept of intention—in the impersonal, more phenomenological sense we are using here—as an integral element in our very definition of art or literature. Since a game cannot have the closure of an intentional design, but must, more or less by definition, remain open as to its intended outcome, a game is play because the attitude of participants and spectators alike is divided between the conviction that the game matters and the equal conviction that it does not. The very openness of its outcome is what confers upon it the sense of freedom that distinguishes it from "work" and things that seem to matter more unequivocally, such as earning a living. But because of the split attitude befitting sport, there will never be an end to the perceived need to remind people that "It's not who wins that matters, it's how you play the game," and there will always be something of an irony about the phrase "It's only a game," especially when we consider the emotions of Little League parents and the figures of major league salaries. Moreover, a victory to the Yankees in one year's World Series only opens the question of who the victor will be the next year—so that even the outcome wrought without intentional prior design retains only a contingent and not an absolute closure. So much for the form that the tension-between-contraries takes in the case of sport. By contrast, it is commonplace to say that "art matters." The split here is not between mattering and not mattering, but between process and totality, which is also a split between work and delight and between compulsion and freedom.

For the present discussion, the crucial point about the play of fiction is that neither principle in the set of contraries can be considered in isolation, because it is inherent in the structure of fiction that each will lead the attention toward the other. It is in this area that the concept of "lyric subjectivity" and the notion of identification applied to lyric poetry falls apart.

3. The Materialist View of the Lyric.

By claiming the status of "art" for Balinese cockfighting and its attendant betting, Geertz has contributed to the more general trend in the humanities disciplines in the past two decades, the "blurring of genres" that denies special or "autonomous" status to art or literature (fiction) relative to practical social activities such as communication and education, a denial fundamental to the contemporary materialist criticism called cultural studies.[ 3 ] The Marxist tradition culminating in cultural studies undoes the distinction between fiction and communication by considering both to be instances of the cultural work of negotiating class conflict covertly by means of ideology.

The view of literature as fundamentally ideological is typified by Macherey and Balibar, but the Frankfurt School, including Adorno, and, more recently, Frederic Jameson, have added various nuances to the picture in ways that have influenced cultural studies-and that have tended to cause students of literary theory to see the breaks more than the continuities in the fundamental assumptions of Marixst literary studies, foremost of which, for us, is the concept of fiction as message. For Frederic Jameson as for Marxists before him, the literary work (or "cultural object") is a "symbolic act," meaning that it not only reflects but also intervenes in the conditions of class struggle by means of its representations—that is, it contributes to the production of ideology. But in The Pollitical Unconscious, as well as in essays such as "Reification, Mass Culture, and Utopia," Jameson draws upon a Marxist transformation of Freud's concept of the unconscious, in a way that revises Althusser's view of ideology as itself the "political unconscious." For Jameson, a work of literature, like a dream, a joke, a slip of the tongue, or a symptom for Freud, is simultaneously an expression and a repression of conflicts-but, in this case, the conflicts are social and political-that is, class conflicts. Insofar as a work, for instance, departs from the norms of its genre, it does so to reveal class conflicts and utopian desires; insofar as it fulfills its genre's demands enough for the reader to still to recognize the genre, the work represses utopian urges (Political Unconscious, 103-150). This view of literature as both expression and repression gives rise to a "double hermeneutics," both an interpretation and an unmasking, both a "positive dialectic" and a "negative dialectic" (Political Unconscious, 284-86). This view of literature as simultaneously expression and repression, utopian longing and hegemonic self-policing, "subversion" and "containment," sets the pattern for the New Historicism of Stephen Greenblatt (as in Renaissance Self-Fashioning and Shakespearean Negotiations) and others (see Veeser's collection), as well as for various other kinds of materialist literary commentary today.

The "positive" side may seem to make Jameson a departure from the Marxist view of literature as mere ideology, but we are still left with the fact that repression, whether Freudian or Marxist, is all the more effective precisely because it allows for some symbolic expression-and-transformation of the repressed. To carry out the analogy with psychoanalysis, the role of the interpreter of literature is to transform the "symptom" into "speech," both decoding the message and making its symbolic expression no longer necessary, in order to free the subject. Thus literature is still something to be transcended through interpretation. And this view of literature rests upon the assumption that it is a form of distorted communication. Accordingly, literary works are "the symbolic messages sent to us by the coexistence of various sign systems which are themselves traces or anticipations of modes of production" (76). How something so abstract as "the coexistence of various sign systems" or even any of the "modes of production" can transmit messages to anybody—an odd and eerie situation reminiscent of the very animated abstractions Marx found so objectionable in Hegelian idealism in the first place—is a question beyond the scope of this paper. The crucial point is that Marxism reduces literary works to "messages," which, in turn, are instances among countless others of the culture's production of the ideology that keeps its citizens in their places. And it is precisely because of this reduction of art to message that cultural studies can advocate the blurring of genres and the crossing of disciplinary boundaries with such fervor—specifically, the boundaries between literary or artistic studies, on the one hand, and history and social sciences, on the other.

In this elimination of the distinction between fiction and communication, materialist criticism draws upon the concept of identification. For Pierre Macherey and Étienne Balibar, for instance, the reader's identification with the hero is the means whereby he or she colludes with the text's ideological scheme and subjects himself or herself to the ideologically-loaded identity (or subjectivity) that the mode of production—specifically, bourgeois capitalism—must needs assign to him or her. Many other critics, including those whose work does not fall into the materialist category, such as Hans Robert Jauss, think of identification as the fundamental mode of the reader's engagement with the literary work, especially when it comes to poetry, and especially lyric poetry. Lyric poetry is imagined to be fundamentally subjective, insofar as it is usually in first person and represents a single, emotive utterance, so the focus is thought to be on the imaginary subject him- or herself. It is this assumption which I wish to question and to complicate.

To do so, I turn to Theodor Adorno's essay, "On Lyric Poetry and Society." Adorno's argument is far suFbtler and more nuanced than, say, Macherey and Balibar's or, more recently, Jameson's. For instance, Adorno does not consider the lyric poem to be, at least in the first instance, an "ideological form":

Special vigilance is required when it comes to the concept of ideology, which these days is belabored to the point of intolerability. For ideology is untruth, false consciousness, deceit. It manifests itself in the failure of works of art, in their inherent falseness, and it is countered by criticism. To repeat mechanically, however, that great works f art, whose essence consists in giving form to the crucial contradictions in real existence, and only in that sense in a tendency to reconcile them, are ideology, not only does an injustice to their truth content but also misrepresents the concept of ideology. That concept does not maintain that all spirit serves only for some human beings to falsely present some particular values as general ones; rather, it is intended to unmask spirit that is specifically false and at the same time to grasp it in its necessity. The greatness of works of art, however, consists solely in the fact that they give voice to what ideology hides. Their very success moves beyond false consciousness, whether intentionally or not. (39)

So far, Adorno sounds as if he has steered clear of the reduction of poem to ideology in a way that makes one come out wondering why one should ever bother to read poetry at all if one could spend the same time looking ahead toward the Revolution. Yet this last phrase, "whether intentional or not," slipped in as a subtle afterthought, should give us pause. It should not be mistaken for an avoidance of biographical "intentionalism" along the lines taken by Wimsatt and Beardsley in "The Intentional Fallacy." Rather, in the context of Adorno's association of the lyric poem with the social "dream" of nonalienation, the lyric poem, for Adorno, seems to be the naive expression of the individual poet in such a way as to serve as the return of the repressed longings of the rest of society—the repressed longing, more specifically, to overcome the alienation from nature inherent, for both ruling class and underclass, in bourgeois capitalism.

Adorno's argument proceeds by means of a sort of internal dialogue with an anticipated interlocutor: "You will suspect ..." "You will accuse me ..." The imaginary opponent seems to hold the view of lyric poetry popular in the nineteenth century and perhaps typified by Benedetto Croce, in which the lyric poem is the expression—more or less the message—of an individual poet possessed of genius, a genius consisting in the poet's ability to speak universal truths by way of utterances merely about himself as an individual. These universal truths have something to do with a state of unalienated bliss in which the lyric subject (and I suppose the poet himself) presumably dwells:

Your feelings insist that ... lyric expression, having escaped from the weight of material existence, evoke the image of a lief free from the coercion of reigning practices, of utility, of the relentless pressures of self-preservation. (39)

Against this view, Adorno defines the "universal" more specifically as the social—that is, society's collective but unacknowledged suffering in the alienation of its members as a result of capitalism and class struggle. Hence, for Adorno, lyric presents the structural paradox of an individual, subjective voice whose essence, precisely by virtue of its individuality, is social and thus objective: "My thesis is that the lyric work is always the subjective expression of a social antagonism" (45). It is the isolation of the individual that typifies the alienation overshadowing society as a whole. Hence, for Adorno, the very individuality of lyric subjectivity is "social in nature":

The demand that lyric poetry be virginal ... is itself social in nature. It implies a protest against a social situation that every individual experiences as hostile, alien, cold, oppressive, and this situation is imprinted in reverse on the poetic work: the more heavily the situation weighs upon it, the more firmly the work resists it by refusing to submit to anything heteronomous and constituting itself solely in accordance with its own laws. The work's distance from mere existence becomes the measure of what is false and bad in the latter. In its protest the poem expresses the dream of a world in which things would be different. (39-40)

This perfect dream world, into which we apparently escape temporarily by reading lyric poetry, and for which we long, is to be understood in economic terms:

The lyric spirit's idiosyncratic opposition to the superior power of material things is a form of reaction to the reification of the world, to the domination of human beings by commodities that has developed since the beginning of the modern era, since the industrial revolution became the dominant force in life. (39-40)

Hence, a lyric poem—any lyric poem, or at any rate any good lyric poem—is really a message of protest against the alienation wrought by reification, commodity fetishism, and other effects of modern capitalism.

This message of protest takes the form, however, not of a statement about these material circumstances, but as an expression of self-absorption. The lyric subject is not exactly at one with nature so much as in the process of becoming so by means of his or her self-absorption:

The "I" whose voice is heard in the lyric is an "I" that defines and expresses itself as something opposed to the collective, to objectivity; it is not immediately at one with the nature to which its expression refers. It has lost it, as it were, and attempts to restore it through animation, through immersion in the "I" itself. It is only through humanization that nature is to be restored the rights that human domination took from it. ... The greatest lyric works in our language ... owe their quality to the force with which the "I" creates the illusion of nature emerging from alienation. (41; I have corrected the text's modern area to modern era.)

The trouble with all of this is that I do not recognize any lyric poem I know in this description. Adorno as much as acknowledges that his theory only accommodates modern lyric poetry, having defined it in terms of the effects of the industrial revolution: "The concept of lyric poetry that is in some sense second nature to us is a completely modern one" (41). This naturally leaves out Sappho, Pindar, Alcaeus, and Walther von der Vogelweide—not to mention Petrarch, Ronsard, du Bellay, Shakespeare, Donne, and Marvell. At best, some of these may be regarded as "isolated flashes," but, more commonly, such poets, "whom literary history classifies as lyric poets[,] are uncommonly far from our primary conception of the lyric. They lack the quality of immediacy, of immateriality, which we are accustomed, rightly or not, to consider the criterion of the lyric and which we transcend only through rigorous education" (41). We wind up, of course, with a definitional circle. Perhaps those of us who, hearing the word lyric, think first of those ancient poets who are thought actually to have sung their poems to the lyre—Sappho and Alcaeus—or of those great Renaissance poems with which we grew up—are not the "we" we should be for the sake of Adorno's argument—or perhaps what Adorno is calling lyric is simply different from what some happen to mean by the term, in which case we have what is usually called a mere "matter of semantics." This is not automatically a problem—every thinker has, somewhere in his or her thinking, a definitional circle and a set of assumptions, usually tacit, about such generalities as "the reader" or "the public." Nevertheless, Sappho, Pindar, Petrarch, and Shakespeare would seem to be rather large exceptions to a general theory of the lyric.

But let us consider one of the examples Adorno himself adduces, a poem by Goethe that the poet apparently originally composed without title, but later, in gathering his poems together for the 1815 Werke, placed directly after another poem, "Wanderers Nachtlied" ("Wanderer's Night Song"), under the title "Ein Gleiches" ("Another Same").

Even the line from Goethe's "Wanderers Nachtlied" ... , "Warte nur, balde / ruest du auch" ["Only wait, soon/ you too shall rest"] has an air of consolation: its unfathomable beauty cannot be separated rom something it makes no reference to, the notion of a world that withholds peace. Only in resonating with sadness about that withholding does the poem maintain that there is peace nevertheless. ... The note of peacefulness attests to the fact that peace cannot be achieved without the dream disintegrating. The shadow has no power over the image of life come back into its own, but as a last reminder of life's deformation it gives the dream its rest, a nature from which all traces of anything resembling the human have been eradicated, the subject becomes aware of its own insignificance. Imperceptibly, silently, irony tinges the poem's consolation: the seconds before the bliss of sleep are the same seconds that separate our brief life from death. After Goethe, this sublime irony became a debased and spiteful irony. But it was always bourgeois: the shadow-side of the elevation of the liberated subject is its degradation to something exchangeable, to something that exists merely for something else; the shadow-side of personality is the "So who are you?" (41-42. Translations in square brackets appear in the original and must therefore be Nicholsen's.)

This starts out with only moderate difficulties, but, by the end, we may well start to wonder whether Adorno and we have been reading the same poem. Here is the poem:

Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.

Over all peaks
Is quiet,
In all treetops
You sense
Hardly a breath;
The little birds are silent in the wood.
Just you wait—soon
You, too, will rest.

(Goethe, Werke, 99; my translation)[ 4 ]

If we are to take the present poem as another "Wanderer's Night Song," then, as in the previous one, the speaker is unlikely to be a mere hiker. A "wanderer" who wishes for rest seems more likely to be a migrant farm worker or vagrant going from one odd job to another, sometimes bent over with weariness, not unlike the "wandering" peasant young men in the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales. (It is odd that Adorno would not concentrate on this more likely working-class identity of the speaker—but perhaps he was thrown off by a biographical presumption.) The closing lines are indeed powerful and poignant, because of their understated, ironic ambiguity. On the one hand, the speaker looks forward to his rest after a long and wearying day (and perhaps many days), though, in the absence of reference to a town or shelter, one wonders whether he must take his rest nearer the birds in the woods than he might wish. On the other hand, the ultimate rest is death, and, relative to the eternity of nonhuman nature, death always comes soon enough. Within this second side of the ambiguity in the last two lines lies a secondary ambiguity on the phrase warte nur. On the one hand, the speaker is assuring and consoling himself: "Don't worry, just wait, soon enough you'll get to rest, too, and therefore join in with the rest of nature." But the phrase warte nur also often signals a threat, like the British English just you wait! Thus: "Just you wait—death will come to you soon enough."

The point is that this moment is not a mere ornament but an ingenious coincidence of semantic ambiguity with a paradox about being human. One seeks rest as one seeks a condition of nonalienation from nature—that is, specifically, from a world in which there is no self-consciousness, no need to drive oneself, no concern about whether one is doing the right thing, no conflict between desire and duty—precisely because there is no such thing as "duty," self-consciousness, or "right" as opposed to "wrong" outside of human society—so far as we know. The birds do not need to earn their right to rest: being unfree as they are, compelled by the mere forces of nature, they are thus "free" of the turmoil of human concerns. When we are actually asleep, we are the closest to the "natural" condition of this unfree freedom, precisely because our human minds are hallucinating while our natural bodies remain inert. But the thought of rest, carried forward logically in a way that only human beings, so far as we know, can do, is actually the thought of death. In death, we really are one with nonhuman nature, because we are not "we" anymore. This is the same class of ambiguity that has given some critics trouble in the second quatrain of Wordsworth's "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal":

No motion has she now, no force
She neither hears nor sees
Roll'd round in earth's diurnal course
With rocks and stones and trees!

(Lyrical Ballads, 154)

Is this a happy union with sublime Nature or the irony fulfilment of the letter but not the spirit of the speaker's expectation that "She seem'd a thing that could not feel / The touch of earthly years"? The point is that it is both, even though the two senses, celebration and mourning, are contradictory. The ingenious ambiguity between opposed meanings in both poems coincides with the human paradox that can be summed up as the fact that we are at once natural animals—things of nature—and thinking beings whose powers of thought produce such effects as freedom, self-consciousness, morality, duty, a sense of difference and separation from nature, and both an eternal restlessness and a continual desire for rest.

This contradiction in the very core of humanity is not the product of capitalism, unless we are to understand the result of a future communist revolution to be the end of all thought, all language, all moral choice, and all freedom. That the speaker is a destitute migrant worker only brings out the more general paradox the more pointedly, because his weariness is so unmediated and palpable, whereas weariness might otherwise be associated with the complications of ambition rather than with mere existence itself. Nor does the transfiguration of this essential human contradiction into the aesthetic structure of paradox, a gesture of wit and poignancy, originate with bourgeois capitalism, much less the Industrial Revolution. Consider a Middle English lyric dated to around 1270:

Foweles in the frith,
The fisses in the flod,
And I mon waxe wod,
Mulch sorw I walke with
For beste of bon and blod.

Birds in the wood,
And fish in the river,
And I must grow mad,
Much sorrow I walk with
For beast of bone and blood.

(Middle English Lyrics, 7)

The presence of birds in the wood and fish in the flood in England portends spring, so the lines simultaneously serve to place the utterance, to suggest its cause, and to register, precisely, the separation of the speaker from his natural surroundings. While the birds and fish rejoice in the vitality of spring, the speaker must bear the sorrow of spring madness—that is, presumably, the "sweet pain" of love, unfilled or yet-to-be-fulfilled desire. The nice ambiguity at the close here rests on the little preposition for: Does the speaker walk with much sorrow because he is a beast of bone and blood, and hence not free of the urges that drive the other animals—who are, by contrast, presumably happy because no social or language-encoded strutures conflict with their bone-and-blood natures? Or does he sorrow for the sake of a bone-and-blood being, the object of his love and desire? Beast is not a word one should think to associate with the latter, but perhaps that is precisely the point. Whether we are thinking of the subject of love or his object, we have the same duality, the same contradiction, between the animal and the linguistic, social, rational—a conflict that gives rise to this imaginary venting utterance, but that, at the same time, by virtue of the utterance, suggests a sort of distance from the self, a self-reflection, that moves toward cool reason even as it names reason's opposite, the beast of bone and blood.

This thirteenth-century lyric brings us back to the question of history. The term lyric has been around for a long time, and, if we take it in its etymological sense, and think of it primarily as poetry associated with singing (rather than with storytelling or otherwise declaiming in a chanting or speaking voice), then we see lyric as a distinct phenomenon in very diverse cultures and historical periods (see "Lyric," Princeton Encyclopedia, 713-727). By deciding that the lyric should be defined by the European lyric poem dating from about the end of the eighteenth century, and conceived in a particular way, considering earlier lyric poets as "isolated flashes," Adorno, ironically, removes history from the study of the lyric, because there is no account of evolution and development. If "the lyric" means the nineteenth-century "bourgeois" lyric, then it has no precedents and no history—and, presumably, no future, either, as the "mode of production" continues to change—if it indeed does as it is supposed to do.

How, then, shall we conceive of the history of the lyric in a truly historical way? Do not my comments, comparing an anonymous Middle English lyric to lyrics by Wordsworth and Goethe, only show my failure to historicize? The answers to these questions depend on what we mean by history and to what uses we wish to put that history. Briefly speaking, there are countless ways, other than the artifice of the Marxist analysis of class struggle and its epochal modes of production, that can account reasonably for changes in the lyric over time and for comparisons of lyrics from one place to another. Keeping with the first, diachronic, question, we may cite differences in individual poets, in languages and their evolution, and in the material circumstances to which the content of a given lyric must refer in order to afford the audience or readership the "aha!" experience of recognition that will allow them to grasp the lyric's game. These material circumstances have changed, and continue to change, for reasons that are well-known, and may be understood in classical Marxist terms, as well as in terms of the mere evolution of technology. The question of whether social change drives technological advancement or vice versa remains, so far as I know, undecided. Let me note in passing that the Middle Ages, considered a time of very slow socioeconomic change because of feudalism's inertia, also bequeathed to us some of the most powerful technological innovations of all time, including "Arabic" numerals (actually developed in multicultural SSpain), currency exchange systems, weight and measure equivalences, the windmill, the book as we know it, and, at the end of the era, the printing press.

Not to be neglected, however, is the contribution of individual poets and their individual innovations. For each poet, the achievements of predecessor poets serve simultaneously as a challenge and a resource for the play of wit and the interplay of recognition and surprise. I do not think that the Middle English "Foweles in the Frith" served as a model for Goethe's imitation, but I have no doubt that something did—or rather many things—ranging from popular folk-songs and folk-ballads to hymns to the character Tityrus's speech closing Virgil's first Eclogue, in which he offers to the dispossessed Meliboeus the momentary consolation of an evening's rest, even as—

et iam summa procul villarum culmina fumant,
maioresque cadunt altis de montibus umbrae.

Already the chimney peaks on the far-off farmhouse rooftops are smoking,
And longer fall the shadows from the high hills.

(82-83; my translation)

And likewise, Eclogue 2 concludes in Corydon's attempted self-consolation for unreturned love in a way that cuts ironically against itself: "invenies alium, si te hic fastidit, Alexim" (73: "you will find another Alexis if this one disdains you"). Will Corydon do better the next time round, or does this mean that he is only doomed to repeat the situation of the unrequited lover? Warte nur, Corydon, you may soon enough get what you are seeking. In Goethe's poem, the idea of the delay before rest and death that signals both labor and life and the idea of the wish that can go in two directions come together, in a way that, like these classical predecessors, is inextricably tied to the nature of the lyric artifact in its dual temporality, at once "alive" and unliving, at once forward-moving and still. And the point here is that lyric poetry is always, not only the game of imitating in the spoken voice the structure and sound of song, itself an imitation of the content and vocal tones of communicative speech, but also the imitation of previous lyric poetry. The game of imitations-of-imitations itself issues from lyric's dual temporality, since the lyric "past" is always both forerunner and also "present" to the poet.

It is crucial, in all these historical considerations, to remember that we can only do any kind of history of the lyric if the concept of "the lyric" itself remains outside of history. If the concept must be located historically, anything outside of that moment is also outside the history of the lyric—and some other concept, such as "class struggle" or "ideology," must remain, at least for the moment, outside of history.

But one also must wonder, at least for a moment, whether history is quite as important as we have made it out to be these days. In my suggestions for how to account for the history of the lyric by means other than materialism, I am assuming a role of history as the background and not the foreground of my endeavor. The history of technology, for instance, may help me better to recapture some sense of what it is in the poem that I should recognize—what serves as the unmarked and what the marked, what should seem familiar and what should be a turn of surprise. I can also then understand the terms with which the poem plays in building a structure of paradox, and thus attempt to regain some sense of the wit, poignancy, and power of a particular lyric's aesthetic game. But my purpose is not to use the lyric to help me to repeat a lesson I am already supposed to know about society, alienation, and class struggle. In fairness, I do not think that Adorno falls into this way of thinking to the degree that, say, Jameson and his many followers today do, as a natural consequence of the conception of literature as an ideological reflection-and-intervention. But Adorno's argument rests on a notion of pure "lyric subjectivity," tying this to our supposed longing for a redeemed condition that can only exist outside our subjection to bourgeois capitalism. As such, Adorno's concept of the lyric is ultimately sentimental. In explaining to us the sentimental "protest" implied by the lyric subject's "illusion of nature emerging from alienation" (41), Adorno presents the lyric as, in effect, a message about our supposed historical moment in the grand scheme of class struggle and the history of modes of production.

What is missing most of all from Adorno's concept of the lyric, as in his reading of Goethe's poem, is any sense of wit. In recognizing the lyric poem, or generally the work of art, as an "internally contradictory unity" (39), Adorno comes close to the notion of paradox advanced here. But in restating this concept as "the subjective expression of a social antagonism" (45), as well as in the intervening argument, Adorno makes it clear that the poles of this contradiction or antagonism are to be found outside the supposedly pure and unified subjectivity of the lyric utterance. But the point of the lyric, the game it plays, requires that we at once recognize the "inside" and the "outside" of the imitated voice, with an attention divided between two sides, each of which points unavoidably to the other. Does the speaker of "Über allen Gipfeln" know that there is an ironic ambiguity in his assurance-and-threat to himself that begins "Warte nur"? It is impossible to say, precisely because the speaker is not a subject but the imitation of one, confined to a single imaginary utterance. The sentimental failure to find wit in the lyric accounts for Adorno's implication that the poet's achievement is largely unconscious, and, therefore—though Adorno would not use these terms—that the poet is an unconscious, unknowing genius—through whom it is no longer God or universal truth speaking, but the supposed historical truth of man's suffering under bourgeois capitalism.

In comparing a Middle English lyric to both Wordsworth and Goethe, I am also implying that, while the specific terms in which the paradox is cast are different, not only for every historical moment, every language, and every culture, but also every individual poem, the structure of paradox itself as the core of the aesthetic experience of the lyric as a work of art is indeed trans-historical, outside of history in the usual sense of the word. That is, the paradox of being is likely to be about as old as what we usually call consciousness, language, or thought. Is the universe paradoxical even without our being paradoxical by virtue of our consciousness? For reasons that Derrida's work has shown again and again, it is impossible to answer such a question, which is in the same class of Zen questions as whether the unheard falling tree makes a sound. Meanwhile, insofar as the lyric is (usually) the spoken imitation of the singing voice imitating the communicative utterance, one of the places in which we locate the paradox in this genre is in the imaginary speaker, who is simultaneously like and completely unlike ourselves, forever "saying" the same thing and therefore not saying anything at all, in language that calls attention to itself as mere sound even as it conforms to a pattern of sense. The social function of this play of paradoxes, what lyric poetry gives society, is not a protest against our class relations and mode of production, but rather an opportunity to enjoy something about ourselves that otherwise, outside of the arts, tends to be a source of frustration and pain. This is the essence of the aesthetic experience of the art object. What in life in general we experience as a conflict between powerful and necessary demands can becomes, in art, the components of an endlessly fascinating arrangement, the paradox.

That such contradictions are not products of capitalism early or late but simply built into being human—being per se, in effect—is a lesson we should have taken from Lacan and Derrida, and, before them, a long line of thinkers going back through Kant to Plato and Aristotle. To say so is to go somewhat against a prevailing misreading of Lacan and Derrida, in which they are supposed to have dealt a death-blow to humanism. Humanism, on this view, is itself defined-or caricatured-as a belief that the self is essentially and mystically free and self-determining rather than externally determined. By contrast, then-still following prevailing commonplaces-the "split subject" put forward by Lacan and the critique of truth and the sign advanced by Derrida reveal the subject as a mere text, as "spoken" rather than "speaking." (See, for instance, Eve Tavor Bannet's otherwise interesting and helpful Structuralism and the Logic of Dissent; Wendy J. McCredie, "Exploring the Text.") Space does not allow me to address here what I see as the problems in this prevailing account, but only to suggest that the emphasis on Lacan's and Derrida's apparent departures from certain of their predecessors may obscure crucial contexts in which the work of both writers shares many continuities with a very long philosophical tradition. The object of critique for both Lacan and Derrida, I think, is any belief today that the paradoxes of being can be resolved, whether by intellectual, material, or political means. It is built into thinking, reason, life, being, speaking, etc. that we should feel as if the paradoxes can be resolved, and that is what makes us keep moving forward; but, these philosophers say, we should not think that there is something terribly wrong if we never quite seem to "get there." The specific contexts in which Lacan and Derrida have demonstrated this inevitability of essential paradoxes have to do with our world and our time, but the basic point that being is paradoxical, that it is more realistic to expect joy and sorrow out of life than a state of perpetual happiness, and that the obsessive path that promises happiness only leads to madness and bloodshed, that we need to know the truth but that truth is always imperfect-this general point is one that thinkers have had to bring up again and again, each time in a different specific context and addressed to distinct issues. Lacan's and Derrida's critiques, meanwhile, work against any current dogma, from the ego-psychology of "adjustment" prevalent in the '50s and '60s, the self-righteous and violent movements of fascism, communism, and religious fundamentalism, to the market-driven practice of "targeted" research funding (on which last, see Derrida's "The Principle of Reason").

The artwork, the lyric poem, is not there either to tell us about the paradoxical nature of being, which is something we need already to have felt in order to recognize and enjoy the paradox in the work. Nor can the artwork solve the contradiction, which is impossible, whether by Hegelian Aufhebung of Spirit, technological progress, theocratic takeover, or communist revolution. Rather, the lyric poem, like other kinds of art but with its special focus on language as both sound and sense, helps us live with our inevitable conflicts and contradictions, by imitating their expression in an attitude of play. In the wit and poignancy of this play, the "lyric subject" is not a subject but its very contrary: the opportunity to tease out the contradictions about subjectivity that bother us all the time, in such a way as to make their contradictory parts appear in an aesthetically pleasing whole, pleasing precisely because of the tensions at work to form its unity. As long as we remain human—that is, able to speak and more or less understand language and to think more or less rationally, and able to reflect upon our actions and to consider their implications—we will continue to need, and to create, lyric poetry, the playful imitation of the voice in which conflicts become paradoxes and things of pain become opportunities for the pleasure of a surprising recognition.

Amittai F. Aviram
University of South Carolina

Works Cited

This page last updated Thursday, May 6, 2004 by the author — amittai dot aviram at gmail dot edu. © 2001 by Amittai F. Aviram.