In Critical Revolutionaries: Five Critics Who Changed the Way We Read, the critic Terry Eagleton states: “A critique must distance itself from its subject in order to judge it.” For Eagleton (and others), the critic’s authority exists in relation to this stated distance. I want to needle this sanctification of the critical distance and break down both the distance’s performance and its value.
Eagleton’s book highlights five Anglo-Saxon men who “revolutionized” poetry criticism from the undergrowth of Cambridge. All five believed that criticism played a role in diagnosing social ills. Echoing this severity, Eagleton likens the duties of the critic to “those of the priest, prophet, or politician.” (Unfortunately, he ignores the extent to which reviews are also a form of book marketing and advertising, that is, Eagleton overlooks the critic’s role as pimp.)
As the “supervisor of modernity’s spiritual health,” Eagleton’s critic supposedly creates the language in which we know ourselves. But there is no shortage of diagnostics, therapy industries, lifestyle coaches and privatized solutions to social problems. Diagnosis has never been so easy. It is difficult to explain why this abundance of diagnoses, therapies and capitalist realisms do not heal.
Forget healing, diagnostics, and critical distance for a moment. Imagine a critique so entangled in its subject that the breathprints blur. Carving an ontology that prioritizes critical resonance rather than reference, Daniela Cascella’s Chimeras present a new form of writing (‘chimeric writing’) and a new form of boundary-crossing critique (‘transcelation’) focusing on intimate relationships between supports the writers and their private canon. For Cascella, this canon includes Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik and Italian writer/translator Cristina Campo. To further entangle myself and emphasize the intimacy of this approach in its rejection of critical distance, I will emulate Cascella’s decision to refer to her subjects by their first names.
In Appearances, Encounters (A Deranged Essay) appearing in Chimeras, Cascella establishes her critical approach as a place of ongoing conversation with the text and its author. Correspondence folds into criticism; Derangement expands to include refrains, echoes, direct speech and increased text dimensionality. Cascella is haunted by this excerpt from Alejandra’s diary:
December 4, 1962: The new criticism that interests me […] [presents] an approach that, whether formal or internal, has a common quality: the notion of the tie. A connection between the critic and the literary work […] which leads to the binding of subject and object [TEXT INCOMPLETE].
The material incompleteness of the text brings Cascella directly into the book she is writing on: “I am writing in the space incised by this incomplete text.” The unfinished lures Cascella to help shape the critique Alejandra envisioned: ” I practice Alejandra’s longing for criticism as the link, the unspoken substance that binds an author to the subject of her study.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “correspondence” (noun) is defined as 1) a close resemblance, connection or equivalence, 2) communication by exchanging letters with someone, or 3) letters sent or received. For Cascella, correspondence re-visions critical distance. She demonstrates, for example, how Pizarnik corresponds with her “third interlocutor” Cristina by post and the dedication of her poem “Rings of Ash”, in which Pizarnik describes voices that sing “so that the others cannot sing. ” All three dictionary definitions of correspondence meet in the relationship between these interlocutors and their texts.
“As you will see, Alejandra, your presence is the cause of all sorts of uncanny phenomena,” Cristina writes in a letter to Alejandra. Correspondence is a causal agent, something that makes things happen, Cascella muses: consider the polysemy in correspondence: consonants, mutual accommodation, writing letters, nexus, keeping in touch with, receiving messages from, even what came before was , remote or imaginary.
Cascella ends “Appearances, Encounters (A Deranged Essay)” with an asterisk, indicating that what follows will be “written from memories and echoes,” read from the words of Alejandra and Cristina, particularly their letters and diaries that are still to come have not been translated into English. In this way, Cascella will “perform chimeric writing as an entanglement with the themes of his studies and his yearning: in conversation, before translation”. Cascella creates “imaginary conversations” between the critic and her subject, turning the critique into “a space to inhabit together”.
“Monstrous, composite, fiery, longing: a chimera,” Cascella writes, and in my notebook I find Kate Zambreno’s definition of collage as “a chimera, a strange combination.” In my eyes, an interruption becomes a dialogue between these two authors.
In Appendix Project, Zambreno plays with the appendix as a form to enact an “eerie … doubling and return to an earlier text”. Each lecture and essay is titled as an appendix, harking back to her email correspondence with other writers, including Sofia Samotar, and excerpts from Zambreno’s novel. Samotar and Zambreno correspond through their shared interest in “the performance of disappearance, the poetics of anonymity” and “the uncanniness of intertextuality”.
Appendix Project anchors the work on the unfinished nature of a book and shows how the next book connects to unfinished conversations started in previous books, talks and readings. So too Cascella’s forms embrace this monstrosity, this thing we fear for its perversion of the natural or normal.
Art and poetry often begin by overturning the natural – in the uncanny or out of place image, in the strange metaphor. Frank O’Hara’s “Neon in Daylight” reminds us that neon is made for the night. There is the pull of the nocturne, a song form that emerges in the twilight, tangled in the provocation of the daytime neon. In poetry, entanglement is as natural as sex, mudslides, earthworms, and tornadoes. Sinister entanglements give us electric earthworms traveling with tornadoes.
Cascella begins “A Bell for Cristina, or Writing an Image of Echo and Chimera (A transcelation)” by quoting Maurice Blanchot for the purpose of criticism: “Perhaps a comment is just a little snowflake ringing a bell.” I think back to what Zambreno calls the “ghostliness” in this “speaking of someone else’s image”. And that she wrote this in an article titled Index C: Translations of the Uncanny. How thick the skin of translation is.
Above my desk, pinned with a thumbtack, inscribed in faded orange pen, this quote from Anne Lauterbach:
What I know is sometimes a defense against what there is to know. This defense can materialize as fear, as contempt, as doubt, as ideology, as polemic—the desire to attach one’s partial knowledge and belief to a universal value.
I take a look to remind myself I don’t know what I don’t know yet. My desire to theorize what I know, or find words to explain how I know it, often leads me to invoke conventional critical distance. But if we understand criticism as a literary form that draws the reader into a deeper relationship with the text, then the depth—or what depth it involves—depends on the reader’s willingness to take risks. By framing the role of the critic closer to that of the reader, we can experiment with staying within rather than staying as a critical approach.
As Elias Canetti: “I want to keep crushing myself until I’m whole.” There is nothing seductive about the patina of my own innocence, or the critical distance that such innocence allows. Don’t be final; be interesting. Ask unsolvable questions that challenge the world as we know it. Experiment with formal knowledge challenges. Don’t reinvent the wheel, but please rethink it. Extend the banks of the criticism creek like Cascella does with Transcelation. Invent new ways for multilingual critics to engage with texts that have not yet been translated into English. Feel the posthumous embodiment that challenges the boundary between self and text.
Belief does not allow the world to change; it rejects events. Overinvestment in ideology gives us a ready critical lens while disentangling us with the reality that the world has changed, that it will continue to change, that it will be unrecognizable. To see the world anew, we need to get dirty, involved, theorizing from within capitalist realism.
Ideology turns a promise into an absolute – that’s why people compare ideology to God or religions become ideologies. A judgment that does not interrupt itself is closer to conviction than thought.