February 2, 2023

Save the Net Books

Blogazine on Books, Arts, and Music

Eros, Attention, Acceptance: A Writer’s Arsenal…

Then again, one day the boy will find out that somewhere on the other side of the world the older man has died. At first she will want to write to know. But time is of the essence – the letter is frozen in time. desire is desire.


– Marina Tsvetaeva, “Letter to an Amazon” (translated by Sonja Franeta)

It’s November. Darkness bites off bits of daylight earlier. I’m rereading Letters: Summer 1926, a collection of letters exchanged between Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Rainer Maria Rilke. In November 1922, Tsvetaeva wrote to Pasternak: “A letter is like an otherworldly communication, less perfect than a dream, but subject to the same rules.”1

As Rilke’s leukemia worsened in August 1926, Tsvetaeva sent him a letter suggesting what might be read as an erotic encounter: ‘You are what I will dream of tonight, what will make me dream of tonight. […] A stranger, me, in someone else’s dream. I never expect you; I always wake you up.” She envisions her own role as a kind of poetic fantasy, adding: “Everything that never sleeps wants to rest in your arms.”

Tsvetaeva tells Rilke what to dream about. Her writing combines the adrenaline of daring with the high stakes of emotional recklessness. Not only does she thrive on risk, she demands that the reader meet her there, crossing the line of politeness, reveling in her boundlessness, and watching her usurp the masculine-coded role of advertising initiator or emotional aggressor. It’s her pleasure.

Reading Tsvetaeva’s letters or prose is feeling pressed against a wall with her hand on her chest while the scent of her breath caresses your nostrils. The sensual aggression of her address eroticizes the other and throws away all social conventions and boundaries between herself and the interlocutor. This applies whether she is writing to Pasternak or Rilke or Sophia Parnock, regardless of gender, across the genres of poetry, criticism, correspondence and essay. Each time Tsvetaeva’s pen touches the page, a table is knocked over. A glass breaks. Someone’s feelings are hurt. One’s ego leaves splashes on the floor.

This penchant for erotic excitement came to mind while reading philosopher Gillian Rose’s Paradiso, which was left unfinished due to Rose’s death from ovarian cancer. A philosopher only needs three things, says Rose: “Eros, attention, acceptance.” For Rose, Eros means “infinite intellectual Eros: endless curiosity about everything”. Attention is “the ability to pay attention: to be captivated by what is in front of you without grasping it.” Acceptance relies on intellectual humility and insecurity, which Rose calls “acceptance of pathlessness (aporia)”: that there may be no solutions to questions, only clarification of their statement.

The same three things are also necessary for the poet, the critic, and the essayist. Part of thinking is considering the ideas of others, taking an intense interest in their experiences. Often we write of what is in common: a wick, a spark, a shared darkness, a cohesive awe – the eroticism of intellectual inquiry.

Poets use erotic curiosity through metaphors and put the unequal to bed. Metaphors have the power to change the way a word is perceived. Altered perception alters the relationship between words. “Hope is the thing with feathers,” because Emily Dickinson left us an image associated with birds. Birds in and of themselves essentially have nothing hopeful about them, but poetry gives hope to birds, feathers and winged things, which then leads to interpretation or even a hopeful bird thing unexpectedly sitting in the third stanza of its own poem.

Since the power of metaphors depends on context and connotations built up over time, we have no way of knowing whether we are being created or will be created by the metaphors of others. This is how the metaphor seduces – distracting us from the implausibility of the miracle presented. One sees his uncanny juxtapositions, like the plate metaphor concocted by William Gass in the On Being Blue essays, “like the unpopped mint unwrapped by fingering, we always plate our sexual issues first. It’s the very reason we read…the only reason we write.”

Like Eros, attention to rape exists. “To be enraptured by what lies ahead,” as Rose says, one must be able to look closely without destroying the subject, without forcing what is seen to do its will. You have to convince and risk being convinced. Precise attention requires a willingness to be seduced.

The poet’s attention can grab us with sound, image, or rhythm, as WB Yeats does when he begins “A Drunken Man’s Praise of Sobriety” with a restraining order and then moves on to seduction, turning the final rhyme into a sort of dance- Beat transformed :

Come around my pretty punk
And still make me dance
That I stay a sober man
Although I drink my fill.

An injunction demands a certain amount of attention from the reader. When issued within a repeat or beat, the restraining order pops out and speaks straight to the flesh. Yeats’ direct approach grabs us by the collar, pulls us off the sidelines, and transports the reader into the poem. His attention is ours.

Although injunctions rest on the presumption of authority, poetic injunction differs from proclamation in its flexibility—it can continue to assert its authority or succumb to persuasion and beguiling. Like the poet’s, the critic’s attention is creative—emphasizing a particular aspect of the text. My decision to segregate a stanza sanctifies it, or gives it increased importance in that segregation. The critic’s attention sanctifies certain parts of the text. Perhaps the writer’s desire to make something sacred is the strongest argument against treating art as a religion, as an institution administering segregation. Paradoxically, religious institutions desecrate the sacred by monopolizing access to it.

Rose’s “acceptance of the pathlessness” makes everything tangible, imaginable, open to consideration. Like the philosopher, the poet speaks to approach the unspoken, the unspeakable, or the undecided. In poetry, strategies of closure are at the same time techniques of disclosure.

Poetry makes non-finding possible. The self, like style or voice, changes depending on the interlocutor. The Neo-Necromancers can be caught constricting in the Minimalist’s tool shed. The poem, which begins as a rave, can be hampered by the appearance of his sad raven. The writer can be misled away from his point of departure. The artist who wears a fish on his head has not found his voice (or himself) as a fish; he is simply toying with his relationship to selfhood. The emphasis on finding and being yourself is becoming increasingly commercial. Late capitalism confuses self-discovery with self-production. A self is not something one can or will be – a self is an uncanny combination of things over time.

In the poem “Silvester”, which Tsvetaeva dedicated to Rilke, she writes: “I have long put life and death in quotation marks, / empty inventions, as is well known.”2 And then she leans on the asterisk as a punctuation mark bearing death can:

I announce life and death with a secret
smile – you will touch it with your own.
I pronounce life and death with a footnote,
with asterisks…

This textual statement of the asterisk, this fallen star shape, is followed by the ellipse, which opens the end to enclose infinity. Tsvetaeva’s “Asterisk” reminds us that the text does not contain everything the author could say, or even everything the author intended to say. It leads to insecurity and instability. It closes with a dissing clasp.

Tsvetaeva refused to wear glasses to correct her nearsightedness – she kept the world blurry and maintained a certain distance between perception and reality. To cling to the inability to read one’s room is to accept indecisiveness or to propagate dreaminess and dissimilarity. But it also invites not to see the self clearly and problematizes the possibility of seeing one’s reflection. Are you yourself in your blurred reflection?

It still baffles me that Tsvetaeva, an avid letter writer whose letters formed an important part of her writing corpus, died by suicide without leaving a note. The intense erotic connection she sought while writing reminds me of Georges Bataille’s “Incandescence”. I suspect she lit the incandescence to arouse herself rather than the other—to feel alive by establishing a timeless relationship with that other—to sink into the intimacies she envisioned rather than those Depicting the challenges of poetic encounters in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

In January 1927 Tsvetaeva wrote to the recently deceased Rilke: “Beloved, come to me often in my dreams – no, not that. Live in my dreams.” What audacity! The writer invalidates eternity by seducing spirits.

I think of rose – eros, attention, acceptance – as the first frost decimates the potted ferns on our porch. The world creaks when you wake up. My dog ​​Radu lays two bird bones at my feet. I realize that something has died. It’s not plastic junk. It’s not a toy. It’s freezing and I’m delirious. Living in my dreams, I picture Tsvetaeva whispering to the spirit. The unfathomable excitement is the most dangerous. I can see the bones but still don’t know who it is. Or how the winged thing climbs into so many of us.

1Unless otherwise noted, all translations are from Letters: Summer 1926.

2Translation by John Henriksen, per Svetlana Boym, Death in Quotes: Cultural Myths of the Modern Poet.