INTERVIEW WITH PAUL STUBBS BY TOM BLAND
Paul Stubbs remains one of the most exciting poets working in the English language and he draws on sources both in and outside of the poetic sphere. I first became aware of his work quite by accident when browsing in a bookshop and found his first collection, The Theological Museum. I opened it to be exposed to a philosophical world of the grammatical conjuration of image into idea: no neat dividing line between them, no way to tell them apart, they defy categorisation or simple interpretation. Paul's new work, The Lost Songs of Gravity, has come out with Black Herald Press, which he runs with his wife, Blandine Longre:
How did your new work, The Lost Songs of Gravity, come to be written?
Well, before writing this book, like before I write anything, it was important to feel some kind of a negative appraisal of my own sense of authorhood and of what I’ve written before, or that is until the writing itself can unsheathe or burst past the wombs of all restrictive syntactical births. When writing this particular book, an attempt, in a Kantian sense, to push poetry to the very limits of my own possible knowledge of it, I knew that if I was to continue to call myself a poet, then I would have to abandon inside myself what makes or made every other poet, poetic. The book charts the search for a cosmological Christ, to return the Christ of religion back into the universe from which he has been ‘borrowed’ for two thousand years. Aquinas told us (quite rightly) that all we know about God is what we don’t know, and with this premise in mind, I began to write the book, using some of the ideas of philosophers and theologians as starting points, especially the idea of ‘Decreation’ used by the French thinker Simone Weil (1909-1943), which was basically the notion that before creation everything was God, and that in order for anything to exist, he would have to give up part of himself to make room for it.
The poet seeks the impossible of course, or should, even though for the scientist or rationalist, we simply have no way of acquiring knowledge of any objects/beings/entities as they are in themselves; therefore the only way to know anything beyond the bounds of sense and our human cognitive limitation is to become acquainted with things in some completely new timeless way, but this seems (Schopenhauer’s theory of the denial of the will apart) only possible in the imagination, where everything is physically negligible and love-swabbed and ready to be born anew. While writing this book I started to think that even the likes of Dante or Blake, and certainly Eliot, should really be reduced to provincial ‘earthly’ poets, amateurs even, trapped as they were by the impenetrable screens of walled-in human experience—and maybe all poets still are. So what to do about it? The only way, which I felt I attempted in this book, was to smuggle clocks back into the mind from alien time-zones and call those relative ‘realities’ ‘poems’. It was important also to separate the god of the philosophers of ‘first causes’ etc. from the gods of religion, for in this way not one version of god could be allowed to become the chief begetter of purely liberal thought. The ‘type’ of god it was essential to avoid in this book was, for example, the god of Hegel (I mention him because I had been writing an essay about Hegel and Kierkegaard around the time of the writing of these poems), which for him ended up being little more than a personification of the developing collective mind of all humanity. In short, Hegel’s Geist is merely the ghost of god, and I was conscious for god not to become in these poems the ghost of anything.
That said, the two central themes in this book, ‘faith’ and theodicy’, were not directly philosophical. Faith (for me) has nothing whatsoever to do with the existence of God—for whether he exists or does not exist, this should have no bearing on whether we believe in him or not. With that in mind, many of the poems seek to ask who, now or in the future, will be capable of speaking indirectly to God? For what God needs to hear is quite obviously not what any human being is capable of saying; the conclusion to this being that, only those who, having been stripped of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, etc. and with not one denominational impasse to God, find themselves free to finally communicate with him. For just as the church (all churches, temples etc.) are not proof of God’s need for religions on earth, but merely architectural realities of his absence, the poems in this book are full of makeshift tarpaulins, or temporary structures in which a new kind of cosmological faith can be worshipped.
Coupled to ‘faith’ and my ideas on it, I am interested in what ‘evil’ means to us today. I have always had an interest in the great discussions on theodicy, going back to the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, through to later philosophers in the Western tradition, such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, as well as the Jewish and Arabic philosophers, such as Maimonides and Averroes, up until the 17th century, a particular important century for theodicy, especially in the rationalist discussions that took place between the likes of the French Cartesian Nicholas Malebranche, the German rationalist Leibniz and the French theologian Antoine Arnauld, with the general premise being how can a world of imperfection, catastrophe, of undeserved suffering be created by an all wise, omnipotent, and ultimately ‘free’ god? This led to all kinds of extremely knotty theories about what God can and cannot do to intervene in human events as they happen. All this leads, in the minds of most people of course, to the 20th century and the holocaust, and for me to one of my favourite thinkers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and there are a couple of poems concerned with some of his radical ideas on evil and theology in the book. My conclusion is that God himself cannot understand evil until we do, which in this book has led to all kinds of unimaginable ways of acquiring an understanding of what evil means. One notion I did decide on though when writing this book was that only on those planets in the poems over which the gods of our religions didn’t have influence, could I imagine Christ still being killed there.
Ballard described his work as coming out of his obsessions, how would you describe your obsessions/themes?
My own obsessions begin with the realization that there are no existences in God, only births and miscarriages (mine), both of which lack any kind of anthropological content, so that not until I can provide them with images and visions via language, can these ‘obsessions’ be satisfied in the ‘anthropological’ context of a poem. Also, the central question of whether God can exist outside human religions, and if so, in what non-cognitive (for us) capacity? For certainly philosophy, theology, and even science, can only ever be temporary suspensions of God’s thought, never its outcome; and with that in mind, the only starting point (always in some denuded wilderness emptied by my own thought) when writing these poems was when I stopped poeticizing, or when unable to comprehend my own ‘poetical’ thought, I was left alone (in a metaphorical sense) holding God’s skull, and with suddenly no philosophical, poetical or religious foundation in which to explain it. For when any man of faith begins to experience the highly undesirable consequences of what (historically) religions in this world are, or have become, then he has no choice but to become an ascetic, a stylite, a saint, or if intellectually unable to formulate a reason to pick any one of them, a mystic. Now the ‘mystic’ interests me greatly, because their task is not to be an opponent of what makes religion, religious, but quite simply to break down that inner discord within themselves between language, love and God. Some of my own obsessions are taken up, and in a very functional way, by the American analytical philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who in his idea of Transworld identities asks questions about ‘identities across possible worlds’, and this also is of great interest to me—ideas of the same object existing in two different places at the same time, which became something of an obsession/theme in this book especially, for it is not the possibility of other Transworld identities in the universe that makes us feel less or more human on this world, but that no amount of cosmological and/or metaphysical unrest will account for our own noetic ignorance of both life and death anywhere else outside our solar-system.
The themes of the poems are all transcendental, that is they all look to extend the distance travelled by the poetical mind, for in (probably) concurring with Nietzsche’s thought that there are no iron-clad or ‘absolute truths’ or not any that we, using our own cognitive mental apparatus, can know, we do probably have only those ‘useful fictions’ or self-professed series of personal laws in which to live by. That said, there is something of the Jungian mental break-down in writing any poem I think, but unlike in the way that for Jung this ‘breakdown’ came to seem like a psychic growth of self (in his case, evolving with the drawing of mandalas and by his use of, and interest in, Himalayan Buddhism, all of which became ladders or aids in which to lower himself into the underworld), the ‘search’ for any kind of a truth outside me in these poems had no conclusion, and in the end, amounted to no more than the riddles or the foolishness of myself to attempt to escape what we never can, i.e. humanity.
Your work begins with a hermeneutic orientation, drawing on biblical and philosophical works as well as the artworks of Francis Bacon, how does this context “erupt” into poetry?
Well, it’s a good question, and the answer to it is to do with language, or rather the limits of it and what it means for our thought. Wittgenstein, unable to be religious, because of (what he saw as) the limits of knowledge and human language, ended up sounding anti-religious, but this was not a form of atheism (atheists being for me the most barren of all humans, failing as they do always to ‘name’ the embryo of their every thought about God, ‘God’), but rather simply an end-point in language, ‘language’ which must, for us, define the very reality in which God, unable to be pinned-down by language, must be sought. Therein lies the problem of mankind from its very beginnings: how can we name or describe anything about God? (Unconsciously we must all be in agreement with the likes of Aquinas, St Augustine, Duns Scotus or Meister Eckhart? who believed that we are unable to speak to God using human words.) To be human is to be celestially inadequate, thus Plato saw not the world itself, but something in place of it: being, and the many gradations of it, while Descartes sought knowledge, and fundamentally the view of the world from the vantage-point of his consciousness. But more crucial to poetry than either of these viewpoints is that of Wittgenstein of course, who seeks above all else ‘meaning’ in the world, so that in philosophy there are always three central positions: subjects (us), objects (out there), and the relationship between both. Thus the poetical ‘eruption’ comes not from a slow lengthy observation from inside the mind, but from a constant chipping away of that mind-screen that separates us from everything else in the universe. Yet those like Heidegger refused to see humans as ‘subjects’, spectators or observers separated by the glass-window of the mind, for he thought that we are already amongst it all, being beings, in the world. Heidegger of course emerged from the teachings of Husserl whose idea of the directedness of our consciousness always towards things, ‘intentionality’ as he called it, is still crucial today I think in how any of us can picture the universe inside our heads, i.e. how can the goings-on inside of my mind or yours or anyone’s, have any meaningful relationship to distant galaxies? The attempt (and failure) to answer such philosophical and, more importantly, epistemological enigmas proved the spark for many of these poems.
You mention the biblical, but the ‘biblical’ is something I am looking to go beyond, or to reach a non-religious realm in which God (as we once in a ‘biblical’ sense understood him) is no longer God, a point so far off in the universe (‘the first yard beyond theology’), in which Christ can no longer remain in the wafer. In a catholic sense the implications of this are horrendous of course, but no ‘Catholic’ resides on another planet, or not yet. In a poem like ‘The Holiest Man’ my task, as I saw it, was to locate a figure who has escaped finally the Kierkegaardian ‘untruth of the crowd’, the human collective, to remerge somewhere else, and in this poem in a remote and timeless place where all theological and philosophical preoccupations of humankind have fallen away, likewise objective physical reality, and in fact all empiricist and idealist concerns with sensations and mental processes. The curtains of the world of appearance have dropped from the eyes, and now, like some eschatological prey, this ‘man’ waits, for all eternity if necessary, for the greatest of all the gods in the universe to arrive and choose his soul. Such an eremitical man would no longer be a religious recluse, but a recluse from religion itself, even God. The idea being, as is the case of many figures in this book, to reach a previously unprecedented cosmological predicament, in which the ‘glory of God’ (in a biblical sense) is now no more than a theological off-shoot of a now (new) mystical inertia. My reference to the Bible, the ‘New Testament’ especially, is that God does still die on the cross, yet on every cross, for all finite beings capable of both living and dying in the universe.
Nietzsche famously signed his “madness” letters either the Crucified or Dionysus, Artaud envisioned Christ/Shiva, how do you “see” Jesus and do you see a contrast/opposition to Jesus?
The real Nietzsche, the man of personal catastrophe, of crisis, was the man of inaction, eternal ‘inaction’. Thus the fear of death is not, in the many great works by this prophet, a fear of eternal unconsciousness, but rather a fear only of the ‘vacuity of contemplation’ (Karl Jaspers), which is given to men to overcome, only if they find the pre-occupation with suffering, illness, sin, too little of a task to hold their attention. His ‘madness’ as you call it was a madness unable to give up God’s shadow, and Christ’s. After all, Zarathustra is merely the larval impulse in us all that wants God not to be man’s final chrysalis; indeed, after Nietzsche, it has come to be seen as if God were simply our victim, our failed embryonic vision of a universe in which man must now become the sole measure of it. Only the phrase ‘God is dead’ would, by forcing him to become himself, force Nietzsche to become a product of the Will to Power, an organism of the paroxysm of his own despair, and likewise his sole formulation of the conviction to write, think, live. In light of this, you can’t help but imagining that it was as hard for Nietzsche to refrain from saying ‘God is dead’ as it was for God to actually die. After all, what is most heartrending about Nietzsche, is not that he believed the death of God might actually improve the world, but that it would enable him to replace Christ on the cross of his own vertebrae, on the cross of the burden of being himself, for he had always wanted to see what the world would be like without God, Christianity, weakness. Thus, his opposition to Christ is still one of the most compelling struggles in philosophy/literature. Historically we had of course the ‘historical’ Christ of David Strauss (1808-1874) and the Christ of the Hegelian Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) who made the switch from God to man, turning religion in the process into humanism, but, in truth, to be in ‘opposition’ to Christ is only to be ‘offended’ by him, and this, as the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his great book The Cost of Discipleship, is the only relationship we can have with Christ, that is to die for him, not to live.
That said, I believe I am a poet only because I have never been able to become a Christian, so that the Christ I search for is my own. Luther made the distinction between a ‘historical’ faith and a ‘divine’ one, but as the philosopher and theologian Don Cupitt put it, ‘The mere historical statement that “Christ died” is devoid of religious significance. It only acquires religious value by the addition of the suffix “for my sake”.’ But a further distinction for me needs to be made, and that is cosmological faith, one that seeks to take back Christ from religion, and more importantly pursue the idea of what Christ’s death might mean for all beings on all possible planets, or at least to imagine just what significance it could possibly have if we were to believe that a) there were finite beings out there conscious of possessing a religious faculty, and b) that if there were such beings whether they might be actually capable of making choices with regards to what god, like us, they were most drawn towards. More important than all of this though is the central idea in say a poem like ‘The Second Birth of Theology’ where the question, from multiple angles, is asked, ‘does man, or is man capable of loving God the most? Or does some other entity in the universe have the capacity or cognitive apparatus to love our god(s) more than any other human does?’
How do you see contemporary literature?
Obviously this is far too wide a question to answer in such a small space, even if I limit myself to poetry (as I’ve no expertise in fiction, for instance), but I would say that the question should really be (at least for me) what the value of remaining ‘contemporary’ means in terms of a poet’s need to feel contemporary in the first place; thus when Seamus Heaney in his first lecture as Oxford professor of poetry said that ‘poetry cannot afford to lose its fundamentally self-delighting inventiveness, its joy in being a process of language as well as a representation of things in the world’, he clarified quite succinctly the reasons why modern poetry itself is so set on remaining within these ‘self-delighting’ categories. ‘Contemporary’ poetry in the UK is run by the poetry society, the poetry school and the award ‘judges’ and like any ‘society’ or hierarchy it wants to define itself and its boundaries, and balks when drawn too far outside of itself. With that in mind, Heaney’s lines (which speak directly to what the British define as ‘poetry-lovers’) are only truly a concern for poets working hard not to be shepherded from their own always limiting thematic and ethical pens. The subject matters that (always) dominate British poetry—family, politics, ethnic diversity, sexual preference, nature, identity etc.—are all, by their very denominational appeal, bound to remain static and worthwhile areas of poetic discovery, what maintains the poetical equilibrium in that country.
The word ‘radicalism’ is mostly lost on the English I think (or has become so); each day on the Internet (which is the place where everything apparently happens nowadays), there seems to appear a ‘great’, ‘astonishing’, or ‘remarkable’ new poet! How is this possible? Are the new anthologies of poets for the computer-age to be five-thousand pages long? Unlike here in France, the British are and have always been obsessed by the ‘anthology’, the ‘themed’ sections of a consciousness wanting to say the same thing over and over, but yet differently. Gerard Manley Hopkins, an actual radical poet, who now of course has been posthumously and, much worse, critically anesthetized to any new prima facie approach to his work, said that ‘Great poets are the results of exquisitely rare and incalculable combinations of causes, and nobody would be to blame if there were not a great poet for another century’; except now, bizarrely, there is one announced seemingly every week, at every prize-giving, every new self-congratulatory ‘tweet’, how is this so? Crucially, Hopkins once also said that ‘Christ is the only true critic’; so if you replace ‘Christ’ now with some, let’s say, social network criticism, we’ll probably be getting closer to the rather scrofulous truth of the matter. That said, none of this matters to me though as I don’t consider myself in any way a contemporary poet in any shape or form.
Any other thoughts you’d like to add?
My only addendum (to the above question especially) is that any worthwhile poet of the future will have to somehow outthink all these new neural prisons of the ego, likewise all previous literary categories of our thinking (not obviously in an epistemological sense), all of the once certified mental structures of our language, so as to begin to perceive anew the external universe for themselves; thus I would suggest that any (genuinely) new kind of poetry-language must locate that part of the imagination still unrefined by the arbitrary selections and struggles for syntactical survival in the ‘literary’ world. Given the obvious historical limitations of poetry as a truth-seeking operation it is quite surprising then that poetry is still seen as a viable choice of imaginative discovery in which to seek truth. For unlike say Christianity which, in Nietzsche’s mind, perished by its own ethics, it is most surprising that poetry (which for many is still seen as a self-prophesying ‘religion’) has never felt a public or even a private need to do away with itself? Probably only the existential and eschatological crisis suffered by the poet David Gascoyne came close to this sense of self-cancellation as an author in his Poems, 1937-1942. If the contemporary poet is not always to return to empiricism and/or a world governed by the laws of positive science, and to ‘subjects’ in that world, then only a reigniting of the influence of the likes of Plato, Hegel, and Berkeley on contemporary thought (all attempted to make the idea of the ‘real’ world wholly redundant) might purge the creative artist today of the feeling of being less trapped inside his or her own experience.
That said, if Kant is still right (and I think he is) and that there is nowhere else but inside our own minds to ‘order’ our experience, then the ‘author’ must, like the church-emptying war-dance of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, kill every god refusing to be re-churched outside ‘religion’, even if, like for the Judeo-Christian God who is already presumed dead in the heads of atheists, there has been as yet no new altar in which to orient a new kind of cosmological faith towards. In light of all this, I guess you could say Man has never seemed more irrelevant, likewise the poet, the philosopher, and the scientist, and it is with this sense of continual defeat in mind that, to my mind, any truly radical poetry should continue to be written, for even the most original poem can only ever be a clarification of a poet’s own learned ignorance. The poet must ultimately look beyond this world, even if that means attaining the role of anonymous author. As Kierkegaard put it, ‘it is terrible to be born outside the universal, to work without meeting a single traveller, but this is what the disciple of Christ must do…’, likewise the ‘disciple’ of original poetry we might add…