‘Neurosis, Poetry, and the Present’ - Report by Calum Gardner

‘Neurosis, Poetry, and the Present’ - symposium at Goldsmiths, London, 18th March 2017

The ‘Neurosis, Poetry, and the Present’ Symposium at the Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought at Goldsmiths, University of London, organised by Daniel Katz and Benjamin Noys, brought together four speakers on the relationship between poetry and ‘neurosis’. Opening remarks by Daniel Katz drew attention to that fact that ‘neurosis’ is an ill-defined term, taking in a range of psychological states including anxiety, depression, phobia, panic, and addiction. But rather than seeing neurosis as a problem which, in the progress of things, would be solved, it was pointed out that the practice of poetry seems to be founded in states relating to neurotic sensitivities and the resultant ‘weakness’ of the position from which one speaks.


For this reason, the first talk was given by Emma Mason on ‘Critical Vulnerability and the Weakness of Poetry’, and elaborated the notion of ‘weak thinking’. Many of us have a hostile reaction to being accused of weakness, but Mason articulated the idea of ‘weak thinking’ as a critical vulnerability which might allow us to agree with those we disagree with most. Explicitly linking the idea to Brexit, Trump, and the recent far-right resurgence, Mason also positioned the work as part of both a lesbian and a Christian analysis of power.

But while very early Christianity can make a claim to speak for the weak, most institutional forms of the religion do so now from a combination of entitlement not to question and a fear of questioning. In this analysis, Mason drew on the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo and the notion of weak theology. Etymologically, to debate is to fight. To the strong, the weak thinker is the outsider, and weak forms of expression appear irrelevant. However, a critical vulnerability or weak thought might be able to disperse power. Vattimo argues for a rethinking of Catholicism, and for the support of fragility, of what makes the subject. He takes the idea of Verwindung from Heidegger, a kind of progression which, rather than getting stronger, becomes a lightening or weakening of what has gone before. The death of Jesus is the death of God – the Nietzchean moment is not a failure but the origin of the religion. The secularised position Christianity now occupies was always the point, and we have reached a point of kenosis or emptiness. ‘God’ empties Itself out to be known, twisting away from the strong terms of God to the weak terms of kenosis.

This is a charitable mode and, as Vattimo writes in his essay ‘The Shattering of the Poetic Word’, a poetic one.[i] Mason thus capped the talk with a ‘kenostic’ reading of Anne Carson’s ‘Gnosticism I’, but made an impassioned case in doing so that instrumental teaching of literature, philosophy, and any subject in the university often makes this impossible; the weakest thinkings are under the greatest attack.[ii] Questions revealed an audience interest in weak thinking, Mason explained that there is always a risk of weak thinking becoming strong, and that this remains a conversation, and said that weak thinkers are always in conversation with others and their environment and are thus never alone. Weakness can make it feel that way, but vulnerability brings one out of it.


Daniel Katz followed, with a talk entitled ‘Modernist Neurosis, Impersonal Politics’, on the political potential of the moments of loss and remainder. Neurosis is the need to leave a trace of one’s own, or of oneself, but does not thus valorise a poetry centred on self-expression; the lyric ‘I’ should be empty centre around which neurotic poetry would turn. As Katz says, ‘high heroic modernism militates against neurosis’, whereas the core of confessional poetry turns it into something normal to be managed.

This is what Lowell and Berryman do, anyway; a poem like Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’, he argues, is neurotic in the ‘wrong way’ for either modernism or confessionalism, in that it assumes ‘incompatible affective positions’ without making an attempt to reconcile them. Thinking neurotically (perhaps weakly) would let us consider a social order which relies neither on plenty nor on scarcity, the tension between which, and the affective relations between them, lie at the base of ideological struggles, as we were to see in Noys discussion of Diane di Prima in the afternoon.

Paradoxically, Katz observed, imagism removes the contour and flow of things but has often been codified by reference to the work of poets who are feminine or queer, which made increasing sense as the link between the female and queer neurosis was explored further in Natalia Cecire’s paper in the afternoon. Katz’ paper discussed Robert Duncan’s H. D. Book, which in its ‘daybook’ form models the practice of seriality, by means of which a writer can avoid the effect of ego bound up in a ‘final’ production.[iii]

Neurosis, Katz suggested, is the true ruin beneath modernism; Pound and Eliot cover it up, but it can be made sense of with a the decadent, ‘hysterical’, non-phallocentric style that H. D. opens up for Duncan. The talk, and therefore the morning, concluded with a neat aphorism: ‘if the subject of cognition cannot be the subject of politics, then the subject of neurosis must be’. This line between cognition and politics was a bolder one than I had so far dared to draw but, as the afternoon’s events revealed, neurosis was to be a more political tool than the title of the symposium might have led us to believe.


Natalia Cecire spoke after lunch about ‘The Cell, the Shell, and the Death Drive: Marianne Moore and the Open Secrets of the Natural World’. Cecire began with a close reference to D. A. Miller’s study Jane Austen, or, The Secret of Style, where it is argued that Anne Elliot, Austen’s only real spinster heroine, is the site of her loss of ‘godlike’ detachment.[iv] Moore speaks of the ‘criminal ingenuity’ required to avoid getting married. A colour-coded slide demonstrated the nested grammatical forms of Moore’s poem ‘The Pangolin’, nouns wrapped in the shell-layers of modifiers.[v] Cecire related this to what Roland Barthes calls the writer’s ‘secret mythology’, style (and particularly modern[ist] style) as a form of ‘solitude’.[vi]

The ‘shell style’, Moore’s version of Austen’s ‘secret style’, is defined by Cecire in terms of Sianne Ngai’s ‘irritation’.[vii] The ‘labile and contested surfaces’ of such texts are embodied in the interactions of hard shells and variably vulnerable cells. To those of us familiar with Cecire’s illuminating work on Moore and precision, it seemed a natural move for her to discuss the multiple Moores of criticism: there is the anal-retentive, ‘syllabic’ Moore and the (often considered overly) dominant, assertive one. The reason Austen’s style is queer, in Miller’s analysis, is that the spinster functions as a ‘relay’ through which gay men can access femininity through a shared relation to marriage and reproduction (this is part of the connection between Duncan and H. D., although H. D. is not [quite] a ‘spinster’). The shell surfaces in Moore are charged with feeling as well as meaning because the shell serves as a kind of closet for Moore, and not just because of their hardened, enclosing form.

In the early days of psychoanalysis, Cecire explained, cells were thought to be miniature models for higher order functions, including psychic ones, and exposure to stimulus made them develop hard outer surfaces. At Bryn Mawr College, Moore was taught in a department which had been home to some of the pioneering cell biologists of the age, but as Cecire says, contrary to what some writing on the subject implies, Moore ‘did O.K. but not great in biology’; its real importance for the poet was to offer a means of socialising apart from her unusually close family life and to explore her sexuality, a place where she met and formed intense relationships with other women. It was possible to draw a link, not dependent on this biographical context but certainly more potent in it, between cellular biology and both spinster and queer identity.

So is the ‘preciseMoore writing from the position of a pangolin or a lab technician? Perhaps the most exciting part of the talk was Cecire’s projection of a meeting-place between queer studies and natural history. Cells can be neurotic: once they are susceptible, penetrable, and able to be touched, they can also be killed. This is the source of the shell style, which is both protective and probing; I was reminded of this paper reading Anne Boyer’s essay ‘No’: ‘The no of a poet is so often a yes in the carapace of no.’ The shell style is this kind of ‘carapace’.

The talk, which had allowed us to linger in the relative comfort of a Bryn Mawr biology classroom, finished by crashing into the present, and looked at the relevance of neurotic sensitivities to the way the media has responded to the present US presidency and its barely disguised disinformation.  The ‘epidemic of liberals “bringing fact-checkers to a knife-fight”’, says Cecire, is the product of a misrecognition of the ways in which the administration makes itself invulnerable to analysis and critique. Reading through Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s paranoid reading, it is suggested that sometimes it is neurotic reading, not fact-checking, that is best able to combat structural inequalities and the way they reproduced by the far right.


Benjamin Noys concluded with a paper entitled ‘The Cosmogony of Revolution: Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters and Anti-Neurosis’ – the discussion of anti-neurosis a self-admittedly neurotic move at the neurosis symposium. Noys’ analysis positioned the Revolutionary Letters as poems of the revolution, and of a revolution which did not happen (or hasn’t yet happened). They are poems of anti-neurosis and heavy optimisms. Indeed, di Prima’s is a revolution with no place for neurosis: it is an im-personal revolution, a smash-the-separation, natural revolution.

In many ways, the activities of May 1968 seemed to bring to life (or to be about to bring to life) some of the wishes and desires expressed in the Revolutionary Letters. However, Di Prima’s revolution sees the irruptions of ’68, the demonstrations, occupations, and riots, as merely the ‘ghost dance’ – the spiritual rehearsal – for the true revolution. The response to this dance is just as crucial: to be ‘surprised when the magic works’ undermines the potential revolutionary power of such activities. This is the politics of ‘hard optimism’, to hope against possibility and take it in your stride when the demands are fulfilled. But they must also be the right demands, and di Prima has clear ideas about what those are, as hard optimism is a rejection of other optimisms; Noys drew attention to di Prima’s railing against sci-fi utopias in Letter 19. ‘you are still / the enemy [if] you have chosen / to sacrifice the planet for a few years of some / science fiction Utopia’.[viii]

For a talk from one who made the disclaimer that he was not a ‘professional reader of poetry’ (we wonder, in this context, who would want to be?), the discussion was extremely conscious of the forms, traditions, and conventions in which di Prima was writing and which have emerged after her, refusing to collapse the Revolutionary Letters, as other readings have done, into either emotional overflow or instruction manual, and yet also acknowledging the place of both of those functions in anti-neurotic practice.


The final moments of the day saw three of the panelists (Mason had had to leave early) take questions and attempt to summarise a varied and stimulating set of discussions. In the context of the politics – from presidential to revolutionary – that the papers had raised, Katz said that even a massive social change will not solve our neuroses; ‘we’ll still be unhappy, but we might as well be unhappy in a just society’. What was most stark about the meeting point of what are often, even or perhaps especially in academic analysis, taken to be phenomena experienced by individuals, was how political and indeed revolutionary it positioned itself as being. Ultimately, the symposium was a sketch for a poetic-critical-political analysis to be achieved by attention to the lessons and practices of neurosis.


[i] Vattimo, ‘The Shattering of the Poetic Word’ in The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Postmodern Culture, trans. by Jon R. Snyder (Cambridge: Polity, 1991).
[ii] Carson, Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera (New York: Vintage, 2006).
[iii] Duncan, The H. D. Book (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011 [1984]).
[iv] Miller, Jane Austen, or, The Secret of Style (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 31.
[v] Moore, Complete Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1967).
[vi] Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, trans. by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill & Wang, 1967 [1953]), pp. 10-11.
[vii] Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).
[viii] Diane Di Prima, The Revolutionary Letters, 3rd edn (San Francisco: City Lights, 1974), p. 21.

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