A text is a god in ruins. A fallen idea. A language in collapse. The patience of our eyes, the willingness to investigate these ruins, their order and principle, the form in which an idea will appear to us in this text, the form in which this idea will appear to us as a text, to follow it into the dark and more uncertain realm of apprehension, of this undertaking that we call reading. The idea cannot be salvaged from the ruins. This idea is identical with them. God is in ruins. These ruins are a god. Mimesis remains intrinsic to the idea. But this mimesis is the idea itself. This is also part of the folded sanctity of writing: that writing is a corpus of writing, that language only exists as a corpus of language, a sign only as a corpus of signs, and every text only as a corpus of texts.
The “how” of truth, writes Kierkegaard in his Philosophical Fragments, is precisely truth. In other words, form and content can be distinguished but not separated from one another. By the same token, the text is determined by virtue of its form. A text can take the form of literary criticism if it is prefaced by the isolating effect of the decision not to obey the laws of the genre or all the distant branches of the family bearing the name of this genre; if it needs neither the comfort of the genre, the understandable desire not to remain alone and misunderstood in this language, nor its embrace, the familiar compass of the breast of innumerable fathers, and enumerable mothers; if a text follows not the syntax of our mouths but the contorted sentence structure of our slow fingers; if a text can acknowledge the trauma of words; if the text tells a different story with the same words — that is, in other words. This critique of poetic reason can be literature. It has already been formulated by other parents, other siblings too. However, public discussion of literature — at least the tendency and consistency of contemporary literature written in German, the reality of its imagination, production, publication, distribution and reception — lacks a necessary premise, the proviso as to the possibility and reality of a poetic critique: the receptivity and delicacy, the patience and gentleness of hands that are ready to pick up the ruins of a text, each individual fragment — that is, a trained appreciation of aesthetic form.
The isolated exceptions that are still produced by major publishing houses only prove this rule. In 2015, literary scholar Winfried Menninghaus called this absence of awareness, this formal oblivion, contentism: the damaging reduction of a text to its content, to what it says, instead of the implicit willingness to listen carefully to how a text will have said something to us. An aesthetic experience, in the unsettling abundance of this sensory concept, remains bound to this: mimesis (the form) is essential to the idea (the content). Mimesis is an idea — just as the idea remains mimetic. All form is content, just as all content is necessarily form. A critique of poetic reason recognises in texts not only the obvious political ideologies but also those that are more reconditely poetic, which, by the nature of their subject matter, are likewise political: ideologies that do not express themselves in the clarity of declarative sentences, in the explicitness of a description or in the mundane violence of discriminatory speech, but rather lie in the constitutive and defining criteria of established genres, i.e. deep in their physical and metaphysical premises, in the history and configuration of their formal precepts.
“One might have thought”, writes author Lilian Peter in “Der Text als Beutel, nicht als Waffe” (The Text as Carrier Bag, Not as Weapon), an essay published in August 2022 that is based on Ursula Le Guin’s “Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”, that German-language literary discourse had long since moved on, having been through its complex post-war parleying of form and what can and can’t be said — of what can be written at all in the face of the Shoah, and in what way. Until well into the nineties, examinations of form, philosophy and the possibilities of language beyond a simplistic notion of realism were a facet of good literary style (mainly that of men, of course).” In the last two decades, there has been a shift in the public discussion of literature, as well as in the literary texts that have been published: in accordance with an older tradition and with the kind of staunchness felt for matters of principle, form and content are now no longer conceived of as categories of the imagination to be reflected upon and constantly identified with one another but are put in competition with each other as opposing categories; one might almost say they have been pitted against one another. The form of a text — especially in the realm of prose, in which people who write speak of language as a narrative instrument without addressing what it perhaps ought to be beyond that, in the strictest poetical sense, i.e. a medium of cognition — is viewed, as it is by literary critics in the world of journalism, almost exclusively as a necessary vehicle for conveying and communicating the specific content of the text, its voice and its purpose.
Form is meant to be in the service of content, tuned to its sense: it is supposed to derive its meaning from this alone. As soon as this purpose, attributed to form on technical and logistical grounds, has been fulfilled at the conceivable end of the sentences, as soon as all form has supposedly done its job as an exhausted, worn-out means to a manageable end, it loses its meaning, the little bit of meaning that was conceded to it by the content, that it received from this alone. Hence, the critique of poetic reason must be both the subject of the critique — i.e. a critique that takes as its starting point poetic reason and proceeds from its criteria and promises — and its object, i.e. a critique that makes itself its object, a critique that speaks of poetic reason itself. The critique of poetic reason, like Kant’s critique of pure reason, becomes the critical subject by criticising itself as an object. The critique of poetic reason is the criticised object because it is the criticising subject. It must be judged by its own categories if it is to avoid abandoning faith and its own “amen”, relinquishing its self-anchoring in tacit alignment with the messianic promise of poetic justice: the dream of a literature that tells of our world, of this worst of all possible worlds, without needing to replicate its ruthlessness and brutality. This is also why it cannot take on the traditional hierarchical classifications of literature, such as the opposition of appearance and reality, of sacred and profane, of sensual and intelligible, of art and nature — or of form and content — or adopt these systems of subordination and subservience.
Analogous to Latin American liberation theology, which pledges itself to just one creed — the unconditional commitment to the poor and disenfranchised — poetic reason must rigorously stand on the side of form, so as to let forms come into their own and stake their claim. For this reason, poetic reason should also refrain from framing a text according to the classical structure based on the arc of suspense: as literary scholar Camille Paglia describes, this was not only modelled on the dramaturgy of a male orgasm but also — in this form — submits to this peak event every word that prepares for the climax it leads up to and its arrival. Everything that has been written prior to this climax is in the service of its isolated position, this crowning moment. Adopting the vision of another, fair reality, poetic reason must find a form in which every sign in a literary text is of equal importance and aligned in a peer relationship. The rank of the individual sign must be identical with the rank of all signs. Depending on the way each individual sign is handled, all the other signs stand or fall — the text stands or falls by it.
In European philosophy, the privileging of content over form dates back to the pre-Socratic Parmenides — a decision favouring the mind over the body that was further articulated by Plato. This decision has cast a long and unpredictable shadow that reaches all the way into the present, extending into the realm of literature too. The Parmenidean argument in Platonic philosophy, which has been quoted and paraphrased by the Christian apologists and the Church Fathers, by the Neoplatonists through to the exponents of modern philosophy and beyond, right up to us, is easy to reconstruct. It expresses a disenchanted epistemology: because our senses can deceive us, we cannot rely on the body and its sense organs in matters of truth and cognition, but only on the intellect, on reason alone. This siding with the inner over the outer, with the intellectual over everything material, taking the part of the soul against the body, in this distinction, in which we can also read the intellectualisation that gave rise to the division of labour, as well as a preference that has put its stamp on an economic tradition and a religious, philosophical and artistic canon for more than two millennia — the appreciation of the intellectual, of intellectual work, and the concomitant devaluation of the body and physical labour; a favouring of the spiritual and a resolute discrimination against everything physical — all this finds itself reflected in oppositions and an early dramaturgy of the privileging of content, of the spirit of signs, over its material configuration, over its form. But there is no mind without a body; just as there can be no body without a mind. In Tamil grammar vowel signs are called uyir eluttu, “soul letters”, consonants mey eluttu, “body letters”. The signs combining consonants and vowels are called uyirmey eluttu, “letters with body and soul”. Yet the soul letters also have a body. And the body letters are letters too, letters with body and soul. A word does not simply consist of its pure denotation, its primary meaning, its basic content; a word also has connotations and associations, intonation and modulation, intention and extension; a word consists of the multiplicity of its own idiosyncratic, singular, individual, unique form, which does not mean its mere phenomenological guise. To be able to read and glean a sign, read and glean a word, read and glean a text and its ruins, we must be receptive and sensitive, have the time and gentleness of hands ready to discern its constantly multiplying and modifying manifestations. Literary language is not the language for imparting information, not the language of communication. Contentist reading and texts written for contentist reading are based on a misunderstanding that is both fundamental and normal: this literary production and reception proceed from an idea of language as an instrument of speech, not from a language that seeks to go beyond speech and thus transcends it, in a bid to understand its own poetic meaning.
The critique of poetic reason is an attitude — an attitude of mind and body, an attitude of being and conscious appreciation, a particular delicacy in being true to reality, and to the reality of texts. In giving our undivided attention and sticking to a quieter focus and a more tranquil appeal to our eyes and ears, in looking and watching closely, in listening more carefully, we might see more intently and hear more acutely: discern forms within forms, detect ethical forms within aesthetic forms, and poetic and political ideologies within literary ideas, couched in their structural and material premises.
Poetic reason — as a rigorous investigation of our language’s potential for imagination, articulation, description and reflection, wherein existential experiences can, through the medium of poetry, become visible and comprehensible as forms of cognition — is necessarily on the other side of every story. In the zone where poetics and politics intersect, where aesthetics and ethics intersect, when, in literary forms, other forms, forms of hegemony and gestures of violence, can be discerned, when the arc of suspense reveals a male eroticism that organises itself once again as a logic of conquest, poetic reason appears for what it is: as a physical and intellectual attitude of critique — as a mode of critical reflection on language and form.
Journalistic reception — reading with literary-critical intent — also operates almost exclusively along content-oriented lines; you might say that form is forgotten there too. Like the family novel, it makes literary texts subordinate to the period as well, to interpretation by our present. In literary criticism, novels are no longer read with an aesthetic interest and a poetic turn of mind, proceeding from an aesthetic need and a poetic desire, with a trained sense of language and form, of dramaturgy and narrative economy, of composition and arrangement, but rather with a discursive objective that is mistaken for political interest: in the feuilletons, texts are interrogated with the utmost naivety to determine what they can tell us about our present — as if that were an aesthetic criterion that could be applied as a means to gauge and identify an artistic text. In the field of journalism, literature has become a secondary event for literary critics, a mere commentary on our times rather than an event in and of itself — a commentary that allows them to carry on with their daily business as journalists, their literal obligation to the day. Literary texts need to “second”: the arts section is a continuation of the politics section, an extension of it. Every literary text is then examined there to check whether it can be the book of the moment, the voice of a generation. Literary texts are gauged on the basis of categories like political topicality and discourse relevance, which are extrinsic to literature. Here, too, the what dominates the how. It is not an examination of the formal and linguistic work that has gone into the writing nor of whether a literary text can do justice to its ambitions and satisfy the requirements it has set for itself nor of whether a literary text abides by this self-formulated promise; rather, it is a test of whether and how a text responds to political events, whether and how it articulates contemporary discourses or can be integrated into them. In 2020 the following appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung in a review of 1,000 Coils of Fear, the debut novel by the Black dramatist Olivia Wenzel: “By focusing the discourse of identity politics in a single character, the novel is able to discuss all the key problems: the extremely liberal idea of violence, the educational dilemma, the eternal conflict with the concept of class.” This review gives itself away. The critic has revealed himself in the reading.
Back in 1959, the US American writer Flannery O’Connor wrote about this fundamental misunderstanding in her essay “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”, about a reading that goes in search of the existential shock of aesthetic experience, a reading guided by information, a reading that is prepared to follow a text and its ruins into the convoluted realms of understanding, a reading that is interested in facts and synopses; a reading that multiplies meaning and import, one that reduces the text to its content or an imputed period of time. “Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction. [...] But it is from the kind of world the writer creates, from the kind of character and detail he invests it with, that a reader can find the intellectual meaning of a book. Once this is found, however, it cannot be drained off and used as a substitute for the book. As the late John Peale Bishop said: ‘You can’t say Cézanne painted apples and a tablecloth and have said what Cézanne painted.’ The novelist makes his statements by selection, and if he is any good, he selects every word for a reason, every detail for a reason, every incident for a reason, and arranges them in a certain time-sequence for a reason. He demonstrates something that cannot possibly be demonstrated any other way than with a whole novel.” In other words, mimesis is essential to the idea. Everything in a text is significant. By the same token, poetic reason is not geared to the what but rather to how a text says something. The text rides on the tiniest detail, on each individual character — the text depends on them.
Poetic reason and the critique and forbearance inherent to it allow us to see more in the literary imagination, in the production and reception of literature: to see more in the forms, more than simply wanting to identify the form and the language and understand a text in its entirety; to devote ourselves to the texts instead of responding to them with an interest they must be made subordinate to. Form and content can only be separated if we already know the form, if we are familiar with it, if it is not conspicuous: because it comes from a tradition that has been carried forward uncritically instead of being broken. The text is decided by the form it takes. The form of a text can only be a literary critique if we dare to dream of a different kind of literature that exists beyond the established forms and their history of violence; if we begin to write and read without family, in the isolation of this decision and without the handle of a genre, without solace and in the self-awareness of remaining incomprehensible and uncomprehended, without false fathers and false mothers; if we follow the contorted sentence structure of our slow fingers into the trauma of words, until these words have become other words, until we have learnt to write and read differently with the same words — that is, in other words. Until a text, a consummate, mimeographed god, lies in ruins.
Senthuran Varatharajah, born in 1984 in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, studied philosophy, Protestant theology and comparative religion, and cultural studies in Marburg, Berlin and London. His debut novel Vor der Zunahme der Zeichen was published in 2016 and won several awards. This was followed in 2022 by Rot (Hunger). Varatharajah lives in Berlin. This text was originally delivered on 24 November 2022 as a keynote address at the “The Future of Critique” congress at the Akademie der Künste.
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