We Who Saw Everything by Whit Griffin / The Cutural Society / 978-0-988-71926-2 /2015
It’s said that the Roman statesman Cassiodorus was the first writer to regularly use “modern” in the historical sense of the term, which is as much to say that the relatively new Christian Era of sixth-century Rome was, literally, happening “just now” outside Cassiodorus’ window. To him, history was not merely recorded and shelved. History was lived, first and foremost. What contemporarily constitutes the modern, however, is a far more conceptually convoluted and contested story. Luckily for us, those who spend their time thinking about the question of the modern tend to generally associate its emergence with that of the Enlightenment, if only for the sake of intellectual convenience. Now what, you might ask, does any of this have to do with Whit Griffin’s new book of poetry We Who Saw Everything?
In the lengthier of its two introductory notes, Thomas Meyer insists that Who Saw Everything “outsources an Alexandria Library of ‘useful knowledge’, as it joyously participates in that modernist project plain and simple: the book that starts wherever it’s opened, and ends whenever it’s closed.” While I agree with his pithy, pitchy assessment—I especially appreciate his juxtaposition of Ptolemaic scrolls with a paperback by Gertrude Stein—the matter isn’t as “plain and simple” as Meyer suggests. As it weaves together threads of myth, legend, and other esoteric material from an overwhelmingly diverse range of cultures across a wide span of historical moments, Who Saw Everything does explore “the immutability of myth” as Meyer says, but not in a squarely modernist manner. And while this might seem a marginal point, Griffin’s new book importantly returns us, as readers, to Cassiodorus’ “just now.” In this sense the book is thoroughly modern without the baggage of a modernism.
Griffin’s long poem, which runs nearly four thousand lines, concludes with a promise: “End of Book One.” Epic in scope, then, Who Saw Everything does beg comparison with the encyclopedic projects of the twentieth-century modernists, as Meyer suggests, the most esoterically conspicuous of which is Ezra Pound’s Cantos. As a kind of cultural arbiter, Pound wrote the Cantos with a conception of literature and culture that was, at nineteenth-century bottom, in line with that of Matthew Arnold, who once famously argued in “Literature and Science” that knowledge of ourselves and our world constitutes culture. More to the point, he also held the belief that literature’s moral imperative was to “know the best which has been thought and said in the world.” Akin to Pound and Arnold, interestingly, Who Saw Everything does not confuse culture as knowledge with culture as the medium of knowledge, but, on the other hand, it departs from their outdated moral imperative for the individual genius to cherry-pick “the best” formations of knowledge:
Culture shapes the visions. Chemical straightjacket.
Henbane for rain magic, nutmeg for healing.
Hares leave the fells. Ishtar hung out her
multicolored necklace. Amazons to the Black Sea.
Several lines later, we hear:
These fingers became ayahuasca and coca, respectively.
Entheogen, Entactogen, Eidetic. Pestle in the
strawberry tree. The human group-soul.
Neutralizer of the I-Thou boundary. The gods
who deal with fire are lame.
A psychoactive drug, such as entheogen or entactogen, promotes empathy to counteract “the I-Thou boundary” that guarantees rational, hierarchical modes of thought and behavior. More to the point, culture as knowledge itself “shapes” such a visionary emotional openness. And later in the poem: “A flavor of consecutive fifths. Many varieties of sound / under the control of one player,” yet the player—in this sense, the authorial self—also observes that “It’s important to not understand.” This is not the individual genius of anthropocentric modernity at work, one who has achieved mastery over objective knowledge so-called. “Find things out and hope / someone is listening,” Griffin writes. The gesture of such observations is empathic, not egoistic.
Thankfully, Who Saw Everything sounds nothing like a Poundian canto. Apparently, however, the text learns from Pound’s formal innovations. The short story is as follows: Just as a sentence has a linearly structured beginning, middle, and end—or a subject and verb that predicate an object—so, too, must a traditional narrative arc. Each is ostensibly complete, conclusive, and coherent. To negotiate with the essentially dialectical problem of linearity, which was also one of squarely historical narratives, Pound appropriated disparate elements from diverse sources and appositionally rather than dialectically arranged them. Although he managed to solve the narrative problem of linear temporality in this way, Pound stubbornly continued to value the trifecta of completion, conclusiveness, and—infamously—coherence. Griffin:
The want to cohere. It’s more coherent than we know.
He is the opener who knows. He had a sanctuary at
Oropos on the confines of Attica where, giving oracles
during sleep, he cured the sick. Slit the skin, open up
passages for the Manitou to pass into. The merciful
in the unseen. The gift of grief. Their grief was so great
they ate their food uncooked. They will receive snakes
into the folds of their flowing robes. They lay sole to sole.
They bite their finger tips in a rage. You don’t touch Sanity
even with your finger tips. Favoring a flint knife
long after other materials were known. The charm of
Prometheus. The daughters of Ares and Harmonia.
Griffin chooses and arranges the material of his epic to create meaningful patterns that don’t require a Poundian “ego-scriptor” to cohere. The poem’s harmonics emerge from the cumulative serendipity of its appositions: From Greek oracle to Algonquin life force, both suggest medicinal acts while retaining their culturally specific differences. There’s nothing “best” about such knowledge. Neither is there anything conclusive about it. “Sometimes weird but always / significant,” Griffin’s observations articulate “incompatible truths” that, nearly three thousand lines into the poem, lead to a decidedly non-modernist moment: “There is no right or wrong about any matter / whatsoever.” Which is as much to say that the poem’s contexture is polyvocal and, as such, it doesn’t present any one stance for more than a moment’s movement.
In a brilliant yet often overlooked book, We Have Never Been Modern, Bruno Latour makes the provocative claim that Enlightenment thought invented what he calls the “modernist constitution,” which supplied culture with a scientific discourse about nature independent of the speaker on the one hand and, on the other, a social and political discourse independent of material conditions and relations. Definitive of modernity, this “constitution” solidified the dualist assumption that posits a complete separation between nonhuman and human forces of change. “We have never been modern,” Latour explains, since such forces have, in actual practice, always co-produced one another. While I won’t belabor Latour’s point, it’s useful to point out that his constructivist project sounds spookily akin to Griffin’s poetics in Who Saw Everything. If we’ve never been modern in the Enlightenment sense, as Latour proposes, then we’re immanently (and imminently) modern in Cassiodorus’ sense, as Griffin suggests, when nonhuman and human forces of change co-produce one another “just now”:
You could have been emperor of the
Goths, but remained loyal to a Roman
who later put you in chains. Could New
Jersey have been Vinland? Did Leif
Erikson’s sister-in-law make a pilgrimage
to Rome? Leif the Lucky found wild
grapes in profusion. With curses
the Druids defended the Anglesey
grove. With swords the Romans slaughtered
the Druids. You retained your flag
at the expense of your country, you
kept your system of government but
sacrificed your land. I am she who findeth
fruit for men. Don’t dance, write a saga.
We’ll stay with King Olaf while we wait for
favorable winds. We took to the sea to
escape the pettiness of land. Freedom
from excessive regularity. Promise of the
unwrapped gift. I can smell the thunder.
Who is to say when and where a “system of government” begins and “your land” ends? Are the Celtic druids just as much defined by their “curses” as they are by Anglesey grove itself? As they are by the Norse root of the name “Anglesey”? As they are by the technology of Roman swords? Is “the thunder” defined by its “smell”—or vice versa?—perhaps in the way that wind becomes “favorable” or land becomes inconsequential in relation to sea travel?
We Who Saw Everything is about more than simply exploring “the immutability of myth,” since, for Griffin, to do so is to articulate a modern world constituted by cultural and historical differences guaranteed by a single proposition: “Change and mutation characterize reality / at every level.” Which, interestingly, resonates with the ostensibly first great epic of world literature, Gilgamesh: “From the days of old there is no permanence.” From the days of old? When now? Well, from the days when we were modern!
That is, when we actuated the knowledge of cultural narratives, rather than succumb to culture, history, knowledge, literature, and so forth as separate forces that squarely mediate existence. “Is blindness the price to be paid for literacy?” Griffin asks later in the poem. Perhaps. We Who Saw Everything, though, isn’t blind to how we have never been modern and have always been modern—how Cassiodorus, looking out his window at the city of Rome, always exists “just now.” The act itself is a force of change. Without relying upon modernity’s logic of the new, the lived experience of the modern now arrives again, as though for the first time, throughout We Who Saw Everything.