Ruin and Desire

A Boston Dog Day Poetry Marathoon Talk, 8/18/2012

I desire to ruin everything. Everything I have ever been. It isn’t hard. All I am desires ruin. This isn’t a literary conceit, I really want to get with annihilation—the ecstatic demand of all contingency for liberation into another form. I want to master the wrecked telemetry so that I don’t get distracted or lazy at just the wrong moment. Ruin is the last thing you want to fuck up.

But let’s start at the beginning. Elemental discord is everywhere. In fact, it requires more effort to not see it. But to harness chaos, the demolition of all first principles as an act of creation, requires the weird discipline (and Spock vs Horta, Notley vs Mayer, Tolstoy vs Turgenev mediation) of a complete troublemaker. Complete in the ontological sense of making trouble the foundation of existence—a technique that demands the troublemaker first makes trouble for herself.

The secret of living with an imperiled self (as Franz Kamin might frame it, borrowing from nominalist Roscelin of Compiègne) is to know the self is not a thing. The self is a methodology, a process. A troublemaker doesn’t merely make trouble for herself—she makes trouble as herself. She becomes the unnamable trickster, the quantum indefinite, the tree that falls in the forest and so is no longer a tree (and, if repeated enough, no longer in a forest). I can’t make it cohere—Pound’s admission of failure at the very end of The Cantos was his wasted moment of transcendence into a process that has no end. His anxiety and ours is the awful friction between our belief in resolution and the empirical evidence of its impossibility. Our very hands slip through our fingers.

I want to ruin my attachment to the fixed, thingly self, the confining shell of identity whose comforts are jail disguised—and be animated into limerent catastrophe, abandonment in the bardo, radical infatuation with the totally wrong. I want to be out of prison and deep in trouble. No need for elaborate escape schemes—the cell doors have never been locked. You have always been free. Everything is already attained (just not yet, as Anselm Berrigan would say). It doesn’t take much duress to break your clutch on self-preservation—because the self isn’t much of a thing to preserve. Extremis carries us away and permits every stance to contain its opposite—revulsion becomes desire and vice versa. It’s why people cry during sex with their best friend or (hopefully a long time later) laugh at their funeral.

Discussing ruin and desire is a good way of getting into hot water. But any biologist will tell you, we are made of hot water. We are the heat of winter’s voluptuous desire, ruining winter into spring. Yes! But what is ruin? And what is desire?

Ruin is the condition which compels us to form a new identity because the old one is no longer tenable. It is horror. Worst case. But it’s the opposite of tragic. Only the failed response to ruin is tragic— as when a scandalized public figure reforms into even more of an automaton and reenters the arena of lame expectations and rehearsal for the hearse. Or when the insurrectionist misinterprets the uprising’s darkest hour as failure—and either joins the oppression or, worse yet, corrupts the true moment of transformation into a replica of the old stratification with the revolutionary cadre on top. Success at the expense of one’s true desire is the tragedy.

The venerable revelation of the end as the means is hard to recognize. And ruin’s bad rap comes from that difficulty. How can we come to see Keatsian wreckage as the age-old pre-req. for metamorphosis? We unconceal the world (as Martin Heidegger would say) through our projects, the actions we take and which engage us back—especially those that challenge the stasis of our identity. True, the uncertainty, darkness, doubt at the fiery threshold of the singularity is hard to overcome. By definition we can take nothing with us—not the self as thing, nor any belongings (for there is no longer an I for them to belong to) nor god for there’s nobody to receive even comfortingly false answers. Even your fellow travelers have a bad feeling about this and, flying by the seat of their hotpants, are likely to end up elsewhere. But once through the event horizon, ruin sheds its burden of bleak connotations. In total destitution, all assets reveal themselves to have been liabilities. Needless demands that prevented the full expression of your troublemaking desire.

And what is desire? Christians, Buddhists and Vulcans all agree that you need to get rid of it. Desire is at the stark center of every cautionary scripture and don’t-stray fairy tale. Desire leads only to forbidden fruit, meat and all other consumables that will in turn consume you! But warnings, repeated enough, become inducement—inadvertent invitations to pursue the divine, complete with instructions. Desire-as-practice renders you delicious to the universe, impossible to resist. The universe must have you and in having you, leave you nothing. The true aim of desire is to make room for what you love—to make the self an empty cavern the size and shape of that desire. An enflamed vacuum into which the idol is drawn. Desire is not selfish, it is in opposition to the self so that an antithetical new entity might emerge through delirious mediation with an other.

Desire is not about attaining the object of desire. Once you have possessed the precious, its force is neutralized. And almost immediately desire begins elsewhere, anew, wolflike in its hungry pursuit, deerlike in its delicate knowledge that all targets are an extension of itself, or at least require dissolution of the self in order to pursue. Desire creates the wolf and the deer in each of us, desire to consume and be consumed and so embody the infinite. But not even the most Whitmanesque self could contain such infinite opposition. Desire does not want to catch the beloved. It wants to catch ruin and, in being ruined, obtain the identity we are meant to have. A new identity with amplified capacity for desire that can, in turn, achieve even deeper self-demolition. Buddha and the Beast are one.

Even William Blake, the wolf-deered personification of innocence and of experience, intuited that gratified desire was not what men and women want—rather the lineaments of gratified desire. We want to be moving ever closer to the goal along an ever hotter line. For scientists, the lineament is the disturbed geology above tectonic faults where otherwise impossible fauna live, fueled as they are by the core’s energy. We are most animated when roving in the fault’s maw. It is dangerous—the earth will open—“it is boiling, bitter, red! It is love!” (A. Rimbaud) but it’s stupid not to traverse the tumultuous plain for “the shortest distance / between two points / is love” (C. Bernstein).

But what happens at point B? If we follow Lacanian faultlines we reach not the beloved but… more desire! A concept he lifted from Nietzsche (though he quoted Freud) who pinched it collective-unconsciously from Rumi who vicked it from the dialectic of lover and beloved as embodied in 13th century Persian prosody. Cupid’s arrow flies light and straight, but the air around it is rife with turbulence. Jacques Lacan can (through the same loose-minded interpretation he brought to his mentors) be sourced from mathnawi, a poetics of simultaneous reaching and letting go built on couplets that mutate in relation to each other. Lacan is best appreciated in a charged field that spans seemingly irreconcilable eras, regions and conceptual industries—Rumi’s work, echoes in its very structure, the lover and beloved, being and lack, I and other—each non-existent without its correlate. Using that form, he articulates a new concept of desire: two kings abdicate and wander the earth hand in hand, destitute and ecstatic after uncovering the secret of atasal, unity with the divine through love. “You abandon kingdoms, because you want more than kingdoms.

More! But more what? Half a world and centuries in opposite directions, Friedrich Nietzsche and Siddhartha Gautama Buddha followed identical lineaments to atasal. Upending the values of 6th century BCE Sarnath and 19th century Weimar, each challenged misguided conceptualizations of love (for things, ideas and people). Concepts predicated on the belief love is a finite resource. Raised, as most of us are, on inconsistent affection, it’s hard to accept that our capacity to desire and to receive desire is infinite. But in that acceptance is the paradoxical freedom from anxiety of possession against impending scarcity. Love is not precious because it is the rarest element, it is precious because it is the only element. And as we are made of it, there is no possession. There is no scarcity.

Pursuing such an idea risks becoming Fernando Pessoa’s jaded sensualist or Graham Greene’s intellectual dilettante. You risk throwing out engagement with possession and so blow your shot at either.

But all real love is amor fou and what better way to locate the apotheosis of affection not in covetousness but in the sacramental passion, the shared and braided desire of entangled commitment. Without risking loss of, I risk never being lost in. In my desire for the beloved to become ever more capable of experiencing and providing experiences otherwise impossible, Walt Whitman isn’t expansive enough—I prefer Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, who dispels our limits and separateness by saying, “Many people feel small, because they’re small and the universe is big, but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars.” Stars that provided us their atoms in their cataclysmic moment of ruin. Like Frank O’Hara, I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love. And it really isn’t difficult when we are all sourced from the same material—the universe wants us together because we already are, even before we met. We are Andromeda’s castoffs reunited.

Lacan moves us from the world of dervishes, cosmic dust and mustachioed madmen into the pure ontology of want and animation—the essence of desire absent all contingencies. “Desire is a relation of being to lack…this lack is beyond anything which can represent it…Desire, a function central to all human experience, is the desire for nothing nameable. And at the same time this desire lies at the origin of every variety of animation.” Just as Descartes’ cogito uses thought as the proof of a self to do the thinking, (what I refer to as) Lacan’s ego ergo sum predicates the self as a locus of desire. I lack therefore I am. The autonomous self is impossible, deriving existence only from the yearned for. What we want is conditional and transitory, but that we want gives us being.

So how do we realize this kind of being? The world is under the control of a single set of false normative constraints in which we are the complicit co-creators. It’s not the fiery eye of Mordor that is staring down at us, but all of us who are looking through the eye. To see the world as it could be (that is, as it wants to be (that is, as it already is, only not yet)) we have to rely on weird unlit alcoves and the darkest alleys—like the horror of trauma or the innocuousness of a treatise on sheer rapture disguised as a dull critical essay. But this essay, even the marathon it’s embedded within, is a mere blink. Once we reopen our eyes or step out from the darkness, how do we carry our freedom from the mapped world within us?

Writing poetry is a form of insurrection—not necessarily revolution, because the unmoving pivot isn’t centered on overthrowing the external world as much as creating another more compelling world that we can rise up into. The Wobblies called it “building the germ of the new in the shell of the old.” Heidegger called it “a happening of truth setting itself to work.” William Carlos Williams said in his essay “Against the Weather”: “I’ve been writing a sentence with all the art I can muster. Here it is: A work of art is important only as evidence, in its structure, of a new world which it has been created to affirm.”

You can also think of poetry making & consuming as a kind of alchemy in which we the practitioners are the lead projected into gold. And a collection of poets at work amplifies that alchemical insurgency.

The weakening of normative constraints—all the obstructionist gold standards—means we are ever more able to manifest instances in line with the transformation of every moment. We are free to be the animarum venator, the hunter of souls. Not in the original, somewhat sinister sense used by doomed heretic Giordano Bruno in 1591 but one in which we are all venati, hunted hunters, entrained with complete awareness and willingness to one another. The tree falls, becomes dirt, becomes new plant, is consumed and becomes part of an animal who falls in turn. There is no night of ruin except to make way for a day of desire. Morphic, you are here with me, and as me, the secret ecstasy within despair. You a secret dervish now (and forever), doorway to the infinite that once open can never be closed.

BRENDAN LORBER is a poet, essayist and editor. He’s the author, most recently, of Ruin & Desire: Insurrection and the Secret Path of Ecstasy within Despair (Spout Press, 2013) and Unfixed Elegy and Other Poems (Buttered Lamb Press, 2013). Since 1995 he has published and edited Lungfull! Magazine, an annual anthology which prints the rough drafts of contributor’s work in addition to the final version in order to reveal the creative process. He curates the Zinc Reading Series and produces the Acculorber Weather Forecast ( which is not about the weather). He was a bartender long ago at The Latchmere Pub in Battersea and lived in a flat across from the North Thames Gas Works.

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