by Thomas Fink
Thomas Fink: What prompted you to adorn Residual Synonyms for the Name of God (Ugly Duckling P, 2016) with a Preface (dated 1946, the year that the book’s dedicatee, Arthur Marmorstein, passed away, and attributed to “L. Freedman”), an Introduction, and Acknowledgments that begin like a post-face in explaining motivations? I ask this because it’s a challenging book to interpret, and I believe that the Preface and Introduction pose further challenges rather than framing the work.
Lewis Freedman: I’d like to gently resist the opposition you suggest in your last sentence, that the further challenges posed by the book’s front material could not also function as a framing of the work. I mean, I don’t experience framing and difficulty as opposed! There were several gaps at play for me in the writing of this book that the opening materials framed. Before suggesting these, I want to say that I find it strange and sort of off to be firmly attributing intention to myself around this writing, not that I wasn’t there moving while it happened or that it happened entirely beyond my agency or something, rather it’s that I imagine my compositional strategies to be simulations of an opening to something that is first other than (and only later appears as) the distribution of my subject in the emergence of form. But back to the framing of the gaps. Residual Synonyms is a kind of collage translation, a rewriting, in that it maps itself onto a book (or really a section of a book) written by Rabbi Dr. Arthur Marmorstein, the books dedicatee and my mother’s father’s father. The section of his book which I rewrote is essentially a scholarly index of the synonyms for God’s name employed in classical Rabbinic literature, preceded by a Preface and Introduction to the book as a whole and two essays discussing respectively the Tetragrammaton and the Biblical names of God. The promise or impulse of translating or rewriting another text is, I think, to activate gaps that will find figure between the contexts of the text you are making and theirs. The figuration of a gap presents a link, and the manifesting form of that link intervenes in the gap’s distance. There were certain fascinations for me in the impulse to do this with the work of an ancestor. Since I was a kid I’ve been held by the feeling of the thought that the structures and textures of my feeling are in part the direct transmission of the structures and textures of feeling of the people who raised me, which in turn is the transmission of those who raised them, and so on. To reconstitute my great-grandfather’s text then, was to subject the lived moments of his composition to the living moments of mine, with the imagination already active that the structural content of my experience was already participating in his. This gap is concurrently active as a gap between growing up in a religiously observant life, which within my family, as I imagine is true of many orthodox Jewish families, involved a historical consciousness active in ritual observance of both a transtemporal passage within ritual and a debt to the experiences and sufferings of one’s ancestors, a gap between this religious form of experiencing history as embedded in a myriad of ritual daily practices and the ways in which I experience historical form in the secular life I have and now live. The content of the source text further layers this gap for me, in that the production of more and more synonyms in Rabbinic literature and life around a central force designated unpronounceable seems to resemble my experience of being subject to this moment in capitalism in which I’m surrounded within the figurations of some consuming lack that a continuous proliferation of commodities suggests itself to speak for, in which I consequently experience the structure of the self as an ungraspable absence whose borders are continuously repeated, and in which I’m disciplined to imagine the discontinuities of those borders as an experience of terror. In this regard, I very regularly suspect that what presents itself as secular humanism in our culture is a residue of, often structurally identical to, monotheistic religious belief. The infinitude and imminence of God’s presence, for example, is translated into the imagination of a vast calculable though unassimilable finitude brought about by advances in recording and information technologies, and employed by those in power in similar ways. I experience the front material then as framing and opening these gaps that will be active throughout the operation of the text. I mark and date the Preface as written by myself in London over three days in October of 1946 with a hermetic reference to the death place and dates of my two maternal great-grandfathers, Arthur Marmorstein and Armin Blau, the two of whom had been fellow students and friends at the famous Rabbiner Seminar Zu Berlin, as an origin point for my rewriting to gesture something of the way these gaps are predicated in loss. Obviously, I have no great expectation nor desire that a reader of the book solve the particularities of that fact, but I do imagine that the oddness and dislocation of the claim that this book is written in a time other than the time of my generation frames something of the gap I’m operating in.
Fink: Why did you select the form of prose-poetry with ellipses for this text? It’s clear that the 91 sections refer to the 91 “residual synonyms for” the Jewish deity’s name, but then you close with a tri-partite section called “the Name,” which consists of “Pronunciation,” “Visibility,” and “Memoir.” What accounts for this setting of the 91 against the 3?
Freedman: When I set out to write Residual Synonyms I thought I’d rewrite my great-grandfather’s text in as formally exact a way as I could, each sentence the same tune as his, each paragraph the same number of sentences, each entry the same number of paragraphs, a font as close to his, etc … but in doing so my fidelity was to the text I was making, to keeping it alive in the gaps that activated it, and I deviated from my constraint freely and repeatedly in that service. While it was important to me to keep the prose structure so as to carry something of the rhetorical time of his scholarly text forwards, the ellipses started emerging as a flexible tool for bending the syntax of the sentence, functioning alternately or often simultaneously as a hinge, swerve, or for absent material as an ellipsis functions within a citation. I’ve always been a sucker for, reproducer of, the folds that fictionalize an infinite clausality to thought, especially those almost failed baroque sentences whose meaning emerges in the ways they at once seem to keep and lose their own traces, and these multiple functions of the ellipsis in composition were ripe for that kind of thing. In response to the second part of your question, I’m not conscious at this moment of a relation between the 91 and the 3, of what their numerical function in the text might be. The three sections that comprise “The Name” (Ha-Shem, which of the Rabbinic synonyms for the name of God is the most common colloquially used word in orthodox Jewish contexts today) were written first, in keeping with the source text, as part of the front matter of the book preceding the index. It was only after my friend, Jordan Dunn, suggested that I move them to the back, and I tried doing so and doing so seemed to open up the text again for me, that they found their present location.
Fink: Did you select the wonderfully eccentric titles for the 91 sections—for example, “(1) Hype,” “(11) Print Job or Dream Job,” “(26) Bored of Alternate Dimensions,” and “(88) Hyper-Rapport”— before or after writing them? How did these titles serve as an enabling condition for you as the writer?
Freedman: The titles for the sections were invariably written as part of the composition of the sections. That is they were part of the text I was rewriting. That is I would write the title and then write the section that followed. Because the titles in the source text are usually entirely in Hebrew (whereas though there are many Hebrew citations within the annotation to any entry, the entries are mostly in English), the titles usually emerge from a homophonic pun from Hebrew to English, or sometimes a translation into English and then a homophonic pun on that translation, or sometimes an associative pun with the pun made on that and so on. This is not to say that I conceive of the relation between the titles and the texts that fall under them as arbitrary, I imagine their relation is an occurrence, juxtaposition being the condition of meaning, meaning of juxtaposition. This feeling is enabling, no? That one can only stray towards meaning not from it. It’s a feeling I learned best, I think, from hanging out a lot in the compositional times of Philip Whalen, Leslie Scalapino, and Clark Coolidge among others.
Fink: In many sections, unlike the ones that tend to feature “I,” sentences that seem to describe cultural phenomena, try to direct the group’s adherence to an attitude or evaluation, or suggest an action imply the representation of a collective entity through the use of the pronoun “we,” and less often, “us” and “our”:
Surely we need to boycott any service areas bearing on the manifold entitlements of disabling event. (25)
We have already seen that the fight for retention is in spite changed places. (37)
For ours is the age of conclusive identification through agreement . . . stretched true by a light humiliation that cuts us from more bigger losses. (53)
As in the thought of in between the counting . . . from the counting . . . the happening decline we attended in the rickety dogma shed was shaking in the formulating lung . . . altering the being against belief we violently associate our fall from . . . equivocal mould of graduation to the real world matrix of purposeful jobs.
Are you conscious of any usual specific referent for this “we” or “us,” or does it shift from one specific context to another from section to section, or are these pronouns floating signifiers not meant to be anchored in particular contexts?
Freedman: I’m not conscious of a consistent, particularized referent for this “we,” that is I don’t imagine myself to be using this “we” in order to speak on behalf of a particular populace of which I am one. In the time of composition it feels more like the writing is moving with the “we” to gesture language that is arranging into a more outwardly populated space within a contraction and vacillation of social scales in the linguistic landscape that the poem is constructing slash arbitrating for the possibility of its own existence. Somehow, when you ask this question, I immediately think of how closely you’ve studied and written on John Ashbery’s poems. I think when I was first reading Ashbery many years ago, and he was definitely among the first poets I was given as an adult to read, the thing I immediately started unconsciously reproducing was the way he moves between pronouns singular, plural, and second person within a given poem-unit in his earlier work, in which the pronouns seem to carry a context into the sentence of a distanced intimacy that rests on a collapse between the “we” and the “I” and the “you,” in which the “we,” for example, seems only to intimate a way we can utter “I” together at a shared distance from ourselves, and the “you” acts itself as though it touches the simultaneous recognition and invalidity of truth a little closer to the body than the “I” does, which can only ever position itself as the speaker’s distance from their own speaking, some undeniable unbelievable nostalgia hovering there. I think something of this experience of feeling Ashbery’s pronouns like that still arrives occasionally in my writing. Now there are all sorts of ways in which I haven’t quite been able to produce lasting identification with Ashbery’s work, I might even say that this form of distanced intimacy worked by pronouns in Ashbery’s writing is simulating a particular privileged removal or alienation from any sense of political exigency (that it even presents a distance from that in that) which I really don’t feel a part to, partly because of the way the subject’s movement in the poem, despite the shifting pronouns, can never seem to relinquish a grace and stability. Contrarily, what I’m often most interested in experiencing in writing are precisely the weird shifting terrains that run out from my incapacity to experience the emergence of my own subject as a unified presentation.
Fink: As evidenced by the aforementioned end-section called “The Name” and by the title of the entire book, the processes of naming and assessing acts of naming are extremely important to this text. Not only the identity of the Judaic deity is at issue, but subjectivity at large: “Our list gives 91 names. Each name in the catalogue must learn to understand that it is no human. But technically it is. Or it may appear that way to any animal full of error, correct by law” (26). “The human research apparatus” investigates the human, and efforts at naming, at classification, at union with an other, and at emotional release cannot guarantee the subject’s ability to take possession of its identity: “My acceptance/attitude/screaming is alphabetical, is arranged in an alphabetical order, is chronological, engraves sexual experience to gain identity, is frequently lost in its boundaries, experiences loss of identity through sexual experience. He only thinks he’s screaming his own relationship to possession.” It is difficult to navigate self-consciousness, “to save yourself from your own advertisement of yourself to yourself,” and a name is not a re-presentation of identitarian “voice”: “. . . this name is not entirely phonetic” (54). And naming often fails at efficacy and proves superfluous: “This completely unnecessary name is generally used to signify that nothing happens” (62). While desire animates the work of naming (“I incline to see into this name more forcefully than I can settle on any one spot . . . “), the “cryptographic aspect to the name” is “difficult to lift definitives out of” (125). What can you tell your readers about the text’s pursuit and critique of naming that will help us gain greater awareness of your overall intentions?
Freedman: This question overwhelms me because it puts together a range of relations to naming in the text of Residual Synonyms in a fashion that exceeds what I feel I’ve got available to articulate about it. I learn from it and genuinely thank you for that. I might note that the structure I described above in which an unpronounceable central force proliferates names seems active to me in a more total way in the present conditions of the English language in that I can’t conceive of any string or fragment of language that is exempted from becoming a name. If naming had simulated a human control of the world, categorization as stabilization for utilization, the promise of human reason and so on, I don’t think it can anymore, the gravity seems to have gone out of it. I mean the noise band I’m starting next week, C.A.S.F.U, can attest to that! There is some feeling I get just now of a world with too many names just now to have just been. This sense of naming does having something to do, I think, with the imagination of a future we’re moving into. I think I wrote something of this in Residual Synonyms when I riffed on Ted Berrigan’s haunting line in “Red Shift,” “I am only pronouns, & I am all of them” at the beginning of “The Name”:
The future’s constant apology was concurred inna photo … in wanting this past very idea of namelessness. Thought has only names … is a reading of Ted Berrigan’s … trying to mess shit up … for all future’s that come without us.
Fink: Various oddities of grammar or sentence-structure animate the departure from “ordinary language” in your sentences:
Form next to think of the sensual imagery that continued well beyond the presupposed waiting for conversion. (33)
Correct is what they shall be afraid of . . . what’s not said that will but what will be explained. (45)
To take and heed the proof of the structure belongs. (93)
There is no doubt there was at once a time a time a time when this prohibition was entirely halled in where what iterates was more or less any kind impossibility low in to barb the Lame. (130)
The jarring juxtaposition of little, simple words in phrases like “form next to think” and “any kind impossibility low in to barb” disrupts the reader’s sense-making drive. What advantages do you gain from grammatical and syntactical choices like the ones cited above?
Freedman: I suppose I don’t think that these sorts of things happen in my writing to my advantage at all. In all the cases you mention above the language makes a pretty straightforward, if occasionally multiple, and/or quite abstract, sense to me. I don’t mean this very defensively, I just mean I follow the sentence bit by bit as it emerges with the intention of making sense of it and I discover a sense. When reading over now, for example, the sentence you cite from page 130, which occurs during the second piece “Pronunciation” of the longer section “The Name,” the triple repetition of “a time” feels to me to act anxiously on the assertion that “[t]here is no doubt” casting that assertion into doubt, and the doubtful no doubt asserted is that a certain prohibition already in question (which prohibition this might be is a longer question and would require offering a reading of the preceding paragraphs) was once limited to a space that was characterized by its treatment or transformation of that which repeats, where in this space that which repeats would bear the general character of a benevolent intention that can’t be realized arriving at a low height to injure those or that whom or which are already at a disadvantage. “Barb” is turned into a verb here, which is I suppose not a very normal use of the word, but I experience that any part of speech can simply become any other part of speech by exchanging contexts, and the verbing of a noun is a pretty common English language poetic practice. “Lame” gets capitalized here as a sort of joke internal to this section of the book in which the word “Name” is always capitalized to designate it as the proper name “Name,” and “Lame” in its close sound gets dragged into that practice, subverting it and mocking it as lame. I can imagine other ways to read the sentence but that’s my basic sense on reading it now. Again, I’m not sure any advantage is gained here, I imagine its sense is not a sense I would’ve thought or said but a sense I would write, and though I can find here other language to describe it, I would not have that description to compose it with. Is it an advantage to write slightly beyond thought? I suppose if I felt I could reliably and expertly write with thought, then it would be an advantage to be able to do otherwise, but that’s not how I experience having it sadly.
Fink: In your Acknowledgments, you address your “family, both living and dead,” especially those who have given you “such a legible archive,” to give credence to your assertion “that the transgressions that compose this book do not comprise a fantasy of escape, but… a fantasy (perhaps of equal delusion) of inescapable continuity everywhere” (156). How are your transgressions acts that confirm or breed “inescapable continuity”?
Freedman: The Acknowledgments section of the book is one of the few parts of the book not mapped onto the source text, but rather is just a non-poetic earnest attempt to say sorry and thanks. I’ve made choices with my life that have placed me in some fundamental ways outside of my extended family identity. The impulse to make active the gaps I describe above and write a book like this that warps a text of an ancestor, that warps a religious (albeit scholarly) text and turns it sideways, is, I think an actual transgression. I mean I’m working those gaps in a way that does not entirely bestow honor on my great-grandfather’s intentions and desired context at all. But I don’t harbor the impulse that by transgressing as such I might separate myself from my history, rather I feel I’m producing a continuing relation to the particularities of my history, and even though I’m not doing so in any of the ways that are easily recognizable as meaningful to the ways in which that history has produced a fidelity to itself, I am somehow doing so within the meanings that it gave to me. I love my great-grandfather though I have only met him through his texts, but I love to be close to the careful thought of his writing, and there is stimulating sense of intervention when I feel it warp itself and rearrange in the unruly and undisciplined time of my own. To generalize this, I don’t think that breaking the law ever gets us outside of the law, on the contrary, as Kafka meaningfully and repeatedly points out. Which doesn’t mean breaking the law is meaningless at all, and doesn’t mean that there aren’t those of us who will feel we must.