Tag Archives: Freud

Grendel’s Laundry List: Root Meaning to Gleam

The word meaning goes back to a root that signifies “opinion” or
“intention,” and is closely related the word moaning.  A poem’s
meaning is a poem’s complaint, its version of Keats’ Belle Dame (sans
Merci), who looked as if she loved, and made sweet moan. Poems
instruct us in how they break form to bring about meaning, so as to
utter a complaint, a moaning intended to be all their own.

The word form goes back to a root meaning “to gleam” or “to sparkle,”
but in a poem it is not form itself that gleams or sparkles.  The
lustres of poetic meaning come rather from the breaking apart of form,
from the shattering of the visionary gleam.

All that a poem can be about, or what in a poem is other that trope,
is the skill or faculty of invention or discovery, the heuristic gift.

Form, in poetry, ceases to be trope only when it becomes topos, only
when it is revealed as a place of invention. This revelation depends
upon a breaking. Its best analogue is when any of us becomes aware of
love just as the object of love is irreparably lost.

The truest sources, again necessarily, are in the powers of poems
already written, or rather, already read.  Dryden said of poets that
“we have our lineal descents and clans as well as other families.”
Families, at least unhappy ones, are not all alike, except perhaps in
Freud’s sense of “Family Romances.” What dominates Freud’s notion is
the child’s fantasy making power.  What counts in the family romance
is not, alas, what the parents actually were or did, but the child’s
fantastic interpretation of its parents.  The child provides a myth,
and this myth is close to poets’ myths of the origin of their
creativity, because it involves the fiction of being a changeling.  A
changeling-fiction is one of the stances of freedom. The changeling is
free because his very existence is a disjunction, and because the
mystery of his origins allows for Gnostic reversals of the natural
hierarchy between parents and children.

Emerson, in his most idealizing temper, said of the poets that they
were liberating gods, that they were free and made others free.  I
would amend this by saying that poets make themselves free, by their
stances towards earlier poets, and make others free only by teaching
them those stances or positions of freedom.

Freedom, in a poem, must mean freedom of meaning, the freedom to have
a meaning of one’s own.  Such freedom is wholly illusory unless it is
achieved against a prior plenitude of meaning, which is tradition, and
so also against language.

Whether one accepts a theory of language that teaches the dearth or
meaning, or that teaches its plenitude, does not seem to me to matter.
All I ask is the theory of language be extreme and uncompromising

Either the new poet fights to win freedom from dearth, or from
plenitude, but if the antagonist be moderate, the agon will not take
place, and no fresh sublimity will be won. Only the agon is of the
essence.  Why?  Is it merely my misprison, to believe that good poems
must be combative.

Harold Bloom, The Breaking of Form

Note: I fished the book which contains this essay from the 25 cent bin
at a used bookstore about twenty years ago. Contra Bloom, I think freedom in poem means freedom from meaning. By any means or gleams necessary.

*Grendel’s Laundry List is an irregular but continuing series of readings in texts helpful to an understanding of the Atheology and Theodicy of the Seventh Day Atheist Aztec Baptist Church.

Steal This Meme: …why I hide them…

freud with easter bunny twk shad

Scripture reading for Easter 2019:


Life is a plum circus, replete with sorrows. A feast of mallow, and scorn. A hyperbolic paraboloid of concrete poured on form of straight timbers. Life is:  a swatch of sun, abandoned by insect beetling through the loam. A quest for Ultima Thule,  Kontiki–only to find walking nosehead gods carved of native stone.  A Sunday stroll past pickets ringing a nudist colony–at the pace of Foyt lapping the Brickyard. Mangoes and papaya–dripping lackaday typos and sticky addenda.  Purple mountain’s majesty–beyond the vehicular haze of Quivera. A straight blast down the gunbarrel road of Colorado’s South Park, while overhead lazybones sculls down his gruesome spiral to gorge on curdled meat of tire’s victim. A lubricious compound, stardust and swampwater. Pleasure targeted by Peenemunde, a zero sum game. Peignoir over chastity belt.  Jolt of Tesla at tip of glans, bon voyaging Mongol horde of sperm–“there died a myriad” that one might live. Plasticity humbled, the juggernaut of flesh reduced to a chassis of bone, to a float reclaimed from wilted flora on day after parade, the flowers wirra interred as mesh and bar to reinforce that other flesh, earth. Sweet cream Venus in her teens forgetful of Psyche so black and blue. A turbojet engine, ear-mulching bagpipe, its spin snuffed on mere peck of grackle. Tickling pinkies of April giggling over scorched October, that old wives’ tale of Midas’ touch, all gilt and russet. The love song of J. Alfred Humpback, pitching woo to his diving partner until they press like palms together in lewd and vertical expulsion from depths of Eden; meanwhile other whale parts get skived for sushi. All is spoil.  All is plush.  Life but paint spattered on drop canvas while idled mind departs, now voyageur to Neptune. Life but Pacmen in muck under mechanic’s nails, eating at the quick, while other sediments beget wetlands. Pogroms plucking up multitudes while penicillin saves greater tribes, one by one. The discouraging score barely tallied as the next deck gets shuffled and dealt.

This life is sorrows, replete with a plum circus.

And always, the egg.

Eugene Zandler, 2003

As Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, puts it, “The stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act.” Words to live by in the latter days of the Internet Age. Steal this meme. 

Grendel’s Laundry List: Freud and Fuel

In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud relates the story of the man accused by his neighbor of damaging a borrowed kettle.  As Freud tells it, “A. borrowed a copper kettle from B. and after he had returned it was sued by B. because the kettle now had a big hole in it which made it unusable. His defense was: ‘First, I never borrowed a kettle from B at all; secondly, the kettle had a hole in it already when I got it from him; and thirdly, I gave him back the kettle undamaged.’”  As Freud notes, “each one of these defenses is valid in itself,” or rather, I would suggest, is logically coherent; “but taken together they exclude one another.”  Not only can they all not be true, the mere articulating of all three reveals a fundamental sort of incoherence that Freud attributes to the unconscious wishes expressed in our dreams or voiced in our jokes.  But this sort of thinking also seems to occur when one is straining beyond all rationality to defend a hopeful ideal against the onslaught of reality   A. is clearly lying.  The remaining question is why he is lying in such an ineffective manner.  Perhaps, we might guess, he is lying to himself as much as anyone else.  The story gets its humor and provides a moment of recognition, I would suggest, from the fact that we all will hurl such incompatible defenses at a subject when we cannot bear to admit the truth.  What makes the story funny is the way A.’s irrationality is presented in a condensed form, while we would be more likely to use one excuse one day, and a different one on another.

Freud’s anecdote may help illustrate the role played by energy or natural resources in the fictions we recite in American and the industrial world about our way of life.  The American way of life, its starry-eyed defenders will tell us, is not really dependent on massive amounts of energy or other natural resources; rather, as we have seen, it is based on the American spirit, our traditions, and our freedoms.  Yet as part of the same cultural matrix, we are also assured that there is plenty of oil and other fossil fuel to power what is, in fact, the high energy demands of Americans; and finally, in the face of our impending shortage of fossil fuels, certainly, we are reminded, the budding renewable energy sector will bring sufficient amounts of wind, solar, and biofuels on line in a timely manner, while our high-tech computer industry will create a low-energy network of “smart” efficiencies.   And so we are told that we won’t run out of current sources, and that there are plenty of alternatives when we do run out, and, in the end, that we don’t actually need all that energy to maintain our way of life, because, in a final twist of heavy-eyed logic, our way of life is so ingenious as to find or create all the resources we need.


At the risk of drawing a closer parallel with Freud’s more technical version of it than I wish, I am proposing, then, that energy is the unconscious of the American way of life.  Energy is there, everywhere; it underwrites everything we do, want, and expect.  But it remains absent from our prominent self-descriptions, pushed out of sight by a thousand acts of informal censorship.  The middle- class lifestyle in the United States and other “advanced” nations requires unfathomable supplies of finite and rapidly depleting resources for its daily operation.  The way that a consumption-driven economic system concentrates waste and hazardous materials is destroying the ecological balance upon which life depends and at an alarming rate, to the point, now where massive extinctions have become commonplace, and where we don’t know where something as basic as water for our food supply will come from in the near future.  This prodigious use of energy and production of waste forms the most fundamental conditions of possibility for the American way of life.   All that we know and expect, value and demand, are not possible without all this consumption and this waste.  If and when historians look back on our time, the most notable aspect of industrial civilization will not be our political system or our respect of individual dignity.  It will not be our love of freedom nor our ingenious hard work.  It will not be our technological advances, the dazzling array of amusing gadgetry or load-lightning machinery.  It will be the ungodly and unsustainable (and therefore unsustained) amounts of energy that a people gripped by a great and inexplicable fever used and wasted with little thought or concern.


It is easy enough to understand how the average American consumer can stumble along unaware of the ecological footprint of his or her way of life.  We interact with our natural environment mainly through the medium of money, and the relatively low cost of energy and thus of everything else has done little to cause us much concern.  Many of us are shuttled by way of cheap gasoline from climate-controlled house, to an artificially lighted work-place, to a prepackaged supermarket, to a night in front of electronic amusement, and there is little, in all this, to shock one’s level of energy and material use out of the unconscious realm. This, however, is not the case with economists, who must keep track of things like the changing effects of supply and demand.  All this leads to some astounding instances of Kettle Logic that would be amusing were its chief proponents not given such power and influence within the modern world.


our political and moral choices are often treated as subsets of a greater economic view of things that is mistaken with reality itself.  But for now we might simply note a simple incongruity in mainstream economics that no one (but a handful of peak oilers) seems to recognize.  On the one hand, all economists know that when economies grow, they need larger supplies of fuel, especially oil.  Everyone who thinks about these things is equally aware that nothing lowers demand for oil, and thus lowers its price, like a recession.  This sort of knowledge is part of the daily consideration of anyone purchasing stocks, bonds, or commodity futures.  As evidence, note the visible handwringing up and down Wall Street or the Capitol Mall the moment some global conflict threatens even a minor source of oil, like the Libyan one, which amounted to a mere 2% of the global supply.   In a similar vein, government agencies like the Department of Commerce or Department of Energy that are charged with long-term planning will publicly project that the world production of liquid fuels will, for instance, be required to rise from its current level of 90 million barrels a day to a minimum 110 million barrels a day by 2030 in order to stave-off the sort of economy-destroying recession that still has a partial grip on the world economy today.  Every economist and policy-maker understands the dependence of national and global economies on oil.


…economists will without any apparent sense of contradiction argue that there are no material limits to economic growth.  George Gilder may be a bit more colorful than most when he declared that the new “knowledge economy” was about to “overthrow the tyranny of matter,” but Nobel Prizes in economics are regularly handed out to people who proclaim that we need neither oil nor other natural resources to maintain our current trajectory of perpetual and permanent economic growth.  As William Bernstein summarizes it in a book about the history of prosperity, “economic historian Simon Kuznets pointed out that a slowdown in economic growth can come from either of the two basic economic sources: supply or demand.  He believed that supply, driven by man’s innate curiosity and industry, could not be the source of stagnation. . . . Ecological . . . and demographic forces do not seem likely impediments to growth” (The Birth of Plenty 374).  Supply of natural resources, in other words, cannot limit, and therefore by implication cannot really affect, the economy—at least according to a good majority of economists, at least when describing the damaged kettle on one day or another.  The job of economists, therefore, is to recommend policies ensuring that demand remains sufficiently high, thus triggering our innate curiosity and industry.  This is the centerpiece of liberal economists like Paul Krugman and Robert Reich.

In order to support this view–that there are no ecological limits to growth–one must make some improbable assumptions about resources themselves, the main one being that any resource has a better and cheaper substitute waiting to be found, discovered, or synthesized by next inventive genius.  Another Nobel Prize winner, Robert Solow, will thus declare that, since “it is very easy to substitute other factors for natural resources, then there is, in principle, no problem. The world can, in effect, get along without natural resources.”  This belief that it is so easy to substitute one natural resource for another–to the point, apparently where this substitutional whirl will launch us free from gravity and the Earth itself–has in fact been formalized into “Hartwick’s Rule.”  Hartwick’s Rule calculates the amount of investment in capital needed to offset declining stocks of non-renewable natural resources.  As Geir B. Asheim and Wolfgang Buchholz explain, Hartwick’s rule is concerned with equality of consumption into the future, showing us how “exhaustible natural resource inputs can be substituted by manmade capital in a way that depleting these natural resources does not harm future generations. Substitutability between natural and manmade capital thus, in spite of the exhaustibility of natural resources, may allow for equitable consumption for all generations.” The implication of this rule is that with enough “capital,” this substitution can go on forever and without harming any future generations—never mind where this capital comes from or what it is made of.


We can see this reason-bending fantasy of eternal substitution, supported in many cases by a sort of Kettle Logic, at work throughout the field of economics.  It becomes especially apparent whenever someone attempts to summarize the broader view that we don’t need natural resources, or we won’t run out, or that if we do run out, we can just spend more money on their replacements. Or as economist Zagros Madjd-Sadjadi tries to explain it, “We will never run out of non-renewable resources simply because the price will rise to make extraction cost-prohibitive.  At that point, we will have to switch to renewables simply because of the cost.  Furthermore, because of those price signals, entrepreneurs will come up with new ways to reduce the use of fossil fuels and other non-renewables.”


The whole proposition depends, at any rate, on some sort of quasi-magical belief that high cost itself can reliably synthesize raw materials as some sort of automatic price-generated feverish wish-fulfillment.  The American Dream indeed.


…obviously the pot already had a hole in it when we borrowed it.

Erik Lindberg, The Future of an Illusion

Grendel’s Laundry List is an irregular but continuing series of readings in texts helpful to an understanding of the Atheology and Theodicy of the Seventh Day Atheist Aztec Baptist Church.