Back in a medium of German, my mother's Northern variety, not the softer "Frankisch" I had grown up with, memories flooded. I started a novel, The Hanky of Pippin's Daughter. It began with portraits of my parents, but quickly became a way of trying to understand, to explore, at least obliquely, the Nazi period, the shadow of the past--and the blurred borders of fact, fabrication, tradition, experience, memory....
Rosmarie Waldrop, in Contemporary Authors Autobiographical Series
I don't even have thoughts, I say, I have methods that make language think, take over and me by the hand. Into sense or offense, syntax stretched across rules, relations of force, fluid the dip of the plumb line, the pull of eyes. What if the mother didn't censor the child's looking? Didn't wipe the slate clean? Would the child know from the start that there are no white pages, that we always write over a text already there? No beginnings. All unrepentant middle.
Rosmarie Waldrop, A Form / of Taking / It All
Rosmarie Waldrop, whose reputation in this country and in Europe is primarily that of poet and translator, has written two novels that are gravely, playfully situated in that "unrepentant middle." They are works of compound attention, permeability and generous humor--the kind of humor that renovates medieval notions of temperamental fluidities into piquant conceptual shifts. The Hanky of Pippin's Daughter (1986) writes over and through textual contusions, surface tensions, odd autobiographical particulars of a small-town German family's life during Nazi rule. A Form / of Taking / It All (1990) opens the novel's pagescape to topologically redistribute historical figures--political and scientific--in discursive gaps whose space-time coordinates yield to the new physics even as they evoke the irredeemable legacy of the European conquest of the Americas. In this book quasi-autobiographical characters and personae enact a quantum comedy of manners with figures and grounds and relativities of historical complementarity.
Waldrop composes the cultural flotsam and jetsam out of which we fabricate memory into shifting mosaics whose energy derives from interactions of textual particles (captions, lists, anecdotal fragments, descriptive glimpses--data of various, humorous sorts) and narrative/speculative waves that raise questions about our relation to art, science, politics, history. The moving principle in both her novels is transgeneric, a textual graphics of prose and poetic intersections--cultural invention in intercourse with historical crime. The effect is photoelectric, illuminating a contemporary poethics of the formally investigative novel with, given the urgent matters addressed, an improbable lightness of form.
As twentieth-century writers and thinkers we have continued to live in the shadow of a nineteenth-century narrative dictum: affix one unit of prose to the next with the uber-glue of interpretive transition. That this rule has been so spectacularly transgressed--by Stein, Dorothy Richardson, Woolf, Joyce, Beckett, Calvino, Queneau, Sorrentino, Perec--may mislead us into thinking that novels experimenting with other logics--associative, collage, paratactic, recursive, procedural, permutative--are numerous. In fact, the scene of the novel is dominated by hundreds of thousands of securely coupled units (sentences, paragraphs, chapters) hurtling like locomotives toward the meta-engineered marvels that configure the architectonics of Romantic profundity--psychologically and philosophically penetrating tunnels, epiphanic climaxes, mirror-image vanishing points.
Nineteenth-century mechanics, in philosophy and literature as well as science and technology, exploited the power of continuous, contiguous, piston-driven momentum toward the transfer of godlike qualities (overarching wisdom and judgment, omnipotence, omniscience) to "man" as author. Twentieth-century, "feminine," gaps and collisions and sensible uncertainties set off alarms, ruptured the nineteenth-century illusion of controlled historical continuity. The intellectual tragicomedy of the Godelian aftermath has been staged as a dramatic inventory of cultural logics--theological, historical, aesthetic--whose unmoved movers have been, with heavily theorized ceremony, pronounced dead. All the while poets and theorists of complexity have been cavorting in delight as they engage in newly energized explorations.
Complexity--the network of indeterminacies it spawns--is the condition of our freedom. That freedom, insofar as it is exercised as imaginative agency, thrives in long-term projects, like Waldrop's novels, that reconfigure patterns of thought and imagination. (I wonder if human agency--in contrast to human rights--can at this point in our self-conscious cultural undertakings be usefully modeled by isolated instances of "free choice.") This is why, with all the disruptions and anxieties of an age of uncertainty, we are seeing a renaissance of literary and scientific invention brought about by the peculiar twentieth-century dialogue of questions and forms. Things are much more interesting than warmed-over narratives of decline and fall would have it. Where once we thought exclusively in terms of linear developments, with very few first-class tickets or window seats available for the ride, we now notice proliferating opportunities in fractal surfaces--the extraordinary number of detailed contact points that compose the cultural coastline. Draining the "profound depths" of symbolist metaphysics has presented us with the infinite potential of recombinatory, chance-determined play. On the historical surface, whose geometries are more about topological stretches and folds and global networks than developmental chains, it is not surprising that Waldrop's work with the form of the novel resembles Tristram Shandy more than The Magic Mountain or Buddenbrooks. Most importantly, her novels are imaginative, material inquiries into our contemporary conditions. On this matter of timeliness, Gertrude Stein set, many times over, both the modernist and postmodernist scenes: "The whole business of writing is the question of living [one's] contemporariness.... The thing that is important is that nobody knows what the contemporariness is. In other words, they don't know where they are going, but they are on their way" (How Writing Is Written, [19; Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1974] 151).
If logical systems are, as Kurt Godel tells us, inherently incomplete; if mass is energy, particle is wave, space is time, and vice versa; if natural and cultural histories are chaotic, if complex surfaces are fractal (allowing infinite detail to exist within finite space-time delineations), then the question arises, What is implied about the forms with which we attempt to make meaning out of our experience? The answer has not detached itself from the known literary universe. Waldrop, writing attentively out of her own times, explores patterned currents of discontinuous motility and porousness that are all historical residue. But this fluid topography enacts a refusal to stop the event with descriptive certainty. In her prose-poetic spatial manipulations there is such a vigorous widening of the investigative impulse that single point perspective becomes a reversed current flowing right off the page into the ongoing puzzle of contemporanaeity. "Facts," the opening prose poem in Waldrop's The Reproduction of Profiles (1987), articulates a reimagining of aesthetic truth patterns:
I had inferred from pictures that the world was real and therefore paused, for who knows what will happen if we talk truth while climbing the stairs. In fact, I was afraid of following the picture to where it reaches right out into reality, laid against it like a ruler. I thought I would die if my name didn't touch me, or only with its very end, leaving the inside open to so many feelers like chance rain pouring down from the clouds. You laughed and told everybody that I had mistaken the Tower of Babel for Noah in his Drunkenness.
In the perverse annals of recapitulation one could say that childhood has always foreshadowed the way in which we lost our (purported) grip on things in the twentieth century. Childhood, in the calmest of eras, is a scintillating scene of absurd and terrifying disproportions. Alice in Wonderland or any random selection of fairy tales can be read as instruction manuals for negotiating the speed and glare of associative light as it obliterates the boundary between stable figure and quaking ground. Does the dangerous passage into the dotted-line equilibrium we call adulthood ever end on a personal or historical level? A major source of the practice of storytelling seems to come from our need, first as children, to hear stories that contain the terror, that seduce us in as night-tourists only to skillfully deliver us into the daylight on the other side of a door clearly marked THE END. (Yes, dear, don't worry, the nightmare does stop. Mommy/Daddy/your author will see to that.) There is as well the crucial impulse to tell one's own story, to exercise for oneself the power to fashion a version of reality that can be exited intact.
Now we think we know that the stories we tell tell us as well. This dialogic rhythm forms whole cultures. The panoptical novel reflects and abets a culture of docile bodies, hierarchical power, politically conscripted detail. The romantic and brutal and precise folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm cannot be without some connection to the romantic and brutal and precise fantasies that Hitler and his myth-manufacturing cronies visited upon Europe.
Rosmarie Waldrop spent her childhood and adolescence in Nazi and postwar Germany. She was not a designated victim. Her family was not Jewish, Gypsy, Communist. As far as I know, no one close to her circle was homosexual. Nonetheless, as a child growing into a sense of her world, she had to contend with the pervasive effects of rampant paranoia, systematic deceit, unjustifiable certainties, rumor, betrayal that formed the atmosphere of Hitler's Germany, as well as with the logical schisms, absences, and terrors associated with any war zone. Bombing raids on the Bavarian town where she lived, Kitzingen-am-Main, brought one's ultimate vulnerability home. Waldrop is the first to say that amidst the bizarre tensions of a family with its own peculiar psychodramas attempting normal life in the context of a major entry into the catalogue of human-constructed hells, there were consolations: her piano, recordings of her favorite music, books, friendship. Under the Allied occupation, the young girl who was then Rosmarie Sebald met an extraordinarily witty, widely read American soldier, Keith Waldrop, who became her dearest friend, literary collaborator, and, a month after her move to the United States in 1958, her husband.
Waldrop's internationally respected career as poet, publisher of Burning Deck books, translator, novelist has taken place entirely in this country. She is most widely known for her poetry--over thirty volumes (some with Keith Waldrop). Among them are the influential post-Wittgensteinian, postpropositional poetics of The Reproduction of Profiles, her marvelously titled investigation of feminine logics, Lawn of Excluded Middle (1993), and her very specific, word-centered exploration of European intersections with Native American culture, A Key into the Language of America (1994). As a leading translator (into English) of Edmond Jabes, as well as of Jacques Roubaud, Paul Celan, and Emmanuel Hocquard, Waldrop has made award-winning contributions to Franco-American letters. The Hanky of Pippin's Daughter was the product of a long-standing "impossible" desire to transmute the disequilibrium of ordinary life patterns and Nazi nightmare into a novel. What this finally meant in practical terms was eight years of struggling to find a form, an agon between the vanishing points of irredeemably nasty memories and the complex necessity for what I can only see as poethical courage--the nerve to resist packaging unruly memories in the nineteenth-century conventions of novel as written by God in possession of a world that makes sense.
Waldrop's own statement about Hanky is revealing: "The drive to know our own story moves us to see through it and touch the violence inherent in the mechanism itself." That violence is, in part, the refusal of the material to conform to the palliative gestures of an existing decorum. The twentieth-century paradox of storytelling is that the disturbance that becomes the "drive to know our own story" must enter the form itself, thereby making the desired knowledge impossible. Samuel Beckett is interesting on the story as form:
What am I doing, talking, having my figments talk, it can only be me. Spells of silence too, when I listen, and hear the local sounds, the world sounds, see what an effort I make, to be reasonable. There's my life, why not, it is one, if you like, if you must, I don't say no, this evening. There has to be one, it seems, once there is speech, no need of a story, a story is not compulsory, just a life, that's the mistake I made, one of the mistakes, to have wanted a story for myself, whereas life alone is enough. ("Texts for Nothing 4")
Oddly or not, this may constitute a functional either/or--"story or life" rather than "story of life." If one chooses "story of" over life, one chooses the consolation prize of an understanding that removes one from uncertainties and disruptions of extratextual worlds; one is put at rest. The objective is a kind of "moment of inertia," a parameter useful in describing the rotational motion of rigid (inorganic) bodies. The urgent knowledge that erupts onto the page and into the form sends one into the swerving, turbulent patterns of life principles--the messiness and loveliness of ecological interdependence, synergy, exchange, chance. This is what John Cage meant by art that imitates not nature but her processes--processes that render us cheerfully and tragically inconsolable. I suspect it is precisely Beckett's refusal to be consoled (a rejection of sentimentality) that allowed him to "go on." When Waldrop says she doesn't have thoughts, she has methods that make language think, she is referring to a similar movement away from grammars of inertia. Waldrop turns her own restlessness and anxiety of insufficiency into a navigational project, a poetics of formal choices that throw text into motion as life processes themselves. This has to do with material energies of language--vocabularies, syntaxes, juxtapositional dynamics, interpretive coordinates.
The conversation that follows came about in order to discuss matters that I call "poethical" in relation to the lived ethos I've been referring to in this introduction, for writer and reader, as it came to be embodied in Rosmarie Waldrop's novels. Since their publication by Station Hill Press, both have more or less fallen off the edge of a generically flat literary world, in which anything venturing outside certain well-defined conventions tends to remain all but invisible. My hope in asking Waldrop to participate in a taped conversation, beginning in her kitchen in Providence, Rhode Island, on July 13, 1991, continuing over a weekend and then (with multiple interruptions) by mail into the end of the decade, was that the record of our conversation would create a …