Allen Fisher

Æsthetics and Ethics: An Aspect of Eric Mottram's 1974 Kent Journal.



"Between January 3 and April 1 1974," writes EM, "I went to America for the sixth time... ..I had three months in which to get certain matters fairly clear... etc... " (quoting from beginning of KJ )


As I seek to indicate, the underlying subject of the Kent Journal combines ethics, with the poetics of "open field".


"...One graduate course called Confidence concerning relationships between cultural and self confidence, and confidence trickery in both culture and self, over a period of one hundred and fifty years in America. The other course called The Wasted Sacrifice dealt with certain writers of fiction in the twentieth century, from Ernest Hemingway to Thomas Pynchon. These were the continuum of every other activity. So I decided to keep a journal for the first time...


"...Recurrent themes and interactions are obvious and have been left along with rough drafts of poems and possible poems and notes on the lives of friends, as they were hastily recorded in the time left from teaching and living. The journal has been typed for use."


The cover title is hand written and the title page-preface, in my copy, has the written note "10 copies September 1974..."

The first entry is dated January 7th, 1974 (four days after his arrival in America) and the last entry, April 1st, is the day of his departure.

At different moments through the journal he reflects on the events of May 1970, when the National Guard opened fire on students at Kent State University campus, killing one of the students.

An index of those writers named makes clear two aspects of the Eric Mottram's thinking in this and immediately subsequent periods.



The first is to recognise that, in the fields of science and technology, he concentrates his attention on those commenting on practice and those marginalised by mainstream practice and not, except in significant and exceptional cases, on exemplary practitioners. Whereas in the field of poetry and art he concentrates his attention on practitioners and less readily on those making commentary. With regard to the latter he shows a preference for exemplary commentary by prominently publicised professionals such as F.R. Leavis, and William Empson (the latter of whom was himself an erstwhile practitioner). (When I saw Empson in the late sixties he referred to his difficulty with remembering names and gave those he met his own names. He called EM 'Indians'.



The second is to recognise two major clusters of interest in Eric Mottram's reading, with very few but notable exceptions. (a) English Baroque literature from the late sixteenth century through to the early eighteenth century, particularly from Shakespeare, Marlow, Jonson, Vaughan and Marvell through to Dryden and Milton and on to Pope and including the commentaries of Welsford, E.M. Butler, Theodore Redpath and Frances A. Yates; and (b) the history of ideas in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain and America, and thus encompassing early Romantics like Gray (and not Samuel Johnson) and including Blake, Coleridge, in preference to Wordsworth, and including poets and writers from Keats and Shelley onto a focussed interest in late Romanticism and exemplary American writers from Poe, Emerson and Thoreau onto Henry James, Ezra Pound and the twentieth century. His interest in European writing, after deliberate research into work by R.M. Rilke and René Char, he refocusses after 1950 on British poets from Hugh MacDiarmid, David Jones, and Basil Bunting, and onto the generations that followed. This second cluster, however, is where his main research in the 1960s through to the early '80s moves. It drives his engine from the work of early Marx (particularly the Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 ) Darwin (particularly the 1859 Origin of Species ) and Freud (with particular interest in the middle period immediately after The Interpretation of Dreams of 1900).


In terms of the Kent Journal ­

a comparatively late work in Eric Mottram's groundwork

(the ground floor room in Herne Hill, at the back of the house, moved from Vicarage Gate, Kensington and added to with subsequent works by the same authors and supplemented by new younger British writers after 1970) ­

the twentieth century examples include:

Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, W.C. Williams, Franz Kafka, Carl Jung, John Cage, Henry Green, Graham Greene, Herbert Marcuse, Theodore Adorno, Henry Miller, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Thomas Merton, Louis Zukofsky, David Jones, Thomas Pynchon, d.a. levy, Bob Cobbing,

Max Planck, Alfred North Whitehead, Albert Einstein, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alfred Korzybski, R. Buckminster Fuller, Werner Heisenberg, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Marshall McLuhan, Thomas Kuhn, Wilhelm Reich, Antonio Gramsci, Heidegger, Noam Chomsky, Norbert Wiener, Hannah Arendt, J.Z.Young, Michel Foucault, Immanuel Velikovsky

but also George Thompson, Thomas Landon Thorson (Biopolitics) and, through Charles Olson, Jane Harrison and Carl Sauer.


The underlying subject of the Kent Journal combines ethics, with the poetics of "open field". As Wittgenstein, in his 1929 Lecture on Ethics makes plain,

"This running-up against the limits of language is Ethics... a definition of the Good... can never be anything but a misunderstanding." (KJ, p25) Thus in a broken nutshell, the discussion about ethics, definition and boundary are at the fore place of Eric Mottram's thoughts in 1974 America.


After a preliminary journal entry regarding students and others at Kent State, as if recalling a view of the ocean from his flight to America, he notes Dennis Oppenheim,Traps and Cowhides, made in Tobago, West Indies in 1969, "a photograph of cowhide on the ocean floor off Sandy Point.," He then sets out from his air-flight-time reading of Wilhelm Reich's Either: God and Devil, in which the natural and simple are promoted against the armoured and complex, and in which the human is part of nature. He quotes Reich, "Complexity is a life expression peculiar to the armoured..." and again reading Reich, this time from Cosmic Superimposition: Man's Orgonotic Roots in Nature, "Man is part of nature; he grew out of natural functions"


This is a typical Eric Mottram ploy. Almost at the outset, he poses himself the difficulty of reconciling the work of someone he would call "a great man" but who makes statements against which Eric Mottram wishes to move.


Reich sees Albert Einstein's work as a final breakdown of armouring because it empties space, and Eric Mottram quotes from Reich's The Einstein Affair and Selected Writings.


He then moves on to look into some of the issues involved in complexity and armouring, which leads him to read lay commentaries on cellular biology and particle physics. Using Daniel Mazin, "The Cell Cycle" in the Scientific American, probably purchased on his arrival in January '74, he moves into the discussion of cell membranes as faces that are recognised and when altered change the inside of the cell. Intricate with this process is the understanding that the cell environment itself is the cell's switch. The cell membrane is not a wall but an active and responsive site which decides, so to speak, inside and outside.


This discussion of boundary and by implication critique of Reich's use of vocabulary, which is the difficulty with Reich's prognoses, is followed by a check into the phenomena of radioactive life, decay and half life. Using David N Schram, The Age of the Elements, Eric Mottram selects discussion on nuclear events as written in the chemistry, at deeper plateaux than the cellular, and he begins with the example of uranium 238 and its decay into lead. This reading diverts Eric Mottram into understanding the three kinds of measurement of cosmological events, as they then, in the early 1970s, applied (nucleocosmochronology, expansion of the universe recognised in red shift and observation of stars in globular clusters) leading to an estimated age of the universe as 10 billion years.


EM then puts this measurement of vast age against the recent carbon dating discoveries in 11th to 15th century Zimbabwe, noting a Persian bowl from the 13th-14th century and a Chinese cauldron from the 15th century as markers to put against the carbon.


Eric Mottram breaks back to continue his collation of materials relating to boundary. He turns to the current issue of Fusion (January '74) and quotes from Loren Means on the feedback effect demonstrated by Jimi Hendrix's studio recordings discussion in which it becomes obvious that what you perceive and thus experience (in this case by hearing) can never be finite and how the feedback promotion, developed by artists like Hendrix, and many composers and musicians before him, simply heightens our appreciation of this break of perception boundary leading to a broader discussion of consciousness, power and control. It is at this point that Eric Mottram, at the end of a note for a poem, worries, is there "no route through to creativity and mutability?"


This is immediately followed by a note on his visit on January 20 to an Art Deco exhibition in Butler Museum, Youngtown, in which Art Deco replaces Art Nouveau, where modulations have been replaced by straight lines, lightning speeding edge, and in which "dominance and the grotesque," are "the masks of obvious and immediate (unsubtle) power" (p4) Descriptions and asides on sexuality and power are peppered throughout Eric Mottram's work, and this journal is no exception. As earlier, he has identified here how sexuality through over-dominant clarity of definition becomes "power dominance or submission." What could be a metaphoric interface (which Eric Mottram's identifies in Samuel Delaney's Driftglass and which he links to molecular biology) becomes a rigid surface. Like W.C. Williams, Eric Mottram calls for "anything which pushes an advance, a tenable new position into that substance which is not merely "man" but which includes also his image in time; in sum, everything..." (Midas: A proposal for a Magazine, SE 242.) It gives logic to Alfred Korzybski's axiom, "the map is not the territory."


On January 27 Eric Mottram is looking at Jackson Pollock through reading Fielding Dawson and Pollock's biographer, B.H. Friedman. Dawson, notes EM, quotes Pollock saying "I am nature," and adds thus pure completion. This clearly worries Eric Mottram and he pursues this first in Friedman noting that "The autonomy Pollock felt was his by nature." The issue of completion, redolent since Charles Baudelaire defined the difference in the mid-nineteeth century work of the painter Gustave Courbet between finished and completed, is mapped against the works of writers like Wittgenstein, Korzybski and Chomsky. He also notes the recognition in Herman Melville and Carl Sauer, thus by implication Charles Olson, that art is within a paradigm of process, and that the work of both Marcel Duchamp and Willem De Kooning is an "assault on (the) process of completeness." Reich again becomes ambiguous here because of his reliance, in places, on the completion of orgasm. Eric Mottram notes a different preference for a pattern connection paradigm and a discussion of art in terms of process and constants. "Planned experiment is the production of the new: it must contain accident, the undetermined and unpredicted." But, quoting Harold Saxton Burr's The Fields of Life, "the Universe in which we find ourselves and from which we cannot be separated is a place of Law and Order. It is not an accident, nor chaos. It is organised and maintained by an Electro-Dynamic Field capable of determining the position and movement of all charged particles." Processes are completions in the sense of Hertz's bilder (that is model or picture), a subject he directly returns to more than once in the journal; "models produced by our mind are necessarily affected," writes Hertz, "by the characteristics of its mode of modelling them."


This string cluster is directly related to Eric Mottram's use of, first, Schopenhauer where "the absence of all egoistic motives is thus the criterion of an action of moral values," and then Wittgenstein's axioms on fact found in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, first translated in 1922, as Eric Mottram notes, by Ogden, (1.13, 1.2, 1.21, 2.1, 2.201, 3.4, and 3.411.)


Ideas of measurement and boundary are illustrated by Eric Mottram reflecting on the English artists' and poets' recent re-use of materials from Alfred Watkins (ley lines), Norman Lockyer and Alexander Thom (stone circles as observatories), Guy Underwood (lines of force) and John Michel (UFOs and their relation to the foregoing).



Completion needs a sense of boundary and limit, what Olson named a "sense of limits", where Kant's method was to map a scope of boundaries of "reason", the desire of reason to complete its world ­ its Bild ­ its picture or representation of the world. This is Milton's coherence, what Olson takes from Keats as "Man of Will". Thus, EM notes, imperative plus coherence leads to totalitarianism.

Completion and boundary lead EM to formulate a critique of Norman O. Brown's Closing Time. A Vicoian and Spenglerian text with ideas of circularity and fixity, origin and determinism (also adopted by both James Joyce and Jack Kerouac). To assist his critique to notes Hannah Arendt's The Origin of Totalitarianism, and to undermine and make clear the falsity of Brown's etymology, he cites George Thompson 's work on Greek economics (in The First Philosophers ) and Jane Harrison's proposal that ritual precedes myth. The whole difficulty with Brown's idea of mythology and origins is further criticised through recognising the use of Tantric art, language and sculpture to undermine verbalisation. False etymologists, like Norman O. Brown, propose revolution to be circular, which A.N. Whitehead and Thomas Kuhn have made clear, is not the correct meaning. There is no need for the god of Wordsworth, Coleridge and G.M. Hopkins for an immanent coherence. Coherence is not an option.


Comparison cannot be taught in an ethics course: (p21) it is an I-Thou relationship ­ the materials of Walt Whitman's movement between I, You and We (it is the relationship which breaks in "Respondez!" (1856)


Ethics moves in and out of this oneness which refuses to cause suffering to any phenomena. The sense of the all is reached by contemplation methods ­ the æsthetic is another way: it, too, is harmless.


The æsthetic path for a harmless ethics pervades Eric Mottram's thinking. But such thinking cannot be carried by an informed being. Performance needs presentation of "an inner nature or subterranean lake" or as Olson said in Poetry & Truth, "an actual earth of value" in which, following John Keats, "a man's life is an allegory."


"So ... it is impossible for there to be propositions of ethics./Propositions can express nothing that is higher," (Wittgenstein 6.4) and "It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words./Ethics is transcendental./(Ethics and æsthetics are one and the same.)," (6.421). This is, as Eric Mottram notes, "to be invented."


In a letter about the Tractatus, Wittgenstein writes, "the book's point is an ethical one ... draws limits to the sphere of the ethical from the inside as it were..." Ethics is an area of the poetic and poetry itself is not a self-completing action.

In his 1929 Lecture on Ethics, Wittgenstein says, "This running-up-against the limits of language is Ethics...a definition of the Good...can never be anything but a misunderstanding."

It is why Eric Mottram leads his reading to Jean-Paul Sartre and the semi-autobiographical/biographical books Words, Saint Genet and Les Chemins de la Liberté (Roads to Freedom ).


Eric Mottram juxtaposes Ludwig van Bertalanffy, General Systems Theory, 1968, with Norbert Weiner, The Human Use of Human Beings, 1950. In Bertalanffy, "Many developments in molecular biology, theory of selection, cybernetics, and other fields showed the blinding effects of what Kuhn calls "normal" science, that is monolithically accepted conceptual schemes."

On the other hand, Norbert Weiner recognised that, "to be alive is to participate in a continuous stream of influences from the outer world, in which we are merely the transitional stage."


It leads Eric Mottram to recognise his own particular traits. It is "he who is most immersed in all media (that) not only possesses a proportionately greater awareness of the world (that much would be expected), but also is very likely to be actively involved in that world." (Cliff Adelman, Generations, 1972.)


Eric Mottram's doubts about the æsthetics of W.H. Auden and others, link to his doubts about their ethics. Æsthetics and ethics are directly relational, as EM was to find elaborated by Herbert Marcuse's The Æsthetics Dimension, published four years later. As Wittgenstein writes, a contradiction has a civil status (Philosophical Investigations, 125). To use a paraphrase of Ezra Pound, Paradise never could have cohered.


Eric Mottram's Kent Journal continues to expand on this thematic cluster. The issues of boundary and limits, of origin and category are issues of æsthetics and ethics.


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