Review of Robert Kelly’s Collected Essays
Ian Dreiblatt just posted a longish blog post on drunken boat that starts with a review of A Voice Full of Cities: The Collected Essays of Robert Kelly. I am reproducing the opening section below; you can read the whole piece here:
Stone Stair New York, Part 1 by DB Guest Blogger Ian Dreiblatt
contra mundum press has just published a voice full of cities, a heaping anthology of Robert Kelly’s essays, selected by Pierre Joris and Peter Cockelbergh. the book is a winding labyrinth of wonder; trails of intelligence, attention, desire, and pleasure that curl inward and nest among each other. The overdue assembling of them into a book affords an opportunity to feel how richly and intricately these thoughts coexist, how the roof of one serves as floor of another, shared walls enlacing to produce a tremendous contemplative cortex, dotted with sancta in which old gods – the oldest gods – still darkly sleep.
I’ve been particularly rereading one piece from 1971 called IDENTITY PREFERENCE TEMPLE-COMPLEX. it’s a short essay that begins by inquiring into ‘certain vectors of desire’ – where does that feeling originate in us, and what are the suns it grows toward? what does it mean to be both made of the past and endlessly multiple in a world of ‘felicities, miseries & confusions?’ remembering Robert Duncan’s notion of The Poet as a single voice spoken thru many mouths in a given age, he wonders whether there might not likewise be a voice – a prounikos he calls it, a ‘carrier’ – some polyvocalic, integral whole of Desire that speaks as the illusorily discrete desires inside each of us.
& as soon as this question is posed, the essay shifts radically and introduces a second section with the observation that scholars of ancient mesoamerica do not refer to mayan population centers like uxmal and palenque as ‘cities’ – rather, they call them ‘temple-complexes’, emphasizing the way in which it was not distinctly economic, military, or agricultural concerns that animated these places, but cultic ones, rituals of tithe, sacrifice, purification, time-keeping, formalized contemplation. So, altho the word will prove very problematic – which we’ll get to – we might casually name as religionthe primary force that gave these places coherence.
& then there’s an amazing passage where he turns his attentions to new york city, and describes it, too, as a temple-complex, one where ‘a bewildering hierarchy of temple-functionaries arrives each day… ready to devote (in the technical sense, sphagia) one-third of their biological time to the national cult.’ As to the object of this cult, the question of ‘what god is worshiped on this most complex of all human altars,’ the answer is Preference, the continual act of choosing to think some things better than others and to design a self as the sum total of all these choices. this will be familiar to anyone who’s lived under late capitalism. (Reminiscent of it, I think, is the thesis of Bourdieu’s landmark la distinction, which was published eight years later.) & then, affirmingly, the essay considers some fertile heresies that thrive amid but against the grain of this religion, among ‘those deeply committed to some one or few actual substances,’ like drugs, sex, and poetry, any immersion into ‘the worship of the thing, as meaningful existent.’
I love how picturing new york this way, as a temple organized around a sanctified inanity (the ‘divinized freedom to Prefer,’ RK calls it), helps ease my sense of predicament, connects the holy crisis of navigating urban life in america today with the holy crisis of living in any human settlement at any point in history. You wake up with eyes in front of you & just go from there. You move thru a tube underground or past a giant limestone plinth that the limestone king’s sitting on. Whatever world you landed in. To have come about at all is, famously, an intrinsically weird situation.