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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Excursus: Philosophy & Poetry as Prologue

Every work can be regarded as a prologue (or rather, the broken cast) of a work never penned, and destined to remain so, because later works, which in turn will be the prologues or the moulds for other absent works, represents only sketches or death masks.               —Giorgio Agamben (1993, p. 3)

In his preface to The Pages of Day and Night, Adonis states, “I write in a language that exiles me.” Exile is the mother-country of the Arab poet: “in the beginning was the exile, not the word” (p. xiii).

This explains why the Arab poet embodies a double absence—and absence from himself as well as an absence from the Other. He lives between these two exiles: the internal one and the external one. To paraphrase Sartre, he lives between two hells: the I and the Other.
The I is not I, nor is it the Other.
Absence and exile constitute the only presence.
—Adonis, The Pages of Day and Night (p. xiv)

Being a poet means that I have already written but that I have actually written nothing. Poetry is an act without a beginning or an end. It is really a promise of a beginning, a perpetual beginning.”
—Adonis, The Pages of Day and Night (p. xiv)

For a whole series of poets and philosophers, from Adonis to Agamben, from Hรถlderlin to Heidegger, the event is language, the utterance, the possibility of human speech, the reach for meaning perhaps, but above all the utterance. Both Adonis and Agamben express it unambiguously here: poetry is the promise of a beginning, a beginning never ended, iterated in perpetuity (with echoes of Derrida); every work is prologue, a broken cast, a death mask, for other works which are themselves only sketches. This is neither nihilism nor resignation but an affirmation that it is the utterance, not the dialogue (Bakhtin), nor the face-to-face encounter (Levinas), nor the received meaning (Gadamer, Ricouer), nor the construction (Searle) of what is said. Simply the endless (iterable, repeatable—Derrida, again) effort to say it. 

Adonis is firm: “To be means to be something. Meanings are only apprehended through words. I speak; therefore, I am. My existence thus and then assumes meaning. It is through this distance and hope that the Arab poet attempts to speak, i.e., to write, to begin” (p. xv).

We may go further, recalling Primo Levi’s witnessing of the child Hurbinek in Auschwitz. A tremendous effort was expended to undertand his name—Hurbinek,  attributed to the child—and his one word, mastiklo. The stakes are not in what it means, but that it is said at all. This is a message from the concentration camp world, which we can neither understand nor ignore. And which simply demands of us that we listen to it, hear it, acknowledge it silently, lest we shatter all else that may follow …

If you do not witness what cannot be said, you will shatter what can be said.
al-Niffari, a Sufi mystic (cited by Adonis, Sufism and Surrealism, p. 212)


Adonis (2000). The Pages of Day and Night (trans. by Samuel Hazo). Marlboro, VT: Marlboro Press.

Adonis (2005). Sufism and Surrealism (trans. by Judith Cumberbatch). London: Saqi Books.
Agamben, Giorgio (1993). Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience (trans. by Liz Heron). London: Verso.

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