The Age of the Poets: And Other Writings on Twentieth-Century Poetry and Prose
by Alain Badiou (translated by Bruno Bosteels)
Published November, 2014
Old artists are often vanquished by their own strength. The famous connoisseur Bernard Berenson adjudged that ‘What a man writes after he is 60 is worth little more than tea continuously made with the same leaves.’ The law of diminishing returns is as determining a factor in art as it is in economics. So there is something remarkable and enigmatic about great artists and writers who become even greater in what should have been their dotage. Take Du Fu in Tang Dynasty China, or John Milton in seventeenth-century England, or Goethe in Enlightenment Germany. All were major figures whose late works somehow took another turn in old age, and who openly consider in their art what their aging means for their art. Here, for example, is Milton from Book XI of Paradise Lost, where the Archangel Michael, in the course of showing an appalled Adam the consequences of the Fall, explains:
This is old age; but then thou must outlive
Thy youth, thy strength, thy beauty, which will change
To withered weak and gray; thy senses then
Obtuse, all taste of pleasure must forego,
To what thou hast, and for the air of youth
Hopeful and cheerful, in thy blood will reign
A melancholy damp of cold and dry
To weigh thy spirits down, and last consume
The balm of life …
The irony of such a self-portrait derives at once from its universality – the implacable degeneracy of aging, the cause of which is Original Sin – and from its exceptionality. Old Milton’s genius is to imagine the still-ageless First Man being forced to imagine himself as the First Old Man. In the last century, W. B. Yeats was a master of this genre of self-reflexive late style. As he puts it in the outrageously famous ‘Sailing to Byzantium’:
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress …
Late style emerges when an artist breaks with him- or herself at a point where such a break might seem at once unnecessary, unlikely and unwelcome. Yet such a break is also a strange form of continuity: the artists become even more themselves in the rupture with their existing oeuvres. The rupture is a return: a return to oneself in a revivified form. The aging artist returns to the origin’s lost possibilities as he or she approaches the loss of all possibility that is death. A sense of real impotence alerts the artist to imminent impossibility and, through this paradoxical coupling of impotence and impossibility, inspires new powers of thought and expression that were previously unimaginable.
What makes this situation all the more striking is that when poets reflect on their aging in their art, they also reflect on the history of art as itself a process of aging. As the Romantic writer Thomas Love Peacock maintained, taking up this ancient conviction in The Four Ages of Poetry (1820), the historical sequence of poetic achievement runs from iron through gold to silver and finally brass, beginning with ‘that in which rude bards in rude numbers celebrate the exploits of ruder chiefs’, and culminating or concluding in ‘the degenerate fry of modern rhymesters’. No less than P. B. Shelley took it upon himself to respond to Peacock’s challenge in A Defence of Poetry, which contains his famous declaration that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but he too nonetheless continues to think in terms of the life and death of ages. So poets are not only obsessed with the distress of biological or biographical aging, but with art as an art of ages, at once personal, political and cosmic. In a universe whose logic is at once degenerative and cyclical, late style arrives as a second spring, a surprising incursion that disrupts the passage of Chronos.
If the question of late style poses crucial problems for art, artists and aesthetics, does the same go for philosophy? Unlike art, which is the inspired realm of captivating imagination, philosophy is a love of wisdom – and age has traditionally been associated with wisdom. If youth is bound up with the powers of expectation and creation, then aging is bound to the work of recollection and the reconfiguration of experience in memory. Philosophy has always been an old person’s game. Even if a philosopher is, chronologically speaking, of tender years, he or she must be admirably well-aged in thought. The history of philosophy is stuffed with characters who only show their genius in later life, from Socrates himself to Immanuel Kant, whose Critiques could only be elaborated after a half-century of study. In fact, there are any number of directives by philosophers concerning this matter. In Culture and Value (1977), Ludwig Wittgenstein remarks that in philosophy one wins by coming last. Milton suggests that melancholy is inescapable for people and poets in old age, but for philosophers melancholy must be at least tempered if not tamed by wisdom. Philosophy has a constitutional suspicion of time, and a concomitant penchant for considering things under the rubric sub specie aeternitatis. Philosophers always try to cut time’s Gordian Knot.
No wonder philosophy and poetry have never really gotten on. Plato, speaking of the quarrel between the two as already ancient, famously banishes the poets from his ideal republic. When he does so, it is not without respect for their inspiration and invention. But if for Plato poetry opens the world, it is incapable of governing it. On the contrary, poetry – in the form of Homer and the classical playwrights – is a mode of thought that ultimately licenses the spin of public realations, political turbulence, violence and injustice. This conviction was personal as much as conceptual: Plato’s teacher Socrates had been publicly mocked in Aristophanes’ comedy The Clouds, and Meletus, one of Socrates’ accusers, was a poet and claimed to speak for the poets. For Plato, the inspired youthful creativity of poetry is not at all innocent; it has blood on its hands and mouth. Poetry’s excesses must be curbed by painstakingly-acquired wisdom. For philosophy, the paradigm of pedagogical best practice is not poetry, but mathematics: over the door of Plato’s Academy was inscribed the legend Let no-one ignorant of geometry enter. Philosophy must teach mathematics and exclude poetry in the name of the ideal polity.
Alain Badiou is one of the few contemporary philosophers who has returned to this ancient dispute with new eyes. He has, moreover, done so without taking an easy way out. A self-confessed ‘Platonist’ in his major philosophical works, he has had a life-long relationship with the arts. As a young man in 1960s Paris – he was born what the French call a pied noir in Rabat, Morocco, in 1937 to intellectual parents – he had ambitions not only as a philosopher, but as an experimental novelist, even publicly announcing his intention to produce a major trilogy. In the end, only two of these prose works appeared, Almagestes (1964), named after a second century astronomical treatise by Ptolemy, and Portulans (1967), named after late-medieval navigational maps. These novels made a sharp, immediate impression, counting no less than Jean-Paul Sartre (one of Badiou’s philosophical heroes) and Simone de Beauvoir among their admirers. So: a young success story in the world of the arts. And Badiou is still pumping out fictional prose and plays today, from vast novels to radio dramas.
But Badiou was, as is often the case in France, also a committed political activist. A student of the influential Marxist theoretician Louis Althusser, he was further radicalised by the events of May 1968, forming a Maoist brigade with several comrades (of whom more below). Though he is no longer a card-carrying Maoist, he remains, almost 50 years later, perhaps most notorious in France as a political figure. The briefest of online searches reveals various polemics in which he is almost continuously enmeshed, as a self-professed ‘Old Leftist’, in such questions as revolution today, the French law against the veil, contemporary anti-Semitism, economic rationalism, and so on.
None of this would be enough to differentiate Badiou from the ruck of politically-active-novel-and-poetry-and-play-writing French philosophers if he had not published a truly magnificent metaphysical masterpiece titled Being and Event in 1988. It is remarkable that, in this enormous treatise, the enterprise that is philosophy – growing happy again in its old age – finds itself having to confront simultaneously the two antagonistic enterprises that are mathematics and poetry.
Badiou’s very long, very detailed and very technical solution to this antagonism is ingenious. Mathematics provides the philosopher with rigorous knowledge of ‘being as such’; poetry gives the philosopher the paradoxical anti-knowledge of ‘the event’. Philosophy needs to attend to both at once if it is genuinely to be philosophy, and not just reduce itself to being an apologist for the natural sciences or literature. Mathematics sets out the limits of the certainties by which the present is organised; poetry is all rigorous uncertainty and hesitation. The nineteenth-century German mathematician Georg Cantor, with his set theory of infinite infinities, faces off against the contemporaneous French poet Stéphane Mallarmé and the vanishing spume and ship of his poem ‘A Dice Throw’.
What is philosophy, then, for Badiou? It is the attempt to hold these antagonists together by founding ‘a peace of the discontinuous’, by constructing a general system that formalises their junctures and disjunctions, their differing forms of expertise and their injunctions for thinking.
Although a disproportionate amount of academic excitement has been lavished upon Badiou’s radical theses concerning mathematics and politics, there is still relatively little concerning his doctrines of poetry. Commentary to date has tended to maintain either that Badiou’s Platonism leads him to a downgrading of the poetic vocation, or else it has taken him to task on various topical interpretative details. What is lost in this binary confederacy is just how important poetry has proved in Badiou’s philosophical development from the 1960s to the present day – if his position can be said to have undergone significant mutations in that time, of course. But if you don’t grasp how crucial poetry is to Badiou, ranging from passing allusions to vast structural orientations, you won’t get something essential about his thinking.
Badiou’s meditations on poetry have consequences not only for his metaphysics, but also for his account of the history of philosophy itself. He can write interestingly on quite different kinds of art – ranging from modern dance, classical theatre and cave painting to contemporary installations – but it is poetry in a narrower sense that provides fodder for his propositions, the rhetorical ornamentation for his technical papers, and genuine structural directives for his system as a whole. He ends books with quotes from Mallarmé, as he does in Number and Numbers (1990) and Briefings on Existence (1998). A line from Mallarmé provides the title for his novel Calme bloc ici-bas (1997). He often engages in detailed analyses of specific poets and poems: not just the usual French modernist suspects Mallarmé and Rimbaud, but also the great Romantic German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, the Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Russian Osip Mandelstam and that post-Holocaust exile of the German language, Paul Celan. Badiou has written extensively on Samuel Beckett, while his book on twentieth century art, simply titled The Century (2005), is a masterpiece of incisiveness and concision.
So it is not just art in general that is the kernel of Badiou’s work, but poetry specifically – pure poetry. I emphasise ‘pure’ for a number of reasons. Think of the analogy with pure mathematics – that is, a mathematics so rigorous, abstruse and recondite that it currently has no possible imaginable material application. Despite its difficulties, such mathematics remains at the cutting-edge of human thinking. The same can be said for the kinds of pure poetry that Badiou delights in. If this means that such poetry has few practitioners and fewer adherents, that is not a fault of the poetry; it is, rather, an injunction to the rest of us to catch up.
This is why Badiou writes, in ‘What does the poem think?’ from 1993:
Poetry, alas, is receding from us. The cultural account is oblivious to poetry. This is because poetry can hardly stand the demand for clarity, the passive audience, the simple message. The poem is an exercise in intransigence. It is without mediation, and thus also without mediatization.
Despite the apparently melancholic tones, this poetic recession is not simply a loss. On the contrary, it evinces the power of poetry to continue its course, despite general public disregard. This ‘intransigence’ reveals something essential about poetry itself. For Badiou,
The poem has neither an anecdote nor a referential object. It declares from beginning to end its own universe.
Lest you think this doctrine of world-creating solitude — which is, in its own way, quite a conservative position — is simply the sort of grandiose assertion familiar to philosophers, take care that you are not surprised by its basis in the poetry itself. Badiou’s formulations always emerge from the close reading of certain poems, which he cites abundantly and frequently. In relying on the testimony of the poems themselves, Badiou is not merely giving them the authority to dictate terms; he is also concerned with the implications for philosophy.
This is the sense of the title essay in The Age of the Poets, first published in the early 1990s. It begins with an exercise of self-situation in the form of a triple negation:
the category ‘age of the poets’ is not immanent to poetry …
In spite of the word ‘age’, the category in question is not historicist. It does not pretend to offer a periodization of the different sequences of poetry …
it is not an aesthetic category.
Not poetic, not temporal, not aesthetic. What is it then? ‘The age of the poets is a philosophical category.’ It is here that Badiou’s Platonism really kicks in. The philosopher must listen to the poets and take their utterances with the utmost seriousness. But he or she cannot go all the way with them. Philosophy is not about invention or time or taste. It seeks the Idea.
This is the meaning of the category ‘the age of poets’. Very loosely running from the early-to-mid nineteenth century to the immediate post-World War II moment, the age contains basically seven (yes, seven) poets: Friedrich Hölderlin, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, Georg Trakl, Osip Mandelstam, Fernando Pessoa and Paul Celan. Badiou is adamant that this classification is not a general evaluative category. He is not claiming that these are the best or greatest or most important poets of the era. He is, rather, making a point about systematic philosophy during that period – which is that there wasn’t any. Why not? The age of poets (I’m ambivalent about the definite article) designates a time in which philosophy gave up the ghost and thought it ought rather to be something else. Friedrich Nietzsche would have liked to have been a great artist; most probably Ludwig Wittgenstein too. Many Austrian and English philosophers would have preferred to be scientists. Others put politics first. Marxism tried to pass itself off as simultaneously scientific and political.
For Badiou, this situation — in which philosophy ‘sutured’ itself to one or another of these phenomena — is a disaster. The age of poets is an epoch in which philosophy illicitly gave way on its own project in the name of one or another master. Hence Badiou states:
in a situation in which philosophy is sutured either onto science or onto politics, certain poets, or rather certain poems, come to occupy the place where ordinarily the properly philosophical strategies of thought are declared.
The aforementioned poets are thus the ones who took up the philosophical tasks deleteriously abandoned by philosophy itself. One of these is the thinking of thinking in a non-reflexive fashion along with all of its consequences. How can ‘the thinking of thinking’ be non-reflexive? Because philosophy (one form of thinking) must think about poetry (an entirely different kind of thinking) in order to be philosophy at all.
In the age of poets, the situation is inverted: if philosophy stops thinking about poetry, it fails as philosophy; when it does so, some poetry starts thinking about philosophy and as philosophy, in order to save the philosophical enterprise from itself. So Rimbaud assaults Descartes: ‘It is wrong to say: I think. One ought to say: People think me.’ Mallarmé denies that death can stop thought. ‘I am utterly dead,’ he writes. Trakl further disorients thought by his obsession with ‘death itself’. For Pessoa’s heteronym Alberto Caeiro, the situation is even more paradoxical: in Badiou’s rephrasing, ‘the essence of thought is to abolish thought’. Mandelstam dissociates poetry from the sense of time: ‘I was never anyone’s contemporary, no.’ Celan dissipates the One in order to lean upon inconsistencies:
There also comes a meaning
down the narrowest cut,
it is breached
by the deadliest of our
Today, however, the age of poets is over, and philosophy proper is back — philosophy such as Badiou’s own, which now knows it must listen to artists, scientists, political activists and lovers at the same time, without dictating the terms.
Despite the title, The Age of the Poets is not a dedicated treatise on poetry or its history, but a collection of occasional essays on various aspects of the literary process from Badiou’s philosophical point of view. Some are post-Being and Event position pieces, which outline Badiou’s general doctrines regarding the uses of poetry for philosophy. One is a very beautiful essay on ‘Poetry and Communism’. Another is an extended piece of juvenilia from 1966 on ‘The Autonomy of the Literary Process’, which is still of interest in that it shows Badiou was, from the start, convinced of the independent powers of art, as well as indecently enamoured with complicated diagrams. Yet another is a preface to Salam Al-Kindy’s French anthology of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, Le Voyageur sans Orient (1998). (Note that the subject matter of this collection from which Badiou’s essay is drawn, being around a millennium-and-a-half old, falsifies the ill-considered subtitle of The Age of the Poets; ditto for the age of poets itself, which, as we have seen, is not simply of the ‘twentieth century’.) As Badiou writes: ‘How could I for so long have ignored these great poems about which it is an understatement to say that they are essential?’ and continues to express his ‘bitter feeling of being, without knowing it, spiritually mutilated’. I think that’s right: although we do not know it, we are all diminished for not knowing such poetry. Other essays are short — if invariably fascinating — expositions of a variety of late twentieth-century writers (not all poets), including Henry Bauchau, Wallace Stevens, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Natacha Michel, Severo Sarduy and Pierre Guyotat.
There would be a great deal to say about all of these essays — not least their back-stories. Let me briefly indicate two of these. Sarduy (1937-1993), a poet, essayist and novelist, was not only one of the greatest Cuban writers of the twentieth century, but the lifelong partner of François Wahl, a fascinating figure in his own right. Wahl (1925-2014) was a major French highbrow editor who published works by, among others, Roland Barthes, Italo Calvino, Jacques Lacan and Paul Ricoeur. His early life had been spent in the French Resistance and then briefly with the Stern Gang; he taught Elie Wiesel French; he was himself a philosopher of note. He was also an old friend and publisher of Badiou. The essay reproduced here originally appeared in Wahl’s 2000 edition of Sarduy’s Obras completas. Badiou and Natacha Michel, a novelist, critic and activist, also go way back. Together they have founded (with others, of course) not one, but two political organisations: the first in the wake of May 1968; the second in 1985.
I don’t mean to imply cronyism here, nor any form of cultism. Literary milieus everywhere tend to be relatively insular, whatever their pretensions to universality – even as they creep inexorably towards otherness. Badiou’s literary tastes are, in fact, astonishingly broad. Bauchau, for example, who is perhaps not so well known in Anglophone countries, was a renowned Belgian lawyer and psychoanalyst, friendly with Albert Camus, Ernst Jünger and Eugène Ionesco.
I am trying to indicate the depth and intensity of Badiou’s personal literary connections, which have clearly kept him open to new questions throughout his life, and not least to the problem of late style, the challenge to keep rethinking all the way to the end. For Badiou, contra Plato, great literature thinks, in a fashion that must make philosophy attend. Yet he agrees with Plato (and Ben Jonson) that literature is not of an age, but for all time. If the Age of the Poets is now well over for Badiou, poetry is by no means finished.
Some of these essays have never been previously published, even in French. Some have already appeared in English in earlier translations, mostly in academic journals. The translations here, by the volume’s editor Bruno Bosteels, are highly readable. One of the most prolific translators of Badiou into English, Bosteels deserves further praise for collecting them into a single volume. Unfortunately, he also contributes (as is his usual practice) an over-long and slightly confused introduction, here with the help of Emily Apter. As a composite of extracts of already-available academic work – a cobbling together of vague technical remarks with sporadically excessive footnoting – the introduction suggests that its authors are not really au fait with the genre.
This is something one cannot say about Badiou himself. He is always scrupulously attentive to the claims and subtleties of form and genre, even when he is concerned to transgress them. His interpretations are invariably so clear, concise and precise that they render periphrastic or summarising commentary otiose. If you want an account of developments in pure mathematics from Richard Dedekind to Alexander Grothendieck, or the history of major philosophical ontologies from the pre-Socratics to Gilles Deleuze, or even of post-Enlightenment radical politics – as you will find in some of his other books – I can recommend turning to Badiou. I can also recommend his discussions of modern and contemporary poetry. Not because his opinions on these matters are incontrovertible, but because his ability to explain the texts, their key themes, their contexts and their implications is unparalleled. It is not only the clarity of his summations that makes them so accessible and appealing, nor the seductiveness of his polemical declarations, but his concomitant preparedness to open himself to counter-arguments and counter-demonstrations.
Yet one can also become dissatisfied and irritated with Badiou’s characteristic claims and procedures. Even if he claims that ‘the age of poets’ is not an evaluative category, it often seems to serve precisely such a function. When he claims it is not a historical category, it nonetheless seems to take an irremediably historical form. When he identifies the intellectual operations of the seven poets that define the category, an anglophile reader might suggest that such operations are already evident in Milton, Blake and Wordsworth. When he draws radical philosophical consequences from short poetic quotations, these are not always as immediately persuasive as they should be. His exhortations and affirmations can tend to the repetitive. And the brevity and heterogeneity of some of the essays collected here may make them hermetic, even misleading, without the more ample demonstrations supplied in Badiou’s vast treatises.
The older Badiou gets, the more unstoppable he seems to become. In the last five years alone, he has released an incredible number of publications, including extended dialogues with old friends (and enemies), prolonged interviews with young disciples, substantial text editions of his oral seminars, a ‘hyper-translation’ of Plato’s Republic into French (now also in English), short texts on subjects ranging from real happiness to French politics, and much else. Re-editions, translations and collections in various languages stream from presses. Perhaps it is true you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but it turns out you can still teach an aging philosopher. And the new trick the philosopher can learn is the oldest trick in the book — the fountain of youth that is late poetry.