Susan Howe

The Immateriality of the Common in _Eikon Basilike_

As I have asserted throughout my project, any discussion of the role of the reader in a text is first and foremost a discussion of the role of the author and how s/he must be destabilized in order to leave from for a readership. And, I have shown that this discussion has clear roots in poststructuralist literary theory—namely in the seminal discussions of authorship by Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes—and its denigration (or death-sentence) of the Author, a regicide in and of itself. In her analysis of Susan Howe in “Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject: Ron Silliman’s Albany, Susan Howe’s Buffalo,” Marjorie Perloff also foregrounds the discussions by Barthes and Foucault on authorship (407). In this essay, Perloff argues that Barthes’s privileging of the reader—that is, the birth of the reader as a result of the death of the author—ultimately leads to a critical ventriloquism (411); the critic speaks as though s/he is an authority his or herself. This is, for Perloff as for myself, a step in the wrong direction. It simply reproduces a new (an in some ways more pervasive) Author-God or Author-King: the academy, the bibliography, the archive. Part of my project as a whole, then, is to resist this critical ventriloquism. In my view, Eikon Basilike, provides me with a particularly effective means to discuss the ways scholarship can approach literature that resists reproducing or ventriloquizing the authority of the Author.

In this task, I am not alone. In fact, some of the critics that I have already discussed in this project have talked about how Howe’s work encourages us as readers to avoid this ventriloquism. They do this largely through a discussion of the ways in which Eikon Basilike works to engage readers on an active, affective level rather than encouraging the critical distance of a scholar who deciphers and decodes as he or she interprets a text. Craig Dworkin, for example, argues that Howe’s non-grid writings “confound a reader’s expectations by eliminating the very direction axes on which those conventions are based” (32). Confronted with the task of reading without the traditional axes of conventional exegetical interpretation, Dworkin sees Howe’s reader as forced to engage with the form of the text in new and active ways. Mandy Bloomfield, too, argues that the visual disruption of the text encourages physical engagement of the reader (417), especially through the literal need for the text to be physically manipulated—for example, to be turned on its side or upside down—in order to be read. The scholar Brian Reed, in his essay “‘Eden or Ebb of the Sea’: Susan Howe’s Word Squares and Postlinear Poetics,” also notes that Howe’s form encourages a new form of active reader engagement. While he does not discuss Eikon Basilike in particular, his arguments remain important. He writes that Howe “gives us language so stripped down, so denuded of syntax that a reader could essay it in any direction—horizontally, vertically, diagonally, or at random—without finding a path capable of arranging the word-nuggets into a coherent picture or narrative” (par 13). All three of these critics argue that Howe engages with her readers in what I would like to call an invitational, rather than expressive way, which is nonconventional to say the least. She thus invites the reader into a collective with the text, effectively rendering traditional scholarship and its concomitant ventriloquism ineffectual.

And yet, for the most part, the scholarship surrounding Howe’s work has tended to engage in the kind of exegetical hermeneutics that seem to reinforce the authoritative ventriloquism Perloff disparages, despite the occasional argument by scholars and literary theorists to resist this tendency. In “‘Another Kind of Writing’: Off-road with Susan Howe,” an essay published in the literary but not particularly scholarly journal Life Writing, David Arnold advocates reading Howe in a distinctly noncritical fashion. That is, because Howe’s work is described by the author herself as “antinomian” (128)—as in, rejecting an established moral order—Arnold argues that the text encourages readers to engage with it in a manner that does not simply reinforce the structures by which it might otherwise be governed. He writes, “[p]erhaps we need to shed the mantle of critic and reveal ourselves as writers, as a result of which disrobing we might enter a broader community” (130). Against this ventriloquism, Arnold proposes that we understand Howe’s work as opening up a “poetics of affinity” which “might resolve critical distance” (130); therefore, the scholarship on Howe would result in a real, almost directly affective reading process. In this plateau, I will attempt to take up Arnold’s poetics of affinity, reading Eikon Basilike as an anarchist text for and by a popular and populist audience that invites its readers into an egalitarian, affective community.

There have been, I would argue, some attempts to do precisely this kind of scholarship, especially by embracing the invitational aspects of Howe’s work, though none seem to directly engage with this invitation. Norman Finkelstein’s reading of Eikon Basilike as séance in “‘MAKING THE GHOST WALK ABOUT AGAIN AND AGAIN’: History as Séance in the Work of Susan Howe,” for example, demonstrates the long poem’s capacity to include its readers in its processes of reading and writing. For Finkelstein, “the reader of Howe’s Bibliography is both witness to and participant in this frightening ‘eccentricity’” (230). By staging the text as a séance in which the ghosts of authority are simultaneously summoned and banished, Howe “exposes her readers to her daemon, which we discover to be our own” (233). Similarly, Miriam Marty Clark, in “The Library and the Wilderness: Susan Howe’s Pragmatism,” argues that Howe includes her readers in a continuum of authors and texts that effectively transforms the typically sterile atmosphere of the library, the site of bibliography and scholarship, into an anarchic wild. She writes that

In these recurrent figures—of the reader and the scholar as library cormorants, of thinking as telepathy, of prior voices as ghosts and vampires, of the library as wilderness—Howe establishes continuity between the singularity of texts and the ubiquity of information, between the materiality and temporality of the printed word and the virtuality and simultaneity of information. (380)

Clark is also not discussing Eikon Basilike specifically, but we nonetheless find examples throughout the text of an attempt to forge affect and ephemerality out of the preserving and stultifying tendencies of the archive, an act that, I hope, should recall my analyses of Mullen on the subject of preservation and ephemerality. For example, trading in cold logic for warm affect, Howe juxtaposes the “[d]riest facts / of bibliography” (64) for “[t]his word Remember” (65). Appearing in the most lyric, readerly segments of Eikon Basilike, these opposing images set a tone of searching the archive for bibliographical information, but finding instead the unquantifiable values of emotion, affect, and, surprisingly enough, security. Toward the poem’s end, it would appear that Howe has given up searching for an “original text” (47) that her introduction tells us could not exist, writing instead: “I am at home in the library / I will lie down to sleep” (75). Recalling Clark’s words of scholarship, Howe here transforms the dry, sterile space of the archive into a home filled with both comfort and security by virtue of its misuse.

Rendering the library a home for the already complicated lyric subject, Howe constructs a vision of texts as singularities within the multiplicitous continuum of textual discourse, and in this way she encourages us to read Eikon Basilike as populist in nature, and anarchist in its assertions of the radical potentials of the people. I would like to argue that one aspect of this populist reading is the secretive and difficult ways in which the text encodes its stories. For Rachel Tzvia Back, much of the text is “encoded” in this way, a way to communicate to the reader while trying to remain hidden from the omnipresent eye of an elusive and invasive government. She writes, for example, that “[t]he unconventional spellings and word placements of the epigraph poem may also be read as a type of encoding, particularly as the motif of clandestine messages is a central thematic and form thread of the Eikon” (133). For Back, the rationale for this encoding is linked to the discussions of textual violence that permeate Howe scholarship:

The reason for the encoding, I believe, is not only to evoke the historical reality and dangers surrounding the captive king, but to hint at the dangers (of hostility, of erasure, of misrepresentation) waiting for any writer choosing a mode of literary expression that fails to conform to expectations and conventions. (133)

But, it is important also that this encoding, as palimpsestic overwriting, also “produces the additional and no less significant effect of simultaneity of voices—and of tales—speaking at one, cutting into each other and being, visually and aurally—as well as thematically—at cross-purposes” (139). Gesturing towards the popular, to the people outside of or external to governing authority, Eikon Basilike must be read as an invitation for the common, for the individual to read an encoded message written in the hidden language of communality, a code that cannot, by its very nature, be decoded.

Of course, the book that is this poem’s namesake was also a book “of the people.” As Howe notes in her introduction, “[o]n the day of the execution The Eikon Basilike, The Pourtraicture of His Sacred Majestie in his Solitude and Sufferings, was published and widely distributed throughout England, despite the best efforts of government censors to get rid of it” (47). In the name of these state-sanctioned efforts, “[p]rinters of the Eikon Basilike were hunted down and imprisoned. But in spite of many obstacles the little book was set in type again and again. During 1649 fresh editions appeared almost daily and sold out at once” (47). Thus, the Eikon Basilike in its “original,” whatever text that might be, is itself a symbol of the proliferation of the common even under the strict eye of a supposedly anti-monarchical government. The rapidly reproduced and constantly fluctuating “original” of the Eikon Basilike serves, despite its claiming of royal lineage, as an antiauthoritarian, antigovernmental symbol that refuses the closed structures of library and its requirements of an Author in favour of the immateriality of the common. As Howe herself writes, “the material object has become immaterial” (50). The text embodies a resistance to the bibliography and the archive, an anarchist pamphlet that invites its readers to sleep in the library beside it. It is thus unsurprising, though no less important, that in the very center of the previously discussed mirrored pages, Howe includes as the core (stand-ins for the absent centre of the king), “The People / Contemporary History” (56/7).

3 thoughts on “The Immateriality of the Common in _Eikon Basilike_

  1. This is another really successful plateau. Things are rolling along nicely!

    I like the idea of Howe as “invitational” very much. I think that’s a term you might want to adopt and expand upon, if you’re interested.

    There’s something slightly vague and confusing about the way you introduce David Arnold–as it’s written, the paragraph suggests he’s going to be an example of someone writing “ventriloquist” criticism, rather than the opposite. I think a few small wording changes would remove that cloudiness.

    A small but noteworthy point, I think: Miriam Marty Clark specifically discusses Howe’s work in relation to the library, but you (in the end of the paragraph on that topic) abruptly change the term to “archive.” I think you should be careful not to carelessly interchange those two terms. If you want to shift/expand Clark’s comments from library to archive, that’s fine–but explicitly note and explain why.

    I wonder if there’s more to make of the content of the Eikon Basilike and Howe’s choice to deal with that book–specifically, when you say “The rapidly reproduced and constantly fluctuating “original” of the Eikon Basilike serves, despite its claiming of royal lineage, as an antiauthoritarian, antigovernmental symbol that refuses the closed structures of library and its requirements of an Author in favour of the immateriality of the common,” I’d agree–but, I’m not so sure it’s only that going on. After all, the Eikon Basilike itself, regardless of its being a “people’s book,” as you say, was also a book specifically designed to celebrate a monarch and to bring about a return to monarchy. I guess what I’m wondering is, does Howe, through her choice of generant/allusive text, promote (or disclose?) a more fraught relationship between centralized and decentralized power? [That’s a big question, and one that I don’t intend to undermine your whole argument in this plateau–but I think you should address the content/intent of the original Eikon a bit in order to acknowledge or argue away this question.]

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