Monday, October 29, 2012

Ondaatje, Carson & Nietzsche: Ressentiment

("Friedrich Nietzsche" by Edvard Munch, 1906)
Both Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Anne Carson’s "The Glass Essay" push poetry into new articulations in order to liberate content from old conventions. It's possible to read these works as expressions of what Friedrich Nietzsche refers to On the Genealogy of Morality as “ressentiment.” This is essentially an active or kinetic reaction to a repressive paradigm, or in this case, expectations about what constitutes “poem” or “poetry.” As Nietzsche writes:
The beginning of the slaves’ revolt in morality occurs when ressentiment itself turns creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of those beings who, being denied the proper response of action, compensate for it only with imaginary revenge.
Ondaatje and Carson’s poems embody the aesthetics of a slave revolt, or a rejection of the status quo. But rather than turn inwards and dwell on “imaginary revenge,” they harness the imagination to create new alternatives. Both long poems can be read as an assault on the conventions of orthodox verse, a ressentiment against any suffocating paradigms that prevent new forms from emerging.

Ondaatje does something truly remarkable – he allows the reader to inhabit Billy's skin and see the world through this wild outlaw’s eyes. The mental and physical worlds of William “Billy the Kid” Bonney pierce the consciousness like a knife into flesh. Here's Billy observing a lover in his room:
traces the thin bones on me
turns toppling slow back to the pillow
Bonney Bonney

I am very still
I take in all the angles of the room
Throughout the poem Billy is imbued with an animal grace. Ondaatje has him sniffing around like a dog, acting on instinct, and seeing/hearing things others can't. These convergences blur the boundaries between species and raise questions about humanity. It's this decentering of the “human” and the emergence of the “animal” that provides the impetus for a ressentiment to reconfigure past orthodoxies.

Anne Carson’s "The Glass Essay" is an extremely personal work that lives up to its name. Like glass, Carson disappears and becomes transparent in the telling of the tale. Nothing is too intimate to be revealed. Here's the narrator describing her desperation for her lover’s affection:
…I found myself

thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon
at a man who no longer cherished me.
 One of the compelling qualities of "The Glass Essay" is its bold approach to structure and its unique form. It embodies all the essential attributes of narrative prose fiction, non-fiction and poetry. While it looks like poetry and addresses a personal or subjective topic, it's called an “essay” and includes many of the qualities associated with one. It has a thesis, a methodology; it cites other critics and quotes directly from primary sources. The language resembles prose, but it's also infused with flashes of lyrical symbolism and metaphor. By blurring these genres together, Carson demonstrates the power and prolific malleability of poetry/prose. The poem is a prime example of ressentiment striving for new values to articulate an alternate vision of reality that old forms fail to provide.

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