Friday, January 29, 2010


Bernadette Mayer Eruditio ex Memoria (New York: Angel Hair Books, 1977)

Memory, history, personal history, autobiography, metaphysical autobiography, Eruditio ex Memoria is all of these. Yet this book projects a memory not of self, but of the self as defined by the knowledge which makes up the self, which perceives the world in which the self lives. And in this sense Bernadette Mayer’s new work is a cosmology, an encyclopedic anatomy, which as a genre is related to Menippean or Varronian verse satire, from the Greek cynic Menippus and the Roman satirist Varro, both of whose works are now lost. The anatomy has continued in Lucian, Petronius, Apuleius, Rabelais, Voltaire, Swift, Rousseau, Peacock, and, in our own century, Aldous Huxley, Wyndham Lewis, Djuna Barnes, and, most recently, in Seeking Air by Barbara Guest. Unlike the picaresque—which is a satire of society and of its structures—the anatomy is a satire built up through a presentation of a vision “of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern.” Northrup Frye continues (in Anatomy of Criticism), “The intellectual structure built up from the story makes for violent dislocations in the customary logic of narrative, though the appearance of carelessness that reflects only the carelessness of the reader or his tendency to judge by a novel-centered conception of fiction.” The shortest form of the anatomy is the dialogue, but there is a strong tendency toward a display of erudition, of encyclopedic knowledge, of complications, catalogues and lists (see Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Tristam Shandy, Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pecuchet, Norman Douglas’s South Wind, and portions of Moby Dick).

Does Mayer know anatomies? Perhaps not. The impulse here seems to come as much from her obsession with memory, from a compulsion towards autobiography that is related to the confession such as Saint Augustine’s. But for Mayer memory is never an end in itself. It is not memory past that most interests her, but memory continuing, repeating, memory in the present made new through language in Pound’s sense of that concept. Mayer’s art is not a seeking for what was but what is, and how what is was made by that past. Mayer’s memory is not nostalgic—as in Proust—but is a past that makes the new, makes possible the new: an ending that is a beginning (“Each end is a beginning”). She seeks not for old structures, not for a recreation but for a decreation: “I put these words on paper because they were once written by me, no, I too yearn for a world without meaning.” As she previously wrote in her fiction Memory, “A whole new language is a temptation.”

But Mayer’s world, the world she discovers, is not without meaning. The past decreated gives rise to a new created or recreated world. As with Adam, Mayer calls things into meaning by naming. Through memory’s order “Hemispheres become loose in the country, there are new forms.”

Is this different from a Surrealist allowing the subconscious to create new structures, using dream images as the basis for a new reality? Yes. Mayer’s past is not a dream, not archetypal, not mythical, but a socially lived experience. These are school notes, a pre-existent text rewritten (?) or almost intact, a life wrenched out of chronological context not by chance but by fact, a life perhaps not experienced as discontinuous but was (and because was can only be is in memory), is in fact.

No coy discontinuity is this, no clever dissociations. Actually there is an attempt in Eruditio at lucidness, to see through the veil of experience to a reality of flux, of life, of duration. And in this there is a basic recognition of the ineffectuality, of the destructiveness of the written word as opposed to spoken language. “There’s no use writing down Greek words if no one is going to know what I’m saying.” Mayer is always after language, then, after the reality that is language. Eruditio is a search for that reality not as written word but as language, which as a thought process is the thing itself. Saying is thinking is perceiving is knowing. In fact, although this work may often seem ineffable, there is throughout a drive for an absolute clarity of language: “Add up a column of numbers, it comes to William Carlos Williams.”

All of which brings us back to the genre of the anatomy, which comes from the Greek anatomé, a cutting up, an analysis or minute examination, to show or examine the position, structure, and relation of the parts. That is what this book is to me; it is an attempt to explain, to demonstrate, to show how Mayer has come to know whatever it is she has come to know. And in that sense, this book is a sharing, a removal of the veil, an admission, an apology, a true confession.

In doing so, moreover, it is itself a sign, an image, an emblem of language which stands for Mayer and the world she has recreated, an emblem like the red letter Hester Prynne wears. Eruditio ex Memoria ends with such an image: “In a painting I am a Chinese woman turning away from a bowl of fruit.” Is this an Eve with a second chance, this time redeeming by giving up the knowledge, by releasing it? To pin the image down that way is to miss the point, is to turn back to the fruit and eat it. It is nothing more than itself, a Chinese woman turning away from a bowl of fruit, “its own sure image.”

Reprinted from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, no. 7 (March 1979).
Collected in
The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984).

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