The Irreconcilable Fanny Howe
London-rose by Fanny Howe. Semiotext(e), 67 pages.
Not every writer surrenders in the sunset of her career to conservatism or hack repetition; still, it is a rare bird who continues not only to stretch but explode the boundaries of her own art after so long. Fanny Howe is one such bird, whose plumage has become ever more brilliant and searching in the work produced in her late life. At eighty-one, with fifty years of publication behind her, her experience is extensive, her writerly mode relentlessly nomadic. In interviews, she’s remarked that where most writers she’s known desire or else “have rooms that they go to each day,” her practice is unsettled: “My room is the road.” Howe, like many of her fictional heroines, is at heart a wanderer, transfixed by the revolutionary potentialities opened through geographic, identitary, and spiritual restlessness.
For her, fixity and separateness are deadening specters. The very act of naming arrests and asphyxiates true freedom: as she warns, “don’t identify yourself with your description of yourself.” Dualisms which others might see as contradictions or mutual exclusivities—self/other, individual/collective, moral/theological, earthly/cosmic, work/art—manifest for Howe as uncannily interpenetrative possibilities. She is one of the twentieth century’s great epistemologists, principally through her refusal of discursive tidiness and her magnification of such concerns through indeterminate lenses. Thomas Aquinas thought it a grave failure to confuse knowing and believing. Howe’s is a corpus entrenched in unknowingness. Across over forty books of poetry, essays, memoir, and fiction, she has returned over and again to the between-space where knowledge and belief interrupt, inspect, and overlay one another like shifting transparencies.
Howe’s latest book, London-rose: Beauty Will Save the World, is a strange, changeable artifact. As does much of her work, it luxuriates in formal and generic plasticity: it is not poetry, exactly, but nor is it precisely prose. London-rose might be more usefully regarded as a consortium of fragments—historical apocrypha, lists, philosophic and monastic citations, and other ephemera—which are loosely gathered in the folds of a skeletal plot concerning an unnamed and structurally anonymized female pencil pusher. Howe called 2020’s Night Philosophy her “last” book, and to give credit where it is due, London-rose isn’t technically “new.” The manuscript is traceable in some form to the early 1990s, the decade during which Howe was in the thick of a sequence of five novels she has said are as near to a personal biography as she wishes to get. (They were collected in an omnibus as Radical Love by Nightboat in 2006, and the last of them—Indivisible—is being reissued in tandem with the publication of London-rose.)
London-rose’s genesis over the course of three decades appears formally encoded in the text by way of its narrative and temporal oddity. It shares with many of Howe’s “fictions” a tendency to elude linearity almost entirely. Instead, the book invokes the gauzy imagism of dreams, or the visions of mystics. Dreams, the narrator contends, “reveal the insubstantial nature of life itself.” Wrestling with a book fixated on such heady questions as the nature of life and God, the meaninglessness of work, and the constitution of the “self,” may require the ontological displacement of dreaming, which opens us to more radical inquiries.
In an essay on the experience of “Bewilderment,” Howe invokes the practice of becoming lost—to our selves, from our sense of place—as an ethical mode of addressing life’s “unresolvable[s].” Rather than seek comfort in reducibility, or in the totalizing efforts of superficial comprehension, she asks us to believe “that at the center of errant or circular movement, is the axis of reality.” In London-rose, the narrator expresses a longing to remain open to—to bear witness to—true “revelation derived from experience,” which is not (as would be easy) an instruction to yield to the myopia of the personal, but to dwell in irreconcilability, inside competing knowledge systems, from, as Howe puts it in “Bewilderment,” “constantly shifting positions.” The self, as such, is for London-rose firstly a theological consideration, which is to be placed in communication with an anti-capitalist and anti-individualist political mode. “Could you be both a Communist and struggle for the dignity of a soul, a solitary identity?” the narrator wonders. For her, the words solidaire and solitaire “represent a perfect kind of rebel”—an enmeshment of solitaryness (and the integrity of what is particular about any given human being) with a solidarity oriented toward liberation.
In an aesthetic age cowed by secularism and irony, Howe’s agnostic Catholicism and earnestness of feeling have often exiled her from the intellectual fashions of the day. She is and rightfully views herself as an outsider: irony, she cautions in London-rose, is not to be reached out to; it is “antithetical to a serious politics.” Human liberation, she has elsewhere written, “requires both political and spiritual action[s]” which are not substantively to be found in the institutions of the church. Contrary to faddish downtown fixations on an aestheticized and traditionalist Catholicism, Howe’s religiosity (like Simone Weil’s, whose thinking Howe is indebted to) does not smooth or stupefy her radical nature but calcifies it. Howe is as likely to reconstruct the youthful lusts of St. Francis of Assisi as to go long on the note left by Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the boat where he hid during the 2013 manhunt to capture him. (Indeed, in The Needle’s Eye, Howe provocatively imagines Tsarnaev and St. Francis as peculiar inversions of one another.)
Howe was born in Buffalo and spent her girlhood in Boston, the daughter of a Harvard lawyer and an actress-playwright. In her memoir of youth, “Branches,” she writes of her father, Mark De Wolfe Howe, that he fought three major battles: “the” war (WWII), the McCarthy hearings, and the civil rights movement. Her mother Mary Manning was Irish-born, an artist of bountiful energy, and one of the founders of the Poet’s Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where verse plays by John Ashbery, Bill Merwin, Frank O’Hara, and Anne Sexton were staged. One of Howe’s sisters, Susan, is a formidable poet in her own right, a hybrid weaver of lyric prose, poetic fragment, and collaged clippings. Both intermingle the autobiographical and the world historical in arresting, meditative bricolage. (Dan Chiasson has said of the sisters that “they may be the most important sibling duo in American poetry.”)
One could be forgiven the assumption that it was her New England childhood which installed Howe’s Catholic sensibility, but she was a late convert: 1982—the same year, she notes with characteristic humor, that she quit cigarettes. Before this, she’d worked for the Congress of Racial Equality, go-go danced at the Dom, and collected odd jobs. As the communitarianism of the late 1960s succumbed to what the novelist Tom Wolfe has termed the “Me decade” of the 1970s, Howe married and divorced the writer and editor Carl Senna, with whom she shares three children. Her interlocutors—Weil, Michel de Certeau, St. Francis, Edith Stein—tend toward the heretical, the downtrodden, the martyrous. Her orientation is communist, her philosophies (on racial disparity, prison, work, technology) abolitionist. As one friend quipped, “She’s the rare Catholic with perfect politics.”
London-rose is the sort of story in which very little happens, and in which the things that do accrue profound immensity. The barebones plot is as follows: a woman working unhappily as an error-corrector travels from London around the UK to assess whether the grading systems of various institutions operate equivalently to those in the United States. After visiting Buchenwald with a professor she encounters by happenstance, she considers quitting her job, tries unsuccessfully to do so, and then, finally, succeeds. Along the way are detours: to a poet’s home in Wales, to Paris “to see what it felt like,” to “Dublin, Cork, Galway, Scotland, Lancaster, Birmingham, Warwick.” Untethered any longer to the mundanity of her capitalist exploitation, the narrator invokes an amorphous revolution, one which is “borderless. . . . anti-nationalist, a revolution based on an emotion, not an imperialist idea. . . . Resistance, abolition, eternity.”
As the narrator sloughs off the humdrum constrictions of her life, she imagines herself as becoming increasingly “transparent”; unlike the company interns she encounters—whose early rebelliousness will only be incorporated into the system—it is her “escape from this pattern” which facilitates the birth of the utopian vision. Before this, in her error-correcting work, it had seemed to the narrator that “certain standards could not be shared across borders.” A central preoccupation of London-rose is the distortion of translation, the likelihood that language is categorically insufficient in transporting truth. The novel’s title itself is the result of the narrator’s misreading of a sign for “Lansdowne Park” as London-rose—the signifiers are fallible, prone to other interpretive hiccups and possibilities. The narrator likens herself to the ninth century neo-Platonist John Scotus Eriugena, who imagined all beingness as a sequence of hierarchic declensions from God; all things would return, eventually, to a state of nonbeing. Events curl back into themselves and recur. How do we transmit our reality? The narrator asks why “we need a good vocabulary so badly, especially spoken.” But how else, otherwise, to connect?
That words generate misfirings rather than solutions for many of our most vital imaginative, spiritual, and political concerns is a charge Howe has circled for decades. In 1998’s Nod, the novel’s heroine, Cloda, asks from within a madhouse whether “silence is the depth of hearing,” and berates her doctor, who “resist[s] hearing my interpretations of my own problems because I don’t use your jargon.” In the essay “Person, Place, and Time,” from her 2009 memoir The Winter Sun, she asks: “How could a person access the language that is common to all beings, if there really is such a thing?” In London-rose the narrator believes that “to pray without moving your lips is the highest aspiration.” The invocation which is unspoken hews nearest to God. Words only get in the way. We should long to be as birds, who know that borders “can’t keep voices in,” or sheep, who “carried languages across borders in their curls—Arabic, Scots.” The kingdom of animals is not beholden to unnatural divisions; perhaps we must look to them in our dream of a common language.
The students the narrator encounters in her work are a “migrant population,” fundamentally estranged from their own lives and besieged by the digital era: in a world that imagines itself beyond God, “their mistakes were written already, and computers under half-developed had absorbed them.” The narrator sees these students as foundering under the overexposures of modernity, and so she refuses to turn her proverbial camera “lens on them. I wanted to keep our contact free of technology.” This is a fascinating repudiation of the contemporary moment: less repulsed by the broad narcissism of our era and more anxious about the ways the modern has imprisoned our ways of seeing in an overdetermined series of closed circuits. As she herself seeks transparency of personhood (what Weil might call a process of decreation, wherein the subject renounces the autonomy of the self in favor of love and union with the Other, the collective, and God), the narrator longs to instill in her students a capacity to preserve the dignity and privacy of human particularity—what we might call its spirit, in contrast to its materiality or spectacularity.
There is, then, a certain Luddite sensibility to London-rose. If language is the first mediation of reality, technology erects a further communicational barrier, and, more, instantiates apocalypse as a bare fact of everyday life. The sky—which is at times presented in the novel as the apotheosis of the infinite (as the narrator inquires in the opening line, “Isn’t the sky everything to me?”)—is by this juncture, in the drawn-out end of history, “cleared of anything but satellites, their junk, and war preparations.” Technology also systematizes the alienation of the modern worker from the value of her labor. You are merely “doing work for a company that doesn’t know your name but recognizes the government number you have been assigned.” More, this mandated dehumanization implicates the worker in the failures of the system, forcing her to witness its malpractices right up close, and from a double-bind: “We can identify the failings before they rise to the top. If we tell, we are fired; if we don’t tell, we are collaborators.”
As the narrator knows, the status quo of a reactionary democracy is upheld and maintained through the absorption of its dissenters’ outrage. Because we cannot see an otherwise to our exploitation, because we must go on living and paying bills, feeding ourselves with money doled begrudgingly out to us by our oppressors, the sustenance our resistance requires is, finally, what largely assimilates us into the system. Though the narrator delights in the “proletarian feeling of street-life” in the city, she sees, too, that “by nine the working people look defeated.” A radical politics lives in the tension between purity and necessity. After all, Simone Weil starved herself. Her identification with and service to the suffering of others was so pure and singular she did not believe in its being conducted from a distance; her very self had to be effaced, indeed, eradicated. In London-rose, rebellion, like language, is distorted by the limitations imposed on it from the outside in: the alienated laborers “become hedonists and anti-intellectuals, religious fanatics or reactionary voters. . . . Out of fear they leap onto the wrong figure of power. . . . The DNA of fascism so deftly used by the previous generation will show up on stained spoons and feed their children. And more dictators will be born.”
The language and administration of subordination, exclusion, and censorship may shape-shift, but fascism supersedes borders; it transverses time. In her lifelong distress over injustice, the narrator reluctantly entertains the possibility that there is a “human preference for force over friendship.” Whether this preference is innate or may be unlearned is perhaps unanswerable; she nevertheless recursively invokes hope over fatalism. A child of the Second World War, the narrator (as well as Howe) is haunted by Hitler and “an ontology of grayness. World War Two is forever gray as a fingerprint on my brain.” The present rise of authoritarianism (including the cunningly obfuscated citation of American Trumpism in the passage quoted above) may trace its origins to faultlines left over from that conflict. Its genealogy is to be found, too, in the estrangement of the office worker, their “fury at being silenced. No permission to take responsibility for [their] job.” London-rose righteously regards the long arc of history to unveil the cyclicity of its perversions. Although her work often foregrounds undecidability, Howe nevertheless understands there to be a “pattern of causalities” which exist alongside our necessary bewilderment.
The narrator goes with the professor (“called,” though not necessarily named, “Warburg”) to Buchenwald, which “must be faced”—“there was something he had to see. What is it? I asked. Nothing. I would like to see that too, I told him.” At the camp, “time had lost its beat,” and the form of London-rose shifts here, also, with (+) signs, intentional blanks, and breaks and fragmentations interceding on the level of the line. The professor has come seeking cartoons sketched by the prisoners, but realizes once they are in the shadow of the camp that he has committed a grievous error; any gallows drawings, he admits to the narrator, could only have been done by “the guards, not the prisoners. . . . Any cartoon would have to be drawn by a hater.”
This is the moment of revelation the narrator has sought, the one derived from experience. We look to language and art for solace and so often locate there instead our own frailties of perception, the limits of our empathy. One recalls Adorno’s famous proclamation that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Crucially, however—and counter to common misreadings—what he didn’t say was that poetry became impossible, that there wasn’t any longer beauty in the world, following the atrocities of the Holocaust. London-rose produces space for Warburg’s failure and presents, dialectically, a list of texts by concentration camp survivors: Elie Wiesel, Imre Kertesz, and the sisters (and friends of Howe’s) Henia and Ilona Karmel.
What Adorno also later said was that “perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream.” The subtitle of London-rose—Beauty Will Save the World—is the hinge on which the door of revolutionary possibility rocks open. There is a strain of resignation which runs through the text, the sense that “we’ve come too late for the gods to comfort us. They have fled before dying.” (Perhaps a variation on Heidegger’s claim that “we are too late for the gods and too early for Being.”) But, again, there remains the narrator’s indefatigable listing towards hope: “Please, hope, don’t stop!” she cries, “Don’t come to an end!” While she believes certain traumas exceed the limits of language—“Beyond here,” she thinks, “words don’t go”—she holds the simultaneous and irreconcilable belief that “one of us must express the problem for the others.” Another woman reminds the narrator that though people despise and distrust the words of politicians, “they do trust the language of poetry and literature.” These various truths coincide, overlap, are in tension and play with one another.
In her ultimate longing for revolution, the narrator seeks “something real,” a solidarity that might transform our material and spiritual condition. Howe has said that every book she’s written has felt like the last, making her “apocalyptic in the writing department,” and London-rose certainly seems to exist at the cliff-edge of experience, of time, perhaps even at the twilight of civilization. “We must join the plants and animals and destroy the man-made. We know that we are mammals inhabiting a globe that is like another animal and we are eating it up,” the narrator insists. If we are indeed at the end of things, however, London-rose asks us to nevertheless refuse defeat, suggesting that “perseverance is one of the greatest virtues,” alongside our inevitable and necessary stumblings. In “Bewilderment,” Howe writes that “the point of art is to show people that life is worth living by showing that it isn’t.” If beauty is to save the world, it must be attended to alongside horror; only in this unresolvability might we discover true meaning, which as Howe points out, is the theological definition that lies behind the term salvation.