Pierre Joris
St/range: An uncertain range

alligatorzine | zine

I do hate to be chucked in the dark aboard a strange ship.
I wonder where they keep their fresh water.
(Joseph Conrad)

What then is stranger than this? Not the word “this” nor the word “stranger” – noun or comparative – and all it implies – but the very thing in, with, toward, against, around, through which I am trying to think. The la, what gives the la, as the French say: “Donner le la,” or, doubled in echolalia the note leads to the German verb “lallen,” which, so Celan, is all anybody, even a prophet, lightbearded or not, can do in this age, this our time, i.e. ever since Hölderlin. Lallen, to babble, to give the double la: give it (in) the anguish of repetition, the double thing, “give it also its shadow,” the anguishing, (in) language.

But then language cannot really be the strangest thing either – I do make use of it, manipulate it, for better or worse, have a certain familiarity with it, which would suggest that the most strange is unlikely to reside there. Or could the strange be the uncanniness of the range of the familiar?

The strangest could thus be, despite all, the act of writing itself, even if or possibly exactly because it too seems so familiar to me, so very familiar indeed, because it is the act, the act of writing, the one that does what I am doing right now here, (no, there, i.e. back here, from where you, who read this, are) and which measures my days, and which I propose to myself and to others as the measure of my doing, even if that measure is already beyond measure, is exactly excess, situational potlatch, as all language is, because unnecessary, because “always already second.”

And even in its absence, even in the lack of writing, this act remains familiar – which is what makes this absence so strange, which is what makes the impossibility to write on a given day, a given week, a given month, so familiar to me – while simultaneously remaining strangeness itself: because it is what I do not understand, what I can’t and don’t want to understand. Even if as right now here I try to speak of it, to conjure the familiarity or the strangeness in a language that is both of these to me.

The strange in the dictionary is first off the unfamiliar, the previously unknown; secondly it is the out-of-the-ordinary, the unusual, the striking -- that which differs from the normal. There are thus already two strangenesses: one that just happens to be at some point unknown but will become familiar once it has been experienced; and another one that is so other that it strikes you, that it opposes your familiarity so fiercely it remains as the other, keeping its strangeness.

3. “Not of one’s own or a particular locality, environment or kind; exotic.” 4a. “Reserved in manner. Distant.” b. “Not comfortable or at ease; constrained.” As by these quotation marks, which keep the dictionary at bay, in its (familiar/unfamiliar) place. 5. “Not accustomed or conditioned: She was strange to her new duties.” A strangely familiar example: the female who has duties but doesn’t know. The familiar politics thereof. 6. “Archaic. Of, relating to, or characteristic of another place or part of the world; foreign.” Strange that the relation between strange and foreign should be archaic!

So we become familiar with the word, seemingly, as we look it up in the dictionary, that homey place where everything has its place, where nothing remains strange. But the end of every definition leads out of the dictionary into the old uncanny other lives of the word, showing even the most familiar word to be a changeling, a mutation, a creature from some black lagoon. In this case we are sent back to Latin extraneus, adventitious (there’s a word to be looked up!), foreign, from extra, outside, from feminine ablative of exter, outward. So the male form, exter, outward is not strange; what does make it strange however is the female ablative, the female of the case indicating separation, direction away from, sometimes manner or agency, and the object of certain verbs. Could be another tribe’s tale of “circumcision, circumfession.”

Which is what happens in Indo-European languages. Where “strange” returns to, or comes from, this female ablative in the form of eghs. Clearly a strange language-matter my built-in e-dictionary refuses and asks me to alter, suggesting: eggs, egos, ergs or gems. When the array and the spread point to the nomadic descendants of ex- or ek-, with such distant travelers as:

“electuary,” “synecdoche,” “eschatology,” “Eisteddfod,” “samizdat.” Keep it strange. A range of Roussellian procedures come to mind. You start with a drug mixed with sugar and water or honey for oral administration via Greek for licking up, a sweet familiar thing that will give you the experience of a part for the whole or inversely, of the whole for a part, back and forth, the figure for the background and vice-versa, wherefrom arises a sense of finality, a final judgment, the need to discourse about last things, the ultimate situation of world, humankind or not so kind. Which can be done either by hunkering down in a circle of poets & testifying aloud, or by circulating secret underground missives, alived yet endangered writing.

In the poem “Ode or Nearly There” from h.j.r. a line wrote itself: [To] “caravan / atoms into lines of flight.” The oddness of that line was brought home — wherever that may be, if ever caravans do get there, which is neither here nor there — when my French translator queried it. Though French certainly isn’t home either, as no language is, despite our desire to make it so. Language, even after the long trek through the dictionaries, remains the stranger, the other, we want to engage — and which always and irremediably so remains the outside.

Our outside we are building a future home in which we will never inhabit. We can only inhabit that which will disappear with us, that which does not survive us, i.e. ourselves. We are our home, this infinitesimal second — die Sekunde, diese Kunde (Werner Hamacher thus reads a line from Celan) — of presence to ourselves we imagine in retrospect to have been us present to ourselves when we / it is already too late, gone, a cadaver as we move into a here that, even before we can dot the I of our quasi-presence, has become a there.

A there that does not exist, is always already an ex- (eghs? eks? As above, but also here now heard as ek-stasy, to stand outside, always outside & in the strange) if it “is” at all, but really, neither back there nor ahead, as René Daumal says: “I am going towards a future that does not exist: leaving every minute a new corpse behind me.” His was a slower time; this giddy fin-de-siècle makes that every second. “Sirrt die Sekunde.” Atom of time. One by one, second to none. Uncuttable: from Latin secare, to cut, to split. The deepest cut. And uncuttable sequence. Daumal’s minute may be tropologically meant to stand for the minutest, but it is still a molar comfort.

« Corps étrangers » the French say for what we call “foreign bodies ”: outside medicine, outside the text, citations, grafts, prosthetic devices. What makes the strangeness of my own texts more familiar and at times simply bearable for me is to encounter in them familiar quotes, sentences I love and have repeated to myself for a long time after finding and “removing” them from the texts of other writers.

Like pebbles, rounded, smoothed familiar shapes, made so by the eternal return of the waves. Le ressassement, says Blanchot: the sifting, winnowing, again and again, repeating, harking back to & on – an eternity that can be reduced to time by turning the sieve into an oracle, “faire tourner le sas,” making it turn magically and when it stops reading the result, “diese Kunde.” Or like the pebbles under the tongue to learn to shout over the waves, a poetry of sounds, with pebbles eventually smoothed in saliva’s acid? Like pebbles, I said, these citations of others in my texts, strange stones, foreign agents against which break or wash up my own sentences in the making, across which I can make my way to the other side without drowning in the familiar.

strangeness n. 1. The quality or condition of being strange. 2. Physics. A quantum number equal to hyper charge minus baryon number, indicating the possible transformations of an elementary particle upon strong interaction with another elementary particle. Strange particle n. Physics. An unstable elementary particle created in high-energy particle collisions having a short life and a strangeness quantum number other than zero.

I knew it the first week I moved to Paris as a young medical student. The morgue was too familiar already, familial nearly, even in Benn, always the absolute return to self, same, ness as only escape. I knew then I would never return home, or live in the familiar of that place or self. I set out to learn how not to “separate the yes from the no,” to keep both always there, the poles, the opposites, the familiar and the strange, it takes two, it takes you. The other’s language, the strange language, open range of uncertainties.

Yet, in all my dictionaries the word that follows stranger is strangle.

This material is
© Pierre Joris
Originally published in A Nomad Poetics, Wesleyan University Press, 2003, and
slightly revised for its publication in Alligatorzine.
www.alligatorzine.be | © alligator 2011