Swans Commentary » swans.com March 14, 2011  



Charles Bernstein's All The Whiskey In Heaven


by Maxwell Clark





(Swans - March 14, 2011)  


By way of an introduction: Charles Bernstein is a leading contemporary American poet.

Released in 2010, his All the Whiskey in Heaven is only a small selection from his entire oeuvre of poems. Having been formerly consigned to the margins of the publishing world, this publication of Bernstein's by the relatively prominent house of Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux marks a minor literary event in the recent history of poetics.

Its context thus duly provided, what follows is a sequence of narrative, psychoanalytical, and political-economic meditations upon that published work itself.


I have read through the entirety of All the Whiskey in Heaven, even some of its poems repeatedly, and yet nothing thematic presents itself to my attention except the total absence of any theme.

We have yet long known, perhaps most precisely since Freud, that anything we write, no matter how supremely disordered it appears to ourselves in the immediate, will eventually come to relate to everything and anything else we have written.

Bernstein's All the Whiskey in Heaven is, as such, not at all intelligible otherwise than upon this Freudian basis. (1)


A technically articulate description of the narrative mode (2) that Bernstein employs throughout his Whiskey: a weirding of our inherited grammar of sentence formation through the sequencing of many otherwise narratively unrelated and pulverized sentence fragments together, e.g.:

Piles of clocks miserably shut away patrons of impressive perforation stacks the hampers: insatiable drip of the nosocomial dactyl premised on glare, harmless harmonics bathe the waning harlequin gradual asymmetries cascading down the residual artifice invested on accumulation, the tourniquet ensnares lewd animosities, setting the hand aspin, phases of delinquent mean inaudible paroxysms cheap reminders.
(extracted from: Islets/Irritations)

Almost all of All the Whiskey in Heaven may be typified, again, by this same repression of any and all narrative logics excepting that of an asynchronous and external juxtaposition between autonomized blocs of sentence-splinters. (3)


Given this first narrative formalization, a field of other determinations now becomes available. Consider then, for one, certain ramifications of the psychoanalytic act on the reading of Bernstein.

When Bernstein's pulverized bloc-writing is rendered as the soliloquy of an analysand, we, if only as lay analysts, may immediately translate his vast accretion of linguistic slips (i.e., "autonomized blocs of sentence-splinters") into a cunning and pathetic cry for a master.

Put very compactly, and with respect to confessions regarding my psychoanalytic competence below, Bernstein effectively disorders his letters because he desires that these be given an order by someone other than himself. (4)


Although capable of much discursive dilation, which will not be indulged herein, neither any particular valence nor value need be assigned Bernstein's desire for an interpretative master. This precaution, among other things, because of that most salient question of whom is indeed his master-interpreter appears here too polyvalent for my mind to conclude upon.

Suffice it to roughly adumbrate, and here on the register of political economy, that although his reception on the market is potentially as universal and infinite as that market itself, his actual election to, i.e., reproduction of his texts for, the market remains an entirely particular and finite arbitration.


Thus a searing question resurfaces: how to write for the many, when only the few are its judge?

Bernstein's letters, as little as mine, insofar as they are in and of themselves unable to re-expropriate and render as commons the means of communication, offer us no real solutions. Indeed, their dissemination is indeed a symptom and even reinforcement of the continued inequity and injustice that is the contemporary media.

One does not go to Bernstein for achieving communism in any case. In my reading, although he demonstrates himself well versed in the Marxist inheritance, he may also disbar the aforesaid end-goal of that teaching from ever manifesting. (5)

One instead goes to Bernstein because one is willed to, avariciously. In my specific case, because I am also a poet of the capitalist condition, forced to both emulate and compete with the most successful commodities of this genre and others. (6)


Having thus schematically, and with a somewhat unbecoming or overworked concision, passed through our entire sequence of narrative, psychoanalytical, and political-economic meditations, this article will then begin upon its closure.

In this misreading of Bernstein everything hinges upon the question of psychoanalytic interpretation. Whatever the validity or error attributed to this psychoanalytic procedure, such attributions will, provided this framework of misreading, likewise determine the judgment of Bernstein's canon entirely.

Or, what of Bernstein's desire for a psychoanalytic treatment of his canon?

Having long been primarily a student of Marx, owing mostly to previous and regrettable organizational affiliations, I abstain here from making too quick of an attribution or judgment with respect to the Freudian inheritance.

I dread the utterly invalid blurring of a "truthful-as-distinct" Freudian world into the sameness of an all-too habitual Marxism.

Bernstein herein having been already long placed aside, and this essay has been nothing but his repeated setting aside as a pretext for my own concerns, I wish to conclude with an appropriately self-depreciating quote from Lacan:

"It all ends with comedy, but who will put a stop to the laughter?" (7)


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About the Author

Maxwell Clark is a writer living in New Haven, Connecticut. He is also a digital musician working under the moniker Smojphace (http://soundcloud.com/smojphace).   (back)


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1.  Bernstein thus also continues in the surrealist line of Freudian poetics.  (back)

2.  I intend here to render the most formally precise analysis of Bernstein of which I am currently capable. And, whether it redounds to his honor or infamy, my entire mode of writing here obliges me to note the recent inspiration of Fredric Jameson, his Political Unconsciousness book in particular.  (back)

3.  Whereas exceptions to this rule exist in the Bernstein, as I am already certain, their existence does not invalidate its measure altogether, but rather refines its accuracy from within.  (back)

4.  On a Lacanian tip, one might add here: He desires the symbolic order of the Other.  (back)

5.  "War is the principal weapon of a revolution that can never be achieved." From Ch. Bernstein, War Stories.  (back)

6.  Others partaking of his canon may each identify their own specifically venal rationales for reading as well.  (back)

7.  Lacan, Ecrits, p. 641.  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published March 14, 2011