Thursday, December 10, 2009

Moments of Xenia

In my morning reading, I came across these passages in Lyn Hejinian's essay "Barbarism" (which can be found in her collection of essays, The Language of Inquiry), in which she explores the extended metaphor of a border for characterizing poetry. Her usage differs in interesting ways from the notion as used by the group of people who call their work "interstitial." And as I thought about it, it seemed to me that this same metaphor could be used to characterize the best science fiction:

Poetry at this time, I believe, has the capacity and perhaps the obligation to enter those specific zones known as borders, since borders are by definition addressed to foreignness, and in a complex sense, best captured in another Greek word, xenos. It, too, means “stranger” or “foreigner,” but in a sense that complicates the notion as we find it in barbaros. The xenos figure is one of contradiction and confluence. The stranger it names is both guest and host, two English terms that are both derived from the single Greek term and are thus etymologically bound in affinity. The guest/host relationship is one of identity as much as it is of reciprocity. Just as a visitor may be foreign to a local, so the local with be foreign to the visitor; the guest coexists as a host, the host as a guest.

The guest/host relationship comes into existence solely in and as an occurrence, that of their meeting, their encounter. The host is no host until she has met her guest, the guest is no guest until she meets her host. Every encounter produces, even if for only the flash of an instant, a xenia—the occurrence of coexistence which is also an occurrence of strangeness or foreignness. It is a strange occurrence that, nonetheless, happens constantly; we have no other experience of living than through encounters. We have no other use for language than to have them.

In using the metaphor of a border, I do not mean to suggest that poetry relegate itself to the margins. The border is not an edge along the fringe of society and experience but rather their very middle—their between; it names the condition of doubt and encounter which being foreign to a situation (which may be life itself) provokes—a condition which is simultaneously an impasse and a passage, limbo and transit zone, with checkpoints and bureaus of exchange, a meeting place and a realm of confusion.

Like a dream landscape, the border landscape is unstable and perpetually incomplete. It is a landscape of discontinuities, incongruities, displacements, dispossession. The border is occupied by ever-shifting images, involving objects and events constantly in need of redefinition and even literal renaming, and viewed against a constantly changing background.


One can say that no experience is possible that is not also an experience of the border; it is the milieu of experience. It provides us simultaneously with awareness of limit and of limitlessness. As George Oppen said of poetry, “it is an instance of ‘being in the world’” at “the limits of judgment, the limits of […] reason.”

No comments: