Earlier this year Kenneth White appeared at Aberdeen University’s Mayfestival, giving a lecture on ‘world literature’ and a poetry reading: at both events new books by him were launched, Ideas of Order at Cape Wrath, a set of essays on cultural renewal, and Latitudes and Longitudes, his first new collection of poetry since the publication of Open World: The Collected Poems in 2003. Another new book, The Winds of Vancouver, was launched at the international Irish-Scottish conference in Vancouver.
At 77, White has reached the age when it ought to be possible to see his career, and his contribution to modern and to Scottish literature, in context, and yet, as the few pages devoted to his work in anthologies of modern literature, Scottish or British, make clear, he remains elusive to contemporary critics. His poetry, it appears, remains more appreciated in its French translations (mostly done by his wife, Marie-Claude White) than in its English originals. Equally, his role as a ‘public intellectual’, not only as a professor of modern poetics at the Sorbonne from 1983 to 1996 but through his establishment, in 1989, of the International Institute of Geopoetics in Paris, has, despite some local supporters, rarely registered in Scotland – the result, perhaps, of the fact that some of his key theoretical works such as Esprit nomade (1987), Le Plateau de l’albatros (1994) or Dialogue avec Deleuze (2007) have appeared only in French. White remains somewhere in the margins of modern Scottish literature and yet if there is one Scottish writer with a truly European reputation, it is him: translated into many languages and the subject of many interpretive studies. His ideas on the nature of poetry and its relationship to the natural world (what he calls ‘geopoetics’) have been debated by some of the leading figures in the European intelligentsia and in radical politics.
Resident in France since 1968, White seems to be regarded as incidental to a period of Scottish literature dominated by the upsurge in cultural nationalism that was fired by the campaign for a devolved parliament. While other migrant poets, such as Douglas Dunn, and migrant intellectuals, such as Tom Nairn, were making their way back to Scotland in the 1980s, determinedly contributing to the cultural revival of which, at an earlier date, they might have despaired, White was taking out French citizenship and continuing to roam the world in search of places that defied the bordered containment of the nation. Being ‘marginal’ to a national and nationalist culture was, for White, an essential element of the modern intellectual’s inheritance from the figure whom he sees as the pathbreaking thinker of the modern era – Friedrich Nietzsche: ‘If we speak in terms of philosophical and cultural anthropology, the type of artist-philosopher or philosopher-artist, to which Nietzsche feels he belongs, which he manifestly represents, sometimes to the point of rhetorical grandiloquence, but most often with incisive irony, an aphoristic-anarchistic intellectual energy, and a poetic conceptualization, will in the first instance be expatriate, fatherlandless. How, he asks, can “a son of the future” feel “at home” anywhere today?’
The modern writer who accepts such an intellectual genealogy will necessarily find that ‘no ideal whatsoever can make him believe in the possibility of a homely settlement, whether it be an ideal of the past (conservative) or an ideal of the future (progressive), whether it be an ideal of general world-wide humanitarianism or an ideal of a specific nationalist identity’. Such an uncompromising perspective meant that White would not fit easily into the narrative of a culture still finding its way into nationalism rather than finding its way out of it.
The invocation of Nietzsche also underlines White’s lack of interest in what passes for ‘culture’ in modern societies, since ‘culture’ continues as though Nietzsche had never spoken: ‘Most of the literature, most of the art produced was not going to be up to the questions put by these individuals, a kind of “culture” was going to go on as if the questions had never been raised, all of this being, to a demanding mind, beside the point, and of no interest’. Having ‘no interest’ in what passes as ‘culture’ in modern societies, White chooses to define its lack of significance by pointing to the very phenomenon which modern Scottish literature takes to be its major achievement: modern cultures, he suggests, endlessly go on ‘producing yet another “renaissance”’ which is simply an excuse to ‘gather under its banner, for sheer numbers, all kinds of sub-standard work’. Those who regard the ‘Scottish Renaissance’ as the major achievement of modern Scottish culture have, in this view, simply failed to understand either poetry or culture.
White’s disdain for modern culture and his own ambition to transcend it are clear in an essay he wrote shortly after quitting Britain in 1968: ‘in recent times, many of the poets with the life-desire and intellectual demands that go with the production of the most powerful poetry have found it impossible to go on living within British precincts at all. We need only think of D.H. Lawrence, with his loathing of the “pettyfogging narrowness” of England – and if Dylan Thomas, another exemplary figure, remained, who would deny that it was the British set-up and cultural atmosphere that obliged him to turn himself into a kind of Divine Clown, playing incessantly a tragic-comic role and perhaps never reaching anything like his full development as a poet. And there is Yeats, considering that London is the enemy of all real culture, trying to ground a more fundamental culture around that lonely tower in Galway; and Joyce who, if he took the trouble to criticize Ireland, felt that England was beneath criticism; and MacDiarmid, who has been raging now in vociferous Anglophobia and hatred of “grey Englishry” (the cause, as he sees it, of what we might call “grey Scottishry”) for half a century.’ In the 1960s, White was on the side of the extravagant modernists from whose excesses English literature – led by Philip Larkin – had been retreating for two decades. Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, each of them was an enthusiastic or a troubled reader of Nietzsche and, like Nietzsche, saw poetry not simply as a branch of literature but as the summation of all knowledge. Leaving for France was, for White, a way of keeping open this potentiality of poetry, which he found in the surrealism of André Breton, and in those thinkers who had tried to come to terms with Nietzsche. Most important was Martin Heidegger whose writings represent an attempt to ‘unlearn the grammar of dictatorial principles which have made the West’ and to recover ‘a primordial way of speaking which the West no longer knows’. The poet who follows this track will be ‘transcendental’ in the sense implied by Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, attempting to see the world without preconceptions, released from the categories of current systems of knowledge. As White puts it in Ideas of Order at Cape Wrath, ‘what the transcendental ego in its cogitation-meditation guarantees is a primordiality. For this primordiality to become a way and eventually a world, every effort must be made to keep the process unvitiated by presuppositions, prejudices and, of course, fantasies’.
Poetry is what keeps the mind open to the world but the poet’s mind will not be open if he is submersed in a particular social world, thus the poet necessarily becomes the ‘intellectual nomad’: ‘Intellectual nomadism meant moving, not only from country to country, but from culture to culture. Every culture is partial – developing in some aspects, neglecting others. Intellectual nomadizing from one culture to another is necessary if one is to arrive at the notion of something that can be called a complete culture.’ White’s ‘waybooks’ – The Blue Road (1983), Travels in a Drifting Dawn (1989), Pilgrim of the Void (1992) – are dramatisations of intellectual nomadism, travels through modern civilisation to those places where the primordial can still be encountered: the intellectual nomad is not carried along in the current of the history of a particular society, but passes transversely across societies, defying their history. In L’Esprit nomade White traced the intellectual tradition of such nomadism, in European, American, Chinese and Japanese culture, but at the heart of White’s account is Hugh MacDiarmid, who, having exiled himself to Shetland from a mere ‘Renaissance’ on mainland Scotland, poses, in poems such as ‘On a Raised Beach’, the ultimate question: ‘How to enter into this world of stones, this elementary world, rather than just describe it’. In Shetland, MacDiarmid had come face to face with the ‘primordial’ and discovered ‘a metaphysical vision of the Light as conceived by Plotinus: contact with the light that makes it possible to see’. It is this foundational ‘light’ that White believes poetry has to capture, a ‘poetry that “gets through to the white” and flows in open space’.
The invocation of MacDiarmid reveals that White’s journeying outwards from Scotland is also a journeying back to it, a journey which Ideas of Order at Cape Wrath continues in its essays on Neil Gunn and on those Ayrshire writers who share White’s boyhood territory. Scotland, not the national Scotland but the geological Scotland, is a place where it is possible to encounter or to acquire what White calls ‘edge-knowledge, not only because it’s concerned with the mind’s cutting edge, but because, up there on the ridge, a whole scape and scope is keenly opened, the contours of a possible new paradigm’ . As part of that new paradigm White reconfigures Scottish cultural history around the Scots as intellectual nomads to suggest that far from being marginal to Scottish traditions, he is, as a wandering Scot, in the very mainstream of a culture which has always been migrant, wandering, exploratory. Thus the prominence he gives to those Celtic monks who took their culture to Europe in the dark ages or who simply set out to see where they might get to; thus the centrality he gives to the theologian Duns Scotus who, after a career in France died in Germany, and who, ‘in the face of Aquinas’ institutional massiveness… is a wanderer in the desert, concerned with following tracks and pathways rather than building edifices’ and who, moreover, was key to the development of Heidegger’s philosophy in the twentieth century; thus the importance he gives to David Hume’s time in France – in ‘David Hume at Lorient’ – and his engagement with French culture:
quiet in my quarters
reading Montesquieu and eating oysters
delighted to see that brilliant intellect
gathering in light
from the most remote and unconnected
corners of the planet.
White’s Scotland is the Scotland of its intellectual nomads who, like Duns Scotus, ‘works not with beliefs, or with axioms, or with psychological realities, but with perceptions and insights, in a highly operative field. He has a fast and flickering way of thought’.
It is that ‘fast and flickering way of thought’ that White’s essays and waybooks seek: written in short sections, they zip between cultural contexts and experiences to set up unexpected lines of connection. They are modelled on what he describes as ‘an erratic logic’ that goes all the way back to a primordial world where people shared ‘the same great, unroaded, uncoded space, and the same perception of fast movement, whether it be of flickering fire, agile flanks or the fluttering of a bird’s wings’. White’s prose is an enactment of fast travelling, of travelling light.
This is where White distinguishes himself from the high modernist poets whose ambitions he defended in 1970. For them, the power of poetry lay in its density, in its capacity, as T.S. Eliot put it in his essay on ‘The Music of Poetry’ in 1944, ‘to insinuate the whole history of a language and a civilization’. Through the work of I.A. Richards and William Empson this notion of poetry dominated Anglophone criticism in the mid-twentieth century: the criterion of the quality of poetry is how heavily freighted it is with meaning, how many ambiguities it can mobilise, how much cultural baggage it can carry. For White, however, there is no place for the ‘heavy’ in creativity. He has tried to remain light, ‘moving farther and farther away from thick, heavy literature’. The model of the poet is Basho, the master of the haiku, who united poetry with ‘the idea of the Zen-journey, or, let’s say, meditative travelling’.
Such a poetry might have been possible in feudal seventeenth-century Japan, but would it be possible in the west in the twentieth or twenty-first century? In 1975 White published a small book on the poetry of Gary Snyder, one of the Beat poets of San Francisco, and traced how Snyder, through Buddhism, had made himself, Basho-like, into the poet of a spiritual materiality, or a material spirituality. Snyder’s achievement, for White, was to use Haiku-like insights to create a poetry of ‘high, clear moments when all writings fade away and only clear light remains’ and, as he notes in ‘American Affinities’, Snyder is part of a line of American poets with whom he shares ‘a poetic that does not aim at closed artefact, nor is content to simply comment on the sociological context, but is based ultimately on the idea of an energy moving across space’. The aim of this poetic is to capture that energy, to let art become the medium through which we can intuit ‘the ground language, the fundamental music, of an open world’, a world still unsubdued by the heaviness of human history.
If White remains marginal to accounts of Scottish literature it is, perhaps, because the scale and scope of his poetic ambitions represent a fundamental challenge to the notion that a writer’s significance is national: as he retraces wandering Scots like John Muir in The Winds of Vancouver, he has become, perhaps, the poet of a global Scotland, a Scotland determined not by national boundaries but by the energies of its global explorations. Which is why the Scottish tradition that he constructs, from Erigena and Scotus to MacDiarmid and Gunn, is one he sees as refusing the representational and the historical, one in which Scotland is:
… a rushing white flurry
of a wave-and-wind philosophy.
Latitudes & Longitudes
Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies, University of Aberdeen, PP140, £20, ISBN 978-1-906108-16-8
Ideas of Order at Cape Wrath
Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies, University of Aberdeen, PP215, £20, ISBN 978-1-906108-17-5