Review by Michael Mungiello
The Condition of Secrecy
Inger Christensen, Trans. Susanna Nied
November 27, 2018
“The outer world is the inner world, raised to a condition of secrecy.” If you don’t know what to make of that phrase, then you understand it perfectly. And if you enjoy the confusion washing over you right now (and if it’s not vexation you feel instead), then you just might enjoy The Condition of Secrecy, an essay collection by Inger Christensen that lies somewhere between between memoir, philosophy, and grammar guide.
The central conceit of The Condition of Secrecy is interplay. Christensen (1935-2009) believed in lexical autonomy, rather than lexical slavery: words are sovereign and we cannot make them bend to our will. Like the animals with which we share the earth, words are in our stewardship, not in our control. Literalism and symbolism are both betrayals of language for Christensen. She wouldn’t have you take her at her word, but she wouldn’t have you put words in her mouth, either.
But let’s return to that nut I’ve been trying to crack: "the outer world is the inner world, raised to a condition of secrecy." This secrecy is willed illegibility, or the fact that we cannot pin down the meaning of the world and should travel through it as we travel through our own mind—that is, with passive acceptance and without complete understanding. Christensen writes, "[j]ust as the letters within a book will never be able to read the book, we will never be able to read the world." We couldn’t read the world, because as soon as we put one word of it under our magnifying glass we’d see it shift into something else and then something else again, as if we are physicists observing particles under a microscope.
Admitting our inability to understand the world is simple enough. But then, can anyone perceive the order in what’s random? Traditionally, the answer to this is either Nobody or God. And though Christensen doesn’t believe in God per se, she comes close: “[b]ecause humans use the word god (or have used it in the past), god exists (is still in existence) as the concept that corresponds to our sense of interrelatedness among all the atoms in the universe. (And so it’s quite possible that god is a loaded word.) I feel that what we call style is the closest we come to expressing that inconceivable concept.”
Make no mistake: she’s saying style is god. Art is her religion and individual words are members in the hierarchy of angels. Or maybe they’re more like saints whom Christensen adorns with personalities: "All adjectives are very helpless... All verbs are very agreeable… All prepositions are nearly invisible."
Part of the project of The Condition of Secrecy is to blur the relationship between language and what it latches onto: words become a porous membrane between our minds and reality, inside and outside. This couldn’t be further from the traditional (Augustinian) idea of language, that words are what get people to hand you the stone you need to build a house, that words are labels appended to objects. In Christensen’s Testament, the Word becomes Stone.
But language does not just fuse with the world. It is itself a product of nature. Language is as natural as apples, and poetry is as physical an activity as eating. We think of language "as man-made, something that we alone hold the patent on. But just as we ourselves are a part of the remarkable biology project that makes the earth unique, at least in our part of the universe, so too is language a part of that biology project." Christensen argues that what we think of as culture is in fact nature. And then, powerfully, she argues that since language is the product of nature, and the outer world is the inner world raised to the condition of secrecy, “Humans as a group are a chemical poem in praise of the earth and its sun." We are but the world’s words.
What Christensen accomplishes here is no small feat. She vivifies the supposedly abstract structuralist position. It was once assumed that when we write we don’t express ourselves; rather, language expresses itself through us. Christensen’s cunning twist on structuralist theory is ecological: it’s not language so much as nature—the earth itself—that expresses itself in our words.
Like any decent ecologist, Christensen is convinced of the interconnectedness of all things, not just aesthetically but politically. "Each and every one of us personally bears responsibility for every wrong action, even if it is committed by someone completely unknown to us. This kind of thing is neither theory nor practice. It's magic. Or, to use a less loaded term, it's style."
She’s making a political argument starting from aesthetic principles. If you’re stylish, if you have good taste, then you’ll want to bear responsibility for your fellow people: supporting each other like parts of speech to form the sentence that is society. This social democracy of letters is a place where I’d like to live. Originality has no great power here, but in its absence, we have communion: "I write in the certainty that this has already been written before, in all possible ways, and that all its mad self-contradictions are a part of that reassuring form. It should have been a lullaby, like the one that waves write on water: humans are not abandoned and alone, it tells itself." One of Christensen’s special qualities is an acknowledgement of one’s own superfluity that feels not like resignation, but reverie: a thankfulness for one’s predecessors.
For Christensen, it is better to be connected than it is to be unique. She doesn’t write to make sense, or to say something correct, or even to say something true. She writes to connect, to praise the writing of the past and record the world of today for the future. Life without connectedness—without magic or style—is "an isolated travesty" to her.
Christensen calls her writing magic, but this is mysticism. Like all mystical writers, when Christensen gets it right, she’s transcendent. But of course she doesn’t always get it right. I wish New Directions had been more selective: the throwaway shorter essays that pad the back end of The Condition of Secrecy (“The Regulatory Effect of Chance” and “The Shadow of Night”) make the book less than the sum of its parts. But the extraordinary essays in the first half of this collection (“Our Story About the World,” “The Condition of Secrecy,” and “The Naïve Reader”) are linguistic defibrillators, galvanizing our relationship to writing, ourselves, even punctuation, revivifying that core of your mind where word and world mix. Only William H. Gass (1924-2017) comes to mind as a writer interested in achieving the same end, and he, like Christiansen, has met his own.
Who will follow in their wake? Somewhat disappointingly, the wackiness of Christensen’s notions is never quite matched with a commensurate zaniness of voice. She’s formidable, Olympian, stately. But as we anticipate what’s next, I imagine a counter-Christensen: a writer who enthusiastically seizes on the chaos of language, instead of piously meditating on its haughty inscrutability. Where’s the Ginsberg to Christensen’s Emerson? Who will emphasize not the equipoise but the cacophony of interconnectedness?
Michael Mungiello is from New Jersey.