CHARLES STEIN with Raymond Foye
Poet Charles Stein teaches art writing at the MFA program of the School of Visual Arts, New York. His work comprises a complexly integrated field of poems, philosophy, art theory, mathematics, translations from ancient Greek, drawings, photographs, lectures, conversations and music performances. Born in 1944 in New York City, he is the author of fourteen books of poetry. He holds a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Connecticut at Storrs.
Our interview took place in a cafe near the campus of Bard College, where Stein taught for many years, and where he lives nearby with his partner Megan Hastie, a guitarist, choral director, and research historian. His neighbors are the poet Robert Kelly, translator Charlotte Mandell, poet and multi-media artist George Quasha and his wife Susan Quasha, publishers of Station Hill Press in Barrytown, NY.
Although our four-hour conversation ranged far and wide over a dozen or more subjects, when it was over I regretted that as many important topics were left out as were included—his poetry and music practices most notably. To learn more about his activities see: charlessteinpoet.com
Raymond Foye (Rail): Who were your early influences in poetry? I know you were personally acquainted with Charles Olson and Robert Kelly from a fairly young age, and they had a big influence on you as a young poet. But previous to that you encountered the Beats. Did they have a crucial influence on you the way they did with so many young poets and artists of the 1950s?
Charles Stein: Oh, absolutely. I joined a jazz club in my high school and there was a guy there who had just bought a copy of Howl, and he said, “You’ve got to read this,” so I went down to the bookstore, and I read Howl on the bus coming back home. It completely ripped me open. I was weeping. It was unbelievable. Suddenly, I didn’t know where I was; I didn’t know what the world was. Everything had been opened up by that. Like many people, that text was the great lightning bolt that struck the tower. It wasn’t like it made vivid a reality that was otherwise un-vivid. Up to that point it wasn’t even there. What is he saying?
Rail: Your first writings were in the thrall of Howl?
Stein: Actually I was always writing, scribbling like mad even before I could read, but, yes, the first poems I showed people were after reading Howl. One was called “Anarchist in the Subway,” attempting to get into that kind of rant, to loosen the language, get it all flowing. Then a few months later I was reading people with a more measured form, and the actual initiation into the poetry world included Ferlinghetti, William Carlos Williams, and e.e. cummings. The first time I picked up on a kind of phrase-structure poetry was from Ferlinghetti. The first poems of mine that were impressing people were poems that were kind of weird.
Rail: Based on A Coney Island of the Mind and Pictures of the Gone World? Poems that were little stories, vignettes, with a gentleness…
Stein: Yeah, and turning things. As soon as my own mind began to grow, I was alert to absurdism. I was alert to transcendental things. I was alert to surrealism and dadaism and philosophy and, eventually, mathematics and poetry, of course—anything that gave you something that you didn’t understand, that opened your mind.
Rail: Did you get into Kerouac’s poetry?
Stein: Well, yes. I had that record of Kerouac reading, with Steve Allen playing the piano in between. That was literally the first poetry I ever knew. Of course we were given poetry to read in school, but Kerouac was in my ear—the first poetry I was interested in was probably what I heard. “The wheel of the quivering meat conception / turns in the void expelling human beings … I wish I was free / of that slaving meat wheel / and safe in heaven dead.”
Rail: Mexico City Blues was the Grove Press edition with Franz Kline on the cover, was it not?
Stein: I didn’t have the text. I just had the record.
Rail: Oh, interesting.
Stein: Then one became aware of Burroughs and Corso and everybody. I started going down to Greenwich Village and everybody would show up in Washington Square on Sunday afternoon, and it felt like that was freedom. Suddenly, just to be there was to have entered into a world of possibility. And after I heard Ornette Coleman in concert at Town Hall, I started making big signs all over my room in Arabic letters that said, “The world does not exist,” and “God save Ornette Coleman.” [Laughs.] It came from a Sunday morning teenage religious program, in which teenagers from all around the world were brought in to talk about their religions. And there was a boy from Burma talking about Buddhism and saying, “Well, you know, the world doesn’t exist.” That made a big impression.
Rail: So free jazz really gave you the form and energy that you were looking for at that point?
Stein: The truth is, what really got me into Ornette was just the immediate soulfulness of it. That it was so fucking direct. It wasn’t like Howl, which was ripping into you. Ornette ripped into you, but it ripped into you at the level of immediate affect. That wail—the “eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry“ at the end of Howl. There was that saxophone cry. And Albert Ayler, even more so in that regard.
Rail: Does Kerouac stay with you as an enduring influence?
Stein: Actually, it was only fairly recently that I got how much that prose is jazz prose. I mean On the Road and The Subterraneans, you could really read them as bebop prose. I can’t say it stayed with me, except the things that I got from it stayed with me, and what I got was with me right at the beginning. But he wasn’t somebody that I read a lot over the years.
Rail: Did you ever go back to Some of the Dharma, or Wake Up, or some of the texts about the Sutras? For me, those are some of the most insightful texts on Buddhism ever written.
Stein: Well, in that regard Gary Snyder was very important to me, his translations of Han Shan—Cold Mountain Poems—that appeared in The Evergreen Review. He was the one that introduced me to Buddhism as it could relate to poetry. I read Riprap and those early books, and I liked them well enough. They certainly had a particular thing they did, that I have used at times. But it was his presentation of Buddhism within the context of poetry that attracted me.
Rail: And you knew he was Japhy Ryder in The Dharma Bums.
Stein: Yeah, of course. All those connections were there. But I was looking for the reality of those experiences.
Rail: How did you come to meet Charles Olson?
Stein: When the Donald Allen anthology [The New American Poetry, 1945 – 1960] appeared it included Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” and it was very puzzling to me. I didn’t know what it meant or what the issues were at all. But in 1961 as a junior in high school I found my way with Jonathan Greene to Vincent Ferrini at his frame shop in Gloucester, Massachusetts — which is now the Gloucester Writers Center and has in some sense continued his legacy. Vincent said, “You got to go meet Charlie!” He told us how to get to 28 Fort Square, we knocked on Olson’s door, and he talked to us for seven or eight hours. I was just sixteen and that was my introduction.
Rail: Lets talk about “Projective Verse” for a minute, in terms of encapsulating what it’s about. He’s proposing a “field.” The field is the page, but all the formal rules are now thrown out and replaced by a sphere of action, dictated by consciousness itself, and perception. He’s following the lead of the Abstract Expressionists, in the sense that the poem is now going to be enacted on the page, and its “subject” is going to be its own creation. He’s also looking to eliminate metaphors and similes and all of these poetical devices—to get down to the thing itself, the most concrete thing.
Stein: “Projective Verse” is about form, but it’s about the question: “How does form arise? Where do you get it?” It doesn’t arise from a cultural standard imposed upon speech to which you assimilate yourself in order to write poetry. Giving form is a primary aspect of one’s existence in the world. One is a form-making organism that works on what it has available to it, which is its own perception, its own body, its own position in gravity, its own relationship to the landscape, and its own relationship to the concrete history of the condition that one finds oneself in—and that it is the “divine intelligence” that nonetheless manifests in that working. The intelligence to work with what one has and bring it to form. And that was a key to his use of Jung. I had spoken with Olson a bit about Jung.
Rail: You once said that when Olson succeeded at this and arrived at the most concrete thing, he found, paradoxically, that it was also the most abstract thing. Or to state the case in the terms of painting: a portrait of a person is not that person, but a red painting is red, so by eliminating all the formal contrivances, he arrives at some kind of bedrock of consciousness—which you call “concretism.”
Stein: I formulate it this way in my Olson book, The Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum (Station Hill Press, 1987), which is based on Olson’s reading of C. G. Jung. My book is really an attempt to articulate this idea of his concretism, that everything is created from a “stance.” “Stance” is his word in “Projective Verse,” to create a stance towards reality “nexal to the practice of verse” at that time. “Nexal” meaning “connected to,” a term borrowed from Alfred North Whitehead.
Rail: When I first encountered your Olson book, it struck me as odd that Olson would be so involved with Jung, because when you think of it, Robert Duncan seems to be more of a Jung person and Olson would seem to be more of Freud person, but it’s the exact opposite.
Stein: That’s absolutely right. Duncan almost had little use for Jung; and Olson—it wasn’t that he had no use for Freud, but he was impatient with psychology as the site where the social interfered with a direct relation to the material cosmos. In conversation he often interrupted when talk seemed to be going towards what he called “the social.” What my book actually demonstrates is what I think of as Olson’s heresy to Jungian orthodoxy: that the archetypes are the organs, that the unconscious is the interior of the body. How the heart affects one’s consciousness is already archetypal relationship. Your affect, your relationship to your own bodily rhythms and your own energy, was already connected to a general archetypal situation through one’s being a member of the species.
Rail: But within the Jungian construct that was heresy.
Stein: What Jung calls “concretism” is pathological. Faced with a concrete object (here Jung adopts Lévy-Bruhl’s “participation mystique”) the “primitive” or the psychotic allows libidinal energy to flow without limit into it, charging it with life and dread. Such a psyche has failed to develop the power to symbolize meaning and thus channel energy away from the concrete presence of the object. This is part of Jung’s progressive history of consciousness. But Olson says the poet whose mind “knows order”—read “has the power to originate form” —is for participation mystique. Disciplined attention to the object finds its qualities in its finitude and this binds the energy. So instead of needing the symbolism in order to put a limit on the projection of the libidinal energy, the attention—the exact attention—to the concrete situation would provide a boundary. But it would be a boundary that would not be sublimated. It would be an actual energetic charge that could be transmitted to the work that was being done in order to realize that form.
Rail: And that’s the Black Mountain aesthetic that you find in Rauschenberg, you find in Cage, you find in Twombly. It’s a hugely exciting moment in consciousness, isn’t it?
Stein: I think that it stands. There was something happening at Black Mountain in the 1950s that is fundamental to the landscape we inhabit today, and you can feel it—in Rauschenberg, in Twombly, in Franz Kline, in Olson, in John Cage, in early Merce Cunningham, M. C. Richards, all those people. They all had this relationship to the concreteness of the situation of making their art. And it manifested in the different modes, of course, as the different arts do, when you’re dealing with the medium not in the abstract sense that later “medium artists” do, where you define a medium by its specific material properties, but in the concrete sense of that which you actually confront in working with paint, or working with sound, or working with, as with Olson, the syllable and the breath, the somatic condition of speech—somatic not in the abstract idea of the body, but the body in relationship to the physical place that it’s in.
Rail: It seems Whitehead plays a crucial part in defining this shift in consciousness.
Stein: Olson said, on a piece of paper that I used from his notes to actually create the structure of my Olson-Jung book, “I have to take Jung for psychology—a greater projection on the archetypal force of the person, language, and place.” He uses that as a schema for the organization of the later Maximus poems beyond those letters, but it becomes more cosmological and spreads out in its historical reference. Then he says, “I have to take Whitehead for the metaphysics,” and my idea was that I was going to study Whitehead and do Olson’s metaphysics. In the process of doing that, Don Byrd told me that there actually is a copy of Process and Reality in the Storrs library that is deeply and heavily annotated by Olson, but I could never find it. I did dissertation work on him after he died and his papers went to the University of Connecticut at Storrs. I spent a good seven or eight years trying to figure out what Olson was for me, and it came from the fact that this thing had happened to me that I couldn’t explain.
Rail: You also were trying to decipher what he had written down on the page …
Stein: Completely, that was the point—using the actual literary study to come to a sense of it, because although I was enormously impressed and it was incredible being around him, I didn’t understand it. His poems came to me very slowly. There would be one poem or one line here and there. But at first it sounded like protest poetry of some sort, the early MaximusPoems.
Rail: So maybe you got into Archaeologist of Morning first, or “The Kingfishers” or some of the earlier poems?
Stein: No, no, I can actually go through the sequence of it. It was lines towards the end of the first volume of Maximus, which are letters addressed to the people of Gloucester, where he says, “Men are so sure they know very many things / they don’t even know night and day are one. / A fisherman lives without reference to / that difference …” And then, “‘You rectify what can be rectified,’ and when a man’s heart / cannot see this, the door of his divine intelligence is shut.”
After finishing my Olson work, I got interested in other philosophy besides Whitehead. I had studied Whitehead quite thoroughly while working on Olson, but I was never satisfied that I could patch the metaphysics onto the work. Nor could I settle in Olson’s concretism for my own practice and my own work, though it surely plays a huge part in it. I still think the ontology implicit in Olson’s “stance” does stand as a resistant to the present, ongoing—what I call “contemporary default” ontology: that only “information” is real. Olson wasn’t looking at me to extract my information. He wanted to see what was really there! That’s been my pitch in recent years. If I have a single political thing, it’s an attack on this notion, this default ontology that is sucking everything into it, which is not information technology as such, but the belief that only information is real. And as strong a stance as one could imagine against that would be that which Olson actually embodies.
Rail: By “information,” what does that mean? Things that can be measured and quantified?
Stein: Well, it’s the way in which anything can be turned into something that can be measured and quantified, and which gives a pseudo-resolution between subjectivity and objectivity, because if you can render the qualitative character of consciousness precisely, you can turn it into information. And if you can measurethe external reality you can turn it into information. So when you think about information as that which takes qualities and turns them into quantities and makes them capable of representation, then information is also the generalization of the process of representation.
Rail: That is something that science needs to struggle with as well as art.
Stein: Science is that! I don’t want to go too far on science, but I’ve written pieces about it.
Rail: I used to always be amazed hanging out with Robert Creeley how every single day it was Olson, Olson, Olson, always going back to Olson. It was the basis of everything for him, how enduring it was. Curiously none of Olson’s students wrote remotely like him.
Stein: That’s precisely my point about Black Mountain College: it is not a style, it’s about specificity and potentiality. If you work your own material until it yields to form, that form is not going to be something necessarily in common with those evolved by others working their own material.
Rail: One of the things I love about Olson is he leads you back to all the vital primary sources. Is that what lead you to Ancient Greek studies at Columbia University?
Stein: Olson told me to study something I couldn’t study on my own—notliterature. So I did Greek. What I was reading after I finished working with Olson was Martin Heidegger. His books started coming out one after the other in translation in the 1970s. Heidegger points to the poem of Parmenides, the first text to start talking about Being—and how there is something still unthought in Parmenides.
Rail: Parmenides is so beautifully confounding, like the Tao.
Stein: I had always been interested in Parmenides. When I was studying Greek at Columbia he was included in a Greek poetry course, and everybody was saying: “This is insane, nobody can make any sense of this.” But I thought: “I’m really interested in this!” So a seed had been planted. Some years later, I started translating it. Then in the early ‘80s I became aware that although I had been thinking about abstraction, particularly in relationship to painting—since when I first went into the MoMA when I was maybe fifteen years old and sat for an hour in front of the big Jackson Pollock and was exposed to all that—I couldn’t really tell you what abstraction was and that made me realize I really needed to learn something about mathematics.
So I sent a call out into the aether: “Find me a mathematician, please.” And my wife at the time, Michelle Rhodes, saw a sign for a poetry reading by two or three mathematicians, and Catherine Christer Hennix appeared there. I met her and we slowly became friends and I began studying her version of the philosophy of mathematics, which had its own rhymes with the concretism I had already imbibed. It was based on the actual character of a concrete intuition of mathematics.
Hennix in the late ‘80s gave a series of seminars in Rhinebeck that she called the “Rhinebeck Seminars on Pre-Socratic Set Theory,” and it was basically a presentation of her view of her teacher, a mathematician named [Alexander Sergeyevich] Esenin-Volpin. I attended them all and got initiated into this world. But one of the things that happened in the course of that was that Christer got interested in my partial translation of Parmenides. And so I finished it. My idea was that, among other things, the text is a real poem. It’s always treated as if it’s bad poetry but important philosophy, and so when you try to read Parmenides, it doesn’t read very well, because no one had tried to render it poetically legible. It just reads like somebody is saying impossible things. So I decided I was going to try to render a literary version of it, which I did. I made a poem of it, a fairly accurate translation. Eventually I will have to do an annotated version, my view of what Parmenides really is.
Rail: Is that translation in your Persephone book? [Persephone Unveiled: Seeing the Goddess and Freeing Your Soul, North Atlantic Books, 2006]
Stein: It’s in that book, it’s in the book that I edited of Hennix’s work (Io #41: Being = Space x Action, North Atlantic Books, 1988) that La Monte Young blurbed. Hennix I should add is also an important composer and sound artist who did pioneering work in drone and trance and is still performing.
Rail: You once said to me something I’ve never forgotten: “Being is the only word that is not one word too many.”
Stein: Well, that’s my formulation: Being may be one word too many, but it’s the only word about which you can say that it’s only one word too many. You can’t do without it. In poststructuralist thought, from Derrida on, when they write “Being,” they’ll put a cross over it. And there’s this French phrase, “sous rature,” under erasure, meaning you don’t actually accept it as a concept but you have to use it anyway. I have an alternative to that where I write Being with little arrows—↑BE↑ING↑—so that Being always has the possibility of meaning more than what you say it means. In Heidegger, all metaphysics appears as various renderings of Being in terms of Presence—and, with the “deconstruction of presence” in postmodern thought (Foucault, Lacan, Derrida)—you have modes of being that cannot be brought to presence; in other words further layers to the question of Being come to light.
Rail: What would be the Tibetan word, or the Sanskrit word, that is the equivalent of this?
Stein: In each different school you’ll have different words. In general Vajrayāna Buddhism the word “Dharmakāya” would be like that. It’s character is to have no character: emptiness. Anyway, I flashed while I was reading this: what if I take not Heideggerian Being, but Parmenidean Being, in that position? I would have the link between the very origins of Western thought and the Buddhist practice of contemplation. I then evolved a thought experiment (this was in 1991), which I’m still involved with to this day. To take what Parmenides says as the Buddhist Enlightenment and to use it as the lens to look at the whole tradition of Western metaphysics, from Parmenides to Heidegger and Derrida and beyond—which Heidegger himself says is not only the history of ontology, but the history of Being itself—and examine all the ways in which sentient beings configure being for themselves. The knotty difficulty with Heidegger is that his historicization of the question of ontology becomes a dogma about history—that history is the history of Being, and furthermore, that he knows what it is. I’m not at all working such a claim. Rather I’m taking seriously Parmenides’s assertion that only Being is, and that everything that appears—appears precisely to BE—that is my configurative starting point. The Platonic understanding of Parmenides as being about “the One” is not in Parmenides. Parmenides does say, “It’s one,” but what he means by that is, “it’s not many and it’s not nothing.” He doesn’t mean it’s “the One” as a summit of a hierarchy. So my idea was that if you take Being from what I claim is the Parmenidean point of view, which is very much not the Platonic point of view, suddenly the entire text is intended to ward off what becomes philosophy.
Rail: It’s the philosophical road not taken. Or rather, it’s the end of the road. It’s almost as if he kills off philosophy in the cradle.
Stein: Exactly, Parmenides is saying: You can’t go further than this. Each previous philosopher in the Hellenic world—Pythagoras, Anaximenes, Thales, Heraclitus—each one takes a metonymical image, a piece of reality, and projects it over all of reality, and then tries to understand everything. Metonymy is a poetic trope meaning you take the part and treat it as the whole. So here is my history of Western Philosophy: You can see that all the early Greek philosophers—Pythagoras, Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, up to Parmenides—each one of them is getting beyond making mere analogies but is still taking some part of reality and treating the whole of reality under the aegis of that part. So you have one guy who thinks everything is made of earth, and you get a cosmology that’s based on the idea of solidity. Another one, everything is made of water, so you get a cosmology that’s based on the idea of flow. Or everything is fire, so you get everything as burning up and being very impermanent or energetic. With Pythagoras everything is made of mathematical proportions. With Heraclitus you have this idea that there’s something called logos, the word: everything could be understood through language. Each one is a metonymy. Parmenides is the first thinker who doesn’t do that. He just says, “Being.” Full stop. And suddenly you’ve reached a point of abstraction in which you’re no longer making a metonym. It’s no longer a part for the whole. Being isn’t a part of Being. You’ve suddenly got it. There’s nowhere else to go.
Rail: Does this connect with Olson’s dispensing with metaphor, or is that something we shouldn’t get into right now? When you quoted Olson saying “night and day are one”—I thought of Thales, who answered the question, “Which is older, day or night?” by saying “Night is the older by one day.” It’s interesting how in philosophy we don’t seem to have gotten any further than the pre-Socratics, no matter how advanced the thought. Conceptually, everything keeps circling back to them.
Stein: Actually, Olson is quoting Heraclitus directly in those lines. I wrote a text many years ago that I still hold by, in which I say what Parmenides was saying, “This is as far as you go.” But that seemed too austere, and so two generations later Socrates and Plato are saying, “Well, what is this Being?” And they come up with an answer, and the answer is, “It’s the world of forms,” and so you now have Being, comprising eternal forms, and Becoming— things merely on the way to being what they are. But really, what Parmenides says, according to me, is the only thing you can say about Being is that it is itself: Being is Being, and everything else is merely appearing to be. And the nature of the relationship between appearance and Being is that the very structure of appearance involves Being in the sense that every appearance appears to be. Therefore, in every appearance, there is a link to Being, but it’s a link which only can only be accessed by a release from the idea that the appearance is as it appears to be. Still, Being does “appear” beyond appearance, because though Being itself does not have an appearance, it always is “there” in whatever appears.
Rail: Which of course has profound implications for contemporary painting, doesn’t it?
Stein: Well, what I’ve been doing for the last twenty-seven years now has been running it through in relationship to music, in relationship to painting, in relationship to poetry, in relationship to every philosopher that I become aware of, because what Heidegger traces in his history of Being is the way in which each philosophical movement opens the question of Being and then, by answering it, shuts it off. Its answer is whatever the first principle is going to be in the philosophy, whether it’s experience, or whether it’s reason, or whether it’s the forms, or whether it’s economics, or space/time/matter/energy/information. Each of these ontologies is asking the question about Being, but then covering it over by answering it. The key to the connection to Buddhism for me is that Buddhism rejects ontologies. It stays in the question. It doesn’t answer it. It allows the mind to rest in its nature as in an open condition. And in my view that is just what one must do to realize Parmenidean Being.
Rail: Buddhism denies that any of these ontologies even exist.
Stein: It says that the struggle of the mind—its desire to put together a thinking that would be adequate to reality—is impossible, because the only thing that’s adequate to reality is reality itself, and that’s formless. Being itself has no form, but being generates form. In the Dzogchen language, it’s said that the ultimate principal has an essence and a nature, and its essence is that it’s formless, and its nature is that it takes form. And that formulation in the Dzogchen tradition in Tibetan Buddhism I lay exactly next to a formulation that I translated in Parmenides, “Everything that seems must seem to be.” Yet, Being itself doesn’t seem. There is a contrast between Being and appearance, but it’s not an opposition—it’s a unique kind of dyad. It’s a dyad that in Pythagorean terms is called the “indefinite dyad.” That is to say it’s neither one nor two. If you say it’s two, it immediately becomes one; if you say it’s one, it immediately splits into two. Maybe that’s enough that we need to say about Parmenides here.
Rail: I think of Olson’s book Human Universe and Other Essays, which I read as a metaphor of the universe as a body with organs.
Stein: That’s how you hear that phrase?
Rail: Yes, it is.
Stein: There is, in his work, for sure, a kind of macanthropos, a giant man that is the archetypal Maximus, but Olson calls it the Bulgar, which is mythologized very physically as this kind of giant that’s straddling the Atlantic and the continent, with one foot in the Atlantic and one foot on the westward drifting continent. I always took the title in a much smaller sense, in that there is this universe that the physicists describe, then there is the human universe, which is the world of the exact human experience.
Rail: One thing when you were talking about Whitehead and Olson and not really understanding Whitehead at the time … I remember Robert Motherwell once saying to me that all his life was an attempt to play out and establish the importance of Whitehead’s thought to him at Harvard, and he felt he was never successful at somehow getting that through in his work—that it was an absolutely fundamental inspiration that kind of haunted him in his work.
Stein: It’s a very, very useful way of thinking about the relationship between coming to form and the cosmos and natural world. It certainly does an incredibly interesting job on that. My term that I use now for recovering the worlds of metaphysics and philosophy is the idea of “configuration”—neither figurative nor non-figurative, where, understanding all the problems with representation and figuration, one nonetheless also understands the positive value of coming to a figure and of calling that “configurative.” And there would be an ethics of configurative thought, which is that you always recognize it as configurative; you try to state the motives for looking at things in this way, and you acknowledge the differend. That is to say, you acknowledge that other forms of thought would be distorted if you try to represent it from this point of view. So there can never be only one configuration, or one metaphysics, or one ontology, and so I’m calling that after a theologian philosopher, David Leahy, a poly-ontology, and I’ve linked that with Peter Lamborn Wilson’s “ontological anarchism.” In fact my conversations with Peter are to a large extent my trying (to the extent that I can) to provide a philosophical basis for what his whole work really is saying. So poly-ontology in relationship to Parmenides no-ontology, Buddhist no-ontology, and Peter Wilson’s ontological anarchism—that’s a kind of complex quaternium, as it were.
Rail: You have this abiding interest in various systems, philosophical, mathematical, but also with alchemy and the tarot. How did you come upon these disciplines? Did you relate to hermeticism as another “abstract” framework? What did it mean to you as a poet?
Stein: As a teenager I had gotten interested in Yeats, and was reading John Unterecker’s A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats, and Richard Ellmann’s Yeats: The Man and the Masks, so I was beginning to get familiar with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but none of the ‘legitimate’ Yeats scholars were quite talking about the tarot. Then one day on a remainder table in a bookstore somewhere was MacGregor Mathers’s little book about the tarot. It looked fascinating and I thought, “I’ve never heard of this. Nobody I know knows anything about this. I’ll study this!” Because back then one of the keys to knowing, to being able to come in from left field, was that that you had to know things that nobody knew anything about. This will relate to Harry Smith, actually.
Rail: It already does [laughs].
Stein: So I bought that book, and immediately the tarot started appearing to me in various different places. Eventually I read A. E. Waite’s book on the tarot. Also a book by Gerard Encausse, whose esoteric pseudonym was Papus, a leader of one of these late nineteenth century occultist cults. He had a very complex symbolic system that not only included planets, Egyptian symbols, Hebrew letters, Renaissance emblems, but also an esoteric numerological system that went back to Pythagoras and further. There were two stores that I knew of at that time in New York where books of this sort were sold, one was Samuel Weiser’s, the other was a little store on 55th Street called Inspiration House. The woman who ran Inspiration House was Eden Gray, and she had a little “how to read the tarot cards” book that was sort of based on Waite, and used Pamela Coleman Smith’s Rider-Waite deck. She was giving a course in how to read tarot cards every Thursday night in the spring of my senior year in high school. Through her I joined an order that descended from The Golden Dawn, called Builders of the Adytum. I also made contact through the phone book with the Yoga Society of Rammurti Mishra, who founded Ananda Ashram that’s still going in Monroe, New York. So my freshman year in college I was going to both of these organizations, studying yoga and the tarot.
Rail: I think a lot of people lose sight of the fact that the tarot, like yoga, is a practice.
Stein: Well, the way they taught the tarot was they gave you outlined versions of the various cards, and the first thing you did was paint them according to the color symbolism that they taught. And you studied week by week in great detail the entire outline of their occult system by reading the texts they gave you and painting in the tarot cards, visualizing them, meditating on them, and connecting oneself to them. And the interesting thing about it was there were all these kinds of doctrinal proclamations and descriptions of the symbolic relationships between the different elements, which involved a whole picture of astrology, the tree of life system of the Kabbalah, the sephiroth and the paths, an incorporation of all kinds of different mythological material, geomancy, alchemical symbolism.… In other words, it was the whole of the great Golden Dawn syncretic occult esoteric system. And you learned it by keeping a journal, in which as you meditated on what they said, and painted in the pictures, and you wrote what you thought. So I started a Tarot Journal, which was my own development and my own ideas, only within the scaffolding of that system. And I learned that this is the essence of the Hermetic tradition. It has a fundamental structure, but the actual transmission takes place through your own participation and elaboration of it. So in the Golden Dawn system, and as Crowley presents it, at a certain level you have to reconfigure the whole system for yourself. You pass through a certain grade.
Rail: Recently you and I worked on an edition of Harry Smith’s Lectures on Native American Cosmology, which will be coming out soon. Harry was one of the great occultists of our time. What did you learn about him in terms of his practical application of hermetic knowledge?
Stein: With Harry Smith, I came to see how all of his “collections” were like the different systems which were integrated into the one system, because what these systems—the Kabbalistic system, the alchemical system, the astrological system, the numerological system—did was give you a kind of catalogue structure; as you had experiences, you connected them to the different positions within the structure. And the beauty of the construct was the multiplicity of the systems. Of course within traditional hermeticism, all of that is arranged very schematically, so if you get a book like Aleister Crowley’s 777, it’s an entire way of setting the correspondences between all of the different systems that he’s integrating. It includes the I Ching, it includes Sufi terms, it includes Kabbalistic terms and so forth, all arranged like a table. What I think Harry was doing was for each of his collections, is they were organized in his mind like one of these systems because he already knew anthropology, and he knew what Levi Strauss said about totemic systems—that they functioned just like medieval category systems. And so, if you had Seminole blankets, or Easter eggs, or paper airplanes, or string figures, you could think of them in themselves as a particular configuration of the cosmos and gather experiences and material around them, and then you could allow them to interact in your mind, so your mind would be formed by the interactions, not now of the traditional systems, but by making up one’s own system by the multiple integration of these different collections. And that’s why for Harry the actual keeping of the collections was not crucial, he could let go of them once he had internalized the structure.
Rail: In this respect his film Film #18Mahagonny is really the masterwork. You’ve just described that film perfectly. It’s a symbolic study of ritual correspondences in daily life by an occult-structuralist-anthropologist. Seeing that film four times in two weeks when Harry first screened it at Anthology Film Archives fundamentally changed my sense of what was “real.”
Stein: And that Black Book of Harry’s that you showed me that you own—you know those notebooks—that’s what seems to be in there. They seems to be largely schemas for connecting the number system to various kinds of events. That’s the impression one got of Harry, that everybody talks about, you’d be walking on the street and suddenly he’s got seventeen different sets of associations for any given thing. How could he possibly think of any of those things? Well that was it! It’s all Sherlock Holmes. The correspondence system is like Holmes’s cigarette butts or bicycle treads, where he knew 150 different ashes from different kinds of brands of cigarettes and cigars, and forty-three different bicycle treads that he could always identify. And to a certain extent, the forensic sciences are an elaboration of these things, except of course for Harry it was an ontological, cosmological, configurative invention of the mind.
Rail: Oftentimes I’d be sitting with Harry, and he’d be looking at something completely ordinary but with such penetration … just a table with some cups and maybe a lamp off to the side, and I’d think to myself, “What the hell are you looking at?” It was clear he was getting stations the rest of us were not tuned in to. And he was seeing some deep pattern, some cosmic structure, behind appearances.
Stein: This is my theory: that his own cognitive grid had been elaborated with such ingenuity and singularity. Systems of magic are essentially syncretic scaffolds, gathering images, concepts, practices, and various other materials from heterogeneous disciplines and ontic realms. Like mathematics, they offer a scene for recombinant performances, allowing unheard of connections and insights to emerge both within themselves and within the daily life of persons whose consciousness is informed by them. The magus is thus a polymath by calling and by the nature of his practice. Harry Smith’s work—and those lectures are themselves an aspect of that work—show evidence that Harry toiled through and from, explicitly or implicitly, such a system.
Rail: And isn’t that where his love of Thelonious Monk fits in as well?
Stein: Well of course, of course.
Rail: Like when you take psychedelics and suddenly you unloosen all of the habituated patterns of perception and thought and entirely new fundamental structures emerge.
Stein: It just accesses all of those possible cognitive fields. If you consider existence on the scale of a chemical experiment, neuro-chemistry, or chemistry quite generally, then consciousness itself appears to be the supertext of chemical processes. The contents and qualities of consciousness thus seem to be functions of molecular possibilities. In a recent text on Gary Hill I ask, what if an artist were to declare an acid trip a found “performance,” or a readymade? In this context I reference the strange room in Harry Smith’s Film #12Heaven and Earth Magic Feature, in which alchemical and other transmogrifications of objects, persons, minds, and worlds are allowed their re-enfranchisements.
Rail: You traveled in many of the same circles as Harry in New York in the 1950s but you never met him?
Stein: I only met him once, in the 1960s, at Ed Sanders’ Peace Eye Bookstore in the East Village. I think it was a meeting of the Society for the Legalization of Marijuana in the back of the store. I knew Harry’s film work but had never met the man. He was interested that I was publishing Crowley and that I was planning a trip to Europe the following summer. Harry directed me to the British Museum where I might examine the original manuscripts of John Dee, which in fact I did. My friend Gerrit Lansing knew Harry from those occult circles in New York in the ’50s. In fact he has a poem about Harry, back then, called “The Dark Grammarian.”
Rail: Was Robert Kelly a part of these same groups?
Stein: I only knew Robert casually, but when I joined Builders of the Adytum, he got interested in me, because he was already very involved in thinking about these matters. The last thing he wanted to do was to join a group, but he wanted to know. He was always picking my brain for what I was experiencing, so I would come up every week for several years and be a guest in Robert’s house, and we would talk about all of these different matters. He was an enormous source of education for me both in the poetry universe and in the esoteric religions and magic and all of that. I was interested in him because it seemed that what he was doing was something like what I described with Harry, except instead of it being systematic things, it was like everything that happened would be an object for contemplation as if it were part of an occult symbolic system.
Rail: Well I read him that way.
Stein: That’s how he wrote, that’s what he did. He’d notice everything so that the principle of poetic attention and noticing at any given moment becomes a kind of revelation.
Rail: For me reading Robert Kelly is like consulting the I Ching. Whatever the question you have that day, you go to him and you get an answer.
Stein: But his I Ching was the birds outside or the leaves on the tree.
Rail: Robert Kelly was really kind of a wise man for you.
Stein: Yeah. Oh, very much. There was a level in which his proposition of how to perceive aesthetically and spiritually that for a long time was a measure for all the other kinds of teachers.
Rail: Did your writings about and conversations with Philip Taaffe (“In Conversation: Philip Taaffe with Charles Stein,” The Brooklyn Rail, December 2014) shed light on your own work in some ways?
Stein: Exactly. Phillip’s influence had to do with being around an artist who spent a great deal of time looking at what he had done and waiting for the work to tell him what the next move was. It’s the importance of that mulling time. Plus, the love of organization and pattern, the rigor of the organization of his materials was so instructive and useful. A general means for me in terms of my own mind is that on the one hand, I’m sort of evolving this pseudo-philosophy, as if I were going to write a philosophical treatise about all of this —I don’t know if I am or am not. Another is simply the generation of ideas about different things, and how to be able to do so without being caught by one’s own ideas, that is the great struggle. In a talk I once gave about Robert Kelly at Anthology Film Archive years ago, I quoted William Blake’s saying that “I must create a system or be enslav’d by another man’s.” And Kelly’s comment on that: “I would not be trapped by another man’s system, I would not be trapped by my own system.” There were wonderful maxims in those years when I knew Robert. “The sage in his wisdom loves waiting for the right moment.” And another one was: “Stick to what you know exactly; make use.”
Rail: When you mentioned Yeats, what about A Vision? What is it that turns everybody off about A Vision, and yet it’s so great?
Stein: Well it’s a system, or contains one, and people who don’t have an itch for a system, don’t have the patience to discover the complexity and subtlety with which Yeats wields one. Harry says towards the end of his last lecture that he does not think he can get everyone “interested” in this welter of material, but that “the ones who get interested in it are the ones who are already interested in it.” The package beckons to its own, and excludes from initiation the ones who are not in fact or destined to be its initiates. To a certain extent I had always a somewhat dissonant relationship with everybody I knew, because I took mysticism seriously in a way that when the poets dealt with it, it somewhat offended me. On the one hand it made me able to connect with them, on the other hand, the treatment of it in a kind of performance, “make-art-out-of-it,” as if the poetry were the main thing as opposed to the seriousness of one’s engagement with the practice—that was always a problem for me.
Rail: In 2016 I included a selection of your drawings in a group show that included Harry Smith and others (Dark Star: Abstraction and Cosmos, Planthouse Gallery, NY). And this year you published a book of your drawings (Twelve Drawings, Station Hill Press, 2018). Can you tell me a little bit about this side of your work?
Stein: The Planthouse show was the first art opening I’ve ever experienced and it just wasn’t pleasant. It’s only neurosis on my part, but they weren’t happy there. I wanted them down from the wall. They belonged in a book. I’m not remiss talking about them, but to some extent I have not gotten to the point where I can really write about them, so I don’t have a fixed set of things that I say. I haven’t had any formal art training. I’ve been around artists all my life and have been very involved in the question of what is the nature of abstraction, the relationship between abstraction and visual arts, abstraction and music, abstraction and mathematics, abstraction and thought in general. And more profoundly, perhaps, abstraction in relation to contemplative practices.
There’s a huge amount in these drawings that is structured in advance, almost as much as there would be if you were doing some kind of actual realistic composition. There’s never any erasure. There’s no possibility for correction, but there’s endless possibilities for course-changing, opportunities for a pattern to emerge within the grid. There’s a kind of coincidence of opposites going on within them. For instance, there are several of them that articulate the whole question of the relationship between a replete space, a space that’s filled with all its possibilities, and an empty space in which those possibilities are purely latent. They are an attempt to re-engage a kind of imagination in which some of these things are at play. It all comes under the umbrella of what I call “emergent pictorialism” that I developed in my book about Terry Winters (Placing Space, Picturing Time: Time, Space and Emergent Pictoriality in Some Recent Paintings by Terry Winters, Autonomedia, 2016). A summation here would be too lengthy, but those are all concepts that I also discovered personally in my own work, living inside those spaces of interference and displacement, the flattened representation of a four-dimensional thing. In a certain way the drawings are metanyms for infinite space, infinite dimensionality—it’s a kind of poem. In fact, I resisted very strongly the idea I had many years ago of simply calling them poems.
Rail: There is a very similar energy in these drawings as I get from a Tibetan thangka painting. Almost like the object itself doesn’t matter very much because, ultimately, it’s pointing to the direction of Being.
Stein: Yes, thangka paintings are exactly what I’m aiming at. They have this complex use of spatial symmetry and balance and colors and relationship of detail and so forth, with the expressed intent to exhaust consciousness. To actually fill it, so that there’s nothing in all of those different functions that I mentioned, that isn’t absorbed and given its place. And the point is not the place. It’s not like one studies a Tibetan thangka in order to convince oneself that this is the way the world is. It isn’t an instruction in that sense: here is a picture of the world that you will now accept—quite the contrary. It’s how it exhausts the entirety of your cognitive field and brings you to a place in which the very nature of your own awareness that allowed itself to become so enormously engaged can suddenly wake up to itself and discover itself on its own ground. Its nature is the condition of potentiality for all of this complexity, for all of this manifestation, for all of these endlessly cooperating and competing and annihilating so-called realities, until the great enigma is the relationship between utter simplicity and infinite complexity. That’s the impulse, at least for me, and the pay off is that the drawings, by having so much layered time and being concentrated in them, so much actual time while being present in each moment making them … ultimately all of the endless divagations of desire in relationship to all of these issues metonomize on a piece of paper.
Rail: One’s first impression of the drawings, as a viewer, is of a highly charged optical field, but one slowly emerges into a much more conceptual space.
CS: It’s very interesting, because the eye does two things at the retinal level. It recognizes color and it recognizes edges. But what is happening in these drawings is that the vibratory character of the black and white is set into some kind of resonance with the color world, but is doing it through the edges, so the cortex has got a lot of work to do, because it’s getting the two different kinds of signals mixed. I would say there are four levels, almost like the four famous medieval levels of interpretation: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. The first level is retinal, the immediate presence of something that is working instant by instant on the level of sensation, and with this one particularly they start to buzz. They start doing what optical art does. But it hardly remains at that level, so the second level is what we would normally think of as perception, because what the cortical level does is try to take all the data and resolve it ontologically, to tell you what it is you’re seeing. But it doesn’t do that verbally, it does it on a non-thematic pre-verbal level, of organizing what it’s received and discerning—call it reflective thinking, all the aspects of that. Then there’s a conceptual level in which you spontaneously become engaged with what you’ve just experienced at the retinal and at the cortical level. And finally there is the anagogic: the highest level, the last stage, something like integral-ineffable, moving towards the fantasy, an induction of a higher state of intuition. I’m working that part out by staying with the drawing for forty, fifty hours, however long it takes, and it’s drawing me on and leading me to something. What is it leading me to? It’s leading me to that thing that my being wants to see, wants to resonate with its own highest state, its own capacity to intuit continuous being in its own way, and this permeates the sensation, perception, cognition, conceptualization. So that that would be the idea: it would be a kind of induction, a giving rise to something, but particularly a self-induction, and I’m doing this as part of my practice, in the same way if you meditate every day, you go back and forth between lots of different experiences, and then you release yourself from those experiences and awaken at another level where the different kinds of experiences become signals that you’ve gotten to a certain place, but there is still the obstacle of desire. Now the desire is something that you have to work with. You don’t just suppress it or be pitted against yourself just because you have these desires, because the desires are the things that are drawing you into the practice in the first place. You’re trying to receive what you already have, something that is already there. I’m describing a vector, a kind of direction, and that’s exactly what’s happening in the work. I find this identically with the poetry too: you’re trying to write what you want to know. It’s not like you know what you know, and you’re just trying to operate to find the right technique in order to express something that you’ve already got. You’re trying to actually induce a higher state of being, whether it’s at the level of a visual work or at the level of poetry, or of music, so that there’s a real process going on, of bringing something into concrete existence from a conceptual awareness. This is my whole picture about the question of art in our impossible times, in which the actual context for art-making is undergoing such a wild transmogrification. Nobody has any idea what that’s going to be in five minutes from now. Nonetheless, there’s something in this activity that we’ve all been engaged in most of our lives, and coming from a huge wave of the past, that is not only the monstrosity that it’s turned itself into, but is full of positive things too. And in the middle of all of this, there is this possible role for actual serious artistic work. It’s the best thing we have, still.