AN Whitehead and Louis Zukofsky on the Meaning of "A"
The point to be emphasized is the insistent particularity of things experienced and of the act of experiencing.
AN Whitehead, Process and Reality
It would be very difficult for me to name my favorite Jewish poets, but one is Louis Zukofsky, a pioneer in experimental writing with a special eye for the particularities of life and history. He reminds me of what Whitehead called the 'insistent particularity' of the world and our experience of it, which can never be reduced to abstract principles or generalities. This particularity, this "singularity" as Whitehead speaks of it, is what lies behind the notion of the indefinite article: 'a' and 'an.' We are speaking of 'a' thing or 'an' actual entity. Of 'a' person in our experiential field and 'a' feeling of pleasure, or disgust, or affection, in experiencing that person. These are insistent particulars. Not only the things in the world but our experience of them.
Both Zukofsky and Whitehead offer what might be called a spirituality of 'A.' That is, a spirituality that keeps its eye on the things themselves, in their spontaneous self-creativity, without reducing all things to a 'system.' This page shows some of the connections between the two. One of Zukofsky's best-known poems, itself a series of poems that took a lifetime for him to write, was called 'A.'
- Jay McDaniel
Whitehead on Singularity
Singularity and Disjunctive Diversity
The term ‘one’ does not stand for ‘the integral number one,’ which is a complex special notion. It stands for the general idea underlying alike the indefinite article ‘a' or 'an,’ and the definite article ‘the,’ and the demonstratives ‘this or that,’ and the relatives ‘which or what or how.’ It stands for the singularity of an entity. The term ‘many’ presupposes the term ‘one,‘ and the term ‘one’ presupposes the term ‘many.’ The term ‘many’ conveys the notion of ‘disjunctive diversity’; this notion is an essential element in the concept of ‘being.’ There are many ‘beings’ in disjunctive diversity.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality (Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Edinburgh During the Session 1927-28) (p. 21). Free Press. Kindle Edition.
Zukofsky on "A"
“A” is a long poem written by Louis Zukofsky, an American poet and literary critic. The poem was started in 1927 and was expanded to twenty-four sections, mirroring the hours of the day. It took Zukofsky almost forty-six years to complete the poem, which is divided into movements that differ widely in length, from the single page of “A”-16 to the 242 pages of “A”-24 1. The poem weaves together politics and family, traditional forms, and free verse, and features Zukofsky’s own father as a major theme. The poem is filled with daily love, light, intellect, and music, and is considered one of the most important works of modernist poetry by an American.
"The Sheer Heterogeneity of Materials is the Point"
Zukofsky (1904–1978) was a New York Jewish poet, responsive to the cacophonous voice of the cosmopolitan city and the Kaballistic emphasis on the magically transforming power of language. Determined to find a place for himself in the world beyond the ghetto, his route out was poetry.
The short poems that Zukofsky wrote in the 1920s and 1930s, ultimately gathered in the opening two sections of All, bring together in various complex ways three currents: a Pound-like faith that truth can be achieved through a poetry which stays with the movement of “the particulars”; a neo-formalist concern with the poem as a shaped object; and a Marxist concern with social oppression and class struggle.
Generally, the poems in All seek the condition of song, a distilled lyric quintessence. In “A,” Zukofsky allows himself a much looser method. Like Pound’s Cantos, “A” is a ragbag: in theory anything can go in, and the sheer heterogeneity of the materials is itself the point.
A Theology of Particularity Singularity and Diversity in God
Whitehead speaks of the insistent particularity of things. In discussing what he calls the "ontological principle," he writes,
"The point to be emphasized is the insistent particularity of things experienced and of the act of experiencing. Bradley's doctrine—Wolf-eating-Lamb as a universal qualifying the absolute—is a travesty of the evidence. That wolf eats that lamb at that spot at that time: the wolf knew it; the lamb knew it; and the carrion birds knew it."
This insistent particularity does not derive from more abstract principles. We do not have a system of ideas from which insistent particularity logically follows. The particularity emerges from contingent decisions made by actual entities, which cannot be fully predicted in advance. They are not mere qualifications of an absolute reality. They are acts of spontaneous self-creativity, amid which, in response to what is given to them from the past, they create themselves.
Moreover, there are multiple instances of insistent particularity, and these instances do not necessarily cohere into a more ordered system. Yes, they are connected to one another: internally related. But their relations are not necessarily pretty or harmonious. They are not necessarily an unfolding of a larger narrative, except as woven into the life of God. And that life itself consists, in part, of the insistent particularity of events in the world. God, says Whitehead, is many as well as one.
Is there, then, a language, a form of speech, that reflects the insistent particularity: that is, that sticks to the things themselves, be they historical events, physical objects, or subjective feelings? A poetry of the ontological principle? If so, it may need to break ordinary conventions of syntax and grammar, which too easily suggest to the mind forms of order that are imposed but somehow lose the particularity. And if it displays the manyness, it may well look like a ragbag, in which the heterogeneity is the point. Might even a theology have this ragbag quality? Might we imagine a theology the purpose of which is to display the manyness of God, without subsuming it into a larger principle? "A ragbag theology will not resemble conventional theology. It will resemble Louis Zukofsky's poem, 'A.' It won't adhere to the syntax of everyday speech, nor will it be easily digestible; instead, it will encompass a multitude of themes: love, music, art, history, and human consciousness. If someone inquires about its purpose, the answer is simply this: 'The heterogeneity is the purpose itself.' To impose overarching themes upon it, as if it seeks to convey a point beyond itself, would be to miss its essence. Its aim is to reveal, not to explain.
In philosophy and theology, the closest parallel to such theology would be, as noted above, Whitehead's concept of the multiplicity of God. The multiplicity of God is the countless events and experiences of the world, the universe, as present to God's experience before being gathered into a unity. The multiplicity is the universe in disjunctive diversity, in its diverse forms of insistent particularity.
Some of these, by human standards, are tragic and evil. God saves what can be saved. Yet, God's very experience incorporates this multiplicity.
It's true that Whitehead believed that this heterogeneity is interwoven with a quiet love, a tragic beauty. Zukofsky may or may not have shared this belief. However, his very attempt to present this heterogeneity, which encompasses not only the physical world but also historical events and psychological emotions, has a spiritual dimension to it, at least from a Whiteheadian perspective. It is a spirituality of the ragbag - a spirituality that embraces multiplicity without subsuming it into higher principles that overshadow its uniqueness. It is a spirituality of "A."