Saturday, July 7, 2007


Like Juliana Spahr, whose brief discussion I mentioned before, Rob Stanton centers his reading of Peter Gizzi's A panic that can still come upon me (reprinted in The Outernational) on the prevalence — a use that seems to have become a study — of the word "if" in Gizzi's recent oeuvre.

As Stanton notes, Gizzi's use of the word in "Château If"
invoke[s] an ideal state, somewhere nearby in which poet, reader and world would be in perfect alignment, meaning would become transparent and true communication could take place
Similarly, Spahr's reading thinks this "beautiful 'if'" in terms of an opening of possibility, remarking on its effect — within consciousness, rather than merely the semiotic space of the text — is generative. The word's capacity adheres not only to meaning, but to a larger creativity that carries with it the potential to reshape the world in terms of, and by way of, imagination.

Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language figures "if" in precisely this way. Pointing perhaps at the activity of its generative dimension, Webster thinks the term not as conjunction, but as verb. And he argues for this conception of "if," comparing it to our use of the words "grant," "admit," and "suppose." To this end, the lexicographer establishes a parallel between "if John shall arrive in season, I will send him with a message" and its counterpart, "give John shall arrive; grant, suppose, admit that he shall arrive, I will send him with a message." His definition concludes by proposing "if" as prayer, as wish, as hope: "The sense of if ... is ... cause to be, let the fact be, let the thing take place."

At the same time, Stanton notes that there is a darkness to Gizzi's use of "if." He locates a tension in the irresolution of A panic's phrases, in their refusal to turn to the closure of "then," and in the uncertainty that attends Gizzi's use of the term. "If our wishes are met with dirt," he notes in A panic. But this tension, this irresolution, inheres in the word's meaning itself. Webster's second definition is cryptic — "uncertain or not" — but its illustrative quotation, borrowed from Dryden, clarifies: "Uncertain if by augury or chance." "If" points to what cannot be known, to what cannot be resolved with any surety.

Thus, the optimism of "if" is bound up in a sense of irresolution. Possibility, "if" reminds us, is always fraught with and complicated by the possibility, perhaps equal, of its failure, or at least of the hope not being answered. To read these together, to read "if" as embodying this tension, is to read it as a sign of contingency. "If" reminds us — as a conditional — that the world is interdependent, that this depends on that. That is to say, whatever follows "if" is "not absolute," that it, as is noted in Webster's Revised Unabridged (1913), "must exist as the occasion or concomitant of something else."


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