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Reality Overload

The Modern World’s Assault on the Imaginal Realm
reviewed by Allan Graubard

Reality Overload
Anne Le Brun
Translated by Jon E. Graham,
Inner Traditions International, 2012 

By end September 2008 the US economy is in free fall. Premiere investment banks collapse and mortgage giants undergo de facto, if ambiguous, nationalization. It is the most serious such crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, with international consequence. Commentary, analyses and critiques proliferate, as they must. Obviously something is terribly wrong; obviously, it was the fault of the sub-prime mortgage fiasco, the derivatives market, CEO salaries and golden parachutes, veiled hedge fund maneuvers, deregulation, the gullibility of common folk, and so on.

Several weeks into this crisis I am still waiting for something else: recognition that the emperor’s new clothes no longer matter. For it is not at all significant that we see the charade – that was clear long ago – but that it has hit us where we least can bear it. This massive theft, based on illusory transactions all too complex to track, also returns a more lasting impression: We have lost our capacity to envision anything else other than a system that, in its totalizing vengeance, sustains us, for all practical purposes, in its image.
Quite clearly we have we accepted our lot as inviolable, and history a measure of that inviolability. Not only that, we celebrate it whenever we can; however clenched our jaws might be when doing so, at least today. Or more simply, we endure it.

Can the same can be said of intellectuals whose work against this goliath has failed us, whether in theory or practice? I think so. From the economic to the cultural to the individual, the realities of the domination we face seem ever more predictable. How is it that the invasion of life by digital technology has accomplished so much in such short a time, with such ease? And why is it we are not more free and less concerned with our gaining losses?
This is the subject of Annie Le Brun’s The Reality Overload: The Modern World’s Assault Against the Imaginal Realm — a curious title but one which points toward the target Le Brun spots.

Her chapters, of course, mark the path taken. I note several from the book’s three parts: The Network Prison, Light Pollution, The Word as False Witness; Poetic Outrageousness, A New Order of Promiscuity, The Rationality of Inconsistency; Corporeal Illiteracy and Genetically Modified Learning, Concrete Dematerilialization, Cultural and Biological Sterilization. I should not forgo her critique of identity and gender politics as one pole in an overarching mechanism of interpretation whose need for power in the academy and beyond is not so different from what has animated our newly scorned wealth traders who have brought us to this pitfall moment in our wayward lurching forward.

Annie Le Brun, a presence in European letters these last several decades, comes to notice as a member of the surrealist group around Andre Breton in the early 1960s. First poet then critic, her books evince a range of interests from collaborations with the artist Toyen (Annulaire De Lune) to a study of the Gothic novel (Les chateaux de la subervsion), her devastating critique of neofeminism (Lachez Tout), and the introduction to the complete works of the Marquis de Sade, published by Jean-Jacques Pauvert in 1986. This book, Sade: A Sudden Abyss — the only previous book of hers in English, published by City Lights — is a major accomplishment that clears away from our encounter with Sade the obfuscations transmitted by her predecessors: de Beauvoir, Blanchot, Bataille, Foucault and Klossowski.

But it is as a poet that Annie Le Brun offers us perhaps what we lack most of all: a sensibility grown transparent through an understanding of negation as by an exaltation of the imagination; the imagination of the body. And it is this sensibility that she brings to The Reality Overload.

One by one her arrows strike home. What of language, she asks, “that strange treasure we make our own only by sharing, [which] we are [now] in the process of losing” and which “reality remodels…as it pleases.” Why, in response, have we allowed our ability to feel to erode so drastically that we call “poignant” what we once asked more of, especially in terms of virtual provocations all too cleanly packaged, from dating games to controlled urban spaces – which so many of our cities haven fallen prey to. What characterizes knowledge when information smothers our capacity to synthesize? How can we accept as inevitable the technocratic absorption of the “other” whether by design or default? Where has the power of analogy gone, this ability that enable us to locate and clarify essential similarities between seemingly alien realms in flashes of inspiration from, or through an intuition enriched by, sustained engagement? What of postmodernism which, to this reviewer, revealed its Janus-face in the former-Yugoslavia as a principled means toward the rationalization of genocide during the 1990s? What do we fear from ruins; those we live in, those we corral and those we make, a by-product of war? How did it come about that eroticism and sexuality can part company so easily, even as we search for the moment, rare as it is, that unites them in two beings known or not known to each other? Or have we acceded here as well to a perfectible diminishing of perspective on what comes next?

I could go on but it is best that I end this very brief review of a significant voice within the poetic and critical realms, and leave you to The Reality Overload and whatever else might interest you from Annie Le Bruin’s expanding oeuvre, including her selected poems finally published by Gallimard in 2004. For she, along with some few others, have made it their life’s work to search and find and search again “for traces of life that have not been tamed” with the verve to understand what that implies precisely.

Allan Graubard is a poet, playwright and critic. His most recent play, Woman Bomb/Sade, played in New York in 2008. In 2009 his book Fragments from Nomad Days & Other Poems & Tales will be published by Ekstasis Editions.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #20