Kenneth White, 1968 and Geopoetics

Kenneth White was in Scotland at the end of May for a series of talks, film screenings, poetry readings and lectures, organised by the Research Network in Existential Philosophy and Literature in collaboration with the Institut Francais, Alliance Francais Glasgow and the University of Glasgow.

White is a poet and writer originally from the Gorbals, Glasgow. He set up the Jargon Group in 1964 which explored a mix of social and cultural forces including Nietzsche, Whitman, Taoism and anarchism. He was later part of Project Sigma dedicated to “conflagrate a million minds”. Project Sigma was a loose coalition of of experimental writers in Europe and America including William Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi. Between 1968 and 1989 his work was written in English but published in French and other languages. Since then his work with the International Institute of Geopoetics has seen a resurgence of interest and is now culminating in a collected works being published in English.

We discussed his work and the need for a radical unlearning, the memory and political lessons from May 1968 and some of his new and emerging projects and publications.

 

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  1. Shavian says:

    Sorry, but this just looks like a lot of people sitting around saying “innit orful?”
    about everything. Where’s the action?

  2. Fay Kennedy says:

    What a feast of ideas from another Scot i have never heard of. Will be pursuing his work asap. Thanks Mike for this wonderful interview.

  3. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Excellent, Mike. This interview is so deeply appreciated. I am delighted to have it available. Thankyou.

    One of my favourite books is Kenneth White’s short travel-novel “La Route Bleue”. He finds himself in Montréal wanting to journey up through Labrador but he can’t find a map of Labrador to buy. There seems to be minimal interest in travelling “North”. White quips that the Québecois are apparently more into history than geography.

    The following short extract from a Gaelic essay I wrote some years ago contains my favourite passage from the book:

    “Tha a’ ghnè seo de leabhair a’ còrdadh rium. Ùghdar air turas agus e a’ beachdachadh air ciall na beatha. Oibseigeachd an rathaid agus suibseigeachd a’ bheachd. Tha an t-Albannach Kenneth White comasach san t-seònra seo, agus ‘s ann san Fhraingis a bhios e fhèin gu tric ag obair. Chòrd a leabhar La Route Bleue gu mòr rium. Tha White ann an Montréal. Ag iarraidh dhol gu Labrador. Ach duilgheadas aige map dhen cheàrnaidh a lorg. A-rèir coltais tha barrachd ùidh aig na Québecois ann an eachdraidh na cruinn-eòlas. Thug na sgrìobhas White fiamh a’ ghàire orm:

    « Je me souviens», dit la devise du Québec.
    J’ai demandé à quelqu’un de quels souvenirs il s’agissait:
    « Du débarquement des Anglais. »
    Grand D**u! Qui se soucie encore des Anglais?
    Si je me préoccupais de ce qu’ils ont fait, les Anglais, je serais toujours là-haut, dans la Vieille Calédonie, à soigner mes griefs et à écrire de longs poèmes politiques dans la langue de mes ancêtres.
    Et merde! On ne peut pas rester écossais toute sa vie. Il faut savoir sortir de son trou, se mêler au monde.
    (Kenneth White, La Route Bleue, Grasset, Le Livre de Poche, 1983, td 15)

    Thug seo gàire orm a chionn ‘s gur e sin (“à soigner mes griefs et à écrire de longs poèmes politiques dans la langue de mes ancêtres”) cho faisg air na dh’fheuch mi fhìn…”

    1. Thank you so much for responding.

      Most of the time I think I am (or am already) mad.

  4. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Mike,

    The phrase “coup interview” didn’t quite make it into my endorsement above, but I retrieve it now from my faltering mind-filter and paste it.

    Though your “[going] or am already mad” remark is no doubt whimsical and rhetorical, I will pick up on it…

    (Keeping the French thing going) there comes to mind a quote, by whom I cannot remember – an existentialist for sure – ie “le héros ontologique”. Whatever the original context was, I have retained from it the notion that a certain lonely heroism is required, particularly as one ages, to doggedly sustain pursuit of early glimpsed light, even as it becomes dispiritingly apparent how many fellow travellers have dropped behind. And more unsettling still, the ultimate realisation that no other single human being’s sense of direction precisely corresponds to one’s own.

    That could be seen as a postmodernist line of thought, of course – that we are all enclosed in personal subjective bubbles, no two of which can possibly see the same undistorted view. Nevertheless I (dialectically?) reject such a desolating reductionism, and contend that reality (the ontical) is not conceptual but actual, not abstract but concrete. Despite all our mental hot air balloon flights, terra firma continues to exist. Which reprises my comment in Gaelic above, endorsing White’s “La Route Bleue” as representing the enjoyable genre of “objective road meets subjective opinion”.

    A snatch from an old long poem (mine):

    “Tha aon duilleag mòr gu leòr
    gu bhith na ràth-sàbhalaidh dhan inntinn.
    Èiridh craobh na bàta fa ar comhair.

    Nì brù-dhearg a’ chùis
    mar leus-mara dhan aigne.
    Fòghnaidh iolair gus neo-chrìochnachd a dhearbhadh.”

    [A single leaf is big enough
    to be a life-raft of the mind.
    A tree a looming ship may be.

    A robin a beacon
    by which to navigate.
    An eagle proof enough of the infinite.”]

    Returning to the whimsical, I just noticed the following rather humorously relevant quote at the beginning of Colin Wilson’s classic “The Outsider” (Pan Piper 1971). The words are from Bernard Shaw’s “John Bull’s Other Island, Act IV”.

    BROADBENT: . . . I find the world quite good enough for me – rather a jolly place, in fact.
    KEEGAN (looking at him with quiet wonder): You are satisfied?
    BROADBENT: As a reasonable man, yes. I see no evils in the world – except of course, natural evils – that cannot be remedied by freedom, self-government and English institutions. I think so, not because I am an Englishman, but as a matter of common sense.
    KEEGAN: You feel at home in the world then?
    BROADBENT: Of course. Don’t you?
    KEEGAN (from the very depths of his nature): No.

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