The Louisiana Purchase
Rose Metal Press, paperback,
96 pages, $15.95
ISBN: 978 0 98461 663 3
In Paris, on 11 April 1803, at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson, a deal was struck in which the USA acquired the port of New Orleans and all French territory on the west bank of the Mississippi. The land amounted to 800,000 square miles, for which the US federal government paid $11,250,000. The purchase doubled the size of the USA.
Jim Goar’s The Louisiana Purchase retells this history but it does so via a series of loosely inter-linked poems and fragments which map out a kind of parallel, often surreal, alternative history of the Louisiana Purchase and the growth, in both myth and geography, of the American West. In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner was at pains to point out the specifically American qualities of this expansionism. ‘Since the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World,’ Turner writes, ‘America has been another name for opportunity, and the people of the United States have taken their tone from the incessant expansion which has not only been open but has even been forced upon them. He would be a rash prophet who should assert that the expansive character of American life has now entirely ceased. Movement has been its dominant fact, and, unless this training has no effect upon a people, the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise.’
This framework is at the heart of Goar’s book. As Goar’s author’s note at the start of the book sets out, the pathfinders and mapmakers, Merriwether Lewis and William Clark, ‘set off from just outside St. Louis, Missouri, 1804, and – after encountering some 50 tribes and “discovering” 300 “new” plants and animals – returned in 1806. For the next thirty years, Clark’s map was the most detailed rendering of the Louisiana Purchase.’
Goar’s map of the Louisiana Purchase, though, is not so much a map, as an ‘unmap’. As Goar introduces it, a century and a half after the travails of Lewis and Clark, ‘a map of the United States is unspooled. Much of the heartland is covered by a green fog that stretches from the Mississippi River to the eastern edge of Idaho.’
As Goar goes on to explain, this is not so much a book about an ‘external subject’ but rather an internal space, ‘an attempt to locate what I contain,’ Goar writes, both an expedition and a report into ‘impossible vastness’ and ‘mythical promise’. And what follows, via reference to mythic stereotype, Disney, Westerns, personal memories and some archival research, is Goar’s version of America, one which he names ‘incomplete’ but which also rehearses and repeats the narratives of America’s foundations, particularly those associated with Thomas Jefferson and his declaration of independence.
Jefferson’s rallying call of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ has always been one of the most captivating yet problematic ideas of democratic possibility, both in America and beyond. What’s not to love? And yet this is an idea whose very power lies in the fact that happiness as such does not currently exists. As the novelist, Steve Erickson, has commented, ‘the great paradox of America has been the conflict between its true idealism and its false innocence.’ The conflict Erickson names specifically relates to that between the Jeffersonian ideal of freedom and political administration. Jefferson’s was a vision whose gaze was firmly trained on the horizon and Jefferson was one of the first, as well as one of the most persuasive, aspirationists. He would have been the apple-pie of marketing executives the continent over.
Yet as Lee Spinks writes, ‘the promise of America is created out of the apocalyptic tension between our desire for revelation and our fear of a dystopian future; and that the idealism that enables us to project revelatory new worlds is indissociable from the threat of violence and dispossession.’ And so the main problem with ‘the pursuit of happiness’ is that it attempts to function at the levels of ground and goal simultaneously. As Garry Wills has remarked, ‘the pursuit of happiness is a phenomenon both obvious and paradoxical. It supplies us with the ground of human right and the goal of human virtue. It is the basic drive of the self, and the only means given for transcending the self.’
My point is this:
1. At issue in this paradox is the uneasy relationship between the nouns ‘pursuit’ and ‘happiness’: where the latter names a desired goal or outcome, the former ineluctably effects the endless deferral of that outcome.
2. The paradox of this ‘inalienable right’ relates to the irresolvable conflict it inaugurates between individual and collective freedom. If it names ‘the basic drive of the self’ then that impulsion necessarily counteracts the attempt to establish group identity (be that national, local, or whatever).
3. Both the force and the weakness of the ‘Declaration’ is a result of its generalised proposal or idea of the necessity of, in Jefferson’s words, ‘one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with one another.’ Rather than providing the means by which political consensus might be constructed, such a statement will be always opposed to the consolidation of any single political identity. Instead, what it inaugurates is a systematic process of disbanding so that the formation of any political group necessarily will repeat the imperative to contest and to fragment.
4. In On Revolution Hannah Arendt remarks that the Declaration’s opening statement, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident,’ is counter-intuitive. If these truths are ‘self-evident’, Arendt argues, then ‘[t]hey stand in no need of agreement’ precisely because ‘they possess a power to compel’ such that ‘they are not held by us, we are held by them.’ What this amounts to saying is that the strict self-evidence of ‘these truths’ is rendered equivocal by the declarative ‘we hold’. In this way, Arendt effectively views the Declaration as a political document dependent on the performative occasion of utterance. As such the meaning and authority of the declaration at all times will be and can only be provisional. More specifically, as performative, the political becomes no more than a weakly sketched zone that requires its perpetual iteration, which is to say, that requires its perpetual reiteration and reconstitution. The consequence of such an argument is that, on the one hand, the political is inseparable from a certain ‘ferment of frequent rebellion’ (in Locke’s phrase) and, on the other hand, the political will always be inadequate to its means: inscribed into every performance is a future iteration for which the present cannot account and by which, at least in part, it is subtended.
Despite their varying inflections, then, what each point suggests is that ‘the pursuit of happiness’ becomes a schema with neither specific meaning nor normative function. If it has a denotative structure at all, it is only in that it is a structure that pulls free of historical time.
And it’s this concept of time, and of America, and of the West, I think, that interests Goar most. For Jefferson, the pursuit of happiness may well be the drive and the right of life, but if such is the case, on Goar’s inflection, it is a drive and a right that can be lived only as the unliveable, in the surreal time of crossings and crossings-out, where things co-exist, and don’t, simultaneously. It’s hard to be more precise. The following example from early on in the text is representative:
‘President Jefferson walks off the mound. The
Cardinals take the field. Ozzie Smith falls over dead.
The crowd falls silent. Phil Niekro throws a ball at
the sky. The ball does not return. We call it the
moon. It becomes a crescent. When Jefferson holds
up two fingers, the moon breaks into the dirt (p.7).
And so Goar’s surrealism throughout The Louisiana Purchase. Times and frameworks and perspectives shift. The effect of this is gradual, cumulative. And it is also the reason why, for Goar, the pursuit of happiness burns within his text as something in and as a stutter or hesitation neither quite voiced nor quite silenced. He mimes Arendt’s argument by avoiding declarative sentences. Across the pages of The Louisiana Purchase, the America articulated by the pursuit of happiness is both a space of transgression and of impassable limits. Ill-formed and ill-expressed America takes shape in its the breaking apart of its own history, in its catching on the singularity of experience.
It’s the ambition of this book that really sets it apart from much recent poetry. It’s tradition and life and learning shot through with the quirks of the individual. The fact that Rose Metal Press have wrapped all this up in the surrounds of a beautifully and thoughtfully produced book makes the experience of engaging with Goar’s text all the more enjoyable.