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This article is taken from PN Review 136, Volume 27 Number 2, November - December 2000.

Bernstein's Republics Paul Quinn

A periodic and agonistic encounter with Plato has marked the career of the philosophy-trained poet, Charles Bernstein. His pivotal collection, The Sophist (1987), rubs Socrates the wrong way, positing sophistry as a valid counter-hegemonic force. In Plato's Republic poetry was to be stigmatized, censored, or banished; in Bernstein's 'republics' poetic thinking is critical in providing a model of autonomous, creative society. Like the sophist who, to Socrates's chagrin, dangerously elides the categories of 'sophist, statesman, philosopher', Bernstein has subsumed poetics and politics throughout his work. He prefaces an important early essay, 'The Dollar Value of Poetry' with an epigraph from Simone Weil's Oppression and Liberty: 'thought ... in so far as it is ceaselessly creating a scale of values "that is not of this world" ... is the enemy of forces which control society'.

Bernstein seizes on this statement as an 'appeal to another world ... whose horizon is not totally a product of the coercive delimiting of the full range of language (the limits of language the limits of experience) by the predominating social forces'. Even at this early stage of Bernstein's writing career, we are presented with a crucial cluster of philosophical concepts and images that will figure throughout his work: the utopic glimpse of other worlds, the citation of Wittgenstein (a handy cognitive map reference, indeed, through the range of Bernstein's writing), and the constant testing of, and casting at, the horizon - a ubiquitous trope in later poems, where it signifies variously a ...


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