The Given & The Chosen

Ann Lauterbach


September 2011

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Ann Lauterbach considers the animated, elastic relation between what is given and what is chosen through the lens of art, critical thinking and her own experience as a poet. More meditation than argument, the essay brings to focus compelling ideas and questions surrounding the significance of art for the contemporary world.

About the Author

Ann Lauterbach is the author of eight collections of poetry, including If in Time: Selected Poems 1975 – 2000, and a collection of essays, The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience. She has taught at Brooklyn College, Columbia, Iowa, Princeton, and at the City College of New York and Graduate Center of CUNY. Since 1991 she has been Director of Writing in the Milton Avery School of the Arts at Bard College, where she has been, since 1999, Ruth and David Schwab II Professor of Languages and Literature. Lauterbach was the recipient of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship in 1993. She lives in Germantown, New York.

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The given and the chosen. The gift and the choice. The prior and the yet to come. The two terms do not form a proper binary; they do not glare at each other over an abyss of opposition or negation, but rather slide toward and away from each other like sunlight on a wire. They seem to carry spiritual or even religious overtones, with phrases like the gift of life and the chosen people hovering uneasily over our secular heads. There is an unnerving temporal ambiguity between the fact of the given and the incipience of the gift, between the apprehension of more than one and the preferential, limiting, moment of choice. Etymologically, choice gathers to itself taste and wish and favor, enjoyment, desire, love and pleasure. Gift, on the other hand, brings with it payment, specifically for a wife, and poison. But those of you who are familiar with the work of Marcel Mauss or Lewis Hyde know that the concept of the gift is both ancient and vexed, touching at the very quick of our notions of reciprocity and exchange, as well as our sense of what is innate. The child, we say, is gifted.

I live now in the country, and am increasingly conscious of the dispositions of choice in relation to time, the temporal economy of being. Many of us, persons whose lives are reasonably successful and who have a fairly normal complement of responsibilities, seem to live perpetually close to a kind of temporal anarchy. Days are spent in stressed imbalances between needs and desires, preparations and accomplishments, the wish for solitude and the wish to participate. Expectation and result, effort and efficacy, reception and response, these permutating causalities feel attenuated, torn. It is as if we were suspended like atomic particles in a hectic medium, each unable to either come to rest or to find our way to the solace of molecular attachments. Our hope that the heart and mind will work in concert, and that this heartmind will be embodied in our actions and responses, seems as near a walk on the beach in February. For our time, perhaps Michel Foucault came closest to diagnosing the causes of anguish for the modern Western subject. Deleuze, speaking about Foucault, remarks, “Finally, in the last books, there’s the discovery of thought as . . . establishing ways of existing or, as Nietzsche put it, inventing new possibilities of life. Existing not as a subject but as a work of art—and this last phase presents thought as artistry.”

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