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  • "Man came here by an intolerable way":Charles Olson's Archaeology of Resistance
  • Sasha Colby (bio)

Charles Olson's reputation as an "archaeologist" has been well noted and largely accepted, primarily through the poet's own insistence that archaeological processes are the best way of understanding his poetic role. Uncomfortable with the label of "writer," Olson coined himself an "archaeologist of morning," (Collected Prose 206) finding within the aesthetics of excavation the most direct expression of an archaic imperative: Man needs to "'get back,' in order to 'get on'" (Charles Olson Reader 80). Certainly the archaeological provides a vivid illustration for many of Olson's projects: the retrieval of an original language, a return to a familiarization with nature, and the recuperation of archaic vision, the "Beautiful Thing" (Collected Prose 207). So an archaeological understanding, too, provides the possibility of viewing Olson's poetics as part of a visceral praxis, and in this light his months excavating in the Yucatan become less an eccentric whim and more broadly a part of a thoughtful existential campaign. Yet the pervasiveness of the archaeological in Olson's work and work about him has naturalized the metaphor to the point that it seems an unavoidable part of Olson's poesis. It is easy to forget that Olson deliberately pursued the role of archaeologist or that the presence of archaeology within his work can itself be excavated. Yet this excavation is worthwhile because Olson's archaeological practice encodes a driving existential and social desire. While Olson's poetry is sometimes perceived as obtuse and hermetic, his archaeology is often radical, resistant and political. It exists as a form of active protest and as a distinct call for social revisionism. From [End Page 93] its ideological underpinnings to its formal presence on the page, as well as its departure from what we might call the archaeological tradition, we can begin to understand how Olson's archaeological enterprise represents a "digging in" as much as a digging down, a trenchant appeal for the return to a humanized ethic that opposes the machinery of a dehumanized and dehumanizing modernity.

Perhaps archaeology's greatest attraction, for Olson, is its relationship to objects and their human contexts. As many have observed, Olson's philosophical stance very much resembles Heidegger's in that a return to a connection with objects restores a balanced sense of being in the world.1 This position takes on special meaning within an archaeological paradigm, where contact with ancient objects (artifacts) facilitates a reconnection with the past itself—a rehabilitation that Olson perceives as essential to moving forward. Archaeology is therefore the vehicle for imagination as the objects it unearths reveal a potential future as well as a human past. This leap is occasioned by the material specificity of archaeological finds, the very presence of which summon up the phantasmagoric specter of an ancient past that might yet be projected forward. It is in these senses—the particular, the concrete, and the localized—that archaeology operates in opposition to Olson's understanding of history. Where archaeology relies on the material and provides the possibility for a paradoxical chronology, history supplies abstract knowledge of the past and an inevitable teleology. It is on these grounds, the abstractions of historical "discourse" as well as the egotism of constant progress, that Olson negates history. As Olson wrote to Robert Creeley while excavating Mayan fragments in Mexico: "there is no 'history.' (I still keep going back to, the notion, this is (we are) merely, the second time (that's as much history as I'll permit in, which ain't history at all" (Mayan Letters 69).

For Olson, etymological change, like time, has perverted an original meaning, making "history," at once less specific and more socially corrosive:

Obviously the word "history" is a word—unless you take it to root—which doesn't have any use at all. And the root is the original first use of it, in the first chapter if not the first paragraph of Herodotus, in which he says, "I'm using this as a verb 'istorin, which means to find out for yourself; and this is why I've [End Page 94] been all over...


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