Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

This site is listed in BlogCatalog and
Literature Blogs
Literature blog

Wednesday, March 1, 2017


The index now features hypertext connections. Simply click on any title below to read it.

Though this listing serves, I think, a clear purpose, not every posting falls easily into the categories. One essay might equally be placed under literary theory or medieval texts while another might fit under memoir, politics, or travel. Translations with comment might be either criticism or translation. Poke around a bit.

The categories are:

1. speculative, familiar, performance pieces, and other essays

2. literary theory

3. Greek texts (and a couple of Latin)

4. medieval texts

5. other criticism
A. 16th-19th century
B. 20th century to the present
C. Asian texts
D. songs
E. Notes on Recent Reading
F. Rereading the Classics
G. Every Reader's Poets

6. translation

7. poetry

8. politics

9. memoirs

10. travel

1. Speculative, familiar, performance pieces, and other essays
Agnostic Credo and Vita (October 2015)
Axiology and Subjectivity (October 2014)
Annual Report (August 2014)
Beards (December 2013)
Biking (November 2009)
Cookbooks (April 2014)
Dead Reckoning (February 2011)
Deer (December 2012)
Documents of the first Surreal Cabaret (March 2012)
Documents of the second Surreal Cabaret (June 2012)
Documents of the third Surreal Cabaret (October 2013)
Documents of the fourth Surreal Cabaret (July 2014)
Documents of the fifth Surreal Cabaret (February 2015)
Drugs and Religion (June 2016)
Dust: a meditative riff (November 2009)
Food for the Gods (December 2011)
Hippie (April 2011)
Immortality (July 2012)
Iowa Communards (December 2011)
A Library’s Commonplaces and Curiosities (May 2011)
The Mannerly Hedonist (February 2013)
Notes and Inserts (June 2016)
Polka (November 2012)
On Pronunciation and Pedantry (September 2015)
In Praise of Bias (November 2014)
Still Biking (November 2012)
A Structural View of Certain Oracles (August 2015)
Supermarkets (October 2010)
Taking Off (November 2009)
Worn Tools (June 2013)

2. Literary theory
Afloat on the Ocean of Words (April 2016)
Allusion (March 2015)
Art and the Marketplace (April 2010)
The Familiar Note in Poetry (January 2017)
The Formation of a Christian Rhetoric (April 2011)
How and Why to Signify (July 2011)
Idea of Comedy (January 2012)
The Inconsequential Bayonets of Art: Militant Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde (May 2010)
Lament for the Loss of the Avant-Garde (March 2010)
Millenarian Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde (August 2010)
On the Proper Ends of Literary Study [James Seaton] (July 2014)
Placing the Popular in the Structure of Literature (October 2010)
The Pleasures of the Familiar in Literature (June 2016)
Poetry Amid the Fierce Chaos of the World (December 2009)
Prof. Wellek, Prof. Leavis, and Prof. de Man (December 2015)
The Question of Literary Value (August 2014)
Riddles and Poetry (March 2015)
The Signifying Monkey Talks Literature (April 2010)
Some Notes Toward a Theory of the Avant-Garde (October 2013)
Sontag's "Against Interpretation" (September 2016)
Sweet Treason: Translating Lyric Poetry (November 2009)
Thoughts on Mythology (March 2013)
Transformation of Convention (August 2013)
What is Poetry? (February 2012)
Winged Words: Notes on the Oral Performance of Poetry (May 2010)

3. Greek texts (and two Latin)
Aphrodite’s Bed: Love in the Homeric Hymn (August 2010)
The Birth of Erato: Lyric, Vision, and the Spread of Writing (January 2010)
Dionysos and the Pirates (February 2012)
Gorgias (February 2010)
Hermes and the Art of Poetry (March 2013)
Longinus' Sublime (May 2012)
Notes on Pan (June 2014)
Oedipus and the Meaning of Polysemy (July 2011)
Poetry's Long Memory [Horace] (July 2016)
Professors Kick the Willy Bobo [on Athenaeus] (December 2009)
The Role of Rhetoric in Theocritus (February 2011)
The Role of Wine in Nonnus' Dionysiaca (February 2016)
Sappho’s Holy Tortoise Shell: Eros and Poetry in Ancient Greece (December 2009)
Seneca the Elder (March 2010)
A Skeptic's Faith [Sextus Empiricus] (January 2015)
Two Passages from Marcus Aurelius (June 2011)
The Web of Myth in the Hymn to Heracles (June 2012)

4. Medieval texts
The Aesthete of Desire: Lancelot and Courtly Love (July 2012)
The Aesthetics of Ambiguity in a Medieval Lyric (December 2012)
Aesthetic Principles of the Middle English Romance (July 2010)
Appropriation of Biblical Narrative in Patience (February 2013)
Bernart and the Music of Ideas (September 2016)
The Buddha in Europe: the Apologue of the Man and the Unicorn in Barlaam and Ioasaph (January 2011)
Chaucer’s Version of the Golden Age (June 2011)
A Conventional Ending in a Middle English Romance (September 2011)
Courtly Love in Romance of the Rose (August 2012)
Distant Rhyme in Two Medieval English Lyrics (August 2011)
The Early English Carol (June 2010)
Geoffrey of Vinsauf (April 2010)
Figures of Love in Lydgate's Temple of Glas (January 2014)
Functions of Alliteration in Thirteenth Century Lyrics (February 2011)
Hypermetric Lines in Beowulf (January 2011)
An Introduction to the Troubadours (January 2010)
Mechthild von Magdeburg (July 2010)
A New Look at Jaufré: Amor de Lonh as Criticism (December 2010)
Odin and Poetry (December 2015)
Openings in the Middle English Romance (July 2010)
The Pearl-Poet’s Use of Link-Rhymes (November 2011)
Phonetics and Semantics in the Last Line of Beowulf (March 2011)
Piers Plowman and the Man in the Moon (October 2011)
The Prima Etade of Literary Ambition [Petrarch] (March 2011
Transformation of Convention in Early Minnesang (April 2011)
Two Early Ballad Tales of Robin Hood (October 2014)
William IX (September 2010)
Who is Piers Ploughman? (June 2013)

5. Other criticism

A. 16th-19th century
Ambivalence in Thomson's The Castle of Indolence (March 2012)
Big Bill Otter's Sprees and Frolics (November 2013)
A Decadent's Dilemmas [Dowson] (March 2015)
Does Crabbe Look Forward or Back? (February 2016)
Dolce's Aretino (September 2015)
The Double Plot of Salem Chapel (December 2016)
Gascoigne's "Notes of Instruction" (September 2013)
Godwin's Theatre of Calamity (September 2015)
Herrick the Divine (August 2014)
Keats' "Thing of Beauty" (November 2016)
Marius the Epicurean as a Modern (April 2015)
Moby Dick and the Density of the Aesthetic Text (January 2016)
"Monk" Lewis, Mr. Coleridge, and Popular Taste (July 2015)
A Note on Dryden and "Dramatick Poesy" (September 2012)
A Note on Radcliffe's The Italian (October 2012)
Pierce Penniless (May 2013)
The Problem with Swinburne (June 2015)
Rimbaud's Use of Montage (October 2016)
Shelley”s “Ode to the West Wind” as Structuralist Charm (May 2011)
Sir Thomas North's The Moral Philosophy of Doni (September 2013)
The Skeptico-Semiotico-Mystic: Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (June 2015)

Skepticism and Poetry in Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes" (February 2015)
The Texture of Traherne’s Religious Thought (October 2010)
Thematic Continuity and Development in the Poetry of Christopher Smart: the Jubilate Agno and the Minor Poems (November 2010)
Travelers [Marco Polo, Twain, Robert Byron](April 2012)
Trollope's Appeal (December 2012)
Two Notes on Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance (July 2014)
The Use of Nostalgia in Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life (August 2015)

B. 20th century to the present
Another Look at The Seven Lively Arts (June 2013)
Apologia for a Fondness for Pound (November 2012)
Are Uncle Tom's Children Bound by History? (April 2014)
Banjo (March 2017)
A Brief History of Negritude (February 2017)
Comics (February 2010)
Conrad's Shadow-Line (June 2014)
The Critical Palimpsest: Black African Literature through White American Eyes (January 2010)
Dada in America (April 2012)
Eisenstein's Strike and the Problem of Realism (April 2013)
Epiphanies in Dubliners (May 2016)
False Translations (August 2016)
The Fetish of the Primitive in Twentieth Century Art (April 2015)
A Few Films (November 2016)
A Few Proletarian Writers (March 2012)
Flash Reviews of Thirty African Novels (November 2011)
Flyin’ with the Muses: Kirpal Gordon’s Eros in Sanskrit (May 2011)
Hell's House (November 2013)
Kerouac’s Weakness and Strength (January 2011)
Kurt Seligmann's Moderate Surrealism (November 2016)
Kurt Seligmann's Riddlesome Symbols (March 2017)
The Last Poets (March 2016)
The Legacy of the Beats (March 2014)
The Lyricism of the Ugly: Celine's Mort à Crédit (December 2014)
The Man with the Golden Arm and a Friend with Six Seeds (January 2014)
Onitsha Market Literature (February 2015)
Pig and Possum Teach Poetry (May 2014)
A Poem by Theodore Roethke (September 2011)
The Power of Picasso's Sculpture (November 2015)
Saki's Novels (April 2015)
Sartre's "Black Orpheus (February 2017)
Some Poetry Reviews (December 2012)
Sound Poetry and Edith Sitwell's Facade (July 2013)
Two Graffiti (May 2011)
A Very Funny Fellow [Lev] (May 2012)

C. Asian texts
Friendship and Romance in Ming Stories (February 2014)
Han Shan (December 2010)
Journey to the North (December 2013)
Liezi (October 2012)
Lu Xun (October 2010)
Monkey Rides Again (January 2013)
Notes on Liu Xie (August 2011)
Tang Stories (April 2016)
Theme and Tone In Kokoro (September 2016)
A Tibetan Novel (March 2017)
The Trials of Lady Ochikubo (April 2014)

D. songs
"Down the Dirt Road Blues" [Charley Patton] (October 2011)
Fishing Blues [Henry Thomas] (October 2015)
Foggy Dew as Symbol (July 2012)
The Imagery of Hokum Blues Songs (July 2015)
"Lady Maisry" (November 2013)
"Moon Goin' Down" [Charley Patton] (May 2013)
The Paraklausithyron Blues (May 2016)
"The Red Rooster" [Willie Dixon] (March 2014)
Robert Johnson and the Devil (September 2012)
Skip James' Blues Imagery (May 2015)
“Spoonful” and the Accretion of Meaning (December 2012)
"The Three Ravens" (August 2013)
Trinidadian Smut (April 2016)
Truckin' (November 2014)
“Walkin’ Blues” [Son House] (December 2011)

E. Notes on Recent Reading
Notes on Recent Reading [Melville, Greene, and Whalen] (September 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 2 [Crane, The Crowning of Louis, Thornlyre] (October 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 3 [Kipling, San Francisco Mime Troupe, Lynn’s Tao-te-ching] (November 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 4 [Sarah Scott, de La Fayette, Wharton] (January 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 5 [The Deeds of God in Rddhipur, Burney, Cooper] (January 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 6 [Jewett, Addison, Crabbe] (February 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 7 [Nabokov, Austen, Grettis Saga] (April 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 8 [Bakhtin, Lewis, Brown] (May 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 9 [Plutarch, Tacitus, Williams](June 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 10 [Voltaire, France, Dryden](July 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 11 [Wright, Kerouac & Burroughs, Gilbert] (August 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 12 [Huxley, Norris, Dōgen](September 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 13 [Mirabai, Wood, Trocchi] (November 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 14 [Algren, Hauptmann, Rolle] (January 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 15 [Hemingway, Orwell, Gaskell]{February 2013}
Notes on Recent Reading 16 [Howells, Ford, Mann] (April 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 17 [McCarthy, Chang, Snorri](July 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 18 [Radcliffe, Stendhal, Erasmus](October 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 19 [Powers, Zhang Ji, Vietnamese folk song] (February 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 20 [Rowe, Stevenson, Issa] (May 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 21 [Fussell, Mahfouz, Watts] (August 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 22 [Waugh, Belloc, Okakura] (October 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 23 [Naipaul, Dinesen, Spillane] (January 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 24 [Fielding; Izumo , Shōraku, and Senryū; Plath] (June 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 25 [Baskervill, Gissing, Capote] (July 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 26 [Tuchman, Premchand, Cocteau] (November 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 27 [Forster, Sackville-West, Capote] (January 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 28 [Verne, Waley, Hurston] (March 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 29 [Achebe, Jewett, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam] (October 2016)

F. Rereading the Classics
Rereading the Classics [Burton] (November 2011)
Rereading the Classics [Gogol] (August 2012)
Rereading the Classics [Goldsmith] (December 2016)
Rereading the Classics [Kleist] (February 2012)
Rereading the Classics [Montaigne] (December 2013)
Rereading the Classics [Rabelais] (December 2011)

G. Every Reader's Poets
Every Reader's Herrick (December 2015)
Every Reader's Hopkins (May 2016)
Every Reader's Milton (January 2017)
Every Reader's Pope (May 2015)
Every Reader's Shelley (November 2014)
EveryReader's Skelton (March 2016)
Every Reader's Wyatt (December 2014)
EveryReader's Yeats (January 2015)

6. Translation
Alkaios' Happy Hour (January 2017)
Becher's "Someone Stands Up" (October 2012)
Christian and Dedicatory Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (March 2010)
Emmy Hennings (February 2010)
Emmy Hennings Poems (More from Die Letzte Freude) (November 2010)
Four Poems from the German of Richard Huelsenbeck (January 2010)
Four Quatrains by Wang Wei (January 2013)
Hans Arp (April 2010)
The Homeric Hymn to Dionysos (February 2012)
Horace I.21 (July 2016)
Hugo Ball (July 2010)
Hymn to Aphrodite (August 2010)
Hymn to Heracles the Lion-Hearted (June 2012)
Hymn to the Night [Novalis](March 2012)
Hymn to the Night II [Novalis] (July 2012)
Hymn to Pan (May 2014)
Leonidas of Tarentum (May 2010)
A Mixed Bag of German Translations (August 2014)
Rimbaud's "The Lice-Pickers" (March 2014)
Seven Poems from Léon-Gontran Damas (February 2017)
Some Anonymous Middle High German Lyrics (August 2011)
Three Horatian Odes (November 2012)
Translations of William IX (September 2010)
Wordsworth Speaks German (July 2011)
Yet Two More Versions of Wang Wei (June 2011)

7. Poetry
African poems (August 2010)
How to Be a Poet (June 2010)
The Liturgies of the Lama Swine Toil (September 2012)
Mexican poems (September 2010)
Poems from New Mexico (July 2010)
Poems from Turkey (June 2010)
Produce poems (May 2010)
The Soap Opera of the Pair Who Forgot Themselves, but only Temporarily (August 2012)
Some Sonnets (April 2010)
Three Poems from Peru (August 2011)
Two Lyrics on Death from Central America (January 2012)

8. Politics
Black Lives Matter (August 2016)
Economic Democracy (July 2013)
The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Port Huron Statement (June 2012)
Hard Rain Still Fallin’ (September 2010)
How to Get Serious about Fighting Crime (January 2010)
Local Politics (May 2015)
In Memory of a Generation's People's Heroes (October 2015)
Occupy Wall Street (November 2011)
The Role of Higher Education (November 2010)
The Socialist Martin Luther King (February 2016)
The Triumph and Tragedy of Revolution (December 2016)
Two Exemplary Anecdotes from the Sixties Student Movement (September 2013)
Utopia (November 2015)
Voluntary Poverty (October 2011)
Why I am a Socialist (March 2010)

9. Memoirs
Baby Boomer Reads the Beats (April 2012)
A Brief Literary Life (September 2012)
A Garland of Greek Professors (December 2010)
A Glimpse of Robert Bly (August 2012)
Grandparents (December 2009)
High School (August 2014)
Hip Poets of Seventies San Francisco (January 2011)
How I Was Hired to Teach in Nigeria (May 2011)
IWW (April 2011)
March in Cicero (December 2009)
A Memorable Roomer (June 2014)
My Most Politically Active Year (February 2011)
Nova Academy (March 2011)
Pestering Allen [Ginsberg] (March 2012)
Poetry on the Loose (September 2011)
A Scholar's Debut (October 2012)
Sherman Paul (August 2016)
Suburbanite in the City (November 2010)
Tim West (March 2013)
VISTA Trains Me (June 2011)

10. Travel
Arrival in Nigeria (August 2015)
Acadiana [Lafayette, Louisiana] (May 2010)
An Armenian Family in Bordeaux (December 2014)
Carnival [Portugal] (May 2012)
Cookie Man [Morocco] (October 2011)
Creel (October 2010)
Dame Fortuna in Portugal (May 2012)
Dinner with Mrs. Pea [Thailand] (April 2013)
Election Day in Chichicastenango (January 2012)
An Evening in Urubamba (July 2011)
Festival in Ogwa [Nigeria](January 2011)
On the Ganges' Shore (August 2013)
The Guru of Guinness (July 2016)
Haarlem (July 2010)
Hitchhiking in Algeria (September 2010)
Hitchhiking in France (January 2014)
Hungarian Food (December 2010)
Introduction to Tourist Snapshots (June 2010)
Jemaa el Fna (December 2010)
Knee-deep in History [Vietnam, Cambodia] (February 2014)
Najibe’s Stories (September 2011)
Nigerian Names and Vehicle Slogans (March 2011)
A Palm Wine Shack [Nigeria] (December 2011)
Portraits from a Floating World: Anonymous (October 2016)
Portraits from a Floating World: Najibe and Sandro (February 2010)
Portraits from a Floating World: Gahlia and Jack (June 2010)
Portraits from a Floating World: Leslie Spector and Pa’ahssyzy (August 2010)
A Problem on the Border [Algeria] (June 2011)
A Reading in Kathmandu (November 2009)
Sacred Space as Sideshow [Prague] (February 2010)
St. Joseph’s Day at the Laguna Pueblo (April 2011)
A Stroll around Lake Bled (May 2013)
Strong Stuff [Marrakech] (October 2012)
Tetouan (November 2010)
The Theory of Souvenirs (April 2012)
A Trip to India (January 2016)
Two Parades [India and Peru] (August 2011)
The Valley of Beautiful Women [Eger, Hungary] (March 2010)
Vignettes of Sunny Nigeria (March 2011)
A Waterfall near Marrakech (February 2011)

A Tibetan Novel

The Tale of the Incomparable Prince by Tshe ring dbang rgyal, translated and introduced by Beth Newman. The Library of Tibet. HarperCollins, 1996.

Newman explains that she has chosen to translate personal names into their Sanskrit equivalents in preference to the Tibetan forms. A glance at the Tibetan form of the title – gZhon nu zla med kyi gtam rgyud -- is probably enough to convince many Westerners of the propriety of her choice, though since most readers will be unfamiliar with the meaning of the Sanskrit names, she has thereby lost that semantic element. For place names she has adopted a different strategy, translating them into English. The work of translation was originally her Ph.D. dissertation, a notable example of the value of supporting advanced research in the humanities. Her introductory essay is short and accessible.

This unique work, the only pre-twentieth century Tibetan novel, [1] was written by Tshe ring dbang rgyal, an eighteenth century aristocrat who also composed a number of other literary and scholarly works [2] while at the same time taking a leading political role, including service as prime minister. Far from the utopian serenity of Hilton’s Shangri-La, the author’s period was marked by considerable internal conflict as well as assaults from China, Bhutan, and Mongolian tribes.

The courtly society in which the author moved followed Indian models for literature. In form the work is thus clearly within the courtly Indian style kāvya as defined in the most authoritative guide to Sanskrit literary theory, Daṇḍin’s Kāvyādarśa (Mirror of Poetry), composed circa 700 C.E. [3] As in comparable texts in China and Europe this manual regards rhetoric as the basis for literariness. Tshe ring dbang rgyal explicitly declares his intention to follow “the tenets of dramatic composition.” (318) Apart from employing standard rhetorical figures (of which Daṇḍin lists thirty-six) the writer of “epic drama” (mahākāvya, in Tibetan snyan ngag chen po) should also include treatment of each of the aims of life (or puruṣārthas): dharma (righteousness), artha (prosperity), kāma (pleasure) and mokṣa (liberation). Tshe ring dbang rgyal details his attention to each of these areas in his epilogue.

As the narrative alternates prose and verse passages (like the European prosimetrum), it belongs to the genre campū. In content it could be labeled an avadāna, a marvelous bodhisattva tale, as the hero ultimately attains bodhisattva status. The specifics of the story line clearly owe a great deal to the Ramayana and to stories of the life of the Buddha as well as to Jataka tales.

Though Newman calls the narrative a novel, Tsering Shakya uses Northrup Frye’s categories to characterize it as a romance instead. [4] His essay points out that the characters and scenes are highly idealized and conventionalized and that the author makes little attempt at verisimilitude. This can constitute an impediment for the non-specialist Western. The prince, as the title states, is “incomparable.” His every attribute is so superlative, his capital so grand, and Manohari so beautiful that the reader encounters rhetorically elaborate and highly repetitive descriptions at every turn. Though eighteenth century Tibetan aristocrats regularly exchanged aureate show pieces (rather in the manner of Elizabethan courtiers writing sonnets) as an entertainment, it is unlikely that modern readers will find the same charm in a translation.

The same conventions can also impede the reader’s reception of the story’s themes. The disquisitions on virtuous rule (for instance, the passages beginning on pages 189 and 237) are mild and acceptable, though they offer little of substance beyond general advice, encouraging honesty, temperance, and mindfulness of Buddhist teachings. However, in the turns of the story, it seems, deceit is perfectly acceptable for those identified with the side of virtue. Bhavakumara tries his best to trick Manohari and then frames Chetadasa in spite of the repeated appearance of sententiae to the effect that the noble always speak and act straightforwardly. The scene in which he mocks and tortures Chetadasa, putting him eventually to death (112), can hardly be read at all, much less with sympathy, by moderns.

Even the major Buddhist themes are presented with some ambivalence. For instance, the wise minister Viradhiman, very like Krishna addressing Arjuna in the Bhavagad Gita, counsels unconstrained violence in warfare as adherence to individual dharma saying “whether peaceful or violent” “each of us should engrave our duty in his heart.” (136) Though even this passage advises detachment (“It is unsuitable to have any faith in this world”), it is scarcely consistent with the standards later enunciated by the teachings of the ascetic Dharmeshvara (216 and 306) or the bodhisattva vow of Kumaradvitiya (235).

A lengthy and lyrical passage rhapsodically describes the sexual love of the hero and heroine (175 ff.), and yet Kumaradvitiya later (204-5) insists that even the finest love can only be a source of error. King Suyamati is a vivid example of self-deception enabled by lust as is Lavanya Kamal. Ultimately the prince describes, in a bravura passage using terms reminiscent of medieval European celibates, how the once beautiful woman’s flesh will die and become an object of revulsion. (251)

To Newman, an expert on Tibetan Buddhism both from her scholarship and from consulting living masters, the story is meant to illustrate that “staying active in the world is compatible with Buddhist virtue,” (xiii) yet its conclusion clearly privileges the extreme withdrawal of the ascetic as the only way to conquer death. (243) In fact the prince becomes a bodhisattva, filled with an unconquerable elation not by wholly avoiding samsara, but rather by first fully entering into its shimmering and deceptive play, then mastering desire, only to finally thread a path “between the extremes of nihilism and absolutism.” (275) Surely the narrative provides, not prudential advice on a well-regulated life as a lay person, but rather points toward the ultimate abolition of duality, solving (or perhaps sidestepping) the issue of whether dependent and compounded phenomena, are, in fact, real. From that perspective there is no monk or layperson, male or female, enlightened or ignorant, existent or non-existent.

Though differing in virtually every other way, The Tale of the Incomparable Prince reminded me of Wu Cheng-en’s wonderful Journey to the West, another excellent tale so entertaining that the reader may proceed on the route to enlightenment without ever noticing the slightest change. And indeed, there is no change. How could there be? And yet there is.

1. In 1938 Mipam: The Lama of Five Wisdoms was published with a Western audience in mind. The putative author was Lama Yongden, the adopted son of Alexandra David Neel who is generally considered to be the actual author. A novella Yeshe lhamo and Blacksmith topgyelIn by Dorjé Gyelpo (1959) was touted by the Chinese as was Turquoise by Langdun Banjor (1985). Several other works have appeared more recently.

2. His other extant books include an autobiography, a “praise composition,” a biography of Mid dbang Pho lha nas bSod nams stob rgyas, a Tibetan-Sanskrit lexicon, and a book on Tibetan grammar. He is sometimes styled Dokhar Tsering Wanggyel.

3. In Tibet the Indian tradition was naturalized by the 12th century scholar Chöjé Sakya Paṇḍita Künga Gyeltsen (Kun dga' rgyal mtshan). For the Sa skya writers the spread of Buddhism was the primary goal and aesthetic effects were for them, as for Augustine, means to that end.

4. Tsering Shakya, “The Development of Modern Tibetan Literature in the People’s Republic of China in the 1980s” in Modern Tibetan Literature and Social Change, ed. Lauran R. Hartley, Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani, p. 70.

Kurt Seligmann’s Riddlesome Symbols

A shorter version of this essay prefaces the forthcoming third Seligmann lecture to be published by the Seligmann Center in Sugar Loaf. Each is available from the Center or through me for $15.

The use of symbols outlined by Kurt Seligmann in his lecture on the topic explicitly seeks to contribute to expand the term’s definition, though his opinions rest securely on nearly a hundred years of scholarly elucidation of symbolic meaning in traditional contexts. While Seligmann’s view of symbols does give a nod to Surrealist ideas, it in fact deviates considerably from that advanced by Breton, and in the end he proposes a method for renewing old symbols for use in the twentieth century distinctly his own, while incorporating the insights of philologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and literary critics.

Greek and Roman mythology had long been included in the European curriculum, but systematic knowledge and comparison of other symbolic systems only began to emerge in the nineteenth century. Nineteenth century writers like J. J. Bachofen mined the expanding fund of knowledge of antiquity to posit an early stage of matriarchy while William Robertson Smith found significant parallels between ancient Hebrew and other ancient Semitic beliefs. While the “higher criticism” sought to place Christianity in its Near Eastern context, scholars like Max Müller and Heinrich Zimmer were bringing the West its first accurate knowledge of Asian texts.

At the same time pioneering work described and analyzed the cultures of what were called “primitive” societies. Edward Burnett Tylor, Oxford’s first professor of anthropology, distinguished between “savagery,” and “barbarism” on the route toward civilization, and James Frazer undertook the first comprehensive study of myths and rituals worldwide, published in The Golden Bough and elsewhere. [1]

Attempts to organize and meaningfully relate the new information coming from the study of Babylon, India, and China, as well as the forests of New Guinea and the Amazon, followed. Meanwhile the foundations of the study of semiotics, of signs in general, were being established by C. S. Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure.

The Surrealists, on the other hand, had little interest in the use of pre-existing symbols. In his 1924 Manifesto Breton suggests the child, the madman, and especially the dreamer as models of the imaginative subject, but never refers to myth or suggests the re-use of any existing symbolic image. Indeed, his entire emphasis is on the generation of inscrutable new objects for contemplation. Furthermore, such Surrealist images (devised in a “hypnagogic state”) do not fit a pattern of symbol and meaning, but rather a new model: “two distant realities” united to form a new one in which “the more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be -- the greater its emotional power and poetic reality.” Breton privileges “previously neglected associations” and “the disinterested play of thought,” and absolutely opposes convention and tradition. Through such newly-coined images, whose meaning is obscure if not ineffable, “we can hope that mysteries which are not really mysteries will give way to the great Mystery.” [2] The most significant techniques for developing such material are first, the linking of unlikely pairs, resulting in a new semantic field and second, the use of aleatory methods to generate ideas entirely independent of both the past and conscious thought.

The Surrealist attitude is succinctly expressed by René Crevel’s unequivocal statement: “Poetry which delivers us of the symbol sows liberty itself.” [3] The recommended Surrealist practice may be illustrated by the editing of Buñuel and Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou during which “no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation would be accepted." According to Buñuel, "we had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why." According to its maker (retaining his own emphatic capitals) “NOTHING, in the film, SYMBOLIZES ANYTHING.” [4]

Seligmann regards this Surrealist position as delusory. He begins his lecture by citing a number of symbols the meanings of which are “established by convention,” though even at this point he notes that interpretation is dynamic, changing through time. Surely he is thinking of his Surrealist colleagues when he observes that, “many an artist of today wishes to break completely with the past.” This cannot be done because the artist must have a public and “the only conciliator between him and the public . . . is precisely the symbol.” The symbol always represents at least a partial conjunction of what is signified by the sign-maker and what is understood by the sign-reader. Thus, the symbols of Surrealism “may seem at first glance to be entirely new creations. Close scrutiny, however, reveals their ties with the past.”

According to Seligmann one cannot rid oneself of semantic associations even when contemplating abstract forms. Though the non-figurative painter may abolish all conscious symbols, the unconscious is “ineradicable.” He says that “psychoanalysis has shown that all symbols . . .are signs arisen from the depths of our psyche.” Thus abstract paintings can be “read” though they lack explicit symbols because of this unconscious content in which “public and the artist meet upon common psychic ground.” Even a modernist’s “freely invented forms” are “not just a private affair” as they cannot escape this collective psychic base.

Furthermore, symbols are not only common to all humanity, they are in part consistent through history. The artist sounds very much like Jung when he discusses certain symbols the meaning of which “is deeply rooted in our psyches,” symbols that express “lasting ideas” will persist through the centuries. From a basic reassurance that the cosmos is orderly (and even just!) to the details of ritual, symbolic usage has always comforted humans with “the signs of civilization.” According to Seligmann “in times of uncertainty” (including his own era) “an uncanny profusion of images” will be produced in an effort to seize some control over circumstance.

According to Seligmann “tradition and convention” had always governed the reading of symbolic language, but along with clearly significant symbols, artists used as well archaic ones whose meaning had been largely lost, and these “mysterious” symbols came to be regarded as more magical, among them the attributes of Abraxas. Such underdetermined symbols, as the Symbolist poets recognized, potentially are more powerful than those with clearly assigned meaning.

Seligmann notes as well that intuitive symbols may arise naturally in the mind of the artist or the consumer of art and yet still be associated with pre-existing symbolic associations. Though such symbols are “direct,” spontaneous, not prescribed but “from personal emotions,” they remain related to earlier patterns of symbolic significance. Similar notions had already been developed by psychologists who found insight into the minds of their patients in exotic myths and rituals. Freud, to whom the Surrealists owed so much, quoted literary texts and classical myths to support his view of the dreams and fantasies he encountered in his practice. [5]

Even more important for Seligmann in his revaluation of the relevance of ancient symbols for modern man were surely the works of his fellow Swiss C. G. Jung who proposed the notion of a collective unconscious [6] in which were recorded not merely instincts but also archetypes. Jung delighted in exactly the same sort of symbolic religious, alchemical, and occult texts that Seligmann collected, and for both authors the illustrations were of primary interest.

Discounting the value of the chance conjunctions beloved by the Surrealists, Seligmann nonetheless finds particular significance in somewhat indeterminate symbols. According to him, though all symbols had at first a set coded meaning, some had become more “mysterious” as time passed, and these were particularly likely to acquire occult uses. He persists in recognizing what he several times calls “riddlesome” symbols as the most fruitful.

Seligmann, while accepting a general position on symbols less radical than orthodox Surrealism would propose, nonetheless insisted upon maintaining his own idiosyncratic fascination with magic. According to him certain powerful symbols “do not only reflect, they also emanate ideas.” If the meaning of those words is far from clear, the artist then explains that such symbols “assume talismanic power” and illustrates by the case of the Star of David used in occult operations as the Seal of Solomon. He suggests that a visual or written collective production of the sort called “exquisite corpse” may result in a “riddlesome emblem.”

More dramatically, Seligmann recounts the story of Victor Brauner who had represented himself with only one eye long before he lost an eye in an accident. To Seligmann his intuitive precognition is bound up with a symbol rich in parallels such as Oedipus and Cyclops. These occult claims have little effect on his aesthetics, either in theory or practice, though they do contribute a note of sensation and a vague background of imminent portentous significance. He slides here from Brauner’s story to the myths of the sort that inform his ultimate world view: alchemical procedures, the worm ouroboros, and the philosophical challenge to dualism, all firmly based in earlier symbolic systems.

In fact, Seligmann only modifies the view of symbols as signs with a conventional meaning by reinforcing the observations of Freud and Jung that the very same symbols sometimes occur to individuals independent of tradition and by his recognition that some symbols have partly or wholly indeterminate meanings. His fascination with symbols in magical use and in non-European cultures deviates from Breton’s Surrealist orthodoxy, and his acceptance of such procedures as the “exquisite corpse” seems designed primarily to please his colleagues in the movement, fitting awkwardly as it does with his historical investigations. A survey of Seligmann’s visual work indicates a lack of dependence on aleatory techniques and instead a consistent use of myth and symbol from the past including paintings representing Baal and Astarte, Melusine, Clio, Leda, Cybele, Amphitrite, Sphinx and Minotaur as well as works featuring motifs from Carnival and heraldry. Seligmann’s images, for all their distortions and individuality, are firmly rooted in European history. Rather than adopting the pose of rejecting the past, he has indeed made it new.

1. Other scholars associated with his methods including Jane Ellen Harrison, F.M. Cornford, Gilbert Murray and A. B. Cook revolutionized the study of Classics by noting similarities between ancient Greek and Roman beliefs and those of other peoples.

2. The French Symbolist poets likewise recognized the power of underdetermined symbols. Note too, the similarity to the koan used by some schools of Zen.

3. From L’Esprit contre la raison.

4. Luis Buñuel, “Notes on the Making of Chien Andalou,” in Art in Cinema, ed. Frank Stauffacher (San Francisco Museum of Art, 1947), 29-30.

5. In his New Introductory Lessons on Psychoanalysis, Freud explicitly says, “In such cases confirmations from elsewhere - from philology, folklore, mythology or ritual - were bound to be especially welcome.” He proceeds then to provide examples.

6. Jung first used the term in "The Significance of Constitution and Heredity in Psychology" (1929).


Page references in parentheses are to the Harvest paperback from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Claude McKay’s 1929 novel Banjo provides a fascinating view of the Marseilles demimonde inhabited by a loose group of copains of African descent who live by panhandling, casual labor, and periodic work as seamen. Subtitled “A Story without a Plot,” the narrative is as episodic and aimless as the lives of the characters depicted. Apart from employing a sort of Chekhovian “slice of life,” still something of a novelty when the book was published, this technique is altogether appropriate for McKay’s theme which privileges id over superego, immediate sensual experience over ratiocination. Accepting the racial mythology which had been used to denigrate blacks, he simply inverted the associated values, celebrating intuition and the wisdom of the African body as inherently superior to the enervated European mind. [1]

To contemporary readers this bipolar opposition is likely to seem pernicious for purely political reasons as it treats ethnic difference as essential. In spite of the fact that Taloufia, Banjo, Bugsy, Goosey, and the gang often discuss racism, Marcus Garvey, black nationalism, and similar issues, the book’s chief focus is more psychological than historical or social. In fact, while always acknowledged, racism and black alienation are regularly secondary to the book’s celebration of life lived in the moment and the embrace of immediate sensual experience.

The line of hedonistic thinking extends from antiquity [2]. Fifty years before McKay’s book, Walter Pater had formulated a passionate cri de coeur from similar attitudes with his ambition “to burn always with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” The same attitude accompanied by a racial paradigm like that in Banjo is central to Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro” where petty hoodlums are praised for violent crime because their experience is so intense.

The tone of the whole volume is established in the opening passage in which Banjo exults in the breakwater, calling it “mahvelous” and “wonderful.” The book is filled with breathless excited catalogues. [3] One example occurs in Chapter 11 “Everybody Doing It.”

The scene was a gay confusion – peddlers with gaudy bagatelles; Greek and Armenian vendors of cacahuettes and buns; fishermen calling shell-fish; idling boys in proletarian blue wearing vivid cache-col and caps; long-armed Senegalese soldiers in khaki, some wearing the red fez; Zouaves in strking Arab costumes; surreptitious sou gamblers with their dice stands; a strong mutilated man in tights stunting; excursion boats with tinted signs and pennants rocking thick against each other at the moorings – everything massed pell-mell together in a great gorgeous bowl. (140)

Such delight – the scene is “gorgeous” -- is familiar to modern American readers. One might almost be reading Whitman or Jack Kerouac. Ray and Banjo, and presumably their author as well, are Ur-hipsters.

It is this anti-philosophy, not racial theorizing, that leads Ray to make such currently unacceptable statements as “We are a fun-loving race” (194) and to admire Banjo for his “negation of intellect” (242) or to note “the happy irresponsibility of the Negro in the face of civilization.” (313) Though it is blacks whom he characterizes as having an “intuitive love of color” and “strong appetites,” (165) he is in fact stating a categorical preference.

McKay sometimes sounds racially specific about this ability to lose oneself in the dance of life. “Negroes,” he says “are never so beautiful and magical as when they do that gorgeous sublimation of the primitive African sex feeling. In its thousand varied patterns, depending so much on individual rhythm, so little on formal movement, this dance is the key to the African rhythm of life . . . “ (105) Yet his claim is that through such harmonious participation one penetrates, not to an understanding of Africa alone, but to the very essence of reality. The most dramatic expression of his celebration of ecstatic experience is surely the lengthy scene that concludes Part I with a description of Banjo’s “orchestra” playing “Shake that Thing.” The passage mounts to a grand crescendo that concludes “eternal rhythm of the mysterious, magical, magnificent – the dance divine of life . . . Oh, Shake That Thing!” (58)

One might speculate about the role McKay’s homosexuality played in this insistence on pleasure’s demands, but it could equally be linked to the “roaring twenties” ethos or even to his Communism, meant, after all, to provide the greatest well-being to all (though the Stalinists could not understand him). To me, neither a child of the new twentieth century nor gay nor an orthodox Communist, his attitude is reminiscent of the painfully lovely lyrics of John Keats who found refuge from a world of pain in the immediacy of his experience and in poetry that made his passionate subjectivity available to a world of fellow sufferers, a grand band of copains made up of all those making their way along this black earth.

1. The same distinction, familiar already from D. H. Lawrence and others, appears in the négritude poets who owed so much to McKay.

2. All life naturally and unreflectively avoid pain and seeks pleasure. In written sources, apart from scattered passages in Sumerian and Egyptian texts and the book of Ecclesiastes, the most systematic exponents of hedonism in antiquity were the Cyrenaics.

3. See, for instance, also passages beginning on pages 13, 52, 67, 86, 284, and 307.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Sartre's "Black Orpheus"

Numbers in brackets refer to footnotes; those in parentheses are to Sartre’s “Black Orpheus” as it appeared in John MacCombie’s translation in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Autumn, 1964 - Winter, 1965), pp. 13-52. This text is conveniently available online.

Though in general socio-political readings are a subdivision of theme, and all thematic considerations must in any event be balanced with considerations of form and style, négritude writers themselves have foregrounded race in the movement’s very name, and this fact alone justifies (if not demands) a racial response. Yet racial consciousness can only arise in situations of the encounter, mixing, and conflict among differing ethnic groups, so processes of reaction and creolization inevitably swirl around an identity which in a homogeneous environment would be taken for granted.

This fact is implicit Senghor’s seminal 1948 Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache. The mere fact of the poets’ use of the French language, reflecting their thoroughly French education is itself evidence of the mixed character of the project. Unlike the writers of the Black Arts Movement, the négritude writers did not shrink from this entanglement with the culture of their colonialist oppressors. Césaire, for instance, declared “What is négritude if not the aggressive proposition of fraternity?” [1] and Senghor called for a “give and take,” resulting in “a cultural métissage,” “a dynamic symbiosis of complementary parts.” According to him “we are all cultural half-castes” and, in fact, “all the great civilizations . . .resulted from interbreeding.” [2]

The introductory essay in Senghor’s Anthologie by Jean-Paul Sartre titled "Orphée Noir" ("Black Orpheus”) explores this vexed issue, while incidentally guaranteeing the book a wide audience. Sartre may have seemed an unlikely sponsor for these writers from the distant colonies. The Existential philosophy for which he is best-known had, in its prewar form, centered on the individual and had been little concerned with ethical concerns and virtually not at all with political issues.

The Nazi occupation of France and his nine month term as a prisoner of war altered his views. Upon his return to Paris he became a founder (along with Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and others) of the resistance group Socialisme et Liberté. Later he wrote for Camus’ underground paper Combat. The posture of l’homme engagé, the Existential man of action, became for him a proper, even a heroic, response to the absurdity of the human condition. [3] Until the end of his life, he espoused Marxism and remained active in left agitation.

The Surrealists on the other hand had expressed revolutionary sentiments, socialist, communist, and anarchist from the start as had the Dadaists before them, and in January of 1927 their leaders joined the Communist Party and encouraged others to do so. [4]

Apart from political considerations, the alliance of négritude writers with Surrealism might have been an insuperable stumbling block for Sartre as he had fiercely criticized the French Surrealists. He rejected Freud and the very notion of a subconscious, characterizing the movement as “an attempt by adults to cling to the destructive daydreams of their adolescent existence.” To Sartre the Surrealists, though they constituted the most important modern poetic movement, nonetheless signaled the bankruptcy of poetry in the West with their abandonment of rationality and absorption in “verbal games.” In Sartre’s view the quietism and impotence of Surrealist theory is evident in their emigration during the Occupation. [5] “They were the proclaimers of catastrophe in the time of fat cows; in the time of lean cows they have nothing more to say.” [6]

Thus, though he had little affinity with their artistic method or their French patrons, his sympathies lay with the anti-colonial posture of the négritude writers. “Black Orpheus” explicitly foregrounds both the historical moment and Sartre’s own white bourgeois European subjectivity. It is most significant for him that négritude “is inserted into Universal History, it is no longer a state, nor even an existential attitude, it is a Becoming, the black contribution to the evolution of Humanity.” [7] The “mission” of Africans,” like the proletariat’s, "comes to him from his historic position.” (47) According to Sartre cultural nationalism is a stage that necessarily precedes blacks’ organizing for socialism. (19) [8] In fact Sartre begins with politics: “When you removed the gag that was keeping these black mouths shut, what did you expect?” (13) but the political views remain anchored in his own subjectivity. Opening with the declaration “I am talking now to white men” (16), he nonetheless says that whites cannot write about négritude. (35) Yet his own warning does not stop him. To Sartre the black race is “chosen” because of its suffering. He sometimes even approaches the Christian notion of the redemptive power of Christ’s Passion, praising the “righteous suffering” of Africans, (42) and claiming that they discover their own pride only to abandon it “through supreme generosity.” (50) It is through the experience of “the absurdity of suffering” that blacks come to a truth elusive to the bourgeois. (45-6)

He conflates the aesthetic and the political, claiming that “black poetry in the French language is, in our time, the only great revolutionary poetry.” (16) In the poems of négritude he finds “the most authentic synthesis of revolutionary aspirations and poetic anxiety . . . essentially pure Poetry.” (35) [9]

Yet much of Sartre’s appreciation is grounded in the acceptance of old stereotypes but with value judgements reversed, a characteristic evident as well in many European connoisseurs of the primitive. Whites are ruled by a crippling “rationalism, materialism, positivism” (17), while blacks possess feeling rather than rationality and a mystic “rapport” in place of science (36) The beauty of black poetry arises from an “intuitive seizure of the human condition and the still-fresh memory of a historic past [slavery].” (43) [emphasis added] “The black man is closer than we to the great period when, as Mallarmé says, ‘the word creates Gods.’” [10] He is therefore enabled to create objective poetry that approaches the charms of magical practice. (29)

Sartre is well aware that the whole structure is mythic. He says quite clearly that the poets’ Africa is “an imaginary continent” though at the same time “more real.” In the end “if he turns to look squarely at his négritude, it vanishes in smoke.” (21) Though it might be purely mythological this assignment of racial roles is familiar. From Montesquieu and Chateaubriand to D.H. Lawrence and recent Africaphiles like Ulli Beier and Janheinz Jahn, and such musicians as Peter Gabriel and Mickey Hart, white authors have used non-white peoples to represent their own subconscious. They have used this view of non-European peoples to criticize their own cultural values and to privilege irrationality and passion. Thus Jahn argues that African poetry is timeless and pure, devoid of historical moment [11], specifically because such a myth is meaningful to him as a white European just as many in our own country continue to view our aboriginal people as noble savages though the term has become taboo.

In fact the trois pères themselves collaborated in the construction of this bipolarity. As students they had encountered the ethnological theories of Leo Frobenius and Maurice Delafoss [12] which seemed to validate the idea of an Africa which was truly civilized, though quite unlike Europe.

Sartre’s politics, as well as, one guesses, his scientific bias and his common sense, resists racial essentialism, though his reasoning seems at times forced. Whites, he says, have “real human flesh the color of black wine” beneath their “strange livid varnish” of whiteness. (14) In spite of the fact that the poems in Senghor’s anthology “were not written for us,” whites can still “tear off our white tights” in order to become simply men” and thus “become part of the totality from which those black eyes exile us.” (15) [13] “This poetry – which seems racial at first – is actually a hymn by everyone for everyone.” (16) “Anti-racist racism” provides the only way out for both black and white. (18) Négritude so efficaciously explodes dualities that it is androgynous. (43)

Sartre’s sponsorship of négritude thus rests ideologically on his own revaluation of Surrealism as well as a pair of complementary or contradictory tendencies: the provisional acceptance of racial conventions and a fiercely engaged partisanship in behalf of the exploited. In spite of the undoubted significance of Sartre’s endorsement, his judgements seem driven by his political engagement rather than by aesthetic considerations of the poetry itself. Though such discernment may be ethically admirable, evaluation of art can never rest on historical or biographical considerations. The most righteous political art may be incompetent, while those with despicable views may produce great works. Sartre’s “Black Orpheus” is more significant as a document of mid-twentieth century race relations and the decline of old-style colonialism than as a study of new poetry. Fortunately for the reader, it is also a great piece of writing. Just as the essays of James Baldwin are monuments of magnificent American prose quite apart from their historical significance, “Black Orpheus” is a beautiful essay, lit with passion and structured with dramatic rhetoric.

1. Lylian Kesteloot, Négritude et situation coloniale, p. 84. Her Les ecrivains noirs de langue française (1963) was published in translation as Black Writers in French: A Literary History of Négritude in 1974.

2. Senghor: Prose and Poetry, ed. and trans. by Guy Reed and Clive Wake, p. 97 and 74-5.

3. See Sartre on Cuba and later references to Che Guevara as "not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age." Feeling perhaps that this understated his position, Sartre later called Che the "era's most perfect man."

4. Breton, Aragon, Eluard, Unik and Peret joined the Party, though their movement had earlier been associated with anarchism, including contributing a regular column to the anarchist paper Le Libertaire. The ambivalence of the relation between Communists and Surrealists is evident in Breton’s Second Surrealist Manifesto (1929) in which he declares loyalty to “historical materialism” and promises Surrealists will prove “fully capable of doing our duty as revolutionaries” while expressing the fear that other Communists may regard his group as “strange animals.” In 1932 Breton was expelled from the party not for bourgeois individalism but because of his association with Trotsky. At a Communist-dominated International Congress for the Defence of Culture in 1935 the Surrealists who had attended were denounced and allowed only marginal participation. In 1938 an essay “Towards a Free Revolutionary Art” signed by Breton and Diego Rivera was published in the autumn edition of the Partisan Review. It is, however, reprinted in the collection of Trotsky’s writings, Art and Revolution. In La Clé des Champs (Free Rein), published in 1953, Breton explains that Trotsky was the primary author. In 1952 Breton wrote "It was in the black mirror of anarchism that surrealism first recognised itself."

5. Some intellectuals who were even more actively anti-fascists (such as fellow philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch) criticized Sartre’s level of militancy during the Occupation.

6. What is Literature, translated by Bernand Frechtman, p. 220.

7. Ibid. 158-9.

8. Americans may be reminded of the “Black Power” espoused by Malik el Shabazz (né Malcolm Little) and Kwame Ture (né Stokeley Carmichael) before their arrival at socialist ideology.

9. Similar sentiments appear in What is Literature and other essays: “For once at least, the most revolutionary plan and the purest poetry come from the same source.” (p. 330)

10. See p. 37 as well. The opposition is restated on the next page as intuition and intelligence. On p. 39 the erotic potency of the black peasant is celebrated. For Sartre, French is an “analytical” language and thus used by blacks only with internal struggle. See p. 23.

11. Jahnheinz Jahn, Neo-African Literature, 207.

12. See, for instance Michael Dash, Before and Beyond Negritude, 537 and A. James Arnold, Modernism and Negritude, 37.

13. Though Sartre surely was unaware of the fact, his image coincides with the usage of the word oyibo for white people in Nigeria. Literally, this means “peeled.”

Seven Poems from Léon-Gontran Damas

for Aimé Césaire

I feel laughable
in their shoes
in their dinner jacket
in their stiff shirt
in their detachable collar
in their monocle
in their bowler hat

I feel laughable
with my toes that were not born
to sweat from morning until night’s disrobing
with swaddling that weakens my limbs
and robs from my body its loincloth beauty

I feel laughable
with my neck a factory chimney
with headaches that stop
each time I greet someone

I feel laughable
in their salons
in their manners
in their low bows
in their enormous need for monkeyshines

I feel laughable
with all that conversation
until you are served in mid-afternoon
a bit of hot water
and some rheumy pastries.

I feel laughable
with the theories they shape
to the taste of their needs
of their passions
of their instincts wide open at night
like a doormat

I feel laughable
an accomplice among them
a pander among them
among those bloody hands red and frightening
with the blood of their ci-vi-la-za-tion

They Came Tonight

for Léopold-Sedar Senghor

They came the night the
spun from
of eyes
the frenzy of hands
the frenzy
of the feet of statues
how many of ME ME ME
are dead
since they came that night when the
spun from
of eyes
of hands
of the feet of statues

Hold Off Now

Hold off now with the blues
the boogie-woogie
the muted trumpet
the mad foot-stomping
the joys of rhythm

Hold off now the swinging sessions
with crowds
by cries of hepcats.

Hold off now dropping out
and bootlicking
and brownnosing
the attitude
of those who would be white.

Hold off now for just a bit
The infantile life
and desires
and needs
and narcissism
and individualistic

Nerve Pain

Nerve pain of a running tap
fills the pitcher of my building’s super
till it’s sucked up by a rainbow.

End the nerve pain of a running tap
that fills the pitcher of my building’s super
till it’s sucked up by a rainbow.

Remove from the running tap
the pitcher of my building’s super
till it’s sucked up by a rainbow.

or sever the hand to the elbow
the rainbow that sucks up
the pitcher of my building’s super
which is filled by the nerve pain
of a running tap.

The Blues
for Robert Romain

Give back my black dolls
that they can dispel
the image of wan whores
selling love and promenading
on the boulevard of my ennui

Give back my black dolls
that they can dispel
the constant image
the unreal image
of heaps of spanked puppets
whose miserable mercy
the wind brings to the nose

Give me the illusion that I’ll no longer need to comfort
the need splayed out
before the snoring mercy
under the world’s unthinking disregard.

Give back my black dolls
so I can play with them
the naïve games that come naturally
lodged in the shadow of my laws
my heart recovered
my daring
I become myself again
newly myself
from what I was Yesterday
quite simply
when the time of uprooting came

Will they never know this resentment in my heart
the eye of distrust opened too late
they made off with the space that was mine
the clothes
the days
the life
the song
the rhythm
the work
the way
the water
the shacks
the grey smoked earth
the wisdom
the words
the palaver
the elders
the beat
the hands
the tempo
the hands
the foot-stomping
the sun

Give back my black dolls
my black dolls
black dolls

The Black’s Lament
for Robert Goffin

They gave me back
heavier more tired

My present’s overlaid on my past
staring eyes roll with anger
and shame

The days of inexorable
have never stopped
with the memory
of what had been
my life cut off

It goes on
my dullness
from days gone by
blows from knotted ropes
body burnt
burnt from toe to back
dead flesh
branding irons
of red hot iron
arms broken
under the whip unleashed
under the whip that makes the plantation work
and the sugar mill drink the blood my blood
while the foreman’s pipe shows off to the sky

for J. D.

The days themselves
have assumed the shape
of African masks
to any profanation
of quicklime
flattered by
a piano flatters
repeating the same old tune
of moonlight that sighs
any sort at all
in the shrubbery
et cetera

A Brief History of Negritude

Négritude is a movement of Francophone writers of Africa and the African diaspora who sought to develop a literature reflecting distinctly African values and sensibility. Of course, traditional African poetry, largely oral, but sometimes written, had long existed, as well as a scattering of individual authors in European languages, but the fact that a flowering of literary thought and work arose first in French rather than English or Portuguese was influenced by differences in techniques of colonial rule.

Though all colonial governance was exploitative and often brutal, significant variation existed. The English preferred “indirect rule,” in which they found cooperative traditional rulers who would work with them, in this way maintaining control while leaving much indigenous culture intact. On the other hand, the French sought to educate selected Africans in the French curriculum, and regarded a colonial subject who had mastered not only their language, but who could write explications of Corneille and Racine as a sort of fellow countryman. Thus residents of the motherland’s départements et territoires d'outre-mer have long had French citizenship and representation in the National Assembly and Senate.

Among the promising young students brought to Paris for higher education were Aimé Césaire from Martinique, Léon-Gontran Damas from French Guiana, and Léopold Sédar Senghor from Senegal. These three produced the journal L'Étudiant noir in 1934–1935 where the word négritude first appeared in a piece by Aimé Césaire.

Yet négritude’s trois pères did not work in isolation. [1] They admired Alain Locke’s 1925 anthology The New Negro and met American writers of the Harlem Renaissance, many of whom, including Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, and Richard Wright, spent time in France. [2] Sisters Jane (or Jeanne), Paulette, and Andrée Nardal from Martinique hosted a literary salon and published the Revue du monde noir. Jane Nardal’s article “Internationalisme noir,” one of the earliest expressions of pan-Africanism, was published in 1928. Etienne Léro, René Ménil, and Jules Monnerot from Martinique published a single number of a radical journal titled Légitime défense in 1932 in which Léro condemned as dodoism (that is to say, obsolete) poets such as Daniel Thaly who imitated French literature and advocated instead a poetry influenced by black Americans, Surrealism, and Marxism. Ménil later served as editor of Aimé Césaire’s 1941 Tropiques which had a thoroughly Surrealist program.

Légitime défense, a legal term roughly equivalent to self-defense, had been used by Breton in a 1926 pamphlet declaring Surrealism’s revolutionary autonomy. The Surrealists as a group had also spoken on the specific issues of race and colonialism. In 1932 a manifesto titled “Murderous Humanitarianism” [3] was signed by the principal white figures in the movement such as Breton, Char, Crevel, Éluard, and Tanguy, as well as by Martiniquans Pierre Yoyotte and Jules Monnerot. “Murderous Humanitarianism” was predominantly anti-capitalist, calling exploiters “slavers” and supporting the Communist Party. [4] The few comments on culture per se remain governed by political considerations, and jazz itself seemed to the authors merely a “distorted” vogue like chinoiserie.

“Those Blacks who have merely been compelled to distort in terms of fashionable jazz the natural expression of their joy at finding themselves partners of a universe from which Western peoples have willfully withdrawn may consider themselves lucky to have suffered nothing worse than degradation. The eighteenth century derived nothing from China except a repertoire of frivolities to grace the alcove. In the same way the whole object of our romantic exoticism and modern travel lust is of use only in entertaining that class of blasé clients sly enough to see an interest in deflecting to his own advantage the torrent of those energies which soon, sooner than he thinks, will close over his head.”

The solidarity extended to the colonial subjects by the Surrealists on political grounds was returned by all the important négritude writers, though in varying degrees. In the introduction to Légitime défense, Léro wrote, “we accept without reservation surrealism, to which—in 1932—we bind up our future.” Césaire explicitly identified as a Surrealist; indeed, he regarded himself as a Surrealist before Surrealism.

I was ready to accept surrealism because I already had advanced on my own, using as my starting points the same authors that had influenced the surrealist poets. Their thinking and mine had common reference points. Surrealism provided me with what I had been confusedly searching for. I have accepted it joyfully because in it I have found more of a confirmation than a revelation. . . Surrealism interested me to the extent that it was a liberating factor . . . if I apply the surrealist approach to my particular situation, I can summon up these unconscious forces. [5]

Damas’ first collection of poetry was introduced by Robert Desnos and illustrated by Frans Masere, both closely associated with Surrealism. In a revealing hedge, Senghor insisted on the distinction between European reason and African intuition, saying “Negro-African surrealism is mystical.” [6]

The alliance was furthered by other factors, both in Communist politics, and Surrealist theory. It is surely significant that at this time, Stalin’s line encouraged ethnic identification and every recognized minority in the USSR was granted its own national territory such as the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Far East. [7] Apart from (and even in a sense in opposition to) revolutionary aspirations, Surrealism shared with négritude writers the celebration of magic and the subconscious. The fetishization of the primitive by European avant-gardists is well-known, [8] while African and African-American authors found the Surrealist rejection of European rationalism and other values attractive, allowing them to view what had seemed superstition as a sort of higher wisdom.

In 1945 Damas’ Poètes d'expression française 1900–1945 appeared with an anti-colonialist introduction quoting Léro's “Misère d'une poésie” (“Poverty of a Poetry”). The book included writers from Africa, the African Diaspora, and Indochina. In 1948 the definitive anthology of the movement was published, Senghor’s Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache. The book’s introductory essay by Sartre titled "Orphée Noir" ("Black Orpheus") guaranteed that the volume would receive widespread attention.

Though Sartre had grown to be sympathetic to the politically revolutionary aims of many négritude poets, he had been actively hostile to Surrealism, most notably in his “Situation of the Writer in 1947” which calls them “victims of the disaster of 1940,” noting that, for all their revolutionary rhetoric, their emigration and solipsistic endeavors in the face of fascist occupation signaled their fecklessness. Indeed, like this condemnation of the white Surrealists, his motives for endorsing writers of color seem primarily political.

Négritude has been criticized from several angles. Wole Soyinka’s jibe "The tiger does not proclaim its tigerness, it jumps on its prey" [9] is doubtless the most well-known. The fact is, of course, that, unlike humans, the tiger proclaims nothing whatever in words, but only in actions. Soyinka later moderated his opposition, saying “When you pass where the tiger has walked before, you see the skeleton of the duiker, you know that some tigritude has been emanated there.”

Tension arose between black writers to whom Marxism or a similar political orientation was primary and those who pursued a specifically Afrocentric art. Stanislas Adotevi from Benin condemned the assignment of racial characteristics even by fellow Africans, and, in particular, objected to the projection of a special intuition or mysticism on Africans. [10] He described the movement contemptuously, saying that, négritude was the “soporific of the Negro. It’s opium.” By its tenets, "in the great orchestra of the Universal, mankind will have Europe as its conductor, white. The Negro will hold the rhythm section. " [11] For some such as the Cameroonian Marcien Towa [12], Senghor in particular was guilty on the one hand of accommodating and finally accepting colonialism and on the other of cultivating a “biologisation du culturel,” which amounted to a sort of racism. Paulin Hountondji, student of both Jacques Derrida and Louis Althusser, objected to what he called “ethnophilosophy, implying that different concepts were applicable for different peoples.” [13] Perhaps most influential was Frantz Fanon, psychiatrist, revolutionary theoretician, and former student of Césaire's, who claimed not only that that négritude was simplistic, but also that the notion of the "black soul was but a white artifact." [14]

The influence of these poets is profound. Without attempting further detail, here it will suffice to note that among the groupings and individuals which would not have been the same without their example are political figures such as Harry Haywood, Maulana (Ron) Karenga, and Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), artists such as Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, and Amiri Baraka, the Afro-Surrealism and Black Arts Movements, Larry Neal, Ishmael Reed and Neo-Hoodoo, Etheridge Knight, Henry Dumas, Jacques Stephen Alexis’ Marvelous Realism, D. Scot Miller, the Last Poets, and, in academia Henry Louis Gates and Molefi Kete Asante.

Whatever evaluation a critic may make of their work in itself, the place of the négritude movement writers is secure in literary history. Their work marked an end of the slavish imitation of European literary models and the beginning of the construction of a modern African literature in European languages. It was Senghor, Damas, Césaire and their fellow-countrymen, not the colonialist overlords, as Sartre’s phrase suggests, who “removed the gag that was keeping these black mouths shut,” [15] changing and enriching both social and aesthetic thought.

1. All literary history is continuous, but the historian must begin somewhere. Apart from earlier African writing in European languages, Arabic (and Swahili and Hausa) and Bantu, I omit here the earlier movements in the Caribbean of Indigenism in Haiti and Negrism in Cuba.

2. Damas said that McKay was the movement’s spiritual founder and dedicated his first book of poetry Pigment to McKay. Lilyan Kesteloot found that even in the sixties all three of the pères could “still cite entire chapters” of McKay’s Banjo. See Les écrivains noirs de langue française: naissance d'une littérature.

3. Later published in the remarkable Nancy Cunard's Negro Anthology (1934).

4. Revolutionary politics had, of course, been an essential part of the Surrealist program as of Dadaism before it. This element is routinely neglected by more recent theoreticians, practitioners, and scholars.

5. From an interview of Aime Césaire by Rene Depestres at the Cultural Congress of Havana, 1967.

6. By far the best general treatment of the topic is Jean-Claude Michel’s The Black Surrealists.

7. With their tailing of Stalin’s line expressed in the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, the American Communist Party during this era suggested the creation of a similar black national state in the South. This was never a popular notion in American black communities, though in general the Party enjoyed disproportionate support from blacks, for instance electing Benjamin J. Davis, the editor of the Communist Party’s journal The Negro Liberator, to the city council from 1943 until he was jailed for his Party membership in 1949.

8. See for instance, my own “The Fetish of the Primitive in Twentieth Century Art.”

9. Apparently first said in Kampala in 1962. Soyinka’s second comment was from a 1964 talk in Berlin.

10. See, for instance, his “Léopold Sédar Senghor : Négritude ou Servitude?” Poésie de la Négritude: Approche structuraliste, and Essai sur la problématique philosophique dans l'Afrique actuelle.

11. “Dans le grand orchestre de l’Universel, l’humanité aura pour chef d’orchestre l’Europe, le blanc. Le nègre tiendra la section rythmique. La négritude doit être le soporifique du nègre. C’est l’opium.” See also his Négritude et négrologues.

12. His critique is repeatedly restated, including in Poésie de la Négritude and Identité et Transcendance.

13. See Sur la philosophie africaine.

14. See Peau noire, masques blancs.

15. See the opening line of “Black Orpheus.”