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.

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Friday, October 1, 2010

The American Supermarket

One of the ways in which American culture is conquering the world is the spread of the supermarket through Europe and the developing world, displacing the open air stalls, the bakeries and butcher shops that had distributed foodstuffs for millennia. There is surely much to regret in this change, and I recognize the evils or agribusiness: the development of patented seeds, the cultivation of produce for endurance and appearance rather than flavor, the energy wasted to transport produce halfway round the world, the peculiar American commitment to corn, and I am not even touching the trend toward marketing prepared foods, uniformly more expensive though of lower aesthetic and nutritional value.

Still, entering an American supermarket, who can fail to be seduced by the array of possibilities, the richness of choice, the ease of obtaining an immense variety of foodstuffs so conveniently available? What a paradisiacal vision the meat counter would have seemed to the generations of semi-starving ancestors! Who could avoid shopping for images with Ginsberg? Or fail to say grace with Howard Nemerov?

I can walk those arid aisles with toiletries and cleaning supplies, cellophane tape and Tums, past all the pre-made meals and those just half pre-made. The rewards are great, who would complain when one can glimpse a sudden bell pepper from Holland like a model with absolutely flawless yellow skin! The Israeli oranges, extravagant in peel but so fragrant and almost too full of themselves! Kohlrabi that look as though they should have been grown underwater! Kale asserting a darkly serious vegetable strength, the conundrum of a whole coconut, fine apples made to fit the hand and in a dozen varieties, the fruit Athenaeus called a gift from Dionysos! What glories, too, of grains and seeds, a good share of what people have found toothsome these last few thousand years.

Then, too, there is the meat, that “the bloody/Mess of our birthright, our unseemly need,” according to Nemerov, who proceeds to thanks the Lord for having “conferred aesthetic distance/ Upon our appetites.” All those once-hot tissues now a cool wall, silent, awaiting preparation, latent with promise for our own needy flesh. Can we discern the ways of cattle, swine, sheep, and fowl from these clues they have left behind? Can we put on their virtue when we dine? Aware that my body would be consumed by beasts of a dozen phyla were it lying in the woods, knowing that those ancient Near Eastern reliefs of a predatory lion on its agonized prey represent life itself which can live only upon life, I have never quite understood moral vegetarianism. Of course, reason may have less to do with the issue than the memory of an odor such as the one that caused M. Loisel to exclaim “Ah! le bon pot-au-feu! je ne sais rien de meilleur que cela!” or perhaps a great joint of pork that has infused the house after cooking for half a day.

We pay, of course, for the grand panoply of possibilities in the supermarket through the homogenization of the local and seasonal resources, and we receive something rather different from the tables of previous centuries. We may practice virtually any cuisine, but, for that reason, possess none of our own.

It is really rather similar in the marketplace of beauty and thought. Just as the modern cosmopolitan mind can no longer see one mythology alone, and thus has little choice but to exchange the believer’s depth and simple certainty for breadth and an embarrassment of possibilities. Knowing the whole crew -- Zeus and Thor and Kwan Yin and Christ – it is as impossible to privilege one alone as it would be to commit to a lifetime of Oaxacan food, tasty though that may be. If I can listen to Indian ragas as well as Bach fugues, I am likely to hear neither with the ear of the specialist, but to hear both at all is no small thing. The Tibetan Buddhist monks seem to have the highest of times in their theological disputations, laughing and back-slapping and posturing grotesquely, but I am afraid one would have to leave Plato, Aquinas, and Spinoza forever behind in order to join them. We who find ourselves in the belated twenty-first century have little choice but to range about omnivorously, unsure whether it be a pleasure or a curse.

In the USA today, we can only make the most of our wide range and excel as comparatists whether we would have chosen to be or not. If my chapattis are no match for those of a Delhi-wallah, and my baguette cedes to the ordinary Parisian boulangerie, I can at least revel in the range of possibilities available at the supermarket and on my bookshelves.


In the 1970s the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad between Chihuahua and Los Mochis (called the Chepe) had been completed for only a few years. Its route passes through the high peaks of northern Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental where even roads had not penetrated before. The Tarahumara, celebrated by Artaud in the ‘30s for their veneration of peyote and by many for their long-distance running had learned to sell their crafts at the Divisadero train stop on the Continental Divide, others had contracted to receive visitors curious to step into their huts in small tour groups, and big hotels had already been built in the in the Barranca del Cobre itself, but Creel was still a dusty frontier town with unpaved roads used primarily by horses. The only souvenirs were available at the church’s mission office. I would like to think the traditional value of sharing or kórima will survive the construction of the airport now planned for Creel.

In the days before online research could provide the prospective visitor with information about even rather remote locations, one wandered. After a short time, it became clear that here, as in much of Africa, there was no middle ground between the humblest hotel and the grandest. Somewhere off in the valley, amid verdant growth only a short distance from this chilly height, were world-class hotels, offering amenities which aspired at least to equal those available in world capitals. And here in town?

Upon asking “¿Dónde hay un hotel barato?” someone pointed us toward the Hotel Gomez, inconspicuous with only a crudely painted sign a few inches high above the door. Barato it was. The place had a dozen or so rooms off a main corridor on two floors. It was midwinter in the mountains and decidedly chilly. The room was dark, and the bed, over many years of faithful service, had developed a decided declivity in the center. Out back was an outhouse for all to use in common, thoughtfully provided with three holes in close proximity, so its users might discuss the day’s events while making themselves comfortable there. After dark, this convenience was pitch black. We found it necessary to wear clothing to sleep as the thin blankets, even when doubled by those in the wardrobe, were insufficient.

In the morning the two Franklin-type woodstoves in the corridor were burning hot, but not so hot as to prevent the Tarahumara men lounging on either side from resting their bare feet directly on the iron. They had inch-thick calluses, doubtless from going barefoot on the rocky mountainsides, and I feared at any moment the smell of cooking flesh might rise.

It was nearly New Year’s Eve, and we saw notices for a Gran Baile with live music. We mentioned our interest in attending to one local in a restaurant, and she cautioned us, “You can’t go. There will be so much drinking. Too crazy.” When a second informant told us the same thing with evidently kind intentions, we decided not to go. We were, after all, traveling with our preschool daughter.

She loved walking with us on the footpaths that extended out from Creel in every direction. Now and then we would pass a dwelling, sometimes literally a cave, often built into a sheltered spot with stone, sometimes free-standing. Clare, not yet four years old, would run merrily ahead to see whether the residents had any children. The native people here, no less than Mexicans in general, adore children, so she made an instant and natural bond between us and the locals. The parents may have been startled and disarmed by our sudden appearance, but the young children made differences dissolve.

The trip up from Los Mochis had been glorious – it is rightly rated by many one of the grandest train trips in the world. Completing its less spectacular eastern portion to Chihuahua, we saw the Tarahumara sitting on the city streets, selling their wares, as Amish men, those unlikely Germanic campesinos, strode past, and, in those days, Pancho Villa’s widow still appeared to tell tourists about the bullet-riddled black 1919 Dodge Roadster in which her husband had been killed.

Placing the Popular in the Structure of Literature

As one currently undergoing a dissertation in medieval lyrics, I may risk arriving at this topic as an intruder if not simply as a lost wanderer. I'll readily confess I share with most of you the comparatist's pleasure in leaping disciplinary boundaries, but in this case the initial impression of bridging two radically different bodies of knowledge, not to mention sensibilities, is misleading.

It is a fact rarely acknowledged, and more rarely given its full theoretical due when fundamental critical issues are discussed that the vast majority of human cultural production is in a very real sense popular. I am not thinking only of the fact that Louis L'Amour outsells Ezra Pound or of the unthinkably enormous audience for television. Diachronically as well and over the face of the earth, those art works which are "popular" in the sense that they are accessible to every member of a given society or subculture and which are, in fact, consumed virtually universally dominate the field without any doubt. The Enuma Elish, Greek tragedy, European mystery plays, the contemporary dramatic cycles of the Urhobo people of Nigeria: each of these performances consists of a poetic verbal text and a public spectacle witnessed by the community as a whole. Today we have football rituals, television, and background music in the supermarket, but we also have a category of high art, elite art, serious art, art-art.

This division is perceived by some with pride and by others with pain. Among those hurt by the withering or diversion of the mass audience are Flaubert who lamented "We all lack a basis," Artaud who was sufficiently infuriated by the alienation of art from society as a whole that he idealized the Tarahumara and the Balinese and, for Europe, proclaimed first "no more masterpieces," and, later, "all writing is pigshit." Most attempts to address this split have been sociological, focusing on conditions of production or reception to distinguish one type of art from the other.

This is not, however, the only division I mean to examine. Popular culture has very often been regarded as primarily as “mass culture,” the art produced as a commodity under modern capitalism. Only occasionally do articles on oral literature (what used to be called primitive or tribal literature) appear in the pages of the Journal of Popular Culture. Nonetheless, few critics who have expertise on science fiction also discuss Homer or materials gathered by anthropologists. Indeed, the problems of definition can be vexing. Is the popular identical with the oral? What place do both occupy in the corpus of literature as a whole? Surely answers to these questions will go far to defining the role of popular literature in the academic world.

This project was originally motivated by the observation that, while oral literature and popular literature seem to have a great deal in common, critics show great respect for Homer and civility at least for texts gathered by anthropologists, but often dismiss popular texts about which they have thought very little. These attitudes are triggered by the use of sociological criteria for the definition of popular culture. The result is either the old elitism (which has no difficulty considering thinking the popular as that which doesn't measure up) or a contemporary enthusiasm equally unbased in theory. I mean to critically examine some of the ways in which the popular has been defined and then to seek non-sociological criteria by which to define the place of the popular in the structure of literature. These criteria will indicate the close relation between popular and oral literature. I shall then suggest what implications popular texts have for our general speculations about the nature of literature. I shall be speaking very generally and tossing out references to a great variety of texts, many of which would not normally be classified as popular. Nonetheless, by the end of my remarks, I hope to have corralled all of the reluctant data into coherent regions mf not satisfying pigeonholes.

I shall first justify my project by pointing out difficulties inherent in some of the criteria for definition that have been commonly used in the past. First, in defining popular or oral literature literacy has often been used as the essential threshold from one to another. While this notion had some credibility at a time when the majority of most populations was illiterate, it is untenable today when a great many people practicing traditional oral art are also literate. Even Parry and Lord found a fluid interplay between oral performers and published versions of their songs. It will never be possible to determine whether Homer could read or not; it is enough to know his texts were generated by a system that works for the illiterate. The makers of medieval romances may well have translated written texts, but they often performed before largely illiterate audiences. Onitsha market literature and turn-of-the-century Midwestern newspaper verse, while produced by individual authors who were literate, clearly have "popular" and even "oral" characteristics.

Further, social class has often been used to identify popular from what in this context might be called courtly literature. But the oldest examples, from tribal texts to Aeschylus were performed before general audiences, while today rock and roll and television are consumed with equal satisfaction in slums and suburbs. Clearly a better definition of the relation between popular and high art is needed. If the distinction between high and popular art is unclear, that between the oral and the popular is even more problematical. I have been collapsing the two, accurate enough on the basis of accessibility to all, this is, but they are far from identical. Did McKinley Morganfield, upon leaving Stovall's Plantation to become Muddy Waters in Chicago pass from one genre to another? If so, why are the recordings made by Alan Lomax so strikingly similar to those on Aristocrat and Chess?
With the passing of old notions of Volksdichtung arising spontaneously from the masses (and Parry to assure us that some singers were very good indeed and others altogether mediocre), individual authorship seems invalid. Pay can hardly work either, as all societies compensate their artists to one extent or another. Political criteria would obscure the likeness between Chinese revolutionary opera and Broadway shows.

Is there any way to bring the rich but confused series of examples I have compiled into orderly relation? To answer this question, I think a brief excursus is necessary about the poles around which much discussion of literature has revolved since Romanticism. Many critics and theorists, and not a few poets, have built their barricades around positions basically defined by the continuum of tradition and innovation. Some have aligned themselves with the romantic impulse to privilege the novel (Wordsworth when young, Pound, Shklovsky, Artaud) or the "neo-classical" emphasis on tradition (Pope, Arnold, Curtius, Leavis).
Similar polemical positions characterize the popular/elite art controversy. Some celebrate what they perceive as popular specifically as tradition-challenging (Bakhtin, Leslie Fiedler) while others attack it as destructive of all culture (Max Horkheimer or Leo Lowenthal for whom popular culture is a useful source of information but which in itself is spurious, the very counter-concept of art).

The simple fact is that these disputes dissolve when one realizes that every instance of language and certainly every literary artifact is at once conformist and nonconformist — if it were not the former it would be incomprehensible and the latter is necessitated by the fact that every context and occasion is different so no utterances can be exactly equivalent. This does not deny the reality of the two poles: the most ordinary of good mornings can approach total repetition while Lautgedichte and John Cage's random compositions approach total unpredictability.

The fact that theories of art have been built about each end of the opposition, though, is suggestive. Even though the most self-conscious claims for the innovative are fairly recent, an injunction like that in Geoffrey of Vinsauf that the poet must "rejuvenate" the language indicates the antiquity of the idea. The reason that plausible and impassioned cases have been made for both tradition and innovation in literature is that each is necessary. Defamiliarization can only occur on a background of familiarization. The sonneteer must have an audience with a set of assumptions before he can manipulate those assumptions.
None of these remarks, though, alters the fact that certain genres are more highly conventional than others. There can be little doubt that popular literature (and I understand the oral literature here as well) is more predictable. This has been frequently noted and, indeed, constitutes the grounds for most of the attacks leveled against the popular for being boring, repetitive, artless hackwork. In fact, those who champion certain works of popular culture often try to demonstrate that their choices are acceptable by standards of irony, innovation, and the like.

I would claim an equal aesthetic function for highly iterative patterns. Repetitiveness, or reliance on extreme conventionalization, produces a familiarity to the words in precisely the Shkloskian sense of automized or algebrized language. The forms of popular literature clearly use the same linguistic formulae repeatedly (they are thus particularly easy to parody), television programs possess a discourse quite their own; many traditional mysteries, romance novels, and pornographic texts clearly use and reuse verbal material with obsessive regularity. This is, of course, the very characteristic on which Parry, Lord and their followers founded the notion of the oral. The principle of "economy" provided the criterion for discerning what is oral from what is not, and economy relies on a fund of formulae recognizable.
The child obviously learns the verbal cues which identify the genre of fairy tales at a very early age. An oral literature sort of economy is characteristic of medieval romance regardless of the degree of "orality" or literariness of conditions of its production or consumption. Extreme forms of this conventional repetitiveness include the many Native American Indian songs from the Plains groups which consist of the sane brief phrase (often meaningless) repeated for hours or church liturgy which is enacted weekly for centuries without change.

This familiarization which, it seems to me, has a claim equal to that of defamiliarization as a basis for the aesthetic text, appears not merely in aesthetic discourse. It is evident also in larger descriptive clichés, in turns of plot, in the thematic materials retailed through the work. This point is so obvious it scarcely bears documentation, but, contrary to Shklosky’s claims, here it is quite clear that the repeated structures do not fade and disappear due to their automization, rather they are underlined again and again specifically to imprint them in the mental programs of their consumers.

Probably the most persistent repetitions in Homer are the descriptions of battle and sacrifice, obviously central cultural components for the Greeks. In medieval romance the Christians defeat the Saracens in order to validate the dominant ideology just as on television Jackie Gleason used to embrace Audrey Meadows and their differences dissolved at the end of their half hour, and motion picture and television alike regulations required that the police must get their man. In this way both marriage and the social order will be perpetuated.

Apart from situation comedies, similar highly conventionalized patterns occur in romance novels, pornographic texts, and fairy tales. Liturgy represents an extreme example. The repetition of comforting codes is surely a more common pattern in imaginative production than the more familiar Romantic concept that art brings a critical perspective, pointing out contradictions, tensions, and problems.

Much myth of considerably greater antiquity uses a very similar sort of sympathetic magic leading to happy endings through narration — this is, for instance a common method of shamanistic healing, and one practiced no less in our own society than among the Crow Indians. Certain critical discussions of popular culture under capitalism have centered on this function of culture as a replicator of ideological givens (for instance, Dorfman and Kattelarts How to Read Donald Duck or Eco’s discussion of Superman in The Role of the Reader).
But these partisan views are questionable before the example of tribal societies which inculcate ideology even more rigorously but toward ends more easily romanticized (as in recent mythologizing about Native American Indian). The critics of direct cultural transmission generally take little notice of the official art produced in socialist countries which seeks to fulfill the same function. Indeed the classical Chinese opera and the modern revolutionary opera are at one in the formal sense of using strict and highly repetitive conventions to teach and reinforce ideology. This is, indeed, the old Horatian ideal, upheld by E.D. Hirsch in our day of instruction as a function of literature. We can glorify the ideals taught in Balinese shadow theater, appreciate those of Homer, but rarely have sympathy for the ones that arrive daily on our television sets. Be that as it may, the fact must be recognized that the formal method practiced in each case is the same.

Once it is granted that these carefully designed highly repetitive structures do not disappear, it remains to describe what they do. For one thing, they construct myths. Eco speaks of the myth of Superman in a way that is formally correct according to Levi-Strauss’s notions of myth. That myth exists extratextually in that it is derived from a group of texts and is not confined to any single one among them. The mythic character comes not from specific similarities with Oedipus or any other model but from the formal structural repetition which creates a body of expectations and which expresses a set of values. Thus, every television show is susceptible to reading as myth. Viewers vary rarely treasure the memory of an individual show, and stations almost never rebroadcast great shows from a series (as distinct from random reruns); rather what is enjoyed is the myth generated by many shows. What Eco calls the iterative scheme in Superman is according to him "that on which most famous authors have founded their fortunes” (he mentions mystery writers), and this is only partly because audiences enjoy having their preconceptions confirmed, and are comforted when told that all that they had believe about men and women, about parents and children is true.

Beyond this ideological message, there is clearly a pleasure in encountering the same ideas, the same words, the same characters again and again. The consumer delights in his own initiation just as academics at scholarly meetings enjoy hearing certain terms, certain names. This recognition reinforces our own sense of belonging, entirely apart from whether we agree with the utility of the concepts or with the authors cited. It is quite clear then that this pleasure in repetition is not peculiarly the property of the naive — it is the same when we enjoy our own competence whether to converse in French, to spot typologies in a Biblical text, or to discuss the merits of a new shortstop.

This sameness has a further function as well. As Shklovsky seems inadequately to have realized, familiarization is what allows the possibility of defamiliarization. Alteration of convention is an essential part of convention itself. Information may be more densely packed into a text when there is a highly regular structure so that a mere mention of a single word can trigger reference to a whole body of earlier texts. This is similar to the way in which Pindar uses myth and also to the way in which school students communicate with single slang words or even raised eyebrows which carry abundant meaning based on previously established codes.
Whenever a convention appears, it is instantly subject to numerous tropes: it is reversed, used ironically, turned upside down, and inside out. Each of these may then become a model which the next writer will twist about another turn until often the origin of the convention is lost, in the way that the origin of Bob Dylan in Dylan Thomas has vanished for most. To select one point along this path of transformation and to applaud its “originality” is to ignore the larger pattern that provides context. In fact every detail is preceded and followed by greater or lesser variations, for only in this way does human culture develop.

In spite of the fact that this simple descriptive fact confounds the very opposition of innovation to convention, it is nonetheless true that texts vary along a considerable spectrum of predictability. Great works and worthless ones occupy every stage of this continuum, so convention can be no criterion for value. The worth of the conventional, however, has been so neglected these last few hundred years, that their use is obscure to many modern readers.

First of all, conventions and readers’ expectations play an essential role that in all language (indeed in all cognitive processes), allowing an increase in semiotic density by making more details significant. Just as a code of sound changes in prefixes and suffixes adds meaning to nouns and verbs, a code of variation in convention allows a greater quantity of data to be expressed in every word. Then, there is the simple pleasure of repetition itself, familiar to every parent who reads to toddlers, but equally a factor in the universal popularity of mindless television. The highly conventionalized forms of writing have distinct characteristics: they tend to express themes that transmit received ideas, they are generally very clear and readily accessible, and they are likely to use paratactic structures. The function of such texts, often written off in this era of the Romantic individual genius, deserves further investigation.

Any reading of literature that fails to consider the highly conventionalized forms in oral, popular, and mass culture will be willfully ignoring the vast majority of human artistic production.

The Texture of Traherne’s Religious Thought in the Centuries of Meditations

Here I seek to show that the seventeenth century poet was a mystic expressing his own insights rather than Christian orthodoxy when the two clashed.

Traherne's religious thought resists categories. Attempts to trace in him a spiritual progress common to the main tradition of Christian mystics (if such a tradition even exists) seem to me artificial and forced [1], and all his critics find that his emphases diverge from those of other meditative poets of his time. His comparative lack of concern with sin, death, and penance, to take one example, is a notable exception to conventional practice, [2] and his cosmology is complex and individual. Searching for parallels to clarify his thought, some of his readers [3] have developed comparisons with later writers (often Blake or Wordsworth) that seem to me misleading and largely fruitless. I believe that the origins of Traherne's ideas may be found and their nature best described in three major influences: first, the neo-Platonism that was being revived at Cambridge and elsewhere; second, the original insights of his own intuitions, intuitions that often diverged from his conscious orthodoxy, but which informed his work with energy and direction; and third, the common-places of Anglican devotion which were the intellectual stuff of daily life for Traherne as a clergyman at a time when the "new" thought of neo-Platonism was suspect in many quarters. [4]

Without any speculative intrusions into Traherne's mind in his construction of an idiosyncratic system, I will attempt to distinguish these influences in his work and to indicate a few of the most provocative problems their combination poses for the reader in understanding his religious writings as a coherent whole. I shall be concerned primarily with Traherne's concepts of God, nature, and sin in their interrelationships inasmuch as they illuminate his "felicity," the motive of much of his religious enthusiasm and the experiential kernel, as it were, of his faith.

In my reading the first two of the strains that I have outlined are original to Traherne in that he arrived at their intellectual and emotional conclusions himself, however many had preceded him along like paths, while the last, the orthodox, gives form to his intuitions and explains several otherwise inconsistent statements without contributing itself any notions that are really essential to my thesis. This will become more clear as I proceed to specific detail.

Traherne’s assimilation of some amount of neo-Platonic thought is accepted by the two critics, Wade and. Salter, who have surveyed the whole range of his work; indeed, Wade even feels that he nay be considered a member of the group known as the Cambridge neo-Platonists. [5] After the fact of a resemblance (and its limits) has been demonstrated by a comparison of similar passages in Traherne and a representative neo-Platonist, it will be possible to place this element in the poet's thought more precisely into perspective with the experiential and the orthodox.

As my central text for Traherne, I use the Centuries of Meditations as the fullest expression of his thought and hence the most appropriate work to investigate as a source for thematic analysis, though the same ideas are often reflected in the poetry. John Smith’s Selected Discourses may serve as an example of neo-Platonist thought and rhetoric of the era. This work is a systematic exposition by an author whom Wade claims to have been closest to Traherne in spirit, who may have even had a direct influence [6], and whom Salter adopts for a suggestive but rather summary comparison as a matter of course without particular justification.

Both Smith and Traherne use clearly Platonic language to describe God as a supreme mind in harmony with which one may attune his own mind. Smith quotes “Tully” with approbation as saying that, “The mind that understand [divine] things is like to that in heaven that made them.” [7], and he deduces God's existence from an unsatisfied desire within most men for unity with God by the principle of the attraction of like things, [8]

Similarly, Traherne says of God in an important passage, “He is One infinite Act of KNOWLEDG and Wisdom . . . we being an Act of KNOWLEDG and Wisdom as He is. When our Souls are Present with all Objects, and Beautified with the Ideas and Figures of them all. For then we shall be Mentes as He is Mens. We being of the same Mind, with him who is an infinit Eternal mind . . .Heaven and Earth, Angels and Men, GOD and All Things must be contained in our Souls, that we may become Glorious Personages, and like unto Him in all our Actions.” [9]

Traherne also discusses at length the joyful value of a burning dissatisfaction and longing in men as a proof of their rightful heavenly estate and a sign of their kinship with the divine. I will have occasion later to return to some notable differences that distinguish Traherne and Smith, but for now only the concept of God as a mind is significant.

For both Smith and Traherne the final object of life is union -- with God in this world. Smith speaks of "the true metaphysical and contemplative man, who, running and shooting up above his own logical or self-rational. pierceth into the highest life. Such a one, by universal love and holy affection, abstracting himself from himself, endeavours the nearest union with the divine essence that may be — knitting his own centre unto the centre of divine being.” [10] “We must open the eye of the soul, which indeed all have, but few make use of." [11] Traherne provides many similar passages. At the end of the fourth Century he describes his goal as "A Perfect Indwelling of the Soul in GOD, and GOD in the soul. So that as the fulness of the GODHEAD dwelleth in our Savior, it shall dwell in us." [12]

It is interesting to note that both Smith and Traherne use the image of the eye (Traherne in the passages and poems concerning the “Infant-Ey” and elsewhere as well) as the vehicle to an apprehension of God. This fact underlines the highly experiential approach that both feel to be necessary to know God. Although reason will bring the worshipper a long way it is only intuition beyond logic, or, in Traherne's terms, a “higher reason” that can complete his knowledge. Both speak of "tasting" the glory of God, and Smith says that, "divinity” is something rather to be understood “by a spiritual sensation than by any verbal description," [13], and Traherne says that the contents of his book cannot be got by any learning but only by life.

For Smith this acknowledgement of the limitations of logic makes little impact on his working method as a whole; he is always careful to provide rational arguments for each of his points. For Traherne, on the other hand, logic is often superfluous and the tumbling words of his repetitions and exclamations offer only their enthusiasm for justification.

The distinction becomes even more important in the manner in which the two deal with the problem of evil. For Smith evil is an active force opposing God. He devotes entire discourses to specific forms of error and catalogues the evils of man. His last discourse, "Of a Christian's Conflicts with, and Conquests over, Satan," suggests in its title alone the prevailing tone of vigilance and militance in the cause of the good. In contrast, for Traherne sin is essentially an unfitting turning from God, a failure that could only arise out of ignorance. "No man can sin that clearly seeth the Beauty of Gods face: Becaus no Man can sin against his own Happiness, that is, none can when he sees it Clearly willingly and Wittingly forsake it." [14] He says in the same passage that anyone who can see the kingdom of glory which is the visible world rightly understood can debase himself in sin. The misplaced values and limitations of men result from a decay from original perfection in childhood. Han's nature is not depraved but merely subject to error. "Few will believ the Soul to be infinit: yet Infinit is the first Thing which is naturally Known. Bounds and Limits are Discerned only in a Secondary manner." [15]

He repeats Christ's injunction that we must become as little children, "so that those Things would appear to us only which do to Children when they are first Born. Ambitions, Trades, Luxuries, inordinate Affections, Casual and Accidental Riches invented since the fall would be gone, and only those things appear, which did to Adam in Paradise.” [16] “And that our misery proceedeth ten thousand times more from the outward Bondage of Opinion and Custom, then from any inward corruption or Depravation of Nature: And that it is not our Parents Loyns, so much as our Parents Lives, that Enthrals and Blinds us.” [17]

In Traherne's view, then, original sin is simply the tendency to error. It is reenacted every generation and is only the more regrettable because it is unnecessary. Savages, he says, live lives very close to God and nearly approximating prelapsarian bliss. [18] With this departure from Smith (closely skirting heresy) one enters that strain of Traherne's thought that derives directly from his own experience and intuition. The basis of this thought, characteristic of his individual genius, may be described as an intense numinous apprehension of the beauty of the world. It is pervasive throughout the body of his work, perhaps most widely known in the passage beginning "The Corn was Orient and Immortal Wheat . . .” [19]. Since this worldly and apparently sensual delight contradicts the normal Platonic contempt for the world [20] as nothing but vain illusion as well as contradicting the usual Christian view of the world as a vale of tears, to be valued only as proving ground for the next life, Traherne had to reconcile the insight he knew from experience with that he had learned.

Surprisingly, he has his cake and eats it too. On the same pages that he celebrates the glories of the physical world, he denies them. Despite such affirmations as these, selected at random from the many that fill his pages, "By the very Right of your Sences you Enjoy the World. Is not the Beauty of the Hemisphere present to your Ey?” [21] and "Your Enjoyment of the World is never right, till you so Esteem it, that evry thing in it, is more your Treasure, then a Kings Exchequer full of Gold and Silver.” [22] he can also include such statements as "Thy body is confined, and is a Dull lump of Heavy Clay, by which thou art retarded,” [23] or "The Material World is Dead and feeleth Nothing. But the Spiritual World though it be Invisible hath all Dimensions.” [24] Matter is at once for him. "Bulk,” a solid, retarding weight without life, and it is a great marvel, animated by God and provided expressly for man's pleasure. There are, I think, two groups of pas-ages that sketch out a resolution of the problem: one in which the solution is Christian and Biblical, in terms of Adam and the fall, and one which is more Platonic, directed at finding the same pure perfection in the forms of ones perception that the Platonist finds in the forms of his contemplative thought.

Traherne often expresses his love of the world as love of God, seeing God's qualities in every created object. “The World, is a Pomegranate indeed, which GOD hath put into mans Heart, as Solomon observeth in the Ecclesiastes, because it containeth the Seeds of Grace and the Seeds of Glory. All Virtues lie in the World.” [25] Sometimes he describes the world as an occasion for praise the purpose of which is to gratify God, who in Traherne's theology has passions and desires, with a grateful human race. At other time the chief value of nature is as the book of God, the source wherein man can read of God's designs and his wishes through the examples of created things. All of these motives for praise are more or less common in seventeenth century devotional literature, but the unusual strain in Traherne is the repeated implication that the world in which we live is the same as Eden.

He is always reminding the reader, "You are the Adam, or the Eve, that Enjoy [the world.]” [27] "Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and Curious Apprehensions of the World.” [28] "The Citie seemed to stand in Eden, or to be Built in Heaven." [29] Just as he all but denies original sin in holding out a possibility for perfection for every generation, he almost convicts himself by implication of Pelagian beliefs, including the denial of original sin and man’ innate depravity.
He glorifies the world in terms that are more Platonic than Christian by finding the highest expression of goodness and wisdom not only in man's mind (or soul) and in God's mind, but in the external world, too, which he calls "the Body of GOD."[30] Following Platonists with whom he was familiar like Ficino who had explained the proper way to love a woman, as a type of divine wisdom and beauty, the temporary embodiment of transcendental principles, Traherne repeats the argument, adding "It is a vain Thing to say they loved too much. I dare say there are 10000 Beauties in that Creature which they hav not seen."[31]"

The same qualities are present in any created object. Traherne sees in a grain of sand. God's "infinit Goodness and Wisdom and Power and Glory,"[32] He says that it is a divine thing which should imitate to hold the world in “a Thought containing Heaven and Earth.” [33] Here just as in the passage quoted earlier [34] concerning the nature of true union with God, he stresses stresses the need to hold the entire world within oneself in order to become like God, He says in another place that God is upholding the existence of the material world by a thought in his mind which, if he should neglect for a moment, heaven and earth alike would collapse.[35] "these Liquid Clear Satisfactions, were the Emanations of the Highest Reason, but not atchieved till a long time afterwards.”[36] The New English Dictionary comments on the seventeenth century meaning of emanation as “that which proceeds from a source,” adding that the word was associated particularly with theories that regard either the universe as a whole, or the spiritual aspect of it, as deriving from the essence of God and not from an act of creation out of nothing.[37] This, it seems to me, is precisely what Traherne is talking about.
Finally, I think that he comes very close to a direct justification for his extravagant world-love based in Platonism in another place. "An Object Seen, is in the Faculty Seeing it, and by that in the Soul of the Seer, after the Best Maners. Whereas there are eight maners of In-being, the In-being of an Object in a Faculty
is the Best of all.[38] By a kind of side-stepping, he claims that his joy in the world is really joy in his own mind and in God's nind, though this thought seems irrelevant to the emphatically physical passages in which the joy is expressed.
This is by no means the only problem that arises in understanding Traherne's religious system. The amalgam of three influences out of which it is constructed displays many other disparities. For example, near the end of the first century he enters into a lengthy meditation on the crucified Christ which seems to have little in common with any other portions of his work. He says with unbounded affirmation “all men and Angels should appear in Heaven,” [39] without ever elaborating on this striking heresy.

I have discussed only a few examples of the many problems that have been largely ignored by those who are so impressed by Traherne's ardor and his prose style that they may neglect the real substance of his thought. An attempt to integrate the whole of the Centuries of Meditation would demand a book-length study, but I hope that here I have been able to suggest major elements that must be considered in that future work.

Despite the mixing of elements not always obviously compatible, Traherne produced a book that is striking and beautiful, and considerably more subtle than one might think from its surface orthodoxy.

1. Here I am thinking particularly of the analysis in K.W.Salter, Thomas Traherne;_ Mystic and Poet, Barnes and Noble (New York, 1964), p. 43 ff.

2. Though he is not unique. I would take the opportunity to mention the name of Christopher Smart in the next century who exemplified many of the same ideas and stylistic characteristics. I do not believe that there is any evidence of direct influence from Traherne.

3. Gladys Wade and Margaret Willy, among others.

4. For a defense that reflects the bitterness of the specific charges, see Simon Patrick, A Brief Account of New Sect of Lattitude-Men, Augustan Reprint Society (Los Angeles: 1963).

5. Gladys Wade, Thomas Traherne, Princeton University Press (Princeton, 1946), p. 221.

4. Ibid. p. 221. Smith's Discourses were published in 1652.

7. John Smith, Selected Discourses, Rivington (London, 1821), p. 86-87.

8. Ibid., p. 148.

9. Thomas Traherne, Poems, Centurie.s, and three Thanksgivings, ed. by Anne Ridler, Oxford Press (London, 1966). In all my references to the Centuries of Meditation I am using this edition, but I will give only the century and the meditation numbers, preceded by the author's name. Here the reference is to Traherne, II, 84.

10. Smith, p. 24.

11. Smith, p. 18.

12. Traherne, IV, 180.

13. Smith, p. 4.

14. Traherne, II, 97.

15. Traherne, II, 81.

16. Traherne, III, 5.

17. Traherne, III, 8.

18. The fact that he will not grant his noble savages unqualified perfection is due, I think, more to the dogma that only Christ can save than to any fault he imagines in them.

19. Traherne, III, 3.

20. See, for instance, Smith, p. 15.

21. Traherne, I, 21.

22. Traherne, I, 25.

23. Traherne, II, 51.

24. Traherne, II, 90.

25. Traherne, II, 96.

26. Traherne, II, 94 is one example.

27. Traherne, II, 12.

28. Traherne, III, 1.

29. Traherne, III, 8.

30. Traherne, II, 21.

31. Traherne, II, 68.

32. Traherne, II, 67.

33. Traherne, II, 87.

34. See page three above.

35. Traherne, II, 87.

36. Traherne, III, 22.

37. For this observation, I am indebted to Salter, n. 36-37.

33. Traherne, I, 100.

34. Traherne, III, 22.


Patrick, Simon, A Brief Account of the New Sect of Latitude-Men, Augustan Reprint Society, no. 100 (Los Angeles, 1963).

Salter, K.W., Thomas Traherne, Barnes and Noble (New York, 1966).

Smith, John, Selected Discourses, Rivington (London, 1821).

Traherne, Thomas, Poems, Centuries, and Three Thanksgivings, ed. By Anne Ridler, Oxford Press (London, 1966).

Wade, Gladys, Thomas Traherne, Princeton Press (Princeton, 1946).

Willy, Margaret, Three Metaphysical Poets, Longman’s, Green, and Co. (London, 1961).

Lu Xun

I wrote this piece about thirty-five years ago for what could, I think, properly be called an ultra-left publication, though I suppose I knew that my style was too individualistic to fit well there. Lu remains worth reading. Julia Lovell's translation of Ah Q published by Penguin Classics is markedly better than the old Foreign Languages Press version and is, of course, more widely available.

Now that the fantasy of people’s rock and roll has faded around the bend following folk music, and religious hypocrites seem to have cornered all the tribal rituals but football, where is people’s culture? Old anthologies of socialist poetry tend to seem like Alfred Lord Tennyson in his cups, and the new Chinese opera sounds rather like Russian movie sound tracks imitating Hollywood. Such vestigial fingerlings of outworn style are short-lived, lasting only until the artists’ cadences are redefined to fit the next new scene. As in any evolutionary process, the first shoots of new growth are peculiarly instructive. Anyone looking for new ways of reading or writing literature can learn from Lu Xun (Hsun before the days of pin-yin) whom Mao called “the bravest and most correct on the cultural front.”

The pattern of his life is significant and familiar, almost an archetype of growth: born in 1881 with semi-genteel village origins (though he was later mythologized as dirt-poor) he had wide interests and liberal ambitions and set out to study of Western medicine in imperial Japan. He turned then to the reformist avant-garde literary work ending in breakdown, anomie, and solipsism resolved finally in communist rebirth. His youthful affinities with the “progressive” West are reflected in the early stories’ reminiscences of Chekhov, Gogol, and Joyce, but these associations wither as the depth of his involvement with his own village and its people deepens and grows profound.

His story “A Madman’s Diary” is a fancy dress paranoid terror trip that would be existential were it more trivial. But listen! This paranoid’s delusions are true. He describes a world of people set on devouring one another. Right now, out in the street, he sees the tell-tale glow in their eyes, the predatory gleam and the answering fear. And it’s true. We all see that look daily. The Internationale asks, “how many on our flesh have fattened?” As a surreal image of Angst it couldn’t have gotten much further than Night of the Living Dead done with class, but fleshed out in the real world it’s a frightening vision of individualist economics and all the psychological corollaries ride along gratuit. The most frightening phantoms are the real ones.

The central character in “The True Story of Ah Q” is one of the most brutalized of village street people. At first the story struck me as similar to Cossery or the Bowles/Muhammed Mrabat tales (and see their new piece “Hadidan Aharam” for a startling apocalypse of the social order in blood), but it soon develops to a new pitch of implications under the uncompromising pressure of Lu’s social analysis. The picaresque adventures of this beggarly lumpen are detailed now humorously, now poignantly, while social upheaval rumbles in the background like far-off thunder. The revolution, it seems, reached Ah Q’s time and place in grotesquely distorted disguises, so, apart from the wry commentaries on the shapes, it takes little direct role in the plot. The people are not aware of their possibilities, but it isn’t very long before the reader realizes with a shock that those grotesques have portrayed the old order with such burning accuracy that a portion of Ah Q’s experience has become one’s own. Just as the relations of the lowest, most wretched of the townspeople present only a naked parody of the voracious thievery and genteel violence going on over their heads, so the revolution itself enters only in motley.

For the moment, Ah Q, with a fragmentary glimpse of revolutionary potential can imagine only revenge and role reversal. A larval revolutionary, he sets himself up to be killed like a real one, taking a rap for the town gentry who have installed themselves as the new “communist” regime. He dies under the voracious wolf-like eyes of his fellow townspeople who can’t yet distinguish their comrades and friends from their natural enemies.

These and sixteen other stories, all revealing and suggestive, are included in the Selected Stories in a smooth enough translation from Beijing for something like $1.50. Read them, think about them, write a story of your own. The Bicentennial would be an appropriate time for some new flashes of American culture.
Lu Xun did not limit himself to the Zhdanov brand of “socialist realism.” His Old Tales Retold tropes on Chinese traditional lore from mythology and history in an unpredictable variety of ways: some are delivered straight; others are turned inside out or slyly rapiered in close embrace. Another good cheap book. And should you wish to explore the whole field of Chinese fiction which was, from its origins, antagonistic to the court and scorned by the scholars, you might have a look at Lu’s history of the genre, so far as I know, the only such work available in English.