Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Notes on Recent Reading 14 [Algren, Hauptmann, Rolle]

The Last Carousel (Algren)

I mention this late volume reprinting magazine pieces mainly as an excuse to talk a bit about my enthusiasm for its author without rereading a stack of his books. I’m likely to try to do him justice at some point, but for now, I will just note that Algren wrote a number of moving and artful novels: the more-or-less proletarian Somebody in Boots, then Never Come Morning, based in Chicago’s Polish Near-North side, and the stories made into popular movies, Walk on the Wild Side (which used some material from his first novel) and Man with the Golden Arm. The Neon Wilderness contains some of the best short stories of the mid-twentieth century. His Chicago: City on the Make contains a marvelous populist history of the city and an eloquent, if unconvincing, plea for a vulgar Marxist approach to literature.

This volume, though largely late hackwork, contains some good pieces. First of all, it reminds us of how a writer was still able to make a few dollars with his talent not so long ago. A good share of the contents of The Last Carousel appeared in Playboy, but there are also articles from mainstream popular magazines such as Holiday and the Saturday Evening Post as well as from more intellectual journals. I particularly enjoyed “The Passion of Upside-Down-Emil, A Story from Life’s Other Side” and a nonfiction essay on “The Cortez Gang.”

The Weavers (Hauptmann)

Hauptmann’s play is a rare example of first-rate agitprop, vividly depicting the weavers’ oppression and the inhumanity of the capitalist. It is truly historic both in its subject matter and in its effect on theater. Most striking is the author’s pioneering portrayal of poor people on stage as other than buffoons or spearholders. Following Antoine’s Theatre Libre and anticipating Artaud and the Living Theatre, Hauptmann developed a “mass drama” with choreographed “spectacle” in which the protagonist is collective and the viewer’s attention is sustained not through plot line but by a kind of almost musical progression in mise-en-scene. The plays’ shifting characters and settings, as anti-Classical as can be, must have been deeply disorienting to the early Freie B├╝hne audience.

The apparently sentimental extremes he depicts are nothing more than the simple truth: the careless rich, the abjectly suffering poor exist yet today, if not in Silesia, then in India, Guatemala, the rural backroads of China, or even our U. S. of A. Hauptmann does not idealize the weavers; indeed, though the wrongs done them are powerfully portrayed, they are also shown to strike out in senseless violence.

The Fire of Love (Rolle)

Mystics have always been viewed with suspicion by the hierarchy of the church, since their approach to the divine is based in their own experience rather than obedience to authority. Rolle studied at Oxford (and later at the Sorbonne), but remained steadfast in his devotion to contemplation rather than theology, becoming a free-lance hermit (a vocation that calls to few in today’s Christianity) while still a teenager. His difficult and uncompromising nature led him to move often for a time, but h eventually attracted admiration and support.

Rereading this work by one of the most prominent among the 14th and 15th century English mystics, I was struck by his concrete presentation of mystical experience in heat, sweetness, and music, and his resulting impatient, even cantankerous, opposition to the church’s hierarchy. His fierce denunciations of Scholastics and Franciscans display little Christian charity, but who would not be stubborn if he feels he communes with God?

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