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, February 1, 2013

Appropriation of Biblical Narrative in Patience

Patience, the fourteenth century alliterative poem by the Pearl-Poet, provides a revealing model of the appropriation of a scriptural source. Though in many ways a typical homily in form, offering a Old and New Testament text to illustrate a lesson, the poem’s interest for most moderns arises from its irregularities. For instance, the opening praises not all “patience” (or acceptance or humility which also figure in the author’s concept), but in particular patience when wronged and treated with “heþyng.” (20)

The story of Jonah in the Hebrew (and the Vulgate that forms the background to the poet’s version) is most often cited by Christians as typological, an anticipation of Christ with the three days inside the beast prefiguring the interval between the crucifixion and the resurrection. The tropological or moral implication is also clear. Job provides the more common exemplum for patience, and Jonah certainly recalls Job in his railing, but the story also recalls that of Abraham and Isaac in its teaching of submission and acceptance. Whereas the earlier patriarch was willing to obey the Lord even to killing his son, Jonah is punished for his recalcitrance. Further, the time in the beast’s belly does not altogether reform his rebellious tendency, what the text calls, in its northern Midlands dialect, likely to slow even a reader comfortable with Chaucer’s language, his “janglande” (90) or grumbling, and he must be reproved a second time. Though the Bible’s account is telegraphic in the style of spare folk narrative, the poet indulges in considerable expansion, including colloquialisms and psychological motivation both of Jonah and of God. In the hands of the medieval poet, the story is more “realistic” and its thematic point altered to celebrate the virtue of patience.

Though in many ways a typical homily in form, the poem’s interest for most moderns arises from its irregularities. For instance, the opening praises not all “patience” (or acceptance or humility which also figure in the author’s concept), but in particular patience when wronged, “bullied,” or “abused, (19) a feeling no unknown to the lower orders of feudal society. After a recitation of the Beatitudes, he proceeds name eight “blessings” or virtues which is derived from the Beatitudes rather than from Prudentius’ Psychomachia (which includes seven rather different virtues). The poet links poverty and patience, noting that he himself must exercise the latter as he is afflicted with the former. He asks if he were to be ordered to Rome by his master he would have to accept or face worse, though compliance would bring little reward. He then adds that a very similar circumstance once occurred to Jonah, and begins to tell the tale of the reluctant prophet and the great sea beast.

Putting up with penury and the thoughtless demands of one’s boss may be Christian, but these sound more like the storyteller’s seduction of his audience through building links to their common experience and then promising the respite of a rousing good story than like a typical moralizing sermon.

Earlier readers have often appreciated the poet’s vernacular language (not only not Latin, but markedly informal English such as the words describing his resistance to the divine will. (Another is “gyrchchyng” or complaining, l. 53.) The narrative is introduced by comparing the speaker’s discomfiture at being sent on an unwelcome mission by his “lege lorde” (51) to a “jape” played on Jonah long ago. (57) He then invites the reader to hear an entertaining story, noting as a “teaser” the ironic plot. (58) Apart from the rhythmic swing, conversational exchanges between Jonah and God are rendered as naturally as a modern play. For instance, God responds “Herk renk is þis riȝt so ronkly to wrath/ For any dede þat I haf don oþer demed þe ȝet” (431-2), a divine attitude that elicits more “janglande” from Jonah. When Jonah has emerged from the beast and is established in a pleasant home he says in the most natural way, “Iwysse, a worÞloker won to welde I neuer keped.” (464)

The rich liveliness of the text provides vivid detailed accounts far beyond the Biblical text in such matters as the ship’s setting out, a step-by-step guide (attending to ropes, sail, hawsers, windlass, anchor, and so on). Later as the ship founders the sailors bale, toss featherbeds over the side, and each calls on his favorite pagan deity. Once Jonah is out and has warned Nineveh, the king strips, throws himself into ashes, dons a hair-shirt and a covering “sack,” and commands that all must perform penitential actions including fasting by babies and livestock.

His harrowing period in the stench and slime of the sea monster’s digestive tract is also described in terms readers are likely to remember, but the experience does little to reform our grumpy hero. Having built himself a little home, he is given the marvelous honeysuckle, an emblem of all earthly delights, and he feels such satisfaction he sounds like a purchaser of a new McMansion, declaring, “Iwysse, a worÞloker won to welde I neuer keped” (464) and requiring God to chasten him once more, not, one suspects, for the last time even then.

In the end, Jonah’s lesson must be, of course, for the poet’s audience, and for us all.

Be no3t so gryndel, godman, bot go forth Þy wayes,
Be preue & be pacient in payne & in joye;
For he Þat is to rakel to renden his cloÞez
Mot efte sitte with more vnsounde to sewe hem togeder. (524-527)

The emphasis is not so much in pious obedience to God as practicality. Who wants to be obliged to needlessly resew one’s wardrobe? Jonah’s acceptance includes obeying also his earthly lord mentioned at the poem’s outset. Simple acceptance of what cannot be altered is prudential, not revealed, wisdom. It is best to follow Jehovah’s commands in one’s own interest, realizing that rebellion against the divine will must increase anyone’s suffering, just as flouting one’s worldly master will bring unwelcome consequences.

The poet established contact with his audience through their common poverty and suffering. His prophet would have preferred to avoid direct dealings with the divine, but, when such contact is forced upon him, he finds it best to cooperate. The poem in fact teaches patience in the sense of forbearance and acceptance of what cannot be changed. God’s overarching plan holds little interest for Jonah who wishes only to make his small part in it as comfortable as possible. The poet managed to entertain his audience with an altogether fabulous tale of magic and monsters while maintaining a fundamental realism that allowed each listener to identify with the prophet as someone little different form the common man.

(This essay uses Moorman's edition, The Works of the Gawain-Poet.)

Notes on Recent Reading 15 [Hemingway, Orwell, Gaskell]

The Sun Also Rises (Hemingway)

Hemingway’s stock has fallen considerably during my lifetime, largely for reasons that have little to do with art. Some women do not care for him and the casual anti-Semitism of his characters can be distracting. His deep passionate engagement might strike moderns as less hip than the dryness of, say, the Language Poets. Yet his minimal style, of a piece in a way with that of Gertrude Stein, was subtle, expressive, and powerful. Few stylistic innovations can claim as much. While easy to parody, his manner is very difficult to use effectively. “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” (Death in the Afternoon) Both the existential Angst of his bohemian wanderers in The Sun Also Rises and the redemptive response of some -- fortitude and a will to action – ring yet as true as they do because they are couched in a lucid prose that perfectly embodies their attitudes.

If his machismo can seem sometimes silly, at others it is the pure descendent of Natty Bumppo, Huckleberry Finn, and Ishmael. Then Hemingway’s heir, Norman Mailer, went on to write an excellent novel or two (with a more florid and subordinating style) and some of the most compelling nonfiction of the middle of the twentieth century.

Homage to Catalonia (Orwell)

Much as many of us may have relished 1984 or Animal Farm as one of our first “serious” reads, the fact is that Orwell’s novels are, with the possible exception of Burmese Days, a sorry lot, while his nonfiction is absolutely first-rate. Even the anthology favorites “Killing an Elephant” and “A Hanging” are filled with keen observations, memorable flashes of detail and insight. “Good-Bye to All That,” “Marrakech,” “How the Poor Die,” the marvelous piece on Donald McGill, not to mention the sustained performances of Down and Out in Paris and London and Road to Wigan Pier, all these reward a return reader.

I suspect the basis of Orwell’s appeal is the ethos implied by his nonfiction persona. Having just reread Homage to Catalonia, I have a fresh sense of the humanity he is able to construct on the page. One can even understand his turning informer in his last days. This self-image is carefully designed: He is regularly self-deprecating, stressing the absurdity and the discomfort of front-line combat more than the valor. He wonders what effect it would have on enlistments if young men knew that they would find themselves with parasites crawling on their testicles. He calls himself an “ineffectual” soldier, and the reader never knows if he killed a single Fascist, yet without elaboration, he reports his volunteering for every dangerous mission.

Part of his image is surely faux naïf. I suppose it might be that he found himself in the Trotskyite P.O.U.M. by chance, but he had been writing with obsessive sympathy about the poor since his first publications, and I wonder when he says he came to Spain to fight, not for socialist revolution but for “common decency.” (If for him as for me, these are nearly identical, he still chose to suppress the first term.) How could anyone in intellectual and artistic circles during the 1930s have been wholly unaware of the rivalries among the left forces? Yet he is totally convincing about the murderous sectarianism of the Stalinists, however many of their rank and file were people of integrity.

Homage to Catalonia is eloquent in the middle level of diction and syntax; its author fully exploits the resources of his language without ever departing far from the tones of an ordinary educated conversation. Not only an excellent history of the Spanish Civil War, the book is a valuable testament to a principled person’s reaction to the madness of history and the inadequacy of even the noblest will to put things right.

Sylvia’s Lovers (Gaskell)

The book includes marvelous local color and dialect and details the lives of sailors and small farmers in modest circumstances. If the colorful language seems sometimes overdone, it is all for the reader’s enjoyment. If the plot becomes exceedingly improbably, the goal is to please. The first volume seems to set up a love triangle with clearly recognizable characters: the lady, an only child and a bit vain, is courted by a shy and educated Quaker shop clerk and a rough yet bold sailor. The reader hardly notices that everyone is flawed. Yet as the narrative proceeds, it turns dark as a moral lapse by our very moral young man leads to tragedy. The story becomes more Christian, melodramatic, and ill-proportioned as it works toward a most unromantic denouement, but at its worst, it remains an entertaining historical page-turner even if, after one is told to believe that Hepburn, by pure chance, saved Kinread, one must accept their meeting again coincidentally upon the former’s return to Monkshaven. All this after their chance encounter when Kinread is impressed. Then there are those premonitory dreams, like lingering vestiges of the Gothic. And so it goes. Some critics think it Gaskell’s best novel; others condemn it as an utter failure. I believe I see both their points.

The Mannerly Hedonist

In the fifties James Olds and Peter Milner demonstrated that rats allowed to electrically stimulate a particular area of their brains, thought to be the “pleasure center,” would do so in preference to all other activities, including eating, to the point of exhaustion and finally death. This happened not only to rats with addictive personalities or those with insufficient self-discipline, but to all rats. How could it be otherwise? All creatures seek to avoid pain and to experience pleasure. I cannot tell to what extent the human brain might make a telling difference, but I feel as though, in their situation, I would prove more rat-like than angelic. Desire makes the world turn – whatever other motive could exist? From where could it come?
Yet hedonism is less straightforward than it might seem. To begin with, it can lead to widely various decisions. In an address to the inmates at Cook County Jail (printed in Crime and Criminals), Clarence Darrow, the great defense attorney, says that the inmates, like himself, have regularly made the choices that seemed to them most likely to lead to happiness. For him it was attending law school; for them, perhaps, burglarizing a house. A man who thinks of the latter as his best opportunity needs, Darrow suggests, not some mystic moral regeneration, but more practical choices.

Some would expect that, though the demise of the strung-out rodents did not deter their fellows from pursuing the same path to perdition, perhaps we two-leggers could imagine inevitable ill effects vividly enough to alter our compulsions. The implications of addiction, whether to over-eating, opiates, video games, money, romance, or power, suggest that such prudence is far from certain. Epicurus specifically taught his followers that the only way to increase happiness is to reduce desire. But can happiness exist without desire?

In recent years the study of well-being has been quantified and researchers using the terms hedonic adaptation and then hedonic treadmill have indicated people’s experience of subjective well-being is highly relative. (I am thinking of Brickman and Campbell in the early seventies and then Eysenck in the nineties.) Not surprisingly, an individual in a given set of circumstances will feel satisfaction if the situation has slightly improved and dissatisfaction if it has recently declined. Such changes are temporary as the person adjusts to a new norm, reacting only when there is a fresh movement up or down. Some are happier than others, but this tends to correlate with permanent personality types more than outward conditions. Across a broad range of settings one will find populations with roughly the same distribution of happy and unhappy people. Those living with little feel no lack until they know of others with more, and even in a concentration camp people could have “good days.”

On the other hand Socrates says in Plato’s Apology that even the King of Persia with his unlimited luxury and power still had “few” days or nights of net pleasure. The millionaire yearns to be a multi-millionaire, the privileged child becomes neurotic, the successful seducer seeks novelty, the CEO wishes to lead an even bigger corporation.

An artist wishing to create a masterpiece may be miserable while a stamp collector may regularly enjoy more modest goals. The Buddhist pursues the big payoff of enlightenment, but perhaps that goal only sheds a more modest radiance on the small daily routines of everyday experience. The person with a satisfying marriage or a fulfilling job doubtless enjoys more net happiness than the high-stakes player who occasionally makes a hit.

Human pleasure is often strategically based on a kind of speculative cost accounting. Though I might wish to snatch my neighbor’s venison haunch or Smartphone, I refrain from doing so if he will likewise leave my things alone. His mate may be desirable, but I expect I will find more suffering than delight in seizing her. To the Cyrenaics altruism led to pleasure. In this way nearly all moral choices may be rationalized, but human ingenuity devised a way to enhance the rewards of ethical behavior. The good person learns to feel satisfaction at doing good. The day can be a series of self-congratulations for the moral individual. The glow that even casual church-goers feel is distributed through the entire week. The selfish person is always meeting the challenges and the hostility that arises from less than open-hearted decisions and doubtless generates anxiety and apprehension, feeling isolation rather than support. The difference is central to the well-being of such a profoundly social animal as Homo sapiens.

For the more subtle, the game goes on. Plato, in the myth of the ring of Gyges (Book II of the Republic, 359a–2.360d) posits the question of whether one might enjoy doing injustice were there no chance of being caught. For the philosopher at any rate (II, 612), virtue is its own reward because the soul is divine and it departs from its own nature when it accedes to vice. Given a continuous history of war and exploitation of others, it may seem dubious whether such a conviction has sustained many humans over the years, but the fact is that society is based on the voluntary cooperation of most people most of the time. Given the inherent selfishness of the ego, one can only conclude that this route seems most likely to bring happiness to such social animals as ourselves. No culture anywhere lacks moral rules; indeed, those of traditional societies are rigorous and demanding. To “break the law” in a small village would destroy one’s vital connections. Only a madman or one corrupted by the values of what passes for more advanced cultures would dare be a deviant.

Religion has typically challenged the ego, asking for humility if not for the actual extinguishing of self. But surely the seeker after nirvana or heaven aims for pleasure. Mother Teresa lived the life she thought would give her the greatest joy. The Buddhist monk who told me a week ago, “Perhaps you will reach enlightenment before I do,” must have relished his own grace. The psychologists can tell us of people today who cut themselves for the good feeling that it brings.

The definitive human skill is the manipulation of symbols; and naturally the practice of this ability gives us pleasure, pleasure of the same sort enjoyed by the house cat on the hunt. It is not the stomach full of mouse that the tabby pursues as much as the full feeling of felineness. For humans, the most common form of recreational symbolic play is conversation. Most people in the developed world experience constant stimulation by stories on television and film, lyric-like word strings in advertisements, graffiti, and bumper stickers, and a host of other inputs. With Smart phones and tablet computers, people tend even more today to be constantly absorbing symbolic patterns for the sheer fun of it. No single experience may be significant, but they supply themselves with an unending series of small and completely reliable satisfactions.

As with the refined philosophical morality of the Platonist, there is the aesthete’s pleasure in sign-juggling, either as creator or consumer. Art is nothing if not the creation and consumption of symbolic structures for their own sake. The pleasures of decoding Chaucer’s Middle English, discerning the dance within the structure of an Elizabethan sonnet, recognizing the antecedents of a contemporary poet, feeling a minute thrill at a turn of phrase, every reader’s experience, somewhat different for each but always derived from the rich suggestibility of the text, all these joys of literature are joys indeed. The same, of course, is true of other arts and well beyond. In Heian Japan the sophisticated Fujiwara aristocrats competed in inventing new aesthetic delights like moon-viewing parties and other expressions of miyabi. One who cultivates a connoisseur’s taste whether in opera, wine, or NASCAR competitions, has simply learned how to obtain pleasures unavailable to all.

The true hedonist, then, is no disordered dissolute boor, but the most moral, polite, and sociable of people, likely to be quick with a thank you note, well-versed in Beethoven quartets, perhaps holding a highly valued recipe for Thai tom yum soup. We cannot always dodge suffering, but we can always seek pleasure. If we share this tendency with the microbes, let us not lament the fact, but make the most of it. Finding ourselves waiting about in this ante-room of death, if we wish to pass our time in the best possible manner, we may find beautiful behavior and beautiful art more crucial to our well-being than promiscuity and intoxicants.