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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Saturday, June 1, 2013

Another Look at The Seven Lively Arts

Gilbert Seldes’ The Seven Lively Arts (1924) was ground-breaking in its application of serious critical judgment to phenomena of popular culture. Seldes’ most striking observations have stood up well. Many today would enthusiastically agree with his arguments for the excellence of jazz, Charlie Chaplin, and Krazy Kat (though he is far from the only cultivated appreciator of these particular works). His position was moderate indeed; he claimed only that critical acumen might be fruitfully applied to works regarded as mere entertainment and that the best of popular art was superior to a good deal of high art. He did not argue that the popular is better or even equal to more ambitious works. Indeed, Seldes takes care to conclude the book with an encounter with a new work by Picasso – a favorite target of the day’s philistines -- which he instantly recognizes as one of “the world’s greatest works of art.” [291] Few today would quarrel with his claim that either elite or popular art succeeds if well-done and fails if, in his word, “bogus.” He correctly locates the constitution of art in the consumption: “no one imagines that a pedant or a half-wit, enjoying a classic or a piece of ragtime, is actually getting all that the subject affords.” [293]
Seldes made his contribution as a journalistic critic rather than a literary theorist. His comments are informal, often impressionistic, but he does make sometimes make general assertions that I cannot accept. Part of his motive in claiming worth for the “lively arts” is a sort of patriotic American exceptionalism in which the excellence of popular forms arises from a democratic political system. Of course, had he lived elsewhere, he might have been celebrating Grock the clown (whom he says flopped in America), the early Tintin or the bal musette. At any rate, his enthusiasm led him to greet broadcasting – competing stations, free to the consumer – as an essentially American form of art. He joined CBS as director of television programs in 1937 at which point what had been an outlier position among the Dial intellectuals earned him a lucrative salary and broad influence in shaping popular art. Seldes remained enough of a high-brow to express mild doubts late in his career about Elvis and even his own field of network television.
To him truly great art has a “high seriousness’ [293] whereas the “minor arts” have a corresponding “high levity.” [294] Socrates, who told us that the genius of comedy was identical to that of tragedy, might have demurred. Could levity mount higher than in Aristophanes, Rabelais or Henry IV, Part 1? Perhaps because of this categorical distinction and the value judgment associated with it, Seldes considers the first rank of artistic excellence unattainable by popular works. But why? If we can understand the artfulness of Homer and recognize a long series of works at once wholly popular and aesthetically satisfying from Euripedes through Beowulf and Shakespeare and Dickens, what limits modern popular forms to a lesser achievement?
One reasonable response is to ask what work a tasteful person might nominate. The issue is clouded by the fact that, due to their highly repetitive and conventionalized nature, popular works are often praised as a whole without further more specific reference. Thus many television viewers love a particular series yet have less ready enthusiasm for individual episodes; readers of the comics like the strip itself, not certain days alone. In films a distinction exists between “stars” who repeatedly play a particular sort of character, often supposed close to the performer’s own nature and actors who can play any of a wide variety of roles. John Wayne and Peter Lorre are examples of the first; Bette Davis and Dustin Hoffman of the second. Within Chaplin’s oeuvre there is a considerable development from the early two-reelers which were largely improvisatory and episodic (somewhat like commedia dell’arte) with each gag succeeding the last to such architecturally planned finished works as The Gold Rush or Modern Times.
Today, of course, some post-structuralist critics would deny value judgments altogether, but Seldes’ whole well-worked-out point is an extension of the task of the journalistic reviewer which is specifically to make such judgments. I once knew a film critic who considered Night of the Living Dead the greatest monument of recent American art and I consider Pogo an important work at least, so I don’t doubt that nominees could be offered, but could any consensus, any canonization, ever emerge? Seldes cites the Yankee crowd’s acclaim of a Babe Ruth home run as “a beauty” as evidence for the common people’s aesthetic discernment [297], but surely what they enjoyed was something quite different from a work of art, even a dance performance.
That very daring, though, endears Seldes. One can imagine himself thinking of ever less likely topics for aesthetic evaluation: the revue, the newspaper columnist . . . one reads his ranking of clowns without being concerned that one have never seen them perform. His observations are valuable because of his absorption in the actual quality of lived experience rather than some abstract standard. Whatever one makes of Seldes’ conclusions, he raised points of such importance that they altered the thinking of later critics and underlay later academic upheavals such as the development of “cultural studies.” His book remains a fascinating and adventurous excursion into the popular art of the twenties.

Page references are to the 1957 edition to which Seldes added new comments, occasionally reflecting on the progress of commodified mass art.

Who is Piers Ploughman?

Langland’s Piers the Ploughman [1] is read today for its vivid realistic pictures of medieval life and for it its attacks on church corruption (read by some as early rumblings of the Reformation) as well as on human folly generally. Rooted indeed in realism, as the best of phantasmagorias are, the author’s vision extends to the metaphysical. Though Langland doubtless considered himself altogether orthodox, his marvelous and complex narrative seems at times radical in its theology, often at the poem’s most dramatic moments.

Piers the Ploughman is a dizzying dream vision which provides as many glimpses of symbolic moral and metaphysical propositions as it does genre scenes. Though Langland’s narrative shares with the later masque form the use of allegorical characters, in Piers the Ploughman they move in a lively, almost cinematic movement, in contrast to the hieratic formalism of the later spectacle (performed though it was). Among the elements that keep the text decentered is the dynamic question of who Piers in fact is. [2] He is identified at different times with Christ, St. Peter, and the Good Samaritan. Most often a farmer (and sometimes an overseer of farm laborers), he is more generally considered a type of the worker and at times seems to be instead a tailor, a tinker, or a weaver. In other passages he seems a sort of landlord, a magistrate, or a ruler, even a universal ruler, though he also can appear as a type of the English subject or, in other passages, more a representative of all of humanity.

Some readers have found the medieval system of Biblical exegesis (literal, typological, tropological, and anagogical) useful for sorting Piers’ roles, and many find that a simple division between an earthly Piers, representing an idealized worker in Part One, and a semi-divinized, Christ-like one in Part Two.

There can be no question that Langland foregrounds the laity. The poem consistently privileges charitable works (indeed, work in general), giving little attention to the sacraments or the Papacy. Will’s instruction to seek Do-Well prepares the way for Piers’ marshaling the masses to pursue salvation. Piers is said to discount everything except love. (193) In particular he “shrugs aside” all learning, the means by which a man enters religious orders and masters the sacred spells in Latin. Langland twists scripture to make St. Paul condemn friars. (192)

Not only, though, is the focus of the church decentered from its ordained bureaucrats. More significantly, the title character – Piers – is presented with a shifting and mysterious identity. His complexity has radical theological implications. The essence of Christianity is surely Christ’s mysterious combination of divine and human nature. Though he shares this characteristic to one extent or another with a great many deities, including a whole pantheon from the ancient Near East, including Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, Baal, and Dionysos, such a figure is notably absent in Islam, Judaism, and other religions. While the imitation of Christ was an ideal from the earliest Christian times, those who identified too closely with Christ were often, like Meister Eckhart and the Quakers, labeled heretics. The adversarial relationship with the church establishment was sometimes returned by individuals such as Richard Rolle who criticized the church’s corruption and sought a route to salvation/enlightenment outside its organization. Though Langland seems to have been a minor cleric who made a modest living from his humble position in the hierarchy (performing funerals, for instance), the lay Christian is central in his book. While avoiding outright dissent from dogma, Langland’s poem places its central drama far closer to home than Rome, in the soul’s psychomachia.

Piers’ and even Will’s conflation with Christ appears in various forms. Will says, “I have never seen [Christ] in person – only His reflection in myself, as in a mirror.” (221) Christ’s coming is associated with the ripening of Piers’ fruit. At one point, Piers fights the devil using Christ as a weapon. (239) At another a rider resembles the Samaritan and also Piers, but is greeted by Faith as the Son of David, simply wearing Piers’ human nature like armor for the showdown with Satan. (255) Will questions whether this Christ in human garb is in fact Piers. (269) Most tellingly, Piers is given custody of the pardon [3] Christ won for humanity (274) and given the power to make communion bread. (279) Piers even goes about the business of constructing the institutional church. (278) Yet the same status seems available to all. Holy Church herself tells Will “He who speaks nothing but the truth, and acts by it, wishing no man ill, is like Christ, a god on earth and in Heaven – those are St. Luke’s words.” (72) (Tellingly, the Biblical citation is untraceable.) Most striking of all is the claim that charity can be discerned “only by knowing the heart. And no one on earth, not even a priest, can know that, but only Piers the Ploughman – Peter, that is, Christ.” (223)

Langland does not claim union with God as some mystics of all traditions have. The implications of the character of Piers fall far short of the thundering revelation of the Chandogya Upanishad: tat tvam asi; That art thou; atman = Atman. While to Eckhart “God’s is-ness is my is-ness, and neither more nor less,” [4] Langland not only stops short of identifying Piers with God, he also includes another layer of separation with his persona Long Will. Nonetheless, the book powerfully expresses the potential for the individual to find salvation/enlightenment, to pursue a righteous path through life, and to lose ego in the divine, all without benefit of the Catholic church whose officials tend here to appear most unchristian. The dance of Langland’s characters, the assertively vernacular language, and the originality of the poem’s imaginative invention while treating the most commonplace of medieval topics make Langland’s poem convincing and compelling.

1. References here will be to the translation into modern English by J. F. Goodridge in the accessible Penguin edition.

2. See Howard William Troyer’s PMLA article “Who Is Piers Plowman” (Vol. 47, No. 2, Jun., 1932).

3. Oddly the pardon is good for all sins except debt. This principle is repeated that there may be no misunderstanding. See pages 274 and 292. Is this a sign of Langland’ loyalty to the merchant class?

4. p. 180, Meister Eckhart, translated by Raymond B. Blakney, Harper & Brothers, 1941.

Worn Tools

There are many, of course, who relish the slightly toxic chemical odor of a new car fresh from the dealer, or enjoy being the very first to spend the night in a just-built house. Perhaps the same individuals can savor the extra crispness and the persistent folds after unwrapping a shirt, or even the variety of synthetic packing materials around a electronic gadget fresh from the manufacturer. Certainly many people find new subdivisions attractive in spite of their lack of sidewalks and mature trees, not to mention anything like a neighborhood center of gravity. My father-in-law programatically favored novelty; thus, to him margarine was better than butter, dentures an improvement over natural teeth. For him technical progress touched every life with indoor plumbing, the automobile, aviation, and, most of all, radio. Today masses of consumers are convinced that happiness can come only with possession of the latest technology,

Must one be escapist or alienated to dissent? Surely it is not willfully contrary to prefer a home whose decorative details have a history and shoes that have acquired the shape of one’s feet, even a face that betrays evidence of considerable accumulated life. Every old town has a shape derived from use. Go back far enough and you’ll find yourself in the fascinating and wandering lanes of medieval Europe or a Maghrebi medina. Only the modern housing development floats freely, unattached to any rationale beyond profit. (Perhaps the most extreme examples are Las Vegas and Qatar.) Apart from the dear and inevitable machine beneath my fingers in my study, I associate technical progress with global warming, nuclear weapons, and people everywhere staring at pocket-size computer screens as though there was to be found, after sufficiently intense scrutiny, the secret of the good life.

To grow fonder of a pair of jeans as their patterns of fade assume the form of a ghostly imprint of one’s body is an innocuous form of pride, but such taste need not even be personal. Clothes from Goodwill or St. Vincent de Paul half-conceal, half-reveal their past. How poignant the racks of tuxedo shirts in the Reno Salvation Army, white though they may have shone! Worn tools, their very steel softened and glowing through constant handling, are likely to be, like a well-tempered skillet, more efficacious as time flows, and the user becomes familiar with the subtleties of their heft. Even a favorite pen cooperates more as time goes on.

Our society tends to be blind to the beauties of age, though evolution is wiser, if G. C. Williams’ so-called “grandmother hypothesis” that argues a community’s survival advantage from its elder women is in fact accurate. The poignantly absurd conjunction of wrinkled skin and dyed hair suits well enough the artificial aesthetics of, say, Anais Nin in her later years, yet it seems in contemporary American culture to be the overwhelming preference also of diner waitresses and Methodist ministers.

Perhaps the aesthetic motive, privileging the old, is similar when I find a charm to a great many mediocre older movies, watching film noir or screwball comedies without demanding a great auteur (while remaining insensitive to Westerns.) Literary texts that have accumulated layer upon layer of meaning from the readers of generations are invariably enriched. The Bible is the best example; Greek tragedy another. Without its sagacious readers, what value would there be in the I Ching or the Yoruba Ifa? Reading earlier works, one enters into another’s imagination more fully than we do in most of our everyday interactions, and with the benefit of the double consciousness that come from chronological perspective.

The arrow of time described by Eddington is physically evident in those objects which bear the signs of their passage through the years. Its contemplation is a central mystery of our experience. For all the energy of his crowding images, Keats sounds too apologetic when he says of autumn, “thou hast thy music too.” He, of course, was ill, but Shelley sounds a bit tentative, too: “there is a harmony/In autumn, and a lustre in its sky.” Surely Lear was on the mark with an unconditional: “Ripeness is all.” The point is fulfillment, not poignance. Decline is implied and inevitable, as much a part of youth and growth and vigor as long is of short. Jerome favored a skull, we are told, but he might as well have contemplated a screwdriver, the paint mostly worn from a wooden handle, the end reflecting innumerable encounters of metal against metal.