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.

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Thursday, December 1, 2016

Rereading the Classics [Goldsmith]

Rambling about the works of Oliver Goldsmith, the reader may never be astonished at a spectacular vista but does enjoy a consistently picturesque one, punctuated with insights, apt images, and clever turns. Goldsmith may not take the reader swooping up toward the sublime, but he offers the more steady reward of well-crafted rhetorical architecture and a humane and penetrating voice, scintillating with wit. To read Goldsmith is to realize that the world may, for those of a certain turn of mind, be redeemed by language alone.

His friend Dr. Johnson wrote an eloquent epitaph for his grave, using Latin since he did not care to “disgrace the walls of Westminster Abbey with an English inscription.” [1] This brief encomium attests to Johnson’s as well as to Goldsmith’s literary skill and sums up the latter as author with such succinctness that it is worth quoting (though here, in a concession to our age, rendered in the vulgar vernacular).

"Oliver Goldsmith: A Poet, Naturalist, and Historian, who left scarcely any style of writing untouched, and touched nothing that he did not adorn. Of all the passions, whether smiles were to move or tears, a powerful yet gentle master. In genius, vivid, versatile, sublime. In style, clear, elevated, elegant."

Goldsmith’s limits are implied in the adjective “gentle,” for no one would call Homer or Dante or Shakespeare gentle. The praise of his style as “clear, elevated, elegant" suggests craft and competence rather than the “sublime” Johnson allowed to his friend’s “genius.” Boswell had been disturbed to hear Goldsmith remark, “As I take my shoes from the shoemaker, and my coat from the taylor, so I take my religion from the priest,” but the reader is justified in thinking that he got his literary standards in the same way, by accepting the pre-existing norms and working deftly within their limits.

Goldsmith had economic motive for his writerly professionalism, as it was for him essential to make a living with his pen. The son of an Anglican priest, he was born in Ireland and educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he barely graduated. [2] He then made a tour of Europe, though his was not so “grand” as those of his wealthier classmates. Goldsmith walked great distances and sometimes raised cash by playing his flute on the street. Upon his return he sought to make a living as a hack writer and managed to impress Johnson and others enough to be admitted to membership in “The Club” which met to dine at the Turk’s Head in Soho. Still he was chronically in debt, in part due to his gambling habit, and in Boswell Johnson tells of finding him “in great distress” unable to pay his rent. Johnson instantly sent him a guinea and found when he arrived that Goldsmith had already spent it for wine. Finding he had the manuscript of The Vicar of Wakefield completed, Johnson (the tastemaker of the day) took it to a printer and received immediate payment. [3]

He was considered odd by his contemporaries, often awkward in company even among his intimates. According to Boswell he once told a clergyman that his brother was Dean of Durham in order to puff his own importance. When Johnson composed his dignified Latin tribute, other members of The Club composed burlesque epitaphs, and the actor Garrick contributed a memorial of the writer’s social unease.

Here lies Nolly Goldsmith for shortness called Noll,
Who write like an angel, but talked like poor Poll.

The essays he wrote to pay his rent provide perhaps the purest access to Goldsmith’s essential tone built of civility, wit, and contemplation. He is regularly amused rather than, like Swift, indignant at human failings, in the same way that he is decent rather than demanding in morality and conventional rather than innovative in style. When he does propose an original idea, it is likely to be more show than substance, as he strove (with, apparently, less success than Wilde) to formulate paradoxes meant to be clever but which struck observers as ridiculous. For instance, his “On the Use of Language” suggests that “the true use of speech is not so much to express our wants as to conceal them.” Yet so loose is his hold on the potentially provocative point [4] that he slides from it into complaints over his observation that those in no need of hospitality and of loans are least likely to be offered them, a discussion which will recall the author’s own penurious circumstances.

His embryonic Romanticism is reflected in “A City Night-Piece” [5] in which he muses in dark solitude and, seeing the homeless, complains of “this heart of mine formed with so much sensibility.” He returns to familiar thematic ground for the conclusion which condemns those who seek vice when night falls, saying of the respectable men who may “talk of virtue all the day,” that they then steal out to brothels. “He has passed the whole day in company he hates, and now goes on to prolong the night among company that as heartily hate him.”

Johnson called him a “naturalist” in the day when natural philosophy was studied and practiced by philosophers in general. Though he was never responsible for actual research (such as Goethe and Benjamin Franklin did), he did produce references such as An History of the Earth and Animated Nature. In “The Sagacity of Some Insects,” he marvels at the spider and concludes with real pathos for an aged arachnid.

His criticism is spirited, though lightweight; he took little interest in literary theory and wrote either with an eye to fictionalizing style or a wholly impressionistic critical standard. Indeed, in “Upon Criticism” he declares “I have assumed the critic only to dissuade from criticism.” To him every common reader makes a critic superior to the connoisseur. As with the consumer, so the producer: “let us,” he says, “instead of writing finely, try to write naturally.” In general his positions are today commonplace. Few contemporary critics would dissent from his preference for “laughing” over “sentimental” comedy, his defense of subjects in his day considered “low” by the fastidious, or his acceptance of the excellence of modern works against those who would honor only the classics. One work advocating for the literature of his own day is “A Resverie” which imagines writers as traveling in various “stage-coaches,” associated with pleasure, industry, fame, and riches and bearing well-known appropriate writers.

That essay verges on being a short story just as many of the chapters of The Citizen of the World are very like essays. This satiric series, with little or no over-arching structure, represents the view of Britain to a Chinese philosopher, allowing satire of all areas of life, but, in Goldsmith’s loose treatment, allowing as well for disquisitions on virtually any topic including literary criticism, the sketchy creation of a backstory for the supposed author, and the interpolation of narratives such as the story of the “beautiful captive.” As always, Goldsmith is casual, current, and conversational.

Perhaps the greatest single essay, “A Resverie at the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap” is entertaining, even memorable and, in parts, moving. Goldsmith’s appeal survives though the essay reads like a series of smaller pieces. The tone is established at the outset. Saying that while young he much enjoyed reading Cicero on old age, but that having “declined into the vale of years,” he finds that “Cicero is no longer pleasing.” Falstaff, he finds, “with all his faults, gives me more consolation than the most studied efforts of wisdom,” and thus he drinks until closing time and after passing out dreams even of interviewing Dame Quickly, the tavern’s resident genie. In her narration the Boar’s Head becomes the seat of sensuality, not just intoxication but gambling, sexual desire, and vanity as well. Human weakness according to her never changes. “You will find mankind neither better nor worse now than formerly.” In the social realm the church is depicted as utterly hypocritical while in general “those that labour starve, and those who do nothing wear fine cloaths and live in luxury.” The place was occupied throughout its history “by adventurers, bullies, pimps, and gamesters,” in other words by human beings, who, in their occasional recoils from sensuality, fall into equally ridiculous religious or political enthusiasm. Listening, the author at last rebels against this unrelieved display of human foolishness, declaring that he had expected from her “a romance,” and that in future he is “determined to hearken only to stories,” that is to say, to fantasy. What can one do but drink?

Goldsmith’s poetry is clever and natural like conversation. He excels at little occasional pieces to friends such as “Verses in Reply to Dr. Baker’s invitation” or “The Haunch of Venison.” His facility with heroic couplets serves him well in his longer poems.

“The Traveller,” which is dedicated with real warmth to Goldsmith’s brother, reflects on the writer’s European experience which he refers to as “my prime of life in wand’ring spent and care” during which he found “no spot of all the world my own.” To compensate for this restless instability he assures himself that “to repine” is “affectation all, and school-taught pride.”

And wiser he, whose sympathetic mind
Exults in all the good of all mankind.

With enlightened tolerance, he guesses that in the various countries of the earth, for all their differences, “the bliss of all is much the same,” though he does recur to some standard ethnic generalizations when he details his impressions. To him the Italians, though “surely blest,” are too sensual, and the French are given to “vanity” and “ostentation,” the Dutch to “love of gain.” He finds an ideal in the mountain-dwelling peasants of Switzerland because they are “content,” are “calm” and “cheerful,” but concludes with a patriotic encomium on English “freedom.” But even at home he finds corruption in his belated times and fears that in the end “as social bonds decay,” Britain itself may be “stript of all her charms” and sunk to one low level of “avarice.” Already he sees that “laws grind the poor, and rich men rule the law.” Citing the dreadful threat of the thugs of state power,

The lifted ax, the agonizing wheel,
Luke’s iron crown, and Damien’s bed of steel,”

he finds that “bliss . . . centers in the mind,” and that “our own felicity we make or find.”

“The Deserted Village” is an admirable example of the eighteenth century topographical style, like Pope’s “Windsor Forest” combing landscape description with political comment. Unlike Pope in “Windsor Forest” or Denham in “Cooper’s Hill,” though, Goldsmith takes the part of the poor, contrasting beautiful and idealized images of a pre-industrial provincial world with the immoral rapacity of the owners of his own day. He unforgettably portrays evicted families, many of them victims of the Inclosure Acts, trudging toward London where they will only encounter “profusion that he must not share,” (312) while losing their daughters perhaps to prostitution as well. (333) Some even emigrate to the New World where they are likely to find “the various terrors of that horrid shore.” (348) The political point remains a righteous one, as Goldsmith’s contemporaries such as Thomas Spence, the radical activist, realized. Even to a self-avowed conservative like Goldsmith, the aristocrats were immoral who abandoned a paternal role as landlords and expelled workers who had lived for generations as faithful tenants in order to indulge their fancies with extensive parks and decorative gardens or to turn over the land to grazing with an eye to trade.

The author’s moralizing is well-served by the abstract Augustan vocabulary and the balanced rhetorical periods that had earlier been used so adeptly by Pope: “Ye friends to truth, ye statesmen, who survey/ The rich man’s joy’s increase, the poor’s decay.” (267-268) “Hoards, even beyond the miser’s wish abound,/ And rich men flock from all the world around.” (271-271) “The man of wealth and pride,/ Takes up a space that many poor supplied.” (277-278) His final appeal, to “Poetry, thou loveliest maid” to “teach erring man to spurn the rage of gain” (426) is pathetic in its ineffectuality.

Goldsmith’s most enduring work, his only novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1761) tends to relax into essays about literary or dramatic taste or politics, or criminal justice reform when it is not providing accounts of the highest emotional intensity fancied by those fond of the “sentimental novel.” Throughout the author counsels modest personal tastes and voices suspicions of high life, yet the wealthy and virtuous win out in an exceedingly unrealistic romance version of Job complete with his final restoration to prosperity. The good Dr. Primrose even has an apparently deceased daughter returned which bests what Jehovah did for Job. It is for good reason that the priest feels faith in a benevolent Providence through all his misfortunes that rivals that of Voltaire’s ever-optimistic Pangloss in Candide (1759).

She Stoops to Conquer is an amusing farce, and an amusing face is a worthy thing. Moderns who enjoy its absurd situations will readily assent to Goldsmith’s defense of “laughing” over “sentimental” comedy. Here Goldsmith invokes the principle social polarities in a spirit of pure play. Male and female, rich and poor, town and country, virtue and vice are all reconciled in harmonious and proper marriages as though their apparent contradictions were all in fun. Suddenly Tony’s irresponsible roistering, Charles’ intrigues with lower status women, George’s plans to elope surreptitiously with the family jewels are as harmless as Mr. Hardcastle’s nostalgia and his wife’s wish to be fashionable.

The character of Goldsmith’s oeuvre is epitomized by his Life of Richard Nash. Especially in an age in which (as in Plutarch’s time) biography was often exemplary, one might wonder why he chose to memorialize this gambler and womanizer for whom his most frequent epithet is “dissipated.” There are, of course, sufficient prudential reasons. “Beau” Nash, the unofficial “master of ceremonies” at the baths, was, in his day, not unlike the figures that grace the tabloids, “famous for being famous.” A good many anecdotes, of greater or lesser veracity, circulated about him, and he was himself an all-but-incessant reteller of his own legend, so there was doubtless a brief but bright efflorescence of interest in the superannuated celebrity when he died. It is then natural that a hack writer would foresee a likely market.

Surely, though, Goldsmith (himself socially awkward) felt a deep interest, compounded perhaps of envy, sympathy, horror, and fascination, with this man whom Goldsmith describes as capable of appearing much wittier than he was in fact due to his charismatic aplomb. Though the depiction of an aged and poverty-stricken fop makes the account a morality tale in the end, Goldsmith is not as critical of his subject as his reader may be. Nash was a self-conscious hedonist who challenged Wesley when he came to Bath [5], yet Goldsmith makes every allowance for him, placing him in a middle character, neither “truly great or strongly vicious.” A modern might not be as indulgent of a man whose bons mots included ridicule of another’s appearance, but we may accept Goldsmith’s word that he did many good works: saving gamblers from “sharpers,” and young women from those who might take advantage of them, that his benefactions were so open-handed as to be even ruinous of his own interests. Though openly irreligious and flouting social proprieties, he nonetheless seems have taken his role in Bath quite seriously, carefully organizing the dances and dinners and strictly enforcing his own set of rules by force of personality alone. Goldsmith must have liked as well the way that Nash insisted on mixing the aristocracy with the haute bourgeoisie in a way unacceptable to some of the aristocrats.

The book is fundamentally an easy read, as genial and likable as its author was by the accounts of his friends, an oddball of whom it may be said that, like Nash, “his virtues were all amiable” and whose weaknesses were excusable. Reading Goldsmith, one feels as though one is walking alongside one of the more charming of men, one whose conversation consumes the hour pleasantly. One can hardly afford to spurn such rewards. Goldsmith’s response to life is warm rather than hot. Just as he habitually insists that a man of modest means who is satisfied is both rich and wise, he offers no startling revelations, but rather makes do on a simple humane decency and acceptance, lit by wit and delivered with the fluent confidence of a professional writer. Indeed, any more extravagant returns from literature of any sort, while perhaps more thrilling, must surely prove less dependable. Goldsmith may never attain the heights of sublimity, but he is altogether comfortable dancing with grace on the lower plateaus of Parnassos.

1. Nonetheless, his Latinity was impugned in a lengthy article “On Epitaphs” in the Classical Journal during 1816.

2. Apart from poor grades, he was involved in a “riot” outside the Marshalsea debtor’s prison.

3. Mrs. Piozzi offers an livelier account of the incident with bailiffs besieging Goldsmith’s lodging and the author roaring drunk and “enraged.”

4. Has Goldsmith been enlisted by the Deconstructionists?

5. Cf. Gay’s “Trivia” which likewise records nocturnal wandering in urban neighborhoods.

6. Wesley, followed by a crowd of Methodists, held his own, but, after Nash had departed and Wesley had begun to lead prayers for him, hostile members of the crowd “hollowed and hissed us.” (Wesley, Letters 1739)

The Triumph and Tragedy of Revolution

November 15, 2016

It has been only a bare week after the election of the most authoritarian-minded president in American history, an unapologetic bigot to whom immigrants, Muslims, gay people, women, and minorities are lesser beings, an avaricious businessman whose career illustrates the very worst of American capitalism, enriching only himself while short-changing workers, contractors, and consumers. Those across a broad spectrum of political opinion, those with any humanity at all, must lament the elevation of Donald Trump and struggle to prevent progress from being rolled back in every arena of public life.

Yet at this time in which fascists and racists are assuming high governmental posts, a time when, if ever, a popular united front seems required, I choose to present a critique of the history of the left. I used to hear that even some conservative Italians used to vote Communist because the Communists were the only politicians who were not corrupt. We have not only our program but also our honesty and our candor to distinguish us from the selfish reactionary opportunists. We have as well the record of centuries to testify that steady organization and pressure from the masses can move history forward. First the aristocrats, then the middle class, and finally the laborers have gained power along with a greater share of what they produce. We have eliminated slavery, child labor, and prohibitions on homosexuality and have granted women the vote and workers the right to organize. No step forward in human society has ever occurred at the urging of conservatives; rather, progress has always come from those at first labeled radical, then liberal, then mainstream. This pattern will not be readily ended.

Yet the history of the left is not entirely noble. The student of Greek history will note that “tyrants” arose from the popular party and that autocrats throughout history often enjoy high levels of support. “Democracy” fails when the majority chooses to oppress the minority. We have just witnessed in America the very first candidate who doubts the value of democracy, who forms mutual admiration societies with dictators, who fears education and celebrates white supremacy. Why, then criticize the revolutionaries? Because we can afford to be more honest. The facts and the trends of history still favor us even after the rise to power of a hateful and ridiculous man.

I have always called myself a revolutionary socialist. The qualifying adjective does not imply that change can come only through an armed uprising, but only that to be effective the revolution must be radical and thorough-going, not the patchwork ameliorations of European social democracy. What is required is social ownership of the means of production; anything less could provide only symptomatic relief for the problems of capitalism. I do believe that a ruling class will never cede power if another viable choice exists. Many factors short of bloodshed can constitute sufficient force: an army that will no longer obey a tyrannical regime (as in Portugal in 1974), the increasing financial cost of maintaining the status quo (probably the major motive for Britain’s giving up on empire), or, everybody’s favorite, massive and well-organized resistance that makes governing impossible (as in Tunisia in 2011). Frederick Douglass was right when he said, “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle.”

I cannot claim to be a pacifist (though I admire pacifists) because I think I would be justified in resisting an assault on me or on my loved ones (ineffectual though my resistance might be). If this is allowed for an individual, how much more it must be for a society when the well-being of multitudes is involved. Oppression and institutional violence deprive people of the lives they deserve no less than physical brutality. The slave may be fed daily, but who would doubt his right to revolt?

Indeed, evidence seems to point to the potency of blood when argument has proven futile. John Brown declared with action his belief in the Biblical principle that “without shedding of blood there is no remission [of sins].” [1] One may regard Old Ossawatomie as an extremist, but Abraham Lincoln said very nearly the same in his eloquent Second Inaugural Address: “If God wills that it [war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’"

Would the United States have become independent without war? (Canada, of course, did.) Or the French have rid themselves (temporarily) of the Bourbons? The executed martyrs of the Easter Uprising in Dublin, after plunging into an unwinnable military contest, enjoyed vastly multiplied influence in death. And, in the USA, who can deny that the deaths of children in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963 and of college-age volunteers during Freedom Summer in 1964 hastened the progress of civil rights? Or that the violence in America’s cities stimulated the so-called War on Poverty”? Surely the deaths at Kent State advanced the struggle against the war in Vietnam. At a state-sponsored correctional services seminar, I was told that only after Rockefeller’s murderous assault on the inmates of Attica in 1971 were inmates granted twenty-six of their twenty-seven demands.[2] These are only a few examples of an all-but-self-evident principle.

Yet the very efficacy of blood as a catalyst for social change testifies to its dangerous power, equal, as Freud came to believe, with that of sexuality, in the unconscious. Any human can feel the blood boil as provocation mounts, and most any human may, in the heat of the moment, act with unjustifiable force. Anarchists like Sorel and Malatesta celebrated violence, as did some in the IWW and later in the Weather Underground. If such figures seem to occupy only the fringe of American political thought, one need only cite the homage paid to military veterans, revered specifically for their use of force, by mainstream opinion.

The invocation of such a formidable psychological force is highly hazardous. The pacifists would have us believe that the practice of violence itself brutalizes the sensibility and the oppressed may easily become an oppressor after a bloody victory. Again history offers countless examples. Hundreds of thousands at any rate died in la Terreur and the suppression of the revolt in the Vendée that followed the French Revolution. The Irish Free State in its attempts to consolidate its position killed more combatants than had died in the War of Independence. Even among partisans of socialism (indeed, especially among us) the monstrous crimes of Stalin, Mao, and the Khmer Rouge and the lesser betrayals of self-described people’s regimes in Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, Venezuela and elsewhere must be admitted, examined, and analyzed. Yet each of these struggles was fundamentally just at the start; each overturned a violent and viciously backward regime.

What then is to be done? One warning sign of a wrong turn is the rise of cult of personality. In political groups as in religious movements one does well to beware any leader touted as irreplaceable and superior to all others, with the guaranteed answer to any question. [3] Yet many throughout history seem to seek such leaders, to voluntarily cede individual decision-making and to become instead units in a larger system. This is the distinctive appeal of the dictator and the cult-leader; it must be no part of the left. No person is always or predictably right; no country owns virtue. This is not to say that distinctions do not exist. They do, and the responsible citizen will often select the least of evils.

Secondly, the left must realize that the people’s interest is almost always for peace. While a mortal struggle may on occasion seem unavoidable, it must remain a genuine last resort, used with the greatest caution. It is wise to abandon the romantic appeal even of violent poses. Suffering is bad and thus war is bad and only in the rarest cases might it be less bad than peace.

Even in our present state of submission to the plutocrats it is necessary to recall the history of people’s movements, glorious and hopeful, but on occasion dismal as well. Though progressives have led all social advances achieved by our species, they have also proven all-too-human in victory. American radicals have at times emulated the authoritarian model of Stalinism, mindlessly enlisting their best efforts in support of tyrants and murderers. While many have selflessly pursued a vision of betterment, those in leadership ranging from union leaders to heads of state have sometimes sought self-aggrandizement no less than those on the right whose philosophy explicitly values selfishness. It can never be wise to cede one's own discernment to a "great man" however charismatic. Great disasters have arisen from those who claimed to represent people's power. It may seem far from reality to warn in these reactionary days against excesses from revolutionaries, but every share of actual power brings new hazards and pitfalls. The broadest human self-interest is given form by socialism, but its advocates must always guard against the darker regions of the backbrain. These will never vanish, but we can cultivate our gardens, making vegetables out of earth and sweat and tending with equal care our solicitude for all others, including opponents.

1. Hebrews 9:22. The passage is describing the earlier Mosaic practice of animal sacrifice and its replacement by the higher order sacrifice of Christ.

2. The only unsatisfied demand was that rebels might be allowed to travel to a sympathetic foreign country. (Algeria was a refuge for some Panthers and for Tim Leary at the time.)

3. Apart from leadership from the Comintern or from the Fourth Internationale, one may note such personality cults as those around Bob Avakian of the Revolutionary Communist Party.

The Double Plot of Salem Chapel

Many readers have observed that Mrs. Oliphant’s [1] Salem Chapel combines two rather ill-sorted narratives. The satiric story of the naïve young Nonconformist assuming his first pastorate among middle-class people is interwoven with a far more unlikely lurid tale of abduction and attempted murder. The wry and witty, though always warmly indulgent, observations about pride, ego, and class differences in the account of the relations of Mr. Vincent and his flock contrast with the highly pitched rhetoric of the episodes describing the events associated with the criminal cad Col. Mildmay. These strains of plot contain, however, one element in common: the strength of the power of shame. The lower register concern with reputation and approbation that motivates the newly hired minister suddenly seems inconsequential when the sexual purity of the virtuous Susan is cast in doubt, but in both cases the horror is largely focused on what others will think.

The literary development of the novel as a form corresponds to the rise of the bourgeoisie and many of the genre’s practitioners and consumer were, from the start, middle class. [2] The quarrel of the Salem Chapel crowd with the Established Church (like that of their predecessors who emigrated to Plymouth centuries earlier) was as much political as religious, signaling a dissent from the ruling class and a people’s determination to make decisions for themselves rather than simply obey orders from the traditional elites.

The verisimilitude of the depiction of the chapel and its congregants is a part of the broad movement toward greater realism in fiction during the nineteenth century. The middle class attributes of Mr. Tozer, Mr. Pigeon, and the others (which trouble the Cambridge-educated clergyman) are emphasized by their consistent identification with their businesses (“the butterman,” and “the poulterer”). The church-goers’ expectations from their minister are those of an employer and are expressed in mercantile terms. They are confident of their doctrinal convictions, but the church seems far more a social institution than a divine one, and tea-parties and pastoral visiting emerge as among their principal concerns. They share, though, with their spiritual shepherd an acute concern for the opinions of others.

The dominant tone of the realistic and satirical aspect of Salem Chapel is not far from Trollope or a good many passages of Dickens: a mild, tolerant acceptance of the foibles of humanity in which a wide range of characters are seen as alike hapless and sometimes weak, blind to their own limitations which the reader can so easily see. People in this arena regularly err, but they are not vicious. The deacons are upright and responsible, if narrow, and the reader who feels superior to them in intellect and taste will likely admire their character hardly the less. The head layman, Mr. Tozer, though as mundane as any of his co-religionists, rises to heroic stature in his plain-spoken sympathy and defense of Mr. Vincent.

The villainous Mildmay provides what might be considered the romance element in the story, departing from the initial plot and requiring extraordinary coincidences while introducing themes of seduction, abduction, crime, and madness. While the action centering around Mr. Vincent and his flock getting acquainted might be regarded in the old Freudian shorthand as occurring in the realm of the ego and superego, this new element is enacted deep within the id. While most people never find themselves confronted by monstrous crime, stories of violence and sexual exploitation have been popular from ancient tragedies through medieval romances and broadside ballads to the detective stories noted by this week’s New York Times Book Review.

The fact that such stories have long been popular is, of course, itself sufficient reason to push a writer dependent on income from sales toward such themes. The fact is that “sensation novels” were enjoying a particular vogue at the time of the book’s publication in 1863. [3] Though Oliphant was ambivalent about the use of “shock,” she recognized the “remarkable quickening of public interest” in books that employed it. [4] The reason at the base of the appeal of sex and violence is, of course, the simple fact that passions and anxieties associated with love and death are the most powerful emotions of human life.

By including two registers of plotline, Oliphant mirrors her readers’ psyches and her own. We each live our lives in continual pursuit of self-respect and community approbation, yet everyone encounters as well the more tumultuous forces of desire and fear. Whereas a good deal of the social realm is, to one extent or another, within the control of the individual, the demands of eros and thanatos are non-negotiable. Though ratiocination may serve well in the struggles of the ego, it has far less influence in affairs involving sexuality (and pleasure in general) or mortality (and pain in general). Far from having created a monstrous fiction like the one imagined by Horace with a horse’s neck and a human head, Oliphant has accurately reflected what is the universal human life experience. Discordant it may be, but no more so than our daily lives.

1. I confess to a weakness for these usages, though I am aware that they seem to others obsolete or even disagreeable. Mrs. Gaskell, Dr. Johnson, Lady Mary Wortley Montague. After this initial declaration, though, I shall observe current usage of the surname only.

2. The outsize contribution of women to the ranks of both readers and writers of fiction is another indication of the lower social status of the novel. Even in novels written by men, the representation of a female perspective is often prominent as in works of Defoe and Richardson.

3. The fashion is evident in parts of Charles Dickens’ work and more obviously in that of Wilkie Collins. Women were prominent among the practitioners of sensation fiction. Though many are unread today, authors like Ellen (Mrs. Henry) Wood, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Evelyn Benson and Elizabeth Caroline Grey were once best-sellers.

4. See her article “Sensation Novels” in Blackwood’s Magazine, May 1862, pp. 574-80.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A Few Films

The Movement of People Working (Niblock)

Niblock is an entirely untrained composer, an American original. This film, which he directed and scored, was shot in Mexico Peru, Hungary, and Hong Kong and is accompanied by the fimmaker’s electronic soundtrack. The workers’ mostly pre-industrial labors are generally repetitive and rapidly acquire first a ritual and then an abstract quality. In fact, the viewer often has the unsettling feeling (enthusiastically seconded by the artist) that the images are secondary to the clusters of slow-evolving microtones. The rhythmic motions of weaving or plowing come to seem equivalent to the movements of the heavenly spheres.

Niblock’s avant-gardism here relies not only on his own sensibility to sound, but as well on the richly suggestive character of these scenes of people with stoic faces doing the essential work of survival with which so many of us have little or no acquaintance. As an avant-garde artist, lacking either a role in either economic production or even a general audience, his depiction of such processes is an elegant embodiment of a contradiction.

The Animal Kingdom

The well-written play by Philip Barry was made into an entertaining film in 1932 starring Leslie Howard, Ann Harding, and Myrna Loy. The director, Edward H. Griffith, made many romantic comedies (including several with Madeleine Carroll whom Hitchcock directed in The Thirty-Nine Steps), but never attempted to break from formulae and achieved only middling success. Here he needed only to stay out of the way of Barry’s theatrical moves and to allow his stars to do their work, not only Howard and Loy but also diverting turns by Ilka Chase as the catty friend of Harding’s character, and William Gargan as a prizefighter/butler.

The theme is a variation on that familiar from Barry’s more popular play-turned-film, The Philadelphia Story. The structural oppositions remain the same: wealth and poverty and social convention versus nonconformity. Here, in a filtering down into popular culture of the emancipated woman of the twenties, the hero, whose wealthy and status-conscious father wants him to work in the firm and marry a respectable woman of his class, prefers to spend his time publishing art books and socializing with bohemians.

I then saw Holiday with Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and Edward Everett Horton, based on another Barry play in which many of the same counters are rearranged. (The same play had been filmed in 1930 as well with Horton and Hedda Hopper in the cast.) In this story Grant is a self-made man who wants to wander the world gypsy-like for a time, a plan his fiancée’s stuffy upper-crust father disapproves. The film is among those discussed by Stanley Cavell as a “comedy of remarriage” in his Pursuits of Happiness. To Cavell these are among the greatest films of their era.

One might hardly suspect it from these works, but Barry was a devoted Christian who wrote explicitly didactic religious works as well such as John and The Joyous Season. I find little trace of this Barry in these plays which found success as films as well. The admiration for Prof. Potter’s eccentricities in Holiday, for Tom Collier’s artiness in The Animal Kingdom, and for C. K. Dexter Haven’s drinking in The Philadelphia Story seems to accord ill with the moralist he showed himself to be in other works.

The Pet (McCay)

Winsor McCay is generally acknowledged one of the greatest newspaper cartoonists. His Little Nemo offers perhaps the grandest sense of spectacle of any strip and his Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend uncannily exploits and expands our anxieties until they become ludicrous.

Though his Gertie the Dinosaur was not, as McCay sometimes claimed, the first animated cartoon, he did do some marvelous work in the medium between 1911 and 1921. This ten minute film from 1920 reproduces the way in which the Rarebit Fiend would move by degrees from the utterly mundane to the altogether weird and profoundly unsettling. The human characters are so proper and bourgeois and their home as well is drawn in respectable conventional detail, but the pet that enters their lives is spooky from the start with its undefinable species and its blank eyes.

Keats' "Thing of Beauty"

If this essay sprawls a bit, perhaps it has been influenced by the poem it examines. I certainly share with Keats his love of love and of poetry and his passionate quest for the liberation of the mind. Such confessions would be out of place in an academic journal, but then, why do any of us, professors included, read literature?

Keats is outstanding among the Romantic poets for his sensual imagery and utter dedication to beauty. Yet one hardly thinks of him as an aesthetic theoretician. In fact his vastly suggestive concept of negative capability specifically recommends suspending rationalization. [1] According to Keats, the role of poetry is not only to convey the sensual delight of what he called “the Chamber of Maiden-Thought,” but, with the consciousness sobered by knowledge of suffering, to push into the “dark passages” beyond. To the skeptical young writer, even a visionary poet can know no more than that “We are in a Mist . . . We feel the ‘burden of the Mystery,’” [2] Keats thought in images and his passionate notions of art are grandly and elaborately if unsystematically set forth in Endymion.

To Keats even before his fatal illness, life was tenable only through the cultivation of aesthetic experience. As readers we can relish Keats’ precise and perfect images, enjoying them as the poet enjoyed a sunset or a passage of Spenser. But such pleasure falls short of “balance,” [3] in which one embraces the cosmos as a whole, suffering as well as delight, pain as well as joy. By articulating oppositions such as fantasy/reality, art/life, love/loneliness, and dream/waking Keats pursues the same quest as does his hero Endymion to overcome these dualities in what might variously be called enlightenment, liberation, or immortality.

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever." The opening line of Keats' Endymion is known to a great many people unaware of its source. Though the rushing passion of the poet's sentiment is clear and the idea may pass as a truism, its claim that beauty is immortal is highly problematic. In fact this apparent statement of belief turns out to be instead the central question in Keats’ very original treatment of Endymion’s story. What seems at first a confident axiom unravels as the poem progresses. Even before the author presents contradictions and tensions, the reader might wonder how aesthetic pleasure can be objectively defined. By whom? And is it the objet d'art itself that is eternal? Surely it has no significant existence apart from the human consumer whose "forever" is circumscribed by individual mortality. Even considering humanity as a whole, Keats' participation in the Romantic revival of Hellenism is sufficient reminder of the rise and fall of enthusiasm for specific styles, periods, and works. Is his temporal claim simply a figure of speech for the intensity of his appreciation?

With all these questions suspended, Keats proceeds to characterize the effects he considers characteristic of beauty. To him beauty creates a "bower quiet" and "a sleep" not only "full of sweet dreams" but also "health" and even "quiet breathing." (I, 4-5) Its charm generates "a flowery band to bind us to the earth." (I, 7) Though these are positive terms for the author, it is nonetheless true that to speak of sleep and dreams suggests that beauty is an illusory escape or at best an analgesic for those in the throes of life, a sort of narcotic to get one through the day. The fanciful mention of bodily dramatically enacts human physical vulnerability and seems a poignant wish-fulfilment fantasy. The following passage only restates the problem. A catalogue of the woes of life is succeeded by the beauties first of nature and then of art. To the poet both kinds of beauty constitute "an endless fountain of Immortal drink/ Pouring unto us from the heaven's brink." (I, 24) The terms of the problem are clear: the poem explores whether art can compensate for human limitations such as weakness, suffering, and mortality.

Keats, even before his own final illness, had felt, as Buddha, Plato, and Christ before him that suffering is the inevitably dominant note in human life. At the very outset he catalogues the many woes of humankind’s “unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways,” (I, 11) beginning with depression. [4] Endymion is introduced as an exemplar of every excellence, yet even then the discerning might note “a lurking trouble in his nether lip.” (I, 179) The reader later encounters Glaucus for whom to be born is to be “pierc’d and stung/ With new-born life!” III, 237) Life is torture (I, 919), a “den of helpless discontent.” (I,928) The poem is replete with expressions such as “weary life” (I, 710) and “the troubled sea of the mind.” (I, 452 and 979) Consciousness results in misery; awakening feels like drowning. (II, 282) We are condemned to lead in “dull, uninspired, snail-paced lives” (IV, 25) while starving and freezing. (I, 191) Thus “wayworn” one must seek after “the diamond path” (II, 651-2) though it be as elusive as the “golden butterfly upon whose wings/ There must be surely character’d strange things.” (II, 61-2)

The suffering human can obtain temporary relief through the contemplation of beauty. When cast into the subterranean realm, Endymion’s loss of earthly sights is detailed in one of Keats’ wonderful catalogues.

He cannot see the heavens, nor the flow
Of rivers, nor hill-flowers running wild
In pink and purple chequer, nor, up-pil’d,
The cloudy rack slow journeying in the west,
Like herded elephants; nor felt, nor prest
Cool grass, nor tasted the fresh slumberous air. (II, 285-90)

He appeals to Diana’s love of wilderness.

Within my breast there lives a choking flame—
O let me cool it among the zephyr-boughs!
A homeward fever parches up my tongue—
O let me slake it at the running springs!
Upon my ear a noisy nothing rings—
O let me once more hear the linnet’s note!
Before mine eyes thick films and shadows float—
O let me ’noint them with the heaven’s light!
Dost thou now lave thy feet and ankles white?
O think how sweet to me the freshening sluice!
Dost thou now please thy thirst with berry-juice?
O think how this dry palate would rejoice!
If in soft slumber thou dost hear my voice,
Oh think how I should love a bed of flowers!—
Young goddess! let me see my native bowers!
Deliver me from this rapacious deep! (II, 317-332)

Keats’ description of natural sights dramatically conveys his appreciation of the creation and his conviction that such visions can ameliorate life’s pain.

Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
’Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms: (I, 13-19)

A number of such brimming and glorious lists occur later including the description of the sea floor (III, 123-136) and of flowers (IV, 575-577). He clearly felt, and it is surely more a matter of feeling than reasoning, that enjoyment of the natural world provides access to the sublime.

Yet for Keats the contemplation of landscape was in fact only an antechamber to enlightenment, as it reached only the “Chamber of Maiden-Thought,” giving deep pleasure, but providing insufficient inspiration to be fully satisfying. A “thing of beauty” in nature seems to deliver only impermanent rewards, falling well short of Keats’ longed-for goal.

In fact, in spite of the poet’s delight in creation, throughout the poem fantasy and dream bear initially positive associations, while reality, life, and waking are fraught with pain and peril. With its pessimistic implication that open eyes mean an anguished heart, this pattern suggests that even with the relief of sleep, only temporary escape from suffering is available. A breath of poppies leads to “enchantment” “yet it was but a dream.” (I, 567-574) Though sleep is a delicious relief, one cannot sleep forever. (II, 705-707) A “sweet dream” must soon vanish “like a spark” and fall “into nothing.” (I, 675-678) The poppies, however, lead to a vision of Cynthia whom he instantly loves. She, he finds, possesses qualities unmatched by the natural world which cannot provide even a metaphor for her excellence.

Whence came that high perfection of all sweetness?
Speak, stubborn earth, and tell me where, O Where
Hast thou a symbol of her golden hair? (I, 608-610)

The significance of love between humans as an initial step toward philosophic enlightenment is, of course, familiar from the Plato as well as from such neo-Platonic texts as Ficino’s Commentary on the Symposium and Pico della Mirandola’s Platonic Discourse on Love. Keats certainly employs this philosophic though he likely derived more from Shelley than from earlier writers. In Endymion the central narrative conflict is the shepherd’s love for Cynthia. To the poet the sight of the beloved has such power that he feels

the bars
That kept my spirit in are burst—that I
Am sailing with thee through the dizzy sky! (II, 185-187)

The opening lines of Book II celebrate “the sovereign power of love” and imply that love can confer immortality, though the evidence is unconvincing: the claim that “Troilus and Cressid” are well- remembered while the violence of the Trojan War fades from memory (II, 12O) and that Odysseus (who, after all, had a love story himself) and Alexander are forgotten, but not Juliet or Hero. It is Love who asks Endymion “What, not yet/ Escap’d from dull mortality’s harsh net?” (III, 905) Neptune’s devotees address Cytherea (Aphrodite) celebrating her power to “cast away” not only “gloom” but also “all death-shadows” (III, 980), and she responds by promising Endymion immortality. (III, 1021) The naiad episode in Book III with whom he drinks “from Pleasure’s nipple” (II, 869) demonstrates that, like the beauty of landscape, sexual pleasure itself, while intoxicating and powerful, does not provide a permanent solution to life’s anxiety.

Art can be said to combine the charm of nature, dreams, and love, the individually inadequate recourses for surcease of suffering. Partaking of the quality of beauty available in each of these as well as the fictional license of dream and the passion of love, poetry may seem the likeliest healer of the human condition. At the very outset heroic narrative is said to provide relief from life’s rigors. (I, 20-21) It is conflated with love in “the path of love and poesy.” (II, 38) In particular the poets of antiquity are so great as to create an “eternal Spring” unavailable to modern artists. (II, 250, see also II, 720) As he had done in his introduction, Keats apologizes for his own poem.

O ’tis a very sin
For one so weak to venture his poor verse
In such a place as this. (III, 936-938)

Endymion’s “higher hope” (I, 774) to join in “fellowship divine” (I, 777) is in part fulfilled by art. When one hears “old songs” (I, 787), “prophesyings” (I, 789), one thinks of Orpheus. (I, 794)

that moment have we stept
Into a sort of oneness, and our state
Is like a floating spirit’s. (I, 795-7)

Apart from whatever shortcomings may limit contemporary art, it, like love, brings at best not bliss but a more refined sort of suffering.

O did he ever live, that lonely man,
Who lov’d—and music slew not? ’Tis the pest
Of love, that fairest joys give most unrest;
That things of delicate and tenderest worth
Are swallow’d all, and made a seared dearth,
By one consuming flame: it doth immerse
And suffocate true blessings in a curse.
Half-happy, by comparison of bliss,
Is miserable. (II, 364-372)

While the “crown” (I, 800) of our “entanglements” (I, 798) is “love and friendship” (I, 801) with love at the “tip-top,” (I, 805) one hopes in the end for a mystic union. The poet seeks ultimately for “that completed form of all completeness” (I, 606) and even love here falls short.

Nonetheless, since he writes, Keats implicitly seeks a solution in art. With imagination he may employ the symbols and even the assumptions of past ages in the service of his own quest. Here the deities of the ancient world provide images particularly powerful for a poet who had rejected Christianity. [6] Endymion contains not only theophanies of Bacchus, Diana, Aphrodite, and Pan as well as Cynthia, but also several pictures of mortals caught between the divine and the human including Endymion himself, Glaucus, Adonis, and the naiad. As gods represent ultimate reality, these provide a language for Keats’ most profound formulation of a cure for suffering.

When Bacchus appears, he is a more monumental version of Pan, lord of wild animals and of nature generally, master even of Brahma (IV, 265) yet his votary remains lost in grief. (IV, 278) Finding it impossible to flee from sorrow, she decides she must instead embrace it, declaring “of all the world I love thee [suffering] best.” (IV, 284) The god, for all his ecstatic rituals, remains in the bonds of the cycle of birth and death.

Pan is addressed by the rural assembly in the first book as a lord of creation overshadowing “eternal whispers, glooms, the birth, life, death” of animate nature. (II, 232-234) In praise of Pan Keats launches one of the finest catalogues of concrete sensual images of the whole poem. (I, 247 ff.), yet the reader notes the intrusion of ”glooms” between “eternal whispers” and “birth,” succeeded then by “solemn,” “dreary,” “desolate,” leading up to Pan’s “melancholy” at the loss of Syrinx. [7] This implies in mythic narrative the same analysis of heartsickness the reader has seen elsewhere. Nature is grandly magnificent, but cannot reliably eliminate pain. Love, while likewise potent, is also likewise undependable.

Yet the mythic language does allow for triumph in the end. Though it is presented as a dream within a myth within a poem, Endymion becomes an immortal.

[Endymion] Would at high Jove’s empyreal footstool win
An immortality, and how espouse
Jove’s daughter, and be reckon’d of his house. (IV, 378-380)

When the Indian maid turns out to be Cynthia, this fortunate turn (IV, 986)n seems wholly realized, though Peona is said to return in “wonderment” (as who would not?) through the “gloomy” wood. The reader is left uncertain as to the source of that remaining ambiguity. Only in this way could Keats precisely convey the contradictions of his own all-too-human sensibility.

The fact that this felicitous conclusion occurs in the realm of myth implies its ambiguous relation to lived experience. On the one hand, it did not happen, and thus it serves as a poignant and powerful wish, the description of which signifies the human longing toward something lacking. On the other hand, such narratives are frequently employed in sympathetic magic, with the aim of attracting to the individual the rewards the narrative gives in fullness to its hero. [8] In the end, joy and enlightenment occur only in the mind of the individual, so such imaginative exercises may be more efficacious than philosophic ratiocination in the quest for wisdom.

Surely the mad phantasmagoria of the poem’s story is no madder than the course of our daily lives, the passions of Endymion no deeper than our own, and the shepherd’s assumption into the empyrean no less astonishing for resembling in symbolic terms the closest approach to a solution of the wisest among us of the problem of how to live a human life. Even the poem’s often criticized “incoherence” corresponds to the conflict and obscurity in the poet’s mind.

1. Letter to his brothers, George and Thomas, on 21 December, 1817.

2. Letter to John Hamilton Reynolds dated 3 May, 1818. The phrase is quoted from “Tintern Abbey” where Wordsworth suggests that the “more sublime” benefit of aesthetic experience is a “blessed mood.” In which the burthen of the mystery.

In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on. (5)

3. Letter to John Hamilton Reynolds dated 3 May, 1818.

4. Cf. Coleridge’s “Ode to Dejection” and Byron’s declaration “We of the craft are all crazy.” For the latter see Marguerite Countess of Blessington, Conversations of Lord Byron with the Countess of Blessington, p. 87.

5. ll. 37-41

6. In a letter to Benjamin Bailey, 22 November, 1817, he declared his faith in beauty and emotion and added, “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination.”

7. Syrinx’s subsequent metamorphosis into Pan’s proper musical instrument reminds the reader of the potential of art to provide at least a partial solution to the human predicament.

8. This is a worldwide principle of what might be called the verbal technology of hope. In one contemporary example of which I am aware, the Moroccan musician Hassan Hakmoun describes healing ceremonies in which musicians performed in the patient’s home through the night singing songs of overcoming demons that personify the illness. Hearing the victory of the narrative protagonists is thought to benefit the sufferer against the illness.

Kurt Seligmann’s Moderate Surrealism

“Artist Canvas Reality” is the first in a series of facsimile editions of Kurt Seligmann’s typed manuscripts for lectures at the New School now being published for the first time by the Seligmann Center for the Arts. Under the editorship of Mary Altobelli, each publication will include a variety of supplementary materials. This first features an introduction by Celia Rabinovitch, eight artists’ responses to Seligmann’s ideas in words and forms, and this essay as afterword. The second lecture, on art and magic, is in preparation and should appear early in 2017. Each is to cost $15 and may be purchased from the Seligmann Center or through me.

At the outset of his lecture “Artist Canvas Reality” Kurt Seligmann admits the partial character of his own analysis and suggests that some elements of art may remain forever mysterious. He then directly addresses his audience, suggesting “I may perhaps give you an impulse for further exploration.” These comments are a response to the artist’s invitation.

For years Kurt Seligmann was a member of the Surrealist circle, his membership sanctioned by André Breton, and confirmed by his close associations with Ernst and Tanguy among others. Nonetheless, his own theory and practice remained idiosyncratic. Seligmann’s statements on aesthetics, accessible from his American lectures such as “Artist Canvas Reality,” while incorporating certain critical Surrealist tendencies, suggest a significantly moderated version of those announced so dramatically in Breton’s first “Manifesto of Surrealism.”

In that historic document, Breton calls for the overthrow of reason, insisting that logic has no significant use. He praises the child’s mind, the madman’s consciousness, and the significance of dreams and chance. He celebrates “the marvelous,” declaring realism “the lowest of tastes,” and delights in what Reverdy calls “a juxtaposition of two more or less remote realities” proceeding then to illustrate the point with a series of quotations such as this from Roger Vitrac: “No sooner had I summoned the marble-admiral than he pirouetted on his heels like a horse rearing at the pole star and showed me in the plane of his bicorn hat a region where I ought to spend my life.” To Breton what is important is to compose “without any intervention on the part of the critical faculties,” “unencumbered by the slightest inhibition.” Surrealism to him is a drug capable of producing “an artificial paradise.”

In his talk titled “Artist Canvas Reality,” Seligmann likewise rejects realism but then poses an alternative quite different from Breton’s. To Seligmann every representation is partial and coded, and thus a claim to realism is always false. Vulgar mimesis is incapable of “creation” and can produce only a “deception.” For him “there is not such a thing as objective reality.” On the other hand “Reality is the All,” the contents of the artist’s mind no less than the tree before his eyes.

Breton treated reason with contempt, saying it was operative only upon trivial occasions (dismissing at the same time aesthetic and moral concerns) while to Seligmann rational conscious planning was critical to art. He directly challenges Breton by declaring that spontaneous or automatic creation cannot exist. For Seligmann Mind takes an equal role with what he calls Psyche in the “struggle upon the canvas” that generates art.

Experience to Seligmann is inevitably subjective. Art is “an interpretation of an interpretation” which is again reinterpreted by the viewer, but, far from a diminished vision (as it seemed to Plato), this subtle process is for Seligmann the precise way to signify human experience. Whereas Breton had defined Surrealism as “psychic automatism,” “free from any control,” Seligmann pursued art that reflected the human mind, committed at once to the objective and subjective, the conscious and unconscious. Instead of fishing for truth in the deep waters of dreams, or even beyond, in the chartless realms of chance, Seligmann sought out of the dialectic between the rational and the irrational to produce the “mysterious transubstantiation” of art.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Rimbaud’s Use of Montage

The essay is followed by my translation and by the French text of “Villes.”

Fragmentation and elliptical expression are implicated in all literary usage. Figures of speech, for instance, always require the reader’s imaginative leap though this action is so natural to the human mind, always so sensitive to structure and pattern and abstract form, that we are not ordinarily conscious of it. These characteristics are particularly evident in modern literature and, like other characteristics of the modern, in the poems of Arthur Rimbaud.

Texts like the prose poems of his Illuminations may be considered as literary examples of what in cinema would be called montage. This most revolutionary technique of cinema is identified with Sergei Eisenstein, though he credits Griffith as his own source. [1] Those who feel at sea in the middle of one of these poems might do well to simply watch the mental movie scripted by the poet’s images without concern for unity or consistency until the end. As when watching one of the breathtaking sequences in Ivan the Terrible, one might relish the formal structure and melodic appeal of Rimbaud’s words which, like Eisenstein’s masterful images, carry the reader or viewer effortlessly aloft.

To filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein the visual sequence of montages of image is the most potent and distinctively cinematic of the techniques he developed in his own films and in his teaching and critical writing. He calls montage “the most powerful compositional means of telling a story” and “a syntax for the correct construction of each particle of a film fragment.” [2] Through montage he pursued a “unity of a higher order.” [3] An admirer of James Joyce during Stalinism when such enthusiasm could have the most serious consequences, he praised Joyce’s skill at presenting apparent “disintegration in stylistic unity” and declared himself very nearly a disciple, saying, “from Joyce the next leap is to film.” [4]

Eisenstein differed with his colleague Pudovkin’s view of montage as “linkage,” building an accumulated case as though with mounting evidence, and championed instead the idea of montage as “collision,” forcefully juxtaposing elements with no immediate connection, thus obliging the viewer to make one, consciously or, perhaps better yet, unconsciously. [5] His own montages seek to be at once “monistic” in the final effect and “dialectic” in working toward that end. [6]

The filmmaker was quite clear about the literary parallels to his visual techniques, citing Flaubert and others as influences. Such gaps have long been exploited as a source of literary beauty. Long after Lautréamont described a boy’s fairness as "beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella" [7] his simile became a Surrealist slogan. More modern manifestations of related theories include Rothenburg and Robert Kelly ‘s concept of “deep images [8] or Bly’s of “leaping” poetry. [9]

Some have found Rimbaud’s prose poems to include an almost indigestible density of signification. (The same complaint is sometimes made of John Ashbery, perhaps Rimbaud’s finest translator. [10]) If the consumer experiences the images as a series, allowing them to register “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” [11] they will not only register as powerful impressions, but they will shortly form highly ordered groupings that might, in the end, be called unified or even “monistic.” By listing the images over each section of the poem, I mean to suggest how they might appear as raw experience. I follow with a rapid, stream-of-consciousness interpretation, always provisional. I present this explication as a document of one reader’s response. In the end I believe the poem seems almost classical in its regard for form.


The very title launches a sort of bipolar dialectic that functions throughout the poem. A short time before Rimbaud, Baudelaire’s Parisian flâneur was at once engaged and alienated, while looking forward a bit, Eliot is astonished at the sight of the “unreal city.” [12] In spite of the title much of the piece employs natural images: palms, gorges, and high peaks. The writer occupies cities, and that fact suggests his alienation from his own original nature, a tense estrangement which is in fact the central theme. The idea is unannounced. The reader must await its unfolding in time, like a film.

Alleghenys and Lebanon -- chalets on tracks -- craters and colossi -- bells in gorges

“Oh, cities! Here is a people for whom fantasies of the Alleghenys and the Lebanon were composed! Chalets of crystal and of wood which move on invisible tracks by means of unseen pulleys. Old craters surrounded by colossi where copper palms roar music through the flames. One overhears the love-feasts on the canals behind the chalets. The bells’ hunt cries through the gorges.”

After announcing the title with an emotive exclamation point, he proceeds to characterize urbanites as people to suit whose taste such exotic realms as “the Alleghenys and the Lebanon” were specifically designed. He suggests their elaborate (virtually “steampunk” despite its date) artificiality by speaking of invisible tracks and pulleys.

Then the images begin to flash by with dizzying speed. Rimbaud sketches a weird end-of-the-world scene like Coleridge’s Xanadu: a crater, a void, the emptiness of the modern soul seems in the center, surrounded by colossi more mysterious than those of Easter Island. Surely they are a response to the crater, an attempt through myth to restore balance. But this dialectic no sooner emerges than it is replaced by another natural/unnatural monster: copper palm trees which, in spite of their surprising material, are aflame, turning to a nightmare the tropical dream they first elicited. Further, in the midst of conflagration they, like the poet and, by implication, all the rest of us, are singing.

Whatever can be the source of song? Perhaps the “love-feasts,” audible from a distance, the first introduction of the dynamo of eros that powers the creation and offers the potential for the persona’s escaping his distress and gaining a sense of belonging and fulfilment and joy. One next sees bells ringing wildly, their peal echoing through the gorges, those liminal areas where low turns to high, the tocsin ringing like the Buddha’s advice in the Lotus Sutra: “Your house is on fire! Act!” [13]

titanic choruses -- trumpeting Rolands -- masts on gangways -- seraphic centauresses

“Choral societies with gigantic singers and striking robes and banners striking as a high peak dash on the scene. On platforms in the middle of the abyss, Rolands trumpet their courage. On gangways over the void and on the roofs of hostels heaven’s heat decks out the masts. The collapse of apotheoses has caught the higher fields where seraphic centauresses play among the avalanches.”

Suddenly the colossi seem to have come alive and formed themselves into choruses. In the face of the dizzying onslaught we humans, poor doomed Rolands, crow and strut bravely as doom approaches. On the jerry-built justifications that get us through life and over our very accommodations the unforgiving absolute sun displays its mad love of pattern on the cosmic masts. The death of god has proceeded to the point where semi-divine women play heedless amid collapse and disaster.

a stormy sea -- sorrowful flowers -- gowned floating faeries -- theophany of Diana

“Above the elevation of the highest peaks, a sea perturbed by the constant birth of Venus and filled with fleets of men’s choruses and with the thrum of valued conches and pearls. The sea grows dim with lethal blasts. On the slopes harvests of flowers, huge like our weapons and our winecups, bawl. Parades of Mabs in red and opalescent gowns climb the gullies. Way up there, feet in the blackberries and rushing water, Diana suckles the deer.”

At the highest pinnacle of knowledge one finds only the great primal sea waving to reflect the sempiternal birth of Venus. The great sea of chaos is shaken by mortality to thicken the plot. The very flowers, inscribed with weapons and wine-cups, weep. Ascending faeries (the third mention of divinized female figures) rise from the gorges, seeking always the upward path and, as their goal, Diana sits at high altitude rooted in the water and the animals and the plants of perfected nature. She resembles those archaic goddesses of whom Gimbutas wrote. [14]

bacchantes under burning moon -- Venus going visiting -- bone-built houses -- elk on Main Street

“Suburban bacchantes weep while the moon burns and cries. Venus visits the caves of ironworkers and ascetics. Groupings of belfries sing what’s on people’s minds. From manors built of bones comes an unknown tune. All myths alter and the elk rush through towns.”

The bacchantes are the wise ones, but they weep under the burning moon of experience. Still some favored ones (here hermits and blacksmiths) can enjoy communion with Venus and in that way to become enlightened. Again song carries the human consciousness abroad as the bells sing out the truth. More music emerges from the grand structures people have built of their own knowledge of mortality, but it is not wholly intelligible. The myths must be updated as Diana’s animals troop trough Main Street in an undeniable rush of energy.

paroxysms of storm -- tribal dancing -- the dilemma of the Baghdad street -- conclusion

“A paradise of thunderstorms collapses. Tribal people dance without pause to celebrate the night. And, one time, I went down in the crowds of a Baghdad street where troops were singing the joy of new work, with a brisk breeze blowing, circling, unable to escape the unreal phantoms of the hills where they must have gathered.

What good arms, what fine hour will recover for me the place from which my sleep and my smallest movements come?”

The sky, chaotic like the sea, is torn by huge storms, while below tribal people, the only possessors of the cosmic secrets, dance to embrace the night so alarming to the city-dweller. In the exotic yet urban medina of Baghdad he hears people singing their daily round, singing again to counteract the dark, but he feels always the cold reminding breeze of the metaphysical dilemmas of the mountains. Carrying this burden about with him, he cannot join the crowds. He wonders how he might regain that place of his own unconscious, his sleep, and also of his deepest nature, the origin of his “smallest movements.” In Zen terms he is looking for his original face, before his parents’ birth.

We have then a poem on cities in which the few mentions of cities are emphatically exotic. Here an urban setting serves simply as an emblem of estrangement. Yet the poet realizes that he cannot return to a prelapsarian nature. The only routes toward mitigation of the unfitness we humans feel as a neurotic byproduct of self-consciousness are love and art, Venus and song. Wild as it is, the poem is optimistic in contrast to Rimbaud’s silence that was to come, his escape to Africa, when even these most powerful consolations came to be insufficient. Already in the nineteenth century, the pillars of certainty had fallen for the young poet, and he could find his way only by anticipating the techniques and themes of the age to come.

1. For homage to Griffith see p. 204-5 and 234-5 The Film Form and The Film Sense (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1957).

2. The Film Form, p. 111.

3. The Film Form, p. 254.

4. From Emily Tall, “Eisenstein on Joyce: Sergei Eisenstein's Lecture on James Joyce at the State Institute of Cinematography, November 1, 1934,” James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Winter, 1987), pp. 133-142.

5. Robert Bly, Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations.

6. The Film Form, Flaubert p. 12 For montage as collision, see p. 36.

7. Canto VI, Les Chants de Maldoror. Lautréamont became a hero of the Surrealists after Phillippe Soupault came upon a copy of Maldoror (while a mental patient) and showed to Breton.

8. Trobar 2.

9. The Film Form, p. 235.

10. Though I was immensely impressed with his 2011 translation of Illuminations, I avoided consulting it when doing my own version of “Villes.”

11. The phrase is from Keats’ letter, of course, on “negative capability.”

12. Line 60 of “The Wasteland.” In Baudelaire’s “Paysage” he sees a city in terms as artificial as Rimbaud’s, occupied with “crystal palaces.”

13. In Ch. 3.

14. See The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe and other books.

Oh, cities! Here is a people for whom fantasies of the Alleghenys and the Lebanon were composed! Chalets of crystal and of wood which move on invisible tracks by means of unseen pulleys. Old craters surrounded by colossi where copper palms roar music through the flames. One overhears the love-feasts on the canals behind the chalets. The bells’ hunt cries through the gorges. Choral societies with gigantic singers and striking robes and banners striking as a high peak dash on the scene. On platforms in the middle of the abyss, Rolands trumpet their courage. On gangways over the void and on the roofs of hostels heaven’s heat decks out the masts. The collapse of apotheoses has caught the higher fields where seraphic centauresses play among the avalanches. Above the elevation of the highest peaks, a sea perturbed by the constant birth of Venus and filled with fleets of men’s choruses and with the thrum of valued conches and pearls. The sea grows dim with lethal blasts. On the slopes harvests of flowers, huge like our weapons and our winecups, bawl. Parades of Mabs in red and opalescent gowns climb the gullies. Way up there, feet in the blackberries and rushing water, Diana suckles the deer. Suburban bacchantes weep while the moon burns and cries. Venus visits the caves of ironworkers and ascetics. Groupings of belfries sing what’s on people’s minds. From manors built of bones comes an unknown tune. All myths alter and the elk rush through towns. A paradise of thunderstorms collapses. Tribal people dance without pause to celebrate the night. And, one time, I went down in the crowds of a Baghdad street where troops were singing the joy of new work, with a brisk breeze blowing, circling, unable to escape the unreal phantoms of the hills where they must have gathered.
What good arms, what fine hour will recover for me the place from which my sleep and my smallest movements come?

Ce sont des villes ! C'est un peuple pour qui se sont montés ces Alleghanys et ces Libans de rêve ! Des chalets de cristal et de bois qui se meuvent sur des rails et des poulies invisibles. Les vieux cratères ceints de colosses et de palmiers de cuivre rugissent mélodieusement dans les feux. Des fêtes amoureuses sonnent sur les canaux pendus derrière les chalets. La chasse des carillons crie dans les gorges. Des corporations de chanteurs géants accourent dans des vêtements et des oriflammes éclatants comme la lumière des cimes. Sur les plates-formes au milieu des gouffres les Rolands sonnent leur bravoure. Sur les passerelles de l'abîme et les toits des auberges l'ardeur du ciel pavoise les mâts. L'écroulement des apothéoses rejoint les champs des hauteurs où les centauresses séraphiques évoluent parmi les avalanches. Au-dessus du niveau des plus hautes crêtes une mer troublée par la naissance éternelle de Vénus, chargée de flottes orphéoniques et de la rumeur des perles et des conques précieuses, - la mer s'assombrit parfois avec des éclats mortels. Sur les versants des moissons de fleurs grandes comme nos armes et nos coupes, mugissent. Des cortèges de Mabs en robes rousses, opalines, montent des ravines. Là-haut, les pieds dans la cascade et les ronces, les cerfs tettent Diane. Les Bacchantes des banlieues sanglotent et la lune brûle et hurle. Vénus entre dans les cavernes des forgerons et des ermites. Des groupes de beffrois chantent les idées des peuples. Des châteaux bâtis en os sort la musique inconnue. Toutes les légendes évoluent et les élans se ruent dans les bourgs. Le paradis des orages s'effondre. Les sauvages dansent sans cesse la fête de la nuit. Et une heure je suis descendu dans le mouvement d'un boulevard de Bagdad où des compagnies ont chanté la joie du travail nouveau, sous une brise épaisse, circulant sans pouvoir éluder les fabuleux fantômes des monts où l'on a dû se retrouver.
Quels bons bras, quelle belle heure me rendront cette région d'où viennent mes sommeils et mes moindres mouvements ?

Notes on Recent Reading (Achebe, Jewett, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam)

Anthills of the Savannah (Achebe)

Chinua Achebe’s last novel, published twenty-one years after A Man of the People, again engages the theme of sub-Saharan African “democratic” politics, portraying a land utterly lost to avarice, tyranny, and corruption. My own experience is limited, but he seems right on the money. Since independence the continent has suffered decline due to neo-colonialism, domestic profiteers, HIV, and helplessness in the face of world capitalism, and it is proper that the most eloquent protests should come from Africans. Achebe’s readers know how skilled he is at writing a readable and informative novel. Not for nothing is Things Fall Apart a school and university favorite. If the characters here seem mere types (the tyrant, a collaborator, a radical, a more detached female love interest), it is because they are in service to their theme. I, for one, was taken by surprise by the dramatic events that constitute the final portion of the story, including the sudden deaths of two leading figures, and a concluding ceremony for an infant that seems to point suddenly toward cheerier possibilities which I am afraid for me seemed altogether unmotivated.

I enjoyed particularly the passages in pidgin and the oratory of the Abazon elder, but this may be peculiar to my own experiences in Nigeria decades ago.

The Country of the Pointed Firs (Jewett)

Jewett’s near too-fond vignettes of the coast of southern Maine and its people will always have a significant place in accounts of American regionalism, but those interested in camp and kitsch may see in it embryos of the ironic aesthetics so popular in the Modern era. The author was in fact a native of South Berwick, though her family was among the town’s most affluent, and she strayed regularly to greater cultural centers. In this she differs from writers like Mark Twain who, despite his immense success and sharp satiric bite essentially never left his rural Missouri upbringing or George Washington Harris whose Sut Lovingood is wholly a figure of fun. Jewett depicts her characters with warm condescending affection as “dear old things” among whom the narrator is a (presumably urban) intruder set apart by education, taste, and manners yet sufficiently sociably adept to appreciate the people of the boondocks and to ingratiate herself with them. My strongest impression from this reading was a powerful sense of the harshness of the environment, both for those who sought a living at sea and on land, and a hardihood in response that seems a throwback to the Old English. If Jewett seldom writes a memorable descriptive passage or even an attention-getting figure of speech, she is never guilty of verbal missteps, and her prose is clear and refreshing. She may not evoke tragic sensations, but she plays at sentimental and pathetic with a light and restrained hand.

I was in Ogunquit shortly after Labor Day and my first thought, upon turning into town and seeing holidaymakers thronging the sidewalks, was, “I might almost be in Puerto Vallarta.” Yet I ate my lobster and was glad.

Cruel Tales Villiers de l’Isle-Adam

Those who fancy Oscar Wilde and Huysmans will likely know Edmund Wilson’s excellent Axel’s Castle with its title reference to Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s prose poem Axel, in which the hero notoriously says, “Vivre? les serviteurs feront cela pour nous" (“Living? Our servants can do that for us.”) Axel itself is far less well-known and the author’s other efforts, notably short stories, but also journalistic pieces, plays, and poetry have even fewer readers. Yet anyone with a taste for the decadent and perverse will enjoy these brief tales, though a few seek to prove their point at too great a length, most are well-turned, with a refined sense of irony and a relish for a sort of modulated horror. Some border on horror or science fiction, while others devote themselves to provocation. The modern reader can agree with Verlaine (if not with his capitalization) who placed Villiers de l’Isle-Adam in his pantheon of Les Poètes Maudits, calling the author “VERY GLORIOUS. “

Pictures from the Floating World: Anonymous

On a City Bus in Portland, Maine

Boarding the Congress Street line in Portland, Maine, I saw a number of faces that might have been long-term occupants of park benches or front stoops with peeling paint. A new passenger using a walker climbed laboriously on, but her intent face brightened when she noticed a familiar old friend.

"Hey, hello there, Jerry, I haven't seen you for ever so long! It must be thirty-seven years! But you look about the same. I hope you're doing better than I am. Someone swiped my pain medicine, and I really need it. The doctor said you're allowed one emergency refill a year so he gave it to me. That's never happened to me before, so it worked out all right. Now my friend Annie says if they're going to steal from you, they don't belong in your house. I do need this stuff."

(She pulled out a pill bottle and swallowed one without a drink.)

“You know, it's been thirty-seven years since I seen you, and you haven't changed. No, I wasn't quite twenty last time, so it was thirty-nine years ago. Now me, I've got older. Yeah, I’ve got older. You know, they used to say back then when my sister and I walked down the street, there wasn't a man that didn't turn his head to look. But that was then.”

(She pulled out the pill bottle again and took another one.)

“I do need my medicine and that's a fact.”

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Theme and Tone in Kokoro

The title of Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro was translated by Lafcadio Hearn as “the heart of things,” but it is not entirely clear what exactly lies at that heart. Is it is collective experience of history that governs the events of the novel, or rather does each individual have a separate inner heart shaped by individual tendencies and experiences? Or is there a single and unchanging “heart of things” for all human experience in all ages. The judgment can only be made by comparing “hearts,” yet how can one gain access to another’s innermost core?

These questions suggest a set of thematic preoccupations to which nearly every text of any length is susceptible. Since all writing occurs within a social context which never fails to leave its traces, a historical reading is available even if the text does not explicitly engage social questions. A psychological reading may always be adduced analyzing the writer of not the fictional characters or persona for the simple reason that all literature is composed by a human mind. Taking the largest perspective, a general philosophical view may generally be inferred as well, since every “take on reality” suggests an entire world-view. A fourth approach is also almost universally available. Since every text is made of words, it always suggests implications about the nature of language and writing. These possibilities are all evident in Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro.

The book [1] was published in 1914 Japan during a time of transition. Emperor Meiji had died two years earlier, and the loyal Gen. Nogi shortly thereafter committed suicide, marking the end of an era. Japan had turned toward the West since Meiji’s accession to the throne in 1868. The samurai behind the throne reorganized society in basic ways seeking to modernize with the goal of becoming a power like the European colonial nations who had obliged Japan to sign markedly unequal treaties. The period was marked by this considerable sympathetic interest in Western culture as well as reaction from writers like Okakura. [2]

These historical events are specifically mentioned in the novel and the challenge of Western culture is consistently in the background. Apart from the consistent internal details that reflect the changes Japan was experiencing such as when the narrator first sees Sensei in the company of a European, the very form of the novel is consciously European. Soseki was well-qualified to introduce the foreign style as he had lived in the U.K. and had succeeded Hearn as professor of English literature at Tokyo Imperial University.

Sensei explicitly associates his suicide with his loyalty to the spirit of the Meiji era. He felt he had outlived his time and tells his young friend we belong to different eras. He calls out the word “Junshi! Junshi!” (246) in what seems an ecstatic anticipation of his own death. The death of Gen. Nogi provides the final sufficient impetus for his own suicide. The narrator’s highly conformist traditional father had also identified with both the emperor’s illness (90) and as death approaches, he says to Gen. Nogi, “I am coming soon.” (117) Continuing life might seem bleak to one like Sensei to whom “loneliness is the price we pay for being born in this modern age.” (30)

Much comment on the book thus begins with a view of it as a marker of cultural change, the records of a consciousness adrift, unable to embrace the old assumptions and yet equally ambivalent about European values. Yet, significant though suicide may be in Japanese culture, it is most commonly approached from the viewpoint of abnormal psychology. One might consider Sensei and the narrator a pair of linked case studies of depressives. Sensei is habitually melancholy, noting that he is a lonely man (14) who must resort to sake for temporary cheer. (16) He feels he is suffering a “divine punishment (17) for which he is himself to blame. (39) Though he feels the narrator needs love (25-6), Sensei is unhappy in his marriage though he thinks they “should be” (22) the happiest of couples. He accounts for his isolation by saying, “I don’t trust myself. And not trusting myself, I can hardly trust others.” (30) As a result, he is a “misanthrope.” (149) One might trace the similarities between Sensei, K, and the narrator as a study in comparative depression.

The narrator’s father, on the other hand, though stricken with a terminal illness, is comforted by his conventional views and better able to cope with his suffering. Clearly, the individual’s belief system plays a role in reaction to vicissitudes. Sensei means “teacher,” and the narrator clearly feels his friend possesses extraordinary qualities that justify his discipleship. To his young friend “Sensei . . .was primarily a thinker.” (3) Like an ancient sage, Sensei lives in a frugal manner, thinking he does not “have the right to expect anything of the world,” for the most part in “complete obscurity,” (22) withdrawn from the world, hardly sparing any warmth even in the company of his devoted younger friend. He is “weary of the world.” (37) His alienation is certainly a keynote of twentieth century European culture more akin to Prufrock’s malaise or Beckett’s immobile heroine in Happy Days than to the heroes of the Chushingura. His testament begins by saying (like Camus) that death is the only issue. (125) His smile while speaking of mortality (103) is a reflection of his sense of its absurdity.

At times Sensei seems almost like one of the Buddhist or Daoist sages of antiquity due to his reserve, his evasive or noncommittal answers, and his life of “complete obscurity.” (22) Yet he never achieves the acceptance that could bring tranquility. He calls himself “an ethical creature” (128) yet he blames his weakness for his failure to live up to his own standards. He respects the narrator’s inquisitiveness while trying to “grasp something that was alive within my soul.” Though he had sought to lead a life free of any obligations, (127) he found that impossible. Through his writing Sensei can “cut open my own heart, and drench your face with my blood.” (129) Through sharing his suffering and inadequacy, he hopes to find some redemption in a link with another other than his relation with his wife which is only cool and formal.

Sensei says that he composed his testament to help his young friend “and others to understand even a part of what we are.” (247) In this way words on a page represent “heart” and influence lived experience. Had the text never have existed, the meaning of the storyteller’s life would have evanesced. Without the label Meiji and the newspaper accounts of the emperor and Gen. Nogi, the passing era could hardly have maintained its distinctness and emotive power. Without the term junshi, would K’s suicide or his have occurred? Yet this serious issue is instantly ironized. Sensei has no sooner provided his functional excuse for writing than he compares his production to a painter’s who, by an effort of will, prolonged his own life long enough to produce a work titled Illusion.

Some critics have chosen to emphasize one or another of these three thematic territories: the historical/social, the psychological, or the philosophical, but the reason their discussions have proven inconclusive is that all are correct. [3] The three possibilities are all united by the tone of helpless resignation whether it arises from an individual’s inability to halt history, personal pathologies either inborn or acquired through trauma, or a stark and forbidding quasi-existentialist position. The genius of metaphor (and figurative speech in general) is, in fact, specifically the transferability of a paradigm across varied realms, generating a rich polysemy. Were literature to bear meaning no more dense and complex than other forms of discourse, there would be no point to poetry.

1. I used the paperback 1967 Gateway edition from Henry Regnery translated by Edwin McClellan. Page numbers in parentheses refer to that edition.

2. Kakuzo Okakura is best known for his Book of Tea. His nationalist sympathies are evident in his The Ideals of the East and The Awakening of Japan.

3. See Eto Jun, “A Japanese Meiji Intellectual” in Essays on Natsume Sōseki's Works. Japanese Ministry of Education (1970) for a psycho-historical-philosophical reading.

Bernart and the Music of Ideas

Bernart de Ventadorn’s songs deploy most of the more widely used troubadour conventions in a way that is masterly, while not strikingly original. [1] Many of his cansos are elaborately organized structures of words which can be understood almost abstractly regardless of their explicit themes. The reader or listener can relish the repetitions, marvel at bipolar oppositions balancing like aerialists, and admire tightly wound contradictions, all couched in the most melodious and graceful language. Some critics, failing to appreciate this artful poetic technique and seeking for prose inside the exquisite poetry, have quarreled over the insoluble question of what Bernart himself thought. From the structuralist point of view, the dance of conventions (which prove far more alive than they were once thought to be) are the most significant element in a poem like “Lo tems vai e ven e vire” (“Time comes and turns and goes”).

That very opening phrase presents a mystery. Does it mean that the flow of time (or “seasons”) simply approaches from the future, “turns” as it is experienced, and then goes or recedes into the past? But why use “turn” for the middle term? The apparent reversal between coming and going suggests a more subtle idea of the relativity of time, its subjective quality which might make it seem dynamic and mutable. Further, every line of verse, of which this clause is the first, “turns” at the end to become the next verse.

But as soon as the initial proposition has been declared, a suggestive set of oppositions that generates speculation about time’s river and poetry’s flow, the already rich set of concepts is suddenly thrown into doubt: “no n sai que dire” (“I don’t know what to say”). Of course this statement is itself paradoxical, since it appears in a poem, the most deliberate form of speech. [2]

Having first suggested that time’s arrow may be ambiguous, though somehow analogous to the loom-like weaving of lines of verse, Bernart then opposes statement and silence. This may seem the ultimate term for a sung utterance, but the poet tops this tense and dizzying series of polarities with a monad of absolute love. Yet in this dialectical environment every term summons its contrary, so Bernart’s next move is to posit an absolutely unresponsive beloved. [3] While he represents himself as the extreme of devotion in love-service, she is the exact opposite, altogether aloof. This makes his love a sort of absurdity, for which the poet censures himself in the third stanza, calling himself a fool.

These antinomies – the love which is not love and the speech which constantly threatens to descend into silence – continue in a symphonic play of concepts. In spite of the poem’s highly formal schematic matrix, the system is not in the end symmetrical. Though the poet threatens in the fourth stanza to cease his writing which, he says, cannot bring him joy, yet we see the text before us, decisive proof that he did indeed, after wavering, write. He presumably glimpses some possibility that the lady may ultimately be persuaded, or, by his own standards, he would have fallen silent.

Indeed, though he protests that his beloved is impossibly obdurate, in stanza six he declares that his suffering is only a prelude to his joy. Slyly, he cites scriptural authority suggesting a happier denouement, “a single day” that is “worth more than a hundred.” [4] Just past the poem’s midpoint the possibility of sexual love displaces the idealized love service that never requires a reward. What had seemed an ethereal “courtly” relation analogous to feudal vassalage becomes suddenly an arduous and demanding seduction strategy.

The seventh stanza reflects both sides of this new opposition. After saying that his devotion can never flag and comparing himself to a hollow straw in the wind, he grandly declares that he will not criticize her for her coldness, but the last line qualifies his submission: he expects that she will stop rejecting him in the future. This line leads to his first meditation on her body (“be faihz, delgatz e plas”) and the poem concludes with his prayer that God help him obtain the joy for which he has been waiting. The Biblical reference emphasizes the poet’s nearly blasphemous conflation of his sensual desire with the divine plan.

The formal play is so central to the piece, as formal play would be in a Bach fugue or a Kandinsky composition, that the thematic focus is blurred. Is the writer a faithful Christian or a libertine? A courtly lover under amorous discipline or a self-seeking cynic? Is poetry worth the utterance? These and other issues hover unresolved, not because the poet cannot be decisive, but because human consciousness is suspended between the carnal and the spiritual, between the ego and the other, between dominance and submission. The text’s consumer can hearken to the dynamic dialectic of such oppositions in Bernart and feel a resonance of similar tensions in all human consciousness, including those in other written texts and in the reader’s own mind.

1. In this he resembles Sonny Boy Williamson’s use of the conventions of the blues.

2. Of course, among the most time-honored rhetorical figures are those in which the writer claims not to know what to say. This includes the claim that one is incompetent at expression (such as “unaccustomed as I am to public speaking . . .”) or the claim that the topic is beyond language (“her beauty cannot be expressed”). These are varieties of ignoratio. Another related figure is the interruption of the flow of speech through uncontrollable emotion (such as “let me pause a moment, I can’t go on.”) This is called aposiopesis.

3. Schematically the reasoning is rather like the Buddhist sages analyzing the reality of the phenomenal world which, to simplify considerably, many deemed to both exist and not exist.

4. Apparently the poet had Psalm 84:10 in mind.