Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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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, 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.

Sontag's "Against Interpretation"

When Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” was first printed, I was highly sympathetic. With an anti-academic literary heritage I regarded as descending from Pound to Rexroth to me, I used to ridicule the PMLA and declare that my only interest was poetry, not literary criticism. Yet a good share of my favorite books had been critical: Pound’s ABC of Reading, Zukofsky’s A Test of Poetry, Miller on Rimbaud, and Nabokov on Gogol. I loved the very different oeuvres of Edmund Wilson and Northrup Frye and learned from Blackmur and Brooks. In addition I particularly fancied essayists from the past including classic critical statements from the likes of Plato, Longinus, Sydney, and Shelley. I was not, I suppose, as much concerned with consistency as I was an admirer of Sontag’s originality, passionate engagement, and scintillating insights. And how could I resist a writer who calls for an “erotics of art”?

Recently rereading the essay for the first time in a half century, I felt again admiration for her insightful comments and her bravura rhetoric, even as I demurred from what still seem to me her polemic overstatements. She makes no secret of her partisan attitude and feels little need to justify her use of words like “obtuse,” “onerous,” and “insensitive” to characterize her antagonists.

Her basic point is a familiar one and one dear to Romantic suppositions: that criticism is a lesser parasite on the body of literature. Sontag points out quite correctly “to interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world,” and then proceeds into metaphorical territory, adding that, apart from being “reactionary” and “stifling,” it “poisons the sensibility” rather like “the fumes of the automobile and heavy industry.” She evokes rape by calling interpretation an “assault” which “violates” art. Worst of all (in the eyes of the aesthete, at any rate), it is “philistine.” When I first read her argument, I greeted it with pleasure as a challenge to the academic mandarins and, at the least, as a passionate cri de coeur from the radical caucus.

Yet the essay has the typical polemic’s flaw of rhetorical hyperbole. The fundamental logical problem is that Sontag fails to take into account that every written text, indeed, every perception, is similarly a reductive interpretation. If deconstruction has left no other useful lessons, it has revealed the inevitable inadequacy of language with high ambitions. Even Shakespeare must always settle for a part of the truth about love or government or death or god or the bird in the tree. Yet this does not mean that one should remain silent. The viewers of Macbeth appreciate not that its author has settled all questions but that he has enriched their partial vision with his own. Sontag indicates her awareness of this when she declares that Nietzsche was correct when he said “There are no facts, only interpretations,” and she promises to focus more clearly on a particularly pernicious form of interpretation, but after suggesting that she cares little for allegory (surely a rare bird these days), she tends to return repeatedly to the condemnation of any discussion of literary theme.

Furthermore, she takes no account – though she herself is surely making aesthetic decisions while writing a theoretical essay – of the potential for beauty, for literary quality, in works that might be called interpretative. Who would deny the place in the canon of Johnson’s or Hazlitt’s essays on the English poets, or of Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, or Woolf’s The Common Reader. Interpretive and critical writing may rarely achieve Parnassos, but probably no more rarely than works of poetry, fiction, or drama. Undeniably, in the same way that a critic may be a poet as well, interpretation may be at the same time literature.

That imperfect link between lived experience and the writer’s words never vanishes. Literature, while far from simple mimesis, always retains a relation, however tenuous, symbolic, transformed, and refracted, of what seems the experience of the external world. No single text, not even the accumulation of all texts, can be adequate to fully describe reality, yet each written record contains shards of truth. Criticism is simply literature primarily concerned with the author’s reading experience, no more different in theory from other forms of literature than stories about the sea or about love.

However I may demur from some of her sweeping conclusions, it also seems to me that Sontag was prescient (she does call art “magical”) in even an error. She thought that cinema, along with Pop and abstract art, were more or less immune to criticism, an error arising from perspective, as recent trends would have inevitably been the focus of fewer commentators. Sontag was incorrect, of course. University students who enroll in film courses thinking they will be easy find themselves buried under post-structural rhetoric and blinded by obscurantist terminology. Sontag must have observed in her later years that the “cultural criticism” so widespread today, though eager to analyze the least of cultural phenomena, seeks to discount aesthetic and appreciative considerations, what Sontag called “really accurate, sharp, loving description” in favor of a hunt after themes, for meanings, for “allegory” in Sontag’s usage. Among the most reductive of readings, those that truly impoverish the text, are produced by gender critics, new historicists, and soi-disant Marxists who approach quite closely the sort of simple-minded “decoding” she was attacking. Her call for an “erotics of art” looks in a way more attractive and necessary today than it did a half century ago, if only as a corrective.

If that judgement is also an interpretation, then the reader must take Sontag’s essay as an interpretation as well, and applaud not her quasi-scientific “research” but instead her creation of a memorable work of art strong enough to elicit a passionate response more than fifty years after its composition. Better evidence could not be adduced for the vigor of the characteristically human habit of interpretation.