Friday, June 29, 2007

Take heart, Adrienne

Georg Simmel feels your pain:

"[In modern culture] there is no reason not to expand indefinitely, not to line up book after book, work of art after work of art, discovery after discovery: the form of objectivity as such possesses an unlimited capacity for accomplishment.

"However, this inorganic accumulative capacity, as it were, makes it profoundly incommensurable with the form of personal life. For the latter's absorptive capacity is limited not only by strength and longevity, but also by a certain unity and relative closure of its forms, and it therefore makes a selection with a determined scope from among the elements offered to it as means of individual development … The infinitely growing stock of the objectified mind makes demands on the subject, arouses faint aspirations in it, strikes it with feelings of its own insufficiency and helplessness, entwines it into total constellations from which it cannot escape as a whole without mastering its individual elements.

"There thus emerges the typical problematic condition of modern humanity: the feeling of being surrounded by an immense number of cultural elements, which are not meaningless, but not profoundly meaningful to the individual either; elements which have a certain crushing quality as a mass, because an individual cannot inwardly assimilate every individual thing, but cannot simply reject it either, since it belongs potentially, as it were, to the sphere of his or her cultural development. One could characterize this with the exact reversal of that saying, 'Nihil habentes, omni possidentes,' which characterized the blissful poverty of the early Franciscans … Instead of that, human beings in very rich and overburdened cultures are 'omnia habientes, nihil possidentes.'" (Simmel on Culture, 72-73)

Pandora's Orpheus' Ariel

Octavio Paz in his 1972 Norton lectures. Not the most mind blowing statements, but I thought it was succinct and helpful for wrapping my head around movements. The more I read, the more I have no idea what modernism is, and just forget postmodernism. Its all jumbled jumbled jumbled. But this is nice and succinct (Stole it from Ihab Hassan's Dismemberment of Orpheus):

"Romanticism brought the mixture of genres. Symbolism and the avant-garde completed the fusion of prose and poetry. T he results were marvelous monsters, from Rimbaud's prose poem to Joyce's verbal epic. The mixture and ultimate abolition of genres culminated in the criticism of the art object. The crisis of the idea of oeuvre became apparent in all the arts--painting, sculpture, poetry, the novel--but its most radical expression was Duchamp's 'ready-mades'. Derisive consecration: what counts is not the object but the artist's act in separating from its context and placing it on the pedestal of the old work of art. The gesture takes the place of the work."

"The end of art and poetry? No: the end of the 'modern era' and, with it, the end of the idea of 'modern art and literature.' Criticism of the object prepares the way for the resurrection of the work of art, not as something to be possessed, but as presence to be contemplated. The work is not an end in itself nor does it exist in its own right: the work is a bridge, an intermediary. Nor does criticism of the subject imply destruction of poet or artist but only of the bourgeois idea of author. For the Romantics, the voice of the poet was the voice of ALL; for us it is the voice of NO ONE. 'All' and 'no one' are equal to each other and both are equally far from the author and his 'I'."

In other news, I dont know how i'd get through generals without Pandora radio. I had to read Plath yesterday, after not having read her since high school, when I loved her and wrote my senior thesis on her. Now, i can't stand her. I couldn't even finish Ariel. So in between the Nazi lampshade skins and the drab hospital rooms, I luckily had the Fergie station on Pandora to guide me through with the shining lights of Beyonce and Danity Kane. Someone want to help me relike Plath? Should I try?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Sixteen Best Passages from Act II of Axel

So since I've been reading Axel's Castle, I naturally had to read Axel, the masterwork of Jean Marie Matthias Phillipe Auguste Comte de Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, and reputed to be “the epitome of Symbolist drama." In case you’re curious about the play, it’s an unperformable, almost unreadable mishmash of Faust, Hamlet, Wagner’s Ring, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, and some kind of deranged Henry Darger fantasy. And maybe it’s just me, but the combination of Villiers' practically limitless pretension and an extremely awkward English translation (by M. Gaddis Rose, who also provides a number of snarky and pointless footnotes) produces a kind of terrifying, vertiginous linguistic beauty to be found nowhere else outside of spam folders. I’ve restricted myself, for the sake of my own sanity, to Act II, much of which is taken up with an interminable conversation between two German aristocrats describing how much more powerful they are than each other (at times it reads like a transcript of the minutes of a D&D tournament). Anyway … enjoy?

“To me his eyes did not seem to belong to a man of this century.” (48)

“As garrulous centenarians, you have no earthly peer!” (52)

“UKKO My good Hartwig, don’t you suffer from the shadow of your left arm when the weather changes?
HARTWIG Yes — Why do you ask that, son?
UKKO [joking] Ah! ask that of the cannon ball which took away its reality at Lutzen. I just wanted to make you realize that a shadow is something.” (54)

“Those are magnificent old men! — They bring to mind a beautiful battlefield, a beautiful winter, and a beautiful death.” (55)

“Now I’ve spent eight long days in this forgotten, crenellated, obsolete lair where the architecture, surroundings and silence could interest only vain ideologists. Now I certainly should not have been preoccupied at such length if I had not had a confused, tenacious intuition of some kind of mystery! — Since this feeling preoccupies me still, it means that it is well-founded and … I don’t like to beat around the bush.” (59)

“Good evening, Herr Zacharias! Whatever is the matter? — I’d swear by my pillbox that you look upset.” (59)

“I believe that I have the means to assure you that you will have no regrets whatsoever if you listen until the end.” (61)

“A site of tenebrae, with accesses known to him alone, could, at least until the imminent peace, keep — faithfully! — what was entrusted to its deep entrails. Therefore, it was towards this site that he decided to guide — by routes totally removed from any possible hostile encounter — the men and the treasure for which he was answerable to the fatherland … And this, my lord, — mark well! into this forsaken region where we are.” (66-67)

“I just wanted to sleep delightfully to the distant sounds of your tireless hunting horn.” (77)

“This condiment, which all understand and which often decides us, seasons so well that amusement of elegant taste called love!” (78)

“Am I adequately surrounded?” (88)

“What! this braggart plans to arrogate the whole of this overwhelming mountain of gold to himself! … Let me first make these soldiers fearful.” (95)

“I think simply this, myself, — that the underground belongs to the State …” (105)

“For the crenellations (which you’re overlooked) of this medieval castle were provided in earlier times with forty-eight siege pieces, oh! still in shining order. And, if called for, they would be operated, even if it were tomorrow, by a garrison of rough veterans familiar with them.” (113)

“… I maintain means of producing widespread landslides for burying people alive — and being able to use those millions of combatants which do not retreat, I mean the trees, I know how to starve, render piecemeal, in short neutralize forces …” (114)

“[Long naked swords gleam around the dead man.]” (117)

Monday, June 25, 2007


Here are the names of some Symbolist authors I've been reading over the past couple of weeks: Charles Baudelaire, Stephane Mallarmé, Jules Laforgue, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam (on whom more later — this guy is insane). What do these writers have in common? Nothing really very definitive, I would say, other than their historical placement in late 19th century France, and certainly nothing that can be meaningfully summed up by the term "Symbolism." (Arthur Symons writes, unhelpfully, that “[w]ithout symbolism there can be no literature; indeed, not even language” (3); so, these Symbolists, they tend to use words, then?) A better term might be "Vague-ism" (la Vieille Vague?) since they all seem to make a point of avoiding the traditional precision of the French language in an effort to capture impressions, sensations, spiritual essences. Certainly there are some family resemblances beyond their vague interest in vagueness: viz., an orientation toward classicism and antiquarianism in general (Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Villiers); an abiding obsession with sin and apostasy left over from an (often lapsed) Catholicism (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Villiers, Verlaine); a somewhat colloquial bent (Laforgue, Rimbaud, Verlaine); a tendency to compose lyric cycles (Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud); an interest in the English language, if not England itself (Verlaine, Mallarmé, Laforgue); a persistent attention to Paris and the habits of the bourgeoisie (Baudelaire, Laforgue); and, bien sur, a concern with modernity and the "new" (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Laforgue).

The term "Symbolism" is probably most apt for Mallarmé, who specializes in multiply overdetermined, head-spinningly allegorical literary symphonies like L'Àpres-midi d'une jeune faune. Unsurprisingly he's the one Derrida likes best; see his essay "Mallarmé" in Acts of Literature, where he appreciates SM's syntactical ambiguities and "chains" of signification which are "as if without support, always suspended." I probably like him least, if only because he's the most untranslatable into English and because the criticism about him is the most fatuous (although do I note that his endlessly extended streams of syntax probably had some kind of substantive influence on Proust).

It's been interesting to juxtapose my exploration of this colorful cast of characters with my continued reading of Marx, and specifically “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,” his exhaustive account of the deterioration of the French Second Republic (1848-1852) into the neo-imperial era of Napoleon III. The impression I get from this essay is that Paris, beginning in the latter half of the nineteenth century, is largely struggling to deradicalize itself, even within the republic's own ranks. Marx brilliantly shows how every political move made by the bourgeois-controlled social republic was made in the name of restoring order, regularizing trade, and preventing another bloody revolution. Essentially it was this republican timidity and caution, Marx argues, that allowed Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon's nephew and (in Marx's view) a thoroughly uninspiring figure, to gain the support of the French peasantry and accomplish his coup d'état, thus establishing the Second Empire, the milieu of Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal.

And it does seem to me that Baudelaire, and the Symbolists later on, for all their ostensible hatred of the bourgeoisie and deliberate provocation and strangeness, are essentially engaged in the same process of deradicalization that Marx describes so well in "The Eighteenth Brumaire." Baudelaire's, and later Laforgue's, cynical portraits of Parisian society in fact tend toward a reification of the social order: as if it were an easier way forward for artists to make themselves marginal in a capitalist society than risk being made irrelevant in a socialist one; or, worse, having their ultimate relevance endlessly deferred in the name of a society that never arrives.

I don’t know if you guys have read Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” but it very compellingly represents CB as a sort of ghostly figure walking through the limbo of early late capitalism, inhabiting an economically prosperous but spiritually barren period in which Republican ideals were being sacrificed to “order.” In such times, a lyric poet like Baudelaire is more or less forced to throw in his lot with the bourgeois, who are the ones trying to maintain a society in which poetry can have any kind of place; but this necessitates accepting a very marginal position within that order, and one which is gradually pushed further and further to the margins, in much the same way as the interests of the proletariat are betrayed over time by the compromises of bourgeois republicans (in Marx/Engels' view of things, at least). Hence Benjamin's great claim for Baudelaire, that he “was a secret agent — an agent of the secret discontent of his class with its own rule” (261): i.e., a poet who was fated not to envision a new society, but instead to reflect on and criticize the only order that would allow him to exist at all.

The big question here, I suppose, is why the Symbolists weren’t more politically engaged (in their work, I mean; Rimbaud, Villiers, and I think Verlaine did briefly fight alongside the Paris communards), given that they were so deeply dissatisfied with bourgeois society in an era in which there were more than a few opportunities to try and do something about it. The reason I’m inclined to give is that writers, when they’re being “political,” aren’t just reacting to political realities: they’re reacting to the history of literature, which is no less real to them for being essentially an illusion. In other words, the Symbolist ennui is not simply a reaction to bourgeois progress, it's also a reaction to Romanticism, a mode which they would have associated with a certain revolutionary fervor. It does seem like Romanticism, in France, was much more of a political project than it was in England (or in Germany? don't know much about Germany). There, the poetic "revolution" of Romanticism corresponds, roughly, to a political revolution: and this revolution is then exhaustingly prolonged, and partially betrayed, over the course of more than a century. By the time of Baudelaire, let alone that of Rimbaud and Verlaine, there is an exhaustion with the very concepts underlying the revolutionary and the “modern.” At the same time, there’s a sense that the modern has not yet really arrived: that the world heralded in the literary works of Hugo and c. is not in fact the one in which they themselves are living. This discrepancy manifests as an almost pathological hatred of the complacent bourgeoisie (as in Flaubert) but also as a hostility to idealism and to the narratives of progress that were so crucial to revolutionary politics (and certainly to Marxism).

To put it another way: French literature never had the time to really enjoy its Romanticism. It was too busy trying to maintain the state of human affairs that Romanticism had encouraged them toward, that Rousseau and Lamartine and Victor Hugo taught them to desire. England, on the other hand, had a little too much time to play around with the consequences of Romanticism, ironically as a result of refraining from demanding its ideals as a life-condition; and the result of this is the sort of hypertrophy of imaginative sensibility, unrealized but endlessly elaborated. Indeed, there's a surprising formality of French poetry even in the Symbolist period: I think part of what's interesting about the Symbolist poets, perhaps Verlaine and Rimbaud in particular, is that their elaborate self-involvement is forced into forms that don’t really lend themselves to it. They tend to favor sonnets and other strict metrical forms, and hardly ever abandon rhyme. As far as I know it doesn’t seem as though any French poet before 1900 even goes as far as blank verse — if they want to do away with rhyme, then they just write in prose. So there’s nothing comparable to Wordsworth’s Prelude in French, for instance, or (to choose a more contemporaneous example) Swinburne’s endless “narrative” poems.

This is the pragmatic, or formalist, or literary-historical, way of explaining Symbolism's apoliticality. But to try again, in a more theoretical register: maybe an aesthetic like Symbolism, by its very nature, can't be (politically) revolutionary: perhaps it needs an established order, to ground its flights into the empyrean and provide it with iconography to distort and deform: unlike Romanticism, it’s essentially not progressive but ruminative and speculative. Baudelaire writes in "Le Cygne": Paris change, mais rien dans ma mélancolie n’a bougé! (Paris changes, but it’s nothing compared to how my melancholy soul moves.) You can’t say something like that with conviction when you’re trying to make Paris change: your concern is with how fundamentally separate your soul is from the order which, nevertheless, goes on without and around you. (Ironically, though, it is nineteenth-century France’s unionizing tendency — its habit of grouping its citizens into movements, of issuing manifestoes — that renders even such a- or anti-political aesthetics as Symbolism and l’art pour l’art visible, and therefore possible; as Arthur Symons puts it in his introduction to The Symbolist Movement in Literature: “France is the country of movements, and it is naturally in France that I have studied the development of a principle which is spreading throughout other countries, perhaps not less effectually, if with less definite outlines.” And I would argue that the artists of England and America had to struggle to make their homelands into "countries of movements" to be able to have Modernism in the first place.)

Hope some of this makes some kind of sense; I feel like I'm starting to get somewhat "vague-ist" myself. What I want to register primarily, I guess, is the irony of the first stirrings of the twentieth century’s aesthetic avant-garde turning out to be so deeply intertwined with an antipathy not just for the modern (that we expect) but also for the revolutionary, and even the socially progressive.

Friday, June 22, 2007

HD's hair

To understand Imagism, you first have to understand Hilda Doolittle's hair. The very essence of modernism is contained within her locks.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Library Porn

Library porn, stolen from here and here.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


So I just found that the library of our august institution has what appears to be a first edition of Countee Cullen's book Color (1925) out on its shelves. The only slightly crumbly volume was donated by one Hamilton Cottier, class of '22, who writes this on the inside cover: "Interestingly reviewed./ Good, but quite unremarkable, poetry - were it not by a negro, and chiefly about the Negro, it would not be worth printing. - 6/27/26." This is the only thing written in the book other than his name. So on the one hand, thanks Prof. Cottier, for donating the book. On the other... One imagines him walking in the P-rade every year, waving to smiling crowds of young alumni who cheer him uncomplicatedly. But maybe he's not such a bad fellow -- after all, this is a quotation of a review, no? Not his own judgment on the book. Well, needless to say this sent me on a tizzy of distracting research. Let us begin.


Ann Seton Cottier -- later "Anya Seton," the popular novelist of meticulously researched historical novels (and daughter of Boy Scouts of America co-founder Edward Thomas Seton) -- married Hamilton Cottier. Here she is, the blushing bride:

According to Lucinda H. MacKethan: "Daughter Ann Cottier enjoyed a stimulating intellectual life with her husband in Oxford and then returned with him to Princeton, New Jersey to become an increasingly unhappy faculty wife. By 1929, the Seton family identity had been violently ruptured, resembling Little Peequo itself, a house that had been built haphazardly, expanded at odd angles, and scarred by fire in 1922."

And the followin
g appeared in Time magazine (Monday, 17 Feb. 1930):
"Sued for divorce. Hamilton Cottier, Princeton English instructor; by Mrs. Ann Seton Cottier, daughter of Ernest Thompson Seton (woodcrafty author); at Reno. Grounds: mental cruelty."

Funny (or at least that's one word for it) that some very slight vestige of this "mental cruelty" might (might - i'm trying not to libel here) stretch down to some random stack-searcher, getting one last book as the work day winds down on a Tuesday nearly a century later.

A different, distinguished faculty member, Prof. John Fleming, had this to say in a column for the Princetonian (3/24/03): "A single grim subject occupies my mind; but my unimportant opinions about events in Iraq would amount to no more than another teardrop in the bucket, or rather sea of troubles on which our lumbering ship of state is now tossed. I'm facing writing deadlines, and I have been sticking to Firestone Library, where I continue to be amazed at what one can find in books."

Here here!
Prof. Fleming goes on to find the signatures of interesting ex-faculty in our library, including that of H. Cottier in the Variorum Spenser. But there's more to find: Racism, lurid prying into the lives of ex-faculty, an upsetting inability to decipher whether the note is in the hand of this ex-prof. or that of some nameless student (since the volume appears to have been bought, for $1.20, at the University Store). What can't one find in these books?

Yanks Everywhere Want More Books

For some reason I really like this poster. Wish i'd had it with me in Heidelberg last summer.

The illustration is by C.B. Falls, the fella who did the lettering for James Weldon Johnson's 1927 book God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (Aaron Douglass did other illustrations for the book). Here's some of the lettering, from this incredibly beautiful volume (which is rarely talked about as a collaborative endeavor):

Henceforth, all my hand-written notes for generals will be in this script. And on a large scroll.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Lots of pointless fun to be had here.

Uncle Pat's Cabin

Hey Greg, do you know this play called "Uncle Pat's Cabin" that was an Irish version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, starring Barney Williams, the popular Irish minstrel performer (who knew?)? So Uncle Pat's Cabin came out months after Uncle Tom Cabin's original publication in March 1952. Seems pretty interesting, tell me more if you know more
Anyone reading Morrrison Swift's book of poems from 1900, Advent of Empire, about America's war in the Phillipines? Saw a reference in Cambridge Companion to American Modernism and got curious.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Richard Rorty R.I.P.

Maybe I'll have to put Contingency, Irony, Solidarity on my generals list after all.

Friday, June 15, 2007

You think _that's_ bad criticism? Watch me blather!

My first full week of generals reading has been about 55-60% satisfying. I started with Swinburne, but his early 20th cen. critics were kind enough to allegorize for me why I shouldn't have started with him. I suppose it was a chronological choice, and his poems came first from Amazon. Anyhow, here's Eliot on "Swinburne as Poet":
"It is a question of some nicety to decide how much must be read of any particular poet. And it is not a question merely of the size of the poet. There are some poets whose every line has unique value. There are others who can be taken by a few poems universally agreed upon..."
And so on. Exactly! It seems uncanny that this should have been the first thing I read as I sat down to the generals banquet. Which is why, after three days reading the charming diffuseness of Swinburne's 1866 Poems and Ballads, I put him aside in favor of a reboot, such that i'm now knee deep in the Harlem Renaissance. It's better this way.

But that's not to say that Swinburne didn't leave his mark, and I'll certainly be back. What strikes me in the passage on Rosetti that Evan quoted is the "imperial array and ornament of this august poetry," since "imperial" rings an occasional and fascinating note in Swinburne's own verse. In "Faustine," e.g., where the title vamp (and all of Swinburne's dark Venuses are direct models for Pater's Gioconda, a prose stylist in this line, if slightly more reined in) was once steeped in the bloody arena of gladatorial combat; but now "Where are the imperial years? and how/ Are you Faustine?" (lines 87-8). I also think of the unredeemable exotic that appears in "Laus Veneris" at lines 354-6:
"Father, though the Lord's blood be right sweet,
The spot it takes not off the panther's skin,
Nor shall an Ethiop's stain be bleached with it."
So while the poetry is imperial in the general Roman grand guignol extravagance of it all, and in the typical gesture of effusion to near collapse, it is not "august" or "Augustan" in the typical sense of refinement and high imperial stateliness (someone can argue against that real easy I imagine. go for it. i might do so in what i write next, this is sorta off the top of my head.)

Rather I'm drawn to Hardy's description in his elegy for Swinburne, "A singer Asleep," that Swin. dropped
"In fulth of numbers freaked with musical closes,
Upon Victoria's formal middle time
His leaves of rhythm and rhyme."
And to the sense that his fullness is, as the overwrought passage on a like-minded contemporary suggests, "almost a parody of the Athenian." That quotation is Eliot again, same essay -- an essay glorious in its backhanded compliment. Swinburne is interesting for how he seems to be the one poet from this period who is okay to let half-way into the pantheon, for such authors as Eliot and Pound, though he certainly can't cut mustard as a critic. (So much of the inclusion coming from the fact that he is the first real popularizer of Baudelaire in English, and thus both Eliot's primary forebear as well as his chief antagonist in claiming B's influence for any kind of aesthetic break.)

Eliot suggests that, in his essays, Swin. should've "analyzed and dissected" the verse he instead fawned over at exceptional length. But this isn't Swin's mode of corporeal thought whatsoever. Poems don't have organs to dissect, and bodies in his poems just have a bunch of hearts (much in the way cows have four stomachs). All his parts are interchangable -- a crit. drawn by Eliot, Pound and A.E. Housman alike, who all correctly guess that you could read the stanzas of, say, "Dolores" out of order and it would make an almost identical sense.

When he is forced to examine the "animacules and infusoria" of his own verse, in his reply to the harsh critics of Poems and Ballads ("Notes on Poems and Reviews," 1866), Swinburne generally re-emotes on the themes of his poems and, in a sense, continues them even further. He cannot treat the "gigantic malade imaginaire called the public." But Eliot, as if DSM in hand, diagnoses Swinburne instead of his society:
"The morbidity is not of human feeling but of language. Language in a healthy state presents the object, is so close to the object that the two are identified. They are identified in the verse of Swinburne solely because the object has ceased to exist, because the meaning is merely the hallucination of meaning, because language, uprooted, has adapted itself to an independent life of atmospheric nourishment." (149)
Downright postmodern free play of the signifier here, and the unrootedness allows a recourse to the "impersonality" that Eliot values but also routes the option that is offered as the highest praise of Rossetti: "fellow-feeling". (I may do some more reading on Swinburne's republicanism when i come back to him.)

For Swinburne then, this soupy morass of laudation is GREAT criticism; and it's a token of how deeply we still exist in New Critical matrices, descending from Eliot, that this prose sounds so purple (well, and cause it is purple). The prose dances down the same mise en abyme that I think defines so much of his aesthetic: think of that wonderful image with which he more-or-less starts the book:
"Forth, ballad, and take roses in both arms,
Even till the top rose touch thee in the throat
Where the least thornprick harms" ("A Ballad of Life" lines 71-3).
That is, sing of roses until they stab the very organs of song. Make your love immortal in Sapphic immitation (in translation deliberately "diluted and dilated" accd to "Notes," because Sappho's glories "could not be reproduced in the body"), only to have that immortality suffer you for an eternity, an eternity of singing about the love object, making it more eternal somehow, more eternal suffering, etcetera. But Jerome McGann's nutty and fun book Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism takes up just this sort of "impressionistic" criticism and declares it untouchable, or not usefully touched, by the picking-apart at which we are so adept.

"The analysis of poetic structures," he writes (in the voice of one "Coulson Kernahan"), "is one way (hardly the best way) of reminding ourselves that poems abide by law, however much our own chaos may drive us to forget this fact" (11). I guess if i had to draw a question out of this whole mess i've just written, it would be something about what laws Swinburne is operating outside of, if that is at all what McGann might be suggesting. "The purpose of poetry is to create an image of life, a 'virtual life'" writes another of McGann's personae (the book is a conversation in six voices, all 19th cen. writers about Swinburne). How far is this from Eliot's contention that "the world of Swinburne does not depend on some other world which it simulates"? I'm interested in the toggle between immerision and decoration as modes in the virtual saturnalias of Swin.'s verse.

It's quite damn late -- does any of that make sense? Bit of a blah-blah. See you for lunch tomorrow evan. Paul Laurence Dunbar is amaaaaaaaaazing.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

So you liked it then?

A.C. Swinburne on D.G. Rossetti:

"This 'House of Life' has in it so many mansions, so many halls of state and bowers of music, chapels for worship and chambers for festival, that no guest can declare on a first entrance the secret of its scheme … There are no poems of the class in English — I doubt if there be any even in Dante's Italian — so rich at once and pure. Their golden affluence of images and jewel-coloured words never once disguises the firm outline, the justice and chastity of form. No nakedness could be more harmonious, more consummate in its fleshly sculpture, than the imperial array and ornament of this august poetry. Mailed in gold as of the morning and girdled with gems of strange water, the beautiful body as of a carven goddess gleams through them tangible and taintless, without spot or default. There is not a jewel here but it fits, not a beauty but it subserves an end … Their earnest subtleties and exquisite ardours recall to mind the sonnets of Shakespeare … There is nothing here which may not be felt by any student who can grasp the subtle sense of it in full, as a just thing and admirable, fit for the fellowship of men's feelings, if men indeed have in them enough of noble fervour and loving delicacy, enough of truth and warmth in the blood and breath of their souls, enough of brain and heart for such fellow-feeling. For something of these they must have to bring with them who would follow the radiant track of this verse through brakes of flowers and solitudes of sunlight, past fountains hidden under green bloom of leaves, beneath roof-work of moving boughs where song and silence are one music. All passion and regret and strenuous hope and fiery contemplation, all beauty and glory of thought and vision, are built into this golden house where the life that reigns is love."


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Monday, June 11, 2007

HI all. I thought the thesis from The Parameters of Postmodernism by Nicholas Zurbrugg might be of interest, in light of Evan's last post. Zurbrugg is considering the difference in the response by European critics of modernism and how American artists were able to overcome the paralysis of these critics in the face of the modern condition and actually create the postmodern.

So, what i've done below is clipped text from a pdf file that contained a review of Zurbrugg's book, pasted it into Microsoft OneNote and had that application read and copy the text from the pdf into regular text. So...this is what it looks like. I thought it would be an interesting technological experiment (I just discovered this tool...its kind of amazing), so this is how onenote read the pdf file:

Noting that European and American responses to the postmodcm condition have been differe nn,? Zurbrugg then separates what he calls the “B-effect”.- the negat tive definitions and reactions of European critics like Benjamin, Barthes. Burger, Baudrillard, Bonito-Oliva, Bourdieu, Belsev, and any others unlucky to be born with a B-name—from the more posit iiv? “c-e(iect”—the experimental avant-garde creative work of Ameriain artists like John Cage. is this like comparing apples and oranges? Is it a reductive noncomparison? It is both, in a sense, but that doesn't stop the polemic from being engagingly provocative at times. On the (bad) B-effect side, there is stagnant. musty old Eur opee? iull of apocalyptic, wailing critics; on the (creative) c-cffect side, there is the tnited States, full of “vital," “intelligent.” “flexib le”? (adiectives that are repeated often) multimedia artists who del ight? in the utopian. extrarational, technological possibilities of the postmodern. The fact that one of the most nesative of critics of the postmoclern is American (Fredric Jameson) is dealt with in its own section; the fact that there are European artists—Peter Maxwell Davies, Angela carter, Karlheinz stockhausen, Anseim Kiefer. and the list could go on— who might well count as c-effect sorts is not even considered, in the author's enthusiasm for things American. (There is also curiously but characteristically little said about the rest of the world, even the western world, which Amerocentric visions like this often ignore.)

HA! hope you enjoyed that

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Dream History

Just a postscript to my Edmund Wilson post the other day: I wrote about how Wilson views Symbolism as a French attempt to catch up to the aesthetic liberty of English Romanticism, kickstarted by the importation of American theory. Well, I found an analogue to that argument in my very first merry hour perusing The Marx-Engels Reader, in the introduction to Marx's 1843 "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right." There, Marx argues that Germany is historically (i.e., politically and economically) way behind France and England, still stuck in the ancien régime, though philosophically their contemporary: that is, that German political philosophy, as conceived by Hegel et al., is more modern than actual political existence in Germany. The task of the German nation, then, is "to connect its dream history with its present conditions" (16) — a lovely phrase, that (Marx can be quite the charmer when he wants to be). Luckily, it is exactly this imbalance between theoretical sophistication and practical benightedness that will give birth to the truly radical revolution, which at that point Marx thought was possible only in Germany, and which has "philosophy as the head … and the proletariat as the heart" (23).

Maybe I'm forcing things a little, but it seems to me that this is the basic structure of Wilson's argument as well,* if we swap aesthetics for politics and put France in the place of Germany: viz. that England was more aesthetically modern than France in the mid-19th century, but that it took the French tendency toward abstract theorization to push those aesthetics to their limit and produce Modernism as we come to know it. In other words, it's the collision of France's "dream history" — or maybe, in this case, "dream aesthetics": the literature they want to have — and the classical conditions of its traditional literary art — the literature they actually do have — that produces the revolution of Symbolism, from which (in Wilson's story, anyway) everything springs.

What interests me the most here are the uneven developments of theory and literature across and even within specific cultures: how one country does something without understanding it, and then another combines a theoretical analysis of that something with a certain primitivism, a naïve belief in the new (or just a desperate desire to escape the old) and a willingness to go ahead.

Sorry if this is not so cogent — I'm just sort of working this stuff through for myself. To be continued...?

* (Wilson, of course, engages directly with Marxism in his 1940 classic To the Finland Station, a cultural history of Communism. Not sure if he'd read much Marx by 1931, though.)

Friday, June 8, 2007

Follow Up

Bill's response:

Wow -- that is *not* something I've heard connected before, which is not to say it's not out there, but still, sounds quite new to me. If you feel like following this thread a little farther, I would encourage you to take a look at a book by my dissertation advisor about Taylor and American Literature: Taylored Lives: Narrative Productions in the Age of Taylor, Veblen, and Ford, by Martha Banta (Chicago 1993). If that thread is there, she likely knew about it.

Isn't Generals reading fun??

Best, Bill

-Pretty cool, huh? I sent him the stuff you said, Greg. Well, if suburbs don't work out, I guess there's always time tables and effiicacy charts in my dissertation future.

What I did this afternoon:

Sent this email to Bill at 4PM after 2 hours of research. Can any of you two help me out with this?

"Hi Bill,

I'm doing some generals reading, and I found a connection and I wanted to know if you've heard anything about it.

So, I'm reading The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. And on a whim, I do a wikipedia search to see what events were going on in 1910 and 1911 (when Eliot was composing the poem in paris before returning to Harvard in 1911. The poem wasn't published until 1915), basically to see what the status of war and mustard gas was (yellow fog, etc.)

So I find this tidbit:
March of 1911- The first installment of a serialized version of Frederick Winslow Taylor's monograph The Principles of Scientific Management (online version here) appears in American Magazine. The complete series runs in the March, April, and May issues. It is the first time that The Principles of Scientific Management is widely read. The efficiency movement, which has been simmering of late, boils over and becomes a craze.

So I tried to find some stuff on Frederick Winslow Taylor, and all i find is really business-y and technical about the efficiency movement.

But, I did find out that Taylor and his wife adopted 3 of the 4 children of Anna Potter and William Aiken after William Aiken kills his wife and commits suicide. The one child who doesn't get adopted by Taylor is Conrad Aiken, who refuses to give up the name Aiken, which Taylor requires. So Conrad Aiken lives with other relatives

And here's where the Eliot connection comes in. Eliot and Aiken were good friends at Harvard, Eliot often going to the homes of Aiken's family for dinner (perhaps one of these being Taylors?)

All of this goes to say that I think there could be a connection between the treatment of time and measuring in Prufrock and the efficiency movement. Have you heard anything about this? I tried to do a preliminary search and didn't really find anything. But there's a possible personal connection if not a broader societal one (and if Conrad rebelled against Taylor, perhaps he is figuring as some one who Eliot is trying to rebel against as well in Prufrock? Prufrock serving as a Taylor-like figure, measuring his life with coffee spoons?)"

This kind of stuff is my favorite part of generals reading, I think. Going on ridiculous hunts for stupid pieces of information you think may pay off

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Week One

This was my first "official" week of reading.
Best thing read this week:
It's a TIE! First winner: Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown (the architects of Frist and Wu dining hall). Venturi is also called, in some circles "the father of postmodernism" and it feels this way (very Baudrillian, filled with irony, musings about pleasure spaces and reveling in low culture which is always rooted in high culture anyway) This book is basically about how "ugly and ordinary" architecture is way better than Modernist-wanna be architects of the 60s and 70s who can't give up the dream and keep using industrial architectural vernacular when its tired and uninteresting and "too beautiful" to be interesting any more. Apparently, le corb. and Gropius and crew were inspired by the BACKS of roman cathedrals and train stations and this is where they got their pared down aesthetics. So Venturi is trying to say that decoration and ornamentation on top of plain architecture is what the Romans did and we see it in the Las Vegas strip of the 1970s. This is the decorated shed technique which should trump what he calls "duck architecture"--the building in the shape of a duck which is both sign and building and modernist too boot.

The description of the strip is beautiful and analytical and lovely and makes me want to go there very much. The charts are a riot as well. Architectural writing might be my favorite. The manifesto definitely has not died. Also, he has really smart things to say about symbolism which you poetry people might be interested. And he opens the sections of his books with quotes from Wallace Stevens and Eliot to highlight his desire for more "literary buildings"

Quote from Venturi:

"The order of the Strip includes; it includes at all levels, from the mixture of seemingly incongruous land uses to the mixture of seemingly incongruous advertising media plus a system of neo-Organic or neo-Wrightian restaurant motifs in Walnut Formica. It is not an order dominated by the expert and made easy for the eye. The moving eye in the moving body must work to pick out and interpret a variety of changing juxtaposed orders…it is the unity that 'maintains, bu tonly maintains, a control over the clashing elements which compose it. Chaos is very near; its nearness, but its avoidance, gives…force.' "

Second best text: Nella Larsen's Passing. It's not at all sentimental! I was prepared for a dripping book of tears and anguish and troubled mulattresses. That's there, but it's more about lesbian desire and mutilated bodies and noir-ish guilt. Larsen's writing is amazing and I think the book is a response to Mrs. Dalloway (there's a scene where the protagonist goes to buy flowers for a party, while she's having murderous thoughts about her sexual love/rival. It's great!)

Runner Up: Brent Edwards, Practice of Diaspora. Beautiful writing, inspiring ideas (I mean, thought-process changing thoughts, genre-rethinking thoughts...its great)

Loser for the week: Cambridge Companion to Modernism
It sucks. it's too long for being so empty of content or any real statements worth anything. Shame, cause I really enjoyed the Cambridge Companion to American Modernism. (Oh, and I found a copy of the Cambridge Companion to Lacan in the trash today! SCORE!)

Okay, i'm not proofreading this so if it doesn't make sense, whatevs.

Additional Fun Fact

Yeats was apparently in charge of censoring movies for the Irish government in the early 1930s (according to Edmund Wilson). I think this would be a good job for poets today — put 'em to work! They couldn't do much worse than Jack Valenti.

Wilson's Castle

So I’ve been reading, alongside Papa Yeats, this crazy cat name of Stéphane Mallarmé. Don’t get me started. As I understand it, Mallarmé’s oeuvre is pretty much the beginning of French literature’s transformation from a highly classical, conservative corpus into what we know it as today: i.e. the sexy mess of decadence, philosophical theory, radical rhetorical gestures, delicate aestheticism and willful oddness that proves so endlessly generative for English and American literature over the course of our long twentieth century. I’ll try to say more about the actual poetry of M. Mallarmé in the coming days; I’m still coming to grips with it at the moment. It’s difficult stuff, especially for someone with as shaky a grasp of French as my recent experiences in Paris have just proven me to have.

Lucky for me, I have the most reassuring tour guide I could wish for, that redoutable Princeton alumnus Edmund Wilson. His first book
Axel’s Castle deals with the legacy of French Symbolism in the work of several of the major Modernists, including Yeats, Eliot, Proust, Joyce and Stein. Wilson’s thesis, set forth in his first chapter, is that what we call Modernism is “not merely a degeneration or an elaboration of Romanticism, but rather a counterpart to it, a second flood of the same tide." Both Modernism (a term not yet in vogue by 1931, the year of Wilson’s writing) and Romanticism are seen as reactions against a rational, scientific view of the universe and human nature, which he associates with classicism and an obsession with perfected form, in favor of a more subjective aesthetic grounded in individual singularity, experience, and fantasy.

What I find more interesting than this basic framework is Wilson’s account of the triangulation of influence between American, French and English literature in the mid-19th century. According to Wilson, English literature had largely been running on its own steam, reacting to the anomaly of eighteenth-century classicism with the revolt of Romanticism and then a steady tempering of that impulse with Victorian poets, like Browning and Tennyson. Meanwhile France, which has a much stronger tradition of classicism than England, adopts the measures we associate with Romanticism, or even Elizabethan poetry (irregular meters, mixed metaphors) but value those measures not as though they were traditional but as though they were radical, which for French poets they were. “The French called [poetry written in English meters]
vers libre, but it is ‘free’ only in the sense of being irregular, like may poems of Matthew Arnold and Browning." The technical innovations of Symbolism, then, are in a certain way only a catching up to what the English had already, unintentionally, done: “it will not be till the advent of the Symbolists that French poetry will really become capable of the fantasy and fluidity of [Shakespearean] English.”

Where America comes in, according to Wilson, is in providing a kind of late-Romantic aesthetic theory which the British, finding the gestures of Romanticism to be more or less conventional, had little interest in formulating. The French, on the other hand, eat aesthetic theory for breakfast, and so stuff like Poe’s theory of poetic composition (translated by Baudelaire in the 1850s) becomes a key basis of Symbolist thought and self-explanation. What we have emerging here is a picture where the British are Romantic, or anyway steeped in Romanticism, without even having to think about it; the Americans, having inherited the English language and culture, are slightly more prone to analyzing that tradition; and the French, emerging out of a completely different and more rigorous tradition, are dutifully striving after a freer, more irregular aesthetic which they feel they can only achieve by following the dictates of American literary theory. (I think, to a reader today, the similarity to the situation of New Critically-trained Americans attempting to absorb French existentialism and post-structuralism in the 50s and 60s will be immediately striking.) What the French really bring to the table, then, is an idea that the old Romantic ideas and methods are somehow new and unprecedented — and more than that, that their newness, their ability to bring about and sustain a sort of poetic revolution, constitutes their
a priori literary value. Thus the revolutionary, generative strangeness of much late 19th-century French poetry is, in Wilson’s account of things, more a matter of revaluation than actual innovation; a decision that literature is at the beginning of something, despite historical evidence to the contrary.

Then there’s the question of the actual
symbols used in Symbolism, and what they have in common with the more immediately readable symbols of a writer like Yeats. Greg mentioned Yeats’ investment in allegorical figures like Cathleen ni Houlihan as a hallmark of Modernism’s simultaneous oldness and newness, its appeal to ancient communal traditions without losing the emphasis on strangeness, fantasy and subjective experience which Romanticism had brought in. Wilson is very good on these matters, I think, and interestingly he seems to define French Symbolism in contradistinction to the sort of national and religious symbols Yeats is habitually attracted to: he says that "the symbols of Symbolism are to be defined a little differently than symbols in the ordinary sense – the sense in which the Cross is the symbol of Christianity or the Stars and Stripes is the symbol of the United States. This symbolism differs even from such symbolism as Dante’s. For the familiar kind of symbolism is conventional and fixed; the symbolism of the Divine Comedy is conventional, logical, and definite. But the symbols of the Symbolist school are usually chosen arbitrarily by the poet to stand for special ideas of his own — they are a sort of disguise for those ideas."

In light of this formulation, then, could we say that Yeats is applying the personalizing techniques of the Symbolists, which they used only for very specific idiosyncratic constructions without obvious referents (Mallarmé's faun, for instance), to the more definite symbols of conventional allegory, ones like a cross or a flag or a Cathleen or an Uncle Sam? In order to reveal how these seemingly “definite” symbols (Barthes, of course, would call them signs) are themselves “a sort of disguise for … ideas”? I think Yeats is both too much of a mystic and too much of a propagandist for the charge to really stick, but we could certainly say it of Joyce, and Yeats’ dual engagement with the arcane algebra of French Symbolism on the one hand and the rallying points of Irish national feeling on the other clearly points the latter author on his way. I’ll say for now that I’m very interested in how Yeats gets from attending Mallarmé’s salons in Paris where “literature was unknown as a trade” (according to Arthur Symons’
The Symbolist Movement in Literature) to being “the sixty-year-old smiling public man” of “Among School Children,” without ever fully renouncing the aesthetic stance of the former — and I’ve got a feeling this dual definition of the symbol as personal mask and cultural totem has something important to do with it.