Friday, September 28, 2007

Exhuming McCarthy?

I'm very curious what you guys think of this.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Keeping Up with LeRoi Jones

If one wanted a pocket history of late-fifties American avant-garde poetry that was under fifty pages and all by one author, one could do worse than to read LeRoi Jones' 1961 Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note. A teasing little note at the beginning of the book states that "these poems cover a period from 1957 until 1960 … I have arranged the book in as strict a chronological order as I could manage … for reasons best known to other young (?) poets" (parenthetical question mark Jones's). What this refers to I'm not entirely clear, but it's certainly true that Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, more even than most books of poetry so arranged, is clarified enormously by proceeding chronologically. Jones covered a lot of distance in those three years, ending up, on the surface at least, at almost the diametrically opposite point to where he began.

The early poems have a casualness and humor that brings to mind the Beats and Frank O'Hara (all of whom were personal friends of Jones, and published by his Totem Press and Yugen magazine), as well as bearing plenty of traces of E.E. Cummings' easygoing satire. "Hymn for Lanie Poo," the second poem in the book, is a good example: a record of a black man's experiences in white urban bohemia, it features a provocative epigraph from Rimbaud ("Vous etes de faux Négres") and has references to John Coltrane, offhand travesties of academic "high" culture ("Read Garmanda's book, '14 Tribes of / Ambiguity,' didn't like it") and a generally breezy tone. Except for the heightened racial consciousness and occasional dips into a more Gothic register ("Beware the evil sun… / turn you black // crawl your eyeballs // rot your teeth"), this could be a late-fifties poem by O'Hara.

But Jones (like O'Hara himself, in fact) eventually becomes interested not just in expressing his personality but in critiquing it, a process which begins with the (great) sixth poem, "Look For You Yesterday, Here You Come Today." It begins: "Part of my charm: / envious blues feeling / separation of church & state / grim calls from drunk debutantes," the beginning of a poem-long anatomy of Jones' personality and lifestyle which is intricately bound up, not just with his status as a black man in a mostly white subculture, but with his role as literary editor as well:

terrible poems come in the mail. Descriptions of celibate parties
torn trousers: Great Poets dying
with their strophes on. & me
incapable of a simple straightforward

It's so diffuse
being alive. (15)

From there, Jones goes on to muse O'Hara-ishly about not being a painter, quote O'Hara himself on the value of quietism, contra Kerouac ("Frank walked off the stage, singing / 'My silence is as important as Jack's incessant yatter'"), associate his thoughts with Baudelaire's ("All these thots / are Flowers Of Evil"), get lost in a nostalgic reverie ("What has happened to box tops?"), and finally imagine his own death ("F. Scott Charon / will soon be glad-handing me / like a legionaire / My silver bullets all gone / My black mask trampled in the dust"). Thus the interior movement of this one poem anticipates the movement of Jones' development on the level of oeuvre.

What happens there is unexpected. As I read it, it entails a move away from O'Hara towards an engagement with the canonical texts of High Modernism: in particular, with exactly the quality of Modernism that poets like O'Hara, Ginsberg, Ashbery and Koch were most concerned to protest, its thoroughgoing depressiveness. Two poems in the middle of the book, "Way Out West" and "The Bridge," initiate a new phase in Jones' poetry by imitating and investigating what I'm going to call here the mode of "FUBAR Modernism," the sense of an entire environment gone to pot that in Eliot expresses itself elegiacally and, often through the use of the affective fallacy, lyrically as well. This return to Eliot, who Koch would later call "the Great Dictator / Of literature" (and not even exactly a return: let's keep in mind that Eliot was still alive in 1961, and if he was out of fashion with the avant-garde he was, in many ways, at the peak of his cultural power in the literary mainstream), is pretty surprising in a fellow-traveler of the Beats, Black Mountain and New York School, none of whom had much use for Eliot, preferring Pound and Williams if they had to have Modernist forebears at all.

I feel I could make a case for Eliot's pervasiveness throughout the whole second half of Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, but for simplicity's sake I'll stick to the two poems aforementioned. Here's "Way Out West" in its entirety:

As simple an act
as opening the eyes. Merely
coming into things by degrees.

Morning: some tear is broken
on the wooden stairs
of my lady's eyes. Profusions
of green. The leaves. Their
constant prehensions. Like old
junkies on Sheridan Square, eyes
cold and round. There is a song
Nat Cole sings … This city
& the intricate disorder
of the seasons.

Unable to mention
something as abstract as time.

Even so, (bowing low in thick
smoke from cheap incense; all
kinds questions filling the mouth,
till you suffocate & fall dead
to opulent carpet.) Even so,

shadows will creep over your flesh
& hide your disorder, your lies.

There are unattractive wild ferns
outside the window
where the cats hide. They yowl
from there at nights. In heat
& bleeding on my tulips.

Steel bells, like the evil
unwashed Sphinx, towing in the twilight.
Childless old murderers, for centuries
with musty eyes.

I am distressed. Thinking
of the seasons, how they pass,
how I pass, my very youth, the
ripe sweet of my life; drained off…

Like giant rhesus monkeys;
picking their skulls,
with ingenious cruelty
sucking out the brains.

No use for beauty
collapsed, with moldy breath
done in. Insidious weight
of cankered dreams. Tiresias'
weathered cock.

Walking into the sea, shells
caught in the hair. Coarse
waves tearing the tongue.

Closing the eyes. As
simple an act. You float (24)

That the poem describes the contemplation of suicide should be obvious (even if Jones' book title didn't nudge us toward that reading). But it also narrates the passing of a day, beginning with "opening the eyes" and ending with "closing" them, though both are understood as "simple … act[s]" that contain within them the possibility of death, which is just as easy to bring on as wakefulness or sleep. As in Eliot, there is a constant toggling between dramatic or autobiographical details and purer image-making. There is also a tension between lyric and jeremiad, if we take the former to be the questioning of the self and the latter to be the questioning of the world. The textbook lyrical move of describing his "lady's eyes" leads him first to the natural world ("The / leaves. Their constant prehensions") and then to a corruption of it, as those eyes are in turn compared to "old / junkies on Sheridan Square" in a way that gives a wider characterization of the urban landscape in which our narrator dwells, a landscape which, as in Eliot, undermines the lyric impulse while paradoxically strengthening its effects (cf. Kant on disgust). The speaker, thrown once again into this sordid world, thinks of but does not quote from one of its more pleasant manifestations, a "Nat [King] Cole" song (an obvious update of the music hall numbers Eliot inserted into The Waste Land), and then free-associates across an ellipsis about "[t]his city / & the intricate disorder / of the seasons": an intricate disorder which recalls that which "breeds lilacs out of the dead land," the "stony rubbish" of "The Burial of the Dead." (I take it as significant that there is natural growth in Eliot's poem: it just appears as perverse, unnatural.) Writing a poem in what he sees as a waste land, but after Eliot, and after the avant-garde reaction against Eliot, Jones feels unentitled to the later Eliot's devices for coping with such misery: he is "[u]nable to mention / something as abstract as time" as in the redemptive Four Quartets (though of course Jones, in asserting this, has just mentioned it). Moving a little faster, we find "creep[ing]" "shadows," a personal "intricate disorder" ("your disorder") to match that of the city's, a dip into the rhetoric of pastoral elegy ("Thinking / of the seasons, how they pass, / how I pass, my very youth, the / ripe sweet of my life; drained off…"), horrible visceral images of the kind Eliot's early poetry is full of ("Childless old murderers," "giant rhesus monkeys") and then a final double echo, first of The Waste Land ("No use for beauty / collapsed … Tiresias' / weathered cock") and then, climactically, of "Prufrock" ("Walking into the sea, shells / caught in the hair. Coarse / waves tearing the tongue"): walk, sea, hair, drowning.

The next poem in the book, "The Bridge," takes up a different High Modernist author, one less eminent and influential than Eliot but perhaps even better as a symbol of the FUBAR aesthetic, since he actually killed himself: Hart Crane. The poem is not formally much like Crane, but it pays him unmistakable homage in its title and in its imagery.

I have forgotten the head
of where I am. Here at the bridge. 2
bars, down the street, seeming
to wrap themselves around my fingers, the day,
screams in me: pitiful like a little girl
you sense will be dead before the winter
is over.

I can't see the bridge now, I've past
it, its shadow, we drove through, headed out
along the cold insensitive roads to what
we wanted to call "ourselves."
"How does the bridge go?"

Here the bridge is also a musical bridge, and the poem can be understood as written from the perspective of a jazz musician. This realization renders the first strophe almost Metaphysical in its playfulness, with existential confusion figured as losing one's way in a song ("I have forgotten the head / of where I am") and "bars" meaning both measures of time in music and places where you drink alcohol, both of which are felt as mysteriously constricting ("seeming to wrap themselves around my fingers"). But music really appeals to Jones as a symbol of the unfreezable flow of time, a forward-rushing movement that cannot be seized at any one moment without losing its integrity: "The changes are difficult, when / you hear them, & know they are all in you, the chords // of your disorder meddle with your would be disguises." The obvious play is on "changes" as both chord changes and historical changes, both of which are "difficult" in the sense of jarring but which are felt as corresponding to some innate and inchoate need of the self, "your disorder" as opposed to "your would be disguises." My claim, a little bit of a stretch maybe, is that it's not just free jazz — and the postwar, postmodern moment associated with it — that Jones is talking about here, but also Crane's The Bridge, and Modernism. This has been left behind for what is already, by the late 50s, observable on the horizon as the coming of Confessionalism, which Jones presciently sees as abandoning monumental expression to travel down "the cold insensitive roads to what / we wanted to call 'ourselves.'"

The second half of the poem starts: "(Late feeling)," indicating a kind of postscript I suppose, the morning after the jazz performance maybe, but also continuing the theme of time, and of belatedness. It continues:

Way down till it barely, after that rush of
wind & odor reflected from hills you have forgotten the color
when you touch the water, & it closes, slowly, around your head.

Another image of immersion, death by water, suicide. But:

The bridge will be behind you, that music you know, that place,
you feel when you look up to say, it is me, & I have forgotten,
all the things, you told me to love, to try to understand, the
bridge will stand, high up in the clouds & the light, & you,

(when you have let the song run out) will be sliding through
unmentionable black. (26)

"The bridge will be behind you": literally in time (because the performance is over) but also figuratively in memory (because the forward-looking avant-garde is leaving The Bridge behind, and The Waste Land, or so they think). I read the passage, then, as expressing a certain melancholy for the moment of 20s/30s Modernism — a time when, arguably, jazz and avant-garde writing were more closely socially associated; in any case, a monumental timelessness ("the bridge will stand") placed in opposition to contemporary triviality, "all the things, you told me to love, to try to understand" (the pop cultural detritus celebrated in O'Hara's work, and in Preface's first six poems). Without the fixity and permanence of "the bridge" (a bridge between white and black experience? a testament to the potential of communal, human making?), the speaker of the poem is doomed to slide into solipsism, to racial and social isolation, "unmentionable black."

I guess what interests me most about this reading of Jones (which could be totally off the mark: I should admit I don't know almost any of his later, more militant work) is that it really fucks with the historical narrative that sees postwar poets, particularly ones with political leanings, rebelling against the High Modernist aesthetic of Eliot, Pound, Crane, etc. I'd argue that this is truer of essentially apolitical poets like Robert Lowell and (gulp) John Ashbery, who refuse High Modernism for affective reasons — it's not the mood, the tone they want to project — rather than because they see it is ideologically or communicatively faulty. This doesn't have to be a question of competing metaphysics, or its objectification ("poetics"), it's just rhetoric: the language of and
The Waste Land and The Bridge is more "political" — i.e. more strident, stirring, closer to agitprop and soapbox speeches — than the language of Life Studies and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Even if "the personal is the political," the persons involved have to speak to and convince each other: as Eliot puts it in Sweeney Agonistes, "I gotta use words when I talk to you."

For the trajectory of influence in
Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note is so clearly from O'Hara to Eliot, and not the other way around: that is, from personality to impersonality. And it is exactly personality, in O'Hara's sense, which is rejected by Jones as hegemonic, pedagogical, and totalizing ("all the things, you told me to love, to try to understand"). The mode of Eliot (and the example of Crane), on the other hand, offer him a different kind of expression.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


comes into American poetry in a big way in, or at least by, the mid-1950s. By this I mean not just the foreign but the obviously translated, the slightly awkward, the conspicuously non-American and non-English. Exhibit A: Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency (1957), particularly the poems "The Hunter" and "On Looking at La Grand Jatte, The Czar Wept Anew":

"He went to strange hills where
the stones were still warm from feet,
and then on and on. There were clouds
at his knees, his eyelashes
has grown thick from the colds,
as the fur of the bear does
in winter. Perhaps, he thought, I am
asleep, but he did not freeze to death." (CP, 167)

"He cannot, after all, walk up the wall. The skylight
is sealed. For why? for a change in the season,
for a refurbishing of the house. He wonders if,
when the music is over, he should not take down
the drapes, take up the rug, and join his friends
out there near the lake, right here beside the lake!
'O friends of my heart!'" (CP, 63)

The tone in these passages is odd but not too odd, less formally idiosyncratic than idiomatically off. A phrase like "the fur of the bear" could easily be made to sound less ridiculous (probably not O'Hara's purpose in this poem which, like so many others, verges on camp mockery) but the juxtaposition of images (frozen eyelashes and bear's fur) wouldn't be as striking if it were smoothed out that way. Even more noticeably, "For why?" is not exactly English: it's the sort of endearing mistake non-native speakers make all the time, but which in a poem achieves an uncanny effect unavailable to "Why?" or "What for?" The sense I get is that O'Hara is tentatively approaching, through parody, a style that in the 70s and 80s actually becomes a mainstream mode of American poetry, with Deep Image, Charles Simic et al: a style whose hallmark is the combination of a semi-colloquial simplicity coupled with a more formal-seeming resistance to contractions ("I am" not "I'm," "should not" not "shouldn't").
This is happening in other avant-garde work of the time, too. Exhibit B: Jack Spicer's After Lorca (1956), which purports to be an actual volume of translations though, as the ghost of Lorca writes in his introduction, "Mr. Spicer seems to derive pleasure in inserting and substituting one or two words which completely change the mood and often the meaning of the poem as I had written it" and "there are an almost equal number of poems that I did not write at all (one supposes that they must be his) executed in a somewhat fanciful imitation of my earlier style" (11). The poems themselves are good but, to me, unremarkable; however,
they are interspersed with fascinating micro-manifestoes, in the manner of Williams' Spring and All, which explicitly throw over Modernist precepts by declaring that the specific words of the poem, and whatever intricate changes are wrought on them, do not matter, since all such tinkering is doomed to be lost in translation anyway. Here's one of the more provocative moments:

Most of my friends like words too well. They set them under the blinding light of the poem and try to extract every possible connotation from each of them, every temporary pun, every direct or indirect connection — as if a word could become an object by mere addition of consequences. Others pick up words from the streets, from their bars, from their offices and display them proudly in their poems as if they were shouting, "See what I have collected from the American language. Look at my butterflies, my stamps, my old shoes!" What does one do with all this crap?

Words are what sticks to the real. We use them to push the real, to drag the real into the poem. They are what we hold on with, nothing else. They are as valuable in themselves as rope with nothing to be tied to. (Collected Books of Jack Spicer, 25)

Note that Spicer's reasons for writing in this style is not metaphysical but rhetorical: it's not that he values "the real" in and of itself, but that he wants his poems to last, and to travel. Haunting the first of these paragraphs is a judgment that two of the most influential strains of Anglo-American Modernism in the first half of the 20th century — the "blinding light" school of Eliot and Empson and the "stamp collection" school of Moore and Pound — are not aging, or translating, well. (This might also be the place to note that Spicer, like O'Hara, comes to this partial rejection of Modernist aesthetics through the oblique channels of camp. After Lorca is a very funny book.)

Final question: is this kind of thing really new? Though imitation of non-English sources had been going on for a long time (at least since Whitman, and probably earlier), most of those give the impression that the writer read those sources in the original: they imitate them as they were familiar with the work on its own terms, trying to replicate some quality in the language. Or, more rarely, they just ignore the poem's original linguistic presentation and engage them solely on the level of theme. But part of what interests Spicer and O'Hara, in different ways and for different reasons of course, is the style of translation itself, and the then-novel fact that they're even able to read poetry so geographically and linguistically remote from them as if it were written in English. (To my mind, this also distinguishes what they're doing from Pound's material reminders to the reader of his work's translatedness — "lie quiet Divus" and the like — which still imply a first-order encounter with the original text, won through the poet's own attention and labor.)

That's all I got for now. But the magazine New World Writing, which appeared from 1952 to 1959 and which O'Hara mentions in a later poem (he buys it in order "to see what the poets in Ghana are doing these days"), might be an interesting place to look in pursuing this question.

Monday, September 24, 2007

"Dare not decline" - costs of going local

"Poet appointed dare not decline
to walk among the bogus"

So begins the second section of Basil Bunting's Briggflatts, and it sets an injunction the poet cannot keep precisely because "who appointed him?" is the next question. "Decline" - which by the poem's 1966 publication is a deeply troubled term for national devolution in post-War, post-imperial English national topology - can mean two things here: "don't refuse to walk among the bogus" or "don't descend down among the bogus". Either a self-harming injunction to wallow or a self-deceiving presumption of authenticity in a world dirtily without.

This strikes me as paradigmatic of the poet's choices who would attempt epic, even the modernist/Poundian "poem including history", when he (or she) is confronted with a national history that has both shrunk to rocky Saxon particularity and exploded to a global dialogue of plural histories. The rich and gorgeous language of the first section of Briggflatts uncovers a deep and local continuity that could be the epic poet's material (and has Pound's version of and use in the Cantos of "The Seafarer" as a predecessor): "By such rocks/ men killed Bloodaxe." It can be carved in stone and, as in section V's echo of Four Quartets, "Then is diffused in Now" (echo of the Quartets, but diminished -- not about presence and chronological fusion so much as "diffusion", dispersal, weakening).

The poem, called an "autobiography," includes in the second section a reference to Bunting's time as a spy for the British, who "decodes/ thunder, scans/ porridge bubbling, pipes clanking". Eliot, secretive but no spy, could once simply hear what the thunder said. Left the porridge alone. Bunting, in this role among the bogus, must detail the impoverished surround, laying "sick, self-maimed, self-hating,/ obstinate, mating/ beauty with squalor to beget lines still-born." The local, which is the ground of the poem and its primary linguistic audience, forms a substrate of filth rather than a solid ground in which to grow a regional epic. The poem begins to clog with fecal matter, which composts any number of rotting decapitated heads (as the poem's opening describes, "Decay thrusts the blade,/ wheat stands in excrement/ trembling"). As Bunting writes in section IV, "Today's posts are piles to drive into the quaggy past/ on which impermanent palaces balance."

The figure of the still-born, or as another possibility of this "mating", the monstrous is the abiding concern of the poem, itself then a half-product of a region (with the potential for epic) and of the deaths that register that region's deep history (with their potential for elegy). The tomb carved in section one is for the deceased child of the young couple who ride with the mason across Rawthey, and the poem gives gory details about the bestiality that brought us the Minotaur.

I'd like to explore the poem's conjoined topoi of monstrosity and hybridity in the formation of subjective declension. But I'll leave that for now and make a note about the "still-born" as a description of both poem and nation. Though the "sun rises on an acknowledged land" the poem ends with a coda that brings this diurnal recognition into the symbolic sweep of a completed elegiac movement, initiated in such an extended fashion as to make it hard to perceive until *blammo* he's playing off the end of "Lycidas". In the Coda,

A strong song tows
us, long earsick.
Blind, we follow
rain slant, spray flick
to fields we do not know.

Lycidas has its own coda -- its last eight lines zoom out to the third person to describe how "thus sang the uncouth swain" all that had come before. The gesture toward "fresh woods, and pastures new" complete the consolatory purpose of the elegy and declare closed the literary apprenticeship of the lyric speaker, who thereby promises and indeed begins to perform the consummation of his voice in writing the great work (the last 8 lines = one ottava rima stanza of italian epic). In Bunting, the coda works in the opposite direction, marshalling community in blind servile following of the song, and ends with a reworking of the "pastures new" from promise to disillusionment:

Where we are who knows
of kings who sup
while day fails? Who,
swinging his axe
to fell kings, guesses
where we go?

It's Lycidas rewritten with a proleptic view of the heads that would roll in the coming years, both the need for protestant revolution and an acknowledgment of its costs (esp. in post-industrial -- notice how these poems of local epic or thwarted epic have so much interest in work, in craft).

Oh, i'm getting tired of writing this. Something something. The political economy of the commonweal (see the etymology of "bogus" in the OED, as it emerges as a major point of reactionary possibility in English late-mod. epics in this period (see also Hill's Mercian Hymns, lots of Hughes's poems I think) and as a grounding moment in the portraits of community and region that are all over the place in America at this point (Paterson, Howl, Brooks's sketches of Bronzeville, Hughes's "Portrait of a Dream Deferred").

Sorry to cop out but I got other work to do. May come back and edit this eventually. Could continue in the comments, since i'm sure i haven't made myself very clear.

Hey Adrienne, do you own Dos Passos' The 42nd Parallel? I just found a paperback copy on the street in Park Slope. Given the way things are going I doubt I'd get to read it for a long time, so if you want it, it's yours.

Howl, New Jersey, Holla

Have either of you looked at a little book called The Poem that Changed America: "Howl" Fifty Years Later? Silly title, I know, but it's actually pretty useful. The collection is edited by Jason Shinder, Ginsberg's personal assistant from the late 70s on, and his introduction is kind of embarrassingly idolatrous and not very well-written. But the volume does bring together a number of interesting reactions to "Howl" (by, among others, Amiri Baraka, Marjorie Perloff (who argues that Ginsberg is a direct inheritor of Modernism [OK, fine, whatever] and that "Howl" is really about WWII [more interesting]), Billy Collins (!), John Cage, and Rick Moody) as well as including a facsimile of the original mimeographed edition, which "costed [sic] $10.00 typed by poet Robert Creely [sic] dittoed by Martha Rexroth transported by me to the hands of Robert Lavigne [sic] in exchange for several drawings," according to Ginsberg's inscription. (Doesn't $10 seem like kind of a lot of money for 1956? Seems like one could do a Lawrence Rainey-esque analysis of the economics of this first presentation.)

A couple of remarks about the poem itself: has anyone written on the possible influence of W.H. Auden on Ginsberg? Auden is mentioned in Shinder's preface as one of Ginsberg's "'enemies'," but also an "eternal presence": I don't know much about their personal relationship. But on this reading I notice quite a few touches which seem Audenesque; for one, the unexpected dropping and adding of definite articles (examples include "the drear light of Zoo" and "the last fantastic book thrown out of the tenement window"). This is something Auden does a lot, and I think the effect in his poems is usually to either particularize or universalize the rhetorical situation of any given poem: kind of a Zoom-In/Zoom-Out effect. In "Howl," Ginsberg utilizes this to keep the reader involved on a macrosociological level ("this is an important poem: it's about a generation, it's about a nation, it's about history") and on a more micro-, affective/emotional level ("this is about the author, his friends, his mother, or me"). It's a technique Whitman uses too, of course, but Ginsberg's interest in including shabby, sordid or ironic details which temporarily undercut the grandeur of the macro-phrases (e.g. "in beards and shorts with big pacifist eyes sexy in their dark skin passing out incomprehensible leaflets"; compare "Spain 1937") is closer to (early) Auden, I think.

Second idea: Ginsberg's insistent return to New Jersey place names ("Paterson," "Newark," "the filthy Passaic," etc.), among, admittedly, a lot of other place names, has to be understood, in its historical context, as a very complicated rhetorical move. Because New Jersey was not just where Ginsberg was from, and thus a signifier of the "real" or the "autobiographical," but also, by the mid-1950s, a landscape that was newly literary, thanks to the ecstatic critical reception of William Carlos Williams' still-in-progress Paterson. As Perloff points out her chapter on him in The Poetics of Indeterminacy, the publication of Paterson had finally secured a major reputation for Williams, long considered a marginal figure of the Modernist movement. Thus Paterson, which ten years earlier would have been fairly meaningless as a literary signifier, now evokes a whole complex of ideas about Modernism and American poetry that Ginsberg slyly insists upon. (And WCW also wrote the introduction to Howl's first commercial edition, as Adrienne pointed out months ago.)

Anyway, it's interesting to think of the symbolic capital that New Jersey acquires in this period, as the breeding ground of the only ideologically correct,* homegrown version of High Modernism (Williams') as well as the most incendiary updating/challenging of the academic version of Modernism: significantly a humble state, in proximity to a great metropolis but not containing it, a place synonymous with the simple, homely and plain, which also just happens to be the site of some of the worst industrial exploitation and ecological spoilage in the entire country. This is quite a different pole to orient us than London or New York, and the attitude of its writers to it is also significantly different: sure, it's a waste land, they tell us, but it's our waste land, and we like it that way. And this in turn might have something to do with the remarks by Leslie Fiedler that Adrienne just posted, about the American mediation (some would say adulteration) of Modernism through regionalism. But I'm getting hungry, so I'd better stop here and drag myself through some Brooklyn streets to go looking for a sandwich fix.

* If you ignore the Communism.

In literary love

Below is the basic argument of Leslie Fiedler's essay War, Exile, and the Death of Honor from his book Wating For the End: A portrait of Twentieth-Century American Literature and Its Writers". I want his brain.

"It is tempting to think of the practice of our writers of the Twenties as representing a decisive disavowal of the temptations of avant-gardism, and, in a sense, this is true; but it is not true enough. Hemingway and Gertrude Stein may have become at last, symbolically as well as personally, enemies; yet the example of her war on syntax and coherence made him to the end a more insidious subverter of common speech than the readers of Life magazine could ever permit themselves to recognize even if they were capable of doing so. And however stubbornly Faulkner insisted on reinventing stream-of-consciousness in his own home-made terms, the experiments of Joyce surely inspired the effort. The ostensible rejection and the abiding nostalgia, the pride and shame of the generation of the Twenties in its encounter with Europe, is, in fact, the reaction of the tourist, the provincial tourist. It matters little whether the writers played abroad for a long time like Fitzgerald, or retreated immediately to their home towns like Faulkner, or kept seeking on foreign continents images of Montana and Upper Michigan like Hemingway--the writers who came of age in WWI remained what they were to begin with: country boys perpetually astonished at meeting the Big City and the Great World, provincials forever surprised to discover themselves in London or Paris or Antibes, and afterward dazzled to remember that they had ever been in such improbable places."

Fiedler than goes on to recount the long tradition of American writers abroad (From Franklin to Irving, Hawthorne and Melville to Baldwin and Burroughs) "It is, indeed, astonishing how many especially American fictions were conceived or actually executed abroad from Rip Van Winkle through the Leather Stocking Tales, the Marble Faun of Hawthorne, Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson to Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night and The Sun Also Rises of Hemingway.

"Such novels of exile and return reflect the deepest truth, the mythical truth of the experience of Americans abroad, a truth of art which life does not always succeed in imitating, though it is one to which it aspires. TS Eliot may never go back to St. Louis to live out his declining years, while Pound, released from captivity in the States, seems set on dying in Rapallo. And if Rapallo looks, as Karl Shapiro has somewhere observed, just like Santa Barbara, California, that is just one of those irrelevant jokes which history plays on us all"

He goes on to flush out this theme of exile and return. "Even Eliot, Anglo-Catholic and Royalist, returns home in his imagination, making a pilgrimage in the Four Quartets not only to New England, but even, less forseeably, to Huck Finn's Mississippi, beside which he was born."

"In Paris, obviously different from the dream of Paris, the American discovers he can bear Kansas City, which he began knowing was different from all dreams of it; and this is worth his fare plus whatever heartache he pays as surtax."

"And though there is a sense in which the anti-war novel is merely a late sub-variety of the international theme (and another in which it is a sub-genre of the class-struggle book), we are compelled how to recognize it as the greatest and most characteristic literary invention of the Twenties."

"But pacifism, too, was a fiction of WWII, which saw thousands of young men, who earlier had risen in schools and colleges to swear that they would never bear arms, march off to battle--as often as not with copies of anti-warbooks in their packs. Those books were real enough, like the passion that prompted them, and the zeal with which they were read; only the promises were illusory."

"We inhabit for the first time a world in which men begin wars knowing that their avowed ends will not be accomplished, a world in which it is more and more difficult to believe that the conflicts we cannot avert are in any sense justified. And in such a world, the draft dodger, the malingerer, the goldbrick, the crap-out, all who make what Hemingway was the first to call 'a separate peace,' all who somehow survive the bombardment of shells and cant, become a new kind of anti-heroic hero. And it is precisely such sad sacks, such refugees from honor and glory, who returned to American to beget or become the generation of the Thirties."

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Something to work on soon as we've read, found out

New EMP conference CFP is up.

"Shake, Rattle: Music, Conflict, and Change"!

Theory vs. Theory

Remember when Jeremy was talking in our seminar about the need at Princeton for a course that traces the history of literary theory from Russian Formalism through French structuralism/poststructuralism and American deconstruction and into its current phase of disciplinary/international diaspora? Well, I just came across such a history, in miniature, and admittedly from a partisan position, by Raymond Williams. It's taken from the appendix of The Politics of Modernism, which is the transcript of a public conversation between Williams and Edward Said in 1986. Whether you agree or not with the polemical points of Williams' narrative (and probably none of us really know enough about the subject to be sure about that yet; certainly I don't) I thought it might be interesting to read an account of the rise of theory from a decidedly non-reactionary viewpoint (i.e., not Harold Bloom's). In particular, Williams' idea of formalist theory's historical delay in reception that led to its being in effect used as a weapon against a more fully developed version of itself is really provocative, ironically calling to mind some of Derrida's writing about autoimmunity and parasites. And with its 80s-eye view of the situation and typical Williams clarity and toughness, it makes a good companion piece to Rabaté's equally useful Gallic perspective in The Future of Theory. Anyway, here goes (I've highlighted some key terms and sentences to make it easier to read schematically):

"[Russian] Formalism was a reaction against what was called in the early stages a crude sociologism, which never really looked at the work at all but looked at elements which could be extracted from it and handled in other transferred ideological terms, or else simply related a text to the conditions of its production. Now the first phase of the response to that is to say that however important those questions may be, we also have to look at what the work specifically is. And this insistence has to be understood within the context of the debate. We need then to look at the second stage of the formalist argument, in the mid and late twenties, in works which have received much less publicity. Works with that tangled authorship of Bahktin, Voloshinov, Medvedev are much less well known in the West … than Shlovsky and Eikhenbaum and so on. It was agreed: let us look at what is specific in the text. But looking at what is textually specific does not rule out, rather it encourages, new ways of exploring the relations between the creation of something very specific and these more general conditions. Then, as against the previous practice which has not looked analytically at the work but which had gone straight to what was extractable as ideology or as general social conditions of authorship, let us indeed go specifically to the text as a way of finding new methods of analysing the relations between its precise composition and these conditions.

"Now this kind of work is what has been called, in Britain especially, Cultural Studies. I mean the break of Cultural Studies in the fifties from an earlier kind of sociological and indeed so-called Marxist study was precisely that it started from the close analysis of works. The contrast couldn't be more marked with earlier positions which had postulated a bourgeois economy and then a bourgeois ideology. Whereas, [Cultural Studies] starts from the texts themselves … But what it does not do, what it refuses to do, is to stop at that point. Now precisely the version of formalism that was imported and intensively propagated was to say 'and when you have done that, there is no more to do.' [Here's where I'd place the early Marjorie Perloff, circa The Poetics of Indeterminacy, whose Russian Formalist-influenced re-reading of Modernism is still so influential.] Although in fact the second stage of the formalist argument that was lost from the late twenties, and that is still not properly perceived and understood, was that when you have done that, you then have the problem of finding ways in which to analyse those specificities of the work or text, which uncover new kinds of evidence that weren't available by other methods. Then you can ask in new ways, how is the specific kind of literariness produced? How are certain forms produced? How do certain negations and absences which can be well identified by formalist methods constitute themselves in the social and historical structure? And suddenly you're into a new kind of inquiry."

OK, here's the really crucial part:

"But just at the moment that this work was making progress, back came — in a fifty-year historical delay, going via the United States and France and reappearing intensively propagated there — the old first stage of the argument, as if there had been no more move beyond it either by that Leningrad School of the late twenties, or in many of the developments in Cultural Studies in the West. The new formalism started as if it were fighting an enemy which no longer existed: the enemy which did not start analysis from specificities, but postulated the big abstractions of a society and economy and ideology, on a base-and-superstructure model, and then deduced the work, leaving many of the facts of the composition of the work unaddressed. And then we were asked to choose in this absurd way between work which was very specific within the texts and which said it didn't interest itself in other questions, and work which was still projected as talking only about reading publics, audiences, social conditions of writers or the most general facts of history. Yet in fact the other real work had been done.

"One is then very sad when the kind of propagation of theory that went on — including incidentally the reference to Saussure which was almost entirely misleading, even at times fraudulent, because it was never the representation of the whole of what Saussure had said — takes over from the development of actual new work. It's a very long and difficult job, how to carry through this powerful task, which is to see how, in the very detail of composition, a certain social structure, a certain history, discloses itself. This is not doing any kind of violence to the composition. It is precisely finding ways in which forms and functions, in very complex ways, interact and interrelate. That was what we were doing. I think the interruption is now over [wishful thinking, clearly], but I do want to say that I think it has been extraordinarily damaging, especially since theory — so-called — is much easier than this actual analytical work. You only have to read the five points of formalist technique or the three distinguishing marks of a dominant ideology; I mean you can write it in a notebook and you can go away and give a lecture on it the next day. Or write endless books about it. It's an extraordinarily easy intellectual practice. Whereas this other analytic task is difficult, because the questions are new each time. And until the last few years [?] there was this very complicated business of finding your way around what was called Theory [a still critical business, which now seems to be considered the preserve of "legitimate autodidacticism," at least at Princeton]. It failed to understand what kind of theory cultural theory is. Because cultural theory is about the way in which specific works relate to structures which are not the works. That is cultural theory and it is in better health than it is represented." (The Politics of Modernism, 183-185)

Friday, September 21, 2007

F.R. Leavis


Architects are Ridiculous

So I'm reading some architectural documents from 1943-1968. And they are hilarious. A: A lot of architects just simply can't write. Frank Lloyd Wright for instance. Horrible writer (My best friend's an architect. They stop writing papers sophomore year, if not earlier, so I understand how this happens)
B: They're incredibly funny. Architects have to please so many people, give speeches, schmooze bosses, clients, public, administrators, they have a real rhetorical sense. So in a post-manifesto society they take the best of the manifesto style and mix it with humor. (this isn't true of all of them, but the ones I like. Some take themselves WAY to seriously and just sound like satire)
C: Robert Moses was a real asshole. I want to reserve judgment until I read the Caro biography and some of the revisionist bios that came out earlier this year, but reading his documents...i think he sucks. He calls everyone a dirty commie. EVERY ARCHITECT.
D: This is my favorite quote for now from the brilliantly named essay "A City Is Not a Tree" by Christopher Alexander in 1965:
"The playground, asphalted and fenced in, is nothing but a pictorial acknowledgment of the fact that 'play' exists in an isolated concept in our minds. It has nothing to do with the life of play itself. Few self-respecting children will even play in a playground."

So, have more respect for yourself, kids and break out.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Take short views

Guess who's the new poetry editor of The New Yorker?

Who De Man?

(Sorry for the post title: I almost literally couldn't resist.)

So……… Blindness and Insight. It's terrific! In particular, for my purposes, it's incredibly useful, since it's largely concerned (in its first two and last two chapters, anyway, which are the ones I read) with a triangulation of international critical discourses: the Anglo-American academic New Criticism (or what was left of it by the late sixties); French structuralism/poststructuralism associated with Barthes, Tel Quel, and Derrida; and, perhaps most importantly, the mainstream tradition of Continental literary history and criticism that De Man reps for (but which he sees as in danger of becoming obsolete).

PDM's initial point, in his first two essays ("Criticism and Crisis" and "Form and Intent in the American New Criticism"), is that the Anglo-American critical establishment has long ignored the work, and refused the theoretical rigor, of the Continental tradition, despite the fact that many of its leading lights ended up living and working in America (he names Erich Auerbach, Leo Spitzer, Georges Poulet and Roman Jakobson, and one could add Adorno, Renato Poggioli and, ahem, De Man himself). Instead it was content to follow out the largely untheorized, and geographically provincial, implications of the New Criticism as it descended from Eliot, Empson, and I.A. Richards (my genealogy, not De Man's) and for this reason was doomed from the start. So far, this is an old story: English and American arrogance and narrow-mindedness, refusing the fruits of the mind of Europe: close-reading as unilateralism. Yet De Man details all of the above only as a prelude to his main point, which addresses the emerging discourse of poststructuralism. As he ominously puts it, "today, it is too late to bring about this kind of encounter" (21). Because now (1967) new developments in France are calling that tradition radically into question, along with the blinkered Anglo-American one. This already complicates any narrative that would see what happens in the 70s as America (and, to a lesser extent, England) "absorbing the Continental literary critical tradition": rather, what we absorb is a response to that tradition, a revolt against it, much as centuries earlier we absorb the ideas and rhetoric of the French Revolution without the specific experience of absolute monarchy that those ideas were developed against. Which is not to say the ideas, once absorbed, are "just ideas," or have no use-value in their new context. As De Man puts it at the end of "Literary History and Literary Modernity": "the bases of historical knowledge are not empirical facts but written texts, even if these texts masquerade in the guises of wars or revolutions" (165). One tradition's revolution is another's foundation.

This is helpful. I'm not entirely convinced by De Man's philosophical attacks on the intentional fallacy in the second essay, "Form and Intent in the American New Criticism," even though I think I'm ultimately on the same side as he is w/r/t intentionality. Furthermore, De Man's rhetoric partakes of a certain "dog-pile on New Criticism" zeitgeist of the late 1960s, allowing him to completely ignore (though probably honestly: he may never have read them) an "other tradition" of American criticism which is perhaps closer to the European model, and where we could include Wilson, Burke, and Trilling. The reduction De Man seems to make — that English and American literary history and criticism is New Criticism, as theorized by Wimsatt and Beardsley — is in many ways just as disastrous as the error he warns against, that of conflating French poststructuralism with European literary criticism tout court.

Moving quickly, aren't we? I skipped Chapters III-VII, on Binswanger, Lukács, Blanchot, Poulet and Derrida, never to return (well, maybe someday). That brings us to "Literary History and Literary Modernity," which is probably De Man's most crucial intervention in the modernism/modernity debates. This one is worth dealing with on more theoretical terms, as it is an essentially an attack on the idea of modernism — that is, on the idea of modernity having useful reference to questions of literature or aesthetics. To put it succinctly, De Man's position is that all literature (all "authentic" literature, that is) is modern, or begs the question of modernity, not just so-called "modernism." This is because, whether or not the aesthetic quality that could be accurately called modernist — a quality of foregrounding the historical moment in which the work of art is produced — is present in the work, even the most minimal act of reading is a dialectic between past and present, now and then. "The ambivalence of writing is such that it can be considered both an act and an interpretative process that follows after an act with which it cannot coincide … The appeal of modernity haunts all literature" (152). Leaving aside the question of how we feel about De Man's seeming jump from structural property to theme in this passage, or whether we need a micro/macro distinction to distinguish historical time from what we might call "reading reaction time," it must be admitted that on its own terms De Man's argument is powerful: and one can easily see how it could be used as an excuse for many academics to stop thinking seriously about the problem of Modernism, and the canon of texts it had produced and continued to produce, for many years.

There's a sociological element here, of course, which De Man is admirably up front about: there is a modernism, an avant-garde, that he cares about, and it is not literary but critical. "Certain forces that could legitimately be called modern and that were at work in lyric poetry, in the novel, and the theater have also now become operative in the field of literary theory and criticism," he writes. "… This development has by itself complicated and changed the texture of our literary modernity a great deal" (143-144). I should say so! This essay itself is just such a radical complication and change. In De Man's penultimate paragraph, he takes issue with practically every form of criticism then operating in the United States. To wit: "A positivistic history that sees literature only as what it is not (as an objective fact, an empirical psyche, or a communication that transcends the literary text as text) is … necessarily inadequate." That takes care of Marxism, psychoanalysis, cultural studies, and traditional progressivist literary history. "The same is true of approaches that take for granted the specificity of literature (what the French structuralists, echoing the Russian formalists, call literarity [littérarité] of literature)," and here lie Northrop Frye and the remnants of the American New Criticism as well. (Note that all of the above movements were articulated in response to the emergence of Modernism and the avant-garde, and that most of them, in their late 60s form at least, tended to privilege that tradition.) "If literature rested at ease within its own self-definition," De Man says, "it could be studied according to methods that are scientific rather than historical," although he implies that such a state of rest is in fact illusory and impossible. "We are obliged to confine ourselves to history when this is no longer the case, when the entity steadily puts its own ontological status into question" — as in the period of Modernism, when the first set of critical methods that De Man now deems "inadequate" were developed. What replaces these failed experiments, which are unable in themselves to come to terms with literature qua literature? Glad you asked: it is, of course, deconstruction (not yet named as such), which as a practice is loftily unconcerned with the petty historical and formal questions that constitute all previous discussions of "modernism" in literature; thus, "the critical method which denies literary modernity would appear — and even, in certain respects, would be — the most modern of critical movements" (164).

This is a clarion call for the big flip-flop of the 1970s: the decade in which academic literary criticism stops lagging behind the avant-garde trying to unravel its mysteries and starts being the avant-garde, in the literal sense of the words, setting the agenda for poets, artists, and (to a lesser extent) novelists and adopting an oppositional and adversarial attitude to the culture at large. It's the necessary fact to explain the rise of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets as well as, in many ways, our poetic and academic cultures in America today. It's also where I get off, for the time being — hey, look at the time! It's 1970.

Lesson for a Boy

Want an alternative to the Attridgean metrical system we learned that actually tallies with what other critics and poetry readers understand by English prosody? I thought so. Here's a little mnemonic ditty by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, written in 1803 for his son Derwent (does that remind anyone else of a De La Soul album?). Warning: it gets a little mushy at the end.


Trochee trips from long to short;
From long to long in solemn sort

Slow Spondee stalks; strong foot! yea ill able

Ever to come up with Dactyl trisyllable.

Iambics march from short to long; --

With a leap and a bound the swift Anapests throng;
One syllable long, with one short at each side; --

First and last being long, middle short, Amphimacer
Strikes his thundering hoofs like a proud highbred Racer.

If Derwent be innocent, steady, and wise,
And delight in the things of earth, water, and skies;
Tender warmth at his heart, with these metres to show it,
With sound sense in his brains, may make Derwent a poet, --
May crown him with fame, and must win him the love
Of his father on earth and his Father above.
My dear, dear child!
Could you stand upon Skiddaw, you would not from its whole ridge
See a man who so loves you as your fond S.T. COLERIDGE.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Moore, Moore, Moore

Just checking: are we talking Marianne tomorrow, after Diana's class? And if so, who else? Just want to know if I should do any prep (even just mentally).

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Remembering the Thirties

By Donald Davie:


Hearing one saga, we enact the next.
We please our elders when we sit enthralled;
But then they're puzzled; and at least they've vexed
To have their youth so avidly recalled.

It dawns upon the veterans after all
That what for them were agonies, for us
Are high-brow thrillers, though historical;
And all their feats quite strictly fabulous.

This novel written fifteen years ago,
Set in my boyhood and my boyhood home,
These poems about "abandoned workings," show
Worlds more remote than Ithaca or Rome.

The Anschluss, Guernica — all the names
At which those poets thrilled or were afraid
For me mean schools and schoolmasters and games;
And in the process some-one is betrayed.

Ourselves perhaps. The Devil for a joke
Might carve his own initials on our desk,
And yet we'd miss the point because he spoke
An idiom too dated, Audenesque.

Ralegh's Guiana also killed his son.
A pretty pickle if we came to see
The tallest story really packed a gun,
The Telemachiad an Odyssey.


Even to them the tales were not so true
As not to be ridiculous as well;
The ironmaster met his Waterloo,
But Rider Haggard rode along the fell.

"Leave for Cape Wrath tonight!" They lounged away
On Fleming's trek or Isherwood's ascent.
England expected every man that day
To show his motives were ambivalent.

They played the fool, not to appear as fools
In time's long glass. A deprecating air
Disarmed, they thought, the jeers of later schools;
Yet irony itself is doctrinaire,

And curiously, nothing now betrays
Their type to time's derision like this coy
Insistence on the quizzical, their craze
For showing Hector was a mother's boy.

A neutral tone is nowadays preferred.
And yet it may be better, if we must,
To praise a stance impressive and absurd
Than not to see the hero for the dust.

For courage is the vegetable king,
The sprig of all ontologies, the weed
That beards the slag-heap with his hectoring,
Whose green adventure is to run to seed.


Saturday, September 15, 2007


"With every deep breath Herf breathed in rumble and grind and painted phrases until he began to swell, felt himself stumbling big and vague, staggering like a pillar of smoke above the April streets, looking into the windows of machineshops, buttonfactories, tenementhouses, felt of the grime of bedlinen and the smooth whir of lathes, wrote cusswords on typewriters between the stenographer's fingers, mixed up the pricetags in departmentstores. Inside he fizzled like sodawater into sweet April syrups, strawberry, sarsaparilla, chocolate, cherry, vanilla dripping foam through the mild gasolineblue air. He dropped sickeningly fourtyfour stories, crashed. And suppose I bought a gun and killed Ellie, would I meet the demands of April sitting in the deathhouse writing a poem about my mother to be published in the Evening Graphic?

He shrank until he was of the smallness of dust, picking his way over crags and bowlders in the roaring gutter, climbing straws, skirting motoroil lakes."

So Manhattan Transfer is officially the best novel in the world. I was telling Greg yesterday that it's better than Gatsby, better than Hemmingway's best (well...maybe not the short stories...but definitely better than Sun). Might even give Faulkner a run for his money.

It came out in 1925 and certainly defines that era better than Gatsby or Hemmingway. It is the first novel I've read that is able to create the modern city while getting out from under the thumb of Ulysses. While some of the techniques are the same (the use of headlines, jumping between consciousness of characters), it comes off as being such a different novel. For one thing, it's more filmic than Joyce's writing. Apparently, Eisenstein was one of Dos Passos' influences, but what he does is not quite montage in the Eisensteinian sense. At the beginning of each chapter, he does have an extraneous paragraph describing a scene of city life, but it's not quite unconnected enough to be true montage. This is the beauty of the writing--it all works together in brushstrokes, almost to make this larger unseemly whole. Kinda like a Chuck Close painting. But it also manages to move forward, with a thumping plot-rises constantly.

The novel exists in constant motion that is never not exhilirating. There are about 150 characters, probably. But it works. It jumps from the announcement of New York as the "World's second metropolis" in the papers to a post WWI New York seamlessly. Dos Passos is responding to Dreiser and the realists/naturalists AND the avant-gardists and making this new breathing thing. And it's a pretty seedy novel as well. I haven't read an American novel that deals with prostitution or abortion so bluntly from this early in the 20th century.

The compound words work to visually create the motion and the grafting that the city he is describing is composed of. You know how people say that the city of a novel becomes a character? (which is so cliche, I HATE that saying...of course it's a character.) Anyway, Dos Passos is reimagining the idea of character in this novel. There are too many people in the novel for them to be characters, so how does one describe the actors in the book? Words and accents and style and jump cuts all get in the way, leaving character a very ambiguous idea.

Another interesting bit is that Dos Passos is SO ambitious in this novel...narrating every type of voice, from destitute immigrants to capitalists to architects and dancehall ladies to bootleggers. BUT, he stays clear away from Harlem and there are no black characters. There are Jewish, Italian, English, French characters with matching dialect. But there is no black dialect at all. Black characters exist amongst the melay, and get descriptions like this: "The elevatorman's face is round ebony with ivory inlay"--and that's the extent of it. The closest the novel gets to a black character is Congo Jake who looks black, but is really Italian. So for all this motion and movement, no Harlem nor Renaissance. Which is FASCINATING because Home to Harlem was such a big seller only a few years earlier as well as Van Vechten's novel. So Dos Passos had to be aware and had to have made a conscious decision to extract a certain type of black urbanity from the novel. A response to Pound and Eliot with this omission? A nod to James Weldon Johnson? i dunno.

Anyways, point being, if I teach 20th century American fiction, this book will definitely be on that list.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Takes one to know one

Philip Larkin on Thomas Hardy and the codger question:

"Without doubt Hardy, like others of his century, was forever on the look-out for some sign that humanity was improving, and his failure to perceive one produced many occasional bitter utterances ('After two thousand years of mass / We've got as far as poison gas'), and it is curious to note that both he and Shaw see time as a necessary ingredient of man's spiritual and moral advance. Shaw's view is that we must live longer: Hardy's is rather that we must get old quicker or, like the little boy 'Father Time,' be born old. Both, in their different ways, are asking man to grow up." (Required Writing, 171-172)

Thursday, September 13, 2007

C'mere, you

I have a tremendous critical crush on Lionel Trilling. It's the dangerous kind of crush, one where you're not quite sure you really ought to like the other person, or whether your friends would approve: a certain sense of "What am I getting myself into here?" attends my reading, especially of his more sweeping and impressive moments. After all, Trilling in many ways represents what the radical energies of the 60s and 70s swept away, not without some very good reasons; and his general theoretical bent, though emerging out of Trotskyism and addressing itself to fellow liberal intellectuals of the 1940s, is usually seen as a harbinger of neoconservatism (the most substantial recent article I could find on him is from the Weekly Standard, which gives you some idea).

But as Trilling points out in his preface, "a criticism which has its heart the interests of liberalism might find its most useful work not in conforming liberalism in its general sense of rightness but rather in putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time" (x). And putting ideas under pressure is what Trilling does brilliantly. I read just four essays (five including the preface) from his 1950 book The Liberal Imagination — I borrowed my dad's copy; it's apparently, Yaron informs me, out of print — but they were real doozies: "Reality and America," "The Function of the Little Magazine," "The Sense of the Past" and "The Kinsey Report." Each of them is amazing and challenging in its own way, devoting itself to very specific contemporary issues while nonetheless making up part of an expansive, deeply felt and cogently defended view of literature. (Adrienne, you might want to check out the first one; it has some really interesting insights about the realist novel and the liberal preference for Theodore Dreiser over Henry James. And he also has pieces, in the same book, on Sherwood Anderson, Huckleberry Finn, and "Manners, Morals, and the Novel.")

Anyway, all of the essays have a lot to recommend them, not least for their usefulness in summing up late 40s critical and political attitudes (often in the process of critiquing them). "The Sense of the Past," for instance, is an ambivalent meditation on the New Criticism and its methods, which Trilling argues have to be tempered with an awareness of literary works as "historical facts" — pretty much the deconstruction/new historicism debate of the 1980s in embryo. The one on the Kinsey Report, on the other hand, is the most unsettling, in part because Trilling violently resists the report's attempt to destigmatize homosexuality, a stance he takes in part because of his own strong allegiance to Freudianism. This is where you begin to see the pernicious side of Trilling's neoconservative leanings; though one wonders if Trilling were alive today, when homosexuality as a social fact seems so much more evident and has been so much more cogently argued for, if he wouldn't temper his objections so much. Maybe that's wishful thinking. At any rate, its early considerations of the role science can and should play in social discourse are fascinating and valuable.

Anyway, I'm just going to end with a list of quotes I liked. And I'm going to let out a little sigh as I finish typing each of them.

from the preface:

"in the modern situation it is just when a movement despairs of having ideas that it turns to force, which it masks in ideology" (x)

"Charles Péguy said, 'Tout commence en mystique en finit en politique' — everything begins in sentiment and assumption and finds it issue in political action and institutions. The converse is also true: just as sentiments become ideas, ideas eventually establish themselves as sentiments." (xi)

"the literature of the modern period, of the last century and a half, has been characteristically political" (xii) [interestingly contra Edmund Wilson]

"The paradox is that liberalism is concerned with the emotions above all else, as proof of which the word happiness stands at the very center of its thought, but in its effort to establish the emotions, or certain among them, in some sort of freedom, liberalism somehow tends to deny them their full possibility." (xii-xiii)

"literature is that human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty" (xv)

from "Reality and America":

"the culture of a nation is not truly figured in the image of the current. A culture is not a flow, nor even a confluence; the form of its existence is struggle, or at least debate — it is nothing if not dialectic. And in any culture there are likely to be certain artists who contain a large part of the dialectic within themselves …" (9)

"In the American metaphysic, reality is always material reality, hard, resistant, unformed, impenetrable, and unpleasant. And that mind is alone felt to be truly trustworthy which most resembles this reality by most nearly reproducing the sensations it affords." (13)
[Greg, I think this might be usefully applied to Pound and the Objectivists — what do you think?]

"We live, understandably enough, with the sense of urgency; our clock, like Baudelaire's, has had the hands removed and bears the legend, 'It is later than you think.' But with us it is always a little too late for mind, yet never too late for honest stupidity; always a little too late for understanding, never too late for righteous, bewildered wrath; always too late for thought, never too late for naïve moralizing. We seem to like to condemn our finest but not our worst qualities by pitting them against the exigencies of time." (18)

from "The Function of the Little Magazine":

"… [in the nineteenth century] it was the natural expectation that a serious idea would be heard and considered. Baudelaire is the poet from whom our modern disowned poets have taken their characteristic attitudes, yet Baudelaire himself was still able to think of 'success,' to believe in the possibility of being seriously listened to by the very society he flouted, and he even carried his belief to the point of standing for election to the Academy" (96)

"the emotional space of the human mind is large but not infinite, and perhaps it will be pre-empted by the substitutes for literature — the radio, the movies, and certain magazines — which are antagonistic to literature not merely because they are competing genres but because of the political and cultural assumptions that control them. Further, the politics with which we are now [1946] being confronted may be of such kind as to crush the possibility of that interplay between free will and circumstance on which all literature depends. These conditions can scarcely encourage us. On the other hand, they must not be allowed to obsess us so that we cannot work" (96-97)

"It is a striking fact about [the] literature of contemporary liberalism that it is commercially very successful — at the behest of the liberal middle class, that old vice of 'commercialism,' which we all used to scold, is now at a disadvantage before the 'integrity' which it once used to corrupt. Our dominant literature is profitable in the degree that it is earnest, sincere, solemn. At its best it has the charm of a literature of piety. It has neither imagination nor mind." (98)
[Adrienne, you mentioned you guys were talking about WCW's "earnestness" the other day — does this quote have any resonances for that discussion?]

[on the apoliticality of the great Modernists]: "If tolerance is in question, I am inclined rather to suppose that it should go to those writers from whom, whatever their difficulty, we hear the unmistakable note of seriousness — a note which, when we hear it, should suggest to us that those who sound it are not devoting their lives to committing literary suicide." (99)

"to organize a new union between our political ideas and our imagination — in all our cultural purview there is no work more necessary … There are manifest dangers in doing this, but greater dangers in not doing it. Unless we insist that politics is imagination and mind, we will learn that imagination and mind are politics, and of a kind that we will not like." (100)
[could be a gloss on Auden]

"We are dealing again with power. The question of power has not always preoccupied literature … Quality is the first, and perhaps should be the only, consideration. But in our situation today, when we think of quality, we must ask what chance a particular quality has to survive, and how it can be a force to act in its own defense and in the defense of those social circumstances which will permit it to establish and propagate itself in the world. This is not a desirable state of affairs. 'Art is a weapon' and 'ideas are weapons' were phrases that a few years ago had a wide and happy currency; and sometimes, as we look at the necessities of our life, we have the sense that the weapon metaphor all too ruthlessly advances — food is now a weapon, sleep and love will soon be weapons, and our final slogan perhaps will be, 'Life is a weapon.' And yet the question of power is forced upon us." (101)
[and this almost demands to be read vis-à-vis Marianne Moore and her constant concern with metaphorical "weapons" — maybe we can talk about this a little on Tuesday?]

"The word coterie should not frighten us too much. Neither should it charm us too much; writing for a small group does not ensure integrity any more than writing for the many; the coterie can corrupt as surely, and sometimes as quickly, as the big advertisement appropriation. But the smallness of the coterie does not limit the 'human' quality of the work." (102)

"When we try to estimate the power of literature, we must not be misled by the fancy pictures of history. Now and then periods do occur when the best literature overflows its usual narrow bounds and reaches a large mass of the people … It is what we must always hope and work for. But in actual fact the occasions are rare when the best literature becomes, as it were, the folk literature, and generally speaking literature has always been carried on within small limits and under great difficulties … But whenever it becomes a question of measuring the power of literature, Shelley's old comment recurs, and 'it exceeds all imagination to conceive what would have been the moral condition of the world' if literature did not continue in existence with its appeal to limited groups, keeping the road open." (103)
[this is problematic, probably, but so so beautiful]

from "The Sense of the Past":

"All sorts of studies are properly ancillary to the study of literature. For example, the study of the intellectual conditions in which a work of literature was made is not only legitimate but sometimes even necessary to the perception of its power. Yet when Professor Lovejoy in his influential book, The Great Chain of Being, tells us that for the study of the history of ideas a really dead writer is better than one whose works are still enjoyed, we naturally pull up short and wonder if we are not in danger of becoming like the Edinburgh body-snatchers who saw to it that there were enough cadavers for study in the medical school." (182)

"in an age of science prestige is to be gained by approximating the methods of science" (182)

"The faults of [the New Critics] we know. Perhaps their chief fault they share with the scientific-historical scholars themselves — they try too hard. No less than the scholars, the critics fall into the error that [John Jay] Chapman denounced, the great modern illusion 'that anything whatever … can be discovered through hard intellectual work and concentration.' We often feel of them that they make the elucidation of poetic ambiguity or irony a kind of intellectual calisthenic ritual [a little smack at Empson, I think]. Still, we can forgive them their strenuousness, remembering that something has happened to our relation with language which seems to require that we make methodical and explicit what was once immediate and unformulated." (184)

"even in the lyric poem the factor of historicity is part of the aesthetic experience; it is not merely a negative condition of the other elements, such as prosody and diction, which, if they are old enough, are likely to be insufficiently understood — it is itself a positive aesthetic factor with positive and pleasurable relations to the other aesthetic factors. It is part of the given of the work, which we cannot help but respond to. The New Critics imply that this situation should not exist, but it cannot help existing, and we have to take it into account." (185)

"The question is always arising: What is the real poem? Is it the poem we now perceive? Is it the poem the author consciously intended? Is it the poem the author intended and his first readers read? Well, it is all these things, depending on the state of our knowledge. But in addition the poem is the poem as it has existed in history … This makes it a thing we can never wholly understand — other things too, of course, help to make it that — and the mystery, the unreachable part of the poem, is one of its aesthet

"we have … to open our minds to the whole question of what we mean when we speak of causation in culture … 'There is no subject,' [Hume] says, 'in which we must proceed with more caution than in tracing the history of the arts or sciences: lest we assign causes which never existed and reduce what is merely contingent to stable and universal principles.' … But there is one fact, he continues, which gives us the license to speculate — this is the fact that the choice spirits arise from and are related to the mass of the people of their time … This gives us our charter to engage in cultural history and cultural criticism, but we must see that it is a charter to deal with a mystery." (188)

"We have come to believe that some ideas can betray us, others save us. The educated classes are learning to blame ideas for their troubles, rather than blaming what is a very different thing — our own bad thinking. This is the great vice of academicism, that it is concerned with ideas rather than thinking, and nowadays the errors of academicism do not stay in the academy; they make their way into the world, and what begins as a failure of perception among intellectual specialists finds its fulfillment in policy and action." (192)

I could go on and on (I haven't even gotten to the Kinsey essay yet), but if you've cared to read this far you should probably just buy the book. I'll close, though, with a sentence which might serve as Trilling's manifesto, though he attributes its idea not to himself but to Nietzsche: that "culture [should] be studied and judged as life's continuous evaluation of itself, the evaluation being understood as never finding full expression in the 'operating forces' of a culture, but as never finding expression at all without reference to these gross, institutional facts" (197). From my perspective, this is as close as we can get — as close as we need to get, maybe I should say — to a justification of what we should be trying to do.


How's this for an opening:

"Three gulls wheel above the broken boxes, orangerinds, spoiled cabbage heads that heave between the splintered plank walls, the green waves spume under the round bow as the ferry, skidding on the tide, crashes, gulps the broken water, slides, settles slowly into the slip. Handwinches whirl with jingle of chains. Gates fold upwards, feet step out across the crack, men and women press through the manuresmelling wooden tunnel of the ferryhouse, crushed and jostling like apples fed down a chute into a press."

-Opening lines of Dos Passos' Manhattan Transfer (1925)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

I believe the love of bears may be taught not to seem like God

"There was not a great deal of pleasant juvenile literature in the 1830s. Inevitably, one of the works that figured in Emily's experience was Isaac Watts's eighteenth-century Divine and Moral Songs for Children. Song number 18, "Against Scoffing and Calling Names," was a versification of II Kings 2:23-24, where forty-two bad children mock the prophet Elisha and receive their just recompense from two she-bears:

When children, in their wanton play,
Serv'd old Elisha so;
And bid the prophet go his way,
'Go up, thou bald-head, go.'

God quickly stopp'd their wicked breath,
And sent two raging bears,
That tore them limb from limb to death,
With blood, and groans, and tears.

The girl may have learned the song at her church's Sabbath School, which met between morning and afternoon services and was in flourishing condition in the early 1830s. Decades later, when cousins Louisa and Frances Norcross joined a rather more liberal religious study group, Dickinson recalled the ursine mayhem as epitomizing her childhood's harsh faith: 'I believe the love of God may be taught not to seem like bears.'"
- from My Wars are Laid Away in Books

The big one-two-five

If either of you Williamsites wants to think about swinging by this, I could be convinced.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Erving Goffman, the 50s and Literature

Sociology: what is it good for? For students of literature, that is. I'm pondering this question as generals loom. Still on my list, yet to be cracked, are Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction and Jurgen Habermas' The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere — both works that have already influenced my thinking via my hazy preconceptions of what they are likely to say, but which I must admit I'm scared to actually confront. And even more scared to have to talk about in front of a committee who might actually know something about them.

One sociology book I have managed to read, however, as previously mentioned, is Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. I have some ideas about how I might eventually be able to work this into a developing thesis idea about the social self-presentation of poets and the genealogy that stretches from Eliot to Auden to Ashbery, but I will leave those aside for another day. In the meantime, I'll just give a sketch of some first impressions of Goffman, in the hope that they might lead to something more fruitful later.

I was turned on to Goffman originally by Jeff Nunokawa, who used a little bit of I think Frame Analysis in his Victorian novel seminar as a conceptual framework to talk about "awayness" and the evasion of the social totality (Jeff, in his own personal conceptual system, plays Goffman off against Foucault). He is (still?) highly regarded as a sociologist who facilitated a paradigm shift within the discipline from the macro- to the micro- level, i.e. studying not broad social trends or "laws" but actual human behavior as collected by experts in the field operating similarly to anthropologists.

Anyway, The Presentation of Self is a weird, crafty, idiosyncratic little book that is equal parts empirical survey, philosophical treatise, etiquette guide and public relations manual. Its basic subject is "the art of impression management": how people strive to make other people feel a certain way about them, or to limit or control the information others have about them. (This theme gets its best literary expression, to my knowledge anyway, in the works of David Foster Wallace.) To this end, Goffman uses "some language of the stage," speaking of performances, backstage areas, rehearsals and improvisations, etc., only to retract this conceit on the second-to-last page in a headspinning rhetorical move: "The claim that all the world's a stage is sufficiently commonplace for readers to be familiar with its limitations and tolerant of its presentation" (254) — that is, this very claim, on which the whole book has been based, was itself an impression-management strategy. It made me slap my forehead when I read it.

Though Goffman focuses on real-time interactions and thus is naturally led to use theatrical terminology, the manipulations he describes could just as well be those of a novelist, or a poet, both of whom also work by carefully controlling the amount of information, both literary and extra-literary, given to the audience of their work. In fact, one thing that distinguishes Goffman from sociologists past (Weber, Durkheim) and future (Bourdieu) is his conscious literariness. Not only is his own prose style economical and attractive, clearly learned from reading short stories and New Yorker profiles, but he often takes his clinching examples from literary sources: some of the authors he quotes from at length include Kenneth Burke (25, 175, 194), Henry Mayhew (41), Kafka (96), Warren Miller (97), Evelyn Waugh (101), Orwell (122), Melville (137), Gore Vidal (193) and Mary McCarthy (219) (as well as stuff like Character, Manner and Customs in the People of India and Ebony magazine). And it must be admitted that he sometimes comes off like a frustrated novelist himself ("So, too, members of the team must not exploit their presence in the front region in order to stage their own show, as do, for example, marriageable stenographers who sometimes encumber their office surroundings with a lush undergrowth of high fashion," 214). There's a lot of that sort of thing, sometimes a little too much: a number of Goffman's categories seem like opportunities for examples rather than helpful distinctions in their own right.
Goffman is also, noticeably, a creature of the 50s, receptive to the literary and intellectual influences of that time. One of the more interesting features of Goffman's book are its periodic mentions of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Sartre's Being and Nothingness supplies a description of a waiter in a café who "is playing at being a waiter in a café": "The child plays with his body in order to explore it, to take inventory of it; the waiter in the café plays with his condition in order to realize it" (76). De Beauvoir's The Second Sex is quoted a few times to describe the attitude of women (problematically labelled "woman," a usage not followed by Goffman) to their performances in the presence of men: "Confronting man woman is always play-acting; she lies when she makes believe that she accepts her status as the inessential other … With other women, a woman is behind the scenes; she is polishing her equipment, but not in battle; she is getting her costume together, preparing her make-up, laying out her tactics…" (113).

On the one hand, Goffman's quotations from Sartre and De Beauvoir clearly have something to do with the widespread popularity of Existentialism in America in the 50s; this vogue both explains why the quotes impressed Goffman and why he feels they will bolster his argument with a "lay" "literary" reader. But in another sense Sartre seems an odd choice of hero, given that Goffman (a) doesn't seem to be much interested in metaphysics, or abstract thinking of any kind, and (b) avoids any explicit discussion of politics. And yet Sartre and De Beauvoir were also associated with and influenced by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, author of The Structure of Behavior and The Phenomenology of Perception — both Goffman-ish titles. And while I don't know squat about phenomenology — just that it was also being enthusiastically received in the art critical world at about this time, by Michael Fried for instance, and that it made my eyes glaze over in college — it's clearly this aspect of Existentialism, and not so much its concern with "being" or "commitment," that interested Goffman.

Well, how about this. A vogue for phenomenology suits a sudden awareness of an explosion of phenomena: and that's what the affluence of the American postwar economy, with all its attendant cultural renaissances, produced. And there was apparently also an explosion of sociological research conducted and published in the 1950s (much of it, I think, under Goffman's supervision). Reading The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life you get the feeling that we have so much more data on 1950s America than we do on any previous society. While Goffman occasionally dips back into earlier eras (often Victorian or eighteenth-century England) for his examples, he rarely "historicizes" in the sense of accounting for changes in values or social agreements from one period to another. I would have to think that this close focus on the current day was fairly radical for the field of sociology, which, in its development out of Hegelian philosophy and traditional social history, would have been interested in nothing so much as epochal change. My question is, how much of Goffman's contentment with "now" was tied to a general sense in the America of the 50s that, after centuries of talking around the subject, everyday life itself was finally being discovered, a notion that is connected both to the public events of the time — the Kinsey Report comes up in passim — and the gradual permeation of such intellectual events as Freudianism and phenomenology into American life? It's a notion, at any rate, that prepares the way for Confessionalism, and for the Beat poets.

A final question. Can Goffman meaningfully be called a Modernist, or even placed in respect to the intellectual influence of Modernism? This is tricky. His literary sources (with a few interesting exceptions, like Kafka) are straight-ahead novelistic realism, because that's where the source of the best information lies. He shows little concern with language, and much with physicality and expression, making his work hard to subsume under the heading of "the linguistic turn" that is often seen to be Modernism's theoretical counterpart. (On the other hand, it suggests points of contact with the later Wittgenstein.) In his concern with "everyday life" rather than "culture," with the facts of contemporary social life rather than what it evolved out of or might be tending toward, he is not at all in the semi-metaphysical tradition of Eliot, Leavis and Raymond Williams. But clearly he's in no way a throwback to 19th century intellectual traditions either: he engages with Freud, with Simmel and Durkheim, with literature. He recognizes modernity has taken place, but he prefers to anatomize and catalogue it than to situate it in a larger historical or theoretical framework. For this reason the Modernist he most resembles is probably Joyce, the Balzacian Joyce who bragged about Ulysses being a blueprint from which turn-of-the-century Dublin could be reconstructed.
Or maybe Beckett: "Performers are aware they foster and ordinarily also possess destructive information about the show," Goffman states on page 144. Waiting for Godot had its American premiere in 1956, Endgame in 1957; a dedicated follower of Existentialism would presumably have been aware of them. This last point raises the question of what I'll risk calling the postmodernity of Goffman's approach, and it's closely connected with one of my biggest problems with his book in general. It seems to me that Goffman's concept of "destructive information" (first used on page 141) is seriously flawed. Putting my objection in short, analytically unrigorous form: just how sensitive are we, anyway? Goffman sometimes talks as though the merest breeze that happens along could destroy the delicate ecosystems of human interaction that he so minutely anatomizes. Social relations are more adaptable and impervious than that, as the early work of Stanley Cavell (in my view a direct inheritor of Goffman: but more on that trajectory another day) shows quite extensively. Goffman, for one thing, is so eagle-eyed himself that he fails to account for the fact of repression, or willful not-noticing, that the more Freudian Cavell so doggedly attends to in essays like "Knowing and Acknowledging." But this emphasis on the ever-present possibility of destruction, far from being a mere weakness on Goffman's part, may point to something bigger, a distinctively postwar epistemic framework that extends inexorably to where we are now: that is, we are getting used to being disillusioned — perhaps Adorno would say "disenchanted" — consistently, and in every aspect of our cultural life. (This is a condition perhaps also anticipated by Wittgenstein, whose Philosophical Investigations was made available and became influential only after the Second World War.)

Hypothesis: in the postmodern period, disillusionment itself becomes the frame in which cultural activity — and not just, but especially, literary activity — is automatically viewed.

Corollary: it's time for a nap.