Tuesday, October 28, 2014

P.B. Shelley Understands

Fame-addled rogue and liar Edward John Trelawny was by no means a reliable source of information on the Romantic poets on whom he inflicted himself, but there is at least one scene in his Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron that I will myself to believe is true, because I wish so very much to think of Shelley as, in at least one respect, a kindred spirit.  Here is Trelawny's sketch of Shelley in Italy where he and Mary were visiting an English couple by the name of Williams:
… Shelley stood before us with a most woeful expression. Mrs. Williams started up, exclaiming, “What 's the matter, Percy ?”
“Mary has threatened me.”
“Threatened you with what?”
He looked mysterious and too agitated to reply. Mrs. Williams repeated, “With what? To box your ears?”
“Oh, much worse than that; Mary says she will have a party; there are English singers here, the Sinclairs, and she will ask them, and everyone she or you know — oh, the horror!”
We all burst into a laugh except his friend Ned.
“It will kill me.”
“Music, kill you!” said Mrs. Williams. “Why, you have told me, you flatterer, that you loved music.”
“So I do. It's the company terrifies me. For pity go to Mary and intercede for me; I will submit to any other species of torture than that of being bored to death by idle ladies and gentlemen.”
Like all good Romantics, he had no desire to live in a Jane Austen novel.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Richard Strauss and the March into Modernism

The composer Richard Strauss is often seen as a bridge figure, someone whose career takes us from the world of nineteenth century bourgeois culture to the difficult, dissonant world of modernism. Alex Ross, for example, begins his study of classical music in the twentieth century, The Rest is Noise, with an examination of Strauss' opera Salome, which combined crowd-pleasing showmanship with bold dissonance and even the abandonment of music, classically conceived, for something more properly described as noise.  The middle class audience lapped it up, but it also impressed the young Arnold Schoenberg, who attended an early performance and walked away with his head abuzz with new ideas.  I have an abiding affection for Strauss' Salome: it was the first opera I attended of my own free will, as neither the captive of a school field trip nor the grumbling child dragged along by my mother.  I still remember the lavish art nouveau sets, and the giant figure of Jochanaan, surrounded by the bickering theologians, repeating simply "He is nigh." In fact, the latter has become a kind of a touchstone for me, presenting as it does a powerful critique of academics—that is: of me and my kind.

For me, though, the real moment when Strauss points the way to modernism doesn't come in Salome, but in his first opera, Guntram, which premiered more than a decade earlier, in 1894. In a way, it gives away the main plot of the story of modernism even while the protagonists to that history are in their childhoods, or not yet born. When he began writing the libretto, Strauss wanted to tell the story of the young knight Guntram, who belongs to an order dedicated to the idea of the brotherhood of all mankind (and who think of song as a tool for the creation of this brotherhood). Guntram falls in love with a noble lady, though, and accidentally kills her dictatorial, oppressive husband. Even though the husband was a terrible person, Guntram sees that he has violated the laws of his order, and announces he will be penitent and make a holy pilgrimage to cleanse his soul. That, anyway, was the first draft. But it's not the libretto Strauss ended up writing. Instead, Strauss decides to have his hero renounce his order, his religion, and everything else, and to stalk off alone.

The change mattered.  Strauss' colleague Alexander Ritter saw it as immoral and as heresy against the Great God Wagner, who would never allow a hero to disown his community.  As Ross puts it, "Strauss did not repent. Guntram's order, he told Ritter in reply, had unwisely sought to launch an ethical crusade through art, to unify religion and art."  This is the interesting bit, from the perspective of modernism.  Wagner—an enormous influence on Strauss, (Strauss' father had played French horn under Wagner's direction)—was committed to art as a form of morality, as an articulation of the values of a community.  But in the final libretto of Strauss' Guntram, we have a hero who departs with just song, and no notions of committing that song to the cause of the community, or of accommodating his music to the values of the polity.

This is important stuff: it signals the separation of the individual from the values of the broad public, but it does more than that.  The separation of the individual from the community had, after all, been a major theme of early nineteenth century Romanticism: it's a huge theme in poetry and in music, although in both genres there tends to be a desire to reintegrate the alienated individual with society. Consider Coleridge's ambivalence about his pantheism, and his desire to return to the Christian community in "The Eolian Harp," or the sailor's yearning to return to community in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Or consider the "Ode to Joy" in Beethoven's ninth symphony, where all that brooding and melancholy is finally banished in the glorious collective voice of the choir preaching the brotherhood of all. Even Byron, in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, sees his glamorous exile as wandering endlessly because he was incapable of holding a place in (desirable) community due to his own dark and uncontrollable passions.  These are all individuals with an uncomfortable or ruptured relation to community, but they all have some form of yearning to reintegrate themselves into community and, more importantly, none of them are exiles specifically because they want to separate art from anything other than itself. That is: they are alienated from society, but they are not alienated because they are aesthetes. 

The great mid-nineteenth century artists are often bourgeois in outlook, hoping to put art to the service of some larger and more popular cause: Tennyson's Arthurian myths and Wagner's Teutonic ones are cases in point.  When Strauss decides to disentangle art as art from art as a part of some larger, more moralistic enterprise, he's allying himself with people like Walter Pater and the aesthetes, and starting to partake of the modern culture of specialization, of discrete fields of activity operating autonomously. Art is one of these fields, and we start to see figures like James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, figures devoted to form, to experiment, and to art first and foremost as art, not as the vehicle for the expression of community values. We begin to see figures like Gertrude Stein come into focus, with language used as language and not as the medium for anything so communal as a collective mythology or ideology.  We can even glimpse, in the distance, someone like Mark Rothko, making paintings that leave subject matter behind to consider color as color, in relation to color.

When Strauss' Guntram abandons his order at the end of the opera, he marches not just offstage, but into modernism.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Great Lakes Poetry Prize!

Did I mention I'll be the final judge for the Great Lakes Poetry Prize?  The winner receives $500, and there are prizes for runners up.  All entries are considered for publication in the Great Lakes Review.

The details and the submission form are available here.  The deadline for submissions is December 31.

Monday, October 13, 2014

W.H. Auden Camps Up Fascism: Notes on "The Orators"

"Springtime for Hitler," from The Producers

Hooray!  After much delay, it looks like the new issue of The Battersea Review will soon be unleashed upon the world, to stalk and hoot among the waiting literati (i.e., you).  As a preview of things to come, they've posted an essay of mine called "Camping the Fascists: W.H. Auden's The Orators," in which I describe Auden's camp sensibility, and how it infuses his early poetry.  Camp's a tricky thing to define, but essential to grasping what Auden's doing in much of his work.

Here's how the essay begins:

I described him [Auden] seeing his friends one by one in his rooms at hours he had fixed and interviewing, cross-examining them, laying down the law about the poets of whom he approved, the way poetry should be written, the personality of the poet, being very dogmatic about everything. I did insist that he was not a 'leader' or authoritarian and that he brought a touch of absurdity to his pronouncements which made them seem jokes. He did not wish to be taken altogether seriously. But this would mean nothing to a member of the audience without a sense of humor. In fact to the American who thinks that when one is serious one should be serious, and when funny, un-serious, this would make Auden seem even more unsympathetic. (Spender, Journals 335)
W.H. Auden is many things—political poet, aesthete, Christian, Stakhanovite manufacturer of critical prose, English pariah, New York literary lion—but at the very core, his sensibility is always camp. Camp, in the sense I intend it, is a kind of playful and aestheticizing attitude. Christopher Isherwood, the first to use it in this sense, puts a good description of it into the mouth of a character in his novel The World in the Evening:
High camp always has an underlying seriousness. You can't camp about something you don't take seriously. You're not making fun of it; you're making fun out of it. You're expressing what's basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance. (110)
Camp, seen this way, is a cousin of aesthetic autonomy, since it elevates play and beauty over utility and morality—an elevation well understood by Susan Sontag in her seminal “Notes on Camp” where she writes:
1. To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.

2. To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content. It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical. (277)
And later:
38. Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content, ’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality’…

56. Camp taste is a kind of love… Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. (287, 291-292).
tbr4-archambeau-cover-of-the-orators-first-editionCamp is a quality that informs the work of W.H. Auden throughout his career, most powerfully in his early poetry, and in a complex, fraught way in his more overtly political poetry of the middle and later 1930s (as one might expect, given the depoliticizing tendency of camp). It remains a vital force in Auden’s American period, too: in 1948, for example, he writes “what makes it difficult for a poet not to tell lies is that, in poetry, all facts and beliefs cease to be true or false and become interesting possibilities” the poet need not believe in the idea, but “it is certainly necessary that his emotions be deeply involved, and this they can never be unless, as a man, he takes it more seriously than as a mere poetic convenience” (Dyer’s Hand 19). Here Auden expresses both the distance and the affection that the camp sensibility has toward its material. Auden’s camp, it is important to add, is particularly intellectual: it is ideas that he camps. Indeed, for reasons that his youthful experiences make clear, Auden comes early on to love systems of thought—be they scientific, psychological, political, or even religious—from a camp perspective.
When Stephen Spender described Auden holding forth at Oxford in a slightly absurd, mock-authoritarian manner, he got at exactly the kind of camp exhibition of systems and dogmas that informs much of Auden's writing. Spender also touches on the possibility of the campiness being missed, and of Auden being taken as simply serious about what he says, rather than as embodying a much subtler and more complex attitude along the lines of what we read about in Isherwood's The World in the Evening. This was, quite often, exactly what happened, not only to the undergraduate opining extravagantly in his rooms, but to the poet whose works appeared, and were discussed, in slim volumes and little journals throughout the thirties. Indeed, it was the nature of many of those publications that contributed to the diminished understanding of Auden's camp. The political and economic crisis of the decade led not only to intense pressure on writers of all kinds to take ideological positions, but to the creation of a politicized, left-wing alternative to more mainstream publications, a kind of radical counter-public-sphere. The pressure of this context of publication upon Auden’s writings frequently led to an earnestness in reception, a truncation of the playful and the aesthetic, and to a specifically political hermeneutics. That a poem like Auden’s “A Communist to Others,” say, could be something quite different than an earnest address by a communist poet, and that the views expressed in the poem were not only those of a character, but in fact quite different from those of Karl Marx, were things too easily missed when the poem appeared in the Left Book Club anthology Poems of Freedom.
The whole essay is available here.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Chinese Democracy: A Report from Hong Kong's Occupy Central

This just in from my pal Lucas Klein, who is on the scene in Hong Kong where people are in the streets in vast numbers protesting for democracy. Reporting has been suppressed in China, but the word is getting out elsewhere.


I went to the Occupy Central demonstrations this afternoon. I had previously been annoyed and disappointed that the movement’s messaging and organizing had been so deficient in English and Mandarin, resulting in my never knowing where or when their actions had taken place (certainly it makes sense that the primary language of the events is Cantonese, but particularly when up against media representation in Mandarin that’s almost exclusively negative, having a comprehensive campaign that includes explaining to mainlanders what our goals are and how we’re actually on the same side as you becomes all the more important).

Finding the action was not difficult, but it wasn’t exactly straightforward, either. It’s called Occupy Central because it had been, in the days of Occupy Wall St., primarily in the Central district; it’s now moved to Connaught Road, a stretch of highway linking most government and administrative buildings along the northern coast of Hong Kong island. The occupation this afternoon stretched from roughly Statue Square to past the Academy for Performing Arts (red and blue on the map; a distance of a little over a kilometer, or three-quarters of a mile), but the first challenge was getting there: in part because so much traffic has been obstructed, and in part out of fear of traffic being obstructed, most of the bus lines had been rerouted or halted. I took a tram, which terminated a good three kilometers from where I wanted to go.

I could see no signs of any demonstration going on at first, but then I realized that Des Voeux Rd Central, one of the main thoroughfares of that part of Hongkong, was all but devoid of traffic—no cars, no buses, no trucks, no taxis… By the time I got to the primary intersection of Central (Des Voeux, Pedder, and Chater) I saw that two of the streets had been blocked off by police, but protesters were nowhere to be found. This continued as I walked past the former Legislative Council building and the HSBC headquarters, whose gates were lowered and locked—though I saw no one demonstrating yet, it was clear that the official establishment of Hongkong, the government and the financiers, were terrified. Only a few minutes later, though, I found the crowd.

Last night I saw the images of police launching teargas into crowds of demonstrators, but the tears that caught me were on seeing so many people—as thick a crowd as I’ve ever seen, as far as the eye could literally see. Mostly wearing black (in the sun, on a day that reached 34°C, or about 93°F), mostly in their twenties, and, I think I’m right about this, more young women than young men. There were a few people with megaphones making speeches, echoed by what seemed to be Zuccotti Park-style people’s microphones, and a few people with signs sponsored by official labor unions (the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions) or political parties, but mostly it was young men and women sitting in groups while others gave out free bread, bananas, water, wet towels, and cooling packs (the kind I stick on Quentin’s forehead when he has a fever). The atmosphere was lively, joyous, and generous.

Walking up to the protest, I saw a woman selling water bottles at 7 HKD each (a little under $1 USD); there seemed to be enough water being distributed for free at the demonstration, but I had expected price-gouging. The closest thing to negativity I saw at all was when I was part of a crowd pushing west on Gloucester Rd. toward Wan Chai to expand the area of occupation: where Gloucester met the off-ramp from Arsenal, some police vehicles led a few other cars past what I took to be their own blockade uphill; as the police drove past the demonstration, protesters booed at the cop cars (one police vehicle even found itself obstructed by particularly zealous occupiers. I do not believe the protesters would have had so much antipathy toward the police if it hadn’t been for the tear gas last night.

 I ran into two people I knew there, one former colleague of mine and another current student in the class I’m teaching this semester. Before the student strike, she had said she hadn’t made up her mind whether to boycott her classes the following week; a week later, she did in fact attend class; today, though, she was on the street—I take it that the police escalation last night contributed to her will, and she fortified her resolve, just as I imagine the resolve of many other demonstrators to have been fortified, as well. One thing she said to me, though, I almost wish she hadn’t: “Stay safe.” It’s something I’ve heard or read from any number of friends in Hongkong and around the world, and of course it’s generally good practice as well as something of a filler when you don’t know what else to say. It’s also a reminder that we’re dealing with a police force that has used brutality already, and that behind that police force is a national government that has called the military and their loaded and aimed weapons onto peaceful demonstrators in the not too distant past. And yet. “Stay safe” verges on blaming the victim: it puts the responsibility on us as politically active individuals acting collectively in solidarity to temper our demands and actions so that they don’t provoke violent retaliation. That, I think, is wrong. It’s the job of the police and the state that employs them to keep us safe, and when they fail at their job, we need to stop their vehicles and halt the economy that offers them legitimacy. And when that happens, well, I’ve rarely felt safer than I did today, walking as part of Occupy Central with Love and Peace. And in fact, a part of me is not sad to see that the police resorted to brutality so early and easily. Obviously I don’t want anyone to get hurt, especially people whose goals I support. But by engaging in violence the way they did, the police, and the structure of the state behind them, lost a lot of support in the court of public opinion. And that is a good thing.

This doesn’t mean necessarily that we will win and the PRC will agree to have not only universal suffrage in Hongkong but a nomination process in which it isn’t tipping the scales, but it does mean that I can envision such an outcome, because the state has shamed itself in its actions. Against that, a movement such as this one, defined by youth, by love and peace, by aspiration and inspiration, will always find a way to win.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Abject Sublime, or: Jean Genet's Vaseline

Like many people of my generation (I am, God help me, 46) I came to admire French theory in my grad school years.  One thing that puzzled me back in the early 1990s, when as a doctoral candidate in English lit I was happily chowing down on fricassée Foucault, bouillabaisse Baudrillard, and délice de Deleuze, was the relative lack of enthusiasm for these thinkers in American philosophy departments.  Outside of the New School and Columbia—where the legacy of European émigrés was strong—and the Catholic universities—where theology kept philosophy wedded to continental traditions—the thinkers my friends and I found so congenial were often treated with suspicion by American professors of philosophy.  Of course the question I should have been asking wasn't "why do the philosophy departments shun this stuff," but "why do we in English take to it so readily?"  It is not obvious, after all, why a love of the poetry of Seamus Heaney should lead to an appreciation of Luce Irigaray.  François Cusset traces the particulars of how the works of these thinkers traveled from France to the United States via various channels (notably French and comparative lit departments) in his wonderful study French Theory, but I think there's a core affinity between literary study and French theorists, something that lies behind the particulars of cultural transmission across the Atlantic.  In the French tradition, theorists tend to arrive at their ideas by extrapolating from works of literature.  That is, their concepts are, to a degree unmatched in Anglo-American philosophy, created from sorting through and regularizing the observations of poets, novelists, and playwrights: taking just the major works of Deleuze and Guattari as examples, we can point to their use of Artaud as the basis from which they elaborate the notion of the "body without organs" in Anti-Oedipus, and Karl Phillip Moritz as the basis of the idea of "animal-becoming" in 1,000 Plateaus.  They begin where we begin, with a passage of literature, even though they tend to head in different, perhaps more ambitious, directions.

It should come as no surprise, then, to find Julia Kristeva basing her notion of abjection on the writings of Céline.  In her classic book on the subject, Powers of Horror, Kristeva speaks of those who encounter the abject as feeling "a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable."  The abject thing—be it an object, an urge, a person, a class of people, a bodily function, what have you—is something we scapegoat, that we try to throw out as something we cannot accept and don't want to have any relationship with.  But we inevitably have a relation to the abjected, despite what we'd like to think—and when we make something abject we still sense it as something "quite close" even though "it cannot be assimilated." It "fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced." And our "desire turns aside; sickened."  Our conscious minds cling to the (false) certainty the this abject thing is shameful and has nothing to do with us, even as unconsciously we are drawn toward the abject, which is "as tempting as it is condemned." The abject "has only one quality of the object—that of being opposed to I"—that is, to the ego's sense of itself.  It is what we define as not-us, what we have subdued and expelled. "And yet," Kristeva continues, "from its place of banishment, the abject does not cease challenging its master."  So what does this mean, specifically?  I've seen enough people whose religious background has led them to reject and deny their own homosexuality to know that there are many people who turn their own sexual identity into something abject, and suffer a deep and unhealthy split between their conscious sense of who they are, their "I" or ego, and their rejected but ever-present sexuality—a version of the attraction-repulsion Kristeva describes.  Or, moving to an even grimmer example, we could think of what the Nazis did to Jews (and others) as an extreme form of abjection: a casting out of people, an assertion that there is no connection between them and us, and yet a fascination, an unconscious sense of kinship that needs constant denial, a lurking sense, constantly in need of being suppressed, that the dark qualities attributed by us to them might also belong to us.  The core chapter of Powers of Horror is an analysis of Céline's writings, in which Kristeva notes that Céline presents himself as "the only authentic one" who recognizes that which society abjects, and who will guide us through the underworld of abjection in his Journey to the End of Night.

If I were betting on who would be elected to the laureateship of abjection, though, I wouldn't back Céline.  I'd place my chips on the spot marked "Jean Genet," and I'll tell you why.  He understands abjection from the inside: born to a prostitute, raised in foster homes, prone to petty theft, and homosexual in a hostile time and place, he lived abjection, and not as a voluntary tourist in the realm of the abject.  What is more, he found something in abjection that Céline never found: a kind of sublimity.  He turned rejection into a sign of strength and even glory.  The best way to understand this is to take a look at a passage near the beginning of The Thief's Journal, where he writes about a tube of Vaseline.

Genet describes an early experience in Spain, where he'd been arrested.  The police have him empty his pockets, and it is revealed that he was carrying a tube of Vaseline, which the police correctly understood as a sexual lubricant, and a sign of Genet's homosexuality.

I was dismayed when, one evening, while searching me after a raid — I am speaking of a scene which preceded the one with which this book begins — the astonished detective took from my pocket, among other things, a tube of vaseline. We dared joke about it since it contained mentholated vaseline. The whole record-office, and I too at times, though painfully, writhed and laughed at the following:
            “You take it in the nose?”
            “Watch out you don’t catch cold. You wouldn’t want to give your guy whooping-cough.”
            I translate but lamely, in the language of a Paris hustler, the malicious irony of the vivid and venomous Spanish phrases. It concerns a tube of vaseline, one of whose ends was partially rolled up. Which amounts to saying that it had been put to use. Amidst the elegant objects taken from the pockets of the men who had been picked up in the raid, it was the very sign of abjection, of that which is concealed with the greatest of care, but yet the sign of a secret grace which was soon to save me from contempt. When I was locked up in a cell, and as soon as I had sufficiently regained my spirits to rise above the misfortune of my arrest, the image of the tube of vaseline never left me. The policemen had shown it to me victoriously, since they could thereby flourish their revenge, their hatred, their contempt.

The object itself is neutral, of course: it is what the police do when they discover it that renders Genet abject: they need to re-enforce their own sense of difference and superiority, their brotherhood in the confraternity of the norm, by using the object a as a focus for revenge, hatred, and contempt.  But watch the alchemy by which Genet redeems the despised object, and with it himself:

But lo and behold! this dirty, wretched object whose purpose seemed to the world — to that concentrated delegation of the world which is the police and, above all, that particular gathering of Spanish police, smelling of garlic, sweat and oil, but prosperous-looking, stout of muscle and strong in their moral assurance — utterly vile, became extremely precious to me. Unlike many objects to which my tenderness gives distinction, this one was not at all haloed; it lay on the table, a little grey leaden tube of vaseline, broken and livid, whose astonishing discreetness, and its essential correspondence with all the commonplace things in the record-office of a prison (the bench, the inkwell, the regulations, the scales, the odor), would, through the general indifference, have distressed me, had not the very content of the tube, perhaps because of its unctuous character, by bringing to mind an oil lamp, made me think of a night-light beside a coffin.

A night light beside a coffin!  Great!  And the description continues:

Lying on the table, it was a banner telling the invisible legions of my triumph over the police.  I was in a cell.  I knew that all night long my tube of vaseline would be exposed to the scorn—the contrary of a Perpetual Adoration—of a group of strong, handsome, husky, policemen.  So strong that if the weakest of them barely squeezed his fingers together, there would shoot forth, first with a slight fart, brief and dirty, a ribbon of gum which would continue to emerge in a ridiculous silence.  Nevertheless I was sure that this ridiculous and most humble object would hold its own against them…

There is a great deal one might say about this passage—including something about how the erotic way in which the police and the tube are depicted is a kind of revenge against aggressive heteronormativity.  But the thing that I'd like to note is the resemblance between the passage and Kant's description of sublimity in Critique of Judgment.

It's uncanny how well Genet's passage maps onto Kant's notion of sublimity.  For Kant, we get a sense of the sublime when we encounter something grand and vast, something that seems as though it could destroy us: a storm at sea, say, or a volcanic eruption, or a tornado near at hand towering above us into infinity.  We experience these as sublime not because we are afraid of them (although we are certainly fearful) but because of something they call up within us.  Such things, when we observe them and do not flee or faint, "raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height and discover in us a faculty of resistance… which gives us the courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature."  We feel not only fear, but our own capacity to stand tall against the fearsome world, small though we may be.  For Kant, this awareness of our own miraculous endurance in the face of vast powers is the essence of the sublime.

The despised, abjected tube (and the Genet who becomes despised and abjected by virtue of association with that tube) stands in relation to the police as the small but undaunted human stands in relation to the vast natural forces of which Kant speaks.  It endures, in danger, and so gains a kind of dignity, a sublimity in its abjection—in fact, a sublimity by virtue of its enduring of abjection.

Soldiers have a certain sublimity for Kant, because they do not "yield to danger," but go forth "to face it vigorously with the fullest deliberation"—and it is significant, I think, that Genet turns to military language when, continuing his description of the vaseline tube on the police station table, he says "I would like to hymn it with the newest words in the French language.  But I would have also liked to fight for it, to organize massacres in its honor and bedeck a countryside at twilight with red bunting." Genet even adds, in a footnote, that he "would indeed rather have shed blood than repudiate that silly object." Genet would stand up for the tube of vaseline just as it, on the police table, stands for him: defiantly there despite its abject status, despite its vulnerability.  It asserts its being and resilience—and by extension, Genet's—in a world of powers that could easily destroy it.  It is, in some profound sense, his comrade in arms.  No one understands abjection as well as does Genet, perhaps because no one had to search within it so hard to find the dignity of the sublime.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Futures of Poetry!

Perloff, Kirsch, Nikolayev, and a full house at the Grolier

How many different timelines can we spin out for the future of poetry? The Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts has decided to find out! They've been hosting a series of talks on the topic—the first set by me, Ben Mazer, and Stephen Burt, and the second set by Adam Kirsch, Philip Nikolayev, and Marjorie Perloff. You can check them out here:

Robert Archambeau, March 14, 2014 

Stephen Burt, March 14, 2014

Ben Mazer, March 14, 2014

Adam Kirsch, Philip Nikolayev, Marjorie Perloff, September 12, 2014

I’m not sure who will be involved in the next installment of the series, but I’ve got a pretty good idea where you can hang out with them after their talks. Here’s a hint.

A secret location on Harvard Square

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Poetry and Masculinity

Poetry and masculinity have a complicated relationship.  In most times and places, the poetic canon, and the institutions supporting poetry, have been dominated by men.  This is certainly true in the United States now, as the good people at VIDA have helped make plain with their quantitative analysis of who gets published where.  There’s also a strong sense in which masculinity is associated with power, even in the world of poetry—an issue I tried to assess in this essay for Poetry’s website.  But there is also a feeling, in many quarters, that poetry is in some sense emasculating, as if it were somehow the antimatter to football or the Ford F100 pickup truck.  This goes deep: back in 1958, when the sociologist Robert Neal Wilson interviewed scores of poets for his study Man Made Plain: The Poet in Contemporary Society, one of the complaints that came up frequently was the sense that men who became poets were looked down on as not being sufficiently manly, for letting down the side of masculinity.

Clearly there is a lot of untangling to be done if one wants to approach the Gordian knot of poetry and masculinity, and one thread I want to start with when I take up that attempt again is the one offered in Diederik Oostdijk’s study Among the Nightmare Fighters: Americans Poets of World War II. The book came to my attention in a review in the William Carlos Williams Review by the wonderful Brian Reed, who describes it thusly (with a nice little shout-out to one of my books):
Among the Nightmare Fighters offers an illuminating if partial survey of World War II’s importance in the history of American poetry and poetics. Oostdijk argues that, despite their stereotype of belonging to a “silent generation,” mid-twentieth-century poets who experienced the war either first-hand or on the home front did in fact speak out, albeit often “in a quiet and undemonstrative way” and sometimes years afterward. Their reticence, he explains, stemmed partly from having witnessed “events… too devastating to capture in words” but also from a belief that “the history of World War II was already fixed in the American imagination and that their personal musings would have no major impact.” To illustrate the value of what soldiers, veterans, and conscientious objectors did manage to write, he focuses on a single “tight-knit circle of poets,” “a generation of white, male, so-called academic poets who published their poems in the Kenyon Review, the New Yorker, and Partisan Review” and who “came to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s.” These writers—including John Ciardi, James Dickey, Anthony Hecht, Randall Jarrell, Lincoln Kirstein, Robert Lowell, Howard Nemerov, Karl Shapiro, and William Stafford—“collectively… show that the effects of war are ultimately shattering to all individuals caught in it,” especially any simple “equation of war and masculinity.” 
…. Among the Nightmare Fighters will likely interest any literary or cultural critic who studies warfare, gender, and trauma, especially anyone concerned with the Holocaust and its aftermath. It also deserves to be placed alongside other recent, first-rate works on masculinity and Cold War-era American poetry such as Robert Archambeau’s Laureates and Heretics (2010), Rachel Blau duPlessis’s Purple Passages (2012), and Michael Davidson’s Guys Like Us (2003).
If, like me, you’ve got to have this book, you can order it here.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Imagine What It Does to Americans!": Kenneth Goldsmith and Advertising

Often - mostly unconsciously - I'll model my identity of myself on some image that I've been pitched to by an advertisement. When I'm trying on clothes in a store, I will bring forth that image that I've seen in an ad and mentally insert myself and my image into it. It's all fantasy. I would say that an enormous part of my identity has been adopted from advertising. I very much live in this culture; how could I possibly ignore such powerful forces? Is it ideal? Probably not. Would I like not to be so swayed by the forces of advertising and consumerism? Of course, but I would be kidding myself if I didn't admit that this was a huge part of who I am as a member of this culture.

The paragraph above, and the picture that goes with it, together constitute a recent Facebook update by Kenneth Goldsmith.  Like much of what he does, it is interesting and a little troubling (at least to me).  He’s right, of course, about advertising influencing who we wish to be: that is, after all, the goal of the whole industry.  But we knew that.  What makes it interesting is the deliberate acquiescence, the acceptance, with a bit of a shrug and perhaps a bit of an eye-roll, of the power advertising has over our values and, indeed, our identities.  It’s unusual for a poet or artist to simply embrace these values: in fact, advertising-based mass culture and the modern idea of high culture come into being at the same time, in the late nineteenth century, and there’s a powerful sense in which the latter doesn’t make sense except in relation to the former.  The aesthetes and decadents turned their back on commercial culture, hoping to carve out a little space for something not linked to getting and spending.  The modernists, even when at their most apolitical, asserted values other than those of advertising—from James Joyce’s hyper-crafted and hopelessly uncommercial Ulysses to Robert Smithson’s virtually uncommodifiable  Spiral Jetty, we see the realm of the aesthetic set up against the values of the marketplace.  So when Goldsmith describes his interpolation into the world of commercial values, he’s going against a whole established tradition in the arts (and, like a true Conceptualist, taking the history of the arts as his medium).

Of course the closing of the distance between the fine or high or non-commercial arts and the world of popular culture is old hat: it’s one of the main moves of Ye Olde Postmodernism, with its embrace of everything from Donald Duck to the Campbell’s soup can.  But in much of Postmodernism there’s a kind of distancing from the world of commerce, even a kind of parody of it: Andy Warhol’s Factory as a site of cultural production was, even in its name, a kind of parody of commercial culture, and the star system he willed into being for his friends was a kind of echoing of the commercial culture, with all of the uncanniness we expect from an echo.  Is there, one wonders, any real critical or parodic take in Goldsmith’s approach to the values of advertising?  If not, is there a value—honesty, maybe—to his acceptance of those values even while he while regrets that acceptance?

One also wonders where Goldsmith finds his minimal resistance, his wish that he wasn’t so swayed by the values of consumerism?  In the past, resistance to commercial culture has come from many sources, not all of them healthy.  Folkloric culture gave Yeats a point from which to be critical of commercial culture, for example, but it shaded off into aristocratic snobbery.  T.S. Eliot found in his version of Christianity an antidote to modern commerce, but we all know the ugly side of that equation.

The broader question, perhaps, is what remains possible as a source of ballast or resistance to he values perpetuated by advertising.  I don’t know, but I sense that the problem may be particularly acute in America—in fact, I’m reminded of something Martin Amis once said in a little bookstore in Chicago, something about how corrosive modern advertising was, and how he tried to imagine what it would do to people who, unlike him, hadn’t spent four years in a medieval university reading Milton.  “Imagine,” he’d said, perhaps forgetting where he was, “what it does to Americans!”

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Excess, Pastiche, and Queerness in the Comics: Reading The Black Dossier

One of the things to love about comic books is the sheer excessiveness of the things.  Part of this stems from the genre of the marvelous, where anything can happen and the rules of realism don't apply.  Bodies become plastic, or move at amazing speed, or leap tall buildings at a single bound, worlds connect to other worlds, other times, other dimensions, and so forth.  Part of the excessiveness, too, stems from the fact that most comics are written in the form of the romance—not the "falling in love" sort of romance (although there have been some built on that model), but the romance as episodic quest narrative, a series of trials leading to rewards.  These serial formats are open-ended, and tend to give us a bunch of climaxes ("The villain we've faced for eleven issues is finally dead!" or "The hero we've loved for a decade has died!") that turn out to be false ("The villain was merely frozen in a derelict space station!" or "The dead hero has risen again!").  These false climaxes would be in poor taste in an epic or a realist's novel—but with the serial, the show must go on.  Also, most mainstream comics are shamelessly commercial, and you just don't kill a franchise by killing off its heroes and villains.  You kill it off by driving its best writers and artists away when corporate status monkeys seize control of the operation.  But that's a different story.  Another part of the aesthetics of excess in comics has to do with repetition.  Certain types of gratification must occur again and again—the most overt manifestation of this being the way each volume of Asterix ends with a repetition of what is essentially the same feast, a re-affirmation of the stability of community at the end of the quest.  And finally, there's the excess of proliferation, of adding more and more levels to the mythos of the original.  Jodorowsky and Moebius, in The Incal, for example, always seem ready to add another secret society, a higher level of interstellar government, a conspiracy behind the conspiracy, another galaxy bent on taking over ours.  "I'll explain it all when we get to my secret underwater base," says a new ally, rushing to the rescue of our beleaguered protagonist.  But it will never all be explained—explanation can't keep up with invention.  And that's all part of the contract: it's not like the wretched television show Lost, which promised to stitch everything together and then died a shameful death, strangled on its own loose ends.  The world of the comics promises to continue opening out to wider and more fabulous horizons, and either you're up for that or you go and read Raymond Carver.

            I mention all this as a kind of preamble for some comments about the aesthetics of Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, from back in 2007.  The two are a tremendous team, and Moore is beyond doubt a genius, however one wishes to define that term (my personal definition is this: if, every time I read one of your works, I feel compelled to start planning to write a book about you, you are a genius).  The Moore-O'Neill aesthetic in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen seems to me to be predicated on two things, both related to the idea of excess: syncretism and pastiche.

            One of the more unusual things about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen throughout its existence has been the creation of false documents to go along with the main narrative.  It's an old literary technique to append letters or testimonies or 'found' documents to a narrative, like the maps Tolkien created for Middle Earth; or to embed them in the narrative itself, like Captain Walton's letters at the start of Frankenstein or the documents Dr. Lanyon leaves for our heroes in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  It's a little more unusual to use this in the comics, but Alan Moore is nothing if not literary— The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a virtual catalog of characters and tropes from centuries of literary and pulp fiction.  It should be no surprise, then, to find him appending supplementary documents to the various installments of League—and we get them in a multitude of forms, from false advertisements—including one for "Marvel Brand Douche" back when he worked with Marvel Comics' rival, DC—to stand-alone narratives of some scale.  As the title hints, The Black Dossier moves these documents to the center of the narrative, but figuratively (there are a lot of them) and literally: many of them come in the middle of the ostensibly 'main' narrative, when our hero and heroine sit down to read the titular 'Black Dossier,' containing documents that chronicle the centuries-long history of the League.

            The role of the false documents in The Black Dossier, or one of them, is to create, and explain, the world in which the events told in the main narratives can exist.  That is: the main narrative of the League traditionally consisted of a bringing together of various creatures from the popular Victorian imagination: Jules Verne's Captain Nemo, Robert Lewis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, H.G. Wells' Invisible Man, H. Rider Haggard's hero Allan Quartermain, Mina Harker from Bram Stoker's Dracula, and so forth.  In The Black Dossier, we expand the historical range into mid-century Britain, adding a young (and villainous) 007, and a recently-ended period of history in which Britain had succumbed to the Big Brother regime of Orwell's 1984, among other things.  It's a tremendous work of syncretism, bringing all of these imaginative works together, and one of the functions of the documents at the heart of The Black Dossier is to take all of these wildly various things and bring them together in something close to a coherent mythos.  So, for example, we read a mysterious document that tells a story of the intervention of supernatural forces into our own world since deep in prehistory, a document that links Cthulu with Conan the Barbarian's Crom, that interweaves Egyptian and Greek mythology with Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné, and Virginia Woolf's gender-shifting immortal hero/heroine from Orlando with Queen Elizabeth as an actual faerie queen.  It takes the excess of syncretism and imposes something like an order on it (I say "something like" because these documents are presented as partial, subjective, and possibly wrong—the excess is partially ordered, but by no means tamed).  The documents that follow present aspects of this syncretic history.

            What makes these documents really tasty, though, is that each takes the form of a pastiche: the pan-mythological document I mention above is a kind of riff on Lovecraft, and the history of Orlando's life is in the form of Classics Illustrated comics.  Another document, one revealing the faerie nature of Queen Elizabeth and recounting her encounter with the ('real life') sorcerer Prospero and the ubiquitous-as-Zelig Orlando, is written in the form of a little lost Shakespearian play, and so forth.  Everything is done in imitation of some other verbal and visual style out of the history of literature and pop culture.  There's an endless invention here, in excess of the mere demands of plot, an invention clearly based on a love of the prolific inventiveness of the past.  A love, maybe even a reverence.  I mean, here's how Moore describes the vast constellation of imaginative creation:
The planet of the imagination is as old as we are.  It has been humanity's constant companion with all of its fictional locations, like Mount Olympus and the gods, since we first came down from the trees, basically.  It seems very important, otherwise, we wouldn't have it.
The thing that keeps this reverence for the whole of imaginative—especially narrative—creation from congealing into something Worthy and Highminded, like the archetypes of Jung or Northrop Frye, is the way the tributes to other styles undergo various forms of what Mikhail Bakhtin called "transcoding."  Bakhtin was thinking of how Rabelais would rework Christian themes with reference to the functions of the body—pissing and shitting and farting and fucking—in order to strip away sanctimoniousness and create comedy.

            Moore often does this sort of thing.  Sometimes it's straight out of Bakhtin's Rabelais, as when he gives us a pastiche of Shakespeare with characters like Master Pisse and Master Shytte (although these aren't too far from the kind of comic characters Shakespeare himself includes); sometimes it’s a matter of incongruously crossing the unlike—as when we find P.G. Wodehouse's Edwardian nincompoop Bertie Wooster recounting his encounters with the demonic and supernatural.  Most often, though, it’s a sexualizing of the narrative source.  There's a brilliant little insert, for example, designed to look like the state-produced pornography secretly circulated among proles by a government ministry in Orwell's 1984.  In one frame, a man cries out about how love proves that "they" can't crush our spirits—but he does this while his hairy buttocks shake during sex on an assembly line, and the transcoding undermines his statement.  This seems like a nasty trick—but then again, it is presented as the action of an Orwellian state, bent on undermining all attempts to subvert its authority.

            Often, the sexualizing in Moore's work is also a kind of queering—a taking us beyond the norms of reproductive heterosexuality.  Sometimes this involves only a little exaggeration of the source narrative (Bram Stoker's Dracula is already liminal with regard to queer sexuality, and you just have to nudge Woolf's Orlando a little toward the NC-17 line to make its queerness explicit).  There's also a tendency to take things that are already sexualized, like the James Bond mythos, and amp up the bondage and discipline or dominance and submission quotient.  All of this makes it clear that we're dealing with pastiche rather than replication: it marks a difference from the original, marking the text as having a kind of difference and aiming at something other than replication.  It's excessive, sure, to add all of this: but the excess makes sense. It frees us from the burdens of accuracy and solemnity, marks the narrative territory as belonging not only to the progenitors of the original characters, but as Moore's own.  And, in the best traditions of popular culture, it adds the titillation of the basic drives and the thrill of the forbidden to the more respectable and 'literary' pleasures of the text.  It's the excess, after all, that makes you want more.