Saturday, December 20, 2014

Modernism and Decadence, or: The Modernism That Hurts

Vince Sherry mesmerizing the present humble blogger with talk of modernist decadence

Hot damn, people! Vincent Sherry, author of such books as The Great War and the Language of Modernism and Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Radical Modernism (which really shook things up for me) has a new book out: Modernism and the Invention of Decadence.  Here he is, talking about "the modernism that hurts."  He's a good talker, by the way: he once had me so drawn in that I followed him out of a bar in Louisville, leaving my tab unpaid.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Orlando Notebook

No, not Orlando, Florida: Virginia Woolf's Orlando, which I've been reading for the first time in years.  As always, I've taken too many notes.  Here are three of them.


The question of the old-school bildungsroman like Jane Eyre is "how can the individual find balance and rule herself?"  The question of a more naturalistic novel, like Hardy's Tess or Jude, is "can the individual find agency in a world of chance and Titanic forces?"  The question in one type of modern novel, like Orlando, is "is there a self beyond conventions?"


When Orlando gives birth to a son, it comes as something like a non-event in the novel, and we never meet the boy.  This is significant: in a novel so concerned with gender, we find that motherhood does not define a woman.


"What is life?" asks Woolf's Orlando, near the end of the novel, when we read that she is finally growing up.  It matters that the question comes after the publication of her poem "The Oak Tree."  For much of the novel, identity has been a dialectic of social conventions (of an era, a genre, a gender) and solitude or withdrawal, the latter associated with both the poem and the actual, ancient oak tree to which Orlando retreats from society.  Now, though, she turns the poem loose into the world, and she feels herself to be a part of that world in a rich and particular way: she is a palimpsest of different eras and experiences, a multitude of accrued identities, the culmination of "the selves of which we are built up, one on top of the other, as plates are piled on a waiter's hand."  She no longer worries about being reducible to any one set of conventions, having lived through so many of them (of an era, a genre, a gender).  So she no longer feels the same need to withdraw, to retreat from society to solitude.  This is Woolf's take on what it means to grow up, to become someone in particular.  The vision of growth is less schematic than what we find in Jane Eyre, where we're being taught how to balance passion and reserve, how to become a self-policing bourgeois subject.  Orlando is as much a feminist's book as is Jane Eyre, but it is far more of an aesthete's book, out to show us the rich, strange evolution and accretion of individual personalities—personalities treasured not for their self-control, but for their idiosyncrasy.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Allan Kornblum, R.I.P.

Allan Kornblum in 2002

Sad news: Allan Kornblum, whom many of us knew as the presiding genius of Coffee House Press, has died.  I heard the news from Michael Coffey, who kindly agreed to let me post his tribute to Kornblum:

Allan Kornblum was a true pioneer in American publishing. He was present at the creation of the small press movement, which fed upon energies for social change in the 1960s and that sited its passions in a not-for-profit business model. This inevitably brought Allan from Iowa City, where he learned the craft of letterpress from the legendary Harry Duncan, to Minneapolis in the early 1980s, an environment that benefited from a progressive state arts program (Allan joined Scott Walker, who had moved Graywolf Press to the Twin Cities, from Port Townsend, Wash., for similar reasons). Coffee House Press, a new name for what in Iowa had been called Toothpaste Paste—a renaming reflecting Allan's intention to build a larger community around his literary press—was among the original eight publishers distributed by the then-fledgling Consortium Books and Sales Distribution. Allan's combination of book-making skills and his tastes for the New York School of poets, for new ethnic voices in America, and particularly those voices that had found their way to the Upper Midwest, made for an impressive and award-winning list. 

Of course, to all in the independent publishing community, Allan was a longtime friend and presence at the various book fairs, particularly the BEA, where he would appear each year with a printer's apron and visor and a new broadside of a poem beautifully typeset by hand and always having to do with the wonder of language and books. Allan published a book of my poems because, he told me, "Michael, I can see these poems matter to you—and it comes through. That's what I want to publish." Allan, ever the visionary—there was no foot-dragging at Coffee House about doing books in digital formats—also saw his own end approaching, and managed a brilliant succession, selecting and then grooming and then adjudging that he had his man in Chris Fishbach, who now steers the press with his own independent and unique tastes (which Allan told me was as important as anything) but also with a spirit that is the continuation of Allan's. As for the larger literary culture, it is by Allan's efforts that we have been able to follow Anne Waldman's essential trajectory, read the delicate poetry of the brilliant Anselm Hollo and got the whole of Ron Padgett's work. Not to mention the finds: Laurie Foos and Karen-Tei Yamashita and Sam Savage, these discoveries that now meld into Chris's, with Eimar McBride's A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing as the latest example. In this instance, Allan's passing does not mark, for publishing, an end of anything, but rather highlights a bright legacy that has been handed on, for which we should be thankful.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

John Berryman at 100

John Berryman's centenary is just a few weeks behind us, and it has occasioned a renewal of interest in this troubled, troubling, and undeniably great American poet.  There's a new edition of his selected poems, his publisher has re-issued his best books, including The Dream Songs, and there's a new version of Poets in their Youth, a memoir by Berryman's first wife, Eileen Simpson.  The national and international press has taken notice—so it's no surprise that the poets have joined in and made their own contribution to the Berryman revival.

Philip Coleman's Berryman's Fate is a major document of the renewed interest in Berryman among poets.  It collects tributes to Berryman from a host of poets including Paul Muldoon, Timothy Donnelly, John Matthias, Isobel Dixon, Jane Robinson, George Szirtes, John Montague, and me, among many distinguished others.

My own contribution takes its title from a line in "Dream Song 14," but it's really a riff on Berryman's wonderful meditation on loss, "The Ball Poem."  It goes like this:

We Must Not Say So 

Sadness was he ever. Teacher, taught 
my teacher, taught me too (his being not 
in body but in book). “What is the boy now 
who has lost his ball?” he’d ask. The question’s flawed. 
“What, what” he’d ask “is he to do?” A haughty Henry’d 
huff his loss, a stone his daily broken bread. 
And yours and mine? Is what he wrought? 
Sadness we are ever, teacher taught. 

“No use,” he’s say, to say “O there 
are other balls,” the ball gone harbor-wise, 
and out, the tidal-tugging way. 
No use to whistle “I am not a little boy.” 
For him a hurting. Us, maybe a sigh. 
No laws against our Henry but “Beware.”

Berryman's Fate is available here.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Archambeau World Tour 2014: Making Nothing Happen in Houston

My last, somewhat more dramatic, performance in Texas.

I know, I know.  You're exhausted because you piled into your VW microbus and followed my motorcade earlier this year as it shuttled from Boston to Chicago to Poughkeepsie to New York.   I apologize to the damage your ears may have suffered from the sirens of the police escort and the shrill shrieks of the younger and more enthusiastic fans. But there's one more stop on the Archambeau World Tour this year: Houston.  I'll be giving a talk at the University of Houston at noon on Wednesday the 12th of November.  It's called "Making Nothing Happen: Poetry for Its Own Sake, 1914-2014."  It's really a kind of hyper-compressed version of the book I've been working on for a few years and that I hope to finish next summer.  Hope to see you there!

Saturday, November 01, 2014

The Ego as Hero in Victorian Literature

Our protagonist.

Hypocrisy, we think, is where the Victorians truly excelled. Prodigious achievers in industry, in science, in the triple-decker novel and the many-gunned battleship, they were even better at having things both ways: at keeping a stiff upper lip and a respectable front while groping the maidservants on the back stairs and puffing opium discretely behind a curtain in a den where no one asks a gentleman his name or his place in the Great World beyond. There’s something in this, of course: public virtue and private vice thrived together in the first great bourgeois empire, with its un-aristocratic moralism and its many newfound opportunities for decadence. It helped, too, that this was also the first age of mass media, with its quenchless thirst for both sentimentality and scandal.

One of the more notable characteristics of the age was the disunified psyche created by such circumstances. What, after all, could be more Victorian than the thought of Prime Minister William Gladstone lusting over the prostitute Marian Summerhayes —one may turn to his private diaries for considerable salacious detail—then declaiming Tennyson’s poetry to her for hours on end before sending her off untouched and whipping himself for having sinned in his mind. There is precious little reconciliation between the forces warring in the poor man’s breast: the id bubbles and roils away, wanting what it wants, before being violently, albeit temporarily, crushed by the appalled and vengeful superego. We would do well to remember that Freud himself was something of a late Victorian, born a few years after Oscar Wilde and Robert Louis Stevenson, and a few before George Gissing and Rudyard Kipling. The trio that played so much of Freud’s chamber music—the yearning id, the stern superego, and the hardworking ego that negotiates between them—was the product of the same broad cultural conditions that gave us Gladstone’s symphonies of self-flagellation.

Much of the underground literature of the Victorian era serves as a kind of testimony to the fractured identity, to the id unreconciled to the public life of its possessor. My Secret Life, for example, the million word obsessive and repetitive chronicle of sex in the age of Victoria, documents the erotic life of an anonymous gentleman with what seems like an army of prostitutes and servants—a life that had to be kept separate from the author's public and domestic lives. As the title indicates, the author led a fractured existence, indulging his urges yet keeping his erotic activities so thoroughly isolated from the rest of his life that to this day scholars remain unsure of his identity (we suspect Henry Spencer Ashbee, but I personally hope it will turn out to have been another candidate, William Haywood, since his high position in the City of London’s Commissioners of Sewers Office, with its concern for the underground and the abject, seems almost allegorical).

Pre-Raphaelite poetry positively bursts with sexual energies that chafe against its own moralizing or even scolding tones—a kind of verse equivalent of Gladstone’s idiosyncracies with hookers and whips. Consider William Morris’ “The Defence of Guenevere.” Here, we find King Arthur’s wife accused of adultery with Sir Lancelot, a crime of individual indulgence that not only violates the sacrament of marriage, but threatens to throw the kingdom into chaos. The accuser, Gawain, is known for his honesty and honor, and Guenevere addresses a silent assembly of lords, whose disapproving actions we can infer from her speech. The speech itself consists of an astounding catalog of rhetorical appeals, running the full gamut from pathos (pity me, so lonely as the bride of the distant Arthur) to ethos (I am a fearsome queen, how dare you judge me!) to bad logos (God wants us to be happy, sex with Lancelot made me happy, ergo…) to really bad logos (it wasn’t me who kissed Lancelot, it was my mouth… I was driven mad by my own beauty, and can’t be held responsible, etc.). The poem is structured such that we can see through Guenevere’s arguments: indeed, at the end, we see that she was merely playing for time, waiting for Lancelot to arrive on his white charger to carry her off to safety. Everything at the level of reason indicates Guenevere’s guilt, and urges us to disapprove of her affair with Lancelot. But everything, or almost everything, at the level of emotion urges us to kind of admire her: she is spirited, she is fierce, she is independent, clever, funny, charming, and on the side of desire—we kind of want to give her what amounts to a free pass, even as we know we shouldn’t. The poem never really reconciles these things, but leaves us with a curiously doubled reaction: it’s a poem whose id is at war with its superego, a poem without a mediating ego forging some kind of compromise or détente. It is worth noting that Morris used his notoriously unfaithful wife Jane as the model for his painting of Guenevere—the unresolved judgment and emotions of “The Defense of Guenevere” came from experiences very close to home indeed. 

A much greater poem, Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” shows, if anything, an even more disunified psychological position. It sweats eroticism from every pore: from the goblin men with their animalistic faces calling out for young Lizzie and Laura to buy their fruit with locks of hair, to their disturbingly violent manhandling of Lizzie, covering her with mashed fruit and its juices, to her return to save her sister as a kind of same-sex incestuous Christ figure, crying out:

 … “Laura,” up the garden, 
“Did you miss me? 
Come and kiss me. 
Never mind my bruises, 
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices 
Squeez’d from goblin fruits for you, 
Goblin pulp and goblin dew. 
Eat me, drink me, love me; 
Laura, make much of me… 

But for all this wildness, all this exploration and embracing of all that Victorian public morality forbids about sex, the poem ends with a little picture of the sisters as that most legitimated form of Victorian womanhood: they are wives and mothers. And when they speak of their past with the goblins, they offer a moralistic vision unrecognizable to those who have witnessed the events in the earlier lines: 

Afterwards, when both were wives 
With children of their own; 
Their mother-hearts beset with fears, 
Their lives bound up in tender lives; 
Laura would call the little ones 
And tell them of her early prime, 
Those pleasant days long gone 
Of not-returning time: 
Would talk about the haunted glen, 
The wicked, quaint fruit-merchant men, 
Their fruits like honey to the throat 
But poison in the blood; 
(Men sell not such in any town): 
Would tell them how her sister stood 
In deadly peril to do her good, 
And win the fiery antidote: 
Then joining hands to little hands 
Would bid them cling together, 
“For there is no friend like a sister 
In calm or stormy weather; 
To cheer one on the tedious way, 
To fetch one if one goes astray, 
To lift one if one totters down, 
To strengthen whilst one stands.” 

It’s not that there is some sophisticated irony here, some version of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner preaching a line about community that he fails to embody: the poem doesn’t work with that kind of irony. Rather, it is a poem imperfectly at one with itself. It embraces public morality about motherhood and sisterhood and about a wife’s duty, and does so explicitly in a moralizing conclusion. But the poem that comes before ripples with a very different kind of energy, with a sexuality forbidden not only by Victorian society but by the poem’s own conclusion. Like Morris’ “Defense of Guenevere,” it is a poem with a strong and prudish superego, an even stronger id, and little or no ego seeking to mediate between and reconcile the two. 

Poems like these express the condition lived out by the author of My Secret Life: desires segregated from principles.  It's the same condition that, in more acute form, tormented poor Mr. Gladstone. With such a vast gulf between id and superego to be bridged, is it any wonder many Victorian writers came to portray the ego itself as a kind of hero? 

We see this ego-heroism in some of the most enduring fiction of the Victorian period. In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, for example, our heroine is constantly pulled between the world of the passions—lust, anger, anything adhesive that would link her to other people, positively or destructively—and the world of cold self-possession. From the moment we first see her—with a red curtain separating her from a domestic world of blood violence, rage, and passion, and a window facing a white, cold, foggy world of solitude and exile—she is trapped between two poles, a world of id and a world of self-disciplining, self-respecting superego. The novel is filled with doubles and foils: the too-passionate Mr. Rochester and the too-cold St. John Rivers, say, or the too disciplined Helen Burns and the overly passionate Bertha Mason (whose passions are embodied in the fire she sets that destroys Rochester’s home, maim him, and kill her). Jane’s journey and self-invention, the bildung in this bildungsroman, is a journey toward the reconciliation of desire and self-control. The elaborate fire and water symbolism of the novel culminates in a deceptively simple image near the end, when Jane bears a tray in to the the wounded Rochester. On the tray burns a candle, next to a glass of water, some small amount of which spills. Here we have Jane balancing (albeit unsteadily) the passions of the id and the strictures of the superego—but just as important as the presence of fire and water is the fact of the tray. Jane holds the two, controls them, and in some sense masters them. She is a force that works out and managing the proper relation of id and superego. She is the figure absent from “The Defense of Guenevere” and “Goblin Market,” and too weak to keep poor Gladstone from wounding himself. She is the ego itself. 

The ego balances desire and conscience—it is the “inner gyroscope” David Reisman described as the necessary equipment of the self-governing subject that grew out of the long drama of renaissance, reformation, and the bourgeois-capitalist transformation of society. And it isn’t just in Brontë that it emerges as a Victorian hero. It’s everywhere, especially in the works consumed by the common middle-class reader of the time. Consider Robert Louis Stevenson’s perpetually popular novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The dilemma of the titular character, or characters, is a dilemma of disunified psyche. Jekyll wishes to be purely good, and approved of by society (the string of honorific letters after his name is significant in this regard). And he wishes, at the same time, to let loose his basest inner urges—violent ones, in this strangely chaste book, rather than sexual ones. There is a primitive and childlike self-assertion to Mr. Hyde, something devoid of empathy or morality, something like a pure assertion of self and will, the desire to put others out of the way—and this childlike urge accounts for the curious smallness of Hyde, a smallness emphasized when he is forced to drape himself in Jekyll’s clothes, like a little boy in his father’s suit. Jekyll, in creating Hyde, wants to have it both ways: to be purely good, in society’s conventional sense, and to act on his will and desire, like an unsocialized child. He wants all of this, and he wants to surrender the wearisome work of the ego in continuously working out a compromise between the two. In this, he is unlike Mr. Utterson, the lawyer we meet at the beginning of the book, who enjoys expensive wines but will only allow himself a little cheap gin, who loves the theater but almost never lets himself attend. Utterson is the ego figure, the mediator of desire and restraint, and his are the virtues celebrated in the book, the virtues whose absence bring about Jekyll’s tragic fate. 

The ego—as fact, as idea, as ideal—has been battered pretty hard by the twentieth century and its aftermath. Variously accused, dissolved, pilloried, declared dead, dismissed as fictitious, and otherwise expunged by Surrealism, structuralism, poststructuralism, feminism, late Marxism, postmodernism and the infernal machines of neoliberal capitalist desire, it remains, at best, as a chipped and smog-besmirched monument from a prior age, under which sit hipsters dropping references to Rimbaud’s “je est un autre” as they stub out their cigarettes on the base moulding. But like most monuments, it was built by people who really believed in it, and for whom it celebrated something that seemed like a solution to their genuine pains and troubles.

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.