Monday, July 28, 2008

Richard Wagner's Cold Heaven: Lohengrin

Lohengrin begins as the struggle for power between Elsa von Brabant and Friedrich von Telramund (a count of Brabant) and his wife, Ortrud. Friedrich has accused Elsa of murdering her younger brother, Gottfried, so that she and her lover (unnamed and unknown) can take over as rulers of Brabant and, it would seem, the entire Holy Roman Empire (which was almost entirely a German fiction and fixation.) Meanwhile, the Hungarian heathens are threatening to invade from the east.

Since Elsa swears innocence, there is only one way to handle this dispute: trial by combat. But who is to defend her? Well, she has been praying for a deliverer, for I suppose she had to have known that she was going to need one. In any case, King Heinrich orders the herald to proclaim the trial, and ask if there is anyone who wishes to step forward as Elsa's defender. Twice the proclamation is issued; following the third a Swan appears pulling a boat, out of which steps Lohengrin, who then asks Elsa three questions: Do you entrust yourself to my protection? If I win this trial for you, will you marry me? If I promise never to leave you, will you promise never to ask or seek to know who I am, what my origin, or where I came from? Yes, yes, yes says Elsa, I give you all of me, body and soul. The trial then begins which, being a sort of superman, Lohengrin wins easily, casually brushing Friedrich's sword out of the way and out of his hands. Once disarmed and at Lohengrin's mercy, his life is spared--without a word from Lohengrin about how this immense favor is to be returned.

Friedrich and Ortrud are crushed but she recovers quickly. Being a bit of witch herself, she knows something about magic. (She also knows exactly what happened to Elsa's kid brother, Gottfried.) There are two ways to break Lohengrin's power, she says: get a piece of him, however small, and/or get Elsa to ask the forbidden questions. Elsa is mine, she tells her husband; you get me a piece of Lohengrin.

Next morning, before the wedding, Ortrud gets to work on Elsa. How can you marry a man you know nothing about? Suppose he has a disreputable past; just imagine how that would dishonor you should it ever come to light. But Otrud's second point is the one that rankles: How do you know he won't leave you as mysteriously as he came? Easy come, easy go.

That night, Elsa and Lohengrin are ceremoniously escorted to the marriage bed and for the first time they are alone. The huge bed is in an open field in a ring of boulders, some of which appear on closer inspection to be recumbent wolves and bears. The presence of these menacing creatures is never explained. (I mean they are there for a reason, which will suddenly appear, but not for a reason that would make sense to Elsa or Lohengrin, were they to ask--which they don't.) Something is obviously bothering Elsa, and it is not the presence of these animals. As Lohengrin tries to lead her bedwards, she becomes more and more distraught, until finally she begins to ask the forbidden questions. (Some of you may be thinking of the Pandora's Box story, but the relevant myth here is that of Cupid and Psyche--to which Wagner has given a new twist.) Now Friedrich and his minions arise from where they have been lying in wait among the wolves and bears and rush to attack Lohengrin. If they think he will have lost his power once Elsa asks the forbidden question, they are mistaken; Lohengrin kills Friedrich as easily as he had disarmed him before. Snow begins to fall, a metaphor surely for the coldness of Heaven.

Now the death of Friedrich has to be accounted for. His body is brought and laid before King Heinrich. Lohengrin says now I must reveal who I am and where I came from. I am Lohengrin and I am a knight of the Grail which sent me here. Now I must return but I would have had to return in any case after my year of earthly bliss had expired. Gottfried however will be given back to you.

The Swan boat arrives and Gottfried, who had been turned into a swan, recovers his human shape--though not that of the boy he had once been; he is now an exhausted, emaciated, waif. Lohengrin gets into the boat and leaves, though we have no idea what or who is pulling or propelling it. Perhaps the Grail has found another slave.

So Lohengrin had lied when he promised Elsa he would never leave her. We also learn that Ortrud had captured Gottfried and turned him over, or sold him, to the Grail.

Does it not begin to seem that the Grail, along with the heavenly powers it represents, is as cold, remote and cruel as the Law in Kafka's Trial--and even, perhaps, as corrupt?

This is, decidedly, a new note and a new line of thought in European art and literature.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Richard Wagner's Cold Heaven: Tannhauser

In Tannhauser, Lohengrin, and The Flying Dutchman, the heroines and heroes are crushed, in part by Christian illusions, delusions, or confusions but mainly by what Yeats calls "the injustice of the skies." (Yeats' poem is called The Cold Heaven and I shall show it to you a little later in these postings.)

First let us review the essential plot lines of these three operatic tragedies--Wagner's greatest in my opinion.

Tannhauser, the hero of the first of these operas faces a classic choice. It is the choice that Odysseus faces when he rejects the call of the Sirens and again when he decides to flee Calypso's island paradise, and once again when he forces his men to leave the land of the Lotus Eaters--Tennyson wrote a great poem about that. You may know Shakespeare's version of the heroic choice in Venus And Adonis, or Spenser's in the Bower of Bliss episode in The Faerie Queene. In the last of these, the hero (or rather a would-be hero) has to be rescued from a life of perpetual sensual and sexual indulgence. Tannhauser has been living in just such a place, the Venusberg, deep underground where Venus the Goddess of Love has retreated in order to get away from the cold, mean, hypocritical world that the human race has created. Everyone in this part of 10th century Germany (which called itself the Holy Roman Empire--which as everyone now knows was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire) knows all about "the Venusberg" but of course no good Christian would ever go there.

It is not clear (at first anyway) why Tannhauser is living in this bower of bliss, but in any case he wants to leave. Perhaps he is bored. He wants a normal human life of strife and conflict. Venus tries to prevent him from leaving and tells him, truthfully as it turns out, what a mean, cold, hypocrital place he is returning to. Those people will destroy you, she says, and they do.

The first people Tannhauser meets on his return are his former friends and fellow knights. They are suspicious at first. They want to know if he is still one of them, still a friend. When he reassures them on this point, they want to know where he has been. He is evasive but they welcome him back nevertheless. They tell him that there is to be a singing contest in the great hall of the castle where his old flame, Elizabeth lives. She is very happy when she hears that he has rerturned and will be one of the contestants.

The subject that the singers are to sing about is love. Of course. The first singer sings the praises of spiritual love, purity, chastity--never an unchaste thought. Tannhauser listens scornfully, sneering silently to himself. When it is his turn to pick up his harp, he sings the praises of unabashed physical love--that, after all, was what he must have gone to the Venusberg to find. His audience reacts with horror, loathing, hatred. "He's been to the Venusberg!" they scream. All the men draw their swords and Tannhauser is about to slaughtered, when someone--the king, duke or maybe Elizabeth (I forget)--intervenes and says that Tannhauser ought at least to be given a chance to repent by joining the pilgrimage to Rome that is about to set out. This he agrees to do.

And he does genuinely repent. All he wants is to be received back into the Christian community.
When the pilgrims return, Elizabeth is waiting anxiously. She is joined by a friend (and would-be lover, perhaps), Wolfram. Looking for Tannhauser, she runs through the crowd of piously rejoicing people, all of whom have been forgiven by the Pope. Tannhauser is not among them. Elizabeth sinks down in despair. Time passes. Then Tannhauser appears, in rags, and tells his story. All the way to Rome he had done everything he could think of to mortify the flesh, as they say, all the while praying fervently. When he finally gets to see the Pope--he is the last in line--his prayer for forgivness is scornfully rejected. That staff of yours, says the Pope, will be sprouting leaves before you get forgiven.

Now its Tannhauser's turn to be outraged. He's had a lot of time to think about his reception by the Pope and the more he thinks about it the more he despises the hypocrisy (he doesn't use this word, but that's the point) of the Christian community that has rejected him. You can all go to hell, he says in effect; I'm going back to the Venusberg; just show me the way. Wolfram is outraged, in turn, at being asked such a question--as if he of all people might know the answer. Elizabeth, crushed, almost literally heart-broken, staggers off and dies. Tannhauser too is dying, as we hear Venus and her followers welcoming him home. As he lies there, dying or dead, Wolfram returns with stretcher-bearers carrying the body of Elizabeth. Just then, someone holds up Tannhauser's staff from which green leaves have just begun to sprout--irrelevantly: the miracle occurs but only when it is too late, as if with a shrug of divine indifference or absent-mindedness.

There was a production of this opera in Paris in 1861. According to Baudelaire, the critics and other guardians of public morality hated it and tried--literally in one instance--to laugh it off the stage. You can see why Nietzche became Wagner's great admirer and supporter, but turned against him over The Ring which, not surprisingly, he found intolerable.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Trial, by Franz Kafka

Kafka's fable, published in 1925 (a year after he died), is work of purely imaginative art. It has no basis in fact, serves no political interest, earned Kafka no money. It's object is truth, not literal, of course, but poetic or metaphorical: here is what the rule of law is really like, a sort of spider-web into which a human insect, Joseph K., happens through no mistake of his own to fall. He struggles, feebly, to free himself only to become more hopelessly entangled, observed from afar by some higher power whose existence is only hinted at. He never knows, or even thinks to ask, what he has been accused of; he is never detained; the only court he ever sees or enters is a spooky farce which could have no parallel in anything but your worst nightmare; the lawyers are all part of the 'system'(if any: if there is a 'system' of justice here, we never learn what it is or how it works); and when the higher power has toyed with him for long enough--this all takes about a year--it kills him. Not directly, for nothing is ever done directly in this tale, or rather parable: a pair of fat, pale, simple-minded goons in top-hats lead him--or rather he leads them, for by this time he only wants to die--into an old quarry where, after passing the knife back and forth between them (ceremonially or indecisively?) one of them stabs him in the heart, giving the knife--as if to make a point--one last twist.

All of this is described or presented in great detail, with busy, ant-like industry, without the slightest affect, in prose of dead-pan banality.

Toward the end, K. is granted a hearing of sorts by the prison chaplain. This hearing, like everything else is arranged, duplicitously, by the powers that be. K. is lured into the cathedral, ostensibly to meet a visitor for whom he is to act as guide. The visitor never appears and K. wanders aimlessly about the cathedral as the light rapidly fades until he is led by the ambiguous signals of the sexton toward a small, cramped, pulpit where a young priest seems about to deliver a sermon even though it is late in the day and it is in the middle of the week. As K. is about to leave, the priest calls his name, not because he has something of material importance to say about K.'s trial but because he wants to tell him something about The Law. But The Law is so strange and mysterious that, like God, it can only be understood as parable. So, at the heart of this parable about the rule of law, we encounter another parable. Be patient, it's worth reading. Here is how it goes:

"Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. A man from the country comes to this doorkeeper and requests admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he can't grant him admittance now. The man thinks it over and then asks if he'll be allowed to enter later. 'It's possible,' says the doorkeeper, 'but not now.' Since the gate to the Law stands open as always, and the doorkeeper steps aside, the man bends down to look through the gate into the interior. When the doorkeeper sees this he laughs and says: 'If you're so drawn to it, go ahead and try to enter, even though I've forbidden it. But bear this in mind: I'm powerful. And I'm only the lowest doorkeeper. From hall to hall, however, stand doorkeepers each more powerful than the one before. The mere sight of the third is more than even I can bear.' The man from the country has not anticipated such difficulties; the Law should be accessible to anyone at any time, he thinks, but as he now examines the doorkeeper in his fur coat more closely, his large, sharply pointed nose, his long, thin, black tartar's beard, he decides he would prefer to wait until he receives permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at the side of the door. He sits there for days and years. He asks time and again to be admitted and wearies the doorkeeper with his entreaties. The doorkeeper often conducts brief interrogations, inquiring about his home and many other matters, but he asks such questions indifferently, as great men do, and in the end he always tells him that he can't admit him. The man, who has equipped himself well for his journey, uses everything he has, no matter how valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. And the doorkeeper accepts everything, but as he does so he says: 'I'm taking this just you won't think you've neglected something.' Over the many years, the man observes the doorkeeper almost incessantly. He forgets the other doorkeepers and this first one seems to him the only obstacle to his admittance to the Law. He curses his unhappy fate, loudly during the first years, later, as he grows older, merely grumbling himself. He turns childish, and since he has come to know even the fleas in the doorkeeper's collar over his years of study, he asks the fleas too to help him change the doorkeeper's mind. Finally his eyes grow dim and he no longer knows whether it's really getting darker around him or if his eyes are merely deceiving him. And yet in the darkness he now sees a radiance that streams forth inextinguishably from the door of the Law. He doesn't have much longer to live now. Before he dies, everything he has experienced over the years coalesces in his mind into single question he has never asked the doorkeeper. He motions to him, since he can no longer straighten his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend down to him, for the difference in size between them has altered greatly to the man's disadvantage. 'What do you want to know now,' asks the doorkeeper, 'you're insatiable.' 'Everyone strives to reach the Law,' says the man, 'how does it happen, then, that in all these years no one but me has requested admittance.' The doorkeeper sees that the man is nearing his end, and in order to reach his failing hearing, he roars at him: 'No one else could gain admittance here, because this entrance was meant solely for you. I'm going to shut it now.'
"So the doorkeeper deceived the man," K. said at once, strongly attracted by the story. "Don't be too hasty," said the priest, "don't accept another person's opinion unthinkingly. I've told you the story word for word according to the text. It says nothing about deception." "But it's clear," said K., and your initial interpretation was quite correct. The doorkeeper conveyed the crucial information only when it could no longer be of use to the man." He wasn't asked earlier," said the priest, and remember he was only a doorkeeper and as such fulfilled his duty." "What makes you think he fulfilled his duty?" asked K.; "he didn't fulfill it. It may have his duty to turn away anyone else, but he should have admitted this man for whom the entrance was meant." "You don't have sufficient respect for the text and are changing the story," said the priest. "The story contains two important statements by the doorkeeper concerning admittance to the Law, one at the beginning and one at the end. The one passage says: 'that he can't grant him admittance now'; and the other: 'this entrance was meant solely for you you.' If a contradiction existed between these two statements you would be right, and the doorkeeper would have deceived the man. But there is no contradiction. On the contrary, the first statement even implies the second. One could almost argue the doorkeeper exceeded his duty by holding out to the man the prospect of a possible future entry. At that time his sole duty appears to have been to turn the man away. And indeed, many commentators on the text are surprised that the doorkeeper intimated it at all, for he appears to love precision and the strict fulfillment of his duty. He never leaves his post in all those years, and he waits till the very end to close the gate; he's well aware of the importance of his office, for he says 'I'm powerful'; he respects his superiors, for he says 'I'm only the lowest doorkeeper'; when it comes to fulfilling his duty he can neither be moved nor prevailed upon, for it says of the man 'he wearies the doorkeeper with his entreaties'; he is not garrulous, for in all those years he only asks questions 'indifferently'; he can't be bribed, for he says of a gift 'I'm taking this just so you won't think you've neglected something'.... Can there be a more conscientious doorkeeper? But certain other elements enter into the basic character of the doorkeeper which are quite favorable to the person seeking to enter, and which in spite of everything, help us understand how and why the doorkeeper might exceed his duty somewhat by the intimation of the future possibility. For it can't be denied that he's somewhat simpleminded, and consequently somewhat conceited as well. Even if his remarks about his own power and that of the other doorkeepers, and about how unbearable their sight is even for hims--I say even if all these remarks are correct in themselves, the manner in which he brings them forth shows that his understanding is clouded by simplemindedness and presumption. The commentators tell us: the correct understanding of a matter and misunderstanding the matter are not mutually exclusive. At any rate one must assume that this simplemindedness and presumption, trivial as their manifestations might be, could still weaken his defense of the entrance; they are breaches in the doorkeeper's character. To this may added the fact that the doorkeeper seems friendly by nature; he's by no means always the official. Within the first few minutes he allows himself the jest of inviting the man to enter, in spite of the fact that he has strictly forbidden it; and he doesn't send him away, but instead, we are told, gives him a stool and lets sit at the side of the door. The patience with which he endures the man's entreaties over the years, the brief interrogations, the acceptance of the gifts, the polite sensitivity with which he permits the man beside him to curse aloud the unhappy fate which has placed the doorkeeper in his way--all this points toward feelings of compassion. Not every doorkeeper would have acted thus. And finally he bends down low when the man motions to him, to give him the opportunity to ask a final question. Only a slight impatience--after all the doorkeeper knows the end is at hand--is expressed in the words 'you're insatiable.' Some go so far in such commentaries as to maintain that the words 'you're insatiable' express a sort of friendly admiration, which of course is not entirely free of condescension. At any rate the figure of the doorkeeper that emerges is quite different from your perception of him." "You know the story much better than I do, and have known it for a longer time," said K. Then K. said: "So you think the man wasn't deceived?" "Don't misunderstand me," said the priest, "I'm just pointing out the various opinions that exist on the matter. You mustn't pay too much attentions to opinions. The text is immutable, and the opinions are often only an expression of despair over it. In this case there is even an opinion according to which the doorkeeper is the one deceived." "That's an extreme opinion," said K. "What's it based on?" "It's based," answered the priest, on the simplemindedness of the doorkeeper. It's said that he doesn't know the interior of the Law, but only the path he constantly patrols back and forth before it. His ideas about the interior are considered childish, and it's assumed that he himself fears the very thing with which he tries to frighten the man. Indeed he fears it more than the man, for the latter wants nothing more than to enter, even after he's been told of the terrifying doorkeepers within, while the doorkeeper has no wish to enter, or at any rate we hear nothing about it. Others say he must have already been inside, for after all he has been taken into the service of the Law, and that could only have happened within. To this it may be replied that he might well have been named a doorkeeper by a shout from within, and at any rate could not have progressed far into the interior, since he is unable to bear the sight of even the third doorkeeper. Moreover there is no report of his saying anything over the years about the interior, other than the remark about the doorkeepers. Perhaps he was forbidden to do so, but he never mentions such a prohibition either. From all this it is concluded that he knows nothing about the appearance and significance of the interior, and is himself deceived about it. But he is also in a state of deception about the man from the country, for he is subordinate to him and doesn't know it. It is evident in several places that he treats the man as a subordinate, as I'm sure you will recall. But it is equally clear, according to this opinion, that he is in fact subordinate to him. First of all, the free man is superior to the bound man. Now man is in fact free: he can go wherever he wishes, the entrance to the Law alone is denied to him, and this only by one person, the doorkeeper. If he sits on the stool at the side of the door and spends the rest of his life there, he does so of his own free will; the story mentions no element of force. The doorkeeper, on the other hand, is bound to his post by his office; he is not permitted to go elsewhere outside, but to all appearances he is not permitted to go inside either, even if he wishes to. Moreover he is in the service of the Law but serves only at this entrance, and thus serves only this man, for whom the entrance is solely meant. For this reason as well he is subordinate to him. It can be assumed that for many years, as long as it takes a man to mature, his service has been an empty formality, for it said that a man comes, that is, a mature man, so that the doorkeeper had to wait a long time to fulfill his duty, and in fact had to wait as long as the man wished, who after all came of his own free will. But the end of his service is also determined by the end of the man's life, and he therefore remains subordinate to him until the very end. And it is constantly emphasized that the doorkeeper realizes none of this. But nothing striking is seen in this, for according to this opinion, the doorkeeper in an even greater state of deception with regard to his office. For at the very end he speaks of the entrance and says 'I'm going to go now and shut it,' but at the beginning it's said that the gate to the Law always stand open; if it always stand open, however, that is, independent of how long the man lives for whom it is meant, then even the doorkeeper can't shut it. Opinions vary as to whether the doorkeeper intends the announcement that he is going to shut the gate merely as an answer, or to emphasize his devotion to duty, or because he wants to arouse remorse and sorrow in the man at the last moment. Many agree, however, that he will not be able to shut the gate. They even think that, at least at the end, he's subordinate to the man in knowledge as well, for the former sees the radiance which streams forth from the entrance to the Law, while the doorkeeper, by profession, is probably standing with his back to the entrance, nor does he show by anything he says that he might have noticed a change." "That's well reasoned," said K., who had repeated various parts of the priest's explanation to himself under his breath. It's well reasoned, and now I too believe that the doorkeeper is deceived. But that doesn't change my earlier opinion, for in part they coincide. It makes no difference if the doorkeeper sees clearly or is deceived. I said the man was deceived. If the doorkeeper sees clearly, one might have doubts about that, but if the doorkeeper is deceived, the deception must necessarily carry over to the man. In that case the doorkeeper is indeed no deceiver, but is so simpleminded that he should be dismissed immediately from service. You have to realize that the deception in which the doorkeeper finds himself doesn't harm him but harms the man a thousandfold." "You run up against a contrary opinion there," said the priest. "Namely, there are those who say that the story give no one the right to pass judgment on the doorkeeper. No matter how he appears to us, he's still a servant of the Law; he belongs to the Law, and is thus beyond human judgment. In that case one can't see the doorkeeper as subordinate to the man. To be bound by his office, even if only at the entrance to the Law, is incomparably better than to live freely in the world. The man has only just arrived at the Law, the doorkeeper is already there. He has been appointed to his post by the Law, to doubt his dignity is to doubt the Law itself." "I don't agree with that opinion," said K. shaking his head, "for if you accept it, you have to consider everything the doorkeeper says as true. But you've proved conclusively that that's not possible." "No," said the priest, "you don't have to consider everything true, you just have to consider it necessary." "A depressing opinion," said K. "Lies are made into a universal system."

And with this remark, which exposes the whole system of lies that the priest has been defending, in this parody of Talmudic analysis, K.'s fate is sealed.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Nowhere Man

You know how the song goes:

He's a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody
Doesn't have a point of view
Knows not where he's going to
Isn't he a bit like you and me?

Now that's pure poetry and song, the sort of thing that The Beatles gave us so much of.

That's not the point I wanted to make though: here I am sitting in my nowhere land talking about something, Pure Poetry, that so far as I can tell, nobody cares about. I'm also a bit like Bellow's Herzog, sending off messages to nowhere about modernity and how we got there--and never managing to finish the masterpiece that was going to explain it all, Romanticism And Christianity. Until one day he wakes up, blissfully happy in his shack in the middle of nowhere saying to himself, "If I'm out of my mind that's fine by me," (I think I got that right), and deciding that anyone who thinks he can make sense of history is either a fool or mad.

Let me just say this about pure poetry, pure art, pure mathematics, pure science. What makes them pure is, as Matthew Arnold would say, their character as disinterested constructions: they serve no political interest.
Where would we be if there were never, anywhere, anyhow, any way to get away from our political obsessions?

Only a hopeless romantic, like me I guess, would ask such a question.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Pure Poetry: Can of Worms or Net Full Of Butterfies?

Both. The subject of pure poetry--or they used to say back in the Pre-Postmodern era, art-for-art's-sake--is a sort of Pandora's Box of questions, problems and conundrums, and therefore a can-of-worms. On the other hand, pure poems when you know what to look for, and have conquered your aversion to anything that smacks of High Art, are like butterflies. Which may be why Nabokov who certainly believed in High Art as much as anyone, was an avid student and collector of these improbably beautiful creatures.

Eliot's poem (see previous post) is pure poetry, i.e. it defeats criticism, and so (I would guess) is Baudelaire's. (Auden said, in a famous poem about Yeats--September 1939 which was when he died-- that "poetry makes nothing happen"). Let me say, before proceeding, that Baudelaire and Poe got it right, more or less, in rejecting the idea that poetry has anything to teach or promote--the "didactic heresy" they refer to. The term 'beauty' has gone out of fashion, and Baudelaire's semi-theological (and pre-symbolist) notion of 'correspondences' belongs in the dust-bin of history, but his (and Poe's) rejection of the traditional theory--that the purpose of poetry is, by giving us pleasure, to give us moral instruction--is right on. If you are curious, you can find this theory well laid out in Sir Philip Sydney's 16th century essay "In Defense of Poetry." (He was defending poetry against the puritanical types of his day who distrusted pure art and poetry just as much as the post-modern puritans of yesteryear.)

Now for the can of worms. The trouble with any theory of pure poetry is that there are some indubitably great poems that have a lot to teach: Lucretius' On The Nature of Things, for example. And how about Paradise Lost? Bk.I is some of the purest and greatest poetry I know--it doesn't get much better than that. Too bad it's too long to quote. (It is possible to write pure poetry that says nothing at all and is of no interest.) But Shakespeare wrote some of the purest poetry there is--not so much in the blank verse of the plays themselves, which always have a dramatic context, but in the songs that are included by the way, as in Twelfth Night and Cymbeline some of which I shall show you. First though I want to show you one of Shakespeare's purest poems. It is called "The Phoenix and Turtle" and it may be that only specialists know about it these days. ('Turtle' is a dove.) No one knows much about it or who it refers to. Like all pure poetry, it defeats criticism yet its meaning is clear.

Let the bird of loudest lay,
On the sole Arabian tree,
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey.

But thou shrieking harbinger,
Foul precurrer of the fiend,
Augur of the fever's end,
To this troop come thou not near!

From this session interdict
Every fowl of tyrant wing,
Save the eagle, feath'red king:
Keep the obsequy so strict.

Let the priest in surplice white,
That defunctive music can,
Be the death-divining swan,
Lest the requiem lack his right.

And thou treble-dated crow,
That thy sable gender mak'st
With the breath thou giv'st and tak'st,
'Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.

Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead,
Phoenix and the turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.

So they lov'd as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.

Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance, and no space was seen
'Tiwxt this turtle and his queen;
But in them it were a wonder.

So between them love did shine
That the turtle saw his right
Flaming in the phoenix' sight:
Either was the other's mine.

Property was thus appalled,
That the self was not the same;
Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was called.

Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded;

That it cried, "How true a twain
Seemeth this this concordant one!
Love hath reason, reason none,
If what parts can so remain."

Whereupon it made this threne
To the phoenix and the dove,
Co-supremes and stars of love,
As chorus to their tragic scene.


Beauty, truth, and rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclos'd in cinders lie.

Death is now the Phoenix' nest;
And the turtle's loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,

Leaving no posterity:
'Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.

Truth may seem, but cannot be;
Beauty brag, but 'tis not she:
Truth and Beauty buried be.

To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer. 1601

I realize, now, that this may be tough to swallow for those unaccustomed to reading poetry, pure or impure. So, for another pure poem, on similar but less philosophical lines, look up Edward Lear's "Owl And Pussycat."

Friday, July 18, 2008

Pure Poetry

Poetry has no other aim or object but herself....Truth has nothing to do with Song.... With these words, Baudelaire cut himself and poetry loose from a couple thousand years of literary tradition. I don't know if he got this idea from Poe or if he or Poe got it from someone else. Schopenhauer had said something similar about music but it is unlikely that either of them could have had a chance to read The World as Will And Idea which though published in 1819 would not become widely known until the the late 1850s or sixties.

Pure poetry is not easy to write. Henceforth this would be the ideal that ambitious poets would increasingly try to approximate. Rimbaud for example. Literary critics did not much like this idea, if they paid it any attention at all, for it didn't give them much to talk about. But it had important consequences for some critics in the 20th century who took it to mean that if you want to understand what a poem is actually doing, you had to try to understand it on its own terms. You had to try to get inside it, so to speak.

How 'pure' is Baudelaire's own poetry? This is a question that I am not qualified to answer since I don't read French very well.

Here, in Richard Howard's translation, is the poem that T.S. Eliot was 'imitating' in Preludes:


It comes as an accomplice, stealthily,
the lovely hour that is the felon's friend;
the sky, like curtains round a bed, draws close,
and man prepares to become a beast of prey.

Longed for by those whose aching arms confess:
we earned our daily bread, at last it comes,
evening and the anodyne it brings
to workmen free to sleep and dream of sleep,
to stubborn scholars puzzling over texts,
to minds consumed by one tormenting pain. . .
Meantime, foul demons in the atmosphere
dutifully waken--they have work to do--
rattling shutters as they take the sky.
Under gaslamps shaken by the wind
whoredom invades and everywhere at once
debouches on invisible thoroughfares
as if the enemy had launched a raid;
it fidgets like a worm in the city's filth,
filching its portion of Man's daily bread.

Listen! Now you can hear the kitchens hiss,
the stages yelp, the music drown it all!
The dens that specialize in gambling fill
with trollops and their vague confederates,
and thieves untroubled by a second thought
will soon be hard at work (they also serve)
softly forcing doors and secret drawers
to dress their sluts and live a few days more.

This is the hour to compose yourself, my soul;
ignore the noise they make; avert your eyes.
Now comes the time when invalids grow worse
and darkness takes them by the throat; they end
their fate in the usual way, and all their sighs
turn hospitals into a cave of winds.
More than one will not come back for broth
warmed at the fireside by devoted hands.

Most of them, in fact, have never known
a hearth to come to, and have never lived.

I (very briefly) discussed Eliot's poem, Preludes on 3-11-08. I'll show you that poem as soon as I can locate it. Ah, here it is:

THE WINTER evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.


The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.


You tossed a blanket from the bed,
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed’s edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.


His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o’clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

'romantic' & 'romanticism'--again, but for the last time

I've concluded that these words have no useful meaning--if they ever did. They do not enable us to make useful distinctions. What do we know that we didn't know before when we call a poem 'romantic'? Nothing.

None of the Romantic poets, so-called, called himself a romantic poet. According to the OED, the first literary use of this term is by Emerson in 1841: "The vaunted distinction between classical and romantic schools seems superficial and pedantic."

My guess is that these words were concocted by literary historians trying to organize their materials or critics looking for a simple way to categorize works and writers they approved or disapproved of.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Beaudelaire & E. A. Poe

Thinking about romanticism some more, I notice a signature trait of certain 19th century writers especially when they are writing in prose. 'Beauty' is a very big word and so are 'soul', 'eternal', 'spiritual,' 'redemption', 'evil,' 'god', etc. Whether practising christians or not (I don't know if Baudelaire was one), the residual effects or emotional habits of christianity retain a powerful hold over them. Modernity is the enemy; though they don't use this word as I do, so as to mean a qualitative change so fundamental in the economic and political conditions of ordinary life, and coming so fast, as to create a sort of historical discontinuity between the Modern Age and all the ages that had preceded it. (Henry Adams knew what was going on and felt compelled to posit Christianity as a countervailing force to the energy of the modern dynamo [capitalism] that was remaking the world. See the chapter on The Virgin and The Dynamo in The Education of Henry Adams.)

The word 'modern' for Baudelaire just meant whatever is going on now, in the present. So far as I can see, he has no sense of history. All he knows (in 1852) is that things are going badly and will probably get worse. Worst of all, the middle-classes (the Bourgeoisie) were growing fat and becoming more numerous and more powerful. The Aristocracy at least had some taste; the Bourgeoisie had none. Forced to choose, Baudelaire--an admirer of Joseph de Maistre--prefers aristocracy, anytime.

Democracy in the U.S could only mean one thing, the tyranny of the bourgeoisie. Edgar Allen Poe, accordingly becomes for him a martyr to the cause of Art and Beauty, a victim (in effect) of modernity. (See the chapters on Poe in The Painter of Modern Life And Other Essays

I remarked, some time ago, that romanticism is a reaction to modernity. (I freely admit that this idea is not based on deep or wide-ranging historical scholarship; it is an inference I've drawn from the little I've read.) This definition strikes me as especially relevant to mid-19th century France and especially to the poets and artists of that time and later. The novelists of that time in France seem not to have entirely shared the hatred that the poets felt for the bourgeoisie, as the agents and beneficiaries of change; like Balzac (and Dickens) they were as fascinated as they were appalled by the death-throes of the world that was dying and the birth-pains of the one that (in Matthew Arnold's words) was struggling to be born. Though Arnold invented the term 'philistine' (meaning your ordinary, brutish, uninformed consumer of--mostly--cheap, mass-media art), he by no means intended to limit its application to the middle-classes; he was, after all, a middle-class intellectual himself. (Virtually all important writers, artists and scientists since the Renaissance have come from the middle-classes. Only in 19th century Russia will you find serious, first-class thinkers and writers among the nobility--Tolstoy, for example--and, in the 20th century, Stravinsky, Nabokov, Pasternak. Have I got that right?)

Baudelaire's essay(s) on Poe (written, I think, in 1852--the 'editor' of this collection supplies no dates! Infuriating.) give us an unusual opportunity to examine, in a short time and space, how political attitudes and literary theory reinforce each other in the mind of a major poet--i.e. Baudelaire.

It is immediately apparent that Baudelaire is not particularly interested in Poe's stories or poems. The only poem he singles out--for perfunctory treatment--is (of course) The Raven (that stupid bird, as one of my students once neatly noticed. It is just a bird, as Moby Dick is just a whale.)

What mainly interests Baudelaire is Poe's essay The Poetic Principle, and the political prejudices recorded in his Marginalia and Fifty Suggestions. For example, Poe regarded Progress (I quote Baudelaire who is frequently paraphrasing Poe), "that great idea of modern times, as an idiot's delight." And: "Material activity, inflated to the form of a national form of madness, leaves the American mind with very little room for the things which are not of the earth.... among a people without an aristocracy the cultivation of Beauty could only be corrupted, cheapened and must finally disappear.... [Poe] believed only in the unchangeable, the eternal, the 'self-same'...." "The People"--says Poe--have nothing to do with the laws but to obey them." And: "The nose of a mob is its imagination. By this, at any time, it can be led."

A society of this kind [says Baudelaire]was hardly made for poets. What even the most democratic of Frenchmen understands by the word 'State' would find no place in the mind of an American. For any citizen of the old world, a political state has a center of activity which is its sun and its brain, ancient and glorious memories, long poetic and military annals, an aristocracy to which poverty, daughter of revolutions, can only add a paradoxical lustre; but that?! That rabble of buyers and sellers, that nameless thing, that headless monster, that convict deported beyond the seas, a State?!....

It will always be difficult to pursue at once nobly and fruitfully the profession of man letters without laying oneself open to the slander and calumny of the impotent, the envy of the rich--that envy which is their punishment!--and the vengeance of bourgeois mediocrity. But what is difficult enough in a benevolent monarchy or a regular republic becomes well nigh impossible in a kind of nightmare chaos in which everyone is a police constable of opinion...[there, in]the noble
land of Franklin, the inventor of the ethics of the shop-counter, the hero of an age dedicated to materialism....

A social environment of this kind is bound to beget corresponding literary errors. It was against these errors that Poe reacted as often as he could, and with all his strength. We should not be surprised therefore that American writers, while recognizing his singular powers as poet and story writer, should always have sought to invalidate his worth as a critic. In a land where the idea of utility, which is the most hostile of all to the idea of beauty, outweighs and dominates everything [serious criticism, like poetry, must cease to exist.]

For Poe the Imagination is the Queen of the Faculties, but by this word he understood something greater than what is understood by the generality of readers....The Imagination is an almost divine faculty which perceives at once, quite without resort to philosophic methods, the intimate and secret connections of things, correspondences and analogies....

But there is yet another heresy which, thanks to the hypocrisy and to the dullness and vulgarity of minds, is much more to be feared... I refer to the heresy of The Didactic... a whole host of people imagine that the aim of poetry is some kind of instruction--that it ought now to fortify the conscience, now to perfect manners, now to demonstrate some aspect of utility....But we have only to descend into ourselves, to look into our own see that Poetry has no other aim or object but herself.... On pain of death or decay, Poetry cannot transform herself into a branch of science or ethics; her object is not Truth but only herself. The modes of demonstration of Truth are other and elsewhere. Truth has nothing to do with Song....

It is this admirable and immortal instinct for Beauty that makes us consider the Earth and its shows as a glimpse, a correspondence of Heaven. The unquenchable thirst for all that lies beyond, and which life reveals, is the liveliest proof of our immortality. It is at once by means of and through poetry, by means of and through music, that the soul gets an inkling of the glories that lie beyond the grave....Thus the Poetic Principle lies, strictly and simply, in human aspiration towards a supernal beauty....

From here, as you can see, it is but a hop, skip and a jump to symbolism.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

A Foot Note To Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer had no interest in Mathematics and knew nothing about the tremendous developments that were occurring under his nose. It did not occur to him therefore, as it had not to Kant or any of his other followers, that mathematics is the true synthetic a priori.

In 1831, Evariste Galois used a hint from Newton about symmetries in relations between the coefficients and roots of algebric equations to prove that equations of the fifth degree had no general or algorithmic solution (like the algorithm that everyone learns for quadratic equations) and invented group theory in order to complete his proof. Mathematics had become by that time a European enterprise, building on the work of Euler and Gauss and many others in the 18th century. Lagrange, Cauchy, Abel, Dedekind, Dirichlet, Helmholtz, Kronecker, Kummer, Riemann, Sylow are just a few of the names that a man like Schopenhauer who claimed to be up to date in all the sciences, ought to have known about.

When Schopenhauer died in 1867, history had passed him by. The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848. The purpose of philosophy, said Marx, is not to understand the world but change it. Schopenhauer's message of esthetic contemplation or Buddhist self control and denial was of no use to people who were under the tiger's or Capitalist paw. Henceforth the romantic will would take new directions. Marxism, without any of the checks and balances that 18th century liberalism had devised, proved to be wonderfully useful--as the world would learn at horrendous cost--to the will to power, which as Schopenhauer had shown, is what makes the world go round.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Schopenhauer & Wagner

Schopenhauer wrote The World As Will And Idea in 1819 when still a very young man, in his early twenties, expecting its importance would soon be recognized. He had to wait for more than thirty years, until 1853 when it was reviewed in The Westminster Review. He died nine years later, alone, as he had lived for almost his entire adult life. He read everything--including, every day, the London Times. He had an independent income and could afford to attend concerts and the theater. Which brings up an aspect of his work and life that I have not touched upon: one doesn't have to become Buddhist monk, or a Shaker, in order to withdraw from the cold, brutal, egoism of the world and the Will that keeps it going. One can also withdraw, if one has the means and/or talent into another world, of disinterested esthetic contemplation: to create or contemplate representations of the world in art, music, poetry, philosophy is (he thought) to lift oneself out of the blood and muck of the world into a higher realm:

In all these reflections I wish to make clear the nature and the scope of the subjective element in esthetic pleasure--that the deliverance of knowledge from the service of the will, the forgetting of oneself as individual, and the raising of consciousness to the pure will-less, timeless, subject of knowledge, independent of all relations.

Music, which can only be about itself and is therefore in itself necessarily disinterested, is the highest form of art. ('Disinterested' of course means having no axe to grind, so Schopenhauers's principle here is implicitly moral. His esthetics, therefore, has an unacknowledged moral basis.) The religion of Art, which become such a huge part of bourgeois life in the 19th and 20th centuries, may have originated with Schopenhauer. When he finally became famous, following the publication of that English review essay, Wagner was his first great convert. He and Schopenhauer never met. The latter had never heard of him and did not answer Wagner's letters.
Since I don't care much for Wagner's music, I shouldn't talk about him at all, and will limit my comments to an arbitrary device in the plots of The Ring and Tristan and Isolde which has the effect (as it seems to me) of transforming rationally comprehensible tragedies into incomprehensible catastrophes. I'm referring to the black magic of the love potions--no different from those used for appropriately comic purposes in A Midsummer Night's Dream--that divert Seigfried's love for Brunhilde to the sister of his enemy, and force Tristan into an essentially adulterous affair with Isolde. Since magic is both inexplicable and irresistable, Tristan is blameless. His story is not about moral confusion but about a passion that has nothing whatsoever to do with morality or ethics. The Ring, similarly, is diverted from a rationally comprehensible tragedy of the will to power to a meaningless catastrophe caused by an unaccountable power beyond human control. What Schopenhauer would have thought of all this I don't know but I don't think he'd have approved.