Thursday, October 30, 2008

Ted Hughes: The Last Romantic?

Mark Ford's review of Birthday Letters in the latest NY Review, set me thinking and remembering. I knew Ted slightly (we were more than acquaintances, less than friends) at Cambridge in 1954-5. I met him and Sylvia Plath twice in Boston when I got out of the army in the fall of '57, once at their apartment once at mine. I had never heard of her, knew nothing about her poetry. She didn't say a word. I thought she was weird. That was all. We never met again.

I got down his first book, Hawk In The Rain (1957) and began to read. These early poems are full of wild things, especially predators. He admired their fierce intensity. I came to the following poem:

The Dove Breeder

Love struck into his life
Like a hawk into a dovecote.
What a cry went up!
Every gentle pedigree dove
Blindly clattered and beat,
And the mild mannered dove-breeder
Shrieked at that raider.

He might well wring his hands
And let his tears drop:
He will win no more prizes
With fantails or pouters,
(After all these years
Through third, up through second places
Till they were all world beaters...)

Yet he soon dried his tears

Now he rides the morning mist
With a big-eyed hawk on his fist.

Well. Why would one carry a hawk on one's fist when it's too foggy for the bird to see or catch its prey? Ted Hughes as dove-breeder before he met Sylvia? I don't think so. But that doesn't matter. Here's what does: little did he know; if anything, he was the hawk on HER fist. If you know the sad, tragic tale of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and have a taste for dramatic irony, this poem is for you. Also, Birthday Letters which tells that tale in a series of efficiently written and (so far as I can tell) honest poems. But then why not tell it in prose, the natural medium if honesty and efficiency is what you are after? Why use your own tragedy as material for poetry? He does mythologize this tragedy. But doesn't tragedy virtually asks for it?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Art And Science

What do these two truly basic departments or compartments of modern culture have in common? I got to thinking about this question as I was trying to say something, in my last posting, about the meaning of 'revolutionary' in art and it occurred to me that this is a label that can only be applied after the fact. For every Gauguin or Cezanne (you name it) there must be thousands of aspirants who disappear without even making a splash. Why don't they make it? No one knows. They just don't, that's all. Only the art historian, looking back can see what it was that the age was looking for and Gauguin (say) supplied. What the modern age characteristically is looking for is "the new, the truly new" (as Eliot says in an essay that is still worth reading, "Tradition and The Individual Talent"), but it doesn't know the truly new from the merely novel, usually, until someone important announces that the thing that everyone has been looking for, without knowing it, has been found. And once found, the new thing takes on a look of inevitability.

The sciences don't proceed in this way, as you can see for yourself by comparing art history and the history of science. In modern science, inquirers know what they are looking for. How do they know? Because they have well founded theories which make it possible to make predictions; they know what, given certain boundary conditions, they should be able to expect. Theories that fail to make verifiable predictions become obsolete

No masterpiece of literature or art is ever superseded, made obsolete. We don't, couldn't, read the Homer's Iliad the way Aristotle or Cicero did. But it is not obsolete. Aristotle's Physics is philosophically interesting but scientifically useless.

Now Paul Gauguin has a secure, well-understood place in art history (a thing which he probably would have despised). How did all this come about? We don't know. All we know is that by guts, audacity, will, talent, he managed to force himself on the attention of the world. Many others, equally talented so far as anyone can see, fail. So, unlike the history of science, art history is deep down irrational. There are no Gauguins in the history of science.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Romanticism and Primitivism: Wordsworth and Gauguin

We all know or think we know what political revolutions are all about: those who used to be on top are now on the bottom, or dead. The wheel of fortune has revolved. When painters are referred to as 'revolutionary', something similar (at a minimum I suppose) is going on: those who were on the top, getting good prices for their pictures, will soon suffer the fate of all those who fall from favor. But that cannot exhaust the meaning of 'revolutionary' when applied to some new thing in the arts; the word has to mean--if it means anything at all--something more than merely another turn of fortune's wheel.

When the Impressionists changed the language of art, they must have been changing, subtly, the language of politics as well. Why otherwise make such a fuss? But how does that work? How can changes in the way people use paint to make representations of the world, change the world? For that's what was happening in Europe--in all the arts-- during the decades leading up to the First World War and the Twentieth Century. Or maybe the artists weren't actually changing the world but rather, like those famous canaries down in the coal-mines, registering historic changes that ordinary people were unable to observe.

Paul Gauguin was not exactly an Impressionist but he hung out with that crowd. They were his friends; Pisarro was his teacher.
What makes Gauguin a revolutionary, in art-historical terms? His art is increasingly non-naturalistic, less and less interested in the imitation of nature. So what? There is a paragraph of Wordsworth's (from his Preface to the 1800 edition of his--and Coleridge's--Lyrical Ballads that I at least find illuminating. Explaining why he chose to write poems about humble, ordinary, rustic folk, he has this to say:

"Low and rustic life was generally chosen because in that situation the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that situation our elementary feelings exist in a state of greater simplicity and consequently may be more accurately contemplated and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and from the necessary character of rural occupations are more easily comprehended; and are more durable; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and from the necessary character of rural occupations are more easily comprehended; and are more durable; and lastly, because in that situation the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature." (My italics.)

That last phrase tells us what Gauguin found in Tahiti--or rather found after he had created it in the extraordinary pictures he painted there.

Paul Gauguin did not know what he was looking for, exactly, when he went first to Martinique in 1887 and then four years later to Tahiti. He thought he was looking for places where the living would be cheap and easy and he could paint far from the madding crowd of art critics and historians. What he seems to have found, and painted, was a thing or state of mind that he probably did not know he was looking for until he found it: 'unity of being' -- a phrase or an ideal that was just beginning to haunt modern art and poetry and would continue to do so throughout the 20th century. (T. S. Eliot called it, in a memorably ugly phrase, the undissociated sensibility.)

Gauguin painted the women (and a few men) of Tahiti as if had found a place at last "where the passions... are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature": a place and society outside history. Tahiti may once have looked like that, but by the time Gauguin got there the island like many others had become the toy of the Europeans, which they were busily destroying.

Gauguin liked to refer to himself as a "savage" on the strength of some family connections in Peru.

When Tahiti began to seem insufficiently savage as well as too expensive, he moved to another island, Mataiea, in the Marquesas, where life was cheaper and--he was thrilled to discover--cannibalism had been practised in the not very distant past.

And here I must throw in some lines from a poem that T.S. Eliot wrote, in music hall style, about life on a cannibal isle. Sweeney is trying to present the attractions of such a life, among the "Gauguin maids," to a young woman named Doris who isn't having any:

There's no telephones
There's no gramophones
There's no motorcars....
Nothing to eat but the fruit as it grows
Nothing to see but the palmtrees one way
And the sea the other way,
Nothing to hear but the sound of the surf.
Nothing at all but three things
DORIS: What things?
SWEENEY: Birth and copulation and death.
That's all, that's all, that's all, that's all.
Birth and copulation and death.
DORIS: I'd be bored.
SWEENEY: You'd be bored.
Birth and copulation and death.
DORIS: I'd be bored
SWEENEY: You'd be bored.
Birth, and copulation and death.
That's all the facts when you come to brass tacks:
Birth and copulation and death.
I've been born and once is enough.
You don't remember, but I remember,
Once is enough.

So much for the romantic primitivism of Paul Gauguin--and many others.

It is very odd to think of those tom-toms in Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring as somehow originating in the profoundly conservative mind of William Wordsworth.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Strangeness of Thoreau

I don't know if 'strange' is the best way to describe that 'manifesto' of Thoreau's, which I quoted in my last posting, but it will have to do.

Thoreau says he went to live in the woods at Walden Pond because he wanted to find out what life is all about: "to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived." To which he adds, in curiously combative and even defiant language, that he intends to "to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world...." For most of the people who have ever lived on this planet, sex is one of the essential facts of life (like it or not) and marriage (of some sort)--or not--and children. So it is at least a little strange that such matters do not rate even casual recognition; they are not, for him, essential. Yet his prose is so rich, so full of life, that many readers--myself included--may not notice at first that Thoreau has averted his gaze from so large a part of human experience.

Similarly, the vitality and metaphorical density of Thoreau's prose may obscure the philosophical point he is making a little later, in his great call for critical intelligence: "Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe... till we come to hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake..." This distinction between knowledge and opinion, or knowledge and delusion, is sophisticated and civilized; you don't learn it by living alone in the woods. Is that what Thoreau is implying? Well, it is hard to be sure but there were plenty of romantically disposed intellectuals who would have been willing to say so. Still are, I guess.