Thursday, June 17, 2010

Modernism: discrediting the object in a picture by Jeanne Taylor (1937)

Jeanne Taylor, an accomplished artist totally unknown to fame, was about 22 when she made this playfully cubist picture of a farm near Scandia, Mn. in the summer of 1937, and gave it to her dear friend, my mother, who was then 37. It looks a little childish, as if she had been thinking of me and my sister when she painted it (I was six and my sister was not yet three) and perhaps she was.  I like to think so: "Here," she seems to be saying, "is how you can take ordinary things and make them interesting and beautiful using, simple lines and colors, and almost no perspective at all. You don't have to make them look true to life (whatever that means)." She didn't really expect us to take all this in; it would be years before we were able to understand what she was looking for in her art and life: liberation—from cliches, artificial codes, official conventions about what is or is not art in the representation of reality: a condition of complete simplicity.

That was the message of modernist art—as it was the message of Whitman's and, later, Rimbaud's poetry, and as we now know it comes with a price: that condition of complete simplicity costs not less than everything. For once you start simplifying your art or your life or your politics, where do you stop? Some conventions are deep and powerful, like manners, honesty, integrity, the making and keeping of promises. It really means something to be a person whose word can be trusted. Consider the structure of constitutional government and the rule of law, so basic to modernity: these are high on the list of the conventions we live by, and were achieved, in England, America, the Scandinavian countries after heroic struggles against despotic kings and against the odds. The 20th century, the century of total war and unspeakable abominations came very close to obliterating all of this.  A century of rapid climate change could easily finish the job that Fascism and Marxism nearly accomplished.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Constitutional Government And The Rule Of Law: Macaulay's History of England

Constitutional government and the rule of law is the keystone of the great arch that supports all the free  political, social and intellectual institutions of modernity that we now take for granted. It took a hundred years to put that keystone in place. It was an epic struggle. Like the French Revolution, a hundred years later, it could easily have taken a bad turn and gone the wrong way. Anyone interested in modernity should read the story of the English revolution that Thomas Macaulay tells with verve, brilliance and intellectual power in his history of England in the 17th century (published in 1848) which ends with the virtual abdication, in 1688, of the last of the Stuart kings, and his replacement by William, Prince of Orange and his wife Mary, the daughter of James II. It is a riveting and thrilling story, like a great historical novel except that it is not fiction but truth told by one of the finest masters of English prose.

Macaulay's History of England has been dismissed by some as merely a smug Whiggish interpretation of history. I have yet to see a Tory interpretation that bears comparison with Macaulay's work, which is always honest and never simple minded. I quote briefly from the first chapter:

I shall recount the errors which, in a few months, alienated a loyal gentry and priesthood from the House of Stuart. I shall trace the course of that revolution which terminated the long struggle between our sovereigns and their parliaments, and bound up together the rights of the people and the title of [a new] reigning dynasty. . . how under that settlement the authority of law and the security of property were found to be compatible with a liberty of discussion and of individual action never before known . . . . Nor will it be less my duty faithfully to record disasters mingled with triumphs, and great national crimes and follies far more humiliating than any disaster. It will be seen that the system which effectually secured our liberties against the encroachments of kingly power gave birth to a new class of abuses from which absolute monarchies are exempt. It will be seen that in consequence partly of unwise interference, and partly of unwise neglect, the increase of wealth and the extension of trade produced, together with immense good, some evils from which poor and rude societies are free. It will be seen how, in two important dependencies of the crown, wrong was followed by just retribution; how imprudence and obstinacy broke the ties that bound the North American colonies to the parent state; how Ireland, cursed by the domination of race over race, and of religion over religion, remained indeed a member of the empire, but a withered and distorted member, adding no strength to the body politic, and reproachfully pointed at by all who feared and envied the greatness of England.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Poe's Raven and Keats' Nightingale

Two birds. One sings, the other speaks—a single word. Two poems, one of which has a deep subject, deeply meditated, while the other is, by design, about nothing much at all, though pretending otherwise. Two poets, one serious, the other melodramatic, frivolous. Here is Poe's "Raven":

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
'Tis some visitor, I muttered, tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.'

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
`'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door -
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; -
This it is, and nothing more,'

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
`Sir,' said I, `or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you' - here I opened wide the door; -
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, `Lenore!'
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, `Lenore!'
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
`Surely,' said I, `surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore -
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; -
'Tis the wind and nothing more!'

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door -
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door -
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
`Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,' I said, `art sure no craven.
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore -
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning - little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door -
Bird or beast above the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as `Nevermore.'

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered - not a feather then he fluttered -
Till I scarcely more than muttered `Other friends have flown before -
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.'
Then the bird said, `Nevermore.'

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
`Doubtless,' said I, `what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore -
Till the dirges of his hope that melancholy burden bore
Of "Never-nevermore."'

But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore -
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking `Nevermore.'

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
`Wretch,' I cried, `thy God hath lent thee - by these angels he has sent thee
Respite - respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! -
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted -
On this home by horror haunted - tell me truly, I implore -
Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us - by that God we both adore -
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named Lenore?'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!' I shrieked upstarting -
`Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! - quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!

Poe's poem consists of 18 six line stanzas each with an identical rhyme scheme: abcbbb, in which each of the 'b' rhymes end with the same syllable, '-ore'. Into this rhyming machine stumbles a raven who, as the poet recognizes, has somehow or other picked up a single word, 'nevermore' which, as the poet also understands,the bird says meaninglessly; but he managesto say it—not accidentally— just when the poet's rhyming machine requires it.  (A parrot could have said 'nevermore' just aswell as a raven but that would have made it a very different poem: not a soulful melodrama but a comic farce.) We learn nothing of Lenore aside from the fact that the poet has lost her, nor do learn anything about the "shadow" that has settled on thepoet's soul never to be lifted, or what this 'demonic' raven has to do it. It is after all just a bird and the poet knows that as well as we do.

What's it all about? Does this poem have a subject, does it go anywhere, does it mean anything? No. Poe is our first theorist of pure poetry; anticipating Archibald MacLeish, he thought poems should not mean but be. That's not what Poe actually says in his essay,"The Poetic Principle," but it's what he means as he argues thatmoral concepts and ideas do not belong in self-respecting poems; the object of poetry is beauty, not making its readers better people. That he calls the "didactic heresy" but Poe is the real heretic: no one, before Poe, had ever claimed that poetryor any other art form should aim at beauty regardless of any effect that art might have on any other truth or on any other claim about the way people should live and behave. For at least two thousand years, most poets and philosophers would have agreed with Sir Philip Sydney in his great Defense Of Poetry (1581, pub. 1595) when he says the poet "not only show[s] the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way as will entice any man to enter into it. . . He beginneth not with obscure definitions, which must blur the margent with interpretations, and load the memory with doubtfulness. But he cometh to you with words setin delightful proportion, either accompanied with, or prepared for, thewell-enchanting skill of music; and with a tale, forsooth, he cometh
to you, with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from
the chimney-corner, and, pretending no more, doth intend the winning
of the mind from wickedness to virtue. . . .

 It's easy to see why such talk might some of us uneasy, today or indeed
at any time in during the last hundred years. (The above passage
from Sidney's Defense is but a small part of a much larger and
complicated argument.) But, surely, no one will argue that poetry
or any other art is or ought to be irrelevant to the way we live our lives,
which is what Poe wants to claim: that truth in art (whatever that means)
has nothing to do with beauty or virtue; and vice-versa.  But if poetry
has no moral content whatsoever, how can it be 'about' anything?
Poe's Raven merely gives us the illusion that it is about something

Poe admired the pure poetry of Keats and cited him in support of his theories, having failed to notice that Keats' poetry is full of subject matter; all of his poems are about something; and where's there's subject matter in a poem there's likely to be moral content. Consider Keats' "Ode To A Nightingale":

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
 One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
  But being too happy in thine happiness,
 That thou, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees,
 In some melodious plot
 Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
 Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

  O for a draught of vintage! that hath been
 Cool'd a long age in the deep-delvèd earth,
 Tasting of Flora and the country-green,
 Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
 O for a beaker full of the warm South!
 Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
 With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
 And purple-stainèd mouth;
 That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
 And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
 Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
 What thou among the leaves hast never known,
 The weariness, the fever, and the fret
 Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
 Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
  Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
 Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
 And leaden-eyed despairs;
 Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
 Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
 Already with thee! tender is the night,
 And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
 Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays
 But here there is no light,
 Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
 Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
  I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
 Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
 But, in embalmèd darkness, guess each sweet
 Wherewith the seasonable month endows
 The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
 White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
 Fast-fading violets cover'd up in leaves;
 And mid-May's eldest child,
 The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
 The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
 Call'd him soft names in many a musèd rhyme,
 To take into the air my quiet breath;
 Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
 To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
 While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
 In such an ecstasy!
 Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
 To thy high requiem become a sod.
 Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
 In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
 She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
 The same that ofttimes hath
 Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
 Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
 As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.
 Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
 Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
 Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
 In the next valley-glades:
 Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
 Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?

Keat's nightingale is outside of time and history, immortal, timeless
like her song; it has been heard by clowns (peasants) as well as
emperors down through the ages, perhaps even by Ruth as she
"stood in tears amid the alien corn." The poet too would like to
escape time and history "though the dull brain perplexes and
retards." And then suddenly he finds the trick of it and enters
the bird's strange and heart-breakingly beautiful world 
"on the wings of poesy" and imagination:

 Already with thee! tender is the night,
 And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
 Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays
 But here there is no light,
 Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
 Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
  I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
 Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
 But, in embalmèd darkness, guess each sweet
 Wherewith the seasonable month endows
 The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
 White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
 Fast-fading violets cover'd up in leaves;
 And mid-May's eldest child,
 The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
 The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
 But this can't last—how could it?— and he knows it, 
just as he knows that the timelessness of the nightingale
herself is a literary myth, a story, like the story of Ruth, and those
magic casements, opening on the foam/ Of perilous seas, 
in faery lands forlorn . . . That last word, 'forlorn' does not
sad or miserable as in modern usage,  but abandoned, deserted, 
lost. It's not just that no one believes in faery lands any more;
no one takes those old stories or myths seriously. And so the vision 
fades.  The realism that that word 'forlorn' brings into the poem breaks
the spell that the poet has momentarily cast over himself and drags him
back to his "sole self."  And so the poem ends on a slightly sour note, 
as the poet bitterly denigrates imagination as 'fancy', merely, and 
apologizes glumly to the rapidly receding nightingale--"that
deceiving elf"— with its now merely plaintive song:

Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well/ As she is famed to do, 
deceiving elf.

The last lines are unnecessary:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
 Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?

The poet always knows where he is and what he is doing in this poem. 
He is never confused. This is a poem about the imagination and its limits, 
and about the impossibility of escaping from history except during those 
few moments of ecstasy when one knows that one is writing a great poem 
which will be read as long there are people who can read English and who 
know the difference between great poems and trivial ones, great stories 
and trivial stories.

That is a distinction that Poe couldn't afford to make as a poverty-stricken
writer of short stories, most of which tell tales of unintelligible horror or 
motiveless malignity, like "The Fall of The House of Usher" or 
"The Black Cat." You read one and you've just about read them all. (The 
mysterious,  inexplicable thrills and terrors of "The Raven" closely resemble
the atmospherics that Poe loves to cultivate in his stories.) Yet he was perfectly 
capable of writing brilliant stories of rational inquiry:  "The Murders In The 
Rue Morgue", "The Purloined Letter" and "The Gold Bug," for example. 
It's been said that he invented the detetective story and maybe 
he did. He also wrote a few other stories in which rational inquiry and 
disinterested curiosity are all important: "The Descent Into The Maëlstrom"
 and "The Pit and The Pendulum." But he must have decided, since he wrote 
so many of them, that stories of meaningless cruelty and horror would sell 
in the ante-bellum South (which, like the rest of the U. S., he regarded as a 
sort of bourgeois police-state), but not the other kind, and he was probably 
right; which tells you a lot about the slave states in those days: rational 
inquiry and disinterested curiosity were definitely unfashionable, 
for obvious reasons.