This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
A Place for Aleister: The Great “Pulpist” of the High Mods?
When one considers what the name Aleister Crowley amounts to in the United States, the imagery arises of a kind of spiritual McDonald’s— “Do what thou wilt” reduced to “Do what you want” (sans a spine of authentic spiritual discipline and labor), Crowley himself a kind of Ozzy Osbourne-like sham avatar. “Crowley-ites” in America are a rough bunch, coercive and not particularly thoughtful. Crowley’s image here is associated with a “Satanic” form of spiritualism, rather than with literary artistry. English writers know he wrote novels, which have had some influence (see Colin Wilson’s “Sex Diary of a Metaphysician”), but a serious critical structure or ethos around Crowley’s novels has yet to emerge. I’d like to address two of Crowley’s novels— “Moonchild” and “Diary of a Drug Fiend.” I will write with the presupposition that these are works of considerable value, but animated by contradictions— accounts of grueling occult and spiritual warfare, honestly and painstakingly represented; which are nonetheless stylized in enough respects to be considered “pulp” or “pulpish,” through this aesthetic condition of stylization. There are, in fact, stylized elements which cohere between “Moonchild” and “Diary”— each features a Byronic hero who also happens to be a spiritualist (Cyril Grey and King Lamus, respectively), granted with intense magnetic force, keen psychological insight,
absolute competence in the rigors of white magic(k) (interesting that Crowley does not espouse Satanism up close), every possible attribute of masculine dignity within the requisite stylized Byronic isolation, and a misogynistic streak. Both books contain long passages of (not particularly strong) original poetry, with ample quotations from the Romantics and Victorians. They maintain an aesthetic bent, and central characters are wont to affirm the value of the higher arts. Occult language, often from white magical texts, is a trope in the books— and those turned off by the occult had better leave off reading. Crowley’s Byronic figures frequently quote his “Book of the Law,” with its famous (and famously abused) refrain: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” If one were to arrange a critical ethos around Crowley and his books, how would he be placed? Despite Crowley’s archetypal Romantic occultism (see Byron’s “Manfred” and Goethe’s “Faust”), there are dark shadings in the two books which have to do, not only with the subaltern to genteel society, but with the (in occult terms, plutonian) underworld of British society in general. The two Byronic heroes run in circles which suggest that they traffic in narcotics; they do not hold down solid jobs, and easily drift from place to place. What the darkling hints of the underworld do is to give the two books a hinge to Modernism and the Modernist ethos— surface/depth tensions, “fractures,” a lack of cohesiveness and continuity haunting the two narratives as they unfold. To put Crowley’s volumes next to Joyce, Proust, and Woolf is instructive— if Crowley’s Romantic, occult “pulpishness” is right on the surface, it is also clear that his abstruse occult tangents lead to a thoroughgoing engagement with metaphysics which Joyce and Woolf, in their materialism, neglect, and which Proust’s winding arabesques only half-assay. Crowley’s metaphysical riffs are a well-rounded adjunct to Blake’s. I published a piece in America in 2010 called “The Decay of Spirituality in Poetry,” and the same holds true in fiction, since Proust— discovery of Crowley in the twenty-first century may be a hinge to a reawakened metaphysical curiosity, against the confines of the conventionally Modern and post-modern. If Crowley is the great “pulpist” of the High Mods, it is because he is able, and unusually so, to weave so many compelling strains of Romanticism into his underworlds. It also makes sense, given the strains of Romanticism evident, that the books assimilate the perspectives and predilections of the aesthete— art, for the characters in the books, is an end in itself, and failure is (quite literally, in “Diary”) to form habits. The Paterian perspective— that moments should be appreciated for their own potential sublimity and individuality— is espoused by both Grey and King Lamus. The contrast to Joyce’s prickly Stephen Dedalus is acute— Lamus and Grey attain an objective, avatar-worthy clarity from practicing self-effacement and selfdiscipline. This also distinguishes them from Byron’s Childe Harold and Manfred— their self-consciousness is not acute. It isn’t exactly Negative Capability they exercise— they stand apart, without dissolving into their mirrors and minions— but their perspective on the limitations of individual and individualized selfhood is not naïve. In comparison with Proust’s Marcel, their arabesques are florid— but the sense of consciousness-within-itself is woven from a single, egoless center to balance and refine them. Peter Pendragon, the major acolyte figure and junkie in “Diary”, slots in as a sort of Leopold Bloom by proxy— a well-meaning Everyman (with scientific, rather than
artistic, inclinations), whose days are a journey of examined or rejected inwardness; and it is worth noting that the two books sound no echoes of Molly Bloom. In fact, as has been mentioned, a misogynistic streak is a flagrant weakness in the two books, as the desires of female characters are subsumed beneath the desires of the males. Colin Wilson’s “Diary” takes this approach and both extends and lampoons it— the protagonist makes goddesses of women only to defile them. Stephen Dedalus sees whores and Madonnas everywhere— in this context, Woolf and Proust stand on loftier ground. It also needs to be remarked how quintessentially English Crowley’s sensibility is. Although “magick” is almost always in evidence, the favored characters (including Grey and Lamus) invariably use it with a high moral purpose (another stroke of irony against how Crowley has been interpreted in America), and for definite reasons. There is no sustained fascination with perversity, as one might expect in a French equivalent of the books (such as Huysmans “Against the Grain”); and, while “Diary” ends on a higher note than “Moonchild,” both end with the sense that the narrative has come to a satisfying and evident conclusion. “Moonchild” is less steady— the final quarter of the book, which seems influenced by Tolstoy, broadens the narrative’s focus too far and uncomfortably into “wartime” territory— but the English sense of narrative purposefulness sees both books through, in the manner of the solid Victorians and Edwardians (and, oddly enough, rather at odds with the ambiguous conclusions of the High Mods.) The difference between the two books, and Grey and Lamus, is fundamental— Grey-asmagus spends “Moonchild” learning (however omnipotent he appears from a distance) what his limitations are, and the ways in which he is still young; Lamus merely has his faith reiterated to him by the circumstances which surround him. This makes the tensions in “Moonchild” more fruitful than those in “Diary”; but, oddly, I find “Diary” more satisfying than “Moonchild,” for other reasons. The characters in “Diary” are more fleshed out and richly drawn; its humanism is subtler, warmer, and of greater depth. “Moonchild” meanders in comparison, and into a kind of fuzzy twilight. However, it is still cohesive enough to be called, in literary terms, a masterpiece. Both books are, by normal literary terms, masterpieces. “Pulp” or “pulpishness,” if intelligently woven into a narrative, adds points and sparks of interest as much as it detracts from essential seriousness in these cases. To accomplish this balance, while also crafting other levels of narrative and artistic solidity, is no mean feat. For this achievement, Crowley’s novels must be welcomed into the English-language fiction canon, as harbinger of a new century; even if, to make the passage smoother, you can skip the poetry.
Essay first featured on Todd Swift’s UK blog Eyewear, September 2013.
Two Essays: Yeats and Eliot in the TwentyFirst Century
Every artist or critic must decide for themselves what merits consideration and what does not. I have argued elsewhere, over a period of years and on two continents, that beyond William Butler Yeats and T.S. Eliot, twentieth century English language verse constitutes a formal-aesthetic junk-heap, not worthy of the serious consideration that, for example, nineteenth century English language verse does. The intervening years have not altered my opinion— they have strengthened it. The conflation of poetry, as a serious established literary form, with rich families and dope deals, cheapened its intentions and weakened its connections both to a nourishing, fertile history and to a profound understanding of the structural components of the art itself. If Yeats and Eliot are the cream of the twentieth century crop, and neither achieved artistic parity with Wordsworth, Keats, or Baudelaire, we must confront the limitations of the twentieth century directly, and with intensity. The rigor which enabled Wordsworth and Keats, in particular, to balance a number of essential textual imperatives— clarity of thematic focus with discipline of formal innovation, for example— was not only missing in Yeats and Eliot, we may well become bewildered by the aimless formal-thematic shifts, huge imbalances towards raw formality, evidently shallow conceptions of innovation, and self-indulgent subjectivities blown up to extremely turgid proportions in their work. The conclusions I come to here are stark— Yeats still presents a somewhat formidable armature, and a few mighty poems; Eliot’s wafflish semi-coherence weakens the entire gestalt construct of his oeuvre so that little is left intact at the end. It is also worth noting that dark suspicions abound around Eliot and Yeats — that there was no “Yeats” or “Eliot” as such, but a conglomerate team of scribes for each, with a hand-selected dummy standing in front. This would explain, for instance, Eliot’s perpetual semi-coherence. There isn’t much for an artist-critic to say on this count— it is the texts which must be dealt with. Whether they were auteurs or dupes, Yeats and Eliot are still the only power-block worthy of structural criticism from their sector. The rest of this sector constitutes an insult to the intelligence of anyone with an interest in serious literature— Pound, Stevens, Williams, Frost, and the ciphers who followed in their wake are all enough abased by frivolity, incoherence, and insipidity to be thrown to the dogs without misgiving. The twentieth century was, in fact, largely an era of ciphers (or, as I have called them, “dupes”)— everything encoded (“decoyed”), all cultural assets drained into the service of the mercantile. This appears to have been true almost as much on the Continent as in America— a certain amount of force seems to have been dedicated to corroding haute culture from the within. It amounts to a kind of communistic plot against the higher arts, to degrade them into oblivion. Yeats is not representatively degenerate on this count; Eliot is. But the twentieth century ensured that everything, including the media, could be bought and sold— so, for the last fifty years, Eliot has predominated over Yeats. I am attempting to invert this development, even as the twenty-first century may render both Yeats and Eliot unimportant. If these two essays do amount to a custodial task, I do hope I’ve performed the task adequately. Adam Fieled, 10-3-13
William Butler Yeats as Edwardian Poet
To make an intelligent argument for William Butler Yeats as what might be called an “Edwardian” poet, several foundational questions must first be addressed. First, what the central aesthetic tenets of “Edwardianism” are, and how they dovetail with Yeats’ own aesthetic; as a supplement to those questions, the issue of literary value in Yeats, and what in his oeuvre is most valuable; lastly, why a theoretical shift around Yeats’ work may be necessary in 2013. As I have defined Edwardianism, as applied to the major Edwardian novelists (Maugham, Lawrence, Forster, Waugh, etc), Edwardian works of literary art are marked by an emphasis, first, on theme over form, as an expression of humanistic interest and preoccupation. Specifically, this manifests as a textual obsession with the loss of the nineteenth century’s original innocence, expressed in faith in moral order and regard for socio-affective thoughtfulness, in the face of the twentieth century’s technologically advanced barbarism, as manifest in World War I and then-nascent American power. The second characteristic Edwardian insignia is a preference for linear narrative, rather than collage, palimpsest, or other genres of formal-aesthetic experimentation/innovation. This complicates the issue of Yeats-as-Edwardian instantly — though Yeats’ strongest poems do tend towards conventional formality, his abstruse mythological systems, their manner of appearing as reference points, and the sense of elliptical non-linearity they build into his texts, complicate Yeats’ relationship with linear narrativity. Yet, it remains the case that linear narrativity usually serves as Yeats’ primary formal-syntactic mode, even for his abstruse mythological tangents. I would like, also, to posit the argument that what is least aesthetically valuable in Yeats are, specifically, his abstruse Irish mythological systems and schema, and the naïve Romanticism with which they are expressed, employed, and fetishized. What aligns Yeats, in his most forceful and memorable work, with Edwardianism, is his hard-nosed, dignified practicality regarding the degradation and dissolution, in the new century, of thoughtfulness and moral order into chaos and barbarism. In the broad sense, and not the pejorative, Yeats is conservative— and what he writes to conserve is a sense of human dignity in the twentieth century’s burgeoning aesthetic-intellectual entropy. In this interest, he stands with Maugham and the others, rather than as a precursor to the inchoate nihilism of Eliot and Pound, or a continuation of the self-satisfied decadence and aestheticism of the 1890s. If there is one figure in the illustrious past of English literature whose work served as a template for Yeats’ thematic gist, and also strengthened, in his influence on Yeats, the bond between Yeats and the Edwardians, it is Wordsworth. It is worth recalling that Wordsworth created his most durable work in the midst of the fallout from the eighteenth century’s own moral entropy; and France’s botched attempt at libertarianism marked his perceptions of the potentialities, social, political, and creative, of the human race. Yet Wordsworth’s “Prelude” insists, as do Yeats’ strongest poems which followed a century later, on mankind as, if not perfectible, at least amenable to improvement. Also, mankind manifests as maintained and perpetuated by an essential intellectual and creative dignity. In short, Wordsworth’s humanism is commensurate with Yeats’; even as authentic humanism leaves room for expressions of dissatisfaction. It would be reductive to characterize the Modernists as strictly anti-humanistic; the telos of their formalism and avant-gardism, for them, was the release of English
language verse from the shackles of a debunked and dishonest Romanticism which infected, not only the English Romantics themselves, but most of the preeminent nineteenth century English-language poets who followed them, right through to Yeats. The Modernists’ implicit conclusions about the human race leaned towards not just pessimism but nihilism. The dignity inherent in Modernistic formalism is involved in the classicism of the aesthetic, rather than the streak of valued populism which animates Wordsworth and his assumed protégé. Humanism and populism are also, in this context, commensurate. With the preponderant weight of the Western academy’s central attention being given to Modernism and post-modernism, and Edwardianism being granted subaltern status, humanism is precisely what has been lost as a concern over the duration of the twentieth century. To make Yeats’ conjunction with the major Edwardian novelists complete, it is only necessary to consider Maud Gonne, Yeats’ most visible ostensible muse. As manifest both in Yeats’ poetry and in his biographies, Gonne shares many characteristics with Somerset Maugham’s Mildred Rogers, from “Of Human Bondage.” There are also some marked differences— Gonne’s political activism suggests education and some erudition, along with a streak of purposefulness which Mildred Rogers lacks. It is also an obvious point worth iterating that Maud Gonne is usually taken for an actual person, while Mildred Rogers is merely a fictional creation of Maugham’s. Still, because Gonne appears in so many of Yeats’ signature poems, as both muse and antagonist, she remains serviceable to be “unpacked” semiotically in the comparative context I have initiated. As represented textually, Gonne and Rogers are analogues in many ways— attractive physically and demonstrative, yet recalcitrant and manipulative. They do not merely magnetize, but subjugate— not unusual, for female literary muses, but the contexts Maugham and Yeats construct around Gonne and Rogers are unique. The two (Maugham and Yeats) expend their humanistic interests on subjects contorted into awkward positions, and into demonstrations of cruelty, by the Zeitgeist of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Without being unduly objectified, Gonne and Rogers become textual “sites” for the exploration of Edwardian tropes and value systems— the loss of the moral order and valued intellectuality of the nineteenth century in the impending urban decay and desolated moral landscape of the twentieth. This congeries is completed by Yeats’ and Maugham’s willingness to sound notes of profound and subtle emotion. The Romantic keynote of joy/ecstasy around the two narrative personae (Yeats and Maugham/”Philip Carey”) in relation to their muses is missing— what is left is a resigned wistfulness inhering in unsparingly accurate and detail-consonant representation. Importantly, the notes which Eliot, as representative Modernist, scores into his representations of women are almost invariably evacuated of profound, earnest emotion. They hinge, especially in “The Waste Land,” on atrophied, entropic, or imploded emotionality. This, in poetry, is a critical distinction— the poet’s approach to emotion and affectivity generally. My critical maneuvering of Yeats, from proto-Modernist to staunch Edwardian, is cogent because Yeats does not eschew or degrade open, earnest affectivity into perpetual, nihilistic irony the way Eliot does. As a textual site for the critical adjustment around Yeats I am attempting, “Adam’s Curse” is an astute choice for starters; and because “Adam’s Curse” functions on many different levels (as elegy, love poem, socio-political critique of a burgeoning century), I will deal with the Edwardian level of the poem, specifically to adumbrate the
mechanics and structure of this rubric of literary concerns. Once the aegis is salvaged from mere fiction reference and consonance, and we ascribe representative status for “Adam’s Curse” as Edwardian, the first mechanical structure has already been noted— linear narrative. Then, we note the hinge to “pure,” if not Romantic, lyricism— the poem is written in the first-person singular, and maintains this perspective for its duration. The protagonist of “Adam’s Curse” is crowded into a socially awkward situation— pushed from stereotypically Romantic isolation into the promiscuity of a triangular formation/ménage with two women— we assume from the context, Maud Gonne and one of her friends. His concerns are complex— the Maud character sulks and is silent, while he discourses about poetry and feminine beauty with her friend. He has to defer the discussion of his disappointed love for Maud with Maud herself, even as he is compelled to air other grievances. His grievances do precisely concern the degradation of thoughtfulness and moral order, in the Edwardian manner— that the esteemed place for artful utterance has been usurped by “bankers, schoolmasters, and clergyman,” leaving him a would-be martyr, as the sun begins to set on the nineteenth century. His discourse about love is no less elegiac, but more personal— that, like Philip Carey in “Of Human Bondage,” he has retreated from idealism and refinement owing to ignorance and rough treatment he has encountered. A final overflow of powerful emotion towards Maud sweeps over him as he completes his discourse, which he is both unwilling and unable to express— and it is significant that his final thoughts are mute, as Maude’s have been for the poem’s duration. The new century is, symbolically, stunning them into silence. Yeats and Maugham both resisted the twentieth century very fiercely. The twentieth century critical response, especially in the United States, was to degrade them for doing so, while awarding fulsome credit to the Modernists for beating back the ramparts of tepid, sentimentalized Romanticism and performing their feats of formalsemantic wizardry. Yeats, at least, was granted a place in this critical gestalt formation— posited as the most crucial textual bridge between the Victorian and Modern eras, and tied personally both to Pound and Eliot. Somerset Maugham is legitimately and tragically lost in the critical shuffle, with the other major Edwardians. Twentieth century criticism, indeed, established a rubric around Modernism which was both forbidding and imposing. It amounts, in totem to include post-modernism, to a kind of American militaristic machine, efficiently and ruthlessly sweeping all unnecessary texts and theoretical apparatuses out of its imperial way. Yet, the Great Recession of the early twenty-first century has already proven to be even more forbidding and imposing than the Modernists’ juggernaut; destabilizing critical assumptions with technological advances around serious literature, and confronting a genuine, drastic funding crisis around the humanities in the Western academy. Thus, Modernism’s critical juggernaut can no longer propel itself forward unimpeded. Depopulation and its discontents are also a major, energy-draining crisis. A critical shift, away from formalism and towards humanism, once perspective on twentieth century critical structures like the Modernist juggernaut has been established, would seem to be a natural and inevitable consequence of great and ineluctable collective suffering. As a de Man-consonant crisis in criticism, a shift around W.B. Yeats as pivot point towards a reappraisal of literary humanism, of theme over form, not only makes sense but demonstrates its own gestalt form of inevitability, as we re-scrutinize the roots both of our reading habits and our impulses to criticize. For literature to see us through the
Recession in a meaningful way, scrutinizing reappraisal of formalism is not only necessary but indivisible from the existence of a collective literary conscience. The Modern and post-modern trap, which employs the rhetoric of retreat around humanism (that humanistic interest constitutes a retreat from bold new forms which alone, and with mystique, can bear literature forward into a worthwhile, progressive future), must be surmounted and dissolved from the inside; humanism, and humanistic interest acclaimed again as of permanent and durable relevance, rather than as a remnant of the nineteenth century’s formal-aesthetic provincialism. As such, a critical shift around Yeats is a step in the correct direction; from the twenty-first century, we notice about Yeats what the twentieth century missed— an artist reeling from perpetual insults to his own value system, its heedfulness of the human mind’s dignity and capacity for positive, sustaining idealism, and willing to express this quandary— in other words, an Edwardian artist. Adam Fieled, 2013
Cheats and Disappointments: T.S. Eliot in the TwentyFirst Century
Through the middle of the twentieth century, particularly the brief influential reign of the American New Critics in the Fifties and Sixties, T.S. Eliot held an esteemed and venerated place in the front ranks of the Modernist movement in English literature, which occupied the first three decades of the century, both in America and in Europe. Towards the end of the century, a critical shift occurred— Modernistic formalism became stricter and more extreme, and took the name post-modernism. The critical ethos around post-modernism had less room for Eliot than Modernist critical frameworks like the American New Critics had— Eliot was deemed too parochial, conservative against extremism, and his own moderated formalism too conservative as well. By the end of the century, the top ranks of avant-garde poets, in America and on the Continent, had made what amounts to a formal split with Eliot— Pound, Stevens, and Williams, along with later groupings like the Black Mountain and San Francisco Renaissance poets, were deemed more germane to the dictates of post-modernity, both in theory and in practice. In many ways, this was a regrettable development for readers of serious literary poetry— textually, post-modernity’s extreme, claustrophobic formalism produced little of permanent interest. Veneration for Ezra Pound, in particular, who produced no original verse of note in his lifetime, has proven to be in extremely bad faith. Indeed, post-modern verse has sought ways and means to manifest and develop modes of disposability— disjuncture leading nowhere, aesthetics of thematic auto-destruction and pathetically narrow focus, general regard for what might be labeled “Non Sequiter-ism.” In disavowing Eliot, and with him narrative competence and intellectual coherence, avant-gardists had clearly lost the sense of poetry as an aesthetic repository for anything other than drug decoys and other flimsy forms of textual parasitism. Were post-modernity to continue indefinitely to progress in this fashion, artful utterance, its representative capabilities, would be reduced to a grime-hewn cul-de-sac. As of 2013, a number of contingent factors have converged to suggest that this may not need to be the case. A renascence to thematics, and the preponderance of literary humanism, signifies that post-modernism’s pitiably narrow and impoverished modes of formalism and formal disjuncture need not maintain a centralized position any longer. I have made a recent argument for William Butler Yeats as an Edwardian artist, in the manner of the major Edwardian novelists (particularly Somerset Maugham)— text becomes, for Yeats, an expression of wounded idealism and narrative coherence. T.S. Eliot, conversely, was a poet who balanced narrative coherence with enough formal daring to fit him squarely under the Modernist aegis— he does, in fact, balance aesthetic conservatism with innovation, lending his best work greater durability than the work of his more extreme, and less verbally gifted contemporaries. Yet, unlike Yeats, Eliot does not tend to express wounded idealism, or any idealism at all— rather, most humanistic interest which we find built into his major poems expresses a pessimistic fixation on the foibles of mankind, and the ultimate entropy of individuals in the face of society’s larger and more imposing mechanisms. Until “Four Quartets,” very little hope is expressed at all; when hope finally does emerge, in “Four Quartets,” it is guarded and expressed in a generalized fashion.
Make no mistake: Eliotic nihilism is well expressed, and very potent, especially in his signature poem, the most famous English-language poem of the century, “The Waste Land.” The first interrogation I have of “The Waste Land” as literary construct is of its collage form— is the literary collage, as executed here, expressive of a certain kind of nihilism? I would like to opine that, in “The Waste Land,” narrative coherence and competence are only intermittently manifested— sometimes constituent parts cohere, sometimes they do not. The American New Critics made the rationalizing supposition that the large chunk of incoherent interrelations in “The Waste Land” were configured self-consciously to mirror, as precisely as possible, the incoherent and inchoate barbarity of the twentieth century. However, this supposition projects onto “The Waste Land” an assumption of narrative-aesthetic purposefulness, which Eliot himself disavowed (with characteristic diffidence.) Poets, critics, and scholars have seemed unwilling to consider Eliot’s own curt dismissal of the collage as “rhythmical grumbling.” It is also worth considering that there is a major quandary even with Eliot’s own formulated phrase— that large portions of the poem, written in jagged, clipped free verse, do not scan as rhythmic, let alone incantatory. For a literary collage to work as an expression of innovative formalism, the pieces must manifest some coherent and cogent relationship to each other. Eliot’s success on this count is, again, intermittent— it is easy to see why, for example, the typist in “The Fire Sermon” artfully inverts the shrewish muse of “A Game of Chess.” Both figures represent female responses to the lassitude, ennui, and desperation of moral order in the West collapsing in entropy. The New Critics most trenchant response was to assign the signification of “secularism” to this entropy. However, the generalized apocalyptic din, which does feature the rhythmical grumbling referred to by the poet himself, of “What the Thunder Said,” establishes an unclear and tenuous relation to the twin female figures already presented to us; aesthetic sharpness degenerates into amorphousness. Eliot’s extreme allusiveness, the quotations he employs from a wide variety of sources, literary and otherwise, further obfuscates and mystifies the notion of narrative or any other form of sustained, center-granting coherence— they do, in fact, tend to take any “rhythmic” possibility out of Eliot’s prosody here. Eliot co-opts the history of English and Continental literature, from Shakespeare to Oliver Goldsmith to Baudelaire, to pile on a formal-semantic junk-heap— whether or not this particular, willfully forged junk-heap constitutes an effective, compelling mirror of the then-burgeoning twentieth century’s cognitive-affective dilapidation is open for conjecture. But compare what Yeats’ “Adam’s Curse” can do that “The Waste Land” cannot— while it presents many analogous perspectives, it is more sharply and coherently rendered, creating a work of art as complex symbol solidly built, against the entropy it represents. There would seem to be no reason to valorize aesthetic entropy, no matter what it is meant to embody or mirror— works of art are meant to subsist as complex symbols, cohering on high cognitive levels, and fractured societal conditions are still better represented by aesthetic wholeness and coherence then by jagged semi-coherence. This is what I would posit for Eliot, against Yeats— a semicompelling, semi-durable semi-coherence. Past Yeats, Eliot is the best English language poetry had to offer in the often lame-duck twentieth century. The New Critics pretended, for mysterious reasons, that Eliot’s semi-coherence was fulsome. Having been stripped back, economically and socially, and past precedent, the twenty-first century already knows better.
“The Waste Land” is what bought Eliot his greatest and most extensive acclaim, especially among avant-gardists. Eliot’s other major achievements present a sort of aesthetic grab-bag of formal-thematic approaches and dynamics— “Prufrock” employs more conventional formality to adumbrate a twentieth century response to Robert Browning’s persona poems. If a major blockage prevents “Prufrock” from achieving its aims, it is that the poem’s formality is thin and facile— with a century’s hindsight, much of it reads awkwardly, and like a jingle— sing-song rhymes belabored by over usage of parallel structures. “Prufrock” lacks the positive density which makes Browning’s persona poems so interesting— Prufrock himself does not prove to be a particularly complex character, nor do the circumstances metonymically connected to him seem particularly complex. “Four Quartets,” which tackles ontology and sensuality in chiasmic relationship, is more interesting— the central conceit of the long poem, what possible intersection and interaction there may be between the human world of temporality and conscious states of timelessness, is developed, sometimes abstractly, sometimes concretely, always with the intention of making sophisticated prosody properly philosophical. For me, “Four Quartets” is Eliot’s most interesting and accomplished work, for its intellectual scope and ambition. Still, the specter of semi-coherence hangs over “Four Quartets” as imposingly as it does over “The Waste Land”; draining away energy and momentum from possible textual crescendos, granting an ambience of aimlessness to the poem’s intermittent formality and general allusiveness. Gem-like passages are scattered throughout “Four Quartets”; but the gestalt whole is frustrating, specifically for its semi-coherence, what in it is merely set adrift to float. “Murder in the Cathedral,” a verse play, is the most coherent of Eliot’s major works; but it is soured by shallow characterizations and Eliot’s self-conscious preciosity, which makes multiple readings both unpleasant and unlikely for seasoned literati. In totem, it seems that Eliot’s major status could only be granted in a minor century for English literature, which the twentieth century certainly was. Eliot would hardly be ranked among the major English Romantics, who were more adept at balancing narrative competence with formal innovation and intellectual heft; and if his achievement could rank him with Tennyson, he could only be ranked beneath Browning, whose best poems demonstrate the narrative mastery which Eliot lacks. Eliot’s literary criticism is facile and jejune enough not to warrant serious critical attention in its own right— again, what it manifests is a wavering, semi-coherent voice, prone not only to pomposity but to flatulence. In the context of twentieth century literature, Eliot’s ascent was a harbinger of ill— the Modernists and post-modernists who followed in his wake were often even less coherent than he was. The demon of incoherence in twentieth century English language poetry was terrible and Kraken-level— as decades past, diminishing returns became, as Americans say, “the name of the game.” After “Four Quartets,” each succeeding generation seemed to have less cognizance of poetry as a vehicle for anything but drug trafficking and the promotion of wealthy families and their subterranean mercenary interests. What was left of coherence in English language poetry was hokey and sentimentalized enough that no one with an intellect or serious literary acumen could take it seriously. Now that the century has turned, the stage is set for something new.
“Edwardianism” and the English Novel
As a tag for a literary aegis, “Edwardianism,” to the best of my knowledge, has never been employed. The Edwardian novelists of the early twentieth century (“Edwardian” often denoting late Victorian) are well-known; names like D.H. Lawrence, Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, and E.M. Forster subsist comfortably in the vernaculars of English-language literati; but most might find that there is something rather misplaced about them, something unsettled. Twentieth century surveys, in academic or other literary contexts, up to 2013, have tended to rate the Edwardians beneath the more formally daring and avant-garde consonant Modernists: Woolf, Joyce, and Proust. Upon close inspection, the most highly regarded Edwardian novels (Women in Love, Of Human Bondage, Brideshead Revisited, A Room With A View) do not offer the leaps of formal daring that the flagship Modernists do; whether it be Joyce’s poeticism, Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness narrations, or Proust’s winding, gradually unfurling imagistic sentence structures. What they do offer is narrative solidity, in the manner of George Eliot and other dominant (English or non-English) nineteenth century novelists: a sense inhering in their texts that there is a secure and worthwhile destination in sight, and that nothing, formal or thematic, is included pointlessly. It is a hinge to noticing the intermittent success of the Modernists’ formal experiments: that for every arrow shot into the proverbial air (this is especially true for Ulysses), some may hit the mark, while others glance off into nothingness. The avant-garde spirit of the twentieth century, and its conflation with different manners of formalism, was quite profound; experimentation was deemed perpetually more relevant than conservation. Undeniably, “Edwardianism” is about conservation, and solidity; a tight and binding emphasis on thematics is what welds it to the nineteenth century. May it also bind it to the twenty-first? Are there ultimate weighing
factors which place the Edwardians above the Mods? And, importantly, is there something to distinguish the Edwardians from the Victorians? The simple answer I have formulated is that yes, there is something to distinguish the Edwardians from the Victorians. It has something to do with a sense of flux or impermanence built into the best pages of these books, from the loss of Victorian stability, into the chaotic confusion of a technologically advanced era (the twentieth century), which, by the time these books were written, was also showing signs of moral decrepitude. Nineteenth century English society and literature, from Wordsworth to Wilde, had in-built a sense of moral order; even Wilde’s aestheticism did not completely dispel it; which fastened, despite the industrial revolution, man to nature and to higher thought, through nature or not; and the moral order maintained a high and venerated place for thoughtfulness. By the time the major Edwardian novels were presented to the English reading public, this public was well into a century which had called into question, through world wars and the growing influence of America, whether a moral order around thoughtfulness was worth keeping. Like Gray in the equally fraught eighteenth century, the Edwardians were forced to register a moral loss within the context of their narratives which the Victorians still had ways around. No text brings these quandaries more to light than Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, a bildungsroman whose protagonist, Philip Carey, serves as a textual “site,” in his utterances, for the expression of the pain of the nineteenth century’s thoughtfulness and moral order bumping into the barbaric chaos of the twentieth. Importantly, Maugham’s prosaic touch is lighter and more graceful than D.H. Lawrence’s; and his concerns less narrow than Evelyn Waugh and E.M. Forster’s. Philip Carey’s achievement, by the conclusion of Of Human Bondage, is ostensibly the conclusion of most bildungsromans— successful integration into (often bourgeois) society through professionalization and marriage. Only, it is noticeable that the bittersweet quality of this particular bildungsroman arises from half-consolations: Carey does not love his bride-tobe, and the social position he has brokered for himself is a small, narrowly confined one (in this case, in medicine.) Textually, Philip has a way of bringing contemporaneous creations (Stephen Dedalus, “Marcel,” Professor Ramsey) down to earth and into focus as clear fictions— simply because, his fate seals a certain textual deal towards acknowledgement of the many bargains thoughtfulness and moral order had to make to survive in a new century, not particularly germane (as, upon close inspection, Stephen Dedalus, “Marcel,” and Professor Ramsey were not) to thoughtfulness or moral order. Philip’s development, how he degenerates towards his version of psycho-affective stalemate, is illustrative. Carey’s life-journey, as recounted in Of Human Bondage, both demonstrates and critiques the Victorian ideal of well-roundedness. Carey is a moderate character, rather than an extreme or risqué one— in whatever context we happen to see him, he makes a yeoman’s effort to cleave to a self-created, self-sustaining central path. The novel focuses on Mildred Rogers as Philip’s central antagonist, specifically because Philip’s emotional reaction to Mildred drags his consciousness into depths of jealousy, abasement, and self-abnegation. There is no steady path for Mildred Rogers— there is only the desperate fracas of attempting to make her way in society materially (employing her good looks and feminine wiles) in a hostile and barbaric urban context. A woman, of no particular social standing, alone in a major metropolis had become normalized in the twentieth century— as had the industrial barbarism of the modern metropolis. As such, the manner in which Mildred flails, scouring for ports in her storm, even as her lack of education and sensitivity renders her crass and unimaginative, is specifically a syndrome of twentieth century life. Philip’s extreme reactions to her evacuate his innocence, expressed in appreciation of the fine arts and
bohemian environments. His youthful passion is spent on an unworthy target. At the point in the narrative that a woman of substance enters his life, the stance he is compelled to adopt in their relationship is a moderate one, closing the circle on his bout with extremity, and with it irrationality and abandon. The sacrifice of these tokens of bohemianism is painful for Carey; and their exchange for duty and propriety only partly satisfying. The chiaroscuro coloration of the book’s conclusion is as representatively twentieth century as anything in the Modernist fiction canon. The signifying Edwardian novelistic coloration (brush-stroke) is a subtle, finely wrought chiaroscuro— that “fineness” is lost in the murky bulk of Joyce and Woolf’s texts, which sacrifice psychological precision on the altar of formal experimentation and drastic innovation. This is my proposed critical “bait-and-switch” for Edwardianism and Modernism, in part: precise humanism for amorphous formalism. It would be naïve, however, not to admit points of interest/fascination in the Modernistic formalism of Joyce and Woolf. Joyce’s poeticizing of novelistic prose led to some sublime passages in Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses; just as Woolf’s labial fluidity is intermittently enchanting; particularly, of course, in To the Lighthouse. If the humanistic bent of Edwardianism ultimately holds an advantage over Modernistic experimentation, owing especially to psychological gravitas in characterization and pure narrative feasibility and coherence, it also needs be iterated that the twentieth century produced no Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, who managed to balance formal and thematic imperatives (to innovate and to coherently represent) in such proportion that neither the Edwardians nor the Modernists achieved. Narrowing our focus on these two clusters, if an ultimate verdict needed to be rendered between them, my own predilections, in the midst of this Great Recession, would be to opt for the Edwardian brand and manner of humanism. This is simply out of respect for its trenchant representation of durable human themes in then-novel contexts— love, passion, disappointment, despair, religion, industrialization and modernization, war. What and why does one read in the Great Recession? The question is poignant, and allowances must be made for the sensibilities of individuals— for me, personally, there is something quite pleasing in Edwardianism, in its purposeful, linear narratives which do not eschew complexity and side-winding. In times this entropic, well-wrought, complex narratives can only be congenial; and the Edwardian sense of narrative is both nuanced and well-wrought.
Philadelphia Spaces: “The Skaters” What Abby Heller-Burnham’s “The Skaters” channels is a unique sense of Philadelphia as a collection of spaces. Not all cities present a distinct, identifiable landscape— Philadelphia does. What Philadelphia has to do with, on this level, is a specific kind of chiaroscuro— how light and darkness intermix
in such a way that the characteristic Philadelphian ambience (of the eerie, the fractured, and the macabre) is created and maintained at regular intervals and at varied locales. What elevates Philadelphia into a city of the macabre are its contrasts, and surface/depth issues. Often advertised as threadbare and aesthetically barren, Philadelphia is capable of bewildering its inhabitants into realizations of multi-dimensionality. The dynamic tension between extreme beauty and ugliness animates “The Skaters”— its gorgeousness and painterly effects are woven out of unpromising material. Heller-Burnham’s painterly sense of daring is transformative— yet, in the breach between subject and representation what is manifested is specifically the Philadelphian hint of the haunted or gracefully eerie. Color tonalities in “The Skaters” might be seen as drastic and perverse by conventional and/or formalist sensibilities (Heller-Burnham received her certificate at PAFA, a school characterized by formalism)— everything dark, earthy, muted, yet evanescent and dream-like too. That specific vision of Philadelphia— a city and city-scape aligned by its own ocular vistas with the spectral— is not unknown to those with aesthetic sensitivities who live in Philadelphia; but not yet generally recognized by the world-stage art-world at large. Innovative works, Gertrude Stein wrote, must have their ugliness; and Heller-Burnham’s skaters are as grippingly “ugly” as Picasso’s whores were, painted precisely a century before. They are also, as Picasso’s whores were not, feminized by ethereality. Yet all of Philadelphia, and Philadelphia spaces, have a hinge to the spectral. New York art crowds complain that Philadelphia “dies” at night, whereas Manhattan maintains its frenetic pace— but the odd, disjointed silences are uneasy, expressing the surface/depth tensions which Manhattan lacks. Sounds and forms jut out at strange angles, and spaces are amorphous. One subtext of “The Skaters” is the beauty and magnetism of hidden things and the pleasures of concealment— also, that odd harmonies are built into certain kinds of visual (or auditory) discord. The flip-side of Philadelphia’s nocturnal quietude is levels, layering, and subtleties— an ambience subtly interwoven, rather than bluntly shoved into place. Heller-Burnham’s craft or sullen art, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, is a deconstruction of a certain kind of space with
painterly effects, to engender and re-engender a whole whose harmonies and sense of aesthetic balance are contradictory. She quickly and deftly turns the entire history of American representational art on its ear, including New York painting’s gratuitous and corrupt paltriness, its rejection of contemplative duration as a standard (that serious works of art demand to be seen and reseen, owing to their intricacies and mysteries which inhere in them.) The sad self-parody of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko after HellerBurnham is that Heller-Burnham manages to work abstract levels of expressionism into constructs like “The Skaters” (through paint handling) amidst other levels of formal and thematic richness, which reduce the Cedar Bar crowd to mere aperitifs. It is appropriate that both the deconstruction and decimation of Abstract Expressionism has occurred in Philadelphia which, by being Janus-faced on every conceivable level, has perhaps more of a hinge than any other American city to the sense of history and depth built into the great cities of Western Europe.
David Bowie’s “All the Young Dudes”: Mafia Music
The David Bowie penned glam anthem “All the Young Dudes” was recorded and released by Mott the Hoople in 1972. It was Mott the Hoople’s first, and biggest, hit. Musically, the song is of a piece with the material Bowie wrote for his 1971 album “Hunky Dory”— keyboard based, complex chord changes which recall (in their bass runs) Paul McCartney’s “Hello Goodbye” and “For No One,” as well as the Moody Blues’ “Go Now” and Bowie’s own “Changes” and “Oh! You Pretty Things”; while the vocal melody is more casual and loose, often spoken, as befits a song meant to be as “street” as possible (reflecting, possibly, the influence of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground). What’s so remarkably evocative about the song is just how “street” it is— that the “dudes” who populate the lyrics’ landscape are not just “glam” but bona fide Mafioso, or would-be Mafioso. When David Bowie signed a management contract in 1970 with “Main Man” and Tony De Fries, he was stepping into a ring largely comprised of (often homosexual) thugs, pimps, drug-dealers, and assassins— this is documented in the movie “Velvet Goldmine” and in many Bowie biographies. Poor kids, street kids in London in the early 70s often had no choice but to pursue this kind of lifestyle— what followers of pop culture often call “live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.” Depopulation was a problem in early 70s England— in many ways, all that was left in London were thugs like De Fries and the Quay Brothers, and their minions. Bowie himself was “under contract,” life signed away to them. So, the glam dudes, seduced into “the family” by the mafia (and being part of anything larger than themselves was seductive for these kids, who did not generally have the education or skills to “belong” anywhere else), led excessive lives under different forms of lock and key, whether “moving packages around” or “making hits” on some level. It is not surprising that the glam/mafia kids would be preoccupied with their own mortality— Bowie’s lyric begins, “Billy rapped all night about a suicide/ how he kicked it in the head when he was twenty-five/ Speed jive, don’t want to stay alive/ when you’re twenty-five.” For Billy to be rapping all night about a suicide, he is obviously thinking about “offing” himself as well. The inversion, in this context, is that to be twenty-five among the glam/mafia kids was to be outdated, moribund, and irrelevant— a premium was placed on extreme youth. Yet, the way the lines are phrased is cavalier; the protagonist who sing-speaks them is “staying on the surface” to the greatest extent possible. The seductiveness of “the family” is partly this— they will allow you to stay on the surface, against introspection or any kind of intellection at all. They might even let you be more than one person— “dudes” could be used as hired hands for “decoy work,” and supplied with the narcotics necessary to remain properly stoned the whole time. If the protagonist here feels that Billy’s rap is “speed jive” (Billy’s ingested too much amphetamine), it’s because “speed” heightens your perceptive awareness of contexts and circumstances (allowing Billy to realize that he may be “offed” and replicated/replaced at any time), and a lax, anti-cognitive approach is the most germane. It’s also well known that the mafia (straight from 70s London to today) will stage death scenes to make murders appear to be suicides. The mafia has a taste for macabre theater, especially in “fair game” circumstances when any family member can be replaced/replicated at any time. Yet, the glam mob have the consolation (not a minor one
for them) of looking good, presenting as fashionable a surface (“face”) as was possible in a London-town even more sleepy than it was for Mick Jagger in 1968, when ideals and political commitments were still an issue. One constituent feature of “family life” here is that Main Man and the Quay Brothers are not going to let their temporary “donnees” distinguish themselves— the family wheels turn on parts being interchangeable; the mob ethos is a crass, brutish form of Communism. That’s the ethos hidden behind the Eastern “jumpers,” floppy hats, scarves, grease paint, fey mannerisms, and drug-dealing and ingesting where Bowie and ’72 are concerned. The attachment is not to a self-sustaining family but to Cuba and Russia. Yet to figure this out would require a highly educated, subtle mind, which the “young dudes” clearly did not have. The Quay Brothers might’ve, amidst the mind and emotion-numbing highness, also missed the backbone of their own ethos. So, the average, mid-level lackey of the song narrates, “Well I’ve drunk a lot of wine/ and I’m feelin’ fine/ gonna bring some cow to bed/ is there concrete all around/ or is it all in my head?” It’s well known what the mob do with cement mixers (“concrete”)— cement-mixer death is one of the most torturous ways to go imaginable. Bowie is sophisticated enough as a lyricist to abstract his protagonist into an ambiguous position— no longer even able to tell if he’s alive or dead. “Concrete” in someone’s head is a way of implying something else— one thing the mob inherited from Cuba and Russia are a vicious set of mind games, meant to impose confusion and misery on the thoughts of their servants by making all cognitive activity revolve around death and permanent states of non-existence. The mob employs both mental and physical coercion to achieve this end. It was called “O-mind” in the 70s— when enforced on glam kids with no education and no solid family structures behind them, it guaranteed fearful, dog-like obedience. Throw in the compulsive ingestion of mind and emotion-numbing chemicals, and these kids were left at psycho-affective loose ends, not knowing what was “in their heads” and what was not. That the protagonist appears to be (somewhat unconventionally) hetero, and is taking a “cow” to bed, is illustrative— straight men in the mob are frequently persona no grata (Bowie himself was largely straight), and mob supervisors are wont to choose sexual partners for their underlings— so, he is thrown an undesirable sexual partner and forced to deal with it. That glam-kids involved in Main Man, the Quay Brothers and other mafia outlets had no real agency in their lives is easy to discern. The aching cadence of the chorus melody is a musical representation of this (it sounds child-like); yet, it was catchy enough to make the song a hit, and later, a staple on American “classic rock radio.” The chorus consists of one repeated phrase, which can be taken both to signify the emptiness and the seductiveness of mob family life— “All the young dudes/ carry the news.” As to what “the news” is that they carry— other than a burgeoning NeoCommunist regime (if the Castros, for example, heard this, that’s almost certainly how they would interpret it), it could mean anything— some new breakthrough in fashion or pop music (which glam was), someone being promoted or demoted (or, even more probably, “whacked”), or, more portentously, the news that the 60s, with its streak of idealism and liberal political potentialities, had been “picked off” and put in the proverbial cement mixer by the deadness of the 70s. In America in 2013, we have our own cement mixer going— and our own mob family is far more extensive and debilitating than any the UK has known in the last century. David Bowie’s honesty in representing emptiness, however seductive it might seem on the surface, must seem
admirable to us who perceive an identical emptiness arrayed in new “glam” around us today. This piece was first featured on Todd Swift’s UK based blog Eyewear in July 2013.
David Bowie’s “Hunky Dory”: The Fieled Cut
Few rock aficionados would deny that the best tracks from David Bowie’s ‘71/’72 album “Hunky Dory” are among the greatest rock (or, strictly speaking, pop) songs ever written. Sometimes “Hunky Dory” is awarded the uber-canonical status the Beatles and Stones are, sometimes it isn’t; largely because the album is split down the middle between masterpieces and treacle. The album is extreme both ways— the masterpieces (six tracks) are musically and lyrically stunning and superior; the treacle (five tracks) is corny and half-baked. If you run the six “Hunky Dory” masterpieces together, as I have on this YouTube embed, you get something the length of an EP; and I’d be willing to assert that, as it stands, the “Fieled Cut” of “Hunky Dory” is the greatest EP in rock’s history. The major lyrical gist of the best “Hunky Dory” tracks is a unique one for rock music— not sex and human relationships, not (strictly) social change and revolution, or even the personal change from adolescence to adulthood, but philosophy and the big questions (and lessons) it imposes. When Bowie sings “Time may change me/ But I can’t trace time,” in the context of a song (the opening track “Changes”) which has received millions of plays on American classic rock radio, he is opening up the basic question
which ontology, the branch of philosophy which deals with “pure” consciousness as a thing-in-itself and the role of subjectivity within it, addresses. How the subject (person) is placed within (or “Being-In,” as Heidegger would say) time and the dimensions of time and space which constitute and bind our human existences has been the subject of endless philosophical discourses since the Greeks. The conclusion which Bowie comes to, that time changes him but remains unknowable as an agent (category) within itself, is a humble one; but the seeming modest pessimism of the statement is balanced by music as complex and jaunty as “Penny Lane,” or any other Paul McCartney Beatles’ gem, winding its way through a labyrinth of major and minor seventh chords (“Changes” settles resolutely in a major key) and hitting, for the chorus, a descending bass run, starting from C, as Bowie does the famous “Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes” chant which makes the song “pop” and instantly both distinctive and memorable. One of the interesting facets of the “Hunky Dory” songs, which first presents itself in “Changes,” is Bowie’s self-presentation-as-protagonist as a kind of pater familias for the youth culture he sees around him in early 70s London— it could be the “glam” kids he’s referring to, or left-over or nascent hippies; in any case, donnees of the counterculture staking their claim against their parents and their parents’ values. Bowie sing-speaks to societal elders, who in a strange way he is complicit with, facing the identical mature philosophical issues they are, about the children they have lost to shifting social sands— “And these children that you spit on/ As they try to change their worlds/ Are immune to your consultations/ They’re quite aware what they’re going through/ Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes…” Bowie grants himself a median place between the arriviste London “dudes” and their querulous parents; in the context of the song, he plays both sides. It is easy to see why many rock fans took “Ziggy Stardust,” with its relatively facile embrace of glam culture and anti-philosophical sensualism, as a mere capitulation. Bowie had sacrificed the high-ground approach, where his lyrics were concerned, even as his intention shifted to fashion, images, and stage presentations. The other major philosophical statement on “Hunky Dory” is “Quicksand,” which holds out the proposition that Bowie, in his dealings with the London beau monde (which included a good number of intellectuals), might have come across Jacques Derrida and the burgeoning force of the Deconstructionists. “Quicksand,” in the rock canon, is even more unique than “Changes”; a song whose thematic material is solely the process of cognition itself, in relation to the search for identity; bereft of perspective on a social world or context (unlike, say, early Dylan). The Deconstructionist angle isn’t perfect— Bowie’s lyrics do not seem to be lamenting the ultimate evanescence and failure of language as a receptacle for meaning and solidity. In “Quicksand,” it is the thoughts themselves, rather than the dialects which inform them, which are frustratingly evanescent. When cognition falters, the protagonist’s own subjectivity dissipates into a phenomenological no man’s land, and raw subjectivity reveals its fundamental and dispiriting hollowness. That Nietzsche himself puts in an appearance is intriguing— “I’m not a prophet or a stone-age man/ Just a mortal with potential of a superman/ I’m living on.” Bowie here may perceive himself to be a nascent uber-mensch just for pointing out the quicksand on which determined subjectivity stands— if the ability to achieve the “uber” is merely potential, perhaps it is because the next step after “Quicksand” is to raise his subjectivity to a higher ground, rather than scavenge for “imagery” which effectively
represents it; from the superstitious occultism of “Golden Dawn” thinking to a genuine, worked through, and individually “souled” philosophy of his own. Did Ziggy achieve this? Ziggy’s philosophy appeared to be a congeries of seductive and confrontational impulses; but, in the context of the ‘72/’73 Ziggy performances, he was certainly and defiantly cohesive, away from the bookish dithering of “Quicksand.” If Ziggy fails as uber-mensch, on most levels, it is because he is unwilling to interrogate himself and his sensuality. His is a performative representation of his own cultivated Id, and little else. Ziggy does not earn the right to be past (“uber”) cognition with his own “souled” cognitions, the way Bowie does on “Hunky Dory.” If Bowie’s indecisiveness is ultimately more compelling than Ziggy’s decisive assertiveness, it is because articulation is more powerful than imagery-in-performance, no matter how innovative or seductive the performance is. But back to “Quicksand”— the “sinking” referred to in the lyric is echoed by another labyrinthine chord progression, though the song settles in A major. As in “Changes,” Bowie’s closest rock analogue is Paul McCartney— and the orchestral arrangement of “Quicksand” has a hinge to “Yesterday” and “She’s Leaving Home.” The musical leading edge here is towards the ornate and the refined— fans who are militant about “rockist” rock music may favor Ziggy’s leanness and meanness for this reason. “Eight Line Poem” is hushed, and creates the ambience of early morning, sunrise. Yet, the mood is projects is lyrically foreboding— “The tactful cactus by your window/ Surveys the prairie of your room.” Perceptive listeners would understand why and how a cactus could be “tactful” here— the early 70s were a rocky time in England, economically and otherwise. By the time Bowie wrote and recorded “Eight Line Poem,” he had signed on with Tony de Fries and Main Man; he was a new husband and father; but his daily financial condition was not (could not be) terribly secure. As a child of poverty with roots in North London, Bowie had never known anything but “cactuses” on this level. He hoped, in ’71, Ziggy would make his name and fortune; but it had not happened yet. Still, to achieve the calm artistic assurance of “Eight Line Poem” while still twenty-four was a long way to travel very fast, and Bowie absolutely knew that too. If “the key to the city/ is in/ the sun that pins/ the branches/ to the sky,” Bowie seems to have achieved a momentary peace which allows him to be circumspect about impersonal forces, in his life and generally, which he cannot control. The six tracks which constitute the Fieled Cut of “Hunky Dory” are all responses, one way or another, to impersonal forces which impinge on the personal, and force a response. As such, they have few peers in the rock canon where maturity and depth are concerned. “Hunky Dory” has remained, over forty years, a “cult classic” to Ziggy’s overwhelming commercial success and fame. It is a moment, represented in the six classics, which Bowie chose not to repeat. What it captures is a sense of reflective philosophical consciousness around tumult and societal entropy and strife. If the songs’ generalized conclusion is “Hunky Dory,” it is because Bowie has chosen to tell as much of the truth about his quandaries as he possibly can. It was an effort worth making. First featured on Eyewear, August 2013.
Apologia: “Apparition Poems”
Though no sustained narrative buoys it up, “Apparition Poems” is meant to be sprawling, and epic. An American epic, even one legitimate on world levels, could only be one made up of disparate, seemingly irreconcilable parts— such a state of affairs being America’s, too. The strains which chafe and collide in “Apparition Poems” are discrete— love poems, carnal poems, meta-poems, philosophical poems, etc. Forced to cohabitate, they make a clang and a roar together (or, as Whitman would have it, a “barbaric yawp”) which creates a permanent (for the duration of the epic) sense of dislocation, disorientation, and discomfort. This is enhanced by the nuances of individual poems, which are often shaped in the dialect of multiple meanings and insinuation. Almost every linguistic sign in “Apparition Poems” is bifurcated; either by the context of its relationship to other linguistic signs in the poems, or by its relationship to the epic whole of the book itself. If “Apparition Poems” is an epic, it is an epic of language; the combative adventure of multiple meanings, shifting contexts and perspectives, and the ultimate despair of the incommensurability of artful utterance with practical life in an era of material and spiritual decline. It is significant that the poems are numbered rather than named; it emphasizes the fragmentary (or apparitional) nature of each, its place in a kind of mosaic, rather than a series of wholes welded together by chance or arbitrary willfulness (as is de rigueur for poetry texts). This is the dichotomy of “Apparition Poems”— epics, in the classical sense, are meant to represent continuous, cohesive action— narrative continuity is essential. “Apparition Poems” is an epic in fragments— every poem drops us, in medias res, into a new narrative. If I choose to call “Apparition Poems” an epic, not in the classical (or Miltonic) sense but in a newfangled, American mode (which nonetheless maintains some classical conventions), it is because the fragments together create a magnitude of scope which can comfortably be called epic. The action represented in the poems ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the heroic to the anti-heroic; there are dramatic monologues set amidst the other forms, so that the book never strays too far from direct and directly represented humanism and humanistic endeavor. The American character is peevish if not able to compete— so are the characters here. Life degenerates into a contest and a quest for victory, even in peaceful or solitary contexts. Yet, if the indigenous landscape is strange and surrealistic, it is difficult to maintain straightforward competitive attitudes— consciousness has to adjust while competing, creating a quandary away from the brazen singularity which has defined successful, militaristic America in the world. Suddenly, American consciousness is beleaguered by shifting sands and multiple meanings— an inability, not only to be singular but to perceive singular meanings. Even as multiplications are resisted, everything multiplies, and often into profit loss, rather than profit gain. The epic, fragmentary narrative of “Apparition Poems” is a down-bound, tragic one, rather than a story of valor or heroism. The consolation for loss of material consonance is a more realistic vision of the world and of human life— as a site of/for dynamism, rather than stasis, of/for multiplicity, rather than singularity. “Apparition Poems” is a vista into “multiple America” from Philadelphia, its birth-place, and a city beleaguered also by multiple visions of itself. No city in America has so much historical heft; nor did any American city suffer so harsh a demotion in the brutally materialistic twentieth century. Yet, as “Apparition Poems” suggests, if a new America is to manifest in the twenty-first century, it might as well begin in Philadelphia. If the epic focuses on loss followed by more loss, rather than eventual, fulsome triumph, then so be it. And if “Apparition Poems” as fragmentary epic imposes a
lesson, it is this— the pursuit of singularity in human life is a fool’s game; the truth is almost always, and triumphantly, multiple. If multiple meanings are difficult to assimilate, there can still be no recourse to anything else, for the scrupulous-minded and cognizant. “Apparition Poems” was first released as a Blazevox print book in 2010. The 2nd edition of the book was released online in 2012, and includes this Preface.
Apologia: “The Great Recession”
Narrativity, in its most straightforward forms, manifests distinct limitations to literary artists with some interest in breaking formal ground. It chafes against the inclusion of the philosophical (especially, the ontological) and the usage of abstraction to signify higher realms of thought and emotion. However, it must be iterated that there are tasks narrativity can accomplish which nothing else can. In a context dictated by distinct and singular circumstances, which the artist aims to represent, and which has not yet been adumbrated in high-end literature before, narrativity must be employed, to make those distinctions and singularities clear. Such is the case with “The Great Recession,” a book in two parts; “The Great Recession” proper and “Love in a Time of Holocaust.” My motivation here is bifurcated— partly aesthetic, partly political. Through contacts with the highest sectors of American life over a prolonged period of time, the startling discovery of America’s artificiality, its reliance on “decoys” and hinge to outright corruption (in media, in political sectors and otherwise) has made it incumbent upon me not to remain silent. The ontological edge which animates “Apparition Poems” and “The Posit Trilogy” cannot be manifested here, because the unique urgency of the circumstances (the Great Recession continues to envelope America in its maw) dictate that ontology, in both its specific and general forms, will not suffice to make clear the mechanics and structural dynamics of the system which has brought America to its knees, and to this place. If “The Great Recession” must age with greater rapidity than the aforementioned books, then that is a chance I’m willing to take. Narrativity carries with it (according to Roland Barthes) the perceived authority and discipline potentialities of the father; and, as such, I must employ narrativity to grant these poems the requisite authority of, not necessarily a father, but an artist attempting to father a certain kind of awareness for my readers. That’s my “decoy.” There is, here, in this pledge to narrativity, a kind of dialectic which might be engendered with William Wordsworth. Wordsworth’s Preface, unpacked in this context, speaks of the ornamentation of a certain form of “ordinary” or quotidian poetry with imaginative colorations; in “The Great Recession,” imaginative coloration is employed to see behind American facades, so that the national psyche is laid bare to the greatest possible extent. Color, then, is the mark of individual psyches in the poems; and each poem blends colors to form a unique admixture. However, I’m not attempting, necessarily, to demonstrate the primary laws of human nature, as Wordsworth was; what “The Great Recession” attempts to demonstrate is how human nature has functioned in the singular context of twentieth and twenty-first century America; and the situations in which this nature manifests are only intermittently ordinary. Certainly, the poems of “The Great Recession” have not been recollected in tranquility; rather they have been salvaged from a socio-economic deep freeze, which has affected not only myself but all of America. Against America’s incoherence, as seen from the top down, against the incredible and stultifying non-cohesiveness of what Americans are allowed to perceive and what forces truly run the country, narrativity asserts a palliative coherence and cohesiveness. This is its own form of “Nature” or the natural, and is forced to decoy for the palliatives Wordsworth and the other English Romantics found in the natural world, against the industrialism which threatened their own lyricism. What are narrated: incidents and situations pertaining to individuals (sometimes groups) caught within the confines of material and spiritual hardship they can only half understand, in a society which will not give them the tools to understand more. These characters seek for solace in an age where conventional solace is no longer possible,
and are troubled by the incoherent ideologies of the false idols lining the national (and international) stage, and monopolizing their time. “Love in a Time of Holocaust,” the second part of the book, focuses on the result of America’s incoherence and non-cohesiveness: broken affective capacities. Americans have forgotten, en masse, how to forge, maintain, and consolidate affective bonds with each other. This is understandable, if the Zeitgeist highlights the maintenance of artifice, and artificial connections. The American press corps highlights little else. Americans in 2013 tend to associate sexuality with rape, violence, transgression, and pornography— everything but the expression of affective bonding, which sexuality can be in its ideal form. I would like to opine that, at this particular juncture, rape is a representative American phenomenon. In this culture, of extreme prurience, both women and men are led to perpetuate rape and other sexual crimes, both in their minds and in tactile reality. The book must end with some road back to America regaining its affective capacities. As it does, we see how (as we see in Wordsworth), as long as nuance, detail, and complexity are not lost, there is no reason not to believe that there are imperishably positive things in the human psyche, always dormant, which may be called on and appealed to in a “time of holocaust” for the betterment of a situation which had in it not only the subaltern but the demonic. This can only be overtaken by extreme force and perseverance of will. As of 2013, “The Great Recession” is a manuscript in progress. Portions have been published in Otoliths, On Barcelona, fourW anthology, Words Dance, Internet Archive, and elsewhere.
Further Notes on the Purification Chain (from “Aesthetics Pt. 1”)
Will must take its predominant place in the higher arts over Idea because it is the existence of the world as Will which necessitates art— not the phenomenological lightning-bolt around modern philosophy from Descartes forward, but the existential forms of consciousness around the principle of sufficient reason— competition, conflict, rancor, discord, or even the harmonies between wills which form the inverse of this. Idea, or world-as-Idea, purifies raw expressions of individual and individualized will by transcendentalizing it, towards universals and archetypes. World-as-Idea is largely missing from twentieth century art, which lost its sense of the Ideal towards meta-levels of dismemberment and nihilistic exhibitionism— thus, my return to Hamlet, Hamlet’s idealism, as a drastic antidote to a system bent towards expression of the will’s facility and little else. Art desperately needs imperatives derived from above rather than below— to be purified by Primary Ideas, to restore its own Secondary connection to Idea/the ideal. With the exception of Picasso and a few others, the sense of the Apollonian was lost in twentieth century art. It has to be a Primary Mode on the purification chain because the Apollonian in serious art is another way of saying “history”; and because formal rigor and “history” are so closely correlated as Primary Modes that it is often difficult to disentangle them from each other. The twentieth century was America’s— and, as the creation of America enacted the dissolution of history into socio-linguistic disguises, the twentieth century was compelled to disguise the preponderance of history and formal rigor behind Invention within the chaos of the Dionysian. Heidegger’s “concealing” for me (and to some extent Buber’s “I-It”) is a metaphor for the adequate objectivity of the work of serious art— that is, the Primacy of concealing over “clearing”— a representation of the horizon of levels of symbolic complexity— symbolic representation is art’s adequate objectivity. Serious art is, and must necessarily be, complex. If the Purification Chain enacts a purification process within itself, it is because it represents its own aesthetic ethos, assembled to mirror (even spatially) what it assays within the purview of the new century— twentieth century “mirrors” were funhouse mirrors in comparison— even if the chain imposes complex cognition which itself is compelled to mirror (in thought-chains) what saturates it, in both directions (the Purification Chain and the work of art)— so that the ideal energy around the Purification Chain is triangular— and that serious art and aesthetics should substantially enhance and enrich cognition is presupposed. Twentieth century art is largely cognitively impaired— all its mirroring processes affirm the inventive Dionysian “cleared” of history, but disguised in the American manner by a simulacrum of theoretical rigor; carefully disseminated by the donnees of large fortunes.
THE PURIFICATION CHAIN AND THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Twentieth century art and what I call the “will’s facility”— corrosive, simplistic ironies express the will’s facility in modern and post-modern art, including literary art— that “Will” is pure conflict of will-against-will which cannot be transcended into Idea— and that dismemberment against Idea creates a World-mirror which perpetually expresses contemporary relevance— nihilism of the “trans-aesthetic” (Baudrillard)— embrace also of the “sinister” against Idea (America)— these are the structures of most twentieth century universals and archetypes— anti-universals and anti-archetypes set below “Earth” as pure “World”— the twentieth as a “Secondary” century, according to the Purification Chain. Barthes and structural aesthetics— “text” as transcendentalizing Idea against a superficially embraced contemporary— twentieth-century Academics as “World” not purified by “Earth” (moral, ethical, intellectual relativism unredeemed by humanism of “Earth”)— Barthes’ “blisstexts” engendering bliss of pure Dionysian invention against formal rigor/history— Robbe-Grillet as simulacrum of “up” drug or stimulant— “World” concerns force structural aesthetics into (also) a simulacrum of the comprehensive. “Textuality” in post-modern theory as a safe-guard against Earth encroaching upon World— “materiality of the text” as signifying in a positive way a haute simulacrum of corporate America— Baudrillard’s “Disneyland against Disneyland”— and the frailty/fraudulence of Baudrillard’s meta-linguistic constructs— illusionistic effects as simulacrum of “cocaine buzzes” and Los Angeles— socio-linguistic disguises as America against America— post-modernity as pure Will and closed circle of significations and anti-significations. Facile Will in post-modern scholarship— reduction of text, formal rigor/history, to an easily deconstructed, World-grounded American circus which the scholarly text ellipses into an invented, Dionysian collage of surfaces— a simulacrum of “Abstract Expressionism” around formal rigor/history, cast into the world of conference and publishing “action painting.” The American academy spent the second half of the twentieth century wearing a Factory wig— academic texts as “silk screens.” New Historicism— world-as-Idea in English Romanticism dismissed along with transcendentalism as another “cocaine buzz” or collage of surfaces— New Historicism’s radical mistrust expresses the complicity of World against Earth which makes post-modern scholarship a simulacrum of American military and militaristic “butchering”; the New Historicists as “General Shermans”; frenzy of textual wills against the existence of Earth in a worldly (and Dionysian) rush to Invent. The twentieth was the century of Invention against history (formal rigor)— America necessitated that what was Invented needed to destroy/dismember— not World but Earth was “fractured,” in the modern/ post-modern sense, by American militaristic imperatives— worldas-Idea disappeared not only from aesthetics but from the Western populace— idealism was replaced by reception velocity, on different levels, and convenience. Trans-aesthetic mentalities butchered money into an Idea, expressing the will’s facility in creating contexts dominated by material imperatives against Earth/humanism, in and out of the purely aesthetic. Mutated form of modern/post-modern collages— dismembered parts assembled again arbitrarily— convocation of America and Europe into a waste land cohesive enough to be represented aesthetically— Eliot as dismembered “site” for these processes— Eliot’s purification chain is one on which nothing connects, all the modes are dismembered— bleeding into a new century in which the process of symbiosis again exists.
Century XX after Four Quartets
With the remnants of the twentieth century still surrounding us, it may pay dividends, as the twenty-first century takes off, to take stock of these remnants and begin to make judgments. Newly ended centuries tend to leave detritus; this can create a hostile environment for artists who wish to sew new seeds and blaze new trails. Few seem to remember that when Wordsworth and Coleridge put out Lyrical Ballads (though the release and dissemination of this pivotal text spanned the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century), it received hostile reviews and a good amount of indifference, as well. With hindsight, we realize that this was the text that almost single-handedly initiated British Romanticism. The early twentieth century was also inconclusive; William Butler Yeats was only beginning to receive the recognition that would lead to laurel, Walt Whitman’s poems were yet to receive the blessings of posterity, while a host of lesser lights congregated around minor poets or reveled in the just-dimming glow of Decadence and Aestheticism. What do we see around us in 2010? It is a poetry world stumbling for direction, still largely lost in the theoretical wilderness of post-modernism, which espouses, among other things, the notion that distinctions between high and low art are both superfluous and illusory, that high art is the imaginary creation of hegemonic white males, and that artists can safely toss history in the dustbin and create out of momentary impulses, that have a better chance of capturing authentic effects than the backwards/forwards time-warp effect that Modernists like Eliot and Pound thought efficacious. I would like to argue, firstly, that the demarcations between high and low art need to be reinstated. My reasons for this are manifold, but the simplest is this: I do not believe that much English language poetry composed after 1943, the year that Eliot’s Four Quartets were released, deserves the title of high art. Before I explain why the twentieth century, post Four Quartets, was mostly a washout for English language poetry, let me explain what distinctions I believe subsist between high and low art. High art is defined by a sense of aesthetic balance; a host of factors must be present and accounted for; technical competence is a necessity, breadth of vision (so that any narrowness of focus is soon dissipated into fusions with larger wholes), narrative solidity (even when, as in Four Quartets, it is a loosely woven narrative, that makes frequent subtle shifts in different directions), and, most importantly, continued serious engagement with serious themes. If this harkens back to Matthew Arnold’s emphasis on truth and seriousness, and if this seems regressive, remember that, in poetry, the impulses of post-modernism have all but flushed these constituent elements. Low art impulses often maintain a stance that technical competence is unnecessary, that breadth of vision is too ambitious, that narrative solidity is a remnant of the nineteenth century (and, to the extent that Yeats and Eliot, the only two twentieth century high art poets in the English language, had strong nineteenth century affiliations, this may be the case), and that “seriousness” is an outdated and outmoded concern. So that, the notions of high art and low art have been both displaced and misplaced, with disastrous results. We are surrounded by detritus that attempts too much with too little; that encompasses not worlds but narrow grooves; that shies away from responsible, serious engagements, or courts these engagements with such brow-beating incompetence that the matters were better left alone; and that uses sly evasions to explain its own horrendous deficits.
Back to T.S. Eliot; what is it that makes Four Quartets high art, and almost everything that followed in the twentieth century dross? Four Quartets, however sententiously, starts from a high ground; the artist is coming to grips with the limitations of living in space and time. Eliot flattens space and time out in the context of an investigation of four places, each with its own peculiar resonances, which birth separate and discrete impulses in the poet, resulting in slight shifts in perspective and emphasis. Four Quartets is useful, also, because it demonstrates the loosest narrative emphasis possible in a poem that attempts to achieve and maintain the durability and permanence traces of high art. Narrative is the backbone of serious poetry; Four Quartets has an “I” that dictates terms, but in such a way that “I” is not an obtrusive presence. If there is an imbalance in Four Quartets, it is or may be a sense of oscillating perspectives that leads to a less than unitary presentation, or a loose sense of coherence that sometimes meanders away from central points. However, there is a sense that this is redeemed by a spirit of inquiry that balances philosophical concerns with concrete details, fragments of colloquial speech with natural imagery, traces of humanity’s past with visions of possible human futures. That Four Quartets spans all this ground does not, in and of itself, make it high art; but that Eliot’s language is taut, sinewy, disciplined, and rich makes the whole of Four Quartets ring as a solid, major work of high literary art. If another such work exists that was released between 1943 and 2000, I haven’t seen it. The Objectivists, the Beats, the New York School (first and second generation), the Confessional poets— what do these poets lack, so that the appellation high art does not affix to their work, nor the appellation high artist affix to them? For many of these poets, it is the ragged lack of discipline in the language of their poems themselves. Trying to read Beat poetry is like trying to eat raw slabs of uncooked red meat. Thematically, the Beats might have been redeemed by an egalitarianism that harkened back to Whitman; formally, they were creators of tremendous Babels that are even now beginning to collapse. The Objectivists did have ambitions consonant with the approach of high artists— but their panoramic viewpoints were undermined by impoverished lines that displayed little heft, music, and which demonstrate, rather than the rawness of uncooked red meat, an overwhelming brittle dryness. The New York School poets evinced significantly more delicacy, thematically and formally, than the Objectivists and the Beats; however, the primary perpetuators of New York School poetry tended to get lost in certain extremes: either language so steeped in colloquialisms that it lost its sense of itself as art, or language so bent against narrative that it lost its sense altogether. Had the Confessional poets widened their scope, they might have gained a sense of consonance with poetry as a high art form— but the narrowness of their thematic scope precluded a sense of serious engagement with issues that transcended the personal. As such, they, along with the Objectivists, the Beats, and the New York School poets, fall squarely under the rubric that covers minor poetry and poets, when placed next to the scope and achievements of Eliot and Yeats. Other groups, like the San Francisco Renaissance poets and the Language poets, seem like a mélange and a mishmash of these styles. Minor Modernists (Pound, Williams, Stevens, Stein) initiated many trends toward disjuncture and colloquialism; because the high art balance of Yeats and Eliot was (and remains) more rigorous and more difficult to achieve, it has inspired fewer immediate imitations. High art balance, as such, depends on serious engagements with the history of poetry, and also with a sense of discernment. Though Eliot did dote upon some minor French poets, his knowledge of the history of major poetry artists, as expressed in his early essays, was complete and solid. It allowed him vantage points that set his sense of aesthetic
equilibrium on a high level. Because he had the discerning impulse to separate wheat from chaff, he could accomplish the major feat of moving poetry forward in innovative ways while also conserving the best of poetry that had come before. Yeats’ engagement with history was no less complete; though he lacked the theoretical bent that defined Eliot, it would have been unthinkable for him not to know the Romantics, the Neo-Classical poets, the Metaphysical poets, Elizabethans, back to Dante, Chaucer, and beyond. Yeats also had a comprehensive knowledge of Irish mythology, which added an ancillary resource to his repertoire. Put simply: these are men that did their homework, on any number of levels. Because they maintained a sense of discipline and responsibility about their traces, moving forward meant taking history into account at each juncture. The idea that history is a flush, that the canon of English language poetry was largely created by and for white males and so has a built-in obsolescence, is pitifully shallow and ultimately pernicious. If this canon is not yet a fully multicultural canon, it is nonetheless an indispensable resource; it is the only true measure we have of how far our own arrows can sail out into the universe. Century XX encouraged poets, after 1943, to eschew the essential challenge presented by Eliot and Yeats; how to move forward and conserve at once. As the twenty-first opens, it is this dual impulse which again presents itself as our brightest hope to rise to the challenges presented by a rich, if increasingly distant, past. This essay was first featured in The Argotist Online in 2010. It was also included in the collection “Disturb the Universe,” also released by The Argotist Online in 2010. The Argotist Online re-released “Disturb the Universe” online in 2013, on Yumpu.com.
On “Portrait: Two Girls in a Bed” by Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum
Shock, Sigmund Freud wrote, is the necessary precursor to orgasm. I do not remember the source text, or the context. It is interesting to consider the implications of this remark— why, if we grant Freud his premise, sharp and pungent sensations experienced by the brain can produce correspondingly extreme physical reactions. One implication concerns art, whose task it is to create and sustain sharp and pungent brain sensations, which can resound physically as well. What could be more shockingly sharp, and pungent, than queerness doubled, then redoubled ad infinitum? Here, in Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum’s “Portrait: Two Girls in a Bed,” queerness has the potentiality not only to signify lesbianism but the queer, as in the strange, the eerie, the noir, even (from the perspective of stability and standardized portraiture expectations) the disconsolate. This is, to paraphrase Barthes, not a work of standardized pleasure but of forceful (perhaps fearful), shock-inducing bliss. The foreplay it forces is to watch singles double and significations in general multiply (as questions self-generate, it is
easy to imagine the photo a newfangled Grecian Urn)— whether the girls are lovers or not, and why one is fully dressed and the other nude; why the artist has created, out of his own shocking perversity, a perspective from which the girls are watching something we can’t see, what it might be and what their shocks are against ours; how the exterior, red walls of the bedroom (which are shocking to begin with) have metaphorical, physical and metaphysical doubles in several directions (once the triangle is formulated of the artist and the two girls); and the pure, blunt attractiveness of the nude wrapped in a bed-sheet in the foreground, whose bulging blue eyes have in them an intimation which splits between physical violence and orgasmic release (and over whom a projection of “butch” or “butchness” may or may not apply). The girl in a bed-sheet covers one level of singular meaning— that she is the muse of the photo. She is, in fact, a muse worthy of Manet— frank, but with a streak of coyness which elevates her over Olympia; and as breathtaking, in this context, as the mistress of Luncheon on the Grass. If she, and this piece, resonates as contemporary in 2013, it is because photography as a medium, particularly American photography, is customarily not rich enough, formally or thematically, to carry the nuances, innovations, or multiple meanings of classic and classicist European art. Multiple meanings and nuances don’t have to create a sense of the ponderous (as Americans are wont to suggest); here, as in Abby Heller-Burnham’s “The Walls Have Ears,” the shock tactics employed engender not only arousal (sexual, emotional, and/or intellectual) but giddiness, the aesthetic equivalent of a line of cocaine (the sight of which was no stranger to Freud). To speak in the parlance of Center City Philadelphia, it can get you high, and off. The evidence is irrefutable— no one who has ever been shocked into an awareness of their physical sexual instincts is unfamiliar with queerness. Sex is strange. While you gaze at your lovers, they’re looking at something or someone else. Another jolt into awareness: who has more power, the nude or the clothed? Intermittent or partial nudity has many shocks built into it— one reason Tenenbaum makes Robert Mapplethorpe’s nudes look unimaginative, cold, and clinical. New York’s cocaine buzzes around the arts have always been cold ones; Philadelphia in the Aughts (when this was taken) was warmer, stranger, and giddier. The seeds it planted towards further multiplications have only begun to blossom, against the American grain and producing the necessary friction for meaningful conception to occur.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.