Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Aestheticism and the Language Question in Ireland

Back in the 1990s, that magical time when the air was still scented with Derrida's eau de cologne and the prose of academic journals soared ever higher into the spheres of the mandarin, I and some of my cronies took an interest in postcolonialism. Since the venue for this was Notre Dame, much of the thinking and talking and arguing about postcolonialism had to do with Irish literature. And one of the Big Debates revolved around an age-old issue in Irish studies: the language question. The question was, specifically, this: what language was right for Irish literature?

Many of the literary people kicking around Dublin in Yeats' day felt that Ireland should throw off the shackles of the English language imposed by the colonizer, and take up the Irish language. The fact that there was no such thing as a single, official Irish language, but rather a cluster of different dialects no one of which was dominant, was often swept aside. As was the question of who, on the overwhelmingly English-speaking island, would write or read the new literature. Yeats hedged: he was too deeply invested in English to get out, and decided that Irish content in English-language poetry would do the trick (this was during his early, Celtic folklore phase). Others went the Irish language route. Still others, like J.M. Synge, decided to catch the true sounds and rhythms of Irish English — although Synge didn't think his own, urbane speech was the real thing. He trekked off to Wicklow and listened to the servants through a hole in the floorboards to get the true sound of things for his play Riders to the Sea, or so the story goes.

So we jawboned, we grad students, in the coffee shop, between bites of the excellent Irish soda bread stockpiled at Notre Dame to generate ethnic sentimentality among students who would, someday, be potential donors. How were we to feel about the language question? Had Yeats taken a wrong turn? Was the revival of the Irish language practical? Was it a tool of decolonization? Did the movement to revive the old language imply an ethnic essentialism that was ultimately untenable? The latter position was the popular one. We'd all read Brian Friel's play Translations, which made the point. And we stood in awe of Seamus Deane, then the king of Irish studies at Notre Dame, whose Field Day Anthology of Irish Literature set out to show that Irish literature was a palimpsest of different languages — Irish, Latin, Norman French, English — written haphazardly over one another. If there was a graduate student position on the language question, I suppose it was something like "we're all in favor of cultural decolonization and the preservation and prestige of the Irish language, but we're too hip and postmodern to believe the Irish language represents the truth about the nation, which is of course hybrid, like all good things ought to be, according to those sages upon whose partially-understood words we hang." And so we munched our soda bread and nodded sagely as the cheers echoed faintly from a football arena that still hosted a winning team.

As it turns out, we'd missed a whole other angle on the question. Like most American academics who talk about Irish lit, we'd followed too closely the canon-making apparatus of Irish nationalism. I've blogged before about how the idea of literary nationalism came to dominate the canon of Irish writers, lifting those who foregrounded cultural nationalism and decolonization to high status and relegating others (including most of Ireland's more modernist and experimental poets) to obscurity. And despite some good research on the issue, most of us still haven't found a way to expand our horizons. It was while I was working on a bit of my own horizon-expansion today that I came across an aspect of the lrish language question that I'd never seen before.

It was in the works of George Moore, who most definitely did not fit the bill as nationalist, anti-colonial writer, that I found this new angle. (New? well, new to me). Moore, who came from a Catholic landowning family in County Mayo, was a late Victorian figure (born 1852, died, I think, 1933), and is best remembered as a kind of hanger-on of the French Impressionist painters, and a fringe figure in the Aesthetic movement of London in the 1890s (he didn't spend much time in Ireland after his childhood). His Confessions of a Young Man, a memoir of his Parisian exploits, is probably the book of his most read, though I'd hardly call it canonical — especially not on the Irish Lit syllabus.

Moore bought into the whole program of aestheticism: art was to be for art's sake, and it was set against what aesthetes saw as the ugliness and irredeemable unpleasantness of the world of utility, industry, and bourgeois moralism. It seems unlikely that such a figure (an absentee landlord to boot!) would much care about the language question that so obsessed Ireland's literary nationalists. Like most aesthetes, he looked on ordinary politics and nationalism as beneath the true artist's concern. But he did have an opinion on the language question: he was strongly in favor of the revival of the Irish language. His reasons had nothing to do with nationalism, though, and everything to do with the aesthete's disdain for business, utility, and mere information. The Irish must revive their language, he argued in "Literature and the Irish Language," or be condemned to use a language irredeemably befouled by utility. "From universal use and journalism," he said (we must imagine the word "journalism" spat out in contempt), "the English language in fifty years will be as corrupt as the Latin of the eighth century." The Irish language, here, is a refuge from an English scarred and made ugly by its very usefulness. The Irish language, then, becomes not a part of the war against imperialism, but rather the war against English utilitarianism and industrialism — a war conducted, in this instance, not on behalf of the proletariat, but on behalf of beauty.

Of course in contrasting a utilitarian English against an unsullied Irish language, Moore works with a notion of Ireland as pre-modern, and even as mythical and irrational — an idea put about in the nineteenth century by Englishmen like Matthew Arnold to justify the imperial project — their argument being something like "we, the dull but rational Anglo-Saxons, are here to help, not exploit, you amusing, poetic, impractical Irish!". It's not the first time such notions of an anti-rational Ireland were turned around and used against things English. Much of the Celtic Revival was nothing but a taking of English imperial descriptions of the Irish and, rather than discarding them, re-valuing them — the Celticist argument being something like "we're irrational and mythic, sure, but that's why we're better than you!". Until this morning, though, I'd never seen such notions turned around to quite this angle before: the Irish language as a weapon of the aesthete in his war on modern utility.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Intention & Accident, Authenticity & Artifice

Whenever Valerie comes in with the mail and tells me there's a new issue of the Notre Dame Review, I always ask "am I in this one?" and then, even though I write for the journal often enough, I feel like a complete an ass for asking (I get the same feeling when I Google my own name). As it turns out, I didn't write for the current issue, but there's work by plenty of people more interesting than I am: a series of poems by John Peck (for the few, the proud, the serious poetry readers), a couple of pieces by Andrea Brady (who is becoming one of my favorite Cambridge-school, Jeremy Prynne-ified poets), new stuff by Joe Doerr, some crazy-looking work by Kevin Ducey, and — the first thing I turned to — a new poem by Michael Anania. It's a bit uncharacteristic in voice, being more talky than lyrical, but you don't just go to Michael for lyricism, nor for his uncanny ability to capture qualities of light in a poem: you also go to Michael because he's one of the smart guys, and whatever he's up to will be interesting. I mean, he's read everything, and read it all deeply. Whenever I have an intellectual conundrum and can't figure out who, among my habitual panel of experts, might be able to help me, I call Michael. And his poems, in addition to everything else they can be, are often places to get the kind of news that stays news.

The new poem, "This Cup," takes, as its occasion, the placing of a coffee cup on a piece of newspaper, but in the end it becomes a meditation on the roles of intention and accident in the creation of literature, as well as an inquiry into the relation of artificiality to authenticity in literary works. Since my trusty mechanical pencil was all out of lead when I read the poem in the magazine, and since this broken leg makes it inconvenient to hobble across the room to get another pencil, I took notes on the poem down on my laptop. Here, I just brush them up and insert them between Michael's stanzas. Forgive me if the effect of reading them in the middle of the poem is a bit like sitting next to a guy who keeps pausing the Cubs game on Tivo and giving his insufferable opinions about left-handed pitchers and the state of the ivy at Wrigley Field.

This Cup
Michael Anania (Notre Dame Review #28)

I placed a coffee cup
on Jhumpa Lahiri's
sweater set (NY Times
Book Review,
and round it was, the stain

Okay! "and round it was" gives us our first bit of allusion: to Wallace Stevens' "Anecdote of the Jar," which can be taken, among other things, as a poem about the act of creation (it's often read as being specifically about poetic creation). Here's the whole poem:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

So: Anania's comparing the placing of his cup to the placing of the jar, which means there's some pretty powerful stuff at work. The jar, after all, is an artifact that imposes order on the world which, in its presence, ceases to be wild. In Stevens' version of things, the order-giving artifact is austere, and unlike the birdy, bushy, world of sprawl and messiness to which it gives a center and an order. Is the cup going to have a similar function? Or, put another way, does Anania share Stevens' old, high modernist view of art as an austere and deliberate order-making? Put still another way, does Anania share with Stevens a sense of the banishing of mere accidental relations by the intentional act of the order-giving artist? We'll get to some answers, but not for a while. Anania's still laying all his cards on the table. Here's how his poem continues:

of it, that is, and dark,
and despite her bright eyes,
her modest, round earring
and stern but endearing
refusal to smile, thought

of William Gass' Willie
Masters' Lonesome Wife,

the first edition where
coffee cup rings mark
the text and margins

(Tri-Quarterly, 1968)
at random, as though some
careless reader had put
his cup down here or there
willy-nilly, though the text

begins to gather itself into
the rings and eventually
comments on them, so it's
the writer not the reader
or the writer as reader

who was careless or perhaps
deliberate and careless
or deliberately careless
with his cup; "this is
the moon of daylight"

one says; another speaks
in fragments of coffee,
in fact — "in early morning coffee
down the little sterling ide of" —
as calculated as such things

inevitably are in fiction,
even, or especially, when
their beginnings seem simple
and more or less accidental —
"the muddy ring you see

just before you and below
you represents the ring
left on a leaf of the manuscript
by my coffee cup," a reminder
(sometimes we need one) that there

was a time of composition
that preceded the book,

Here's something interesting: we add another dichotomy to intention/accident. This time it's a authenticity/artifice, and it comes about via the juxtaposition of Jhumpa Lahiri and William Gass' weird, fascinating little novella Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife. Lahiri and Gass are very different kinds of writers: Lahiri writes in a plain, clear, lucid language, and tends to base her fiction on autobiography, or on the experiences of people she's known. Gass, of course, is a first-rate metafictional experimentalist, and about as far from plainspoken as you're likely to get. He's fascinated, too, with the visual surfaces of his books, and is always doing something to draw attention to shake you out of your sense of book-as-representing-authentic-experience and make you think of the book-as-book. (He told me, once, that he wanted his publisher to print his magnum opus, The Tunnel, in the kind of Germanic script that looks like barbed wire, and that he wanted obscene pop-ups to be interspersed with the text. Sadly, the economics of publishing trumped the extravagance of the imagination).

Anyway. So: it's Lahiri vs. Gass, and therefore authentic representation vs. the foregrounding of artifice, right? Well, no. Or only sort of. Because Gass plays a clever game with the images of coffee rings printed throughout Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife. I mean, on the one hand he's reminding us that the book is artifice, something he imagined and typed. On the other hand, he's saying "these coffee rings are authentic representations of real events: they're on the same passages of the printed book as the actual coffee rings did." So he's telling us that texts are artifice, but he's also telling us, in a different, less conventional way, that authentic representation does take place. So it's Lahiri representing one kind of authenticity, and Gass representing both artifice and an alternate kind of authenticity. Or so it seems so far. (By the way: don't the bibliographic details the poem brings up also insist on some kind of authenticity?) Back to Anania:

its duration different
in so many ways from the duration
of reading, though each, reading

and writing, can be put aside,
each ringed by its own
neglected cup, the circles
left there imposing an order
of their own, ungrammatical

and asyntactic, something
the text seems to rise up toward,
the urgent way that messages
rise through the inky black of
an eight ball to tell the future,

advise the love sick, heart-
weary and lonely, letters, words
pressed against the ball's small,
dark window so briefly
it is often hard to be sure

what you read there — "Outlook
good," "Signs point to yes,"
"Most Likely," "As I see it,
yes." "It is decidedly so,"
"Reply hazy, try again."

Here we have something like an answer to the question of intention and accident initially raised by the allusion to Wallace Stevens: both reading and writing are order-giving activities, but for Anania there's much more aleatory wiggle-room than there was for Stevens. Order comes into being, but it isn't austere and authoritative. It doesn't, "take dominion everywhere," the way Stevens' jar does. In fact, the order is " ungrammatical and asyntactic," and it is never fully achieved. It is only "something the text seems to rise up toward." And then there's the whole Magic 8-Ball bit, which Anania uses to address both the creation/writing of things and the consumption/reading of them. The creators of the Magic 8-ball did, after all, impose a kind of limited matrix of possibilities on the answers the ball will give. "Signs point to yes" can come up, but "She's going to leave you tomorrow" or "You're a lying sack of shit" can't. Then again, the users can impose order too. Anania stresses their neediness — "the love sick, heart-weary and lonely" — and it's when we're needy that we're likely to take a vague, random phrase like "Signs point to yes" and take it to mean whatever we need it to mean. So: Anania's got a looser, more reader-centered sense of the order-generating qualities of poetry than does Stevens. But what about the question of authenticity and artifice? (By the way, I know those are loaded terms. I don't mean "authenticity good, artifice bad, nor do I think authenticity comes unmediated in literature. But I'm covering my ass like a nervous grad student giving his first conference paper). Back to Anania:

The book's last coffee stain
encircles the navel of the nude
who has been posing (hard
to imagine these days) or as
the author might say, representing,

page after page, the title's,
if not his own, lonesome wife.

So! Ha! It looks like Gass may have been having us on with the whole coffee-stain-as-authentic routine. After all, the stain coming around the woman's navel just as the book is coming to a close looks like a deliberate gesture of artistry, a bit of artifice. It's like that moment right in the middle of that most symmetrical of novels, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when Joyce, for no reason, has the Jesuit pull out his watch and mark the time. It's a gesture of authorial knowingness: I mark this point in my text, because it is formally significant (for Joyce, a middle, for Gass, an end). What had seemed authentic is now revealed as artifice. (All this in a novel where photos of a woman try to suggest that the woman of the narrative was real — "here she is, in photos!" — Gass is all about playing with the idea of authenticity). Anyway: let's get to the end of the poem, which returns us to Anania's own coffee ring, on the New York Times photo of Jhumpa Lahiri:

And the stained sweater set,
not the sweater itself
or Jhumpa Lahiri, the alluring

author with the sideways glance,
but the artifact in black and white
on newsprint wicking coffee
along its random strands of fiber,
occurs as fiction might occur

amid a tangle of causes at once
intended and accidental.
The coffee's damp expands
its ring of paper, which in turn
rises like a blister of cashmere

at once fictive and tangible,
two mother of pearl or plastic
replica mother of pearl buttons
catch the ambient light, twin
crescent moons in their own daylight.

At first I didn't like the ending: I thought the buttons-as-moons echoing Gass' statement about the coffee ring as the moon of daylight was merely a formal echo, with no real significance. A lot of poems end that way, like comedy routines do — they echo a previous comment for a sense of closure and fullness, then bow out to applause. But Michael's always been better than that. And he is here, too, though it took me a moment to see it. But think about it: the button-moons get tied up with the questions of authenticity and artifice, and those questions are every bit as tangled as they are in Gass' novella. The blister of paper left by the coffee is real enough, tangible and authentic, but the cashmere is artifice, representation: a mere image, an illusion rather than a reality. And even the buttons within that representation of a sweater may be (in the context of artifice and representation) authentic or artificial.

I suppose there's a sense of Anania choosing sides here: questions about artifice and authenticity don't come up in Lahiri's kind of writing (powerful as it can be). And for the Stevens of "Anecdote of the Jar," artifice is in its place (the jar, so isolated from the world to which it gives order) and reality sprawls around in its own birdy, bushy place. For Anania, as for Gass, there's no easy separation of artifice and authentic actuality: they're woven together.

Another way to think of "The Cup" — a poem committed to order but open to chance, and fascinated with the interpenetration of art and experience — is as anars poetica, played in the key of late modernism, Anania's kind of music.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Partisan of Volta

"Partisan of what? What of Volta?" Okay. I admit: the title of this post sounds like some kind of indie rock band, made up of a bunch of guys with skinny jeans and Mission of Burma obsessions. But what I'm really thinking of is the volta, or turn, in the traditional Petrarchan sonnet — you know, the moment after the first eight lines, where the general rhetorical thrust changes and we get something different for the remaining six lines (so we'd have, say, eight lines of "ooh, I just love her!" followed by six lines of "but argh, I can't stand her!"). And who is the partisan of the volta, you wonder? Well, if I had to limit myself to a 150 mile radius of my study, I'd say the most powerful partisan of the volta would have to be Mike Theune. From his secret rebel outpost in Bloomington, Illinois Mike argues persuasively for the centrality of the volta to poetry. He's written a good book on the topic, and he totally schooled me on turns in Jorie Graham's poetry a while back.

Now he's picked up on my old Poetry/Not Poetry post and offered his own riffs on the meaning of the volta to poetry. He doesn't go so far as to say that the volta is what distinguishes poetry from prose (much of the best prose is full of rhetorical turns), not does he think that all good poetry needs to turn. But he does say that good turns necessarily make for good poetry, which is a pretty bold claim. Meet the partisan in his hideout, if you dare!