Friday, September 24, 2010

Nietzsche and the Hipsters








So there I was, people, in the lobby of one of Our Fine College’s academic buildings, slouching against the wall by the vending machines while waiting for my man Parksie to drag himself down from his office and head off with me to our usual dive for drinks with the mad scientist and whoever else might wash ashore at our table. As usual, Park had left a 45-page printout job until the last minute, so I had time to kill and nothing to read but the student paper. The article that caught my attention was a student journalist’s angry blast at hipsters. The gist of the argument was that hipsters were hypocrites: they craved social interaction as much as anyone, but acted as if they were too cool for it, sitting at the sidelines of events and looking on ironically. The best image in the article was of hipsters sitting on the benches near Chicago’s North Avenue Beach, looking on and commenting snarkily as the square community frolicked, preened, posed, and beach-volleyballed the summer away in a spectacle of glistening bodies, shimmering eros, and casual athleticism.

It’s an interesting theory, and probably has something to it, although I think, in the end, the hipster position on group social interaction is more complicated than the article made out. I think the best way to get at what’s going on with the hipster standoffishness vis-à-vis big partying crowds is to take a look at what Nietzsche had to say about similar issues in The Birth of Tragedy.

Apollo and Dionysus

Nietzsche begins The Birth of Tragedy with his famous distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian ways of experiencing the relationship between the self and the other. “Let us think of them,” says Nietzsche, as the “worlds of dream and of intoxication, physiological phenomena between which we can observe an opposition corresponding to the one between the Apollonian and the Dionysian.” For Nietzsche, the world of Apollonian experience is like the world of the dream — although it’s important to note that Nietzsche thinks of dreams in a different way than many of us do. He doesn’t mean immersion in a strange, intense reality — he means quite the opposite. He thinks of the experience of a dream as an experience that we know isn’t real, and that we watch at a distance, knowing it can’t really touch us. “For all the most intense life of this dream reality,” says Nietzsche, “we nevertheless have the shimmering sense of their illusory quality: That, at least, is my experience.” So the Apollonian experience of the world beyond us, is one in which we have a clear sense of boundaries: I stand over here, the other stands over there, separate from me. It is a spectacle I watch, and if I’ve had enough, all I have to do is close my eyes, or turn away. Nietzsche elaborates the point by referring to Schopenhauer’s great book The World as Will and Idea, and invoking the Hindu notion of Maya (very roughly, the world of individual phenomena, which the enlightened see through, in order to grasp the fundamental unity of all things):


…concerning Apollo one could endorse, in an eccentric way, what Schopenhauer says of the man trapped in the veil of Maya: “As on the stormy sea which extends without limit on all sides, howling mountainous waves rise up and sink and a sailor sits in a row boat, trusting the weak craft, so, in the midst of a world of torments, the solitary man sits peacefully, supported by and trusting in the principium individuationis” [principle of individuation]


So there’s Apollonian experience: one feels separate from the world, safe in the little inflatable lifeboat of unsinkable selfhood as it floats above all the otherness — all the things and forces and people — of the stormy world around that little yellow boat.

It is the rupturing of the sense of selfhood and separateness — the sinking of the rubber dinghy — that leads us to Dionysian experience, which Nietzsche defines as “the ecstatic rapture, which rises up out of the same collapse of the principium individuationis from the innermost depths of a human being, indeed, from the innermost depths of nature.” That is, we experience the Dionysian when we feel the collapse of the barrier between ourselves and the other. It’s no surprise, then, that Nietzsche calls this an intoxication: it’s a trippy, puddle-of-people at a Manchester rave from the Factory Records era kind of thing he means to get at. Social barriers collapse, the idea of personal space is destroyed, and everyone is not only equal, but united as one (if you’ve ever been in the crowd at a football game when it crosses the invisible line between “a bunch of people in one space” to “a crowd that cries out as one” you’ve been in the presence of Dionysus). Here’s how Nietzsche puts it:


Now the slave a free man; now all the stiff, hostile barriers break apart, those things which necessity and arbitrary power … have established between men. Now, with the gospel of world harmony, every man feels himself not only united with his neighbor, reconciled and fused together, but also as one with him, as if the veil of Maya had been ripped apart, with only scraps fluttering around in the face of the mysterious primordial unity. Singing and dancing, man expresses himself as a member of a higher community: he has forgotten how to walk and talk and is on the verge of flying up into the air as he dances. The enchantment speaks out in his gestures.


Think about all those face-painted, howling Bears fans: by day they’re mild-mannered desk jockeys, toiling in cubicles as members of the lonely crowd. But at the game, they’re free to act in broader, more ecstatic gestures, and they’re relieved of self-consciousness, since in some significant way they’ve been relieved of selfhood, having been immersed in a crowd. Chanting together, dressing alike in their fan gear, probably drunk, and responding to the same plays with the same emotions: the pleasures of Dionysus are the pleasures of the ecstatic release from selfhood, and the dissolving of the self/other distinction.

If you’re out to retain a sense of self-identity, you’re only going to see the Dionysian crowds with something like horror. As Nietzsche says:


…the servant of Dionysus will be understood only by someone like himself! With what astonishment must the Apollonian Greek have gazed at him! With an amazement which was all the greater as he sensed with horror that all this might not be really so foreign to him, that, in fact, his Apollonian consciousness was, like a veil, merely covering the Dionysian world in front of him.


Apollo Recoils

Joseph Conrad, in Heart of Darkness provides an example of the complex recoiling of the Apollonian man at the sight of a Dionysian crowd. It’s too bad the whole racial aspect of the passage (white Apollo, black Dionysus) makes this kind of dicey as a classroom example of Apollonian reaction to the spectacle of Dionysian experience — but if we can put that aside, and put aside the idea that Apollo is somehow better than Dionysus, which isn’t really present in Nietzsche or Conrad, the passage really does get at the psychology of the phenomenon. Here Conrad’s character Marlow looks at a tribal gathering from the deck of a steamer heading up-river into mysterious territory:


The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there -- there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were — No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it — this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity — like yours — the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there 
was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you — you so remote from the night of first ages — could comprehend.


Chinua Achebe rips Conrad pretty hard for this passage, and you can read the detailed descriptions of the socio-religious meaning of tribal rituals in his novel Things Fall Apart as a kind of writing-back against Conrad. Achebe’s got a point. But for now I want to concentrate on something else: the way the Apollonian subject, Marlow, floating down the river in his steamship (one wishes the boat were named the Principium Individuationis ), feels very much outside the group that is clearly experiencing, for itself, a kind of Dionysian unity. He’s repelled by the spectacle. To some degree, this is because it is strange, and makes no sense to someone who stands apart from it (just as bare-chested, face-painted, bellowing football fans often seem like flabby, gesticulating asshats to people who aren’t into football). But there’s more: there’s the creeping fear that he, the Apollonian subject, isn’t entirely unlike those Dionysian revelers. There’s a fear that he may in fact be like them, and this is a threat to his sense of identity. He doesn’t want to disappear as an individual, he doesn’t want to give up his selfhood to the mass, but he feels, when he sees and hears the Dionysian spectacle, that it just might be possible. His sense of separate, self-contained subjectivity trembles.

Hipster Apollo

But what, you ask, does this have to do with hipsterism? I suppose it’s this: that image of the bench-sitting, snark-making hipsters at North Avenue Beach is really an image of Apollonians looking on at a kind of semi-Dionysian crowd. Hipsters standing on the edge of parties with cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, too cool to dance and howl with the rest of the partiers are, in their way, figures much like Conrad’s Marlow. Their sense of distinction — of being, well, hipper than the masses, is an Apollonian phenomenon, a manifestation of the principium individuationis.

I don’t mean that this is a bad thing. In fact, there is a lot to be said for Apollonianism. Critical thinking, the questioning of widely-held opinions, the cultivation of dissent, and such immunity as we have to propaganda, advertising, and mass hysteria all depend on the cultivation of Apollo. When I teach Nietzche’s Birth of Tragedy in my seminar on literary theory, I always end up saying that the seminar room itself, with its emphasis on critique, analysis, and informed opinion, is a temple of Apollo, just as surely as Soldier Field (that’s where the Bears play, oh football-disdaining Apollonian intellectual) is a temple of Dionysus.

I’m sure social class enters into this somehow. Hipsters, as a rule, are either the products of, or bound for membership in, the professional wing of the American middle and upper-middle class — or, more likely in this age of decreased social mobility, they find that the professional class is both their origin and their destination. It is in these classes — among the lawyers, doctors, scientists, teachers, academics, policy analysts, consultants, and the like — that critical thought is most prized. This is not to say that such classes have a monopoly on critical thought, just that they often tend to hold it up as a primary virtue, and consider it an essential part of their identity, and put it ahead of such group-oriented virtues as rootedness, patriotism, and group identity. Hipsters will sometimes simmer with resentment at the implication that their critical, individualist subjectivity is a product of membership in a group — to imply group identity is, after all, an affront to the principium individuationis itself.

Anyway: there’s nothing wrong with professional-classness, or at least nothing more wrong with it than with any other kind of class identity. And it is worth noting that those nations with the most developed professional classes are the least likely to fall into authoritarianism, though that can, and has, happened to bourgeois states in times of severe crisis — you know the examples. Generally, though, I’m glad the professional classes are there, and not just because I have a lawyer and a doctor and an accountant. I’m glad they’re around because they provide a pretty deep reservoir of critical thinking.

The Distrust of Crowds


Perhaps the best way to illustrate the virtues of Apollo is to haul out an old William Carlos Williams poem, “The Crowd at the Ballgame.”  It shows us one of the most benevolent crowds imaginable. I’m with George Carlin on the difference between baseball and football fans — baseball is much less conducive to the more violent outbreaks of Dionysus than is football.  But even here, there’s a menace inherent in the Dionysian unity of the home-team fans, one visible only to those whose particular identities keep them from being entirely absorbed into that unity.



Here’s how the poem starts:

The crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly

by a spirit of uselessness
which delights them—

all the exciting detail
of the chase

and the escape, the error
the flash of genius—

all to no end save beauty
the eternal—


So far, so good: the crowd is clearly Dionysian, in a gentle way (when they are “moved uniformly” they lose that standing-apartness that is the essence of Apollonian experience).  But watch out!  As the poem continues, the danger inherent in Dionysus becomes clearer:

So in detail they, the crowd,
are beautiful

for this
to be warned against

saluted and defied—
It is alive, venomous

it smiles grimly
its words cut—

The flashy female with her
mother, gets it—

The Jew gets it straight— it
is deadly, terrifying—

It is the Inquisition, the
Revolution

It is beauty itself
that lives

day by day in them
idly—

This is
the power of their faces

It is summer, it is the solstice
the crowd is

cheering, the crowd is laughing
in detail

permanently, seriously
without thought


Okay! There it is!  The unity of the crowd is several things.  For one, it is “without thought.” That’s the intoxicated state of unity for you — indeed, to be free of selfhood, self-consciousness, and the need to think is one of the goals, and in some instances one of the virtues, of the Dionysian crowd.  I mean, who among us hasn’t left some sporting event or concert (I mean a rock concert, not the Apollonian silence and paralysis of the classical concert) refreshed and renewed, having hit the “reset” button on our individual subjectivity by losing it, for a moment, in a crowd?  But thoughtlessness is also dangerous, and this crowd, like all crowds, is about unity, not analysis.

Of course the thing about unity is that it isn’t really unity.  Unless the entire population were to enter into some universal rapturous state together, the unity has a border to it, and leaves some people out.  It’s significant that Williams gives this insight to three characters in the poem: the Jew, the “flashy female,” and that woman’s mother.  The reason the Jewish character would understand that crowds are not inclusive seems clear enough: the historical experience of Jewish people would render the character sensitive to the fact that crowds aren’t inclusive, and that those excluded by crowds are vulnerable.  But what about the “flashy female” and her mother?  I suppose their insight into the limits of a crowd come from objectification.  That is, a crowd is a kind of collective subjectivity, a single identity for multiple bodies (that’s why it can “mov[e] uniformly,” like one organism).  But if you are a “flashy female,” you’ve been objectified — seen as a body to be possessed, or acted upon — probably be whole groups of guys at once.  Imagine here some 1950s-era scene where the hot chick sashays past a lineup of Rebel Without a Cause tough guys, who leer and wolf-whistle collectively.  You’ve felt yourself not as part of the Dionysian collective subject, but as an object they might pursue.  You’re sensitive to what it’s like not to be in the group, but to be on the outside, and a bit vulnerable.  The mother of the “flashy female” knows all this too, and is protective of her daughter, probably feeling the daughter’s vulnerability more than the daughter herself does.

So, to haul all of this back to our neglected hipsters: I think there’s much to be said for the habit of alienation such people cultivate.  The world needs those who dissent from the pleasure of crowds.

The Distrust of the Outsider

Just as the Apollonian distrusts the crowd, the crowd distrusts the Apollonian, self-possessed outsider, with his refusal to join in the fun.  This crowd-friendly, outsider-distrusting mentality was, I think, behind the anti-hipster sentiment of the article I read in the student newspaper as I waited impatiently for my colleague to get his shit together.  But where does such sentiment come from?  Elias Canetti knows.  Consider a passage from his strange, rambling book Crowds and Power, which is composed of a giant set of riffs on the nature of Apollo and Dionysus.  Here, he tells us that crowds, in their Dionysian smashing-down of boundaries, can become destructive, and turn on those who have not joined (or cannot join):

Windows and doors belong to houses; they are the most vulnerable parts of their exterior and, once smashed, the house has lost all individuality; anyone may enter it and nothing and no-one is protected anymore.  In these houses live the supposed enemies of the crowd, those people who try to keep away from it.  What separated them has now been destroyed and nothing stands between them and the crowd.  They can come out and join it; or they can be fetched.


Yikes.  And there’s more!  The crowd can be particularly cruel to those whom it considers members, or whom it thinks ought to be members — if those people dissent, and refuse or renounce membership:

An attack from outside can only strengthen the crowd; those who have been physically scattered are more strongly gathered back together again.  An attack from within, on the other hand, is really dangerous….  Everyone belonging to a crowd carries within him a small traitor who wants to eat, drink, make love and be left alone.  As long as he does all this on the quiet the crowd does not make too much fuss about it, the crowd allows him to proceed.  But, as soon as he makes a noise about it, it starts to hate him and fear him.


So: if a crowd thinks you ought to be a member, joining in the collective Dionysian loss-of-self, but you refuse, choosing to follow your individual desires and cultivate difference, you’re a threat.  It’s not that you could attack physically the crowd and win — the crowd is secure in numbers.  It’s that you propose that disunity is possible, and that membership in the crowd is somehow undesirable.  You threaten the idea of unity, and what’s more, you make one of the main pleasures of the crowd — unselfconsciousness — impossible.  If we all lose our inhibitions and borders, we can all behave in ways we generally feel too inhibited to behave.  We can go apeshit in an eroticized, boozed-out Mardi Gras blur, lifting our shirts and throwing up on the sidewalk, making out with passers-by and otherwise cutting loose from our individual inhibitions.  Or, at a football game, we can shout and leap around and feel camaraderie with people we don’t know as individuals, because we’re not at the stadium as individuals — we’re all there as fans together, wearing team colors and cheering for the same touchdowns.  But add someone who dissents, and looks on without joining, and you’ve added someone who, intentionally or not, judges the crowd.  And it takes a hell of a thick skin to remain unselfconscious while being judged (I owe this observation to my wife Valerie, who has to put up with me muttering about Crowds and Power when she’s trying to eat breakfast).

Which brings us back to the hipsters at North Avenue Beach.  If the cavorting beach crowd notices them, it surely notices them with some disdain.  Who wants to be gaped and snarked at?  Or consider those dancing and boozing at some party.  Why wouldn’t they be hostile to the snickering hipsters in the corner, whose very attire signals ironic distance from the crowd?

Contradictions of the Apollonian Hipster

Of course the very fact that there is recognizable hipster clothing, and known hipster neighborhoods, gathering points, and the like indicates a contradiction at the heart of hipsterism: in standing apart together, hipsters are both rejecting and seeking group identity.  They want to form that contradictory entity, a group of individuals, a Dionysian fusion of self-sufficient Apollos.  I imagine we’ve all seen the symptoms of this attempt to square the circle.  I can think of a few of examples off the top of my head.

—  I remember walking down the street near Myopic Books in a particularly hipster-saturated part of Chicago, on my way to give a poetry reading with the redoubtable Don Share.  As I passed a giant American Apparel store, two hipster-looking types (wearing what for all the world looked like American Apparel hoodies) looked into the store’s windows, snickered, and one, in full arch irony, said “oh, let’s go shopping at American Apparel.”  “Yeah, right” snickered the other, in reply.  These were people who belonged to a demographic that populated the area, a demographic that had supported a large American Apparel store.  But they’d be damned if they’d be considered part of that demographic.  I’m pretty sure they had moved to a hipster zone to be with the likeminded, but they wouldn’t want to lose their individuality and merely, you know, be with the likeminded.

— I remember chatting with an über-hip experimental poet with a pretty high-amp academic position.  She told me how much she hated the fact that the neighborhood where she had just moved was gentrifying.  I was (and probably still am) enough of a clod to point out that she was part of that gentrification.  I don’t think she’s ever forgiven me.  Why would she?  As a hipster, or demi-hipster, she wanted to live in an appropriately hip, edgy neighborhood — to point out that by doing so she was becoming a part of the gentrifying group she disdained was to assault the hip individualism she was cultivating.  I should point out that I have total disdain for the rich bastards who surround me in my glossy commuter town, but there are plenty of perspectives from which I, myself, appear as a rich bastard, so I’m no better than anyone else, really.  Hell, I’m fully prepared to admit I’m worse, since I’m the one who was a dick about someone else’s contradictions.

— One really need look no further than the Facebook group “Hipsters who hate other hipsters for being hipsters," a group with close to 40,000 members, to illustrate the contradictions of hipster consciousness.  I mean, the group embodies a wonderful self-reflexive knowledge of the clash between the Dionysian desire to be in a group with other hipsters, and at the same time to distance oneself from any kind of group identity (as a good Apollonian will do).


Can Hipsters Dance?

So, where does this leave us? As I stood there waiting for Parksie, student newspaper in hand, I was pretty sure that I knew: there was a fairly simple dichotomy between Apollonian hipsters and the Dionysian crowd, with a gulf of animosity between them, and a bit of irony about the phenomenon of hipsters dressing and acting like a group, but resenting each other for it. Hipsters stood at the edge of the party, snickering at the crowd, and wary of their own peers for being hipsters. The crowd danced the night away, happily unselfconscious until they noticed the hipsters standing by the wall, refusing to shake it to the music.

Later, though, after I’d laid my thesis down for Parksie, and we were driving home with the windows down and the new Grinderman album thumping away on his crappy car's savage speakers, he drew my attention to a new development, one that may shake the foundations of my argument. One of his students, a hipsterized DJ for the college radio station, had just tapped out an essay called “Hipsters Can Dance.” Next time we head out to the bar, I’ll ask Parksie to bring me a copy.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Gene Tanta's Unusual Woods


Whose woods these are I think I know: they're Gene Tanta's, and they're strange, or at any rate unusual.

Yes, people, it's time to celebrate the appearance of Gene Tanta's new book Unusual Woods, just out from BlazeVox. Gene's an interesting guy: born in Romania, he arrived on our shores in the 80s, and has been spending his time writing poetry, drawing, painting, and hosting Chicago's own "Writing at the Movies" — a writing shindig inspired by the old Surrealist game of moving from one movie theater to another, making one's own show in the process (you can just see the straight line leading from Breton's Surrealism to the Situationism of the "dérive" and "détournement," can't you? It's a line that also leads straight through Gene Tanta's apartment).

Anyway. Here's the blurb I wrote for Gene's book:

Where are we, in Gene Tanta’s Unusual Woods? We’re where Charles Simic would live, if he’d been born a few decades later, under the signs of ellipsis and disjunction. These are woods with at least two borders running through them. The first of them divides the surreal anecdote from the elliptical meditation, and along this border we find deformed aphorisms, slippery allegories, cryptic personifications, and parables bent out of shape and away from meaning. This is a zone filled with almost-expressive artifacts like faceless dolls and faded photos. The second border runs between Tanta’s Romanian past and his American present. Both Eastern Europe and the United States appear in fragments of iconic figures: Stalin, fortune-tellers, gypsies, elders with samovars, spies, and Paul Celan; or Black Hawk Indians, Gulf War veterans, teenagers dancing the funky chicken, and Ernest Hemingway. No one but Tanta lives at these exact poetic co-ordinates. You’d be wrong not to visit.


Check out the Blazevox site for Unusual Woods, or cruise by Amazon.com, or see the online gallery of Gene's artwork. He's good.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

New Look



No, people, no, there's no need for rejoicing. I haven't gone in for a makeover. You'll still recognize me by my grubby tee-shirts, rumpled jeans, and by the urgent sense you get to take a weed-wacker to my hair. It's the blog that has been rehabilitated, thanks to the techno-savvy Valerie Archambeau, who once again rescues me — or at least my online emanation — from utter disreputability.

I think it'll be easier to navigate to old posts, too. But let me know if you run into any problems. I'll refer them to my stylist.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Reflections on the Age of Citation



Randall Jarrell said his generation lived in the age of criticism; we apparently live in the age of citation.
          —David Orr


Citing David Orr's recent citation of Randall Jarrell is probably a bit too arch a way to begin my own little excursus on the meaning of citation in contemporary poetry, but I couldn't help myself. If Orr is correct about the currently dominant use of citation — that it has become a means for poets to affiliate themselves with those with whom they'd like to "hang out" — then apparently I'd like to pull up a chair at whatever dingy café puts up with poet-critics who want to jawbone the night away with their observations on the state of their art. That sounds about right, so I'm giving Orr's point a lot of credence.

Orr argues that the new emphasis on citation as a means of affiliation with one's contemporaries is, in some degree, a function of the migration of poets into academe. I think he's right. But I think there's another way, beyond that mentioned by Orr, that the migration of poets into the academy affects the use of citation, a way I can best get at by citing some recent observations about creative writing and literary studies made by my colleague Josh Corey over at his blog.

Orr's recent article in the New York Times (in which the present humble blogger's most recent book of lit crit gets a brief shout-out) argues that epigraphs have been proliferating at the start of poems and books of poetry. "[W]hile epigraphs have always been a part of poetic tradition," says Orr, thinking of T.S. Eliot's Wasteland, "they do seem to be unusually thick on the ground these days." This jibes with my own experience as a reviewer, a reader, and as judge for a first-book poetry contest. But Orr goes beyond mere observation, and moves into explanation.

Orr mentions the great narrative theorist Gérard Genette, who classified the function of epigraphs into four categories: as a comment on the title of a work; as a comment on the main body of the text; as the invocation of a kind of patron saint (in this instance, “the main thing is not what [the epigraph] says but who its author is" says Genette — or, as Orr puts it, the point of citing, say, Karl Marx, "isn’t Karl Marx’s wisdom, it’s 'Karl Marx'"); and finally, the epigraph as a signal that one is part of a certain kind of culture — here, the epigraph-slinging author “chooses his peers and thus his place in the pantheon.” This last one, says Orr, has become the main mode of citation in contemporary poetry.


When Eliot cited Dante and Heraclitus, says Orr, it was to position himself as a peer of the Great Dead Poets. It was, I suppose, a way of acting on the principle Eliot articulated in "Tradition and the Individual Talent": that the past and the present are in some way simultaneous, and in conversation with one another. Eliot wanted to pull his chair up to the table — not in some local coffee joint, but in the celestial realm where Homer and Virgil and Milton walk around together, like the philosophers in Raphael's "School of Athens."

But now most citation is different, says Orr: "once a symbol of ambition, the epigraph is now more likely to be an indication of community. It tells us less about whom a poet hopes to equal and more about where he’d like to hang out." That is, citation has become less about fitting into some trans-historical conversation, and more about fitting into a niche in the contemporary scene. Orr explains:

Partly as a result of the art form’s academic attachment, poets are increasingly knit together in complicated patterns based on mentorship, instruction or just basic university proximity. These structures can encourage a kind of association via pedigree that greatly resembles association via epigraph. [It is at this point that Orr gives a shout-out to Laureates and Heretics, a book in which I write about some prominent poets like Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky as they emerge from the same graduate program, but only a boorish self-promoter would bring up the mention, and only a truly shameless cur would link to the Amazon.com page for the book, which really does make a great gift for all occasions, and should be in your local library and on your coffee table.]


There's much truth to this: citing one's teachers is an obvious example, but so is the citing of the canons of one's teachers, poetic or otherwise. There's nothing wrong with this (whenever anyone connects poets to academe, someone out there always seems to consider it an insult to poets — an attitude worth examining, but not right now). Poets do tend to want to position themselves in relation to others in the field — and since one of the functions of the Great Migration to Academe has been that the center of gravity has become geographically dispersed, this affiliation isn't often done by hanging out at the right place for your kind of poet (St. Mark's for the early New York School guys, the little storefront called "The Bureau of Surrealist Research" for Breton's band of Surrealists, what have you). The positioning is accomplished by giving the appropriate kind of shout-out at the start of one's book.

But there's another kind of citation, one also, I think, connected to the residence of poets in academe. I'm thinking, here, not of citation in the form of epigraphs at the start of books, but of significant citation and allusion within poems themselves. I was at a reading the other night where one of my favorite Chicago-based poets, Simone Muench, read from a new book of hers, a book consisting of centos — that is, of poems composed entirely of lines from other poems. I like this kind of thing, and have done a fair bit of it myself: "Citation Suite," for example, is a kind of pseudo-cento, a poem made by combining different pieces of text the way music combines and reshapes key phrases (I was sort of high on Roland Barthes "Death of the Author" at the time, with it's notion that the traditional idea of the author is dead, killed by Surrealism and Structuralism, and replaced by the "scriptor," whose only power is to "mingle texts").

Of course this kind of citation has been going on forever: Wordsworth's Prelude makes plenty of allusions to Milton's Paradise Lost, which in turn is saturated in citation of, and reference to, Biblical literature (and much more). But I think there's been an increase in this sort of thing, and I think it comes in large measure from a way of thinking we find in academe.

Consider Josh Corey's observations about literature in the academy, occasioned by his reading of Elif Batuman's review of Mark McGurl's The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (how's that for levels of citation?). Here's what Josh has to say:

Batuman's piece gets to the heart of the tension between the two modes of approaching literature and the literary: a literary scholar comes to value historicization and contextualization above all else, and when reading a novel tends to focus on the ways it was influenced and generated by other novels. Self-expression is ancillary to the task of scholarly writing, and there's also the assumption that literature, and the criticism of literature, is a collective enterprise, an ongoing conversation. Lit begets lit, as crit begets crit.

Creative writing students, on the other hand, value self-expression, originality, and "creativity" itself, displaying what McGurl calls "not a commitment to ignorance, exactly, but … a commitment to innocence."


This seems to imply that scholars who pursue a literary PhD would be attuned to citation, while creative writing types wouldn't be so attuned. But then Josh goes on to describe his own experience as both a "literary scholar" type and a "creative writing" type, mentioning that he has "painstakingly acquired the habits of scholarly writing, which insist that you not write on a given poem or author without familiarizing yourself with "the literature" on that subject." This is interesting, because the kind of hybrid figure he mentions is actually much more common than we tend to think it is. While there are places where creative writing and literary studies live in isolation, there are also plenty of quarters of academe where they cross-breed. Josh is one example of the poet who is also a critic/scholar. David Orr is another. So am I. So, in her range of teaching, is Simone Muench. We're everywhere, and I think it's inevitable that in some of these hybrid cases the contextualizing, citational habits of the scholar and critic will find their way into the work of the poet.

Of course there's more to say about the causes and effects of the Great Migration of the poets into academe. One effect is touched on by David Orr, who notices that poets tend to cite Wallace Stevens over T.S. Eliot by (in his reckoning) "something like 15 to none." Stevens is very much the poet of the isolated intellectual (unlike, say, Yeats, who at times sought a big, national public, and unlike Eliot, who eventually cultivated a role as a kind of public moralist, and unlike Robert Frost, who wanted to be a Wordsworthian "man speaking to men" of common things in a common language). Surely his popularity with academic poets has something to do with the academic poet seeing himself in conversation primarily with fellow academic poets, rather than with a big, middlebrow audience, in the mode of a Tennyson or a Longfellow. I'd like to be able to cite some evidence here, but I'm still at work on the big, tedious, academic study of the changing relation of the poet to art and audience since Romanticism. Ask me about my progress on it after my next sabbatical. Or wait for an announcement in the press — if it's any good, it may get cited in The New York Times

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Literary Vampires and the Monstrous Will to Power



It’s probably because of what I’ve been teaching — Frankenstein; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; P.B. Shelley’s Alastor; The Rime of the Ancient Mariner — that I’ve been thinking about monsters lately. All those works are haunted by demonic forces, evil spirits, or by straight-up shambling monstrosities. Or maybe it’s television that has me thinking about monstrosity: I still watch True Blood, the vampire series based on the mega-popular novels of Charlaine Harris, although the only thing about the show that still does anything for me is the opening credit sequence, which is a great, sexy bit of southern gothic steaminess.

Anyway. The thing that I’ve been coming back to is this: I think there’s a yet-to-be exploited element of vampire iconography, one that could add an extra dimension to the already rich tradition of that particular kind of monster.

As monsters go, the vampire is pretty glamorous, or has been in much of the literary tradition for the past two centuries. In part, this has to do with the transferring of Byronic traits to the folkloric monster by John Polidori, who famously began to think about a vampiric tale while holed up in Switzerland with the Shelleys and Lord Byron himself. The ghost-story contest they held to while away the time eventually resulted in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and (in a roundabout way) Percy’s long narrative poem Alastor. It also led to Polidori’s The Vampyre, published in 1819. The book was, among other things, a shameless attempt to cash in on Byron’s glamour. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage had made Byron a sensation (“I awoke and found myself famous,” he’d said). Polidori, always envious and always looking on the world with an opportunist’s eye, took advantage of the situation, and when his tale appeared in journal form, it bore the subtitle “A Tale by Lord Byron,” and the protagonist was “Lord Ruthven” — the name Lady Caroline Lamb had used for her pseudo-Byron character in Glenarvon (Lamb was a piece of work herself — she coined Byron’s epithet “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” but one really feels the phrase more properly belongs to her).

Of course it was Bram Stoker who gave us the version of vampires we still have today. In Dracula the count is glamorous, vaguely perverse (with hints of bisexuality), sophisticated, and pre-modern. A lot of people read that novel as a kind of bourgeois fantasy, in which the blood-sucking medieval aristocrat is destroyed by a coalition of representatives from all the middle-class professions. Franco Moretti makes a subtler case, saying that the behaviors of Dracula are really more like a Ponzi-scheme version of capitalism (he becomes the master of the vampires he creates, and through them of their progeny, etc.), and that the real conflict isn’t modern bourgeoisie vs. medieval aristocrat, but a matter of the professional classes vs. the capitalists. It’s worth considering.

Lately, though, Stoker’s version of the vampire seems to be losing ground to a slightly earlier version, with its origins in Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla. Le Fanu’s story is about a female vampire is really a way of examining same-sex desire, and it seems to me to be the main precursor of both Anne Rice and Charlaine Harris (or at least the version of Charlaine Harris that makes it into the True Blood television series based on her work). Anne Rice almost always associates her vampires with some kind of alternative to hetero-normative vanilla sexuality, and uses the vampire as a figure of the sexual outsider, with whom she sympathizes (you want to know the how’s and why’s of this sympathy? Have a look at the “Sleeping Beauty” novels she wrote under a pen name. It’s a real window into the particulars of Anne Rice’s erotic imagination). From what I’m told, Charlaine Harris’ novels have a lot to do with female sexual coming of age — but True Blood often takes the vampire as a kind of polymorphously perverse figure, trying to find a place in a world freaked out by such forms of the erotic.

I kind of like what our culture’s done with the vampire figure, mostly because we’re now urged to feel sympathy for the vampires — and, as Mary Shelley knew, the most interesting monsters are the ones for which we care, feel, and empathize. But I can’t help thinking that we’ve let one of the great iconographic traits of the vampire lie fallow. I mean, Stoker used the medievalism and blood-lust; Rice and the producers of True Blood use the connection of blood with the body (and therefore sexuality) and the parallel of blood-lust and lust per se. But what about the notion of vampires not appearing in mirrors? It’s a central part of the poetics of vampirism, but nobody seems to make much of it, even though it has the potential to open a whole new perspective on the nature of monstrosity.

Think about it: in many ways, the classic vampire is not just a Byronic figure, but a Nietzschean one: the vampire see mankind as a herd over which he towers in superiority, like the Nietzschean ubermensch. Furthermore, the classic vampire acts on his own desires and self-interests without regard for any standards of morality but those he creates for himself — he is a figure of appetite and self-justification, a kind of pure will-to-power, who sees the good only as that which is good for himself alone. I think it’s fascinating that such creatures don’t appear in mirrors — because it implies that they are unselfconscious, or incapable of reflection, and are either unwilling or unable to look on themselves as others might see them. This has always seemed to me to be a necessary condition of the will to power: those who exercise it can’t possibly have empathy, or see themselves from the outside, or they wouldn’t be able to instrumentalize others and use them as mere things. There’s a bit of insight, there, inherent in the trappings of vampire iconography, and a kind of criticism of self-interestedness and instrumentalization. But as far as I know, no one has really touched it. And as much as I admire the current version of the vampire myth, as a defense of outsider sexuality, I think we’re at a point in our history where a critique of the hooray-for-me-and-screw-you strain of American politics — the politics of the will to power — is in order. I’d like to see a version of monstrosity that took our political moment into account. Until that comes about, though, I’ll keep watching True Blood and reading Bram Stoker.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

La Lotería: Thursday Night Reading!



Live! Free! One Night Only!

Yep. This Thursday I'll be part of a multi-poet extravaganza at the Center for Book and Paper Arts in Chicago. Come and check it out! The format is something I've seen take off in London, and increasingly in the United States: a themed reading, where each poet contributes a new poem as part of an overall design (one poet per song from The Dark Side of The Moon, or what have you). Our theme is La Lotería, a kind of Mexican Tarot deck. Each poet gets one card (mine, "La Bandera," depicts a flag — sort of a touchy subject, really, especially when it's not the flag of your own country).

The event takes place from 6:00pm - 8:30pm at the Center for Book & Paper Arts on the second floor of 1104 South Wabash. Poetry magazine's own Fred Sasaki presides, and Scotland's very own Roddy Lumsden anchors the bill of readers.

The visuals should be great, too (and not just because I may wear my Winnipeg Jets shirt), since the space contains the exhibit "Mano/Mundo/Corazón: Artists Interpret La Lotería."

Here are the poets and their cards:

Roddy Lumsden (La Corona)
Michael Robbins (La Palma)
Patricia Barber (El Paraguas)
Lisa Fishman (El Valiente)
Jackye Pope (Las Jaras)
Kimberly Dixon (La Escalera)
Jacob Saenz (La Sirena)
Erin Teegarden (La Rosa)
Melissa Severin (La Mano)
Danielle Chapman (La Estrella)
Carrie Olivia Adams (El Arbol)
Raúl Dorantes (El Nopal)
Jorge Montiel (El Diablito)
Johanny Vázquez Paz (El Bailarín)
Jorge García de la Fé (El Gallo)
Marcopolo Soto (La Campana)
Verónica Lucuy Alandia (El Alacrán)
Santiago Weksler (El Pescado)
Don Share (La Bota)
Simone Muench (La Calavera)
Anna Wilson (El Corazon)
Eric Bourland (El Mundo)
Judith Goldman (El Soldado)
John Beer (La Araña)
Robert Archambeau (La Bandera)

Check it out! Then stick around and buy me a few drinks. I promise not to moan about the fate of the Winnipeg Jets.