Saturday, January 28, 2012

"Every Playboy Centerfold: The Decades" and Why it Matters (To Me)

Secret revealed:  I was almost an unemployed art historian.  I was also almost an unemployed philosopher, and an unemployed historian. That is, back when I was a student I went through the same kind of little crisis most students go through, wondering about the subject in which I should major. It was a near thing, but I ended up an English major and, for better or worse, fell in with a crowd of poets. I also ended up employed as a poet and critic, but I think that was mere chance — unemployment is the default position for humanists of all kinds. Anyway, the kind of poetry and literary criticism I write tends to have a lot to do with history, and to flirt a little with philosophy. But art history has always been a kind of road-not-taken for me, and lately I've been spending some time watching a lecture series on the history of European art, a course solid and old-fashioned enough to remind me of the introductory art history class I took so long ago, when I'd sit in the back of a giant auditorium and listen to the professor in those educational interludes between bouts of futzing around with a recalcitrant slide projector.

The lecture series I'm watching comes with an accompanying textbook, and, in keeping with the para-academic nature of the enterprise, it includes little summaries, paradigms, and even study questions. It's basic stuff ("we can understand what we're looking at better if we think in terms of subject, interpretation, style, context, and emotion") but good stuff, in an introductory way, and I've decided to think through all of the study questions. The first of these was almost too easy — it asked us to describe the difference between interpretation and style, style being something like a visual language (Renaissance single-point perspective, say, or Cubism) and interpretation being more like the particular statement about the subject being made within that style. But the second question I encountered was more intriguing: it simply asked for an analysis, in terms of the five categories of understanding in the course's paradigm, of an artwork one has cared about. Here's what I did with that question earlier this morning, while munching a croissant, drinking coffee, and staring into space.

The artwork that came to mind was a four panel, digitally rendered, set of photographs created by Jason Salavon, a Chicago-based artist with whom I've hung out on a few occasions, and whom I brought up to Lake Forest once as a speaker for the &NOW Festival.  Salavon's piece is called "Every Playboy Centerfold: The Decades." Here's the description from Salavon's website:
From a broader series begun in 1997, the photographs in this suite are the result of mean averaging every Playboy centerfold foldout for the four decades beginning Jan. 1960 through Dec. 1999. This tracks, en masse, the evolution of this form of portraiture.
That's it above, by the way — the image at the top of this post. But what can we say about it if we somewhat mechanically apply the categories of subject, interpretation, style, context, emotion? And why do I, personally, find it appealing?

The subject is pretty clear: through a process of digital averaging of visual elements, the piece manages to include 40 years of Playboy centerfolds. But what's the take, the interpretation?  It has to do with history, and this is the first thing that appeals to me: I've got a fundamentally historical imagination. When I teach a literature course, it's always in some way about the evolution of civilization, and how the literature of the time plays into that evolution. When I write a critical essay about contemporary poetry, it tends to situate that poetry in a context going back at least to the Romantic era of the early nineteenth century (I do this even when it isn't necessary, and many's the editor who has trimmed the historical limbs from the overgrown shrubbery of my prose). Salavon's interpretation of the history of the Playboy centerfold over the years seems clear enough: the women get thinner, and they get blonder.  What's really interesting about this is how the point, which in the hands of another kind of artist could be made rather heavy-handedly, is made without a lot of rhetorical bombast.  The piece has a lot to say about beauty, and about the ways men objectify (and women are taught to objectify) the female body. It even implies an increasingly brutal body image regime (Barbie über alles!). But it makes the point with coolness and quiet, like a scientist presenting data and letting the data speak for itself.  

In terms of style, the piece combines something decades-old with something only recently possible.  That is, it certainly owes a lot to Pop Art, to the whole Andy Warhol/Roy Lichtenstein manner of taking the forms of popular culture (publicity photos for Warhol, comic books for Lichtenstein, pornography for Salavon) and reworking them. But the numerical averaging of image components is something only really made possible by information technology, of which Salavon is a master: he's holds a joint position in art and computer science at the University of Chicago, and used to be a video game programmer.  (Salavon explores the poetry of statistics elsewhere, in images averaging out two generations of yearbook photos, or abstractions containing every frame of a particular movie, or in images of the statistically average house in any given market — it's no wonder that he was chosen to create the artwork at the U.S. Census Bureau headquarters).

As for context — well, it's not a piece that could have been made before artists turned to media critique. There's been some of that since the rise of mass media in the late nineteenth century, but it really took off after the second world war, with Situationism and its cousins. And I think it's also a feminist, or post-feminist, work, in that it isn't a piece that takes the female nude for granted as a subject for art. It foregrounds the mediation and social construction of beauty ideals, and in that regard it's utterly unlike something like, say François Boucher's "Nude on a Sofa," which I find mesmerizing for entirely different reasons than those that compel me to look at Salavon's work:

This brings us, at last, to the quality of emotion. There's a certain coolness to Salavon's four images, stemming from their partial abstraction. But this coolness plays off against the way the heterosexual male gaze is meant to interact with the original images, which, after all, were made to provoke the heat of desire. Those blurred, abstracted figures are haunting because they're uncannily both figurative and abstract, provocative and etherial. And they present images of desire at a kind of Apollonian remove, making us see them with a kind of historicizing, quantifying gaze at odds with the simple lustful gaze the original images imply and create. In the end, this gives us (or, at any rate, me) a kind of doubled emotion: a bass note of Dionysian abandonment to desire, and another note that resonates high above, in the realm of the self-conscious intellect. And that's the emotional note that sings its siren song directly into my ears.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Our Literary Moment: Kenny Goldsmith, meet Willie Yeats

Keith Tuma, debonair man of letters

Sometimes, when you're reading a couple of seemingly unrelated books simultaneously, there's a strange overlap of some kind.  I experienced just such a moment of serendipity today.

For the last few mornings I've been reading a couple of chapters from Keith Tuma's new book On Leave with my morning coffee. It's a book that combines literary anecdotes with reflections on the meaning of anecdotes, all shot through with bits of the headlines and scenes from Keith's life as he writes the book.  It's been a slightly strange experience, since Keith's life and mine have had a lot of overlap without actually colliding very often: we lived, at different times, in the same Chicago neighborhood; we've both been pulled into the orbit of former students of Yvor Winters,; and we both take an interest in British poetry, with an eye open to the experimental wing (he much more than I).  We have friends in common.  We were both plenary speakers at the Assembling Alternatives poetry conference in New Hampshire years ago, an event to which his book returns again and again.  We both go to the annual literary conference in Louisville, though except for a dinner with Geoffrey Hill in South Bend, that's been the only place we've talked.  So for me there's a kind of uncanniness to the book: in both Tuma's literary anecdotes and his autobiographical sections, I see into worlds that are sort of mine and sort of not.

But that's not what struck me today.  The bit that struck me today was something I'd read a while back, a comment of Kenneth Goldsmith's that Keith recorded: "Kenneth Goldsmith," writes Tuma, "says that what defines our moment is knowing that it has all been done in poetry, in writing, and art..."  I didn't spend much time on thinking about the passage (I'd barely touched my coffee), except to note Goldsmith's typical concern with what it means to be up to date, what it means to be engaged with things specific to our own time.

Then, this afternoon, I was plugging away re-reading Yeats' autobiographies, taking notes for a chapter about his work I hope to write for a book of criticism I've been working on.  And there, in a passage about his association with the poets of the Rhymer's Club of the 1890s, I found Yeats describing himself and his peers as "men who spoke their opinions in low voices... and timidly as though they knew that all subjects had long since been explored, all questions long since decided in books whereon the dust settled..."  Yeats and the Rhymers came to this belief after reading Walter Pater's Renaissance, particularly the chapter on Michelangelo, where similar sentiments of belatedness were expressed.  Pater's book appeared in the 1870s.

If we think of the thing that "defines our moment" as something that makes it different than other moments — as I believe most people do — then Goldsmith's notion that our certainty about belatedness being what defines us rings false.  But that's neither here nor there, really.  When something is objectively false, the thing that becomes interesting is the subjective need that allows us to believe it.  So maybe what makes our moment special isn't that we feel it's all been done (people have been feeling that way for better than a century).  Maybe one of the things makes our moment distinct is our need to think that we're distinct from a past with which we actually have a great deal in common — our compulsion to find differences and distinctness at any cost, even historical accuracy.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Absurd and How To Deal With It

Why should anyone care about the theater of the absurd?  I found myself arguing about this with a colleague a while back.  We’ been thinking about a graduate seminar on the culture of the first half of the 20th century, and arguing about what to include in the impossibly ambitious syllabus.  I’d made a case for including Beckett, and my colleague, a historian, had argued against including him.  When pressed, I found I had little to say about the historical significance of Beckett’s work or, indeed, about the significance of any works in the theater of the absurd.  And yet I felt, and still feel, that there’s something important about Arrabal and Beckett and Ionesco and all the rest, something of social significance, not limited to the particulars of any particular play.  It’s just such a strange thing to have happened, the theater of the absurd.  But what’s important about it?  I know the issue’s been eating at me, since I dreamed, the other night, about Foursome, one of Ionesco’s short plays.  I went back and read it yesterday, and somewhere about halfway through the things I wished I could have said to my colleague started to become clear to me.  In the end, I think the flourishing of the theater of the absurd in the 1940s and 50s tells us a great deal about the position of the arts in society during that time, and about the alienation of artists from the larger culture around them.

My personal touchstone for the idea of absurdity comes from a passage in Camus in which we’re told about a man talking on a telephone in one of those old-fashioned glassed-in phone booths.  The man talks but, says Camus, “we cannot hear him beyond the glass partition, but we can see his senseless mimicry. We wonder why he is alive.”  The man’s expressions and gestures have the form of an emotionally engaged person, but from our position beyond the glass we are deprived of any meaningful context for those gestures.  We have the forms of life without any meanings or values attached to them — and that is the world of the absurd, of a universe that refuses to give us any transcendent values.  The theater of the absurd works this way, giving us the elements of meaningful drama without much by way of a specific meaning attaching to them.  It’s important, for example, that the Godot of Waiting for Godot is never specified: is Godot God, or the Revolution, or the bearer of wealth or significant messages?  No.  He’s an empty signifier, and so his arrival or non-arrival become deprived of specific meaning.  The hijinks and pratfalls and yearning speeches of Vladimir and Estragon have the form of meaningful yearning and frustration, but they’re not attached to any specific object, so in the end they are difficult to judge, or sympathize with.  They are the gestures of the man on the other side of the phone booth’s glass.

Consider Ionesco’s Fourplay (or Scène a quatre).  Already the title indicates that we’re dealing with the form of drama more than the content.  It refers to the four characters in the one act — de-emphasizing content for form, just as the sight of the man on the phone behind glass emphasizes the form of his gestures, not the content of his conversation.  It’s as if Shakespeare, instead of calling his greatest play King Lear, chose to call it One Bad Decision and its Consequences.

The play opens with a scene that is a kind of abstract, version of the core of drama: we have two characters in conflict.  But the conflict is without any content.  Two characters pace around, going in circles in opposite directions.  When they collide, they speak and reverse direction:


It’s primal dramatic stuff to begin with a conflict, but here the conflict is without any kind of content, at least not that we know about, nor do we find out about it as the conflict elaborates.  There is no way to pick sides, no one with whom to sympathize.  The two characters are even costume identically, so it is impossible to find some value system based on visual cues (a landlord vs. a proletarian, for example).  In Lear Shakespeare gave us the selfish, scheming modern individualism of Edmund vs. the traditional feudal loyalty of Edgar, so there was something emotional, political, and ethical at stake in their conflict.  Ionesco’s giving us nothing — he keeps the glass wall up between us and these characters, allowing us to see their gestures and their conflict without letting us attach value to that conflict.  The absurd, indeed!

Later, when we’ve seen some variations of this “yes!” “no!” conflict, Ionesco changes things up a bit:

DURAND: You don’t need to keep on saying yes to me, it’s no, no…NO.
DUPONT: You are pigheaded, you can see very well that you’re pigheaded…
DURAND: You’re reversing our roles, my friend…

The “yes” man Durand has become the “no” man, and Dupont calls him on it.  It’s a classic dramatic move to have the nature of a conflict reverse.  Think of David Mamet’s Oleanna: the professor, John, begins as the empowered one on the offensive, abusing his privilege; later the formerly disempowered student Carol goes on the offensive, abusing her newfound empowerment every bit as much as John had abused his power.  But in Mamet’s play, something’s at stake: the complex gender and generational power dynamics of life in the late 20th century university, where a highly localized, limited empowerment of women was challenging an institutionally fading, if socially prevalent, empowerment of men.  The characters stand for something, and their conflict means something, and connects to the issues faced by real people in the real world.  Ionesco’s done away with all that, leaving us with the form of a reversal in conflict detached from any values we can identify or about which we can care.  It’s a pretty radical gesture.  There’s a kind of themelessness in place of theme, and a kind of characterlessness in place of character.  It’s like getting the sketch or blueprint of a play without any concession to the particular values or interests we associate with content.

Of course we’ve only met two characters so far, and the title promises us four.  At this point we meet a third character, Martin, costumed (significantly) identically to Durand and Dupont.  When he enters, we may think we’re in for some meaningful intervention in this empty conflict.  But at first what we get, instead, is some meta-dramatic comedy.  “Oh…stop being so stupid…” says Martin, “Characters in a play don’t always have to be more stupid than in real life.”  But this meta-dramatic comedy leads no where: there’s no revelation about the meaning of drama.  And soon enough Martin becomes a part of another classic dramatic device, the triangular conflict.  We see moments when Martin is at odds with Dupont who is at odds with Durand who is at odds with Martin, and go through various permutations and combinations, with two characters at odds with one, followed by realignments.  I haven’t checked, but it’s possible Ionesco puts us through all the possible options of alliance and conflict, all the while keeping the nature of the conflict as empty as it was in the initial conflict of “yes” vs. “no.”  In essence, we still see only Camus’ man behind glass, full of gestures that, for us, have no content.  No specific values seem to be at stake in this absurd universe of ignorant nitwits clashing by night.

It’s at this point that a fourth character enters, along with the hope that we may be delivered from absurdity.  This character is different: a well-dressed woman with a fashionable handbag.  She enters the conflict, but not in the same way: she’s the object of desire, with Durand, Dupont, and Martin each claiming that she is his fiancée.  They struggle over her, and gradually she becomes disheveled, losing her handbag, her gloves, and other pieces of clothing as they pull her this way and that.  It’s significant that no one character seems to have a greater claim on her than any other: this isn’t a matter of true love and the virtuous suitor winning out over villains.  It’s a group of three ham-handed stumblebums, between which there is nothing to choose.

But if we can’t choose, the woman can, and she does, in the play’s abrupt conclusion:

THE LADY [to the three men]: Leave me alone, all of you.
DURAND, DUPONT, MARTIN [astonished]: Me? Me? Me?
[All movement stops.  The LADY, rumpled, unhooked, winded, half undressed, moves down to the footlights.]
THE LADY: Ladies and gentlemen, I agree with you entirely.  This is completely idiotic.

This is the really interesting point, and the payoff for sitting through a short play that, despite some wonderful business involving potted plants being handed around, threatened, by virtue of it’s very refusal of specific values in conflict, to be utterly boring.  But what’s it all about?  Is Ionesco condemning the meaninglessness of an absurd world?  Is he bemoaning the fate of a world without values?  I almost want to say yes.  But not so fast: the world isn’t condemned, here: the play is.  And it isn’t Ionesco doing the condemning: it’s the audience, or at least the audience as he’s written it into the play.  And then the real question arises: what’s the significance of Ionesco’s sense that this play, so caught up in the forms of drama, and so cut off from an ordinary audience’s concern with values in which it can feel a stake?  Is the play (prior to the ending) in the right?  Or is the implied audience of the play’s ending correct?

One way to understand what’s at stake in the ending of “Fourplay” is to look at the claims made for the theater of the absurd by Martin Esslin (the man who coined the very term “theater of the absurd”) and to run them against the ideas of one of modernist art’s most articulate opponents, José Ortega y Gasset.

Esslin, in his 1961 study The Theater of the Absurd, tells us that theater has suffered an “apparent eclipse” with the rise of mass culture forms like television and film.  Theater has become an art for the few, and it’s forms and values reflect that, becoming less sentimental, more cerebral, more challenging.  This, though, is not to be taken as a sign of marginality or obsolescence.  In a move as old as that of P.B. Shelley in “Defense of Poetry,” Esslin claims an enormous importance for an apparently marginal art.  The mass media, he says, are “too ponderous and costly to indulge in much experiment and innovation,” so true innovation will come from the stage, especially the stage of absurdist playwrights like Ionesco.  “The avant-garde of the theater today is, more likely than not, the main influence on the mass media of tomorrow, and the mass media, in turn, shape a great deal of the thought and feeling of people throughout the Western world.”  The absurdist playwright may not appeal to many people initially — indeed, they may, like Ionesco’s implied audience, find avant-garde productions “completely idiotic.”  But fret not!  Such initial unpopularity is only initial: in the long game, absurdist playwrights will be the unacknowledged legislators of the world.  “Thus,” says Esslin, “the type of theater discussed in this book is by no means of concern only to a narrow circle of intellectuals.  It may provide a new language, new ideas, new approaches, and a new, vitalized philosophy to transform the modes of thought and feeling of the public at large in a not too distant future.”

If we look at Ionesco’s play from something like Esslin’s point of view, the joke, at the end, is on the audience.  They’ve been given a play stripped of all sentimentality, a play that shows us a truly absurd world, where there’s nothing to choose between the sides on major conflicts, where there’s no coaching about what to value, where we’re very much out on our existential own with regard to the question of values.  King Lear chooses for us, holding up the hierarchical Edgar over the individualistic Edmund (a position we might not, if we really looked at the play critically, find all that sympathetic).  Foursome refuses to do that thinking for us.  In this view, the woman at the end, when she invites the audience to share her views, is offering a kind of cop-out, a chance to be inauthentic, and to accept her views because they’re easy, and articulated for us.  The implied audience that condemns the play is like Esslin’s mass media audience.  But fret not!  The absurdist truths will strike some of the crowd, and their views will be the influential and important ones, spreading slowly out.  It’ll be the most creative and clever audience members who see past the cop-out ending, and they’ll let the absurdist view enter their work in the cultural sectors, and slowly, slowly, the ordinary schmucks will catch on to the new, unsentimental worldview.

That’s one way of seeing things.  But consider another perspective, one that opens up to us when we think about modern drama from the point of view of Ortega y Gasset.  In The Dehumanization of Art (which predates Ionesco’s play).  If Esslin’s view of the audience for works of art like Foursome is that the challenging nature of the work will eventually win out, first appealing to the most independent-minded intellectuals and eventually seeping out into society in that vauge, Shelleyan way, Ortega takes quite the opposite view.  Modern art, he says, “will always have the masses against it.  It is essentially unpopular; moreover, it is antipopular.”

Ortega’s argument runs like this: the majority of people do not admire art for its specifically artistic or formal qualities.  Rather, the man on the street “likes a play when he has become interested in the human destinies presented to him, when the love and hatred, the joys and sorrows of the personages so move his heart that he participates in it as though it were happening in real life.”  The masses want emotional participation when they see a dramatic conflict — exactly the sort of thing that Ionesco denies them in the conflicts of Fourplay.  Ortega continues describing the masses, saying “by art they understand a means though which they are brought into contact with interesting human affairs.  Artistic forms proper — figments, fantasy — are tolerated only if they do not interfere with the perception of human forms and fates.  As soon as purely aesthetic elements predominate and the story of John and Mary grows elusive, most people feel out of their depth and are at a loss what to make of the scene…”

Now comes the really interesting part of Ortega’s argument.  “Pirandello’s drama,” he says (naming a favorite precursor of absurdism) has “the sociological effect of compelling the people to recognize itself for what it is: a component among others of the social structure… On the other hand, the new art also helps the elite to recognize themselves and one another in the drab mass of society and to learn their mission which consists in being few and holding their own against the many.”  It all sounds very Pierre Bourdieu, doesn’t it?  Art that foregrounds form (as does Ionesco’s), and that doesn’t allow for easy emotional identification with characters and their values (as Ionesco’s doesn’t) forces the majority of people to see that they are not the whole of society.  They may be great in numbers, but they and their tastes aren’t the only game in town.  And such art shows the intellectual or cultural elite that they, too, are a class of sorts.  It helps them find one another, and gives them courage to represent their (minority) values against the majority.

Looking at the ending of Ionesco’s Foresome from an Ortegan point of view, we see a special challenge for the audience: the lady, leaving the stage and joining the audience, offers to speak for that audience, and condemn the rest of the play.  Those who’ve been alienated by what they’ve seen may applaud happily at her action.  But those who find themselves with a kind of wry, knowing smile will see that Ionesco has set up a complex conflict—a conflict between an absurdist play that refuses to dictate values to us, and a non-absurdist ending, that offers to dismiss the play.  Between these two elements of the audience there will be no agreement.  Indeed, the function of the play is not what it would be for Esslin (the beginning of a slow process of the conversion of the many by the few).  Rather, it would be the spark that creates an awareness that there is a real division between the few and the many.

To my mind, the real value of putting an absurdist playwright like Beckett or Ionesco on the syllabus of a seminar on modern culture would be to open up a discussion about the question of elite or minority tastes and mass audience.  Clearly, such theater poses the question starkly.  And whether we take Esslin’s view, or Ortega’s, or some other perspective, any discussion of modern culture in the early twentieth century needs to address the deliberate unpopularity of the kinds of art so many of the greatest geniuses of the period produced.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Going to Innisfree

Are we autonomous individuals, or inextricably bound to our communities?  Is art created in freedom, for its own sake, or does it come into being to support a cause larger than itself?  I've been having a look at these questions lately in relation to the poetry of W.B. Yeats, as part of the research for a Yeats & Eliot chapter of a book that now has the unfortunate working title Power and Poetics: A Social History of Aesthetic Autonomy and Poetry.  The questions certainly haunted Yeats: as any study of his work will tell you, he came of age as a poet divided between the l'art pour l'art symbolism of the Rhymer's Club of the 1890s and the anti-colonial nationalism of the Irish Literary Revival.

The question of autonomy and community goes deeper than this, though: in fact, Yeats grew up in a household where the question was actively debated, and his father, the painter John Butler Yeats, was deeply interested in the question.

Reading JBY's letters, one frequently runs across statements that embrace the notion of the artist as a proudly isolated figure, disdaining the demands of the audience: "the artist must always be an aristocrat and disdain the street," he writes, or—echoing his favorite poet Keats, in Keats' rebuke of Shelley for putting politics, community, and philosophy before aesthetics—"if the lark were to bother itself about the 'Collective Soul'... it would not sing at all.  Elsewhere he argues that "the chief thing to know and never forget is that art is dreamland and that the moment a poet meddles with ethics and moral uplift he leaves dreamland, loses his music, and ceases to be a poet."

JBY was the furthest thing from a systematic thinker, though, and like a true negative capabilty-having lover of Keats, he often presented contradictory opinions without any irritable reaching after some final resolution.  "Art for art's sake," he writes at one point, "is for those who hate life... the great artist is also a man like ourselves."  Moreover, he argues on behalf of "democratic art" in a letter to his son, saying that WBY should aim at art "that unites a whole audience" because the art for art's sake crowd is just "a coterie of discontented artists" lacking worldly experience and relevance and amounting to nothing more than "a tea-party of old maids discussing marriage and large families."

Sometimes JBY pulls off a kind of having-it-both ways move, in which the moral and political problems of Ireland are best served by artists who do not aim at addressing those problems, but at a totally autonomous art. This is a move one sees from time to time in the late nineteenth century, and it becomes an important principle of some avant-garde movements in the twentieth century: in fact, it's a major principle of Surrealist thought.  Here's an example of JBY making the autonomous artist politically engaged despite himself: "Ireland is to be rescued neither by Belfast nor by England, neither by priest nor by parson, but by its artists," because they, with their independence and apparent unconcern for the orthodoxies of political faction or ideological battle, provide what no one else can, "freedom of thought and the intoxication of truth... an unshackled intellect."  It's all very Matthew Arnold, isn't it? So very like Arnold's hope that a disinterested group of intellectuals, with their "free and fresh play" of ideas, will save the world from bitter partisan struggle. JBY was 30 when Arnold's Culture and Anarchy appeared, and it seems to have had an influence on his thought.

Anyway.  If we want to see how these issues play out in Yeats' poetry, we can look in any number of places.  But "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" is a particularly good poem with which to start, since here the question of autonomy vs. community is linked to filial loyalty, to both father and fatherland, in ways often overlooked.

Here's the poem:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, and a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

At first glance, it's just a nice bit of pastoralism, a yearning for a rural retreat from the busy modern world.  It is that, certainly.  And Yeats' statement about the poem's genesis re-enforces this pastoralism: he famously wrote that the idea came to him when he saw an artificial fountain in a London shop window, and remembered the peaceful waters of Sligo.  But what to make of the specific kind of pastoral retreat the poem proposes?

It's worth considering the phrasing of the first line, "I will arise and go now."  It's an allusion to the King James Bible, to Luke 15:18, and the story of the prodigal son.  "I will arise and go to my father" are the words of the prodigal son, just as he resolves to return to his father and confess his sins.  So this isn't just a retreat to a quiet place: it is a son's return to the things from which he has guiltily strayed.  The place to which he the speaker resolves to return is overtly Irish (the place name alone establishes that), and the world of gray pavements is most likely London (it was where Yeats had lived, it was the place where the inspiration for the poem struck him, and it is the great metropolis most readily identified with "pavements grey").  So the poem presents us not just with pastoral retreat, but with a kind of re-affiliation of the poet and his nation, and with the implication that his removal from that nation was as wrong as the prodigal son's straying away from his family duties.

But if the poem contains a kind of nationalism, and an implicit statement that the poet's place and duty lie back among his own people, it's a funny kind of nationalism.  The plan for life at Innisfree, after all, is a plan of isolation — or more than that: of an almost Robinson Crusoe-like self-sufficiency, with the poet building his own dwelling and raising his own food in autonomous isolation.  Is this nationalism or individualism?  Political commitment or individual withdrawal?

The issue is further complicated when we consider another allusion, one so buried that it was probably not intended to be found, but that is mentioned in Yeats' autobiographical writings.  As the critic Michael North has pointed out in The Political Aesthetic of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, the bean rows of the first stanza of Yeats' poem come from the "Bean Field" chapter of Henry David Thoreau's Walden.  And not only that: they come from Yeats' father reading passages of Walden aloud to the poet.  As Yeats says in Reveries Over Childhood and Youth, "my father had read to me some passage out of Walden, and I planned to live some day in a cottage on a little island called Innisfree... I thought that having conquered bodily desire and the inclination of my mind toward women and love, I should live, as Thoreau lived, seeking wisdom."

So just as the Biblical allusion to the story of the prodigal son signals that there is a communal or nationalist urge at work, this other allusion signals that there is a Thoreauvian individualist urge at work, re-enforcing the poem's Crusoe-like images of autonomy and self-reliance.  The nationalist story comes with the authority of fatherhood behind it (the poet away in the great metropolis is the nation's prodigal son), but so does the individualist story, since the poet is reminded of his father in the individualist mode JBY so often (but so inconsistently) struck.  Without Yeats' autobiographical writings this latter paternal-filial relation would remain invisible, but we have the autobiographical writings, and we aren't hung-up on sticking to the internal evidence of the text itself, are we?  I mean, my name's not W.K. Wimsatt, and yours isn't Monroe C. Beardsley.

What to make of the poem, then?  Clearly it isn't a simple pastoral, but neither is it simply a Celticist poem of national affiliation.  Nor is it simply a poem of individual autonomy.  Instead, it is a poem that tries to have things both ways, but offers no easy fusion of the competing urges, along the lines of what JBY had offered in his comment about autonomous writers saving the nation by virtue of their autonomy.  Despite the poem's apparently placid surface, the fusion is incomplete, or perhaps we should say dynamic, with the nationalist urge and the autonomous urge oscillating endlessly.  The poem, in the end, is a dog chasing its own tail, or an attempt to square the circle.  It attempts something not quite possible, which will, after all, be the ambition of Yeats throughout his career.

"The Return of the Prodigal Son," by Pompeo Batoni