Monday, October 02, 2006

The Figure Five in Gold: William Carlos Williams Between the Visionary and the Utilitarian

So there I was, circa 1991, sitting with my fellow grad students around a certain self-styled radical feminist professor's dining room table in her rambling midwestern Victorian house, drinking too much wine and listening to her spiel about William Carlos Williams, which seemed to pivot on the observation that, because he liked to sleep around, he was a bad man (plausible) and a bad poet (manifestly untrue). Leaning over to my neighbor, another grad school newbie, a lanky Chicagoan whom I thought might be sympathetic to my discontent with the limits of the prof's view of things, I asked if he thought there might be more to Williams than what our prof seemed to think of as the primal sin of priapism. "This red wheelbarrow, it -- I -- I mean..." he sputtered "I mean, that's just... what's it got to say about... I mean, it's just stupid." It was a bit surprising: this was a guy who read Pynchon and DeLillo and Paul Auster, a man destined to write a sharp dissertation on difficult historiographic metafiction. He was every bit as hostile to Williams as our prof, although for very different reasons. She had a kind of moralistic objection to the man that translated into a dismissal of the work. My fellow grad student simply didn't seem to have anything in his otherwise well-equipped interpretive toolbox with which he could grab the little poems from Williams' Sour Grapes and pry them open.

Later, after we left, I told him I thought Williams had been treated unfairly, but when he asked me to explain why I liked poems like "The Red Wheelbarrow" and "The Great Figure" I didn't acquit myself well. I think I mumbled some poorly remembered lines about "the visual chord of imagism" from T.E. Hulme, and left it at that. He was as unconvinced as he ought to have been. And he's far from alone in being left cold by those poems. When I'm teaching freshmen, "The Red Wheelbarrow" is one of the poems I can count on my some of my students having read in high school. A decade of teaching has taught me, though, that they almost invariably despise the poem. I think they've had a bad experience, with the poem having been shoved at them by a teacher who, thinking its brevity and simple diction make it accessible, doesn't really do much better than I did at explaining why he found it charming and interesting in the first place.

I think, though, that I've finally found the perfect crowbar to use on Williams' imagism-derived poems of the early twenties. I found it while rummaging through Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception and his Heaven and Hell, of all books. I've been teaching some of Blake's prophetic books, and, one evening, decided to pull my unread-since-undergrad days copy of Huxley down off the shelf to see if there was anything clever on Blake (from whom he derives his title). There wasn't much on Blake I could use in Huxley's grab-bag of art history, peyote memoir, semi-Jungian jive and mystical ramblings, but when I hit his section on color and visionary experience I finally felt I could have given a decent reply to the scholar of postmodern metafiction who sat next to me in that seminar fifteen years ago. Talk about your esprit d'escalier already.

In both The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell Huxley makes a big deal out of the significance of color in visionary experience. When he trips on mescaline in California, he's almost overcome by the sight of light falling on a blue chair, for example; and he quotes extensively from various mystics and visionaries who remark on the luminous, intensely colored world they perceive around them. To understand why this seems so important to him, we need to get a sense of the difference between ordinary and visionary perception as he understands them. Essentially, he tells us that ordinary perception is a very selective perception, a mode of experience that filters out anything that doesn't somehow help us get through the day; while visionary perception is an (inevitably limited) opening out toward experiencing the world as it really is, in all of its overwhelming and (to us) useless totality. Here'e what he says after his mescaline experience, which he takes as having approximated visionary experience:

Reflecting on my experience, I find myself agreeing with the Cambridge philosopher Dr. C.D. Broad, "that we should do well to consider much more seriously than we have hitherto been inclined to do the type of theory which Bergson put forward in connection with memory and sense perception. The suggestion is that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative.... The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful." According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large [*a note from Archambeau: This sounds loopier than it is. I take Huxley to mean something like "each one of us has a potential for perception that is disinterested, not filtered through screens of utility"]. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness that will help us stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.

Huxley's got a point about the reductive or eliminative nature of ordinary, utilitatian perception. If I could be forgiven for moving from the sublimity of visionary experience to the ridiculousness of an experiment involving a guy in a gorilla suit, I'd mention a psychological experiement in which people were asked to watch a videotape of a basketball game and keep track of the different plays. Here's what happened (really!), according to the British newspaper The Telegraph. The researchers

played the tape to subjects and asked them to count the passes made by one of the teams. Around half failed to spot a woman dressed in a gorilla suit who walked slowly across the scene for nine seconds, even though this hairy interloper had passed between the players and stopped to face the camera and thump her chest. However, if people were simply asked to view the tape, they noticed the gorilla easily. The effect is so striking that some of them refused to accept they were looking at the same tape and thought that it was a different version of the video, one edited to include the ape.

So we see what we're looking for, and we look for the things that are useful for the task at hand — in this case, watching the plays, not the gorilla. The reducing valve of utilitarian perception is in full effect.

Anyway. The intense experience of color seems to correspond, for Huxley, with the seeing of a fuller or more than usually charged version of the ordinary world -- with the perception of (to use Huxley's favorite Blakism) "the world in a grain of sand." He recounts a bunch of visionary experiences from a variety of people (including the Irish poet AE). Here he moves beyond description to analysis:

At the antipodes of the mind, we are more or less completely free of language, outside the system of conceptual thought. Consequently our perception of visionary objects possesses all the freshness, all the naked intensity, of experiences which have never been verbalized, never assimilated to lifeless abstractions. Their color ... shines forth with a brilliance that seems to us preturnatural, because it is in fact entirely natural — entirely natural in the sense of being entirely unsophisticated by language or the scientific, philosophical or utilitarian notions by which we ordinarily re-create the world in our own drearily human image

So the perception of, and fascination with, brilliant color can be an indication that we're pushing the limits of ordinary, interested (as opposed to disinterested), utilitarian perception, and entering a broader perception of experience. We may not be seeing the world in a grain of sand, but we're in one of those rare and privileged moments when we're seeing more than we need to see in order to get by.

Okay. Right. But what's it all got to do with William Carlos Williams? Well, this, I guess: A bunch of Williams' short poems from the early twenties, including some of the best known, give us two elements of a single object: its utilitarian value and the fascination of its brilliant color. I'm convinced this is significant: Williams is showing us that the ordinary objects around us glow with the possibility of the kind of visionary perception Huxley is trying to get at. Williams values the objects for their ordinary utility, but he's always ready to see the world in the grain of sand. Or, rather, in the wheelbarrows and firetrucks of New Jersey. Check it out. Here's the way-too-familiar "The Red Wheelbarrow":

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

"So much depends..." — we begin with an assertion of the utilitarian value of the wheelbarrow, its role in supporting the family and working the farm and all the rest of it. But then comes the color, both of the wheelbarrow itself and of the (equally utilitarian) chickens. And, of course, the wheelbarrow gleams, its color popping (uselessly, from a utilitarian perspective, or from the point of view of those who depend on the wheelbarrow to work and survive) with rain-glaze. If you turn to a standard explanation of the poem, such as you'd get in Exploring Poetry, you'll read that "...the word 'glazed' evokes another painterly image. Just as the reader is beginning to notice the wheelbarrow through a closer perspective, the rain transforms it as well, giving it a newer, fresher look. This new vision of the image is what Williams is aiming for." All of which is totally true. But explanations like this miss what I think is most important about the poem: its insistence that there is both an interested/utilitarian and a disinterested/visionary perspective to be had. On the one hand, the wheelbarrow has an economic value, which Williams notes at the beginning. On the other hand, it exceeds mere utilitarian value, and pops with a brightness that opens up for us the idea that the world pulses and gleams with a vivid life all its own, beyond its value as a tool for our survival.

"The Great Figure" is even better as an example of this kind of dialogic take on perception in Williams' early poems.

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
fire truck
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city

The firetruck is a supremely utilitarian object, and on a serious mission in which lives may well be at stake. And the number of the truck is a sign of bureaucratic society, social organization and useful orderliness: it shows us that we live in a world of departments and social services designed to help us out in disasterous situations. It is a sign of how we've formed a utilitarian survival mechanism and learned how to put it into operation. But all of this is almost lost in the sense-overload of the number, its glaring goldness (which, like the wheelbarrow, is accentuated by a halo-glaze of water). It is the goldness of the numeral, the very extravagence of this, that fixates Williams (and that would soon fixate Charles DeMuth, in his painting based on the poem). The firetruck has its real and valuable utility (in this instance a very urgent utility), but its gleaming color also serves, here, to show us that we are capable of perceiving a world beyond utility. There it is, in all its splendid alterity, all its strangeness and gleaming, irreducible reality. I'm sure this kind of contrast between utilitarian and what I'll call visionary perception is hugely important to a full appreciation of Williams' poems.

There's a lot more to say here, I'm sure — one could probably riff for a while on how both Williams and the man who was in many ways his opposite, Wallace Stevens, are both heirs to the Blakean visionary Romantic tradition. I mean, Stevens' "Of Mere Being," with its gold and "fire-fangled" bird, glowing brightly "without human meaning" is probably a good counterpart to these Williams poems. And there's probably something to say about the idea of language as a reducer of experience. Huxley talks about this, and so does T.E. Hulme, the main theorist of imagism. But I've got to kick it into gear and grade some of the papers I had my students write about Blake's prophetic books. Urizen, ho! Onward, Ahania!

Postscript: Those of you who have been in touch with me via email about blogging on Adorno will no doubt have noticed that this is not an Adorno post. I'm getting there! But the new semester has crushed me beneath her voluminous academic trappings, and I gasp for air. Whatever else Adorno may be, he is not air.