Monday, December 20, 2010

The Liberal Arts as Archimedean Point

The seasons govern us, we professors, just as surely as they governed our agrarian ancestors.  Like farmers, we find the nature of our work determined by the flux of seasons, although we seem somehow to have lost a season in the transition from the cultivation of the soil to the cultivation of the liberal arts.  If we teach on the American semester system, our year divides into spring, summer, and fall.  While those of us in the northern tier of the country certainly shiver from December to March, we don’t recognize winter as a full season, instead relegating it to a brief “winter break.”  Our real seasons consist of the spring and fall semesters — each with an arc of its own from the “here’s a syllabus” moment through the real teaching and on to the terrible grind of end-of-semester grading — and the impossibly glorious summer, when, unless we’ve resigned ourselves to post-tenure intellectual rust, we rev the engines of research as high as they’ll go, and see how far they’ll take us.  So for me, the fall just ended a few days ago, with the essays and exams done and the grades turned in to the registrar.  And I find myself asking some of the same questions I ask every year around this time: what is it we’re doing, anyway, and in what possible way can it matter?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not cynical.  In fact, my instinct is to believe in what we in the liberal arts do, at least in principle.  But what, exactly, is it, and why is it worth believing in?  I took a stab at an answer in one of my notebooks while my students were writing their exam on Romanticism.  Here, in slightly cleaned-up form, is what I came up with.


First of all, there’s no such thing as the liberal arts — or, to put it in a less showy way, there’s no absolute consensus about what the liberal arts are, nor any consensus on how or why they’re taught.  In fact, let’s begin with a moment of dissensus: a faculty meeting many months ago, during which I nearly ground my teeth into a fine white powder while a much-respected colleague held forth passionately on the education of new students.  “With first-year students,” he maintained “we should remember that we’re teaching skills, not content — so by all means be willing to let the content slide while you concentrate on building fundamentals like the capacity for critical thought.”  He continued in this vein for some time, with the usual response from the end-of-day crowd: a combination of nodding (some ostentatious, some not) and tired-eyed staring into space, followed, at his oratorical terminus, by polite applause.  Maybe it was my background in literary studies, where the simple distinction between form and content is generally rejected; maybe it was my pathological anti-authoritarianism (my inner anarchist punk grabbed me by the shoulder of my dingy corduroy blazer and noted that the speaker was some kind of dean and, therefore, wrong — Q.E.D.); maybe it was an orneriness introduced into my system by the digestive acrobatics required to process a cafeteria calzone.  Whatever the reason, I took quiet exception — loud exception being, as I have slowly learned, a sure way to prolong the very meeting from which one years to escape.

The basis of my exception-taking was this: the speaker’s assumption that critical thinking was in some way abstractable from what he dismissed as the mere “content” of study.  This struck me as entirely false, possibly damagingly so, and very much at odds with my personal sense of the liberal arts.  To my mind, there can be no such thing as disembodied or contextless critical thinking.  To think critically one needs some kind of Archimedean point outside of one’s own inherited assumptions, some introduction to a mode of life or way of thinking that is other and alien, that doesn’t operate with reference to the coordinates to which we reflexively refer for guidance.  There are a limitless number of such points, but in whatever version, they all fall into the seemingly inert category of “content.”  Much of the thinking that went into multiculturalism, and into the old triad of race/gender/class, makes an argument of this kind: by understanding, say, the complexities of how gender has been defined, codified, and normalized in different times and places, one can step outside one’s inherited assumptions; by reading the imaginative literature of an ethnic group not your own, one can suddenly find oneself seeing the world of one’s understandings from the outside; by looking into the systems by which social groups seek to establish status one can gain critical insight into one’s own social being.

On a good day, the study of “content” can even give one an Archimedean point outside one’s own categories of analysis, categories like race, gender, and class.  I had the privilege of being in a room where this happened to about a hundred people at once.  It was at a conference on postcolonial literature, when the Tanzanian scholar Joseph Mbele rose up and interrupted the American speaker who’d been impressing us all with talk about how we needed to get beyond generalizations about the postcolonial, and introduce into it the subtleties of race, gender, and class.  “When,” asked Mbele, “will my village matter?”  He continued by explaining, in some detail, the methods for identity-construction and categorization in his hometown, many of which revolved around excruciatingly complex notions of kinship obligation.  Our categories were interesting, but they were definitely Western categories, and we needed to think of them as such, rather than as timeless and placeless universals.  Had Mbele not walked us, however briefly, through the “content” of Tanzanian notions of identity, we wouldn’t have been able to step outside the assumptions of what we’d mistaken for a rather cosmopolitan point of view.

To my mind, historical study of any kind (literary, artistic, scientific, mathematic, political, what have you) is one of the most powerful means of stepping outside one’s inherited assumptions and gaining a critical perspective on them.  The remoteness of things, the utter alienness of the ways people from other periods thought and lived and embodied their subjectivities — this is no inert pile of facts, “content” that one must unfortunately get rid of on the way to gaining the skill of critical thought.  Historical knowledge is, instead, the vehicle by which we may move from where we are, in our understandings of ourselves and the world, to where we might be.  Get to know how people thought about economics before we even had the word “economy” in anything like the modern sense of the term, and you’ll be positioned to understand the contemporary financial crisis in ways you never would have been able to otherwise.  Get to understand how an ancient Greek saw his or her relationship to the obligations of the polis, and you’ll see everything about how we operate as a body politic as if for the first time.

I made the mistake, once, of proposing to the faculty that we consider historical difference a category as important as gender or ethnic difference when we give students credit for taking required cultural diversity courses. Most of my students are American women born within the last quarter century.  Strangely, they can get diversity credit for a course on the modern women’s novel, but not for a course on, say, Beowulf.  And one could reasonably argue that Beowulf comes from a set of cultural assumptions more different from those students' own than, say, the assumptions informing the work of Joyce Carol Oates.  I think people assumed I was trying to argue for the reinstatement of Ye Olde Literarie Canone, though, and it didn’t fly.  It was probably my fault for not coming at it differently.  I mean, I was young enough to believe that the way to get something done was to introduce the idea in a meeting, then sit back in arm-folded Righteousness and await acceptance by the throng.  Politic I was not.


These were the things I thought about, as I watched my students writing their exams.  And I wondered, too: had the students in my seminar on Romanticism been learning critical thinking?  I certainly hadn’t stopped with the Hazlitt and Keats all of a sudden to say it was time to work on our critical thinking skills.  Nor had I started every day with an injunction to critically interrogate the texts before us, seeking out their odiously out-of-date assumptions and holding them up for criticism — I actually attended a course like this when I was a student, a course in which a fellow student once confessed to the fresh-from-Yale-in-the-90s professor that she didn’t know what to say about the text, but she knew "there must be something wrong with it, or we wouldn’t be reading it.”  In fact, I think that kind of “critical thinking” is hardly critical at all: it’s just an imposing of our present views onto the past, in order to find the past wanting.  It’s not much different than the kind of smugness Joseph Mbele exploded at that postcolonial conference I’d attended.  The best kind of critical thinking, I suppose, is the kind that comes when we let the culturally different interrogate us as much as we interrogate the assumptions of the culturally different.  It’s in the meeting of the two different cultural horizons that some of the most powerful critical thinking can occur.  And that’s a matter of content.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Piqueray Dossier: More Belgian Surrealism!

So there I was, rooting around trying to put some order into the Augean stable that is my hard drive, when I ran across a little document called "A Piqueray Dossier" that I'd put together a year or two ago for an editor pal of mine who'd taken an interest in Belgian Surrealism.  Since I know the world is crying out for more information on the Belgian Surrealist poets of the mid-twentieth century — rare is the day my phone stops ringing with calls from Hollywood agents, Defense Department analysts, and representatives of major pharmaceutical corporations, begging for any scrap of information I might send their way — I'm posting it here.  Now get off my back!

A Piqueray Dossier

Gabriel and Marcel Piqueray were identical twins, born in Brussels in 1920.  Lovers of jazz and surrealism, they associated with key figures of the movement, including André Breton and René Magritte (with whom they held regular "surrealist working meetings" for many years), as well as with the musician Chet Baker and the composer Francis Poulenc.  In 1957 they became joint editors of the influential avant-garde journal Phantomas, whose contributors included Samuel Beckett, Roland Barthes, René Magritte, Kurt Schwitters, and Jorge Luis Borges, among many others.  They published a dozen books (listing "Gabriel and Marcel Piqueray" as authors — the Piqueray brothers did not believe in individual authorship), as well as numerous works in journals, and several works co-authored with Paul Colinet.  Gabriel Piqueray died in 1992, Marcel in 1997.  Au-Delà Des Gestes et Autres Textes, a 250 page selection of their work, was issued by Editions Labor in 1993, and sound recordings of their work were released on the Sub Rosa label in the collection Le Groupe Surrealiste Revolutionnaire (Vol 3).
Here’s some general background on Belgian surrealism from a 2001 article called “The Secret History of Belgian Surrealism” by Michel Delville, a sharp-eyed and eclectic critic (his book The American Prose Poem is my favorite treatment of the topic, and he’s done interesting work on — get this — Captain Beefheart):

Correspondance, the first Belgian Surrealist magazine, was founded by Paul Nougé, Camille Goemans and Marcel Lecomte in 1924, the same year as Breton’s First Surrealist Manifesto.  Since that time, Belgian poetry has remained one the European avant-garde’s best-kept secrets.  The names of Nougé, Chavée and Dumont are conspicuously absent from most anthologies and literary histories, and Belgian surrealism is generally considered as a non-literary phenomenon and almost systematically confined to the paintings of René Magritte and Paul Delvaux.  Unlike many other Belgian writers who moved to Paris to make a career (the examples of Georges Simenon, Henri Michaux, Pierre Alechinsky and many others come to mind) most Belgian surrealists published their work in their home country, and this may explain their lack of recognition outside a small circle of connoisseurs and specialists.  Perhaps it is the sense of being relegated to the margins of francophone culture that accounts, at least in part, for the radical, convulsive spirit that runs through the history of the Belgian counterculture, from proto-Dada poet Clément Pansaers to Noël Godin, the now world-famous entarteur who recently hit Bill Gates with a cream pie...

And here’s a note from the critic Philippe Dewolf (crudely translated by the present writer) on the nature of the Piqueray’s joint authorship and collective sensibility:

It has been noted that their sensibilities and their characters are essentially different. On occasion, of course, a few words or lines by one of them appear in the other's text, but not often. Usually, only the signature is in common. As Marcel Piqueray explained in 1944, their names had been and would remain inseparable: “one signature, one station signal, as they say on radio; one overall station signal for the Piquerist state of mind.” Five concerns characterize this state of mind: the quotidian, angst, tenderness, the fantastic, and humor.

So you get the general idea: there’s a well-developed surrealist scene in Belgium, in contact with, but blessedly un-beholden to, André Breton’s scene in Paris.  The Piqueray brothers, working together, are at the heart of this, in part due to their editorship of Phantomas.
            Michel Delville stresses the kind of thick-fingered, deliberately clumsy, strangely comic element of les frères Piqueray, but in truth, this is only really one side of their work, as Dewolf’s statement about their main concerns implies.  Much of their work is a little understated.  Consider these three prose poems:

Hierarchy: A Night
“Can you see anything?” shouted Danour.  He raised the faint and flickering lantern to his face.  His squinting features showed his worry.
“I think this road winds on down the mountain,” Lora answered. “Too bad it’s so dark tonight. No time to be stuck on the summit, with all this wind – it’s not going to be comfortable.”
Danour laughed. “To hell with comfort” he said. “The important thing is for us to get down to the valley.” The words had hardly left his mouth when he stubbed his toe against a human body. It moved. A voice spoke.
“I don’t want to butt in here, but let me tell you this: you’d better not try to go down there.”  The speaker struggled to sit up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
Danour brought his lantern over to have a look at this unexpected dispenser of wisdom. It was a man, about forty, with a big moustache and a bowler hat. As the man stood up he went on explaining: “You see,” he said, “at first the summit was covered with lost couples and young families. The brave ones, though, were able to find their way down into the valley. The rest followed.  By now they’ve worked out a system: every family’s got its place, packed in side by side from the top on down. You and the missus here will be the final link – you can settle down right here.”
“Now, he added, “let me get some sleep.  I’m really tired. Good night.”
Down in the valley, it sounded like someone got a foot tangled up in the strings of a harp, then became overly-apologetic, making careful and elaborate excuses.

The Raft Of The Medusa
for Geneviève, for Nathalie, for Jacques

I speak of the folding, Y-shaped cane, a tool often used by hunters and horse-racing regulars – the former to make their aim more deadly, the latter as a portable, revolving chair, to follow more easily the movements of their circling horses.
They say that Formality, everywhere, uses his all the time, being so stunned and so breathless at the merest suggestion of the chanciness of life.


Having scaled the wall, they leapt over the bristling shards of broken glass, hoping to land softly in the slop-pile left over from last year’s meager scrapings.
As they fell endlessly, they came to the conclusion that they must have picked the wrong wall. Growing used to the void, they started to think of other things.

The first of them is almost a Kafka parable.  So’s the third, come to think of it.  There’s a kind of social satire that bleeds off into metaphysical satire.  I guess that’s in the second one, too.
            Sometimes the prose poems seem more concerned with defamiliarization, though.  The image in this next one (if not the treatment of the image) always seems kind of William Carlos Williams-ish to me:

Hidden Light

This stately, low-wheeled carriage loaded with bright yellow boards never ceases to amaze people when they see it coming around the corner of the deserted street, pushed by a man in an apron.
It is such a strange vehicle, too majestic for this kind of cargo, such an unexpected and improvised means of transport – but somehow you know you've seen it before, though you can’t remember where. You’re so sure of this that you’re fixated by the sight of it, trivial as can be, as it rolls silently down the middle of the quiet street, through the middle of neighborhoods of accumulated memories through which we must walk, to understand.

They’ve got a bunch of poems that do something similar with the image of a beautiful woman, whose presence somehow charges the surrounding atmosphere with newness, beauty, and all that.  But I never thought of those prose poems as among the Piquerays’ best work.  Well, there’s this one, a sort of variant on the type I’ve just described.  I think it’s quite good, although a lot hangs on the end line:

Delerium’s Kingdom

In the distant, snow-choked valley sits the blonde, entirely naked, her hands clutching her knees tightly to her chest.
A city-suited man stands before her, his flapping scarf masking his face as he holds his arms outspread, as if to embrace her.
Little by little, first her legs, then her naked torso, and at last even her forehead and her fingers begin to blush with a glowing red. It is achingly beautiful: a color born of crackling woodfires.
For the man, now, there is nothing but the translucent nakedness of the woman, her closed eyes inventing the sky.
Snow is an aristocrat.

And speaking of aristocrats — some of the prose poems tell tales set in a strange, faux medieval or fairy-tale world (one of the favorite terrains of the surrealists).  Here’s one:

The Affective Distance Game

"Vendôme..." sighed the Marquise, leaning from the battlements of her turret.
"My jewel!" the Duke cried from the foot of the tower. He pulled a few ivy leaves from the wall and pressed them against his lips, tasting their bitterness. Faint voices came to them from far off in the splendid summer evening.
Some said, "Limousin! Golden Age! Rocamadour!" Others called out gently, "The Princes of the Blood! Saint-Amant-Roche-Savine! Ribérac!" Still others asked, “Blois? Marie-Adelaïde? Milady?”
"No, no, this is awful!" cried the Marquise, in answer. A great commotion was heard from up above. Then, suddenly, nothing.
Thinking this must be some kind of a joke, the Duke raised his eyes toward the turret’s battlements, and took a few impatient steps toward the moat. He laughed heartily:
"Bridgit! – What’s she up to? Oh, she's in for it now!”
But still silence reigned.
From the distant woods he could hear the faint sound of young ladies dancing.  Then came new voices, with an echo like the omen of a terrible sorrow.
It was a group of lords, rounding the bend with a little band of armed men. They bore the corpse of a young man.
Seeing this, the Duke turned abruptly back to face the castle, its battlements now shining violently in the moonlight.
“He played the game,” the armed men explained, “And fell dead the moment the Marquise sobbed out her last answer.”
But the Duke was no longer listening. He had stepped lightly to one side. “Good God,” he murmured, “I could have sworn they didn’t love each other that much…"
Striding up to the tower, he stepped on a square of blue silk, spotted with a little blood: it was a woman's handkerchief. He quickened his pace.
Arriving at the summit of the turret, he found all the players gathered there. He went straight to the little knot of princesses.  In their arms they held the corpse of the Marquise, her dead face bathed in the purest light.

Much of the Piquerays’ work that appeared in Phantomas involved a kind of Pessoa-like creation of different poetic personae — a great game for editors to play.  This is where a lot of the absurdism and oddball humor comes into play.  Some of this is scatalogical, some straight-up goofy.  This, I’m sure, is what an anonymous reference book writer had in mind when he wrote:

If there is a quality specific to Franco-Belgian literature, it is a corrosive humor raised to its highest point by the surrealists. It is also the attribute of Phantomas, a literary and pictorial review emphasizing the ludic and enlivened by the “Sept types en or” (Seven Golden Guys): Paul Bourgoignie, François Jacqmin, Joseph Noiret, Pierre Puttemans, Theodore Koenig, and Marcel and Gabriel Piqueray. Phantomas is perhaps the best illustration of this Belgique sauvage, which contrasts a little too easily with the official Belgium.

When I was thinking about what might go into your magazine, I thought of this strand of their work.  In fact, it might go into the summer issue, with the traditionally lighter, funnier, stuff.  I worry, though: it’s weird stuff, and not weird in any of the ways we’ve come to expect (if we expect it, is it really weird?  Maybe such stuff is just pseudo-weird...).  Then again, it isn’t as weird as mIEKEL aND (whose weirdness, I should add, is entirely laudable).

            Anyway, here’s a series that I think represents this side of l’oeuvre Piqueray, a group of poems called “The Sproks,” presented as written by one Guy Pezasse, an alter-ego of the Piqueray brothers:

The Sproks

Tale of an Experiment

He gets a chance
The man
Tears a head of lettuce
Into thousands pieces
And stuffs them into a very strong
Cup of filtered coffee.
And then
He takes
What remains of the lettuce
And dumps it
Into a vat,
Dripping with coffee.

Example of an Activity

This man’s uncle
Sometimes carries
An immense mattress
On his head.
And he staggers
With this mattress
From the top of the stairs
To the coal bin,
Where he lays it down
And throws himself on it
Pumping legs in the air
In excitement.

An Action Among Others

The same uncle
Who lives on the seventh floor
In the center of town
Is sometimes
In the habit of filling,
At dawn,
A large pan
With strong black coffee
And balancing it
On the window sill
With the help of his nephew;
Then sending it
Careening into the street,
Not giving a fuck
About it.

Tale of Another Action

It is this same gentleman
Who, with the help of his uncle,
Fills an immense cast-iron
With gooseberry jam.
When they’ve done this,
The gentleman and his uncle
Throw handfuls of jelly
At each other’s faces
For fun.

An Activity Among Others

What also happens
Is that the gentleman,
His uncle
And his nephew
Tear many heads of lettuce
into thousands of pieces
Then pour strong coffee
On them,
In a vacant lot
On a slope,
Coal heaps
And piles of shattered windowpanes
At the bottom of the slope.
They speed down the slope
On their bicycles
Without braking,
Their legs spread wide,
Feet held away from the pedals;
And then,
At the bottom of this slope,
The tires make a crackling noise
In the coal
And a farting noise
In the shattered windowpanes.
Then the gentleman,
His uncle
And his nephew
Jump off
Their bikes
And pelt each other
With old heads of lettuce,
Very strong coffee,
And shattered windowpanes
Until they take up shovels
While leaping
On mattresses
Filled of plaster
And pumping
Their legs in the air
In the gooseberry jelly
Of their excitement.

Well!  It’s different from the more conventionally beautiful, evocative prose poetry, for sure.  I think that’s part of the point, to de sacralize and de-aestheticize poetry (“The Sproks” is a manifestation of that particular page of the Dadaist-Surrealist team’s playbook).  I always think of the series as having a kind of strange, Buster Keaton-y slapstick, combined with a satire of bourgeois propriety, and even a satire of scientific method.  Michel Delville has this to say about “The Sproks”:

To me, the “Sproks” poems have always resembled a cross between Satie, Beckett, Buñuel, and Laurel and Hardy. The proximity of food, garbage and shit in the poetry of the Piqueray Brothers points to a poetics that does not shy away from describing fantasies of infantile regression and puts them to the service of a popular art that delights in imagining how the most banal situations can degenerate into absurdist extremes. Such manifestations of the eccentric, the repellent and the abject create a space where the shock aesthetics of the revolutionary avant-garde meets the verbal games of the poète-farceur, who considers poetry as a form of linguistic slapstick comedy. For all its apparent timelessness and impersonality, the poetry of the Piqueray Brothers remains rooted in their cultural and social background, and one suspects that many of the Non Inhibited Poems were inspired by the chink of beer bottles, the smell of fried sausages and the sight of people pissing in the streets on their way back from the local café. As Louis Scutenaire once put it, in Belgium “on boit de la bière et on mange de la viande / Et tout le monde est une bande d’abrutis” (“we drink beer and we eat meat / And we’re all just a bunch of morons”).

So there you go: a guided tour through the Piqueray world.  I find them delightful, and think of them as a real find (as far as I know their work doesn’t exist in English except in the translations Jean-Luc Garneau and I have put together). 

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

How (Not) To Blog

Not too long ago, a young European guy who was considering starting a poetry-oriented blog sent me a nice email asking if I had any advice on blogging. My first reaction was surprise: I don't consider myself to have been blogging long enough or seriously enough to be seen as a source of advice. Then I looked at my archive, and realized that I've been doing this since 2004, which counts as the Neolithic Period in blogging history. So here, suitable for printing out, crumpling up, and hurling into the nearest trash bag, are what will have to pass as my Words of Great Wisdom.


Advice? God, you make me feel old. No, wait, that's not you making me feel old, it's the wheezing noise I'm making after walking up three flights of stairs to my office.

I suppose it all depends on what you want to accomplish. For me, the blog is just a place where I can type out whatever it is I've been thinking about. I don't treat it as an obligation, and I don't try to stick to any kind of imposed system of topic, post length, engagement in current discussion, or schedule — if I'd looked at blogging that way, it'd be a burden, a bit of alienated labor, and I'd never have kept at it.  If there's any unity to the thing, it's the unity that comes from it being an expression of one person's interests.  I imagine that there are people who would consider this terrible advice, who would tell you to post regularly on a defined topic.  They're probably right, if what you want to do is cultivate an audience.  

So.  I'm not sure if what I have to say pertains to the kind of blog you want to have.  But since you asked, I suppose my advice would be this:

1.  Post comments. I didn't for years, but when I started I actually enjoyed the conversations. It's a good idea to moderate them to weed out the spam. There's a lot of spam.

2.  Don't let people be miserable, angry, argumentative bitches having-at-one-another for no good reason in your comments stream. That's what killed the comments streams at the Poetry Foundation blog and at Ron Silliman's blog.  I've only had people get this way a few times, and I've stopped it by saying "Hey, don't make me start not posting comments — I don't care who started the shouting, but let's stop it right about now."

3.  Don't do it if you don't like it. Don't talk about anything unless it interests you, and don't be afraid to talk about something just because it isn't your "field." As Max Weber might have said, "I am not a donkey, so I do not have a field."

4.  I try to be sort of positive, since the paranoid freak-ass weirdo wing of the online community is bound to take everything the wrong way. I mean, don't shy away from saying what you believe, but it's probably wise to begin with a surplus of generosity. Also, roll with any negative feedback. I mean, if you decide to be the bigger man, you don't come out looking bad. It took me a long time to learn to thank people who set me straight about things, rather than getting mad at them for being right.

5.  I don't think this will be a problem for you, but I'll say it anyway: say what you mean, as clearly and unpretentiously as you can. Don't hide behind academese. I mean, there are no complicated ideas, not really. You can explain most of Kant's aesthetics to a teenager in fifteen minutes. You can explain the basic literary moves of Gertrude Stein to your bartender over a single drink.  I've heard a physicist explain quantum theory to a room full of lunkheads like myself in less than an hour.   Anything you actually understand can be talked-through easily enough, and you'll be considered kind if you give examples. And there's no shame in not knowing everything -- grad school seems to make people afraid to say "I don't actually know much about Baudelaire" or "I never finished Middlemarch" or "Derrida? I don't get him yet." I guess what I'm saying is this: don't bullshit people, or yourself -- you'll only look like another frightened guy who wants to hide behind sophistication that he doesn't really have.

6.  If you absolutely, positively, want to get some hits, post images of naked celebrities. By which I mean: don't worry about getting hits. If you care about poetry, you care about stuff that won't get lots of hits (at least not by the standards of people whose blogs actually do get lots of hits).


I'm sure there are other kinds of advice for other kinds of blogs.  Hell, there's probably better advice for this kind of blog (whatever this kind of blog may be).  But this is all I've got.  Hope it helps.  And if it doesn't, ignore it and do whatever works for you.

I should, before I sign off, add that there are two things I really love about blogging.  First, there's the writing of the posts themselves: it makes one focus one's mind, even more than writing in a notebook does.  The public nature of the posts is a kind of discipline.  Second, there's the community.  Looking at that list above, I fear I may sound like someone who thinks of blog readers as angry, argumentative, thin-skinned people looking for trouble.  And there are a few of those. On a bad day, I can be one of them.  But I really do enjoy being in touch with the people who comment or send emails, or come up to me at conferences or seminars.  Weirdly, I've been recognized in a couple of different countries, and even on the street, by people who got to know of me through the blog.  Sometimes they've even bought drinks for me.  What's not to like?

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Divinity Effects

…the tintinnabuli style — especially in the simple form in which it exists in “Für Alina” — consists of two lines. The melody, which proceeds mainly in steps up and down the scale, might be compared to a child tentatively walking. The second line underpins each note of the melody with a note from a harmonizing triad (the fundamental chord of Western music) that is positioned as close as possible to the note of the melody, but always below. You could imagine this accompaniment to be a mother with her hands outstretched to ensure her toddler doesn’t fall. Pärt grabbed my own hand with excitement. “This is the whole secret of tintinnabuli,” he exclaimed. “The two lines. One line is who we are, and the other line is who is holding and takes care of us. Sometimes I say — it is not a joke, but also it is as a joke taken — that the melodic line is our reality, our sins. But the other line is forgiving the sins.”

How can one invoke the idea of the divine in the various arts of our time? I’ve been thinking about this a bit since I read Mark Scroggins’ remarks on the deeply religious poetry of Peter O’Leary over at And, as I think about the issue, I keep coming back to the remark quoted above, a remark made by the great composer Arvo Pärt when he was interviewed by a reporter from the New York Times. There are, of course, all kinds of ways of invoking or representing divinity, from the humble church mural of a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus to the vague, sterile glow of some New Age ball of light. But the one that intrigues me, and seems to find expression in a number of different art forms, is the one Pärt mentions: the presentation of something we can identify with, combined with the presentation of something larger that comprehends and forgives the thing with which we identify. This seems to me a particularly powerful way of giving an emotional impression of the presence of divinity (which, I hasten to add, is not the same thing as a proof or argument for divinity).

Here’s a good performance of “Für Alina”:

The piece is nothing like, say, the Dies irae section of Verdi’s Requiem, which gives us a big, scary sound representing the wrath of God. What we’re getting isn’t so much a representation of a being and his act as it is a representation of a relationship between two sounds. The piece isn’t program music by any means — the sort of thing where the chug-chug-chug of the strings represents a train, and the tweet of the flutes represents the train whistle — but you can hear the hesitant, yearning, broken steps that Pärt proposes we might identify with, and the other sound that shadows those steps, implying a force that both sympathizes with and transcends them.


The effect that Pärt is going for has analogues in poetry. The piece that comes to mind for me is John Matthias’ long poem “A Compostella Diptych,” which follows the old pilgrim route across Spain to Santiago de Compostella. Although this isn’t the way Matthias divides it, one might think of “A Compostella Diptych” as a poem divided into three different parts: a long section, spanning most of the poem, and two short parts coming suddenly one after the other at the very end. The first part takes on the history of the pilgrim routes across France and Spain, a history that comes to suggest the history of the West. The long opening sections of the poem first present the people of the West on their pilgrimages over the centuries as a kind of unified historical subject bent on a single task of mutual significance. The pronoun “they” links many disparate people over the centuries into one subject, even as the poem’s musical incantations lull the reader into a sense of historical experience as a kind of rhythmic repetition:

Via Tolosona, Via Podiensis.
There among the tall and narrow cyresses,
the white sarcophagi of Arles

worn by centuries of wind & sun,
where Charlemagne’s lieutenants it was said
lay beside Servilius & Flavius

and coffins drifted down the Rhone
on narrow rafts to be unloaded by St. Victor’s monks,
they walked: Via Tolosona.

Via Podiensis…

The passage goes on, with the refrain of “Via Tolosona, Via Podiensis” recurring, even as the referent for the pronoun “they” continues to expand, including pilgrims from farther and farther afield, and separated by more and more centuries.

Running counter to the great binding-together of many peoples and many periods is a dissonance that comes in the depiction of the history of heretics in Spain and Provençe. After writing of the movement of the pilgrims as a kind of song, Matthias turns to the heretics, and tells us:

… there was another song — one sung inwardly
to a percussion of the jangling
manacles and fetters hanging on the branded

heretics who crawled the roads
on hands and knees and slept with lepers under
dark facades of abbeys

This song is a dissonance, an apparently inassimilable disruption of the cultural unity evoked by Matthias’ repetitions. And it too repeats, the jangling of manacles being heard for the destroyed Gnostics, the hunted and besieged Cathars, the victims of the Inquisition, the displaced peoples of the Napoleonic wars, the politically repressed Basques, and, after the Christian reconquest of Spain from the Moors, “the Jews [who] / hid their secret practices, and the Arabs [who hid] theirs.”

I find all of this fascinating, but the really exciting thing comes next, when harmony and dissonance come into contact with a third sonic entity — silence. It’s here that we begin to get an impression of eternity and of an embracing divinity. The harmony-dissonance dialectic of the poem’s long treatment of history comes to an abrupt end with the great munitions blast that opens the final section of the poem. The blast leads to a stunned silence that opens up a sense of ontological belonging. Our first clue to the special significance of the blast comes when we read that, when the blast shook the earth and caused the bells of faraway cathedrals to ring, “men / whose job it was to ring them stood / amazed” and “wondered if this thunder / and the ringing was in time for Vespers // or for Nones or if it was entirely out of time.” In the evocation of an event outside of time the aspect of eternity, and even divinity, suggests itself.

The history that had previously seemed riven by dissonance appears now as a whole from which nothing can be separated, and into which everything is gathered. Significantly, Matthias himself is included in this gathering:

Towards Pamplona, long long after all Navarre
was Spain, and after the end
of the Kingdom of Aragón, & after the end of the end,

I, John, walked with my wife Diana
down from the Somport Pass following the silence
that invited and received my song.

There is more at stake here than a sense of one’s place in history: as the last two lines of the second stanza above indicate, Matthias sees himself not only in relation to history, but in relation to the great silence that invites and receives his song.

The invitation and reception of the song are important, in that they imply that silence — the force that transcends the world and its dissonance — also sympathizes with us, the inhabitance of the dissonant and often cruel world. It’s an effect similar to what Arvo Pärt was after in “Für Alina.” In both pieces, we’re given something which we can identify (in Pärt, the melodic line that “is our reality, our sins,” in Matthias the invocation of history, in which he himself in included) and something that transcends yet sympathizes the thing with which we identify (in Pärt, “the other line” that is “forgiving the sins,” in Matthias, the silence that invites and receives his song).

[If you recognize the reading of Matthias’ poem above, then you’ve read chapter five of my book Laureates and Heretics, from which the reading is adapted. And I thank you for reading my book.]


It’s not without interest, I think, to note that Arvo Pärt and John Matthias are both fundamentally Christian artists — Pärt being closely linked with Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Matthias being a man who (as he once told me) would have converted to Catholicism had he not been employed as a professor at the University of Notre Dame, where “to embrace the church would have been to embrace the state.” I say this isn’t without interest, because the central episode of Christianity, the crucifixion, seems to me to carry within it a relationship to divinity very much in keeping with the relationship invoked in “Für Alina” and “A Compostella Diptych.”

The moment of the crucifixion takes Jesus — who is both entirely divine, and, via the incarnation, entirely human — and gives him to us in his most suffering, human form, vulnerable to mortality, and even to a sense of isolation from divinity. I’m thinking, here, of the moment (presented in Matthew 27:46 and in Mark 15:24) where Jesus cries out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Here we have Jesus feeling himself abandoned by God — that is, by his own divine nature (okay, I know that the moment you offer an interpretation of a Christian gospel, you’re opening yourself up to being whacked on the head by a thousand interpretive tracts wielded by a horde consisting of a mingled mob of the hyper-learned, the ignorant, and the zealous — but I’ve always been inclined toward a reading of the passage consonant with that in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, where the phrase is taken as meaning something like Jesus feeling that his power or godhead has forsaken him). And then, after this dark moment of utter forsakenness, even faithlessness, comes the last moment on the cross, when Jesus cries out “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” — a reuniting with something that both transcends the suffering body on the cross, and at the same time is at one with it, via the mystery of the trinitarian unity of father, son, and spirit.

I’m sure other religious traditions have ways of expressing a similar transcendent-yet-sympathetic force. All I mean to point out in this section is that the invocation of divinity in two Christian artists, Pärt and Matthias, takes a form that, despite it’s lack of resemblance to traditional Christian iconography, is in sympathy with some of the central moments of that faith.


I suppose this is probably the place for me to point out that I’m no kind of Christian, nor am I affiliated with any religion. On my Facebook page I list my religious views as “Spinoza-ish,” in that I’ve long felt a vague intuition of the unity of all things, sometimes thinking of it in terms of Spinoza’s idea of substance, sometimes in terms of Schopenhauer’s notion of will. But I suppose that’s really more on an intuition about ontology, about the nature of being, than it is about religion as such. On religion, I’m often inclined to take the view of Ludwig Feuerbach — a fact which actually does bear on how I’d like to interpret the works by Pärt and Matthias about which I’ve been jabbering on.

Feuerbach was one of the “Young Hegelians,” the group of nineteenth century German philosophers who came of age in the shadow of Hegelian thought, but he took the ponderous master’s thoughts in more radical directions. The most radical part of his thinking came in the 1841 book The Essence of Christianity, where argued that religion “implied the projection by man of his own essential properties and powers into a transcendent sphere in such a way that they appeared before him in the shape of a divine being standing over and above himself.” He went on to say that “the divine thing is nothing else than the human being, or rather, human nature, purified, freed from the limits of the individual man, made objective — i.e., contemplated and revered as another, a distinct being.” What all this means is that the properties we attribute to God are really our own properties, but we fool ourselves into thinking that they aren’t. Think about all those athletes who really push themselves, and call on God or Jesus to help them, and then attribute their success to divine intervention. In Feuerbach’s view (and mine, for what it’s worth) they aren’t really the recipients of supernatural aid — they’ve just managed to call upon reserves of strength within themselves that they didn’t know they had. I suppose it is psychologically important for people in extreme circumstances to think that the strength they are calling on comes from some divine elsewhere. I mean, if you’re running a marathon and you think you’ve already given it everything you have, and you aren’t going to win, you can call for additional strength beyond what you thought you had — but to do this you have believe that there’s something more to draw on, something beyond yourself. (This isn’t Feuerbach’s example, of course — he was very critical of how people get screwed over when they allow themselves to believe that their strength belongs not to them, but to a God whose priests stand between them and divinity).

What does any of this have to do with the way Pärt and Matthias invoke a sense of divinity by showing us something with which we can identify, then showing us something that both transcends and sympathizes with that thing? Ah! Glad you asked. Well, since I’ve already recycled some paragraphs from a book I wrote, I won’t feel too bad about recycling a passage from Jung that I mentioned not long ago in a post on comedy. It’s actually a passage from Anthony Storr’s comments on Jung, in which he quotes the Great Man. Here’s the deal: if, like Feuerbach, we think of the divine not as a supernatural force, but as a way of representing powers within ourselves while telling ourselves they belong to something outside ourselves, then we can think of Pärt and Matthias’ works as actually describing a psychological state, rather than a relation to the divine. Seen this way, what they’re describing, really, is a way of relation to our own experiences with a kind of distance, while still feeling those experiences intimately and deeply.

Here’s what Storr has to say:

Jung describes how some of his patients, faced with what appeared an insoluble conflict, solved it by “outgrowing” it, by developing “a new level of consciousness.” He writes: “Some higher or wider interest appeared on the patient’s horizon, and through this broadening of his outlook the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically on its own terms but faded out when faced with a new and stronger life urge.” The attainment of this new level of psychological development includes a certain degree of “detachment from one’s emotions. One certainly does feel the affect and is shaken and tormented by it, yet at the same time one is aware of a higher consciousness looking on which prevents one from becoming identical with the affect, a consciousness which regards the affect as an object, and can say ‘I know that I suffer.’”

So: in Pärt’s “Für Alina” we have the melodic line that “is our reality, our sins” and the other line that “forgives those sins” — but seen psychogically, rather than religiously, we can say that the first line is connected to our own painful experiences, and that the experience of hearing that second line allows us to imagine a perspective that is in touch with those experiences, but also distant from them — we can sense our guilty, broken selves, but we can also imagine those selves from the outside, as objects, and therefore experience, along with our suffering, a distance from that suffering, an understanding of pain, rather than pain unaccompanied by understanding. Or in the case of Matthias, we can experience ourselves as parts of the immense, violence-ridden history of the world, but also see that world if from the outside. Or, for that matter, we can see the Jesus of the crucifixion as being fully in his torment on the cross, while simultaneously viewing himself from the transcendent perspective of the Father or the Holy Spirit — he is the son, suffering, but he is also connected to, even identical with, something that looks on the suffering from a distance, with infinite compassion. You get the idea.


Some of the greatest works of art actually manage to do Pärt and Matthias one better. In addition to showing us something with which we can identify, and a larger force that transcends and sympathizes with that thing, these artists add another element. They also show us how the feeling of a divine force is, in fact, an emanation of our own minds, a psychological fact such as that described by Storr and Jung. Wordsworth’s Prelude seems to me to be just such a work. I’m thinking of the famous “Blest the Infant Babe” passage from book two. Check it out:

Blest the infant Babe, 

(For with my best conjecture I would trace 

Our Being's earthly progress,) blest the Babe, 

Nursed in his Mother's arms, who sinks to sleep 

Rocked on his Mother's breast; who with his soul 

Drinks in the feelings of his Mother's eye! 

For him, in one dear Presence, there exists 

A virtue which irradiates and exalts 

Objects through widest intercourse of sense. 

No outcast he, bewildered and depressed: 

Along his infant veins are interfused 

The gravitation and the filial bond 

Of nature that connect him with the world. 

Is there a flower, to which he points with hand 

Too weak to gather it, already love 

Drawn from love's purest earthly fount for him 

Hath beautified that flower; already shades 

Of pity cast from inward tenderness 

Do fall around him upon aught that bears 

Unsightly marks of violence or harm. 

Emphatically such a Being lives,
Frail creature as he is, helpless as frail,
An inmate of this active universe: 

For, feeling has to him imparted power 

That through the growing faculties of sense 

Doth like an agent of the one great Mind 

Create, creator and receiver both, 

Working but in alliance with the works 

Which it beholds.--Such, verily, is the first
Poetic spirit of our human life,
By uniform control of after years,
In most, abated or suppressed; in some, 

Through every change of growth and of decay, 

Pre-eminent till death. 
From early days, 

Beginning not long after that first time 

In which, a Babe, by intercourse of touch 

I held mute dialogues with my Mother's heart, 

I have endeavoured to display the means 

Whereby this infant sensibility, 

Great birthright of our being, was in me
Augmented and sustained.

Here, we enter with the perspective of the baby (think of the baby as being like the melodic line in “Für Alina”), and feel, with that baby, a larger force, something greater than us and sympathetic to us (the mother — think of her as the other line in “Für Alina,” the line “forgiving our sins”). The infant, here, comes to see the whole world as radiating this kind of sympathy, as being charged with a life-force that cares for us. Wordsworth knows this is a matter of psychology, of the child transposing the mother’s love to the world. Having seen the world through the protective care of the mother, the child comes to think of the world as having the mother’s qualities of care and love. It’s a kind of transferal — Wordsworth knows this, yet he feels fortunate in being one of the few people whose psyches continue to function in this infantile way. That is: he feels himself in the world, with all of his pains and sufferings, but he also feels there is a larger perspective from which his troubles are sympathized with. He knows this is a matter of projection — sort of like the projection in Feuerbach, but here it is the mother’s qualities transferred to a kind of pantheistic divine world, not the individual’s own qualities transferred to an imagined divine creature. But that knowledge doesn’t prevent Wordsworth from feeling the way he feels. He just happens to know why he experiences this double perspective (as suffer and as sympathetic, transcendent force). To convey all this in a rich, sense-satisfying way — as opposed to the clumsy conceptual way I have for conveying it, via citation and explanation and tedious pedantic nattering — seems to me to be one of the great achievements of spiritually-oriented art.


Since we’re talking about my specialty, tedious pedantic nattering, let me come to the final question of the tedious pedant: what shall we call this thing?. I mean, I don’t know of a term for the aesthetic move in which one gives the audience something with which they can identify, then invokes a larger force that transcends and sympathizes. I’d like to offer, as a possible term, a variation on a term of Roland Barthes’. Barthes once proposed a name for those moments in narrative that don’t seem to have any function in terms of establishing character, opening up lines of plot, or the like — those moments that seemed to have no function but to help establish a sense of reality for the scene (his examples include Flaubert’s mention of a barometer on the wall in the story “A Simple Heart” — it does nothing except make the house it is in feel like a real house). Barthes called these textual moments “reality effects.” I’d like to propose calling moments like those offered by Pärt and Matthias “divinity effects.”