Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Innovative Poetry: The Alternate Take

What's this? A new dispatch is just now coming in on the Samizdat Temporal Distortion Teletype. It seems to be from the late Christopher Caudwell, our correspondent from the 1930s. What's he up to? Ah! It's the usual 1930s business, to start — a big, familiar quote from The Communist Manifesto, the part that praises the energy and transformative power of the bourgeoisie (my people — and yours, probably) and their capitalism:

The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigour in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

Hang on a minute. Let me see where Chris is going with all this. I'm a slow typist, so I'll keep it short. Let's see. How about "Thanks for note stop where are you going with this stop say hi to Auden if you see him stop or Stephen Spender stop all best stop Bob stop." That ought to do it.

Ah! Here's the clickety-clack of his response, coming in on the ticker-tape now!

Capitalist poetry reflects these conditions. It is the outcome of these conditions.... Its art is therfore in its essence an insurgent, non-formal, naturalistic art. It is an art which constantly revolutionizes its own conventions, just as bourgeois economy constantly revolutionizes its own means of production. This constant revolution, this constant sweeping-away of "ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions," this "everlasting uncertainty and agitation," distinguishes bourgeois art from all previous art. Any bourgeois artist who rests upon the conventions of his time becomes "academic" and his art lifeless.

God, Chris types fast. Okay, let me spool up the paper and assess all this....Um hum. Hmmm. Looks like it comes from the notes that'll go into his book Illusion and Reality: A Study of the Sources of Poetry. Mmm hm. Yup yup yup... But — but — but — but isn't one of our great sacred cows the notion that aesthetic radicalism is tied to political radicalism? Isn't it a given that experimental poetry is tied to radical leftism? We hear that received opinion echo from Ron Silliman's Palazzo Avant-Posti in Pennsylvania all the way over to the gates of Jeremy Prynne's secret bunker in Cambridge. Is Chris aware of the scuffle his opinion would kick up? I am just now reminded by my assistant Igor that Christopher Caudwell died while operating a machine gun against Fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War, so he probably wouldn't be afraid of a few angry poet-professors. Still, I should get back to Chris and tell him what he's getting himself into with this alternate take on poetic innovation. Sadly, though, I've become entangled in the tickertape, and must send Igor off to get the scissors. Until he returns, my hands are tied.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Fate of the Novel and the Lonely Crowd

Last fall I found myself groping around for some brief, accessible definitions of realism, naturalism, and the genteel tradition in the novel. I wanted to give them to my freshmen, who were reading examples of all three kinds of novel from the tradition of Chicago writing (Hamlin Garland, Upton Sinclair, and Henry Blake Fuller, respectively). One of the things I turned up was an old lecture Norman Mailer gave to the 1965 Modern Language Association conference, "Modes and Mutations: Quick Comments on the American Novel” (there’s a version in Commentary’s March 1965 issue, which you can get online if you’re interested). Here, Mailer spells out the usual business about the genteel tradition (Jamesian stuff, about manners and personalities, containing nothing you wouldn’t put in front of Aunt Edna), realism (the harsh world of people of all classes in their struggles against an uncaring world), and naturalism (the great deterministic novels, in which the big social, biological, and economic forces are first described, then put into action to grind our hapless protagonist into the dirt). He then takes a typically idiosyncratic turn and declares these forms to have failed. The novel is in decline, says Mailer. By the post-war period, the novel was fading into irrelevance, and “Literature … had failed. The work was done by the movies, by television. The consciousness of the masses and the culture of the land trudged through endless mud.” I’m not too keen on the kind of anti-pop-culture sentiment Mailer throws in there (in this I’m as typical of my generation as Mailer was of his), but the disdain for pop culture and the mass media is not the interesting bit. The interesting bit is that Mailer sees the decline of the kind of novel he admires as coincident with the rise of those things. As the big, serious novel fell in esteem, says Mailer, “the task of explaining America was taken over by Luce magazines.”

Mailer blames novelists for all this, seeing them as having given up on the creation of compelling characters:

Frank Cowperwood [the protagonist of Theodore Dreiser's The Financier] once amassed an empire. Herzog, his bastard great-nephew, diddled in the ruins of an intellectual warehouse. Where once the realistic novel cut a swath across the face of society, now its reality was concentrated into moral seriousness. Where the original heroes of naturalism had been active, bold, self-centered, close to tragic, and up to the nostrils in their exertions to advance their own life and force the webs of society, so the hero of moral earnestness, the hero Herzog and the hero Levin in Malamud's A New Life, are men who represent the contrary—passive, timid, other-directed…

That last term in Mailer’s catalog of the defects of characters in modern novels came to mind the other day, when the longsuffering Communications prof Dave Park popped into my office and was detained for interrogation about midcentury social theory. I wanted to ask Park about Vance Packard’s book The Status Seekers, which I’d seen was on the reading list for one of Al Filreis’ courses at Penn. “Packard’s okay,” Park mumbled between bites of his meatball sandwich (has anyone actually ever seen this guy without some kind of sandwich?), "but if you really want to know about that stuff, you want to read David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd." Riesman, I remembered, was the guy who gave us the terms “inner-directed” and “other-directed,” and I suspected immediately that Riesman would give us a better model for understanding the decline in the novel’s prestige than Mailer had given.

Despite the title, Riesman’s book is not about suburban angst and anomie, at least not primarily. It’s about the long evolution of our society, and the different types of subjectivities produced under different historical conditions. As Riesman puts it,

My concern in this book is with two revolutions and their relation to the ‘mode of conformity’ or ‘social characer’ of Western man since the Middle Ages. The first of these revolutions has in the last four hundred years cut us off pretty decisively from the family- and clan-oriented traditional ways of life in which mankind has existed throughout most of history; this revolution includes the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, and the political revolutions of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. This revolution is, of course, still in process, but in the most advanced countries of the world, and particularly in America, it is giving way to another sort of revolution — a whole range of social developments associated with a shift from an age of production to an age of consumption.

The three principal types of character or subjectivity, for Riesman, are the tradition-directed, the inner-directed, and the other-directed, corresponding to the dominant types in the Medieval period, the Renaissance-to-Industrial Revolution period, and the contemporary period, respectively (Riesman includes a lot of demographic information in accounting for why these types rise and fall).

For Riesman, the tradition-directed type follows the inherited norms of his community. He “hardly thinks of himself as an individual,” says Riesman, “still less does it occur to him that he might shape his own destiny.” Think of the protagonist of some Medieval piece of literature — Beowulf, say, and you’ll get the idea. Beowulf doesn’t question the values of his tribe: he embodies them. Nor does he root around to discover the genealogy of his tribe’s morals: he accepts them as given, and defends them against outsiders. He’s not out to individuate himself, making of his life an exquisite work of art in the mode of an Oscar Wilde. Rather, he’s out to make sure his people and their beliefs don’t get attacked by the monstrous other. In the world of the tradition-directed, it’s all gemeinschaft, all the time. It’s not that tradition-directed societies don’t have deviants or weirdos or nonconformists, says Riesman, but it doesn’t encourage them, and when they do come into being it has places to put them (the role of the Fool comes to mind) where they serve a social role, rather than directly challenging social norms.

Inner-direction comes into being with the Renaissance and Reformation and Enlightenment, and really takes off in the nineteenth century, with the large-scale transformation of society brought about by the Industrial Revolution. As Riesman says,

In Western history the society that emerged with the Renaissance and Reformation and that is only now vanishing serves to illustrate the type of society in which inner-direction is the principal mode of securing conformity. Such a society is characterized by increased personal mobility, by a rapid internalization of capital (teamed with devastating technological shifts), and by an almost constant expansion… the greater choices this society gives — and the greater initiatives it demands in order to cope with its novel problems — and handled by character types who can manage to live without strict and self-evident tradition-direction. These are the inner directed types

One could say this is the society unconsciously experimenting with new types of people, encouraging mutations of personality, one or more of which may prove better adapted to new conditions than the old tradition-directed type, though Riesman doesn’t use quite this kind of pseudo-Darwinian language. He does, however, speak of the predominance of the new inner-direction among the class rising to dominance in the nineteenth century: “inner-direction,” says Riesman, “is the typical character of the ‘old’ middle class — the banker, the tradesman, the small entrepreneur, the technically oriented engineer, etc.” Such people were new social types, making their way through uncharted social territory. They didn’t need inherited norms. They needed their own inner gyroscopes, their individualized norms for behavior.

Here, I think, is where the association of inner direction with the rise of the novel comes into play. The novel, of course, is the most significant new literary genre to develop in the period of inner-direction, and one of the things it does best is to model that kind of inner direction. The bildungsroman is subgenre where we can see this most readily. Think of Jane Eyre, for example (a personal favorite). The book begins with the child Jane in opposition to traditional, inherited values. When her cousin John Reed tries to assert his prerogatives as the man of the house, she rebels, listening to an inner voice crying “Unjust! Unjust!” As the novel develops, we see Jane constantly rejecting the values projected onto her by school, by employer, by church, by peers, and working to develop an inner equilibrium. She tries to balance out her inner passion (all that fire imagery) and her inner, rational reserve (all that ice and cold water). By the end of the novel she has evolved her own personal balance of values, which we see visualized when she carries a tray on which sit a glass of water and a burning candle. We get much the same thing in the American novel of the period. Consider The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck, in choosing to help Jim despite society’s judgment that doing so will lead to his damnation, decides to follow his inner voice, saying “I’ll go to hell, then.” It’s all about inner-direction and the defiance of norms, and it’s sort of perfect as a model for the rising bourgeoisie — those guys needed to put themselves first, against society’s judgments, if they were to transform the world and advance their self interest. For a dark version of what this looked like, think of Daniel Day Lewis’ character in There Will Be Blood. It takes a busload of inner-direction to go ahead and drink someone else's milkshake.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the decline of the novel’s prestige Mailer laments occurs right around the period Riesman identifies as the beginning of the end for the inner-directed personality and the rise of the mass media.

The other-directed character type, which for Riesman comes into being slowly, but starts to triumph in post-war America, is a kind of self that doesn’t rely on an inner gyroscope for direction, but on the ever-shifting norms of a peer group. “What is common to all other-directed people,” he says,

is that their contemporaries are the source of direction for the individual — either those known to him or those with whom he is indirectly acquainted, through friends and through the mass media. This source is of course internalized in the sense that dependence on it for guidance in life is implanted early. The goals toward which the other-directed person strives shift with that guidance: it is only the process of striving itself and the process of paying close attention to the signals from others that remain unaltered through life.

I suppose my instinct, like that of many, is to recoil a bit at this kind of character. But looking at it with sympathy, one could say this new type is less likely to be a rigid, unchanging, self-serving pain in the ass than is the inner-directed type. Anyway, it’s not about what we like, it’s about what’s developing, and there is a kind of structural change at work. While early industrial civilization needed its inner-directed pioneers, more developed corporate culture needs something different. As Riesman puts it, if inner-direction is typical of the old middle class, “other-direction is becoming the typical character of the ‘new’ middle class — the bureaucrat, the salaried employee in business, etc.” These are people for whom single-minded conviction isn’t likely to be a virtue. These are people who need to get along with one another and to be able to switch gears when the orders come from on high.

I remember reading something in Matthew B. Crawford’s Shopcraft as Soulcraft, a book about his defection from the white collar world, in which he described the weirdly abstract language of management as a language designed to make no strong commitment, since the manager doesn’t want to alienate anyone in the administrative structure. After all, the direction the winds blow may change rapidly. Plan A gives way to Plan B, and the manager wants to be seen as playing along, not as having made a strong commitment to Plan A. This seems to me a particularly unpleasant version of other-direction, a kind of man without qualities. I imagine most of you have received memos written by this sort of administrator at one point or another. You may even have made a sport of sending them to your friends, asking for a list of specific affronts to human decency contained in the prose style. If so, you cling to inner-direction, and I salute you.

Anyway. This new type of subjectivity comes into prominence around the time Mailer sees the prestige of the novel falling away, and one could argue that the two are connected. The kind of novel Mailer likes — the novel that (perhaps paradoxically) teaches us how to be inner-directed — isn’t going to have a lot of resonance for other-directed people. While the novel can depict other-direction —Mailer sees this in Malamud — it isn’t a great medium for it. As Riesman points out, it is mass communications, or rather the constant presence of mass communications, that works best for other-direction, since other-direction is a matter of constantly shifting norms, fashions, and modes. The novel isn’t that fast or flexible. (Dave Park’s been thinking about other-direction in new media like Facebook, where one’s peers approval or disapproval modifies one’s behavior on small levels all the time. Ask him about it if you can).

Of course there probably are places where the novel of inner-direction can have a huge impact even now. Jiang Rong’s novel Wolf Totem has had a huge impact in China, and deals with an outsider loner type defying the traditional norms of society (Rong, according to his English-language translator, hopes “that the Chinese will succumb less to the constraints of traditional behaviour, seek greater freedoms, become... if you will, wolfish”). This emphasis on inner-direction in Wolf Totem may have something to do with the phase of industrial development in China being more or less in line with that of nineteenth century England and America. And of course the novel in our own time and place can do a great deal, even examining the decline of inner-direction with trepidation (Don Delillo’s chilling Mao II comes to mind). But I don’t think Mailer can pin the relative decline of the prestige of the novel on a simple failure of novelists to be compelling. Bigger forces are at play, and the kind of novel Mailer admired isn’t going to have the prominent place he wanted it to have. Which is neither here nor there, unless, of course, you're like Mailer was, and have some deep need for others to confirm that you are important — which isn't other-direction, exactly, but something worse.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Discursive Situation of Poetry: An Early Warning

Winter break was not, I'm happy to report, a dead loss, despite the sad fact that I was shanghaied onto a hiring committee and had to wade through several hundred job applicants, then hole up in a hotel room at the M.L.A. between Christmas and New Year's Eve. (If you are in the job-applying position this year, you have my sympathy — there's a lot of talent out there, and not many places for it to go). Besides my service to Our Fine and Collegial College, I finally found the time to sit down, root around in my notebooks, and write an essay I've been thinking about for months. I'm giving it a minimalist, colon-and-subtitle free name, "The Discursive Situation of Poetry." I suppose it's my contribution to the discussion about the relative decline of poetry's audience over the last century and a half (Dana Gioia's "Can Poetry Matter?" and all that). Here's the opening paragraph:

Statistics confirm what many have long suspected: poetry is being read by an ever-smaller slice of the American reading public. Poets and critics who have intuited this have blamed many things, but for the most part they have blamed the rise of M.F.A. programs in creative writing. While they have made various recommendations on how to remedy the situation, these remedies are destined for failure or, at best, for very limited success, because the rise of M.F.A. programs is merely a symptom of much larger and farther-reaching trends. These trends are unlikely to be reversed by the intervention of a few poets, critics, and arts-administrators. I’m not sure this is a bad thing. Or, in any event, I’m not sure it is worse than what a reversal of the decline in readership would entail. Let me explain.

There's still time to do some revisions before it appears in a book Mary Biddinger is editing as part of a new series on poetics she's started at the U. of Akron Press, so consider this an early warning of pedantry to come. If you want to give me some notes on the draft (warning: it runs about 8,000 words), send an email my way at my Lake Forest College address.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Neruda's Earth, Heidegger's Earth

It is good, at certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at rest. Wheels that have crossed long, dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable burdens, sacks from the coal bins, barrels, and baskets, handles and hafts for the carpenter’s tool chest. From them flow the contacts of man with the earth, like a text for all troubled lyricists. The used surfaces of things, the wear that the hands give to things, the air, tragic at times, pathetic at others, of such things – all lend a curious attractiveness to the reality of the world that should not be underprized.

That's a quote from "Sobre una Poesía sin Pureza” ("Towards an Impure Poetry"), the editorial Pablo Neruda wrote for the first issue of the short-lived and fabulously-named Spanish journal Caballo Verde para la Poesía ("Green Horse for Poetry") in 1935. The editorial was really an act of poetic self-defense: ever since the Chilean poet had arrived in Spain, Neruda had been under withering attack from the poet Juan Ramón Jiménez, who considered Neruda's work vulgar. Calling Neruda's imagination a sewer and a scrap heap, Jiménez objected to the world Neruda depicted. Stoked by the Mallarméan notion of poesie pur, with its ideal of a language as music, Jiménez wished Neruda would purge his poetry of all of the chunks of coal and shoe soles that, in his opinion, cluttered the verse with ugliness.

Neruda had been reading and translating Whitman, so he'd invested pretty heavily in a very different poetic enterprise than had Jiménez, but he was young and provincial and felt persecuted by the older, more established Jiménez, who seemed, said Neruda, to be “publishing tortuous commentaries against me every week." "Sobre una Poesía sin Pureza" is certainly intended as a riposte to Jiménez. But I think its important goes further than its immediate occasion in the debate between the two poets. I think the passage offers a key to understanding one of the things Neruda's up to in Alturas de Macchu Picchu (The Heights of Macchu Picchu) one of the most acclaimed sections of his great, sprawling Canto General, and a book-length poem cycle in its own right.

Alturas de Macchu Picchu was published a decade after the essay on impure poetry, and is often seen as somewhat discontinuous with his work of a decade earlier. After all, the intervening years saw the Spanish Civil War, which politicized Neruda's poetry, and his time in Mexico, when he took inspiration from Diego Rivera and the Mexican muralist tradition and turned toward broad depictions of history and society. John Felstiner, for example, claims in Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu that Alturas de Macchu Picchu is simply “inconceivable” without the events of civil war. This is certainly true. But it's also true that there's a continuity with the project outlined in "Sobre una Poesía sin Pureza." To understand the nature of the continuity, we need to understand a little more about "Sobre una Poesía sin Pureza," which has much more to it than a simple defense of the Whitmanic depiction of ordinary objects in poetry.

The most powerful idea in "Sobre una Poesía sin Pureza" — an idea Neruda acts on in the composition of Alturas de Macchu Picchu, is the idea of the earth. It's something very much akin to what Heidegger was articulating in his lectures on art in Zurich and Frankfurt right around the time Neruda composed his essay. These lectures would later see publication as "Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes" ("The Origin of the Work of Art"), but not until 1950. I'm not sure that Neruda knew about the lectures. It seems possible but unlikely — the main conduit bringing German philosophical ideas into Spanish intellectual life was Miguel de Unamuno, who was near the end of his life in 1935, and I'm not at all sure he had any contact with Neruda (someone surely knows, but not the present humble blogger). The similarity between Neruda's idea, and Heidegger's more deeply-thought-through idea, were probably coincidental, a matter of intellectual zeitgeist rather than direct influence. But the similarities of both idea and terminology are certainly very real.

When Neruda writes about the important of looking at objects at rest, he's talking about an interestingly non-utilitarian, disinterested kind of perception, in which we become aware of the reality of things we'd been taking for granted. "Wheels that have crossed long, dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable burdens, sacks from the coal bins, barrels, and baskets, handles and hafts for the carpenter’s tool chest" — these are all things that, generally, we instrumentalize, that we treat as equipment, and that we take for granted. When we're driving a vehicle, we don't think of the wheels. We depend on them, but (unless they're malfunctioning as equipment) we take them for granted, and they go unnoticed, even though our activities could only go on with their presence. The same goes for the handles of carpenter's tools. They're essential to our tasks, and we're very intimate with them. Often, the handles are even discolored by, or worn to the shape of, our hands. But when we're building something, we tend not to be thinking about the handle of our hammer. We're concentrating on a utilitarian action, concentrating on not hitting our thumbs while we go about our business. So whole swathes of the world go unnoticed by us, even though we depend on them.

For Neruda, looking at these objects the right way, when they and we are at rest, reconnects us to the world we take for granted during all our utilitarian to-and-fro-ing. From the perception of these things, says Neruda, "flow the contacts of man with the earth." When we notice them, we realize we aren't isolated, Cartesian intelligences: we're rooted in the world, surrounded at all times by things that make our lives possible. Indeed, we come to realized our interconnectedness with these, and, ultimately, with all things. It's a big idea Neruda has in his little essay. It's also an idea uncannily similar to Heidegger's.

In "Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes" Heidegger makes an important distinction between "the earth" and "the world." [If, for some bizarre reason, you've actually read my big post about Adam Kirsch's misreading of Heidegger, you'll find this and the next paragraph eerily familiar — they're just compressed versions of things I said in that post]. When Heidegger writes about earth he isn't referring to physical stuff — not rocks, or trees, or door-latches. Instead, he's referring to the tendency of things to resist our ability to understand, or even to notice, them. There's a whole realm of the unknown and not-understood out there, and it surrounds and contains us, even makes up a great deal of our physical self and our psyche, and this is what Heidegger has in mind when he writes about the earth. There's a famous passage, in "On the Origin of the Work of Art," in which Heidegger talks about a Van Gogh painting depicting some old, worn-looking peasant shoes. He says that shoes like this are generally things we don't notice — we wear them and use them as equipment, for their instrumental value, and we tend not to notice them when we do. Shoes like this, when they're actually worn, "belon[g] to the earth" says Heidegger — and they belong their not so much because they are material objects, but because they go unnoticed and un-thought-of. But we notice them in Van Gogh's painting, where they become part of something more. Here, in the painting, they get noticed or, in the standard translation of Heidegger, become "unconcealed." It's the concealedness of the shoes before they get into the painting, when they're just something around us that we don't notice, that makes them belong to the earth. The earth and the things that belong to it are self-concealing, and withdrawn from our attention and understanding. But what about the world, in Heidegger's sense? The world, for Heidegger, is the context in which and through which we apprehend, understand, or notice things — it's where things become (to use the Heideggerian term) "unconcealed." History, myths, and the like give us a way of noticing things, talking about them and feeling their presence. Heidegger's "world" is sort of like what a later generation would call "discourse" — the systems of thought and representation that let us notice things.

The work of art gives us a special kind of relation of earth and world — a dialectic. That is, in the work of art, earth and world are always involved in a kind of struggle. If a work of art were pure world, it wouldn't be art, it'd be propaganda, or ideology: a closed system of mental coordinates that never come into contact with anything that resists it. But the art work doesn't allow anything so easy to happen. Even as it starts to open up a whole world (or discourse, or paradigm, or way of understanding) for us, it gives us elements that resist appropriation into that world. If the work of art in question is, say, a poem, we might say that it resists paraphrase, or closure; or that parts of it remain indeterminate; or that it shoots off so many connotations that we're uneasy reducing it to a denotative meaning. Any attempt to make the art work into mere world runs up against all kinds of elements that escape that world. So the work of art has the power not only to bring elements of the earth into the world — it has an kind of inexhaustibility, in that even as it brings the earth into the world, it also conceals other elements of the world.

Neruda doesn't go into the dialectic of the earth and the world, of unconcealing and concealing, the way Heidegger does, but he certainly gives us a part of the idea: that the necessary but unnoticed things of the earth can, and should, enter into our consciousness, under the right conditions of perception. This is the idea that, I'm convinced, informs the writing of Alturas de Macchu Picchu.

Some of the early sections of Alturas de Macchu Picchu depict a kind the kind of modern death-in-life we're familiar with from, say, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Here are some lines from section three, in Nathaniel Tarn's translation:

Being like maize grains fell
in the inexhaustible store of lost deeds, shoddy
occurrences, from nine to five, to six,
and not one death but many came to each,
each day a little death: dust, maggot, lamp,
drenched in the mire of subsurbs, a little death with fat wings
entered into each man like a short blade
and siege was laid to him by bread or knife:
the drover, the son of harbors, the dark captain of plows,
the rodent wanderer through dense streets:

all of them weakened waiting for their death, their brief
and daily death...

This is the nightmare of the life that goes by without our noticing it. Our very being falls away from us like so many grains, and our lives consist of "lost deeds" — things we don't notice doing, and don't remember having done. This sad condition is, in the poem, the curse of modern, regimented life, the world of "nine to five," in which our instrumental, utilitarian activities, our quest for our daily bread, is a mere matter of going through the motions, a "brief and daily death." We use things and keep ourselves alive among them, but we don't notice them. The earth (to use Heidegger's term, which is also Neruda's) retreats from us into the unnoticed, the concealed.

Eliot's remedy for this sad, afflicted state involved an attempt to reconstruct the myths and religious traditions that had become discredited or obscure. But Neruda's remedy is less mythic, and more a matter of existential perception, or restoring our connection to the concealed wonder of the world in all its dasein, its here-and-nowness. He wants to bring the unnoticed earth back into our perceptual world.

There seem to be three main techniques by which Neruda tries to accomplish this retrieval of the earth in Alturas de Macchu Picchu. First, there's an invocation of the unnoticed earth, such as we find in some lines from the poem's opening section:

Someone waiting for me among the violins
met with a world like a buried tower
sinking its spiral below the layered leaves
color of raucus sulfur:
and lower yet, in a vein of gold,
like a sword in a scabbard of meteors,
I plunged a turbulent and tender hand
into the most secret organs of the earth.

This eroticizing of a landscape is familiar stuff in Neruda's poetry (it's the whole charm of "Cuerpo de Mujer," the most famous poem of his best-loved book, Veinte Poemas de Amor y una Canción Desesperada). Here, though, the technique is at the service of reminding us of the very nature of the ground we stand on, showing us the gold-veined rock beneath the Andes. Such gold is literally concealed, and literally of the earth, but it is also concealed from our consciousness, and therefore a part of the Heideggerian earth, the unnoticed. We walk on brilliant wonders, but we're so disconnetded from them in our daily grind we need the poem to reveal them to us, to bring them into our world. Whole sections of Alturas de Macchu Picchu aim at reminding us of the forgotten wonders of the earth, often in sweeping, incantatory fashion (check out section nine sometime, for a good example of this kind of incantation).

A second way Neruda tries to bring the forgotten earth to our attention is through an insistence on how, despite our inattention, we are always already connected to it. Consider these lines from section ten:

Stone within stone, and man, where was he?
Air within air, and man, where was he?
Time within time, and man, where was he?
Were you also the shattered fragment
of indecision, of hollow eagle
which, through the streets of today, in the old tracks
through the leaves of accumulated autumns,
goes pounding at the soul into the tomb?
Poor hand, poor foot, and poor, dear life...
The days of unravelled light
in you, familiar rain
falling on feast-day banderillas,
did they grant, petal by petal, their dark nourishment
to such an empty mouth?

Those first three questions are hard to answer. Things exist within themselves, independently of us. And where are we? Are we in any kind of relationship with stone, air, and time? On the one hand, the benighted nine-to-fivers Neruda described earlier don't have any kind of conscious relationship to these things. They don't stop to think of themselves in relation to air, stone, and time. On the other hand, we always have an intimate relation to these things: we stand on stone, breath air, make our way through time. Normally, though, they're like the wheels or carpenter's tools of Sobre una Poesía sin Pureza” — we depend on them, but don't notice them. Our perceptual world, in which we think only of getting by, has shrunk away from the things of the earth. But by the end of the passage, we're reminded that things like time and light are in us, and when we're asked if the "familiar" (that is, unnoticed) rain nourishes us, the only answer is "yes." We are reminded that we aren't just the "poor life" of forlorn little isolated subjectivities, but really we are manifestations of the larger earth, connected to it in our very bodies when they take it in. We are of the earth, and the poem tries to make us notice this.

Finally, Neruda invokes the idea of ancestry to connect the reader (especially the Latin American reader with native ancestry) with ranges of time that usually lie outside of our perceptual world. "Arise to birth with me, my brother," begins section twelve. The brother here is one of the pre-Incan inhabitants of Macchu Picchu, a member of the civilization that built the city. "Look at me from the depths of the earth," says Neruda to this figure, before telling him to "Come quickly to my veins and to my mouth / Speak through my speech, and through my blood." Neruda insists on how present-day Chileans are deeply, and intrinsically, bound to a past that they have let slip from consciousness. Their blood is, after all, the blood of the ancestors who build Macchu Picchu. They are connected to the past, even when they don't know it. Again, it is through the poem that these unthought-of things enter the world of our thought, and help save us from the forlorn death-in-life of the modern daily nine-to-five.

Of course, this think-of-your-blood business is a bit unnerving to we bourgeois liberals. And the importance the poem puts on blood ancestry raises a question about whether the coincidence between Heidegger's thinking and Neruda's goes beyond the mutual interest in bringing the unnoticed earth to our perceptual worlds in the work of art. Both Heidegger and Neruda were undeniably brilliant writers, but both were also drawn to brutal dictators (Heidegger to Hitler, Neruda to Stalin). One wonders whether there’s an intrinsic connection between concerns with existential depth and attraction to ambitious, destructive absolutist rulers. Put another way, one might ask if ordinary bourgeois decency, with its aversion to the concentration of power and it’s general you-do-your-thing, I’ll-do-mine indifference to others comes at the price of such depth. It’s worth considering – the English political tradition is certainly the European tradition most powerfully immune to dictatorships, and England is also the home to the European philosophical tradition most averse to existentialism and all the related traditions it dismisses as “continental philosophy” — something they do over there, across the channel, where they get up to God-knows-what kinds of politics. But here we begin to swim in waters too deep for me.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Neruda, Chicago, Whitman, Bolaño

Since returning more-or-less unscathed from the MLA convention in Philadelphia, I've been spending mornings kicking back with a couple of the books I got for Christmas: Pablo Neruda's giant Canto General and a weird little anthology of essays called Armitage Avenue Transcendentalists, edited by Janina Ciezaldo and Penelope Rosemont. It makes for an interesting combination, between sips of coffee and getting up to chase after my increasingly mobile 11-month old daughter, Lila. In fact, the pairing of these two books is almost a set-piece illustration of the difference between major and minor literature.

I know those sound like loaded terms: "Major Literature" seems like it must be Important and Good, while minor lit sounds like something unimportant and, potentially, poorly written, or at least unambitious. But I think of the terms the way Gilles Deleuze used them. For Deleuze, major lit is the kind of literature that seeks to speak for the dominant values of a society (think of Dante here, speaking for late medieval Catholic civilization and articulating its world-view), while minor lit is critical of those values, sometimes directly, and sometimes through all kinds of indirect means (formal weirdness and irony or what have you). Deleuze seems to like the minor more than the major, as do most of us in the non-commercial worlds of academe or bohemia. I mean, we're sheltered from, or have opted out of, the mainstream values of our time and place, so of course we like the minor lit perspective.

The Ciezaldo/Rosemont collection is certainly a kind of minor lit production, in Deleuze's sense of the term. It's a sort of rag-bag of memoirs by, or about, oddball Chicago characters (old Wobbly-style labor guys, street artists, African-American activists of the radical black nationalism era, Maxwell Street Market weirdos, etc.). The book is gloriously marginal in a few ways: it's about people who were critical of, or opted out of, the mainstream of their society; it's about people who did so in a second-tier city; it's published by a press that doesn't get much play in the media; and it asserts the need to commemorate exactly the kind of people and events that don't get commemorated. This last thing is something that's always fascinated me about books by Franklin and Penelope Rosemont: they insist on mythologizing and praising and treating as significant a pantheon of people from their own lives, most of whom aren't well known in other contexts. Sometimes I find it a bit of a push (there's an essay by the late Franklin in the current book about his high school friends and the poetry they wrote and recited in a graveyard in the suburb of Maywood, and he treats them as if they were an important avant-garde group). But then again, the proposition is wonderful: that what's important is what we find important, and the real action is the action that was real to us. Significant art and life are not located elsewhere, and are not those things that are celebrated in the big anthologies and consecrated with the big prizes. I like that idea. I like that idea a lot. Maybe it's my provincial background at work, with all it's skepticism about the fads of the glittering and distant capitals.

In contrast, Neruda's Canto General is clearly shooting for major lit status. A giant poem made up of fifteen big cantos (I'd say about 1,000 lines each, on average), it's an attempt to lay out the geography, history, and demography of all of Latin America. It's encyclopedic, sort of rhapsodic, and doesn't shy away from the idea that it can speak of and to a trans-national community. There's a politics to it that is critical of elites, that seeks to speak for the people at large. It isn't a matter of narrow identity politics: the poem asserts the dignity and grandeur of the whole region, and flies up into the heights of the sublime. It's really good at doing this, too. I suppose the closest analogy in the literature of the United States would be Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which also seeks to speak for a continent, name its parts, define its virtues and the nature of its people, and all that. And this is where a fascinating difference comes into play: I mean, Neruda was hailed in his lifetime as a major Latin American poet, while Walt Whitman went largely unrecognized in his lifetime. I'm sure there are a host of reasons for this. When you consider the context of the poetic norms of the time, Whitman was pushing the formal envelope more than Neruda was, for example. And Whitman's queerness gets into the poetry and may have put some people off (even as it attracted others, like Oscar Wilde). But I think the main difference is this: in Whitman's time, most Americans did not experience themselves as alienated from the major institutions of the nation. They could look to the flag, the constitution, the schools, and the popular entertainments of the day, and feel they were represented. But Latin America was different. The semi-colonial nature of the place (under the thumb of the U.S.) meant that local oligarchies did not enjoy the confidence of the people, and the official institutions of the land didn't seem to represent the values of the society. So when a work of literature came forward and presented itself as a repository of social values, people were ready to receive it as such. It scratched an itch that the big social institutions couldn't.

One problem with becoming a figure of major literature, though, is that the initially liberating articulation of social values can come to seem oppressive to later generations, for whom values have changed. I think this is why there's such a strong movement against Neruda-style grandeur in later Chilean poetry. I mean, Nicanor Parra invents anti-poetry as a kind of negation of the large-scale, sublime, majorness of Neruda's poetry. And Parra inspired Roberto Bolaño's work, with its stripped down style, and its refusal to articulate values for any group larger than the disillusioned, politically frustrated, economically marginal youth of Bolaño's generation.

I suppose Bolaño's minority, in the Deleuzean sense, is one reason for his current vogue among literary types in the U.S.A, where literary culture has long since become minor culture. I don't mean to discount other, more material factors, like the coincidence of timing for all those Bolaño translations, which allows publishers to roll out his works like hit singles. But there's certainly a minor-lit fascination going on in the Bolaño craze. Reading him is, after all, almost as good as reading someone sing the praises of local oddballs, misfits, and literary weirdos.