Friday, September 30, 2011

In Solitude, In Multitude: Crowds and Poetry

Near the beginning of his strange, brilliant book Crowds and Power, the Bulgarian writer Elias Canetti claims that our most primal fear is the fear of being touched: the hand in the dark, something reaching out and grabbing hold of us. We only really lose this fear in crowds, says Canetti, since it is in crowds that we allow the boundaries of the self to melt away. We touch and are touched in the scrum and bustle of the crowd, but in the crowd we don’t feel touch as a violation. It doesn’t bother us, because we don’t think of the crowd as other than ourselves: an angry mob, a multitude gathered in protest, a pack of like-minded sports fanatics surging back and forth and chanting in unison: when we’re part of such groups,  we don’t experience the crowd as separate from ourselves: we’re part of an us, and the only threat is from whomever we’ve collectively designated as them. From this Canetti builds a fascinating, and at times terrifying, theory of the crowd.

Poets, of course, have also expressed revulsion from the crowd, but also the seductive bliss of immersion in the collective. Indeed, the two oldest and most revered modes of poetry — the lyric and the epic — respectively express the individualistic ethos of private emotion, and the collective ideals and aspirations of the group. But unless I miss my guess, it’s really at the beginning of the nineteenth century that we see an uptick in the frequency with which poets consciously meditate on the meaning of the multitude. And this poetic examination of the relation of the individual to the crowd has continued up to the present.

Monstrous Ant-Hills: The Crowd in Romanticism

Romanticism is a large and various literary movement, and it certainly has its moments of collectivism, especially in the more peripheral nations of Europe, where nationalist sentiment, even to the point of atavism, was an important part of the reaction to Enlightenment universalism and the spread of standardized, deracinated laws and customs under the banners of Napoleon’s conquering armies. But the dominant relation to the crowd in English Romanticism is certainly revulsion. Here’s Wordsworth describing London in book seven of The Prelude:

Rise up, thou monstrous ant-hill on the plain;
Of a too busy world! Before me flow,
Thou endless stream of men and moving things!
Thy every-day appearance, as it strikes--
With wonder heightened, or sublimed by awe--
On strangers, of all ages; the quick dance
Of colours, lights, and forms; the deafening din;
The comers and the goers face to face,
Face after face; the string of dazzling wares,
Shop after shop, with symbols, blazoned names,
And all the tradesman's honours overhead:
Here, fronts of houses, like a title-page,
With letters huge inscribed from top to toe…

What really strikes Wordsworth about the crowded streets of London is the signage. It’s hard for us to put ourselves in a state of mind where the presence of shop signs is a strange and alienating thing, but that’s were Wordsworth is coming from. For him, the need of shops to spell out in gigantic letters the nature of their services indicates how impersonal a place the crowded city had become. In small villages such as those Wordsworth knew in the Lake District, one knew the individuals with whom one bartered, but in the city every shop needs to shout out its identity to a rushing crowd, lest it remain anonymous. No one really knows where they are or who they’re with, not in the way the characters in, say, Wordsworth’s “Michael” know each other. In “Michael,” each little pile of stones has a story about the generations who lived around it, and all those stories are known to the locals. They know who they are and where they live in a way the inhabitants of the monstrous ant-hill cannot.

Wordsworth is also a bit put-off by the internationalized, multicultural space that London had already become. Here’s a small piece of a long passage on a marketplace:

...another street
Presents a company of dancing dogs,
Or dromedary, with an antic pair
Of monkeys on his back; a minstrel band
Of Savoyards; or, single and alone, 
An English ballad-singer

Camels, monkeys, and Italian musicians from Savoy: the poor ballad-singer, a representative of indigenous culture, hardly stands a chance, surrounded as he is by a noisy array of exotics, including:

…every character of form and face: 
The Swede, the Russian; from the genial south, 
The Frenchman and the Spaniard; from remote 
America, the Hunter-Indian; 
Moors,Malays, Lascars, the Tartar, the Chinese, 
And Negro Ladies in white muslin gowns.

But what really throws Wordsworth off balance isn’t anything so banal as the presence of the culturally different. It’s a version of the anonymity and alienation that we saw earlier in the shop signs:

How oft, amid those overflowing streets, 
Have I gone forward with the crowd, and said 
Unto myself, "The face of every one 
That passes by me is a mystery!" 
Thus have I looked, nor ceased to look, oppressed 
By thoughts of what and whither, when and how; 
Until the shapes before my eyes became 
A second-sight procession, such as glides 
Over still mountains, or appears in dreams; 
And once, far-travelled in such mood, beyond 
The reach of common indication, lost 
Amid the moving pageant, I was smitten 
Abruptly, with the view (a sight not rare) 
Of a blind Beggar, who, with upright face, 
Stood, propped against a wall, upon his chest 
Wearing a written paper, to explain 
His story, whence he came, and who he was. 
Caught by the spectacle my mind turned round 
As with the might of waters; and apt type 
This label seemed of the utmost we can know, 
Both of ourselves and of the universe; 
And, on the shape of that unmoving man, 
His steadfast face and sightless eyes, I gazed, 
As if admonished from another world.

The old blind beggar has no relation to the people swarming around him. In a village he’d be known to everyone, and they to him, and if it were his home village, he’d be connected to the community by webs of family obligation. His story would be well-known, and he’d have a place. But here, in the crush of bodies pouring through the streets of London, he’s no one at all. His only claim to any connection to others is through advertising his own story, in letters much like those of the shop signs we saw before. He has to assert his humanity and individuality and particularity, and in the passing rush this assertion takes on both a pathos (he’s so small, he’s so vulnerable, he has so little claim on making us care) and a sublimity (he’s so small and vulnerable, yet he endures and is not destroyed, his small light held against the darkness). If you live in America, you’ve passed some homeless man, most likely a veteran in a wheelchair, and seen exactly this sort of life-story scrawled in marker on a piece of cardboard. I don’t know what the sight made you feel, but Wordsworth would see in it “the utmost we can know/Both of ourselves and of the universe” — an emblem of our condition as little orphaned individuals in the largeness of space and time.

Crowds like this are, for Wordsworth, threats: threats to the dignity and rootedness of the individual. And he’s not alone in his aversion to the crowd: Byron introduced us to Childe Harold (the Ziggy Stardust to Byron’s Bowie) by saying:

… soon he knew himself the most unfit
Of men to herd with Man; with whom he held 
Little in common; untaught to submit
His thoughts to others, though his soul was quelled,
In youth by his own thoughts; still uncompelled,
He would not yield dominion of his mind 
To spirits against whom his own rebelled;
Proud though in desolation; which could find
A life within itself, to breathe without mankind.

To be with others in a crowd is to “herd” — to be subhuman, animalistic, erased as an individual. What a psychologist now might describe as the imperfect socialization of a severe narcissist, Byron sees with pride. Harold was “untaught to submit his thoughts to others” — he retains his swaggering individualism and independence, which gives him an isolation that is both a curse (“desolation”) and a mark of specialness.

We find variations on the revulsion from crowds in all the major English Romantic poets, though in Coleridge it is tempered by a kind of nostalgia for a lost sense of community (the Ancient Mariner was only ever unselfconsciously part of a group before he killed the albatross, and at the end of the poem he preaches a gospel of community he cannot embody); and in Shelley it is combined with a yearning for a small community of the likeminded (as we see in “Epipsychidion” and the deeply under-rated “Alastor,” and in the pathos of “Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills”).

I imagine the exalting of the individual, and the praising of the small community against the crowd, has to do with both the large-scale social conditions of the time, and with the particular circumstances of poets in the Romantic era. The French Revolution and the incipient industrial economy had uprooted old social order. This both unleashed the power of the individual to find his or her own course through the world and bequeathed to those atomized individuals a host of anxieties about anonymity and dislocation. And poets, shut out of the old patronage networks and unaccommodated by the market, felt particularly out of place, alienated from (and therefore critical of) the dominant institutions of their age. They had their individual pride to fall back on, and dreams of happier days in closer communities.

The Poet as the Flâneur in the City

Of course not all poets felt alienated from the crowds of the growing cities of the nineteenth centuries. As the century wore on, cities increasingly became the natural habitat of poets. How did these figures relate to the crush of bodies around them? Baudelaire, in “Les Foules” (“Crowds”) admits to a taste for the multitude, but he begins by noting such a taste isn’t for everyone:

   It is not given to every man to take a bath of multitude; enjoying a crowd is an art; and only he can relish a debauch of vitality at the expense of the human species, on whom, in his cradle, a fairy has bestowed the love of masks and masquerading, the hate of home, and the passion for roaming.

What makes it possible for Baudelaire to appreciate crowds? It’s something having to do with imagination:

   Multitude, solitude: identical terms, and interchangeable by the active and fertile poet. The man who is unable to people his solitude is equally unable to be alone in a bustling crowd.

   The poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being able to be both himself and someone else, as he wishes. Like those wandering souls who go looking for a body, he enters as he likes into each man's personality. For him alone everything is vacant; and if certain places seem closed to him, it is only because in his eyes they are not worth visiting.

   The solitary and thoughtful stroller finds a singular intoxication in this universal communion. The man who loves to lose himself in a crowd enjoys feverish delights that the egoist locked up in himself as in a box, and the slothful man like a mollusk in his shell, will be eternally deprived of. He adopts as his own all the occupations, all the joys and all the sorrows that chance offers.

   What men call love is a very small, restricted, feeble thing compared with this ineffable orgy, this divine prostitution of the soul giving itself entire, all it poetry and all its charity, to the unexpected as it comes along, to the stranger as he passes.

For Baudelaire, the experience of the individual going out into the crowd is a matter of the individual more-or-less disappearing, becoming an egoless emptiness into which all passing things flow. It’s much like what Emerson was getting at when he wrote “I become a transparent eyeball—I am nothing; I see all the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me,” though Emerson was thinking about nature and wilderness, not the crush of humanity on the streets of Paris.

Baudelaire concludes by changing things up a bit. So far he’s been following a kind of via negativa, an erasure of self in order to take in and become at one with all he encounters. Here, in the final paragraph of his prose poem, he compares this experience to the experience of Moses-like figures who create a community around themselves:

   It is a good thing sometimes to teach the fortunate of this world, if only to humble for an instant their foolish pride, that there are higher joys than theirs, finer and more uncircumscribed. The founders of colonies, shepherds of peoples, missionary priests exiled to the ends of the earth, doubtlessly know something of this mysterious drunkenness; and in the midst of the vast family created by their genius, they must often laugh at those who pity them because of their troubled fortunes and chaste lives.

In the end, I suppose, there’s not much to choose between the two paths: whether one’s union with the crowd comes from self-erasure, or from the kind of assertive, paternal leadership of the “founders of colonies, shepherds of peoples,” it all ends in the same place: blissful, promiscuous union in the crowd. Here, I think, is what Elias Canetti was getting at when he said that the crowd was the key to losing the fear of being touched: there is only touch, and no self to be touched from the outside.

Walt Whitman, another urban poet, takes a similar approach in “There was a Child Went Forth.” The poem starts out with something like Baudelaire’s self-loss in the encounter with the objects around one:

There was a child went forth every day; 
And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became; 
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part ofthe day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.…. 
And the old drunkard staggering home from the out-house of the tavern, whence     he had lately risen, 
And the school-mistress that pass'd on her way to the school, 
And the friendly boys that pass'd--and the quarrelsome boys, 
And the tidy and fresh-cheek'd girls--and the barefoot negro boy and girl, 
And all the changes of city and country, wherever he went.

Soon, though, we see that Whitman isn’t giving us a self-erasure, but a kind of building up of the self: everything the child encounters enters into that child and “becomes part of him.” That is, the child takes in and comprehends the world, digests it, and makes it part of an enduring and expanding self. All the people the child encounters “became part of that child who went forth every day,” and if there’s an encounter with the eternal, it isn’t that the child enters a unity larger than himself. Rather, he gathers the passing faces of the crowd into himself, and it is there that they survive, as he “now goes, and will always go forth every day.” Talk about the egotistical sublime!

What's striking about both Baudelaire and Whitman is the way there's a kind of meeting of the individual and the absolute through the medium of the crowd: the crowd is the way the self opens up to a connection with something like the infinite.  It's a very abstract kind of community that's at stake here: not a matter of getting to know others as particular people, but of finding a mystical union between self and all.  It may be profound, but it's hardly sociable.  I doubt Wordsworth, who dreamed of communities where people knew one another's life-stories, would find it satisfactory.  But it is a way to live in a city and find something other than horror and revulsion at the sight of the multitude.

Modern Ambivalence

Something about twentieth century experience in America seems to have made many of our best poets ambivalent about crowds. My great touchstone for all this is William Carlos Williams’ “At the Ballgame,” which includes these lines:

So in detail they, the crowd, 
are beautiful
for this 
to be warned against 
saluted and defied—
It is alive, venomous 
it smiles grimly 
its words cut— 
The flashy female with her 
mother, gets it— 
The Jew gets it straight— it 
is deadly, terrifying— 
It is the Inquisition, the 
It is beauty itself 
that lives 
day by day in them 
This is 
the power of their faces 
It is summer, it is the solstice 
the crowd is 
cheering, the crowd is laughing 
in detail 
permanently, seriously 
without thought

The crowd is beautiful, happy, deeply-rooted in the past of human experience (it’s important, I think, that “it is the solstice,” with all of the freight of pagan festivals that time of year carries). But then again, as Canetti knew, where there’s an exalting us, there’s also a threatened them. The flashy female is likely to find herself objectified — which is a form of not belonging, of being set apart. And the Jewish character has plenty of historical reason to distrust crowds as they thoughtlessly celebrate their oneness and togetherness.

George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous presents another ambivalent meditation on the relation of solitude and multidude. Images of shipwreck and an isolated Crusoe figure haunt the 39-section poem from which the book draws its name. But no matter how deep Oppen’s fears of isolation run, he remains committed to solidarity with others: “Obsessed, bewildered / By the shipwreck / Of the singular,” he writes, “We have chosen the meaning / Of being numerous.” Again, we see the desire to come together. But the urge for community is counterpoised to a skepticism about public platitudes: committed to concrete observation, Oppen cannot fathom those who, with such ease and abstraction, “talk/Distantly of ‘The People.’”

The series ends with a quotation of a piece of Walt Whitman’s prose, in which he looks on the capitol building rebuilt after the Civil War:

The capitol grows upon one in time, especially as they have got the great figure on top of it now, and you can see it very well. It is a great bronze figure, the Genius of Liberty I suppose. It looks wonderful toward sundown. I love to go and look at it. The sun when it is nearly down shines on the headpiece and it dazzle and glistens like a big star: it looks quite

The choice of Whitman, the great American Everyman, is significant: his presence signals an interest in a poetry of national community. But the break mid-sentence, together with the lineation, put a great deal of stress on that final word, “curious.” What is Oppen’s take on the idea of community? Is he skeptical? Intrigued? He certainly can’t bring himself to yawp with a full-throated Whitmanesque enthusiasm. The questions are left hanging there in front of us.

Crowds and Countercultures

The countercultural movements of the sixties and seventies put different spins on the theme of solitude and multitude. Gary Snyder, for example, clearly feels the pull of the crowd in one of his most famous poems, “I Went Into the Maverick Bar.” The poem begins like this:

I went into the Maverick Bar 
In Farmington, New Mexico. 
And drank double shots of bourbon 
backed with beer. 
My long hair was tucked up under a cap 
I’d left the earring in the car.

Two cowboys did horseplay 
by the pool tables, 
A waitress asked uswhere are you from? 
a country-and-western band began to play 
“We don’t smoke Marijuana in Muskokie” 
And with the next song, 
a couple began to dance. 

They held each other like in High School dances 
in the fifties; 
I recalled when I worked in the woods 
and the bars of Madras, Oregon. 
That short-haired joy and roughness—America—your stupidity. 
I could almost love you again.

Certainly Snyder’s speaker (let’s call him “Snyder,” since he pretty much is Gary Snyder) feels alienated. He is, after all, disguised in the enemy camp: long hair tucked away, earring hidden, while the anthem of the hippie-bashing multitudes plays. But he feels the allure of the warm embrace: dances, horseplay, all that unselfconscious human community. I love the ambivalence at the end of the third stanza. In fact, I’ve always thought the poem would be better if it ended there. But instead we have another stanza, one truer, perhaps, to what Snyder really felt. Or perhaps only truer to what he thought he ought to feel:

We left—onto the freeway shoulders— 
under the tough old stars— 
In the shadow of bluffsI came back to myself, 
To the real work, to 
“What is to be done.”

“What is to be done,” of course, is the title of a famous revolutionary tract by Lenin. If there’s solidarity in this last stanza, it’s not to any actually experienced crowd, like the one in the Maverick bar. Rather, it’s to an abstract idea of a class-based community. Maybe it’s this shift from the warmth of a real crowd to the coldness of allegiance to an abstract multitude that irks me. And believe me, I want to be on Snyder’s side.

If the culture/counterculture animosity could vex Snyder’s relation to crowds, it caused another kind of poet to seek to draw a crowd together. Consider the Black Nationalist aesthetic of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s poem “S.O.S.”:

Here, in a poem clearly written for oral delivery to a racially specific audience, we begin with a strong sense of the phatic function of language, with the poet seeking, apparently desperately, to connect to his community:

Calling black people
Calling all black people, man woman child
Wherever you are, calling you, urgent, come in
Black People, come in, wherever you are, urgent, calling
You, calling all black people

The voice is like that of a lost radio operator seeking to connect to home base. But the radio-operator's voice changes, in the final lines, to something else: rather than a voice in the wilderness, trying to find contact, we suddenly get something like a host's voice, or a carnival barker's, welcoming people into whatever desirable location he inhabits:

Calling all black people, come in, black people, come
on in.

From "come in" to "come on in" is a big step: the outsider becomes the insider, and the audience, at first sought desperately, is now welcomed warmly. The move is from solitude to the hope of multitude. One senses that Jones/Baraka wants to become one of Baudelaire’s “founders of colonies, shepherds of peoples,” gathering “a vast family created by their genius.”

Otherhood, Understood

One of my favorite contemporary poems to take up the theme of multitude and solitude in Atsuro Riley’s poem “Diorama.” Riley, a half-Japanese southerner, gives us a powerful, non-judgmental sense of a community gathering as a crowd at a small town summer fair. I was fortunate enough to hear Riley read the poem earlier this year, and the man who’d introduced Riley, himself a southerner from Memphis, couldn’t contain himself after the reading, and burst out saying “when I heard your poem, all I could think was those are the sounds, those are the words, I grew up with!” I get it. Riley does a great job of giving what I suppose we could call the audio landscape of a southern crowd of his youth. But then, right there in the middle of the poem, we get a moment where Riley’s main character, a half-Japanese boy, overhears a conversation in which he’s being talked about as an exotic alien:

The Blue Hole Summer Fair, set up and spread out like a butterfly pinned down on paper. Twin bright-lit wings, identically shaped (and fenced) and sized.
This side holds the waffled-tin (and oven-hot) huts of the Home Arts Booths and Contests, the hay-sweet display-cages for the 4-H livestock, the streamer-hung display-stages where girl-beauties twirl and try for queen. There's rosette-luster (and -lusting), and the marching band wearing a hole in Sousa. And (pursed) gaggles and clutches of feather-white neighbor-women, eyeballing us like we're pig's feet in a jar. 
I wonder does her boy talk Chinese? 
     You ever seen that kind of black-headed? 
          Blue shine all in it like a crow. 

This other wing (the one I'm back-sneaking, side-slipping, turnstiling into) dips and slopes down to low-lying marsh-mire: whiffs of pluff-mud stink and live gnat-pack poison, carnie-cots and -trailers camped on ooze. They've got (rickety) rides, and tent-shows with stains, and rackety bare-bulbed stalls of Hoop-La Game (RING-A-COKE!) and Rebel Yell and Shoot the Gook Down. Stand here, on this smutch-spot: don't these mirrors show you strange?
Crowds are gathering. Yonder there and down, the yolk-glow of a tent is drawing men on (and in) the way a car-crash does, or a cockfight sure enough, or neon. The ticket-boy's getting mobbed at the fly of the door.No sign in sight, except for the X of the Dixie-flag ironed across his t-shirt.I am bone-broke but falling into line.The men upwind of me are leaking chaw-spit and pennies.That, plus the eye-hunger spreading like a rumor through the swarm.The rib-skinny doorkeeper's hollering: bet now, bout's bout startin!Over his shoulder, a ropy yellow light.Also: circles of white tobacco-smoke, and bleacher-rows of (cooncalling) men who know my daddy.—And there he is, up in front with some tall man, iron-arming two black-chested boys toward the ring.

The remarkable thing about Riley’s poem, for me, is the way the central moment in which we feel the main character’s otherness remains undramatic. I don’t mean to say that it lacks impact — it has plenty of that. What I mean is, it isn’t a dramatic climax, it doesn’t result in anything like the crowd turning on the part-Asian boy. It doesn’t lead to a direct confrontation. In fact, it’s the very ordinariness of it that makes it important: the people who ask “I wonder does her boy talk Chinese?” aren’t mean-spirited or malevolent. But nevertheless we feel the sting of their words. Like the Jewish character in William Carlos Williams’ “At the Ballgame,” we “get it straight” about what it means to be “other.” That Riley can approach this topic, one that clearly gives him much pain, with a kind of distanced, nuanced understanding is remarkable. It’s one of the things that places him among the best poets I know of working on the old theme of solitude and multitude.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Frankfurt on the Farm: Southern Agrarianism Meets Adorno & Co.

The American south really is another country, or so I’ve thought from time to time.  And I thought it again earlier today, when a guy I know who recently took a teaching position in Mississippi told me how everyone at the university with a PhD insists on being called “Doctor,” and on signing emails with their full names followed by “PhD.”  It’s been my experience at my home institution, and at other colleges and universities in the north, that only a few professors insist on doing this, and that it tends to provoke a little behind-the-back eye-rolling on the part of their colleagues.  I’ve generally filed all this under the heading “cultural differences that don’t really matter but that probably reflect the more hierarchical social background of the south, with its roots in the agrarian world of the plantations” (the only other item in this slim file, with its elephantine heading, is “they do tend to call you sir or ma’am down there, don’t they?”).

The gentility I’ve encountered in the south probably is left over from a pre-industrial social order that would strike a Chicagoan, whose heritage is industrial mayhem, and whose future is the post-industrial unknown, as entirely alien.  But what about the intellectual traditions indigenous to the south?  What, more specifically, about the Southern Agrarians, that group of poets and literary intellectuals who made the 1930 collection of essays I’ll Take My Stand their manifesto?  They’ve often seemed distant to me: New Critical, conservative, and nostalgic for a vanishing social order based on the morally indefensible slave economy of the plantation — what could they have in common with the kind of left-wing, critical theory-devouring, Europhile with whom you and I sulk around the coffee joints and bookstores of big cities and college towns?

More than one might assume, it turns out.  While they certainly trafficked in nostalgia, when one looks at their actual writings, as often as not one finds significant overlap between what they believed and what the Frankfurt school critical thinkers — darlings of my sullen people, the liberal arts professoriate—believed.  I’m not saying that the two groups would want to amalgamate, but I do think they had many of the same ideas about what was wrong with the world in which they lived.

Consider a few examples.

Against Commodification and Exchange Value

“A farm is not a place to grow wealthy,” says Andrew Nelson Lytle in his contribution to I’ll Take My Stand, “it is a place to grow corn.”  He is appalled by the notion that the individual qualities of the products of life on a farm can be erased and replaced by a numerical, and easily manipulated, dollar value.  This erases the true use-value of the object, but more than that, it destroys the individuality of objects, reducing them to exchange value, and turning them into commodities.  “What industrialism counts as the goods and riches of the earth the agrarian South does not, nor ever did,” said Lytle, taking aim against industrial capitalism’s emphasis on the commodity as the means of measuring true wealth.

One hardly needs to quote Marx or Adorno for the similarities in outlook to be apparent.  But if Dr. Lytle and Drs. Marx and Adorno agree on their diagnosis (“the patient has a bad case of commodification!”) they disagree radically on the nature of the proper treatment.  No critical theory for Lytle, still less any form of labor organizing.  Rather, he calls for an economic and cultural movement, in which the people of the south “return to our looms, our hand crafts, our reproducing stock.  Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall!”  It’s more like what one would find in the writings of William Morris than in the works of Max Horkheimer, but even so, we should remember Morris wasn’t just a great wallpaper designer and furniture maker: he was a committed socialist.

The Nature of Utopia

The Agrarians were famously backward-looking, but when we look at why they yearned for the past, we see that it was generally as a way of criticizing the industrial capitalism of the present.

Robert Penn Warren, at a 1956 reunion of the Agrarians, said the past is “a better rebuke” to the present “than any dream of the future,” because “you can see what some of the costs were, what frail virtues were achieved in the past by frail men." For other Agrarians, there was an even stronger emphasis on the critique of modernity over any positive vision of what Utopia ought to be. As Lyle Lanier put it not long before the reunion at which Warren spoke, “I don’t feel overly confident now that I can have anything to say about what I stand for in these dismal times.  As in 1930, what to stand against seems much easier to identify.”  And that enemy was modern industrial capitalism. Lanier claimed to read the Wall Street Journal only “to keep up with what the enemy is up to,” and the opening statement of I’ll Take My Stand, attributed to all of the book’s contributors, says “it is strange…that a majority of men anywhere could even as with one mind become enamored of industrialism: a system that has so little regard for individual wants.”  One might attribute some of this anti-modernity to the culture around the Vanderbilt Agrarians: Nashville was undergoing a belated but rapid industrialization, establishing a mode of life very much at odds with the Agrarian ideal: it was as if the poets were surrounded by countless versions of Faulkner’s Flem Snopes on the make.

Of course any orientation to the past is fundamentally at odds with the Frankfurt school, which made much of futurity. As Simon Jarvis put it, Adorno wanted “to resist the liquidation of the possibility of really new experience,” and saw Utopia as a necessarily unachievable aspiration, a yearning for a newer, better world, beyond exploitation and oppression. But here, too, the emphasis is on Utopia as a critique of the present, rather than as an achievable reality in some particular form. Utopia, in Adorno’s view, could never be fully embodied, nor even formulated.  Irreducible to concept, let alone to political realization, it was an absolute for which to yearn. But we must walk in fear of anyone claiming to have produced it, in blueprint or in actualization.

Moreover, even in the disagreement about whether to look forward or backward in time, we can see a certain similarity: both Robert Penn Warren and Theodor Adorno approach Utopia with caution, with an eye open to the frailty of the vision and the human costs paid in attempts to embody it.  There’s caution to both visions, Agrarian/reactionary and the Marxian/radical.  This puts both on a moral footing well ahead of many ideologues of the mid-century right and left.

Obligation to the Lost Cause

A strange mournfulness hangs, mist-like, over the essays of I’ll Take My Stand: a mournfulness over the sacrifices of so many soldiers in the Civil War. A good part of the nostalgia for the past, and the sometimes hard-to-read defense of the old plantation society (John Crowe Ransom writes of slavery as “humane in practice” if not theory), is a powerfully felt sense that the sacrifices of one’s ancestors must not have been in vain.  While, with the exception of an essay by Allen Tate, there’s little in I’ll Take My Stand by way of calls for violent political action, there’s a real sense that one must remain loyal to the past, and keep the flame alive until conditions once again become propitious for one’s cause.

This sense of one’s place in history is surprisingly close to some moments in Negative Dialectics, where Adorno speaks of the revolutionary moment predicted by Marx as having come and gone, contained and defused by capitalism. In 1966, the year Negative Dialectics was published, Adorno saw capitalism more dominant than ever, and felt that critical thinking was the best way to maintain a kind of critical consciousness that will be essential for any future action on behalf of the great cause.  Both Adorno and the Agrarians looked back at lost opportunities and failed causes, and saw themselves as keepers of the flame.

The Group and the Individual

The Frankfurt school was unexceptional in Marxist thought in being deeply skeptical of the claims of individualism and individual agency, emphasizing the power of large social and economic forces, and the actions of classes rather than charismatic individuals.  On the surface, the Agrarians seem to believe in very different things.  They make much of the term “individual,” and can at times sound almost like Margaret Thatcher when she claimed “society does not exist.”  The opening statement of I’ll Take My Stand, for example, claims “the responsibility of men is for their own welfare and that of their neighbors; not for the hypothetical welfare of some fabulous creature called society.”  But even in the rejection of the notion of society, we see something other than individualism at work: there’s a notion of mutual obligation in much Agrarian thinking, albeit one based not on class solidarity but on family and region.  Lyle Lanier, for example, despised industrial capitalism for creating “personal isolation, and a fractioning of life functions.”  He feared capitalism would dissolve the bonds of extended family which formed a kind of social support network, leaving people uprooted, deracinated, and subject to the “convulsions of a predatory and decadent capitalism.”

Agrarian talk of individualism often masked an emphasis on social forms larger than the individual.  These social forms were by no means egalitarian, and they were based on a system of racial oppression, but they were far from individualistic.  As the historian Paul V. Murphy put it, the old southern social order “demanded of members, white and black, not only conformity to written and unwritten rules but also loyalty to an often informal but clearly defined social hierarchy.  In return, the white southerner gained a deep sense of community, identity, and family connection.  Black southerners,” Murphy continues, in deep understatement, “gained quite a bit less.”  Be that as it may, it wasn’t an individualist order the Agrarians promoted, despite their love of the term “individual.”  It was a form of group-consciousness they wanted to protect, against the atomizing forces of capitalism.

Art, Alienation, and Social Life

Another way the Agrarians distanced themselves from individualism was in their view of the proper social position of art.  Donald Davidson, for example, demanded art be integrated into the social world around it, growing out of and contributing to the life of a community, rather than serving some private vision or languishing in the aesthete’s private garret of l’art pour l’art.  “What is a picture for, if not to put on a wall?” asked Davidson.  A true artist, in his view, doesn’t produce work in which “the aesthetic experience is curtained off” but rather makes work that will be “mixed up with all sorts of instruments and occupations pertaining to the round of daily life.”

I suppose one could try to work out some relation to the Frankfurt school insistence on the social nature of all art, perhaps invoking Adorno’s well-known claim, in “Lyric Poetry and Society,” that even the seemingly private form of expression that is the lyric poem, a form of expression at odds with any social pressure represents a kind of shared social experience.  “The lyric work of art’s withdrawal into itself, its self-absorption, its detachment from the social surface,” says Adorno, “is socially motivated behind the author’s back.”  But that’s not where the really striking connection is.  The really striking connection is between Davidson’s Agrarian thinking and the avant-gardism of Dadaist and Surrealist thinking. 

Consider this: Davidson wants to return art from its ivory tower to the world of daily, lived experience, integrating it into daily life.  While his particular paths to this goal differ from those of Tristan Tzara or André Breton, his general goal is exactly that of these considerably freakier figures.  Dada and Surrealism were dedicated to breaking down the barriers set up by aestheticism, and by institutions like museums, between art and daily life.  For Breton, this was the true path of revolution.  For Davidson, it was a return to a more genteel past.  But for both, the goal was to end the alienation of the poet or artist from society.


In the end, we can think of figures as diverse as Allen Tate and Donald Davidson, on the one hand, and Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, on the other, as people working in good faith with the different traditions they inherited to fight the excesses of the global system in which they found themselves.  Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that they have not only profound differences but very real similarities.


[Note that I am having a secret argument with myself here: an article I wrote some time ago, "Aesthetics as Ethics: One and a Half Theses on the New Criticism" begins with the claim "no one would confuse the political dreams of the Fugitives with those of the Frankfurt School."  If you want to see that line of reasoning, it'll be out in 2012 in a book called Re-Reading the New Criticism, edited by Miranda Hickman and John MacIntyre (Ohio State University Press)].

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Seeing Red with Nietzsche

Fret not, gentle reader: though the title of this post might make it sound like I'm about to embark on a rage-fueled rant against all the untermenschen getting in my way at the salad bar, I'm not here to talk about seeing red—I'm here to talk about seeing Red, John Logan's wonderful play about Mark Rothko, which opened last night at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.  Logan makes Nietzsche's distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian art in The Birth of Tragedy central to the story, and he's helped me see not only Rothko but also Nietzsche in a new light.

I'm often a fan of the work of the director, Robert Falls, although sometimes he goes too far into big spectacle for my taste (his King Lear featured a sawn-in-half car on stage, for example).  I've been less enamored of John Logan's work, though like most people I know him more for his movies—Gladiator, say, or Sweeney Todd—than for his plays.  But there really was no way I was going to miss Red, which just hit too many of my buttons: as a provincial art school brat in the 1970s I grew up surrounded by painters still working in the then-aging abstract expressionist mode, with all the brainy, butch swagger of Rothko, Pollock, and company; and Rothko was known for his love of exactly the literary and philosophical works that sit close to my heart: the Romantics, the German Idealists, and the existential wing of modernism.  When a colleague of mine, who'd seen the New York production, told me the play was all about aesthetic theory, and that it had only two characters "an earnest young bumpkin and a cynical old intellectual wreck—that is, your origin and your destination," I knew I had to be there on opening night.

When the play began, I knew right away that, whether it went well or poorly, whether it would succeed or fail by more objective lights, it would speak to me. The cavernous set, depicting Rothko's studio, came to me straight out of my youth: stacks of paintings leaning on one another, unframed in stretched canvasses; paint mixed in steel buckets; a big sink spattered with god knows what chemicals; a hot plate used for  in-studio cooking and the alchemy of paint mixing; a big adirondack chair from which the artist could stare at his work in progress; high-wattage floodlights; a battered old record player spinning classical LPs. I remember this as the stuff of the Aladdin's caves in which my dad and his colleagues made their art.  It will always be my image of the sort of place where the real, serious work gets done.  And then, in one of Rothko's first speeches to Ken, his new, young, naive intern, he rolls through a list of writers that pretty much comprises the syllabi of my seminars—Wordsworth, Beckett, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche—before thundering "you have to be civilized before you can paint!"  I don't believe it's true that all artists need this required reading list, but it's the stuff that's meant the most to me, and it's the background of the work for which I care the most.

The play never bogs down into a mere matter of talking heads: it makes much out of small movements and long silences, and there's an energetic scene of Rothko and his apprentice painting.  But talk there is, plenty of it, and it shows that Logan knows the big issues in aesthetics.  The action centers on the creation of what became known as Rothko's "secret paintings" — a series commissioned in the late 1950s to hang in the then-new Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building, but that Rothko refused to hang there.  Rothko, who came of age at a time when there really were no collectors or institutions for his kind of art, believed in the autonomy and integrity of the artwork, in its status as a stage in a personal struggle, in what amounts to its spirituality.  He believed these things with the intensity possible only for those almost totally removal from the forces of the art market.  But his paintings were supposed to hang in a place whose closest parallel would be the Vanity Fair of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress: a restaurant where the rich and status-hungry of Manhattan came to see and be seen, to establish themselves in a social order.  These people needed expensive, aesthetically profound art on the walls to show that they had both economic status and cultural capital, but they didn't really care about the paintings except as tokens in a game of status.  Rothko found himself crucified on the contradiction between the religion of art and the commodification of art.  His young assistant confronts him about this, throwing a new generation of artists in Rothko's face, saying "at least Andy Warhol gets the joke!"  (He's right, of course: Warhol saw just how art became a prestige commodity, and he cranked out visually shallow, repetitive work in a place called "The Factory" as a way of underlining the point, though it's by no means clear his many avid collectors understood, or understand now, that they were being punked, and that Warhol's real medium wasn't the slipshod silkscreen, but the apparatus of the New York art world, which he played as well, and as flashily, as Pagianini played the violin).

Logan also treats the matter of artistic generations with real sensitivity.  Near the beginning of the play Rothko speaks with a little glee about how he and his abstract expressionists did in an earlier generation of painters, and how it's "impossible for anyone to paint a cubist picture now."  Revere the fathers, he tells his assistant, but murder them.  There's a bit too much relish in how he says this, and we know he's being set up for a reversal, which comes when he later returns to his studio choking with rage at a show by Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and other pop artists.  After this, Logan shows us Rothko moving from an initial glee at the destruction of the old, through anger at his own aging, to a kind of acceptance of the inevitability, even the rightness, of change.  Near the end of the play he dismisses his assistant, telling him that, having learned enough from the old master, he should be out in the world with his own generation, making an art that speaks to their experience.  It's an interesting moment, in which the young man's growth is acknowledged, and the old man grows through acknowledging the passing of all generations, including his own.  I wish Falls hadn't had Rothko put his hand over young Ken's heart at this point, though: it was too literally a benediction, and one of the few moments in the production to fall a little flat.

The real aesthetic center of the play, though, isn't a matter of artistic generations, or even of commercialization.  It's a riff on Nietzsche's Apollo and Dionysus.  Early in the play, the young Ken tells Rothko that his favorite painter is Jackson Pollock.  Rothko rolls his eyes, but later, after Ken's read Nietzsche on Rothko's advice, Ken comes back with an explanation for his admiration of Pollock, and for Rothko's reservations about the man.  Pollock, says Ken, is Dionysus: passion, the loss of self-control, the life-force itself coming through in all its disorder; whereas Rothko is all self-possession, analytic mindfulness, limit, restraint. Pollock threw paint down in a trance-like dance, says Ken, while Rothko stares at his canvasses for weeks on end, wondering what they need, and how to provide it.  Rothko rightly rejects this as shallow, and as too easy a division, and challenges Ken to think harder.  He does, and he comes to see Rothko's canvasses as an opposition between the two Nietzchean forces.  The luminous reds seem to represent Dionysus, and we hear Rothko and Ken shouting out the various associations we have with red—blood, warmth, anger, fire, Santa Claus, Satan— signs of life in its excess and passion.  Ken speculates about Rothko's colors as Dionysian and his form, all those containing rectangles, as Apollonian, but he soon moves on to interrogate Rothko about the meaning of another recurring color in his work, black.  Rothko's black is death, but also limit, and inadequacy, and self-doubt: the various antitheses of passion.  But red wouldn't make sense without black, just as passion, desire, abandonment and the like wouldn't make sense, wouldn't even register to our sensibilities, without their negations.  Ken calls this a conflict, but Rothko, gesturing at his paintings, tells him "conflict" isn't the right word for the relationship of red and black,  Dionysus and Apollo.  Rather, the right word for the relationship is "pulsation," the beautiful, living heartbeat of the colors in relation to one another in Rothko's luminous paintings.

This idea, I think, is the strongest part of Logan's script.  It's a real insight into Rothko's paintings: I'd always thought of them as icons of aesthetic autonomy, as color in relation for purely formal reasons, proud in their removal from the world of morality, commerce, political actions, and the like, assertions of the value of things as ends in themselves.  But there's a slightly different angle, in which the formal relations are seen as living things, experienced through time by the viewer as the necessary, pulsating oscillation of differences.  Think of them this way, and you can see them as meditative instruments, as the sort of thing that might reconcile a man to the pulsating change of time—to, for example, the rhythm of changing artistic generations.

The notion of the pulsating interrelation of the Apollonian and the Dionysian is more than just an insight into Rothko, though: it's also an insight into Nietzsche.  I think I can best explain what I mean with reference to a recent exchange I had with a sociologist colleague.

Not long ago, my sociologist pal, who is passionate about the Chicago Cubs and has written a book about how fans of this team form communities based on their enthusiasms, directed my attention to an article in which an editorialist complained about people doing "the wave" in Wrigley Field.  His objection was that "the wave is the very embodiment of groupthink, the surrendering our individuality in order to follow the rest of the lemmings..."  My pal agreed with this position, but I didn't.  I don't mind the wave, and in a way it's just a version of Nietzsche's Dionysian feeling, in which the division between spectator and participant dissolves, and (to quote Nietzsche), "every man feels himself not only united with his neighbor, reconciled and fused together, but also as one with him, as if the veil had been ripped apart, with only scraps fluttering around in the face of the mysterious primordial unity.  Singing and dancing, man expresses himself as a member of a higher community."  The crowd, moving together, is a harmless manifestation of Dionysus.  What could be wrong with that?  My colleague came back at me, saying "you know that I refer to the Cubs using the first person collective pronoun, and when we do something good, of course I want to be screaming and cheering and feeling that good old collective effervescence.  For me, the wave isn't about connection with the team."  In fact, "the wavers are disrespecting my team."  Ah! I thought.  This is neither an endorsement of the respectful, intent Apollonian spectator, nor of the Dionysian erasure of the hierarchy between crowd and the performers.  Rather, I thought, this is the moment of synthesis that Nietzsche sees as the birth of drama out of earlier ritualistic gatherings. The drama privileges the performers over the crowd, who are not equals in performance, except very intermittently.  But they're not isolated or passionless, either: they're united by a collective, focused passion.  It's about what's happening on the stage (or the baseball diamond), and one is restrained and reserved compared to the participants in a Dionysian ritual, but there are real foci of collective passions, and the form of the drama (or of the ballgame, as my colleague conceived of it) provides a kind of balance or synthesis of the Apollonian and the Dionysian.  Or so I thought.  But now, thanks to Logan's Red, I think that's not quite it.

After seeing Red, I'm more inclined to think of the relation between Apollo and Dionysus as a pulsation, rather than a balance or a synthesis.  That is: I don't think it's a matter of finding some ratio of the two, or some fusion, so much as it's a matter of letting the two modes of experience alternate, interact, and combine in patterns that make up a living, changing whole.  Rothko's paintings aren't a matter of balance, but of a living relation that changes for the viewer over time.  And watching the Cubs isn't a matter of intense, analytic spectatorship (although that's a part of it), nor is it a matter of enjoying one's unity with the gathered crowd (though that's a part of it too).  Nor is it a matter of finding a combination of these things, allowing for certain forms of collective experience (cheering together) but excluding others as illegitimate because they're not focused enough on spectatorship (doing the wave).  Instead, the experience of watching the Cubs, like the experience of looking at a Rothko painting, is a matter of letting these different kinds of moments come together in pulsating patterns that change over time.  I think, now, that's more in line with what Nietzsche was getting at.  It's certainly the version of Nietzsche Logan's Rothko presents to his apprentice Ken, but we're left with some question as to whether it is a vision he can live up to.