Saturday, December 29, 2012

Ted Schaefer, Poet and Colleague, R.I.P.

It's been a couple of weeks since I heard the sad news that my former colleague, the poet Ted Schaefer,  had left us.  He was a good and generous teacher, and he always indulged me when I'd drop by his office unannounced and hang out, leaning in his doorway and asking him about his time in the army, his work as a former cartoonist, and, of course, about poetry.  I learned a lot from him, including a thing or two about patience.

He wrote two books—After Drought and The Summer People—and published poems everywhere from the the old Saturday Review to the Village Voice.  But the poem that came to mind when I heard of his passing was a little one I'd run across in a 1974 issue of Intro back when I was a grad student and worked in Chicago's great, much missed Aspidistra Bookshop.  It was a journal associated with the AWP and published by Anchor Books, and it took me a while to get my hands on another copy: 

Ed's Cafe: He's Dead


The coffee
Perks in the urns.
The forktips sing away.
A dawn hits
Ed's widow.
I hear 
The breadman, and


"I want a red casket.
With blue flowers,"
I hear the woman say.
"I want to be buried
On a real bright
Shiny day..."

I'm sure Ted will be remembered with affection and gratitude by many, including his former students—among whom, in a way informal but real, I number.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Plonsker Prize: $10,000, Your Book Published, and Two Months to Write at Lake Forest College

In A Room of One's Own Virginia Woolf famously said that a writer who hoped to succeed needed £500 a year and private room in which to write.  A Room of One's Own came out in 1929, when £500 would get you $807.  If the most easily Google-able online inflation calculator is any guide, that $807 translates into just over $10,000 in today's currency—a handy sum for any aspiring writer, to be sure, and a sum that just happens to equal the prize money given out by Lake Forest College in our annual Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer's Residency Prize.  In a turn Woolf would surely appreciate, the prize also comes with a room of one's own in which to write—several of them, in fact, in the form of a suite at the Glen Rowan House, where the winning poet is bound to run into some interesting people visiting the college (here's the actual suite). 

The prize is open to writers under 40 who have yet to publish a first book (chapbooks and other small publications don't disqualify an applicant).  The residency includes meals and comes with no teaching or other duties—it's just time to write.  The prize alternates between poets and fiction writers—and the winner will read as part of the Lake Forest Literary Festival.

The residency takes place during the spring semester.  Applications for the 2014 residency begin on January first of 2013.  There is no fee to apply.

The judging panel consists of myself, Davis Schneiderman, and Joshua Corey, along with a guest judge.  Guidelines and a link to an online submission form are available here.  If you and your work fit the criteria outlined on the site, I do hope you'll apply.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What I Read While They Were Writing

Lake Forest College, where I’ve been teaching for something like sixteen years, minus sabbaticals and a visiting year in Sweden, prides itself on its warm and fuzzy, get to know you by the name, scale model of an ordinary university, liberal arts college intimacy.  Generally, I think this is a great thing.  I used to get a bit miffed about the fact that professors proctor their own exams, though: shouldn’t we be out pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge in our research,” I’d  grumble to myself, “rather than looking at the parts in fifteen students’ hair as they hunch over their blue exam books, scribbling furiously?”  But that was all before my daughter was born.  Now that I have a small kid around (delight though she is), I find the three hours of silence less of a bore and more of a respite.  It’s a great chance to haul a pile of books, journals, and electronic reading gizmos into a room and browse around aimlessly, like I used to do for an hour or two every morning.

I’ve had two exams to proctor this semester.  Here are the highlights from six hours of desultory reading.  Some are things I agree with, some are things I just found striking or provocative or admired as feats of style.  For whatever reason, they’re the passages I felt drawn to enough to copy them out in my Moleskine while my students sweated out their answers about Virginia Woolf or Thomas DeQuincey.
One of the things I’ve been focused on is the state of American higher education, particularly the advent of what I’ve called the ‘post-welfare-state university’ and its protocols of privatization, which have extracted greater profit from research under the trust of universities, greater labor from the teaching force, and a greater pound of flesh from students, especially in the form of student debt.
     —Jeffrey J. Williams, “Long Island Intellectual”
If one had no acquaintance with other poetry than Mr. Ashbery’s, one would believe there were nothing more to the art than a vague, somewhat precious and connoisseurish liking for words and the puzzle interest of working them into difficult patterns.
     —from James Dickey’s 1957 review of Some Trees
On parent knees, a naked new-born child,
Weeping thou sat'st, while all around thee smil'd:
So live, that sinking to thy life's last sleep,
Calm thou may'st smile, while all around thee weep.
     —Sir William Jones, “Epigram”
The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness one is… a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces.
     —from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks
The story of St. Wystan is recorded in a Little Guide to Shropshire, under the entry of Wistanow, the place in the county where he was martyred.  The author of the Little Guide was Wystan Auden’s uncle, the Rev. J.E. Auden, and Wystan carefully preserved his own copy of it.  He was very possessive about his first name; he said he would be “furious” if he ever met another Wystan.
     —from Humphrey Carpenter’s W.H. Auden: A Biography
Not only does democracy make each man forget his ancestors, it hides his descendants from him, and divides him from his contemporaries; it continually turns him back into himself, and threatens, at last, to enclose him entirely in the solitude of his own heart.
     —from Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Few crimes are more harshly forbidden in the Old Testament than sacrifice to the god Moloch (for which see Leviticus 18.21, 20.1-5). The sacrifice referred to was of living children consumed in the fires of offering to Moloch. Ever since then, worship of Moloch has been the sign of a deeply degraded culture. Ancient Romans justified the destruction of Carthage by noting that children were sacrificed to Moloch there….The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily…
     —Gary Wills, “Our Moloch”

Saturday, December 15, 2012

James Bond is no longer a Greek God, he’s Jesus: Notes on Skyfall

The first thing to notice about James Bond is that he’s a god.  I’m not talking about the James Bond of Ian Fleming’s novels, and I’m not talking about the James Bond of the most recent film, Skyfall—a film that makes the most significant departure from the cinematic tradition of James Bond in the history of the franchise.  I’m talking about the James Bond most of us know: the Bond we watched in the movie theaters, on video tape, on DVD, on late night television and in any of a thousand forms of streaming video, from Dr. No in 1962 to Quantum of Solace in 2008.  This is a Bond who doesn’t stumble around like a mere mortal, growing from inadequacy to adequacy, learning new things both true and false, fumbling to make a path for himself in the world, to find a place where he fits, to build something like a family or a life’s work that can itself start to grow and falter.  In fact, a good part of this Bond’s appeal is that he doesn’t have to do any of that messy stuff. 

We can get a good sense of the Bond of cinematic tradition if we think of him as less like the protagonist of a novel, and more like a figure out of mythology.  In its classic manifestations, the novel offers us protagonists who grow and change.  Sometimes they change externally, seeking and finding a place for themselves in the world, Horatio Alger style (all of those orphans traipsing around the nineteenth century novel are placeless people seeking some kind of belonging).  Often, especially in the bildungsroman, we get to watch the characters’ ethical growth: Huck Finn has his great “All right then, I’ll go to hell” moment, rejecting the ideology of shore-based society for a dream of friendship conceived on his river journeys with Jim; Jane Eyre learns to balance her fiery, passionate desires with her self-possession.  Sometimes we get to watch the slow, faltering development of some skill or social ability, as we do when we see James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus slowly learn the art of language (from his lisping childhood to his pretentious display of literary theory) and the way to relate to women (from a full-on case of pathological virgin/whore dichotomy to a somewhat less virulent case of the same, perhaps in remission).  In any case, the real action of a great many novels is to be found in watching the protagonist learn, grow, and change.  All of this is in contradistinction to the way certain characters—the gods—tend to operate in mythology.  If the classic protagonist of a novel is a creature of becoming, the gods in mythology are creatures of pure being.  That is, they are what they are, and will be for eternity.  Ares doesn’t grow and learn and change, nor does he seek his true home, nor does Dionysus, nor does Athena : they embody certain traits: indeed, they represent those traits, and it wouldn’t make sense for them to lose or modify their warlikeness, their indulgentness, or their rationality.  How could we speak of a Dionysian experience if Dionysus went to A.A. and learned the twelve steps of self-reinvention?  This seems to be true of mythology across cultures: Loki never changes in the tales Norse mythology; nor does Tiki in the Polynesian mythological cycles.

Like the gods of mythology, the classic film Bond never has to grow or learn or seek out a place.  When we see him engaged in training exercises during the opening sequences of several of the films, he’s never really in the process of acquiring new skills: he’s merely performing feats of the sort we already know he can perform: there are no surprises—instead, there’s an affirmation of the traits we already attribute to Bond: awesomeness in physical combat; cleverness in improvisation; coolheaded aloofness; and a propensity to collect the women who fall, swooningly, into his arms.  It’s great.  And we’d feel betrayed if he actually had to pick up new ideas and master new things: the whole point of him, like the whole point of, say, Zeus, is that he’s already the perfect master of what he does and who he is.  We’d also feel very strange if he was in any significant way haunted by a past he needs to overcome, unable to allow himself the pleasures of Pussy Galore because of some hang-ups about Honey Rider.  The film Bond does not carry any real wounds from one film to another, physical or psychological.  With only very minor exceptions, he’s an episodic figure, the film Bond, not a cumulative one: more at home in a cycle of mythological tales than in the cohesive, ends-oriented narrative of a novel.

It is significant, I think, that the James Bond familiar to readers of Ian Fleming’s novels is much more like a classic novelistic hero than is the mythological Bond of the films.  Judith Roof, the sharpest writer on Bond to have trod this earth, puts it succinctly.  In the novels, she says, “Ian Fleming’s Bond character does evolve; he reacts, learns, carries with him the lessons of his own traumatic history.  The Dr. No Bond remembers painfully Diamonds Are Forever’s Tiffany Case.  Bond’s body and mind become increasingly scarred…. The literary character James Bond, however, is not coterminous with the cultural Bond figure…” In contrast, we have the cinematic Bond, whom Roof describes as “a creature of almost pathological consistency.”  Unlike in the novels, the Bond of film “appears as if it [Roof uses “it” rather than “he,” to emphasize the semiotic nature of the Bond figure] always knew everything — as if it was spawned with skills intact and little memory of past tortures which have no cumulative effect on him.”  Spawned with skills intact and little memory—one could say this of Aphrodite as easily as of the cinematic Bond.

But we can’t really make this kind of statement about the Bond of Skyfall, the film that marks the fiftieth anniversary of Bond as a cinematic phenomenon.  As Bond himself puts it early in the movie, the character is all about resurrection. 

Skyfall’s beginning sequence already gives us something different from the typical Bond opening.  Where we’re used to seeing a kind of set-piece or overture in which Bond’s immutable awesomeness is, once again, made plain, this time we see Bond falter and, more significantly, die.  His fellow agent (we later learn she’s Moneypenny) is ordered to shoot at Bond’s opponent even as he wrestles with Bond on top of a moving train.  She hesitates, saying she has no good shot, but on orders from M, who feels there is too much at stake to risk not shooting, she fires, hitting Bond and knocking him off the train.  He falls a great distance into a river, is washed down a waterfall, and disappears.  He fails for to reappear, and back in England, he is assumed dead, his obituary written, his flat and belongings sold off.  When we see him again, we’re not told how he survived—and this is significant, because in some sense he did not survive, he was resurrected.

Much in the film makes Bond out to be human and frail, in ways alien to the Bond of cinematic tradition.  We see Bond accumulate new scars that do not heal; we see him fail his tests in marksmanship, physical fitness, and psychological readiness for duty; we hear of the early death of his parents, and of unspecified, unresolved psychological wounds stemming from that loss.  We often see him from behind as he stands in a posture much like that of Caspar David Freidrich’s Wanderer Among the Clouds: a figure part defiance, part inwardness, and part vulnerability, not the clear-eyed, swaggering man Sean Connery played.

It’s not only a humanized Bond we see in Skyfall: it’s quite explicitly a Christ figure.  Not only does he die and rise: one of the main themes of Skyfall is Bond’s ability to love and forgive those who have sinned against him.  There’s a foil to Bond in Skyfall, a villain named Silva.  Silva, like Bond, was sacrificed by M in the name of a greater goal for the agency, and he lives to wreak vengeance on her.  His elaborate scheme involves making M feel afraid, and repeatedly urging her to “think on her sins,” including, of course, the sin of sacrificing him.  Silva refers to M as “mother,” and there’s a parent-hate here a little like that of Milton’s Satan, and a lot like that of Mary Shelley’s creature in Frankenstein.  But the main thing is his refusal to forgive the woman he clearly loved as a mother.  Bond has a similar relationship to M: deep affection, even love, and anger at having been betrayed and sacrificed for a mission.  But unlike Silva, Bond forgives those who have sinned against him, and is ready to sacrifice himself again to save them.  When M finally does die, the Christ parallels are underlined by the posture in which Bond holds her: it is a reversed Pietà, with Bond in the Mary position and M in the position of the agony-wracked, dead Christ.  He embodies pity and love and compassion for someone who, in her human frailty and uncertainty, ordered violence against him.

The name of the film refers to the Bond family estate, the scene of the trauma to which he returns (it was where Bond’s parents were murdered).  But it’s also a symbolic name, since the Bond that we see in Skyfall is a Bond taken from the realm of the gods and brought down into the human world, with human frailties.  He is now, for the first time in the history of Bond film, not a god per se but a god made flesh, and vulnerable, and capable of loving and forgiving those who caused him pain.  No longer a Greek God, and certainly not a bearded father-God from the old testament tradition, this Bond is a Christ.  And he may just resurrect the franchise.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Us vs. Them: Poetry and the Limits of Binary Thinking

Experimental vs. formalist; formalist vs. free verse; post-avant vs. quietude; lyric vs. language-based — you know the old binaries that people drag around when they write and talk about poetry.  They're like the weather as described by Mark Twain: everybody talks about them, but nobody does anything about them.  Until now! The good people at Boston Review (Timothy Donnelly, B.K. Fischer, and David Johnson) have put together a great forum on binary thinking in contemporary poetics, now available online.

Back in May, Boston Review ran a Marjorie Perloff essay called "Poetry on the Brink," which sparked some lively and contentious conversation.  Since much of the conversation involved the question of just how useful (or harmful) our old critical binaries were, the editors asked a group of poets and critics to write short essays addressing the question "what is the most significant, troubling, relevant, recalcitrant, misunderstood, or egregious set of opposing terms in discussions about poetics today, and, by extension, what are the limits of binary thinking about poetry?"

Responses came in various forms.

Maureen McLane and Ange Mlinko replied with poems, Mlinko's consisting of a series of rhyming couplets, beginning with: "
M.P. is right: much free verse exists to give a pass/to naïfs who only learned of poems from a glass..."

Annie Finch waved the proud banner of poetic meter.

Stephen Burt struck the note of the expert overwhelmed by the plenitude of poetry and poetry-talk (which you may remember from an earlier essay of his).  This time he tells us "So many binaries circulate in and around contemporary poems that I find myself running out of Ibuprofen as I pursue the most useful."

DeSales Harrison comes out swinging, saying that Perloff's essay is at times mired in "self-regarding sludge" (I would advise Harrison to shy away from Orono, Buffalo, Louisville, and other stomping grounds of the Perloff enthusiasts for a while).  

Matthew Zapruder and Lytton Smith stand up for music, with Zapruder defending song lyrics as poetry and Smith taking issue with the visual/auditory divide.

Sandra Lim reminds us of Matvei Yankelevich's contribution to this discussion.

Katie Degentesh wins the Wicked Wit award for the line "If it’s not a legitimate poem, your body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

Dan Beachy-Quick seeks a middle ground between lyricism and the dissolved self; while Noah Eli Gordon notes the conundrum of the poet-professor, drawn to both indeterminacy and clarities more readily adaptable to a pedagogical context.  Dorothea Lasky works with a similar division, claiming that "a young poet today, finding his or her own way, must decide to be either a mystic or a scientist."

Samuel Amadon notes that labels tend to be imposed on poets from without, saying "American poetry is littered with schools and movements that no one claims to be a member of."

Cathy Park Hong accuses Perloff of being "disingenuous" in her treatment of poets of color (look out!).

Anthony Madrid, who has a strong claim as the possessor of Best Head of Hair in American Poetry (men's division) decries the insistence that irony and feeling must be at odds with one another.

Rebecca Wolff notes that her journal, Fence, has been interested in the binary question for years.

Evie Shockley dislikes the very idea of binaries, while some guy named Archambeau doesn't want to go without them even though he advises treating them with suspicion and getting promiscuous with the things.

Marjorie Perloff writes a reply in which she addresses various contributions, and manages an answer to DeSales Harrison that deftly sidesteps the issue of sludge.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Sublime Knowledge: Bertrand Russell and the Intellectual as Hero

I find myself compelled, from time to time, to gorge myself on the work of a particular writer, for reasons that often remain opaque to me until much later. For the last month or so I've been tearing through the works of Bertrand Russell — philosophical essays, memoirs, polemics, and even a little of his work on mathematics. I think, now that I'm coming to the end of this fit of Russellmania, that the whole thing has been a powered by an unconscious need to provide some kind of counter-weight to my other reading for the month, a series of investigations into Gnosticism, undertaken in preparation for the panel on American Gnostic poetics on which I'll be speaking at the Louisville conference this coming February. What better way to clear one's mind of the eight heavens, the archons, and the emanations of early Christian heresy than by turning to Russell, the village atheist to end all village atheists? 

Russell's atheism, though, turns out to be the least interesting thing about him. Much more fascinating, at least to me, is his notion of the intellectual. For Russell, the intellectual isn't just a heroic figure, he's something grander altogether: he's sublime. And not just sublime in some general sense of being grand. The intellectual is sublime in the Kantian sense of that word.

For Kant, objects themselves are never truly sublime.  Rather, it is the effect of certain kinds of objects on us, on our consciousness, that is truly sublime, though we tend to attribute the quality of the sublime to the objects themselves.  "Volcanoes in all their violence of destruction; hurricanes with their track of devastation, the boundless ocean in a state of tumult," says Kant, are things "we willingly call... sublime," but this is only because of their effects, because "they raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height and discover in us a faculty of resistance... which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature."  That is, we look at these terrifying things and, provided we are not reduced to sheer terror, we feel not only their grandeur and fearfulness, but also our own capacity to stand in their presence, afraid but not merely reduced to fear.  We feel their grandeur, but also the capacity of our own little light to withstand their mighty winds and not be blown out.  And it's our awareness of that capacity in ourselves that is truly sublime.  "In this way nature is not judged to be sublime in our aesthetical judgments insofar as it excites fear," says Kant, "but because it calls up that power in us... of regarding as small the things about which we are solicitous (goods, health, and life), and of regarding its might... as without dominion over us..." This is why, according to Kant, so many people from so many different kinds of societies have a certain kind of respect for soldiers, those people who put self-preservation aside and, quite often willingly, put themselves up against overwhelming force. "What is that which is, even to the savage, an object of the greatest admiration?" asks Kant. "It is a man who shrinks from nothing, who fears nothing, and therefore does not yield to danger, but rather goes to face it vigorously with the fullest deliberation. Even in the most highly civilised state this peculiar veneration for the soldier remains..."

When we look at Bertrand Russell's depictions of what it means to be an intellectual, we see something remarkably like the Kantian sublime at work.  Often, this takes the form of a historical panorama in which an intellectually advanced cohort resists an overwhelming barbarism, brave despite the overwhelming odds of defeat.  Here, for example, he describes his earliest sense of intellectual heroism in the communities of Greeks left behind in what is now Afghanistan in the wake of Alexander's conquests:

Already in youth I felt an interest, which has remained with me, in solitary outposts of civilization, and men or groups who were isolated in an alien world.  I did not then have the knowledge I have since acquired about such matters but I already wished to have it.  This interest led me in later years to read about the Bactrian Greeks, separated from the mother country by deserts and alien monarchies, gradually losing their Hellenism, and finally subdued by less civilized neighbors, but passing on as they faded away some part of the cultural heritage of Greece in the Buddhist sculpture they inspired.
Here, in a passage about Ireland during a time of barbarian invasion, we get an even stronger sense of the preservation of a small, flickering flame of intellectual achievement in an ominous and darkening world:
I contemplated with vivid interest the civilization of Ireland that was destroyed by the Danes.  This civilization, which was created by refugees of from the barbarian invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries, kept alive in one corner of the extreme West the knowledge of Greek language and Greek philosophy, which elsewhere in the West had become extinct; and when at last the Danes began their destructive inroads France was ready to accept the heritage at the hands of John the Scot.
Or, to take things from the panoramic to the more personal, here is Russell on the meeting of Christian missionaries in pagan Germany:

I liked to think of St. Boniface and St. Virgilius, two holy men engaged in the endeavor to convert the Germans, meeting in the depth of the Teutonic forest, glad for a moment of each others' society but quarreling desperately on the question of whether there are inhabited worlds other than our own.

Against all those dark forests, the mind shines a small but indomitable light — that's the stuff of sublimity.  And it's what led Russell to form a belief in an enduring tradition of the life of the mind, in, as he put it, "the indestructibility of certain things which I valued above all others, the things which make up our cultural heritage, and which have as yet persisted through all the various disasters from the time when Minoan civilization was destroyed until our own day."  A "gradually increasing power of intellect and knowledge" persists, sometimes falters, but never dies, due to the efforts of heroic individuals and embattled minorities — that's Russell's position.  

When we consider Russell's own intellectual formation, it becomes clear that this sense of the sublimity of the intellectual is tied to another strain in Russell's thinking: his yearning for certainty.  Russell's first career, before he became a public intellectual, was as a kind of hybrid logician-mathematician.  He gave himself a Quixotic task: to put mathematics on logically solid foundations, without any reliance on intuition.  For most of us non-mathematicians, it probably comes as a surprise to know that there is a strong element of intuitive thinking in mathematics, but there is.  Consider geometry (the field that first inspired the young Russell).  In classical, Euclidian geometry, many of the basic axioms from which all else derives are not actually proven, but rather taken as intuitively true, in a "we hold these truths to be self-evident" kind of way.  For example, Euclid tells us that if we draw a line, and then mark a point outside that line, there's only one line we could draw through that point that will be parallel to the first line.  Euclid doesn't prove this, he just takes it as true because it is intuitively correct — it's hard to envision how it could possibly be wrong.  That was good enough for Euclid, and for a great many mathematicians and logicians of Russell's youth — Henri Poincaré, for example, argued for an intuitive basis for mathematics;But it wasn't good enough for Russell, who spent many agonizing years working on the Principia Mathematica in an attempt to prove, with complete logical certainty, the basis of mathematics.  The attempt alienated him from his field, from his wife, and quite frequently from his collaborator, Alfred North Whitehead.  But despite the overwhelming odds against him, the project did not reduce Russell to despair.  His was a sublime, and lonely, intellectual heroism during the long years of his formation, and this was certain to have an effect on his conception of the intellectual's particular virtues.

In a strange way, this desire for certainty that underlay Russell's notion of the intellectual as sublime all comes back to his status as the village atheist, the author of Why I am Not a Christian and similar tracts.  The desire for certainty, after all, comes from somewhere, and in Russell's case it came from his early loss of faith.  Since Russell lived so long, and kept his wits sharp until the very end, it's easy to forget that he was very much a Victorian.  Born in 1872, he was almost thirty when the old queen died.  What is more, after the early death of his parents he was raised in a regime of rules and devotions created and enforced by his grandmother Countess Russell, a high Victorian virago if ever one trod the earth.  She insisted upon the worship of a terrifying, vengeful God of the fork-bearded paternal punisher type — and when the very young Russell lost his faith in this monster, he was left with the kind of void only a Victorian could have.  Matthew Arnold plugged the hole with culture, but young Russell plugged it with geometry, which seemed to him to offer the very kind of absolute certainty he'd lost when he cast his grandmother's god out of the sky.  So, in a roundabout way, the sublime intellectual, defiant against an enormous, encroaching darkness, was born when Countess Russell's God died.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Reading the Renaissance

I don't suppose I'm alone among people who take an interest in poetry and poetics in being better read among Italian Renaissance poets than among the prose writers of the same era.  I'm a fair enough hand when it comes to the big names from Petrarch to Ariosto, given the fact that Italian doesn't feature in the slim portfolio of languages I can more-or-less read.  And I've read some of the big names of Italian fiction of the period (Boccaccio and company).  But I've always felt a bit of a gap when it came to the non-fiction prose of that time and place, so I made it a bit of a project to browse around a bit this fall, between reading other things for my seminars (a lot of English Romanticism), my research (Auden and his crew), and the mere hell of it (Tintin and sociology, mostly).  Here, for what it's worth, is what struck me most.

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

I know I was supposed to read this as an undergraduate and, judging by the frayed nature of my old Penguin paperback, somebody must have read the thing — maybe even me.  But if I did manage to get through it, it made no impression whatsoever.  Coming to it now, I was struck mostly by how it failed to live up to its reputation as scandalous and wicked.  It seems more like a descriptive manual for how to keep order.  Of course it does include advice for how best to carry out the massacre of one's political enemies (all at once, not a few at a time). But even this advice seems weirdly innocent of the depths to which people will sink: Machiavelli says that no ruler could maintain his position if he kept on purging and purging enemies for years on end, and this, or course, is exactly what Stalin did, and he died in bed, not at the end of a noose.  In the end, The Prince reads less like a manual for seizing power than a strangely conservative book, one in which the preservation of civic order (even at the expense of liberty and tolerance) is the primary virtue.  "One should bear in mind," he writes, "that there is nothing more difficult to execute, nor more dangerous to administer than to introduce a new order of things..."

Francesco Guicciardini, The Ricordi

Guicciardini was an actual statesman, and he knew Machiavelli, who wasn't.  You won't be surprised to learn he didn't think much of bookish old Niccolo.  Where Machiavelli displays his knowledge of classical Greek and Roman civilization like some kind of exotic library peacock, Guicciardini says all knowledge comes from experience, and that there's no point in looking to history as a guide to politics, since no two sets of historical circumstances will be truly parallel.  He also scorns theory ("it is a great mistake to speak of worldly affairs indiscriminately and absolutely... for almost all of them are different and exceptional and cannot be grasped by one single measure") and has a very clear sense that even dazzling intellect is no substitute for experience.  He writes in maxims, which itself is a kind of argument against theory and intellectual abstraction: the form is inimical to argumentation, and lends itself to the presentation of the distilled results of long experience. Guicciardini is an appealing figure, not least because there's a touch of stoicism about him.  He says, for example, that like all men, he has "desired honor and profit," but notes, too, that "having obtained more of both than I had desired or hoped... I never found in them the satisfaction which I had imagined; a very powerful reason... for curbing the vain cupidity of men."

Giovani Pico Della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man

The balls on this guy!  First, he reads everything on everything by everyone.  Then he writes nine hundred theses and he distributes them to a host of scholars and calls a conference in Rome where he's prepared to defend all of them against all comers.  But the Pope freaks, bans the conference, has his goons go through the theses and then condemns them for thirteen different heresies.  Pico has to skip town for the boonies (France), but he works his magic with Lorenzo de' Medici and manages to get back to civilization under that dodgy bastard's protection.  Anyway, the Oration was meant to be the keynote for the conference in Rome, and it is astonishing.  He invokes the medieval world view in the form of the great chain of being, and then claims that mankind has no fixed place in that scheme -- that alone of all beings, including the angels, we have the freedom to determine our own identity.  This is Jean-Paul Sartre's "existence precedes essence" 400 years before existentialism, and the implications are enormous for the freedom, the individualism, and the ideal of self-determination that we find later in the Renaissance.  And he has a wonderful idea about what this freedom can mean: "Let some holy ambition invade our souls," he writes, "so that, dissatisfied with mediocrity, we shall eagerly desire the highest things and shall toil with all our strength to attain them, since we may if we wish.  Let us disdain earthly things, despise heavenly things,  and, finally, esteeming less all the things of this world, hasten to that court beyond the world which is nearest to the Godhead.  There, as the sacred mysteries relate, Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones occupy the first places.  Let us emulate their dignity and glory, intolerant of a secondary position for ourselves and incapable of yielding to them the first.  If we have willed it, we shall be inferior to them in nothing."  This is no mean ambition: it combines a desire for enlightenment with a pride worthy of Milton's Satan.

Leon Battista Alberti, The Book of the Family

In contrast to Pico Della Mirandola, there's this shitheel.  On the one hand, the two men share a sense of freedom and possibility: both think that the individual chooses his own destiny, making them both precursors of bourgeois liberal individualism, with all its virtues and vices.  On the other hand, Alberti's so much more bourgeois that he ought to be outfitted with an anachronistic top hat and monocle and unleashed in a hedge maze that looks like the board from Monopoly.  I mean, he goes on about how one should marry for money and good breeding possibilities, how one should save one's pennies, how throwing the occasional party is a terrible expense but probably necessary if one wants to avoid the practical consequences of being seen as stingy, and so forth.  Pico Della Mirandola wants us to aspire to enlightenment.  Alberti just thinks we should use our freedom to make sure our 401(k)s are in good order.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Notebooks

When you look at da Vinci's sketchbooks, you marvel at the audacity of the man.  When you read his notebooks, you recoil a little at his insecurity and defensiveness.  He's defensive about being a painter, and makes a point of saying that people who despise paintings can't really love philosophy or nature (so there, you snobs!), and he's always drawing attention to what he thinks others may consider his shortcomings ("Even though I may not... be able to quote other authors...", say, or "I am fully conscious that, since I am not a literary man, certain presumptuous persons will think it proper to despise me, alleging that I am not a man of letters").  Maybe it's good to have one's sense of Leonardo's grandeur decreased a little, given how he's become something like a figure for genius itself.  Maybe not.  If you don't want to have that sense of grandeur decreased, though, I'd say stick to the sketchbooks.

Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier

This is just great.  Not all the bits about how a courtier ought to know how to ride but not to juggle (the first impresses the peons with one's martial prowess, the second just makes one look too eager to please).  And not the bits about ladylike behavior or the how writers are greater than warriors because they make warriors' deeds immortal and therefore more real (a point Oscar Wilde steals for "The Critic as Artist").  Those are okay, and one gets, in the fine Platonic symposium of Castiglione's various characters, a sense of the man's wit, urbanity, and charm.  But the real jewel here is a grand speech near the end about the nature of love.  It's really a riff on what Dante had to say in the parts of the Vita Nuova where he describes meeting Beatrice, and feeling his earthly love climb higher to a kind of mystical love of the divine.  I want to quote about 2,000 words of the thing, but let's just go with this instead:

I say, then, that according to the definition of the ancient sages love is naught but a certain desire to enjoy beauty; and as desire longs only for things that are perceived,perception must needs always precede desire.... Therefore nature has so ordained that to every faculty of perception there is joined a certain faculty of appetite.... But speaking of the beauty we have in mind, which is that which is seen in bodies and especially in faces, and which excites this ardent desire that we call love, — we will say that it is an effluence of divine goodness, and that although it is diffused like the sun's light upon all created things, yet when it finds a face well proportioned and framed with a certain pleasant harmony of various colours embellished by lights and shadows and by an orderly distance and limit of outlines, it infuses itself therein and appears most beautiful... like a sunbeam falling upon a beautiful vase of polished gold set with precious gems. Thus it agreeably attracts the eyes of men, and entering thereby, it impresses itself upon the soul, and stirs and delights her with a new sweetness throughout, and by kindling her divine goodness excites in her a desire for its own self…. Love gives the soul a greater felicity; for just as from the particular beauty of one body it guides her to the universal beauty of all bodies, so in the highest stage of perfection it guides her from the particular to the universal intellect. Hence the soul, kindled by the most sacred fire of true divine love, flies to unite herself with the angelic nature, and not only quite forsakes sense, but has no longer need of reason's discourse; for, changed into an angel, she understands all things intelligible, and without veil or cloud views the wide sea of pure divine beauty, and receives it into herself, and enjoys that supreme felicity of which the senses are incapable.

That's the stuff.  It captures the Renaissance's neoplatonic love of a transcendent divinity, and also the love of the physical world and its beauty, suddenly respected by those concerned with the intellectual and the spiritual.  Certainly there were some dubious things the Renaissance brought us—the self-serving acquisitiveness of Alberti, the preening insecurity of da Vinci, the shifty-eyed calculation of Machiavelli.  But it also gave us the worldliness and skepticism of Guicciaridi, the existential, spiritual ambition of Pico Della Mirandola, and this—the strange, poised balance of physical and spiritual love.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Rereading the New Criticism: Highly Recommended!

Rereading the New Criticism, a book edited my Miranda Hickman and John McIntyre that includes a chapter I wrote on the ethical dimensions of the old New Crit, has been out for a few months — but the following short review has only just now appeared in Choice, the journal in which the American Library Association assesses new scholarly work.  They like the book.  I hope you will, too.

Rereading the New Criticism, ed. by Miranda B. Hickman and John D. McIntyre.  Ohio State, 2012.  255p bibl index afp; ISBN 9780814211809, $49.95; ISBN 9780814292792 CD, $14.95. Reviewed in 2012 November Choice.

 Anyone who has taught introductory undergraduate literature courses at an American university will readily admit that New Criticism has remained an important influence on contemporary theory and pedagogy, despite continuing reports of its demise. This edited volume offers a welcome reassessment of the continuing legacy of the New Criticism and as such updates and complements The New Criticism and Contemporary Literary Theory, ed. by William Spurlin and Michael Fischer (1995). Hickman (McGill Univ.) and McIntyre (Univ. of Prince Edward Island) arrange these essays in three broad categories: the first explores some distinctive and sometimes surprising ways that New Criticism anticipated more recent critical positions on politics, gender, and ethics; the second considers the close relationship between New Criticism and modernism; and the third offers an analysis of the influence of New Criticism on literary pedagogy, including calls for developing a new formalism for the 21st century. Though all of the essays are strong, particularly useful are Hickman's introductory essay exploring the ways in which histories of literary theory tend to oversimplify and distort New Criticism and Tara Lockhart's treatment of the significance of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's contributions to literary pedagogy through their textbooks. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above. -- R. D. Morrison, Morehead State University

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Bruce Andrews Archive Goes Live!

We've got good news, people, and we've got bad news.  Let's start with the bad: Hurricane Sandy has left NewYork in a bit of a shambles, and the Fordham University symposium on the poetry of Bruce Andrews scheduled for tomorrow has been postponed.  Information on rescheduling will be posted as soon as it is available.  Let's hope the impressive raft of originally scheduled speakers—Charles Bernstein, Bob Perelman, Peter Nichols, and others—will be available for the event when it occurs.

The good news is that Fordham has put an impressive array of Andrews resources online, including an array of materials by Andrews and a huge compilation of critical responses to Andrews, including work  by Marjorie PerloffJed RasulaAl FilreisRon Silliman, and the present humble blogger.  So while the good people of New York fire up their sump pumps and reach for their bailing buckets, the rest of us can indulge our Bruce Andrews habits to satiety and beyond.


In other news, a fascinating article on Mad Men's Don Draper, and his reading of Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency, has appeared in Cultural Studies Review.  It makes interesting use of my own writing on the topic, and can be downloaded here.

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Turing Machine is a Nightingale

The medieval streets of Cambridge are haunted by the ghosts of all the great minds who’ve called the town home over the centuries—and so are the poems of Göran Printz-Påhlson.  He, too, called Cambridge home, and met many of the luminaries (most notably the titular character of the poem “My Interview with I.A. Richards”).  Some of the early innovators of what became computer technology were Cambridge men, and Printz-Påhlson has a particular fondness for them: Charles Babbage, for example, strides through a Printz-Påhlson poem, as does Alan Turing.  In fact, Printz-Påhlson has a poem called “Turing Machine,” after the hypothetical tape-driven, algorithm-crunching machines Turning dreamed up in the 1930s.

The poem begins with what may seem like the most un-Romantic of subjects: the algorithms that inhabit Turing’s machines.  But by the end of the poem, we’ve twisted around until we’re in the same territory as that quintessential Romantic lyric, Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.”  Here’s how Printz-Påhlson’s poem begins:

It’s their humility we can never imitate,
obsequious servants of more durable material:
they live in complex relays of electric circuits.

Rapidity, docility is their advantage.
You may ask: “What is 2 times 2?”  Or “Are you a machine?”
   They answer or
refuse to answer, all according to demand.

From here, we move to more complex types of machines, and more complex operations—including recursive functions, which reference and replicate themselves:

It is, however, true that other kinds of machines exist,
more abstract automata, stolidly intrepid and
eating their tape in mathematical formulae.

They imitate within the language. In infinite
paragraph loops, further and further back in their retreat
    towards more subtle
algorithms, in pursuit of more recursive functions.

So far, it’s all very reminiscent of math class, and unless you’re the type who sees the beauty in mathematical formulae, you’re probably not jumping out of your seat in excitement.  You’re certainly not anticipating a turn toward anything John Keats may have found interesting.  But then there’s this:

They appear consistent and yet auto-descriptive.
As when a man, pressing a hand-mirror straight to his nose,
    facing the mirror,
sees in due succession the same picture repeated

in a sad, shrinking, darkening corridor of glass.
That’s a Gödel-theorem fully as good as any.
    Looking at infinity,
but never getting to see his own face.

The reference is to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, which tell us that no system of axioms that can be listed by a computer is capable of demonstrating its own consistency.  That is: the system, no matter how elaborate or recursive, no matter how much such a system can reveal, no matter how far it can take us, it can’t turn around and show us itself in its own consistent nature.  It’s terribly abstract, of course, especially to those of us who haven’t done any math more complicated than that which a tax form requires for many years.  But then we get something the poem’s been daringly light on so far: an image.  The image of a mirror, held close to another mirror and aimed at just the right angle, reflecting itself forever in a kind of trippy, curving infinity of recursion.  I remember when, as a kid, I discovered that I could line my mother’s hand mirror up against the bathroom mirror like this, and how I’d try to like the mirror up so I could see all the way to forever, which, it turns out, you can’t quite do.  Printz-Påhlson juxtaposes this image with that of a mirror in which we gaze on our own face, and notes that we can only have one or the other—an image of infinity, or an image of ourselves.

Here, at last, is where we tread on very Romantic ground: this business of infinity and the self comes straight out of the playbook of Romanticism, and is embodied most powerfully in Keats’ great “Ode to a Nightingale.”  The ode begins with a speaker—let’s just call him Keats—listening to the song of a nightingale hidden in the woods, and drifting off into a kind of narcoleptic state as he listens.  He begins to lose himself, hovering between wakefulness and sleep, until he senses himself disappearing as an individual, and merging into an unconscious state much like death (the ultimate end of the division between the self and the other):

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time

  I have been half in love with easeful Death,

Call'd him soft names in many a musèd rhyme,

  To take into the air my quiet breath;

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
  To cease upon the midnight with no pain,

    While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad

          In such an ecstasy!

  Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—

    To thy high requiem become a sod.

The next stanza tells us how the individuality of the bird is lost in the timelessness of its song, which is the same for all nightingales everywhere and always. An ornithologist pal once told me that this is, in fact, false: that birds have regional accents, and that their songs evolve over time, so we might have to file “Ode to a Nightingale” with Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” where he gets his explorers wrong and Cortez when he means Balboa, as a Keatsian fact-blunder.  But who cares?  In the context of the poem, the point is clear enough:

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

  No hungry generations tread thee down;

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

  In ancient days by emperor and clown:

Perhaps the self-same song that found a path

  Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,

    She stood in tears amid the alien corn;

          The same that ofttimes hath

  Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam

    Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

But this drawing away from selfhood toward the infinite doesn’t last: that word “forlorn” reminds Keats of his own little selfhood, and he recoils from identification with the infinite:

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell

  To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well

  As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades

  Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

    Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep

          In the next valley-glades:

The final two lines of the poem are really wonderful, leaving us in a state where we can’t decide what is real and what is a dream:

  Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

    Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?

Are we little individuals who only dream we can vanish and become one with something infinite?  Or is our sense of identity illusory, a brief dream between the infinities of non-selfhood that precede and follow our deaths?  Keats leaves it there, with no searching after certainty.  We can have our sense of identity, or we can have the mystical union with the infinite, but we can’t have them both at the same time.

And this is the same place Printz-Påhlson leaves us in his much more austere, cerebral poem: with the mirror reflecting itself forever, without us; or with the mirror reflecting us, whole, with no infinite recursion of reflections.  A Turing machine is many things: a grand thought experiment, a model for computer technology, a meditation on the limits of mechanical computation and, in this particular case, a nightingale.