Sunday, February 26, 2012

Louisville Notebook

Peter O'Leary, Robert Archambeau, Vincent Sherry and Joe Donahue, Louisville, Feb. 2012 (photo credit Mark Scroggins)

Yesterday, in a journey that seems in some strange, anachronistic way to have been the true story upon which the 1987 movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles was based, I returned from the 40th annual Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, an event everyone seems, understandably, to call "the Louisville conference."  I've been going there on and off for something close to 20 of those 40 years, and always find it congenial. With some 400 attendees, it's a manageable size: next week's AWP Convention here in Chicago will have more than 20 times as many people crowding its panels and workshops.  And it's not just scale that makes the Louisville conference a more palatable event than the AWP.  In Louisville, there's an actual aura of intellectual engagement, whereas the AWP is little different than a boat show: it's all about sales and glad-handing.  At least it can seem that way.

Anyway.  Here, in no particular order, are a few or my personal highlights and lowlights of this year's conference.

Highlight: Louisville as a foodie city.  

When I first started going to the conference in the early '90s, you couldn't eat in Louisville, unless you wanted deep-fried battered whatnots or a well-done hamburger.  I suppose that's an overstatement: the Seelbach Hotel had a decent restaurant, though I could never quite get comfortable in the place, having as it did an ambiance I'd call "white tablecloth Republican."  But every year Louisville seems to get better and better in terms of food.  Proof, the restaurant attached to the 21st Century Museum, is a good place with a hip, but not oppressively hip, vibe to it.  And the Mayan Cafe on Market Street is fantastic, and would stand up to any comparable place in Chicago.  Also, I enjoy the attitude of the staff.  Fourteen of us were gabbing and drinking away when the waitress stepped up and asked if we were from the university.  We said no, but almost: we were with the literature conference.  She told us they'd been trying to guess who we were back in the kitchen, and had concluded we were philosophers.  "Why?" I asked.  "You know," she said, "the beards, the glasses, the lack of women."

Highlight: Conversation in the interstices of things

This is really the reason I come to the conference.  It's hard to pick one bit of conversation as the best.  I had a great time swapping memories of John Matthias with Vincent Sherry, and talking smack about contemporary poetry with Mark Scroggins, and hearing Norman Finkelstein describe the bottle-green corduroy suits of yore, but I think the real winner for me this year was talking St. Augustine with Peter O'Leary.  O'Leary, who used to look like a young Robert Lowell, is now rocking a John Berryman beard (I assume the next midcentury poetry great whose look he'll adopt will be Elizabeth Bishop).  We were talking about his book of poems Luminous Epinoia, a real Teilhard de Chardin-style work of Catholic mysticism, when I mentioned I'd never been able to get a real feel for God-the-Father in the Trinity.  Even as an atheist, I've long had a strong, even a visceral sense of the the relation of the holy spirit to God incarnate as Christ — seeing in it something important about the way one can be both completely beyond an individual or particularized experience, and at the same time embedded in it, suffering and yearning.  But the paternal God never did much for me, at least not until Peter pulled me back to Augustine's book on the Trinity, where the spirit is understanding, the son is will, and the father is something completely unlike the judging, alien authority figure I'd always seen in William Blake's terms as "Nobodaddy" (a jealous figure of secretive laws and arbitrary authority).  In Augustine's view, the father is a kind of memory, a way of thinking of ourselves as inevitably coming into the world interpolated into an existing story.  He's a reminder that whenever we examine things, we're already bound up in particular traditions and histories.  I like that.

Lowlight: Simon Critchley's missing keynote lecture

I admire Simon Critchley's writing — his little introduction to continental philosophy is about as good a short book on the subject for Anglo-American readers as you're going to find, and elsewhere he manages to shed light on Heidegger without uprooting the man from his dark Teutonic forest.  Maybe my admiration for Critchely contributed to my sense of being let down by his plenary lecture.  He was meant to talk about Hamlet but, he told the crowd packing the auditorium, he hadn't gotten round to writing the lecture, so he was going to read us an old piece he'd written about the writer Tom McCarthy, who was present at the conference.  I despise this kind of move, and despise it all the more when it's played as blithely as Critchley played it.  Firstly, there's an enormous egotism to it: "I'm in too much demand to fulfill all my commitments," he might as well have said, "but, of course, I shit gold, so eat this instead."  It wasn't just the A-lister entitlement that rankled, but the discourtesy to the audience, since the piece he read was a fairly close reading of a work of fiction few in the audience had read.

The let-down was kept palpable by the little bits and pieces of the unfinished lecture that Critchley dropped into his talk as asides.  "I see Hamlet as the hero of inauthenticity," he said, intriguingly, and later he defined authenticity as "when the self corresponds with itself, and when the self corresponds with the world."  I wanted to hear more of this, and more of what he meant by inauthenticity, especially when he spoke of the "illegitimate authenticity" of the old regimes of the Cold War eastern bloc, where authenticity was based "on the fake will of the people," and where Havel was right to insist on "living in truth" as an antidote to this.

The most offensive part of Critchley's presentation came in one of his asides, in which he spoke of the art world (or, I should say, of what people in Manhattan mistake for the art world, which is to say, a small and particularly commercialized corner of a larger art world that is largely invisible from that island).  "Artists now are all about appropriation," he said, "they want to come out of grad school, claim a particular site of appropriation and, as quickly as possible, turn it into material gain."  He paused for a moment, then added "of course that's what's so great about the art world: in a way it's so much more honest than what we're doing here, where we act as if there's no money changing hands."

I should perhaps mention that I have no kind of poker face, and that I'm rarely able to restrain myself from expressing derision when I'm moved to do so.  I mean, at the last wedding I attended, a priest described Pope Benedict II as "God's only true representative on earth," and I involuntarily emitted a scornful snort audible throughout the chapel.  Something similar happened after Critchley's art comment: I instinctively gave him the finger.  I don't think he saw, though Mark Scroggins, seated next to me, did, and gave me a grave nod of assent.

My problems with Critchely's remark may be ennumerated thusly:

1.  It was not an analytic statement, it was a gesture toward worldly sophistication and the creation of a glamourous, bad-boyish persona.

2. It was the kind of  frisson seeking reversal of the audience's values with which Oscar Wilde used to play ("seriousness is the only refuge of the shallow," say, or "a man can be happy with any woman, so long as he doesn't love her").  But Wilde did this with charm and wit, and Critchley did it with neither.

3. With regard to the "as if no money were changing hands" bit, I wanted to say: "maybe you're getting paid tonight, Critchley, but not the rest of us so, you know, fuck you."  In fact, Critchley may have had a something of a point here, in that money does change hands at these events.  But since the conference was financed almost entirely by our fees, some of which went to pay him for the plenary address on Hamlet he didn't bother to write, this would argue against his implication that we are all running the kind of scam he sees New York artists running. The situation, instead, indicts him and leaves the audience to whom he says "j'accuse!" blameless.

Highlight: Joe Donahue, Robert Zamsky, and Peter O'Leary talk about John Taggart

The panel on which these three spoke was the best discussion of John Taggart's poetry I'm ever likely to hear.  O'Leary broke Taggart's career down into three phases (a phase concerned with objectivist experiences; a phase concerned with minimalist incantation, and a phase concerned with meditative plaint) and did so with the unalloyed enthusiasm that makes for a wonderfully non-professorial break with academic norms, a kind of amateurism in the best possible sense of the word.  Zamsky spoke of Taggart's "Drum Thing" as the moment when the poet found his own voice, because in connecting his work to John Coltrane's song of the same name Taggart released himself from expressive lyricism and entered an imaginative world of pre-existing aesthetic objects out of which he could fashion an art that didn't rely so heavily on the self.  Joe Donahue spoke of Taggart's poems for the Rothko chapel, and made some intriguing remarks about Taggart's characteristic linguistic repetitions-with-variations.  These are, said Donahue, an allegorizing of the relation of the individual to the group: the variant lines harmonize with one another while retaining difference and even dissonance, much as a church choir harmonizes voices even as members participating in this group practice may maintain differences of conscience from the words of the hymn being sung.  Later, Donahue spoke of how Taggart would establish a pattern of repetition, and then drop some completely incongruous element into the verbal structure.  He wouldn't leave it as an anomaly, though: out of a kind of horror at unmeaningness, Taggart would somehow incorporate the anomaly into a newer, more encompassing pattern.  In the Q & A session after the panel Coleridge's idea of organic form came up, and it seemed to me a perfect fit for Taggart's process as described by Donahue, since with organic form nothing can be pre-ordained, but nothing can be accidental.  This locates Taggart as a kind of Romantic (an idea that disturbed the poet Norman Finkelstein: later, while driving me back to the Brown Hotel, he looked over at me and said "think of what that means, to have a horror of the unmeaning!").

Highlight: Mark Scroggins on Pound, Vince Sherry on Decadence

I spoke on a panel with two of my heroes among contemporary critics, Mark Scroggins and Vince Sherry.  Mark unpacked the meaning of the phrase "yeux glacques" in Pound's "Mauberley," tracing in the various meanings of the term an implicit etymological argument, on Pound's part, for the decline of a brilliant classical culture into a dull and ennui-ridden modernity (Scroggins also offered an argument for reading Pound etymologically, which involved a look at Ruskin as an under-acknowledged influence on Pound).  Vince Sherry took on the matter of the rechristening of the Decadence of the 1890s as "Symbolism," and pointed out what was lost in the transition.  Vince managed to talk me out of my admiration for Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle, which had argued for the basis of the symbolist aesthetic in American transcendentalism, and therefore made symbolism into a kind of aesthetic of the new.  This, Sherry pointed out, was a falsification of the sources of the aesthetic we associate with Mallarmé and company, and hid the association of the aesthetic with a declining social order.

Lowlight: Louisville as a microcosm of our nation

When I'm at a conference for any length of time, I tend to need a break from the listening, the talking, and the heavy drinking, so I usually find some time to walk around the host city for a couple of hours.  At the Louisville conference I did this late at night, and have to say the flâneur experience was a bit depressing.  If downtown Louisville has added a lot of galleries and microbrew bars and hip restaurants over the years, it also seems to have accumulated ever more street people, wandering in ones and twos through the night, or lying stretched out on the sidewalk, asleep next to a paper cup used for begging.  The trend of the city seems to have been to grow at the top and the bottom of the wealth & privilege scale.  In this, it's not unlike Chicago, or America.  And it's just not fucking right.