Tuesday, October 28, 2014

P.B. Shelley Understands

Fame-addled rogue and liar Edward John Trelawny was by no means a reliable source of information on the Romantic poets on whom he inflicted himself, but there is at least one scene in his Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron that I will myself to believe is true, because I wish so very much to think of Shelley as, in at least one respect, a kindred spirit.  Here is Trelawny's sketch of Shelley in Italy where he and Mary were visiting an English couple by the name of Williams:
… Shelley stood before us with a most woeful expression. Mrs. Williams started up, exclaiming, “What 's the matter, Percy ?”
“Mary has threatened me.”
“Threatened you with what?”
He looked mysterious and too agitated to reply. Mrs. Williams repeated, “With what? To box your ears?”
“Oh, much worse than that; Mary says she will have a party; there are English singers here, the Sinclairs, and she will ask them, and everyone she or you know — oh, the horror!”
We all burst into a laugh except his friend Ned.
“It will kill me.”
“Music, kill you!” said Mrs. Williams. “Why, you have told me, you flatterer, that you loved music.”
“So I do. It's the company terrifies me. For pity go to Mary and intercede for me; I will submit to any other species of torture than that of being bored to death by idle ladies and gentlemen.”
Like all good Romantics, he had no desire to live in a Jane Austen novel.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Richard Strauss and the March into Modernism

The composer Richard Strauss is often seen as a bridge figure, someone whose career takes us from the world of nineteenth century bourgeois culture to the difficult, dissonant world of modernism. Alex Ross, for example, begins his study of classical music in the twentieth century, The Rest is Noise, with an examination of Strauss' opera Salome, which combined crowd-pleasing showmanship with bold dissonance and even the abandonment of music, classically conceived, for something more properly described as noise.  The middle class audience lapped it up, but it also impressed the young Arnold Schoenberg, who attended an early performance and walked away with his head abuzz with new ideas.  I have an abiding affection for Strauss' Salome: it was the first opera I attended of my own free will, as neither the captive of a school field trip nor the grumbling child dragged along by my mother.  I still remember the lavish art nouveau sets, and the giant figure of Jochanaan, surrounded by the bickering theologians, repeating simply "He is nigh." In fact, the latter has become a kind of a touchstone for me, presenting as it does a powerful critique of academics—that is: of me and my kind.

For me, though, the real moment when Strauss points the way to modernism doesn't come in Salome, but in his first opera, Guntram, which premiered more than a decade earlier, in 1894. In a way, it gives away the main plot of the story of modernism even while the protagonists to that history are in their childhoods, or not yet born. When he began writing the libretto, Strauss wanted to tell the story of the young knight Guntram, who belongs to an order dedicated to the idea of the brotherhood of all mankind (and who think of song as a tool for the creation of this brotherhood). Guntram falls in love with a noble lady, though, and accidentally kills her dictatorial, oppressive husband. Even though the husband was a terrible person, Guntram sees that he has violated the laws of his order, and announces he will be penitent and make a holy pilgrimage to cleanse his soul. That, anyway, was the first draft. But it's not the libretto Strauss ended up writing. Instead, Strauss decides to have his hero renounce his order, his religion, and everything else, and to stalk off alone.

The change mattered.  Strauss' colleague Alexander Ritter saw it as immoral and as heresy against the Great God Wagner, who would never allow a hero to disown his community.  As Ross puts it, "Strauss did not repent. Guntram's order, he told Ritter in reply, had unwisely sought to launch an ethical crusade through art, to unify religion and art."  This is the interesting bit, from the perspective of modernism.  Wagner—an enormous influence on Strauss, (Strauss' father had played French horn under Wagner's direction)—was committed to art as a form of morality, as an articulation of the values of a community.  But in the final libretto of Strauss' Guntram, we have a hero who departs with just song, and no notions of committing that song to the cause of the community, or of accommodating his music to the values of the polity.

This is important stuff: it signals the separation of the individual from the values of the broad public, but it does more than that.  The separation of the individual from the community had, after all, been a major theme of early nineteenth century Romanticism: it's a huge theme in poetry and in music, although in both genres there tends to be a desire to reintegrate the alienated individual with society. Consider Coleridge's ambivalence about his pantheism, and his desire to return to the Christian community in "The Eolian Harp," or the sailor's yearning to return to community in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Or consider the "Ode to Joy" in Beethoven's ninth symphony, where all that brooding and melancholy is finally banished in the glorious collective voice of the choir preaching the brotherhood of all. Even Byron, in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, sees his glamorous exile as wandering endlessly because he was incapable of holding a place in (desirable) community due to his own dark and uncontrollable passions.  These are all individuals with an uncomfortable or ruptured relation to community, but they all have some form of yearning to reintegrate themselves into community and, more importantly, none of them are exiles specifically because they want to separate art from anything other than itself. That is: they are alienated from society, but they are not alienated because they are aesthetes. 

The great mid-nineteenth century artists are often bourgeois in outlook, hoping to put art to the service of some larger and more popular cause: Tennyson's Arthurian myths and Wagner's Teutonic ones are cases in point.  When Strauss decides to disentangle art as art from art as a part of some larger, more moralistic enterprise, he's allying himself with people like Walter Pater and the aesthetes, and starting to partake of the modern culture of specialization, of discrete fields of activity operating autonomously. Art is one of these fields, and we start to see figures like James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, figures devoted to form, to experiment, and to art first and foremost as art, not as the vehicle for the expression of community values. We begin to see figures like Gertrude Stein come into focus, with language used as language and not as the medium for anything so communal as a collective mythology or ideology.  We can even glimpse, in the distance, someone like Mark Rothko, making paintings that leave subject matter behind to consider color as color, in relation to color.

When Strauss' Guntram abandons his order at the end of the opera, he marches not just offstage, but into modernism.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Great Lakes Poetry Prize!

Did I mention I'll be the final judge for the Great Lakes Poetry Prize?  The winner receives $500, and there are prizes for runners up.  All entries are considered for publication in the Great Lakes Review.

The details and the submission form are available here.  The deadline for submissions is December 31.

Monday, October 13, 2014

W.H. Auden Camps Up Fascism: Notes on "The Orators"

"Springtime for Hitler," from The Producers

Hooray!  After much delay, it looks like the new issue of The Battersea Review will soon be unleashed upon the world, to stalk and hoot among the waiting literati (i.e., you).  As a preview of things to come, they've posted an essay of mine called "Camping the Fascists: W.H. Auden's The Orators," in which I describe Auden's camp sensibility, and how it infuses his early poetry.  Camp's a tricky thing to define, but essential to grasping what Auden's doing in much of his work.

Here's how the essay begins:

I described him [Auden] seeing his friends one by one in his rooms at hours he had fixed and interviewing, cross-examining them, laying down the law about the poets of whom he approved, the way poetry should be written, the personality of the poet, being very dogmatic about everything. I did insist that he was not a 'leader' or authoritarian and that he brought a touch of absurdity to his pronouncements which made them seem jokes. He did not wish to be taken altogether seriously. But this would mean nothing to a member of the audience without a sense of humor. In fact to the American who thinks that when one is serious one should be serious, and when funny, un-serious, this would make Auden seem even more unsympathetic. (Spender, Journals 335)
W.H. Auden is many things—political poet, aesthete, Christian, Stakhanovite manufacturer of critical prose, English pariah, New York literary lion—but at the very core, his sensibility is always camp. Camp, in the sense I intend it, is a kind of playful and aestheticizing attitude. Christopher Isherwood, the first to use it in this sense, puts a good description of it into the mouth of a character in his novel The World in the Evening:
High camp always has an underlying seriousness. You can't camp about something you don't take seriously. You're not making fun of it; you're making fun out of it. You're expressing what's basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance. (110)
Camp, seen this way, is a cousin of aesthetic autonomy, since it elevates play and beauty over utility and morality—an elevation well understood by Susan Sontag in her seminal “Notes on Camp” where she writes:
1. To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.

2. To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content. It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical. (277)
And later:
38. Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content, ’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality’…

56. Camp taste is a kind of love… Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. (287, 291-292).
tbr4-archambeau-cover-of-the-orators-first-editionCamp is a quality that informs the work of W.H. Auden throughout his career, most powerfully in his early poetry, and in a complex, fraught way in his more overtly political poetry of the middle and later 1930s (as one might expect, given the depoliticizing tendency of camp). It remains a vital force in Auden’s American period, too: in 1948, for example, he writes “what makes it difficult for a poet not to tell lies is that, in poetry, all facts and beliefs cease to be true or false and become interesting possibilities” the poet need not believe in the idea, but “it is certainly necessary that his emotions be deeply involved, and this they can never be unless, as a man, he takes it more seriously than as a mere poetic convenience” (Dyer’s Hand 19). Here Auden expresses both the distance and the affection that the camp sensibility has toward its material. Auden’s camp, it is important to add, is particularly intellectual: it is ideas that he camps. Indeed, for reasons that his youthful experiences make clear, Auden comes early on to love systems of thought—be they scientific, psychological, political, or even religious—from a camp perspective.
When Stephen Spender described Auden holding forth at Oxford in a slightly absurd, mock-authoritarian manner, he got at exactly the kind of camp exhibition of systems and dogmas that informs much of Auden's writing. Spender also touches on the possibility of the campiness being missed, and of Auden being taken as simply serious about what he says, rather than as embodying a much subtler and more complex attitude along the lines of what we read about in Isherwood's The World in the Evening. This was, quite often, exactly what happened, not only to the undergraduate opining extravagantly in his rooms, but to the poet whose works appeared, and were discussed, in slim volumes and little journals throughout the thirties. Indeed, it was the nature of many of those publications that contributed to the diminished understanding of Auden's camp. The political and economic crisis of the decade led not only to intense pressure on writers of all kinds to take ideological positions, but to the creation of a politicized, left-wing alternative to more mainstream publications, a kind of radical counter-public-sphere. The pressure of this context of publication upon Auden’s writings frequently led to an earnestness in reception, a truncation of the playful and the aesthetic, and to a specifically political hermeneutics. That a poem like Auden’s “A Communist to Others,” say, could be something quite different than an earnest address by a communist poet, and that the views expressed in the poem were not only those of a character, but in fact quite different from those of Karl Marx, were things too easily missed when the poem appeared in the Left Book Club anthology Poems of Freedom.
The whole essay is available here.