Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bubbles and Means

On the Road


So the pencil’d
Up page exudes
A diffuse reticulated

Spell that cuts
Like a chasm,
Pulls the ordinary

Heart’s muck down-
River, splays out
And fans it

Into shallower rivulets,
Sandy-bank’d delta
Streams criss-crossing

One against another,
Absorber and combiner,
Illimitable and indirect.

Whitman claim’d ‘words
Become vitaliz’d,
And stand for

Things,’ and loved
How the word
Monongahela roll’d across

The tongue ‘with
Venison richness,’ caught
‘The flup of

The pike leaping
Out,’ unrestrict’d. Like
The teeming metropolis

With its exult
Vibrancy of slang,
Its unbook’d words,

Its tongue-plunging
Vulgar scrawl deliverable
Up against that

‘Certain perennial rankness
And protestantism’ that
Is American speech.

Found tuck’d into the back of Beckett’s Disjecta the abort’d play call’d “Human Wishes,” the one ostensibly about Samuel Johnson and Mrs. Thrale, neither of whom make entry in the piece, though the cat Hodge (“sleeping—if possible”) is written in. Much about death, much hilarity about death and decay and its surrounding politesse ripe to bursting. Three women, each innocuously occupy’d (“meditating” and “knitting” and “reading”) engaged in rather vicious baiting and complaining and scurrility. (One says: “Be seated; and let your scurrility be the recumbent scurrility of polite society.” Another, slyly, to “Mrs Williams,” who claims to be “dying of a pituitous defluxion” and is demanding loudly to know what book the other is reading: “The peevishness of decay is not provoking.”) The book, it turns out, is Jeremy Taylor’s (“the Shakespeare of divines”) The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying, and the reader (“Miss Carmichael”) reads (with irascible and inconclusive interruptions: “How do you suppose death enters in by a hair, Miss Carmichael?” “Perhaps a horse-hair is meant, Madam.”) out of it how:
Death meets us everywhere, and is procured by every instrument, and in all chances and enters in at many doors; by violence and secret influence; by the aspect of a star and the stink of a mist; by the emissions of a cloud and the meeting of a vapour; by the fall of a chariot and the stumbling at a stone; by a full meal or an empty stomach; by watching at the wine or by watching at prayers; by the sun or the moon; by a heat or a cold; by sleepless nights or sleeping days; by water frozen into the hardness and sharpness of a dagger, or water thawed into the floods of a river; by a hair or a raisin; by violent motion or sitting still; by severity or dissolution; by God’s mercy or God’s anger; by everything in providence and everything in manners; by everything in nature and everything in chance.
What I marvel at here (and elsewhere in Taylor) is the finery of the prose. It occurs in the very first section of Holy Dying, call’d “Consideration of the Vanity and Shortness of Man’s Life” and is, in a sense, a pooling up following the wild giddiness of Taylor’s opening where, asserting that “A man is a bubble . . . all the world is a storm,” he seemingly enacts the claim in a froth and buffeting of prose, saying:
. . . men rise up in their several generations, like bubbles descending a Jove pluvio, from God and the dew of heaven, from a tear and drop of rain, from nature and Providence; and some of these instantly sink into the deluge of their first parent, and are hidden in a sheet of water, having had no other business in the world, but to be born, that they might be able to die: others float up and down two or three turns, and suddenly disappear, and give their place to others: and they that live longest upon the face of the waters are in perpetual motion, restless and uneasy; and, being crushed with a great drop of a cloud, sink into flatness and a froth; the change not being great, it being hardly possible it should be more a nothing that it was before. . . . But if the bubble stands the shock of a bigger drop, and outlives the chances of a child, of a careless nurse, of drowning in a pail of water, of being overlaid by a sleepy servant, or such little accidents, then the young man dances like a bubble, empty and gay, and shines like a dove’s neck, or the image of a rainbow, which hath no substance, and whose very imagery and colours are fantastical; and so he dances out the gaiety of his youth, and is all the while in a storm, and endures only because he is not knocked on the head by a drop of bigger rain, or crushed by the pressure of a load of indigested meat, or quenched by the disorder of an ill-placed humour.
How Beckettian, that “no other business in the world, but to be born, that they might be able to die.” (Adorno: “The force of the old presses toward the new, without which the old cannot be fulfilled.” Virgil made Homer Homer. Dante made Virgil Virgil.) (Beckett, in the Human Wishes fragment, includes an exchange regarding the fact that “the dear doctor’s debt to nature is discharged these seven years.” When Miss Carmichael queries—“His debt to nature?”—she is answer’d by Mrs Williams: “She means the wretched man is dead.” That bluntness against the florid (and social) euphemisms that Beckett found anathema.)

I do, continually, evenings, launch the vessel of my eye out into the oceanic wellings and troughs of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, with a combo of unabash’d bravado and sheer exhilarant breathlessness. I begin to think of it kin to Pound’s Cantos, something one could “dip into,” though I am reading it conventionally, chopping along in my dinghy, against the prevailing wave-motion here, push’d along in a fury there. I come no closer to defining the reasons for my adjudicature by means strictly metaphorical: I cannot “argue” with the book, I can only be swept along by it. Like a poem. So: pointing. Look, here:
If in accord with its model, the fetish character of the commodity, the new becomes a fetish, this is to be criticized in the work itself, not externally simply because it became a fetish; usually the problem is a discrepancy between new means and old ends. If a possibility for innovation is exhausted, if innovation is mechanically pursued in a direction that has already been tried, the direction of innovation must be changed and sought in another dimension. The abstractly new can stagnate and fall back into the ever-same. Fetishization expresses the paradox of all art that is no longer self-evident to itself: the paradox that something made exists for its own sake; precisely this paradox is the vital nerve of new art. By exigency, the new must be something willed; as what is other, however it could not be what was willed.
As my homeboys like to say, making the loud protestations of the flightless bird: “Awkward!” That “discrepancy between new means and old ends” we see plenty of. Flyboys preening in the museums. Tactical re-1910 mishmashes. Will’d ineptitude and dumb-cluckery at the service of the academickal what and wattage.

Jeremy Taylor, 1613–1667