Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Melville’s Emerson

Herman Melville, 1819-1891

Out of Melville’s marginalia scrawled across the pages of Emerson’s “The Poet.” At Emerson’s lines—
Every new relation is a new word. Also, we use defects and deformities to a sacred purpose, so expressing our sense that the evils of the world are such only to the evil eye. In the old mythology, mythologists observe, defects are ascribed to divine natures, as lameness to Vulcan, blindness to Cupid, and the like, to signify exuberances.
—Melville appends, underling Emerson’s “defects” and “signify exuberances”—
“Defects” signify “exuberances.”—
My Dear Sir!
Written in contempt or approbation? Marking Emerson’s line “the evils of the world are such only to the evil eye” with a bold X, Melville asks:
What does the man mean? If Mr
Emerson travelling in Egypt should
find the plague-spot come out on
him—would he consider that
an evil sight or not? And if evil,
would his eye be evil because it
seemed evil to his eye, or, rather, to
his sense using the eye for instrument?
At Emerson’s subsequent lines—
      For, as it is dislocation and detachment from the life of God, that makes things ugly, the poet, who re-attaches things to nature and the Whole,—re-attaching even artificial things, and violations of nature, to nature, by a deeper insight,—disposes very easily of the most disagreeable facts.
—Melville underlines “disposes very easily of the most disagreeable facts” and pencils in the margin, drily, and rather sassily:
So it would
seem. In
this sense,
Mr. E. is
a great
Too, there’s Melville’s reply to Emerson’s lovely trope—
Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin. But the poet names the thing because he sees it, or comes one step nearer to it than any other.
Melville, writing across the bottoms of two pages and up the margin of another:
This is admirable, as many other
thoughts of Mr. Emerson’s are. His gross
and astonishing errors & illusions
spring from a self-conceit so
intensely intellectual and calm that at
first one hesitates to call it by its right
name. Another species of Mr Emerson’s
errors, or rather, blindness, proceeds from a defect in
the region of the heart.
Out of The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857), Melville’s portrait of “Mark Winsome,” a character largely conceded to be modeled on Emerson:
. . . a blue-eyed man, sandy-haired, and Saxon-looking; perhaps five and forty; tall, and, but for a certain angularity, well made; little touch of the drawing-room about him, but a look of plain propriety of a Puritan sort, with a kind of farmer dignity. His age seemed betokened more by his brow, placidly thoughtful, than by his general aspect, which had that look of youthfulness in maturity, peculiar sometimes to habitual health of body, the original gift of nature, or in part the effect or reward of steady temperance of the passions, kept so, perhaps, by constitution as much as morality. A neat, comely, almost ruddy cheek, coolly fresh, like a red clover-blossom at coolish dawn—the color of warmth preserved by the virtue of chill. Toning the whole man, was one-knows-not-what of shrewdness and mythiness, strangely jumbled; in that way, he seemed a kind of cross between a Yankee peddler and a Tartar priest, though it seemed as if, at a pinch, the first would not in all probability play second fiddle to the last.
Melville, writing to editor Evert A. Duyckinck, 3 March 1849:
      Nay, I do not oscillate in Emerson’s rainbow, but prefer rather to hang myself in mine own halter than swing in any other man’s swing. Yet I think Emerson is more than a brilliant fellow. Be his stuff begged, borrowed, or stolen, or of his own domestic manufacture he is an uncommon man. Swear he is a humbug—then is he no common humbug. Lay it down that had not Sir Thomas Browne lived, Emerson would not have mystified—I will answer, that had not Old Zack’s father begot him, old Zack would never have been the hero of Palo Alto. The truth is that we are all sons, grandsons, or nephews or great-nephews of those who go before us. No one is his own sire.—I was very agreeably disappointed in Mr Emerson. I had heard of him as full of transcendentalisms, myths & oracular gibberish; I had only glanced at a book of his once in Putnam’s store—that was all I knew of him, till I heard him lecture.—To my surprise, I found him quite intelligible, tho’ to say truth, they told me that that night he was unusually plain.—Now, there is a something about every man elevated above mediocrity, which is, for the most part, instinctuly perceptible. This I see in Mr Emerson. And, frankly, for the sake of the argument, let us call him a fool;—then had I rather be a fool than a wise man.—I love all men who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more; & if he dont attain the bottom, why, all the lead in Galena can’t fashion the plumet that will. I’m not talking of Mr Emerson now—but of the whole corps of thought-divers, that have been diving & coming up again with bloodshot eyes since the world began.
      I could readily see in Emerson, notwithstanding his merit, a gaping flaw. It was, the insinuation, that had he lived in those days when the world was made, he might have offered some valuable suggestions. These men are all cracked right across the brow. And never will the pullers-down be able to cope with the builders-up. And this pulling down is easy enough—a keg of powder blew up Block’s Monument—but the man who applied the match, could not, alone, build such a pile to save his soul from the shark-maw of the Devil. But enough of this Plato who talks thro’ his nose.
Melville’s solace. In Emerson’s “Spiritual Laws,” he marks—
We are always reasoning from the seen to the unseen. Hence the perfect intelligence that subsists between wise men of remote ages. A man cannot bury his meanings so deep in his book, but time and like-minded men will find them. Plato had a secret doctrine, had he? What secret can he conceal from the eyes of Bacon? of Montaigne? of Kant? Therefore, Aristotle said of his works, “They are published and not published.”
And writes: “Bully for Emerson! —Good.”

Monday, September 29, 2014

Ben Lerner / Antonin Artaud

Antonin Artaud, 1896-1948

Weekend of chirrings in the hedgerows, and sun-honied light. Scriptorial intent trounced by ambulatorial necessity. At West Lake red columns of Virginia creepers hung in the oaks. A praying mantis the size of a man’s finger flung itself into the asters, goggle-eyed and spent. Bluebirds everywhere, voluble, molting, half-acrobatic. At Short Hills a yellow-billed cuckoo high up in a black walnut mildly examined the canopy for caterpillars. At the DeVine Preserve two northern harriers got mobbed by a rag-tag squad of seven crows, kettled up into the vault, countered with a dive. Along the old farm fence: wild cucumbers, pale green ovals the size of an egg, spine-covered, unviable.

Too, read Ben Lerner’s new novel 10:04 (Faber and Faber, 2014). Failed to discern the critic-vaunted (and Lerner-provided, albeit—I think—with no mere smidgen of irony in the much-quoted proviso, howsoever notoriously hard-to-read tone may be: “I’ll work my way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city, a would-be Whitman of the vulnerable grid . . .”) move out of irony. What to make of Lerner’s scissoring together of Eliot (“A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many”) and Whitman (“Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me! / . . . / The impalpable sustenance of me from all things, at all hours of the day; / The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme—myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated, yet part of the scheme”) toward the end of 10:04? Lerner:
A steady current of people attired in the usual costumes was entering the walkway onto the bridge and there was a strange energy crackling among us; part parade, part flight, part protest. Each woman I imagined as pregnant, then I imagined of of us were dead, flowing over London bridge. What I mean is that our faceless presences were flickering, every one disintegrated, yet part of the scheme. I’m quoting now, like John Gillespie Magee.
John Gillespie Magee (1922-1941), whose poem “High Flight” (“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth . . . and touched the face of God”), largely pieced together out of other existing poems found in a book called Icarus: An Anthology of the Poetry of Flight, the reader’s learned earlier, provided words for Reagan’s Peggy Noonan-scripted address to the nation after the Challenger’s breakup at launch. Is there sincerity in the rather bemused obnazenie priëma, the “laying-bare” of the work’s device that Lerner offers here? Not to insist that 10:04 must needs end up in full-fathomed sincerity, only to suggest that it mightn’t.

The sentence I like, pulled out of the circumstances of its making (things noted post-dental surgery, after a so-called “twilight anesthesia” with its amnesia-inducing benzodiazepines) :
That he would form no memory of what he observed and could not record it in any language lent it a fullness, made it briefly identical to itself, and he was deeply moved to think this experience of presence depended upon its obliteration.
Reading into it the purity of refusing scripture, refusing the “signifying monstrance” of the indefatigable hand writing out its endless scrawl. Recalls for me Antonin Artaud’s lines out of The Nerve Meter (1925):
      I consider myself in my minutiae. I put my finger on the precise point of the fault, the unadmitted slide. For the mind is more reptilian than you yourselves, messieurs, it slips away snakelike, to the point where it damages our language, I mean it leaves it in suspense.
      I am the man who has most felt the stupefying confusion of his speech in its relations with thought. I am the man who has most accurately charted the moment of his most intimate, his most imperceptible lapses. I lose myself in my thought, actually, the way one dreams, the way one suddenly slips back into one’s thought. I am the man who knows the inmost recesses of loss.

      All writing is garbage.
      People who come out of nowhere to try to put into words any part of what goes on in their minds are pigs.
      The whole literary scene is a pigpen, especially today.
      All those who have points of reference in their minds, I mean on a certain side of their heads, in well-localized areas of their brains, all those who are masters of their language, all those for whom words have meanings, all those for whom there exists higher levels of the soul and currents of thought, those who represent the spirit of the times, and who have named these currents of thought, I am thinking of their meticulous industry and of that mechanical creaking which their minds give off in all directions,
      —are pigs.
      Those for whom certain words have meaning, and certain modes of being, those who are so precise, those for whom emotions can be classified and who quibble over some point of their hilarious classifications, those who still believe in “terms,” those who discuss the ranking ideologies of the age, those whom women discuss so intelligently and the women themselves who speak so well and who discuss the currents of the age, those who still believe in an orientation of the mind, those who follow paths, who drop names, who recommend books,
      —these are the worst pigs of all.
Of course, there is a certain writerly exhilaration in saying so, quoting it. The fulsome enclitic of making a presence by denial, refusal. Light refusing the stickiness of its honied nomenclature by simply shining. Another way of “laying bare.”

Friday, September 26, 2014

Mary Ruefle / John Ashbery

Mary Ruefle

Thumbing through Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures (Wave Books, 2012), I read (out of “I Remember, I Remember”):
I remember my first Ashbery reading . . . Ashbery was reading from his new book, Three Poems, and he said that it was a lot like watching TV—you could open the book anywhere and begin reading, and flip around the book as much as you wanted to. I remember hating him for saying this. I remember the word sacrilege came to mind. I remember not liking that reading.

I remember, two years later, reading Three Poems on a grassy slope while across the road three men put a new roof on an old house, and I was in love with one of them. I could watch the men working as I read. I remember that everything I was reading was everything that was happening across the way—I would read a little, then look up, read a little, then look up, and I was blown apart by the feeling this little book was about my life at that moment, exactly as I was living it. I remember loving the book . . .
“A lot like watching TV”: and I recall Ashbery’s remark in The Paris Review interview (c. 1983): “I feel that poetry is going on all the time inside, an underground stream. One can let down one’s bucket and bring the poem back up. . . . It will be not dissimilar to what I have produced before because it is coming from the same source, but it will be dissimilar because of the different circumstances of the particular moment.” Or, pushing into recall’s never-ending reaches and hinterlands, I hunt up V. N. Vološinov’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (written in the late 1920s, published in English translation in 1973) in order to re-read the formula:
Language cannot properly be said to be handed down—it endures but it endures as a continuous process of becoming. Individuals do not receive a ready-made language at all, rather, they enter upon the stream of verbal communication; indeed, only in this stream does their consciousness first begin to operate.
Perfect moment, therefore, to dip randomly into Three Poems (1972) in a humor of sortes Ashberianae, to verify and release the moment’s becoming. Here (out of “The New Spirit”):
. . . I am afraid that you will never see your way clear through the velleities of the excursion to that other shore, eternal despite its finite nature, of acquisitions, suggestions and hints, useful, irregular: the exposed living that is going on, and of which you are a part, so that it could be said to exist only for you. You are too close to this happy state for it to matter for you. But meanwhile I am to include everything: the furniture of this room, everyday expressions, as well as my rarest thoughts and dreams, so that you may never become aware of the scattered nature of it, and meanwhile you are it all, and my efforts are really directed toward keeping myself attached, however dimly, to it as it rolls from view, like a river which is never really there because of moving on someplace. And so the denser moments of awareness are yours, not the firm outline I believe to be mine and which is probably a hoax as well: it contains nothing after all, only a few notions of how life should be lived that are unusable because too general.
Or here (turning a few pages):
. . . it dawned on him all of a sudden that there was another way, that this horrible vision of the completed Tower of Babel, flushed in the sunset as the last ceramic brick was triumphantly fitted into place, perfect in its vulgarity, an eternal remainder of the advantages of industry and cleverness—that terror could be shut out—really shut out—simply by turning one’s back on it. As soon as it was not looked at it ceased to exist.
The “firm outline” a “hoax” and the “terror” of a “completed Tower of Babel”—both suggesting the ongoing refusal of language’s “finish.”

Thursday, September 25, 2014

“Merveils of Divagatinge” / Susan Howe

Susan Howe

Foundering in aimlessness, seemingly in vacuo, seemingly in perpetuo. Distracted, irresolute, skittish—though hardly worse than suffering under, say, “A cloak of somnolence, heavy and sticky as moonlight” (Ashbery). One chaunts the mysteriously soothing and anonymous Elizabethan lyric William Byrd put to music in 1588 (here out of the Petyt manuscript):
My mynde to me a kingdome is,
such perfect ioye therin I finde
That it excels all other blisse,
that world affordes or growes by kinde
Though muche I wante which most men have
yet still my mynde forbids to crave . . .
A mouse, gray-colored patch of grace abounding, dashes across the table where I sit, skitters through a jumble of coaxial cables. (No attempt to read the vestigial dei off that page of the Book of Nature.) Or there’s Susan Howe (the solace of stray lines out of “Thorow”):
The track of Desire

Must see and not see

Must not see nothing

Burrow and so burrow

Measuring mastering
Eating nothing but hominy

Scribbling the ineffable

See only the tracks of rabbit

A mouse-nest of grass
In “Narrative in Non-Narrative,” a succinct prefatory intensity (or “integrity”: I think suddenly of Buckminster Fuller’s coinage “tensegrity”—tensional integrity—and long to see in Howe’s Xerox’d fields of lines a like balance of forces, individual components held in momentary abeyance and interlock in a poise of pure tension) to “Thorow,” Howe writes (after quoting Deleuze and Guattari: “The proper name is the instantaneous apprehension of a multiplicity. The proper name is the subject of a pure infinitive comprehended as such in a field of intensity”):
      Thoreau once wrote to a friend: “am glad to see that you have studied out the ponds, got the Indian names straightened out—which means made more crooked—&c. &c.”
      Sir Humfrey Gilbert wrote in A New Passage to Cataia: “To prove that the Indians aforenamed came not by the Northeast, and that there is no thorow passage navigable that way.”
. . .
      Work penetrated by the edge of author, traverse multiplicities, light letters exploding apprehension suppose when individual hearing
      Every name driven will be as another rivet in the machine of a universe flux
(Howe, recording the writing of “Thorow” in a rented cabin near the town of Lake George, New York: “After I learned to keep out of town, and after the first pain of dislocation had subsided, I moved into the weather’s fluctuation.”) Out of Howe’s The Difficulties interview,* of “Lake George where I wrote “Thorow”: “If there is a Spirit of Place that Spirit had me in thrall. Day after day I watched the lake and how weather and light changed it.” One gainsay against aimlessness. Out of “Thorow”:
The snow

is still hear

Wood and feld

all covered with ise

seem world anew

Only step

as surveyor of the Wood

only Step
* A terrific movement out of that interview (I think of “traverse multiplicities, light letters exploding apprehension” or “Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk”—such “merveils of divagatinge”):
      Sometimes I think my poetry is only a search by an investigator for the point where the crime began. What is the unforgivable crime? Will I ever capture it in words?
      I can’t get away from New England. It’s in my heart and practice. The older I get the more Calvinist I grow. In spite of all the pettiness and dour formalism of the Puritans, as we have learned to think of them, and it is all certainly there, and more—I am at home with them.
      Hidden under the rigid exterior of a Cotton Mather, under the anger of Mary Rowlandson, under the austerity of Jonathan Edwards, is an idea of grace as part of an infinite mystery in us but beyond us. What we try to do in life is a calling. Carpentry, teaching, mothering, farming, writing, is never an end in itself but is in the service of something out of the world—God or the Word, a supreme Fiction. This central mystery—this huge Imagination of one form is both a lyric thing and a great “secresie,” on an unbeaten way; the only unbeaten way left. A poet tries to sound every part.
      Sound is part of the mystery. But sounds are only the echoes of a place of first love. The Puritans or Calvinists knew that what we see is as nothing to the unseen. I know that if something in a word, or in a line in a poem or in any piece of writing doesn’t sound true then I must change it. I am part of one Imagination and the justice of Its ways may seem arbitrary but I have to follow Its voice. Sound is a key to the untranslatable hidden cause. It is the cause. Othello said that. “Othello is uneasy, but then Othellos always are, they hold such mighty stakes,” wrote Dickinson. In the same letter she added “The brow is that of Deity—the eyes, those of the lost, but the power lies in the throat—pleading, sovereign, savage—the panther and the dove!”

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bolaño / Borges / Wilcock

J. Rodolfo Wilcock, 1919-1978

In an interview with Eliseo Álvarez found in The Last Interview and Other Conversations (2009), Roberto Bolaño details the lineage of Nazi Literature in the Americas—Bolaño’s book of biographical sketches of invented writers—thus:
This book, I’ll give it to you in descending order, owes a lot to The Temple of Iconoclasts by Rodolfo Wilcock, who is an Argentine writer but who wrote the book in Italian . . . At the same time, his book The Temple of Iconoclasts itself owes a debt to A Universal History of Infamy by Borges, which is not surprising at all because Wilcock was a friend and admirer of Borges. Borges’ A Universal History of Infamy, too, owes a debt to one of his teachers, Alfonso Reyes, the Mexican writer who has a book I think called Real and Imagined Portraits—my memory is in torpor. It’s just a jewel. Alfonso Reyes’ book also owes a debt to Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, which is where this all comes from. But at the same time, Imaginary Lives owes a major debt to the methodology and form of certain biographies perused by encyclopedic types.
“Encyclopedic types”: one notes (in conversation with Mónica Maristain in The Last Interview) Bolaño’s fondness for such readers: “the ones who dare to read Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, which is one of the most pleasant and modern works I know”—thus hinting at another source.

In the “Preface to the 1954 Edition” of Borges’s A Universal History of Infamy (1972, translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni) one reads that the works therein are “the irresponsible game of a shy young man who dared not write stories and so amused himself by falsifying and distorting (without any aesthetic justification whatever) the tales of others.” (In the “Preface to the First Edition,” dated 27 May 1935, Borges provides another tiny genealogy, thus:
The exercises in narrative prose that make up this book were written in 1933 and 1934. They stem, I believe, from my re-readings of Stevenson and Chesterton, and also from Sternberg’s early films, and perhaps from a certain biography of Evaristo Carriego. They overly exploit certain tricks: random enumerations, sudden shifts of continuity, and the paring down of a man’s whole life to two or three scenes. . . . They are not, they do not try to be, psychological.
Borges, too, accolades the reader: “I suspect that good readers are even blacker and rarer swans than good writers. . . . Reading, obviously, is an activity which comes after that of writing; it is more modest, more unobtrusive, more intellectual.” Sly sort of Nabokovian upsetting of the usual applecart with that “more intellectual.”

J. Rodolfo Wilcock’s 1972 The Temple of Iconoclasts is a book of (mostly) invented inventors. In an “Author’s Note,” Wilcock admits to a few historical ringers thrown in, thus pointing to a sort of lineage: “Nearly all the details mentioned in connection Babson, Lawson, and Hörbiger are drawn from Martin Gardner’s collection, In the Name of Science . . . Littlefield, Carroll, Kinnaman, Piazzi-Smyth, Lust, and the advocates of the hollow earth theory spring from the same source. . .” Out of The Temple of Iconoclasts (2000, translated by Lawrence Venuti), the opening of the entry for “Absalon Amet”:
      Absalon Amet, clockmaker of La Rochelle, can certainly be dubbed the secret precursor of a not insignificant area in early modern philosophy—perhaps even the precursor of all modern philosophy. He was, more precisely, a pioneer in that vast field of inquiry motivated by a voluptuary and decorative aim: the random combination of words that are rarely combined in current usage, with the subsequent deduction of any meaning or meanings that might eventually be extracted from the whole. For example: “History is the movement of nothingness toward time,” “History is the movement of time toward nothingness,” “The flute is dialectic,” and similar combinations. A man of the Eighteenth Century, a man of wit, Amet never pretended to satire or knowledge; a man of mechanisms, he had no other wish but to exhibit a mechanism. Therein lay hidden and threatening, although unknown to him, a future teeming with horrid professors of semiotics and brilliant avant-garde poets.
      Amet invented and constructed a Universal Philosophy, which in the beginning occupied a good portion of a table, but in the end filled an entire room. Essentially, the apparatus consisted of a rather simple assemblage of cogwheels, which were spring-driven and regulated in their movement by a special gear that periodically stopped the mechanism. In the initial version, five cogwheels of different diameters were coaxial with as many cylinders, large and small, covered completely with little plates which were each imprinted with a word. These plates rotated behind a wooden screen provided with narrow rectangular windows, so that if one stood in front of the screen, every rotation allowed a sequence of words to be read, always random but not always devoid of sense. Marie Plaisance Amet, the clockmaker’s only child, read these phrases and transcribed the most curious and apodictic in a huge ledger.
Proceeding, after some paragraphs relating various improvements to the rudimentary device:
      In her ledger, she did not simply make note of such sentences as “The cat is indispensable to the progress of religion,” or “To wed tomorrow is not worth an egg now.” No, her pen also recorded, without her awareness, countless concepts that were then obscure, but which a century, two centuries later would be considered penetrating. For example, in Pensées et Mots Choisis du Philosophe Mecanique Universel (Select Thoughts and Words from the Universal Mechanical Philosophy), the collection published at Nantes in 1774 under the names of Absalon and Plaisance Amet, we find a sentence from Lautréamont (“The fish you feed swear no fraternity”), one from Rimbaud (“The sapient music lacks our desire”), and another from Laforgue (“The sun lays aside the papal stole”). What sense of future irreality induced the young lady—or her father on her behalf—to choose from thousands of sentences precisely those that would one day merit the anthology?
      But perhaps the most remarkable are the sentences that possess a character purely philosophical, in the broadest sense of the word. How surprising to read the following in a book from 1774: “The real is rational”; “Boiled meat is life, broiled meat death”; “Art is sentiment”; “History is bunk”; “Existence is being toward death”; “Hell is everybody else”; “The text is always already deconstructed”; and many other combinations that have today become more or less renowned.
Of the Pensées et Mots Choisis du Philosophe Mecanique Universel, one reads of “three copies” being “recently found in the small, disorganized public library of Pornic in the lower Loire valley.” Books: systems of retrieval for language, the irrepressible engine of its inquiry. Borges again (out of the “Preface to the 1954 Edition”): “I should define as baroque that style which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all its possibilities and which borders on its own parody.” And: “Baroque” is the name of one of the forms of syllogism; the eighteenth century applied it to certain excesses in the architecture and painting of the century before. I would say that the final stage of all styles is baroque when that style only too obviously exhibits or overdoes its own tricks. The baroque is intellectual, and Bernard Shaw has stated that all intellectual labor is essentially humorous.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Olson / Williams

Charles Olson, 1910-1970

Intent of the offertory: a benign osculatory (or oscillatory) mayhem, knowledge made up out of a effervescence of gatherings (“haunte floures by cause of gadrynge of hony”). A gestural sup.


Charles Olson, out of the 1963 conversation with Harriet Gratwick, collected under the title “Under the Mushroom” in the Ralph Maud-edited Muthologos: Lectures and Interviews (2010), asserting “a belief that etymology is even behind mythology as the secret of the universe”:
Etymology. And there’s only two forms of knowing that I can figure out exist. One is GNA and the other is VID, and VID is seeing and GNA is prajna and is apprehension that I think you can only call oral, in the sense of sounds, therefore language. Yes, therefore language, therefore eyes, and that’s all. There’s a double—there’s a staple or two of the agents, the division: one is the eye and the other is a knowing which is, well, I would even say oral but I don’t want to press the point. It is GNA, though. Leave it just in the g-n-a-, which is the basic root of “knowing.” K-n-o is g-n-a, actually, simply slipped. Kna, kno. And VID, because we all use the word—again this is where the vocabulary matters, because we all use the word “vision.”

Cf. Olson’s primordial (or archetypal) lines “whatever you have to say, leave / the roots on, let them / dangle / / And the dirt / / Just to make clear / where they come from”


And (out of the Gratwick interview):
. . . you could talk archetext at the point that you talk archetype. And that I’m convinced of myself, being a Tantrist; I utterly believe that you can talk language, literally, human language as recorded from text. Literally, from text. God’s a bookman, as well as the other things He is. Or the subject is a condition of the universe, and that “this original text is perception itself.” Which gets us really home if you talk poetry.

See prajna, n.: < Sanskrit prajñā understanding < pra- fore- + jñā- to know. A primordial knowing.


See Tantra, n.: < Sanskrit tantra loom, warp, hence groundwork, principle, system, doctrine, < tan to stretch, extend.


Olson, out of Call Me Ishmael (1947):
      I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.
      It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning. . . .

And there’s William Carlos Williams, out of In the American Grain (1925), the chapter titled “Descent” with its terrifying (and defiant) talk of “sinking” and “ground” (in the figure of Sam Houston who, in sumptuous recoil against loss, “took the descent once more, to the ground”). Turning to American writers:
. . . Poe can be understood only in a knowledge of his deep roots. The quality of the flower will then be seen to be normal, in all its tortured spirituosity and paleness, a desert flower with roots under the sand of his day.
      Whitman had to come from under. All have to come from under and through a dead layer.
      But this primitive ordeal, created by a peculiar condition of destiny (the implantation of an already partly cultured race on a wild continent) has a plant in its purpose, in its lusts’ eye, as gorgeous as Montezuma’s gardens of birds, wild beasts and albino natives in wooden cages.
      But he who will grow from that basis must sink first.
      If he goes to France, it is not to learn a do re mi fa sol. He goes to see a strange New World.
      If not definitely a culture new in every part, at least a satisfaction. He wants to have the feet of his understanding on the ground, his ground, the ground, the only ground that he knows, that which is under his feet. I speak of aesthetic satisfaction. This want, in America, can only be filled by knowledge, a poetic knowledge, of that ground. Since this is difficult, due to the hardships which beset the emergence of a poet: A poet is one related to a basis of aesthetic, spiritual, hypothetical, abnormal—satisfaction, . . . since this is so, the want goes for the most part unsatisfied in America or is satisfied by a fillgap. The predominant picture of America is a land aesthetically satisfied by temporary fillgaps . . .

And, damningly (and hearteningly):
      It is imperative that we sink. But from a low position it is impossible to answer those who know all the Latin and some of the Sanskrit names, much French and perhaps one or two other literatures. Their riposte is: Knownothingism. But we cannot climb every tree in that world of birds. But where foreign values are held to be a desideratum, he who is buried and speaks thickly—is lost.
      There is nothing for a man but genius or despair. We cannot answer in the smart language, certainly it would be a bastardization of our own talents to waste time to learn the language they use. I would rather sneak off and die like a sick dog than be a well known literary person in America—and no doubt I’ll do it in the end.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Notebook (Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary)

Maurice Quentin de La Tour, “Study for a Portrait of Voltaire,” c. 1735

A little morning tumult out of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary (1734), translated by Peter Gay. Under the sous-titre “Letters, Men of Letters, or Literati” (Lettres, Gens de Lettres, ou Lettrés):
      In our barbaric period, when the Franks, the Germans, the Bretons, the Lombards, the Spanish Mozarabs, could neither read nor write, schools and universities were founded consisting almost wholly of ecclesiastics, who knew nothing but their jargon and taught that jargon to those who wanted to learn it; the academies came only a long time afterward; they despised the nonsense of the schools, but didn’t always dare protest against it, for there is nonsense that people respect, provided it deals with respectable things.
      The men of letters who have rendered the greatest services to the small number of thinking beings scattered over the earth are isolated literati, true scholars shut up in their studies, who have neither debated at the benches of the universities nor said things by halves in the academies; and they have almost all been persecuted. Our miserable species is so constructed that those who walk in the beaten path always throw stones at those who teach a new path . . . .
      Who would believe that in the eighteenth century a philosopher would be dragged before secular courts and called impious by contentious prosecutors for saying that men could not practice the arts if they had no hands? I expect they will soon condemn to the galleys the first person to have the insolence to say that a man can’t think if he has no head: “For,” a bachelor of arts would tell him, “the soul is a pure spirit, the head is nothing but matter; God could put the soul in the heel, as well as in the brain; therefore I denounce you as an infidel.”
      Perhaps the greatest misfortune for a man of letters is not in being the object of his brethren’s jealousy, or the victim of conspiracies, or held in contempt by the mighty of this world; but in being judged by idiots. Idiots sometimes go far, especially when they combine fanaticism with foolishness, and foolishness with a vengeful spirit. Further, the great misfortune for a man of letters is that ordinarily he has no connections. A bourgeois buys a minor office, and there he is, supported by his fellow-citizens. If he is treated unjustly, he will soon find defenders. The man of letters is without recourse; he resembles the flying fish: if he raises himself a little, the birds devour him; if he dives, the fish eat him up.
Weekend consumed tramping woodlots and fields and river bottoms to look at “confusing fall warblers” (note the restraint in the formula, Roger Tory Peterson’s). In a muddy field just greening with winter wheat: a smattering of thirty or so killdeer, a few horned larks interspersed. An Eastern bluebird overlooking a prairie remnant, sentinel in a pine. Days countenanced through the solace of looking, moving through the landskip, noting similarity and difference, and—“To leave no Rubs nor Botches in the Worke”— abiding within.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Sontag / Ashbery

John Ashbery

Acceding to the itch to align without comment. Out of Susan Sontag’s As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks 1964-1980 (2012), a note of 12 December 1977:
The formalist method: suitable for those ignorant of, or indifferent to, history. This, surely, is part of its appeal now. One doesn’t need to be “learned” to understand a literary text or a painting, only intelligent. One doesn’t need more than the work itself.*
And, a John Ashbery poem, out of A Wave (1984):
But What Is the Reader To Make of This?

A lake of pain, an absence
Leading to a flowering sea? Give it a quarter-turn
And watch the centuries begin to collapse
Through each other, like floors in a burning building,
Until we get to this afternoon.

Those delicious few words spread around like jam
Don’t matter, nor does the shadow.
We have lived blasphemously in history
And nothing has hurt us or can.
But beware of the monstrous tenderness, for out of it
The same blunt archives loom. Facts seize hold of the web
And leave it ash. Still, it is the personal,
Interior life that gives us something to think about.
The rest is only drama.

Meanwhile the combinations of every extendable circumstance
In our lives continue to blow against it like new leaves
At the edge of the forest a battle rages in and out of
For a whole day. It’s not the background, we’re the background,
On the outside looking out. The surprises history has
For us are nothing compared to the shock we get
From each other, though time still wears
The colors of meanness and melancholy, and the general life
Is still many sizes too big, yet
Has style, woven of things that never happened
With those that did, so that a mood survives
Where life and death never could. Make it sweet again!
* Compare with Sontag’s lines out of “The Aesthetics of Silence” (1967):
Whatever the artist does is in (usually conscious) alignment with something else already done, producing a compulsion to be continually rechecking his situation, his own stance with those of his predecessors and contemporaries. To compensate for this ignominious enslavement to history, the artist exalts himself with the dream of a wholly ahistorical, and therefore unalienated, art.
      Art that is “silent” constitutes one approach to this visionary, ahistorical condition.
      Consider the difference between looking and staring. A look is voluntary; it is also mobile, rising and falling in intensity as its foci of interest are taken up and then exhausted. A stare has, essentially, the character of a compulsion; it is steady, unmodulated, “fixed.”
      Traditional art invites a look. Art that is silent engenders a stare. Silent art allows—at least in principle—no release from attention, because there has never, in principle, been any soliciting of it. A stare is perhaps as far from history, as close to eternity, as contemporary art can get.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Reading Trevor Winkfield

Trevor Winkfield, “Self Portrait,” 2001

Popping the top-knot up (briefly) to record some of Trevor Winkfield’s iconoclastic brilliance. Out of a piece called “From a Friend of Gerald Murphy”—collected in the indispensable George Braque and Others: The Selected Art Writings of Trevor Winkfield (1990-2009) (The Song Cave, 2014):
      To the question “Who or what has been blocking our view of Gerald Murphy and his ilk?” we need do no more than point our finger at Abstract Expressionism. For, like some garrulous uncle whose bulky form hogs both fireplace and conversation, the Abstract Expressionists have been accorded a reverential deference which, to some of us, now seems a mite slavish, if not downright unhealthy. As a group, they’re not that important, and should perhaps be given a status akin to that of the French Fauves, as a transitory phenomenon and not the be-all and end-all of a national aesthetic. However unwittingly, the movement (as opposed to individual members) now acts as a monolith diverting attention from those American artists who came before and those who came after, blurring what seems to me the cardinal virtue of American art: its championing of individuals rather than movements (which, in a nutshell, is the cornerstone of American civics itself). Dispensing with the monolithic viewpoint to treat Abstract Expressionism as an aberration might involve resurrecting the hackneyed comparison of American art to a “various field.” So be it, though we have to admit it’s a very unruly field, one in which a hodge-podge of ornery oddballs, disrespectful deadbeats and willful eccentrics demand equality with the giants planted among them. (In sweet revenge, several outsiders—Murphy included—have themselves gained giant stature, albeit posthumously.)
      Rambling through Western art—the only territory where I don’t have to flourish my learner’s license—I’ve not stumbled across a more idiosyncratic or a more persistent bunch than the Americans (though Italian Primitives of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries run Americans a close second in terms of bewildering variety and dogged determination). An unbroken chain spanning a century and a half, individualism is obviously the American tradition.
      To those who can’t put faces to names, tabulating some of American art’s wilder blooms might seem a futile exercise, on a par with affixing Latin tags to the daisy family. And though one could argue the livelong day the exact point of American art’s genesis, let’s imagine this florid cavalcade starting around 1850 with John Quidor, then wend our way via Albert Pinkham Ryder and John Peto to Louis Eilshemius, John Covert, Marsden Hartley and Charles Burchfield. Then past Florine Stettheimer, Patrick Henry Bruce and John Graham, pausing to admire our very own Gerald Murphy, then Charles Demuth, Ivan Albright and Arshile Gorky. No sooner have we left Walter Murch, George Ault, Alice Neel and Alfred Jensen, than Bruce Conner, Albert York and Jess hove into view. And that’s only one row, on one side of one path. A whole flotilla of substitutes could be made without lowering the temperature. With a little imaginative juggling even major painters can be slotted into the autodidact mold: Jackson Pollock, the drunk who dribbled paint! Jasper Johns, the man who fabricated flags from molten wax! Seemingly self-taught, coming out of nowhere, they’re all of a piece, and all more or less presented themselves as outsiders . . .
And, out of the wonderfully lively and astute exchanges recorded in How I Became a Painter: Trevor Winkfield in Conversation with Miles Champion (Pressed Wafer, 2014):
. . . I must mention jigsaws, which taught me about collage, how to manipulate pieces to construct a narrative. In a literal sense, I learned how to put together a picture by finishing jigsaws. Another lesson they taught me was how to look at pictures closely, and how abstract—almost incomprehensible—large areas would often remain until the final two or three pieces were found and slotted into position. I had one jigsaw that reproduced a Constable landscape in which sky and cloud formed a large empty area at the top. I eventually figured out which way the brushstrokes flowed by examining the pieces closely, which gave me clues as to the optimum way in which I should line up the clouds. It took very careful looking, looking intently with my nose close to the puzzle’s surface, which is how I still like to look at paintings. Years later, much later, this slotting together of fragments, seeing things out of context supplied me with another idea as to how to really get to know a painting, particularly those paintings that cover large areas of canvas. It’s a device almost worth patenting! The first time I used it was in the Louvre, standing in front of my favorite painting, Jean Malouel’s The Last Communion and Martyrdom of Saint Denis, which he painted around 1415 for his patron, the Duke of Burgundy. Endlessly fascinating.
      Every summer when I visited Paris I’d go look at it—intently, or so I thought. But it dawned on me, after my second or third visit, that my eyes had been automatically focusing on what they’d been trained to focus on, the obvious targets: faces, hands, feet and costumes—all the shapes I felt visually comfortable with. To overcome this, on a subsequent visit I brought along my camera and, without looking where I was pointing it, I went over the entire surface, taking random snaps, using up the whole roll of film. When I got the photographs back from developing, their fragmentation, the random angles they’d been shot from, looking at some upside down—all this exposed an incredible number of details and interior structures that I’d previously been unaware of. Chopped up, it became a totally different painting from the one I thought I knew so well.
The quality of the attending. Refusing to be swayed (or assuaged) by the interfering static of the “surround”—be it pictorial or “social.” Observations worth applying to the literary field. Note, too, Miles Champion’s deft limning of a poetics of Winkfieldian drawing and painting:
. . . The first drawing of yours I saw was your contribution to the anthology for Schuyler, That Various Field, and I remember being struck by the fact that, while it clearly was a drawing, it didn’t look like one—its creator had clearly found an elegant solution to Duchamp’s “tyranny of the hand” while somehow retaining a sense of touch. I think flatness has a great deal to do with it: my first introductions to art were, like yours, all via reproductions in books and on postcards, and the first poems to really excite me were also decidedly flat, and cut with bland, non-poetic elements . . .
      Your Schuyler drawing seemed to share a quality with much of the poetry I was reading soon after—and as a result of—reading John [Ashbery]’s work: Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets, Clark Coolidge (especially the run of books from Flag Flutter & U. S. Electric through Own Face), Larry Eigner—poetry that seemed more built than written, the words as building blocks, each flatly displayed in natural light, with no shadows or recesses in which the author as ego could grow monstrous. These word-bricks seemed to have little halos of space around them, negatives of the black outlines around the acorns, pipes and pea pods in your cover designs . . .

Trevor Winkfield, “The Poet,” 2001

Trevor Winkfield, “The Student,” 1999

Trevor Winkfield, “Voyager II,” 1998
(John Ashbery: “. . . its effect is the same one a musical score offers a person with some ability for reading music—‘sight-reading.’ Each element in the painting has its precise pitch, its duration. . . . What's clear is that there is no verbal equivalent for taking in the picture, just as there is none for assimilating a piece of music, which is as it should be.”)