Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

This site is listed in BlogCatalog and
Literature Blogs
Literature blog

Thursday, February 1, 2018


The index now features hypertext connections. Simply click on any title below to read it.

Though this listing serves, I think, a clear purpose, not every posting falls easily into the categories. One essay might equally be placed under literary theory or medieval texts while another might fit under memoir, politics, or travel. Translations with comment might be either criticism or translation. Poke around a bit.

The categories are:

1. speculative, familiar, performance pieces, and other essays

2. literary theory

3. Greek texts (and a couple of Latin)

4. medieval texts

5. other criticism
A. 16th-19th century
B. 20th century to the present
C. Asian texts
D. songs
E. Notes on Recent Reading
F. Rereading the Classics
G. Every Reader's Poets

6. translation

7. poetry

8. politics

9. memoirs

10. travel

1. Speculative, familiar, performance pieces, and other essays
Agnostic Credo and Vita (October 2015)
Axiology and Subjectivity (October 2014)
Annual Report (August 2014)
Beards (December 2013)
Biking (November 2009)
Biking as a Spiritual Discipline (April 2017)
Cell Phones (June 2017)
Cookbooks (April 2014)
Dead Reckoning (February 2011)
Deer (December 2012)
Documents of the first Surreal Cabaret (March 2012)
Documents of the second Surreal Cabaret (June 2012)
Documents of the third Surreal Cabaret (October 2013)
Documents of the fourth Surreal Cabaret (July 2014)
Documents of the fifth Surreal Cabaret (February 2015)
Drugs and Religion (June 2016)
Dust: a meditative riff (November 2009)
Food for the Gods (December 2011)
Hippie (April 2011)
Immortality (July 2012)
Iowa Communards (December 2011)
A Library’s Commonplaces and Curiosities (May 2011)
The Mannerly Hedonist (February 2013)
Notes and Inserts (June 2016)
Polka (November 2012)
On Pronunciation and Pedantry (September 2015)
In Praise of Bias (November 2014)
Still Biking (November 2012)
A Structural View of Certain Oracles (August 2015)
Supermarkets (October 2010)
Taking Off (November 2009)
This and That (September 2017)
Walking the Via Negativa (February 2018)
Worn Tools (June 2013)

2. Literary theory
Afloat on the Ocean of Words (April 2016)
Allusion (March 2015)
Art and the Marketplace (April 2010)
The Familiar Note in Poetry (January 2017)
The Formation of a Christian Rhetoric (April 2011)
How and Why to Signify (July 2011)
Idea of Comedy (January 2012)
The Inconsequential Bayonets of Art: Militant Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde (May 2010)
Lament for the Loss of the Avant-Garde (March 2010)
Millenarian Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde (August 2010)
On the Proper Ends of Literary Study [James Seaton] (July 2014)
Placing the Popular in the Structure of Literature (October 2010)
The Pleasures of the Familiar in Literature (June 2016)
Poetry Amid the Fierce Chaos of the World (December 2009)
Prof. Wellek, Prof. Leavis, and Prof. de Man (December 2015)
The Question of Literary Value (August 2014)
A Range of Visual Poetry (December 2017)
Riddles and Poetry (March 2015)
The Signifying Monkey Talks Literature (April 2010)
Some Notes Toward a Theory of the Avant-Garde (October 2013)
Sontag's "Against Interpretation" (September 2016)
Sweet Treason: Translating Lyric Poetry (November 2009)
Thoughts on Mythology (March 2013)
Transformation of Convention (August 2013)
What is Poetry? (February 2012)
Winged Words: Notes on the Oral Performance of Poetry (May 2010)

3. Greek texts (and two Latin)
Aphrodite’s Bed: Love in the Homeric Hymn (August 2010)
The Birth of Erato: Lyric, Vision, and the Spread of Writing (January 2010)
Dionysos and the Pirates (February 2012)
Ekphrasis in Apollonius: Jason's Cloak (May 2017)
Gorgias (February 2010)
Hermes and the Art of Poetry (March 2013)
Longinus' Sublime (May 2012)
Notes on Pan (June 2014)
Oedipus and the Meaning of Polysemy (July 2011)
Pindar's Athlete in Pythian 8 (January 2018)
Poetry's Long Memory [Horace] (July 2016)
Professors Kick the Willy Bobo [on Athenaeus] (December 2009)
The Role of Rhetoric in Theocritus (February 2011)
The Role of Wine in Nonnus' Dionysiaca (February 2016)
Sappho’s Holy Tortoise Shell: Eros and Poetry in Ancient Greece (December 2009)
Seneca the Elder (March 2010)
A Skeptic's Faith [Sextus Empiricus] (January 2015)
Two Passages from Marcus Aurelius (June 2011)
The Web of Myth in the Hymn to Heracles (June 2012)

4. Medieval texts
The Aesthete of Desire: Lancelot and Courtly Love (July 2012)
The Aesthetics of Ambiguity in a Medieval Lyric (December 2012)
Aesthetic Principles of the Middle English Romance (July 2010)
Appropriation of Biblical Narrative in Patience (February 2013)
Bernart and the Music of Ideas (September 2016)
The Buddha in Europe: the Apologue of the Man and the Unicorn in Barlaam and Ioasaph (January 2011)
Chaucer’s Version of the Golden Age (June 2011)
A Conventional Ending in a Middle English Romance (September 2011)
Courtly Love in Romance of the Rose (August 2012)
Distant Rhyme in Two Medieval English Lyrics (August 2011)
The Early English Carol (June 2010)
Geoffrey of Vinsauf (April 2010)
Figures of Love in Lydgate's Temple of Glas (January 2014)
Functions of Alliteration in Thirteenth Century Lyrics (February 2011)
Hypermetric Lines in Beowulf (January 2011)
An Introduction to the Troubadours (January 2010)
Mechthild von Magdeburg (July 2010)
A New Look at Jaufré: Amor de Lonh as Criticism (December 2010)
Odin and Poetry (December 2015)
Openings in the Middle English Romance (July 2010)
The Pearl-Poet’s Use of Link-Rhymes (November 2011)
Phonetics and Semantics in the Last Line of Beowulf (March 2011)
Piers Plowman and the Man in the Moon (October 2011)
The Prima Etade of Literary Ambition [Petrarch] (March 2011
Transformation of Convention in Early Minnesang (April 2011)
Two Early Ballad Tales of Robin Hood (October 2014)
William IX (September 2010)
Who is Piers Ploughman? (June 2013)

5. Other criticism

A. 16th-19th century
Ambivalence in Thomson's The Castle of Indolence (March 2012)
The Archaeology of Gray's "The Progress of Poetry" (November 2017)
Baudelaire's "Painter of Modern Life" (July 2017)
Big Bill Otter's Sprees and Frolics (November 2013)
A Decadent's Dilemmas [Dowson] (March 2015)
Does Crabbe Look Forward or Back? (February 2016)
Dolce's Aretino (September 2015)
The Double Plot of Salem Chapel (December 2016)
Gascoigne's "Notes of Instruction" (September 2013)
Godwin's Theatre of Calamity (September 2015)
Herrick the Divine (August 2014)
Irving's Soft Romanticism (September 2017)

Keats' "Thing of Beauty" (November 2016)
Marius the Epicurean as a Modern (April 2015)
Moby Dick and the Density of the Aesthetic Text (January 2016)
"Monk" Lewis, Mr. Coleridge, and Popular Taste (July 2015)
A Note on Dryden and "Dramatick Poesy" (September 2012)
A Note on Radcliffe's The Italian (October 2012)
Pierce Penniless (May 2013)
The Play of Convention in Shakespeare's Sonnet 153 (April 2017)
The Problem with Swinburne (June 2015)
Rimbaud's Use of Montage (October 2016)
Shelley”s “Ode to the West Wind” as Structuralist Charm (May 2011)
Sir Thomas North's The Moral Philosophy of Doni (September 2013)
The Skeptico-Semiotico-Mystic: Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (June 2015)

Skepticism and Poetry in Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes" (February 2015)
A Structural View of Meredith's The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (June 2017)
The Texture of Traherne’s Religious Thought (October 2010)
Thematic Continuity and Development in the Poetry of Christopher Smart: the Jubilate Agno and the Minor Poems (November 2010)
Thomas Love Peacock and the End of Poetry (August 2017)
Travelers [Marco Polo, Twain, Robert Byron](April 2012)
Trollope's Appeal (December 2012)
Two Notes on Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance (July 2014)
The Use of Nostalgia in Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life (August 2015)

B. 20th century to the present
Another Look at The Seven Lively Arts (June 2013)
Apologia for a Fondness for Pound (November 2012)
Are Uncle Tom's Children Bound by History? (April 2014)
The Artist as Demiurge: Seligmann on Space (December 2017)
Banjo (March 2017)
A Brief History of Negritude (February 2017)
Burns' and Lovick's Vietnam (November 2017)
Comics (February 2010)
Conrad's Shadow-Line (June 2014)
The Critical Palimpsest: Black African Literature through White American Eyes (January 2010)
Dada in America (April 2012)
Eisenstein's Strike and the Problem of Realism (April 2013)
Epiphanies in Dubliners (May 2016)
An Explication of Stevens' "A Primitive like an Orb" (October 2017)
False Translations (August 2016)
The Fetish of the Primitive in Twentieth Century Art (April 2015)
A Few Films (November 2016)
A Few Proletarian Writers (March 2012)
Flash Reviews of Thirty African Novels (November 2011)
Flyin’ with the Muses: Kirpal Gordon’s Eros in Sanskrit (May 2011)
Hell's House (November 2013)
Kerouac’s Weakness and Strength (January 2011)
Kurt Seligmann's Moderate Surrealism (November 2016)
Kurt Seligmann and the Poets (October 2017)
Kurt Seligmann's Riddlesome Symbols (March 2017)
The Last Poets (March 2016)
The Legacy of the Beats (March 2014)
The Lyricism of the Ugly: Celine's Mort à Crédit (December 2014)
The Man with the Golden Arm and a Friend with Six Seeds (January 2014)
On Marinetti's Avant-Garde Fascism (September 2017)
Onitsha Market Literature (February 2015)
Pig and Possum Teach Poetry (May 2014)
A Poem by Theodore Roethke (September 2011)
The Power of Picasso's Sculpture (November 2015)
Remarks on the Grassroots Poetry Scene (July 2017)
Saki's Novels (April 2015)
Sartre's "Black Orpheus (February 2017)
Some Poetry Reviews (December 2012)
Sound Poetry and Edith Sitwell's Facade (July 2013)
Tristan Tzara, Poet of Manifestos (February 2018)
Two Graffiti (May 2011)
A Very Funny Fellow [Lev] (May 2012)

C. Asian texts
Friendship and Romance in Ming Stories (February 2014)
Han Shan (December 2010)
Journey to the North (December 2013)
Liezi (October 2012)
Lu Xun (October 2010)
Monkey Rides Again (January 2013)
Notes on Liu Xie (August 2011)
Tang Stories (April 2016)
Theme and Tone In Kokoro (September 2016)
A Tibetan Novel (March 2017)
The Trials of Lady Ochikubo (April 2014)
The View from a Ten-Foot-Square Hut [Chomei] (February 2018)

D. songs
Blind Willie Johnson Preaches (May 2017)
Bukka White's Limpid Lyric Clarity (November 2017)
"Down the Dirt Road Blues" [Charley Patton] (October 2011)
Fishing Blues [Henry Thomas] (October 2015)
Foggy Dew as Symbol (July 2012)
The Heart of the Blues [Robert Johnson] (January 2018)
The Imagery of Hokum Blues Songs (July 2015)
"Lady Maisry" (November 2013)
"Moon Goin' Down" [Charley Patton] (May 2013)
The Mule in Blues Imagery (August 2017)
The Paraklausithyron Blues (May 2016)
"The Red Rooster" [Willie Dixon] (March 2014)
Robert Johnson and the Devil (September 2012)
Skip James' Blues Imagery (May 2015)
“Spoonful” and the Accretion of Meaning (December 2012)
"The Three Ravens" (August 2013)
Trinidadian Smut (April 2016)
Truckin' (November 2014)
“Walkin’ Blues” [Son House] (December 2011)

E. Notes on Recent Reading
Notes on Recent Reading [Melville, Greene, and Whalen] (September 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 2 [Crane, The Crowning of Louis, Thornlyre] (October 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 3 [Kipling, San Francisco Mime Troupe, Lynn’s Tao-te-ching] (November 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 4 [Sarah Scott, de La Fayette, Wharton] (January 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 5 [The Deeds of God in Rddhipur, Burney, Cooper] (January 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 6 [Jewett, Addison, Crabbe] (February 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 7 [Nabokov, Austen, Grettis Saga] (April 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 8 [Bakhtin, Lewis, Brown] (May 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 9 [Plutarch, Tacitus, Williams](June 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 10 [Voltaire, France, Dryden](July 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 11 [Wright, Kerouac & Burroughs, Gilbert] (August 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 12 [Huxley, Norris, Dōgen](September 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 13 [Mirabai, Wood, Trocchi] (November 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 14 [Algren, Hauptmann, Rolle] (January 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 15 [Hemingway, Orwell, Gaskell]{February 2013}
Notes on Recent Reading 16 [Howells, Ford, Mann] (April 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 17 [McCarthy, Chang, Snorri](July 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 18 [Radcliffe, Stendhal, Erasmus](October 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 19 [Powers, Zhang Ji, Vietnamese folk song] (February 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 20 [Rowe, Stevenson, Issa] (May 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 21 [Fussell, Mahfouz, Watts] (August 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 22 [Waugh, Belloc, Okakura] (October 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 23 [Naipaul, Dinesen, Spillane] (January 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 24 [Fielding; Izumo , Shōraku, and Senryū; Plath] (June 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 25 [Baskervill, Gissing, Capote] (July 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 26 [Tuchman, Premchand, Cocteau] (November 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 27 [Forster, Sackville-West, Capote] (January 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 28 [Verne, Waley, Hurston] (March 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 29 [Achebe, Jewett, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam] (October 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 30 [Bradford, Scott, Marquand] (April 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 31 [Marlowe, Trollope, p'Bitek] (August 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 32 [Morrison, Cary, Kawabata] (October 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 33 [Tourneur, Peacock, Greene] (December 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 34 [Hawthorne, Huncke, Bentley] (January 2018)

F. Rereading the Classics
Rereading the Classics [Burton] (November 2011)
Rereading the Classics [Gogol] (August 2012)
Rereading the Classics [Goldsmith] (December 2016)
Rereading the Classics [Kleist] (February 2012)
Rereading the Classics [Montaigne] (December 2013)
Rereading the Classics [Rabelais] (December 2011)

G. Every Reader's Poets
Every Reader's Blake (May 2017)
Every Reader's Herrick (December 2015)
Every Reader's Hopkins (May 2016)
Every Reader's Milton (January 2017)
Every Reader's Pope (May 2015)
Every Reader's Shelley (November 2014)
Every Reader's Skelton (March 2016)
Every Reader's Wyatt (December 2014)
Every Reader's Yeats (January 2015)

6. Translation
Alkaios' Happy Hour (January 2017)
Becher's "Someone Stands Up" (October 2012)
Christian and Dedicatory Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (March 2010)
Emmy Hennings (February 2010)
Emmy Hennings Poems (More from Die Letzte Freude) (November 2010)
Four Poems from the German of Richard Huelsenbeck (January 2010)
Four Quatrains by Wang Wei (January 2013)
Hans Arp (April 2010)
The Homeric Hymn to Dionysos (February 2012)
Horace I.21 (July 2016)
Hugo Ball (July 2010)
Hymn to Aphrodite (August 2010)
Hymn to Heracles the Lion-Hearted (June 2012)
Hymn to the Night [Novalis](March 2012)
Hymn to the Night II [Novalis] (July 2012)
Hymn to Pan (May 2014)
Leonidas of Tarentum (May 2010)
A Mixed Bag of German Translations (August 2014)
Rimbaud's "The Lice-Pickers" (March 2014)
Seven Poems from Léon-Gontran Damas (February 2017)
Some Anonymous Middle High German Lyrics (August 2011)
Three Horatian Odes (November 2012)
Translations of William IX (September 2010)
Wordsworth Speaks German (July 2011)
Yet Two More Versions of Wang Wei (June 2011)

7. Poetry
African poems (August 2010)
Domestic Incidents from the Life of the Lama Swine Toil (June 2017)
How to Be a Poet (June 2010)
The Liturgies of the Lama Swine Toil (September 2012)
Mexican poems (September 2010)
Poems from New Mexico (July 2010)
Poems from Turkey (June 2010)
Produce poems (May 2010)
The Soap Opera of the Pair Who Forgot Themselves, but only Temporarily (August 2012)
Some Sonnets (April 2010)
Three Poems from Peru (August 2011)
Two Lyrics on Death from Central America (January 2012)

8. Politics
Black Lives Matter (August 2016)
Economic Democracy (July 2013)
The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Port Huron Statement (June 2012)
Hard Rain Still Fallin’ (September 2010)
How to Get Serious about Fighting Crime (January 2010)
Local Politics (May 2015)
In Memory of a Generation's People's Heroes (October 2015)
Occupy Wall Street (November 2011)
The Role of Higher Education (November 2010)
The Socialist Martin Luther King (February 2016)
The Triumph and Tragedy of Revolution (December 2016)
Two Exemplary Anecdotes from the Sixties Student Movement (September 2013)
Utopia (November 2015)
Voluntary Poverty (October 2011)
Why I am a Socialist (March 2010)

9. Memoirs
Baby Boomer Reads the Beats (April 2012)
A Brief Literary Life (September 2012)
A Garland of Greek Professors (December 2010)
A Glimpse of Robert Bly (August 2012)
Grandparents (December 2009)
High School (August 2014)
Hip Poets of Seventies San Francisco (January 2011)
How I Came to Work at Scott Foresman (July 2017)
How I Was Hired to Teach in Nigeria (May 2011)
IWW (April 2011)
March in Cicero (December 2009)
A Memorable Roomer (June 2014)
My Most Politically Active Year (February 2011)
Nova Academy (March 2011)
Pestering Allen [Ginsberg] (March 2012)
Poetry on the Loose (September 2011)
A Scholar's Debut (October 2012)
Sherman Paul (August 2016)
Suburbanite in the City (November 2010)
Tim West (March 2013)
VISTA Trains Me (June 2011)

10. Travel
Arrival in Nigeria (August 2015)
Acadiana [Lafayette, Louisiana] (May 2010)
An Armenian Family in Bordeaux (December 2014)
Carnival [Portugal] (May 2012)
Cookie Man [Morocco] (October 2011)
Creel (October 2010)
Dame Fortuna in Portugal (May 2012)
Dinner with Mrs. Pea [Thailand] (April 2013)
Election Day in Chichicastenango (January 2012)
An Evening in Urubamba (July 2011)
Festival in Ogwa [Nigeria](January 2011)
On the Ganges' Shore (August 2013)
The Guru of Guinness (July 2016)
Haarlem (July 2010)
Hitchhiking in Algeria (September 2010)
Hitchhiking in France (January 2014)
Hungarian Food (December 2010)
Introduction to Tourist Snapshots (June 2010)
Jemaa el Fna (December 2010)
Knee-deep in History [Vietnam, Cambodia] (February 2014)
Najibe’s Stories (September 2011)
Nigerian Names and Vehicle Slogans (March 2011)
A Palm Wine Shack [Nigeria] (December 2011)
Portraits from a Floating World: Anonymous (October 2016)
Portraits from a Floating World: Najibe and Sandro (February 2010)
Portraits from a Floating World: Gahlia and Jack (June 2010)
Portraits from a Floating World: Leslie Spector and Pa’ahssyzy (August 2010)
A Problem on the Border [Algeria] (June 2011)
A Reading in Kathmandu (November 2009)
Sacred Space as Sideshow [Prague] (February 2010)
St. Joseph’s Day at the Laguna Pueblo (April 2011)
A Stroll around Lake Bled (May 2013)
Strong Stuff [Marrakech] (October 2012)
Tetouan (November 2010)
The Theory of Souvenirs (April 2012)
A Trip to India (January 2016)
Two Parades [India and Peru] (August 2011)
The Valley of Beautiful Women [Eger, Hungary] (March 2010)
Vignettes of Sunny Nigeria (March 2011)
A Waterfall near Marrakech (February 2011)

The View from a Ten-Foot-Square Hut

The title of Kano-no-Chomei’s Hojoki, an early thirteenth century work in cadenced prose rich in figures of speech, might be translated "writings from a ten foot square hut.” It belongs to the genre zuihitsu or "pen at will," suggesting something of an informal subjective essayistic sketchbook. The profound sonority of the opening words survives in the translation by Yasushiko Moriguchi and David Jenkins.

The flowing river
never stops
and yet the water
never stays
the same.

Foam floats
upon the pools
scattering, reforming,
never lingering long.

So it is with man
and all his dwelling places
here on earth.

The rest is an explication, providing vivid images to reinforce this generalization. First, the author recounts numerous disasters that befell Kyoto during his lifetime: fire, flood, hurricane, disease, earthquake, and the human upheaval caused by the relocation of the capital to Fukuyama (now part of Kobe). The implication is that such cataclysms are particularly dramatic incidents of the constant instability that Buddhism teaches characterizes all things. Though Chomei had been a prominent official from an important family and had achieved success, for instance in placing his poems in the collection issued by the emperor himself, he had also suffered the sort of reversals common to the less aggressive or less fortunate in the highly competitive courtly society of Heian Japan. In his fifties, he became a monk and retired to a hermitage, eventually occupying the "ten foot square hut" of the title. Remarkably, his consciousness continued to turn upon itself, and even in the first portion of the essay, he looks directly at our common human portion, devoid of supernatural consolation, and at himself, and declares his uncertainty with candor, noting in an early passage:.

People die
and are born –
whenc e they came
and where they go,
I do not know.

More dramatically, at the very conclusion, rather than suggesting his sage serenity, Chomei radically questions the trajectory of his life. He contemplates his own attachment to his shack and even asks himself, “Has your discerning mind/ just served to drive you mad." Suddenly this medieval East Asian writer seems very intimate and modern.

In Moriguchi and Jenkins’ edition Chomei's prose has been broken up into scattered free verse phrases which seem almost justified by the ephemeral impressionistic tone of the content. Less happy, though less important, are Michael Hoffmann's illustrations meant to be reminiscent of sume-i. I confess, though, that these, as well as the wide open poetic style, seem designed to appeal to today's Western quasi-Buddhists and to me as one them and thus I suppose it is that I write this essay. One may suspect, though, that both the editorially introduced verse form and the washy illustrations evolved at editorial meetings with the primary purpose of plumping the insubstantial book up to the point it could be perfect bound.

In the moralizing middle portion the writer wonders how and where to live if one wishes peace. Here is the same philosophic ideal pursued in ancient Greece, wisdom defined as how to live a good life. The point about time’s unceasing Heraclitean flow is simple and straightforward, one of the most familiar topoi in East Asia as in Europe. The opening of the roughly contemporaneous Heike Monogatari which traces the warfare of the Taira and Minamoto clans, the very sort of struggle that upended Chomei’s world, uses a four-character expression from the (apparently Chinese) Humane King Sutra that became proverbial and which applies well: "the prosperous inevitably decline,”

In this same section Chomei raises political complaints on behalf of the poor but his motive may be more personal disappointment than compassion for all sentient beings. His own career frustrations doubtless influenced his views which often seem to reflect more the jaundiced view of the disillusioned member of the higher echelons than a righteous crusader for justice. The author does not suggest any possible reform or solution. The ruling class’s oppression of the less powerful is merely an example of how life is fundamentally unfair, all but unlivable. Here is less a radical social justice critique than a recognition of suffering that leads as it did for Buddha to the quest for enlightenment

Yet the author remains, after decades of meditation, suspended over the existential abyss. Among his dark thoughts, he declares his "heart is soaked in sin." In what way does he differ from a seventeenth century Puritan agonizing over the uncertain state of his soul? Perhaps less than we expect. If it seems less profound and poignant to imagine Jonathan Edwards wondering if he had lived a good life and admitting, "To these questions of mind/ there is no answer," it may be that we are selling Jonathan Edwards short.

At any rate Hojoki provides contact with a view with which many today are sympathetic, though I have yet to hear of members of the ruling class living in a single room with a dirt floor. The fact that such renunciation did happen in China and in Japan is one measure of the sophistication of those cultures, and the fact that one such moderate ascetic felt no more confident about his pursuit of enlightenment than the reader may indicate that certain human problems are insoluble, though they reward such precise exploration as Chomei has left us. In his Hosshinshu, a book of stories of recluses, Chomei distinguishes the hijiri, the true holy men, from tonsiesha, those who aspire but in some degree fall short, as well as from the inja who withdraw from society but pursue art as semi-secular aesthetes rather than single-mindedly seeking enlightenment. If this last category proved to be the highest the author reached, surely the vast majority of his readers will be, if anything, even less ambitious, yet even a dilettante at both poetry and meditation may still admire the beauty and drama of the record of Chomei’s life.

Walking the Via Negativa

The believer in nothing may find that nothing can be as substantial a deity as old Jehovah or bright Apollo. Though many sensibilities seek the warm (but sometimes frightening) anthropomorphic god provided by myth, others, miraculously, perhaps, find a secure foundation in a lack.

For the spiritually inclined unbeliever to whom the deity of childhood is inconceivable and indeed who cannot even understand how any contemporary educated person can continue loyal to institutional religion, the data reporting mystical experience retain a different sort of truth value. There can be no denying experiences of unity with the divine throughout history and around the world. Apart from the mystics, some theologians have laid out a theoretical basis for a faithless faith. The skeptic will take particular interest in the apophatic tradition, the via negativa, which eschews positive assertions about god, describing the divine in terms of what the godhead is not and basing an authentic spirituality in what we do not know.

Hinduism and Buddhism have been more hospitable to apophatic theology than Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. In Asia the phrase “neti, neti” (“not this or that”) is the definition of Brahman in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad and the Avadhuta Gita. [1] For the eighth century philosopher Adi Shankara the highest concept of the divine was Nirguna Brahma, a Brahma without qualities. In general Advaita (non-dualistic) schools of Vedanta and Jnana Yoga employ such language. Jainism, Buddhism, and Daoism, have in fact no god, though devotees have not been slow to invent quasi-divine figures such as the Jain Tirthankaras and the many godlings of popular Buddhism and Daoism. Though the Abrahamic religions are by comparison resistant to a truly agnostic theology, their more philosophic and mystical practitioners have regularly condemned anthropomorphism.

Buddhism is notoriously receptive to agnostic or atheist ideas. When the Buddha was asked about the nature of the divine and the afterlife, he responded that one should attend no more to such matters than a man injured by a poisoned arrow need learn all the details about his attacker before tending to his wound.

And why are they undeclared by me? Because they are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That's why they are undeclared by me. [2]

Likewise in the works of Nagarjuna, founder of the Madhyamika school of Buddhism, all phenomena, including acts of cognition, are empty. Even the deity is a sort of Kantian noumenon inaccessible to the human mind. The Aïguttara Nikàya and the Jataka stories both deny a personal all-powerful god. [3]

Buddhism regularly teaches, in contrast to the notion of a savior, that one must not look for aid from some supernatural being. In the pursuit of Ultimate Reality one can depend only on individual effort.

By ourselves is evil done,
By ourselves we pain endure,
By ourselves we cease from wrong,
By ourselves become we pure.
No one saves us but ourselves.
No one can and no one may.
We ourselves must walk the path:
Buddhas only show the way. [4]

For Buddhism what is significant is ridding oneself (and for Mahayanists other sentient beings as well) of suffering. Inquiries about the afterlife, the eternity and infinity of the creation and other issues are dismissed as “the fourteen unanswerable questions” (though the numbers differs in different texts) which are fruitless to pursue. [5]

The most significant source of apophatic theology in Christianity is pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, in particular his Divine Names and Mystical Theology. Dionysius built on his Platonic and neo-Platonic predecessors [6] when he concluded that the description of Ultimate Reality is impossible. For Dionysius the contemplation of God leads to “a divine silence, darkness, and unknowing.” The truths about God are "unspeakable and unknowable,” they surpass "our logical and intellective power and activity" Thus one may not predicate anything whatever of the deity without falling into error. Dionysius did make allowances for some scripturally based epithets and nodded to tradition, saying "we must praise the providence of divine dominion, the source of goods, [in terms taken] from all the things that are caused.” According to Dionysius human reasoning which takes place in time cannot access the divine, while what he called our “intellective” faculty can grasp truth in an instant. This sort of knowledge, similar to what Augustine called illumination and Boethius “intelligence” is capable of a vision of God.

The notion that God may be apprehended in a transformative realization leads naturally to an openness to the experiential data of mystics: those who enter into union with it [God], "according to the ceasing of all intellectual activity, . . . praise it best of all by denying all beings of it.” [7]

For Gregory of Nyssa, the fourth century bishop, a necessary consequence of the infinity of God is his belief that God, as limitless, is essentially incomprehensible to the limited minds of created beings. To him “every concept that comes from some comprehensible image, by an approximate understanding and by guessing at the Divine nature, constitutes a idol of God and does not proclaim God."

This concept of the divine, with its close links to Plato and Proclus, was brought forward in a tradition including Maximus the Confessor and Johannes Scotus Eriugena to the high Middle Ages when it proved fundamental to the mystics of the fourteenth century such as Richard Rolle and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Later Meister Eckhart declared, citing Dionysius, “God is naught. Meaning that God is as incomprehensible as naught.” For him “the height of gnosis is to know in agnosia.” [9]

Likewise, while popular Judaism can be thoroughly anthropomorphic, more sophisticated thinkers have outlined an apophatic deity as well. To Philo Judaeus the anthropomorphism of a literal reading of the Bible was impious as well as mistaken. He considered it manifestly absurd to ascribe to God purely human attributes. [10] His most distinguished successor was Maimonides who in his Guide for the Perplexed insists that “the negative attributes of God are the true attributes.” [11]

This smattering of theologians of widely varying views is hardly meant to indicate that I accept the view of godhead proposed by any one of them or even that I fully understand their positions. Rather it is excellent evidence that I and perhaps you are not wholly idiosyncratic in the attempt to save spirituality from the supernatural. The experience of people as far back as records exist has included experiences of what Romain Rolland in a 1927 letter to Freud, called "oceanic feeling." [12] Whatever one may make of it, the records of such sensation s are clear and consistent throughout human culture. There can be no doubt that people, often using one of a variety of mind-altering techniques such as fasting and meditation, have through the cultivation of cosmos-connected consciousness, achieved an enviable level of serenity and satisfaction. These empirical data carry far more weight than the theories of thinkers seeking to justify such spiritual endeavors, yet they imply the need for each individual to pursue enlightenment anew. The words, even of Gautama Buddha, are, "like a man pointing a finger at the moon to show it to others who should follow the direction of the finger to look at the moon. If they look at the finger and mistake it for the moon, they lose sight of both the moon and the finger." [13] And this orientation to the lunar sphere, which is to say to the sublime, persists in spite of the fact that the liberated mind perceives the hollowness of all phenomena, “all construings, all excogitations, all I-making & mine-making & obsessions with conceit.” [14]

1. See the Avadhuta Gita 1.25 and the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 2.3.6.

2. Majjhima Nikaya 63 MN 63, called the Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta.

3. Aïguttara Nikàya A.I.174, Jataka VI,208.

4. Dhammapada 165, here in Paul Carus’ translation.

5. Of course, many Buddhists reverted to the Hindu belief in reincarnation as well as to the apotheosis of Buddha and other figures.

6. See Timaeus 28c.

7. All references to pseudo-Dionysius may be found in Mystical Theology I, 1-3 and Divine Names cols. 585-588, and 593 and in Harrington and Corrigan’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

8. The Life of Moses; translation, intro. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson ; pref. by John Meyendorff , p. 81.

9. The Divine Being, Sermon XV.

10. De Confusione Linguarum, 27 [i. 425].

11. In Chapter 58.

12. Discussed by Freud in Future of an Illusion (1927) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1929).

13. Surangama Sutra trans. by Charles Luk.

14. Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta: To Vacchagotta on Fire, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

Tristan Tzara, Poet of Manifestos

Numbers in parentheses refer to Tzara’s manifestos listed just following the essay. I used Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries translated by Barbara Wright from Riverrun Press, New York to avoid quoting in French and including translations. The originals are readily available.
Numbers in brackets indicate endnotes.

Tristan Tzara pioneered the development of the manifesto as a literary form, [1] a movement across movements that persisted throughout the twentieth century and, in a quieter form, into the present. To me his poetry and drama generally work best in performance. While on the printed page the appeal of much of his work is less apparent, his manifestos retain their lively and likable energy.

The invention of this new genre, as well as the reinvention of performance poetry, was, perhaps, natural given Dada’s profound and polemical skepticism. For Tzara, Arp, and others a fiercely radical questioning approaches nihilism like an asymptote, yet their political, aesthetic, and spiritual idealism remains always a flicker, peyrceptible to the discerning reader. In the realms of conceptual art, chance, and the privileged valuation of the ephemeral, Tzara’s early twentieth century pronouncements are groundbreaking.

To be sure, Tzara could not have been clearer about his manifestos being anti-manifestos. In his seminal “Dada Manifesto” he notes the paradox and readily admits his self-contradiction: “I am writing a manifesto and there is nothing I want, and yet I’m saying certain things, and in principle I am against manifestos, as I am against principles.” He later writes under the guise of Monsieur AA, the Antiphilosopher. Dada, he says, “doubts everything.” “Everything we look at,” he insists, “is false.” “We don’t accept any theories.” Dada is “a word that throws up ideas so they can be shot down.” (2)

Playing up the destructive potential of his position in dramatic form, he proclaims ”there is great negative, destructive work to be done.” Dada is “like a raging wind that rips up the clothes of clouds and prayers, we are preparing for the great spectacle of disaster, conflagration, and decomposition.” (2) Anticipating Jimi Hendrix, he calls for musicians to smash their instruments on stage. (3)[2] “Every act,” according to him, “is a cerebral revolver shot.” (6)

If nothing whatever can be known, making everyone an "idiot,” as Tzara calls himself and his readers alike (5), what then? If the poet is a mere “fart in a steam engine,” (7) what more can be said? Avoiding as Gorgias had done millennia before, the desolate and boring aporia that might result from a conviction that Truth is altogether inaccessible, Tzara turns to his own subjectivity. This is essential because, “a work of art is never beautiful, by decree, objectively, for everyone.” (3) Since every consciousness is unique, the individual must shed “the pursuit of I worship you.” (4) Authority, including Tzara’s authority, is illusory. Thus the manifesto reader must not be “led astray by Aaism,” (4) that is to say, by the very document he is reading. Tzara rejects the very possibility of discursive thought. Some explain, he says, while others learn, but both deceive themselves. Abolish both the teacher and the learner and you have dada. (7) He calls, in fact, for “NO MORE WORDS,” though he cannot avoid using words as he does so. (5)

Only by entering into his own mind can the poet make progress: “With the words I put down on paper I enter, solemnly, into myself” (6) Tzara refers to this inward turning as “selfkleptomania.” (7) To him he is simply making explicit what is inevitable in any case. As he says, one may try to write a manifesto, but “it’s your autobiography that you’re hatching under the belly of the flowering cerebellum.” (7)

The dominant result of this introspection is an extraordinary ebullience, irrational exuberance and high spirits arising from some unquestioned, unquestionable base in a pyrotechnic display of excited language. Delightful little verbal displays pop off here and there. He maintains, for example that art is to be identified not only with Dada, but equally with plesiosaurus or handkerchief. (3) He renews the reader’s subscription to “the celluloid love that creaks/ like metal gates” (4) The phrase “for the saxophone wears like a rose the assassination of the visceral car driver” occurs in the middle of a passage as scintillating and fast-moving as the world of subatomic particles. That passage ends “thus drummed the maize, the alarm and pellagra where the matches grow.” (6) At times, Tzara’s manifestos are so rich in this pure poetry that one feels as though one is eating bonbons. “Dada is a dog – a compass –the lining of the stomach – neither new nor a nude Japanese girl – a gasometer of jangled feelings.” (7) And so it goes, infused with wild unpredictable imagination and passionate enthusiasm.

In the end, “Dada is our intensity.” Spectacle rules: “We are circus ringmasters.” “It’s still shit, but from now on we want to shit in different colors” (6) the cosmos then becomes a marvel, “the spermatozoon ballet” (4), at which one can only look on in wonder.

Yet, Tzara sounds a word of warning. Significance is lurking in the shadows. “While we put on a show of being facile, we are actually seeking for the secret essence of things.” (1) Tzara’s pseudonym on top of a pseudonym for several of his manifestos is M. Antipyrine, a name suggesting a healing nostrum. The psycho-aesthetic-spiritual solution suggested by Tzara (and other Dada artists) has much in common with Zen Buddhism. [3]

Tzara’s pseudonym with its associations with the French word triste draws attention to the universal suffering that motivates the Buddhist search for enlightenment. [4] He repeats the line “You’re all going to die,” (7) as if this fact poses the essential problem of life. The solution to this problem is in both cases experiential rather than logical. Tzara insists that “logic is always false,” (2) a contention that, were it not so baldly stated, could be a portion of a Zen sutra. He speaks nearly explicitly about enlightenment: “We really know what we are talking about, because we have experienced the trembling and the awakening.” (7) Dada arises not from intellection but from living: Dada, Tzara says, is “the roar of contorted pains, the interweaving of contraries and of all contradictions, freaks, and irrelevancies: LIFE.”(3) The twentieth century artist recalls Nagarjuna and Advaitist Vedanta when he proclaims that dualities are a fraud, specifying “order=disorder; ego=non-ego; affirmation=negation.” (2) [5]

Finally, and most dramatically, Tzara agrees with the sages that we are really liberated all along, though unconscious of the fact. Nothing really changes with sublime knowledge. One returns at last to the point one had occupied all along. The “three laws” of God are “eating, making love, and shitting.” (6) The story is told of Baizhang Huaihai among others that, when asked how he pursued enlightenment, replied “When hungry, I eat; when tired, sleep.” Yet somehow, in both cases, everything is transfigured.

1. Monsieur Antipyrine’s Manifesto 1916
2. Dada Manifesto 1918
3. Unpretentious Proclamation 1919
4. Manifesto of Monsieur AA the Antiphilosopher
5. Tristan Tzara
6. Monsieur AA the Antiphilosopher Sends Us this Manifesto
7. Dada Manifesto on Feeble Love and Bitter Love


1. The word manifesto had earlier been used for many political declarations such as Bolivar’s “Cartagena Manifesto,” Peel’s “Tamworth Manifesto,” and, most notably, Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century several anarchist manifestos appeared. Very likely the move from the social realm to the aesthetic was facilitated by the military analogy suggested by the term avant-garde.

2. Hendrix did this at Monterey in 1967, but he had been preceded by Jerry Lee Lewis destroying pianos in the 1950s as wel l as by Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck and others. In the realm of avant-garde art, Nam June Paik smashed a violin in 1962 as part of his "One for Violin Solo" and the gesture had become enough of a convention that a Destruction in Art Symposium was held in London in 1966 which involved a number of “destruction events.” Two years later a similar event was held in New York City. Oddly, Townshend had studied with Gustav Metzger who was the central figure in the London symposium.

3. I am hardly the first to note the similarities. See, for instance, Won Ko’s Buddhist Elements in Dada: A Comparison of Tristan Tzara, Takahashi Shinkichi and Their Fellow Poets.

4. In fact the name Tristan is Celtic meaning noise, and is not derived from the Latin tristis, though the association is prominent in Tristan and Iseult as well as with Tzara, who, according to Paul Cernat’s Avangarda românească și complexul periferiei: primul val, said that it was meant to recall the French phrase “triste âne tzara” ("sad donkey Tzara"). According to Serge Fauchereau's report (also recorded in Cernat), Colomba Voronca recalled Tzara’s explaining it as a play on the Romanian phrase trist în țară, meaning "sad in the country." In 1925 he legally changed his name from Samy Rosenstock to Tristan Tzara.

5. Tzara reinforces the point while incidentally anticipating Derridean deconstruction in section IV of 7.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Pindar’s Athlete in Pythian 8

This essay quotes the English translation edited by Diane Arnson Svarlien on the very useful Tufts Perseus website. Line numbers are in parentheses.

Apart from Classicists, who reads Pindar? And yet we have a generous share of his poetry though it is a small fraction of his collected works. Several factors may play a role apart from the general decay of interest in antiquity. Pindar depends on his readers’ familiarity with the immense web of mythology by which the Greeks and, indeed, all pre-modern people made sense of their world. Like most writers immersed in a living culture, he assumes that he need not narrate the stories of the gods and heroes but need only allude to them, often in fleeting and oblique references. Even the specialist may consult a reference now and then for names and stories that Pindar’s original audience knew from childhood. Footnotes and a Classical encyclopedia with a modicum of patience and rereading can remedy this defect for the motivated reader, but I suspect there is another way in which contemporary American culture has deviated from the ancient Greek’s that might interfere with our appreciation of his writing.

Though American now has gymnasia springing up on every corner and joggers jostle each other in parks and roadsides, athletics had an even more prominent place in Thebes in the fifth century B.C.E. In part perhaps due to the need to be prepared for total mobilization in wartime, in part associated with a pervasive homoeroticism, and in part reflecting the pursuit of arête in all fields, athletics was celebrated by the Greeks. In my own youth we assumed that intellectuals and athletes were largely mutually exclusive categories, often antagonistic. Physical “education” has always seemed to me a contradiction, and university athletics a maddeningly unjustifiable distraction in higher education. Never in my adult life have I watched a sporting event. Yet I adore Pindar, most of whose surviving works are in praise of victors in competitive athletic contests. What did physical culture mean in the ancient world?

For all today’s fashion for fitness, we are likely to be surprised when Socrates upbraids Epigenes for being out of shape. [1] Socrates cites many reasons in support of universal physical conditioning, noting first of all that a good citizen must always be prepared for war. Yet he does not stop there. He maintains that workouts lead to not only better health and longevity, but also to better cognitive function. Finally he notes that “it is a disgrace to grow old through sheer carelessness before seeing what manner of man you may become by developing your bodily strength and beauty to their highest limit.” Here is an almost aesthetic argument: pride should lead to exercise from a desire to excel not in functional strength alone but in beauty as well and not merely the beauty of a buff physique, but that associated with fulfilling one’s potential.

As a professional poet Pindar may have written his victory odes for the same reason that another gifted writer might compose soft drink jingles, because someone will pay for such a product. But, apart from effusive praise of the winners, their families and hometown, he includes a more elaborate and subtle version of the final justification offered by Socrates.

According to Pindar, “with a willing mind” a person “may observe a certain harmony on every step of my way.” (66-7) That harmony is the experience of the deep order present in the kosmos which one may glimpse through excellence of any sort.

The poem opens with an address to Hesychia, a personification of peace and serenity, associated with Aigina as a well-ruled thriving city. It may seem incongruous that a figure of peace should also be identified as “holding the supreme keys of counsels and of wars,” (3-4), but Hesychia is described as daughter of Justice, and justice, of course, requires enforcement and, at times, even coercion. The kind of calm Pindar has in mind is not empty, but rather a beautiful order of the sort the Greeks saw in the universe as a whole. The Greek word kosmos fundamentally means well-organized, and has both moral and aesthetic dimensions, being used to indicate good behavior or morality and also beauty. Only when a system is properly ordered may it be quiet and calm.

This peace may be threatened by forces represented in mythological terms by monsters and giants. In Pythian 8 these are Typhoeus and Porphyrion who are defeated by Zeus and Apollo respectively. The successful battle against these archaic forces of evil by gods associated with Hesychia is the theme of the first triad of the poem. The same Apollo that overcame disorder in the past welcomes the victor in the present day.

The second triad praises the excellence of the rulers of Aigina, the Aiakidai, descendents of Aiakos, son of Aigina and Zeus and the origin of the family of the Meidulidai to which Aristomenes belonged. Aigina had a close relationship to the poet’s own city of Thebes and a disproportionate numbers of his odes are concerned with athletes from that island. Though mentioning other prominent athletes from Aigina, he turns in the epode from the heroic activities of these Aiginitans‎ in a rhetorical apophasis, saying he cannot linger on their greatness but can only speak of Aristomenes, “the nearest of all beautiful things,” and in this way “take flight” through art. At the end of the epode he makes a transition from Aigina to his own city of Thebes by mentioning the words of the prophet Amphiaraus who saw there “by nature the genuine spirit of the fathers is conspicuous in the sons.” (45-6)

By lauding the deeds of Alcmaeon and Adrastus he not only provides a conventional if oblique compliment to Aristomenes, he also places the action of the athletic contest of the present in the context of the legendary past and places the living individuals in a lineage that includes Oedipus, and Laius, Labdacus, and Cadmus before him. These stories legitimize and transform the suffering and struggles of the present by placing them in perspective as inevitable and divinely ordained, an opportunity for heroes to realize their own heroism.

Among the countless details of the mythic patterns that shape the poet’s view of the Theban wrestler’s victory are the circumstances of Amphiarus’ participation in the campaign of the epigonoi. The seer himself is a type like Achilles of fortitude in the face of an adverse destiny and his son Alkmaion’s qualities magnify the achievement of Aristomenes. Alkmaion is said to be the poet’s “neighbor” and “guardian” of his possessions as well as the source of prophetic oracles. (56-60) According to Diodorus Alkmaion was persuaded to participate in the attack against his first inclinations by his mother Eriphyle who had been bribed by Thersander with the necklace or, in some versions, the robe of Harmonia, objects which had already a history of cursing their owners. This incident, clearly a doublet of her earlier sending her husband into battle due to being offered the very same necklace by Polynices, casts an ambiguous light on harmony and order itself. Here harmony leads to deception and death and consequently to the violation of taboo when Alkmaion later kills his mother in revenge.

The web of myth invoked by the poet connects with the present through innumerable other associations, introducing not only a rich and rounded vision, but one that highlights irreducible radical ambivalence. Yet he is altogether sincere in his invocation of Hesychia because arête is a refuge from the unwinnable game of life. One is uplifted through the practice of excellence by a miraculous afflatus. A parallel role is played by the phorminx or lyre in Pythian 1 whose music is said to bring calm and order even to the world of the gods.

The redemptive power of developing one’s abilities “to the highest limit” is what Socrates recommended to Epigenes, saying that only in that way might he might see “what manner of man you may become.” And the motive is urgent. Buddha’s preaching pictured the unenlightened consciousness in this harsh world as a man whose house is burning or who has been struck by a poisoned arrow. Though Pindar does not use such dramatic images, he looks at life with open eyes and finds the human existential circumstance not merely threatening but approaching the unbearable. The problem inspires some the poet’s loftiest moralizing, familiar sententiae to be sure, but informed here by passion and depth. The conclusion of this poem celebrating human achievement focuses instead on human impotence.

But the delight of mortals grows in a short time, and then it falls to the ground, shaken by an adverse thought. [95] Creatures of a day. What is someone? What is no one? Man is the dream of a shadow. (96)

This last phrase echoes the very language of the celebrated gatha in the Diamond Sutra .

All conditioned dharmas
Are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, shadows,
Like dew drops or a lightning flash.

Hanging in a void, feet resting on nothing, one can yet feel a sort of liberation in the thrill of art, a kind of yogic focus in extraordinary athletic achievement, a thrill at acts of unusual wisdom, compassion, or courage. In celebrating the victor of a wrestling match, Pindar celebrates the human species, which in the face of mortality and suffering, nonetheless strives, and sometimes succeeds, in bathing in the “shining light” of Zeus, and, for a time at least, experiencing a “gentle lifetime.” By ignoring ESPN, perhaps I have failed to note that fans of NFL are, in their own way, seeking spiritual sustenance along with beer and chips. Pindar might have thought so.

1. Xenophon, Memorabilia of Socrates, 3.12.1 -13.

The Heart of the Blues

The text follows.

Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” immediately places the listener in the heart of the blues, lamenting in an artful manner and in that way transcending or at any rate accepting the pain of life. The title itself has a certain stately, slightly learned sound, as though it might have been found in a sonnet or a madrigal (an association I find also in “Careless Love” though that song is, I think, unknown prior to Buddy Bolden). “Vain” may well be derived from church usages, perhaps sermons on Ecclesiastes.

The primary reference is eros; in the first stanza the persona’s lover is departing and he follows hopeless to the station, under her spell but unable to alter the fact of their separation. His feeling of helplessness and confusion is eloquently expressed in the line “Well, it's hard to tell, it's hard to tell, when all your love's in vain.” He sounds as though he were dazed from a concussion as well as lovelorn.

Tension mounts in the second stanza when he establishes a valedictory eye contact in a final attempt to appeal for reconciliation. Yet the gesture only depresses him further: “Well, I was lonesome, I felt so lonesome, and I could not help but cry.”

The song focuses on the lyric moment of the departure of the beloved on a train, yet this precise focus, like the pinhole opening of a camera oscura, provides a much broader view. The pain of love longing is generalized from sexual romance to suggest all suffering but, further, the fundamental anxiety of our species when contemplating the passage of time.

The third and climactic stanza is most compact of all. The suffering of life has been compressed into the train’s lights, shrinking and shortly disappearing into the void, leaving the singer devastated and yet still singing. The red and blue lights come to signify the phantasmagoric world of everyday phenomenal reality passing as the river of time flows on unstoppable. The most essential formulation of the speaker’s existential woe is not a woman or other specific sources of pain, but rather the constant passage of time. The train’s vanishing lights represent the reality that is constantly slipping away from us, suggesting the same poignant feeling as a train’s distant whistle or, in Yuan drama, the cries of wild geese. In this way each of us will one day see the world itself receding.

In the song’s coda the lover transcends language itself, adding moans and cries to the name of the beloved and ending by repeating the theme: “all my love’s in vain.” He howls like a beast or a madman. The only articulate utterance he can manage is the name of the loved one.

Even in this final pit of despair, the tone is mournful but elegiac, implying strength and fortitude. In spite of the persona’s trials, he retains a certain self-possession suggested by the tight poetic form, with its fourteen syllable lines, the first pair of which repeats a concrete Image and the final line stating a subjective mood with uncompromising inevitable iambs. The rhythm insists, “what is, is right,” and the part of wisdom is submission. One may cry, but one may simultaneously sing.

Thus suffering is transfigured by art, and the singer from Hazlehurst, Mississippi joins with the ancient Hebrew preacher (and the Buddha and a range of sages before and after) who with measured and melodious words look with open eyes and call out “Vanitas, vanitatum! All is vanity!”


I followed her to the station with a suitcase in my hand. (2x)
Well, it's hard to tell, it's hard to tell, when all your love's in vain.

(chorus) All my love's in vain.

When the train rolled up to the station, I looked her in the eyes. (2x)
Well, I was lonesome, I felt so lonesome, and I could not help but cry.

When the train, it left the station, with two lights on behind. (2x)
The blue light was my blues; the red light was my mind.

Hoo-hoo, ooh, Willie Mae
Oh oh hey, hoo, Willie Mae
Hoo-hoo, ooh, eeh, oh woe
All my love's in vain

Notes on Recent Reading 34 (Hawthorne, Huncke, Bentley)

The House of Seven Gables (Hawthorne)

Hawthorne took the Gothic novel toward sublimity with this Protestant New England tale in which the role the supernatural plays in the plot while essential is always secondary to the moralizing. The modern reader may find Phoebe a bit cloying in her sweetness and Judge Pyncheon too vicious, but the narrative is gripping, the roots in American history are deep and authentic, and the rhetoric is a pleasure. Hawthorne has the leisurely way of old novelists of lingering over the trees or the weather and yielding to distraction by village side scenes, but these pauses are virtually all lyrical, and they build together to an image system that reinforces the whole in a way that few novelists can achieve. Though Phoebe, Holgrave, Hepzibah enjoy a happy ending,, sweeping even Uncle Venner with them, their unmixed bliss might ring hollow after the earlier concentration on sin which has generated the curse that oppressed the Pyncheons for generations. Their suffering occurs in a context of a town regularly portrayed as venal, gossipy, and ruled by selfish hypocrites. The economic theme of the ruling class oppressing the poor governs the conflict between Pyncheon and Maule even if it is magically dissolved by marriage in the end. Hawthorne provides as good an answer as most to the question of how one may live in an irretrievably fallen world. D. H. Lawrence found a “diabolical undertone” in The Scarlet Letter, and he would doubtless have sniffed the same sulfur in the Pyncheons’ Salem, but in fact Hawthorne was neither of the devil’s party nor on the side of the institutional angels. He was caught between, a dilemma that describes most of us, and there his strength lies.

The Herbert Huncke Reader (Huncke)

Though I have been fascinated by the possibilities in life and literature offered by the Beat writers since my adolescence, I had never read Huncke. Having just finished this sizable, anthology, I don’t feel unhappy about my long neglect. Huncke is no stylist. Ginsberg’s praise of his writing illustrates generosity to an old friend more than a literary judgement. Yet I am susceptible, as were the Beats when they met him, to his outsider charm. As junkie, thief, and sexual hustler he is as demi-mondaine as they come. And he doesn’t make it easy for his buddies, lovers, or readers; he is completely upfront about his readiness to rip off whoever was available when he needed cash without worrying about hurting friends or strangers. Still, in the life he led he accumulated countless stories and he is a decent story-teller, leaving his narratives so unembellished that they seem as though they must be true. Readers with a taste for the scene will relish these tales from a very real and genuinely dangerous edge of experience. I would not have cared to go straight through, but in small doses most of his sketches have their rewards. Those who are fascinated by the Beat scene will find a great deal here, even if much is unprocessed. I will doubtless retell such moments as Bill Burroughs’ first taste of opiates. (Huncke suspected Burroughs of being a narc and noted his Chesterfield overcoat, already fifteen years out of style.)

A Modern Tragedy (Bentley)

Phyllis Bentley was a bestselling author in Britain (and did very well in the USA) from the thirties through the fifties. Much of her fiction was centered in her region, the West Riding of Yorkshire where the textile trade dominated the economy and the author’s father was a mill owner. This 1934 novel, basically a love story about inadequate love, is shadowed by the Depression, and Bentley, though conservative in her sympathies, reveals considerable insider detail about the manufacturing processes of the industrial firms that produced cloth and the class structure that supported the economy. Characters are clearly sorted into upper class, among which one finds “proper” operators with old-fashioned integrity and a sharp dealer who does not shrink from fraud; middle class, striving to rise while fearing a fall. The workers, who include a fiery radical union activist reminiscent of Peter Sellers’ Fred Kite in I’m All Right Jack, seem tacked on for the sake of completeness. The primary market for the book, of course, lay largely with the first two groups. While expressing distress at the suffering of the poor, for instance in Rosamond’s reaction to the hunger marchers, the novelist accepts the whole system and suggests that the left-wing Milner Schofield is an activist for reasons more psychological than political while the aged mill owner Henry Clay Crosland is morally exemplary. A few romances cross the upper and middle class lines; the workers are in this way neglected.

I would not be as harsh as the Kirkus reviewer who, at the novel’s publication called it “weak in plot and unconvincing in characterization.” The prose is straightforward for the most part, ignoring the radical innovations in fiction that had appeared well before its publication. Bentley goes in more for moments of pathos or insight into character than for flights of rhetoric, but the story is well-designed with an opening scene that accumulates significance as the narrative proceeds. Walter’s descent into collusion with crime is quite believable, though I can’t swallow Tasker’s return to face prosecution. Not a bad read, this is the sort of book once called “middlebrow,” the sort that can still bring works of fiction to today’s market, glutted as it has become with self-help and glib celebrities.

I suppose it is a sign of its lasting appeal that A Modern Tragedy survives in audiobooks today. Many critics seem to prefer Bentley’s earlier Inheritance.