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
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Saturday, July 1, 2017

Index

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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
Banjo (March 2017)
A Brief History of Negritude (February 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)
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'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)
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)
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)

D. songs
Blind Willie Johnson Preaches (May 2017)
"Down the Dirt Road Blues" [Charley Patton] (October 2011)
Fishing Blues [Henry Thomas] (October 2015)
Foggy Dew as Symbol (July 2012)
The Imagery of Hokum Blues Songs (July 2015)
"Lady Maisry" (November 2013)
"Moon Goin' Down" [Charley Patton] (May 2013)
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)

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)

Baudelaire’s “Painter of Modern Life”



Numbers in parentheses refer to the translation of Baudelaire’s essay readily available at http://www.writing.upenn.edu/library/Baudelaire_Painter-of-Modern-Life_1863.pdf. The French text may be read at https://www.uni-due.de/lyriktheorie/texte/1863_baudelaire.html among other sites. Numbers in brackets refer to endnotes.


In “The Painter of Modern Life” Baudelaire managed to define the character of the art of his own time with sufficient acumen and aptness that much of what he said remains useful today, a century and a half later. Indeed, to many literary historians Baudelaire is the first modern poet. In his own time, Verlaine declared that he represents “puissament et essentiellement l’homme modern” [1], and this opinion has since become a commonplace. [2] Baudelaire’s exemplary painter (called in the essay M.G. but since identified as Constantin Guys) is described as self-taught, transcending earlier aesthetic standards. The artist’s peculiarly modern excellence is a result of his radical rebellion and his absorption in the modern scene, his fascination with the tumult and confusion of mass life in the present urban-centered era, redefining what has become of “the work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction,” in Benjamin’s phrase. In many ways Baudelaire’s vision was prescient, extending the trajectory of artistic Bohemia beyond his own day and anticipating twentieth century concepts of hip, while in certain respects, in particular the willful facelessness of Monsieur M.G., Baudelaire’s judgement seems wide of the mark.

Going far beyond those who contributed to the Salon des Réfusés, Baudelaire chooses to champion a self-taught artist (2) who worked primarily as an illustrator and cartoonist. This choice implicitly overturns not merely the specific taste represented by the Académie des Beaux-Arts’ Salon de Paris, the most prestigious French exhibit since the middle of the eighteenth century, which Manet and the impressionists were challenging. Baudelaire’s more far-reaching critique questions fundamental aesthetic values, thus anticipating the rhetoric of the twentieth century Futurists, Dadaists, and Surrealists.

Indulging his taste for provocation, Baudelaire praises M.G. for not being an artist but rather a “man of the world” (“homme du monde”). He asserts that most artists are “very skilled brutes, mere manual laborers, village pub-talkers with the minds of country bumpkins.” This conventional type is “tied to his palette like a serf to the soil.” On the other hand with a bias toward the irrational that has been familiar since the Romantic era M.G.’s integrity is implied when he is said to paint like a barbarian, a child, a drunk, or a convalescent. (1,3) [3]

This posture echoes the poet’s rebellious impulse to overturn values. The very title of his principal work Les Fleurs du Mal arises from a perverse wish to celebrate what the world condemns. [4] Often he does not trouble to provide justification, relying instead on the strength of his vituperation to stimulate a corrective review of values rather than straightforwardly making a case for alternatives. Who, indeed, would actually celebrate evil? What Parisian would feel only “spleen” while strolling the streets of the capital? Baudelaire’s fascination with lesbianism likewise signals more an attempt, successful as it happened, to be outré than a fetish of his own. Just as much supposed diabolism (in outlaw biker and heavy metal imagery, for instance) is not so much devil-worship as baiting the pious, Baudelaire seeks a rhetorical, not a logical, effect in his selection of the outstanding modern artist.

The man of the world exemplified by his chosen artist is a “spiritual citizen of the universe” “who understands the world and the mysterious and legitimate reasons behind all its customs.” (2) How does he gain such hermetic wisdom? Baudelaire defines two types of privileged observers: the dandy and the flâneur.

Both represent observers who are at the same time detached and wholly absorbed in the urban scene. The dandy expresses in what would today be called lifestyle choice “the aristocratic superiority of his mind.” Never “a vulgar man,” he “comes close to spirituality and to stoicism.” His personal cultivation of beauty, a “form of Romanticism,” implicitly reproaches the bourgeoisie. (10) The pose of the aesthete, the apostle of beauty, of course, flourished with the aid of Pater in Wilde and Whistler and then in Saki and Ronald Firbank. The dandy remained recognizable in the crowds at San Francisco’s Fillmore, done up in beads and crystals and feathers, gowns and robes and unlikely thrift store ensembles. Whether or not Baudelaire was correct in claiming that “dandyism is the last flicker of heroism in decadent ages,” representing ‘what is best in human pride,” it is quite certain that it represents “opposition and revolt.” (11)

Yet M.G.is not exactly a dandy. Though Baudelaire says he “would have a sheaf of good reasons for the word ‘dandy’ implies a quintessence of character and a subtle under-standing of all the moral mechanisms of this worlds,” he resists using the label. While “the dandy aspires to cold detachment,” his artist friend is a passionate lover of life with even an “excessive love of visible, tangible things.” (4)


"Thus the lover of universal life moves into the crowd as though into an enormous reservoir of electricity. He, the lover of life, may also be compared to a mirror as vast as this crowd: to a kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness, which with every one of its movements presents a pattern of life, in all its multiplicity, and the flowing grace of all the elements that go to compose life. It is an ego athirst for the non-ego, and reflecting it at every moment in energies more vivid than life itself, always inconstant and fleeting.” (4)


This characterization becomes very nearly a definition of art in general for surely the “multiplicity” and “flowing grace,” of lived experience, even its “inconstant and fleeting” nature are not unique to modernity.

The distinction between dandy and flâneur is elucidated by Baudelaire’s use of Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd.” The narrator who had been idly observing the scene in the street in just the sort of receptive mood Baudelaire had praised as typical of the man of the world, “in one of those happy moods which are so precisely the converse of ennui—moods of the keenest appetency, when the film from the mental vision departs.” Enjoying this heightened consciousness he observes various easily categorized and understood types when he notices an old man and is struck by “the absolute idiosyncrasy of its expression.” Motivated to pursue this enigmatic figure in an attempt to discover his secrets, he concludes after trailing him for an entire day and night, what he had suspected from the outset. He declares, without the slightest evidence, that the old man "is the type and the genius of deep crime.” Thus it is a mercy that he remains inscrutable: "es lasst sich nicht lesen.”

The story’s narrator, then, resembles M.G. in his fascinated attachment to the outside world, while the man he is shadowing remains like the dandy, altogether beyond reach, detached, unreadable. Only the former can provide us, the readers, with a story, but the latter is similarly extraordinary, the first distinguished from the masses by his perceptive sensibility and the latter by his entire involvement in a mysterious but demanding game of engagement. One feels the “man of the crowd” sees through the charades of social life and, rather than withdrawing in reaction, submerges himself entirely in a principled but pointless act of performance art.

The notion of the anonymity of the modern city in which everyone a “a man of the crowd” doubtless influenced Baudelaire in his most striking false prediction. He maintains that M.G. who is, after all, a journalist who typically does not own his work but sells it to a publisher who may or may not even credit him, embraces this obscurity. The reader is told that he “carries his originality to the point of modesty,” that he does not even sign his drawings. Baudelaire’s modern ideal is to “be at the very centre of the world, and yet to be unseen of the world.” (4) Absorbed in the crowd, wholly participating in the mass experience “the observer is a prince enjoying his incognito wherever he goes.” (4)

Many phenomena of art since his time vindicate elements of Baudelaire’s idea of the modern. Dadaists, Surrealists, and others have reinforced his displacement of earlier ideas of beauty. Modern works tend to pervasive fragmentation (evident, for instance, in collage and in such poetic epics as Paterson and the Cantos). The investment of moderns in ephemera, in conceptual and performance works is entirely consistent with Baudelaire’s definition of the modern as foregrounding “the transient, the fleeting, the contingent.” The absorption of the artist in mass culture is evident in Pop Art, street art, and the crossovers into advertising by such figures as Man Ray and Andy Warhol. Indeed, in modern American culture such commercial works as Breaking Bad are often accepted as art even by highly educated people.

If modern artists have more typically sought fame than emulating M. G.’s “modesty,” traces, perhaps of a contrary tendency may be seen in Pessoa’s concealment behind personae, Warhol’s dictum that “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes,” [6] some street and guerilla artists, the Diggers’ Communications Company and the Atelier Populaire in 1968 Paris.

With the end of the old system of patronage, artists were thrown into the marketplace, while, at the same time, their alienation and rebellion led them to resent the bourgeoisie which had become their likeliest customer base. The replacement of the old dichotomy of courtly and popular art was supplanted by a shrinking field of “fine art” and an expanding one of mass commodified art. Baudelaire’s response to the dilemma of the artist in the modern world defined trends which have remained influential to the present day.



1. Verlaine, Œuvres posthumes, p. 8.

2. Among the more influential statements of this idea are in Walter Benjamin’s essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” and Harold Rosenberg’s The Tradition of the New.

3. Other maneuvers meant to evade the conscious mind have included chance operations and outsider art.

4. Baudelaire’s wish to épater la bourgeoisie succeeded so well that the book could not be printed in its entirety in France until 1949.

5. Trailing after people on the street has been packaged as a work of art by numerous artists. The best-known version is doubtless Vito Acconci’s Following Piece.

6. On the screen of a television set by Banksy is written "In the future, everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes,"

How I Came to Work at Scott, Foresman



Teaching Greek tragedy, I sometimes sought to explain fate neither as providence nor predestination, but simply as what one does not know until it unfolds in experience. I asked students to think of how their lives were dependent on chance, not merely their own paths, but even their existence. Had their parents not chanced to meet, through countless events, fortuitous in the sense of leading to their births, they would not be sitting in my classroom. Then I suggested they reflect on the same improbability extending back through grandparents and all the previous generations. In this light each individual’s substantial and indubitable existence was at the same time almost impossibly unlikely and altogether ordinary.

I recall one of John Cage's anecdotes about a woman – I cannot chase it down just now since my copies of Silence and A Year from Monday have vanished from my shelves – o every book less is regretted one day! Cage tells of a woman who had spent her entire adult life in a small New England town. When asked what had brought her there, she said that she had bought a bus ticket when young to the furthest destination she could afford. She never left. Itself implausible, the story is a charming fable of randomness in human life that makes sense to me. In my own life chance has pushed forward quite shamelessly.

During the late sixties, after my university graduation and marriage, the draft was still pursuing me. While the more level-headed among my contemporaries may have pursued professional credentials or begun saving for a down payment, I had dreams of poetry and travel. (Persistent for dreams, these have never left me.) Lacking altogether the career direction that seems to possess most of today’s youth, I realized with some regret that I had to find a job. My hostility to capitalism made most salaried positions distasteful. I would have felt a fraud in any corporate setting, regardless of my productivity. It is often inconvenient to possess values.

My antipathy toward “straight” jobs had, however, a corresponding benefit. Because of the fact that I greeted a host of options with a single reaction (can I carry off the imposture?), I found them all equally acceptable (and equally unacceptable), creating a wide range of choice.

Many of my former classmates stepped into positions open in those days to anyone with a liberal arts degree such as teaching in the Chicago schools or working for the welfare (as it was called). At that time a B.A. was also the ordinary qualification for executive trainee tracks in the business world, so it seemed as though, if Selective Service would just leave me alone, I could certainly find something.

Responding to the random prompts of classified advertisements, I applied all over the place in Chicago: an insurance company or two, a bank, even the Pinkerton agency. I was found to be unqualified as a night watchman by the last, but the bank gave me a job offer contingent only, they said, on my security background check. After a few days they must have heard something, because the offer was withdrawn.

Eventually I found my way to a little one-room employment agency, high in an old Loop office building, the kind with mail chutes next to the elevators in which one could occasionally see letters flash by on their speedy trip from higher floors. This one man operation specialized in placing applicants as writers and editors. The agent’s commission, though steep (more than a month of the worker’s salary) was, in those olden days, paid entirely by the hiring company. The proprietor of the agency sat at a capacious pre-computer desk heaped with papers, one of which occasionally fluttered to the floor as he chewed an unlit cigar and talked. It was the sort of enterprise, I realized, that survived solely on account of this single individual’s contacts and their faith in his judgement. After he had sized me up, he said, “Well, I think I’ve got two good spots for you, one at least, maybe two. Are you willing to write pornography?”

Thinking myself ready for most anything other than manual labor and thinking, perhaps, of Henry Miller and Anais Nin, I assented and, a day or two later, headed out to the west side for an interview at a small company that published three tabloid papers a few notches below the Enquirer and the Star as well as four or five skin magazines (as the pre-pornography genre was known). The production area for the tabloid was a single large room with long tables, more like a lunchroom than an editorial office, with a few glassed-in areas for the head editors. I learned at my interview that my language skills had impressed them. They thought I could scan the heap of equally lurid European tabloids to which they subscribed in search of articles to translate. They were unconcerned about obtaining rights. “Oh, they’re probably stealing from us. That’s the least of our concerns.” I would have the opportunity not only to translate, but to use my own creative powers as well. I got a short course in making stories up from nothing. “For instance, we might run a story with a headline, ‘President Nixon’s Wife Seeks Divorce’ and then quote some unnamed ‘experts’ about potential tell-tale signs. It’s simple to say very nearly anything you like without any problems. Then we could find pictures of each of them scowling and place them together so it looks like they are reacting to each other.”
I did a bit of writing as a sample and had lunch with the staff where I was not surprised to find some interesting people, a number of travelers, artists, poets, and at least one undergoing a novel. I figured I could live with this bunch. The next day I got an offer and asked for a few days to consider.

The following day was the second interview the employment agent had lined up, this one with the textbook company Scott Foresman, famous then for its Dick, Jane, and Sally readers, though it published a wide range of other books, including college texts, and Thorndike-Barnhart dictionaries. This looked very much like a “straight” job. The offices were in a modern building with vast lawns in suburban Glenview, everyone wore suits, and I felt like I had to act a part to make the right impression. To be quite certain I could do that, I took some benzedrines before driving out for my interview. Here, too, my supposed language skills were the excuse for my being considered to work on a series of world literature books aimed at high school honors English classes. That head editor rapidly decided I wouldn’t fit their needs, but I had talked in such a scintillating manner that she referred me to a colleague who was directing the development of a four-year series of books aimed at “inner city” (meaning minority-dominated) schools.

I was to learn that Scott Foresman’s dedication to racial equality was influenced primarily by market forces. Mindful of the civil rights movement but also of Southern states, not a few of which had state-wide text adoption, the publisher had a number of versions of Dick, Jane, and Sally. One was immaculately white, another included darker faces in non-speaking roles, and a third had African-American characters who actually interacted with the angelic suburban stars. There did not seem to be an all-black edition, which must have been an oversight, as all-black schools certainly did (and do) exist. However, the burning cities of the mid-sixties summer riots had unnerved the powers that be enough to call for the War on Poverty and special funding for urban, under-performing, disadvantaged, education. So the corporations responded, and the project for which I was being considered was a result.

Little remains to tell. Perhaps because my recent experience as a VISTA volunteer attested to my suburbanite’s understanding of the underclass, I got an offer from Scott Foresman to be an editorial assistant. I considered. While I felt at home in the demi-mondaine atmosphere of the first option – it would have likely made a more entertaining story -- I possessed just enough prudence to realize that the second would look better on a resumé. So I accepted and spent a few years in a pleasant window office there (though more often hiding out in the carrel at the back of the library), living on very little on Chicago’s far North Side, amassing money to see the world. I learned that among the workers were no less a percentage of artistic, even hip, people than at the disreputable publisher: poets, artists, scholars, some real characters. I found that that to be a high school textbook editor was tantamount to being a high school textbook author. The concept for the series was attributed to a teacher but every word in the finished project, the selection of the readings, the teacher’s manual and other apparatus were all composed entirely in-house. I was told, “There has to be a working teacher as author. He can go and do publicity at professional meetings, but he doesn’t have time to actually write the thing.”

The pace was very comfortable. At least three hours out of four were my own. After a while I joined a simpatico car pool, most of the members of which went immediately to the subsidized cafeteria when we arrived to linger over coffee and pastries before even reporting to their areas. The director of another project hired a new editor, fresh from a spell at the Lama Commune where he had departed after the group failed to accept his suggestion that everyone act out the previous night’s dreams every morning. The fact was that his services were not really needed for six months. I came to understand this lassitude about our productivity when I saw a pie chart of the expenses of publication in which our work was almost unnoticeable among the costs of advertising, salesmen’s commissions, and the actual printing.

When I had to participate in large meetings with marketing staff or potential customers, my boss’s boss, vice-president of editorial services, sometimes made semi-embarrassed but good-humored references to my long hair or my Western boots, but I was never told to conform. I could perhaps have become too comfortable there.

As the time for my departure, known to me but not to them, approached, this v.p. began hinting that there was “something sweet” in store for me shortly. Realizing after sufficient clues that he meant a promotion I kept silent about leaving, thinking that to report a higher title would be advantageous in the future. I don‘t even recall if I made it to the position of “assistant editor,” but I am quite certain it would never have made any subsequent difference if I had.

Remarks on the Grassroots Poetry Scene


Dana Gioia’s celebrated essay “Can Poetry Matter?” hit the mark squarely. The problems he outlined for the form which had historically been considered the most prestigious of arts have only intensified in the quarter century since the essay appeared. [1] Now as then the greatest sign of poetry’s pathology is simply the ease with which people can ignore it altogether. Indeed the N.E.A.’s 2008 report found that the percentage of people who had read any poetry at all during the previous year had dropped to eight, less than half what it had been in 1992, shortly after Gioia’s essay. People who are not familiar with poetry are as a result incompetent to read poems even if they should make the attempt. So the malaise of the art is bad and getting worse.

Gioia laments this loss of poetry’s social role and the diminution of its readership. Folk song remained vigorous among the poor until the advent of mass media. Among bourgeois Victorian families the reading of poetry was a common domestic amusement, and into the twentieth century verse, albeit often patriotic, religious, or sentimental, appeared commonly in general circulation magazines, even in newspapers. The loss of a shared culture may be measured by the fact that a few generations ago Edmund Wilson could publish, in a non-academic journal, an excellent essay contrasting the virtues of Pope and Tennyson. Even in the 1950s remnants of this audience survived in the readers of journals such as the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and the Saturday Review. Gioia is quite right that these educated and curious non-specialist readers have all but disappeared. [2]

He describes poetry is an art without a following, “almost invisible,” in spite of the fact that new books, journals devoted to new poetry, readings, and – most dramatically, perhaps -- M.F.A. programs have proliferated. Doubtless due to his own vantage point at U.S.C., he emphasizes the university nexus as the mechanism that keeps poetry going on life support. His assertion that the home of poetry has moved “from Bohemia to bureaucracy” (by which he means university writing programs) overlooks the huge grassroots poetry scene based in coffee houses, bars, and churches. Yet many of his criticisms are equally valid for the non-academic poetry community which lacks only the sometimes decent salaries offered writers by educational institutions. Having spent my own life in part in academia and in part in the counter-culture, I can appreciate his comments on the creative writing industry, and I feel qualified to add as well some observations on the grassroots poetry scene.

I must, of course, as Gioia did, acknowledge the limitations of these strictures. A number of the poets I hear in my area are skillful, talented, and passionate. Many others at least avoid the gaucheries I here condemn. Like Gioia my concern is not the criticism of individuals but rather the diagnosis of the state of the field. I agree, as well, that those who love poetry can only applaud the proliferation of readings in recent decades. In my region there are events nearly every day – certainly a far more active scene than any other art enjoys, yet some aspects of these community readings trouble me.

I speak here of events in cafes, bars, and churches, not at universities or such major sanctioned cultural institutions as the 92nd Street Y, Poet’s House, or St. Mark’s. While it is certainly striking that so many people consider themselves practicing poets, one sometimes wishes that their number were fewer. For years critics have observed that more people write poetry than read it, and this fact leads to a great deal of half-baked word-stringing presented as poetry. Yet people in the scene are, for good reasons unrelated to art (and in stark contrast to the rivalries so evident in academic and big publishing circles), mutually supportive; one rarely hears a word of criticism. Even reviews of small press books and very often of those from major publishers as well, are generally written by friends wishing to do a favor for friends. I have been guilty of this myself more than once and on other occasions I have been cautioned by an editor to make no negative comment. In this way marketing has displaced criticism. As Gioia said, art requires standards.

The present audience for poetry, Gioia states accurately, “usually consists entirely of poets, would-be poets, and friends of the author.” In a college setting one might add those whose profession is not composing literature but rather literary criticism, but in local readings it is very nearly absolutely true. He notes that the few essays and reviews of new poetry are overwhelmingly positive. “If,” he continues, a literary journal “publishes an interview, the tone will be unabashedly reverent toward the author. For these journals critical prose exists not to provide a disinterested perspective on new books but to publicize them.” This willful critical blindness is even more endemic in the local scene. If even national reviews and professors at prestigious institutions have abandoned “the hard work of evaluation,” this is even more the case among the micro-coteries that support non-academic readings. The accepting and supportive atmosphere at community-based readings may sound big-hearted, but it leads to careless and ill-considered art.

The ritual ratification of the abdication of value judgment is the common polite applause following every poem. [3] Though a reading resembles in part a concert in which, it is true, convention requires applause after every piece, it is also like a talk or lecture at which reactions are deferred for the most part until the conclusion.

One revealing feature of grassroots readings is the consistent inclusion of an open reading following the featured poet. The natural reason for the open reading is to bolster attendance. People are so fond of their moments strutting on stage that they attend for that reason alone with little interest in others’ work. Too often one can observe audience members apparently considering what to read, shuffling thoughtfully through a sheaf of pages while someone else is at the podium. (Unaccountably, these same people often find they must do a good deal of page-shuffling even when their turn arrives to take the stage.) Beauty must be perceived to be realized; the more people focus on themselves alone, the less art has a chance.

Producers, I fear, have a similar motive in scheduling two, three, or even more readers at once. With multiple featured readers each of whom brings friends, the audience swells. To my mind a reading is at best an opportunity to define the work of an individual through hearing a broad enough sample to see what is going on in that person’s work and to form a reasonable judgement. (Of course, there are exceptions such as collaborative work or themed readings.) One does not ordinarily go to hear three different musicians each perform briefly, or to see a triple feature of films.

Whatever one may think of “academic” poetry, and I have been a lifelong heir to the anti-academic tradition descending from Pound through Rexroth to Bly and Blackburn, it provided some peer-reviewed standards. With digital printing technology easily available to all, anyone may print books and journals at will whether they have an audience or not. The old, admittedly unfair system of prestige based on publications has been supplanted by no system at all.

I suppose I here violate, however mildly, he unspoken social code to say nothing negative. The fact is that the relations among poets are ephemeral and of little real interest to others. What matters is the work. And to me today’s poetry at the grassroots shows symptoms of malaise.

The most obvious one to me is the utter lack of melody in much of what is called poetry today. From the origins of the art, poets have created beautiful pattern of sound, using many devices including rhyme, syllable-counting, stress accent, pitch, alliteration, assonance, and the like, yet today there is often little in sound to distinguish “poetry” from prose. I still have poetry notebooks from my middle and high school years. While they may not be worthy of anyone’s perusal today, they are not filled with Angst or callow rebellion or self-dramatization or other faults typical of many people’s teen-aged years. The most common element is experimentation with form: passages in iambs, trochees, anapests, dactyls and imitations of set forms of the past. (The second noticeable element is single words I found intriguing.) The best free verse is always cadenced and rhythmic, though often in unpredictable irregular ways.

Further, the poetry of amateurs, apart from those few who identify with the historic avant-garde, is built largely of self-expression. As Gioia notes, the one-time range of poetry “which had previously been a popular medium for narrative, satire, drama, even history and scientific speculation--retreated into lyric.” Since the Romantic era, lyric means primarily the expression of solipsistic emotion. Though one’s own experiences and obsessions form inevitably an element of one’s writing, all art requires a recognition of the distancing that must occur when the actions of one’s flashing neurons is set down in black and white on a page or in ringing syllables stirring the air. The creation of something beautiful may happen rapidly for a master who has long apprenticed, but the psychic material never succeeds if unprocessed. Whenever I hear someone say that he began writing after a grave illness or the loss of a lover, I expect the worst and I am unfortunately rarely wrong. Self-expression, of course, plays a role, but it is most effective when balanced with considerations of the aesthetic values embodied in the objet d’art itself as well as calculated considerations of the work’s effect on the reader.

Were I to devise circles of hell for would-be poets, I would place among the most egregious offenders writers who expect volume to compensate for slipshod writing. There is a place for declamatory rhetoric, but when a reader announces that he will present a “rant,” I regret having left my ear-plugs at home.

I will here graciously pass over the lesser sins such as lengthy shuffling of papers at the podium or supposedly jocular self-denigration typified by those who say such things as, “I will only torture you with two more . . . no, three.” Another sin, venial if not carried to extreme, is going on too long. No reading, even by a celebrated writer, should, I think, last longer than about forty-five minutes. The acutely open ears required for appreciating live poetry become fatigued by that time. In my own practice, I would much prefer to leave people wishing for one more piece rather than reacting to sensibility overload from one too many.

I feel oddly disarmed at the close of this exposition by the fact that, unlike the more optimistic Gioia, I have no proposals to remedy the situation. While first-rate poetry might be composed at any time, to thrive the art requires a competent readership. At the present all signs seem to point in the opposite direction.



1. The essay, later the first piece in a book of the same title, was first published in The Atlantic, May 1991 and is available at http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/poetry/gioia/gioia.htm. I say nothing here of Gioia’s own work or of his larger social roles first as a marketer of Jello and later of the NEA.

2. American higher education has played a pernicious role in this decline by replacing the ideals of a liberal arts education with vocational training. Though the proper role of universities is the production of new knowledge and, incidentally, the transmission of culture and the general intellectual training of the young, these goals have virtually vanished, overrun by our culture’s principal value, making money.

3. A similar phenomenon in community classical music concerts is the practice, in my area at least, of concluding every performance with a standing ovation. What, then, can the listener do to express an extraordinary reaction?

Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Structural View of Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel



Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel has much to recommend it: a compelling plot that reserves its most dramatic turn for the end, figurative rhetoric that can mount and build like banks of clouds, and layers of irony highlighted by the constant choric commentary and wit of the mordant observations of The Pilgrim’s Scrip and Adrian’s sybaritic musings. Further, these thematic and stylistic qualities appear in a novel structured according to an elaborate design of bipolar oppositions which may be read as a great formal pattern unfolding in time rather like a fugue. This structure, implied by the references to “Magian” or Manichaean conflict, governs the entire work.

It is far from clear just what the ordeal of the title might be. The word is used repeatedly with different implications throughout the text. It sometimes means Richard’s upbringing under his father’s notorious System, which would seem an appropriate focus, but in other passages it signifies simply his initiation into love (or adulthood more generally). Toward the conclusion the word is used (and capitalized) to refer to Richard’s confession of his infidelity to Lucy. Then, too, the reader thinks of his self-imposed ordeals of separation from her and his acceptance of the duel, an “ordeal” in almost the old technical sense of a sort of trial with God as judge. Over all, of course, hovers the legitimate sense of life as a whole constituting an ordeal. Over this most fundamental subject matter, in effect a story of Everyman in spite of Sir Austin’s singular notions (for Everyman is more peculiar than he may think), Meredith spins an elaborate interwoven texture in which warp is as significant as woof.

This ironic ambiguity which critics take to be distinctly modern characterizes the entire novel. The book reads like a comedy throughout yet ends in pathos if not tragedy. Richard, the “Hero,” is often decidedly unheroic. Sir Austin, the philosopher, is far less philosophic than he thinks. On the other hand Austin Wentworth, who appears only now and then, is the sensible Austin, though he can do little to aid the others. Adrian, who is in truth only as much the “Wise Youth” as Richard is the “Hero” or Sir Austin the Philosopher, is in fact shallow and detached, passing his time in self-amusement spouting trifling witticisms each laden with further layers of irony. Lucy Desborough, nearly the only character other than Austin Wentworth to be presented in an altogether positive light, benefits from the lingering idealized convention of the irresistible love-object, a woman altogether virtuous, modest, and lovely. Still, she has her counterpart in Mrs. Berry who plays Emilia to her Desdemona. If Sir Austin is the man betrayed by trying to live too wholly in his brain, Hippias does little but complain of the burden of his body. For every type there is a countertype, for every assertion, its equally valid contradiction.

The thematic pattern of the book is scrupulously dialectic. The opposition between science and philosophy on the one hand and human nature and common sense on the other is sustained throughout at a high state of tension. The author’s own experience of a faithless wife and his authorship of a volume titled The Pilgrim’s Scrip are two among many correspondences that would support the notion that Sir Austin in some sense represents the author. Yet he is regularly depicted as no less deluded, egotistical, and misguided for all his high principles. His “System” is the error that sets the plot in motion.

Likewise, the epicurean wisecracks and arch rhetorical turns which constitute Adrian’s every speech seem at least as close to Meredith’s own convictions as Wilde’s were to his, but Adrian is characterized as shallow and incapable of either deep thought or feeling. In this way most every line that might seem an assertion of the author is no sooner uttered than the ground is cut from under it. The book is a series of mistaken or partial propositions, a catalogue of humors and of error.

Clear as the point may be in the work as a whole, it is more precisely demonstrated in close reading. Though one might almost open to the book at random for evidence, I will cite only two passages, chosen very nearly at random.

Chapter 29 begins with what Meredith terms a “necessary” prelude to Richard’s move toward decisive action. “Let it be some apology for the damage caused by the careering hero, and a consolation to the quiet wretches dragged along with him at his chariot-wheels, that he is generally the last to know when he has made an actual start.” Whereas one might expect a hero to be fully conscious and deliberate, to Meredith he is blundering as blindly as everyone else. Though much of the novel implies the impotence of science in the face of human nature and mere chance, he employs the language of the science of his day: “He may be compared to one to whom, in an electric circle, it is given to carry the battery.” The fact that the séance-like gatherings called electric circles or circuits since the eighteenth century, then popularized by Mesmer, would today be called pseudo-science only strengthens the point. According to Meredith, power is “all Fortune’s,” and humans can only caper comically and helplessly, the victims of ineluctable fate. The Pilgrim’s Scrip reinforces this idea, saying that to be “intent upon his own business” is “with men to be valued equal to that force which in water makes a stream.”

This brief paragraph first evokes the traditional concept of a hero, then denies it by suggesting Richard’s lack of control over the consequences of his actions, describing him as no more the agent of his own life than is an electric current or the onward push of a river. There is of course a strong convention of heroes from Achilles to the Existential “man of action” who are ultimately unable to alter their fate, but whose nobility consists of their persistence, as they go down to defeat with courage, looking at reality without illusion. Richard on the contrary vainly imagines that he is captain of his destiny. Yet, as critically flawed as Meredith’s hero may be in his vanity and selfishness, most readers would sympathize with his romance across class boundaries. If to be a force of nature like that of electricity or flowing water is to be a hero, is not everyone likewise heroic? So in this opening paragraph, one can trace the hero made non-hero and back again multiple times, resulting in a rich ambiguity, a tense contradiction that flickers from one valid evaluation to its opposite, equally valid.

The same paradoxical alternation of judgments is illustrated by Lady Blandish’s attitude toward Wordsworth in Chapter 26. She is discussing literature in a letter to Sir Austin after having, with some misgivings, assisted him in his plan to separate Lucy from Richard. Having said that she is repelled by Gibbon’s cynicism and impiety, she continues, “How different it is with Wordsworth!” Though this line might seem to introduce an enthusiastic endorsement, she follows immediately with, “And yet I cannot escape the thought that he is always solemnly thinking of himself.” Seeking to regain balance, perhaps, this line is succeeded by the defensive ejaculation, “but I do reverence him!” A few lines later he has become “a donkey,” though (we remain on a tightrope with the pole extending equally to the right and left) “a very superior donkey” whose most impressive quality is “stubbornness” as he is incapable of “sublimity. “I love Wordsworth best,” the paragraph concludes, “and yet Byron has the greater power over me. How is that?”

This entire complex system is then itself ironized. To Sir Austin her confusion is explained, not by her humanity, but by her sex. “Women are cowards, and succumb to Irony and Passion, rather than yield their hearts [as he presumably believes he and Wordsworth do] to Excellence and Nature’s Inspiration.”

Many students, and not a few of their professors as well, cherish the notion that one may apprehend truths about lived experience through reading literature, but the fact is that writers are not experts in philosophy, psychology, or science. Their skill is in writing. But, if they cannot prescribe answers, they can precisely and passionately, point to the questions most important to our species. They can then create the most affecting symphonies out of these very mysteries and ambivalences. A claim to solve the great issues that engage us all is in fact a confession of arrogance and reductionism. The great writers leave us always in suspense.

Domestic Incidents from the Life of the Lama Swine Toil



1.
The lama felt dyspeptic after eating a large plate of pakoras while distractedly talking of the loftiest matters. His devotee said, “How can your belly be other than calm, o great enlightened one?” And the lama replied, “If you would be so kind, go out and get me some Tums.”

2.
Lama Swine Toil was very fond of miniature golf. He found that each course made a marvelous metaphor for the course of human lives. He never tired of passing between the turning windmill arms, over the puddle, and finally, into the clown’s mouth.

3.
The lama was beginning a crossword puzzle. “Hmmm,” he said, “a five letter word meaning wisdom. But that is the meaning of every word.” He left the puzzle blank and joyed in its empty perfection.

4.
The lama adored Jello, not with pears or walnuts or even carrot shreds, but clear with luminous artificial color. He would enter the diner, order a serving, and stare into its depths as though it were his crystal ball. Sometimes he would be lost in transports and the waitress would have to bring him around. “This guy,” she said, “the worst part is, he doesn’t understand tipping.”

Cell Phones

I suppose whether I like it or not it is generational, but I can't understand people's attachment to their cell phones. When I'm in the supermarket it seems like everyone else has a phone to the ear while poking through the kale. I feel as though I must be the most insignificant person on earth since apparently everyone else has important business to transact at every moment of the day. Everyman has attained the status of a broker at the beach wearing a Bluetooth with his Speedo.

But that is not necessarily so. Perhaps all these connected shoppers are receiving orders. Perhaps they must buy stewed tomatoes and they are forever uncertain they have remembered the correct brand. It may be that the overlords on the other end of the phone conversation don't trust their minions to keep their errands straight unless they are being constantly monitored and instructed.

They have the furtive look of addicts, like cigarette smokers outside an office building, and, like other addicts, they are never satisfied. If for any reason the connection is broken, through a failure in the system or in the individual device, anxiety amounting to panic ensues.

I did acquire a smart phone, though years later than everyone else. It has proven very slow to share its secrets with me. I know about a half of per cent of its nature, probably less. It is like an acquaintance for some reason reluctant to tell me his surname. The device has looked on me with its minute camera and judged that I am unready to be initiated into the mysteries. It is willing to allow me a telephone call or two, but further intimacy is forbidden.

It clearly has a secret life of which I know nothing. I can understand its lack of interest in me, but in what might it be interested instead? Crunching numbers derived from international weather reports? Hatching nefarious plans with Russian hackers? A long distance electronic affair with a garage door opener in Dubuque? I haven't the slightest idea.

If, as John Scotus Erigena said, God is what we do not know, perhaps this little device is divine. So how would devotees worship such a deity? Clearly Apple is a jealous god demanding constant attention. But all followers fall short. No one can be gazing at the device twenty-four hours a day, but the pious approach as closely as possible to that ideal. Soon there may be communities of contemplatives who spend all their waking hours gazing at the little screens. Hoping to be themselves digitalized and in that way immortal, the poor limited humans do their best to appease the all-powerful microcircuits.

The blasphemous might object that humans in fact invented the iPhone, but of course precisely the same is true of Jupiter and Jehovah. And in the realm of the imagination where these conceptual deities contend, the contemporary Apple must be identical to the apple that wrought such havoc in the Garden of Eden. We are surely the same Adam and Eve ready for any attractive deception that catches our eyes.