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.

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Monday, February 1, 2010

The Funny Papers

My local newspaper has just stopped carrying Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant comic strip, a feature arguably more engaging and attractive than the rest of the paper. The very reasons for the strip’s prestige are doubtless the reasons it was cut: its dramatic story, continuous since the beginning in 1937, and its extraordinary epic panels using narrative rather than speech balloons. In spite of the constant reiteration of similar adventures, the highly conventionalized characters, and the frequent recourse (especially in recent years) to fabulous beasts, I could never resist reading Prince Valiant. In fact, as Eco demonstrated so persuasively in the case of Superman, its repetitive qualities constitute the charm of the genre.

There were at one time many such comics with dramatic stories, told in serial fashion, with only a few pictures every week (or day) to advance the story from one crisis to the next. Mandrake the Magician, often regarded as the first modern superhero, battled iniquity with his third world associate Lothar (in a role like the Green Hornet’s Kato, Lone Ranger’s Tonto, and Red Ryder’s Little Beaver, not to mention Queequeg, Jim, and Chingachgook). As it happened, my grandparents had cardboard boxes containing years of Sunday color comics, so I could experience the almost guilty pleasure of reading one episode after another in quick succession.

In the golden age of comics, they were meant for adults as well as children, just as on screen animation included Grim Natwick’s risqué Betty Boop and Ub Iwerk’s version of Minnie the Moocher (who learned in Chinatown “how to kick the gong around”) with a walrus as Cab Calloway. Since Gilbert Seldes’ 1924 The Seven Lively Arts convincingly argued that popular arts were among America’s most significant cultural contributions, cultural criticism has provided the neat cooptation two-step of reinforcing Seldes’ assertion of the value of studying these works with the very most academic of rhetoric while at the same time ignoring his aesthetic discernment of difference. In fact, some of his aesthetic judgments look sound after all these years: Chaplin, jazz, and Krazy Kat are secure in a newer canon.

My own juvenile reading was focused more on comic books of the “talking animals” type, mostly Disney: the great Carl Barks’ Duck episodes in exotic locales accompanied by stirring and literate writing (such as “The Seven Cities of Cibola”), Mickey Mouse serials in the back with Mickey as a sort of more wholesome Bogart, Uncle Scrooge from the inception. I liked Marjorie Henderson Buell’s Little Lulu and devoured Classics Illustrated, but the book form (52 page comic as many proudly declared) and film animation as well are altogether different from either daily or Sunday newspaper strips like Prince Valiant.

Among the strips from the classic era of this genre, I never cared for the cuteness of William Donahey’s Teeny Weenies. (Palmer Cox’s Brownies had more weirdness, individuality, and art.) Nor was I particularly fond of the inhabitants of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley whose domestic epic of moved in real time and (so far) four generations (while the more recent For Better or Worse by Lynn Johnston, has had time only for a single generation to come to maturity). I do admire George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, but will leave its praise to others who have included E. E. Cummings and Jack Kerouac, as well as Seldes who said it was "the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today." Windsor McCay’s strips Little Nemo features grand and fantastic panoramas and his Dreams of Rarebit Fiend is probably staged as far back in the subconscious as any comic.

Some of the sense of beauty and mystery in McCay and Herriman lingers for me in work like Carl Anderson’s Henry, Otto Soglow’s The Little King, and Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby (where the subject of fantasy itself is engaged in a fashion later explored by Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes), but none of these is a match for Major Hoople of Gene Ahern’s Our Boarding House. I can be enthusiastic about the Major’s costume: the striped pants and wing collars, looking formal if rumpled, and the wonderful fez. His language strove for grandiloquence, though his speeches were regularly punctuated by a wide variety of inarticulate wheezes and coughs, perhaps in part the result of his cigar habit. His conflicts with his wife, a mighty and square-jawed woman were unending (quite a contrast to W. C. Field’s wives who, though shrill, aimed for gentility), Still for all his bulging gut and bulbous nose, the reader would much prefer to inhabit Major Hoople’s coarse majesty than to be one of those critical, rather enigmatic, though normative young men of the boarding house.

Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy was painted by Andy Warhol and appeared in the style of a dozen modernists in a celebrated Joe Brainard Art News cover. These artists may, like myself, have found beguiling Bushmiller’s super-reductive scenes with their geometric simplification of form, his gags, sometimes astonishing in their flatness, but often infused with wonder, with surprise and synchronicities blossoming like orchids in a world of utter convention. A large question mark, suspended in the air in an all but empty living room! Is it numinous?

I am pleased that the strip I most enjoyed as a child seems to me equally worthy today. Walt Kelly’s Pogo seems to me unexcelled in its Shakespearean luxuriance of language, its word-play, inside jokes, and general verbal exuberance. The Okefenokee ability to stretch and disrupt language began with the verbal freedom of regional usage, on top of which each character spoke a specific expressive idiolect. Kelly is one of the great exponents of the comic strip breakthrough beyond language, using words like mumph. Queerp, whooie or “mm.m…mMM an’ MmmmmM” (Howland Owl smelling a tasty pot of food shortly before falling in). He exploited graphic possibilities, using different typeface for P. T. Bridgeport, Sarcophagus Macabre, Deacon Mushrat, and others. He packed the strip with intertextuality, making references to a dizzying range of history and culture. I knew Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered as shady, well-traveled bats long before I had heard much of Ella Fitzgerald, and I read a proverbial sort of warning in Pogo, “You can’t tinker for ever with chance” before I learned there had once been a day when the Cubs were winners. And the pure poetry that sometimes erupted like a glorious geyser in the middle of the page! Who else could declare with such energy:

Come all you young sports,
come eat up your warts,
for that is the way to grow!

Perhaps this is the best-loved of his effusions:

Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an' Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!

Kelly could be lyrical (for a moment) as well:

Have you ever while pondering the ways of the morn
Thought to save just a bit
Just a drop in the horn
To pour in the evening or late afternoon
Or during the night
When we're shining the moon
Have you ever cried out while counting the snow
Or watching the tomtwit warble hello
Break out the cigars!
This life is for squirrels
We're off to the drugstore to whistle at girls

Gorgias of Leontini

This is a revision of one of a number of pieces I wrote for Bruccoli Clark's Dictionary of Literary Biography series. Though it betrays its reference book parameters, I did seek to make some original observations about a fascinating figure.

Although Gorgias made major original contributions to philosophy and rhetoric, he is probably best-known as the antagonist of Socrates’ ideas in the Platonic dialogue that bears his name. Gorgias is, indeed, an appropriate if outstanding representative of the sophists and rhetoricians of the ancient Greek world, and, in spite of the aura of disrepute often associated with these schools, much of his thought seems today strikingly modern, anticipating twentieth century trends in literary theory and epistemology. Both the Gorgias known from the fragmentary remains of his writings and that preserved by Plato are influential and significant for the provocative and skeptical challenges to conventional ideas of truth and poetry and for their positive construction of the role of art in a world of imperfect knowledge.

Gorgias was born in Leontini in Sicily about the year 485 B.C.E. He is said to have been a student of Empedocles and doubtless began his career as a philosopher, including speculating on natural science, but his time and region were the fountainhead of the new discipline of rhetoric, and he turned his attention to language at an early age. His teacher Empedocles is called the founder of rhetorical studies, and Gorgias is also described as a student of Tisias who had learned rhetoric from Korax, the man most often named as the first systematic rhetorician.

The nihilistic theses of Gorgias book on nature may suggest that the author, having devastated scientific positivism, abandoned the pursuit of ultimate truth as inaccessible and turned instead to oratory as an alternative in which unknowability is not necessarily a defect.

When he came to Athens About the year 427 C.E. as leader of a delegation requesting military aid against the Syracusans, he dazzled the local orators with his highly ornamented and rhythmic style of speaking. He was not only successful in persuading the Athenians to make an alliance with Leontini; he had made such an impression that he moved to Athens himself and took pupils, reputedly at a very high tuition. His flai for the spectacular persisted, in his extremely poetic, almost incantatory style and in such gestures as his offering to speak extemporaneously on any subject proposed.

Though he took a good citizen’s active part in political and religious affairs, and a statue of him was erected in a temple of Apollo, his radical philosophic skepticism, his remunerative teaching, and a general suspicion of the deceptive powers of language made him an ideal target for attacks on the new sophistic. Many of the charges unfairly leveled against Socrates in Arisophanes The Clouds, for instance, might with more justice have been directed at Gorgias.

He traveled to other Greek cities, teaching and delivering speeches, but very little of his work remains. He is said to have maintained a very abstemious lifestyle, including remaining a bachelor and refusing invitations to symposia. These austerities may have been salutary, for he is said to have lived well past his hundredth birthday.

The notorious series of propositions first set forth in the lost volume Concerning Nature or What is Not may be conceived as a riposte to Empedocles who had written a text On Nature, but it is thoroughly rooted in Eleatic philosophy. Basing himself on Parmedides and Zeno while adding Protagoras’ insights on the limitations of human knowledge, Gorgias declared first, that nothing can be shown to exist; second that if anything did exist, it could not be known by men; and third, that is anything were known to a person, it could not be communicated to anyone else. Surely a more radical epistemological questioning is difficult to conceive.

While following earlier monistic theories of reality and earlier claims of the relative and limited nature of truth, Gorgias made a distinctly original contribution by extending the doctrine to the inadequacy of language. Here he may be considered the earliest known analogue for such twentiueth century theoreticians as Ferdinand de Saussure who argues the arbitrariness of signs and insisted on the inevitable gap between signifier and signified or Derrida whose deconstruction likewise radically questions the ability of language to bear meaning, but who, like Gorgias, does not conclude the issue with genuine nihilism or barren agnosticism. For, while the accounts in Concerning Nature or What is Not in Sextus Empiricus and in the anonymous De Melisso, Xenophane, Gorgia are almost altogether destructively skeptical (though brilliantly so, recalling Nagarjuna’s Buddhist metaphysics in their uncompromising daring), the Palamedes suggests certain positive principles.

After retstating the claim that truth is inaccessible to the human understanding and that logos could not in any event communicate it, Gorgias goes on to make the surprising claim that this is most appropriate and fitting. The irrational character of the mind answers to the nature of the universal; the ambiguous and contradictory attributes of knowledge are then, in a deeper sense, realistic; and the tragedy of life is best embodied in language. The “fallen” word is not merely adequate, but eloquent in a fallen world.

The Helen elaborates much more fully on these enigmatic ideas. Though Gorgias referred to it as a jeu de’esprit (paignion), the speech hints in artful ways, suggestive rather than dogmatic, at a theory of literature that in some critical points anticipates the Aristotle of the Poetics. Both the authentic verifiable potential and the limitations of language are inherent in this attempt to exonerate Helen. She is innocent, Gorgias argues, if her leaving Menelaus for Paris is due to the will of the gods, to force, to love so great she could not have acted otherwise, or to Paris’ powers of persuasion. It is, of course, this last possibility that most concerns Gorgias.

Admitting that language has the ability to deceive, to beguile, (the Greek is apateo), he nonetheless insists that this is not identical to fraud or lying. In fact, according to Gorgias, the “deceived” man may be wiser than the “undeceived.” Some people, indeed, are too limited, too lacking in humanity to be “deceived.” Tragic drama creates a deception of a sort that embodies reality more fully than everyday perception.

This is a subtle and novel response to an old question. When Hesiod’s muses appeared to him, virtually the first words they said to him were, “we know how to speak many false things as though they were true, but we know, when we want, how to utter truth. Plato’s opposition to the poets was based on this equivocal relation to truth, though balanced by his respect for their potentially divine inspiration, and Aristotle’s claim that poetry “is more worthy of serious attention” than history indicate the importance of the issue for ancient literary theory. The question continued to be debated through Augustine’s grudging allowance of art in support of revelation, medieval didacticism, through nineteenth century “realism” up to such recent formulations as Umberto Eco’s definition of the sign as that which may be used to lie and deconstruction’s profoundly ambivalent attitude toward the truth of the word.

For Gorgias in the Helen, logos is “a great thing,” divine, universal, the source of love for mankind; it is “potent like a drug” (this simile, so richly ambiguous, was mined by Derrida in his Pharmakon). Tragic knowledge, for Gorgias as for Aristotle the primary type of poetic knowledge, is clear and unclouded as contrasted with the seeming reality which constitutes daily human experience. The piece may then be read as a paean to poetry’s powers for penetrating truth, though it is possible to involve this very text in the contradiction it raises by stressing Gorgias’ reportedly light-hearted comment on it and reading it as a cynical exercise in manipulating an audience to vindicate an immoral wrong-doer by pleading the irrational domination of the soul by the same sort of artistic language that constitutes the speech itself.

The same issues form the heart of Plato’s Gorgias, though there the problem is viewed in the perspective of Platonic idealism which will finally allow little room for the aesthetic. Though Socrates treats Gorgias with respect, the skepticism which for him enables and ennobles the role of art is given little expression, and his opinions are thus deprived of their foundation, misrepresented and trivialized. The dialogue features Socrates and his disciple Chaerophon desputing with Gorgias, his pupil and admirer Polus, and Callicles, a politican who serves to take supposedly Gorgian ideas to greater and more easily assailable lengths than could have been attached to the name of Gorgias himself. For Plato the prince[pal object seems to have been to demonstrate the superiority of philosophy over rhetoric from a moral point of view and to insist on the primacy of justice over opportunism in words and deeds.

The dialogue opens when Chaerophon at Socrates’ instance asks Gorgias what he professes to be, thereby inquiring after a definition of rhetoric. Gorgias says that rhetoric is great because it allows to men the very highest power, the ability to work their will in society. Though his admirer Polus calls him “one of the best” at the “noblest of arts,” this definition allows Socrates to relegate it to the sphere of persuasion and attacking it as no art at all, but only a “knack” acquired from experience of how best to manipulate an audience, a variety of flattery and an ignoble part of politics. Socrates further disparages rhetoric’s pretension by likening it to cookery, hardly an art, but rather an learned practice which might sometimes give pleasure. It cannot qualify as an art because it lacks theory and is essentially irrational. Finally, Socrates says that relation between cooking and medicine is analogous to that between rhetoric and justice in that the former term of each pair aims at mere pleasing while the latter aims at the true good. With high seriousness Socrates proceeds to demonstrate that doing wrong is a greater evil than suffering wrong and that the worst misfortune would be to remain without punishment after having committed a wrong. Socrates admits that rhetoric may serve a function, then, in aiding one to expose his own errors and to ask for just punishment and, secondarily, in defending oneself or defending even enemies should they be unjustly accused,
At this point Callicles, the wholly amoral cynical politician of the piece, asks in amazement whether Socrates can be serious.

He then mounts a thorough and self-conscious exposition of the principle that might makes right and that the natural man is altogether selfish, seeking only his own interest in both personal and social arenas. For Callicles law, morality, and social convention are merely for the weak, and a “man of courage” would pay them no heed and pursue only pleasure. Here Gorgias, like Epicurus, is associated with hedonism, although his own pleasures seem to have been highly refined and spiritual. For Socrates, though, pleasure is inevitably identified with goodness, and he proceeds to show that human nature need not be accepted in its natural state but may be cultivated and improved. Callicles remains obdurate, and Socrates reiterates his critical opinions of rhetoric. The dispute is resolved in Socrates’ favor only by a philosophical deus ex machina as Socrates invokes the concept of retributive justice in the afterlife to seal his point, although for him the mythological apparatus only dramatizes the necessity of a virtue which is self-justifying.

The dialogue is quite moving as an idealistic credo, but it wholly neglects the unique powers of language to investigate and formaulate visions of reality. What, after all, is Socrates’ medium when he is not relying on psychic telegrams from his daimon? Historically, the dialogue indicates the depth of distaste for new verbal and intellectual technologies that led to Socrates’ own execution. The same moralistic ideological bias is evident in attitudes toward literature from more modern sources, as well, including some Christians and communists. The suspicion of verbal play and the austere definition of pleasure Socrates present also contrast markedly with his own practice: his delight in confounding his interlocutors and the war, erotic glow that envelops so many scenes of the dialogues. The reductive view of the rhetorician as irresponsible antinomian not only ignores the subtleties in Gorgias’ thought; it also obscures difficulties in Socrates’ train of reasoning. Apart from not questioning the accuracy of words when used for stating philosophic doctrine, Plato also has his Gorgias accept without question the reality of the transcendental categories of truth and justice and the possibility of gaining access to them, and yet still defending rhetoric as the highest art. Still, the Gorgias memorably enacts the collision between idealism and skepticism and, from a partisan point of view, delineates attitudes toward language associated with each position.

Gorgias is a major, if little-recognized, figure in the history of literary criticism. As the individual responsible for transmitting rhetorical theiry to Athens, he helped to lay the foundation for the two millennia of dominance of rhetorical terms in critical thinking about the nature of literature. As a pioneer in developing self-reflection about an art which the Greeks had practiced for centuries, he made numerous specific contributions, among them the elevation of prose to a position potentially equal to that of poetry, particularly through the lavish use of ornaments both in sound pattern and in concepts. His direct influence as a teacher was considerable; Alcibiades, Thucydides, Isocrates, and Antosthenes are numbered among his pupils.

In philosophy he resembles certain modern existentialist authors in taking skepticism almost to the point of nihilism and yet salvaging humanistic values. He extended the Eleatic dialectic to its ultimate logical conclusions, and yet, having eliminated all possibility of meaningful knowledge, managed to reconstitute literature as the sole remaining viable discourse. He was the antagonist whose challenges inspired Plato not only in the Gorgias but in many of the late dialogues. In him can be seen the iconoclastic innovations in thinking that evoked admiration as well as hostility from his contemporaries.

He transformed the practice of rhetoric no less than its theory. His daring use of a superabundance of poetic devices such as antithesis, paronomasia (double meanings), pariosis (repetition of an expression in different connections), and a host of other figures opened the possibilities of artful prose writing forever even as their less effective use led to absurdly labored or tedious compositions. In different ways euphuism, Victorian schoolmaster like Blair, Finnegan’s Wake, and the rhythmic, hypnotice messages of American advertising might be seen as Gorgian. The disputes between those raising the supposedly opposing banners of style and content might be traced to those ancient controversies in which Gorgias played such an important role.

Of Gorgias’ writing we possess only a few fragments. His lost work On Nature or On What is Not is summarized by Sextus Empiricus in in the anonymous De Melisso Xenophane Gorgia. The Encomium of Helen and Defense of Palamedes exist in their entirety while passages are preserved from the Epitaphios and the Olympicus. He is actually most prominent as a reputation (for instance in his appropriation by Plato) and other authors often refer to him either as an example of the nihilistic dangers of sophistry or of the excesses (or extravagant beauties) of language carried to its most elaborate, literature pushed to the limit.

Two Pictures from a Floating World

The traveler's consciousness of "just passing through" affects behavior. On the road, in a floating world, one's perspective is different from at home. These are the earliest two of a series of portraits of people met while traveling.

1. Sandro

Alessandro said, “I think that the only way to overcome the temptation is to succumb to it. Besides, to feel pleasure and pain, one learns so much more.”

His young friend Hector had just returned from Nepal. “I turned the prayer wheels a little, but I had not the right spirit. I was always waiting to see what I’d win.”

“You know, I go to The Tavern,” says Sandro, “and every American I meet, no, I don’t meet him, I sit near to him, and after he gets a little drunk, he says to me, ‘I don’t really dig this place because it’s just like home.’ ‘I don’t like American freaks,’ he says, ‘because I know them so well.’ ‘All the people here,’ he says, ‘they have brought their American hang-ups with them.’ Then ten minutes later, someone else, he says the same words to me, I mean the same words, four, five times in the evening, and yet I see them all there, all together still.

Americans, they are always laughing, always sticking their elbows at each other, making those double-entendre, what?, smart remarks. They always talk about the future, they will go away, go home, should I go home, they even ask this of others . . .”
We had gone to Sandro’s place yesterday to take a shower and smoke a little Afghan hash. He tells us he has published two novels and a volume of short stories in Argentina and won some national prize only to refuse it.

“You know, I just write them a very short, simple note, like a child, I say I will not take the prize because I do not like you. And I enjoy it very much from here, I get the Argentine newspapers and I see the big fuss and what can they say? They cannot say young Argentine writer refuses prize, he says he does not like us. It is the government gives the prize, you know.
This novel I work on now, it is near to the truth, I think, but I hope mainly that I can take a trip to India with Hector maybe. [His manifest destiny, Patricia called it.] I know what I want, it will come. This happens to me always: I find friends, good situations, drugs, I am satisfied intellectually, physically, sexually, emotionally, and it happens in very funny ways sometimes.

For instance, I once see this picture of a girl, she is with Pablo, Hector’s brother, in India and I think, I could get along very well with this girl and six months later I marry her, Pablo marry at the same time her girlfriend.”
The next day he was full of notions about the conjunction of people and places. “How do you find it here? These rocks, they seek people out. We find them, they find us. I’ve met very fine people among in these rocks. And we shall meet again, too – you know – the similar-minded – we shall find ourselves always at the same places.” We never saw him again.
Ibiza, 1970


A cute trickster always doing business at the youth hostel, Najibe described himself as “first hippy of Morocco.” When we first met him in Mufis’ hole-in-the-wall café, he claimed to be a student at an American school and hastened to exhibit a card and a song sheet from some program there as evidence. Najibe would go on about his rich wife in Paris: “She have three hotels, no less than $20 a day, any room. When she die and say I am her man you can come, eat, drink, have room in hotel free. I come back to Morocco, build seventeen story hotel, buy good shop in the old town.” He often repeated, in a slightly melancholy tone “Is first two in Morocco smoke too much, is Pa’ahssysy and Najibe.” When another foreign visitor responded to Najibe’s fantasies of world travel by asking if he hitchhiked on the road, he answered with a contemptuous wave, “Me – avion, very time.” When we showed him a photograph of ourselves, he palmed it and wouldn’t return it (aware, I suppose, of the pleasures of recollection, as I am now, thinking of him). Najibe fabricated endless lies sitting in the cafes talking of his friends James Brown and Jimi Hendrix, talking, too, of depression “I think of life, I think of no life,” talking of homosexuality “all of Morocco, it is homoseckual 100% because it needs much money to pay for wife for marriage, the marriage it is not for me, because I am marry with the homosexual.”
William Seaton, Fes, 1971

Emmy Hennings

This is a draft of one section of a collection of translations of German dada poets.

I begin with Emmy Hennings whose poetry is richly suffused with a tone that goes far to explain the origins of dada. She establishes a mood that was persist in German theater for decades. In her poems a malaise, a conviction of some intolerable derangement in things is linked with a nearly desperate eroticism, yet expressed with redemptive poise and precision. She does use rhyme and meter which I have respected, though I did not always preserve her form exactly.

Emmy Hennings met Hugo Ball, whom she later married, at the Cabaret Simplizissimus in Munich where she was performing in 1913. She had already published a number of poems in avant-garde and leftist journals as well as cultivated her skills as a performance and cabaret artist. Though much of her work was ephemeral songs, dances, and recitations of which we have only the barest record, she also published a volume of poetry entitled Die Letzte Freude in which the following texts first appeared.
As a performer she engaged in dada acts of provocation, but also acted (in the German premiere of Andreev’s The Life of a Man, for instance), danced, sang, and presented puppet shows. She was called “The shining star of the Voltaire” in the Zuricher Post and Ball always said she was a fully responsible collaborator. After the Café Voltaire closed, she and Ball worked together under the name Arabella, appearing in hotels and restaurants.

She took risks, agitating for revolution and forging documents for draft dodgers (for which she received a brief prison sentence). She worked for a time as a prostitute and her one surviving child was brought up by her mother.
Her work expresses the malaise of the era and the Bohemian reaction, heavy with dread yet scintillating with spirit and extravagance. The “Twilight Song” with its ambiguous ending, critiques Wagner while expressing the horror and, to use a more contemporary term, “belatedness” of the twentieth century. Many of her lyrics seem in a way the bohemian counterpoint to George Grosz’s scenes of bestial carnality among the ruling class. With the world disintegrating, she, too grasps after some version of love. Neither her memoir of dada Das Brandmal: Ein Tagebuch nor her autobiography Ruf und Echo has been translated into English.

In a statement rich with historical ironies, Johannes Becher, the Expressionist and Spartacist who later became a Stalinist apparatchik and repressed the same radical artists and intellectuals whose milieu had once been his own, wrote “It was in Munich, at the Café Stefanie, Where I recited for you, Emmy, poems that I dared tell only you."

Twilight Song
for Hugo Ball

Octaves reel, and through the grey years -- echoes
as heaps of days collapse upon themselves.
I want only to be yours.
Within my tomb my blond hair grows;
in elderberry bushes live strange folk.
A pale curtain whispers “homicide.”
Two eyes range restless through the room,
inside our cupboards spirits hide.
Little fir trees are the children’s souls
and ancient oaks the souls of aged men
that whisper of miscarried lives.
The cliff-king sings an old, old tune.
I had no guard against the evil eye,
Though black men creep out of the water pail,
The picture book’s Red Riding Hood
Has me in thrall for once and for all time.

Ether Stanzas

Pardon! I must jump off this ball;
in Paris a beautiful festival reigns.
Crowds collect in the Gare de l'Est
where bright silk banners wave as well.
You won’t find me among them, though.
I’ve run off to this vast big room.
I mix myself in every dream,
a thousand looks and each I know.
A sick man lies in misery.
His last look hypnotizes me.
We long to go back to some lost summer day.
A black cross fills the room.

After the Cabaret

I see the early morning sun
At five a.m. I homeward stroll.
The lights still burn in my hotel.
The cabaret is finally done.
In shadows children hunker down.
The farmers bring their goods to town.
You go to church, silent and old
grave sound of church-bells in the air,
and then a girl with untamed hair
wanders up all blear and cold:
“Love me, free of every sin.
Look, I’ve kept watch many nights .”


To you it’s like I’m marked, my name
just one on the list of the dead.
Too gone to sin in many ways,
I slowly drag through life’s old game,
anxiety in every stride.
My very heartbeat’s sick,
and it grows weaker day by day.
The angel of death now stands inside.
I dance until I’m out of breath --
I’ll soon be in my grave --
I know I’ll have no lover then --
so kiss me until death.


And nighttime when there is no light
and pictures fall right off the walls,
then someone laughs so big and bright
Someone’s long hands grab for me
And then a lady with green hair
who looks at me so very sad --
she was once a mother she swears.
She cannot bear the weight of pain
(I press the thorns into my heart
and then stop full of peace,
and I will suffer every hurt
it’s what is asked of me.)

Sacred Space as Sideshow

Tertullian famously said in de carne Christi “It is certain because it is impossible,” and as we know that intellectuals like himself are inclined to perversity, we will take him at his word, but most can scarcely conceive the blank abstractness of impossibility, dazzling though it must have been to the great Montanist. Therefore we seek a more concrete figuration. The devotees of sideshows and of fantasy fiction share the recreation of seeing the impossible, and their taste is consecrated by ancient usage. Beowulf, after all, was bound with several prose texts in Latin one of which describes the career of a dog-headed St. Christopher who was not merely freakish, but an eighteen foot tall giant to boot, while another codex in the same binding entitled Letter of Alexander the Great to Aristotle features a great battle between men and water monsters, and The Wonders of the East offers many further marvels. So the text of our great Old English epic was preserved neither by hard-drinking heroes nor by poetry-loving aesthetes, but by lovers of horror fiction. It may be that a greater part of the love of poetry than has been recognized arises from a fondness for the extraordinary, the raising of hairs on the back of the neck may be inspired indifferently by impossible conjunctions (such as metaphors, each of which trades in the monstrous and the bizarre), as well as by honeyed words, truth, or the sublime, whatever may be found by experiment to tweak the imagination in a most stimulating way.

Even in overcast October Prague’s Old Town Square is full of tourists sitting at the feet of Jan Hus, waiting for the astronomical clock, that marvel of the Newtonian cosmos for which we now can only feel nostalgia, to strike, and warding off the classical music touts whose handbills, promoting concerts in every hall and church of the city, would litter the ground were everyone not so tidy. One lone leafleter pushed not Vivaldi and Dvorak but the Museum of Torture Implements.

No admission at all was required at the door of the Church of sv. Jakub where the curious visitor might see in the shadows of a high ceiling a five hundred year old withered arm hanging high, its dark irregular undeniably real meat nature contrasting with the gold and jeweled splendor of the ecclesiastical decoration. A thief, it seems, had tried to steal from the Virgin’s offerings, and her image seized his arm and would not let go, so there it hangs making an unceasing prima facie case to all, decently far enough off but allowing the imagination to stitch a custom tailored nightmare, a cautionary tale for each soul’s vice.

In the Loreta, itself Counter Reformation propaganda in stone, a model of a building said to have been miraculously transported to Italy from the Near East, the elaborately rococo altar of the kostel Narozeni is flanked by two saints. Not by paintings or sculptural representations of the saints, not by measly relics whose bejeweled case conceals the juju within, but the sanctified ladies themselves: full-body skeletons of Saints Felicissima and Marcia, dressed in finery, their faces the more horrific for waxen masks. Surely, during a tiresome homily, the viewer’s gaze often drifted to their frozen forms, as, more eloquently than the priest’s words, their silence mocked all vanity.

A nearby chapel honors the lady whose glorious destiny was to become St. Starosta through her wish not to marry. Her spotless virginity was threatened by a marriage of state, a fine match with the king of Sicily, urged by her worldly father. Desperate, she prayed that the dreaded match might somehow be averted, and she woke on her wedding day to find herself with a fine thick full beard, proof then against even the most ardent fiancé. Spooked by this portent, the suitor deserted, imagining already the lampoons that might be composed against him, and her furious father had her crucified. Her image hangs suspended yet in a chapel in a high place in the middle of Europe.

The glory of hegemonic European Christianity was its ability to stretch and make faces. The same mythology that could support the tremendum of the resurrection could produce a comic blustering Herod or stumbling Noah in mystery plays or a satisfyingly sensational seven deadly sins for Marlowe’s Faustus. There were as well sweet and sentimental devotional options, fearless and militant ones, a choice of easygoing life-embracing affirmations or of asceticism, whatever might answer to the believer’s nature and needs, a whole vocabulary of response now shrunk to Sunday morning piety. Thus we see the star of Prague with myriad diamonds, breathtaking weightless Tiepolo-like spirits, gold, gems, elegant craftwork beyond Cellini, but we see also sideshows.
And an American skeptic might see at the base of a side chapel in St. Gall’s the loveliest fluttering cherubs and lushest pink blossoms framing the gory pierced and disembodied hands and feet of the Savior who was said to suffer like the Gypsy woman sitting with her baby outside begging. And having seen beautiful babes in his own home and fine roses by the front doorway, and having just then angry blisters on several toes, at that moment he thought he understood.