Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Food for the Gods

Anyone contemplating the pre-Columbian civilizations south of the U.S. border must be struck by the importance of human sacrifice. Who can forget the tens of thousands regularly killed by the Aztecs, the mummified Inca children found on mountaintops, the Mayan altars with a concavity atop for the victim’s heart and carved grooves for comely symmetric flow of blood? Such practices, virtually universal during the Bronze Age, but originating far back in Paleolithic times and continuing into the present, puzzle if they do not shock us moderns. Was Adorno correct in classing a practice so widespread with the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis as “touchstones of barbarity”?

The killing of servants to accompany a royal pooh-bah, attested in many cultures, may be viewed as simply a reinforcement of hierarchy and control and the deaths of war captives as a gloating display ritual. When I entered the courtyard of the Oba of Benin City, I saw an image, made of the same rusty-red laterite clay as the palace, depicting the ruler with a large blade in one hand and half a human body in the other, an image clearly designed to intimidate visitors. I recalled the gruesome tales of the sacrifice of over a hundred told by a member of the punitive expedition of 1897. [1] The offering of people of status, however, must arise from other causes.

The Hebrew scripture contains ample evidence for human sacrifice in the ancient Near East. The binding of Isaac will come first to mind. Abraham is specifically ordered to make his son “a burnt offering upon one of the mountains.” (Genesis 22:2) Whatever else it may signify, this narrative surely was written to justify the end of a ritual that had existed earlier. Jephthah’s burnt sacrifice of his daughter (who willingly cooperates) in return for victory in battle reminds the reader of another general, Agamemnon, and his equally cooperative daughter Iphigenia. (Judges 11:29-40) [2]

Clearly, human beings caught up in a world they cannot control have always striven to master the situation through currying favor with greedy deities. Since we are self-interested, we assume god must be as well. Do ut des. The old ritual magic compelled divine gifts, but the gifts do not come for free. The more valuable an offering one can give, the greater the likelihood one’s prayers will be answered. From this perspective, human sacrifice is simply a stronger magic than the offering of animals or flowers. [3] The use of incense or candles preserves the archaic notion that some “sweet savor” ascends to the Almighty who inhales it with pleasure. The body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist ratchets the value up further from the human victim to a divine one. The central duty of both Brahmins and Kohanim is the proper administration of sacrificial offerings in order to obtain benefits for the donor.

This practical ego-centered motive, however, by no means exhausts the meaning of human sacrifice. Most importantly, the shedding of blood dramatically enacts the fact that life lives only upon life. There is no inorganic food. Survival depends on consuming living things (animal or plant makes no difference), making them a sacrifice to ourselves. Thus, the offering of life to god reflects human recognition of our necessary ensnarement in the web of life and death. We eat, and, if we are not cremated, our bodies are eaten. Ahimsa is an unrealizable ideal. Even a fruitarian sannyasin can only approach perfect non-violence as he destroys the potential to grow and reproduce of the products he consumes. Human sacrifice dramatizes this fact in the most memorable way.

Surely the witness to human sacrifice would experience pity and fear even more profoundly than the audience at a Greek tragedy. To witness the spectacle of death straight-on with open eyes portrays our human condition more profoundly than any philosophical text. How else can one explain the popularity of gladiatorial contests, executions, and bloody Mexican tabloids, not to mention the otherwise gratuitous violence in popular American films? Watching others die, we rehearse our own death, at once pleased not to be for the moment at least on center stage, yet knowing that our time will come, that each will play the central part, at once so titanic a change and so utterly ordinary.

As mythology, of course, the dying and reborn god is characteristic of planting societies, and the individual who is to die not infrequently welcomes this fate. Sacrifice means to consecrate or make holy, to the believer a desirable end. Martin Luther King’s apothegm “undeserved suffering is redemptive” includes of course the implication that death that serves the deity, whether through magic or morality, carries the highest “redemptive” value. The selflessness that enables such sacrifice is the opposite of the ego-driven motive in political and magical uses of sacrifice.

The practice of human sacrifice implies the ultimate identity of the mundane and the divine as one can pass into and fructify the other. Even more deeply, it suggests what the Uddalaka Aruni tells his son in the Upanishad [4] “That is you.” Far from the idea of the divine as “utterly other,” this identity implies the same sort of radical monism one finds in Parmenides, Stoicism, Spinoza and the mystics of many traditions. Modern physicists, while seeking to account for experimental results, have provided excellent images for this sort of view.

These sorts of sacrifice -- political, magical, psychological, ritual, philosophic, moral, and mystical – are not mutually exclusive. Like the meanings in every work of art, every cultural construct, they exist together in a dynamic and complex balance. The great essayist Montaigne relays a song sung by a prisoner of war during the time before he is killed and eaten by his captors. He invites his tormentors. “Let them boldly come altogether, and flock in multitudes, to feed upon him; for with him they shall feed upon their fathers, and grandfathers, that heretofore have served his body. These muscles, (saith he) this flesh, and these veines, are your owne; fond men as you are, know you not that the substance of your forefathers limbs is yet tied unto ours? Taste them well, for in them shall you finde the relish of your owne flesh.” [5] One hears, through the languages and the centuries, the defiant and stoical brave man taunting his murderers. One infers the victors’ aspiration to magically assume such courage from the vanquished. And for me at any rate, there is at least a hint of those more sublime intuitions: that each takes a turn in the procession of the flesh, and that in the end there is no distinction, they are he and he is they and in eating him they eat themselves.

I readily concede, of course, that this reflection would have had little meaning to the captive in question. While every cultural practice contains symbolic insights and, through its functional value to humans, is “true” from a certain perspective, human sacrifice and a number of somewhat less horrifying institutions (such as war, slavery, and oppression of women) should be banned by our species, regardless of past tradition. All the same, as a visitor to the once bloody altars of Mesoamerica, I recalled Montaigne’s conclusion that what he had heard of the New World “canniballes” sounded no more barbarous than what he knew without doubt to be occurring in Christian Europe, and, we may add, what we read in our daily newspapers. “There is nothing in that [American] nation, that is either barbarous or savage, unlesse men call that barbarisme which is not common to them. And indeed, we have no other ayme of truth and reason, than the example and Idea of the opinions and customes of the countrie we live in. There is ever perfect religion, perfect policie, perfect and compleat use of all things.”

1. See Alan Maxwell Boisgragon’s The Benin Massacre.

2. Biblical examples of other sorts of human sacrifice occur as well. For instance, “Thou shalt not delay to offer the first of thy ripe fruits, and of thy liquors: the firstborn of thy sons shalt thou give unto me.” (Exodus 22:29); Jeremiah 32:35 describes Israelites offering their own children to Molech (as the King James has it) though the text condemns this sacrifice; in I Kings 16:34 Hiel rebuilds Jericho through the loss of his children; II Kings 23:20 tells of the burning of false priests on Jehovah’s altar; Deuteronomy 13:13-19 tells of the burning of an entire defeated town “for the Lord thy God.”

3. In Genesis 4:4-5 God accepts Abel’s animal sacrifice, while rejecting Cain’s vegetable one. The early Israelites were, of course, primarily pastoral people while the older civilizations around them depended on agriculture.

4. In the Chandogya Upanishad, 6th Prapathaka, 8th Khanda, verse 7.

5. “On Canniballes,” quoted from Florio’s admirable 1603 translation.

A Palm Wine Shack

I had spent the day with Mr. Varghese, a pleasant and kind Indian Christian from Kerala. He and his wife were the only other foreigners at Unity School in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. We had idled away the day in the offices of bureaucrats at the provincial Education Ministry in Benin City. Mr. Varghese and his fellow Indians had mastered, so far as a mortal may, the techniques of survival for the expatriate in Nigeria. His favorite gambit when he had to visit the capital of Bendel State was to avoid the officials, instead bringing seven or eight cold Cokes to the file clerks in the Records Department. He regularly cultivated these lowly workers, expressing his faithful friendship with a gift always welcome in their sweltering rooms, where the files had overflowed their cabinets and were stacked on the floor as though the entire government was a compulsive hoarder in need of immediate intervention. When Mr. Varghese wished to accomplish anything, he would simply get his file from the young workers (though how they located anything was a marvel). He could then make whatever adjustments he required without bothering to go through channels.

On this occasion, though, this method could not serve and we had spent eight hours in fruitless waiting while our classes, of course, did not meet. We may both have been somewhat weary. On our way we passed a river with wide belts of vegetation as profoundly green, surely, as anything ever has been since Adam and Eve, and so extremely dense one could not see a foot into the bush. Not far further was a palm wine stand with enormous calabashes hung in clusters. We looked at each other, but passed on only to see another palm wine spot, and at that point we could not resist.

Mr. Varghese pulled up, rolled down his window, and inquired “Sweet one?” (as opposed to “strong one”). Satisfied they had his drink, we went under their thatch, still dripping from the recent rain and joined several other patrons on a wooden bench.
For twenty kobo (maybe twenty-five cents) our waiter (a boy of perhaps seven years) brought a gourd holding at least a pint. It was colored with coarse red specks, cam wood or something like, and had the yeasty, “working” fizz of fresh palm wine.
We sat in this place, feeling as though we were present at the dawn of the world, still just poised before tumbling into the endless “nightmare” of history (as Joyce’s Stephen had it). One could hear the nearby stream purling on. Now and then a drop fell from above like a benediction. We did not speak.

A woman dressed in neatly tied and knotted fabrics, including an elaborate headdress, strolled over from the nearby fire where she prepared food for the palm wine customers. She seemed shaken to see me there and once her comments had begun, they did not cease and her fixed gaze never left me: “Why are you here?” (A good question, I do not doubt.) “Do you drink palm wine? Is bad, very bad for oyibo [white person]. Oyibo, give me money. I need money to drink for myself. Why are you drinking and you don’t want me to drink too. Oyibo, palm wine is not for you, give me mooooney. You are bad oyibo if you no give me moooney.”
Eden had slipped away once more from right between our fingers. We finished our drinks hurriedly and returned to the dusty car. We hadn’t been stopped long enough for our sweat to dry on the seats.

Rereading the Classics [Rabelais]

In a few months, I shall visit Portugal. We have engaged a room in Navaré on the coast during the days of Carnival and shall blame only ourselves if we are kept awake by revelry. I have, in anticipation, been thinking of Bakhtin’s study of Carnival customs and of Rabelais. While dealing with Stalinism and his own osteomyelitis, Bakhtin found in the great Renaissance monk an irresistible source of laughter, a way to cope with being human, with belches and farts and pains and death and murderous hypocrites in power all the while.

Now, of course, physicality has always been a major source of humor, puncturing pretensions and downing idealistic flights of fancy. It is the stock in trade of clowns, of commedia dell’arte, and of a good many contemporary comic actors like Jim Carrey. Though comedy often springs from the most material human attributes, the abstract logical mind is the another major source, perhaps equally significant. This reflects the human predicament: as Pascal had it, neither wholly angelic nor wholly bestial. [1] Thus cerebral humor like incongruities and puns generate a laugh as well as pratfalls and stomach gurgles. [2]

The physical side has attracted the most attention to Rabelais. His reputation for obscenity and crudity is, in the end, inconsistent with his utter normalcy; his body-consciousness strikes the reader as unusually healthy. In spite of the basic impulse of monasticism to reject the world, Rabelais embraces physicality, not with resignation but with joy. Life, death, eating, excreting are such fun, such loci of energy that they inevitably spawn great torrents of words. Rather than fleeing their humanity, Gargantua and Pantagruel magnify it through their gigantism, and the language does its best to keep up.

His book, however, is as erudite as it is vulgar. Of course, the manipulation of symbols is indeed more distinctly human than intestinal gas, at which bovines, for instance, far surpass us. Surely the mind is the single characteristic that most distinguishes our species, the most critically important in the development of homo sapiens. Semiotic use belongs to humanity as pouncing to cats or webs to spiders, and Rabelais delights in language, the most sophisticated code in existence. His book is filled with effervescent examples of what the medievals called amplificatio, piling it on, compiling great catalogues, adding one largely synonymous figure to another, listing authorities as though presenting a learned argument. He makes endless allusions, employs every sort of rhetoric and verse imaginable, and elaborates commentaries on commentaries for the sheer exhilarated joy of it. Knowing no bounds, he invents outlandish names and words, and shuffles foreign tongues together. Such Whitmanic/Joycean exuberance in a learned French monk!

Loving language, he loves literature, and book-studies of all kinds. He is full to overflowing; he is encyclopedic. He mixes high and low styles in a way that would have seemed barbaric to the ancients. In the list of Gargantua’s games one feels the pulse of life even more than in Breughel’s painting. In Xenomanes’ description of King Lent [3] are a hundred surrealist images. Few others construct such grand textures of words out of playful high spirits alone.

His rhetorical figures correspond precisely to the author’s world-view. He is constitutionally filled with a buoyant delight at existence, inspired by learned studies no less than by a fine dinner or an admirable sunrise. This delight in simply being alive is stronger in some passages than others, but never absent through the entire work. This is surely in fact the work’s most significant theme. It may be true, as the Buddha said that life is suffering, but it is no less true that life is joyful, and it can only be salutary to look through the eyes of one who expresses the other half of the undeniable self-contradictory truth. As Rabelais says, echoing Aquinas in his initial address to his readers: “to laugh is natural to men.” [4]

Pantagruelism, according to its creator, arises from “a certain jollity of mind, pickled in the scorn of fortune” [5] But in fact, what the translator calls “jollity” is in French gaîté, and this word has a long history in French poetry. Among the troubadours “gai” was used to imply a sort of sublimity bordering on divine afflatus. [6] Thus gai saber came to be used for the “sciences” of poetry composition and of lovemaking as in the 14th century Consistori del Gay (or Gai) Saber. Rabelais in the stirrings of the Reformation and Nietzsche with the 19th century “death of God” both saw the world opening before them.

Nietzsche says in his Fröhliche Wissenschaft, “Indeed, we philosophers and ‘free spirits’ feel, when we hear the news that ‘the old god is dead,’ as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea.’” [7]

In a temperament of a soberer sort, George Santayana thought of the world as a grand mardi gras, saying “It is a great Carnival, and amongst these lights and shadows of comedy, these roses and vices of the playhouse, there is no abiding.” [8] In fact, Pantagruel’s whole story, like that of Dante or of Monkey in Journey to the West is a journey toward enlightenment.
Less foregrounded, but a natural consequence of Rabelais’ sensibility, is his political radicalism, his uncompromising sharp satire of the ruling class of church and state, and his admiration for More’s communist utopia. Bakhtin was on the money, as many subsequent critics have agreed, when he associated Rabelais’ attitude with the social practices around Carnival in which social order was overturned, at once revealing temporarily the artificiality of the everyday and reinforcing its essential reality by playfully enacting its opposite. All laughter has an element of letting go, of a sudden release of repressed ideas. [9] When Epistemon’s throat is cut and he finds himself in the underworld, social roles are reversed. [10] Kings and conquerors are reduced to beggary, while the philosophers prosper. Of course, in the Abbey of Thélème, with its slogan “Do as thou wouldst,” the inmates need not support themselves; indeed, like nobles, they have troops of workmen to provide their needs. Their behavior is decorous due to the aristocratic virtue of “honor,” really an aesthetic category. Still, Rabelais’ book must be counted among those that presaged the breakdown of Roman Catholic hegemony and of European feudalism, though what followed was not liberation but new varieties of Protestant intolerance and capitalist exploitation.

Am I the only reader to suspect a poignant note in the constant barrage of good humor about drinking alcohol? To me it sounds as though, for all the ebullient story-telling, all the optimistic brio, all the hearty Renaissance self-celebration, the subject in the end must seek some anesthetic or analgesic at least to make it through the night. Even the healthiest of monkish physicians felt the need for a chemical fix when it seemed that reality was gaining on him. In addition the fantasies of titanic meals may be seen as the inversion of the sort of starvation anxiety Bettelheim found in stories like Hansel and Gretel. Clearly, the fantastic liberty of actors like Pantagruel and Panurge gains its appeal from the compromised and highly programmed lives most people live. Similarly, Rabelais’ frequent “jolly” references to people identified as physically ill (most often “syphilitics” and “gouty ones,” two conditions that were associated with over-indulgence) reinforces the fact of mortality and the transience of worldly things. Just as in ancient Greek and Chinese poetry, the recognition of the illusory nature of pleasure heightens its enjoyment even as it adds a dark shadow to the scene.

Glorious as I find him, Rabelais is not, indeed, to everyone’s taste. For those of us who like to believe in the power of words, it is gratifying to find that the Church is still after him as it was during his life. The Catholic Encyclopedia says of Rabelais’ book, “It is impossible to analyse it” yet adds as well the caution: “as a whole it exercises a baneful influence.” I would not blame the pious fathers for doubting that the author of Gargantua and Pantagruel was a believer in original sin.

He is also capable of offending George Orwell who calls him precisely what he is not: “an exceptionally perverse, morbid writer, a case for psycho-analysis.” Orwell marvels that “anyone can find something ‘normal’ and ‘hearty’ in coprophilia,” [11] and suggests that Rabelais’ reputation can only exist due to people’s failing to actually read his book.
Orwell wrote on the eve of the immensely and deservedly popular translation of an abridgement by Samuel Putnam. Urquhart/Motteux is good fun but can tire the reader. J. M. Cohen’s Penguin version is complete and reliable as well as inexpensive and easily available. Donald M. Frame’s The Complete Works of François Rabelaisis the best current scholarly version for serious students who don’t read French. I can only think that the more people who read Rabelais, the better. He is an enormous spirit and we can all use the tolerance, good sense, and profound learning as well as his high spirits which delighted not only in food and drink but in the most entertaining play of all, the play of the mind.

1. Blaise Pascal, Pensées 329.

2. For the gastric sounds I am thinking of Chaplin’s “stomach duet” with a charitable prison visitor in Modern Times, for which he created the noises himself by blowing bubbles into a pail of water.

3. Book IV, chapters 30-32 contains such figures as “his lungs like a fur-lined hood,” “his imagination like a peal of bells,” and “if he blew his nose, it was salted eels.”

4. Rabelaisian it may sound, but the line is directly from the Summa Theologica, LI, 1.

5. “Une certaine gaîté d'esprit confite dans le mépris des choses fortuites.” In Urquhart’s edition, though by this point translated by Motteux, from the prologue to Book IV. Motteux was also an early translator of Don Quixote, though, according to Samuel Putnam, he was very free, adding obscene material in particular and omitting at liberty while emphasizing the “slapstick.” His death in a brothel led to a sensational closely watched trial.

6. See, for instance, the Contessa de Dia’s “Ab joi et ab joven m’apais,” William IX’s “Pos de chantar m'es pres talenz,” and Peire Vidal’s “Ab l’alen tir vas me l’aire.”

7. Aphorism 343 of Die fröhliche Wissenschaft in Walter Kaufmann’s translation. Nietzsche owes to Emerson for these concepts. Among the many commentators, Harold Bloom regards Nietzsche as “Emerson’s belated rival.”

8. Santayana 34 in "Carnival" from Soliloquies in England and later soliloquies.

9. For Freud, humor arose from a rejection of reality and a triumph for the pleasure principle, the superego temporarily allowing the ego to gain id satisfaction from introducing tabooed topics. Among the likely sources of comedy, then are sex and scatology, heterodoxy and revolution.

10. Rabelais owes a debt, here, to Lucian’s Menippus.

11. The line is from a dismissive review of Albert Cohen’s now-forgotten Nailcruncher that appears in George Orwell, My country right or left, 1940-1943, p. 45-6. I am curious as to what episode Orwell thought could properly be termed “coprophilic.”

Walkin' Blues [Son House]

Another close reading of a blues song (see “Down the Dirt Road Blues,” posted during October 2011). My goal in this series is to demonstrate the subtlety and poetic value of these great American lyrics.

Son House’s “Walkin’ Blues” is at once a narrative, like a brief short story, and a lyric cri de coeur. Musical style and tone are masterfully unified in a classic statement of the Delta blues.

The persona of the song (recorded in significantly different form by Robert Johnson) opens with a blues formula. The speaker comes into consciousness (“got up this morning”) in darkness and bewilderment (“feeling ‘round for my shoes”). While disorientation in the dark nighttime might be normative, this is unusual. Unable to put things straight, he acknowledges his ill: the “walkin’ blues.” Parallel to “walking pneumonia,” he is stricken, though able yet to function.

Initially the first person pronoun is omitted, universalizing the line and making it seem a general characterization of the world. When this is repeated in the third line, the sufferer is particularized as “I,” as though his pain has caused him to emphasis his individual ego. The fourth line addresses the listener as a potentially sympathetic confidant, an amelioration of his condition created by his words. Though the second person may lack the singer’s first-hand experience, he has experienced the blues through the lyric.

This relationship is expanded in the second verse which characterizes the blues as a “chill,” a symbolic negation of the “warmth” of life as well as a straightforward medical symptom. The relationship between imagined speaker and projected listener becomes reciprocal as the one expresses good wishes for the other: “If you ain’t had ‘em I hope you never will.” The fragility of the persona is enacted in his hesitation, as he repeats “I” in a stammer that poignantly indicates the instability and, at the same time, the trembling vulnerability of the ego.

This other figure crystallizes in the third stanza. She is a woman with whom he has a conflicted relationship. The first line kindly offers her emotional support and invites reciprocity (“When you get worried drop me a line”) but his thoughtfulness turns immediately to pessimistic self-absorption expressed ironically: “If I don’t go crazy, honey, I’m going to lose my mind.” The affectionate term “honey” appears though his distress is attributable to her failure to accept his love.
The fourth through the sixth stanzas analyze the mésalliance. The singer indicates their racial compatibility, implicitly suggesting that she is “dicty” or hoity-toity, and denouncing himself for his mad infatuation, yet ultimately he can only renew his lament, finding himself with “nobody to throw his arms around” when “the sun goes down.” He has made all possible effort toward harmony and must ask in the end her pity, despairing for the moment of her love.

The profundity of his desire is expressed in the imagery of the seventh stanza which sounds archaic enough to be Neolithic: “I love my baby like the cow love to chew her cud.” The depth of desire and the utter naturalness of the singer’s need heighten his poignant predicament. His life is aimless and pointless without love. His wife’s mistreatment, presumably infidelity, her “lowdown ways,” makes time spread out to purgatorial lengths of suffering. Convinced that “somebody is stealing my jelly roll,” he has recourse to a supernatural consultant.

The poem ends with a renewal of lament and a final resolution. “Feeling sick and bad,” he can only contrast his state with past “good times.” As the sun disappears in a lyrically distorted stanza with prolonged cries of loss, and the evening that brings depression returns, the singer declares his own righteousness to the society of men who might sympathize: “I wouldn’t do nothing boys, not against my woman’s will.” Yet in the end, he does. He resolves to leave his unfaithful wife for “a great long time,” never to return until she changes her mind.

The world of the song is hazardous and mysterious; the singer is lost, sick, and fears mental breakdown. The polarities within which he must try to make life livable – black and white, male and female – seem all but impossible to reconcile. At the moment he is alienated from a tangled love relationship. The regular recurrence of nightfall seems sinister and foreboding, magnifying the singer’s Angst and helplessness. Yet the singer, and each of us who hears him, simply go walking on toward the uncertain future, lured always forward by the memory of “good times” in the past and the ideal of satisfaction evident in the down-home image of the ruminating cow.

Walkin’ Blues Son House

Well got up this morning, feeling ‘round for my shoes
Know about that, I got the walkin' blues
I said I got up this morning, I was feeling ‘round for my shoes
I said you know about that now, I got the walkin' blues.

The blues ain’t nothing but a lowdown shaking chill
If you ain’t had ‘em I hope you never will
Oh, the blues is a lowdown old aching chill
If you ain’t had ‘em boys, I -- I hope you never will.

When you get worried drop me a line
If I don’t go crazy, honey, I’m going to lose my mind
When you get worried I said sit down and drop me a line
If I don’t go crazy, honey, I’m going to lose my mind.

Your hair ain’t curly, your doggone eyes ain’t blue
If you don’t want me what the world I -- I want with you?
Oh, your hair ain’t curly and your doggone eyes ain’t blue
I said now if you don’t want me, babe, what the wide world I want with you?

Don’t a man feel bad the Good Lord’s sun go down?
He don’t have nobody to throw his arms around
Can’t a man feel bad, I said when the Good Lord’s sun go down?
I said he don’t have a soul, not to throw his arms around.

Looky here baby, what you want me to do?
I’ve done all I could just to get a-along with you
Looky here honey, what do you want poor me to do?
I say I’ve done all I could, honey, just to get along with you.

You know I love my baby like the cow love to chew her cud
I’m layin’ round here though I aint doin’ no good
Ooh, I love you honey like the cow love to chew her cud
I’m layin’ round here, baby, but I -- I sure ain’t doin’ no good.

You know the minutes seem like hours, the hours seem like days
Seem like my baby don’t stop her lowdown ways
Oh, the minutes seem like hours, I said the hours, they seem like days
You know it seems like my bride never stop her old lowdown ways.

I’m going to the gypsy now to have my fortune told,
I believe somebody is stealing my jelly roll
I’m going to the gypsy, I believe I’ll have my fortune told,
'Cos I believe somebody is trying to steal my jelly roll.

I got up this morning, feeling sick and bad,
Thinking ‘bout the good times that I once have had
I said soon this morning, I was feeling so sick and bad,
You know I was thinking ‘bout the good times now that I -- I once have had.

The sun is going down behind that old western hill
Yes, yes,
Ooh, behind that old western hill
And I wouldn’t do nothing boys, not against my woman’s will.

You know I’m going away, I’ll stay a great long time
I aint coming back here until you change your mind
Oh, I’m going away, I believe I’ll stay a great long time
I said I aint coming back, honey, until you change your mind.

Iowa Communards

My Uncle Bill, a factory worker who lived his entire life on a small farm near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, knew that, if he entered the bar of one of Amana’s popular eateries not far from his home, he would probably find an acquaintance or two, perhaps someone who, like himself, rarely shed his bib overalls. Their quiet beer-sipping was hardly a footnote to the tourists – though little-known outside the region, the Amana Colonies are Iowa’s top tourist attraction. (To some, of course, the very idea of a tourist attraction in Iowa is oxymoronic.) Apart from today’s family-style dining and an appliance name now belonging to Whirlpool, from 1855 until 1932, the Amana Colonies were the site of one of the most successful of nineteenth century America’s many experiments in communal living.

The Germans who settled these lush fields were members of a small sect. Their beliefs had deep roots even within the Roman Catholic Church which had always included mystical and pentecostal tendencies as well as spawning heretics of more radical views. The followers of Montanus are a significant early example and Meister Eckhart’s Friends of God a medieval one. The hierarchy did its best to control these extra-bureaucratic movements, however, and they found more space in the left wing of the Reformation.

Among Protestants, Anabaptists from the 16th century had sometimes chosen to remain aloof from the inevitably corrupt institutions of church and state. They refused oaths and military service, and sought direct openings from God. By the late 17th century there arose groups of Pietists who stressed individual morality and Inspirationists who believed there were prophets among them. Philipp Jakob Spener preached universal priesthood, and in 1716 E. L. Gruber organized the group that was to come ultimately to the United States. In the broader sense one may include in the varied complex of this general trend of belief Evangelical Lutherans, Brethren, and Mennonites. The Society of Friends (Quakers), Methodism, and Baal Shem Tov’s Hasidic Judaism are similar in certain significant ways as well.

What these groups had in common was a suspicion of institutional hierarchy and an emphasis on individual behavior and the possibility of direct contact between the individual and the divine in the modern age. In the religious sphere, these movements reflect the Renaissance appreciation of individuality; we moderns, too, tend to be sympathetic to the privileging of each person’s experience over the dogmatic transmission of tradition that had obtained since the Stone Age. Whereas the shaman’s skills, the priest’s learning, and the aristocrat’s authority had long insisted on their prerogatives, with the coming of earliest capitalism came mysticism’s transvaluation of values, which sees the holy glow in each soul and in acts of everyday life.

The group that founded Amana (after first establishing the Ebenezer commune in New York) was descended from Gruber. Calling itself the Community of True Inspiration (Die Gemeinde der wahren Inspiration), they were enthusiastic Pietists who sought to live a fully Christian life and convinced Inspirationists who believed they heard prophets among them, though they had no ministers, regarding all true Christians as equal.

Upon settlement in America, they determined to take seriously the words of Acts that described the early Christians’ communal life. [1] The means of production, land and workshops, were held in common, though people lived in individual homes. Meals were served in silence to sex-segregated diners in groups of thirty to sixty. After the age of two children attended school. Their enterprise was successful enough that they flourished for nearly a hundred years in consistent prosperity. According to an observer in 1876, “They live in such perpetual peace that no lawyer is found in their midst; in such habits of morality that no sheriff walks their streets; in such plenty that no beggars are seen save such as come from the outside world.” The description concludes polemically: “If Communism can be applied with such beneficent results in the case of seven villages, why not over an entire county? Why not over a State? Why not over a Nation?” [2]

These partisan words were written at a time during the nineteenth century when America had a great many of these utopian experiments. Some were secular: Brook Farm, the Fourierists and Owenites, all the factions Marx would deride as “utopian.” Many were religious such as Oneida or the Shakers. They had in common a rejection of the economic system and the social values of capitalism. Instead, they sought to substitute a loving community in which each was supportive of all and all of each. In their separate groups the pious and the irreligious alike attempted to create a society in which work would be a pleasure and alienation would vanish. Many of these experiments arose in the Western part of the United States where land was still cheap or free.

Apart from available land, all such societies benefited from the significant economies of communes, the efficiencies of central planning, and social cohesion of a committed population, at least at first. The shortest-lived, in both periods of communalism (the mid-nineteenth century and the latter part of the twentieth) were the intellectuals and the anarchists such as Fruitlands, Brook Farm, and the latter-day Drop City. The socialists lasted, in most cases, little longer. Those groups which had a rigid organization or a charismatic leader -- recent examples include Baba Ram Dass at Lama, Gaskin at the Farm, or the Krishnas in New Vrindaban -- lasted longer, as did the Amanas, America’s longest-lived commune to date.

Doubtless the society was broken primarily by the end of its isolation. Governor Harding’s chauvinist 1918 Language Proclamation banned the use of languages other than English in such public places as stores, streets, schools, and churches. [3] Once people could travel more easily and hear of doings outside Amana, they became restless. Mass culture arrived, and the group, once passionately attached to their way of life, became uncertain. The radio was perhaps the greatest single factor in the so-called Great Change – once the youth got wind of popular culture, the traditional ways became unacceptable. In fact, faith had been eroding and people had begun falling away long before the end in spite of graduated sanctions with total banishment as the most severe. It is sufficient evidence that the influence of the church authorities and the traditions of the settlement had been on the wane for a long time that in the 18th century there were eighteen prophets, called “Werkzeuge” or “instruments;” in the 19th century there were but three, and none had appeared since the death in 1883 of Barbara Heinemann Landmann.

The contemporary visitor enjoying a hearty meal served family style, tasting perhaps a bit of rhubarb wine (for legal reasons, labeled "substandard")at the Colony Inn Restaurant or the Ox Yoke Inn might reflect on how people here had sought to pursue perfection, to realize the ideals of the gospel in their daily lives. They were, for several generations, convinced that, if they wanted a loving community, they would have to do as the Wobblies said, “to build the new society within the shell of the old.”

1. Acts II 44-45: “and all that believed were together and had all things common. They sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.” Acts IV 32-35 “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things in common . . .Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.”

2. American Communities, William Alfred Hinds. New York: Corinth Books, 1961. 55. Hinds’ book is an excellent account of a variety of nineteenth century utopian communities. The author himself grew up in John Humphrey Noyes’ Oneida where all members were united in marriage together. Much the same ground is covered in another early book: Charles Nordhoff’s The Communistic Societies of the United States (1875).
More modern general studies include Mark Holloway’s Heavens on Earth. Utopian Communities in America, 1680-1880 and Delores Hayden’s Seven American Utopias. The Architecture of Communitarian Socialism, 1790-1975.
References focusing on individual states include Robert V. Hine’s California's Utopian Colonies and Catherine M. Rokicky’s Creating A Perfect World: Religious and Secular Utopias in Nineteenth-Century Ohio.
William H. and Jane H. Pease are the authors of Black Utopia: Negro Communal Experiments in America.
Probably the best guide to contemporary or recent communes is the authorless Communities Directory: A Guide to Communal Living published by the Fellowship for Intentional Community.
Though less scholarly than some of these and broader than others, I find Kenneth Rexroth’s Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century engaging and engaged, a good read apart from the information it contains.

3. The rule was overturned after World War I, but the use of German and other languages had already been profoundly affected.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Notes on Recent Reading 3 [Kipling, San Francisco Mime Troupe, Tao-te-ching]

Kipling’s The Light that Failed

I admire Kipling’s dexterity with verse and his knowledge of India and of plotting. Even from a political point of view, he made an excellent exhibit A for Jonah Raskin in The Mythology of Imperialism (a few years after Kate Millet focused entirely on “male chauvinist” writers in Sexual Politics). On this point one might recall Engel’s famous remark in a letter to Margaret Harkness, pointing out the superiority of the depiction of society in the work of the royalist Balzac over consciously “revolutionary” authors like Zola, saying that “even in economic details” Balzac contains more than “all the professed historians, economists, and statisticians of the period together.”
In this novel fighting the “fuzzies” is in the background, and what remains is Hollywood’s idea of the tragic. In fact, Wellman’s film with Ronald Colman and Walter Huston may well be a better work than the novel – movies were then a genre more congenial to the sentimental and the melodramatic. The view of the period’s artistic scene is quaint; that of the war illustrators picturesque.

By Popular Demand, The San Francisco Mime Troupe

Though I was pleased to find this book, I am afraid these plays are not the same on the printed page. The Mime Troupe should really be seen in a public park after the Gorilla Band has gathered passers-by (some of whom may never have witnessed live theater before). These newcomers then join the group’s aficionados (and the hip always say “meem”) who have seen America’s outstanding street theater company over the more than fifty years of its history. For those with personal experience, this collection of eight scripts will vividly recall the live performances. The Mime Troupe arose out of the Actors Studio, based in R. G. Davis’ training in mime and commedia dell’arte and produced between one and two hundred original shows, experiencing arrests and collectivization (after which Davis departed for Berkeley’s Epic West). Combining commedia dell’arte with slapstick, farce, vaudeville, and current popular culture they always delight the onlookers, who invariably have a high time, applauding and laughing at all the right places, and by the end it always seems as though they will surely head off into the streets and foment revolution then and there. Though this desideratum has not been achieved, the troupe has regularly staged excellent shows.

The Classic of the Way and Virtue, the Tao-te ching of Laozi including the third century commentary by Wang Bi, translated by Richard John Lynn (inconsistent transliteration from the book)

The Laozi, to use the most generally accepted form of the name today, is probably the Chinese classic most commonly translated into European languages. For those with no Chinese the choice is bewildering and many readers have found themselves reading, as I have, one version after another for the sake of what portions of one text or another we can digest.

Thus I shall not speak here of the general appeal of this most appealing work, but shall confine myself to the particular qualities of this edition. Lynn reminds the reader that a good deal of the book explicitly addresses governance. Laozi regarded role of the ruler in the nation as analogous to that of the patriarch in the family or the ego in the mind. To regulate any of these levels properly requires adherence to the same Way. This closely resembles Confucius’ approach, but differs sharply from that of the more anarchic Zhuangzi. Since the elder master was said to have been run out of the country himself, heading into unknown mountains, he was easily assimilated to the quietistic, antinomian thought that arose centuries after his day.

Another feature of this volume is its inclusion of the commentary by the philosopher Wang Bi of the Three Kingdoms era. Though his words sometimes seem to merely repeat, and occasionally to obfuscate, the text, it is often useful to see a paraphrase of the original verses by a savant of the direct tradition closer to the text than to us.

Occupy Wall Street

Several months ago I was discussing the decline of progressive politics with a friend who, like me, had been in university during the sixties. We marveled at the popularity of politicians whose actions harm their constituents and yet are elected repeatedly; radio hosts who gather enormous audiences while professing bizarre right-wing fringe views; and the size of a Tea Party that represents primarily the interests of a few masters of large corporations. Even more unlikely, the title of Christian seems to have been appropriated by people who share nothing whatever of Jesus’ pacifism or his solidarity with the poor, outcast, suffering, and oppressed.

My friend said that large numbers of citizens will not oppose the fat cats unless middle class people can be shown how big business is picking their own pocket. He argued that ordinary people do not sympathize with the underclass; indeed, the respectability of some lower middle class people is built on contempt for a group beneath them. The anger arising from economic anxiety or distress even of educated people is often directed at the weaker and poorer rather than at the powers that be. According to this analysis, campaigns for such righteous causes as gay marriage or for the environment are counterproductive because they fail to appeal to the masses and, indeed, alienate some potential allies in the larger economic struggle.

I recalled this conversation last month when the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations began. Though the participants were criticized for lacking a specific set of demands, it is precisely this openness that allows people of all sorts to unite against the economic inequities in our system. The extraordinary tenacity of the New Yorkers and the remarkable proliferation of similar actions in other cities suggest that my friend’s analysis was accurate. Whether one likes it or not, most people will only move to seek their own advantage, and Occupy Wall Street has proclaimed the fact that nearly all of us are being cheated by the present system. The college students with onerous debt from student loan, youth who cannot find jobs, the transit workers whose new contract is worse than the one before, retired people seeing their investments shrink as social security is threatened, nursing home aides without medical benefits or pension, all these find themselves in the same slowly sinking boat. Only when these “mainstream” elements act in concert with advocates for smaller groups such as the disabled, welfare recipients, immigrants, gay people, ethnic minorities, and radicals can they move America.

Many unions, which had had no part in Occupy Wall Street at the beginning, saw the potential for a strong alliance and declared solidarity. On October 5 I joined a bus from the Hudson Valley Area Labor Federation to support the demonstrators. Traveling with me were a crew of young Teamsters (with shirts reading “kicking ass for the working class”), representatives of other unions (teachers and nurses were well-represented, though it was a work-day), and a few older activists lit by new hope.

In the city we joined an even more diverse group: black and white; middleclass, working class, and underclass; toddlers and the elderly. The event itself was decentralized, in part because our numbers and the peculiar police lines kept the crowds in odd and awkward positions, leading occasionally to chants of “let us out” directed at law enforcement (as well as “Who pays the police? We pay the police!”). Far from a scripted rally (such as one sees at the national political party conventions), there was an amiable chaos. A loudspeaker carried some speaker’s words, but three-quarters of the crowd was more engaged with what was happening closer to hand. Three or four bands played in different areas, many people carried homemade signs. As the most popular chant of the day had it, “What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like!”

In spite of the atmosphere of anarchy, people behaved in an exemplary fashion, obeying the General Assembly’s dictates about peace and orderliness. Once, when an excited marcher began loudly contesting with the only heckler I saw all day, several other marchers approached him to settle the scene. In the sixties, I had witnessed government agents provocateurs incite stone-throwing to justify a violent police attack. Such a gambit, it seemed, would have been immediately suppressed here.
My support of Occupy Wall Street is based on these considerations.

1. The group points to the correct source of America’s problems: maldistribution of wealth and corporate control. Society’s inequities are particularly evident when one considers the financial sector which produces nothing whatsoever and yet is absurdly highly compensated. The favored slogan “we are the 99%” expresses the fact that, though we do all useful work, the corporate parasites and those living on what is properly called “unearned income” take most of the wealth.

2. The occupiers have somehow maintained effective order within their own body, insisting on orderly demonstrations and absolute nonviolence, while maintaining a direct democracy, consensus-seeking decision-making process at the daily assemblies. They have to this day no leaders, no spokespeople, only a community of equal citizens calling for redress of grievances.

3. Because of its general character and the lack of specific demands, this action has succeeded in motivating youth and many otherwise unaffiliated individuals. Union actions, like those by environmental, feminist, ethnic, and neighborhood groups, though they have sometimes attracted large numbers of participants, have failed to ignite the interest of those not directly involved.

As filmmaker John Wellington Ennis said, “How can we not occupy Wall Street? Wall Street occupies US.”

The Pearl-Poet's Use of Link-Rhyme

The linking word system of the verse groups of 14th century alliterative poem The Pearl is a striking example of textual accommodation to the simultaneous demands of predictability (for intelligibility and internal coherence) and novelty (a wholly familiar work would have no particularity and thus no real independent existence). Verse especially can hardly avoid taking an explicit position between these poles. The rhyme scheme within the stanzas of The Pearl indicates the clearly equivocal pattern ABABABABBCBC. The very fact that the simple pattern of alternating lines rhyming has become established after eight lines allows a variation to appear though the new C-rhyme is welded to the old structure by the re-use of the B-rhyme. The same sort of ambivalence is evident in the linking words: they act at once to pull the text together and to articulate its changes.

A simple glance at a list of the linking words will suffice to demonstrate their primary unifying functions: spot, dub, more, precios, pyece in perles pyʒt, juel, deme, blysse, quen of cortayse, date, more, grace inoghe, ryʒte, perle, Jerusalem, lesse, mote, John, sunne ne mone, delyt, paye. The most apparent fact about this list is that virtually all the linking words are positive, even hyperbolic, and the accumulation of their associations tends to ring the poem with an appropriate nimbus corresponding in purely linguistic terms to the poet’s removal from everyday life as described in the text. This aura of glory is of course particularly strong about the Pearl herself and indeed, the word “pearl” is twice the linking word, while the semantically similar “jewel” is used once. The only negative sounding words (lesse, mote) are used only for litotes. Thus they function in context as positive markers. “More” occurs twice, as though to point to the transcendent aim of the poem.

As a unifying device, the linking words tie groups of stanzas and individual stanzas and link the end of the poem to the beginning. They even tend to begin with the same sound (three-quarters of them begin with one of five letters — an improbable result in a random word-list).

The divisive, particularizing aspect of the linking words, though, is also operative in every case. They generally avoid exact duplication of meaning even in the different occurrences of a single word, preferring to trace a field of semantic variation within which the term can oscillate between meanings. For example the first linking word “spot” is used in two different senses alternately through its ten repetitions. In the second group, the word “dub” is used as a noun and as a verb, while “more” in the third modifies different parts of speech.

In the fourth group, the link formula is a phrase rather than a word and sometimes only one of its terms is repeated, sometimes all four. In the fifth group, the word “juel” refers to the man (as jeweler) in some lines and to the woman (as precious) in others. This variation in meaning is not necessitated by the conditions of composition: it would have been possible to retain much closer the original meaning for each word. I believe the poet is consciously manipulating the value of these key-words and thus reflecting on the instability of the rest of his verbal creation. The fact that this variation is part of the design of the poem is more obvious when one notices that it intensifies toward the end of each sequence. There is a greater likelihood of new “complicating” meanings appearing in the very last use of each word, the one that is in a “foreign” strophe group. (See stanzas 31 where “deme” means simply say for the first time, 36 where “bliss” is lengthened to “blissful,” 45 where “date” means simply time, etc.)

There are a few linking words missing where one would expect them to be; this disruption is clearly possible only within a context of order. For instance, the failure to provide an expected linking word at the opening of stanza 61 announces the critical looseness that transforms “perle” into “maskel” as key-word of group XIII.

The potential for transformation from the mundane to the priceless is indeed the poem's theme, but it is also the poem's style.

Rereading the Classics [Burton]

This is the first of what I expect to be a series of essays along the lines of Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited, originally a feature in the Saturday Review during the later sixties when intelligent literary comment could still find a page in a magazine of more or less general circulation. Rexroth said that he was not engaged in picking a top forty, his own version of Dr. Eliot’s five foot shelf, but merely talking about books he loved. He had a good-sized list of topics he never reached, and the reader can regret the lack of his pithy words about Water Margin, say, or the essay he projected grouping Kropotkin with Ruskin and William Morris. Having, like Rexroth and my topic in the piece below, spent a good share of time in reading, I, like them, speak perhaps most precisely about myself when speaking about books.

Robert Burton, the British scholar and divine, author of the Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621, enjoys something of a cult, which is only to say that, while he is not to the taste of many, his partisans feel immoderate affection for his book. What is more, his partisans include such contrasting sensibilities as Dr. Johnson and John Keats, as well as the ill-starred General Custer.

During the same period when Burton chose to investigate the human psyche in his monumental work, sometimes called the earliest comprehensive text on psychiatry, Francis Bacon was pursuing truth in other realms of natural history. As a courtier (Baron Verulam, Viscount St. Albans and Lord Chancellor of England) Bacon wrote several accomplished if unimpressive poems in pious and classicizing veins. In his philosophic writing, however, he regularly emphasizes the fictive quality of poetry, calling it “feigned history.” Though “a part of learning,” poetry “being not tied to the laws of matter, may at pleasure join that which nature hath severed, and sever that which nature hath joined, and so make unlawful matches and divorces of things.” He cites “One of the fathers” who called “poesy vinum daemonum, because it fireth the imagination; and yet, it is but with the shadow of a lie.” Its only power was “to give some shadow of satisfaction to the mind of man in those points wherein the nature of things denies it.” [1]

Burton might have argued in turn that all he knew was his own mind and thus to report this knowledge is the veriest direct observation. Surely, too, his pages contain the fruits of exhaustive research and a plenitude of cases for inductive analysis. And many a reader will testify to having found more than a “shadow of satisfaction” in their books. In the twenty-first century, we can scarcely avoid observing that Bacon’s descendants have immensely expanded the privileges of science and technology, though psychiatry has been reduced to diagnosing and prescribing, and humanistic studies have, especially in recent years, withered.

A writer’s writer, Burton weighs each element of syntax and constructs dynamic and elegant mobiles of words. A scholar for whom Classical citations constitute a good share of discourse, he refers to authorities obscure even at Oxford with perfectly natural familiarity. Further, he is a true philosopher, in the old sense of Buddha and Socrates, for whom the primary question, the really important one, is how to find happiness in life. Finally, many readers through the years have found his Anatomy, the only book he wrote other than a satire in Latin, to be a most entertaining volume, suitable for taking up and putting down at any point. In this extraordinary book, while discussing the capacity of vicious spirits to bring melancholy, he manages to swerve into an inquest on the corporeality of spirits with prodigious batteries of experts testifying on either side, and he turns then to the natural question of whether, if they be bodily, they must then have excrement. [2] Other authorities, we hear, believe all spirits to be strictly spherical in shape. Burton exhibits the views of the learned; the reader may decide on the evidence.

Though Burton provides a rigorous outline plan, his tendency always is to wander in what can approach stream of consciousness. Focusing on infirmities of the mind, he finds occasion to discuss human psychology in an all but unrestricted way. After all, according to Burton, all men are depressive. And for him the term melancholy is broad enough to take in mania as well as depression, as well as the derangements of every deadly sin, and countless other irregular forms of behavior. While he reviews the entire world (or at least a library reflecting the entire world), he tells his readers his motivation is intimately personal: “I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.” [3] His true topic, though, goes beyond even psychology and tends toward the encyclopedic. Burton declares, “I had a great desire. . .to have some smattering in all, to be aliquis in omnibus, nullus in singulis.” Wishing to consume all knowledge, this “roving humour” has led to systemless study: “I have read many books, but to little purpose, for want of good method. I have confusedly tumbled over divers authors in our libraries, with small profit for want of art, order, memory, judgment.” Yet Burton’s mental life was teeming, and he found his academic seclusion, “a monastic life ipse mihi theatrum.” [4]

The universal scope of his interests is consistent with his wandering style which moves from one thing to another naturally but unpredictably. Though never shy about expressing opinions on these multifarious issues, he tends, as real life does, to simply present the evidence and leave the contradictions for the reader to sort.

Because of his desultory style and constant patchwork of quotation, Burton may be claimed by post-modernists as a bricoleur, pasting together as he does a tissue of others’ utterances Only perhaps in the pages of Athenaeus does the reader find a like delight in moving from one thing fluidly to another, engaging with all that is human, making an unmapped voyage of discovery by dead reckoning, and thus reproducing the quality of lived experience.
Burton’s ultimate contribution is his attitude, his convincing pose as the man who has researched the cosmos, and, familiar with the endless odd vagaries of the human mind, has become broadly tolerant, accepting, and moderate in all things. Sex, food, party politics, he is easy-going in most things. His intimate acquaintance with the past has brought him a sophisticated recognition of what never changes. The passions of our hearts – romantic, religious, and simply depressive -- are too familiar to dismiss lightly yet too absurd to take seriously. Like the Epicureans of late antiquity, has achieved a sort of weary acceptance, facing up to the terrible terms of existence with dignity and a redemptive style, spinning the most wonderful tapestries of words while waiting to die. He is, of course, nominally a Christian (indeed a vicar and a rector), and he asserts conventional Christian doctrine and Christian prejudices, but the reader may doubt that that role sufficiently characterizes his spirituality or what he offers to a modern.

Frye, whose Anatomy of Criticism was a central text of my own early literary education, regards the anatomy as a subgenre of Menippean satire, and the spirit of Menippus the Cynic (and his teacher Leucippus) does inform Burton’s work. Yet, if Burton never cared to deflate the holy afflatus as his models Leucippus and Democritus had done, he did gaze at life with the same wide open eyes and then managed to so relish words that he built a fabulous monument of them, sometimes resembling Seneca, of whom he thought so much, and sometimes looking more like one of those weird and endless outsider art constructions like Cheval’s Palais Ideal or Henry Darger’s endless illustrations.
Democritus, whose character he assumes, was said to leave his retreat now and then to walk to the port and “laugh heartily at such variety of ridiculous objects, which there he saw.” As Juvenal tells us, Democritus “found food for laughter at every meeting with his kind: his wisdom shows us that men of high distinction and destined to set great examples may be born in a dullard air, and in the land of mutton-heads.” [5] In the same way, when Burton’s depression weighed upon him, unrelieved by either his beloved books or his eloquent pen, he would walk to the Bridge-foot in Oxford and his spirits would rise as he listened to the barge-men scolding and storming and swearing at each other. There must have been a grand edge to that laughter, and we know from his book that Burton would have found the very king’s court equally ridiculous.

1. The Advancement of Learning. Bacon refers to Augustine in Contra Academicas (386). In light of these views, it is amusing to recall the faction over the centuries that has maintained that Bacon, a “concealed poet,” was the true source of Shakespeare’s plays.

2. These topics are covered in one small section of Pt. I, Sec. 2, Mem. I, subs. 2.

3. 20 in the 1932 Everyman edition.

4. 17-18

5. This translation by G. G. Ramsay.

Flash Reviews of Thirty African Novels

The reader will notice that this list is rather dated. It is directly transcribed from the notebook I kept while teaching in what was then Bendel State (now Delta State) in Nigeria. Posted to a bush school a couple of miles from the nearest village, I was dependent on the periodic visits of the library’s bookmobile from which I read Evans-Pritchard’s excellent book on the Zande Trickster, a number of random literary classics including much of Byron, odd bits of history and criticism donated or left by Brits, and a good number of African novels, most of them Anglophone. Perhaps these instant reactions might be useful to someone drawing up a reading list.

Peter Abraham’s Mine Boy is lit by some memorable characters, but, for the most part, slides by on post-Hemingway simple laconic phrase with occasionally eloquent elongations. The story of Xuma is at times pat or melodramatic, especially in Paddy’s speeches and the sentimental conclusion. The slummy local color is convincing.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is a transition novel with sometimes creaking literary and psychological machinery. Okonko’s tragedy proceeds in sparse and expectable figures with a plodding flatness of sentence structure.

I found Achebe’s Arrow of God richer and weightier than Things Fall Apart, far more complex and mature (including more obscenity). Ezeulu is a stronger character than Okonkwo (whose fall was formal and slow like Eisenstein’s Ivan). The many proverbs were a pleasure, though at times the obligatory anthropological data from our cultural ambassador get in the way. Achebe’s style seems only half developed.

Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, despite melodrama over the upright and passive and transition stereotyping, the story of Okonkwo’s grandson Obi displays an exuberant mastery of narrative time with effective flashbacks and fades. I enjoyed also what sometimes seemed and delighted detailing of scenes for their own sake. Is Africa allowing itself an aesthete?

Achebe’s A Man of the People offers first-rate social analysis, many perceptive and expressive scenes, and eloquent pidgin marred by a jejune first person narrator.

T, M. Aluko’s One Man, One Matchet had in its best moments a nicely ironic tone and some absurd situations reminiscent of Waugh. I found also thick-fingered manipulation and an intention to be grave while seeming a bit silly.

In spite of some clever flashes, Aluko’s One Man One Wife the fundamental poverty of invention is clear in the repetition of incident and situation and such devices as filling space with hymn texts.

Elechi Amadi’s The Great Ponds is another painfully inexorable procession toward ruin as two villages war over fishing rights. The book includes good evocations of social structure and magic (which here is efficacious), compelling storytelling throughout, but marred by the cheap end of Wago’s suicide (not to mention the flu epidemic). So much pain! – difficult to wade through it all.

Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is refreshing with its obscenity, its nimble language, and especially its lovely revelation of rot and ugliness. I’m afraid the social theme, though right-on, remains simplistic. Yogi is a Myshkin-like hero, engaging to follow, but the ugly banister and the bathroom slime seem likely to prove more lasting.

Armah’s Fragments is supported by the same rich sense of corruption as Beautyful Ones but is more sophisticated and complex. Baako, a sensitive writer, struggles against his suffocating family and his crass society while Naana plays the ancient noble savage. The book has some finely understated lines, some overfamiliar moralizing. Madness is portrayed with less sense of real whirling instability than in Bessie Head.

This Earth My Brother by Kofi Awoonor has some fine lyric lines and haunting dreamlike recollection scenes. Its highly complex texture is generally well-handled; the mythic structure actually works, a few gaucheries in the modernist line.

Cyprian Ekwensi’s People of the City approaches a kind of charm in its pulp tough guy hero but always falls short. The book has simply incompetent passages as well as sexuality more adolescent than Kerouac’s.

Ekwensi’s Burning Grass is more spare, dignified, and effective by far. The narrative line here includes a fine drawn wire of tradition. Yet too often the author indulges in overwrought passages of description and the bumpy plot, based on an unlikely journey, is finally unsatisfying.

Alex la Guma’s The Stone Countryy is a surprisingly unpolitical South African prison story with marvelous nicknames and slang and some impressive surrealist humor especially in the prisoners’ stories.

Bessie Head’s A Question of Power is a South African journey of the soul in which the thought swarms of madness and mental attachments are handled as equivalent to holy pursuits for all their undiminished horror. Dizzying, tiring phantasmagoria, sometimes beautiful and moving, sometimes overdone. Near the end more lucid, vulnerable, contrary to life, with memorable phrases.

The Naked Gods by Chakwuemeka Ike is an altogether silly university story with howling errors of fact and idiom and some dreary machinery of titillation, local color, and satire, all disunited vectors, like brief lost fireworks.

Camara Laye’s The African Child (from L'Enfant noir in Guinean French) is a nostalgic recreation of childhood. After threads of magic at first, it turns to sentiment, smooth and graceful but uninteresting. Truffaut should make the movie.

In Many Thing Begin for Change by Adaora Lily Ulasi is an Ibo woman’s comic story told for outsiders. It is flawed by the inappropriate use of pidgin among villagers speaking to each other in 1935, the ubiquity of telephones (not yet a reality) and other anachronisms. Limp story line and unlikely development sink the plot.

Naguib Mafouz’ Madiq Alley is an Egyptian macramé of lives well-knotted: vivid and convincing yet dramatic and highly colored. Neatly worked absorbing characters though with a somewhat diffuse impact.

Oil Man of Obange by John Munonye is the excruciating story of Jeri’s sacrifices for his children’s education in a life of grinding poverty. The singleminded intense plot becomes hard to take but it is well-executed and simply but tastefully written. Its modest and clearly defined goals are fulfilled.

The Kenyan James Ngugi (Ngugi waThiongo) produced in The River Between a verbally varied and sophisticated transition novel (though the hero is as usual virtuous and wronged). The book has some very effective images, but little jolt behind its skill.

Ngugi’s Weep Not, Child is fundamentally still another idealistic village boy transition novel, but here the Mau Mau theme is unfortunately reductive – gone is the delicate lyricism of The River Between, leaving little. Having read of his recent detention, I think his heart is in the right place, but politics can be an almost irresistible red herring for an ethical African.

Nkem Nwanko’s Danda has a refreshing ne’er-do-well hero and some high-spirited lines. In spite of a number of memorable comic moments in an original tale, the plot wanders, lost, and ends inconclusively. The book needs more structural bones.

Gabriel Okara’s The Voice is an experimental stab with intriguing systematic distortion of language, but I found its existentialist quest vapid at last and I became fatigued with inside Ijaw lore. For the most part the book is a transition novel hiding in embarrassment, though it has some moving and well-written dream sequences.

The Victims by Isidore Okpewho, a classicist from the Urhobo Division) tells the sordid story of Obanua and his two wives. The plot moves consistently toward death despite a trickle of comedy and a steady background of natural description that never quite meshes with the narrative. Sometimes trite or vapid, the novel is at times effective and occasionally pretty. The plot is neatly wrought with well-realized characters and an exquisite sense of the fatalistic life of the drunk.

God’s Bits of Wood by Sembene Ousmene is a heroic proletarian novel. One’s interest is always sustained in the history, sporadically in the particulars, leading to a bit of a scattered effect on the whole. The reader finds persuasive detail but no surprises with what feel like predetermined themes on women and religion. His movies are better.

In Houseboy Ferdinand Oyono of the Cameroons has an insubstantial motif supported by some real wit, particularly in the early parts. The pathetic denouement is thin and confused.

Sol T. Plaatje’s 1917 South African novel Mhudi is a melodrama reflecting true glints despite dialogue sometimes reminiscent of old movie titles and some descriptions brittle with cliché. Some engaging oratory, proverbs, a solid image in Halley’s Comet, sun and moon. Subtle, prismatic shifting sympathy between Boers, Barolong, and Matabele is far more revealing than Things Fall Apart though with the same corrective idealization of custom (dark areas projected as well). A remarkable man with a Standard III education who wrote on “the social ethos of black-white sex relationships” and worked as a political leader.

Amos Tutuola’s Palm Wine Drinkard is a powerful driving linear narrative that synthesizes folk motifs more successfully than, say, Jaime de Angulo: wonderful quaint locutions, strange changes, dream and folktale turns, appetite and fear and terrible babies, merciless as Trickster. The first African novel to gain a wide readership, touted by Dylan Thomas, it is no wonder than the celebrity of this “naïve” work annoyed the more literate African writers, yet the novel is strong regardless of such concerns. I do recall when Tutuola was brought to the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program and was completely dumbfounded by the questions of scholars and critics. I only wish he had written a novel about life in Iowa City.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Voluntary Poverty

I was pleased today to hear voices of people in their twenties participating in the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. Varied in ideology, they agree on the ugly maldistribution of income in the United States which becomes more extreme year by year. The absurd thing is that no one could possibly actually use an income bigger than – what? -- maybe a million dollars a year. The financial district tycoons are sinkholes of money that is never enjoyed by anyone. In fact, there is a case to be made that greater pleasure accompanied less wealth. Not so very long ago, this case was compelling to many.

American society is so powered by the dynamo of addictive consumerism that people are apt to consider acquisitiveness an innate human trait. Yet we all know many people who have ignored the pursuit of wealth, devoting themselves instead primarily to art, politics, religion, or, most commonly, family.

Furthermore in many cultures having more than one’s neighbors is discouraged. Though they may be quite stratified, tribal societies generally are highly communal in economics. The hunters share their catch; if the chief has more cassavas in his storehouse, he is expected to give some to needy neighbors. Mechanisms such as the financing of fiestas in Guatemalan villages and the potlatch system of the Northwest Coast natives discourage the accumulation of wealth. As Chief O’waxalagalis of the Kwakiutl told Boas “It is a strict law that bids us distribute our property among our friends and neighbors. It is a good law.” Even in modern Japan not only is the distribution of wealth far more egalitarian than in America; the well-fixed try to build homes that are not ostentatious as it is considered bad form to flaunt one’s advantage. Rather the opposite of the conspicuous consumption which Veblen described among the newly rich in the West, but which now characterizes the aspirations at least of the greater part of the population world-wide.

The idea of voluntary poverty is particularly associated with spirituality. From the shramanas of ancient India through many subsequent religious practitioners the shedding of possessions is considered a gateway to growth. To the Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains desire for worldly goods leads to rebirth as a preta, a hungry ghost, with a “mouth the size of a needle’s eye and a stomach the size of a mountain.” Lao Dz says that when people come to desire things hard to obtain, they become thieves. Christian monasticism often, though not always, involved voluntary poverty. Less theocentric thinkers, as well, from Diogenes and Epicurus to Thoreau and the members of the British Fellowship of the New Life, have considered poverty a characteristic of the good life rather than its enemy.

The notion of literary bohemia, whatever roots is had (among the Goliards, for instance) had become a fixed idea by the time of Romanticism. In the US the tradition of the artist “on the road,” bumming around, precedes Kerouac. Among the best-known were Vachel Lindsay (who made his way across the country trading poetry pamphlets for board and room) and Jack London (whose book is called simply The Road). Orwell could never have portrayed social conditions as an outside observer as he did in Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier. For him there could be no substitute to actually sleeping is the doss-house. For Henry Miller scrounging and scraping indicated the authenticity of his values. His years of poverty could never be offset by his late success.
I don’t seek here, though, to provide a history of the idea and the practice, rather I wish only to present a sort of apologia or explanation at any rate for one significant thread of my own life.

I was hardly alone in my rebellion against American bourgeois values. To many of my generation, the social and the spiritual motives seemed entirely harmonious. Growing up in the suburbs I could participate in the attitude expressed in the 1962 Port Huron Statement, the founding position paper of SDS. The document begins. “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” That “discomfort” is later expressed as “emptiness of life” and as “anxieties.” The authors found that “Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today.” For many, the route toward replacing the cash nexus with more satisfying human relations includes resigning from competition in amassing heaps of goods.

Though every human could easily be given more than sufficient food and shelter, it is impossible for everyone to consume as much energy as an American, even an American on welfare. Everyone cannot eat meat or fish in great quantities daily. Economic democracy worldwide will mean a lowering of consumption for those who have been greedy Gargantuas. One who realizes these simple facts will naturally feel it is in better taste to live simply.

Determined to declass myself, even in high school, I preferred old and unfashionable clothing. I considered Chicago’s “bad neighborhoods” to be by far the most fascinating. In college I slept on a mattress on the floor and learned how to survive on next to nothing while engrossed in studies with no vocational aim whatsoever.

My own conviction in the late sixties was that we were indeed in a post-industrial economy, that all the work needed to produce enough to support a good life for every human on earth would require only an inconsequential amount of labor from each. The human species could then devote itself to the pursuit of artistic and intellectual pursuits, considered broadly enough to include, I suppose, the drama of NASCAR and connoisseurship of snow globes. In other words, the prophetic motto of Rabelais’ Abbey of Theleme would finally be realized: “Do as thou wouldst.”

Most people’s jobs are, after all, unproductive in this basic sense. For instance, if everyone were entitled to medical care and health staff were simply salaried by government, all the people making out bills, all the insurance workers, the great majority of workers in the health care industry, would be unnecessary. If there were no advertising of unnecessary model changes and automobiles were available at a single lot in every geographical area, the great majority of workers in that industry would be superfluous. I often said that America was a land of such wealth, money was sloshing around and it would never be difficult to get enough to get by.

All this is only to explain why I so stubbornly bought clothes only in thrift stores, made all food (including bread and yoghurt – using dried milk) at home, and went for years without a car or a telephone. I used to like to say that I spent money only on luxuries, not on necessities, and we were little limited by our budget (spending weeks in Mexico, for instance, while living on a fraction of what the government considered poverty).

The case for the wisdom of these choices seemed overwhelming. It is clearly advantageous to buy second-hand clothes from the point of view of cost, but to rely on that alone would be mean. I also felt any object made by people represented the hours of labor that had been invested in its manufacture, involving large numbers of cooperating people. To discard it when it remains usable is not simply wasteful but in addition disrespectful to the workers. Most persuasive, though, for an aesthete, selecting clothes at the Salvation Army allowed the purchaser to display not his wallet but his taste, discerning the best choices in the mountains of junk. Every individual would then appear in a unique ensemble expressing individual value judgments rather than those programmed by large corporations.

The same principle applies to other habits. I continue to believe that the traveler will have a better experience patronizing a market vendor or a little hole-in-the-wall spot as opposed to a large, “touristic” restaurant or, worse yet, the one in the Hilton. Here one not only saves money, but one consumes the true national favorites in a setting much more conducive to conversing with fellow diners or staff.

Is not such a coincidence of advantage entirely convincing? Though some chose voluntary poverty to cultivate humility in an ascetic spirit, others found it encouraged and enlivened the senses and, even more significantly, separated those who sought to really living in an alternative fashion on a daily basis and to build a new culture from those for whom to be hip was a fashion alone.

I must confess the past tense in some of this prose arises from the fact that, a decade or so before retirement, it seemed prudent (and I have generally valued responsibility and care) to accumulate some resource against the formidable challenges of aging in America. Accordingly, for a decade or so, we both worked at more or less middle class (if underpaid) jobs, retaining some but not all of what had for decades been a rather intense frugality. We now find ourselves in retirement, in a home bigger than we need, putting out a small fraction of the trash that every neighbor seems to produce, and deriving some comfort from the news that young Americans are continuing to call attention to the pernicious effect of concentrated wealth in that epicenter of economic injustice, New York City’s financial district.

More Notes on Recent Reading

Crane’s George’s Mother: A Tragic Story of the Bowery

Stephen Crane’s novella George’s Mother: A Tragic Story of the Bowery has the virtue, aesthetic as well as social, of examining the life of the poor. European drama and fiction, until the middle of the nineteenth century, focused on the highly-placed, so Crane was in the early ranks (along with Mark Twain, George Washington Harris, and a host of others) with his rendering of dialect. Though it may not sound like any surviving subculture to twenty-first century readers, we know that Crane threw himself into the life of the city’s lower strata, sleeping at rescue missions and socializing with prostitutes. Somewhat less focused on providing detailed descriptions of tenement life than Crane’s earlier and more popular Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, George’s Mother tends at times toward myth or allegory. Still, lugubrious or melodramatic as the story may seem, it is familiar to every police officer and social worker today. If the old Bowery is gone, George and his mother have only multiplied.

Appropriate as it is, the naturalist label is insufficient for Crane; his greater achievement is closer to expressionism. The story’s moody opening, in which the urban rain creates a scene the reader is told would be “condemned” were it in a picture. The glare of red street-lamps casting wavering patterns accentuates the confused movement of the city’s crowds. Later we hear that a similar street-lamp’s reflection is “the death-stain of a spirit.” The scene is markedly similar to what would appear in Hollywood film noir pictures forty years later. The whole class system is suggested by the detail of “loungers, descended from the world that used to prostrate itself before pageantry.”

The extraordinary nineteenth century existentialism that makes Black Riders, Crane’s volume of poetry, seem so modern today underlies this story, making its aim well beyond the reader’s sympathy, arousing fear as well as pity. To Crane the city was mysterious: the anonymous, alienated, the essentially modern mode of social life. Though the same as the “unreal city” of Eliot’s “Wasteland,” for George, its marvels reduce to his friend Jones’ sophisticated familiarity with bartenders.

Extraordinary images appear unexpectedly. George’s pitiful mother is like “withered grass,” the wall-paper roses mutate to aggressive crabs, to the depressed spirit the dust of the avenue is galling and the streets filled with “spectres as large as clouds,” “granite giants” signifying the “futility of a red existence.” A jolly storyteller snorts like a pig, ignorant of his own absurdity as was Camus’ man gesturing in a telephone booth.

The Crowning of Louis

The Crowning of Louis (Li coronemenz Looïs) an anonymous twelfth-century Old French chanson de geste, one of six celebrating William, Count of Orange. The poem, in the laisse form familiar from the Song of Roland, has (like Crane’s story and, indeed, all literature) a highly mediated relation to reality. Though the opening scene concerns a historic event, the passing of power from Charlemagne to his son Louis, it is not a reliable source of facts. (For instance, Louis’ obvious reluctance to take power is in part excused because of his age -- “barely fifteen” -- whereas he was in fact thirty-six at the time.)
William himself is heroic due to his loyalty and his prowess. The sort of pledged service that structured the feudal world is one of his highest values. One’s service is not even dependent on the personal qualities of the leader. William not only remains true to Louis in spite of the new king’s feckless ways, he is fierce, almost uncontrollable (as Gilgamesh had been) in Louis’ defense. He kills readily which entitles him to boast extravagantly. When Arneis suggest a sort of regency until the king matures, William feels like striking him dead for treason, then hesitates due to Christian scruples, but he cannot control himself and kills him in one blow. William then scolds the deceased knight, for both his attempt to usurp power and his sudden death, saying, “I only intended to chastise you a little.” At times his might is cartoon-like, humorous and grotesque, in a way more common to Irish poetry. In The Song of William he can barely restrain himself sufficiently to avoid killing the valuable horses along with their riders. He regularly cuts people in half and, as in the old Westerns, the general run of his victims die instantly. In fights with his major opponents, again mirroring Hollywood convention, the advantage goes evenly back and forth until the hero strikes the final blow.

Not long after these poems, the great medieval epics were composed: the Nibelungenlied, Tristan and Iseult, Parsifal. In all of these the hero is a lover as well as a fighter. William, though he makes passionate war to take Orable as his queen, advances his suit through killing, not love-making. He gives lip service to Christianity in order to justify attacks on the Mozarabs. The way he behaves, of course, would have horrified Christ. He represents the single-minded aggressive ego so central to men’s self-image since archaic times.

Padma Jared Thornlyre’s Mavka

The technological advances that have made producing a book such a simple and inexpensive undertaking have led, naturally, to a proliferation of small presses and self-publishing. Though it is virtually impossible to keep track of what’s going on, some first-rate work regularly appears in regional poetry scenes which is likely to be altogether unknown by people a few states away.
I was delighted recently to receive a copy of Padma Jared Thornlyre’s Mavka, “a poem in 50 parts” from Turkey Buzzard Press in Kittredge, Colorado. The book is long and slender, its offbeat shape accentuated with striking art by Brian Comber (burning brightly on the front and inside covers). It is as though a child of Blake took a dose of surrealism and then picked up Kandinsky’s palette.

Thornlyre’s title is the name, one learns, of a Ukrainian nature goddess and the poet thus chases after divine love, human love, and love of the out of doors simultaneously and with sometimes breathtaking passion. Apart from a number of Ukrainian references. he is also something of a Grecophile, so Dionysos pops by now and then, as does grilled octopus.
Wide-ranging as his references are, the poetry is solidly based in the Rocky Mountains where the poet lives. At times he practices the deep image nature vision associated with Gary Snyder in an older generation and Artful Goodtimes, another Coloradan, in his own. The poems are filled with precisely defined images from his immediate surroundings, and, more unusual yet, Thornlyre is a craftsperson with a sensitive ear. Every line has delights for the ear as well as the mind.

Here, on Bear Creek, muskrats nibble
Cattails, rainbows wiggle in willow shade, all stealth
& hungry muscle, while rapids tickle my ears.

He offers intimate and revealing glimpses of his life and struggles, while maintaining in the background a reassuring awe-ful joy. This is a sequence that rewards reading aloud even for the reader sitting alone.

Wherever one may live, this book is available for $20 from Turkey Buzzard Press, P.O. Box 354, Kittredge CO 80457.

Piers Plowman and the Man in the Moon

Self-reflective gestures in literature are often considered a peculiarly modern phenomenon. Often, though, such expressions are purely descriptive, implying elements of a more or less stable aesthetic or literary theory; those which question the stability of the speaking subject itself or the object it considers are likely to be labeled post-modern or deconstructive. Yet such references regularly recur in texts from all ages. In two medieval poems, William Langland’s celebrated epic-length masterwork called Piers Plowman and the enigmatic lyric about the man in the moon, such passages provide striking and critical moments for the poems’ narratives and themes.

For all the obvious differences, “Mon in the mone stond and strit” has many affinities to Piers Plowman: colloquialism, the alliterative hemistichic line, criticism of friars, and the combination of rough realism (including lower-class settings) with suggestions of profound mystery are among the elements common to both poems. In each the narrative voice asserts itself in the action of the pieces, an involvement singularly complicated by its periodic nature and the shape-shifting elusiveness of the characters.

In Piers Plowman such instability is a fundamental and fruitful strategy throughout to such an extent that it can scarcely bear summarizing here. It must suffice in general to say that the confusion or mystic identification of Langland, the dreamer, Piers, St. Peter, and Christ is developed with great drama and subtlety. The process is, I think, more complex in each of the poem's successive editions and is prominent in many of the most striking and significant passages. It is altogether appropriate in terms of the specifically Christian myth with which Langland is working: the worshipper must imitate Christ, must indeed in some sense become Christ. It also functions, though, to remind the reader that the entire narrative is a kind of grand psychomachia enacted within the speaker’s soul or subjectivity. One unforgettable instance of self-reflexive assertion of the extraordinary narrative voice is in B XV 148 which encodes Langland’s name in the poem at just that critical point when, having found Dowel he is being guided toward his search for Dobet which will culminate in the visions of Christ. (In this same passus is found the daring line “Petrus, id est Christus,” exactly the sort of formulation that brought Meister Eckhart before the inquisitors.)

Though all commentators agree that “Mon in the mone stond and strit” is a mysterious text throughout, there can be no doubt that a decisive shift occurs in line 25. Prior to this the poem had consisted of description of the figure of the man in the moon along rather conventional lines, if here unusually elaborate. In line 25 the speaker suddenly turns from the relative detachment of this description and enters the poem with an imperative — the poem, indeed, goes on almost to dissolve in exclamation by its end. What had begun with a clear separation of subject and object becomes somewhat foggy in its distinctions of the mon, the hayward, the baily, the speaker, and Hubert (?) as meaning retreats into obscurity. The poem has been read in an unusual variety of ways. I‘m not sure how to distribute significance among such possibilities as the moon’s banished peasant as social commentary, an Anglified version of the Sabbath stickgatherer of Numbers, the pledge-ower (reminiscent of Walther’s “Fro welt ir suit dem wirte sagen”) , and a number of other competing associations. It is, at any rate, clear that what opens the poem is the entry of the speaker.

What had seemed a simple if imaginative and lengthy elaborated description of images that one may see in the moon is tossed into mystery when, in the third stanza, the celestial figure is seen in a former career, as a farm worker accused of crime. That move is suddenly succeeded by the opening of the fourth stanza where the persona leaps into second person, addressing the moon-man, summoning him down to earth. A bathetic invocation indeed, but the diction descends from there until the last four lines dissolve in exclamation. For the conclusion the speaker assumes the role of dunce who cannot understand why the moon cannot come to join him.

In both poems the subject and object are destabilized. The grand scheme of Langland’s poem depends on the sort of religious mystery in which higher and lower are identified with a sort of verbal spell. The promise of Christianity is that things are not as they seem. In reading the book of nature, every earthly phenomenon contains a host of allegorical potential, and the ordinary worshipper may aspire to blessedness. In “Mon in the mone stond and strit” the poem’s conundrums merely make it “writerly,” in Barthe’s term. Who is speaking, to whom, and what about is suspended every bit as much as in Melville’s The Confidence Man or Donald Barthelme. The reader returns to some works repeatedly because they offer such an elegant statement of a clear feeling or conviction and to others because, on the other hand, unable to formulate such conviction convincingly, they simply beckon from beyond in a way that can seem more familiar than the sharpest verisimilitude.