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

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

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

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


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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Journey to the North

I use Wade-Giles romanization following the practice of Gary Seaman’s Journey to the North (Berkeley: University of California, 1987). The self-indulgent digression on Modern Library Giants has, I am aware, little excuse. I might argue that biblio-nostalgia is the more useful as books are ever more eclipsed.


It is a curiosity of literature that, whereas early European works of fiction masqueraded as fact [1], in Chinese fiction overtly fantastic elements play an important role. There is, nonetheless, a continuum from the recording of precise details of everyday life in The Plum in the Golden Vase (Chin P’ing Mei) or the Dream of the Red Chamber (Hong Lou Meng) to utterly implausible tales such as the Journey to the West (Hsi Yu Ki or Monkey, in Waley’s version) with material drawn from fanciful folktales. The anonymous Journey to the North (Pei Yu Chi) translated by Gary Seaman falls clearly into the latter category. Though Seaman includes an “ethnohistorical analysis,” his work rewards the common reader as well as the specialist, with its stories of marvels staged around the borderline of the divine and human realms.

Just as in the West, the novel in Chinese has had a long path to literary respectability. Written in vernacular rather than literary language and often arising from oral narratives, until the twentieth century, fiction could not aspire to the prestige of poetry. [2] Still, for the reader fatigued with the pellucid nature images and intricate intertextuality of Chinese poetry and the terrifically challenging conundrums of the Zen masters, Ming and Ching fiction continues to offer first-rate entertainment, whether from a realism that reminds the Western reader of Balzac or a fantastic imagination something like the world of the Odyssey.

I myself have always felt a particular kinship with a broad range of the old Chinese poets and storytellers. [3] Reading Chuang Tzu or Wang Wei I have the illusion that the cultural and temporal distance between me and these old worthies has vanished. As a child I read Joseph Gaer’s How the Great Religions Began and the Life book The World’s Great Religions, which allowed my belated sensibility to glimpse now and then a numinous glow in spite of my rejection of my culture’s Christianity. While fascinated by the theater and complexity of Indian myth and the powerful hammerblows of the Buddha’s story, I felt at once most at home with Lao Tzu. In that grand period of inexpensive classics, I soon progressed to certain Dover reprints of Max Müller’s Sacred Books of the East series and to a Modern Library giant, Lin Yutang’s The Wisdom of China and India.

(The Modern Library giants, for many years of my youth, cost $2.95. Lin’s book had almost eleven hundred pages. Could there have been a better bargain? I value still my copy of Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essayes and a complete Donne and Blake bound up together, as are Keats and Shelley – what dizzying riches! I have others as well. A copy of Ulysses, once a close companion, now unread for decades, a complete Lewis Carroll which served me and two younger generations to date, complete novels and selected tales of Hawthorne, but Lin’s is the one to which I have returned more often than any other. It was in this most accessible form that I first encountered the Vedas, the Ramayana, Shen Fu’s Floating Life, and even Lu Xun [or Lusin as he is called here].)

Grateful as I must be to Lin (and to Waley and Pound and D. T. Suzuki, among others), as a popular work, the volume is at times, reductive, even misleading. In introducing the Chinese texts in his anthology, Lin notes the influence of the social Confucian “religion” and comments that China is generally regarded as “human, rational, and easily understandable,” more pointedly, “non-mystical.” [4] Lin does differ from this supposed consensus in several ways, but in fact Chinese writing of every era except the most recent has gloried in a vast body of fanciful supernaturalism.

Though philosophical Taoism may well seem a sort of “natural religion” even when borne aloft by a certain afflatus, popular Taoism has always offered magicians, alchemy, divination, and an elaborate cast of supernatural beings. Zen (chan in Chinese) may itself face life straight on, offering the most austere of practices, but in China it became conflated with Pure Land Amidism (Jìngtǔzōng) which imagines access through the recitation of a spell to a fabulous realm with all sorts of exotic divinities, flora and fauna. Much Chinese fiction consists of stories of sorcerers, ghosts, gods, fairies, and semi-divine figures of all sorts [5] and even the histories commonly feature interventions from heaven and other fantastic explanations. While it is difficult to determine to what extent author and audience accepted these marvels literally, [6] they contribute whimsy, entertainment, and metaphorical value. Surely such fanciful tales have a good deal in common with the horror and science fiction films of today.

The Journey to the West (Pei-yu chi), an anonymous novel published in its current form in the early 17th century, [7] originally appeared as one of a set of four journey narratives, one for each direction. [8] The book contains wonders enough for any fantasy film fan. Not only amazing transformations, but the most peculiar self-confrontations insist that even one’s own ego, the last retreat against the skeptic, may be questioned, divided, and exploded. The human reincarnation of the heavenly ruler, the Jade Emperor, practices austerities with such assiduity that he fails to notice when his guts are removed. His stomach becomes an independently acting turtle demon and his intestines a snake demon. (112) His meditations are so effective that the Emperor promotes him in a bureaucratic interoffice memo to “the ranks of Heavenly officials.” [9] Conquering his own innards, he makes them his generals in the service of order and virtue.

Chen Wu is repeatedly characterized as a sort of intermediary between heaven and earth. In one version [10] he is a reformed sinner, a butcher who attracts the attention of Kuan Yin when he wraps his cleaver in his own bowels before tossing it to ensure that it is not used for slaughter in the future. In the Journey to the North he appears as the Jade Emperor, a heavenly ruler who nonetheless willfully descends to a human consciousness since he covets a beautiful plaything. At times his celestial form communicates with his human one. (109) Despite his superhuman status, he not only may be tempted; he can also be injured (132). The same is true of other figures. Kuan Yü, for example, though an immortal, still studies sutras to continue on the road to enlightenment. (134-5)

Furthermore, the book’s translator, an anthropologist, seeks at length to demonstrate that the text is a transcription of spirit voices delivered through a shamanic medium. Whether this be in fact true or not, the book confines itself for the most part to Amazing Stories [11], while there is little of revelation or moral exhortation. The primary focus, judging from internal evidence and much of Seaman’s own contemporary findings, is to establish the bona fides of Chen Wu, the true warrior, a deity also called the Emperor of the Dark Heavens (Hsüan-t’ien Shang-ti), worshipped at Wu-tang Shan in Hupei Province and in a great many other temples. His authority is manifested in episodes resembling other superheroes, vanquishing one foe after another, while occasionally lapsing into weakness himself and slipping through his own error some rungs down the karmic ladder. He continues to climb, though, and his setbacks doubtless only endear a divinity to the fallible human, while his every triumph is a sort of plaintive wish for similar success on the more contested earthly field.

The notion that narrative arises when the divine and the mundane mix is symbolically represented in a number of Chinese novels. For instance, the text of the Dream of the Red Chamber is supposed to be transcribed from a divine stone descended to earth to enter human form, and Water Margin’s hundred and eight heroes are onetime demonic overlords, now repentant and reborn as virtuous outlaws. Sun Wukong in Journey to the West is repeatedly exiled from celestial realms only to be readmitted until his ordeal-filled quest to fetch scriptures if finally successful. As in the Hebrew scriptures, it is when the divine and the human interact that action follows. Before the Fall, Eden must have been altogether uneventful.

If one is accept Seaman’s theory of the ritual role of the story, Chen Wu is a sort of culture hero/savior/granter of wishes, a wonder-working yet accessible deity not unlike Jesus. He is said to have subdued the malign forces just as he had defeated the barbarians (112), even if the latter campaign seems more to do with worldly goals than with enlightenment. Despite the rarified air of frothy fairy fancies, the hero returns to the human-centered Confucian values of filial piety and just rule. (86)

In one of the most striking images of the book Chen Wu, in the role of the Venerable Teacher who has abdicated rule to pursue meditation in the mountains, encounters an old woman rubbing an iron pole on a boulder with the aim of wearing it down to an embroidery needle (102). Next an old man “pecking” at a cliff with an awl, intending to construct a canal tells his that “the heart is harder than stone.” (103) He persists in his work. The image encapsulates the vision of the virtual impossibility of achievement in the human realm while insisting on the value of constant striving, the continual if never wholly successful effort to exert one’s will in the face of what Marvell called “the iron gates of life.”

The reader of this volume appreciates Wu Cheng-en’s Journey to the West all the more for its clear focus throughout on enlightenment and its consistently scintillating humor. Though the Journey to the North is a markedly less satisfying narrative, it shares to some extent Wu’s delight in wonders and his absolute confidence in the rightness of the cosmos. Here Taoism is a wondrous intersection of philosophy, superstition, and a delightfully whimsical play of imagination.

Yet the book amounts to something more eloquent and poignant than entertainment. For me the current popular cult practice Seaman studied in which Chen Wu is yet today the goal of pilgrimages, the patron of exorcisms, the prophetic voice that continues to speak through the mouths of possessed shamans is more significant than any of the cult’s details. The story’s simple reinforcing fables, so repetitively iterated, constitute a sort of entertainment that reinforces cult practices and social attitudes through a simple sympathetic magic. Our hero wins, and thus we all win. Retributive justice prevails in spite of upheavals and struggles. As in any superhero story, the end is never really in doubt. Surely the people Seaman accompanied on pilgrimages to temples of Chen Wu in Taiwan were seeking similar reassurance. If such supernatural reassurance escapes the contemporary reader, he can still appreciate the deeply human yearning behind such a wildly fabulous story, and join with Chen Wu’s devotees in relishing a ripping tale.



1. All the epistolary novels include this pretense of lived reality as do works like Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, and many others.

2. Lu Hsun’s A Brief History of Chinese Fiction provides a detailed historical account.

3. Lao-Tzu, Chuang Tzu, and Lieh Tzu remain for me the wisest sages. I count a small group of Tang Dynasty Buddhist poets among the world’s greatest. I find in the Transmission of the Lamp (Ching-te Ch'uan teng lu) the most profound sublimity. The appeal of Confucius and Szu-ma Chien continues to elude me.

4. See page 567, though in his introduction to “Chinese Tales” (937) he notes that “Chinese literature abounds in tales of ghosts, goblins, fox spirits, genii, and double personalities.”

5. Ling kuai is the genre of specifically supernatural narratives.

6. The same problem, of course, exists in European texts. While Homer, Sappho, and Hesiod are likely to have been religious “fundamentalists” in this sense, what of Euripedes, Plato, or Ovid?

7. Yü Hsiang-tou was apparently the editor and publisher, the source of several interpolations. See Seaman’s introduction, also published as “The Divine Authorship of Pei-yu chi [Journey to the North]” in the Journal of Asian Studies, XLV, 3 (May 1986), 483-497.

8. Ssu-yu chi, the four journeys. Among them is a version of the story of Monkey, the Journey to the West.

9. p. 109.

10. See Seaman’s introduction, page 2.

11. Amazing Stories was the pioneering pulp magazine first published by Hugo Gernsback in 1926.

Beards

It is to me a puzzle of human evolution that people should have hair atop the head that grows and grows. The hair of our armpits, pubes, and elsewhere grows to a short and convenient length and then is replaced, while above our ears it does not stop. Until tools were made that might trim this growth, it was surely inconvenient for our remote ancestors to find their hair tangled in knots, infested with vermin, or flopping in front of the eyes. Yet has there been a single culture in which everyone shaves the head? Rather than following this sensible recourse, people have made the hair of their heads the focus of the elaborate practices, starting from the most basic males/short, females/long distinction and extending though the curling and scenting of antiquity to the salons and youth fashions of the present day.

The facial hair that appears on men at sexual maturity provides further opportunities for the semiotic signaling of style. Like the head-hair shared by men and women, it grows almost without limit, [1] far beyond the point where it would be an impediment, and thus it is that virtually every society trims the beard and some have shaved it off entirely.
We have reached a relaxation in this twenty-first century of America’s near prohibition on beards during my youth. During the time they were so very rare a beard was generally sorted among just a few possibilities according to specific characteristics. To see a beard would set off a chain of associations: of other eras or other lands, add a robe and you have Christ; a tousled appearance indicates a bum; a beret a bohemian; tweeds and glasses, a professor; a VanDyke means a psychiatrist; overalls a hillbilly; long hair above would indicate a nature boy.

Even the simple binary opposition beard/no beard has accumulated considerable signification through the centuries. In ancient Greece the beard was simply the sign of the adult man, distinguishing an individual from women and boys. In many cultures the beard was the badge of full civic membership and frequently people would or point to the beard as evidence of their responsibility. Plutarch tells of a Spartan who was asked why he wore a long beard, replied “So that I may see my grey hairs and do nothing unworthy of them.” [2] It seems also to have been customary to swear by the beard. In As You Like It [3] Touchstone says, “Stroke your chins, and swear by your beards that I am a knave” and in Troilus and Cressida, Nestor vows “By this white beard, I’ld fight with thee to-morrow.” [4]

Having naturally acquired associations with masculinity and thus strength, the beard was worn by soldiers until Alexander forbade them among his troops in 354 BCE, but, then, perhaps he just preferred a shorn look. The same military style was endorsed by Scipio Africanus among the Romans. After a time, many citizens, especially in cities, took to shaving and during the latter part of antiquity, beards then became associated with philosophers. Epictetus thought a beard “more beautiful than a cock’s comb” which should be preserved in part to clarify “the distinctions of the sexes.” “Adorn yourself then” he advises, “as man, not as woman. . . . Woman is naturally smooth and delicate; and if she has much hair (on her body), she is a monster and is exhibited at Rome among monsters. And in a man it is monstrous not to have hair; and if he has no hair, he is a monster; but if he cuts off his hairs and plucks them out, what shall we do with him? where shall we exhibit him? and under what name shall we show him? I will exhibit to you a man who chooses to be a woman rather than a man.” [5]

Instead of gender identity, the philosopher’s beard may signify, as it did for Diogenes, a disregard for social norms and in particular for artificial fussing over appearance. The association with philosophy was insufficient to protect the beard-wearer from satire. Poets made fun of beards not only with gibes about lice, goats, and dirt, but pretensions to wisdom as well in a way quite similar to Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy cartoons featuring beatniks. [6] Even in societies where beard-wearing was the norm, such a secondary sexual characteristic may not necessarily be an erotic ornament. Many ancient gay Greek lyrics admonish the adolescent to make hay while the sun shines, warning that soon his beard will come and he will no longer be so attractive. [7]

From the philosopher to the man of religion may seem a small step, but the religious have struggled around the issue of beards for millennia. A beard may be a sign of asceticism or luxury, of unconcern for personal appearance or the excuse for elaborate trimming, scenting, and grooming. The somewhat obscure prohibition in Leviticus [8] against rounding “the corners of your heads,” and marring “the corners of thy beard” follows rules against divination and precedes an interdiction of cutting oneself “for the dead” and tattooing. (This has led some commentators to suggest it has more to do with avoiding pagan practices than with Jehovah’s preferences in hairstyle.) Every day on my bicycle route, I encounter Hasidic Jews whose beards provide visible signs of the strictness of their observance of those mysterious ancient lines.

Clement of Alexandria calls the beard “the mark of a man” and says “it is therefore unholy to desecrate the symbol of manhood.” [9] The beard was the mark of the Desert Fathers and other ascetics as it is today of the the Amish, Orthodox priests and monks, saddhus, and Sikhs. While the encouragement of Islam for facial hair is historically based in Mohammed’s beard, [10] the Christian Rascolniks in Russia so valued their own that they rebelled against Peter the Great’s condemnation of facial hair, saying they would rather lose their heads than their beards.

Though the Desert Fathers wore beards, many hermits and monks do not and indeed shave their pates as well as their chins. (In Thailand Buddhist monks go further yet, shaving even their eyebrows.) The Roman Emperor Julian grew a beard specifically to distinguish himself from the shaven Christian emperors before him, and to mark his connection to pagan Roman religion. The Western Church came to be very suspicious of beards, and they are forbidden for Roman Catholic clergy by a good many authorities, including the Canons of Edgar, the Council of Bourges, and an edict of Pope Alexander III. The disagreement was sufficiently strongly felt that it constituted part of the split between Eastern and Western churches in 1054.

My own beard feels a badge neither of religion nor irreligion. It is to some extent a fruit of laziness and the fact that my easily cut skin shrinks from the blade. It has the inconvenience of overdetermination in that it seems to some to tell more about me than it in fact does. Yet I would deceive myself if I did not acknowledge that the old connotations bore undeniable weight. Surely in the sixties beards were at once sensual and philosophical, artistic and counter-cultural, a sign both of hedonism and spiritual aspiration. It is a satisfyingly dense symbol, so comfortable that it is, I think, about fifteen years since I last shaved. Perhaps in another five I shall feel like having another unobstructed look at my own face.


Apologia for Shaving after Twenty Years

Because outward alteration can stimulate changes within,
and it is salutary now and then to seek to surprise
oneself and even the best of neighbors;
because too many people looking my way saw only the beard
and nothing else and we have regardless too many
barriers to the soul,
and bearded men, it is well known, are far too easy to draw;
for it was a sorry thing at best: worn, patchy, insecure, and
with little voice in the congresses of beards,
and thus even as it asserted my maturity, it conceded
that adolescence was still upon me;
because I suffer willy-nilly from excesses, and among those
excesses are pedantry and poetry, and I need no
signifiers to push the point;
for a smooth chin is a feminine thing, and the world would
still do well to be a bit more womanly;
for my masculinity is adequately evinced by impatience in
stores and traffic jams, and by my iron resolution
that no one should pass me on the bicycle path,
and thus the beard was superfluous;
for mine was a beard that meant youth and not age, and now
I am no longer young;
because after even more than twenty years the shock of seeing
my own face may have been -- oh! -- too great to bear;
for already the beard had grown white enough to show
the shadows of my own ghost too clear, and I fled,
I fled at last.




1. The longest recorded beard is generally conceded to be that of Hans Langseth which reached 17’ 6” (18’ 6” in some accounts). Contemporary contenders reach barely half that heroic length.

2. Plutarch, Apophthegmata Spartika 4.

3. 2. I, ii.

4. IV, v.

5. Arrian, Discourses of Epictetus, Book I.16 Book III.1.

6. A number of such mocking poems have been gathered at http://laudatortemporisacti.blogspot.com/2006/04/beards-and-philosophers.html.
For Bushmiller’s work see his Bums, Beatniks and Hippies/Artists & Con Artists.

7. V 277 “I hate the unkind hair that begins to grow too soon.” (Eratosthenes Scholasticus.

8. Lev. 19:27.

9. The Instructor, Bk III, Ch 3, 2.276 and 2.277.

10. Oddly, Muslims must not shave their beards (moustaches can go) yet they do shave public hair

Rereading the Classics [Montaigne]


Page references in the notes in parentheses are to the Modern Library Giant with the 1603 translation by John Florio, the friend of Giordano Bruno and very likely of Shakespeare. My own copy, purchased well-used, already browning and worn fifty years ago, is still quite serviceable.



Montaigne’s attitude does not vary through the thousand pages of his essays. His curiosity, learning, skepticism, tolerance, and taste are all evident from the first essay (on “By Divers Means Men Come to a Like End”) to the last (“Of Experience”). The reason for this consistency is announced at the outset of his work when he declares to his readers “it is my selfe I pourtray.” He aims not at sublimity but rather “mine owne genuine, simple and ordinarie fashion, without contention, art or study.” For this project he found it necessary to invent a new form, the essay and a new formulation of skepticism based on “natural judgement.”

Though born to a high position and corresponding social responsibilities, he retired from public life in his late thirties [1] to cultivate his private studies and to record his thoughts in an ever-growing volume.
For the reader this desertion of many social duties and the resulting introspection resulted in the most delightful of books. Since Montaigne is primarily interested in his own regard for what he studies rather than in final truths about the object itself, all topics come to seem equally fruitful and all conclusions tentative. Freed from the Procrustean demands of dogma to regularize his vision, which he recognizes as inherently flawed, he may, like a poet, be loyal to the precise recording of impressions. In this way he produced an altogether new sort of prose, a candid “trail map” of consciousness utterly absorbing to any reader who finds pleasure in meditative ratiocination or who relishes the sensibility of others.

What other volume can one open at random to find such entertaining and irresistible data as these, chosen only just now and wholly, I guarantee, at random.

1) With a vivid and persuasive image, he says our unnecessary appetites crowd out the natural like visitors outnumbering the residents of a city. A few lines later, Montaigne provides a series of stories of beasts in love with humans. (418)

2) “A physitian boasted unto Nicocles, that his Arte was of exceeding great authority, It is true (quoth Nicocles) for, it may kill so many people without feare of punishment by Lawe.” (690) [2]

3) He sketches out a marvelous set-piece, the description of a performance
sponsored by the Roman emperor Probus featuring first, thousands of ostriches,
bucks, stags, and boars imported to be hunted by the common people, followed by a day of lions, leopards, and bears “to be baited and tugged in pieces,” and finally three hundred pairs of gladiators. (817)

Sauntering through his pages is, so far as I am concerned, the best way to read Montaigne, with little concern for form and less for conclusions, but with a continual delight in his unpredictability, erudition, candor, and style. Only a relaxed and expectant audience can appreciate the divagations of the scant two page account “Of Smels and Odors.” (Bk. 1, Ch. LV) The essay begins not from direct observation, but from a book, noting Plutarch’s report that Alexander’s body had naturally a “sweet smelling savour,” but this bookish opening, it seems, was designed to lead directly to its inverse in all-too-real lived experience. Most people, Montaigne says, are “cleane contrarie” to Alexander, which is to say, they stink. He continues to develop the polarity between unpleasant body odor and a “clean” smell, which is to say, no smell at all. He indicts perfumes as a partial mask of fouler scents. Then succeeds a whimsical account of his mustaches as guardian of his nostrils of service in avoiding not only stench but even contagion. This suggests Socrates’ reputation for resisting plagues, implying that not only world conquerors but also wise men may develop semi-supernatural powers. Physicians might, he thinks, make better use of what today enjoys a bit of a vogue as aromatherapy. This leads to a recognition of the role of incense in religion which slides rapidly into the use of spices in cuisine. The reader next relishes a snapshot of the extravagant kitchen of Charles V, the vapors from which would perfume the whole neighborhood of the palace. He concludes by noting his distaste for the “fennie and marish” location of Venice and the “durtie uncleannesse” of Paris. The rapidly shifting focus is reminiscent of montage in filmmaking or successions of images in poetry.

His style, too, is lush and sensual, though at the same time colloquial. Montaigne indulges to the full a “late” fondness for citation, bricolage, architectural sentences, and endless paragraphs, running for pages, as though they confess their inability ever quite to contain their meaning, but which approach ever closer with each telling detail. He cites the ancients because he realizes we have no evidence for anything beyond our own experience and what we can learn of the experience of others. He piles one quotation upon another, knowing that it is never enough, the case will not be settled, we will be collecting evidence to the end of our days, and, if we reach no satisfying conclusion, we will at least have diverted ourselves in the most human of ways.

Montaigne’s method led to an extraordinary modernity, not just in the assumption that the subjective is for better or worse inevitable and not a choice at all, but also in its complement, a tolerant pluralism, both ethnic and religious. His essay “On the Canibales” goes so far as to treat the West Indian natives as representatives of a better-than-golden age, “little bastardized” by civilization. (164) Even their poetry he finds to have the loveliness of ancient Greek. (170) Though they killed and ate captives of war, they were impressed that the Portuguese were yet more “smartfull” and “cruel” and had to teach the Indians ingenious methods of torture. (436)

There is however, a philosophic basis for Montaigne’s sensibility, though it is not my project here to refine the schema of some critics that portrays him moving from Stoicism through Skepticism to Epicureanism. I am a tourist only in philosophy, satisfied to call him a skeptic throughout. What matters to me in his thought I hardly distinguish from Richard Rorty. In my own figure I would call his philosophy consistently paradoxical in that it requires a rejection of the ordinary claims of philosophy, a rejection the Renaissance Frenchman shares with Zen and Dada but with few in his own day. What could be plainer than the personal medal he had coined engraved with the maxim of the great skeptic Pyrrho “epecho” (“I abstain” or “withhold judgment”) and the French “Que sçay-je?” The likeness of Pyrrho’s expositor Sextus Empiricus was prominent among the savants he had carved in the woodwork of his personal library. His Christianity was sufficiently doubtful that his book spent centuries on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. [3]

The fullest exposition of his skepticism and the longest individual essay is “An Apologie of Raymond Sebond.” Sebond, a professor of theology at Toulouse, had argued that reason was not incompatible with faith. To him illumination can arrive only through divine revelation, primarily in scripture, but, once one has learned the basic facts of god’s reality, the entire creation will testify further to the divine will. Similarly, human logic, once harnessed to the Church’s teachings, can amplify and reinforce religious truth. Montaigne’s father had, toward the end of his life, asked that his son undertake a translation of Sebond’s Theologia Naturalis, perhaps to strengthen his own faith as well as the faith of other French readers. Montaigne praises Sebond’s wit and piety, and, after translating the work, went on to write his own defense of the theologian’s ideas, ostensibly adding another polemical work on behalf of Christianity. But he deviated considerably from his learned and orthodox source.

For Montaigne grace is more elusive and reason more deeply suspect than it was to Sebond. Montaigne argues for a radical skepticism that insists we cannot know anything at all. Though he makes occasional orthodox obeisances to Christian doctrine, his rhetoric mounts an ever more devastating attack against the possibility of attaining any sort of truth at all. Backed into a corner of utter unknowing, he will then plaintively note that only through god’s favor can one be sure of the indubitable truths of religion. But to the reader, and, one suspects, to the author, they did not seem at all so certain.
Montaigne speaks to us directly, and many have commented on the extraordinary modernity of his colloquialism (and eloquent it is) and his lack of ethnocentrism. Perhaps even more dramatically contemporary is Montaigne’s desperation in his final grasp after some sort of redemptive assurance which seems always futile, Sisyphean, Existential. It is both a cliché and a fact that Montaigne exemplifies the Renaissance assertion of the individual. His break with the corporate body of the Church and his wavering faith are part of the price he paid for his integrity.

The result, however, is a thoroughly radical doubt. With charming modesty he says, though “Knowledge is, without all contradiction, a most profitable and chiefe ornament . . . yet I doe not value it at so excessive a rate as some have done.” (385) This elegantly understates his view. For Montaigne the celebrated case of Martin Guerre whose impersonator deceived even his wife for years suggests that nothing can be certainly known. (933) He cites Plato saying that nature, far from shadowing forth eternal truths is “nothing but an aenigmaticall poesie,” which he describes, in a compressed version of Plato’s cave [4] as “an overshadowed and darke picture, enter-shining with an infinit varietie of false lights.” All philosophy, he concludes, is itself no better than a “sophisticated poesie” whose propositions “are all dreames and mad follies.” (481)
He concedes that “Atheisme” is, course, “execrable” (386), yet he finds no reason whatever to embrace religion’s dogmas. Even Augustine, he notes, admitted that “many things may be, and have been, whereof our discourse can never ground the nature and the causes.” (398) His voice seems more desperate than confident when he argues that only the divine can make man more than man (547) and that “it is faith onely, which lively and assuredly embraceth the high mysteries of our Religion” (388) Faith itself can be suspect, too. For Montaigne the fact that children and the aged tend to piety implies that religion were “bred by imbecility.” (393) Similarly those who find god only in times of affliction have a flimsy sort of belief. (392) A pretense to certainty may cloak what amounts to nothing more than a means of social control. (457) Well aware that god has been conceived in a great variety of forms (459), he expresses a sympathetic awareness of non-Christian religious systems, declaring that due to the “generall blindnesse” of our minds, humans must have images to worship. “As for me,” he continues “I should rather have taken part with those who worshipped the Sunne.” Heliolatry is at least potentially monotheistic, but Montaigne further says he prefers to follow “those that worshipped the Serpent, the Dogge, and the Oxe” than to credit the “hurly-burly of so many Philosophical wits” (461) Quoting Xenophanes’ celebrated claim that the beasts would imagine beast-gods, he extends it to imagine the theology of a pious goose. (477)

How feeble, he says, is religious belief when everyone can see that people pay more regard to the opinions of their neighbors, kinsmen, and masters than they do to what they claim to believe to be god’s will. The universality of a fear of death indicates men do not truly believe. (391) Montaigne agrees with Hamlet that only “feare” “keepes a foole joined to his bodie.” (443) It is clear that in general Christians behave no better than Turks or pagans, and the organized church is notoriously corrupt. [5] Most people merely “perswade themselves” that they believe. “Justice . . . is used but for a cloake and ornament.” (389) For him conviction – of anything at all, mind you, and not just the consolations of faith -- is nothing but accommodation to our own weakness and ignorance, asserted in the interests of pitifully egocentric opportunism. He categorically declares that it is beyond human power to know “the least part” of the universe. (396) All opinions are but “smoke and wind.” (435) All the great thinkers have “sported themselves with reason, as of a vaine and frivolous instrument, setting forth all sorts of inventions, devices, and fantasies, sometimes more outstretched, and sometimes more loose.” The whole is endlessly variable, amounting to nothing but “dreames” and “devises.” (490)

His own intellectual lineage is obvious since his pages throng with classical citations while Biblical ones are all but absent. He admits to being “altogether ignorant” of Scripture, (387) though he scrupulously shrinks from explicit agnosticism or heresy. His closest ancestor in thought is surely Pyrrho, (449) the radical skeptic for whom the knowledge that we can know nothing at all leads to a relaxation, a release of mental tension that allows the ataraxia sought by Epicureans and Stoics as well as by Buddhist monks and Shaivite saddhus. For him the celebrated glories of philosophy seem nothing more than parlor tricks to pass the time. “Difficulty is a coin that wisemen make use of, as juglars do with passé and repasse.” (453) He mercilessly pares away pride, insisting on “ the emptinesse, vacuitie, and no worth of man.” (395) The demonstrations of philosophers may be at first appealing, but fact is that their opposites could be proven just as convincingly. “Nothing seemeth true, that may not seeme false.” (his italics, 451) Where can truth be sought, when no two sages agree, and “reason yeeldeth appearance to divers effects? (525-531) There is little room for compromise when “humane science cannot be maintained but by unreasonable, fond, and mad reason.” (535) “Philosophie presenteth unto us, not that which is, or she beleeveth, but what she inventeth.” (484) He cannot remind us often enough that the dubious consolations of philosophy amount to nothing but “foolish vanitie” built upon “fond ridiculous foundations.” (436)

Much of the essay, in fact, goes beyond even skepticism to a chastening of all human pretensions. For Montaigne people cannot even claim an intellectual advantage over beasts. “What sufficiency is there in us, that we must not acknowledge from the industry and labours of beasts?” Apart from the fact that we cannot make out their consciousness with any precision, they clearly have superior senses in some ways. Even the activities of spiders have depths we cannot plumb. (401-3, 541) A hog may act is a more sensible manner than people. (436) The mad may indeed enjoy greater felicity than the sane, (442) and the naked cannibals are at least as civilized as Europeans. The “primitive” New World natives are calmer and happier than over-sophisticated European hypochondriac neurotics. (438, 444) Whatever powers our minds may possess are as often as not overturned by illness, intoxications, and stupefaction. (494) The “spittle or slavering of a sick dog” can vanquish even Socrates’ reason. (495) “The least things in the world wil turne [our reason] topsy-turvy.” (509)

Not knowing even themselves, (505-6) people’s opinions are a sort of natural phenomenon like winds (519) and for this reason, acceptance of generally received truths is the best policy. “Keepe your selves in the common path, it is not good to be so subtill, and so curious.” (503) In fact the ignorant and the foolish are not only happier than people of a more intellectual cast, they are also better lovers. (437) Montaigne quotes Horace to the effect that the illiterate’s erection is the equal of his better’s. (433)

The picture is bleak indeed, though balanced by the writer’s evident delight in the multifarious and endlessly fascinating world about him. He argues along with the ancient Stoics and Epicureans that positive pleasure is a phantom; the best one can experience is a lack of pain. He quotes Ennius: Nimium boni est, cui nihil est mali. Even sex is only a release of tension; true ataraxia is undesirable if not unattainable. (439)

Montaigne approaches a sort of via negative mysticism, but he is far too susceptible to emotion to find real transcendence. He does indeed call man “a thing of nothing,” (445) but nirvana means nothing, an it may well be that Ultimate Reality is better known by our not knowing, by the divine “cloud of unknowing,” as the medieval author had it. When Montaigne condemns any proposition – especially anthropomorphism -- about the divine, citing Cicero and Plato, he might also have noted the line from Exodus . [7] “but my face shall not be seen” or Maimonides or Aquinas, for that matter.

Montaigne concludes his third and last book with a citation from Horace which from his pen is far from dryasdust, but rather poignant, and heart-felt, and touching. The author hopes in his “old yeares” to be sound of mind “nor wanting musicke to delight my eares.” He had spent his entire life in the energetic exercise of that definitive human characteristic, adeptness at manipulating symbols, both in the exhilaration of composition and in the connoisseurship of appreciation of his fellow humans. The ancient concept of philosophy, in Greece as in China and India was the study of how to live a good life. In this sense Montaigne was among the wisest of philosophers.


1. He was persuaded to assume the local role of mayor of Bordeaux.

2. Montaigne had a suspicious distrust of doctors and for years refused their treatment of his kidney stones.

3. Among the authors forbidden by the Church before the end of the list in 1966 were Dante (only the Monarchia), Rabelais, Descartes, Hume, Pascal, Rousseau, Flaubert, Balzac, and Stendhal.

4. Bk. V, the Republic.

5. Montaigne ingeniously notes that, though this fact might lead one to unbelief, another might find it miraculous that so crime-ridden a body as the Catholic Church can maintain its sacred role. This becomes then another instance of wholly ambiguous truth, both substantial and empty at once. (I am thinking of Nagarjuna with those adjectives.)

6. Odes, Bk. I, 31.

7. Exodus 33:20. For Maimonides see, for instance, The Guide for the Perplexed, I, 37; for Aquinas Summa Theologica, I, Q, 3.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Hell’s House



Last night I watched a 1932 B movie directed by Howard Higgin called Hell’s House, notable primarily for early performances by Bette Davis and Pat O’Brien. When it was first released, the New York Times’ Mordaunt Hall found it “hardly adult” despite a few “moderately interesting interludes.” Its very ordinariness, though, is central to its popular character. In spite of what might seem to some elitist, intellectual, and counter-cultural tendencies (I don’t care to watch most contemporary popular films), my pleasure in watching such a narrative doubtless derives from the same source as its original broad audience. The specific “popular” character of such works may thus transcend the decades in the same way that today’s mass market movies leap across seas both physical and cultural to claim the international audiences that American films have enjoyed since Hollywood’s founding.

In its themes popular art undeniably tends to reinforce attitudes which are socially normative, the sort their critics might call idées reçues. On the other hand “high art,” especially since the Romantic Movement, has sought especially to suggest problems, contradictions, and tensions in established ideas, if not to challenge or replace them altogether. Every work may be located somewhere along this continuum.

Hell’s House, like many popular works, is lavish with sentiment, melodrama, and shocking horror. At the outset our young hero Jimmy’s mother dies in his arms; the reformatory where he finds himself practices harsh discipline that borders on the absurd. Boys work like slaves in a brickyard are subjected to such punishments as standing toes to a line staring at a point on the wall and being sent to solitary confinement so neglectful it can be lethal. Once the hapless Jimmy’s own suffering is relieved (in a typical happy ending), the film-maker inserts then a recollection of the deceased Shorty to allow a wallow of emotion and send viewers out of the theater with a tear in the eye.

But such recreational indulgence in excessive pity and fear cannot itself explain my affection for Hell’s House and the success, not just of American films worldwide, but also of such different genres as Bollywood musical productions and Hong Kong martial arts films, suggests that their appeal is not exclusively thematic, though they do comfort the consumer by reaffirming his community’s specific preexisting attitudes. There is in addition a formal, structural delight in seeing oppositions raised and then dissolved that more resembles the patterning of a musical piece than it does other sorts of less predictable stories.
As the movie is presently little-remembered by either critics or cultists, it is doubtless necessary to explain the plot. I hope the parallels with a thousand other works will suggest themselves.

The film opens with an idyll of country life. Jimmy appears as consistently virtuous and naïve, a model of filial piety despite what the viewer imagines to be his wholesome and active boy-life. Suddenly, without reason or warning, the calamity of his mother’s death strikes. Dissolved in tears, he cradles her lifeless body.

The specter of mortality itself is here multiplied by the distress of the boy, the more shocking since it was caused by a callous hit-and-run driver. Yet, in the film, this problem is rapidly resolved. Jimmy travels to the city where a kindly Uncle Henry and aunt Emma Clark take him in. Lingering mourning, a unqualified or uninterested relative, a host of possible complications are all ignored to introduce the next opposition: honesty and dishonesty.

It seems a certain Matt Kelly (played by Pat O’Brien) boards with the Clarks. A boastful but amiable fellow, he claims to have high-level connections, though in fact he is a low-level bootlegger. Bette Davis plays his girlfriend Peggy Gardner, a character who consorts with petty crooks, yet seems altogether decent herself, if a bit street-smart.

Impressed by Kelly’s blather and exceedingly naïve, Jimmy becomes entangled in his business and gets arrested and sent to a reformatory while the real criminal remains free. Here the story’s central theme is established: an exposé of the juvenile justice system. The time-serving superintendent of the institution is not so much vicious as opportunistic. He would like to have the resources to run the place responsibly, but, failing that, he conceals its cruelty, presumably protecting the politicians who gave him his position. He acts as though he will assist campaigning newspaperman Frank Gebhardt, but conceals his institution’s failings. Despite its reformist theme, Hell’s House fails to evoke even a hint of the drama and pathos of Ford’s Grapes of Wrath or even Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.

In the reform school, Jimmy meets his bunkmate, Shorty, who is not only small of stature but has a bad heart. At their first encounter, Shorty proactively knocks him down, suggesting the place’s pervasive brutality, but they soon become friends. Taking a rap for Jimmy, Shorty ends up in an isolation cell where his illness becomes critical. Desperate to assist him, Jimmy finds a way to escape and enlists Peggy’s help. They contact the crusading writer who is able gather from Jimmy the facts he needs to enlighten the public about the school’s shortcomings. Matt is pressured by his concerned girlfriend to confess his own role, exonerating Jimmy, but it too late for Shorty who dies, alone and ignored. The senseless death of Jimmy’s mother at the hands of an irresponsible driver is echoed in a nice unifying touch by Shorty’s death in a society that shirks responsibility for its “delinquent” youth.

Just as Jimmy’s orphan status was relieved by the generosity of his kindly uncle and aunt, Matt Kelly’s criminal habits are erased. Due to beneficent female influence, he is willing to abandon his lying and bootlegging, do his time, and presumably return to society prepared to marry Peggy and live as an upright citizen. It seems the newspaper’s coverage will be sufficient to produce more humane and effective juvenile facilities, and all is well in the world again, as in the opening rural idyll. Mortality itself, individual immorality, and social injustice are all resolved, though the closing scene milks poor Shorty’s memory for just a bit more pathos.

Like one of Dickens’ individual philanthropists saving a suffering poor boy from the dog-eat-dog lower depths, Gebhardt’s intervention magically settles the social question. This maneuver is no more convincing on the realistic level than the swift replacement of Jimmy’s mother or Matt’s moral awakening, but it doesn’t matter. Even on the thematic level, such stories are a sort of sympathetic magic. By such “happy endings” popular culture reassures its audience that all is well, that life is livable, people may stray but are all right in the end, and society is in fact operating smoothly -- any problems require nothing more than the spotlight of publicity.

Even apart, though, from the satisfaction derived from such exemplary unknotting of contradictions, there is surely an abstract pleasure in the pattern of thesis, antithesis, synthesis that goes beyond specific cultural data. This is one reason that widely divergent audiences in different lands who share few values may enjoy the same stories, and a critic who believes little of the moral, psychological, or social implications such a film presents about lived experience can still watch an inconsequential film with satisfaction. Such a narrative generates complacency beyond any ideology, reassuring the viewer that, despite difficulties and even traumas, all will come right in the end.

Lady Maisry



In language, theme, and style, “Lady Maisry” is representative of the ballad tradition. Though much literary criticism, even of oral materials, privileges innovation and individuality while minimizing the value of similarities between a text and others, such common elements may be centrally important, particularly in the case of popular genres. This may be exemplified by a consideration of this classic song, in many ways a typical border ballad.

Since the text was first transcribed from oral performance in 1799 “for his own amusement” by a Greek professor with antiquarian tastes, it has proven quite popular. It appears not only as Childs ballad 65 and in Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s 1910 Oxford Book of Ballads, but in such non-scholarly journals as Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine. [1] In academic circles it has acquired variations, sources, and influences while, ever since the sixties, it has never lacked interpreters among modern folk-style performers. [2]

The emotional focus is one of the most popular world-wide, evoking an exceedingly old gender stereotype: the persecuted lady, familiar from Greek tragedy, Yuan dynasty plays, and The Perils of Pauline. Just as the favorite theme of lyric is romantic love, commonly obstructed or unrequited, in the sentimental and melodramatic ballad genre, love frequently inspires a tragedy marked by a loss of sexual purity. In the classic dodge used by Andreas Capellanus and the Pearl-Poet (in Cleanness) as well as by many exploitation filmmakers, one can describe every sort of immorality if one simply concludes by drawing a cautionary moral. Thus the listener is free to savor Lady Maisry’s grand affair and then to shiver in horror at the violence that follows.

A certain ambiguity is established at the outset as the Lady spurns the honorable suits of her fellow-countrymen who approached in a respectable manner through her family and gave her gifts. While her rejection of the “young lords o’ the north country” could signify arrogance, it might also be construed as indicating the purity of her love, independent of family or local ties. It is, at any rate, tempting fate, as the sequel demonstrates.

Indeed, she not only has chosen an English lover; she openly declares as much to the local lads, and this ill-advised candor sets the narrative in motion. A low menial, a “kitchy-boy,” relays the information that she is pregnant to her brother to whom the news is an intolerable disgrace requiring immediate and extreme action, an “honor killing” much like that expected of families in some contemporary Muslim cultures. He confronts his sister, threatening her with death unless she forsakes her lover.

In this dilemma, she calls on the aid of her lover Lord William through the agency of a loyal servant, but he arrives too late. She has been burned to death, and he resolves to burn her kin in revenge, and finally, unable to go on without her, to cast himself into the flames. The song ends with a thrill of horror and this vision of general conflagration.

The thematic emphasis falls heavily on the competing demands of the morality of love, where the lady and her William defy social convention yet behave in a romantically noble fashion, sacrificing all for passion. A possible patriotic theme vanishes as the English lord acquits himself well, sealing his tragic valor with a pledge of suicide. The representative of traditional values, the brother, concerned for the honor of the family, is portrayed in a wholly unattractive way, so harsh and unfeeling that his moral position is undermined. He threatens her with immediate death the moment he confronts her. [3] Similarly, the class issue is raised by the low status of the treacherous kitchen worker, ignoble in deeds as in birth, only to be canceled by the readiness of the “bonny boy,” certainly a servant or dependent, who carries her message to her champion. With these bipolar oppositions nicely balanced, the story of star-crossed love may play out.

The song thus insists on the primacy of desire – there is no denying the lady’s willful love-death. The issues of nationalism, morality, and class do not vanish but are subsumed in the ungovernable passion that drives the story. Received ideas govern: ladies are passive (if stubborn), males active to the point of violence. The manor-house setting raises interest in the story, as people today take a lively interest in the affairs of British royalty and Hollywood celebrities. Like viewers of many a modern movie, the listener to “Lady Maisry” can enjoy the second-hand experience of what must be understood as a story of sexual misconduct – after all, the lady’s liaison is secret and violates her obligations to Christian morality, family and community – without violating any norms. In fact, the song could pass for an object lesson in the damage potential of unloosed sexuality.

The charm of this particular song, I think, is that it provides all the reassuring affirmation of popular art while retaining knots of ambiguity. The simpler art will portray one hundred per cent heroes and villains. Here one can only react with some ambivalence to each of the three main characters. The lady who loves so well might seem a trifle stand-offish to her local suitors, what the troubadours called daungereux (not far from what a more modern idiom would condemn as “hincty”), while engaging in a secret and forbidden premarital liaison. The brother who represents the conventional morality that governs most listeners’ lives is cold and brutal. The lordly lover, while valiant and loyal, having failed to sweep her off to safety at his own estate, comes, in the end, only tardily to her aid. In spite of the formulaic plot, the song hints at the complexities of lived experience.

Further, while acknowledging the contradictions of gender, ethnicity, and class, the song spotlights desire as the primary motive force for life, the principal cause of conflict and drama. The governing opposition of the song is the lady’s reckless search for love and her brother’s conviction that he must control eros in the name of honor, however harsh the means. In the world of the ballad as in the Eden story and the real world, people suffer because if desire. The individual who has experienced this in life may, upon hearing the song, enjoy the role of spectator, relishing like the viewer of tragedy the fact that it is others who suffer this time while knowing that similar, if less lurid, calamities occur regularly.

While, like other popular and oral texts, “Lady Maisry” reinforces received ideas and accepted behavior, it also illustrates literature’s particular ability to reflect the contradiction, ambivalence, and mystery of lived experience. The listener is able at once to take pleasure in the sensationalism of an illicit affair and a gruesome denouement while feeling some kinship with the passionate lady, the moralistic brother, and the lover who fails to save his lady. Issues of gender, class, nationalism, family, and sexual purity fade, leaving the listener to reflect on the turbulence stirred by irresistible desire.


1. For January 1845.

2. John Jacob Niles collected it in 1934 in the Appalachians and vividly recreates the scene in his Ballad Book. A contemporary U.K. group not only recorded the song but calls itself Lady Maisery.

3. In an odd detail, he threatens to kill the messenger if the bad news he brings be a lie, yet also promises a “malison” or curse should the information be accurate.


I

THE YOUNG lords o’ the north country
Have all a-wooing gone,
To win the love of Lady Maisry,
But o’ them she wou’d hae none.

II

O they hae courted Lady Maisry 5
Wi’ a’ kin kind of things;
An’ they hae sought her Lady Maisry
Wi’ brooches an’ wi’ rings.

III

An’ they ha’ sought her Lady Maisry
Frae father and frae mother; 10
An’ they ha’ sought her Lady Maisry
Frae sister an’ frae brother.

IV

An’ they ha’ follow’d her Lady Maisry
Thro’ chamber an’ thro’ ha’;
But a’ that they cou’d say to her, 15
Her answer still was Na.

V

‘O haud your tongues, young men,’ she says,
‘An’ think nae mair o’ me;
For I’ve gi’en my love to an English lord,
An’ think nae mair o’ me.’ 20

VI

Her father’s kitchy-boy heard that,
An ill death may he dee!
An’ he is on to her brother,
As fast as gang cou’d he.

VII

‘O is my father an’ my mother well, 25
But an’ my brothers three?
Gin my sister Lady Maisry be well,
There’s naething can ail me.’—

VIII

‘Your father an’ your mother is well,
But an’ your brothers three; 30
Your sister Lady Maisry ’s well,
So big wi’ bairn gangs she.’

IX

‘Gin this be true you tell to me,
My malison light on thee!
But gin it be a lie you tell, 35
You sal be hangit hie.’

X

He ’s done him to his sister’s bow’r,
Wi’ meikle doole an’ care;
An’ there he saw her Lady Maisry
Kaiming her yellow hair. 40

XI

‘O wha is aught that bairn,’ he says,
‘That ye sae big are wi’?
And gin ye winna own the truth,
This moment ye sall dee.’

XII

She turn’d her right and roun’ about, 45
An’ the kame fell frae her han’;
A trembling seiz’d her fair body,
An’ her rosy cheek grew wan.

XIII

‘O pardon me, my brother dear,
An’ the truth I’ll tell to thee; 50
My bairn it is to Lord William,
An’ he is betroth’d to me.’—

XIV

‘O cou’d na ye gotten dukes, or lords,
Intill your ain country,
That ye draw up wi’ an English dog, 55
To bring this shame on me?

XV

‘But ye maun gi’ up the English lord,
Whan your young babe is born;
For, gin you keep by him an hour langer,
Your life sall be forlorn.’— 60

XVI

‘I will gi’ up this English blood,
Till my young babe be born;
But the never a day nor hour langer,
Tho’ my life should be forlorn.’—

XVII

‘O whare is a’ my merry young men, 65
Whom I gi’ meat and fee,
To pu’ the thistle and the thorn,
To burn this woman wi’?’—

XVIII

She turn’d her head on her left shoulder,
Saw her girdle hang on a tree; 70
‘O God bless them wha gave me that,
They’ll never give more to me.

XIX

‘O whare will I get a bonny boy,
To help me in my need,
To rin wi’ haste to Lord William, 75
And bid him come wi’ speed?’—

XX

O out it spake a bonny boy,
Stood by her brother’s side:
‘O I would run your errand, lady,
O’er a’ the world sae wide. 80

XXI

‘Aft have I run your errands, lady,
Whan blawn baith win’ and weet;
But now I’ll rin your errand, lady,
Wi’ saut tears on my cheek.’

XXII

O whan he came to broken briggs, 85
He bent his bow and swam,
An’ whan he came to the green grass growin
He slack’d his shoone and ran.

XXIII

O whan he came to Lord William’s gates,
He baed na to chap or ca’, 90
But set his bent bow till his breast,
An’ lightly lap’ the wa’;
An’, or the porter was at the gate,
The boy was i’ the ha’.

XXIV

‘O is my biggins broken, boy? 95
Or is my towers won?
Or is my lady lighter yet,
Of a dear daughter or son?’—

XXV

‘Your biggin is na broken, sir,
Nor is your towers won; 100
But the fairest lady in a’ the land
For you this day maun burn.’—

XXVI

‘O saddle me the black, the black,
Or saddle me the brown;
O saddle me the swiftest steed 105
That ever rade frae a town!’

XXVII

Or he was near a mile awa’,
She heard his wild horse sneeze:
‘Mend up the fire, my false brother,
It’s na come to my knees.’ 110

XXVIII

O whan he lighted at the gate,
She heard his bridle ring;
‘Mend up the fire, my false brother,
It’s far yet frae my chin.

XXIX

‘Mend up the fire to me, brother, 115
Mend up the fire to me;
For I see him comin’ hard an’ fast,
Will soon mend it up to thee.

XXX

‘O gin my hands had been loose, Willy,
Sae hard as they are boun’, 120
I would have turn’d me frae the gleed,
And casten out your young son.’—

XXXI

‘O I’ll gar burn for you, Maisry,
Your father an’ your mother;
An’ I’ll gar burn for you, Maisry, 125
Your sister an’ your brother.

XXXII

‘An’ I’ll gar burn for you, Maisry,
The chief of a’ your kin;
An’ the last bonfire that I come to,
Mysel’ I will cast in.’ 130

Big Bill Otter's Sprees and Frolics

The reader of Huckleberry Finn who thinks that the author has perhaps exaggerated the violent, semi-lawless towns with their drunks, duels, feuds, and frauds, all enacted against the violent background of chattel slavery, finds in William Otter’s autobiography History of My Own Times a putatively nonfiction depiction of much the same scene.

Little is known about why or how Otter, a plasterer by trade, happened to publish this volume in 1835. The curious thing about Otter’s narration is not his working-class perspective, but his self-concept. The subtitle promises “A Series of Events, and Musical Incidents Altogether Original.” In fact, the word “musical” here apparently means something like entertaining, and to Otter nothing was more amusing than causing pain to people and animals. He was a tavern habitué and progressed from youthful adventures in which he and his crew would simply overrun a drinking spot in order to steal liquor and break things to elaborate conspiracies with fellow drinkers to play pranks which sometimes resulted in real physical harm as well as destruction of property. The entire book consists of his boastful narration of his endless “sprees” and “frolics,” mostly directed against blacks, Irish Catholics, or trusting acquaintances, though occasionally with an affluent butt such as the “dandy,” Dr. Vanpike, in whose face he contrives to piss. Otter is the sort of joker who purchases itch powder and laxatives; he tricks a man into drinking turpentine and tosses lime into a monkey’s face. He is a large man who was quite willing to have a physical confrontation. He relates a contest on which two men grab each other by the ears and then head-butt. Otter by his telling had far the hardest head.

He was particularly fond of attacking minorities. He describes ushering in Christmas by lurking outside the midnight mass to harass the Catholics when they emerged and participated in rioting against the Irish in New York City. He sent a goat up the aisle of a black church and then beat the worshippers to the ground when they emerged, noting that he spared neither sex or age. He liked to pick up extra cash by capturing escaped slaves. By his own account he caused livestock and pets to be badly injured and tortured, and killed a dog in front of its owner (whose tears inspire his laughter). He had no hesitation about stealing in small ways, though he was a hard-working tradesman as well.
Disreputable, nasty, and wicked as these activities sound, he seems to have had little trouble recruiting comrades to assist his plots. Though often the initiator, he elicited applause from his cronies what they regarded as his enterprise and wit. In middle age he was popular enough to be elected burgess (or mayor) of his town.

The story is organized by his “frolics,” with most every paragraph running until the episode has ended, some paragraphs going on for pages with great strings of paratactic, coordinated clauses. Otter’s use of slang and colloquial syntax and grammar is entertaining and his stories rapidly moving. In spite of the repetitive accumulation of similar anecdotes, the book reads smoothly; one hears the waggish tone of the raconteur. Apart from hanging out in barrooms, the author later owned one, and there can be little doubt that many of these tales found oral expression a great many times before they were written.

Literary parallels pointed out by Otter’s editor, Richard B. Scott, include George Washington Harris’ Sut Lovingood and Davy Crockett’s popular autobiography, and Scott also speculates on the political and historic implications of the book. Otter was a Jacksonian Democrat. The gentility of the rising American middle class would never tolerate his high jinks, and the Great Awakening of his day would see him simply as a lost sinner. Yet perhaps the most significant reading of the data encoded in Otter’s autobiography would focus on the unselfconscious, unrestrained ego assertion so often associated with masculinity, so high-spirited, so at home with alcohol and violence. He managed to set down upon the page sufficient information that we can almost understand Jackass films, the schoolyard bully, and the dreadful grins often evident in photos of the perpetrators of lynchings.


William Otter, Richard B. Scott ed. History of My Own Times or, the Life and Adventures of William Otter, Sen. Comprising A Series of Events, and Musical Incidents Altogether Original. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Some Notes Toward a Theory of the Avant-Garde



A few days ago, I presented a talk titled “What’s New: the Meaning of Avant-Garde in the Arts” at the Seligmann Center in Sugar Loaf. Though some of the material I presented was derived from my essays “Millenarian Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde,” “The Inconsequential Bayonets of Art,” and “Lament for the Loss of the Avant-Garde,” I mean here to simply note several ideas that were new. The following aims merely to record what was not in the earlier essays and does not aim therefore at polish or even coherence, only at contributing toward an understanding of this important concept.



The Essential Combativeness of the Avant-Garde

Literature always develops and changes. New styles succeed old and writers such as Catullus and Dante were once justifiably called “new.” The avant-garde is a particular subcategory of new culture in which an adversarial relationship with the majority culture is assumed. This arises necessarily from the term itself.
The term avant-garde was first used in English in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur with a purely military meaning. This usage gained in popularity by the late 18th century. It was first used in the cultural sphere in 1825 by the Saint Simonian Olinde Rodrigues in his essay, “L’artiste, le savant et l’industriel.” For him artists were likely “forward troops” who could educate the masses through the dissemination of radical ideas through their work. Thus actual revolution provided the crossover point from military to artistic content. The fact that the masses would be unlikely to be reading “avant-garde” literature did not trouble Rodrigues who envisioned a militant and influential cadre of artists in support of socialism.
Shortly thereafter in 1845 Henri Murger began publishing the stories which became in 1851 the collection Scènes de la Vie de Bohème which preceded Puccini’s opera by almost half a century. In 1848 Thackeray used Bohemian in its counter-cultural sense in Vanity Fair.


The Definition of Avant-Garde


Kostelanetz in his Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes proposes a value-laden definition of avant-garde: work that “transcends” current practice and will find its audience only later though it will eventually have considerable influence. This is, of course, absurd. Trivial or inconsequential avant-garde work is not only possible, but the rule. First-rate popular or conventional art is likewise common. Avant-garde artists are not those who magically anticipate coming trends. Indeed, the techniques associated with the word have remained remarkably consistent.

The specific descriptive value of the term avant-garde seems to me to consist in the following qualities: a conscious aim to “épater la bourgeoisie,” a claim that the work of the “advanced” school has value beyond and above that of other artists, and a particular set of techniques and attitudes.

1.
Avant-garde art typically offends, shocks, disturbs because of its transgressiveness in aesthetic, political, religious, or moral realms. As I recall the first poetry readings I attended, Paul Carroll’s Big Table series in Chicago, the greatest audience reaction, a reliable and palpable rise, occurred during erotic, revolutionary, or blasphemous passages. People cheered every violation of “straight” norms. This is probably the most characteristic quality of the avant-garde. Thus Mapplethorpe not only used homoerotic imagery, but chose to document activities and poses that would be shocking even to those untroubled by straightforward love between men.

2.
Though I differed with Kostelanetz’ attribution of higher value to avant-garde art, I would readily agree that such work claims a higher worth than the accepted. The Secessionists, Refusés, and similar groupings took pride in their outsider status. For punk musicians a lack of professional skills was the hallmark of authenticity. This is related to the popularity of a variety of contrarian aesthetic systems in the twentieth century. Such forms of appreciation as hip, the camp, kitsch are all elitist in that they assert privileged forms of reception of the work, ostensibly superior to that of the usual consumer. This attitude reinforces the first characteristic above as most critics and cultural consumers will be annoyed and offended by this claim of a higher mode of understanding, unless they choose to include themselves in the aura of the avant-garde’s greater sophistication.

3.
Though the pretension of the avant-garde is to innovation, the movement has been generally characterized by a specific battery of techniques and attitudes that has changed little in the last hundred years. The use of abstraction, conceptual and performance art, aleatory work, and the use of ethnographic and pop culture materials remains the hallmark of the avant-garde.
Apart from the formal or stylistic elements, the avant-garde is highly likely to follow the Romantics of two centuries ago in a long list of judgments, among them celebrating the vatic role of the artist and privileging the unconscious over the conscious and thus the work of children, the poor and uneducated, mad people, and those in oral cultures.


The Problematics of the Avant-Garde

Each of the distinguishing characteristics detailed above generates problems, leading to serious questions, if not to a crisis, of the avant-garde. First, the philosophical position implied by what one might (ironically) call “classic” avant-gardism constructs a cul-de-sac. Secondly, the movement is hobbled by its reactive character, inverting received ideas as a matter of habit without thought. Finally, the gap between what might have once been conceived as the party of the future and that of the present no longer exists in either content or in form, removing the motive for rebellion.

1.
The sweeping challenge presented by the theoreticians of the avant-garde is, in fact, so radical as to lead to a dead-end. Much like absolute philosophical skepticism or total monism, it leaves little room for meaningful elaboration or development. When all objects are equivalent, enlightenment may arise, but art is eclipsed. After conceptual art brought everything into the realm of the aesthetic, no further progress is possible. With the loss of conventions comes a concomitant loss of signifying potential.

2.
The avant-garde is hobbled by its largely reactive character; like Satanism, it merely inverts the practices of its antagonist rather than, like paganism, ignoring them. In this way heroin can seem more attractive than health and fetishes more fascinating than commonplace sexuality. Such contrarianism is salutary as long as the establishment resists the avant-garde. An insistence on always playing the bad boy removes the chance of developing an independent base for the artist’s judgments.

3.
Indeed the gap no longer exists. The advance guard is no longer out front. The art world has long accepted the entire spectrum of avant-garde technique, while politically radical art lacks an audience and, indeed, all non-commodified art is ever more marginalized. Even the most revolutionary techniques may become automatized from repeated use, and soi-disant innovators who in fact do nothing experimental create the odd spectacle of an institutionalized avant-garde. When situation comedies use “shit” the opening of Jarry’s Ubu Roietz, which originally provoked a riot after which the play was banned, has lost its point and requires a footnote.

For several generations the American government has sponsored programs of jazz music and abstract expressionism as instruments of foreign policy, and advertisers sell blue jeans and cologne with techniques devised for the derangement of the senses.

Under these conditions a new turn is essential is the concept of the avant-garde is to have any meaning for coming generations.

Notes on Recent Reading 18 [Radcliffe, Stendhal, Erasmus]

Romance of the Forest (Radcliffe)

Radcliffe’s novel has plenty of romance, raised to a high pitch the first half by Adeline’s distress at unwilling confinement and the threat of sexual exploitation. This exquisite but frustrated affection continues in the second as the true love that arises in the midst of her perils is then transformed into anxiety over the fate of her champion, unfairly condemned to death. Throughout the narrative, she has ample motive to weep and to swoon. The language, especially between lovers, is stilted and highly artificial – though I do recall an article demonstrating that actual fainting was apparently common during the age of the “man of sensibility,” so perhaps the delicate circumlocutions are all drawn from life. There are plenty of rhapsodic descriptions of wild landscape as well as Gothic ruins with endless rooms upon room, secret passages and all the machinery of the late eighteenth century thriller. A good number of the poetic quotations that head each chapter are drawn from Collins. The word “romance” is used often in a self-conscious reflex.
Yet the warm glow of Enlightenment confidence plays over the Romantic landscapes, and La Luc, Radcliffe’s philosopher, reminds the reader of Rasselas or Candide with his wise moderation.
Coleridge developed his notions on the “willing suspension of disbelief” specifically to defend artificial “romance” settings and plots, and to advocate for the free use of the supernatural in literature. This narrative, while it only plays with the metaphysical, pays scant heed to realism or even plausibility. Radcliffe did not even attempt to make the scene convincingly French, but then, millions are about to relish the concluding episode of the television series Breaking Bad which, its gritty detail notwithstanding, is altogether fantastic.


The Red and the Black (Stendhal)

Stendhal managed to make of Sorel a complex and satisfying antihero. He seems at first an absurdly mistaken provincial Napoleon, seeking advancement through his wits while pretending piety and love without any authentic feelings whatsoever. Utterly cynical and self-interested, interested only in self-advancement, still he regards himself as a person of the highest honor and standards. He wonders in prison whether he has acted the egotist and concludes “I abandoned a simple and modest merit for what was brilliant.” Thinking “I have loved the Truth,” this most hypocritical of men laments that he could find only hypocrisy in the wider world, little suspecting that each of the others who strike him as so fraudulent, may seem, no less than our hero, subjectively a wronged lover of the truth.

Whereas Samuel Richardson would have seen no moral ambiguity in the case of this ruiner of two women, their will no match for their passions, Stendhal constructs a more radical vision in which no one stands outside corruption. The epigraphs from Don Juan encourage a comedic/satiric reading until the sudden attack on Madame de la Renal, so injurious to Sorel’s own interests, irresistible and foolish as anything that those he felt so far above had done. Human character is finally revealed, not as wickedly duplicitous and cunning, but as blundering, absurd, and blind.


Colloquies (Erasmus)

Ordinarily, the most literary quality of the compositions written for language learners is a certain oddity. Yet the Colloquies, written at first simply for teaching Latin, are perhaps the best introduction to Erasmus’ work. In the fifteenth century, the great Christian humanist demonstrated that orthodoxy may coexist with tolerance rather in the style of the current pope. This benign regard for the follies of humanity extends in fact to such church-sanctioned activities as pilgrimages, exorcisms, and elaborate funerals. Erasmus regularly discerns the truly spiritual, at least what works for those of an intellectual cast of mind, and the polish of his Latinity signifies the high standard of his character.

The Colloquies are incidentally valuable as vignettes of sixteenth century life. In his piece on “Inns,” he describes the world of the Renaissance hospitality industry with color and humor. His piece on pilgrimage includes a catalogue of marvelous and magical stones as well as detail on religious practice. His anti-war “Charon” at once reflects its historic origins and speaks eloquently to today.

But the appeal of the collection is its free-ranging variety from a highly original takes on courtly love (“The Wooer and the Maiden”) and the pastoral with his servant playing Cyclops (“Cyclops, or the Gospel Bearer”) to a house party at the most civilized country estate ornamented with both nature and art (“The Godly Feast”). It is difficult to escape the conviction that Erasmus sought salvation from his sense of beauty as well as from his sense of the divine.

Documents of the third Surreal Cabaret

The third Surreal Cabaret was presented at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, August 23 at the Seligmann Center for the Arts, 23 White Oak Drive in Sugar Loaf.

The program

1. Steve Roe performed Museum Piece, a monologue describing a bizarre museum treating the relationship of art to commerce, science, and violence.
Roe is founder of COPE, the Council of (Poetic) Experimentation, a performance group dedicated to performing classic and original multimedia experimental works. Roe was Associate Producer and acted in the prize-winning film Under Jakob's Ladder.

2. Jennifer Kraus did Mirror, mirror, mirror, mirror which through video, movement and voice searches for redeeming vulnerability behind the current "selfie" culture.
Kraus, a Warwick native, is a dance teacher and choreographer. She most recently worked at HERE Arts Center in NYC as an Assistant Director. She has formed a theatrical production company, HUGE CUP Productions, through which she develops original dance theater work.

3. Michael Sean Collins delivered Igor’s Revenge, or The Black Dog Takes Another Bite, a macabre surreal existential monologue representing a conversation between a man and his unconscious.
Collins is an actor, poet, magician, photographer and former 22-year resident of New York City. He has performed in television, film, theater, cafes, night clubs circuses and alternative performance venues across the United States and Canada.

4. Chloe Roe sang Aria, John Cage’s composition which requires a single performer to vocalize in five languages using ten vocal styles.
Roe is a professional actress and singer. She appears as the lead in the feature film Feral Child and as Francis in The Library. She is also a member of The Manhattan Girls Chorus. But most of all she likes to rock out with her band.

5. William Seaton enacted The Debate of Thaumastes and Panurge, a disputation conducted entirely in gestures.
Seaton conceived the Surreal Cabaret. He also produces the Poetry on the Loose Reading/Performance Series and teaches workshops at the Northeast Poetry Center’s College of Poetry.

6. ArtCrime with John Korchok provided opening and incidental music and performed a unique version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
ArtCrime is a cell of committed aesthetic hackers devoted to the overthrow of musical expectations. Using jazz, classical, and rock idioms, we make music that is reminiscent of the future. We sleep in the daytime, we work in the nighttime. We might not ever get home.


The poster by David Horton

[I haven't succeeded in reproducing the excellent poster by David Horton. Blogger doesn't seem to like the pdf format. Perhaps it will appear here soon.]


The benediction by the Lama Swine Toil

Good evening and welcome to the Surreal Cabaret at the Seligmann Studio, the staging area for advanced artistic research in Orange County. I am the Lama Swine Toil, Surrealist Chaplain, midwife to your imaginative endeavors for the next few hours. Allow me to bestow the special benediction of the unordained and to share a few words of scripture.
I am bedazzled to gaze upon you and to behold radiant perfect Buddhas enjoying the endless unemployment of Eternity. But in this quantum universe we find ourselves like Schrödinger’s cat in two states at once. I see as well as Buddhas small caged and pacing beasts like those in the Humane Society, motherless, anxious, and feeling alien indeed. Suspended between these realities, I invite you to make of yourself tonight a young child with no responsibilities beyond observing and playing.
And now a few words from our scriptures. Remember always the rule of the Abbey of Theleme which existed never and always: “Do as thou wouldst.” In different words the rural Midwestern prophet Ezekiel Cole expressed the same timeless thought “If thou hast eyes, go thy way.” Allow me to conclude with the glad exclamations of Lord Buckley’s Nazz, “Oh great swingin’ flowers of the fields! And the Nazz say “Dig Infinity!”

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Gascoigne’s “Notes of Instruction”



Between Wyatt and Surrey, George Gascoigne is probably England’s most significant poet. His historical position is unassailable. According to Legouis’ thorough A History of English Literature Gascoigne wrote the first “prose story taken from real life, the first prose comedy, the first tragedy translated from Italian, the first masque, the first regular satire, and the first treatise on English prosody.” He was perhaps only too prolific; he is little-read today. In his pursuit of a career as soldier, courtier, and poet, he never measured up to the high standard Sidney would achieve in each of these realms after him. Though workmanlike with considerable ingenuity and occasional wit, his poetry has only flashes of memorable phrase. His alexandrines and fourteeners sound all but interminable to today’s ears. He is capable of sounding very like the rustics of Midsummer Night’s Dream: “My liking lust, my lucklesse love,” “My secrete partes are so with secret sorrowe soken.” Still, the conceit of his “Lullaby of a Lover” is striking “Full many wanton babes have I,/ Which must be stilled with lullaby.” He is good with proverbial expressions: “every bullet hath a lighting place” “mo the merrier” “castels buylt above in lofty skies,/ Which never yet had good foundation.” Other folk-like materials sound fresh and lively: “There's nobody at home/ But Jumping Joan,/ And father and mother and I.” He can have a spurt of Renaissance freshness: for him, the devil must be killed “with gonshote of beleefe.”

His pioneering poetics, called “Certayne Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse or Ryme in English” appeared in The Posies in 1575. His terminology and habits of thought are Aristotelian and rhetorical. His ideas arise from induction, not a priori, and seek to account for his own experience in poetry. Gascoigne betrays no belief in inspiration of either the Platonic or the Christian varieties. [1] Influenced by authors like Castiglione and by his own position, seeking patronage at court, he portrays poetry as a refined accomplishment like skill at arms, horsemanship, or love-making.

Like most pre-modern literary theorists, Gascoigne’s analysis is centered on the use of the conceptual framework and terminology of the rhetorical tradition. [2] Gascoigne’s rhetorical orientation is evident in his stress on invention and on propriety. To him a work must be both “good” (appealing in concept or content) and “fine” (that is, well-executed or stylish).
In invention the poet can display his “the quick capacity,” a quality that might be equated today with originality. Each work has its own unique character which must be consistently maintained. The reader may relish the wit of the author’s ideas independent of their validity.

The interest in propriety is another rhetorical trait. Meter must be consistent. Each metrical form implies a certain appropriate subject matter. The tradition allows the artist to convey more semantic data when his audience is familiar with a set of conventions and expectations.

Further, Gascoigne, as a writer in an age when Latin composition still made the vernacular seem to many second-rate, insists on the value of natural colloquial language in poetry. Metric stress should correspond to stress in spoken usage [3]; iambic is the ordinary meter of the English language; words of one syllable are more English than polysyllabics. Obsolete and foreign or learned words are generally undesirable.
Gascoigne says nothing about morality, or instruction. Art is wholly aesthetic; a good poem is “delectable,” [4] To please readers, authors must avoid trite expressions, avoiding the “uncomely customes of common writers,” and expressing ideas obliquely through tropes, allegory, or allusion, or some other novel presentation. Thus the aesthetic text affords the pleasures of a riddle or crossword. It must be soluble but not obvious, in Gascoigne’s terms “frame your stile to perpiscuity and to be sensible,” neither too obscure nor too “easie.”

His stress is on ingenuity or wit in a context of shared convention. The poet is in fact, quite similar to a skilled raconteur or a clever party guest. Art is a display of well-wrought words, clearly within a tradition, yet defining its own sophistication through moves that cannot be wholly anticipated. This sort of dance of expectations between the writer and the audience requires considerable shared education and culture. Such poetry works most efficiently with the most homogenous readership.

Gascoigne insists on this familiar yet refined milieu when he places his essay in an upper-class familiar social context, addressing it to an Italian friend in fulfillment of a personal promise. Thus his formulas of humility – he calls his own ideas “simple” at the outset and concludes saying “I doubt my own ignorance” – reinforce the genteel amateur’s love of art that was part of upper-class identity. Far from defining his profession, Gascoigne’s poems, like those of the other chief poets of his age, are an decorative ornament, a flower of chivalry which, when combined with his other elegant accomplishments and his martial valor, characterize him as one of “the best,” that is to say, an aristocrat. Though his ideas are neither as well-worked-out as Sidney’s nor as original as Dr. Johnson’s, he provides a reliable view of the ideas current in his time and social milieu.


1. I am using the Collected Works of George Gascoigne edited by John W. Cunliffe, a 1969 Greenwood Press reprint of the 1907 Cambridge University Press edition.

2. Some decades after Gascoigne rhetoric received its definitive Elizabethan treatment in George Puttenham’s Art of English Poesie (1589). This topic in general has been too little appreciated. Rhetoric has too often been abandoned to those interested in “public speaking.”

3. The discussion of meter is complicated by the fact that Gascoigne conflates Classical quantitative meters with accentual English ones.

4. He does make a formulaic gesture toward Christianity in his “Advertisement” to the reader that prefaces The Posies.

Two Exemplary Anecdotes from the Sixties Student Movement


Most movements for social change are generated among the oppressed and aggrieved: women demonstrated for suffrage and workers for unions. Local homeowners get together to declare “not in my back yard” or to campaign for a stoplight. The student and youth movements of the 1960s are unusual in that those who took up the cause of African-Americans and of the Vietnamese people were relatively privileged members of the crest of the great American middle class, created largely by the labor movement of the thirties and the GI Bill of the forties. As white college students they enjoyed comforts and expectations rather greater than the norm even for their own affluent postwar country.

People speak loosely about “the sixties” as an era of psychedelics and political protest. As a ’67 graduate of the University of Illinois, I can testify that protestors (and dopers) were a marginal group throughout my undergraduate years. When I manned the Students Against the War table in the student union, I could count on arguing with fellow students all day long. My wife was called a dyke for marching in a demonstration against parietal hours for women. I felt I knew all the people in the small coterie involved with leftist protest.

The fact is that when I arrived at the University of Illinois in the fall of 1963 the Old Left groups had vanished. I believe the only progressive group on the Champaign-Urbana campus of tens of thousands of students was the NAACP, to be followed later by a Friends of SNCC chapter. The Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in 1964 inspired Students for Free Speech and Student Committee on Political Expression.

About this time several others and I – I believe it was perhaps six students that one needed to create an official organization – started an Independent Socialist Club. Like the Port Huron authors, we wanted to avoid the historic entanglements of the Stalinists, Trotskyites, and followers of Norman Thomas (who spoke at the U. of I. in the spring of ’65). We could be punctilious if we liked as there were so few of us and we did no organizing, no demonstrations, indeed, no political work at all. Our meetings were as good as private though a few drifters passed through.
Inconsequential as we were, we found we constituted a tempting bait for the very groups of which we had been wary. An older Communist, a YSA rep from miles away, and a local Socialist each in turn asked us to affiliate. Even as a discussion group we meandered. One of our original crew began pushing SWP tapes of Raya Dunayevskaya. Another thought we could best contribute to progress by intensive discussions of What is to be Done?

Mercifully, in the fall of 1965, Students for a Democratic Society organized. At that point SDS was a broad popular front organization with many Democratic Party activists as well as socialists, anarchists, and wholly non-ideological individualists, perhaps even a stray liberal Republican or two. The Independent Socialist Club disbanded after a scant year of existence.

The New Left Movement is often said to have begun with the February 1960 Woolworth’s sit-in in Greensboro and the subsequent founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, but until SDS there was no large and inclusive student organization pressing for social justice and peace. Veterans of the Southern Movement, both white and black, were influential leaders in the years that followed as were the “red diaper” babies whose families had been socialist in earlier decades, but each of these groups was small in numbers. The increasingly massive numbers of people willing to stand up against the system arose from the “youth revolution” element which grew exponentially following the Haight-Ashbury Summer of 1967 and the continuing threat of the draft which affected most men (though virtually all those who sought to wiggle out of the military obligation were able to do so).

My second anecdote concerns a friend I will identify only as D-------- K------ as we have been out of touch for some time, and I have not discussed my account with him. It is, however, simple and sketchy enough that I am confident of its accuracy and, I hope, significant enough to warrant telling.

In the junior year of his studies at a prestigious private university K------, who had considerable personal charm, a gift for rabble-rousing, and a highly developed sense of the ridiculous, moved to establish a DuBois Club on his campus. The DuBois Clubs were in fact essentially the youth group of the American Communist Party, as the Young Communist League had been (and would again be – the old name came back in 1984). Universities often found such groups unpalatable, particularly schools with endowments that count on the continuing patronage of wealthy alumni. Many in higher education doubtless feared publicity arising from even the smallest of revolutionary contingents and tried to ban such clubs.

The membership of a DuBois Club might have been little larger and its impact little greater than my Independent Socialist Club had it been permitted, but it was not. Virtually all the students agreed that this decision was undemocratic, and they rallied energetically against it. My friend K------ had the opportunity to exercise his considerable abilities as a debater, entertainer, and wit in an ongoing series of demonstrations that attracted ever-increasing crowds. The celebrity he won in this cause led to his election as student body president the following year (1967-8). I doubt that the DuBois Club ever had a real meeting. K------‘s psychic jiu-jitsu had caused the university administration to defeat itself and elevate him to prominence. As a result of their bungling and the movement of history, the critical mass of participants for truly disruptive sit-ins and rallies had arrived. Though most of the students were simply believers in what K------ might have called bourgeois democracy, that alone was enough to set them on his side against the powers that be.

A revealing sequel occurred the following spring. As K------ tells it, he was delivering a rousing anti-war speech on campus when he was interrupted by cries of “Talk is bullshit!” We want action, not talk!” and eventually, “To the ROTC Building!” He was left standing at the podium with a mere remnant of his audience. When those who had left destroyed the ROTC Building, he was charged with having incited a riot, though the claim was sufficiently absurd that it was later dropped.
These experiences suggest, first, the simple truth that political protests of the sixties occurred, for the most part, during the last few years of that decade (and the first months of 1970). When students did become active, they were often moved by non-political motives. When political, their values were generally not radical and, indeed, rarely went beyond the guarantees of the Bill of Rights. The most dramatic actions were generally not the result of traditional labor union-style organizing and careful planning, but rather were spontaneous, sharing as much of the character of post-football disorders as of sit-down strikes. When the draft no longer threatened most young men, they ceased protesting. There were from the start dedicated advocates for social justice who sought to question America’s foreign and domestic policies and to suggest radical alternatives, but their numbers were never great. Both those who would trivialize the movement of the sixties and those who would idealize it might well recall these home truths.