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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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Every Reader's Herrick

This is part of a continuing series of essays meant to introduce (or re-introduce) readers to the work of important poets. In these essays I limit my focus to the discussion of only three or four of each writer’s best-known works while providing a bit of context and biography, eschewing most byways and all footnotes.

Until the Renaissance most poetry was performed. Epics were chanted and lyrics were sung in elegant courts no less than in peasants’ farmyards. During Elizabethan times and afterwards poets like Dowland, Morley, and Campion wrote music as well as words. In the seventeenth century the Cavalier poets wrote lyrics which, though not made literally for presentation with music, were nonetheless outstanding for verbal melody. Among the poets of this generation, Robert Herrick may be the most musically accomplished.

Herrick was allied to the throne through the apprenticeship he served for his uncle, a jeweler to the king, before attending Cambridge as well as through his ordination as an Anglican priest. During the Protectorate he lost his position due to his Royalist sympathies and his refusal to accept the Covenant institutionalizing the Scottish church, but regained his vicarage after the Restoration. Best known for the carpe diem theme of his most popular lyrics, he also wrote epitaphs, religious poems, and reflections on mortality as well as pieces praising various members of the nobility, relatives, and Ben Jonson, whose classicism he admired and imitated. Most of these themes are noted in “The Argument of his Book” which serves as preface to his only published volume Hesperides.

I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers,
Of April, May, of June, and July flowers.
I sing of May-poles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes,
Of bridegrooms, brides, and of their bridal-cakes.
I write of youth, of love, and have access
By these to sing of cleanly wantonness.
I sing of dews, of rains, and piece by piece
Of balm, of oil, of spice, and ambergris.
I sing of Time's trans-shifting; and I write
How roses first came red, and lilies white.
I write of groves, of twilights, and I sing
The court of Mab, and of the fairy king.
I write of Hell; I sing (and ever shall)
Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all.

The catalogue significantly opens with “pretty” topics most prettily stated. The love poems by this lifelong bachelor are justified as treating “cleanly wantonness” and the Horatian advice to “seize the day” is called “Time's trans-shifting.” With the final two lines he seeks to place his values in an ultimately Christian framework, though his devotional works, the “Noble Numbers,” have never been as popular as those widely read as Epicurean.
Perhaps the most anthologized of these is “To the Virgins, to make much of Time.”

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he's to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And, while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

The encouragement to make the most of love-making in youth is familiar from a great many Greek and Roman poems, though many elders today would question whether mature life is a long slide downhill even in terms of sensuality – was youth really “warmer”? The theme is, of course, also familiar from Ecclesiastes 8:15, “Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.” The semi-canonical Wisdom of Solomon 2:8 provides an even closer parallel for Herrick’s opening phrase: “Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds, before they be withered.” An appetite for food, like an appetite for love, is to Herrick no sin but rather a celebration of creation requiring no apology.

He seems rather a wet than a dry Epicurean. As one of the “Sons of Ben” Herrick would have known the “Leges Conviviales” Jonson had engraved over the chimney in the Apollo or Old Devil Tavern at Temple Bar where the writers gathered. In the English version, “Rules for the Tavern Academy or, Laws for the Beaux Esprits,”

Let the learned and witty, the jovial and gay,
The generous and honest, compose our free state;
And the more to exalt our delight whilst we stay,
Let none be debarr'd from his choice female mate.

A similar genial acceptance of human nature and the measured pursuit of pleasure characterizes his “Farewell to Sack” in which he declares that in the future, while he will not drink, he will nonetheless “admire” and “love” wine.

A few of his epigrams were sufficiently racy to be exiled to a “detachable appendix” by a Victorian editor. His appreciation for women was generally expressed in an exquisite and refined manner, yet could be far more erotic than the obscene works of the second Earl of Rochester a little later in the seventeenth century.

Upon Julia’s Clothes

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
The liquefaction of her clothes!

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free,
—O how that glittering taketh me!

In the first the insistent triple rhymes and the excited repetition of “then” suggest the intensity of the persona’s admiration. The unexpected scientific term “liquefaction” sounds nearly alchemical, expressing a feeling altogether beyond ordinary experience. (Indeed “vibration” was also a word unrecorded before the middle of the seventeenth century.) The lady appears in the second stanza as though she were an apparition, nearly too dazzling to behold. The observer’s enthusiasm leads him to what most readers find to be conventional hyperbolic praise of the beloved. Some readers see the figure enriched and complicated by a semi-submerged fishing metaphor, linking “liquefaction” with “cast” and then the closing verb “taketh,” suggesting capture.

Delight in Disorder

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness;
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher;
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribands to flow confusedly;
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.

Some would take this poem as approving a particular sort of art that conceals art, English gardens rather than French, for example, or colloquial verse in preference to highly artificial rhetoric. Yet surely the primary meaning is the particular erotic charm of the beloved in deshabille. Like a blazon in its progress downwards, one item of dress succeeds another, while – after the lady is placed with the referenced to “the shoulders” parts of the body are never mentioned, but only seven accessories to the lady’s dress. These inanimate objects are said to be “wanton,” erring, “enthralling, “neglectful,” and “tempestuous,” all of which are more likely said of human behavior than of the drape of costume. In fact, of course, the reader is never in doubt that the looseness of the lady’s laces and sashes betokens a similar complaisance in affairs of love. It is close to a via negativa of erotic desire – the beloved herself being ineffable, she can only be praised in terms of her attributes.

In a clear case of form’s identity with content, the poem opens with Herrick’s typical conversational iambic tetrameter, the most natural meter in English, but the first foot of the second line is a trochee, adding energy to launch a line that ends with a languishing luxurious “wantonness,” over which the tongue lingers, expressing the persona’s admiration of the lady. Line eight repeats this variation with “confusedly” as the lengthened word, intensifying its implication. The majority of the couplets use not rhymes but half rhymes, providing sonic analogue for the beloved’s elegant insouciance.

Herrick’s reputation has suffered since Eliot expressed a preference for the Metaphysicals. His wit was perhaps not as philosophical as Donne’s and his style, even in his own age, may have seemed old-fashioned, but I would second the opinion of Swinburne, another poet who valued melody more highly than poets and critics seem to do today. In his preface to an 1898 edition of Herrick Swinburne says, “His work is always a song-writer’s; nothing more, but nothing less, than the work of the greatest song-writer -- as surely as Shakespeare is the greatest dramatist – born of English race.”

Odin and Poetry

an introduction with a thesis; an essay without

Some years ago I heard William Arrowsmith deliver a paper on a poem in French by Eliot. [1] I had admired Arrowsmith’s translations but knew nothing of the rest of his work. His paper was in the form of a colloquy among a number of faculty members, each more or less representative of a recognizable type. His performance was highly entertaining, his drama was effective, and the paper in the end demonstrated its point no less logically and at least equally convincingly as most such studies.

Inspired, I later sent out a call for papers for an academic conference to be united by no theme but rather by a formal principle: each paper submitted should eschew the usual thesis/proof format and instead use any alternative form that might serve the topic. I noted that it seemed ironic, given the acceptance by critics of the significance in aesthetic texts of formal patterns and conventions, that they inevitably chose the same old pattern for discussion among themselves. [2] As it happened no one submitted an appropriate proposal. And I like all my colleagues continued writing in the manner I had learned in school.

Recalling this incident, I decided recently to try again to break the tyrannical mold with a more experimental essay on passages on Odin and poetry in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda. This is a work which in spite of a good command of German and Old English and a year of classroom study of Old Norse I read in an English translation (the Penguin edition translated by Jesse Byock). My knowledge of Icelandic texts is broad but shallow, certainly not that of a specialist. Might I yet turn up something useful if I were to discuss the work casually, as though I were speaking to a friend over wine, not so much an innovative form in intention as no form at all? Or perhaps this piece would, without this preface, be indistinguishable from what seems to me the more conventional essay.

* * * *

My introduction above sketches what is still an unfulfilled ambition. As my monthly deadline approaches, I find the conventional form strong enough to continue to leave little room for alternatives. Noting ideas without preconception I ended with nothing finer than a list of data like that any reader might compile when beginning to study a work. Numerous theses might have potential dealing with the relation between poetry, suffering and knowledge, the roles of intoxication and of sacrifice, or the place of poetry in earlier societies and in the present day. Yet I have only a bag of notes. Is the thesis/proof model taught in English 101 inevitable?

Anyone with experience of the poetry scene either in print of live performance will be amused at the mention of “the bad poets’ portion” expelled from Odin’s rear while he is regurgitating the mead of good poetry for the use of humans. I thought of the opening of Juvenal’s first satire, describing the annoying proliferation of poets each of whom wishes to spout. Of course, I imagine we leave DNA behind on our excrement, and, like it or not, we leave a sort of genetic code of consciousness on our writing. Vomited mead is only relatively less disagreeable than anal mead. Piero Manzoni, who claimed to have himself produced the contents of the cans that constituted his 1961 work Artist’s Shit, said that his father had told him his work was shit.

Odin in the Skáldskaparmál is a culture hero. He is semi-divine and semi-historical in the Gylfaginning’s relation of his trip to the northlands, impressing the less advanced inhabitants with the splendor of his retinue, imposing law upon them, and founding the Yngling dynasty. He is said not to have created poetry but rather to be the one who delivered it to humankind. Poetry originated in a sort of dialectic, a play of opposites figured in the bowl of spit collected by the Aesir and Vanir as a ritual of peace resolving their differences just as poetry interrogates contradiction, ambivalences, and mysteries, and renders life livable for our species which often feels half-brute and half divine. Of this spittle emerges a seer, Kvasir, whose name signifies all alcoholic beverages and by extension the individual embodying by their intoxicating power with all its shamanic and convivial implications.

Of course, though old Germanic texts use the words for ale, beer, and mead inexactly, mead is made of the product of flower nectar which has been regurgitated by bees, and many people have made fermented drinks after chewing and spitting out the basic ingredient. [4] Drinking was an essential part of feasts in Old Norse society (called symbel in Old English and sumbl in Old Norse) and was particularly associated with verbal facility, and the convivial composition of toasts, taunts, brags, and verbal competitions. [3] Even in Valhalla the heroes drink daily.

The body of Kvasir is not, however, the sole source of wisdom in the Edda. Gjallarhorn, for instance, or “yelling horn,” which sounds as though it might represent poetry or music, is the source of Mimir’s learning, again inherent in mead. Odin is far from an omniscient deity. Not only must he acquire intelligence. As Odin is a seer this trade cannot fail to make one think of Homer, Tiresias, or the Graeae, and perhaps also of blues poets like Blind Blake, Blind Gary Davis, Blind Lemon Jefferson and others. To some the motif may suggest Paul de Man’s Blindness and Insight.

In addition the Hávamál relates how Odin won some wondrous mead along with runes, songs, and spells as well as a storehouse of prudential wisdom by hanging on the great tree Yggdrasil for nine days without refreshment, a sacrifice of himself to himself. Many have noticed the parallel here with the Christian crucifixion – Odin is even like Christ pierced in the side by a sword during his ordeal. [5] Surely it is relevant as well that Tacitus describes human sacrifices dedicated to Odin (whom he calls Mercury).

Presumably the import of such an episode is that, as the Greeks taught, “suffering teaches.” One might read Odin’s experience as paralleling the dangers of mythic quests or the grueling psychedelic experience of shamans. It is certainly the case that the Northern deities were intrinsically vulnerable in contrast to Christ who is said to have voluntarily assumed human limitations. Not only will they ultimately face defeat in Ragnarök, but on a daily basis the Sun is followed by the wolf Skoll in hot pursuit while another wolf Hati Hrodvitnisson chases the moon. Meanwhile the dragon Níðhöggr chews constantly at the root of the world tree. Germanic mythology is considered grim for good reason.

In pointy of fact, human and animal sacrifice is attested by many sources in association with trees. According to Tacitus human sacrifices were offered to Odin (whom he calls Mercury). Similar practices are described by the Landnámabók as well as by outside observers such as Ibn Fadlan and Adam of Bremen who states that at the temple of Uppsala in Sweden the victims’ bodies are hung in a sacred grove where the corpses of horses, dogs, and humans are placed “their bodies hanging jumbled together.”

The story of Odin in the Grímnismál presents a parallel to the ordeal on the tree. Here Odin is tortured and then bound between fires for eight days before the child of his tormentor King Geirröth Agnar brings him a drink which stimulates him to prophesy. When Odin identifies himself, Geirröth seeks to free him but slips on his own sword and dies.

As in all preliterate societies the poet was the repository of all information, the sole “library” recording all that was known of history, science, engineering, theology, psychology, the past, present, and future. “No one could ask him a question that he could not answer.” The Raven Hugin (Thought) and Mumin (Mind or Memory) sit on his shoulders in Valhalla, bringing him information about the entire world.

In the Heimskringla Odin speaks only in verse. The first king of the Yngling dynasty, he is presented in many ways as a mortal king, as indeed in the Gylfaginning as well, though he is always victorious and possesses magic abilities. Apart from supernatural powers, he is called “the cleverest” and is credited as well with having brought all the arts useful to people and having established a rule of law.

Odin’s poetic role, however, was passed on to his son, the oldest next to Thor, Bragi whose very name signifies poetry. Most probably the name is cognate with the English word “brag” due to the importance of praise songs. (One might compare the old Northern practice with the Old Occitanian boasting songs called gab or the Yoruba praise songs called oriki.) In the Sigrdrífumál runes are said to be inscribed on Bragi’s tongue as well as on such surfaces as a bear’s claw, wolf’s tongue, and eagle’s beak from which they are then scraped into mead which can then, like the Kvasir mead, be distributed to Aesir, elves, Vanir, and humans. Though Bragi excels in verbal skill rather than fighting, the same text says that a warrior should “winning-runes learn, if thou longest to win,/ And the runes on thy sword-hilt write.

Old Norse models impressed English poets at the time of Romanticism. Translations were published in 1770 (Paul Mallet’s Northern Antiquities), 1797 (A. S. Cottie’s Icelandic Poetry or the Edda of Saemund) and 1804 (William Herbert’s Select Icelandic Poetry). Carlyle’s 1840 lecture “The Hero as Divinity” popularized the Northern deities in the United States, and both Emerson and Longfellow had copies of Mallet and of George Dasent’s 1842 version of The Prose or Younger Edda. Longfellow visited Scandinavia in 1835 and published numerous poems on Norse themes. To him Hiawatha was “an Indian Edda.” Celtic, Germanic, and Finnish antiquities were often not clearly distinguished.

The Nazis made us of Germanic mythology in their propaganda, one of the odder results being the use of Odin as the true form of Santa Claus. To Jung Hitler was a sort of avatar of Odin. Yet today some white supremacist groups blather about Odin.

1. I find that Arrowsmith’s piece was published in The New Criterion, October 1, 2 (October 1982) as “Eros in Terre Haute: T.S. Eliot’s ‘Lune de Miel.’” Part of its charm for me was the performative aspect through which I heard it. I have not read it since.

2. I exaggerate here. Some of the most adventurous of the post-structuralist journals were publishing essays in freer forms, but these rarely descended from the empyrean to comment on actual literary works in a useful way.

3. Though the Hávamál and other texts also include numerous references to the debilitating effects of overindulgence. Odin’s good advice was doubtless often forgotten. As far back as Tacitus’ Germania the Germanic tribes were known for their heavy drinking. In Christian times the Gulaþing Law required farmers to reserve grain for major festivals. The word öl (ale) was used itself to indicate a celebration such as gravöl (a wake, or "funeral ale"), barnöl (a christening, or "child-ale"), and taklagsöl (a barn-raising, or "roofing-ale"). In the Eddic Grímnismál Odin is said to live on wine alone. Paul Bauschatz in The Well and the Tree discusses the early Germanic ritual feast.

4. This is the traditional process for chicha in Peru. Spit is particularly useful for non-sweet bases as its enzymes make sugar of the starch. Masato made from yucca and early sake from rice are among the many other drinks made in the same fashion.

5. The benevolent Baldr associated with light and love who is killed by a weapon of mistletoe is also a Christ figure.

Prof. Wellek, Prof. Leavis, and Prof. de Man

The exchange between René Wellek and F. R. Leavis nearly eighty years ago on the role of philosophy in literary criticism prefigured to some extent the discussions of the role of “theory” (or even, for both enthusiasts and opponents “Theory”) in more recent polemics. The comparison of the earlier dispute with its later form reveals dramatically the shifting of the parameters of the issue. To many more modern practitioners Wellek himself was far from sufficiently theoretical; indeed he and Leavis would be placed in the same camp by more recent post-structuralists. On the other hand, Wellek and Leavis would doubtless join in regarding deconstruction, for instance, as an unrewarding method. A review of the old contention, juxtaposed then with the ideas of Paul de Man in “The Resistance to Theory” (1982), clarifies the issues involved and suggests a curious similarity between the two critics of the three who would seem most at odds.

F. R. Leavis was known for pugnacity in his professional life, but it remains slightly startling to encounter his aggressive assertion of what amounts to impressionistic autonomy in his essay “Literary Criticism and Philosophy.” [1] Writing in response René Wellek’s generally positive review of his Revaluation, Leavis, who regularly claimed that evaluation was the principal end of criticism, insists on his own judgments accompanied by no evidence beyond his magisterial voice.

Their exchange came at a pivotal time for literary criticism. When they exchanged views in 1937 most writing about literature was historical, textual, or narrowly philological. Both journalistic and scholarly value judgments tended to be either unapologetically impressionistic or based on vague concepts like “universality” or the simple assertion of formal beauty if not on tradition alone. By the middle of the twentieth century New Criticism with its rigorous close readings already implied dissent from unsubstantiated “taste” or impressionism. Wellek and Warren as well as William Empson, I. A. Richards, Kenneth Burke, Northrup Frye, the Southern Agrarians, and others had set out a variety of proposals for defensible ways to view literature as literature.

Even apart from the merits of new critical theories, many had come to realize that every critical enterprise implies general ideas about all literature. As Wellek mildly pointed out, Leavis, and indeed all critics who have produced a sufficient body of judgment to allow generalizations, does have a theory. The most insidious theory is that of which the practitioner is honestly unaware, because it is then neither acknowledged nor explicit, but rather in masquerade as “common sense” or in some other way “given.” [2] Of course these assumptions will by no means be the focus of every literary essay, but they will form the foundation for every act of practical criticism.

Wellek sketched out what seemed to him Leavis’ theoretical base in carefully chosen, if casual, phrases. For Leavis, he said, poetry must “have a firm grasp of the actual, of the object, it must be in relation to life . . . it should not be personal in the sense of indulging in personal dreams and fantasies, there should be no emotion for its own sake in it . . .but a sharp, concrete realization, a sensuous particularity. The language of your poetry must not be cut off from speech, should not flatter the singing voice, should not be merely mellifluous.” Wellek sees in Leavis a rejection of the “merely” affective and aesthetic and the privileging of the impersonal and the concrete. [3]

From Leavis’ response one might hardly guess that Wellek had said he read Revaluation “with admiration and much profit,” and found it to be teeming “with acute critical observations and brilliant interpretations of texts.” Leavis replied only to Wellek’s request that he “defend this position more abstractly and to become conscious that large ethical, philosophical, and, of course, ultimately, also aesthetic choices are involved.“

Leavis indignantly answers that Wellek seeks such a theoretical basis because he is a philosopher and that Leavis, being instead a literary critic, has no need to provide them. He here elides the distinction between a philosopher who presumably treats questions of epistemology, logic, and the like that apply to all of human experience and the critic who might legitimately suggest generalizations true only of the single field of literature (or the broader one of art in the case of critics who do not confine themselves to the written word).

In spite of the unbroken tradition that literature bears some relation to lived experience, though always a mediated, refracted, or otherwise complicated one, Leavis cheerfully discards all thematic comment as extra-literary, a sort of “queering one discipline with the habits of another” [4] Leavis is quite satisfied with a sort of assertive obscurantism, noting, for instance, that “the reading demanded by poetry is of a very different kind from that demanded by philosophy. I should not find it easy to define the difference, but Dr Wellek knows what it is.” The reader is equally in the dark about Prof. Leavis’s position after his account of what to him constitutes an adequate literary reading. It occurs, he says , when a new text settles into the tradition in the critic’s mind, “when things that have found their bearings with regard to one another.” It is unclear how this happens so automatically among the jostling “things” in the mind, yet to Leavis such a reading is ever so much better than a philosophic one; it is a ‘fuller-bodied response” arising from “completer responsiveness;” indeed, “the critic’s aim is to realize as sensitively and completely as possible this or that which claims his attention.” It sounds suspiciously like a magician “realizing” a rabbit in a hat. While on the other shore of mystification it is also unclear In just what way this realization differs from more mundane realizations by scientists and salesmen is left unexplained.

The giveaway to Leavis’s vulnerability is his ill-temper and his use of insults. To him Wellek’s reading of his views is “clumsy,” then, again, “clumsy and inadequate,” while he himself is by contrast “precise.” [5] Repeatedly he claims that Wellek, rather than in fact disagreeing, must have misunderstood him. Poets with whom he is on the outs fare no better. Shelley is “repetitive, vaporous, monotonously self-regarding and often emotionally cheap, and so, in the long run, boring.” [6]

Leavis’ arrogant refusal to account for his judgments is irresponsible and adds nothing to knowledge of literature, [7] though his individual comments and analyses are very often highly useful, opening a wide variety of texts in new ways. Wellek was in fact bushwhacking his own way in literary theory. He was not far from wrong when he said in the 1940s that students are “offered no wider choice than between the ‘historical method’ (not the same as literary history) and dilettantism.” [8] He, a Prague Structuralist, and Warren a self-described “old New Critic,” made enormous strides in laying a foundation and setting forth some likely issues while acknowledging “we are only beginning to learn how to analyse a work of art in its integrity.” Yet the results are sometimes little more compelling than Leavis’s sidestepping. Their conclusion on the role of art, for instance, is “its prime and chief function is fidelity to its own nature.” While applauding the groundbreaking contribution of their book, one cannot help but agree that it betrays its origins very close to the origin of modern thinking about literary theory.

A good deal had changed by the time Paul de Man’s essay on “The Resistance to Theory” was published in 1982. By this time I was enrolled in a Comparative Literature program dominated by Derrida, de Man, and those associated with them. In the loftier realms of Cambridge where Leavis had taught, a young student had, a few years earlier, found the “dead Leavisites” replaced by “the Parisian post-structuralists and their caravanserai.” [10] De Man echoes Wellek in his sensible declaration that “even the most intuitive, empirical and theoretically low key writers on literature [make] use of a minimal set of concepts (tone, organic form, allusion, tradition, historical situation, etc. ) of at least some general import,” but he could not resist the habitual tic he made his signature by declaring the opposite as well, quoting Schlegel to the effect that “it is equally fatal to have a system or not to have one at all.”

Reveling in hermetic paradox, de Man considers literary theory to be no aid to a rich and coherent reading of a text but rather as “resistance to reading.” Furthermore “resistance to theory is resistance to language.” The primary focus of literary theory in his account is “the impossibility of its definition.” Its pursuit “must end in confusion.” Whether the discipline he describes is in any sense real, it seems hardly likely to convey information about literature in the way that study of entomology provides knowledge about insects.

Leavis was quite right that the literary critic should be confined to conclusions about literature and need make no pronouncements about philosophy. The greatest problem for de Man is that literature itself is for him “epistemologically highly suspect” and not a “source of information about anything but its own language.” To him literature is not susceptible to “truth and falsehood, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, or pleasure and pain.” [11] This he claims as an advantage, a “freedom from referential restraint.”

If literature’s very capacity to bear any meaning at all is so highly problematized, why then does appear in all human societies? Does the written word as a whole form an enormous self-dissolving knot concerned only with the question its own existence? The sole positive value de Man mentions apart from raising the question of its own existence is the “unmasking of ideological aberrations,” though how this can be when it can mean nothing beyond “its own language” is obscure.

The error that de Man makes is similar to Leavis’s failure to distinguish between generalizations about literature (constituting literary theory) and those about reality as a whole (philosophy). De Man so doubts the existence of literature itself that he keeps eliding his inquiry into a focus on language as a whole, saying theory is “wholly linguistic.” Literary theory is neither philosophy nor linguistics and must be built from observations about literary texts just as botany is built from observations of plants. All literature is constituted from language so any generalization about language itself would affect literature, but only by making the same observations in every case, and therefore offering no useful information about an individual work distinct from all others or even about the category of the literary as opposed to the non-literary. Indeed, this lack of specificity is precisely what one sees in de Man’s work. In Blindness and Insight, for instance, his acuity and ingenuity allow him to offer many valuable observations along the way, but his final point is virtually the same for all the critics under discussion, thus vitiating the project as literary criticism and, incidentally, rendering the essays more boring even than Leavis’s idea of Shelley.

De Man like Leavis uses vituperation to mask his arguments’ weaknesses. He sounds grandiose when he says that the “most important attribute” of the schools of the 60s was resistance to theory. He pathologizes his intellectual opponents, claiming that they (whom he calls in this very aggressive attack “the aggressors”) suffer from “anxiety” (this word is repeated a number of times); they feel “threatened.” Those who disagree offer only “crude” misunderstandings and suffer from “systematic non-understanding and misrepresentation.” (This error is then conflated with mortality!)

A final similarity between Leavis and de Man is their propensity to offer simple impressions as reasoned judgments. Ironically, de Man takes a whack at Leavis’ ideal, T. S. Eliot, saying his appeal was based only on his “ambivalent decorum” which offered certain “complacencies and seductions.” So Eliot’s admirers are in a wholly unsubstantiated phrase, condemned as complacent fall guys.

A review of the controversy from the 1930s, placed alongside de Man’s essay from the 80s, at least proves the passion with which critics debated these fundamental issues. The sometimes belligerent tone of Leavis and de Man not only enlivens the prose; more significantly, it suggests that the issues really have meaning. With their varieties of high-spirited engagement all three authors have earned the reader’s attention more than a great many academic scholars. And each makes a contribution. Wellek was a pioneer in seeking a more solid base for literary studies; Leavis cares passionately about his texts and makes many insightful and stimulating observations about individual works; de Man offers a philosophic challenge to language itself which those engaged with literature must confront.

The central issue is the propriety of literary theory. Leavis resists Wellek’s desire for a theory of literature which defines the field and orders the facts concerning it, refusing to admit his own biases and assumptions. Theory’s champion de Man depicts himself as the investigator of fundamental theoretical questions from which others flee from in fear, but which must be examined before any other comment is possible, yet Both Leavis and de Man support their polemics with a false dilemma. To Leavis any theoretical statement makes one a philosopher and not a critic at all and to de Man those who disagree with him must reject therefore theory altogether. Neither is correct. Theory must finally be judged just as it is in the science: by the adequacy of its accounting for known data and by the degree to which it opens routes to further knowledge, in the case of literature, to richer readings of specific texts.

It is no means the truth, that one must choose between no theory at all or an extreme, indeed paralyzing, theory that claims total hegemony. Every critic operates from theoretical base whether or not it is disclosed. It is little wonder that many competent critics prior to Leavis had written useful work while consciously ignoring general questions. Yet de Man’s sort of theory which may set forth provocative possibilities about language as a whole, disables fruitful analysis of texts even while emphasizing the rhetorical and literary qualities of literature. If one restricts theory to theory of literature, it can be the basis of more productive practical criticism. The anti-theoretician Leavis who rejected of theory out of hand and the arch-theoretician de Man who insisted on one particular theory end in similar culs-de-sac. While recognizing the substantial contributions of Leavis and de Man to discussions of the role of theory, it is Wellek in the end whose route proved more productive.

1. First published in Scrutiny 5 (June 1937), 375–83., reprinted in The Common Pursuit.

2. Similarly political activists in the 60s were skeptical of “objectivity,” considering that there is no way to step out of history. One who takes no action to oppose the Vietnam War is a de facto supporter of it. Thoreau had said the same a hundred years earlier.

3. I will confine my own objections to this approach to this note. First, if the text is purely imitation of lived reality, there is no need for literature. As Plato said long ago, why bother about what is a mere imitation, and a dangerous one at that? Further, to me the use of “sensuous” to qualify “particularity” accepts pleasure as an end of poetry and is thus inconsistent with the rejection of melody a few words later.

4. This peculiar expression hints of homosexuality and miscegenation. Is a physicist who presents experimental results with the ordinary theoretical assumptions of science about cause and effect, reproducibility, and the like similarly “queering”?

5. One can tell that this is a highly positive term because we find that Blake also is “precise.” He clearly believes the opposite of the view he attributes to philosophers and proceeds to ridicule: that poets put loosely what philosophers formulate with precision.

6. To condemn a poem as boring might seem to suggest assent to the ancient and commonsensical notion that pleasure is a necessary end of poetry.

7. Oddly, Denis Donoghue says that he “never met” anyone who thought Wellek was right! See “The Use and Abuse of Theory” in The Modern Language Review, vol. 87, no. 4 (Oct., 1992), pp. xxix-xxxviii.

8. From Chapter 20 “The Study of Literature in the Graduate School” which was omitted from editions later than 1949.

9. Published in Yale French Studies no. 63, The Pedagogical Imperative: Teaching as a Literary Genre (1982), pp. 3-20. With typical perversity, de Man, when asked to provide an essay on theory for the MLA Introduction to Scholarship in the Modern Languages and Literatures, produced instead an essay about people’s not liking theory. As it happens Theory has since conquered academia. For a dissenting voice, see James Seaton's Literary Criticism from Plato to Post-Modernism.

10. See Stephen Fry, The Fry Chronicles (2010). He recalls considering Leavis “a sanctimonious prick.”

11. In the same vein he says that “literariness” is neither aesthetic nor mimetic, that is, contra Keats concerned neither with truth nor beauty. Of course de Man would allow for the existence of tropes of verisimilitude that mimic truth and perhaps also of beauty, mimicking pleasure. He does allow in some ill-defined sense for referentiality.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Power of Picasso’s Sculpture

The current show of Picasso’s sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art provides, as all who have commented have noted, a rare opportunity to have a fresh look at the work of the artist who dominated so much of the twentieth century. A considerable number of the works are being shown for the first time in this country, many on loan from the Musée Picasso in Paris. The artist was not trained in sculpture, and he kept many of his three-dimensional works in his own possession – they are often prominent in photographs of his studio. Though never for long a central focus of his work, he regularly returned to work in bronze, pottery, and plaster, often using found objects throughout his lengthy career, and viewing this extraordinary collection of objects does not so much as inspire new insights as remind the critic of why Picasso’s oeuvre is so much more powerful than much art since. The great innovator exemplifies the most classic values: emotional strength, vitality, traditional formal aesthetics, and a sort of soaring and unpredictable spirit that might emerge in one moment as wit and in another as insight. Even while participating in Cubism, primitivism, Surrealism, and socially conscious art, Picasso reminds us with the deft dodges and relentless dashes of his unique sensibility. His work could be invigorated by a manifesto yet it would never be contained within the confines of any theoretical program. In our own belatedness, even measured against a hundred years ago, I fear that nothing retains the power to arrest the viewer in the same way. Even were such impact possible today, few artists could make the kind of commanding use of space as one sees Picasso doing here in brand new ways in every room of the exhibit.

As abstraction arose in Dada and came to dominance in New York following World War II, Picasso explored its possibilities but always retained links to figuration. No admirer of Arp’s voluptuously biomorphic forms or Brancusi’s elegant imaginative leaps can doubt the potential for emotional power in altogether abstract work (familiar as well to listeners to Beethoven quartets), but for Picasso ever since his Cubist portraits, the tension between the artist’s view of a real-world object and the viewer’s is a significant element in the work . Drawing a pencil line on a brown paper bag, piling sand in the middle of a room, or sitting opposite a stranger in a gallery (no matter how prestigious the space) do not demand any investment of artistic intention nor can they offer significant aesthetic pleasure.

One hundred and forty works, nearly one fifth of Picasso’s sculptures, are on display in New York. Every viewer will have passionate favorites. Convinced that the value of each work of art is not inherent and automatic but rather is constituted in the consumer’s encounter with it, the most precise data on this show is perhaps contained in my reactions to individual pieces.
Guitar (1914) is a Cubist painting but burst into three dimensions, its refraction of representation combatted by its utter poise in placement, its serene symmetry reminiscent of great paintings such as the 1932 painting Girl Before a Mirror or even, for all its dynamic tension, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907. The use of a musical instrument as subject is emblematic of the artist’s life in Montmartre, suggesting art, beauty, leisure, cafes, and dance. Rendered in sheet metal and wire, as much assemblage as sculpture, its position hanging on the wall makes it seem partly a canvas while its shadows in the clear gallery lighting insist on its volume, thrust, and harmonic balance. The artist has established a firm beachhead on the margins of genre itself.

The painted bronze absinthe glasses of 1914 (with ready-made tin spoons), on the other hand, are a tour de force of anti-art, constructed in defiance of tidy art school design prettiness. The “glass” itself with its Cubist multiplication of surfaces has become clunky and crude, quite unlike those made of glass. They are painted with simple designs that might have come from the most archaic pottery. Yet their impression as one views each of the six in turn accumulates to mutate becoming complex, playful, and dynamic. The viewer recalls the same object surrounded by other artifacts of cafe life in the 1911 painting Glass of Absinthe.

Woman in the Garden( 1929-30), one of the rejected designs the artist submitted for Apollinaire’s gravesite, is likewise elegant and lyrical. The inherently weighty iron looks as though it is blowing in the wind and might take off at any moment. Open space is an element at least as important as metal here, and many of the iron portions are so thin as to approach the character of lines. Picasso again displays wit and discernment in his use of found objects and includes rounded forms in the shape of philodendron leaves to soften the otherwise prickly texture of a piece that, in its total impact, is suggestive of the poet’s energetic imagination or of a soul in flight.

The Bull (1958) is breathtaking: at once monumental in the husky torso and large head yet lyrical as any line drawing in the curves of leg and horn. And in the middle of the elegance every bit as demanding as a Matisse design, a pair of witty complications compete for attention: the infantile three dots for a face gazing at the viewer from archaic times and childhood and a tree branch, seemingly casual but in fact the axis of the composition. Here one sees art brut and objets trouvés as no mere theoretical assertions but as tools in the artist’s inventory of possibilities, intentionally employed to produce a calculated effect that maximizes allusive associations ranging from Neolithic bullheads through the Minotaur to Catalan bullfighting and the rich possibilities offered by parallels in the artist’s earlier and later work, including other pieces in the same exhibit: the bull’s head made of a bicycle handlebars and seat and a ceramic bull seemingly from the dawn of time with beautifully swelling forms and topped with schematic designs.

I appreciate the Head of a Warrior (1933) with its look of goofy eternal outrage, its tennis balls for eyes and off-kilter Trojan helmet, but the plaster heads of Marie-Thérèse seem to me less eloquent. The deformation in the 1931-2 Head of a Woman plasters strike me as evasive or perhaps just wandering. In my eyes the one The Museum of Modern Art owns is the best of the lot, its evocation of antiquity freshened and flavored by Cubism and Surrealism. On the whole, though, I prefer the classically balanced painting of the same model from 1932-4 (and the canvases featuring her from later in the decade). (I may have simply overdosed at the four “Heads,” a “Bust,” and a dozen other representations of the woman in one room together, reminding me that a single visit to a show so grand may be misleading.)

The show offers many other pleasures and revelations. A collection of casually collected and painted pebbles and pottery shards situates the viewer at the beginning and end of time, recalling the pleasure and mystic significance with which children can endow any objects through artistic manipulation. In a sly reference to the paintings by Renoir, Seurat, Cézanne, Gaugin and others, generally so pretty, Picasso’s The Bathers (1956) is instead an installation of lumber yard scraps looking sufficiently outsider to put me in mind of the temporary pieces people used to erect on the Oakland approach to the Bay Bridge. Even familiar works take on new significance in this rich context. The museum’s own 1950 She-Goat (which I have been at pains to call on every time I visit) is a veritable fertility deity with its swollen body (formed on a wicker basket) and udders (two ceramic jugs).

The reviewers have pulled out all the stops in their praise of the show: “staggering,” “dumbfounding,” “magnificent,” “a work of art in its own right,” and I need add no superlatives. In the broadest sense, Picasso’s Sculpture reminds every viewer what art is about, and every admirer of Picasso what is peculiarly his in twentieth century art. For one viewer at least, it was also a reminder of a time when the avant-garde’s power to shock, to challenge, and to surprise was fructifying and productive of new meaning and unsuspected beauty. Now, as techniques more radical than Picasso’s have become altogether mainstream in universities, galleries, and museums, when artists receive foundation grants to execute pieces using the fossilized remnants of avant-garde technique, the aesthetic payoff has become piddling indeed. Picasso in the end reminds us of the potential strength of art in a way that cannot be denied by a viewer with open eyes.


Throughout history people’s social relations have been shaped primarily by power relations. The rich take advantage of the poor and think it only right. [1] The strong and violent victimize their weaker victims. The necessary suffering arising from illness, accident, anxiety, and death has been supplemented by ceaseless exploitation, coercion, and war imposed by people upon themselves. Yet some have always dreamed of a truly just social order and have recorded those fantasies in myths of a golden age and in utopian fiction. A few have consciously sought to construct a better society than the one in which they found themselves. Fictional accounts of a happier existence are sometimes located in remote and undiscovered lands, sometimes projected backward into the beginnings of time or forward into a future yet to arrive. However chimerical the scheme, each utopia presents a critique of the author’s lived reality inspired directly by the particular time and place of its composition, though many across the centuries have also had certain elements in common. One is so universal that it must strike any student of utopias: in Asia as well as Europe, through the centuries, in both myths and semi-practical proposals alike, the residents of utopias are freed from alienated labor either through the magical elimination of work altogether or, in more realistic programs, through the institution of communism.

Once one separates the true utopias from dystopias like Brave New World and 1984 and from satires like Gulliver’s Travels and Erewhon, the fact is evident. [2] A sampling of examples will establish its range. In Hesiod (circa 700 BCE) the fabulous character of the Golden Age is evident in the fact that people had no need to toil at all. They were nonetheless able to feast due to the fact that at that time “the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint.” [3] A decline is then steadily traced in increasing inhumanity beginning in the Silver Age during which they begin “wronging one another” [4] including making war until finally even families break apart. This notion of the earth providing food without labor occurs again and again, as in Hindu accounts of the Krita (or Satya) Yuga, Vergil’s Eclogue IV, a second-hand plots of one of Athenaeus’ loquacious diners, The Faerie Queen, “The Land of Cokaygne,” or “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” [5]

Yet some texts go beyond the Pinocchio-like fantasy of a land of no work and all play. The Confucian Book of Rites describes a similar primordial ideal society and its subsequent devolution. In early times Confucius says crime and malice did not exist. Under the “Great Way” (Datong), “ the world belongs to everyone.” [[6] Here the intersection of the utopian with the practical attracted the attention of modern reformers in search of a workable plan for a peaceful society. [7]

Utopianism sometimes intruded into the world of affairs in a variety of ways. Early Christian teaching clearly counseled communal living. The central passage in Acts could not be more explicit.

And all that believed were together, and had all things common;
And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.
And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to
house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart. (Acts 2: 44-46)

Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or
houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,
And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according
as he had need. (Acts 4: 34-5)

This practice doubtless accompanied apocalyptic expectations in the earliest days, though the church never lost its preference for communism until the nineteenth century, referring, for instance, to monastic communities which eschewed private property as an ideal of which not all were capable. The church clearly condemned usury (then defined as charging any interest whatsoever), but Aquinas plainly goes further, condemning all commerce as a sinful form of theft, citing the traders Christ expelled from the temple as well as a phalanx of church fathers in support. [7] During the nineteenth century a number of Christian communities with socialized ownership of the means of production arose, such as the Shakers, the Oneida Colony, or the Amana Colonies in Iowa. Some groups survive yet today such as the Bruderhof, the Community Doukhobars, and the Catholic Worker movement.

Doubtless the most fully delineated utopian design of Classical antiquity is Plato’s Republic. In the Republic, though the class system is fundamental, goods are nonetheless held in common to a considerable extent. There is dispute about the degree of common ownership outside the guardian class [8] but the preference is clear. Elsewhere Plato makes social ownership the prime desideratum of a just society.

“Friends have all things really in common.” As to this condition,—whether it anywhere exists now, or ever will exist,—in which there is community of wives, children, and all chattels, and all that is called “private” is everywhere and by every means rooted out of our life, and so far as possible it is contrived that even things naturally “private” have become in a way “communized,” . . .no one will ever lay down another definition that is truer or better than these conditions in point of super-excellence. In such a State,—be it gods or sons of gods that dwell in it,—they dwell pleasantly, living such a life as this. [9]

Though other utopian communist visions of antiquity have been lost – I am thinking of those of Zeno the Stoic, Iambulus, and Euhemerus — the record is clearer as one approaches modern times. More’s Utopia is, of course, wholly communist, and virtually all the utopian novels from the centuries since have eliminated private property: Johann Valentin Andreæ’s Reipublicae Christianopolitanae for instance, in which money does not exist, or Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun in which, as in Plato, lovers as well as chattels are held in common.

During the nineteenth century a great many secular experimental programs were proposed by the thinkers whom Marx contemptuously called “utopian,” notably Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen. Several hundred communes of greater or lesser duration were established along the lines of one or another of these authors including New Lanark and New Harmony (Owenite), the North American Phalanx and La Reunion (in Dallas) (Fourierist), as well as Brook Farm, the Ruskin Colony, and countless others which blossomed (and often as rapidly vanished) as people tried to build new societies in the New World.

While orthodox Marxism frowned on the utopians, it had its own version of perfectionism not only in the classless withering away of the state foreseen in communism, but at the other end of time, in Engels’ notion of primitive communism in The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State in which he portrays an Edenic origin myth, a Golden Age in the early stages of tribal, what was then called “savage,” human culture. His claim may be myth with the pretense of science, but it is clear that cooperation before the rise of classes (dramatically multiplied with the development of language) provided much of the impetus for the success of our species.

With considerable differences in detail and emphasis visionaries in the last century and a quarter have regularly prescribed communist arrangements: Morris’ News from Nowhere, the Brotherhood of Man in London’s The Iron Heel, Bellamy’s Looking Backward (where socialism is called “nationalism”), H. G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia, even B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two where stability is achieved through operant conditioning.

Clearly these flights of imagination as well as the consistent attempts to form workable intentional communities all recognize that, just as conflicts among other animals may center about females or food, among people property is the central issue that inspires ego rivalry. Accordingly, short of the loss of ego that accompanies enlightenment, one can eliminate most human fights and thus increase efficiency and cooperation and presumably human happiness by ensuring economic democracy. The church fathers were correct in considering the pursuit of wealth to be a debilitating and corrupting temptation arising from greed. In our consumer culture, people, whether inner city hustlers or respectable business executives, are programmed to be addicts, to want always more regardless of need and regardless of the welfare of fellow humans. We assume today, as all cultures have done, that our own assumptions are the true ones, and that cupidity is an inevitable human characteristic. In doing so, we ignore the higher flights of the human imagination where other possibilities are proposed, including the arrangement of human affairs so that we need no longer waste our effort and ingenuity on the ignoble task of chasing the dollar, but instead make room to pause, look about ourselves, and figure ways to enjoy more fully the lives we have and to embrace our fellow creatures. Violence and exploitation may never be wholly erased from the earth, but the direction is clear to take a step in a better direction.

1. The bulk of writings from any age will illustrate this principle. A particularly telling, and not so very ancient, example is the vast body of apologetics for slavery prior to the American Civil War, the greater number of them from a putatively Christian perspective.

2. Among the other works often labeled utopian which do not fit my scheme are Luo Maodeng’s land in the Western Ocean whose primary salient characteristic is peace though details of how this is achieved are scant, and Bacon’s New Atlantis which focuses on the research plans of Salomon’s House. Among the rare exceptions is Harrington’s Commonwealth of Oceana in which private land ownership is limited and regulated but not prohibited. Plato's Republic and the Hindu first yuga combine social ownership with rigid class systems.

3. Works and Days, 113-118.

4. Line 135.

5. Mahabharata XII (Shanti Parva), 231.12-20, Book V of The Faerie Queen; Deipnosophists VI 268 b-d in quoting The Amphictyones a lost work of Telecleides.

6. Book of Rites, Li Yun 1.

7. Confucian scholar and calligrapher Kang Youwei (1858-1927) advocated communism on the Da Tong model in his Da Tongshu.

8. Summa Theologicae 2a2ae,77. Tertullian had flatly declared that trade arose from avarice, Ambrose said that lying was concomitant with trade, and Augustine said that trade always involved fraud. To the church fathers for over a thousand years it was theft to sell merchandise for a higher price than one had paid as well as to ask more from a borrower than had been lent. See An Anatomy of Trade in Medieval Writing: Value, Consent, and Community by Lianna Farber, p. 15-16.

9. See, for instance, Aristotle, Politics 1264a, 11–22.

10. Laws 739c-740b. The first quoted line cites a Pythagorean saying quoted also in the Republic (424a) and in Euripedes' Orestes 725.

Notes on Recent Reading 26 (Tuchman, Premchand, Cocteau)

A Distant Mirror (Tuchman)

Though a popular work by a nonspecialist, Barbara Tuchman’s account of fourteenth century history following the life of a significant French nobleman is intelligent, informative, and entertaining. She uses the devices of a novelist, noting not only descriptive details of weather and landscape but also detailing the moods and attitudes of the story’s principal characters. And it works admirably. She has done her research in primary and secondary sources both and has predigested it all for the comfort and amusement of the reader. Her narration is enlivened as well by wit and humane engagement. The reader will become immersed in the late Middle Ages and is likely to be educated about a number of topics. I, for instance, had never realized so dramatically the effect of “free companies” of mercenaries roaming Europe, hiring themselves out to one magnate or another, or, failing such regular employment, either plundering the countryside or extorting huge payments as the price of leaving a city alone. Only in the historical details can one realize the drama produced by the unpredictable rivalries of courts run by individuals amid crowds of competing barons who constantly shift allegiance in their own self-interest.

Godan (Premchand)

Premchand ‘s last novel published in Hindi in 1936 details the exploitation of a rural peasant, a fundamentally honest and respectable man by his community’s standards (though he beats his wife) who is gradually worn down through malnutrition and hard manual labor despite his tireless efforts to improve his situation.

The title refers to the donation of a cow which is thought to be a particularly meritorious religious act. For the novel’s main character, however, the mere possession of a cow is a lifelong dream that remains out of his grasp through his hard-working life. Written during the same era as the American proletarian novel, Premchand described the condition of the Indian masses, laying out in painful detail the plight of the peasant. Though the novel is rarely didactic, just before the end the theme is stated explicitly: “They all suffered. The peasant moved about, worked, wept and put up with oppression without a murmur, as if to suffer was part of his destiny.” As Hori says, “My life has been one long grind.” Not only does the landlord extort his wealth from the poor, the government does as well. The Brahmins are all depicted as charlatans and profiteers. Should police show up, they seek bribes from anyone nearby. Villagers with a bit of surplus cash turn to merciless moneylenders. On every side vultures seek to steal from the poorest and most vulnerable.

The author, born Dhanpat Rai Srivastav, is the author of a dozen novels, hundreds of short stories and translations of Tolstoy, Dickens, and Wilde among others. He associated himself with the radical wing of the independence movement and his novel Soz-e-Watan was banned by the British. Unlike some writers from the same era, including many members of the Indian National Congress, Premchand sees no solution in socialism. In the book some left-wing Brahmins convince the sugar mill workers to go on strike, and, when the action proves disastrous for the poor, their advisors simply return to their customary comforts.
Godan makes clear how insidiously ideology can operate. When an individual offends the community, the only recourse is donations of rice to all and a feast for the Brahmins. (On the other hand, villagers sometimes intervene to stop what strikes them as unjust behavior by their peers.) Hori wishes always to be proper and to win what prestige he can with his behavior. Even while slowly starving, he is acutely conscious of his standing and fights fiercely to maintain his respectability. Perhaps this is only natural, for it is very nearly the only asset he possesses.

Les Enfants Terribles (Cocteau)

What to do with Cocteau? One need not buy Breton’s dismissal or even the raft of critics that find him a bit of a poseur to consider him a special case. I, like others, have always loved the drawings, so similar one to another and yet with such graceful lines, and found the films, especially Beauty and the Beast, unforgettable after a first adolescent film club viewing. This book, with its hothouse amalgam of myth, preciosity, perversity, and common meanness ending in the most shocking Liebestod the author could conceive.
In spite of writing the title in French above, I read the New Directions version by Rosamond Lehmann, though Samuel Putnam (of whom I think very highly) had done a translation shortly after the book’s original publication.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Fishing Blues

Song texts follow the essay.

Filmmaker, doper, and record collector Harry Smith chose to conclude his seminal Anthology of American Folk Music with Henry Thomas’ “Fishing Blues” [1] a song of surpassing sweetness and coy flirtatious sexual play. The lyrics have delicacy and grace reminiscent in formal elegance and frothy wit of the Cavalier poets; Thomas’ tone is altogether different from the assertive joyful rudeness of hokum songs or the cathartic and profound longing of many classic blues. [2] The singer wryly acknowledges the universality of desire and engages in playful competition with an interlocutor representing the listener. Love is here a pleasant game, allowing the singer to celebrate human sexuality as a quiet and absorbing pastime comparable to fishing.

Thomas was born in 1874 and is thought by some to represent a largely lost “pre-blues” body of African-American music, but the folk process (unlike some of its enthusiasts) cares little for purity, and critics have seen influences of minstrelsy and parlor poetry in the verses of “Fishing Blues.” To Mack McCormick the song is “pure minstrel show material” derived from “Gumbo Chaff,” [3] though I find virtually no common ground with the earlier song apart from the mention of catching catfish. More certain is Thomas’ debt to James Whitcomb Riley, the author of “Shortnin’ Bread” (itself sometimes taken for a folk verse). (See below.) Yet these influences seem accidental, irrelevant to the primary design of the song. On the other hand, the text has significant and pervasive parallels to other blues.

The analogy of fishing with sexual relationships combines the widespread blues imagery systems associating love with appetite and food and with animals. Fishing of course occupied a prominent place in the rural Southern lifestyle and offers many relevant associations with romance, not merely the uncertainty of outcome and the sensual pleasure of success, but a tempting verbal element: the rhyme pair hole and pole. [4] Apart from the broad analogy expressed in expressions like “there are plenty of fish in the sea” and “I think this one’s a keeper,” fish have often carried obscene associations of various sorts. The mere mention of “big fish little fish : playing in the water” follows a reference to the singer’s kissing another man’s wife in Kokomo Arnold’s 1937 version of “Salty Dog.”

The fishing topos appears in a great many lyrics before and after Thomas, and the convention takes numerous forms: the lover may be male or female, fisher or fish, successful or unsuccessful. The angler is a woman in 1926 Ma Rainey’s 1926 “Don’t Fish in My Sea,” complaining about a wandering lover and asking somewhat illogically “If you don't like my ocean, don't fish in my sea.“ The man is an enthusiastic prey in William Harris’ 1929 version of “Kansas City Blues” which is the earliest use of which I am aware of the couplet, later used by dozens of artists: “I wished I was a catfish in the deep blue sea/ I'd have all these women just fishin' after me.” [5] On the other hand, the man is fishing in Tampa Red’s 1934 “Kingfishing Blues” which boats “I’m a kingfishin’ poppa, I know what kind of bait to choose./That’s why so many women cryin’ those ‘Kingfish Blues’” Man and woman seem both to be fishing in Freddie Spruell’s “ Let’s Go Riding” (1925): “Now if you got the line : I got the pole/ Now tell me dear : don't you know/ We can go out for a good time.”

Just as in Greek Anthology lyrics, troubadour songs, and Elizabethan sonnets, a single motif undergoes endless transformation in this dynamic tradition. A subcategory of the form of the figure in which the fisherman is male and the fish the female object of his hunt is built around the idea of poaching. Bo Chatman, though not the source of the convention, presents a simple metaphor in “Old Devil” (1928) with his complaint, “Some lowdown scoundrel/ been fishing in my pond.” While other singers were taking this notion in other directions, Johnnie Temple elaborated and intensified this particular concept, adding an excruciating final phrase in the “Louise Louise Blues” (1936): “somebody baby is fishing in my pond/ They catching all my perches : grinding up the bone.” Then further, more baroque, play appears in Robert Johnson’s “Dead Shrimp Blues” (1936):

Someone's fishing in my pond
Catching my goggle-eyed perches :
and they barbecuing the bones
Now you taken my shrimp baby.

The first verse of Thomas’ “Fishin Blues” simply establishes the topic as the poem’s persona gathers his gear without suggesting any broader implications. The listener will be aware, however of such usages as Blind Lemon Jefferson’s lament “I won't go to fishing : mama I done broke my pole” in his“Southern Woman Blues” (1929) and Tommy McClennan’s faux naif reminder “Now when you go to fishing : now don't forget the pole.” (“Crosscut Saw Blues” 1941)

The refrain line is repeated throughout with such regularity as to sound like a general principle, aided by the sexual associations, of the universality of desire.

Says you've been a-fishin' all the time.
I'm a-goin' fishin' too.

The sudden introduction of the second person may seem enigmatic in this initial occurrence, but its naturalistic explanation would be simply that the singer, having seen another person fishing is inspired with the desire to do the same. The second person usage allows the singer to engage the listener directly, involving the outside world in the scene and allowing the singer to address his pointed banter through the individual audience member to people in general.

The second verse lets the cat out of the bag with its opening lines:

I bet your life, your lovin' wife.
Can catch more fish than you. [6]

There are now three people fishing, and the speaker is teasing “you” that your “lovin’” wife is likely to be more successful. This might seem still to be simple good-natured competitive joshing among friends, but the succeeding verses emphasize that “any fish bite, you've got good bait.” This presumably indicates why the wife will “catch more fish.” Here is an example of the arch and pointed figurative language called “signifying.’”[7] Should the listener be slow to recognize that the phrase demands particular attention, it is introduced with the phrase “here's a little somethin' I would like to relate” indicating that some significant insight will follow. The “bait” in romantic encounters is most obviously good looks. The speaker is ragging on the unidentified man while slyly complimenting the other’s lady.

The song goes on to imply the joyful consummation of dinner or love-making.

Put on your skillet, don't never mind your lead.
Mama gonna cook 'em with the short'nin' bread.
Here the poet clearly alters James Whitcomb Riley’s line.

Fotch dat dough fum the kitchin-shed—
Rake de coals out hot an' red—
Putt on de oven an' putt on de led,—
Mammy's gwineter cook som short'nin' bread. [8]

To Greil Marcus, always eager to be extravagantly enthusiastic, the singer’s accompaniment of himself on the “quills” (panpipes) “goes back to the end of the Palaeolithic.” To him the song’s line about “any fish bite if you got good bait” is delivered “as if it held all the secrets of the universe.” In the critic’s next line the conditional has diminished, and he declares that “there is an almost absolute liberation in ‘Fishing Blues,’ a liberation that is impossible not to feel and easy to understand.” [9]

One need not impute such vague sublimity to the text to relish the song’s charm. Indeed, its casual amiable tone embodies the old formula ars est celare artem. Many of Thomas’ twenty-three recorded songs exhibit similar formal beauty, wit, and dancing vitality. In “Fishing Blues” it is as though a slender stream of pure unapologetic eros is spun like cotton candy into a warm, reassuring, good-natured affirmation of physicality. It may not strike all listeners as a source of absolute liberation, but it will do as well today as it did in 1928 as a celebration of human nature, temporarily free from real conflict, suffering, and fear, very similar to an afternoon that passes like a pleasant dream on the banks of a small Southern stream, a idyll in the life of one whose daily experience may be fraught with anxiety, which is to say any of us. To create a few moments of such serenity is no small artistic achievement. In fact, I suppose it just may be about all that we ever know, or at least all we need to know, of the cosmic mysteries.

1. The song, called “Fishin Blues” on the record, was originally recorded for Vocalion in Chicago in 1928. Smith’s inclusion of Thomas is the source of the modern popular versions such as those by the Loving Spoonful (1965), Taj Mahal (1969), and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (2002). Groups including Canned Heat and the Grateful Dead have performed other songs from Thomas’ repertoire. A few later recordings have some material in common with Thomas’ song, including “Gone to Fishin” (Leroy Williams, Fiddlin’ Joe Martin and Willie Martin, 1941), “I’m Going Fishing Too” (Alice Moore, 1936) and “Everybody’s Fishing’” (Bumble Bee Slim, 1935) which includes the lines:

I woke up this mornin’ an’ I grabbed my pole
Can’t catch the fish to save my soul.”
Everybody’s fishin’ – yes, Everybody’s fishin’;
Everybody’s fishin’, I’m gon’ fish some too.
Every little fish like this bait I got,
My babe home got her skillet hot.

2. Mississippi John Hurt was capable of bringing a similar warmth even to such potentially raunchy songs as “Candy Man Blues” or “Coffee Blues.”

3. See his admirable liner notes to Henry Thomas Texas Worried Blues: Complete Recorded Works 1927-1929 titled “Henry Thomas: Our Deepest Look at the Roots.”

4. In fact Thomas demonstrates his classic restraint and does not use this rhyme. In my opinion it is hovering in the background even though unspoken.

5. Robert Petway’s more popular “Catfish Blues” (1941) is more ambivalent with its reference to “poor” me.

Well, if I were a catfish, mama
I says, swimmin' deep down in the blue sea
Have these girls now, sweet mama
Settin' out, settin' out hooks for po' me

Tommy McClennan’s “Deep Blue Sea Fishing Blues” (1941) is similar: “Lord I would have all these good-looking women now now now : fishing after me”

6. Note how the singer slyly bets the other’s life and not his own!

7. Cf. Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talking“ which says

I'm gonna break up this signifyin'
'cause somebody gotta go.

8. The verse entered the folk process rapidly and was recorded by E. C. Perrow on page 142 of his Songs and Rhymes from the South (1912) as sung by “Tennessee mountain whites.” Another equally unlikely adaptation from Riley’s “Shortnin’ Bread – Pieced Out” is “thought I hearn a chickin sneeze” used by Woody Guthrie in “Talking Blues” and Hank Snow in “Trouble Trouble Trouble.”

9. In what seems more likely carelessness and haste than conscious paradox, Marcus a few lines later says “this liberation or absolute is not easy to comprehend, but, just for that reason, it is here.” See his essay “The Old, Weird America” in Democracy and the Arts, edited by Arthur M. Melzer, Jerry Weinberger, and M. Richard Zinman (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), p. 123.

Fishing Blues by Henry Thomas

Went up on the hill about twelve o'clock.
Reached right back and got me a pole.
Went to the hardware and got me a hook.
Attached that line right on that hook.
Says you've been a-fishin' all the time.
I'm a-goin' fishin' too.

I bet your life, your lovin'wife.
Can catch more fish than you.
Any fish bite if you've got good bait.
Here's a little somethin' I would like to relate.
Any fish bite, you've got good bait.
I'm a-goin' a-fishin', yes, I'm a-goin' a-fishin',
I'm a-goin' a-fishin' too.

Looked down the river about one o'clock.
Spied this catfish swimmin' around.
I've got so hungry, didn't know what to do.
I'm gonna get me a catfish too.

Yes, you've been fishin' all the time.
I'm a-goin' a-fishin' too.
I bet your life your lovin' wife.
Catch more fish than you.
Any fish bite, got good bait.
Here's a little somethin' I would like to relate.
Any fish bite, you've got good bait.
I'm a-goin' a-fishin', yes, I'm goin' a-fishin',
I'm a-goin' a-fishin' too.

Put on your skillet, don't never mind your lead.
Mama gonna cook 'em with the short'nin' bread.
Says you been fishin' all the time.
I'm a-goin a-fishin' too.
I bet your life, your lovin' wife.
Can catch more fish than you.
Any fish bite, if you've got good bait.
Here's a little somethin' I would like to relate.
Any fish bite, you've got good bait.
I'm a-goin' a-fishin', yes, I'm goin' a-fishin',
I'm a-goin' a-fishin' too.

Fishing Blues by Taj Mahal
I betcha' goin' fishin' all o' the time
Baby goin' fishin' too
Bet you life, your sweet wife
Is gonna catch more fish than you
Many fish bites if you got good bait
Here's a little tip that I would like to relate
With my pole and my line
I'm a goin' fishin', yes I'm goin' fishin'
And my baby goin' fishin' too
I went on down my favorite fishin' hole
Baby got myself a pole an' line
Caught a nine poun' catfish
On the bottom, yes I got him
And I brought him home to my mom about supper time
Singin' many fish bites if you got good bait
Here's a little tip that I would like to relate
Many fish bites if you got good bait
I'm a goin' fishin', yes I'm goin' fishin'
And my baby goin' fishin' too
Baby brother 'bout to run me up outta my mind
Sayin', "Can I go fishin' with you?"
So I took him on down to the favorite fishin' hole
Now what do you think that brother of mine did do?
Caught a seven poun' catfish
On the bottom yes he got him
Took him home to mama he was real gone
With his pole and his line
He was goin' fishin', yes he goin' fishin'
And baby goin' fishin' too
Put him in the pot, baby put him in the pan
Mama cook him till he nice an' brown
Get yourself a batch o' buttermilk, whole cakes mama
An' you put that sucker on the table and eat it on down
Singin' many fish bites if you got good bait
Well here's a little tip that I would like to relate
With my pole and my line
I'm a goin' fishin', yes I'm goin' fishin'
My baby gone fishin' too
I betcha' goin' fishin' all o' the time
Mama goin' fishin' too
Bet you life, your sweet life
I gonna catch more fish than you
Many fish bites if you got good bait
Here's a little tip that I would like to relate
With my pole and my line
I'm a goin' fishin', yes I'm goin' fishin'
And my baby goin' fishin' too
I'm a goin' fishin', yes I'm goin' fishin'
And my baby goin' fishin' too
I'm a goin' fishin', yes I'm goin' fishin'
And my baby goin' fishin' too

In Memory of my Generation’s People’s Heroes

In every town are war memorials: statues, parks, shrines, and solemn ceremonies recalling those who donned uniforms and obeyed their officers, and indeed the travails of such people (on all sides and in all wars) can be considerable. Their suffering touches many, and their commemoration is accordingly social and official. Politicians and relatives alike glibly say that their sacrifice maintained American freedom, though what there is of American freedom has not been threatened from without since the War of 1812, most certainly not by Kaiser Bill, Ho Chi Minh, or Saddam Hussein.

Those who died for the people’s cause are fewer, and sparks of their memory (such as this) are obscure and idiosyncratic. Yet it is this group that has, by the purest voluntarism in most cases, sought to advance humanity as a whole in work that has laid the foundation of the comparative comfort enjoyed by many today. The grasping hands of the powerful will make no concession voluntarily; even the mildest of reforms come only when forced. Frederick Douglass was correct in his celebrated analysis and deserves quoting yet one more time.

If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

In other countries and in the USA in days gone by, the killing of political rebels was wholesale and unashamed. The first verse of the old song “The Red Flag” spoke no more than sober reality.

The People's Flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts' blood dyed its every fold.

Though every country produced such people’s martyrs, I mean here to commemorate only Americans. I conceive the group broadly otherwise, accepting as those who labored for a brighter future: community and labor organizers, socialists, anarchists, communists of various stripes, supporters of civil rights, feminists, ecologists and gay activists. I include people outrightly assassinated by law enforcement or military as well as some who ended their own lives as a political statement. [3] No scholar of American history, I simply write about the people whom I recall and a few others whose names I only recently learned. This list is unsystematic and certainly incomplete, but I feel that simply naming these few names is justified by simple respect for those who genuinely sacrificed for us all. Perhaps, as well, the young and others unfamiliar with the people mentioned here might learn. I welcome additions.

My own roll call includes only my generation and emphasizes the movements of the sixties, though I am aware of massacres such as those during the Homestead strike in Pennsylvania in 1892 (nine killed), at Lattimer -- another Pennsylvania mine near Hazleton, Pennsylvania -- in 1897 (nineteen dead), at Ludlow, Colorado in 1914 (twenty-six killed,) Everett, Washington in 1916 (twelve victims)and the 1921 Rising of Logan County, West Virginia in which between fifty and a hundred workers fell, the Little Steel Strike of 1937 when ten demonstrators were killed by Chicago police and sixteen more fell in Youngstown, Ohio . I am aware that controversy has muddied the narrative for such victims of the judicial system as Sacco and Vanzetti, the Rosenbergs, and Mumia Abu-Jamal. Whatever the details, like those regularly killed on urban streets by police officers, these people did not receive fair trials or just sentences and thus are victims of political persecution whatever their guilt or innocence.

Doubtless the greatest number of political killings occurred in the Southern Civil Rights Movement. Fortunately in this case, scholars have documented the deaths of activists, and they are remembered in the only such monument of which I am aware, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Archivists have verified the deaths of forty-one people in the Movement from 1954-1968. [4] They include also a list of seventy-four others who had not yet been killed or for whom the historical research had been in process when the memorial was dedicated. Among those honored there are such well-known names as James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, who died in the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi as well as others such as Lamar Smith who had organized voters in his community and was shot on the courthouse lawn in midday in Brookhaven, Mississippi in 1955 and William Lewis Moore, a white postman from Baltimore murdered in Attalla, Alabama during his solitary march against segregation in 1963.

A late spasm of criminal racist violence occurred in 1979 when Klan and Nazi Party members killed five Communist Workers activists during a protest in Greensboro, North Carolina: Sandi Smith, James Waller, Bill Sampson, Cesar Cauce, and Michael Nathan. The dead included three physicians (one of whom served as president of a textile workers local). The police provided no protection; indeed, there were not present on the scene of the demonstration though it had been announced well in advance, and the assailants were acquitted by all white juries in spite of film documenting the murders.

The police regular reacted with fierce disregard for law during demonstrations in those days and were sufficiently reckless that occasionally someone died. Dean Johnson was killed in Chicago in 1968 at the beginning of the historic demonstrations around the Democratic Convention, and in 1969 James Rector died in Berkeley while demonstrating in behalf of People’s Park. Most everyone is at least aware of the 1970 attack at Kent State in Ohio in which National Guardsmen fired sixty-seven rounds at demonstrators, killing Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, William Schroeder, and Allison Krause. One hears considerably less about the deaths of Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and James Earl Green less than two weeks later at Jackson State in Jackson, Mississippi, or about Samuel Ephesians Hammond Jr., Delano Herman Middleton, and Henry Ezekial Smith who were shot and killed by police in 1968 at South Carolina State in Orangeburg while protesting a segregated bowling alley. The victims in Mississippi and South Carolina, needless to say, were black.

Many people remember television news reports of the dramatic suicide of the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức in Saigon in 1963. The evening news on the American networks showed the monk maintaining his meditation posture as his body burned. A few might recall the self-immolation of Quaker Norman Morrison in 1965 below Secretary of Defense McNamara’s Pentagon office. The fact is that a bit before Morrison’s act, Alice Herz, an eighty-two year Holocaust survivor, had similarly emulated Thích Quảng Đức in Detroit in 1965. A little later that year Roger Allen LaPorte burned himself in protest in New York City as did Florence Beaumont in Los Angeles in 1967, Bruce Mayrock in New York City in 1969 (protesting Biafran War policies), George Winne, Jr. burned himself in San Diego in 1970, as did Gregory Levey in Amherst in 1991 (protesting the Gulf War), Kathy Change in Philadelphia in 1996 (protesting “the present government and economic system”), and Malachi Ritscher in Chicago in 2006 in reaction to the Iraq War. [5]

It is difficult to calculate the precise number of wholly unjustified killings of Black Panthers by law enforcement. Their attorney Charles Garry claimed that police had wantonly murdered thirty Panthers between January of 1968 and December of 1969 alone. A hostile journalist challenged the circumstances of many of these killings, conceding only the deaths of Bobby Hutton, Fred Hampton, and Mark Clark as altogether unjustified. [6] Considering the state’s interest in lying or obscuring the facts in many of these cases and the unquestioned program by the government to foment violence among black activists, it may never be clear what happened in many of these cases.

The case of Hampton and Clark is particularly egregious. In one of the clearest examples of political assassination by the state in American history, the Chicago police with the aid of the FBI and an informer in the Black Panther organization drugged Hampton with secobarbitol and then burst into the Panthers’ apartment with guns firing in 1969, killing the two while they lay in bed and wounding four others. No one was ever prosecuted for the violence though the families of the dead and injured won a civil suit years later due to the overwhelming evidence of criminal behavior on the part of the government.

Throughout history the wealthy have held the power. They have never ceded a penny to others unless they had no choice, while the poor are regularly sent off to the front lines of imperialist wars and other military adventures. Through organization, struggle, strikes, and demonstrations the masses have gained a modicum of comfort in the developed world. If today slavery and child labor have ended, women have the vote, labor unions have won some measure of shorter hours, job safety, and a piece of the economic pie, albeit far smaller than workers deserve, it is only because of those who have championed the people’s causes. If you and I appreciate what we have of leisure, a portion of the fruits of our labor, and a bit of space in which to raise the next protest, it is only right that now and then we devote a moment’s thought to those who have been willing to put their bodies on the line in defense of us all.

1. West India Emancipation speech in Canandaigua, New York, August 3, 1857.

2. The Irishman Jim Connell’s song has been an anthem of the British Labour Party and the IWW, among other organizations. It was recently sung by those celebrating the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party Leader.

3. I do not include many righteous activists who were themselves wielding deadly force such as the Weather Underground’s Diana Oughton, Terry Robbins, and Ted Gold who died in the Greenwich Village townhouse in 1970 or Americans such as priest James Carney and former Green Beret David Arturo Baez who had joined insurgents and were killed by the Honduran military in 1983. In the case of Black Panthers the record is often obscure though the government’s desire to eliminate the organization is certain. (See note 6 below.)

4. Their list is available at https://www.splcenter.org/what-we-do/civil-rights-memorial/civil-rights-martyrs.

5. The New York Times story on Levey’s death in 1991 mentions two other self-immolations protesting the Gulf War and eight in protest to the Vietnam War but provides no further details.

6. See Edward Jay Epstein “The Black Panthers and the Police: A Pattern of Genocide?” in The New Yorker for February 13, 1971.

Agnostic Credo and Vita

I just returned from three hours of rocking, propulsive gospel music by members of the congregation of the House of Refuge in Newburgh. These musicians live in the largely depressed East End of the city with the highest rate of violent crime in New York State. They face racism and poverty; we noticed members of the congregation with track marks and missing teeth, yet the mood was overwhelmingly joyous. Every performance insisted on thanking a benevolent deity for blessings and insisting on the certainty that the worshipper is heaven-bound. Hellfire, even morality itself, scarcely played a part. Every participant was wholly involved, possessed one might even say by the occasion, dancing and calling out and singing in ecstasy.

I was moved. One might think it scarcely plausible that a thorough skeptic like myself could appreciate the choir. Yet I think the House of Refuge embodies something of the essence of the religious impulse. Their elated acceptance is the opposite of a glum submission to the circumstances of life or indeed to the dictates of organized religion. Untroubled with doubt and little concerned with doctrine, they feel connected to a divine they embrace with the highest of rapturous spirits. Though I rejected my family’s less expressive Protestant church at an early age, I was touched and responded with admiration and envy to the singers from the House of Refuge.

Lacking any faith, I am an unlikely formulator of a credo. Does the position of a skeptic, believing nothing, lead nowhere as well? One might, like some ancients, argue that it is arrogant and unseemly to deny the common opinion of humankind and proceed then with a spirituality of the majority. One might act on Pascal’s wager and practice religion to be on the winning side just in case. Like many less sophisticated church-goers, those who take these paths seem to be able to believe what they wish to believe. My own beliefs have developed quite differently, out of a lifelong exploration of religion and in particular of mysticism that seems to me wholly consistent with a materialist world-view. Several observable facts lie at the foundation of the initial conviction that such a search is likely to be rewarding.

First of all, spiritual inquiry might begin with the established fact that all human cultures have religion. This is true around the world and all through history and as far back before as evidence exists. It appears as though belief in the unseen arose contemporaneously with language and art. [1] Such a universal cultural practice cannot be arbitrary but must be radically meaningful in some sense. Much of what passes for religion in both archaic and contemporary times is admittedly self-interested and shallow. People have always performed do ut des sacrifices and conjured what is simply magic, attempting to persuade themselves they have some control over a frightening environment. Yet surely it is absurd to imagine that the Ultimate Reality is in any way concerned with granting a defense against malice, a recovery from illness, a successful hunt, or a fulfilling and exceedingly long-lasting retirement in paradise.

Yet the universality of the spiritual quest implies an object. It is as unthinkable that everyone desires to reach an altogether nonexistent Ultimate as that human should suffer physical hunger in a world without food. We have as well a rich record, likewise common to all humankind, of the experiences of those convinced they have felt the presence of the holy or have even achieved union with god. In individual cases one might write off the saints of various belief systems as neurotic, psychotic, power-hungry, or sexually frustrated, but the persistence and the similarity of mystical experience around the world implies a deeper explanation.

As a lifelong littérateur I am familiar with the capacity for the symbolic forms in images and narratives to express the subtlest and most profound ideas and affects. Indeed, I have always regarded art as the most effective instrument for interrogating the cosmos and expressing the human consciousness. Religion, with its myths and rituals, is in one sense a subcategory of art. Our species’ greatest skill is symbolic manipulation, and religion records thousands of years of attempts to concretize the ineffable in forms understandable to our fellow humans.

The validity of religion as a nexus out of which aesthetic objects are created cannot be doubted, yet its dogmas can. There are some particular doctrinal elements that I find particularly implausible, yet which have appealed to many. The initial governing principle in many statements of religious belief is the necessity of faith, meaning the acceptance of a proposition as true without evidence. To have faith is considered a great virtue, though the difficulty is in deciding which of the countless varieties of “faith” one should adopt. Bobby Henderson’s Pastafarians with their deity of spaghetti and meatballs (including His Noodly Appendage) are consciously outlandish, but logically correct when they say their “deeply held beliefs” have equal truth value to those of any other supernatural religion. [1] Surely it sounds very like flimflam when someone praises the adoption of a whole philosophical and spiritual position on the questions of the very importance without any reason whatever. Suspicions rise higher yet when the proponent insists on the exclusive value of a single brand of belief while condemning all others, yet this is the habit of virtually all institutionalized religions. They advertise while seeking, like corporations, to out-claim their competitors.

The anthropomorphic personal god described as feeling love, anger, mercy, jealousy, even regret is, if assigned such characteristics, no longer an absolute. When I read that Noah burns a sacrifice and “the Lord smelled a sweet savor” (Genesis 8:21), I cannot avoid imagining the Old Gentleman leaning over the edge of a cloud to take a whiff. This is the stuff of myth – it is what we expect in a two thousand five hundred year old tale, but it is thinnest and least rewarding when taken literally.

Religions tended to be intensely local and tribal in antiquity. Priests in ancient India, Greece, and Israel attributed their army’s victories to divine blessing and defeats to holy chastisement. To this day groups like the Amish, the Hindus, and the Jews do not proselytize. In effect theirs is a family god, passed down the generations but generally unavailable to those outside their community, surely a concept implausible in deity.

It is not only inconceivable to me that god should recognize ethnic distinctions; it is likewise impossible that revelation and theophany could manifest at only particular times and places. For instance, Christianity, insisting on the belief in Christ for salvation, writes off all those born in non-Christian parts of the world, many of whom in the past may never have heard Jesus’ name. Christianity invented a way to imagine that the old patriarchs who lived prior to Christ might have been saved, but the whole notion is ill-patched together. Clearly, whatever humans know of Ultimate Reality must be equally accessible at all times and places.

Morality is a preoccupation of most religions, yet ethics relates only to human society. Good and evil are defined by an act’s effect on oneself and others. In the natural world, and even more emphatically on its cosmic scale, morality cannot exist. Religious tradition prescribes two sorts of rules governing its followers’ actions. Some arise from the thoughtful and considerate practice of social life: prohibitions on killing, stealing, and unrestrained sexuality. These require no divine sanction; purely human considerations are quite sufficient. Other rules are purely ritual. Male Sikhs never cut their hair or beard as a show of piety; Buddhist monks shave hair, beard, and eyebrows for the same reason. The point of taboos is to create community. Hindus do not eat beef; Jews and Muslims avoid pork, the old Pythagoreans proscribed beans. Many groups insist on modest dress covering the body; sky-clad Jains go naked. Some uncover the head to show respect; some cover it. Whether arbitrary or morality-based, human behavior simply cannot be meaningful to the absolute.

Yet, in seeking to control people’s actions, religions have often sought to make their devotees believe that good character will be rewarded and evil punished, either through heaven and hell or karmic rebirth. There is a symbolic propriety to this reduction of ethics to self-interest, because after all, the primary reason we agree not to assault our neighbors, apart from the fact that many of us may not be so inclined, is to avoid being assaulted oneself. Yet is seems demeaning and childish to promise pie in the sky to hoodwink someone into cooperating.

I find myself defending the dignity of deity against those who would portray a grandly awesome, quasi-human as god. Very nearly all my objections arise of my unwillingness to put limitations on the godhead. I realize the value of these lesser visions of deity. People have different natures and different routes to spirituality. Some have a sensibility primarily responsive to devotion which might be symbolized by Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa in Rome’s Santa Maria della Vittoria. Devotional worshippers such as those in the Hindu bhakti tradition may require an anthropomorphic god as the object of their meditation. Others may practice good works, recalling the words of the apostle James the Just "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only" (James 2:24). Such a path is called karma yoga in Hinduism. Theologians may be regarded as pursuing enlightenment through knowledge, the route of jnana yoga, through ideas and reasoning after the manner of Aquinas or Nagarjuna. For me, the divine cannot have attributes, though to some this would amount to emptying the meaning of the grandest of ideas. Yet even in these lesser conceptions patterns are clear and well-established through the world and through history. Partial and flawed though the congruence may be, it is clear that there is considerable common ground on the highest reaches of spiritual theory and practice.

Not all traditions insist as singlemindedly as Jews, Christians, and Muslim on a personal god. The fact is that a number of belief systems ordinarily considered religious are essentially atheist. At least some varieties of Daoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism (as well as certain of the Skeptics, Epicureans, and Stoics of antiquity) construct religions or quasi-religious philosophical systems that do not depend on a supernatural god. [2] Each of these goes beyond mechanical materialism to promise some divine afflatus, some profound joy at the feeling of cosmic connection, a delight in the phantasmagoria of the phenomenal world while recognizing its dependent and ephemeral nature. I might compile a long series of texts, a sort of unbeliever’s, Bible promulgating a featureless deity, a skeptic’s god.

The first sentence of the Dao De Jing insists that no verbal statement can define the Dao.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad the universe is identified with Brahman and with the soul, and Brahman is described as "neti-neti" or "neither this, nor that." Adi-Shankara and others in the Advaita school of Hinduism write of the Nirguna Brahman, which specifically means the god without attributes. The Katha Upanishad describes even the gods as skeptics entertaining doubt. [3]

Buddhists both Theraveda and Mahayana, acknowledge the fruitlessness of inquiry into the “fourteen unanswerable questions” including issues of epistemology and the afterlife. One could scarcely conceive a skepticism more radical that that expressed in Nagarjuna’s Catuṣkoṭi or Tetralemma : “Any object or proposition cannot be said to exist. It cannot be said not to exist. It cannot be said to both exist and not exist. It cannot be said to neither exist or not exist." His view was the basis for the Madhyamaka school.

Even in the insistently literal-minded Abrahamic religions, the same worldview breaks through. In Christianity the author of the Divine Names, the so-called pseudo-Dionysius, using ideas already elaborated by Proclus and Plotinus, set forth an entirely apophatic vision of deity. For his translator John Scotus Erigena as well God is “nothing,” but rather “the negation of all things.” [4] Contrary to much of his tradition, Moses Maimonides declares god to be wholly without attributes. [5] I know little of Mu`tazila Islam but I understand it approaches a similar sort of negative theology.

Furthermore, each of the theistic traditions has produced mystics whose transports are described in such a variety of mythic languages that they may well be considered to share their essence while differing in rhetoric. To those inclined to accept the notion of a perennial philosophy [6] the insights of the mystics are relatively free of cultural specifics and lack the exclusivity that informs most orthodox ritual and theology. The fourteenth century English Cloud of Unknowing suggests that the worshipper who feels even the “kindness” and “worth” of god must abandon those thoughts and plunge into the “thick cloud of unknowing.” [7] Yet rather than striking the author as a descent into a frightening abyss this realization generates an in him an extraordinary state. The mystic may feel the divine as heat, light, sweetness, music, or as an exalted form of love, transforming the ordinary self into an effortlessly virtuous serenity, marked as well by the sort of joy that is visible today bubbling up from the belly of the Dalai Lama in public events.

The enlightenment of the great tulku for all his esoteric lore seems to me essentially similar to that of the gospel singers from the House of Refuge. Millennia of evidence support the conviction that these people and countless others from all corners of the globe possess something precious, something worth pursuing, something that opens one’s eyes, not only making life livable, but rendering it a delight. For the Pentecostals and the Yellow Hat line of Tibetan Buddhists it may be a simple matter of acquiescence in an inherited tradition, while for others a dense undergrowth of imagery and story must be decoded or bypassed. A total skeptic, I find myself still rooting around in the mudpool of the world to seek the kernel of enlightenment. Neither swine nor divine we pursue the mystery of divinity (and such subsidiary enigmas as death, love, and epistemology) animated somehow from with an impulse virtually universal in our species. [8] One need take nothing on faith; we have records in every generation of those who realized their own relation to the cosmos and thus their own true nature.

We can hardly know the truth about the universe, astonishing as we find the glimpses given us by astronomers, since we can know nothing that is not mediated by our own sensory apparatus and consciousness. Yet there are many examples of those who turned this limitation into an opening by focusing on altering the subjective mind itself, seeking enlightenment and liberation within rather than information or a helping hand from gods without. While no one can alter the galaxies or create gods by wish-fulfillment, people can to some extent direct their own thoughts, sometimes with dramatically satisfying results. If religion and philosophy are conceived as the search for the best way to live a human life, the mystics, for all their apparent focus on the beyond, seem to have devised a highly effective technology of the mind for living in the mundane.

My path to the positions outlined here was hardly unique. Many others in my age cohort, the first year of post-war babies, read the same books and responded to the same social influences. I suspect a brief sketch of some details of my own development might reveal significant likenesses (as well as equally important differences) with the experience of others.

A normal middle-class child growing up in the Midwest of the 1950s, I attended church, Sunday school, and vacation Bible school like all my friends. I was encouraged to pray before going to sleep, and I believe that for a few years I did. All the same, I withdrew from this Methodist upbringing in preadolescence. I had come to dread the interminable hymns, slowly winding through six solemn verses of Charles Wesley’s poetry. During the sermons, which tended toward such topics as “Women of the Bible, Part 7,” I invented a system to pass the time by counting the organ pipes and calculating how many seconds longer I would be contained in the purgatory of a pew. I recall during my church’s confirmation classes asking the unimaginative minister incredulously if he thought a pious and humane Hindu man who practiced kindness to his neighbors and followed the rituals of his culture would be condemned to hellfire. The reverend gentleman’s confident response (“Only through Jesus!”) convinced me that, though he had an honorary Doctor of Divinity (and was fond of the title), he could know very little about the divine. Part of the run-up to church membership was to submit a spiritual diary covering the weeks of the course, but I never wrote a word. Until the day I was received into the church I feared that he might fail to include my name from the roll as a result of this omission.

A few years before I had read Joseph Gaer’s 1929 book How the Great Religions of the World Began, [9] a survey that, for all its chatty anecdotal reductiveness, gave me a good deal of information and more than enough reason to doubt my pastor. I think I was in sixth grade when my parents purchased Life’s book of The World’s Great Religions, and I read and reread and studied the photographs. When my sixth-grade teacher assigned the construction of a shoe box diorama depicting a scene in history, I illustrated the legendary meeting of Confucius and Laozi.

The next year I discovered Evelyn Underhill’s Christian-oriented books on mysticism, a rich source of quotations from the European mystics, as well as the Dover reprints of the Sacred Books of the East series. I had a look at R. B. Blakney’s Mentor Dao De Jing (titled The Way of Life) and felt at once at home and entranced with the very first verse. I began to consider myself a Daoist Buddhist. Though I found no point of contact between the spirituality I was earning about and my Methodist church by middle school I had decided the highest possible ambition was to be an ecstatic mystic. [10]

In high school I pursued these interests and began reading D. T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and Joseph Campbell and paying special attention to Buddhist references in the Beat writers. I discovered that the Theosophical Society’s American headquarters were next door to my home town in Col. Olcott’s grand old mansion with its fascinating Victorian library filled with Asian philosophers. [11] Exposed to Vedanta, I read Upanishads and then Huxley and Isherwood upon which I could only conclude that I was a Daoist Buddhist Hindu.

At university I followed Huxley and Watts in the use of psychedelics and found the alteration of consciousness with LSD roughly comparable to other methods such as fasting, chanting, meditating, and the practice of austerities. In the middle sixties we took the drug very seriously indeed, carefully designing the trip and discussing its implications for weeks afterwards. I was learning Greek and trying to digest the immense interconnected fabric of ancient myth. I wrote my senior thesis on Christopher Smart’s visionary madhouse poem Jubilate Agno under the direction of an eighteenth century scholar who could only scratch his head over my excitement about this wild work he viewed only as a curiosity. Later in graduate school I made a particular study of medieval mystic poets and translated Mechthild von Magdeburg while spinning theories connecting mystical texts with literary theory.

Toward the end of my undergraduate years I began attending a Friends meeting, in part to bolster my dossier as a conscientious objector in case push came to shove with my draft board, but also because of a real sympathy for a brand of Christianity without a leader, practicing group meditation without insisting on Christian belief. [12] That they had such a magnificent radical social tradition, not only on war, but on race and virtually all others issues only heightened their appeal. I joined in 1968 and attended meeting for about ten years. During unprogrammed meeting for worship people simply sit silently. Should any one feel moved, that person may speak. After years of sitting quietly in meeting, I was not once moved to speak.

I not only made a poor Quaker, I feel itchy and impatient while sitting zazen (though I once could pull myself into an uncomfortable full lotus) and I have miserably failed as a yogi quite a number of times even after persisting in what I considered good faith efforts for months. Yet, I think I have caught sight of the footprints of the Ox of Ultimate Reality; I may even have seen his tail disappearing into the thickets once or twice, [13] and I can hardly give up the pursuit now whether or not I ever progress, indeed, whether or not there is an ox at all.

1. Lord Bertrand Russell made precisely the same point in a more decorous manner in his 1952 essay “Is There a God?” when he declared that, were he to claim there is a teapot orbiting the sun between earth and Mars, he could hardly expect others to believe him simply because they cannot prove that there is not. For another materialist’s evidence on the origin of the supernatural see J. David Lewis-Williams’ excellent The Mind in the Cave.

2. Or agnostic or “transtheist, “a term used by Paul Tillich and Heinrich Zimmer to describe those who may accept the existence of deities, but for whom these superhuman entities are not the Ultimate Reality. Of course the Jain tirthankaras are venerated as people worship gods and a Daoist or Buddhist temple will include no end of deities, flamboyant and restrained.

3. Katha-Upanishad I.3.15.

4. Periphyseon, “nihilum” I, 447c, “negatio omnium” III.686d.

5. Guide for the Perplexed, I: 57.

6. The concept of a philosophia perennis was first proposed by Agostino Steuco drawing on neo-Platonic ideas of Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. The idea was accepted by the neo-Vedantists. See Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy.

7. The Cloud of Unknowing, tr. Clifton Wolters (Penguin), Ch. 6.

8. Freud in The Future of an Illusion claims never to have felt the “oceanic” sensation about which Romain Rolland had written him, but perhaps his superego was suppressing more archaic sensations arising from beneath.

9. Gaer had taught at Berkeley and was involved in New Deal programs such as the Federal Writers Project, the Farm Security Administration and the Treasury Department and then served as publicity director of the Political Action Committee for the CIO.

10. It is only in part self-satire when I recall that at this time I considered careers as a mystic, revolutionary, and poet, before selecting the last as the most practical choice.

11. Olcott was an American military officer and attorney who became interested in spiritualism when writing an article for the New York Sun about séances. He was a founder with Mme. Blavatsky and others of the Theosophical Society and, like her, an early American Buddhist. He is well-known in Sri Lanka for his work there with Buddhist and educational groups.

12. Since the early nineteenth century many Friends have regarded Christ as divine only in the same sense that all humans are if they act on their inner light.

13. See the Ten Ox-Herding pictures which occur in many Chinese and Japanese versions and are popular in translation. The best-known version is that by Kuòān Shīyuǎn from the 12th century.