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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Thursday, June 2, 2016

Notes and Inserts

I relish the weight of a book, the texture of its paper, the memories of passages associated with a particular place upon a physical page. These elements are, of course, adventitious to the text, though they may be welcome and even harmonious. Annotations by previous readers I find more often annoying than enlightening (though I once enjoyed perusing Northrup Frye’s copy of the Dionysiaca). Even my own notes, when made with an eye to classroom teaching rather than my own study, can get on my nerves. A great-grandfather of mine kept a diary in the margins of a Bible. This may sound like a vivid window to the nineteenth century, but most of the entries simply described the weather. Now and then a particularly memorable dinner – a pot roast, for example – is mentioned. Often the new reader can make little of the heart-felt inscriptions from generations before or the sales receipts used as bookmarks.

Yet other notes and inserted material can be a serendipitous pleasure even for the one who put them there. The crabbed and detailed notes with which I filled my copy of Dylan Thomas my first year at college retains nostalgic if not informative value. My undergraduate Greek textbook records the moment when a fellow scholar was called upon to construe a line and could manage only to stammer, “Man, there’s a whole lotta forms here.” In In the flyleaf of a French Rimbaud are scribbled Metro directions and addresses to destinations that no longer mean anything to me. In my Donald Keene anthology of Japanese literature is a New York Times article about Yukio Mishima’s death, not precisely appropriate, but provocative still and now hallowed and yellowed by age. In my Doubleday Anchor Sappho with the Greek originals and Willis Barnstone translations is a photo of a street sign in Oregon saying “Entering Sappho” and another of the Sappho café in the town of that name. More relevant is a broadsheet of a poem folded into a Ferlinghetti book.

For the purchaser of used books the challenge and reward of reading annotations and inserts are both heightened. On the endpapers and fly leaves of my copy of the Wilhelm I Ching, purchased in late sixties San Francisco, are numerous hexagrams and a few telephone numbers, but also two lists. One is concrete items, perhaps a shopping list: art supplies, truck, boots, sleeping bag. The other is more conceptual: yoga, hypnosis, Rubaiyat, Tarot pack, Brotherhood of Light. A more precise and succinct summary of the book’s context at the time could hardly be composed.

The most complete time capsule I have ever discovered, as edifying as most museum exhibits, lay inside the pages of a copy of the History of the American Working Class by Anthony Bimba. The biography of the author alone provides a significant narrative of American history. An immigrant worker from Lithuania, Bimba was a revolutionary activist in the Socialist Party’s Lithuanian Federation, getting arrested in 1918. He favored the Communist Party from its formation, though he was at times associated with alternative tendencies within the Party. In 1926 he was arrested in Massachusetts not only for sedition, but also for blasphemy, under a law dating from early Puritan days. He never lost his rebel spirit and proved uncooperative before the House Un-American Activities Committee only to find himself facing deportation in the early sixties, but the case was ultimately dropped.

Bimba’s book was published in 1927; my copy is a third printing dated 1934. Who might have bought the book in mid-Depression? The Comintern’s Third Period analysis led to Communist condemnation of all reformers, from liberals to Trotskyites, as “social fascists,” prior to Dimitrov’s declaration of the Popular Front in 1935, and Bimba accordingly fiercely rejects the New Deal as a whole and attacks other left groups such as the Socialist Party. The book closes with warnings of war due to the Nazis and the Japanese militarists.

As it happens the purchaser left the book full of papers and documents that detail his own identity and add detailed historical data to the text of the book itself. There is, for instance, a receipt for tuition at NYU bearing the payer’s name David Kaplan [1] and noting the payment of $47 in “fees” and $7 for athletics. Several inserted pages are covered with very small handwriting in pencil, what are surely class notes. It looks as though Mr. Kaplan was taking education courses and perhaps psychology as well.

A leaflet for a May Day rally in New York’s Union Square calls for “Young Workers and Students” “Negro and White” to “join the great parade.” Another, very likely from the same May Day invites people to evening “Communist celebrations” on Brooklyn and the Bronx. In answer to the question “why do we march” the leaflet mentions labor conditions and the threat of war, condemning Roosevelt right along with Father Coughlin and “the fascist labor-hater Hearst.”

Hearst is in fact the focus of a flyer for an “Anti-Hearst Meeting” sponsored by the NYU Anti-War Committee in February of 1935 featuring five professors as well as speakers from the Daily Worker and the Socialist Party. On the back in faint marks is discernable the legend “TipToe thru the Tulips with Me,” a song that had been popular since topping the chart for months in 1929. Another copy of the anti-Hearst announcement bears what looks like a list of pop songs: “When I’m in Your Arms,” “Never Was a Better Night for Making Love,” and “Nothing LIves Longer than Love,” concluding with “Old Man Rhythm,” from a 1935 movie of the same name with Betty Grable.

Another sheet has a detailed outline for an essay on mining engineering, doubtless work toward a research paper assignment in a composition class. Notes on education cover the back of a torn sheet bearing advertisements for four Brooklyn businesses suggesting the radical young student lived in Brooklyn.

A red leaflet from the NYU chapter of the National Student League bears a call for an anti-war strike on April 12. This document notes rather confusingly that “we believe that any faculty member who has been outstanding in the fight for student rights should be allowed to speak” and yet “in the interests of the unity [sic], we whole-heartedly subscribe to the decision of the Anti-War Committee that there be no faculty speakers. On the verso of this sheet is the s through w section of a list of vocabulary words and their phonetic spellings, including some slightly out-of-the-way terms such as “truculent” and “virago” but also such simple words as “vineyard” and “wreath.”

An unlined page records Kaplan’s notes on what sounds like the elementary level of political lectures: “C. P. is exp. of class struggle.” Exponent? Experienced? What does the “of” suggest? Other notes are clearer, though equally terse: “a party of action,” “mass strikes,” “against militarism and imperialism.” On the other side of the same sheet are notes on left groups in America since “the war.”

On the edge of this May Day flyer is written, “Geoffrey Chaucer of Eng. John L. Lowes,” surely a reference to John Livingston Lowes’ book simply titled Chaucer which had come out in 1934. [2] It is a pleasure to reflect that the liberal education of the day included a close look at Middle English, perhaps a closer look than even English majors manage these days.

Near this academic memo are two more obscure notes. I believe their charm is best preserved without my communicating the speculations I cannot wholly suppress. One coyly asks (without a question mark), “Would you like to dip it in.” And a short distance away the student reminded himself (with the use if four sets of ditto marks), “never to dream, never to remember, never to forget.”

I enjoyed the alternations between university study and Marxist sympathies on the one hand and popular culture and romance on the other. One could only wonder what became of this bright young man, engaged in learning and social justice, very likely the child of immigrants, after he completed his studies at NYU.

Unlikely though the search seemed, I found an obituary for Mr. Kaplan. This was only possible because he had written his name including a middle initial “B.” on the top of his copy of The History of May Day, a 1932 pamphlet by Alexander Trachtenberg, the founder of International Publishers. He had completed college and left the city, though he didn’t stray far. He taught high school social studies for decades. Though I found no trace of later radicalism, as a teacher he was always active in his union and professional organizations often assuming positions of responsibility and leadership.

In the years since I bought this book, I have not read it. Perhaps I never will. Yet it could be that the notes and inserts sketch out an even more detailed portrait of the mid-1930s in America than Mr. Bimba provides in its text.

1. This is a pseudonym. The actual name was, like Kaplan, one common among European Jews.

2. Marchette Chute’s popular biography Geoffrey Chaucer of England did not come out until 1946. Lowes is best known for his exemplary source research in The Road to Xanadu.

Drugs and Religion

Though not a review, the following essay is in part based on my reading of the remarkable volume by R. Gordon Wasson Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), part I, chapter 7. Wasson was the vice-president of J. P. Morgan as well as an important investigator of psychedelic substances. His 1957 Life magazine article in “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” about psilocybin experiences was ground-breaking.

Religion is universal. Around the globe during all eras, people have believed in the existence of invisible beings and unreachable realms. No sooner are supernatural beings conceived than they begin to have love affairs and rivalries with each other and with the human race. Though most of our conclusions are based on observed reality, in this one area one is told it is meritorious to accept the tenets current in one’s own area based on faith alone. Ultimately sophisticated philosophers – Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim alike -- may draw a vision of reality that sheds much of the accumulated mythological tradition or interprets it symbolically, but the base of belief in religious issues is clearly not fact-based as it is for all other sorts of knowledge. What can be the source of this odd phenomenon?

Burial customs indicate that belief in the unproven, in an afterlife for example, reaches deep into the Palaeolithic, probably all the way back to the invention of language which enables lies and the depiction of the unseen. An entire discipline developed based on methods of gaining access to the spiritual realm through alteration of consciousness. Those Aurignacian hunters crawled through lengthy dark chambers to do rituals by lamplight most likely to the hypnotic beat of music. Ascetic practices such as fasting and sleeplessness are common in both East and West. Prayer, meditation, chanting, and recitation serve much the same purposes. All of these techniques strive to break the ordinary assumptions that serve practical human survival needs, allowing the practitioner to reach possibilities otherwise inaccessible.

Among the tools people have used to pursue a connection with Ultimate Reality are what advocates like to call entheogens, meaning plants that seem to awaken the divine within. Their fundamental function is no different from that of the other methods of alteration of consciousness: to shake up the received ideas that habitually serve the individual daily practical ends and to allow for the development of a stronger connection to the cosmos. The shamanic hallucinogens used in Siberia and in the Americas and the cannabis used by Shaivite devotees fall into this category as does the bhang lassi consumed by masses at Shivaratri and the substances used by such modern groups as Rastfarianians, members of the Uniao do Vegetal, and the Native American Church. Those with a long history may seem more legitimate than such recent formations as the Temple of the True Inner Light, the Church of the Awakening, or the League for Spiritual Discovery in either its original or reborn version, but all use the same tool to alter consciousness.

Other human uses of psychoactive materials have also been widespread, of course. In every place and time, people have consumed mind-altering substances, sometimes as an anodyne to cope with suffering or as a euphoriant to enhance well-being, sometimes for therapeutic reasons. Use as an aid to spiritual growth is distinct from these practices.

The generalization that religious truths are by their very nature not amenable to logical demonstration is true all the more of mystical openings, so I would not attempt to defend the truth or even the value of the prayer, meditation, mortification of the flesh, or drugs. My aim is simply to place chemical methods on a par with the rest.

Culturally shaped expectations are critically important in all use of entheogens. A participant in a Sioux sweat lodge ceremony enters only after hearing the reports of others and systematic personal preparation. The event is under the guidance of an experienced leader. No less rigorous arrangements are customary among the traditional users of peyote, psilocybin, ayahuasca, or kava. Contemporary use of these substances by outsiders is frequently haphazardly careless, sometimes to the point of danger, but risk is virtually absent for those for whom what once were called psychedelics is normative.

In a sense such psychotropic substances are at the root of human spirituality. Without considering the significant scholarly disagreement as to exact dating, it is safe to say that the Sanskrit Vedas are the oldest religious writing associated with a surviving cult. The strength of the tradition is such that even today’s casual visitor cannot avoid encounter its manifestations at every turn in India. Staying by the Ganges in Varanasi across the lane from a sort of saddhus’ dormitory, I believe there were three Shiva lingams within fifty feet of my door, each the recipient of daily offerings. Holy men took up seats all along the river and through the night one could hear chanting and praying. From what wellsprings might such potent and longlasting effects arise?

R. Gordon Wasson suggests “that the whole of Indian mystical practice from the Upanişads through the more mechanical methods of yoga is merely an attempt to recapture the vision granted by the Soma plant” and this “the nature of that vision – and of that plant – underlies the whole of Indian religion.” And is Indian religion not a wellspring for much of the world with Buddhism spreading east and a thousand influences percolating through Persian and Indian lands to reach Europe both before and after Alexander had interviewed the gymnosophists. One need not entirely endorse Wasson’s enthusiasm for the amanita muscaria, but his thesis is a salutary correction to the moralists who consider the ingestion of entheogens to be an activity altogether different, and less admirable, than the practice of yoga or meditation. Are they not sister technologies, each aimed at assisting the mortal to glimpse a longer view?

The drug personified as Soma was a significant deity in Vedic times. The Soma Mandala of the Rig Veda contains a hundred and fourteen hymns in praise of the marvelous substance. Its use was evidently brought to the Indian subcontinent by the Aryan invaders in the second millennium BCE. The same drug is praised as haoma in the Zoroastrian Avesta. When Zarathustra encounters haoma in Yasna 9 the personified drug is praised for his beauty and his role as the driver out of death. The use of this chemical followed the example of Yima in the Golden Age as well as a host of other heroes and legendary figures. “Praise be to thee, O Haoma, (for he makes the poor man's thoughts as great as any of the richest whomsoever.” (Avesta 10.13)

The Vedas describe soma as radiant and golden. It is compared to a bull (and, somewhat contradictorily) to an udder and to the sun. It is a single eye, and it is a navel. Identified with health, insight, and everlasting life, Soma is the most compelling deity in the Vedic pantheon.

Considerable dispute exists concerning the identity of this plant, whose preparation and consumption are described in some detail, though not always consistently. Scholars have suggested cannabis, amanita muscaria, psilocybin, ephedra, even opium and alcohol, as likely candidates, but the issue remains unresolved. Some recent authors have made the reasonable suggestion that the same term was used to refer to several plants, and thus could be only loosely defined a plant with ritual usage. What cannot be doubted is that this entheogen is one of the most significant elements of early Indian spirituality.

We have no objection to taking drugs to protect our physical health, yet, in spite of the example of self-experimenting researchers like Humphry Davy, William James, and Aldous Huxley, many frown upon their use as aids to philosophy or religion. All religions consist of symbolic systems of myth, narrative, lyric, pictorial and other arts that allow people to feel some grasp of the cosmic. Their efficacy in practice is evident as religion is coextensive with humanity for the last forty thousand years, yet it seems clear that the imagination must be jump-started by some alteration of consciousness, though this role is sometimes delegated to shamans, priests, or bikkhus. As the medically therapeutic potential of what once were called psychedelic drugs receives renewed interest, so should their spiritual and philosophic value.

The Pleasures of the Familiar in Literature

I have been reading Cooper's The Spy, enjoying it, and wondering why. Cooper is certainly vulnerable to criticism yet even D. H. Lawrence whose scorn could be withering devoted two chapters to him (as he did to Hawthorne and Melville) and declared he loved the Leatherstocking books dearly. [1] Writers like Cooper and Scott (his most significant model) are sometimes today dismissed as children's authors, though it would be an odd twenty-first century child who would relish their prose. Other popular novelists such as Dickens can rise to true greatness through capacious imagination, sophisticated imagery, and melodious rhetoric. Even the rapidly produced best-sellers of Trollope are richer by far and, for all the author's acceptance of received ideas, develop more complex characters (though the scene be fuzzed by genial rose-colored glasses). What motive, then, beyond literary history and American nationality, attracts me to this author whose very writing career is said to be accidental?

Quite clearly Cooper's heroes are unalloyed in their heroism, his damsels fainting and compassionate, his villains irredeemable. The descriptions of nature are conventional and workmanlike, but, for all the desire to establish a distinctly American literature, never very individualized or memorable. His themes are utterly reductive. I would readily agree that the ambiguous and the mysterious define a particular realm for literature inaccessible to other forms of discourse, and that one function of art is to unsettle preconceptions and to suggest new insight. Innovation and novelty are surely essential to the development of fiction over time, and a beauty that makes the reader weak in the knees is a characteristic of the highest prose.

Yet these qualities are characteristic of only a portion of worthy fiction. Though the Romantic era and the Modernists celebrate novelty, art also seeks to transmit a culture's matured ideas, its preconceptions, if you will. For most readers a competence in a recognizable style is preferable to idiosyncrasy and obscurity. Familiarity is more appealing than originality which may strike the consumer as nothing but gratuitous obscurity. For millennia oral narrative was predominantly of the "conservative" sort, understood by everybody, and this remained true until very recent times in folk stories, religious stories, and legends. Under contemporary capitalist conditions most people consume mass art in movies, television shows, best-selling novels, comic books and the like, all of them highly conventional forms. Surely hundreds of Americans could retell the story of Breaking Bad for one who might know about Harvey Birch, the double agent of the American Revolution. Yet the fan of HBO and the admirer of Cooper have a great deal in common despite their separation in time. The student of literature, in particular the literary theoretician, can ill afford to ignore the bulk of fiction to focus only on the elite transgressors and code-breakers.

Lawrence was typical of many artists since the Romantic era in his rejection of the typical. To him the social consensus is inevitably a lie. Thus to him Cooper is that thing despicable because conformist and conventional, a “gentleman.” He describes Cooper's work as “a wish-fulfilment” and the author as “a correct, clock- work man,” who “stayed very safe inside the old skin.” Lawrence, of course, was a Modern, one of those whose entire program is rebellious and contrarian. Such values are neither the whole of art nor necessarily characteristic of the finest works.

A great many texts confirm readers' expectations not because of the audience's lesser intellectual powers but because in this way they fulfill a function of art at least as important as the criticism of assumptions, the laying bare of contradictions, irrationalities, and mysteries, and the forging of new literary techniques. Indeed, the concentration of prestige on works that strive for the new and contentiously condemn the ordinary has led to the marginalization of literature itself in contemporary society. Though I am a lifelong admirer of Rimbaud, Pound, and the Dadaists, I realize that they are grouped around one end of the spectrum and that literature as a whole comprehends the entire range from conventional to unconventional. If Cooper has a low reputation among such of the Mandarins as have not specialized in the study of his work, the fact is due to the fact that his work is located rather far toward the less currently fashionable side of the spectrum.

There is a pleasure to hearing the relation of what one already thinks one knows. All works are a mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar, and the more conventional are more clear and easily read, their comparative predictability and simplicity requiring less mental work. Just as in relation to physical exercise, one would scarcely care for either constant languor or constant exertion. The traveler may relish new sights and contacts, but most people prefer those the friends and scenes they have seen countless times best of all, and in all eras the most widely read works have relied heavily on convention.

Furthermore, there is an unquestionable aesthetic pleasure in iteration itself. One may be delighted by the unexpected, but in life and in art, the deep pleasures of the familiar are far more common. Listeners prefer mediocre musical works with repetitions, themes and variations, to the most sophisticated modern non-repeating compositions. People applaud the mere appearance of a favorite character in television situation comedies because they know what will follow. In a sense they are cheering for their own competence. Popular art, oral narrative, religious ritual, and the like all appeal specifically because of their familiarity. We never entirely lose the child's welcoming reception of the words "once upon a time." It is a promise of what will follow including, in modern times at least, a satisfying happy ending, implying that all is right with the world. Lawrence would have sneered.

The pleasure in formal iteration is paralleled by a similar pleasure in having one's opinions confirmed by a story’s themes. The values and world-view of a culture are codified and transmitted through art that stresses what many have in common. In oral cultures through Homer stories regularly suggest the ideas on which all agree. Perhaps the most dramatic expression of this fact is n religious scriptures, accepted as absolutely true and taught to every successive generation.

Though associating with those of similar views is a universal habit, its opposite occurs as well in modern culture: the enjoyment of peculiar or perverse ideas which the reader does not in fact share. This taste is the basis of the popularity of the antihero in the modern era and the celebration of bizarre yet talented artists such as Artaud and Burroughs.

Even if one does not share the author's opinions, the mere fact of encountering easily decoded values persists. A non-Christian may read George Herbert or even Aquinas and enjoy knowing an odd doctrine such as the Trinity without in the least believing in its truth. I love decoding familiar iconography in Christian and Hindu more than encountering enigmas. Though my values are not those of Dr. Johnson, I savor his sympathetically.

What does this mean in practice? Cooper's prose style, though it displays the elaborate syntax and lengthy periods characteristic of the educated Latinate mode of the day, has very few figures of speech apart from a few so conventional as to be barely perceptible. His writing has, in fact, little individuality; indeed, a unique or unexpected turn of phrase would be out of place.

Characters have few traits, but those few are constantly repeated. This Wharton père is invariably concerned about his estate and, secondarily, about his daughters. The girls' lovers are exemplars of honor, manliness, and courtesy. Caesar is always the loyal servant except for those occasions when he is rattled or superstitious. Birch is never mentioned without making a point of his enigmatic behavior. One learns nothing new or surprising about any following an initial appearance.

In terms of theme, as well, Cooper could hardly be simpler. The American revolutionaries are in the right, and Frances is more acute than her sister for her partisanship. Yet British and Americans alike may be honorable, may be in fact “gentlemen,” though it is the higher classes that possess most virtues in either case. The Cowboys and Skinners and Nancy Haynes are fair examples of the meanness of society's lower ranks.

Clever and rich as it may be, few people are likely ever to read Finnegan's Wake, whereas the more mildly innovative Portrait of the Artist will always find readers, recreational as well as academic. The disparity does not arise from the public's laziness, nor is the more elite work necessarily of higher value. Indeed, it is only though convention that many of the ends of literature are obtainable. If Cooper is to a considerable degree an imitator of earlier models, he is no different from artists of all times and places. The stigma attached to convention has been so magnified in the last few hundred years that it has come to seem self-evident and natural. Oral and popular literature have enjoyed a resurgence of serious consideration in recent decades. Perhaps the time has come to reconsider the second-rate status assigned to writers like Cooper.

1. References to Lawrence are to his masterful and entertaining Studies in Classic American Literature which, for all its foibles, I find to be virtually always on the mark.

2. The spy of the title is an exception. In his case, though, he is presumed to have only mercenary ends, and it is precisely the unlikeliness of his heroism that allows his subterfuge to succeed. George Washington who appears disguised and then overshadows the action like a deity is no perfect because his social status is so high.