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

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

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

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


A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

This site is listed in BlogCatalog and
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Saturday, April 1, 2017

Index

The index now features hypertext connections. Simply click on any title below to read it.

Though this listing serves, I think, a clear purpose, not every posting falls easily into the categories. One essay might equally be placed under literary theory or medieval texts while another might fit under memoir, politics, or travel. Translations with comment might be either criticism or translation. Poke around a bit.

The categories are:

1. speculative, familiar, performance pieces, and other essays

2. literary theory

3. Greek texts (and a couple of Latin)

4. medieval texts

5. other criticism
A. 16th-19th century
B. 20th century to the present
C. Asian texts
D. songs
E. Notes on Recent Reading
F. Rereading the Classics
G. Every Reader's Poets

6. translation

7. poetry

8. politics

9. memoirs

10. travel


1. Speculative, familiar, performance pieces, and other essays
Agnostic Credo and Vita (October 2015)
Axiology and Subjectivity (October 2014)
Annual Report (August 2014)
Beards (December 2013)
Biking (November 2009)
Biking as a Spiritual Discipline (April 2017)
Cookbooks (April 2014)
Dead Reckoning (February 2011)
Deer (December 2012)
Documents of the first Surreal Cabaret (March 2012)
Documents of the second Surreal Cabaret (June 2012)
Documents of the third Surreal Cabaret (October 2013)
Documents of the fourth Surreal Cabaret (July 2014)
Documents of the fifth Surreal Cabaret (February 2015)
Drugs and Religion (June 2016)
Dust: a meditative riff (November 2009)
Food for the Gods (December 2011)
Hippie (April 2011)
Immortality (July 2012)
Iowa Communards (December 2011)
A Library’s Commonplaces and Curiosities (May 2011)
The Mannerly Hedonist (February 2013)
Notes and Inserts (June 2016)
Polka (November 2012)
On Pronunciation and Pedantry (September 2015)
In Praise of Bias (November 2014)
Still Biking (November 2012)
A Structural View of Certain Oracles (August 2015)
Supermarkets (October 2010)
Taking Off (November 2009)
Worn Tools (June 2013)


2. Literary theory
Afloat on the Ocean of Words (April 2016)
Allusion (March 2015)
Art and the Marketplace (April 2010)
The Familiar Note in Poetry (January 2017)
The Formation of a Christian Rhetoric (April 2011)
How and Why to Signify (July 2011)
Idea of Comedy (January 2012)
The Inconsequential Bayonets of Art: Militant Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde (May 2010)
Lament for the Loss of the Avant-Garde (March 2010)
Millenarian Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde (August 2010)
On the Proper Ends of Literary Study [James Seaton] (July 2014)
Placing the Popular in the Structure of Literature (October 2010)
The Pleasures of the Familiar in Literature (June 2016)
Poetry Amid the Fierce Chaos of the World (December 2009)
Prof. Wellek, Prof. Leavis, and Prof. de Man (December 2015)
The Question of Literary Value (August 2014)
Riddles and Poetry (March 2015)
The Signifying Monkey Talks Literature (April 2010)
Some Notes Toward a Theory of the Avant-Garde (October 2013)
Sontag's "Against Interpretation" (September 2016)
Sweet Treason: Translating Lyric Poetry (November 2009)
Thoughts on Mythology (March 2013)
Transformation of Convention (August 2013)
What is Poetry? (February 2012)
Winged Words: Notes on the Oral Performance of Poetry (May 2010)


3. Greek texts (and two Latin)
Aphrodite’s Bed: Love in the Homeric Hymn (August 2010)
The Birth of Erato: Lyric, Vision, and the Spread of Writing (January 2010)
Dionysos and the Pirates (February 2012)
Gorgias (February 2010)
Hermes and the Art of Poetry (March 2013)
Longinus' Sublime (May 2012)
Notes on Pan (June 2014)
Oedipus and the Meaning of Polysemy (July 2011)
Poetry's Long Memory [Horace] (July 2016)
Professors Kick the Willy Bobo [on Athenaeus] (December 2009)
The Role of Rhetoric in Theocritus (February 2011)
The Role of Wine in Nonnus' Dionysiaca (February 2016)
Sappho’s Holy Tortoise Shell: Eros and Poetry in Ancient Greece (December 2009)
Seneca the Elder (March 2010)
A Skeptic's Faith [Sextus Empiricus] (January 2015)
Two Passages from Marcus Aurelius (June 2011)
The Web of Myth in the Hymn to Heracles (June 2012)


4. Medieval texts
The Aesthete of Desire: Lancelot and Courtly Love (July 2012)
The Aesthetics of Ambiguity in a Medieval Lyric (December 2012)
Aesthetic Principles of the Middle English Romance (July 2010)
Appropriation of Biblical Narrative in Patience (February 2013)
Bernart and the Music of Ideas (September 2016)
The Buddha in Europe: the Apologue of the Man and the Unicorn in Barlaam and Ioasaph (January 2011)
Chaucer’s Version of the Golden Age (June 2011)
A Conventional Ending in a Middle English Romance (September 2011)
Courtly Love in Romance of the Rose (August 2012)
Distant Rhyme in Two Medieval English Lyrics (August 2011)
The Early English Carol (June 2010)
Geoffrey of Vinsauf (April 2010)
Figures of Love in Lydgate's Temple of Glas (January 2014)
Functions of Alliteration in Thirteenth Century Lyrics (February 2011)
Hypermetric Lines in Beowulf (January 2011)
An Introduction to the Troubadours (January 2010)
Mechthild von Magdeburg (July 2010)
A New Look at Jaufré: Amor de Lonh as Criticism (December 2010)
Odin and Poetry (December 2015)
Openings in the Middle English Romance (July 2010)
The Pearl-Poet’s Use of Link-Rhymes (November 2011)
Phonetics and Semantics in the Last Line of Beowulf (March 2011)
Piers Plowman and the Man in the Moon (October 2011)
The Prima Etade of Literary Ambition [Petrarch] (March 2011
Transformation of Convention in Early Minnesang (April 2011)
Two Early Ballad Tales of Robin Hood (October 2014)
William IX (September 2010)
Who is Piers Ploughman? (June 2013)


5. Other criticism

A. 16th-19th century
Ambivalence in Thomson's The Castle of Indolence (March 2012)
Big Bill Otter's Sprees and Frolics (November 2013)
A Decadent's Dilemmas [Dowson] (March 2015)
Does Crabbe Look Forward or Back? (February 2016)
Dolce's Aretino (September 2015)
The Double Plot of Salem Chapel (December 2016)
Gascoigne's "Notes of Instruction" (September 2013)
Godwin's Theatre of Calamity (September 2015)
Herrick the Divine (August 2014)
Keats' "Thing of Beauty" (November 2016)
Marius the Epicurean as a Modern (April 2015)
Moby Dick and the Density of the Aesthetic Text (January 2016)
"Monk" Lewis, Mr. Coleridge, and Popular Taste (July 2015)
A Note on Dryden and "Dramatick Poesy" (September 2012)
A Note on Radcliffe's The Italian (October 2012)
Pierce Penniless (May 2013)
The Play of Convention in Shakespeare's Sonnet 153 (April 2017)
The Problem with Swinburne (June 2015)
Rimbaud's Use of Montage (October 2016)
Shelley”s “Ode to the West Wind” as Structuralist Charm (May 2011)
Sir Thomas North's The Moral Philosophy of Doni (September 2013)
The Skeptico-Semiotico-Mystic: Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (June 2015)

Skepticism and Poetry in Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes" (February 2015)
The Texture of Traherne’s Religious Thought (October 2010)
Thematic Continuity and Development in the Poetry of Christopher Smart: the Jubilate Agno and the Minor Poems (November 2010)
Travelers [Marco Polo, Twain, Robert Byron](April 2012)
Trollope's Appeal (December 2012)
Two Notes on Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance (July 2014)
The Use of Nostalgia in Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life (August 2015)

B. 20th century to the present
Another Look at The Seven Lively Arts (June 2013)
Apologia for a Fondness for Pound (November 2012)
Are Uncle Tom's Children Bound by History? (April 2014)
Banjo (March 2017)
A Brief History of Negritude (February 2017)
Comics (February 2010)
Conrad's Shadow-Line (June 2014)
The Critical Palimpsest: Black African Literature through White American Eyes (January 2010)
Dada in America (April 2012)
Eisenstein's Strike and the Problem of Realism (April 2013)
Epiphanies in Dubliners (May 2016)
False Translations (August 2016)
The Fetish of the Primitive in Twentieth Century Art (April 2015)
A Few Films (November 2016)
A Few Proletarian Writers (March 2012)
Flash Reviews of Thirty African Novels (November 2011)
Flyin’ with the Muses: Kirpal Gordon’s Eros in Sanskrit (May 2011)
Hell's House (November 2013)
Kerouac’s Weakness and Strength (January 2011)
Kurt Seligmann's Moderate Surrealism (November 2016)
Kurt Seligmann's Riddlesome Symbols (March 2017)
The Last Poets (March 2016)
The Legacy of the Beats (March 2014)
The Lyricism of the Ugly: Celine's Mort à Crédit (December 2014)
The Man with the Golden Arm and a Friend with Six Seeds (January 2014)
Onitsha Market Literature (February 2015)
Pig and Possum Teach Poetry (May 2014)
A Poem by Theodore Roethke (September 2011)
The Power of Picasso's Sculpture (November 2015)
Saki's Novels (April 2015)
Sartre's "Black Orpheus (February 2017)
Some Poetry Reviews (December 2012)
Sound Poetry and Edith Sitwell's Facade (July 2013)
Two Graffiti (May 2011)
A Very Funny Fellow [Lev] (May 2012)

C. Asian texts
Friendship and Romance in Ming Stories (February 2014)
Han Shan (December 2010)
Journey to the North (December 2013)
Liezi (October 2012)
Lu Xun (October 2010)
Monkey Rides Again (January 2013)
Notes on Liu Xie (August 2011)
Tang Stories (April 2016)
Theme and Tone In Kokoro (September 2016)
A Tibetan Novel (March 2017)
The Trials of Lady Ochikubo (April 2014)

D. songs
"Down the Dirt Road Blues" [Charley Patton] (October 2011)
Fishing Blues [Henry Thomas] (October 2015)
Foggy Dew as Symbol (July 2012)
The Imagery of Hokum Blues Songs (July 2015)
"Lady Maisry" (November 2013)
"Moon Goin' Down" [Charley Patton] (May 2013)
The Paraklausithyron Blues (May 2016)
"The Red Rooster" [Willie Dixon] (March 2014)
Robert Johnson and the Devil (September 2012)
Skip James' Blues Imagery (May 2015)
“Spoonful” and the Accretion of Meaning (December 2012)
"The Three Ravens" (August 2013)
Trinidadian Smut (April 2016)
Truckin' (November 2014)
“Walkin’ Blues” [Son House] (December 2011)

E. Notes on Recent Reading
Notes on Recent Reading [Melville, Greene, and Whalen] (September 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 2 [Crane, The Crowning of Louis, Thornlyre] (October 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 3 [Kipling, San Francisco Mime Troupe, Lynn’s Tao-te-ching] (November 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 4 [Sarah Scott, de La Fayette, Wharton] (January 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 5 [The Deeds of God in Rddhipur, Burney, Cooper] (January 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 6 [Jewett, Addison, Crabbe] (February 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 7 [Nabokov, Austen, Grettis Saga] (April 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 8 [Bakhtin, Lewis, Brown] (May 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 9 [Plutarch, Tacitus, Williams](June 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 10 [Voltaire, France, Dryden](July 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 11 [Wright, Kerouac & Burroughs, Gilbert] (August 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 12 [Huxley, Norris, Dōgen](September 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 13 [Mirabai, Wood, Trocchi] (November 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 14 [Algren, Hauptmann, Rolle] (January 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 15 [Hemingway, Orwell, Gaskell]{February 2013}
Notes on Recent Reading 16 [Howells, Ford, Mann] (April 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 17 [McCarthy, Chang, Snorri](July 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 18 [Radcliffe, Stendhal, Erasmus](October 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 19 [Powers, Zhang Ji, Vietnamese folk song] (February 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 20 [Rowe, Stevenson, Issa] (May 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 21 [Fussell, Mahfouz, Watts] (August 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 22 [Waugh, Belloc, Okakura] (October 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 23 [Naipaul, Dinesen, Spillane] (January 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 24 [Fielding; Izumo , Shōraku, and Senryū; Plath] (June 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 25 [Baskervill, Gissing, Capote] (July 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 26 [Tuchman, Premchand, Cocteau] (November 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 27 [Forster, Sackville-West, Capote] (January 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 28 [Verne, Waley, Hurston] (March 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 29 [Achebe, Jewett, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam] (October 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 30 [Bradford, Scott, Marquand] (April 2017)

F. Rereading the Classics
Rereading the Classics [Burton] (November 2011)
Rereading the Classics [Gogol] (August 2012)
Rereading the Classics [Goldsmith] (December 2016)
Rereading the Classics [Kleist] (February 2012)
Rereading the Classics [Montaigne] (December 2013)
Rereading the Classics [Rabelais] (December 2011)

G. Every Reader's Poets
Every Reader's Herrick (December 2015)
Every Reader's Hopkins (May 2016)
Every Reader's Milton (January 2017)
Every Reader's Pope (May 2015)
Every Reader's Shelley (November 2014)
Every Reader's Skelton (March 2016)
Every Reader's Wyatt (December 2014)
Every Reader's Yeats (January 2015)


6. Translation
Alkaios' Happy Hour (January 2017)
Becher's "Someone Stands Up" (October 2012)
Christian and Dedicatory Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (March 2010)
Emmy Hennings (February 2010)
Emmy Hennings Poems (More from Die Letzte Freude) (November 2010)
Four Poems from the German of Richard Huelsenbeck (January 2010)
Four Quatrains by Wang Wei (January 2013)
Hans Arp (April 2010)
The Homeric Hymn to Dionysos (February 2012)
Horace I.21 (July 2016)
Hugo Ball (July 2010)
Hymn to Aphrodite (August 2010)
Hymn to Heracles the Lion-Hearted (June 2012)
Hymn to the Night [Novalis](March 2012)
Hymn to the Night II [Novalis] (July 2012)
Hymn to Pan (May 2014)
Leonidas of Tarentum (May 2010)
A Mixed Bag of German Translations (August 2014)
Rimbaud's "The Lice-Pickers" (March 2014)
Seven Poems from Léon-Gontran Damas (February 2017)
Some Anonymous Middle High German Lyrics (August 2011)
Three Horatian Odes (November 2012)
Translations of William IX (September 2010)
Wordsworth Speaks German (July 2011)
Yet Two More Versions of Wang Wei (June 2011)


7. Poetry
African poems (August 2010)
How to Be a Poet (June 2010)
The Liturgies of the Lama Swine Toil (September 2012)
Mexican poems (September 2010)
Poems from New Mexico (July 2010)
Poems from Turkey (June 2010)
Produce poems (May 2010)
The Soap Opera of the Pair Who Forgot Themselves, but only Temporarily (August 2012)
Some Sonnets (April 2010)
Three Poems from Peru (August 2011)
Two Lyrics on Death from Central America (January 2012)


8. Politics
Black Lives Matter (August 2016)
Economic Democracy (July 2013)
The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Port Huron Statement (June 2012)
Hard Rain Still Fallin’ (September 2010)
How to Get Serious about Fighting Crime (January 2010)
Local Politics (May 2015)
In Memory of a Generation's People's Heroes (October 2015)
Occupy Wall Street (November 2011)
The Role of Higher Education (November 2010)
The Socialist Martin Luther King (February 2016)
The Triumph and Tragedy of Revolution (December 2016)
Two Exemplary Anecdotes from the Sixties Student Movement (September 2013)
Utopia (November 2015)
Voluntary Poverty (October 2011)
Why I am a Socialist (March 2010)


9. Memoirs
Baby Boomer Reads the Beats (April 2012)
A Brief Literary Life (September 2012)
A Garland of Greek Professors (December 2010)
A Glimpse of Robert Bly (August 2012)
Grandparents (December 2009)
High School (August 2014)
Hip Poets of Seventies San Francisco (January 2011)
How I Was Hired to Teach in Nigeria (May 2011)
IWW (April 2011)
March in Cicero (December 2009)
A Memorable Roomer (June 2014)
My Most Politically Active Year (February 2011)
Nova Academy (March 2011)
Pestering Allen [Ginsberg] (March 2012)
Poetry on the Loose (September 2011)
A Scholar's Debut (October 2012)
Sherman Paul (August 2016)
Suburbanite in the City (November 2010)
Tim West (March 2013)
VISTA Trains Me (June 2011)


10. Travel
Arrival in Nigeria (August 2015)
Acadiana [Lafayette, Louisiana] (May 2010)
An Armenian Family in Bordeaux (December 2014)
Carnival [Portugal] (May 2012)
Cookie Man [Morocco] (October 2011)
Creel (October 2010)
Dame Fortuna in Portugal (May 2012)
Dinner with Mrs. Pea [Thailand] (April 2013)
Election Day in Chichicastenango (January 2012)
An Evening in Urubamba (July 2011)
Festival in Ogwa [Nigeria](January 2011)
On the Ganges' Shore (August 2013)
The Guru of Guinness (July 2016)
Haarlem (July 2010)
Hitchhiking in Algeria (September 2010)
Hitchhiking in France (January 2014)
Hungarian Food (December 2010)
Introduction to Tourist Snapshots (June 2010)
Jemaa el Fna (December 2010)
Knee-deep in History [Vietnam, Cambodia] (February 2014)
Najibe’s Stories (September 2011)
Nigerian Names and Vehicle Slogans (March 2011)
A Palm Wine Shack [Nigeria] (December 2011)
Portraits from a Floating World: Anonymous (October 2016)
Portraits from a Floating World: Najibe and Sandro (February 2010)
Portraits from a Floating World: Gahlia and Jack (June 2010)
Portraits from a Floating World: Leslie Spector and Pa’ahssyzy (August 2010)
A Problem on the Border [Algeria] (June 2011)
A Reading in Kathmandu (November 2009)
Sacred Space as Sideshow [Prague] (February 2010)
St. Joseph’s Day at the Laguna Pueblo (April 2011)
A Stroll around Lake Bled (May 2013)
Strong Stuff [Marrakech] (October 2012)
Tetouan (November 2010)
The Theory of Souvenirs (April 2012)
A Trip to India (January 2016)
Two Parades [India and Peru] (August 2011)
The Valley of Beautiful Women [Eger, Hungary] (March 2010)
Vignettes of Sunny Nigeria (March 2011)
A Waterfall near Marrakech (February 2011)

The Play of Convention in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 153




Sonnet 153 (1609 Quarto version)

CVpid laid by his brand and fell a ſleepe,
A maide of Dyans this aduantage found,
And his loue-kindling fire did quickly ſteepe
In a could vallie-fountaine of that ground:
Which borrowd from this holie fire of loue,
A dateleſſe liuely heat ſtill to indure,
And grew a ſeething bath which yet men proue,
Againſt ſtrang malladies a ſoueraigne cure:
But at my miſtres eie loues brand new fired ,
The boy for triall needes would touch my breſt,
I ſick withal the helpe of bath deſired,
And thether hied a ſad diſtemperd gueſt.
But found no cure,the bath for my helpe lies,
Where Cupid got new fire; my miſtres eye.



For the last two hundred years the reading of poetry has been progressively impoverished by the Romantic denigration of convention. Today poetry tends to be prosaic and colloquial and few readers apart from academics have the competence to appreciate the intertextuality of earlier works. The fact is that convention, far from stultifying and reducing expression, allows more semiotic density. Far from simply reproducing models, the skilled writer, while sometimes using convention as shorthand for content previously expressed, more frequently reverses expectations, twists them, enlarges or constructs them, alters their tone, or, in a myriad other ways, builds upon what had been already written to construct something entirely new. The use of convention enables the author to reach higher levels of subtlety in thematics and, at the same time, to increase the formal pleasures of structural variation. Such structural play can only be called academic only if the same is said of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

The Cupid sonnets that conclude Shakespeare’s collection are a case in point. Often written off as conventional, routine, perhaps not even from the master’s hand, “outliers” at any rate, they betray upon close examination an almost musical play of ideas and contraries superimposed over the melody of the words.

One may take as a starting point the Greek Anthology lyric (IX, 627) attributed to Marianus Scholasticus. [1] This is the text of Paton’s accurate if uninspired translation.


Here under the plane trees tired Love lay softly sleeping, having entrusted his torch to the Nymphs. Said the Nymphs among themselves, “Why not do it at once? Would that together with this we could put out the fire in men’s hearts.” But it was the torch that set fire to the water, and henceforth the Love-Nymphs pour forth here hot water for men to bathe in.


Surely this piece itself is a spun sugar confection for those who thought they had heard all possible changes rung on similar elements. Ignoring the considerable prior history of its meter, words, and figures, what does the poem suggest? Surely the first implication is the persistence of desire; Eros’ torch cannot be doused. Secondarily, the aetiological implication of the origin of warm bathing associates love with an ameliorating factor, something that makes life more civilized, more livable. And why were the nymphs hostile to love prior to their becoming “love-Nymphs” (“nymphs of Eros”)? What is expressed in mythological terms as their association with Artemis appears as well in philological data in the word nymph’s links with words indicating “veiled,” and thus (in contradistinction to Muslim practice) young and marriageable. In psychological terms one might associate this resistance to love with the woman’s selectivity and cautious reserve, as opposed to the men’s fire in the heart. [2] Similar notions conceived by men include the troubadour’s lady’s “daunger” or the animals of Thurber’s “Courtship Through the Ages.”

These far from original principles provide the conventional thematics for these final two sonnets which have struck many readers as superfluous or intrusive. The fact is, though, that they could plead sufficient formal precedent as well: the pattern of concluding a sonnet sequence with irregularities, often a few Anacreontic or fescinnine pieces and then a longer poem was set in Spenser’s Amoretti and Epithalamion, Samuel Daniel’s Delia, Lodge’s Sonnets to Phillis, and other collections.

Yet each of the poem’s terms Shakespeare has adapted either from the Anthology or from a later use of the story is markedly altered in Sonnet 153. Rather than repeating clichés, the poet is enriching, enlarging, criticizing, or overturning them in a captivating rapid-fire lyric that plays with reader expectations until the concluding couplet when, as at the end of the tragedies, all returns to normal once again.

While in the epigram Eros intentionally hands off his torch to a nymph for safe-keeping, the sonnet has her taking it without his knowledge. This departure is reinforced later when the sonnet describes what can only be the origin of his love in the circumstance of the nymph first relighting the torch, then, as a test, touching his breast, rendering him instantly but arbitrarily love-sick. [3] Having fallen victim to Eros through chance, he can gain no respite in an ordinary bath but only with the favorable looks of his beloved. Though helplessness before love’s onslaught is an ancient topos, it is here more evident in the more modern poem.

More significant is the sonnet’s drift to double entendre. Though the associations are only latent in the Greek poem, [4] the reader who has noted considerable risqué play in the earlier sonnets will not overlook the correspondence of torch and “vallie-fountaine” with genitals. Indeed, attempting to douse the hot phallus in the moisture not only fails to put out the fire, it heats the water into a “seething bath” due to the “holie fire of love.” [4] The brand is relighted at the eye of the beloved though it had never seemed to be put out, and the lover’s heart is set aflame anew, paradoxically to seek solace or cure only in that same mistress’ eye. “Eye” itself was used to suggest the female sex as in Benedick’s lines from Much Ado About Nothing: “I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be/ buried in thy eyes.” [5]. Whereas the Greek epigram had perhaps slightly ruefully described the ineradicable power of desire, the English sonnet introduces the whole complex of self-consciousness about sexuality with its euphemistic concealment causing sniggering foregrounding.

Shakespeare has, in fact, deployed not only the terms of inherited Classical myth, but has added parallel but quite different obscene and courtly love conventions, thus thickening the plot considerably. By doing so he has not vitiated but has enriched his meaning; he has not lost but rather has gained precision and individuality. The fact that at least three basic sets of language, metaphor, affect are inextricably interlaced in Sonnet 153, while formally a tour de force, a dazzling finale for the volume, results not in confusion or interference. Instead the reader infers a love experience in which each set of expectations bears partial truth. At a given moment one or another may be dominant, while at other times all three may weave routes about each other in a precise and beautiful dance of words.

Used adeptly, convention serves as a means of increasing the semiotic density of a passage. Shakespeare chose to use one of the most convention-bound forms, the sequence of love sonnets, to express the complexities of his persona’s experience of love, and, at the culmination of his magnificent and subtle sequence, he simultaneously evokes a variety of erotic paradigms through allusions to a host of earlier poems. It is through such devices as rhetorical figures such as allusion that literature is uniquely capable of expressing such tensions, contradictions, and out-and-out paradoxes.



1. The Anthology is, of course, a very late collection, and Marianus one of the latest of its authors. His poem was based on a lengthy previous tradition we cannot here engage. The role of convention in the Anthology itself is suggested by the fact that this poem appears in a series of lyrics using the image of bathing. For other prior uses of the theme see James Hutton’s "Analogues of Shakespeare's Sonnets 153-154: Contributions to the History of a Theme" (Modern Philology, XXXVIII [May 1941], 385-403).

2. The fire of love is a universal trope of great antiquity. Among its forms are the medieval mystical Incendia Amoris and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”

3. Compare the love potion in Tristan and Iseult.

4. These associations do have Classical antecedents. See, for instance Martial, Epigrammaton 3.93.27, in which a torch represents a penis and the female genitals are explicitly named.

5. Compare A Midsummer Night’s Dream “But I might see Cupid’s fiery shaft/ Quenched in the chaste beams of the watery moon.” (II, i) To some readers the bath refers to treatments for syphilis, implying recognition of darker aspects of love-making.

6. V, ii.

Notes on Recent Reading 30 [Bradford, Scott, Marquand]

On Plymouth Plantation (Bradford)

Though the USA has since been shaped by the practice of slavery, industrialization, and immigration, one continues to look to Bradford for an account of an American essence, and he delivers. The middle class origin of the first settlers is quite explicit, and Bradford documents the persecution they encountered as Dissenters in England as well as their difficulties in the Netherlands before they took the daring leap across the ocean. On the scene during the beginning of the colony he names in his title, he details (often in self-justification) the settlers’ contractual obligations to investors and their protection of their own interests, including once boarding a ship that had come to trade without permission, a raid that resulted in death. The collectivist will read with sorrow of the colony’s beginning in communalism only to fall back after a few years to private ownership of land. Here, too, one can read a contemporary account of Roger Williams’ break – Bradford calls him a devout and righteous man, but woefully misguided. He has no such sympathy for Thomas Morton, whose followers erected the famous maypole at Merrymount about which Hawthorne wrote. Morton himself had said that he found the natives (or, as he said, “Infidels”) “most full of humanity, and more friendly than the other [i.e. the Christian Englishmen]. “ One can imagine an entire alternative America. Though the economic plays a large role in his values, Bradford was sincere in his religious beliefs and, in fact, as he wrote toward the end of his life, he lamented the falling off in fervor that had occurred since the rough early days. The book has a consistent value that accumulates from the mass of detail Bradford records. His prejudices and self-interest only enrich the account further.


The Talisman (Scott)

To read Scott with pleasure one must understand the value of convention. The reader whose gorge rises at phrases like “trusty steed” and “valiant knight” will put the book down after a single page. To me these predictable patterns approach the depth of myth. There are reasons that the popular is popular but it is only rarely that a purveyor of best-sellers will be as talented as Scott. The historian of orientalism will find the tale slim pickings. Saladin and his court exactly mirror their European opponents in civilization and in heart. In fact the antagonists could be anywhere at any time. Far from diminishing the story’s cultural nationalism, this strengthens it with the assumption that all people must share the same values. The story reassures its audience of their culture in a way largely dependent on pure abstract structure that (as is generally true of taboo). The rules could be of any sort. What matters is who practices them. For the reader who shares with Scott an admiration of love and honor the story retains its power.


Point of No Return (Marquand)

Having read The Late George Apley as a teenager (when I believe Marquand’s literary standing was higher), I was curious to read this when I came upon it in a Salvation Army store. Point of No Return is (like the earlier novel) intently concerned with class. Marquand’s own family, though possessing the finest of American pedigrees, had fallen on relatively hard times, and he attended Harvard as a scholarship student in an era when that school was even more thoroughly than today the all-but-exclusive reserve of the ruling class. Perhaps one reason for Marquand’s decline is that the Eastern WASP establishment is no longer clearly in control.

However that may be, this book is concerned with the relation between what it calls the upper-upper class and the upper middle class which characterizes the hero, Charley Gray. I was pleased at least that Marquand did not make his hero a sensitive and rebellious player, but rather that far more common type, a striver seeking to rise a rung or two on the socio-economic ladder. My own background in a family occupying a lower stratum in a very affluent suburb fed at times my interest, but, for better or worse, I rejected money and consumerism very early while Charley feels only a slight ambivalence. In the end, when he thinks he has hit a reverse in his career, he feels suddenly liberated, only to fall back into line when he finds he had been mistaken. The American idolatry of status and money certainly persists, though much in this 1949 novel is dated. The bankers here spend their time not trying to generate profit from hedge funds and minute price fluctuations, but instead coddling wealthy and aged clients. They also wear “boiled shirts,” though surely these were almost obsolete, worn only by the most conservative of businessmen.

Apart from jumbling the chronology, the narrative is straightforward. The characters are well-drawn but shallow. Perhaps Marquand would have contributed as much to American literature if he had continued to produce genre books like his popular Mr. Moto mystery series.

Biking as a Spiritual Discipline

I am still biking twenty-five miles a day, taking me about ninety minutes, not counting time spent applying sun screen, and I continue to hope the routine may ward off the Reaper for a while, and allow me along the way to eat rich dinners without assuming an altogether unseemly form. It is rather a lavish expenditure of hours and energy, though, and consumes, I figure, little short of ten per cent of my waking life, an alarming cost for one with little taste for athletics. Wishing to justify the practice on other than physical grounds, I have lately been contemplating the mental and spiritual rewards of this exercise. I like to think that without this more ethereal reinforcement, I may not have been able to keep riding so long.

Many thoughtful people have found running, jogging, or riding to be a useful time to contemplate concepts, or the order of words in either prose or verse. Scientists and engineers as well as poets find that inspiration may arise in such paradoxical moments when the mind is in one way totally engaged and yet in another altogether unharnessed. The mind can benefit from its removal from the concerns of everyday life. This benefit is functional and incidental and resembles the opportunity afforded by long distance driving, knitting, and similar occupations.

Yet it is true as well that any such repetitive physical action is, as the Zen abbots knew, a form of meditation and may assist the mind in its approach toward enlightenment. The mandala is of less importance than the focus itself in Tibetan sand painting. Surely the monks could be making images of Donald Duck.

Even without intention routine tends to empty the mind. I recall when I would be driving my old commute and would suddenly return to immediate conscious awareness after a space of mental wandering without ever losing total prudential driving alertness in one part of my cranium.

The liberating effect is purely dependent on repetition. There is good reason that devotees repeat formulae and the Sioux chanted their divine scat songs for hours. Surely the field work songs of the old South sustained cotton pickers through long days, and for all one knows, the minds of the home weavers of ore-industrial days may have soared in the most imaginative flights of fancy. The brilliant work and field songs of the old South formed the rich subsoil in which the blues grew. I have always thought the worst job would be on a production line, yet perhaps those laborers, too, could relax into an all-too-familiar routine and feel their minds float free. All conscious recourses to icons, mandalas, St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises and all the rest are refinements of the technology of managing human consciousness which, however varied the imagery and assumptions, depend on a fundamentally similar method.

Those who achieve high levels of athletic performance must certainly be practicing a form of meditation, at the very least a single-minded focus on the task at hand which paradoxically may be experienced as an escape from the physical which under these circumstances continues without conscious attention. Concentration on the physical can vault consciousness beyond muscles and rushing blood. The push of ego can lead to ego’s disappearance.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Tibetan Novel


The Tale of the Incomparable Prince by Tshe ring dbang rgyal, translated and introduced by Beth Newman. The Library of Tibet. HarperCollins, 1996.

Newman explains that she has chosen to translate personal names into their Sanskrit equivalents in preference to the Tibetan forms. A glance at the Tibetan form of the title – gZhon nu zla med kyi gtam rgyud -- is probably enough to convince many Westerners of the propriety of her choice, though since most readers will be unfamiliar with the meaning of the Sanskrit names, she has thereby lost that semantic element. For place names she has adopted a different strategy, translating them into English. The work of translation was originally her Ph.D. dissertation, a notable example of the value of supporting advanced research in the humanities. Her introductory essay is short and accessible.



This unique work, the only pre-twentieth century Tibetan novel, [1] was written by Tshe ring dbang rgyal, an eighteenth century aristocrat who also composed a number of other literary and scholarly works [2] while at the same time taking a leading political role, including service as prime minister. Far from the utopian serenity of Hilton’s Shangri-La, the author’s period was marked by considerable internal conflict as well as assaults from China, Bhutan, and Mongolian tribes.

The courtly society in which the author moved followed Indian models for literature. In form the work is thus clearly within the courtly Indian style kāvya as defined in the most authoritative guide to Sanskrit literary theory, Daṇḍin’s Kāvyādarśa (Mirror of Poetry), composed circa 700 C.E. [3] As in comparable texts in China and Europe this manual regards rhetoric as the basis for literariness. Tshe ring dbang rgyal explicitly declares his intention to follow “the tenets of dramatic composition.” (318) Apart from employing standard rhetorical figures (of which Daṇḍin lists thirty-six) the writer of “epic drama” (mahākāvya, in Tibetan snyan ngag chen po) should also include treatment of each of the aims of life (or puruṣārthas): dharma (righteousness), artha (prosperity), kāma (pleasure) and mokṣa (liberation). Tshe ring dbang rgyal details his attention to each of these areas in his epilogue.

As the narrative alternates prose and verse passages (like the European prosimetrum), it belongs to the genre campū. In content it could be labeled an avadāna, a marvelous bodhisattva tale, as the hero ultimately attains bodhisattva status. The specifics of the story line clearly owe a great deal to the Ramayana and to stories of the life of the Buddha as well as to Jataka tales.

Though Newman calls the narrative a novel, Tsering Shakya uses Northrup Frye’s categories to characterize it as a romance instead. [4] His essay points out that the characters and scenes are highly idealized and conventionalized and that the author makes little attempt at verisimilitude. This can constitute an impediment for the non-specialist Western. The prince, as the title states, is “incomparable.” His every attribute is so superlative, his capital so grand, and Manohari so beautiful that the reader encounters rhetorically elaborate and highly repetitive descriptions at every turn. Though eighteenth century Tibetan aristocrats regularly exchanged aureate show pieces (rather in the manner of Elizabethan courtiers writing sonnets) as an entertainment, it is unlikely that modern readers will find the same charm in a translation.

The same conventions can also impede the reader’s reception of the story’s themes. The disquisitions on virtuous rule (for instance, the passages beginning on pages 189 and 237) are mild and acceptable, though they offer little of substance beyond general advice, encouraging honesty, temperance, and mindfulness of Buddhist teachings. However, in the turns of the story, it seems, deceit is perfectly acceptable for those identified with the side of virtue. Bhavakumara tries his best to trick Manohari and then frames Chetadasa in spite of the repeated appearance of sententiae to the effect that the noble always speak and act straightforwardly. The scene in which he mocks and tortures Chetadasa, putting him eventually to death (112), can hardly be read at all, much less with sympathy, by moderns.

Even the major Buddhist themes are presented with some ambivalence. For instance, the wise minister Viradhiman, very like Krishna addressing Arjuna in the Bhavagad Gita, counsels unconstrained violence in warfare as adherence to individual dharma saying “whether peaceful or violent” “each of us should engrave our duty in his heart.” (136) Though even this passage advises detachment (“It is unsuitable to have any faith in this world”), it is scarcely consistent with the standards later enunciated by the teachings of the ascetic Dharmeshvara (216 and 306) or the bodhisattva vow of Kumaradvitiya (235).

A lengthy and lyrical passage rhapsodically describes the sexual love of the hero and heroine (175 ff.), and yet Kumaradvitiya later (204-5) insists that even the finest love can only be a source of error. King Suyamati is a vivid example of self-deception enabled by lust as is Lavanya Kamal. Ultimately the prince describes, in a bravura passage using terms reminiscent of medieval European celibates, how the once beautiful woman’s flesh will die and become an object of revulsion. (251)

To Newman, an expert on Tibetan Buddhism both from her scholarship and from consulting living masters, the story is meant to illustrate that “staying active in the world is compatible with Buddhist virtue,” (xiii) yet its conclusion clearly privileges the extreme withdrawal of the ascetic as the only way to conquer death. (243) In fact the prince becomes a bodhisattva, filled with an unconquerable elation not by wholly avoiding samsara, but rather by first fully entering into its shimmering and deceptive play, then mastering desire, only to finally thread a path “between the extremes of nihilism and absolutism.” (275) Surely the narrative provides, not prudential advice on a well-regulated life as a lay person, but rather points toward the ultimate abolition of duality, solving (or perhaps sidestepping) the issue of whether dependent and compounded phenomena, are, in fact, real. From that perspective there is no monk or layperson, male or female, enlightened or ignorant, existent or non-existent.

Though differing in virtually every other way, The Tale of the Incomparable Prince reminded me of Wu Cheng-en’s wonderful Journey to the West, another excellent tale so entertaining that the reader may proceed on the route to enlightenment without ever noticing the slightest change. And indeed, there is no change. How could there be? And yet there is.



1. In 1938 Mipam: The Lama of Five Wisdoms was published with a Western audience in mind. The putative author was Lama Yongden, the adopted son of Alexandra David Neel who is generally considered to be the actual author. A novella Yeshe lhamo and Blacksmith topgyelIn by Dorjé Gyelpo (1959) was touted by the Chinese as was Turquoise by Langdun Banjor (1985). Several other works have appeared more recently.

2. His other extant books include an autobiography, a “praise composition,” a biography of Mid dbang Pho lha nas bSod nams stob rgyas, a Tibetan-Sanskrit lexicon, and a book on Tibetan grammar. He is sometimes styled Dokhar Tsering Wanggyel.

3. In Tibet the Indian tradition was naturalized by the 12th century scholar Chöjé Sakya Paṇḍita Künga Gyeltsen (Kun dga' rgyal mtshan). For the Sa skya writers the spread of Buddhism was the primary goal and aesthetic effects were for them, as for Augustine, means to that end.

4. Tsering Shakya, “The Development of Modern Tibetan Literature in the People’s Republic of China in the 1980s” in Modern Tibetan Literature and Social Change, ed. Lauran R. Hartley, Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani, p. 70.

Kurt Seligmann’s Riddlesome Symbols


A shorter version of this essay prefaces the forthcoming third Seligmann lecture to be published by the Seligmann Center in Sugar Loaf. Each is available from the Center or through me for $15.



The use of symbols outlined by Kurt Seligmann in his lecture on the topic explicitly seeks to contribute to expand the term’s definition, though his opinions rest securely on nearly a hundred years of scholarly elucidation of symbolic meaning in traditional contexts. While Seligmann’s view of symbols does give a nod to Surrealist ideas, it in fact deviates considerably from that advanced by Breton, and in the end he proposes a method for renewing old symbols for use in the twentieth century distinctly his own, while incorporating the insights of philologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and literary critics.

Greek and Roman mythology had long been included in the European curriculum, but systematic knowledge and comparison of other symbolic systems only began to emerge in the nineteenth century. Nineteenth century writers like J. J. Bachofen mined the expanding fund of knowledge of antiquity to posit an early stage of matriarchy while William Robertson Smith found significant parallels between ancient Hebrew and other ancient Semitic beliefs. While the “higher criticism” sought to place Christianity in its Near Eastern context, scholars like Max Müller and Heinrich Zimmer were bringing the West its first accurate knowledge of Asian texts.

At the same time pioneering work described and analyzed the cultures of what were called “primitive” societies. Edward Burnett Tylor, Oxford’s first professor of anthropology, distinguished between “savagery,” and “barbarism” on the route toward civilization, and James Frazer undertook the first comprehensive study of myths and rituals worldwide, published in The Golden Bough and elsewhere. [1]

Attempts to organize and meaningfully relate the new information coming from the study of Babylon, India, and China, as well as the forests of New Guinea and the Amazon, followed. Meanwhile the foundations of the study of semiotics, of signs in general, were being established by C. S. Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure.

The Surrealists, on the other hand, had little interest in the use of pre-existing symbols. In his 1924 Manifesto Breton suggests the child, the madman, and especially the dreamer as models of the imaginative subject, but never refers to myth or suggests the re-use of any existing symbolic image. Indeed, his entire emphasis is on the generation of inscrutable new objects for contemplation. Furthermore, such Surrealist images (devised in a “hypnagogic state”) do not fit a pattern of symbol and meaning, but rather a new model: “two distant realities” united to form a new one in which “the more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be -- the greater its emotional power and poetic reality.” Breton privileges “previously neglected associations” and “the disinterested play of thought,” and absolutely opposes convention and tradition. Through such newly-coined images, whose meaning is obscure if not ineffable, “we can hope that mysteries which are not really mysteries will give way to the great Mystery.” [2] The most significant techniques for developing such material are first, the linking of unlikely pairs, resulting in a new semantic field and second, the use of aleatory methods to generate ideas entirely independent of both the past and conscious thought.

The Surrealist attitude is succinctly expressed by René Crevel’s unequivocal statement: “Poetry which delivers us of the symbol sows liberty itself.” [3] The recommended Surrealist practice may be illustrated by the editing of Buñuel and Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou during which “no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation would be accepted." According to Buñuel, "we had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why." According to its maker (retaining his own emphatic capitals) “NOTHING, in the film, SYMBOLIZES ANYTHING.” [4]

Seligmann regards this Surrealist position as delusory. He begins his lecture by citing a number of symbols the meanings of which are “established by convention,” though even at this point he notes that interpretation is dynamic, changing through time. Surely he is thinking of his Surrealist colleagues when he observes that, “many an artist of today wishes to break completely with the past.” This cannot be done because the artist must have a public and “the only conciliator between him and the public . . . is precisely the symbol.” The symbol always represents at least a partial conjunction of what is signified by the sign-maker and what is understood by the sign-reader. Thus, the symbols of Surrealism “may seem at first glance to be entirely new creations. Close scrutiny, however, reveals their ties with the past.”

According to Seligmann one cannot rid oneself of semantic associations even when contemplating abstract forms. Though the non-figurative painter may abolish all conscious symbols, the unconscious is “ineradicable.” He says that “psychoanalysis has shown that all symbols . . .are signs arisen from the depths of our psyche.” Thus abstract paintings can be “read” though they lack explicit symbols because of this unconscious content in which “public and the artist meet upon common psychic ground.” Even a modernist’s “freely invented forms” are “not just a private affair” as they cannot escape this collective psychic base.

Furthermore, symbols are not only common to all humanity, they are in part consistent through history. The artist sounds very much like Jung when he discusses certain symbols the meaning of which “is deeply rooted in our psyches,” symbols that express “lasting ideas” will persist through the centuries. From a basic reassurance that the cosmos is orderly (and even just!) to the details of ritual, symbolic usage has always comforted humans with “the signs of civilization.” According to Seligmann “in times of uncertainty” (including his own era) “an uncanny profusion of images” will be produced in an effort to seize some control over circumstance.

According to Seligmann “tradition and convention” had always governed the reading of symbolic language, but along with clearly significant symbols, artists used as well archaic ones whose meaning had been largely lost, and these “mysterious” symbols came to be regarded as more magical, among them the attributes of Abraxas. Such underdetermined symbols, as the Symbolist poets recognized, potentially are more powerful than those with clearly assigned meaning.

Seligmann notes as well that intuitive symbols may arise naturally in the mind of the artist or the consumer of art and yet still be associated with pre-existing symbolic associations. Though such symbols are “direct,” spontaneous, not prescribed but “from personal emotions,” they remain related to earlier patterns of symbolic significance. Similar notions had already been developed by psychologists who found insight into the minds of their patients in exotic myths and rituals. Freud, to whom the Surrealists owed so much, quoted literary texts and classical myths to support his view of the dreams and fantasies he encountered in his practice. [5]

Even more important for Seligmann in his revaluation of the relevance of ancient symbols for modern man were surely the works of his fellow Swiss C. G. Jung who proposed the notion of a collective unconscious [6] in which were recorded not merely instincts but also archetypes. Jung delighted in exactly the same sort of symbolic religious, alchemical, and occult texts that Seligmann collected, and for both authors the illustrations were of primary interest.

Discounting the value of the chance conjunctions beloved by the Surrealists, Seligmann nonetheless finds particular significance in somewhat indeterminate symbols. According to him, though all symbols had at first a set coded meaning, some had become more “mysterious” as time passed, and these were particularly likely to acquire occult uses. He persists in recognizing what he several times calls “riddlesome” symbols as the most fruitful.

Seligmann, while accepting a general position on symbols less radical than orthodox Surrealism would propose, nonetheless insisted upon maintaining his own idiosyncratic fascination with magic. According to him certain powerful symbols “do not only reflect, they also emanate ideas.” If the meaning of those words is far from clear, the artist then explains that such symbols “assume talismanic power” and illustrates by the case of the Star of David used in occult operations as the Seal of Solomon. He suggests that a visual or written collective production of the sort called “exquisite corpse” may result in a “riddlesome emblem.”

More dramatically, Seligmann recounts the story of Victor Brauner who had represented himself with only one eye long before he lost an eye in an accident. To Seligmann his intuitive precognition is bound up with a symbol rich in parallels such as Oedipus and Cyclops. These occult claims have little effect on his aesthetics, either in theory or practice, though they do contribute a note of sensation and a vague background of imminent portentous significance. He slides here from Brauner’s story to the myths of the sort that inform his ultimate world view: alchemical procedures, the worm ouroboros, and the philosophical challenge to dualism, all firmly based in earlier symbolic systems.

In fact, Seligmann only modifies the view of symbols as signs with a conventional meaning by reinforcing the observations of Freud and Jung that the very same symbols sometimes occur to individuals independent of tradition and by his recognition that some symbols have partly or wholly indeterminate meanings. His fascination with symbols in magical use and in non-European cultures deviates from Breton’s Surrealist orthodoxy, and his acceptance of such procedures as the “exquisite corpse” seems designed primarily to please his colleagues in the movement, fitting awkwardly as it does with his historical investigations. A survey of Seligmann’s visual work indicates a lack of dependence on aleatory techniques and instead a consistent use of myth and symbol from the past including paintings representing Baal and Astarte, Melusine, Clio, Leda, Cybele, Amphitrite, Sphinx and Minotaur as well as works featuring motifs from Carnival and heraldry. Seligmann’s images, for all their distortions and individuality, are firmly rooted in European history. Rather than adopting the pose of rejecting the past, he has indeed made it new.


1. Other scholars associated with his methods including Jane Ellen Harrison, F.M. Cornford, Gilbert Murray and A. B. Cook revolutionized the study of Classics by noting similarities between ancient Greek and Roman beliefs and those of other peoples.

2. The French Symbolist poets likewise recognized the power of underdetermined symbols. Note too, the similarity to the koan used by some schools of Zen.

3. From L’Esprit contre la raison.

4. Luis Buñuel, “Notes on the Making of Chien Andalou,” in Art in Cinema, ed. Frank Stauffacher (San Francisco Museum of Art, 1947), 29-30.

5. In his New Introductory Lessons on Psychoanalysis, Freud explicitly says, “In such cases confirmations from elsewhere - from philology, folklore, mythology or ritual - were bound to be especially welcome.” He proceeds then to provide examples.

6. Jung first used the term in "The Significance of Constitution and Heredity in Psychology" (1929).

Banjo


Page references in parentheses are to the Harvest paperback from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Claude McKay’s 1929 novel Banjo provides a fascinating view of the Marseilles demimonde inhabited by a loose group of copains of African descent who live by panhandling, casual labor, and periodic work as seamen. Subtitled “A Story without a Plot,” the narrative is as episodic and aimless as the lives of the characters depicted. Apart from employing a sort of Chekhovian “slice of life,” still something of a novelty when the book was published, this technique is altogether appropriate for McKay’s theme which privileges id over superego, immediate sensual experience over ratiocination. Accepting the racial mythology which had been used to denigrate blacks, he simply inverted the associated values, celebrating intuition and the wisdom of the African body as inherently superior to the enervated European mind. [1]

To contemporary readers this bipolar opposition is likely to seem pernicious for purely political reasons as it treats ethnic difference as essential. In spite of the fact that Taloufia, Banjo, Bugsy, Goosey, and the gang often discuss racism, Marcus Garvey, black nationalism, and similar issues, the book’s chief focus is more psychological than historical or social. In fact, while always acknowledged, racism and black alienation are regularly secondary to the book’s celebration of life lived in the moment and the embrace of immediate sensual experience.

The line of hedonistic thinking extends from antiquity [2]. Fifty years before McKay’s book, Walter Pater had formulated a passionate cri de coeur from similar attitudes with his ambition “to burn always with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” The same attitude accompanied by a racial paradigm like that in Banjo is central to Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro” where petty hoodlums are praised for violent crime because their experience is so intense.

The tone of the whole volume is established in the opening passage in which Banjo exults in the breakwater, calling it “mahvelous” and “wonderful.” The book is filled with breathless excited catalogues. [3] One example occurs in Chapter 11 “Everybody Doing It.”


The scene was a gay confusion – peddlers with gaudy bagatelles; Greek and Armenian vendors of cacahuettes and buns; fishermen calling shell-fish; idling boys in proletarian blue wearing vivid cache-col and caps; long-armed Senegalese soldiers in khaki, some wearing the red fez; Zouaves in strking Arab costumes; surreptitious sou gamblers with their dice stands; a strong mutilated man in tights stunting; excursion boats with tinted signs and pennants rocking thick against each other at the moorings – everything massed pell-mell together in a great gorgeous bowl. (140)


Such delight – the scene is “gorgeous” -- is familiar to modern American readers. One might almost be reading Whitman or Jack Kerouac. Ray and Banjo, and presumably their author as well, are Ur-hipsters.

It is this anti-philosophy, not racial theorizing, that leads Ray to make such currently unacceptable statements as “We are a fun-loving race” (194) and to admire Banjo for his “negation of intellect” (242) or to note “the happy irresponsibility of the Negro in the face of civilization.” (313) Though it is blacks whom he characterizes as having an “intuitive love of color” and “strong appetites,” (165) he is in fact stating a categorical preference.

McKay sometimes sounds racially specific about this ability to lose oneself in the dance of life. “Negroes,” he says “are never so beautiful and magical as when they do that gorgeous sublimation of the primitive African sex feeling. In its thousand varied patterns, depending so much on individual rhythm, so little on formal movement, this dance is the key to the African rhythm of life . . . “ (105) Yet his claim is that through such harmonious participation one penetrates, not to an understanding of Africa alone, but to the very essence of reality. The most dramatic expression of his celebration of ecstatic experience is surely the lengthy scene that concludes Part I with a description of Banjo’s “orchestra” playing “Shake that Thing.” The passage mounts to a grand crescendo that concludes “eternal rhythm of the mysterious, magical, magnificent – the dance divine of life . . . Oh, Shake That Thing!” (58)

One might speculate about the role McKay’s homosexuality played in this insistence on pleasure’s demands, but it could equally be linked to the “roaring twenties” ethos or even to his Communism, meant, after all, to provide the greatest well-being to all (though the Stalinists could not understand him). To me, neither a child of the new twentieth century nor gay nor an orthodox Communist, his attitude is reminiscent of the painfully lovely lyrics of John Keats who found refuge from a world of pain in the immediacy of his experience and in poetry that made his passionate subjectivity available to a world of fellow sufferers, a grand band of copains made up of all those making their way along this black earth.



1. The same distinction, familiar already from D. H. Lawrence and others, appears in the négritude poets who owed so much to McKay.

2. All life naturally and unreflectively avoid pain and seeks pleasure. In written sources, apart from scattered passages in Sumerian and Egyptian texts and the book of Ecclesiastes, the most systematic exponents of hedonism in antiquity were the Cyrenaics.


3. See, for instance, also passages beginning on pages 13, 52, 67, 86, 284, and 307.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Sartre's "Black Orpheus"


Numbers in brackets refer to footnotes; those in parentheses are to Sartre’s “Black Orpheus” as it appeared in John MacCombie’s translation in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Autumn, 1964 - Winter, 1965), pp. 13-52. This text is conveniently available online.



Though in general socio-political readings are a subdivision of theme, and all thematic considerations must in any event be balanced with considerations of form and style, négritude writers themselves have foregrounded race in the movement’s very name, and this fact alone justifies (if not demands) a racial response. Yet racial consciousness can only arise in situations of the encounter, mixing, and conflict among differing ethnic groups, so processes of reaction and creolization inevitably swirl around an identity which in a homogeneous environment would be taken for granted.

This fact is implicit Senghor’s seminal 1948 Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache. The mere fact of the poets’ use of the French language, reflecting their thoroughly French education is itself evidence of the mixed character of the project. Unlike the writers of the Black Arts Movement, the négritude writers did not shrink from this entanglement with the culture of their colonialist oppressors. Césaire, for instance, declared “What is négritude if not the aggressive proposition of fraternity?” [1] and Senghor called for a “give and take,” resulting in “a cultural métissage,” “a dynamic symbiosis of complementary parts.” According to him “we are all cultural half-castes” and, in fact, “all the great civilizations . . .resulted from interbreeding.” [2]

The introductory essay in Senghor’s Anthologie by Jean-Paul Sartre titled "Orphée Noir" ("Black Orpheus”) explores this vexed issue, while incidentally guaranteeing the book a wide audience. Sartre may have seemed an unlikely sponsor for these writers from the distant colonies. The Existential philosophy for which he is best-known had, in its prewar form, centered on the individual and had been little concerned with ethical concerns and virtually not at all with political issues.

The Nazi occupation of France and his nine month term as a prisoner of war altered his views. Upon his return to Paris he became a founder (along with Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and others) of the resistance group Socialisme et Liberté. Later he wrote for Camus’ underground paper Combat. The posture of l’homme engagé, the Existential man of action, became for him a proper, even a heroic, response to the absurdity of the human condition. [3] Until the end of his life, he espoused Marxism and remained active in left agitation.

The Surrealists on the other hand had expressed revolutionary sentiments, socialist, communist, and anarchist from the start as had the Dadaists before them, and in January of 1927 their leaders joined the Communist Party and encouraged others to do so. [4]

Apart from political considerations, the alliance of négritude writers with Surrealism might have been an insuperable stumbling block for Sartre as he had fiercely criticized the French Surrealists. He rejected Freud and the very notion of a subconscious, characterizing the movement as “an attempt by adults to cling to the destructive daydreams of their adolescent existence.” To Sartre the Surrealists, though they constituted the most important modern poetic movement, nonetheless signaled the bankruptcy of poetry in the West with their abandonment of rationality and absorption in “verbal games.” In Sartre’s view the quietism and impotence of Surrealist theory is evident in their emigration during the Occupation. [5] “They were the proclaimers of catastrophe in the time of fat cows; in the time of lean cows they have nothing more to say.” [6]

Thus, though he had little affinity with their artistic method or their French patrons, his sympathies lay with the anti-colonial posture of the négritude writers. “Black Orpheus” explicitly foregrounds both the historical moment and Sartre’s own white bourgeois European subjectivity. It is most significant for him that négritude “is inserted into Universal History, it is no longer a state, nor even an existential attitude, it is a Becoming, the black contribution to the evolution of Humanity.” [7] The “mission” of Africans,” like the proletariat’s, "comes to him from his historic position.” (47) According to Sartre cultural nationalism is a stage that necessarily precedes blacks’ organizing for socialism. (19) [8] In fact Sartre begins with politics: “When you removed the gag that was keeping these black mouths shut, what did you expect?” (13) but the political views remain anchored in his own subjectivity. Opening with the declaration “I am talking now to white men” (16), he nonetheless says that whites cannot write about négritude. (35) Yet his own warning does not stop him. To Sartre the black race is “chosen” because of its suffering. He sometimes even approaches the Christian notion of the redemptive power of Christ’s Passion, praising the “righteous suffering” of Africans, (42) and claiming that they discover their own pride only to abandon it “through supreme generosity.” (50) It is through the experience of “the absurdity of suffering” that blacks come to a truth elusive to the bourgeois. (45-6)

He conflates the aesthetic and the political, claiming that “black poetry in the French language is, in our time, the only great revolutionary poetry.” (16) In the poems of négritude he finds “the most authentic synthesis of revolutionary aspirations and poetic anxiety . . . essentially pure Poetry.” (35) [9]

Yet much of Sartre’s appreciation is grounded in the acceptance of old stereotypes but with value judgements reversed, a characteristic evident as well in many European connoisseurs of the primitive. Whites are ruled by a crippling “rationalism, materialism, positivism” (17), while blacks possess feeling rather than rationality and a mystic “rapport” in place of science (36) The beauty of black poetry arises from an “intuitive seizure of the human condition and the still-fresh memory of a historic past [slavery].” (43) [emphasis added] “The black man is closer than we to the great period when, as Mallarmé says, ‘the word creates Gods.’” [10] He is therefore enabled to create objective poetry that approaches the charms of magical practice. (29)

Sartre is well aware that the whole structure is mythic. He says quite clearly that the poets’ Africa is “an imaginary continent” though at the same time “more real.” In the end “if he turns to look squarely at his négritude, it vanishes in smoke.” (21) Though it might be purely mythological this assignment of racial roles is familiar. From Montesquieu and Chateaubriand to D.H. Lawrence and recent Africaphiles like Ulli Beier and Janheinz Jahn, and such musicians as Peter Gabriel and Mickey Hart, white authors have used non-white peoples to represent their own subconscious. They have used this view of non-European peoples to criticize their own cultural values and to privilege irrationality and passion. Thus Jahn argues that African poetry is timeless and pure, devoid of historical moment [11], specifically because such a myth is meaningful to him as a white European just as many in our own country continue to view our aboriginal people as noble savages though the term has become taboo.

In fact the trois pères themselves collaborated in the construction of this bipolarity. As students they had encountered the ethnological theories of Leo Frobenius and Maurice Delafoss [12] which seemed to validate the idea of an Africa which was truly civilized, though quite unlike Europe.

Sartre’s politics, as well as, one guesses, his scientific bias and his common sense, resists racial essentialism, though his reasoning seems at times forced. Whites, he says, have “real human flesh the color of black wine” beneath their “strange livid varnish” of whiteness. (14) In spite of the fact that the poems in Senghor’s anthology “were not written for us,” whites can still “tear off our white tights” in order to become simply men” and thus “become part of the totality from which those black eyes exile us.” (15) [13] “This poetry – which seems racial at first – is actually a hymn by everyone for everyone.” (16) “Anti-racist racism” provides the only way out for both black and white. (18) Négritude so efficaciously explodes dualities that it is androgynous. (43)

Sartre’s sponsorship of négritude thus rests ideologically on his own revaluation of Surrealism as well as a pair of complementary or contradictory tendencies: the provisional acceptance of racial conventions and a fiercely engaged partisanship in behalf of the exploited. In spite of the undoubted significance of Sartre’s endorsement, his judgements seem driven by his political engagement rather than by aesthetic considerations of the poetry itself. Though such discernment may be ethically admirable, evaluation of art can never rest on historical or biographical considerations. The most righteous political art may be incompetent, while those with despicable views may produce great works. Sartre’s “Black Orpheus” is more significant as a document of mid-twentieth century race relations and the decline of old-style colonialism than as a study of new poetry. Fortunately for the reader, it is also a great piece of writing. Just as the essays of James Baldwin are monuments of magnificent American prose quite apart from their historical significance, “Black Orpheus” is a beautiful essay, lit with passion and structured with dramatic rhetoric.



1. Lylian Kesteloot, Négritude et situation coloniale, p. 84. Her Les ecrivains noirs de langue française (1963) was published in translation as Black Writers in French: A Literary History of Négritude in 1974.

2. Senghor: Prose and Poetry, ed. and trans. by Guy Reed and Clive Wake, p. 97 and 74-5.

3. See Sartre on Cuba and later references to Che Guevara as "not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age." Feeling perhaps that this understated his position, Sartre later called Che the "era's most perfect man."

4. Breton, Aragon, Eluard, Unik and Peret joined the Party, though their movement had earlier been associated with anarchism, including contributing a regular column to the anarchist paper Le Libertaire. The ambivalence of the relation between Communists and Surrealists is evident in Breton’s Second Surrealist Manifesto (1929) in which he declares loyalty to “historical materialism” and promises Surrealists will prove “fully capable of doing our duty as revolutionaries” while expressing the fear that other Communists may regard his group as “strange animals.” In 1932 Breton was expelled from the party not for bourgeois individalism but because of his association with Trotsky. At a Communist-dominated International Congress for the Defence of Culture in 1935 the Surrealists who had attended were denounced and allowed only marginal participation. In 1938 an essay “Towards a Free Revolutionary Art” signed by Breton and Diego Rivera was published in the autumn edition of the Partisan Review. It is, however, reprinted in the collection of Trotsky’s writings, Art and Revolution. In La Clé des Champs (Free Rein), published in 1953, Breton explains that Trotsky was the primary author. In 1952 Breton wrote "It was in the black mirror of anarchism that surrealism first recognised itself."

5. Some intellectuals who were even more actively anti-fascists (such as fellow philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch) criticized Sartre’s level of militancy during the Occupation.

6. What is Literature, translated by Bernand Frechtman, p. 220.

7. Ibid. 158-9.

8. Americans may be reminded of the “Black Power” espoused by Malik el Shabazz (né Malcolm Little) and Kwame Ture (né Stokeley Carmichael) before their arrival at socialist ideology.

9. Similar sentiments appear in What is Literature and other essays: “For once at least, the most revolutionary plan and the purest poetry come from the same source.” (p. 330)

10. See p. 37 as well. The opposition is restated on the next page as intuition and intelligence. On p. 39 the erotic potency of the black peasant is celebrated. For Sartre, French is an “analytical” language and thus used by blacks only with internal struggle. See p. 23.

11. Jahnheinz Jahn, Neo-African Literature, 207.

12. See, for instance Michael Dash, Before and Beyond Negritude, 537 and A. James Arnold, Modernism and Negritude, 37.

13. Though Sartre surely was unaware of the fact, his image coincides with the usage of the word oyibo for white people in Nigeria. Literally, this means “peeled.”