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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Sunday, October 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)
Cell Phones (June 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)
This and That (September 2017)
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)
Ekphrasis in Apollonius: Jason's Cloak (May 2017)
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)
Baudelaire's "Painter of Modern Life" (July 2017)
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)
Irving's Soft Romanticism (September 2017)

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)
A Structural View of Meredith's The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (June 2017)
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)
Thomas Love Peacock and the End of Poetry (August 2017)
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)
An Explication of Stevens' "A Primitive like an Orb" (October 2017)
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 and the Poets (October 2017)
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)
On Marinetti's Avant-Garde Fascism (September 2017)
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)
Remarks on the Grassroots Poetry Scene (July 2017)
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
Blind Willie Johnson Preaches (May 2017)
"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 Mule in Blues Imagery (August 2017)
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)
Notes on Recent Reading 31 [Marlowe, Trollope, p'Bitek] (August 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 32 [Morrison, Cary, Kawabata] (October 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 Blake (May 2017)
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)
Domestic Incidents from the Life of the Lama Swine Toil (June 2017)
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 Came to Work at Scott Foresman (July 2017)
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)

An Explication of Stevens’ “A Primitive like an Orb”


Wallace Stevens’ late poem “A Primitive like an Orb,” like Beethoven’s late string quartets is elegantly wrought and profoundly spiritual, though both the poet and the composer puzzled or put off a portion of their initial audiences. [1] The early work that established Stevens’ reputation was replete with lapidary images, at times tumbling one after another with such speed as to dizzy the reader, but generally sharply defined, solid, and earth-bound. “A Primitive like an Orb,” published when the author was sixty-eight years old, is far more abstract and assertively thematic, even tendentious. The poem, more explicitly than anything in Harmonium, more clearly even than his “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” proffers a spiritual, indeed a mystical, potential in art alone stripped of religion’s conventional clothing in mythology and supernaturalism. In Stevens’ terms god is a “supreme fiction,” known to be illusory but efficacious nonetheless when willfully believed. [2]

Stevens is hardly alone in defining a non-supernatural route to illumination. In their various ways, Jains, some Stoics and Skeptics, pantheists, most Buddhists and some Hindus have done the same, but Stevens presents a modern sophisticated attempt to recover religion from the ruins left by the “death of God” in the nineteenth century.

In “A Primitive like an Orb,” Stevens outlines what is at once his aesthetic and spiritual philosophy, with a majestic Olympian confidence beyond that of his often highly qualified and oblique prose musings. Using metaphors of surprising and illuminating originality (called “opulent” in stanza 4) and French-style syllabic alexandrines (for the most part) of such music that their authority is difficult to question, the poet soars above the decorative and ameliorative, seeing the eternal in the ephemeral, the pattern underlying each perception, the macrocosm in every microcosm, with a grand mystery parallel to that promised by mystics and occult savants.

A linear paraphrase of this ambitious notion as it unfolds through the poem’s ninety-six lines may be useful though the idea is present from the start. I take the word “primitive” in the title in the sense of originary, though it bears traces as well of association with the religious paintings of the “Italian primitives.” The “orb” is the Platonic sphere of which, in the Timaeus, the philosopher says “the shape of a sphere, equidistant in all directions from the center to the extremities, which of all shapes is the most perfect” [4] The “perfect” shape is later the basis for the concept of the divine as “an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere” [5]

To seek what is promised in the initial phrase “the essential poem at the centre of things” the poet first notes the necessity of recognizing that every significant perception entails an “apperception.” What one sees is not the discrete object outside but a connection, a relationship, a dyad of viewer and viewed. In this way the “cast-iron of our lives” is “gorged” with “good.” The process is aided by beauty, always a subjective, mind-created quality, in the poem signified by “nymphs” and “genii,” the graces that signify art. (stanza I)

The possibility of a “supreme fiction” is suggested by the ambiguous veridical status of art. “It Is and is not and, therefore, is.” [3] The beauty of art, “its huge, high harmony,” affirms a validity and a reality distinct from that by which other discourses are tested (“a separate sense”). Once accepted, once it “captives the being,” the truth of art seems to inhere in the nature of things, to have always been there. (stanza II)

The “captiving” of the senses that occurs with the apprehension of aesthetic vision brings immense and intimate pleasure (“what milk,” “what wheaten bread and oaten cake,” “green guests and table in the woods and songs”) at the same time as it remains powerful, divine, and mysterious. The “secluded thunder” of such revelation allows access to what was otherwise “too heavy for the sense to seize,” a truth manifest yet obscure. (stanza III)

The rewards for the poem’s reader are not limited to delight, but rather extend without limit, until “last terms, the largest, bulging still with more.” Steven’s emphasis is on apperception. [6] It is neither the vision itself nor the subjective mind that can produce “the fulfillment of fulfillments” but only the connection, the link, the integration of the consciousness with the world. “One poem proves another and the whole.” [7] Only by infusing reality with passion may “the lover, the believer, and the poet” whose “words are chosen out of their desire” shape language to a reflection of themselves. In this way they “celebrate the central poem.” Is this not similar to the Chandogya Uphanishad’s assertion that the individual atman is identical to the cosmic Atman, though with aesthetic language substituted for the mythological? (stanza IV)

Insistently repeating his theme, Stevens declares that through this process in which the mind and the world inform each other “by sharp informations” (precise imagery) until “the central poem became the world.” (stanza V) with a sensuality recalling erotic love. [8] We make love to creation through language ”each one the mate of the other.” The poet is “the mate of summer,” the refracted image of self “a self of her that speaks, denouncing separate selves” and exploding dualities. The process, like human love, is productive as “the essential poem begets the others.” (stanza VI) In the end “the central poem is the poem of the whole,” in which the cosmos as a whole has a coherence and a meaning like that of a well-crafted work of art. (stanza VII)

This whole, this cosmos or Atman or god may also be called a vis, a strength or power. It is the broadest generalization of all things, “a principle or, it may be, the meditation of a principle, an “inherent order.” It is positive in influence, “a nature to its natives all beneficence, a repose,” allowing the mind to relax, having purchase at once on itself and on all else. This may be imagined as well as “muscles of a magnet” (invisible order perceived),and the mention of muscles suggests then the figure of “a giant, on the horizon, [i.e. barely visible] glistening [yet grand].” This giant becomes the dominant image of the poem’s conclusion. (stanza VIII)

This vision is a surpassingly beautiful one “in bright excellence adorned,” “crested with . . . fire,” with “scintillant sizzlings,” “serious folds of majesty,” “trumpeting seraphs,” altogether “a source of pleasant outbursts in the ear.” (stanza IX) In spite of the fact that the mind cannot grasp his totality in any single vision, the “giant” of reality “imposes power by the power of his form.” The grand whole, the vision of the total whole lurks behind imperfect incarnations in the world and people and art though it always appears in truncated forms. (stanza X) Though barely glimpsed, this giant, “an abstraction given head” is divine, the “centre on the horizon,” god as the infinite sphere. (stanza XI)

What more can be said? By imbuing nature with passion, the individual renders it holy and redemptive, though in the end it be “nothingness,” which is to say nirvana.


That’s it.” The lover writes, the believer hears,
The poet mumbles and the painter sees,
Each one, his fated eccentricity,
As a part, but part, but tenacious particle,
Of the skeleton of the ether, the total,
Of letters, prophecies , perceptions, clods,
Of color, the giant of nothingness, each one
And the giant ever-changing, living in change. (stanza 12)


Various traditions have suggested that the glint of the divine might be discerned in any object at all: Among the more dramatic insights are the Zen assertion that “the Buddha is dried dung” [9] and the gnostic claim that Christ may be found in a split stick or under every rock. [10] Blake saw “a world in a grain of sand” and Huxley under mescaline in a vase of flowers. [11] However, none of these foci of meditation is an intentional work of art. Stevens does not say that any sight at all can lead toward the mystical giant, but rather that illumination may come through a profound gaze not on some appearance in the world but on the artist’s reception of an object. For him the connection between perceiver and perceived defines the link between microcosm and macrocosm the clear view of which has the potential for enlightenment. Stevens is developing to its furthest the late nineteenth century spiritual valorization of art and the Symbolist exploitation of underdetermined images.

The spiritual validity of Steven’s “supreme fiction” accessible through meditation on poems can only be measured by practitioners. It is certainly true that devotion has many modes to suit the sensibilities of various human consciousnesses: some advance through charity, some must be ravished by devotional rapture, others climb to the sublime on intellectual concepts, while the rituals and formulae of established religions serve the needs of most. Stevens’ poem is elegantly crafted and subtly argued: surely his method deserves a place among the rest.




1. The poem first appeared as one of John Bernard Myers’ Banyan Press series, the Prospero Pamphlets in 1948 with two drawings by Kurt Seligmann. It was republished in Steven’s 1950 volume The Auroras of Autumn. The pamphlet’s notice in the New York Times for June 27, 1948 observes that “the poem, at times, eludes understanding." and makes no mention whatever of the artist or the images.

2. See Gregory Brazeal , “The Supreme Fiction: Fiction or Fact?” for a critic’s view that Stevens failed in his quest to define such a possibility and, indeed, that the very notion arose from a misreading of William James. (Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Fall, 2007), pp. 80-100). One might wonder in what sense a fiction can be fictional.

3. Descending from Hesiod and Aristotle all the way to Derridean deconstruction.

4. Timaeus 33b.

5. In the “Dialogue on Infinity” attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, but identical or very similar formulae appear in Empedocles, Augustine, the Liber XXIV Philosophorum, Alain of Lille, Nicholas of Cusa, Pascal, and Voltaire among others.

6. Cf. Steven’s claim may derive from, though it goes beyond Kant’s notion of transcendental apperception.

7. Cf. Eliot “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

8. There is, of course, a vast mystical literature in which divine and human love are conflated: Krishna and the gopis, Mechthild von Magdeburg, Rumi, and John of the Cross, and a great many others.

9. In another passage, the Buddha is three pounds of flax. See The Gateless Gate, Cases 21 and 18,

10. Gospel of Thomas 77.

11. Doors of Perception.

Notes on Recent Reading 32 (Morrison, Cary, Kawabata)



Sula
(Morrison)

A strong narrative, redolent of the deep dream-like incident familiar in the work of American writers from the deeper South, Morrison glazes her tale with just a restrained bit of magic realism. (The three Deweys are the most unlikely, and they are merely weird. Shadrack, on the other hand, while barely plausible, is an effective image and formal element.) Incidents include murder, intentional and unintentional, promiscuity, madness, and crime against a backdrop of crushing racism. The vernacular is utterly convincing; it reads as if spoken, and the author is willing as well to construct some rhetorical passages of various sorts that contrast with the largely direct, if well-observed, language. Not merely Nel and Sula, but others from the Bottom community, and, most impressively, the community as a whole as a whole are characterized with a precision and a metaphorical gift that is little short of a marvel. I find hardly a false note, which I declare in spite of the fact that my copy blazons on its cover its selection for Oprah’s Book Club.


A Fearful Joy (Cary)

Joyce Cary’s novel, narrated in an odd present tense throughout, seems designed primarily to illustrate the changing English social context over a fifty year period from the decadent fin de siècle through the flapper era, the Depression, and World War II. Tabitha’s picaresque adventures proceed from one poor judgement to the next, though she remains afloat to the end. The concluding sentence notes her gratitude and happiness. Along the way are plenty are colorful characters, foremost among them her irresponsible husband Bonser and her equally feckless descendants. The reader will enjoy some well-observed colloquial dialogue (much of the book is conversation), parodies of the rhetoric of a variety of phonies, and satiric portraits of most human failings. Yet I, for one, was troubled by the careless with verisimilitude: how could our heroine move so rapidly from being a clueless child, easily taken advantage of, to the doyenne of a set of “advanced thinkers”? How could Bonser whose behavior is consistently self-destructive, avoid sinking the hotels in bankruptcy the first year of his involvement? Tabitha is herself a bit vacant, a passive object, tossed in the tides of history, somehow remaining upright through enough foolishness to ruin a dozen ordinary mortals. Every character is simple and unchanging, reliably exhibiting the same characteristics through a few too many pages.


Snow Country (Kawabata)

This story of love-longing and indifference unfolds in the almost unreal setting of a mountain hot springs and ski resort where the snow sometimes accumulates to fifteen feet. Western readers will perhaps be surprised at how tawdry the life of Komako, a rural geisha, seems in spite of the pretense of white powder makeup and what musical skills she has been able to gather from sheet music and recordings.

The novel is animated more by a pervading sense of mono no aware (“the pathos of things”) punctuated with regular images, sharp and lovely, that reminded the translator Edward G. Seidensticker of haiku. The frustration of the characters’ desire for love, impossible from the start for both social and psychological reasons, is reflected in their thoughtless treatment of each other as well as in repeated references to the uncertainty of their feelings. Shimamura’s peculiar devotion to information about Western dance though he has never seen a performance is perhaps the most precise analogue for much of the story’s emotional content. The pathos which had been powerful throughout is multiplied in the dramatic closing scene of fire.

The diffident plotting and resultant lack of narrative structure is perhaps unsurprising when the reader learns that the book grew from a short story, expanded with subsequent sketches, and found first full-length form when seven pieces were combined and a conclusion written in 1937. Kawabata kept reworking the material until publishing it in the present form in 1947. Remaining unsatisfied, the author composed a version of only a few pages which was included under the title "Gleanings from Snow Country" in his 1968 Palm-of-the-Hand Stories. This I have not read, but considering the dominance of tone in the work, that version may be the definitive one.


Kurt Seligmann and the Poets


I. Kurt Seligmann and Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens’ business career may obscure his lifelong association with avant-garde artistic groupings. Associated before WWI with the New York Arensburg circle that received Picabia and developed into an American Dada formation, he studied Picasso and Matisse tirelessly and was significantly influenced by Cubism and Surrealism. [1]

Seligmann’s drawings for Wallace Stevens’ “A Primitive like an Orb” represent a thematic concern of great moment to both painter and poet. At the same time as Seligmann was conducting far-reaching studies in occultism and the kabbalah and pursuing the potential of art to fulfil the historic role of magic and indeed of religion, Stevens was developing his idea of art as religious practice and god as a “supreme fiction” with the potential to replace revealed religion which had, he thought, become untenable for moderns.

For Seligmann only religious language is adequate to the higher aspirations of art. He refers, for instance, to artistic creation not as mere imitation but rather as a “mysterious transubstantiation.” [2] Seligmann speaks of the word (or cosmic laughter, or, one might add, the image) that “was the motor to creation.” The work of art seeks thus to render visible the “intercourse between the limited and the limitless.” In this way “boundless time and the time of human history reflect one another.” [3] Art is to him “impregnated with magic” specifically because it leads to the “world order to which everything the big and the small, the distant and the close submits.” For him the “fundamental theory of all superior magic” is that “all is contained in all.” [4] The “Cabalah” resembles art in that it points toward unity in variety, linking the particular and the universal. [5]

These ideas are wholly consistent with Stevens’ claim in “A Primitive like an Orb” that, through the process of “apperception” the poet can fix “the essential poem at the centre of things” and render this vision of Ultimate Reality more accessible to human consciousness. Stevens’ attitude toward the “supreme fiction” -- “it Is and is not and, therefore, is” -- mirrors Seligmann’s willful sympathy with magic. To Stevens the “central poem,” what becomes the giant of the cosmos, is revealed by “sharp informations,” which presumably may be couched in words or in images.

Seligmann produced images for Stevens’ poems by a process similar to that by which he made a mythological series following his work on costumes for Menotti’s ballet The Unicorn,The Gorgon, and The Manticore about which he said “Independent of my costume project – yet stimulated by it, I painted and drew these canvases, my own mythology.” [6]

The first illustration is clearly situated in imagination, neither realistic nor abstract. The figure represents a take on reality, a recorded state of consciousness, a poem or painting. It is immediately recognizable as Seligmann’s, strutting with assurance and posing even as decomposition seems have to have set in long ago. The gaiety of the carnivalesque ribands is balanced by the frightening ax, shield, and scaly armor. As a take on reality the image can serve for any work of art, asserting itself in the desolate landscape of human powerlessness. Its three legs may seem a secure support but also suggest an uncertain trajectory just as the dynamic points and lines about the head imply attention in every direction as well as confusion.

One might imagine the second illustration to be Stevens’ giant and an observer though they are clothed in the same graceful forms reminiscent of cut paper. Again, the figures are phantom-like, only their drapery is drawn. The larger figure is posed as though showing itself off, its surfaces ornamented with sketchy patterns suggesting elaborate decoration on a grand gown topped by an imposing hat though remnants of the armor are visible implying the figure’s androgynous universality. Meanwhile the smaller figure, far simpler in pattern and modest in attitude watches, its moon-like crescent-shaped head directed toward the other. The landscape has vanished. One sees nothing but observer and observed.

While either the drawings might stand alone as the poem certainly may, they also enhance and reinforce each other with a rich suggestivity born of their creators’ similar spiritual quests in these belated modern times. Both found religious revelation and authority had become irrelevant yet neither therefore abandoned searching for enlightenment.

Stevens says in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” that he conceives “the thinker of the first idea” and witnesses “apotheosis.” Though “Phoebus is dead,” in fact “Phoebus was a name for what never could be named” and “the poet is always in the sun.” Seligmann depicts in graphic form the lineaments of Reality similarly convinced that truth is accessible only through the senses and the mind and that art can “corporealize a world system,” [7] and renew spirituality in whatever we might call the era that succeeds the age of anxiety.


1. Though his admiration was qualified. “The essential fault of surrealism is that it invents without discovering. To make a clam play an accordion is to invent not to discover. The observation of the unconscious, so far as it can be observed, should reveal things of which we have previously been unconscious, not the familiar things of which we have been conscious plus imagination.” Wallace Stevens, Collected Poetry & Prose (Library of America, NYC, 1997), p. 919.

2. Page 21 (Seligmann’s typescript page 5), Artist Canvas Reality, a lecture of Kurt Seligmann (Seligmann Center, Sugar Loaf, 2016).

3. Page 4, talk 11 on the topic of Space, a lecture of Kurt Seligmann, forthcoming from the Seligmann Center for the Arts.

4. Page 19 (Seligmann’s typescript page 4), Cave of Montesinos, a lecture of Kurt Seligmann on Magic, Seligmann Center, Sugar Loaf, 2017).

5. Page 21 (Seligmann’s typescript page 5), Cave of Montesinos, a lecture of Kurt Seligmann on Magic, Seligmann Center, Sugar Loaf, 2017).

6. From Kurt Seligmann, “My Mythology,” in the Weinstein Gallery catalogue, Kurt Seligmann: First Message from the Spirit World of the Object, Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco, 2015) p.128.

7. Page 4, talk 11 on the topic of Space, a lecture of Kurt Seligmann, forthcoming from the Seligmann Center for the Arts.





II. Seligmann’s Illustrations of Poetry


Apart from his paintings and graphic work, Kurt Seligmann produced as well costumes, set designs, and prints for poetry books. In this last category, he illustrated writers regarded as ancestors of Surrealism (Lautréamont and Mallarmé), those active in Surrealist circles (Courthion, Collet, Breton, Hugnet, Goll, Calas, Roditi), including two whose association with Surrealism was not more tangential (Herz and Stevens), and he influenced as well, though they never collaborated on a publication, the American Surrealist Philip Lamantia.

A chronological list of Seligmann’s illustrations for poetry follows. I would, of course, welcome additions or corrections. My sources are primarily Stephen E. Hauser’s Kurt Seligmann 1900-1962 and the Weinstein Gallery publication Kurt Seligmann: First Message from the Spirit World of the Object. My few comments on these works are unconnected, though I believe that Seligmann thought all the writers shared his vision at least in part. The thematic and stylistic relations I have traced in “Kurt Seligmann and Wallace Stevens” are potentially present for each of the others.


1. Seligmann’s collection of fifteen etchings Les Vagabondages Heraldiques (Editions des Chroniques du Jour, Paris, 1934) is introduced by prose poetry by art historian Pierre Courthion.

2. Breton invited Seligmann to join eleven other Surrealist artists in illustrating a new edition of Comte de Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror (G.L.M., Paris, 1938). Among the other artists who contributed to this volume were Max Ernst, René Magritte, Joan Miró, Man Ray, and Yves Tanguy. Assigned the first song, Seligmann produced a fierce and skeletal figure reflecting the influence of his Renaissance fellow-countryman Urs Graf.

3. Three rather abstract etchings (one with aquatint) of curving organic and drapery forms by Seligmann were included in an edition of Jean-Paul Collet’s 1935 publication of love poems Flaques (Les écrivains réunis series, Paris, 1935). In Hauser’s opinion (119-120) these “solipsistic” images, some suggesting “mating behavior” have little to do with the poetic text, but do form a coherent transition in the development of Seligmann’s prints.

4. Pierre Courthion’s prose poems are accompanied by Kurt Seligmann’s engravings in Métiers des Hommes (Editions Guy Levis Mano, Paris, 1936).

5. Seligmann engraved a frontispiece for André Breton’s Dreams according to the Weinstein catalogue. This is apparently identical with Trajectoire du rêve (or Trajectory of Dream, Editions Guy Levis Mano, Paris 1938).

6. Seligmann contributed a set of ink drawings for Une Écriture lisible (A Readable Writing) by Georges Hugnet, the graphic artist and poet (Editions des Chroniques du Jour, Paris, 1938). Hauser considers this to be a harmonious collaboration (140)and mentions that Seligmann had composed a message to Breton criticizing him for ousting Hugnet from Surrealism, but never sent it. (177)

7. Ivan Goll’s Jean sans terre (Tandem & Nierendorf, NYC, 1940) contained an etched plate by Kurt Seligmann. The French-German author had associated with the original Zurich Dadaists and later, as an exile in New York edited Hémispheres, a journal that published Césaire and Breton as well as young Americans. The poem had been released four years earlier as La chanson de Jean sans terre with pictures by Chagall. Seligmann depicts a striding figure with hair and drapes in the air, pierced and impaled, fleshless, with vertebrae and ribs visible, apparently an image of John Lackland, whose wandering is another version of the type of the Wandering Jew on which Goll had been writing for years.

8. Seligmann made a frontispiece for an edition of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Hérodiade (The Press of James A. Decker, Prairie City IL, 1940). One may assume this to be Seligmann’s homage to the Symbolists as an influence. His image is appropriately hermetic and underdetermined: wheels revolve through space while water spumes from a fountain to a kind of side sky-roof while only the void occupies the center.

9. Seligmann’s frontispiece appears in Edouard Roditi’s Prison Within Prison: Three Elegies on Hebrew Themes (The Press of James A. Decker Prairie City IL, 1941). Roditi had abandoned Classics studies at Oxford to become a Surrealist, and this association as well as his themes of exile from a Jewish perspective doubtless appealed to Seligmann.

10. William Carlos Williams’ translation of Nicolas Calas’ Wrested from Mirrors included an etching by Seligmann in a limited edition folio published by the Nierendorf Gallery in NYC in 1941.

11. Seligmann produced a series of eleven drawings for his friend Nat Herz’s book Impossible Landscapes. Herz’s work was heavily influenced by Surrealism thought he also practiced photojournalism and become well-known for pictures of progressive social movements. (1944 but it did not appear until 1999 when Herz’s widow Barbara Singer published it). The entire volume is viewable at http://www.barbarasinger.com/rp_ks_1.html#2.

12. Seligmann contributed an engraving in a soft rococo style reminiscent of 17th century title pages, overflowing with portentous images (a snake with the crescent moon in its mouth, a sickle striking a cross, an open heart at the base, prominently featuring the name Lucifer) as frontispiece for Bréton’s Pleine Marge (Nierendorf Gallery, NYC, 1943). The poem had been originally published with other illustrations in 1940.

13. Wallace Stevens “A Primitive like an Orb” was published as a separate volume (Banyan Press: A Prospero Pamphlet, NYC, 1948) with two drawings by Seligmann. The series was edited by John Bernard Myers and associated with View magazine. The New York Times notice did not mention the artist. See my “Kurt Seligmann and Wallace Stevens.”

At the age of fifteen in 1943 American poet Philip Lamantia wrote Breton declaring his allegiance to Surrealism and Marxism. He was immediately accepted by Breton and his poems were published that year in View and in 1944 in VVV. He discovered common interests with Seligmann in alchemy and the occult, and the elder artist influenced his poetry.

Friday, September 1, 2017

On Marinetti’s Avant-Garde Fascism



Since the Romantic era innovative artistic programs have often been associated with the left wing of politics. From the radicalism of Shelley and Blake, Whitman and Zola, through the anarchists and communists of Dada and Surrealism up to the present day, most artists and a forteriori those who consider themselves avant-garde have challenged the status quo from a progressive perspective. [1] (Indeed, in the news this morning is the announcement that President Trump will not attend the Kennedy Center arts award ceremony due to his fear of hostility from those being honored.) Yet some artists have been equally fierce militants from the right. Going beyond the casual sexism, anti-Semitism, and class bias so common in writers of a broad range of viewpoints, Marinetti was a founder of Italian fascism, Céline a virulent Nazi sympathizer, Pound a propagandist for Mussolini, and Mishima an imperialist militarist. At the same time each of these might also be called, to one extent or another, a revolutionary in art. [2]

It is not difficult to assume a natural link between progressive views and powerful art. Art, after all, is based on imaginatively experiencing another’s consciousness and, in a sense, “trying out” other people’s experiences and emotions. Art, like science, requires a receptive and open mind. The themes of art often encourage a broad-based sympathetic understanding that goes well beyond tolerance. Because fascist artists and artistic movements are thus anomalous, their origins seem well worth investigating, especially in the present historical moment. The most significant explicitly fascist artist of the twentieth century is perhaps Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, whose loyalty to Mussolini was no less steady than his influence in poetry and visual art. [3]

Marinetti’s dedication to the Italian fascist movement has problematized readers’ consumption of his work and that of his movement. Though he was obliged to separate his political and artistic programs once the fascists were in power and decided they preferred the same sort of kitschy “wholesome” art their Nazi associates liked, the poet was in fact, a founder of Italian fascism. He, with Mussolini and the syndicalist Alceste De Ambris [4], wrote the party’s founding document, the 1919 “Manifesto dei fasci italiani di combattimento” (“Manifesto of the Italian Fasci of Combat”).

Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto” (1909) makes little direct reference to politics. Much of it is little different from the many other manifestoes of modernism. The reader finds the usual call to do away with the old and introduce the new. [5] There is, however, a curious and significantly different enthusiasm as well that one might label a fascist sensibility. When Marinetti says, “I stretched out on my car like a corpse on its bier” [6] the reader is put on warning.

At first the language is not so transgressive. Marinetti celebrates “the love of danger,” and insists “except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them before man.” The emphasis on action is underlined by violent associations. “Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.”

This is all very well, but the praise of death recurs in the manifesto with a persistence unparalleled in any statement of Dada or Surrealism. After an opening when the speaker and his associates, a fevered group of young intellectuals not unlike the coterie evoked by Howl, one finds that rather than “burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” Marinetti and his friends “like young lions . . . ran after Death.” Ignoring the ambiguity of whether the young lions are thought to run after their own death or that of their prey, the reader can only wonder at this extraordinary reversal of conventional values.

The proto-fascist Futurist explicates, but his comments do not seem to help. “There was nothing to make us wish for death, unless the wish to be free at last from the weight of our courage!” He imagines a fight to the death with mysterious antagonists. “They’ll storm around us, panting with scorn and anguish, and all of them, exasperated by our proud daring, will hurtle to kill us, driven by a hatred the more implacable the more their hearts will be drunk with love and admiration for us. ”An explicitly erotic aura seems somehow to accumulate about mortality. [t] “Death, domesticated, met me at every turn, gracefully holding out a paw, or once in a while hunkering down, making velvety caressing eyes at me from every puddle.”

Yet he does describe this Todestrieb in social motives terms, culminating in a shocking declaration: “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.”[7] In the end “art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice.”

Though poetry celebrating war is as old as poetry itself, this formulation is unprecedented. The aestheticization of violence is ancient, but it had in the past not been glorified to the exclusion of other elements. The nineteenth century anarchists such as Most, Bakunin, and Kropotkin cultivated a taste for the propaganda of the deed and probably the most direct influence from the social realm on Marinetti’s attitude is that of the left syndicalist Georges Sorel (who in fact admired Mussolini as well as Lenin). [8] Sorel had insisted in his 1908 “Reflections on Violence” that “proletarian violence, carried on as a pure and simple manifestation of the sentiment of class struggle, appears thus as a very fine and heroic thing.” [9]

Apart from racism, chauvinism, censorship, and militarism, fascism is generally associated with a radically contrarian values including the celebration of violence, even of death. One thinks of the slogan of the Legión Española “¡Viva el muerte!” Its members described themselves as novios de la muerte ("bridegrooms of death"). Similarly, the SS used a skull and bones as insignia. The division that administered the death camps was in fact named the Totenkopfverbände (Death’s Head units).

Similar imagery -- skulls as well as signs suggesting Satanism and fascism -- can be found among prison inmates, outlaw bikers, and heavy metal enthusiasts. For these subcultures it is surely the shock value, the ability of these symbols to disturb the general population, rather than any specific allegiance to Nazism or diabolism that underlies this usage. Hooligan skinheads may ape fascist gestures while hardly knowing what they mean. Examples of this posture, taken to the point of caricature, include Aleister Crowley and his epigone Anton LaVey. Parallel phenomena include the role of heroin in, first the jazz scene and later in the Beat movement and the music of the Velvet Underground, novels of Will Self, and, of all things, the “heroin chic” of nineties fashion photography. [10]

The most significant parallel in art to this predilection for death is the tradition rising from the confluence of the Romantic love-death in Werther with such rebellious quasi-Satanic anti-heros as Byron’s Manfred, Lautréamont’s Maldoror, and Baudelaire. Why, after all, are the flowers evil?

Perhaps someone knows what it can mean, after all, when Marinetti says that art “can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice.” The first has, of course, always been a component of human psyches and human art; the second was developed by Artaud into a coherent theory; the third I can understand only as an oblique way of saying that the imagination is stimulated by suffering. But how any of these notions could support Marinetti’s other theoretical writings [11] or the actual poems and paintings of Italian Futurism is to me a mystery. It would be simple to play psychologist with Marinetti’s peculiar ideas about women, but such speculation is irrelevant to his art.

Thus it is perhaps not merely uneasiness when confronting taboos that explains the difficulty contemporary readers have with the theory of Italian Futurism. If Marinetti’s ideas do not even fertilize the rich artistic practice associated with his movement, it may be simply because they are adventitious. Truly fascist art is recorded in Germany and in Italy and it resembles nothing so much as the productions of Stalinism and Maoism: reductive, conventional, sentimental, and shallow, with little to interest those other than true believers. [12]

Marinetti’s manifesto is better considered as a literary rather than a philosophical document. The compelling power of the circumstances into which he places his strident claims – the automobile crash in the original manifesto and the airplane ride in the manifesto on writing – establishes a memorable and effective dramatic context. His assertions are expressive of the mood, the sensibility of his reaction to the historic moment. Rather than statements of serious aesthetic theory, he is writing poems. His “Futurist Manifesto” broke new ground, establishing in fact a new genre of literature, and set the pattern for many to follow. He is most fruitfully read not for ideas but for his boisterous rhetoric.

His language remains not merely vigorous but suggestive and even eloquent. Toward the end of the “Futurist Manifesto,” after the speaker has overturned his car after facing the dialectical motorcyclists, he rises and cries out, “O maternal ditch, almost full of muddy water! Fair factory drain! I gulped down your nourishing sludge; and I remembered the blessed black breast of my Sudanese nurse… When I came up—torn, filthy, and stinking—from under the capsized car, I felt the white-hot iron of joy deliciously pass through my heart!” This montage of imagery is rich in connotation, engendering widening waves of semiotic association, but the images make sense only in the most oblique, self-contradictory fashion. The reader who seeks a logical, even a persuasive program will be disappointed.






1. It seems in fact scarcely debatable that the professariat as well as the intelligentsia in general, are distinctly liberal, while the uneducated, unfortunately, chose our current President Trump.

2. For fuller scholarly accounts of the relationship between fascism and the avant-garde see Mark Antliff’s Avant-Garde Fascism: The Mobilization of Myth, Art, and Culture in France, 1909–1939 and Andrew Hewitt’s Fascist Modernism: Aesthetics, Politics, and the Avant-garde.

3. Pound had perhaps even more profound influence, but his Social Credit theories had an indirect relation to fascism in spite of his attempt to serve fascist Italy.

4. Alceste De Ambris had been a major organizer of the agrarian strike of 1908. As a “national syndicalist” he supported Italy’s entry into WWI. He soon became disillusioned with the fascists, however, eventually entering into active opposition until his citizenship was withdrawn and he was driven into exile in 1926.

5. Laurent Tailhade is reputed to have stated, after Auguste Vaillant bombed the Chamber of Deputies in 1893: "Qu'importent les victimes, si le geste est beau?" ["What do the victims matter, so long as the gesture is beautiful"]. In 1929 André Breton's "Second Manifesto" stated that "L’acte surréaliste le plus simple consiste, revolvers aux poings, à descendre dans la rue et à tirer au hasard, tant qu’on peut, dans la foule" [The simplest Surrealist act consists of running down into the street, pistols in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd]." On a similar topic see my “The Inconsequential Bayonets of Art: Militant Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde” on this site.

6. Has anyone noted the anticipation of the opening of “Prufrock” with its “patient etherized on a table”?

7. Marinetti was explicitly anti-feminist and quite consciously misogynistic.

8. See Sorel’s March 1921 conversations with Jean Variot, published in Variot’s Propos de Georges Sorel, (1935) Paris, pp. 53-57, 66-86 passim.

9. Sorel also became, after supporting Dreyfus, a virulent anti-Semite.

10. In the eighties, when grunge was big, my wife knew a young lad who liked to play music shirtless and carefully applied makeup to his chest to create the illusion of an unhealthy sunken chest. This is not far distant from the nineteenth century view of tuberculosis as beautiful. Byron said “I should like, I think, to die of consumption.” (See Katherine Byrne's Tuberculosis and the Victorian Literary Imagination. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2011.) Poe said in “Philosophy of Composition” that “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”

11. His “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature,” for instance, has seemingly nothing to do with death or violence or fascism. Instead, apart from calling on Futurist poets to “hate the intelligence” [emphasis in original], it consists of such curious proposals as the abolition of the adjective and adverb and all punctuation. The “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting” likewise seems unconnected to Marinetti’s politics or his obsessions.

12. In his speech for the opening of the “Degenerate Art” exhibit on July 18 1937, Hitler could sound something like an avant-gardist: “I am going to make a clean sweep of phrases in the artistic life of Germany,” but he looks only backwards, endorsing “healthy,” easily understandable art.

This and That




I know the title is what one would expect from the local news reporter for a small town Midwestern newspaper listing church rummage sales and fiftieth anniversaries, but I am resolved to use it anyway. For me, though I suspect for no one else, it carries a bit of association with a book, a thrift store curiosity I remember fondly though I discarded it years ago titled This Way and That that consisted of examples for British students’ test preparation not only of translations from the Greek and Latin classics, but also versions of, for instance, Milton made into Latin (not too great a leap there) and Shakespeare in Attic Greek. What a wonderfully demanding, utterly superfluous skill! Does anyone now learn to translate into the languages of the Classics? Not four decades ago I witnessed an academic panel that presented and discussed research papers entirely in Latin. Could one still convene such a group?
My direct inspiration, though, is the Japanese zuihitsu genre the most well-known of which is the marvelous Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Yoshida Kenko’s Essays in Idleness is a later example. My own reading and writing are so desultory that I believe the form may fit me well. Only when I’ve written a few dozen pages will I know. If so, this feature may recur.



Rereading Thomas Love Peacock I find myself as pleased with his name as his books. The “Peacock” is grand enough, but “Love” as a middle name makes it irresistible while “Thomas” keeps it plausible. Surely he was fated to attain Romantic celebrity whether he aimed to do so or not. I am put in mind of sitting in the Old English classroom of Prof. Rainbow whose very name seemed to spread a soft and charming light over the rasping consonants and willed fortitude of those old poems almost fifty years ago.



In my cupboard for spices and herbs is a small tin of asafoetida with a cobra rising to meet the cook. I sometimes add a grain or two to my Indian dishes. The brown balls of dry congealed gum are apparently a lifetime supply. Among its vernacular names are devil’s dung and Teufelsdreck. Though known for its disagreeable odor, this latex or oleoresin from the root of the Ferula (a cousin of the carrot) is said to lend the flavor of leeks to cooked food. I cannot say that my own taste can perceive this subtle flavor, but I add it anyway. It is too strong for some as it is one of the five vegetable foods avoided by some East Asian Buddhists along with several varieties of garlic and onion. Such foods were thought to excite desire in a way in compatible with enlightenment.



I sometimes think that Manhattanites are among the most provincial of Americans. When I taught at L.I.U. in Brooklyn, the English Department had thirteen professors, eleven of whom were native New Yorkers. Virtually all of them had also attended university in the city. Saul Steinberg’s celebrated New Yorker cover showed the nation foreshortened almost out of existence on the west side of the Hudson. This was not merely a joke. It used to be that people who lived in Manhattan rarely even ventured to Brooklyn, but that has changed.



I cannot accept the current use of the word “hipster,” today used to describe the affluent young who are busy gentrifying Brooklyn. Are these not the same people, though possibly with the camouflage of enhanced facial hair, who used to be called yuppies? In the fifties the hipster was on the edge – see Mailer’s “The White Negro” for evidence – whereas today’s crop care primarily, so far as I know, for elaborate espresso drinks.



We appreciate the marvelous beauty of nature, admiring an Insect’s anatomy, the veining of a leaf or the branching of a tree, an irregularly shaped rock, or the movements of a house cat. To what extent is such pleasure distinct from that derived from the contemplation of works of art? While it is true that art may seem set apart from nature due to its intentionality – absent from a sunset unless one considers some deity as the artist – perhaps in the reception of a work by Mozart, Delacroix, or Sir Philip Sidney, one is simply admiring the structure of that other consciousness, itself as “natural” as everything that exists must be.



Why are so many of the people at left-wing demonstrations today so old? In the sixties most activists were my age then, but today it seems still to be my cohort that is keeping alive the hope of progressive change. Age seems even more a selector at artistic events. From the rear of the hall it is often a sea of white hair at chamber music concerts and plays and poetry readings. Public television ever since Upstairs, Downstairs has run utterly commercial dramas lacking in artistic ambition while “non-commercial” radio does publicity for commercial rock and rollers and television programs. In this era are all art lovers old fogeys?



Near my home is a warning sign for a school zone with the familiar silhouettes of a boy and a shorter girl carrying books. Though the year is 2017, the boy is wearing knickerbockers. Now, I was born in 1946 and such pants were never part of my experience. They appear in thirties movies, so I imagine the cataclysm of the war may have altered this fashion as it did many others. I doubt that the sign I see on my daily biking is seventy-five years old. It seems odd that this iconic image enjoys such longevity. It reminds me of the ink-wells on the right corner of my elementary school desks, though dipping a pen into ink struck me even then as archaic. These were long shadows cast by the past like my father’s uniform hanging in our attic, and a few ragged comic books I somehow acquired from the years before I was born, featuring Joe Palooka and the Blackhawks battling Nazis, the most vicious of villains.